January 26, 2003
Weekly Column By
Best of 2002
Good morning! Every year around this time, a favorite feature of many newspapers, magazines, and television shows is the "Best Of" feature. This is the type of thing that I both love to read and love to write.
Mostly, such features take some sort of stab at objectivity — usually by polling a publication's staff. Other times, fortunately, opinion columnists like yours truly (who tend to be independent, irascible, and obstreperous) print their own "best of" columns — entirely subjective and individual takes on what's good. With no pretense to any sort of objectivity and admittedly based on nothing more than my own taste and judgment, what follows is my own "best of" list for the year just past.
(Note that not everything is even something that was new in '02. I've only limited myself to things that were available for sale during the past year. Traditional products are listed first, digital toward the end.)
This is just for fun, so please take it for what it is. Enjoy!
Best Recent Film Camera
The Konica Hexar RF. I was a great aficionado and staunch admirer of the original Hexar (I bought several of them), and the Hexar RF is a much better camera than the Hexar was. All discussion of the Hexar RF is tainted by the inevitable comparisons to the camera whose form it mimics, the L-word. But forget that if you can. Pretend for a moment you came upon the Hexar RF afresh. If you love classic 35mm photography, street and reportage photography, personal snapshot photography, or art photography, you just can't help but be charmed by this beautiful designed and beautifully made box. It's heavy and solid as a rock, with a lovely, wide, clear viewfinder that's a joy. It's quiet, fast, and easy to use, with nary an extraneous control anywhere and a built-in motor (although after years of using Leicas, I confess my thumb kept feeling for the wind lever! Does the name "Pavlov" ring a bell?). The Konica lenses are absolutely top-class, the equal of the Zeiss lenses for the Contax G cameras and the M lenses for the Leicas. Too bad almost all discussion of this camera is caught up in the political and status-oriented battle of Leica vs everything else; taken on its own terms, the Hexar RF is lovely.
Best Recent Book
Elliott Erwitt's Snaps, Phaidon. Erwitt will never be considered to be at the pinnacle of greatness as a photographer for one simple reason: the guy is totally unpretentious, doesn't take himself too seriously, and has a great sense of humor. How can the art world truly embrace him when he's the furthest thing there is from a pompous, pontificating, art-speaking snob? Despite this, Snaps proves what an absolute, protean master shooter Erwitt also is. In a day and age when most MFA students work for a year and a half on one "body of work" that consists of just one idea (often just one picture taken forty times), Erwitt moves from idea to idea to idea effortlessly, making art out of the everyday, finding pictures everywhere, and showing rare and funny, poignant and difficult, pretty and meaningful things in his easygoing, offhand, inimitable manner. You could almost crack this grand book anywhere, flip a page or two, and find a handful of pictures that for most of us would take half a year's shooting to get. Erwitt is great — great to look at, great to learn from, great fun, and an insanely great "snap"-shooter. If you get one monograph this year, let this be the one.
Best Recent 35mm Camera Lens
Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM. If there's one lens type that more professional photographers agree is more necessary than any other, it's the basic fast telephoto zoom. Canon has loaded its newest version with everything pros and well-heeled amateurs want and then some: weather sealing, a bit more range on the wide end (the better to match up with Canon's wide-to-normal 24-70mm zoom, probably), a detachable tripod collar, speedy AF, and outstanding image quality. Best of all, the lens now incorporates Canon's awesome and very useful Image Stabilization. If you've never used this, check out a pair of Canon's IS binoculars the next time you find yourself at a store that sells them. You can turn it on and off with the touch of a button, and see for yourself the difference it makes. It makes for a very convincing demonstration of this amazing technology.
Best Recent Large-Format Lens
Cooke Portrait PS945 229mm f/4.5 Soft Focus Lens (for 4x5). One of the basic mistakes made by enthusiastic newcomers to the field of portraiture is that they often immediately set about looking for the sharpest lens. Bad move. Portraits look better — and are certainly easier to sell — if your lens strikes the right balance between clarity and a subtle softness. At the turn of the twentieth century, when pictorialism was all the rage, nothing was more prized by a photographer than his or her best soft-focus portrait lens. But vintage lenses of this type are now both arcane and quite rare. Enter the Cooke. A modern reproduction of the vintage Pinkham & Smith Visual Quality Series IV Soft Focus Lens used by early 20th century master impressionist photographers, this new lens would be valuable simply because it's the only such lens you can buy new today. That it's also such an excellent example is a bonus, and makes it a truly invaluable tool for the serious large-format portrait photographer. For more information about this unusual lens, click here.
Best Enlarger for 4x5 (inches) down to 6x6 (cm)
Still the Saunders/LPL 4500II. (The similar 4550XLG is just as good. It has a few features the 4500II doesn't, but they're nothing most people really need. And the 4500II is singificantly cheaper. If you're buying, choose whichever one you prefer and can comfortably afford.) Buy it with the dichroic module if you're one of the eighteen people left in the world still not printing color with a negative scanner and a desktop inkjet printer, or the VCCE (Variable Contrast, Constant Exposure) module if you print black-and-white. I've sung this Tokyo-built machine's praises many times in the past, calling it, among other things, the Honda Accord of enlargers. It's a wonderful machine, beautifully engineered, and so easy and pleasant to use that it will spoil you for just about anything else.
Best Enlarger for 6x6 (cm) and Everything Smaller
The Durst M70 with Vario and Lumo. Available in the USA from JOBO. I don't know from film scanners; I don't know (well, at least not with any great depth) from inkjet printers. But man, do I know enlargers. I have almost 25 years' experience as a darkroom worker, fine printer, darkroom magazine editor, and darkroom product reviewer. I've had everything from a Beseler 45MXII to a Leitz Focomat II (the big one, the Duesenberg of enlargers, the only enlarger ever made that is truly a work of art) in my own darkrooms. I'm comfortable asserting that I probably have more direct experience using, maintaining, and evaluating more different enlargers than all but the tiniest handful of experts worldwide. And good as the Saunders 4x5s are, they aren't the greatest for 35mm. For that, look to the beautiful Durst M70. This is an exquisitely engineered, thoroughly user-friendly small-format enlarger that offers every conceivable convenience and is also designed to be fast for the expert to use. There are other good enlargers out there. But for 35mm, this one takes pride of place.
Best Magazine for Black-and-White Luddites
O.k., so this category is a blatant plug for a magazine I happen to work for. Well, why do you think I work for it? The mag is Britain's Black & White Photography. (Can you guess what it's about?) For me, it's nice to come across a magazine that doesn't try to be all things to all photographers, the typical all-formats, all-processes, snapshooter-to-professional, chemical-and-digital, indoor-and-outdoor, we'll-take-anybody's-advertising-money type of magazine. Although I like digital for color, my first love is black-and-white. It's beautiful. It's a mature technology and a legitimate craft pursuit. Any magazine in this day and age that wants to serve this interest exclusively is a magazine I want to support. (And hey, I admire the Luddites, too. They were intelligent, perceptive, honorable people, and they had a point. Just because they resisted progress doesn't mean that the changes weren't ultimately for the worse for them and their community.)
Best Digital Photography Magazine
Sorry, there ain't one. Oh, sure, there are tons of new digital photography magazines, and more showing up on the newsstands almost every day, but you can forget 'em all. Who needs a digital magazine when what the digital photography aficionado really needs is a computer with an internet hookup? Between steves-digicams.com, dpreview.com, imaging-resource.com, and luminous-landscape.com, the digital photographer has everything he or she needs — and I mean everything — online. (I only wish that at least one traditional-photography equivalent existed.) Multiple in-depth reviews, both more informative and more opinionated than printed reviews, and in a much more timely fashion to boot. Plus breaking news as it breaks. Plus scads of links and the opportunity to share work and talk directly to fellow enthusiasts. And the entire "back issue" archives are just a click away. Well, you're here, reading this, so I guess I don't have to tell you what's available here. But really, what more could the budding digital aficionado want or need?
Best Image-Management Software for the Rest of Us
Adobe Photoshop Elements 2. Elements 2 is not Photoshop; it lacks curves and CMYK-RGB conversion, among other things. But its robust new help features aid the beginner in learning to use it, and it avoids the main drawback of virtually every one of the image-editing programs that come bundled with digital cameras or inkjet printers, which is that it never puts you up against a brick wall: no matter what you want to do, there is some way to do it. The reason I'm an expert on black-and-white darkroom work is because I wanted to know how to make beautiful prints. In the "new age," knowledge of Photoshop is the equivalent. A Photoshop Master is something to be. I ain't even close, but knowledge of Photoshop, and therefore study of it, is something that no photographer will truly waste his or her time on. I strongly recommend the affordable Photoshop Elements 2 to anyone who does not yet have any experience with a good, powerful image-manipulation program. It's cheap (about $90), has a fair proportion of Photoshop's capabilities, and it has a good suite of shortcuts and, as I say, excellent "help" features. If you're currently using simpler image-manipulation software, you're in for a treat — switching to Elements is like going from a horse and buggy to a 16-valve sports car.
Best Digital-Photography-Friendly Computer Workstation for the Non-Pro:
(I've requested one of these from Apple to review in full for this column, so stay tuned). In the endless Holy Wars between the genius of Jobs and the rapacity of Gates (truly a tale for our times), I'm not going to change any minds that are already made up. But you want a reason to "switch"? Well, for digital photographers not burdened with large amounts of excess cash, the elegant eMac is one great reason. It's a powerful, elegant, cleanly designed, user-friendly all-in-one box with scads of HD space and plenty of capacity for RAM, and a built-in CD burner for creating those essential image-storage discs. Moreover, it has one truly great feature for photographers: it inherits a built-in version of the excellent 17" Apple Studio Monitor CRT tube, until recently thought to belong to the dustbin of history. As a separate monitor, it was long a favorite of image editors and graphic designers. It's accurate, viewable from any angle, has outstanding color, and is generously sized — just about ideal for viewing and correcting digicam photographs. Also, the eMac comes standard with the latest version of the new OSX. Although scary to some, OSX doesn't bite — it's the world's only truly modern store-buyable OS. You don't need to know from Unix; you just need to know that it's rock solid and almost never freezes or crashes. And since the eMac comes with most other types of software you'll need, there'll be no need to buy all those expensive Microsoft apps, either. Just pair it with a version of Adobe Photoshop that's System10 friendly, use iPhoto for filing and culling, and for about the cost of a Nikon F100 and a good zoom you've got yourself the perfect advanced-amateur digital-imaging workstation. Elegant? Very elegant.
Best Digital Photography Computer Accessory
The ColorVision Monitor Spyder. This makes so much sense that it ought to come bundled with every digital photographer's computer. I had all sorts of problems with monitor calibration that just plain vanished into think air after I got one of these. It's also dead simple to use: once you have the software loaded, just plug the Spyder into a USB port and follow the prompts. Nothing to it. Very highly recommended to any photographer using inkjet printers. If you aspire to make nice prints at home from your digicam, do not, repeat do not, overlook this almost mandatory purchase.
Best Desktop Inkjet Printer
Canon S9000. I've become a big fan of the Canon printers, especially when used with Canon inks and Canon's excellent Photo Paper Pro. There are so many advantages to this fine machine that to list them is enough. The image quality is outstanding. It's very quiet. It's very fast. With individual inks, you replace only what you run out of. The head is user-exchangeable. It seems to simply never clog. Print longevity is excellent for dye-based inks, as long as you use the right paper. Oh, and did I mention it's fast? It's very fast. I have the older, smaller S800, and have never had a single problem with it — it's one of the better photo-related purchases I've made in recent years. Downsides? The inks and the paper are on the expensive side. But hey, at least the results are worth it. For more information, check out the following links:
Best "e-tailer" for Inkjet Inks and Papers
www.inkjetgoodies.com. Sells OEM supplies, replacement inks, printers, and papers. Good spot for one-stop shopping.
Best Digital Camera for Snapshooters, Casual Photographers, the Impecunious,
or Digital Newbies:
The Olympus C-4000z.
Here's the case for it: it's a tried and tested physical design. Although nothing new — Olympus has made many variations of this basic model — it's easy to use, and plenty ergonomic. It's low-cost — about $400 new. At 4 megapixels, it strikes a good compromise between file-size (we don't want it to be too big) and image size (we want it to be big enough). It has a very good, very sharp, reasonably fast (f/2.8), reasonably wide lens (the difference between the more common 38mm focal-length equivalent and this camera's 32mm wide end is really significant). It takes rechargeable NiMH AAs, the best power option. And the embattled SmartMedia is cheap right now. Finally, the results. This camera gives the tyro or the newcomer just enough control over the image, yet image color and quality are simply a step above a lot of less carefully implemented digicams by direct comparison. The one trick to the Olympus C-4000z? You have to get into the habit of prefocusing before you fire, in order to keep the camera's shutter lag in the acceptable range. If you don't do this, the shutter lag will defeat all your efforts to get the shot. But, when pre-focused, responsiveness is pretty good — good enough, at least, not to be a major problem. This isn't the glitziest, or the newest, or the most gee-whiz of digicams. But it's a good first choice for any newcomer with aspirations.
Best Digital SLR
Not really a contest, if for nothing more than the timing of its release — the Canon EOS 1Ds. I've never even seen one, much less used it. But my friend Michael Reichmann, proprietor of the Luminous Landscape, tells me it's the best photographic tool he has ever owned. I know what Michael's owned, so that's gonna be good enough for me.
Best Digicam for the Serious Amateur or Technically Astute Traditional Photographer:
The Sony F-717.
No, this camera is not the be-all and end-all of digicams. The era of digicams is only beginning, and product-design maturity is a long way off. But for the here and now, the educated and experienced photographer will find him- or herself endlessly entertained and delighted by the Sony's vast range of features, truly amazing special capabilities, and often stunningly good image quality. The pictures, although they fall short of the quality of the DSLRs, are just superb. The Sony's best tricks are its low-light laser — it emits a low-grade laser pattern to aid focus in the dark — and truly amazing "night modes." By emitting its own infrared illumination and then photographing in infrared, it can literally take pictures in pitch darkness. Not only that, but if you want flash pictures, the camera can also take perfectly focused, perfectly exposed flash pictures in the dark as well. This, of course, barely scratches the surface of this camera's many capabilities. Two more things to mention, among the hundreds that might be mentioned, are that the waist-level viewing is very nice, and the super-fast Carl Zeiss zoom lens is a giant-killer. This is not a beginner's camera. You shouldn't buy it unless your knowledge of how cameras work is already pretty good — the learning curve is longish — and I'm sure no one will make a buying decision without carefully reading the reviews on steves-digicams.com and elsewhere. But be sure to at least check this camera out. It's a truly wondrous digital toy, the source of great delight — and great pictures — for its lucky owners.
Well, that's it for 2002 from me. Hope you enjoyed reading these opinions (keep in mind that's all they are!), and stay tuned for more of the same at the end of 2003.
— Mike Johnston
PLEASE NOTE that what you've just read are real, old-fashioned endorsements. I don't get paid to plug products, I don't get free products from anybody, and I've paid absolutely no attention to who advertises where. (No, I didn't even get a reviewer's copy of Snaps, although I admit I would have snapped it up if I had.) All possible conflicts of interest are clearly stated. None of the entries above are included on this list for any other reason than that I truly like them. — Mike J.
Did I miss a category you were hoping to find? E-mail me.
Mike Johnston writes and publishes an independent quarterly ink-on-paper magazine called The 37th Frame for people who are really "into" photography. His book, The Empirical Photographer, is scheduled to be published in 2003.