Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Why Kirk Tuck Might Be Wrong About That™

Up-Front Disclaimer
  1. I like Kirk. Over time I've developed a lot of respect for his body of work. He's one of a handful of folk that I've never met face-to-face, yet managed to create a long-distance friendship around photography. (The other is Matthew Robertson.) So when I say "Kirk might be wrong", it's meant as gentle teasing, nothing more.
  2. This is humor. Humor. Hilarity. Something to provoke laughter and provide amusement. But not at someone else's expense, unless it's directed at me.
Kirk's Lament

Kirk has something of a love-hate relationship with the Olympus digital Pens. He loves their small size and weight, their ability to mount just about any lens with a suitable adapter (especially his beloved film Pen lenses), and his ability to take photographs far more discretely than with say his Canon 7D or 5DMk2. But the one thing he can't abide is the lack of a built-in viewfinder and using the LCD screen on the back of the digital Pen for composition. In short, he hates holding the camera at arm's length;
I couldn't imagine a real, grown up photographer using the screen on the back of the camera at arm's length. (unless the camera is on a tripod and you're shooting architecture or products.) It's almost as stupid as using an iPhone for serious work. (LINK)
How strongly does Kirk feel about this issue? Enough that he's mentioned it more than once, both in the body of his blog postings as well as in comments. Do a Google search for "kirk tuck arms length shooting" and you get over 13,000 results. I'd say that qualifies as a strong opinion on this issue.

Chimping the Chimp (8/365)
Chimping the Chimp (Not Quite At Arm's Length)

But all is forgiven with the use of the VF-2 electronic viewfinder (EVF). The EVF bestows a certain gravitas to the Pen and those who use it. The digital Pen no longer looks like a P&S on steroids. It becomes a Real Camera meant for Serious Work.

Self Portrait #1 (7/365)
How Real Grown-Up Photography Was Meant To Be Done

There's a lot to recommend the VF-2. In the bright Florida sun the EVF is far easier to work with than the display on the back of the body, especially in direct sun. It's also quite useful when using manual-focus lenses with adapters. Under those situations you'll find me using the VF-2 just like any other photographer.

But there are reasons not to use the VF-2. One is practical, the other philosophical.

The practical reason: The VF-2 must be slipped into the hot shoe of the digital Pen in order for it to work. Digital Pens that use the VF-2, from the E-P2 through all the Lite Pens, have a special port on the back side of the hot show providing signal and power to the VF-2. The problem with this setup is that the VF-2 is not locked down. It's easy (too easy) to knock the VF-2 out of the shoe. I've done it a number of times myself. Fortunately, I've not damaged the VF-2. More importantly, I've not lost it. At $250 per copy, losing the VF-2 isn't something you want to do often. It's not like loosing the E-3's eye-cup. So, when I'm finished using the VF-2 I put it back into its pouch I have attached to the camera strap on my E-P2.

The philosophical reason: It's too easy to get trapped in the viewfinder box. The best photographs are made by photographers who are engaged with the environment they're in, not with their camera. To be honest it doesn't matter if you're engaged with the camera via the viewfinder or the back of the camera. If your total attention is on the camera and what the camera is showing you then in my not so humble opinion you're at a significant creative loss.

Old film SLRs were bad about getting in your way. Decades ago in Atlanta I had a working photographer attempt to give me some sage advice. Out of all he told me the one thing that stuck with me all these years was to focus with both eyes open. One eye showed you the viewfinder, while the other showed you the rest of the world around you. For me, using the back of the camera for composition is just another way for me to remain engaged with the world instead of just the camera.


The injured dove
The Injured Dove

I was out on a walk one lunchtime through the parking lot with the E-P2 when I happened to see the injured dove flopping around in the leaves. The dove really didn't want to have anything to do with me. Rather than try to get down with the VF-2 and chase it further away, I simply held the camera out in my right hand. The camera was a lot less threatening than my head, on which the dove's attention was fully focused. With my head held back but the E-P2 close to the dove I was able to compose the shot on the E-P2's screen via my peripheral vision. The E-P2 with the 17mm was on automatic focus when this was taken. Right after, the dove finally decided it'd had enough of me and the E-P2 and fluttered on into the brush, and I never saw it again.

Breakfast Girl
Breakfast Girl

This past weekend I was up in Tallahassee helping Megs get packed up in preparation for moving out of her student apartment. She'd graduated from FSU back in May. A happy time to be sure. But this past weekend was the weekend of the Norway terrorism and Amy Winehouse's untimely death. Megs, the wife and I were having breakfast at a local Tallahassee eatery when a small silence went up around our little table. Megs was thinking about the current events, about her future, about her friends, and so much more.

The E-P2 was sitting in the middle of the table. While Megs was deep in thought I tilted the E-P2 up enough to make sure not to cut off the top of her head. The E-P2 was sitting between her glass of water and a bottle of Heinz. Once again I framed the shot with my peripheral vision. The E-P2 with 17mm in automatic focus.

Getting Passed
Getting Passed

Photographing while driving in the rain is dicey at best, and arguably stupid at worse. They already have laws against texting while driving, so I'm sure that they'd really frown on an idiot driver who has an accident while driving and simultaneously taking photos. For this photo I was using the E-P2 with my OM 28mm 1:2.8 plus adapters. Before heading on down the road I'd set the aperture to f/4 and focus to the hyperfocal distance of the 28mm at f/4. The E-P2 was on aperture preferred. All I had to do was point and shoot.

I was holding the camera with both hands that were also gripping the steering wheel. Once again I watched the framing with my peripheral vision while grimly maintaining control of the Prius, and tripped the shutter at the "right" moment to grab this image. Once I'd gotten what I wanted I quickly put the camera down and drove the rest of the way home with both hands still gripping the steering wheel, but without the E-P2 to get in the way.

Frank Lloyd Wright Annie Pfeiffer Chapel
Frank Lloyd Wright Annie Pfeiffer Chapel

Finally, there's the issue of architecture. Take for example the Frank Lloyd Wright Annie Pfeiffer Chapel at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Florida. It sits on a gently rising hill. The Four Thirds (and µFour Thirds) have a limited selection of lenses. They don't have, for example, shift and tilt lenses for architecture. For this photograph, using the M.Zuiko 9-18mm at 11mm, I held the E-P2 above my head and then aligned the camera to photograph the chapel with the vertical lines reasonably vertical (later, in Lightroom, I cleaned them up a bit more).

Once again I had to pay full attention as I was moving around the hillside with the camera. There's nothing quite as embarrassing as falling down a hill with your arms flailing above your head. Fortunately, at 6'4", with my arms above my head, and at the right location on the hill, I was able to frame a decent photograph using my peripheral vision as the guide.

In the grand scheme of things sometimes it works to hold the camera away from your eye and at arm's length. Sometimes you have no choice.

So the next time you see someone holding their camera away from them, consider they might be doing it for the sake of their art.


  1. I was reading Kirk Tuck's re-review of the Olympus XZ-1, and was struck by just how important the viewfinder is to him. I can see his point, since I frequently use the eye-level finder on my Panasonic GH1, but I think you're exactly right that these little LCD-equipped cameras can be used much more flexibly without it.

    In addition to being able to use my little P&S without having the screen directly in my line of sight, I've also learned how to take decent photos without framing the photo at all. I have developed a sense for what will be in the picture at the widest lens setting, and frequently catch photos that I could never take if I had to be able to see the LCD. On the street, over fences, under water: some of my favourite little-camera photos are a result of experienced intuition, not careful composition.

    (For the record, I've never used a camera held at arm's-length. I hold LCD-equipped cameras comfortably close, elbows bent and braced, very much like how I use a camera with an eye-level viewfinder.)

  2. Ahhhh. Matthew. You must have 20/10 vision. If I hold may LCD screen camera with my elbows bent I sure can't see much of anything sharp on the screen. It's the vision thing. But really, it would be so dorky to wear reading glasses while using my camera....

  3. I understand Kirk's comment on the "vision thing". I've worn glasses for distance for years, but my close vision (a few years past age 40) has been going now, and while I don't mind holding a book a few inches further, when I hold a camera far enough away to see the LCD, small details are too small to see clearly. I just resolved that by getting my first ever pair of progressives. If you don't wear glasses all the time, I can appreciate the problem.

    But otherwise, I completely agree with the author of this article. I love composing via LCD when possible. I use a NEX instead of m43 and the tilting LCD makes it that much easier. If I had a choice between a tilting LCD and a fixed LCD & EVF (in a compact like this, not in a DSLR) I'd go for the tilting LCD. But a NEX EVF is on the way and Panasonic offers articulating LCDs and now Oly offers a tilting LCD so we're all getting more choices.

  4. I've worn corrective lenses since I was a teenager, and I know that there will be some progressive bifocals in my future.

    I'm a huge fan of tilting LCDs – if I'm not using the EVF of my GH1, then I have the screen flipped out and angled. Sometimes it will be for a different viewpoint, and other times it's to cradle the camera more securely, but either way it defines how I use that camera.

  5. While I agree that the VF2 certainly does a nice job, I still have several good reasons for not wanting one.

    1. I own an EP1, so it means I would need to buy a new camera. But even if I didn't...

    2. If the VF2 is "necessary" than it just boots the price of a Pen from $500 to $900.... to $750 to $1150. At that price, you have some really serious competition with built in OVFs and EVFs and much better sensors. Specifically, the Fuji X100, the Sony SLT55, and even the outstanding Canon 50D.

    3. The whole concept of a tack on EVF is goofy. It is a very expensive part to lose, drop or break, and it makes and otherwise gorgeous camera look like something invented by Rube Goldberg.

  6. Wait... I meant Canon 60D, although the 50D was a pretty nice camera too.


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