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Bill Pierce - Leica M photog and author

 

“Our autobiography is written in our contact sheets,  and our opinion of the world in our selects”  

"Never ever confuse sharp with good, or you will end up shaving with an ice cream cone and licking a razor blade."  

 

Bill Pierce is one of the most successful Leica photographers and authors ever. I initially "met" Bill in the wonderful 1973 15th edition Leica Manual (the one with the M5 on the cover). I kept reading and re-reading his four chapters, continually amazed at his knoweldge and ability, thinking "if I only knew a small part of what this guy knows... wow."  I looked foward to his monthly columns in Camera 35 and devoured them like a starving man.  Bill has worked as a photojournalist  for 25 years, keyword: WORK.  Many photogs dream of the professional photographer's  life that Bill has earned and enjoyed.  Probably Bill's most famous pic is Nixon departing the White House for the last time, victory signs still waving. 

 

Bill  has been published in many major magazines, including  Time, Life, Newsweek, U.S. News, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, New York Magazine, Stern, L'Express and Paris Match.  :His published books include  The Leica Manual,  War Torn, Survivors and Victims in the Late 20th Century, Homeless in America,  Human Rights in China,  Children of War.  Add to that numerous exhibitions at major galleries and museums.  Magazine contributions include  Popular Photography,  Camera 35, Leica Manual,  Photo District News, the Encyclopedia of Brittanica, the Digital Journalist, and now RFF.  Major awards include Leica Medal of Excellence, Overseas Press Club's Oliver Rebbot Award for Best Photojournalism from Abroad,  and the World Press Photo's Budapest Award. Perhaps an ever bigger award is Tom Abrahamsson's comment: "If you want to know Rodinal, ask Bill."

 

I met Bill in person through our mutual friend Tom Abrahamsson.  In person his insight and comments are every bit as interesting and engaging as his writing.  He is a great guy who really KNOWS photography.  I am happy to say he has generously agreed to host this forum at RFF  From time to time Bill will bring up topics, but you are also invited to ask questions.  Sit down and enjoy the ride!

 


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Once upon a time..
Old 08-10-2012   #1
Bill Pierce
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Once upon a time..

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, you bought a camera (or several identical cameras if you were a photojournalist) and kept it for a long, long time. You didn’t buy your next camera until there was a big change. Even when the M7 came out, there were a lot of M3’s, M2’s and M6’s that kept on shooting. In today’s digital world, many folks are upgrading every six months or every year.

Digital camera technology is at the beginning of the curve and it is evolving rapidly. There’s no question that the digital cameras of today are much better than the digital cameras we started with. But how much better than the digital cameras of a year ago, 2 years ago, even 7 years ago? (The Canon 5D was introduced on the 22nd of August, 2005.)

Recently I’ve been looking at my work and the work of friends. That means work with equipment from the 60’s and 70’s until today. And the overriding factor in the technical quality of the pictures is the skill of the photographer. Not esthetic skill, just good craftsmanship - accurate focus, appropriate and interpretive exposure, a steady hand or high shutter speeds (and in silver, a well aligned enlarger with a glass negative carrier and a good lens). The biggest single gain from current equipment was the ability to make excellent large prints from images taken with very small cameras.

I think exploring and learning a new camera is great fun. But I wonder how much improvement in image quality and really usable features you are seeing in each generation of your cameras. Perhaps more important, how much is it improving your pictures?
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Old 08-10-2012   #2
sleepyhead
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Well, I still shoot film Leicas, so I don't know.

But, interesting question!
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Old 08-10-2012   #3
moreammo
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For many years i have upgraded and changed equipment for many reasons, only recently do i feel happy with my current cameras. i don't think the technical changes really had much to do my "upgrades" certainly higher ISO or faster start time makes the use of the cameras i own better but i have been searching for cameras that "fit" me better. fit in my hands, to my eye. where are the controls, do their strengths match my strengths or what i want my strengths to be. i don't think the quality of the picture have changed but for me but the enjoyment in making them certainly has.

Between film and digital it is strictly a workflow thing for me. i am comfortable (for my needs) with the quality of either, coming from the cameras i have.
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Old 08-10-2012   #4
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Since 2002, I have roamed my way through a variety of different cameras and systems as the tumult of the digital capture paradigm shift landed... After having the same system (Nikon SLR, Leica RF, a Rollei 35S for a pocketable) for more than twenty years, it was disorienting at best. In 2002, it was unclear whether a film Leica was possible, or whether Leica would survive. And the pro-grade SLRs I was used to from Nikon were simply too expensive to consider for me.

Then, what about the new things in camera design possible without the constrains of film? I wrote a brief about 2005-2006 (sent to various companies) about a possible camera that gave TTL capabilities without the need for a moving mirror based on existing and upcoming technologies. Imagine my delight when the Panasonic G1 was announced in 2008..

As time has flown on since then, sensors have improved, diversity has come to the TTL electronic camera, Leica RF digitals have come on the scene, and I've come to the realization that I can stop buying new cameras so frequently. Nearly anything made since 2006-2007 is actually good enough, technically, to do what I want (my oldest current camera is a late 2003 Olympus E-1, and it *still* does a great job). I am now happy with a digital kit that replaces my film kit and has staying power.

I still have the film kit. Will I have the Leica M9, the Ricoh GXR, the Olympus E-1, and the Leica X2 in 20 years? Well, I hope to be alive long enough to find out.


In the meantime, I'll be doing photography and buying new gear when it seems warranted. Hopefully few and far between. ;-)
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Old 08-10-2012   #5
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I think you strike a very valid point, Bill. I often wonder will we truly see the best of what photography with digital cameras has to offer, until the technology beds down, we stop chopping and changing cameras, and acquire the same level of familiarity with our digital cameras as photographers had with their film cameras and films of choice in the past.

The impact is twofold, in my view. By not knowing our cameras as well, twinned with increasing complexity of them, are we as well able to get the shot. Secondly, by discarding our sensors, or our digital film if you will, are we allowing ourself to truly get the best out of our tools.

It is my own opinion and feeling that the highest levels of art cannot be achieved, until the creators of that art have a deep familiarity, and mastery, of the materials with which they work. With all the chopping and changing with digital cameras, I am unsure anyone is gaining that deep and intimate level of familiarity with their chosen tools, or even if we can attain mastery, while trapped in an enforced learning curve

In contrast to the above, I do feel we are beginning to approach the point, where digital is almost fully 'there', at least in terms of sensor technology. Resolution is there, likewise high iso performance and colour fidelity. Dynamic range is the last piece of the puzzle, and I feel we are getting there quickly, and will soon be at the point where the dynamic range of 35mm digital will be at the same level of negative film. For a lot of people, myself included, I think after we reach that point, it will be an increasingly harder sell for camera companies to sell us new models. We will simply have reached the point where there are no longer significant imaging advantages to be gained by upgrading our cameras so frequently, and the days where durability determine how long we keep our cameras will return I feel.
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Old 08-10-2012   #6
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Switching to medium format , or even large format film wise was a bigger improvement to me then going digital.

99% of all digital cameras are filled with trash menus and unnecessary stuff
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Old 08-10-2012   #7
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i switched to a digital RD-1, M8 and now M9 not to get the latest and greatest but the most convenient. I have gotten rid of all chemicals, film and processes except for software based RAW converters. I never expected my photography to improve because of a conversion to digital but because I was in the darkroom less and behind the rangefinder more. No longer a full time PJ, I do not think I need an M10 when it comes out in 10 years or so :-) and will be happy to spend the rest of my photographic endeavors trying to snap more and develop less WITH my trusty M9.
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Old 08-11-2012   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by victoriapio View Post
i switched to a digital RD-1, M8 and now M9 not to get the latest and greatest but the most convenient. I have gotten rid of all chemicals, film and processes except for software based RAW converters. I never expected my photography to improve because of a conversion to digital but because I was in the darkroom less and behind the rangefinder more. No longer a full time PJ, I do not think I need an M10 when it comes out in 10 years or so :-) and will be happy to spend the rest of my photographic endeavors trying to snap more and develop less WITH my trusty M9.
I can understand that argument, but if a digital rangefinder comes out with the same exposure latitude/ dynamic range as negative film, would that make you bite? Just curious, as I think digital is there in most things, but there are still a few draws in terms of ultimate image quality that sensors are capable of, dynamic range being one.
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Old 08-11-2012   #9
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In the past two years I find myself less inclined to chase new camera technology.

The D700 meets my business needs. I could use a 20mm tilt-shift lens and some more low-tech portable studio gear, but that's about it. I could buy a D800 or D4 tomorrow, but there's no point.

I decided APS-C was the smallest sensor size for my personal goals. I plan to stay with Fuji's XF system for the foreseeable future. I will buy more lenses (14/2.8, 23/1.4 and 56/1.4), but I will keep the bodies for at least 3 years.

I waited for someone to deliver a modern CMOS digital camera with a mechanical rangefinder. But after seeing how Canon and Nikon responded to the mirrorless wave, I doubt that will ever happen. If such a camera (a digital Zeiss Ikon M) appeared, I would buy in in a heartbeat. In case anyone's wondering, I refuse to use Leicas for irrational reasons.

I usually replace my photogrhs computer every three years, but I see no reason why my 2009 iMac can't get the job done for another year.

I have incorporated an iPad into my photography. I recently did an interior shoot where my client could see the LiveView from the D700 as they adjusted furniture and the like. They actually held the iPad in hand while moving items around the room. When everything was right, I took the photo using the iPad to operate the camera.

I find the new technology affects my personal work in two ways. I always have a camera with me because the Fujis are so easy to carry. I can use ISO 1600 without any reservations.
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Old 08-11-2012   #10
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I have not really upgraded at all. I have purchased a lot of cameras used, but they are all film cameras with the exception of some digital point and shoots which are for very casual use, making pictures for eBay sales, etc. All of the purchases of "serious" equipment were to add to inventory so as to have backups when a body needs CLA, or a foray into another mount solely based on a specific lens, e.g. a T4 to support a Hexanon 40/1.8 addiction.

My only true upgrade in the last 20+ years replacing my Toyo field with the Chamonix 45N-2 for reduced weight and more movements, and a carbon fibre tripod replacing the stable but very heavy Zone VI "small".
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Old 08-11-2012   #11
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Murchu View Post
I can understand that argument, but if a digital rangefinder comes out with the same exposure latitude/ dynamic range as negative film, would that make you bite? Just curious, as I think digital is there in most things, but there are still a few draws in terms of ultimate image quality that sensors are capable of, dynamic range being one.
I agree that digital may not match film in terms of ultimate dynamic range but two things come to mind: first to get the ultimate dynamic range in film you must have a perfect subject, perfect exposure,prefect film processing, perfect print exposure, perfect print processing and perfect print exposure, perfect print contrast, perfect dodging and burning, in fact .... perfect everything! If these do NOT fall into place you are probably dealing with the dynamic range of a digital sensor.
Second - while i give away far more prints from my all digital process then I sell, I've never had one person - even fellow photographers - complain that the image didn't have enough dynamic range. In my opinion digital has the headroom to manipulate the exposure to-print-process enough to please just about everyone and what you are left with is an image that can be printed many times with basically the exact same quality.
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Old 08-11-2012   #12
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I, for one, loved to use the M2 but hated to load it. This, and the added exposure meter, makes the bessa r3a my favorite over the M2.

It's really that simple. You don't need a lot of extra features. One or two improvements which help YOU in the process can be sufficient to switch.
Of course, the question is then, why do i keep the M2... and the 11 other small format cameras that are lurking in my drawers
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Old 08-11-2012   #13
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Wow! Upgrading every 6 months to every year? Must be photographers well out of my (and I suspect many or most other RFF members) income bracket. Of course, for me this is just a hobby. It's all outgo and no income so I must be real careful. I have to think real hard when to spend $50 on 15 rolls of 120 and how long that will last. As for digital I think when my E-410 goes belly up I'll upgrade backwards to an E-1 if I can find a nice clean example with not to many cycles on the shutter. If that does not pan out I'll look for a used OM-D body if by that time the price has dropped to .5 of current new price.
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Old 08-11-2012   #14
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Valid question. If I look at the sheer quality of 75x50cm enlargements I still have up from studio scenes taken with the D70 (2004), anything with more pixels seems... well unnecessary. Sure, with your nose to the paper you will see a difference with a D800, but how many times does anyone print that big? Likewise, I cannot go bigger than 12x9.5 inch on my simple enlarger. I got a fair bit of concert photographs published in several media, but again never at a size where resolution would be a limiting factor

BUT:

Hi-ISO performance and size. These are really making things possible that weren't possible before. There is a world of difference between my Nikon D200 and my Sony NEX-3, itself already two+ years old. With the NEX I can make pictures that I simply cannot make, at all, with the D200. ISO12800 is not a gimmick when you want to make a shot of a drummer in a dark pub. And the Nex does in camera HDR blending. A gimmick you say? A few years back I needed special permission, a remote, a tripod, bracketing and many hours of PP to get difficult museum shots. With the NEX you go click-click-click-click and presto, a picture so incredibly good that it really made my jaw drop.

And of course the NEX is much smaller and lighter than the D200. And what about the Sony DSC-RX100? It can probably do everything better than all of my current cameras. And it fits in a jeans pocket. Progress?

So I think image quality has not been a problem since over a 100 years. But image quality in increasingly difficult circumstances? We live in interesting times.
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