Leica Digilux 2: Second Opinion
By Ben Lifson
My 2004 article about the Leica Digilux 2, written for Luminous Landscape, was the first camera review I ever wrote. After I finished it, I brought it -- for discussion and review -- to Ben Lifson, who had been my mentor since we first met at Bard College in 1984 (and who eventually became my best friend). Back in '84 I was a naive young photography student from Vermont and he was a well known writer, critic, teacher and photographer. I had just done my first professional photography work while he had been photographing, writing and teaching for many years.
In any case in 2004 -- as we were discussing the D2 and my review -- it occurred to me that it would be very interesting to have Ben write a companion piece discussing his impressions of the camera. The text below is what came from that request. It's quite extraordinary, actually... the first and last time (to my knowledge) that Ben ever wrote much about a tool used to make pictures rather than about pictures themselves. In fact, I can't think of any other critic of Ben's talent and knowledge who ever wrote a camera review.
It's important to remember than in early 2004 digital photography, as a medium for serious work, was still in its infancy. There were some good DSLRs (Ben and I were both using Canons) and a bunch of small cameras that many people called "digicams" or "point-n-shoots". (In fact, in my Digilux 2 review I created a new term for the latter -- Small Sensor Camera -- that eventually caught on.) But there were no serious window finder digital cameras at that time. No Epson R-D1, no Fuji X100 or X-Pro 1 and -- crucially, no Leica digital rangefinder. Many of us were waiting for that last camera and Ben and I had both hoped that the Digilux 2 might bring us some measure of what we loved about M cameras. Of course, as we found out, it really was a different animal.
Despite its limitations, which Ben and I both wrote about, the Digilux 2 was a pioneer in its melding of traditional controls with digital capture. We now take that combination for granted, but designer Kaoru Mokunaka's camera was the first digital model to include all of the following: a marked shutter speed dial, marked aperture ring and marked manual focus ring.
Ben later made his peace with single-spot autofocus (you'll see that he was skeptical of AF, in general, in this article). He and I also both found that, late in 2004, Epson had pretty much made the camera we were waiting for (or at least the closest thing to it at that time). My second camera review was of the Epson R-D1. Ben bought one soon after trying mine and did a lot of work with it.
Reid Reviews, which started in 2005, was Ben's idea. After my second long review he said: "You should stop writing for free. You can't afford the time it takes away from your work." He was right. He told me about an old subscription print newsletter called Simon Sez. It seems a famous camera reviewer named Simon Nathan had created it after, apparently, growing weary and frustrated with the influence advertisers had (or tried to have) on the articles he wrote for various photo magazines. So he went out on his own and sold his mailed newsletter directly to subscribers. The punned name of my site (Reid Reviews sounding like read reviews) is a play on Nathan's Simon Sez. And, of course, the philosophy of the site is the same: reviews paid for by readers not advertisers.
So Ben's article below was meant as a companion to the first camera review I ever wrote. And, of course, it was the first and last camera review he ever wrote. Understandably, it wasn't a subject that interested him as much as art itself. Ben died in 2013 and left behind some of the most extraordinary writing on photography and other visual art that the world has ever seen. I write that without even a hint of exaggeration.
If the reader is seriously interested in writing, reviewing or photography as a visual art I suggest reading Ben's text below carefully. There has never been, and likely never will be, anything like it.
- Sean Reid, December 3, 2015
Ben's Review Of The Leica Digilux 2:
I’ve been using Leicas almost since I began photographing in 1964. I also used Rolleiflexes at the beginning (normal and wide-angle) but sold them in the mid-70s. When I began photographing for New York magazine and stringing for a national weekly a small windfall enabled me to buy two Nikon F2s and five lenses. I figured I’d need them for photojournalism, and use the Leicas for my personal work. But this was after four years with Leicas; the Nikons slowed me down and I found composition on the focusing screen difficult. I sold the Nikons after three weeks. In the mid-seventies I bought one of Tom Roma’s hand-made 6×9 view-finder cameras and two big Mamiya press camera lenses for it but when the outfit got stolen a year later I didn’t really care. In some ways I was glad to see it go. It required a large camera bag that often got in the way, and it weighed me down. I hope the thief enjoyed the outfit or fenced it for a pretty penny…
As for the Digilux 2, the consensus on image quality for RAW files is in and ranges from enthusiastic to wildly enthusiastic. I agree with Sean Reid’s assessment of JPEG files at ISO 200 and 400. Therefore, for serious creative work, the Digilux 2’s only useable mode above ISO 100 is RAW. This effectively disqualifies the camera for significant kinds of serious creative work (to be defined below) by virtue of the instrument’s nature. My comments, then, will concern the instrument.
For a great deal of work that either depends on or can tolerate long decisions between exposures (by long I mean a few seconds or longer); for work that proceeds from orderly (as opposed to spur-of-the-moment) deliberation; for landscapes, still-lifes, portraits, descriptions of architecture, studies, and magisterial work; for pictures of subjects that are not rapidly moving or changing; for thoughtful, contemplative work; for work in which the mind leads the eye more than the other way around and is attentive to and meditates on sensibility, converts feeling to data and sifts the latter; for work such as this in either the classical or the romantic vein, the Digilux 2 is a lovely small camera. Also, as Sean Reid said, with the camera on a tripod the LCD is like a good small ground glass enabling the photographer to use the Digilux 2 as though it were a view camera without lens movements.
Light, silent, unobtrusive, and — after the first few weeks of steady use — likely to lead to that relationship between photographer and instrument that we call intimate. It is likely to feel like a natural extension not only of the hand but of the eye, the mind, the sensibilities, the heart, the intuition and the imagination and as much a part of oneself as any of these.
However, with respect to major aspects of what can be called the genius, perhaps more precisely the poetic genius of the small camera as an instrument and as defined by the Leica camera since the first one appeared, the new Digilux 2 has disappointing flaws.
The genius of the small camera lies in its fluidity and the Leica range finder is the most fluid of them all. Before I could afford my first M3s I used pre-WWII Leicas, which were extraordinarily fluid. But with respect to this all-important fact, the M Series is a masterpiece of twentieth-century instrument making. The combination of the bright viewfinder and the perfectly-designed meeting of the instrument with the hand made the camera infinitely responsive to the photographer’s slightest feeling or most spontaneous impulse. With no other camera that I’ve handled is there such an immediate flow from the conception to the execution of a picture. Andre Kertesz, the first great photographer to use a Leica (late 1920s) used to say, “I see the thing, I feel the thing, and I make the thing.” With the Leica he could do this in a tiny fraction of the time that it takes to read or say this. The instrument’s responsiveness to the hand and the viewfinder’s generosity to the eye make a Leica M2, M3 or M4 (the only ones I’ve used) almost instantaneously responsive to the photographer’s feelings and visual esthetic. They enable him/her to compose and make the picture in what amounts to the instant that he/she sees and feels the subject and re-imagines it in pictorial terms. And this genius, in turn led to the first photography that can be spoken of in the same terms as modern lyric poetry. Leica M cameras are still making modern lyrical photography possible today.
In the early nineteenth century painters, critics and the public discovered the excellences of the sketch: its immediacy both to the subject and the artist’s spontaneous, intimate emotional responses to it.. The sketches of some painters came to be more valued than their finished paintings. With the release of the first Leica in the late 1920s, the poetry of the sketch finally entered the world of photography. Photographers at last could follow the lead opened to painters by such things as the words the great Romantic French painter Eugene Delacroix is supposed to have said to a young artist: “If you aren’t skillful enough to sketch a man who’s thrown himself out of a window during the time it takes him to fall from the fifth floor to the ground you’ll never make grandes machines.” (A grande machine is a large public painting.) The Leica gave the photographic artist with visual skills the instrument to make rapid, poetic, intimate sketches of almost anything. (For an excellent explication and discussion of lyrical photography, see James Agee’s introduction to Helen Levitt’s A Way of Seeing. For an excellent explication and discussion of the modern drawing and its relation to the modern lyrical poem, see Charles de Tolnay’s The History and Technique of Old Master Drawing. For the relation between photography and drawing there are too many texts, 1840s-present, to list here, but Francis Wey’s 1850s discussion of Hypollite Bayard’s photographs is a key one.)
It’s in relation to this genius of responsiveness to both the subject and the artist, and to the poetic genius of small camera photography, that the Digilux 2 is flawed.
The flaw originates in the electronic view finder together with the delay between exposures in RAW.
The EVF first.
The image is on the dark side, and crude. It’s unlovely to look at. To me, it’s alienating. It tends to quench the feeling the subject gave me rather than to contain the subject in the same clarity and brightness it had in nature when it moved me. I don’t want to take a picture of what I see in there.
True, perception is highly adaptable. I suppose I could come to perceive (rather than see) the Digilux 2 EVF image as I perceive the subject, with the same brightness, the same clarity. But in the case of this EVF I don’t know if perception, for all its adaptability, would do any good. The image is so difficult to focus!
True, the magnified rectangle in the center of the EVF that comes up when you turn the lens’ focus ring does assist focus. However, it obscures part of the image as well. It also distracts the eye from the whole frame. This in turn stops that action of the eye that is so important to composition (and which the Leica M viewfinders made so easy): the scanning of the subject as framed in the viewfinder. It is this rapid scanning that makes it possible to consider all the elements of the subject at once, place them where one wishes…In short, compose.
True, one can turn off the magnified focusing area. But this doesn’t improve matters much. The image then is difficult to focus. And for serious work, automatic focus is out of the question. True, it’s possible to set the plane of focus using autofocus and locking it in place, but this slows you down and distracts you from the task at hand.
Also, any EVF is a poor instrument for composition. One excellence of the M-Series viewfinders is that the frame line is inside the viewfinder’s field. One can see what’s outside the frame while one’s composing what’s inside it. In a split second one can turn appearances that are outside the frame into elements of the composition coming into being within the frame. One can also revise one’s sense of the subject in a split second. Also, one can see one’s next subject coming and anticipate the next composition while finalizing the one at hand. One can do none of this with any EVF. An EVF shows you only what’s inside the lens’ angle of acceptance. This is also true of any SLR’s focusing screen, of course, and it’s what makes an SLR less fluid than the Leica or similar range finder cameras.
Sean Reid is right, you can use an accessory optical finder. But if you’re constrained to shoot in RAW, you must contend with the delay between exposures. Short of looking through the EVF or glancing down at the LCD there is no way to know when the shutter can be released. That is, you don’t know when you can take the next picture unless you take your eye away from the optical finder. But every time you take your eye away from the optical finder you lose contact with your subject. And if you do it the other way around, begin with your eye at the EVF or the LCD until the “writing file” symbol disappears, your subject might have disappeared while you were waiting. In some cases you might not even have discovered your subject much less made contact with it. Either way you make the transition between the two finders, the fact that you must make it diminishes your responsiveness to the world. It certainly interrupts your attention to it, and in some cases can shut your responses down altogether for a while. Such a camera does not permit the responsiveness which was the Leica’s original gift to the world of photographic art.
True, one could time the intervals between exposures—something like 6 seconds for RAW—and learn to count them while one waits for the camera to be ready to shoot—“one one-thousand, two one-thousand.” But this, too, deflects ones attention from the world and from one’s responses to it. It’s possible that one could internalize the intervals. But the world always moves at its own rhythm and pace, and one’s emotional and creative responses to it must move at both the world’s pace and the photographer’s. So I doubt the wisdom of timing your picture taking to a beat that is imposed upon you by a mechanical device. The metronome is a useful instrument for musicians during practice. But during performance it’s the whole piece, which includes the musicians around a player, that really sets the tempo. In photography, the metronome (if there be one) that one’s sight, vision, imagination, esthetics, must play off against is what one sees in the world, not a mental clock ticking off the seconds. When a musician perfects his sense of time and rhythm, he effectively makes his instrument an extension of his whole musical being. But for a photographer to internalize a camera’s delay between exposures and then to use that internal beat to determine when he takes a picture is to make the photographer a mechanical extension of the camera. The tail wags the dog. And we must always keep in mind that the virulent opposition to photography as a creative art, from 1840 to just recently, was based in part on the fallacy that photographs were machine-made pictures and therefore precluded any creative expression originating with the artist. (See Baudelaire.)
Yes, I’m speaking specifically about art. And clearly, I’m speaking of a poetic photography based on the visual idiom of the small camera’s combination of negative or sensor size and lens. This idiom includes the idiom of the sketch but with fine grain films, and even with small sensors, is not limited to it. Also, I’m referring largely to subject matter whose content is constantly changing and where relationships between people and people, between people and objects, and between people and their surroundings is constantly shifting, to say nothing of light and other matters. What is commonly referred to as “street photography” is only one example. Sports photography is another. And I should think that photographing one’s dog in the dog run, or one’s child at a birthday party, or even a landscape under a quickly-changing sky and rapidly moving clouds would also be seriously impeded by the Digilux 2’s delay between exposures.
Moreover, I’ve seen other kinds of excellent work — nature studies, descriptions of architecture, portraits, and the like — by photographers using Canon 10D cameras and other digital SLRs. And I’ve heard these photographers explain why they use DSLRs instead of compact digital cameras: for one reason or another, small compact digitals frustrate and interrupt the photographer’s attention on subect and on his/her creative responses to it. Some of these photographers have found or are finding other technical ways further to reduce this interruption. From these and other things I believe that any sort of interruption forced by a camera is a significant impediment to serious artistic photography.
Also disappointing is the shutter speed dial. It has no stopping place. On the M-Series, the dial won’t go past either B at the low end or the fastest speed at the high end. During the fifteen years or so when I was exposing six to seven rolls of Tri-X a day, every day, I often had to set the shutter speed without looking; for example, when I was doing professional theater photography and photographing live on-stage performances from dark lighting booths or from the aisles, or when I was photographing where it was dangerous to draw attention to myself by even looking down at the camera to re-set the shutter speed. With the M Series cameras it was easy to spin the dial to B and, without looking, turn it back notch by notch to the speed I wanted.
Other flaws I discerned might be specific to the size and shape of my hands.
I find both the shutter speed dial and the shutter release button to be in awkward places. This, too, reduces the camera’s fluidity.
Also, I find the body too boxy. It feels awkward in my hand. And after holding and using it for more than ten minutes the little finger of my right hand hurts so much that I have to put the camera down. If I have to let a camera hang from my neck every so often, it isn’t in my hand. If it isn’t in my hand when I conceive a picture, the picture is often gone by the time the camera is at my eye. Diminished responsiveness again. (With the M-series I can hold the camera for hours and not feel it.)
Two very good features of the Digilux 2 are 1) that it is compact and light enough to carry in the hand; thus it enables fluid hand movements and a wide spectrum of vantage points for hand-held photography; and 2) it is designed to take the classic Leica strap that ends in metal rings.
The strap first. In my opinion, this kind of strap is the only one for serious work. It is one of the first things I advise beginning photographers to buy; it’s as important, I tell them, as a good camera body or lens and as essential as a light meter in or out of the camera. The Leica strap is narrow and flexible enough to wrap around the hand in such a way, and the rings are strong enough, so that if the camera is jostled out of your hand it doesn’t fall but just dangles from your hand. In other words, it keeps your camera safe when you’re shooting under the most agitated conditions or even walking on crowded streets, or in Grand Central Station at rush hour, etc.
Therefore, it enables you to have the camera always in your hand. So does the Digilux 2’s lightness and compactness. And always having the camera in your hand greatly enhances the instrument’s fluidity and your responsiveness; for much hand-held work it is essential to have the camera in your hand not only while you’re working but also while you’re taking a break: who knows when the next picture will come along? Wearing the camera around your neck or over your shoulder until you take it off and bring it to your eye cuts down on your responsiveness to the world. Photographing with the camera around your neck can seriously limit the way you bring the camera to your eye, or seriously lengthen the time it takes to do this (two movements: 1, hand to camera; 2, hand and camera to eye, take longer than one). Depending on how long or thick or both the strap is, it can get in the way. You shouldn’t have to tuck the strap out of the way or find the right place for your hand on it when what you should be paying utmost attention to is the scene in front of you and how you’re composing it. And often, when you get the camera to your eye the picture that was forming in the world and ready for you to complete it has disappeared.
From an existential (as opposed to practical) point of view, not holding the camera in your hand while one is working interrupts that physical relationship between the hand and the camera via which the camera becomes an extension of oneself. With this interruption come interruptions of one’s thinking, seeing, feeling and responding like a photographer. For as often and as long as one lets the camera hang from a strap while he’s out with it he’s working against himself.
(By the same token, until the camera is put away the lens cap should not be on the lens unless absolutely necessary.)
The problem with using the LCD, hand held, as a finder is that the camera moves with the hand, not with the head. When the camera is at the eye, head, eye, hand and image (optical viewfinder, SLR finder, or EFV) move together. Anything that isolates hand from eye is a serious impediment to good hand-held photography. (Therefore, I believe that the only productive use of the Digilux 2 LCD is with the camera on a tripod.)
Again, I’m talking about the camera’s suitability for a certain kind of work or certain ways of working. For other kinds of both, it seems, as I said, a lovely camera. And in many respects, including its size and the lightness and unobtrusiveness of its lens, it’s better than any digital SLR I’ve used or handled. But for the specific kind of work the Leica brought into the world and has made possible ever since it has enough serious drawbacks as to be, in effect, unusable.
Mind you, I was looking forward to this camera with much hope. In fact, I was wondering who could lend me a digital camera so that I could photograph my Canon DSLR and its three lenses so that I could sell them on eBay and use the proceeds for the Digilux 2. But I guess I’ll have to keep using the Canon or my M2s until someone brings out a good digital rangefinder. I hope the design of its body is as close as possible to that of the M Series.
This review was originally written as a companion piece for Sean Reid's 2004, Luminous-Landscape, review of the Leica Digilux 2.
About Ben Lifson
Photographer, critic (“Garry Winogrand’s Art of the Actual” in The Man in The Crowd: The Uneasy Streets of Garry Winogrand) and teacher, Ben Lifson currently divides his time between critical and historical writing on photography and the private teaching of photography.
He has worked as a photojournalist for New York, Ramparts, The Saturday Review, Look, and other magazines, and as a free-lance professional for PBS, private corporations, research foundations, professional theaters, film companies, etc.. His photographs have earned him two National Endowment for the Arts grants and a Guggenheim Fellowship and have been exhibited at George Eastman House, the Edinburgh International Festival, the Akron Art Museum, the Oakland Museum, the American Museum of National Art (Smithsonian) and other U.S. museums.
He was photography critic for New York’s The Village Voice, 1977-1982, and has written criticism for Artforum, Art in America, Artpresse (Paris), Art on Paper, Connaissance des Arts (Paris), HG, MD, October and many other publications. In the 1990s he began to publish critical articles on contemporary painting and sculpture as well as on photography. He is the author of the Aperture monograph Lucas Samaras: Photographs and has contributed introductions and essays to over twenty photography monographs and catalogs.
He has been guest curator and guest scholar in photography at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles and curated the American wing of the Second Israeli International Photography Biennial, Ein Harod, Israel, directed the Sol Mednick Photography Gallery, Philadelphia, and assisted in, and wrote three essays for the catalog of the Royal Academy of Arts, London’s 1989 Art of Photography exhibition commemorating photography’s 150th anniversary.
Chosen by Richard Avedon as lecturer for the traveling exhibition of Avedon’s first Metropolitan Museum show, Lifson has lectured on Eugene Atget, Lee Friedlander, Andre Kertesz, Robert Frank and various aspects of contemporary and historical photography at many prominent U.S. universities and museums, including George Eastman House (Rochester), the School for Visual Arts and the ICP (New York), the Minneapolis Art Institute, the Virginia Museum, and the Houston Museum of Fine Art. In 1988, as part of the U.S. Department of State’s Art America program he lectured on contemporary U.S. photography in Egypt, Bahrain and Israel and was photographer and critic in residence at the Rhode Island School of Design. In 1998 he was guest lecturer and critic at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design and in 2002-3 was guest scholar in photography at the Amarillo Museum of Art, Amarillo, Texas.
In 1970 he founded the photography department of the California Institute of the Arts and directed it for four years; in 1984 he founded the MFA photography program at Bard College and directed it for three years. He has taught photography and the history of photography at Harvard, Yale, the University of California at San Diego, City College of New York, Bard College, and Fordham University’s Lincoln Center Campus, where he founded and led the history of photography curriculum. He has also written television programs and documentary films on photography, and translates texts on art and photography from French. He is currently at work on a Critical History of Photography, 1839-1984.