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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”  

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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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A thought process in progress...
Old 04-06-2019   #1
Bill Pierce
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A thought process in progress...

In the last thread, Farlymac said, “You know, Bill, there is a awful lot of good camera gear out there that has just as good a reputation as Leica, so don’t feel bad about slumming around with a Voigtlander lens.”

This set me to thinking about the position that digital rangefinder cameras have today, at least for me. When I was a working stiff that traveled long distances with film Leicas, I had a lot of them - 3 around my neck, a couple of backups against theft or breakdown in the hotel safe and at least one out for a CLA (clean, lubricate, and adjust).

Today I have one that I use for family snaps and street photography. The relative simplicity of the controls (and the years I have been using them) let me concentrate on an active, changing subject, not the camera. Getting the focusing out of the way and watching for a somewhat decisive moment with a finder that lets me see what is happening outside the frame helps too.

But the small size, accurate focus with wide angle and normal focal lengths and outstanding image quality for the format size are now equalled by a number of equally mirrorless digitals which are more suited to the full range of lenses including long lenses and zooms, may have many more operating features and often have a lower price.

I am lucky. Selling old film Leicas raises money for a new digital Leica, And old lenses work on new bodies. But no question about it, I think the Leica is a specialty camera for pictures that are shot selectively, not in bursts, shot where focus is a set it and forget it operation, not something that you deal with constantly or continuously, shot with relatively normal lenses not extreme wide or long and most of all shot with a finder that does very little to preview the final image, but gives you a very clear and detailed look at what is in front of the camera. Fortunately for me, I love that kind of photography.

I have nine “professional” cameras that I use most often to take pictures for other people. Seven of them could easily do the same pictures for which I use a Leica. Technically the pictures would be just as good or even better. But the simplicity of the Leica and the lack of a huge range of menu and control options forces me to concentrate on the subject. I like that. Too bad simplicity costs so much more than complexity.

Your thoughts?
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Old 04-06-2019   #2
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I use DSLRs for professional work and always use them with manual focusing and manual exposure. I find live view to be as close to my beloved 4x5's as I can expect in the digital era, and it makes up in part for the poor focusing with screens/viewfinders of DSLRs. For fun I shoot Contax III and IIIa with film and Zeiss lenses. I agree with you about simplicity--it is ironic that it is so expensive, but given the nature of electronics and marketing it isn't surprising.
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Old 04-06-2019   #3
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The camera doesn’t have to be a Leica nor expensive to achieve simplicity. For whatever reasons I am similar in that I am far more interested in the subject and/or final image than cameras or the skills wrapped up in them. Can I shoot sunny 16? Any day of the week. Can I soup tri-x in a hotel sink? Sure can. These days however, I set a Ricoh GR on auto iso amd ‘professional mode’ then press the button. Couldn’t be simpler really and not particularly expensive.
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Old 04-06-2019   #4
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Too bad simplicity costs so much more than complexity.
Your thoughts?


It pretty well all comes down to the economics of production and markets. As Henry Ford discovered, if you can standardize your products and churn them out using a production line it is possible to produce good products cheaper for mass markets. But you have to do it in the hundreds of thousands or millions to achieve these economies and make them work for you.

But how many people today want "simple non complex cameras" even if they were relatively cheap to buy compared with alternatives. Not many. And also, these cameras which are non complex to you (you have been doing all your life) place a premium on the user having skills not possessed by many users. So they are also actually quite complex to use for someone who knows "zip" about photography and who really just wants to push the shutter button and know they will get a good image without having to know anything at all about apertures, shutter speed, depth of field etc etc. And, I hazard a guess that 90% of photographers do what I do most of the time - set the camera on P mode (or in my case A mode) and not bother with the 10 pages of options in the camera's settings menu.

So the market for "simple" cameras (of the Leica M type) is inherently small.

A small market means the high volume production line method does not quite work for this market segment in the same way it does for other segments. And for makers it is therefore far better to tap another part of the market - the segment with people who want to fiddle with old style dials and so forth and who are willing to buy the best and who can afford it. This inevitably means not making the camera cheap to compete with the mass market. It means making it more exclusive for an inherently smaller part of the market. And that inevitably means each unit has to be more expensive to cover its costs.

Some people (usually not Leica shooters) say using Leica is about snobbery and looking good to other people. There is I suppose a certain "snob" appeal to using a Leica but I wonder if this really explains more than a tiny part of its appeal. I don't think it does - the Leica snob appeal (if it exists at all) only appeals to a few people who (a) know what a Leica is and (b) give a damn. If the Leica snob appeal exists at all it is better defined not as snobbery but as the personal enjoyment that comes from working for, buying and using something that is a delight to use. And this is more about personal satisfaction and enjoyment - not about how others think.
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Old 04-06-2019   #5
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Outside of frames, normal lenses, yep, makes sense. Live view, EVF, doesn't. It is not liv(f)e.

Yep. If film Leica is still in regular (not once in a while roll) use it needs backup.

"... good reputation as Leica" is kinda lol these days. The only photog I know who is still using digital Leica RF professionally has backup of the backup.

I have Canon DSLR which was in use by one professional, then after new shutter was sold to another professional and after it came to our home and I took pictures with it . Wow! They looked professional . And I don't need backup for it.

But Leica RF are nice to go out, go on the trip with. They make you feel nice. While they works...
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Old 04-06-2019   #6
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Many people prefer that simplicity of an RF camera such as the Leica and others that lack a huge range of menu functions so that they can better concentrate their vision and thoughts on the subject or openness to subjects.

When I am in the "zone" shooting, which I find easiest with menu-poor cameras, I capture more of the "decisive moments": Not external actions or fleeting moments, but internal perceptions of seeing something differently from what I may have assumed, expected, or never before noticed.
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Old 04-06-2019   #7
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Bill Pierce View Post
Too bad simplicity costs so much more than complexity.

Your thoughts?
I don't have many thoughts, but I am reminded of Paul Rand's observation that 'Design is so simple, that's why it's so complicated.'
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Old 04-07-2019   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Bill Pierce View Post
... But the simplicity of the Leica and the lack of a huge range of menu and control options forces me to concentrate on the subject. I like that. Too bad simplicity costs so much more than complexity.

Your thoughts?
I'm lucky to be a pure passionate amateur...

No need to take photos which are not "my style". And for my style of shooting leica is the ideal tool for the reasons you just mentioned.

There is a cost, a real high cost for this. But I do not drive expensive cars or motorcycles, I do not wear expensive hand made watches, I do not eat in exclusive restaurants...

And more important I do not change camera each six months

robert
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Old 04-07-2019   #9
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Talking

Leica RF is really a simple camera, to use to load (film) and a delight to work..
I taught my daughter, a child then, to use the RF in 30 secs..
I showed two fingers then one while blocking main viewfinder so rf only seen.
Loading a film M2,M3 is so easy. I also get more frames..
Guessing the light, with a Kodak paper guide as was packed with film..
My daughter does occasional pro-work but uses Nikon Digital.

I used SLR for nearly all my Fashion and Advertising work.
My M3 is now 52 years in service..my favorite camera..
Could other cameras and lenses equal or surpass?
Yes! But it wouldn't be as much fun..
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Old 04-07-2019   #10
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It is complicated to figure out how to select menu options and features that enable simple digital camera usage. This takes time and patience. It is tedious.

One that task is completed, using many digital cameras simply is not complicated. One can "concentrate on an active, changing subject, not the camera". Now, inability to "concentrate on the subject" is not the camera's fault.

With FUJIFILM X-100 and, or X-Pro variants in OVF mode one can even "[watch] for a somewhat decisive moment with a finder that lets [you] see what is happening outside the frame".
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Old 04-07-2019   #11
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Simplicity doesn't necessarily cost more than complexity - a IIIc can be had cheaply, along with an I-61 and some Jupiters.. or a film CL or manual Nikon or OM or whatever, and some primes. I enjoy simplicity too, and the mind exercises it requires. Nice to keep the brain cells active! However I think some digital advancements are worth the money, like Sony's eye-detect AF, which by all accounts is a game-changer. I see that as a more attractive proposition than a digital Leica for social and street photography.
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Old 04-07-2019   #12
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Leica achieves simplicity by making all the decisions for you. You can pay $5000 extra for that or achieve the same result with other cameras by simply accepting the default menu choices and leaving them there. I have only changed one menu item on my camera in the last year, and that because I began shooting with studio flash. Honestly, I have no idea why people are constantly in their menus. Quit futzing around with your camera and make photographs.
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Old 04-07-2019   #13
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I agree that as I age, simplicity is becoming more and more a way of life. I think I'd also throw "familiarity" into that equation. I didn't start out with rangefinder cameras, but with SLR's. For many years, it was an SLR and small primes.

Now that I'm shooting less for others and more for myself, I find my constant companion is a full frame mirrorless (Nikon Z6 set to aperture priority) and a small collection of primes. Surprisingly, they're old rangefinder primes (as I've always believed a rangefinder prime was optically superior to an SLR prime, that whole "rear element closer to the negative" thing). And I'm surprised at how many shooting situations, where I always thought I needed the big DSLR and the big zooms, I can now handle no problem with the little mirrorless and the little primes.

And I'm having fun making images again. Maybe that's the whole point.

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Old 04-07-2019   #14
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For me, Fuji has everything I liked about the Leica with everything I like about modern mirrorless.
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Old 04-07-2019   #15
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Yes, of course we can use a camera with many menu options in a simple way, after having spent some time in setting up as we desire or just simply learn to live with the default options.

The problem arises when for accident, mistake or another undesired reason we hit a button we shouldn't have touched and change some settings and the camera start no to make what we desire/need...

My wife's D-109 is a nightmare when this happens, and it happens...

robert
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Old 04-07-2019   #16
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I shoot my DSLR like a box camera. Although it does change settings automatically I don't know it. My DSLR allows me to set my aperture on the lens which I like and then shutter is auto set along with the focus.

This week I'll go to an event and take flash shots: set aperture, let camera decide ambient light one under, have my Vivitar 2600-d flash (who knows when that was made) set on A2 auto. No thinking involved. I've done this with film AF bodies but I can't see the histogram.

You are right; life is easier for spray and pray (only not so much praying now).
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Old 04-07-2019   #17
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Quote:
Originally Posted by robert blu View Post
Yes, of course we can use a camera with many menu options in a simple way, after having spent some time in setting up as we desire or just simply learn to live with the default options.

The problem arises when for accident, mistake or another undesired reason we hit a button we shouldn't have touched and change some settings and the camera start no to make what we desire/need...

My wife's D-109 is a nightmare when this happens, and it happens...

robert
That is indeed a bother. Never suffered it myself but surely it would get in the way.
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Old 04-07-2019   #18
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Totally agree about the joys of simplicity and the mechanical focusing helicoid + depth of field scale on the lens barrel. But now that I can easily view my photos at 100% on the computer screen, is that accurate enough to please me today?
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Old 04-07-2019   #19
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My three favorite cameras flow through opposite ends of the digital spectrum. An R-D1x, an M9, and a Fuji X-E3. The Fuji has all the bells and whistles that anyone should want but I shoot it just like the other two, manual with various Voigtlander lenses with an occasional Fuji lens when I feel lazy. Modern cameras can be used just as simply as the old stuff.
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Old 04-07-2019   #20
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For me, Fuji has everything I liked about the Leica with everything I like about modern mirrorless.
I feel the same way.

Simplicity is important to me. I have very basic needs when it comes to my camera usage. I like the philosophy Leica has about simplicity but I can simplify my Fuji cameras pretty well. Once I set the camera up to my preferences, I seldom have to delve into the menus.
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Old 04-07-2019   #21
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I feel the same way.

Simplicity is important to me. I have very basic needs when it comes to my camera usage. I like the philosophy Leica has about simplicity but I can simplify my Fuji cameras pretty well. Once I set the camera up to my preferences, I seldom have to delve into the menus.
Correct, just need aperture, shutter speed and ISO. And then focus whatever way you like. All the rest is marketing.
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Old 04-07-2019   #22
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Simplicity is one of the reasons I returned to film.
Robert, that happened to me sometimes, to my dismay.
However, some cameras (GH5 is a case in point) allow you to save and load a complete setting
So, at the beginning of a session, or when in doubt, I reload my favorite setting, which I have elaborated to my liking, and avoid a possible disaster
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Old 04-07-2019   #23
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I do enjoy my metal, mechanical film cameras be they made by Leica, Pentax, or someone else. Their simplicity and reliability (at least the K1000 remains reliable) are truly a joy.


However, my aging eyes occasionally betray me, particularly when the light becomes weak, so I find myself relying more and more often on auto focus which does not seem to come with the same level of metal, mechanical simplicity.
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Old 04-07-2019   #24
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I've not tried focus peaking in low light, I'll try it and report back.
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Old 04-08-2019   #25
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I've not tried focus peaking in low light, I'll try it and report back.
Focus peaking utility in low light is highly variable. It depends on
  • The contrast of the intended focus region has the largest impact on focus peaking utility. High contrast in low light can work better than low contrast in brighter light.
  • The sensitivity of the AF system which is expressed in EV (smaller and negative values are better. In low light the EVF display have less detail because the overall signal-to-noise .ratio is lower.
  • The effectiveness of the in-camera AF firmware
  • For EVF finders, the inherent contrast of the finder display.
  • Phase-detection AF works best with fast lenses. Contrast detection works best in low light.(link1, link2).
  • Some cameras a small number of central AF detection sites with higher sensitivity.

It took me a while to experiment with each new camera to maximize focus peaking AF performance in low light.
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Old 04-08-2019   #26
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Bill Pierce View Post
Getting the focusing out of the way and watching for a somewhat decisive moment with a finder that lets me see what is happening outside the frame helps too.
It's not just the finder.
Leica, in their M lenses, is the only camera/lens company that I know of who's lens markings support zone- or scale-focusing in any meaningful way. The ability to accurately pre-set focus is critical to watching the scene and not a data display. My Nikon DSLRs...no. Fuji...sorry, but the distance markings on the lenses...if they have markings at all(!)... are nearly worthless.
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Old 04-08-2019   #27
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It's not just the finder.
Leica, in their M lenses, is the only camera/lens company that I know of who's lens markings support zone- or scale-focusing in any meaningful way. The ability to accurately pre-set focus is critical to watching the scene and not a data display.
I don't know of any manual focus lens for any of the major camera brands that doesn't have a depth of field scale engraved on the lens. Leica lenses are not unique in that regard. You rarely see depth of field scales on autofocus lenses, even Leica autofocus lenses like the TL and SL series.
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Old 04-08-2019   #28
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Quote:
Originally Posted by robert blu View Post
Yes, of course we can use a camera with many menu options in a simple way, after having spent some time in setting up as we desire or just simply learn to live with the default options.

The problem arises when for accident, mistake or another undesired reason we hit a button we shouldn't have touched and change some settings and the camera start no to make what we desire/need...

My wife's D-109 is a nightmare when this happens, and it happens...

robert
The joys of 'Custom' modes (or whatever they're called in your brand of choice) Set them up to taste and they will always be the same.

Every time I turn on my Pen F in C1, it has exactly the same settings, doesn't matter what I've managed to bump or change or mess around with the last time I used it.
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Old 04-08-2019   #29
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Hi Bill.

I agree totally. I am all Leica for the last 3 1/2 years. I have been doing my persoanl work with an MM since 2012. For my professional work I was using DSLRs and had several. Back up for the back up. Now that I went Leica M digtial for everyhting I have two M 10s, and M 262, M-E and still rocking the MM. NO REGRETES going all Leica M and the M 10s are more than capable for all of my needs. Can't beat the siplicity.
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Old 04-08-2019   #30
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I have a F2 and a DF and a bunch of manual focus lenses if I could have a M2 and a digital m and a bunch of manual focus lenses I'd be alright with that too

Fuji? Okay maybe...
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Old 04-08-2019   #31
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Bill Pierce View Post
Too bad simplicity costs so much more than complexity.

Your thoughts?
Quote:
Originally Posted by jsrockit View Post
For me, Fuji has everything I liked about the Leica with everything I like about modern mirrorless.
I used Leica film bodies (more or less exclusively) for about decade. What I loved was that I could set the exposure manually and see what it was without bringing the camera to my eye and the viewfinder. I love seeing everything in focus, and then imagining what the scene will look like with a narrower plane of focus rather than the other way around. It makes it much easier to align background elements for example.

I'm also a minimalist. I don't like things too complicated. The Leica fit that brilliantly.

But, I'm not going to drop A$8000+ on a digital body. I'm a hobbyist with a young family, my money is better spent elsewhere.

After much deliberations I ended up with a Fuji x100F. I started looking at them when the original was announced, but it took me a while to make the leap. It ticks the boxes that the Leica ticked, without the additional stuff required for film (I don't like stuff in my life). I have the focus decoupled from the shutter, so I can effectively set the focus and shoot away without it changing. I can manually focus it, and the viewfinder is excellent bright, and contains the information I want and nothing extra. In short, "Fuji has everything I liked about the Leica" with some additional things that make it easier to get what I want. I don't go into the menu, and the back buttons stay locked. Easy. Simple. Cheap.
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Old 04-09-2019   #32
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I think of a camera as the photographer's violin. And while some believe that Stradivarius is "the best," others know that some players (Sarah Chang, for example) must use a Guarnari Del Gesu, because it will do what they need it to, and the Strad won't. Hilary Hahn is similar. She uses a French copy of the Guarnarius. Either of them could have a Strad if it were right for them. So I think this same idea applies to cameras. If a Leica were the right instrument for a given photographer, as it often is, they will probably eventually get one. But some shooters will do better with something else; and I can easily believe that the "something else" will often be a Fuji.
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Old 04-11-2019   #33
xayraa33
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I think of a camera as the photographer's violin. And while some believe that Stradivarius is "the best," others know that some players (Sarah Chang, for example) must use a Guarnari Del Gesu, because it will do what they need it to, and the Strad won't. Hilary Hahn is similar. She uses a French copy of the Guarnarius. Either of them could have a Strad if it were right for them. So I think this same idea applies to cameras. If a Leica were the right instrument for a given photographer, as it often is, they will probably eventually get one. But some shooters will do better with something else; and I can easily believe that the "something else" will often be a Fuji.
The magic is done by the user.

I remember the late Chet Atkins saying that others told him in a dressing room after a live performance on stage, "it must be great to be the owner of many prototype Gretsch guitars that he had some input in their design and that might account for his great tone and skill on the instrument".

Which caused Chet to place his guitar on a chair by its self and answered the questioner, " How does it sound now?"
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Old 04-13-2019   #34
Photon42
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Too bad simplicity costs so much more than complexity
I am not sure this is really true. I did use a clearly quite complex camera for some time (Olympus E-M1). For Olympus novices, menus are a nightmare to work with.

The thing is: if you take the time and understand the options and degrees of freedom the camera gives you, it can be configured to your specific needs really well.

Focussing and exposure correction can be made super intuitive (in my example with the E-M1) - no reason to ever dive into menus. It just means that the same camera used be someone else may actually be configured so differently, that you find it hard to operate it.

Modern cameras are often built as fit-all-tools. There are now so much more people using advanced cameras. Products are mostly judged by how much they have on board. Hello youtube. We can always make the option loaded camera a specialised tool in a lot of the cases.
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Old 04-13-2019   #35
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Originally Posted by Photon42 View Post
I am not sure this is really true. I did use a clearly quite complex camera for some time (Olympus E-M1). For Olympus novices, menus are a nightmare to work with.

The thing is: if you take the time and understand the options and degrees of freedom the camera gives you, it can be configured to your specific needs really well.

Focussing and exposure correction can be made super intuitive (in my example with the E-M1) - no reason to ever dive into menus. It just means that the same camera used be someone else may actually be configured so differently, that you find it hard to operate it.

Modern cameras are often built as fit-all-tools. There are now so much more people using advanced cameras. Products are mostly judged by how much they have on board. Hello youtube. We can always make the option loaded camera a specialised tool in a lot of the cases.
This is exactly why I shoot with Leica M digital and that it is a true rangefinder which is important to the way I see and work. It is nice to have options and in my opinion Leica M digital is a true alternative to the one size fiits all that seems to dominate the mirrorless and DSLR world. All the camreas being made today by the big guys are, for the most part, amazing. It then gets down to preference. I am fortunate to be making my living doing this so I always have been in a possition to get the tools I need to do the job. And for me and the way I see and work Leica digital M fits just right.
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Old 04-14-2019   #36
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I think simplicity in sophisticated tools is an interesting topic (examples of hammers and needs not quite work here). There are digital cameras without a screen. It that simplification or complication? For some the former, for some the latter. I can feel this "getting out of the way" thing with the Olympus I mentioned earlier as well as any of my rangefinders, but it is specific to the task.
Simplicity often in the end leads to reduction, thus to specialisation. As long as your tool matches your photographic problem, you will be fine.
I do like Bauhaus, and generally simple design. Companies in their fear to loose short term market share start to over-listen to influencers and customers. This then leads cameras without a straight concept. My only point actually is: with some cameras it does not matter so much - you can actually tailor them once to make them your concept. But that's just operational. The soul gets attracted by tactile feel, body looks and prestige (why would we think this can be different). Leicas excel in this.
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