Photographic trends


 This observation by Bob Dylan is still valid. In fact is has been since the Greeks noticed that everything changes and at the same moment that nothing changes.
During the past months I have been working with the Leica M8 and yes, the handling does remind one of an M3 and yes, there is nothing of an M3 under the bonnet. The camera is a most pleasurable instrument to use and delivers excellent results.
There are a number of issues one has to adjust to in order to get the good feeling: the exposure meter is quite primitive when one takes landscape pictures with a large amount of sky to fool the exposure setting, the reproduction of colour is not perfect, the buffer has limited capacity and always when you want to take the special picture, the camera stops firing. The noise of the shutter/transport mechanism is not that melodious for the person who recognizes the M3 to M7 sound. The rangefinder mechanism is more accurate than the one that can be found on the M4 to M7, but the flat sensor surface tests the limits of rangefinder accuracy and tolerance more profoundly than celluloid does (where you have a depth of recording material to compensate small focus errors). And then that IR sensitivity issue! According to Leica the anomalous behaviour occurs sporadically, but one is also advised to keep the new IR-filter permanently in front of the lens. This is not logical as Spock would observe, but he knew that humans are more prone to emotion than to reason.
For me, the IR-sensitivity is not a problem as I convert my pictures to classical black and white images as soon as the M8 files leave the camera. And then you can even improve upon the reproduction of black textures in shadows as the IR sensitivity often lightens the dark parts of the surfaces.
I use Bibble Pro to convert the DNG raw pictures to black and white pictures and then print the pictures with Q-Image on the new Epson R3800. Prints are made on Innova Fibaprint paper. This combination (workflow in modern parlance) delivers stunningly good quality and equals the best baryta prints I have seen emerging from the chemical workflow. The deep black has a measured density of about D= 2.4, where Ilford FB produces a D= 1.9 to 2.1 and this can be enhanced to 2.4 only with the use of Amaloco postprocessing chemicals. Where the chemical process stills has the edge is in the reproduction of the tonal scale in the toe area of the negative curve. On the other hand the Innova prints show a very pleasing deep black that is organic and not so painterly glossy as normal papers produce.
The day that the chemical darkroom offers no advantages anymore is rapidly approaching. What will be left is a different method for the same results and a different sense of workmanship and craftsmanship. Nostalgic feelings aside, the digital lightroom will soon produce better results that the chemical darkroom ever did. This does not imply that the chemical darkroom will become as extinct as the Dinosaurs are, but one should brace for impact if this does happen.
Kodak has dismissed claims that they are selling the film business, but the spokesman notes that film has a useful (commercial?) life of a decade and Kodak assumes that the big users will be located in the Hollywood studios, not in the photographic world.
Indeed, with the rare exception of some very fine grained films, the quality of digital imagery vastly surpasses that of celluloid. The migration from silver halide to pixel-based picture taking has improved definition of the image, but some substance has been lost and the role op optical engineering has been reduced.
In the not so distant past, visual arts were neatly segmented in three, possibly four domains: cinema, tv, photography and painting. All were based on a distinct technology, with different roots and concepts and a dedicated visual language. Now we have only one domain, the digital image, and all technologies are thrown into the melting pot of electronic manipulation. Dirck Halstead from the Digital Journalist, predicts that the transition from film to digital is just this, a transit stage to an even more general mode of video capture, that will become the norm for digital images on and off the internet. Then photography as we know and cherish, will be dinosaured: the famous Leica format with its 2:3 dimensions allowed for compact composition in the vertical and horizontal format, depending on theme and message. The wide screen format 16:9 is however becoming the format of choice.
There is a point here: digital photography can produce images that may emulate the look and feel of traditional silver halide based pictures so good as to be indistinguishable from each other. But the roots are fundamentally different, so is the technology. A photographer is becoming more and more a computer technician and when you look into the web-communities, photographers love to tinker with tools and software to the detriment of the original image. As soon as we stop seeing the negative (digital and silver halide) as the end product of photography, but as the starting point of a computer based modification process, we leave the basics of photography as a tool of fixing the shadows and we move ahead into the melting pot of general digital imagery.
Mr Halstead also predicts the end of still camera manufacturers. Only Canon and possibly Sony will survive in the new era of video capture. He is not alone in predicting a landslide in camera production manufacture. Most observers bet everything on Canon and dismiss the rest of the bunch as also-rans. This may strike some of us as blasphemy: what about Nikon, Pentax, Leica, Olympus and others? The only market leader is Canon and the moves of this company all intensely followed. My announcement of new Canon products may be a bit too soon (but let us wait and see till after PMA), but drew very much traffic. No one needs camera that generates a file with a 22 Mb pixel size, but people want one, whatever the cost or necessity. Nikon tries to redress the balance by showing, quite convincingly that 6 MB is more than enough and photojournalists claim that even 2 MB does the job for most target audiences.

The German car industry provides an illuminating example of what might be going on in the business of manufacturing. German car manufacturers produce beautifully engineered cars with superb quality and finesse. The market however needs sensible motoring and cheep and cheerful cars. German manufacturing quality no longer rules the waves as Toyota has demonstrated. German manufactures have refocused on passion and not on engineering quality to counter the Toyota threat and for now have succeeded. But with global markets to serve any manufacturer has to cover the two main market trends: premium products and sensible (cheap) motoring. Only a very few brands can stay in only the premium segment, like Porsche.
Translated into the photographic world, we can perceive the same trends: sensible products abound (Canon 20, 30, 40D, 400D, Nikon D40, 80, Pentax 10D etc) and premium products are scarce (Canon 1D series, Nikon Dx series). To cover both segments a manufacturer must be a high volume producer and for now only Canon fits the role. Leica has always been the manufacturer of premium products, indeed combining engineering excellence with passion, at least in the M-series of products. Leica does not have the money and resources to become a global player and its premium product is not such a topseller that the company can rely on that product alone. So a partnership with a global player makes sense, but it also is dangerous liaison: the new range of Leica branded products are too closely related to the Panasonic equivalents to command that enigmatic attribute of passion. And products like the C-series (including the CM models) were absolutely uninspiring. Even the R8/9 did not inspire a passionate response, although it offered high quality engineering. The recent announcement that the DMR module will no longer be produced with immediate effect, is not surprising. A handful of very loyal followers cannot compensate for its fundamental flaws, when compared to the premium products of other marques.
For the time being then, Leica is again betting on the M-series (in particular the M8, the M7 and MP are in an identity crisis partly by the a la carte program, that tried to redefine an instrument as a gadget) as the main product for the premium market. The fate of the DMR shows quite clearly that the times are changing faster and more radical than can be imagined. A company that cannot translate its technological superiority into premium products that generate not only passion but also sales, is doomed. The market is relentless and historical values are only a footnote in today's battles for market supremacy. Leica has the most difficult task to rebuild a ship while is in sailing in a storm.