Unsolicited editorials on cameras, lenses, film, developer, and black and white photography in general.

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Location: New Orleans, Louisiana, United States

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Bags for the Rangefinder User - 5 Good Choices

My first camera bag was a leather Samsonite bag that I bought at a department store for about $8 in the late 60’s. It had no special compartments, so I tore an old towel into squares and put the squares in the bag to keep my Soligor 35/2.8 and 135/3.5 from clacking together. My next bag was a black plastic atrocity from Spiratone. It was cheap, felt kind of sticky like it was made of licorice candy, and smelled like chemicals. None of the zippers seemed to work. I was a graduate student back then, so $10 was pretty much my food allowance for a week. A nice bag was out of the question.

Things are far different decades later. Eveready cases for cameras are unheard of, and there are some high-end bags that look good and work well for the serious photographer. Single lens reflexes still dominate for the professional and enthusiast photographer, but I still prefer the smaller rangefinders. Is there a perfect bag for a kit consisting of a rangefinder + lens and two additional lenses? Five choices come to mind. All five comfortably hold a rangefinder with three lenses (one attached). How much more you can get into the bag varies from bag to bag.

  • Billingham Hadley
  • Crumpler 5-Million Dollar Home
  • Domke 803
  • Domke F5XB
  • M-Classic Bag

The Billingham Hadley is the most expensive of the lot and one of the most attractive bags. The padding surrounding the equipment is the thickest and presumably affords the best protection. Repositionable partitions allow you to vary the size of the inner slots. Two generous expandable pockets in the front will accommodate film, lens paper, and batteries. With its leather accents, it won’t embarrass the well-dressed shooter. Securing the top of the bag are two leather straps with eyes. I find these a bit awkward to use in the field. On the positive side, opening the bag doesn’t produce the grating ripping noise of Velcro, making it a bit more discrete than some of the others. I find the strap attachments to the sides of the bag to be a bit too low for my taste. It sometimes gives me the feeling that the bag is top-heavy.

The Crumpler 5-Million Dollar Home is slightly more pouch-like in appearance. The internal dimensions are smaller than most of the bags, so the camera and lenses fit a bit more snugly, a win-win situation in my view. Like the Billingham Hadley, you can reposition the partitions inside of the bag, making a larger slot in the middle for the camera. The bag itself appears to be a synthetic canvas, and the padded inside also appears to be made of a synthetic compound. This might be a plus, making the material water resistant, and less likely to produce dust or support mold. Unlike the Hadley, there aren’t fat pouches for film, so a jacket with big pockets might be necessary when carrying this bag fully loaded. There are two levels of security for holding the top flap in place. A large piece of Velcro will hold the flap securely in place. If you need more security than that, a black plastic pinch clasp (yeah, I made that name up, but you know what I’m talking about) adds to the security. On the negative side, every time you open the flap, the peace is shattered with a deafening ripping noise. If you want to access the inside flat pocket, another deafening velcroesque ripping sound will put the pigeons to flight. If James Nachtwey had used the Crumpler 5-Million Dollar Home, he’d have been taken out by friendly fire years ago. The Crumpler strap appears to be similar to seat belt material. This is a sturdy bag. If you haven’t looked at the Crumpler web sites, be prepared for even more noise. Singing with unintelligible words, oinking, flushing, flatulence, resophonic guitar, horses whinnying. There are four versions of the site (USA, Australia, Singapore, and Canada), with different noises. At one point, I couldn’t click on a menu choice because an animated arm would reach out and block it from my mouse arrow. If you hate the site, you are probably a Billingham Hadley kind of guy. NOTE: The day after this blog was posted, a reader suggested dealing with the Velcro noise issue by putting some Velcro (or even tape) on the Velco. Excellent suggestion. I had thought of meticulously trimming the Velcro off with a razor blade, but his idea is better.

The Domke 803 is probably the popular choice among rangefinder users for several reasons. It looks more like an army surplus bag than a camera bag, it can be made to look even crappier by throwing it in the washing machine, it can be waterproofed with various canvas waterproofing sprays, and it is easy to access from the top. A three-slot insert provides sufficient room for a camera + two additional lenses. Zippered sleeves and two flapped (with Velcro) pockets can carry your film, batteries, lens paper, etc. Padding is not as luxurious as the Hadley. The partitioned sleeves are made of nylon cloth reinforced with flexible plastic foam. The top flap is held security in place by a steel hook clasp like you would see on a dog leash. This bag is reasonably priced, has the least frills, and is the most blue-collar-looking bag described here.

The Domke F5XB is considerably smaller than the Domke 803, but it can still accommodate a rangefinder plus two additional lenses. But there isn’t much room for anything else other than lens hoods, lens paper, and batteries. I actually like it better than the 803 for several reasons. The F5XB can be tethered securely to your body via a long tunnel on the back through which you snake your trouser belt. This, along with the shoulder strap, securely fastens the bag to you and eliminates the problem of the bag swinging around while you are walking, climbing, etc. Like the Crumpler, there are two levels of security. Velcro hold the top flap securely in place, and a heavy-duty zipper runs along the top lengthwise. Two movable nylon partitions allow you to change the size of the internal compartments. A spongy fabric protects the contents from bumps.

The M-Classic Bag is the least well known of the five rangefinder bags here. The manufacturer is one Seth Levine who sells the bags from a Spartan web site. Like the Billingham bags, the M-Classic is handsome, made from canvas with generous leather trim. Of the bags described here, it affords the least padding. The compartments inside the bag are large canvas pockets that can carry a lot of equipment. This might be the best bag for a dressy event if you are not expecting anything violent or traumatic to happen. The pockets are particularly huge. Like my Samsonite bag of 40 years ago, I might want to shove a few hand towels in the bag to add protection.

Any of these five bags will serve the rangefinder shooter well. For users of digital rangefinders, the Crumpler 5-Million Dollar Home and the Domke F5XB might be the best choices, based on their snugness and their lack of room for film.

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Leica M8 - First Impressions

It took me months to finally decide to get one of these cameras. I’m not that fond of digital, but the dearth of processing labs down here post-Katrina made shooting anything other than B&W silver halide impossible. What is there to say that hasn’t been said about the M8? Not much, so I’ll make it short.
  • It feels very much like a 35mm rangefinder – If you love to shoot with a rangefinder, you’ll warm up to this camera very quickly. It can probably best be described as a digital M7. You even take the bottom plate off to change the SD card. It is a bit deeper than a film rangefinder, but nothing noticeable.
  • It has a wonderful viewfinder, like all Leica M cameras.
  • It lacks most of the confusing razzle dazzle of digital cameras. No scene modes, no program modes, no irritating flashes popping up when you’re trying to be unnoticed in subdued light. It does have a histogram if you like that sort of thing. And it does have white balance settings. But I shoot everything in RAW mode and ignore that in-the-camera stuff.
  • You don’t have to find a comfortable easy chair somewhere to make changes in settings. There is a menu with some settings that I don’t fool with. And there is a “set” button that allows you to change ISO settings fairly quickly.
  • The sensor is fairly big, so the noise levels are similar to those with a good dSLR.
  • It writes to the SD card fairly quickly.
  • The noise of the motor cocking the shutter is relatively quiet. No sharp metallic sounds.

Are there problems?

  • It is fussy about the SD cards it uses. Unless you know one will work correctly in it, don’t buy one without consulting the PDF file of acceptable cards. I spent the first day and a half fiddling with all of my SD cards until I found one that worked. And don’t format the card on the computer. Format it only in the camera.
  • The spring under the battery is a bit springy. The first time I released a battery, it shot out and hit me in the lip.
  • The LCD is prone to scratching. I haven’t observed this but heard it from another M8 user.
  • The Leica strap is apparently not as secure as previous straps. Again, this was reported by another user who said the plastic locking cover broke off and his M8 disengaged from the split ring, falling to the ground.
  • There are lenses you absolutely should not use with it. Collapsible lenses are iffy, depending how deeply they collapse. Lenses with elements that project into the body are iffy. There are conflicting opinions of which you should and should not use. Yikes, even the 50/2 Summicron is on the hit list. Which version of 50/2 Summicron? I don’t know.
  • It’s hard to decide which lens to use. What?

Leica made a new and very expensive Tri-Elmar lens especially for the M8. However, I bought the M8 only because I already had a lot of M and LTM glass. With a relatively large but not 24x36mm sensor, all lens focal length have to be multiplied by 1.33 to get the equivalent focal length on the M8. Thus, a 28mm lens acts like a 37mm lens, a 35mm lens acts like a 47mm lens, and so on. Theoretically, that should be easy to adjust to, but part of my brain is telling me to put a 28mm lens on it, and part of my brain wants to put a 50mm lens on it. As a result, I almost have to carry just one lens, the one on the camera. If I carry more lenses, I keep futzing with them. A 28 is actually a pretty good choice. But you still get the distortion inherent in wide angle lenses and, unlike an SLR, this distortion doesn’t show up in the viewfinder.

Am I glad that I bought it? I probably won’t until the last payment has been made on my MasterCard. Until then, it just feels like a liability rather than an asset. And I still like film.

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