23 Nov 2008

Saul Leiter and the Panasonic LX3

The onlinephotographer site periodically recommends a book by a largely unknown photographer whose work should be more widely know. This really is a public service as as there must be thousands of such people out there whose work is swamped by the infinite mass of Flickr and its ilk. The Leiter book sold out in North America in hours of the recommendation, but being in Europe I managed to get a copy.

Three images by Saul Leiter who happily switches between colour and black and white.

"I think that mysterious things happen in familiar places.... I like ambiguity in a photograph... When we do not know why a photographer has taken a picture, and when we do not know why we are looking at it, all of a sudden, we discover something that we start seeing"  Saul Leiter
Saul Leiter is a painter, photographer, friend of Robert Frank and influenced by Atget, Evans and Cartier-Bresson. The book showcase his work from the late 1940's and early 50's and these influences are clearly seen. Many of the photographs repeat a set of motifs; window reflections, doorways, hats and shoes. The colour photographs in particular are often semi abstract with people seemingly incidental to the structure. Many of the pictures are low key being taken in poor light, dim interiors or printed down. The books seamlessly flips from black and white to colour and back again. The best of the photographs have an enigmatic character about them.  I can't describe why I like them, I just feel that I do. Leiter says "I go out to take a walk. I see something, I take a picture". Looking through the book I want to cancel my plans for the week and go and take pictures of unexpected but ordinary things.

Which brings me to the Panasonic LX3 (or for those with more money than sense the Leica D Lux 4). If your serious work is done on a DSLR with a battery of lenses the intractable question is what camera do you take when just out for a walk, vising friends etc; the very time when you are likely to come across the type of pictures in Leiter's book. Initially I tried the Ricoh GRD which to be honest was not very good. Hopeless JPG's, veeerryy sloooww using RAW, and effectively unsuable at 800 isa and above, with the jury well out at 400. I then had a go with the LX2 (Leica D Lux 3). This was much better but you needed to use RAW and was still not that great at 400 iso and above. Friends / relatives of mine tried it and loved it, but if you want to have high standards it falls short. 

I'm now giving the LX3 a try, persuaded by the 24mm F2 lens  and 16:9 format, as this fits nicely into my interests (street photography) and preference for wide angles. So far I'm surprised and its the best small sensor camera I've used. If you had to even 3200 iso would give you a viable picture of sorts. 200 is good enough to be the standard speed and 800 is passable with the right subject. Black and whites look nice and you can get away pretending sensor noise is film grain. Even the people at Luminous Landscape like it.  You have to look very closely to see any difference in prints from RAW compared to JPG's. Given the horrible Silkypix raw converter software that comes with the camera I may just use JPG's. Also have a look at Micah Walter's dedicated LX3 blog

Being as seduced by consumerist myths as the next person I really wanted the Leica version. However, the price differential is an extra 80%. There are interesting discussions in the online fora about what you get for the extra money with many people trying to convince themselves of things that don't exist.  It's the same camera guys! There are a few very minor tweaks in the firmware and the Leica comes without the built in grip (although they will kindly sell you a detachable one for £50). Leica have made a mistake here, the mark up for the name is just too much.

So what camera does Saul Leiter use? The answer is I don't know and it doesn't matter. The photographs in the book were mostly taken in the 1950's and are often blurred due to the then limitations in both lenses and film. Certainly the LX3 would be more than sufficient, because as always we need to free ourselves from worrying about sharpness and colour fidelity and think instead about seeing and opening ourselves to the "mysterious things in familiar places".