Friday, May 25, 2012

It's Just a Tool: Why I don't own a Rangefinder camera

Arsenal. The Nikons are in the camera bag. And yes that's a N90X in the corner.

Q: Hey Charles, I'm not quite sure if you ever answered this before, but I never encountered it on your blog. So I'm taking my chances by just asking I saw that you use a Nikon D3. I love Nikon. Not the owner of a D3 but okay haha. What I was wondering, as you being a professional photographer, why the Nikon? I have a thing for the Leica Rangefinders. Of course, way out of my budget. Though I hope to be able to buy one someday. So here's a bit my question. I can imagine that you are at the point of being able, or have being able to buy a Leica. Maybe I'm comparing two different worlds here but I love the images most of the photographer with a Leica produce. And I'm trying to look at the aspect of the camera/lenses other than the skills of the photographers.

Well, basically, I was just wondering why you haven't chosen to own one?

A: People get too attached with the brand of their tools. Sure there are certain characteristics of the companies that they're representing such as good customer service, good build quality, etc. but at the end of the day a tool is a tool. It's meant to be used. It's only as good as it performs.

Unless you don't care about performance. Or unless you don't consider your camera a tool. Basically the main difference between a hobbyist and a professional.

Honestly, I have no experience with Leicas. But my sentiments towards Leica are unkind to say the least. My first memorable impression of Leica was of their then newly released S2. Instead of conforming to a medium format or the 35mm format, they created a new sensor size. A 'tweener that was smaller than medium format but larger than 35mm and every bit as expensive as a Phase One or a Hasselblad if not more so. My issue was, why smaller than medium format? Why not just utilize the real estate and make a bigger and better sensor? Why sell yourself short and 'tween it? If you're going to go bigger, go big or go home. Middle of the road is "no man's land". Neither here nor there. And at the end of the day photosites need real estate to perform. Whether in maximum MP or high-ISO.

Then it was the Leica M9. An $8,000 point and shoot with a viewfinder that does not represent that actual image. I asked the store rep how we're supposed to compose the shot if you're close to your subject.

"You offset the composition accordingly. You'll get the hang of it after a while. It's a rangefinder thing"

"So let me get this straight. You want me to pay $8,000 and then force me to re-learn how to properly compose the shot?"

"That's just how rangefinders work. It's a legacy thing"

Of course it depends on the clientele. Obviously I'm not Leica's core demographic. My impression of Leica owners is about the same as people that buy Bentleys. It's a status thing. It's not a performance thing. It's about how much money you have to throw away at something that shows off how wealthy you are. Unfortunately for Leica, I need a tool. Not a trophy. Leica owners aren't usually professional photographers. They're rich hobbyists. And hobbyists have all the time in the world to learn the "rangefinder thing".

But I'm sure Leicas are great cameras once you figure them out. Is there a place for Leica in the market? Sure there is. Like how people ride horses even though automobiles have been the main form of transportation for over 100 years. Can you ride your horse to get groceries? You betcha. But just because you can doesn't make it practical and it sure as hell doesn't make it a good idea.

But I digress.

Really the point is. "Does it do what I need it to do?" And this is 100% subjective for each person.

If all you need it to do is show off how much money you have, then mission accomplished. But if you need to capture something in a timely manner then perhaps you need to consider things like AF accuracy, AF speed, camera buffer, FPS, memory card type (the new XQD are sexy fast), ISO performance, dynamic range, bit-depth, etc. These are things that I consider when looking for a replacement for my 5-year old Nikon D3. Because for me a camera is a tool. I've examined files from Canon, Nikon, and Hasselblad and for the most part the differences in the files are indiscernible under most circumstances. I haven't ever said, "You know what? I can't retouch this image because it isn't [fill in the blank]" or "It doesn't have [fill in the blank]" or "It's too [fill in the blank]". I say those things when the capture is flawed but it has absolutely nothing to do with the brand or even model of the camera that is being used.

Now admittedly I often say, "I wish the autofocus on the Canon 5DMII was better" because in all honestly it's atrocious. I have no clue what Canon was thinking by putting in an already outdated autofocus system into an otherwise revolutionary camera. No freaking clue. Thankfully the Canon 5DMIII has a better AF system but the damage is done. Countless workshop photographers have lost potentially great shots in my studio due to focus-hunting from the crappy AF system.

And other than the abysmally complicated menu system (now take that with a grain of salt because I'm a legacy Nikon user), I have absolutely no gripes with Canon. My 7D has been nothing but good to me.

Nikon? My gripe used to be "Get your shit together with DSLR video". That's the reason I own a 7D. Now I can't really complain about Nikon video anymore but I haven't shot the D800 or D4. Something tells me it probably won't be as good as Canon video but I have no proof. And other than the fact that they don't provide a f/1.2 option for the 50mm and 85mm, I also don't have any major gripes with Nikon. My D3 has been nothing but good to me with over 200,000 shots. I do wish the Nikon skin tones were more like Canon's but that's not a big deal since I retouch my images anyway.

But I digress again.

To answer your question directly and candidly. The Leica Rangefinder can no better replace my D3 than an iPhone 4. That being said, I have very specific needs for speed that the Leica can not provide. And I have better things to do with my time than learn how to compose an image properly on a legacy camera.

Not hating. Rangefinders just aren't for me.

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