Sunday, May 2, 2010

all sensitivities, all the time and old Leica M ethos

So, in teaching students for three years now, I've moved away from film for this particular training application.

Yet, I'm still not quite sold on the idea that one medium is superior, although I lean toward film for storability; spinning media's life-span is too short. Two events have given me pause; speaking with anthropology graduate students about photography and recent acquisition of an 85mm f1.4 lens.

The graduate students are not photographers by any stretch, save two, so digital is easy. They aren't going too far afield, access to electricity, hard drives, computers and such will ease their digital equipment use. They'll be able to see their results and, if mindful, reflect on their day's photography and adjust the following day. Decisions about sensitivities, lens selection, exposure, depth of field will be taken care of by using cameras with automatic functions and a small amount of photographic knowledge; importance on returning with images that show something about their area of study and the people who live there.

Film photography has a longer learning curve for competence and confidence. There's also a feeling of wonder and angst that comes with the unknown. This sense of wonder may cause undue stress that immediate feedback would alleviate. But if one has the time and passion to do film, they will figure it out before they go into the field... or while they're out there.

The 85...
Was a lens length that I removed from my kit some fifteen years ago in favor of the 80-200 f2.8 (it was an autofocus f1.8 not the f1.4). I was working for a newspaper and trying to make my kit more useable for a higher percentage of assignments and 2.8 was plenty fast. It wasn't until recently that I see a need for a small 85mm lens as an alternative to a big zoom, less imposing, lighter weight. I wish there were a full working conversion of M lenses to Nikon bodies; they just won't focus to infinity, who wants that?

All sensitivities, all the time.
If we do the exposure calculations, it's difficult to shoot with film while using an f1.4 lens wide open. If we pre-suppose Sunny 16 then, one would have to use 50 ISO to yield an exposure of: 1/8000 at f1.4. So, using a shutter speed hobbled camera such as anything produced before the late eighties would prohibit f1.4 in bright sun and the shallow depth of field characteristics that accompany such a large lens aperture.

Now if we consider 1982, when this lens was introduced, the F3 was already two years old and had a top shutter speed of 1/2000. This meant that ISO 12 speed film would be necessary to make a proper exposure under bright daylight conditions, completely doable. Fast forward to the late 80s and the F4 and 1/8000 of a second shutter speeds, ISO 50 was necessary, again doable with little fuss.

In practice, how usable was a roll of 36 exposure ISO 50 film? Great if the roll would be exposed during usable light, however, what if one were to desire more depth of field? f16 at 1/60th of a second. Hmm that too doesn't sound out of the range of usability.

Enough of the SLR mumbo jumbo. I want a smaller rig! I want shallow depth of field under sunny conditions! Umm... my Leica M6 will only go as fast as 1/1000... sheesh already! So, to shoot a Summilux wide open under daylight conditions would require ISO 6, the last stop on the M6 sensitivity dial.... or ISO 12 with a Summicron. And i don't want some, "well the lens is sharpest at f4" lame tech/gear design/ designer's intent answer, who's making the decisions here? So, to shoot wide open under bright sun... right, neutral density filters! But wait... sharpness decreases, propensity for flare increases, image degradation isn't an answer either.

So those ISO 6 Kodachromes would be really cool to see! So, Panatomic X or Pan F and the right slow acting developers could have been used for black and white film. In the 80s this was the only solution.

Today however, to achieve short depth of field that we see so often with 1/8000 second SLRs is easy: use ISO 100 or pull to ISO 50 and expose wide open. But, with a camera limited to 1/1000 second, the closest it goes is f4, 1/1000, ISO 100, f2.8 at ISO 50. Which leads to Leica lens design and 'sharpness'. Or is that what the Elmarits were for?

I just realized that at ISO 50 there's four stops of hand-holdable shutter speed with a 90mm lens, five with some steady hands and one aperture stop, making six stops of exposure latitude. That's enough variation to go from outside to inside a bright room and still make pictures with a Summicron. I'll have to put this into practice!

I shot a play this weekend with an 85mm f1.4 manual focus lens at f1.4. I stopped action but in terms of sharpness, there was an acceptable amount. There are some that are tack and others with great moments that have acceptable sharpness at 800 pixels wide. I have seen this lens stopped down to f2 or f2.8 where contrast and sharpness increases. But when you need f1.4, there's no substitute: better to come back with images than none at all. So what if they aren't tack tack sharp? Rockin' images are often made under less than favorable light and situations. And there's a difference between tripod sharp and hand held manual focus sharp.

If I were to do the same with an M6, ISO 1600 film, I'm sure the Summicron would have been just fine. But when I left the theater and ventured into the afternoon sun, I couldn't continue to make pictures wide-open, f2 would exceed maximum shutter speed. Hmm. This is not to say that using an F5 or Eos 1 it would not have been possible. But again, I'm after a small kit. I guess I can't have my cake and eat it... I'll have more film speeds in my pocket instead.

Digital is flexible, so is film in the right camera body, but all sensitivities all the time can't be beat! M6 shutters just don't shoot that fast, they're small, precise, accurate, well-built... but don't operate inside the parameters: move from low light to bright light and continue shoot at f1.4 without changing film... couldn't do that with an F5 either.

I think an M9 is where it's at.