Monday, July 30, 2007

Compact cameras, Stephen Gillette interview

Stephen Gillette, I think the photographs on your site are wonderful, especially the unmanipulated ones in portfolio two. They are the kind of pictures I want to make when I grow up.
I was interested and a little surprised to learn that you only use pocket cameras. These are rarely used for serious work due to their limitations. (And maybe it's a status thing too. The bulk of a Nikon D2x commands respect.)

I've always liked compact cameras myself. I've owned a Konica TC, a Pentax ME Super, an Olympus OM2, a Ricoh 35, a Minox 35, a Rollei 35, a Konica Big Mini, and several compact digicams. (Including a credit card sized one which barely makes pictures.)

So, question time:

Why use only compacts?

Stephen Gillette: Live preview. After decades of shooting film, and straining to "previsualize" results, the LCD offered me an opportunity to see the image, not a framed, cropped view of the real world. The world viewed through a dSLR viewfinder does not look like the image reviewed on the LCD a few seconds later. Plus, I have always been drawn to small cameras. I was hoisting a Canon 5D recently, with an impressively large optic mounted on it, and despite its stellar image capabilities, I could not imagine myself using it. It might as well have a bullhorn attached, screaming: "Hey, people, over here... "Look at me, I'm taking pictures!"

What do you feel are their most important limitations? Which of those are unnecessary?

Low-light shooting is the biggest problem for me. The world around us is a 24-hour visual cornucopia. Many images only reveal themselves at dusk, or during the night. I almost never use flash (there are no flash shots on my website). My style does not accommodate a tripod. So I must rely on the best small sensors, which to date have fallen far short of dSLR low-light performance.

For the majority of people who wish to see the world as it is when they photograph it, compacts offer viewfinders which are compromised, or non-existent. Not a problem for me, most of the time...

Do you make big prints?

I print images on paper sizes up to 13 x 19", which equates to an image size of 16 x 12 given the 4:3 image format. I have printed images up to 15 x 20" by printing panels on smaller sheets and mounting them together. (It sounds funny, and it is.) The point is that on matte paper (my preference), 15 x 20" image quality is not a problem with many of the images I create.

I am looking into printshops in the Los Angeles area using the Durst Lambda system. I have seen images taken with the 6 MP Nikon D50 and the kit lens printed with the Lambda up to 40 x 60" (!!!) that looked very good. Select images from a compact could present well at that size, too. Not every image, of course.

How do you deal with the less precise framing? It seems like your pictures are very precisely framed, but compacts either have lousy viewfinders, or just an LCD, which I personally like, but it's a tad small for really precise framing, no?

I once worked as a digital retoucher for a printing company. My monitor was a professional one, but a bit long in the tooth. It was a CRT, and the phosphors, etc. were tired. The color onscreen did not match the color coming off the press. Over time, I learned how to "see" the resulting press colors on the monitor. It was a mind thing.

Likewise, when I frame something exactly for a shot (which is 98% of the time), I translate the image I see (or am squinting at!) on the LCD into a close approximation in my mind of what the image will look like on my studio monitor. The current standard of 2.5" LCD's is almost as big as the groundglass on my old twin-lens film camera. Three inches is better, of course. The new Sony H9 has a honey of a swiveling 3" LCD. I played with one yesterday. Too bad the image-capture quality is not tops.

I have written before about my ideal (dream) compact digicam, and so have others, like Mike Johnston and Thom Hogan. What's yours?

My real-world ideal is always the camera I am currently shooting with. (Currently the Fuji F20.) If I summon up that fanciful demon of desire, I can dream with the rest of you. I would love an articulating LCD. Even better low-light capture. (Hopefully, in a very few years, this will be moot, and something like an equivalent to ISO 6400 with high quality will be the norm.) Sensor size is less important than image quality. Bigger sensors require bigger lenses, typically with less depth of field, which can reduce the all-over sharpness that I favor.

The current Olympus E-510 is actually as much a step toward my "next ideal camera" as the Fuji F50fd might be. The Live Preview is still a bit lacking on the E-510, but it does work. The low-light capability is not class-leading, but better than any compact, at least so far. And it is reasonably light and unassuming.

The Olympus "pro" dSLR waiting in the wings for announcement in the weeks or months ahead will have the articulating LCD, according to a rep I spoke with who has handled a pre-production working sample. The vibration-reduction system is said to be greatly enhanced, as well. Hopefully, the package won't be too big and heavy.

What were your favorite film cameras?

As a college student, I took one summer and hitched around Europe. I was an art major, so shortly after arriving in Paris I made my way to the Louvre, and found the statue of Winged Victory. Standing next to me was a chap taking a picture with the smallest camera I had ever seen. Not only small, but beautiful. The original Rollei 35. I followed him around for ten minutes, stealing glances at his camera, ignoring the centuries of incredible art on the walls around me. I traded in my Praktica SLR in Holland and nabbed the Rollei to bring home with me.

Like you, I have owned (or still own) a Pentax ME and Konica Big Mini, the latter having such timeless minimal design--quite the opposite of the watch-like Rollei with its prominent dials. I also have an Olympus XA. And the still-available Olympus Stylus Epic 35mm: this camera is so quiet and smooth in operation, and produces great pictures.

Sharpest of all my small film cameras was the Pentax PC35AF, an early auto-focus with an insanely sharp 5-element f/2.8 35mm lens, probably a sonnar-type design.

There, you've gone and done it. All this nostalgia. I'm sniffling into my hanky...
Thank you, Stephen.


Anonymous said...

Very illuminating! Thanks!

Eolake Stobblehouse said...

Thank you. I knew Stephen and myself would have fun, but it's nice to see others found it useful too.

Anonymous said...

In the world, but not of it.

Like your biblical quote Eolake.

Anonymous said...

Just goes to show the important thing is the person taking the picture, not the camera. The image is in your head, the camera is simply a tool for recording that image. Okay, some tools are better than others, but a good camera doesn't necessarily make a good photographer.

I like Stephen's work ver much. Thanks for bringing it to out attention Eolake.

Anonymous said...

"There is no coercion in religion." - The Koran

Religious quotes can be quite inspiring. It's a pity that often the Book matters less than the mentality of the people claiming to follow it. :-/

But let's not redo the "Influencing hearts and minds" talk here. Too off-topic.