We just got back from a week in Maui; ob­vi­ous­ly, I took a lot of pic­tures. I think my choice of tools and tech­niques is pret­ty main­stream, so when I sud­den­ly change them I won­der if I’m part of a news sto­ry. As of this trip, I treat my cam­era (Fu­ji X-T1) and phone (Pix­el 2) as peer­s, and which one I reach for de­pends on what kind of pic­ture I want to take. And al­most al­ways, there’s big glass on the Fu­ji (the Samyang 135mm F2 or Fuji’s own ex­cel­lent 55-200 zoom). I’m won­der­ing if “normal” lens­es on “real” cam­eras have a fu­ture. By way of ev­i­dence I of­fer ten pic­tures of Maui, five each from the Pix­el and from the “real” cam­er­a.

Here’s the thing: The Pix­el 2 isn’t just a great mobile-phone cam, it’s a re­al­ly freak­ing great cam­era. Like all modestly-sized great cam­eras, it can’t do ev­ery­thing so it has to be opin­ion­at­ed. It wants you to shoot what’s in front of you  —all of what’s in front of you  —  more or less as you see it, and while it can fake shal­low fo­cus, it’d rather make ev­ery­thing in the pic­ture sharp.

Pic­tures that you dis­cov­er tend to work well with that ap­proach. Those you con­scious­ly en­vi­sion and com­pose, maybe not so much.

The Fu­ji, wear­ing a long lens, wants you to ze­ro in on a small rect­an­gu­lar frag­ment of what you see, and makes it easy to blur away the fore­ground and back­ground so you iso­late not just that rect­an­gle but some still small­er frag­ment of re­al­i­ty that you think is the “subject” of your pho­to.

When you think Maui you think beach­es and sun­set­s:

Maui Sunset
· · ·
Maui Sunset

Th­ese are both from Napili, up at the top left cor­ner of Maui.

Ob­vi­ous­ly the first is the Pix­el cap­tur­ing the whole sky, while the sec­ond is the Fu­ji zoom at 115mm ze­ro­ing in on the lo­cal he­li­um fur­nace. The ef­fect with the long lens leaks a lit­tle ug­ly in­to the beau­ty, but in a way I like. After al­l, our lives de­pend fragile-ly on a big hot dan­ger­ous nu­cle­ar re­ac­tion, and this is a pic­ture of that.

If you’re will­ing to car­ry around a be­he­moth like one of the big Nikon­s, it can do ev­ery­thing I’m talk­ing about and more, and with more pix­els too if that’s a thing that turns your crank. I’m just flat­ly un­will­ing to car­ry the weight of those bod­ies and (e­spe­cial­ly) of the full-frame long lens­es. I in­sist that I like opin­ion­at­ed cam­eras, but maybe I’m just lazy.

Al­so, the best cam­era is the one you have with you.

Busted cars and tropical vegetation on Maui

Ob­jects that have been care­ful­ly de­signed for vi­su­al ap­peal to hu­mans are right in the Pixel’s sweet spot; af­ter al­l, it’s op­ti­mized for cap­tur­ing what you saw. Such ob­jects no­tably in­clude those in­tend­ed for re­li­gious ven­er­a­tion.

Blessed Virgin Mary
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Above, the Blessed Vir­gin Mary. Below, Amitābha. Both pho­tographed with the Pix­el 2 in La­haina. Both re­quired a lit­tle post-processing to reach their po­ten­tial; the kind of thing that would have out­side the reach of the files pro­duced by any pre­vi­ous mo­bile cam.

Some­times, pure­ly for prac­ti­cal rea­son­s, you want to shoot some­thing you can’t get near; big glass is about the on­ly way.

Exploding tree basket with lizard

Ex­plod­ing root­bal­l, with lizard (al­so La­haina).

But let’s be hon­est, some­times you don’t want What You Get to be What You Saw:

Face in the tall grass
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Horned Chameleon

Both shots con­scious­ly work with a long bright lens to se­lect sub­ject from non-subject. Yes, that face was most­ly ob­scured by veg­e­ta­tion. Yes, that horned chameleon had bor­ing crap be­hind it. Hey-presto! Heavy glass solves those prob­lem­s!

On nei­ther cam­era do I have to fool much with White Balance. The Fuji’s files have a whole lot more depth, so you can do crazy things like shoot straight at the sun. But there’s some depth in the Pixel’s pix­el­s; and any­how its goal of just catch­ing what you see, about the way it look­s, tends to not lead to ex­treme light­ing con­di­tion­s.

Where am I go­ing with this? · The won­der­ful Fu­ji XF 35mm F1.4, which in re­cent years cap­tured more keep­ers than any oth­er lens I’ve ev­er owned, has been suf­fer­ing ne­glec­t. The long lens­es so pre­cise­ly de­liv­er ex­act­ly what mobile-phone cam­eras can’t that there’s temp­ta­tion to use ei­ther the phone or the long lens but noth­ing in be­tween.

I think that’s prob­a­bly wrong. But it’s an easy habit to fall in­to, which I learned by do­ing it these last sev­en Maui days.

And by the way, both those long lens­es are heavy and awk­ward on the X-T1, they stress my neck and wrist. I see Fu­ji just an­nounced the X-H1, which is sub­stan­tial­ly big­ger; one of the rea­sons is to pro­vide a bet­ter grip with big­ger lens­es. But dammit, I got in­to the whole mir­ror­less Fu­ji thing pre­cise­ly be­cause I want­ed lighter bod­ies and lens­es. Peo­ple say the Samyang is re­mark­ably light for what it of­fer­s. I’m glad they think so, but it’s still a big honk­ing hunk of glass.

So, here are two things I’m pret­ty sure of. First, the 2017 gen­er­a­tion of tru­ly great mobile-phone cams is go­ing to have a ma­jor im­pact on pho­tog­ra­phy and we don’t know yet what it’ll be. Se­cond, I’ll be amazed if any­thing that’ll go in my pock­et will get any­where near what 135mm F2 glass can do, in the next cou­ple of years any­how. And any­one who’s try­ing to fore­cast cam­era tech fur­ther out than that is wast­ing time.

Any­how, back to Maui seascapes.

Another West Maui beach
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Baldwin Park beach on the windward side of Maui

Plen­ty of room for both pocket-sized and long-lens op­tion­s, for now at least. Both of these make me hap­py; the first be­cause my eyes like the shad­ing, the sec­ond be­cause it’s a great spot (Bald­win Beach Park) where we had fun with the kid­s.

Sure is fun tak­ing pic­tures these days. Heavy glass is a small price to pay for what it of­fer­s. But my wrist gets tired.

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March 30, 2018
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