I saw the light

This year, a new camera has changed the way I take pictures. I’ll not break the habit of a lifetime – this won’t be a camera review – so this is all about how you see.

Regular readers of this website will know I rarely talk about the cameras I’m using. But this year, a new camera has changed the way I take pictures. It’s got to do with how the camera helps me see the light, particularly when I’m taking monochrome pictures which are my strong preference. I’ll not break the habit of a lifetime – this won’t be a camera review – so this is all about how you see.

Old camera

I’ve been a Canon user for many years. From a Canon 35mm film camera in the 1980’s and a DSLR in 2004: it took another 10 years before I finally disposed of the darkroom and most of my film cameras. (OK, I’ve still got a cute little Olympus OM2 – black naturally! – so I can channel my inner David Bailey …)

Why stay with one manufacturer so long? Partly the expense of jumping ship has always put me off – all those lenses to replace. And anyway, I like Canon lenses. The 16-35mm f4 L zoom is nigh on perfect for my sort of photography. Most of all, I realised I needed to really get to know the camera so it didn’t get in the way. So that meant sticking with just one.

But all things come to an end, and I found myself longing for a smaller set up. I was getting fed up carrying the weight of a full frame system, even with only a couple of spare lenses. And I wanted something a little less imposing than my 5D.

New camera – light dawns!

So, in January this year I found myself the owner of a Fujifilm XPro-2 with a 23mm Fuji lens. Fairly quickly this was joined by a Samyang 12mm f2 lens, then I recycled an old Olympus OM 50mm f1.8 lens with a converter. This provided me with the 35mm equivalent of 18mm, 35mm and 80mm, or thereabouts.

And it was a revelation. Just walking round with a smaller system in my hand was a joy. As was not having those enormous lenses advertising my presence as “A PHOTOGRAPHER”. Street photography became possible without having to put on the rhino skin!

I thought when I got the XPro I would pretend it was a Leica and mostly use the optical viewfinder with its lens specific bright lines. To my surprise, I have found the electronic viewfinder (EVF) the most compelling way of taking photos. Especially black and white. Its been a complete eye-opener, literally. Since I can set the camera to record raw files but have the EVF set to monochrome I can see the how light falls in the viewfinder rather getting sidetracked by the colours.

Harsh loight and shadows at the beach
The beach at Crosby with Anthony Gormley’s Another Place installation


Visualising tones of light

OK, so this is nothing out of the ordinary and almost any other new camera system with an EVF can do the same thing. But as I keep saying, this isn’t about the camera. Its more to do with short circuiting the visualisation process, turning the colour scene in front of you into a monochrome image in the camera.

Reflected light of all sorts in the lift
Self portrait in the lift in the Scottish National Museum, Edinburgh

Now, its not that I couldn’t take pictures of the light with the Canon. I did, but not consistently. The only way I could see monochrome before taking the picture was by using the rear screen and holding the camera at arms length. Not ideal with a DSLR and a heavy lens! But it can be done.

Misty morning light in the Borders
Looking south from Chirnside towards the Cheviot

I intended the Chirnside picture taken on the Canon to be a moody morning colour shot but only in retrospect did the monochrome rendition make sense. Many of my previous monochrome pictures worked like that – relying more on good fortune than planning. With the XPro that has turned right round. The gallery below has a series of pictures taken over a couple of days in early 2019. Seeing light and shade through gaps works so well.

The ability to hold the camera to my eye and frame a monochrome image makes it so much easier to capture tones rather than colours. And while there is still work to be done in Photoshop back home, my hit rate has gone up significantly.

Framed shadowy figures and back light
WW2 bunker on Cramond Island, taken with the Canon 5D plus 24-105mm

Lessons learnt

And when I go back to using my Canon, I’m finding that the lessons learnt with the Fuji carry over, even when looking at a colour scene through the viewfinder. I’ve learnt more about monochrome tones in the 6 months with the Fuji than I did in 30 years with the Canons. Long may it continue!

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