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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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Elderly Idiot
Old 01-24-2019   #1
Bill Pierce
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Elderly Idiot

I use a variety of cameras. They are tools in a toolbox. But for years almost all of my personal work and much of my journalistic work was done with rangefinders. They were smaller than SLR's. Without a mirror, they were quieter than SLR's and free from the slight image degradation that a moving mirror could cause at some shutter speeds. Obviously, there was no blackout or shutter lag. With wide angle lenses, their wide open focusing was often more accurate. And since they didn’t require a retrofocus design, the image quality of those lenses was often higher while the lenses were always smaller. And the viewfinder and focusing were better in dim light.

Enter the digital mirrorless - and MOST OF THESE ADVANTAGES DISAPPEAR. I can even get a bright line finder in some of the Fuji digitals. Although I probably use a digital rangefinder camera a little less than I did in the film rangefinder days, it is still a favored for personal work. Is it because

(1) I am an elderly idiot.

(2) I like to be seen with an expensive conspicuous consumption item around my neck.

(3) I am living in the past.

(4) I am not fond of the infinite menu choices, most of them meaningless, on other cameras. I prefer simple manual mechanical controls that are always visible and immediately adjustable.

(5) With mirrorless cameras I am constantly switching between shutter release actuated focus, push button lock focus, single point focus, zone focus and manual focus depending on what I’m photographing. Whenever I first pick up the camera, it is always set to the wrong focus method. I am spending too much time thinking about focusing and not enough time thinking about what is in front of me.

(6) All of the above.

Your thoughts and guidance in this analysis are most welcome.
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Old 01-24-2019   #2
peterm1
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"Elderly idiot"......no doubt according to my wife you have just described me to to a "T" - if she were only to admit it. Which come to think of it she often does - albeit using different words than the above ones ("Silly old bugger" comes to mind as her preferred descriptor).

However, as to the question in hand I do not have a specific answer, I do not even fully understand my own motivations for using a digital rangefinder camera so it is difficult for me to opine on yours. Though I suspect that my motives in part have something to do with the pleasure I take in having and using nice things. I could for example drive a domestic car but stupidly (from the viewpoint of affordability and so forth) I drive a German car. In my experience, German cars are like German tanks were said to be during WW2 - big, heavy, expensive, beautifully engineered but in truth actually over engineered and hence with a tendency to unreliability.

Is it questions of status that drive me to do this? Well partly perhaps, but mainly because it confers pleasure to be using a car that when you close the door, it closes with a reassuring "thunk" not a clunk and a "tinny" clatter.

It's a bit the same with, say, a digital Leica (I am an M8 user) - despite some limitations in actual usability it has a nice heavy in the hand feel about it and overall its "haptics" (according to wikipedia ".....haptics is any form of interaction involving touch") are nice. Which having said that is one reason I was somewhat miffed when I bought my Leica M8 given that unlike its analogue precursors, when the shutter was fired it sounded and felt "tinny" with a disconcerting clatter - somewhat like that domestic car I referred to earlier. Still I did eventually get used to it and somewhat overcome my aversion to that feeling / sound. (Though I still aspire to own a camera that fits the description of the shutter sound that was once apparently applied to Hasselblads which according to one person sounded "Like the wheeze of an elderly aristocrat gently clearing his throat". Or something of the sort. )

Having said this, unlike you I now do use mirrorless cameras (and yes my DSLR too) more than I use my digital rangefinder (M8). Simply because it is easier to get the shot. My eyes not being what they once were, by the time I focus the rangefinder on my M8 the moment has too often passed. (The moment passing before I react is something that too often happens at my age - but that's another story). But I cannot deny that it is also nice that every time I am carrying the M8 someone (and surprisingly its usually a young woman) will say something like - "Wow that's a nice camera, is it a film camera? Can I see it?"

Not quite the same as: "Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just pleased to see me?.

But nice for a silly old bugger like me, none the less.
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Old 01-24-2019   #3
Michael Markey
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Quote:
Originally Posted by peterm1 View Post
Having said this, unlike you I now do use mirrorless cameras (and yes my DSLR too) more than I use my digital rangefinder (M8). Simply because it is easier to get the shot.
This for me too plus the greater versatility that other systems provide.
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Old 01-24-2019   #4
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Simple is almost always better in my opinion. The XPro2 is maddening in that I can pick up the camera from the strap around my neck and hit one of the 24,000 buttons on it and have no clue w t f I have done to make it behave like some other camera owned by someone who can understand what all these damn buttons do. The focus point moves around all the time just carrying the thing around my neck. I have finally managed to get the XPro2 “deactivated” enough to be more usable, but still, ugh. Lovely IQ when I don’t screw up by touching it where I shouldn’t (tho I do feel very Presidential at those moments).

I got an M10 recently. Vastly simpler, and much better suited to the capacity of this old moron.
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Old 01-24-2019   #5
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Menus and buttons don't bother me. I have a multispeed blender, but only use the Off and Hi button. I ignore the rest. I guess some purists would pay extra for a blender with only an Off/On switch. Same for cameras.
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Old 01-24-2019   #6
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I recently needed to upgrade my phone...

The same six points seem to be relevent across different digital technologies...

My choice for personal use was a 3G/4G flip phone that I configured without internet and without email, but with WiFi (hotspot) capability for when I am sitting around at home or in the local coffee shop...

I use the phone to talk to people... when I want to connect to the world I do it the old fashion way on my computer or via the post office ; )

My go to camera for personal use is a Nikon F3P with 50mm f/1.2
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Old 01-24-2019   #7
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1/If anyone is willing to produce little red lapel buttons that read. “Elderly Idiot” in Leica script, I’m in. I would also buy the same in a screw-in soft shutter release.

2/I prefer slings and wrist straps. But mainly I dislike camera bounce on my chest. Conspicuous consumption be damned in any case.

3/Wm Faulkner paraphrase “The past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past.” All the youngsters now shooting K1000s and AE1s are living in my teen years, while I live in my father’s teen years whenever I shoot my Ikonta 520.

4/in sincere agreement: if a device can be set up to shoot mostly manually and conditions permit it, I do. God bless Fuji for making aperture and shutter speed legible clickable choices on dials. And God triple bless Leica for never leaving these options off digital M, and simplifying further with the M-D 262. (Resuming snarkiness: Menu-diving is Kama Sutra for wankers.)

1b/I’d accept a black lapel pin that reads in Leica script “Elderly Wanker,” since I was once fascinated by menu diving.

5/As long as I keep the dial on M (GR, RX1, A7K), I’m less likely to have these nasty Murphy’s Law experiences. Which isn’t to say I haven’t had them.

Let the simple fun resume, and may the menu divers enjoy reconfiguring their, um, F-buttons.
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Old 01-24-2019   #8
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Points 1 to 4 apply to me to varying degrees and on and off, but Point 5 is the one I most identify with.
I don't have a great deal of experience with mirrorless system cameras, having only ever had/have one, and I don't use it a lot. I prefer manual focus to autofocus mostly, and dither about which autofocus mode I should select for a given situation. If I put a manual focus lens on the camera I find the multistage magnification-focus-demagnify-compose palaver too much to handle, plus I don't trust my eyes without a rangefinder patch, split image or microprism.
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Old 01-24-2019   #9
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I'm aged idiot.
I spend time on RFF talking Leica. But every time I need picture guaranteed it is DSLR for me.
It will not have battery dead after few shots, it is not flickering in my eye, here is no guess (a.k.a. framelines) and menus are next to none. Canon 5D which is still in use by many has only one page menu.

And if I look at every gear (a.k.a photo) forum I'm idiot to admit to use DSLR.
But in real live and outside... majority camera users are as idiots as me.
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Old 01-24-2019   #10
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The main item for me would be #4, simple mechanical, single function controls just like on a film camera. This is why I would want older manual focus lenses, no 'fly by wire' soulless lenses for me.

Trouble is, I cannot afford Fuji mirrorless or other cameras that have a shutter speed dial. So....guess I'll just stick with a camera that operates exactly like a film camera, and the only camera that does that is......a film camera.
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Old 01-24-2019   #11
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I dunno, Bill.

I don't know why you ask questions like this. I don't know why you fiddle with menus and modes when there's absolutely no need to.

I have both a Leica M-D and a Leica CL.
- The M-D is lovely in that it has no options and works just like an M7 does. It produces DNG files that are a delight to render.

- The CL is lovely in that it has a TTL viewfinder that I can use very long to ultra wide lenses with easily, I can do macro work with it, etc etc. I set it up to use my M and R lenses within a day of taking it out of the box and they're all I use it with. I use manual or aperture priority exposure modes, I focus it like an SLR, and I ignore the plethora of features that I have no need for. It produces DNG files that are a delight to render.

I don't care to carry a camera around my neck, don't care what other people see me using, don't care what the price of my gear is unless I'm at the moment of buying it. I have these two cameras because they work with my lenses and for my photography. I bought the CL because I needed a digital camera with TTL focusing to do my macro work, my long lens work, etc. I do photography with both of them according to how I've learned how to do photography over the past 50-some years.

I don't know why you don't do the same.

G


Quote:
Originally Posted by Bill Pierce View Post
I use a variety of cameras. They are tools in a toolbox. But for years almost all of my personal work and much of my journalistic work was done with rangefinders. They were smaller than SLR's. Without a mirror, they were quieter than SLR's and free from the slight image degradation that a moving mirror could cause at some shutter speeds. Obviously, there was no blackout or shutter lag. With wide angle lenses, their wide open focusing was often more accurate. And since they didn’t require a retrofocus design, the image quality of those lenses was often higher while the lenses were always smaller. And the viewfinder and focusing were better in dim light.

Enter the digital mirrorless - and MOST OF THESE ADVANTAGES DISAPPEAR. I can even get a bright line finder in some of the Fuji digitals. Although I probably use a digital rangefinder camera a little less than I did in the film rangefinder days, it is still a favored for personal work. Is it because

(1) I am an elderly idiot.

(2) I like to be seen with an expensive conspicuous consumption item around my neck.

(3) I am living in the past.

(4) I am not fond of the infinite menu choices, most of them meaningless, on other cameras. I prefer simple manual mechanical controls that are always visible and immediately adjustable.

(5) With mirrorless cameras I am constantly switching between shutter release actuated focus, push button lock focus, single point focus, zone focus and manual focus depending on what I’m photographing. Whenever I first pick up the camera, it is always set to the wrong focus method. I am spending too much time thinking about focusing and not enough time thinking about what is in front of me.

(6) All of the above.

Your thoughts and guidance in this analysis are most welcome.
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Old 01-24-2019   #12
Richard G
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3. But in a good way.
4.
5.
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Old 01-25-2019   #13
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Delete point (2) and then I agree on all the other points.
On the other hand I do a lot of video.
And when doing video I have to stand all the button the menus and the rest
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Old 01-25-2019   #14
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Well, I'm born well after my favourite 35mm SLR cameras (Leicaflex SL, e.g.) have been introduced, so I'm not yet entitled to the «elderly» description, I suppose?

#4, certainly.
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Old 01-25-2019   #15
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I went from shooting an M6 to using a Ricoh GXR as a first step into digital with my M-lenses and, despite a few nice pics along the way, I really hated the whole shooting experience for many of the reasons the OP gave. Then I bit the bullet and got a nearly-new M262 and it was such a relief. Optical viewfinder only, manual focussing only, centred-weighted metering only, manual aperture only, minimal shutter delay. It's all about the composition now. My main bug bear now is that my older existing lenses retrocus slightly, which causes me to miss exact focus in some wide open shots, but I will likely get that corrected by Leica in due course... when I can afford it I'll probably send my lenses off one at a time.
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Old 01-25-2019   #16
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4, than 4 and then 4 again resonates for me!

Maybe 1 ...it's not me who has to state it

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Old 01-25-2019   #17
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Old fools generally have significant experience with every kind of camera. The camera that they end up finding they gravitate toward is the best camera there is, for them, because it best fits their needs and desires. Regardless of what “everybody knows”.
Using a laundry list of selling points (no mirror slap, full frame, smaller, bigger, more solid, lighter, auto focus, manual focus, rangefinder, macro capable, AE, fully mechanical doesn’t need batteries, etc.) to reason oneself into a certain camera is less to the point than just eventually using what you like, despite it not having “all the modern conveniences”, and be done with it.
Don’t listen to others, they only know what they like. No need for self doubt about one’s choices just because one isn’t a lemming.
And, it’s fine to hate menus if you hate menus.
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Old 01-25-2019   #18
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Quote:
Originally Posted by sepiareverb View Post
I can pick up the camera from the strap around my neck and hit one of the 24,000 buttons on it and have no clue w t f I have done to make it behave like some other camera owned by someone who can understand what all these damn buttons do. The focus point moves around all the time just carrying the thing around my neck.

Reminds me of one of the cell phones my employer has provided over the years. It had an overly aggressive keyboard lock which required about three different steps just to unlock it so I could place a call, but if I set the phone down or picked it up the wrong way it would magically bypass all the locks and it would butt-dial some random person from the contact list. It was enough to make me paranoid!
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Old 01-25-2019   #19
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Not sure if I understand the value and meaning of self-deprecating remarks.
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Old 01-25-2019   #20
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Despite having previously used both film and digital Canon EOS cameras for almost 20 years, I like easily accessed information. Gauges on my car's dashboard, knobs and dials on my Hi-Fi and a camera with the exposure settings right there in front of me without having to turn it on and light up a screen. You know, shutter speed dials and aperture rings and such. Ain't a lot of that around anymore. That qualifies me for points #3 and #4.

Plus, I've used an awful lot of digital cameras in the past 10 years or so. Most of them have been highly capable machines, producing many pictures I still find satisfying. But.... Many of them would qualify as "fidgetal" cameras with their secret menus, menu extensions, multifunction buttons and proprietary language. All of which I find to be irritating. That again fits #4 and also comes in under #5.

But, all things considered, #1 pretty much covers it all.

Now, get off my lawn!
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Old 01-25-2019   #21
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Quote:
Originally Posted by sepiareverb View Post
Simple is almost always better in my opinion. The XPro2 is maddening in that I can pick up the camera from the strap around my neck and hit one of the 24,000 buttons on it and have no clue w t f I have done to make it behave like some other camera owned by someone who can understand what all these damn buttons do. The focus point moves around all the time just carrying the thing around my neck. I have finally managed to get the XPro2 “deactivated” enough to be more usable, but still, ugh. Lovely IQ when I don’t screw up by touching it where I shouldn’t (tho I do feel very Presidential at those moments).

...
Many of the body buttons can be temporarily deactivated by pressing the MENU OK button for 3 seconds. A yellow Lock icon will be displayed. Anther 3 second press will reactivate all the buttons.

It is possible to deactivate the FN buttons that are causing you trouble. Just set disable each button by choosing NONE in the Menu. You only have to do this once.

These features should eliminate your "don’t screw up by touching it where I shouldn’t" frustration.

There are two reasons the focus point will move around. The AF Menus could be configured to automatically hunt for a focus subject. Setting the AF menu parameters for single, center focus point eliminates this behavior. It is also possible to limit the focus point search region to search just a 7×7, 5×5, or a 3×3 matrix of individual points at the center of the frame. I use MF mode with a single point because I like to focus and recompose just as I did with my film RF cameras.

The second reason the focus points could move is accidentally pushing the focus stick down and simultaneously moving the stick in any direction. I have never done this accidentally as the dentent to activate the stick is long. It seems unlikely this is how come the focus point seems to have a mind of it's own.

Separately when the camera is in AFC mode it will always attempt to focus. In this mode AF will always hunt. When the AF menu parameter PRE-AF is set to ON, the camera is acts as if AFC mode even though AFS or M mode are selected. This is useful for video.


It does take some time to configure the X-Pro 2 to operate in a minimalistic fashion. But it is possible.
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I agree with Robert
Old 01-25-2019   #22
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I agree with Robert

Quote:
Originally Posted by robert blu View Post
4, than 4 and then 4 again resonates for me!

Maybe 1 ...it's not me who has to state it

robert

I ignore the manuals and I try to get by with the few basic functions on any digital camera used by me. Much is obvious. The non-obvious is almost always not useful to me.
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Old 01-25-2019   #23
Bill Pierce
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Please understand, I have nothing against non rangefinder cameras - especially the modern mirrorless. They are certainly my preferred choice for studio, portraiture, theatre and a host of other professional photographs. But when it comes to the important stuff, misrepresenting innocent people on the street and, similarly, photographing grandchildren with puppies (albeit grandchildren rarely try to hit you when they see you taking their picture), it’s rangefinder.
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Old 01-25-2019   #24
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Bill Pierce View Post
Please understand, I have nothing against non rangefinder cameras - especially the modern mirrorless. They are certainly my preferred choice for studio, portraiture, theatre and a host of other professional photographs. But when it comes to the important stuff, misrepresenting innocent people on the street and, similarly, photographing grandchildren with puppies (albeit grandchildren rarely try to hit you when they see you taking their picture), it’s rangefinder.
(Bolded) Huh? I can't figure out what you were trying to say.

If it was something like "unobtrusively photographing people on the street": I've done street photography just as unobtrusively with everything from a Minox to a Hasselblad. My tool of choice for many years was a Nikon FM. I work today with the Leica M-D and CL, the Light L16, and a Polaroid SX-70. Few people notice when I make a photo unless I reach out and engage them; most, when I do, want me to make the photo and even then only rarely notice when I've released the shutter (except for the Polaroid photos, because they're watching for the print to slide out... ).

My thesis: Engagement with the subject is under the photographer's control. If you want to photograph subjects without their engagement, you act and move one way. If you want to engage them, you act and move differently. The camera being used is mostly irrelevant, except inasmuch as how it requires being used constrains how you act and move. Few hand-held cameras affect a subject unless they are overly large and bulky, or are handled in such a way as to draw attention.

G
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Old 01-25-2019   #25
Bill Pierce
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Godfrey View Post
(Bolded) ...The camera being used is mostly irrelevant, except inasmuch as how it requires being used constrains how you act and move. Few hand-held cameras affect a subject unless they are overly large and bulky, or are handled in such a way as to draw attention.

G
Agreed. My preference for the rangefinder is in part because I scale focus or prefocus on the street. Both are a little simpler on the rangefinder with lenses that usually have more complete distance scales and depth of field guides plus a “set it and nothing will change until you change it” guarantee. I also find that in bright sunlight or backlight the simple, non screen finder is more legible and quicker to use when I bother to use a finder. I simply find the rangefinder a little quicker when you are responding to quickly changing, fleeting moments on the street. And that tiny difference in time can make a great difference in the image.
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Old 01-25-2019   #26
Richard G
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I certainly found the M6 with a small 35 Summicron was best for photographing my children. It was always there, no startup time as always on and meter batteries lasted several years, and it was small could be left out unobtrusively and quickly grabbed and manouevred and shot with negligible shutter lag, no mirror blackout and the scale focus or quick, precise RF focussing. An M7 might have been one further step up but it came slightly too late and I couldn’t have afforded it back then.

The digital rangefinders work well but have to have the shutter button ridden like a bad driver rides the clutch to keep them awake around children. And the M9 era cameras can’t cope with shots in quick succession: just when the best face is presented the camera is buffering the preliminaries. To say nothing of the battery level warning stopping the show.
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Old 01-25-2019   #27
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Quote:
Originally Posted by willie_901 View Post
...It does take some time to configure the X-Pro 2 to operate in a minimalistic fashion. But it is possible.
Yes, some searching and reading has made it MUCH better. Took me several rounds of diving deeper into set-up to get it 'fixed'.

Working with gloves seems to be the main culprit with the focus point moving, tho it surely does get moved when carrying, I can only surmise, by bouncing against my coat. It is worse with the one coat that has buttons.

The Ricoh GR Digital has many buttons on the back as well, but I never had any trouble with all the different models of that I've used, and that is perhaps my most used camera.
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Old 01-26-2019   #28
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...

Working with gloves seems to be the main culprit with the focus point moving, tho it surely does get moved when carrying, I can only surmise, by bouncing against my coat. It is worse with the one coat that has buttons.

The Ricoh GR Digital has many buttons on the back as well, but I never had any trouble with all the different models of that I've used, and that is perhaps my most used camera.
Ahh. Now I understand.

I was puzzled about your problems inadvertently pressing buttons on the XPro2 but now I see. Personally, I have turned off the joystick and I only use the center AF sensor or (very seldom) let the camera pick the focus point. I've simplified my XP2 cameras so much I don't recall all the features I've disabled that others might find useful.
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Old 01-26-2019   #29
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Bill Pierce: And since they didn’t require a retrofocus design, the image quality of those lenses was often higher while the lenses were always smaller. And the viewfinder and focusing were better in dim light.

This is one reason I like RF cameras, especially when your eyes get older. I just can't focus an SLR with wide angle lenses anymore.

BUT not only retro-focus lenses not being as sharp as RF lenses, I read in 1963 that Leica really was reluctant to use a swing door on their new 'M' model. They felt that film flatness and exact film depth was better controlled by the Barnack models.

Is this true or urban myth or from CNN?
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Old 01-26-2019   #30
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Hey, I think you're dissing us technical writers.

Seriously, though, the philosophy of never looking deeper than the obvious seems an unfortunate way to live. Most of the best of life is beneath the surface.

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I never said "never look deeper" for all aspects of life, John. It was about simplicity of camera controls.
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Old 01-26-2019   #31
Richard G
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Hey, I think you're dissing us technical writers.

Seriously, though, the philosophy of never looking deeper than the obvious seems an unfortunate way to live. Most of the best of life is beneath the surface.

John
My first digital was the Coolpix 4500. That was and is a seriously good camera and I still use it occasionally. The manual was a lot longer than the instructions for my M2. (But even in the manual for the M2 there are some gems to relearn.) I read the Coolpix Manual right through three times before I felt on top of that camera and enjoyed its many offerings. The next complex camera was the X100. I needed three readings of the manual and then on top of that, the clever collaborators here on RFF to make best sense and best use of that camera. The Leica digitals are much simpler, but renaming the folders in the file structure or customising the set manu for different lenses requires a return to the manual. It's not for nothing there is the phrase abbreviated RTFM.
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Old 01-30-2019   #32
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Interesting observations regarding the sort of things that are easily dismissed under the umbrella of "elderly idiot" or whatever other old age excuse people devise.

Looking at your list -- here's what I think:

1) Elderly idiot means you know what works for you.

2) Can't comment with certainty. If you drive a Ferrari, perhaps it's true.

3) See number 1. A hammer still works. Not every job requires a power tool. The past is where you figured out what works for you.

4) Infinite menus just drives a photographer further and further away from the subject matter. Tangible version of ISO invariance.

5) Camera variables can make a person nuts. Once I set up a digital camera, like my Fuji X-Pro 1, I hate to let others look at for fear they'll change something that will drive me further towards insanity. Similar effect to following Twitter.

Simple is good for better subject matter engagement. Endless technical things just turn me into a technician.

My three cents.
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