Last month I tweeted about experimenting with a more film-like approach to shooting with a digital camera. This came about after looking for the millionth time at Leica’s M Monochrom. To say that “buying a Leica is an investment” is a bit of an understatement. While the experience that their cameras afford is what draws so many people into the Leica bubble, it’s one that can be almost entirely replicated with a Fujifilm X-Pro2. Ideally you would want to use the following set-up:
Shoot using the OVF exclusively—no EVF cheaters!
Change exposure metering to Centre-weighted
Manual settings for ISO, aperture and shutter speed (the Monochrome does have Aperture-priority mode, so one can theoretically use Auto-ISO)
Remove the histogram from your OVF custom display settings
Use the “Split Image” focus assist (this is nowhere near as useful as a Leica’s actual rangefinder focusing system)
Where the Monochrom excels, of course is in its use of a true monochrome sensor, omitting the colour filter array and anti-aliasing filter. This means the only thing between the world and your sensor is your lens, ensuring maximum light hitting the sensor and the capturing of strictly luminance values. I also find that zone-focusing is better implemented on manual focus lenses because they typically have approximations of your focus distance etched onto the lens, allowing you to set your focus point without having the camera turned out. Fujifilm’s lenses all use a focus-by-wire system that means the camera has to be powered on in order for the focus ring to activate the focus motor that in turn (no pun intended) moves the elements.
I shot this way for a few weeks and while I enjoyed some aspects of the experience, it’s hard for me to shoot this way permanently. On the positive side it forced me to pre-visualize each frame before making the exposure. Because my meter was centre-weighted (and knowing that that meant it was metering for middle grey), I had to decide where that “middle” lived in the frame. This meant I actually had to study the light in the scene and figure out what I wanted the end result to look like. Sure, using the EVF would have allowed me to get to the same point more quickly (simply looking at the preview and adjusting my exposure settings until the preview “felt” right), but it by forcing myself to “read the light” in a scene, I slowed down and paid more attention to what was going on. Using the OVF and being able to see outside of the frame allowed me to determine if there were elements that should be included in the frame that I wouldn’t have been able to see using the EVF.
There were, however, challenges. The biggest challenge was exposing properly. Often I found that I was overexposing by a fair margin. At one point I re-introduced the histogram into my OVF overlay just to ensure that I wasn’t losing any details, but it still resulted in some images being far too exposed for my tastes, requiring that I lower overall brightness in post. Focusing was also another issue, and one where I felt like Leica’s M-series mechanical rangefinder system would have been far easier to use properly. For one, the split-image focusing mode on the X-Pro2 is just not great. You get a digitally zoomed-in (and incredibly distorted) preview of the area under your focus point and it’s really hard to know for sure that what you’re looking at is in focus. The Electronic Range Finder (ERF) mode (a hybrid of the OVF with a tiny EVF display that pops up in the bottom-right corner) is far easier to use with focus peaking turned on. Unfortunately, the ERF also affects your histogram so you kind of have to switch it on/off in order to focus and ensure the entire frame is well-exposed.
It’s been interesting trying to find a balance between having the camera set up in a way that forces me to improve my technique (learning how to read a scene, planning for a frame), and not letting the tool get in the way of creativity.
From Technique to Look
In addition to experimenting with a modified shooting set-up, playing with my post-production workflow was another focus for the month. I wrote earlier about switching to Capture One for post, and I’ve been spending a lot of time really fine-tuning the tonal look that I’m aiming for. I’ve been specifically focused on more of a “film-like” look because of the stronger emotional response it elicits from most viewers. It isn’t dissimilar to the “digital vs. analog” debate with other mediums (audio, for example) in that while digital may be more technically precise, that precision comes at the cost of, shall we say, a more clinical feel.
Imperfection is actually the perfect word for describing the approach I needed to take to get the look that I wanted. I realized part-way through my experimenting that the detail that sensors and modern lenses afford us is so far beyond what was achievable in the past, and which calibrate viewers when it comes to “the film look.” In order to achieve the same feel, you actually have to subtract detail. This can mean doing things like zeroing out sharpness settings and, where possible, applying negative values to things like clarity and structure. You have to soften the image because otherwise things look clinically sharp and detailed. And, of course, where would any film-like look be without that beautiful grain hidden in your darker midtones? (Capture One’s film grain engine is wonderful.)
All of these elements are examples of how the quest for technical perfection and precision can sometimes have a negative effect on the emotional resonance of an image. Without waxing too philosophical, life is imperfect, so perhaps the art that describes it should be too?
None of this should suggest that my current workflow results in images that could be confused with shots on film. (They don’t.) Instead, they’re really just a step in that direction, with the other foot still firmly planted in the digital world. And I’m fine with that. It’s a process, and it’s one that continuously evolves.