Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Penultimate Street Shooter?


I’ve been shooting with the Hexar AF for about 2-3 weeks, and I think that I’ve been able to get a pretty good feel for the camera. Although it has some minor aggravations, the Hexar AF is an exceptional street-shooting camera. It’s discrete, easy to use, has a great lens, with an accurate light meter, and a quick auto-focus. Above all else, it is a "real" camera, with that "real" camera feel. A worthy tool, worthy of consideration by someone who considers himself (or herself) a photographer.

The Hexar AF
My version is the early black model, so it has the “stealth,” silent, or more precisely, low-volume mode. This was the feature (along with the black finish) that led me on to wanting to shoot with the camera; stealth is a desirable quality for me. The silent mode isn’t exactly silent. You can hear the camera’s AF and film advance, if you listen carefully and closely, in a quiet location. Outdoors, and on the street, where the natural din is always present, it’s virtually a silent, black camera, and therefore, stealthy.

As I mentioned, the camera has both auto-focus (AF), and auto film-advance. Neither feature was a selling point for me, because they both pushed the camera toward the dreaded point-and-shoot category. I love cameras that are manually operated. My acceptable limit for automation is an internal meter and auto-exposure capabilities; both of these features are present on the Hexar AF, by the way. The thought of shooting with the AF and auto film advance initially offended my sensibilities. However, I came to appreciate both features as very nice additions for shooting on the street.

Here’s what’s sweet about the Hexar AF

Silent Mode
This is just plain cool; but why? Does it make a difference, on the street, where the din can conceivably drown out the sound of the loudest of cameras? Yes, it does make a difference. I’ve been carrying with me, along with the Hexar AF, a Fuji Natura S, which is a true p&s that is about half the size of the Hexar. It is easily twice as noisy, and there is no way I could have taken shots such as this one with the Fuji and not made a spectacle of myself.

Turning the Fuji on would have been like ringing a bell on this train. Auto-everything cameras have a very distinctive sound. I booted up the Fuji while standing on a quiet train station platform, and people as far away as 40 feet heard the noise and looked my way. I booted the Hexar AF into low-noise mode, at the exact same location, just prior to turning on the Fuji, and not a single person noticed. On the street, even with the din, this can mean the difference between taking one or more additional shots of a scene, as opposed to just getting a single shot off. I’m sure my tank-like Leica M4-P, with its cloth shutter, is just as silent, if not quieter, so why not just shoot with it?

For me the answer is simply a matter of the convenience of size, as well as the quality of the compromises the Hexar brings to the table. I’ve been shooting while on lunch breaks at work. I take the Hexar with me to work on the train in my soft briefcase.

I wear a thin wind-breaker jacket, and when I need it to, the camera fits easily into the jacket’s side pocket. Additionally, the camera offers an excellent compromise between the quality of my M4-P and the array of lenses I own. The lens is no slouch, which brings me to…

Lens 35/2 w/a Built-in Hood
With the Hexar I get a sharp high-quality fixed 35/2 lens, with a built-in lens shade. The 35mm focal length is excellent for shooting on the street.

From what I’ve been seeing the lens is easily on par with my Cosina Voigtlander 35/2.5 lens, but probably not as contrasty as that lens. It’s a different signature that my capabilities can’t define. I might put it near the CV 35/1.7, but I still need some time with the camera to make those kinds of direct detailed comparisons.

Auto-Focus/Auto Film Advance
Without a doubt, auto-focus and auto film advance increase shooting speed. Pulling rapid hip, or quick-shots is no problem.

The Hexar also boots quickly, focuses rapidly, and has a long ‘on-time.’ When it does go into sleep mode (after a couple of hours), it reawakens rapidly with a slight probe of the shutter release. With the AF the photographer can hold the focus by maintaining pressure on the shutter release—after the AF locks. That’s a nice intuitive feature.

Manual Exposure Mode/f-stop Dial and Meter
There are three exposure modes on the Hexar: P (program) mode, A (aperture-priority) mode, and M (manual) mode. I rarely used the A mode, and seldom used the P mode. The M mode is a great way to shoot with this camera. The large f-stop dial on top of the camera protrudes just far enough, towards the front of the camera, that moving it while viewing through the camera is very easy. Once you’re use to the direction, adjusting exposure is a breeze. The camera has ‘+’ and ‘-‘ indicators in the viewfinder, as well as a green in-focus dot, 35mm framelines, and a small (almost useless?) sliding focus scale. To obtain correct exposure the photographer must obtain both a ‘+’ and a ‘-‘.

The meter, btw, is excellent, and like the AF the exposure, when in P mode, can be held, so the photographer can obtain a reading from the shadows (for example) and then readjust the framing. When doing this, it’s important to keep in mind that you’re also holding the focus. What I do instead, while in M mode, is assess the light (either visually, with the camera's built-in meter, or with a handheld meter), set the shutter speed, and adjust the f-stop. I’ll use the camera’s meter to take range readings, noting shadow and highlight.

I’ve gotten some excellently exposed negatives using both the P mode and the M mode. The meter is great for taking averaging readings. By pointing the camera at an open scene, and taking a light reading, you can get very accurate readings.

Here’s what is not so sweet about the Hexar AF

Too Quiet?
Can it be that silent mode is too silent? Yes, sometimes. It seems that sometimes silent mode is so effective that occasionally I’ll have to check to make sure I actually took a picture, and the little display window doesn’t easily cooperate with that task, preferring to cycle between the shutter speed (remember, I shoot in M mode) and the frame number. So, there’s always this little delay of about a second or two wherein I have to keep an eye on the little window to verify the frame advance.

Exposure Indicators are Hard to See Outdoors in Bright Light
The ‘+’ and ‘-‘ indicators located at the bottom of the viewfinder can be difficult to see outdoors, and usually are most effective when the camera is pointed toward a dark scene. This can be very frustrating, and puts a damper on using what is an excellent meter.

Top Shutter Speed is only 1/250
This is almost a deal-breaker for me. This is just too way too slow. I like a top speed of at least 1/1000, and I’d love to shoot with the AF’s cousin, the RF, a camera with a top speed of 1/4000.

Small Buttons and Cryptic Menus
The small buttons and cryptic menus are well known “characteristics” of this camera. I’ll only address the fact that adjusting shutter speed, though easy, is much easier on other cameras. Adjusting shutter speeds should not take all your attention to achieve. Like the f-stop dial on this camera, changing shutter speed should something you can do without taking the camera down from your eye. However, with a top speed of 1/250, and shooting on the street, you’ll probably seldom what to change the shutter speed anyway.

The Hexar AF is a joy to use. As a small stealthy street shooter, I doubt it can be beat. While technically a point & shoot, the Hexar when operated in M mode feels like a “real” camera. As someone who categorizes himself as a photographer, I’ve never felt diminished shooting with this camera. A co-worker saw my camera sitting on my desk, and picked it. She knew I was a photographer, and I think she was surprised to see that I possessed a camera that seems to scream, “I’m a point and shoot!” I found myself explaining the advantages and features of the camera to her, not defensively, but out of pure satisfaction and admiration for what is an outstanding camera.

To see more of my Hexar shots, visit my rangefinderforum gallery HERE.

July 13, 2006 Addendum: I was asked why I considered the Hexar the penultimate street shooter, as opposed to the ultimate street shooter. I had to pause as I thought this over. For some of you, it may truly be the ultimate street shooter. I know as I continue to shoot with the camera, I'm beginning to wonder how I would handle some of the compositions I've made (and the ones I'm currently making) using my Leica, which to me is the ultimate street shooting camera. Yet, the Hexar is just so darn fast to use that I find myself
shooting without breaking a stride, often just coming to a "California Stop" (a "rolling" stop). If anything the Hexar has educated me on shooting on the street, and challenged my perception on what a street shooting camera should be. I plan on trudging the Leica and a lens to work with me next week, to compare the experiences.