SOMETIMES 'WANT IT NOW' HAS TO WAIT
To use an old fashioned expression, 'press photographers' of long ago cynically described any image adorning the pages of newsprint as a 'smudge'. The word came into use largely because very often, the ink on newsprint hot off the printing press having not had time to fully dry, easily smeared. This derogatory description could be applied to any image, whether aesthetically good or bad, and often was.
Print on the page quality has long since dramatically improved. Combined with technological advances in image origination, newsprint repro quality is streets ahead of where it once was 40 years back. Today's image reproduction on glossy magazine or quality 'coffee table' book pages would have had some old editors now long since departed this world, groaning in envy at the advances made.
This was all brought home for the umpteenth time recently while searching through my files for an old picture I needed for the front cover of a new book project, and which despite turning the archives upside down, still eludes me.
As more and more frustration set in - I could see the picture in question clearly in my head, I turned to boxes of thousands of tear sheets in a final effort to locate something I could use to re-create the original.
Scanning an old smudge isn't the best solution, but it's better than nothing at all; with modern software most of the halftone screen can be removed effectively and so long as the new repro isn't too large, the image on the page will probably look better than it did when first printed.
This lengthy search process also provided much time for ruminating on another old chestnut. In truth, a fairer and more accurate description of that process would be 'head banging'. As a long time user of silver halide film and a relative newcomer (well, more than two decades.) to the convenience of digital capture, I remain indecisive; stuck on the fence, vacillating between the two media.
A recent smudge on the front cover of the NUJ's Journalist magazine depicting events during the 1980s coal miner's strike brought home an aspect of working with film that simply cannot be replicated with digital capture.
Several have tried, but not even the repros I've seen from Salgado's latest work Genesis have impressed. Digital and film have inherently different aesthetic states which may be difficult to describe but which are evident nonetheless on the printed page.
Doubtless, it would be easy to persuade oneself for a variety of reasons, why one process is better than the other and just get on with it. But I don't find it so simple. Different is what it's about, not better.
For most of what I do, digital works. Where I find it doesn't is when I'm on the street comme le flaneur. Here, film, or to be more precise, the tools I prefer that use film, remain unequalled for ease of use, focus accuracy and what they ultimately deliver.
But there are often things I see out there which would make useful stock that doesn't need a film interpretation. To this end, a small and efficient compact digital camera is ideal. As mentioned in previous blogs, I carry a Ricoh GR much of the time for just such occasions.
While these small cameras have proved to be excellent performers, I was persuaded some years back image quality obtained from one lens/sensor unit of the Ricoh GXR system came closer to what I hoped for from digital than the fixed lens compacts.
The Ricoh GXR digital system camera is a compact harking back to the modular concept philosophy of Victor Hasselblad's 500 series medium format film cameras, enabling simple switching between modules featuring fixed and or zoom lenses and different sensor sizes.
For many, this innovative system hardly made any sense, to the extent that now, the GXR has been discontinued more than a year.
I reviewed the GXR at length when it was launched in 2009 and again later as new lens/sensor modules were introduced and while very taken with both functionality - very similar to the GRD cameras - and image quality, I felt the system was overpriced.
Not having one to hand however, especially after the introduction of the A12M Leica-M (Leica M6TTL Handbook is currently out of print.) lens mount, niggled its way into my mind. While preparing the reviews, I found the S10 short zoom unit combined with the camera's EVF more practicable in some respects than a GRD and at that time, compared with a GR II, the S10 delivered excellent IQ using the same sized sensor as its counterpart. Like earlier GX 100 and GX 200 models, the S10 unit appeared to utilise the same lens and sensor with a slightly improved A/D image processor.
That same sensor also seemed to deliver marginally better quality than the later and current GR IV, though it's much harder to distinguish. Tests made with many different Leica-M lenses were also encouraging and showed beyond any reasonable doubt large prints could be obtained from both the small and larger sensored modules approaching the kind of aesthetic I expected from film. So yes, noise was (is) an issue, but one manifest agreeably in the right aesthetic direction.
Until, well, how can I put this..? Along came an offer I couldn't refuse.
A year after it was unofficially discontinued in Europe, SRS Microsystems got their hands on a consignment of boxed GXR bodies with S10 modules, what's known as new-old-stock in the trade.Then the same company unearthed a cache of A12M units.
Wait long enough, and destiny will deliver what you deserve at the right price.
Several weeks down the line of GXR ownership, I find myself re-visiting those old reviews. In some respects, the camera is a bit of an enigma; it stops short of being something it could have been. A fully articulating rear LCD screen like the one found on the Panasonic G1 models would have considerably improved versatility. A solid state HDD module was an obvious omission from the outset; a simple, small and reliable back-up file storage system is exactly what is needed when days are long out in the field. The A12M APS/DX sized sensor was probably a mistake; if not full frame, it should have at least been the same size as a Leica M8 sensor. But all of this would have added considerably to an already expensive piece of kit as it was originally.
I can see where Ricoh were hoping to go with the GXR, but unfortunately for them, the concept was riddled with conflict in trying to merge the excellent functionality of its compact fixed lens sibling (GRD) into a modular system that fell short of true versatility and the possibility of really useful expansion. GXR developers might have done better to study Victor Hasselblad's classic or Yoshihisa Maitani's modular 35mm prototype in much more detail.
However, limitations notwithstanding, I now find I carry the GXR almost everywhere. The S10 unit is more versatile than the GRIV and having the A12M unit stuffed in a pocket has proved useful when also carrying a Leica-M and a couple of lenses. The articulating EVF gets a lot of use, but it's vulnerable to knocks and regularly needs taping in place.
As modern mirrorless, interchangeable lens compacts go, the GXR still packs a hefty punch. Like a lot of now 'obsolete' digital camera models, IQ performance more than satisfies my smudge-on-a-page bench mark; what I want in the future is not more megapixels and machine-gun rate of fire - for that I can use a movie camera - but better build quality, improved operational functionality and greater electronic reliability.
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