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Wednesday, 07 February 2018


A tool is a thing that has value because of what it does. An object is a thing that has value because of what it is.

For me, it’s the photographer (and printer...the person) that creates a signature look, not the gear. Otherwise, everyone using that gear would create the same look, film or digital. How boring that would be.

I do not see any digital camera making an intrinsic & specific look to images. They look malleable but generic. Results and style depends a lot, if not essentially on post-processing. Analog technique is different here. Using film provides out of the box a specific look to images. And I love the results coming from Portra, Fuji or TMax.

As for cameras, despite the fact that I do own some excellent digital cameras that I use for work, I return almost every free time to old analog Leicas M for my personal stuff. The prints, made from in-house scanned negatives, are more often than not the picture that matter to me.


In the digital era, my “look” has very slowly changed with time, and it has more to do with how I process images than the equipment used. My most recent change has been a different curve (a variation of the one you suggested). I’ve been going back through many of my older photos and seeing where it works and where it doesn’t. It’s a fun thing to do when it’s -10 outside.

Are current cameras durable goods or consumables? I know they fall somewhere between potato chips and cameras like the Nikon FM2n I have (dusty, but super reliable). Cameras became more like consumables in the later film era, with all the added features that were difficult to repair. Digital cameras are not so different, and I suspect if you want repairability you should stick to the most popular brands with the most service centers (Canon, perhaps).

Hmm A thought provoking article today Mike. I think that there is a prevailing thought these days that cameras are consumables as you said. To be used and then replaced in several years when the next “new and improved” version comes out. However I think we are at a turning point in this mindset at least when it comes to DSLRs and Mirrorless systems. In the last 10 years there have been yearly improvements in noise performance, megapixels, IBIS, etc. The pace for these improvements has dramatically slowed as manufacturers are starting to bump into practical and/or physical limits (who needs 50/60/80 megapixel snapshots when 20 will do?). There’s been a subtle shift to adding more features to cameras in the last few years on account of the market maturing. The problem is that more features doesn’t necessarily mean a better camera or more enjoyable photographic experience. My personal feeling on the matter is that any decent quality camera these days should last and be useful for a long time. The trick is to buy into a system that meets your needs and where you won’t be orphaned down the road (ie the manufacturer goes out of business Minolta, Samsung, stops supporting older cameras because they’re on to the next new version, etc..). The other consideration is a manufacturer’s ecosystem when it comes to lenses – a decent selection of quality glass is I would say just as important as the camera body. I’ve been sitting on the fence about updating my (what many would consider ancient) Canon 50D for a while now but you know it does still take great pictures. I’ll probably be switching to a Fuji XT-2 with a few lenses to start in the coming year. I find Fuji’s camera build quality to be very good, their design aesthetic very appealing, their lenses are also very good and finally their customer support great. I recently bought my wife a Fuji X-E2s with the kit 18-55mm lens and she and I are quite impressed. Obviously Fuji is a personal preference going forward but my point is whether it’s Fuji or Nikon or Canon or Olympus and so on, cameras these days are more than good enough. They have a much longer useful life as the most important attributes (image quality, noise, light sensitivity and resolution) have been addressed. This is something that may not have been the case 15 years ago when digital was still relatively new.

The "Look" is what we place in front of the viewfinder. Take your eye away from the camera and the image that we see will have much the same "Look". Every camera has it's own distinctly different way of recording an image, but generally, where we stand, the subject, lighting, composition and moment of capture are what matter. The photos in the Japan Camera Hunter article about Sean Flynn's Leica M2 say more about where Sean Flynn stood and the life he led than the camera he used. My Nikons have taken thousands of images and held up well. The "Look" keeps coming and going but I remember Jay Maisel saying that if you want more interesting photographs, become a more interesting person.

There's a little bit of 'look' uniqueness baked into products yet, but it's less individual model and larger brand design decisions - Fuji's X-trans sensor, sensor size, AA filter or not - but unless you're talking critters like the Leica Monochrome or a custom modified IR or UV camera, it's more process than processor nowadays. Workflow is more key to getting predictable results, and that's where one model that does what you expect can make a big difference.

Matters with film, too - I almost always got better shots and a higher 'keeper' rate from my Pentax 67 than a Hasselblad 500, despite the Hassy having a 'better' lens.

Thank god lenses are still unique - this hobby would get dull without something to chase down!

I think "signature looks" are just so much gimmickry - either a picture works or it doesn't. No signature look (or technique, style, etc.) is going to change that. I guess that definitely puts me in the cameras are strictly tools camp.

My old film cameras serve to remind me just how good we have it today. They're things to putter around with. Around here, old John Deere tractors and so-called "hit & miss" farm engines also gratify that puttering urge.

Having settled on the M43 system and Panasonic's Lumix cameras, I enjoy the benefits of muscle memory allowing me to just use the tools without having to think about where the controls are. For that sole reason, the only Olympus camera I own will be passing onto other hands

In line with this train of thought, Bobby Tingle wrote the most perceptive comment I have seen about the difference between the X-Pro and X-T cameras:

". . .the X-Pro is all about the shooting experience. It is not a tool meant to get out of the way of working. Instead, the X-Pro is meant to be part of the process of making the photograph. . . I work differently depending on (which body) I am shooting."

His complete post at the Fuji X Spot forum is worth reading: https://www.fujixspot.com/threads/some-thoughts-on-the-x-pro2-and-x-t2.7431/#post-53959

I think his thoughts apply to other cameras as well. It was certainly what I experienced when using rangefinder cameras and SLRs. I believe the tools one uses affect the way one works and the results one obtains.

You can own more than one camera, right? I have various cameras that are replaceable tools of some monetary value, and I have one of my grandfather's cameras that is an irreplaceable memento of negligible monetary value.


I agree on both accounts. Cameras are just tools and that they are more-or-less disposable these days. Use what works for you and when it stops working buy another one.

No "emotion" involved... save the emotion for the photographs, not for the tool.

Case in point, a couple of years ago I dropped a camera with a long telephoto lens attached. The camera went in the trash as soon as I got home; the lens went to the repair guy. I purchased a used body of the same (six or seven year old) model for about 10% of the cost new. The old, familiar tool was still working for me just fine. Thus, I saw no reason to buy the latest and greatest model even though I could have afforded it.

I have to wonder if anyone would know whether a new camera gave a signature look anymore. We as photographers post process everything and OOC jpegs are a Cardinal sin.

I've been shooting lately with a brand-new (to me) Leica Standard (1938) with 50mm Elmar. What a wonderful little package -- for most practical purposes just as compact and usable as my SONY RX100/V.
I don't really miss auto-focus, as I mostly shoot medium distance subjects, which are easily estimated, and covered by DOF anyhow.
I also don't miss auto-exposure since my Kodak Pocket Guide works quite nicely with Tri-X (and EFKE 25) in virtually all light and weather conditions when the f:16 rule doesn't apply.
I am amazed, however, how much the absence of a zoom lens/and finder bothers me, ruining the spontaneity. (Separate 28, 35, and 90mm lenses with their myriad set of finders just ain't the same.)
Like I say: I've been spoiled!

Canon 35mm/1.4L, 85mm/1.2L, 135/2.0L ... you know what the photos look like when shot wide open. Nothing else comes close.

If you don't want that look, then you buy a nice lightweight mirrorless camera.

Canon 5D (any of them)... just gets on with the job effortlessly. When the next model comes out you hardly need to read the manual. It's the Ford F-150 of the camera world. Some people love their pickups.

I'd hazard a guess that more of the world's significant pictures have been taken with the 5D since the first one came out than any other camera.

Mike, this is a little tangential to your post (and perhaps also to your ruined internet post). Todd Forsgren, Marc Redford and I put together an exhibit for Rotterdam Photo (https://www.rotterdamphotofestival.com/), titled Camera Works, which will be opening tomorrow night (2/8, 6pm, Deliplein, Rotterdam). The exhibit suggests a need to consider the apparatus by which we make photographs as much as the images. To what extent does a tool shape understanding of what is and isn't the case?

The theme of the festival at large is "Fake - Truth"; something which is not unrelated to camera choices, the way we use cameras, and to what extent we consider a camera a tool malleable to its user's will.

If any of your readers are in Rotterdam, I'd like to invite them to pop by to say hello. [And apologies if this is too spammy.]

When I used to travel a lot, one of the reasons I used Canon was the availability of bodies in the event one broke or stopped working while on a trip. I could get an EOS Rebel body in any Walmart, Kmart or Target in the country and they could be used with all Canon EF lenses. But the Canons were all reliable and I never had to buy an emergency replacement.


Over the last year I've been shooting a lot more B&W. I've convinced myself that the Raw files from the Fuji X-Pro1 have a more pleasing look than the Raw files from the X-T1 or X-E2, especially when converted to B&W. Although all my Fuji cameras have the 16mp X-Trans sensors, the X-Pro1's have the first generation X-Trans and the other cameras have later generations of the same sensor. Are the first generation X-Trans pictures really nicer looking or am I just deluding myself? I dunno but I'm convinced enough to own multiple X-Pro1 bodies.

If you do paid work, it is expected that you carry backups. You cannot stop a shoot because something malfunctioned (or was stolen)
Many Years ago, a studio I was working for landed a very high profile client, Part of the written agreement was that we would have duplicates of all the main equipment we were to use on the shoot.
My Daughter & Wife shoot weddings and events, they bring backups for everything. In their case it is not necessarily an exact backup but enough cameras lenses flashes & batteries so that if something goes down, you don't miss a beat.
In that sense they are all tools.
But who hasn't had a particular go to camera that always seems to get the picture you want, one that makes you more confident just by virtue of being in your hands. I and I suspect others, get attached to those cameras to a degree that is more than their monetary value.

As for collecting famous photographer's cameras, I enjoy seeing them, I'm happy someone is preserving them, but I would not pay a premium to buy one.

As an amateur on a budget, I enjoy picking up curious old pieces of equipment and seeing how to use them with modern Nikon bodies. E.g. I bought a TC-16a to have a TC with some auto-focus capabilities for my manual lenses (it was Nikon’s temporary bridge between MF & AF bodies). There’s a small-ish market in converting the chips for use with modern bodies.
Also picked up the old K1-K5 extension rings, which I’ve not used much, yet. Lastly, I found an old Kenko 180 fisheye adapter lens from the 50’s for use on Nikon MF nifty fifty lenses. I’m not expecting outstanding image quality, but it’s fun to use & a cheap intro to fish-eyes.

I have a lot of trouble with the idea that certain lenses and cameras produce special "looks". Of course there are obvious qualities (some sensors are noisier, some lenses have strange out of focus highlights). But after that it starts to get extremely subjective.

For example, poster Keith raised the question of which Fuji sensor is better for black and white. I've seen zero evidence that some sensors are better than others for black and white, but plenty of people will swear that nothing beats the files produced by a Leica Monochrom, or that Fuji X-Trans II sensors are particularly good at black and white. Black and white is all I do so this is an important question to me. I've done a lot of careful testing with all kinds of RAW files produced by various sensors and cameras. In my view, whether or not the image was properly exposed, the approach to black and white development, and the post processing skills of the photographer, are vastly more important than the sensor or the camera. It's not even close.

It's the same for lenses. I find it really annoying when people say "lens X is better for black and white than lens Y", and then post a random photo that allegedly shows these qualities. There's no basis for comparison, and nothing in the photo that can't be attributed to dozens of other variables apart from the magical lens.

Anyway, ranting aside, cameras are tools, and nowadays the skill of the photographer in making the image, post processing and printing are vastly more important than the lens or the sensor. People should just use cameras that let them enjoy photography, and stop worrying about minutiae.

I think you are leaving a piece of this puzzle out.

If you shoot JPEG, you get the maker's idea of look. If you shoot Raw and use the maker's coverter, you get a look identical, or at least very similar to, the JPEGs.

If you use ACR/LR/PS, images tend to look more alike between cameras and makers than like the makers' ideas of look. I happen to prefer Adobe's taste in look to Canon DPP or Oly Viewer. DxO default conversions don't look like any of those others. And so on . . .

Those with old 4/3 cameras with the Kodak CCD sensors, those with Fuji X-Trans sensors, and undoubtedly others, know that what the image out of camera/conversion looks like depends highly on converter.

I was bitten by the Pentax Q bug and have four of them- they haven't been officially discontinued, but there is no other platform that meshes so well with odd-ball lenses that definitely have a distinctive look. Working in a small format forces you to rethink your image making process, the results I get are sometimes impossible to get any other way. The native Q lenses are, unfortunately, pretty much on the disposable side of the spectrum, but classic cine lenses are on the other end.

I don't want to say cameras are this or cameras are that, or to try to arrive at a single position on what they should be to people.

To people who are interested in making pictures, the camera is foremost a picture-making tool.

To people who are interested in history, objects of historical significance hold a special interest (true too for people of superstition). That's no less true for people interested in picture-making history or for picture-makers of .

Within the population we call 'photographers' there are the hoarders, the superstitious, the historians, the utilitarians, the religious and agnostic, along with all the accompanying obsessions of tool, eye, process, subject and philosophy.

That's just the richness of humanity, present in groups of all sizes and classifications of all types.

Stanley Greene said that digital cameras had no soul, that it was impossible to make a good picture with one and that they were ruining the art. I don't agree, but I loved him for his conviction anyway. He also said that the camera was just a tool, that it didn't matter, and he also insisted on Leica. I find there's a great joy in the accepting these contradictions whole. Let's not resolve them.

Last time when I had to replace a camera which was broken beyond repair, my wife offered me the budget for a new D810. I declined since I know that I would never be comfortable with such precious equipment in the field, and bought a pre-owned D800 for half the price.

Maybe the "image quality" of the D810 is superior to the D800; maybe not. But if I don't take the camera out under demanding weather conditions, there won't be any picture at all. And that's for sure.

One last note: I don't think that it is any good if one's mind becomes attached to stuff.

Best, Thomas

For me and the type of photography I do, I believe it's always best to get the look I want in-camera, pre-exposure, than in-computer, post-exposure.

As such, the camera gear I use--lenses, in particular--is absolutely integral to the results I achieve and definitely not fungible. I wish this wasn't the case, mind you, because it would make my life lots easier and my photography hobby much less costly, but it is what it is.... (sigh)

"A plain-jane Leica M6 with ZERO history. Zero significance. Zero collectability." Really? Yet, that "plain" camera sells for $2000 USED. Sorry, doesn't qualify as plain jane to me. A Pentax Spotmatic is a plain-jane camera. I have one, but don't use it, because 1) film is just too damn expensive, and 2) A digital Pentax K-3 has spoiled me, and it's just a better tool. But it is not a plain-jane camera, and neither is that Leica.

I have a Fuji X-T2 and an X-E2. Also I used to have an X-T1. In my opinion the difference in "look" is a load of innternet fed hyperbole. There might be a difference in how the raw files are converted to jpeg which could explain any difference. Post processing in software negates any small differences anyway.

As a hobby photographer with interests in several types of subjects -- and a budget that only stretches so far -- I've come to accept you can't have one camera that does it all.

The final "look" is not the only consideration. Durability and sometimes expendability is also a factor!

For event style photography, I'll take my full-frame camera. For bushwalking, it's the camera with a 1" type sensor and a fixed zoom.

Mike, the question you pose is really interesting and I think worthy of a much more considered exploration than the short preamble invites. However, I'm also unsure of the scope of your question, in that you seem to be slanting it towards the generally perceived convergence within modern digital cameras, yet you open the discussion with a comment from a reader favouring his non-digital M6.

If we're talking all camera types, I can't believe that people would not consider the influence of the widely different types of cameras favoured for their very different outputs by photographers throughout the last several decades.

Large format, anyone? There's a different look for you. Delivers vertical architecture or arresting portraits with gobs of close detail and texture. Or there's square format for portraiture. What about waist-level viewfinder cameras for a less-threatened subject and a lower viewpoint that simultaneously provides dominance to the subject and cleans up the background. Or rotating lens panoramic cameras for involving wide-angle views. And many more. I'm really surprised at the very restricted view, that cameras are basically the same, that I see expressed in the comments so far.

Even if we're including only current digital cameras, I suggest that it's pretty obvious that a Cambo or Alpa technical camera utilising large format-type lens movements in combination with a Phase One digital back is capable of a very different look to my hand-held X-Pro.

I've been experimenting with various digital small-sensor cameras (2.5 px to 12px) of varying age for the looks they give to photos. Most of these are bridge-type cameras. I've cheaply duplicated the ones that produce promising results to use for an extended period. But, even though I'll try using these duplicates, invariably the results won't sometimes be close. This could be an aging factor between manufacturing runs or just plain different use histories, but if I remember with film, duplicate backup cameras were different in some ways you couldn't define easily. It's a nice feeling to nail a good camera and lens combination, but it all changes eventually anyway.

On a topic similar to what other readers have mentioned, that is, the specific "signatures" of the various Fuji sensors: does anybody feel that the original x100 (Bayer) files (raw) have a special and perhaps preferable quality (color rendition, grain, etc.), compared to the later x-trans versions? I'd be curious to know...

"Really? Yet, that "plain" camera sells for $2000 USED. Sorry, doesn't qualify as plain jane to me."

No: It really is plain-jane. There's no beautiful brassing. There's no LSHA engraving. There's no limited edition attached to it. And no - it's not $2000. You can get a user body for a touch above $1000. When you get sick of scanning negatives, sell it for a profit.

I call the M6 "The Volkswagen Jetta of Leicas"

Lately I've come to favor cameras and lenses that are affordable, ubiquitous and easily replaced. OTOH one lens I've been using for a number of years produces a unique look that I've been unable to come near with any other lens; the lens is long discontinued, scarce, coveted by users and collectors alike, and breathtakingly wallet-denting. It also has a habit of getting gummy aperture blades every few years and the manufacturer is no longer interested in servicing the lens.

My solution? Don Goldberg and a couple backup copies of the lens. I'm not sure what I'll do when DAG retires. And I'll have to be content with the idea that there isn't a single equipment-using theory that applies to everything: some stuff is disposable, some equipment is so special that I'll do some really stupid things to keep using it.

The unique looks are foveon sensors, and film (or other types of analog, like wet plate) . Period. Everything else is generic.

Your comment, IMHO, speaks to two points:
The first is how photographs used to be produced for viewing and secondly, the materials, cameras and lenses used to produce them. I've often read that Mike preferred to shoot with Tri-X, processed a certain way (Rodinal?) and printed on a certain paper. This would result in a certain look that is depedent on the camera/lenses, but most likely, the processing and printing methodology used. As those methods are not used much anymore, that "look" has disappeared, much it seems, to Mike's and other's lament.

As far as digital cameras are concerned, the differences to me to appear to me more subtle on the whole, though there have been notable exceptions. The original Canon 5D had a look to it's images that I found quite beautiful, as did my Fuji X-Pro1 when I first got it. Having shot extensively with both my X-T1 and X-T2, I don't buy into the urban myth, originally "spawned" from a comparison study conducted in 2016 by Chris Niccolls of The Camera Store in Toronto, Canada (and which, in the view of a professional scientist, I found to be extremely flawed in its methodology), that the 24 megapixel X-T2 doesn't capture the "magic" in the files present in the X-T1. If there's a significant difference (other than outright resolution), I'm not seeing it, having shot tens of thousands of frames with both cameras. That being said, I still feel that the X-Pro1 generated files that look exceptionally beautiful when converted to black and white; subjectively more so than I than what I seem to obtain from the newer Fuji X-cams**, but this opinion is anecdotal at best. I attribute this to not to the sensor, or the processor, but the between the interaction of the original 16 megapixel X-Trans sensor design *and* the 1st gen X-Processor Pro imaging engine. Most folks think that the overall attributes (the "signature look" of a imaging system Mike was referring to) are due to one or two things, but in my experience, this is a very overly simplistic view. In reality, the signature look of a camera system is almost always the result of the interaction of lenses, image processor engines, sensors, and other subsystems or algorithms than any single "thing" by itself.

This is one of the main reasons that folks that think that large megapixel FF sensors can match medium format systems, and why, in reality, IMHO, they simply can't. Because the magic that MF systems can create is due to the interaction of three key things: the much larger sensor and all the goodness that comes with that, the image processing engine, and the intrinsic superior optical properties and attributes that MF lenses have over smaller format lenses (e.g. less distortion, superior image plane "flatness", less field curvature, etc., etc.).

All of these things add up to the signature "look" of an imaging system, if the imaging system is distinctive enough to create one.

**An interesting exception to this is the "synergy" present in the new Fujifilm X100F: a result of the combination of the new sensor, image processing engine, and original lens, resulting in images that appear to me to be notably superior to those of the X100S/T versions, and on the whole, quite beautiful.

Yes, yes!

Please do post on the 16 vs 24 Mpix comparison. This would not only save me a lot of money, as I almost convinced myself to add a digital camera to my bag, and a Fuji one, but may also feed my luddite and anti-so-called-progress self. That would be what you anglophones call, I guess, a great combo.


And yes, I will try to use one of your links, of course.

(A long-term reader, but I guess I never commented)

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