Monday, June 18, 2012

Viewfinder cameras and enthusiasts

When I was little, I took my mum's Kodak Brownie Hawkeye in hand, looked through the viewfinder on the top of the camera, moved back and forth and side to side to frame my upside-down image.  Once perfect, I pressed the gray shutter release to hear a click, and proceeded to advance the 620 format film to the next shot.  Thankfully for me, there was no focusing and I didn't get any medium format quality images from the very plastic camera, even though the film was quite large.

That kind of camera doesn't work in the current, instant-gratification-seeking world.  We don't want to think about the image, we just point and shoot.  Indeed, that's what made Polaroid's instant photography more than an indulgence, and how digital photography (however bad, has wiped out film photography.

However, there is a market for enthusiasts' cameras and FujiFilm is up to their third model in the X line with the X-Pro1.  It's a compact rangefinder camera with a total of 3 available lenses.

The great thing about rangefinder cameras was that you could get amazing image quality, at some high equipment cost, once you were able to guess correctly.

Yes, i said "guess".  As with viewfinder cameras, you could never be certain you had things in focus.  You could use a tape measure to get the distance and set the lens accordingly and that worked fine for portraits.  Remember the photographer at your school having you sit on a chair or a box and he pulled the tape measure to you?

So, this lovely FujiFilm X-Pro1 is the type of camera that involves you in the process of photography, which is why it's an enthusiasts' camera.  No one just taking snapshots would want to deal with the mess.  It has auto focus but their X-series auto focus hasn't been all that reliable.  When it is, you're golden.  When it's not, you're wondering why you spent so much money.  You're probably wondering how to make better guesses in order to do the focusing yourself.

I found myself thinking about such cameras and the nostalgia.  I thought about the Mamiya 645 small medium format camera and can remember when it had an SLR-like viewfinder and fast shutter speed.  Time has passed and digital versions of medium format cameras start roughly at US$10,000, which considering what's below them, they might not be so expensive, although the market has changed recently.

However, more people seem to be entering the enthusiasts' market, thanks to mirror-less camera bodies, and some sharp lenses needing adapters.  Since the lenses don't have electronic contacts, they don't work closely with your camera and you have to be involved in almost every aspect of your photography.

I'm seeing people, who would normally just pick up a dSLR with the kit lens and take a shot, thinking about the shot.  Using fixed-focal (not zoom) lenses, they have to walk forward and backward until they frame the shot.  Then, they have to adjust the exposure and they're thinking about the depth of field and they're really enthusiastic in a way that the dSLR in auto everything mode never pushed them.

It's amazing to me and hopefully, the prices will decrease once these higher quality cameras reach commodity status.  We had 135 format point-and-shoot cameras way back when in the 1980s and 1990s.  For US$50, you could get good quality shots that surpassed the 126 format and 110 format film from years ago, mainly because of the size of the negative, but they found other ways to make the experience inexpensive, even with disposables.

I'm hoping that all these pseudo-professionals carrying a dSLR and kit lens will become enthusiasts and actually become engaged in the photography.  Is it really fun if you just let the camera do everything but point?  FujiFilm, with their X-Pro1, is inadvertently pushing their enthusiasts a bit further and that's a good thing.

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