One camera one lens, across three Indian cities.

I don’t usually do gear reviews because the camera is just a tool for me and the “Canon Vs Nikon” debates have my eyes glazing over, but I wanted to share my experiences with the Fuji X100S simply because it just gets out of the way and helps you focus on making photographs.

Ever since I read all the rave reviews about the Fuji X100S from the likes of David Hobby and Zack Arias, I’ve been wanting to get my hands on this beast. I’m a portrait and lifestyle photographer based out of Hyderabad, India and was keen to see what all the hoopla was about. Being quite expensive at USD 1200 I decided to scout around and as luck would have it, someone was selling a barely used X100S \(And foibles it does have, especially if you are just moving on from DSLRs- but more on that later. My goal in picking up the Fuji was not to replace the DSLR \(I use a Canon 6D for all my ‘professional’ work\). In a security conscious country like India, where the mainstream media is not known for its sensitivity, the camera has become emblematic of a loss of privacy. In big cities like Mumbai, I’ve often found it hard to photograph people on the streets without someone or the other asking me what I’m going to be doing with their pictures- sometimes even flatly refusing to get photographed. I wanted a camera that made me look more like a tourist and less like a professional photographer. In that respect, the retro styling and the small form factor of the Fuji are definitely a big plus. A 35mm equivalent fixed focal length lens makes this very versatile for shooting streets, environmental portraits, landscapes, documentary work and even for my studio work.

Not too long ago, I was one of the deluded masses who believed that the bigger the DSLR, the sexier the camera and by extension, the photographer. That was probably the era when I thought dad jeans were cool as well… We live in more enlightened times now, so of course the Fuji had to come in. With it’s retro-cool looks, heavily influenced by Leica rangefinders, the Fuji was just begging to be kitted out. So I got a cool leather half case and leather strap from Ebay followed by a lens hood and filter. Here’s what my current rig looks like:

I was going to be spending a few days in that most photogenic of Indian cities, Kolkata \(earlier known as Calcutta\), but prior to that wanted to put the camera through its paces in Chennai and Bhopal, so that I could get used to the controls. All three cities couldn’t be more different in terms of culture and street experiences so this would be a good test for the versatility of the Fuji. Chennai is a traditional, South Indian city known for it’s temple culture. Bhopal, also known as the city of lakes, has a predominantly Islamic culture influenced by the rule of the Begums. Kolkata, one of the most crowded cities on the planet- and as befits its status as a one-time capital of the British Empire- is the kind of city where every turn brings one upon a crumbling remnant of Empire.

One evening in Chennai, I went for a walk near the Brahmin stronghold of Mylapore, where a cup of filter kaapi and the best masala dosas in the world can be had. While I certainly enjoyed my coffee and dosa, I can’t say that my shooting experience was pleasant. I was not too thrilled with the majority of pictures because the autofocus kept hunting and I was just not able to bend the camera to my will. \(Note: All images are in RAW format, and all have been processed with Lightroom 4.4\)

Didn’t get to spend that much time in Chennai, so it was off to Bhopal with the Fuji. The average Bhopali is polite and friendly to a fault, and I’d highly recommend Bhopal for anyone who’s intimidated by the prospect of photographing people! I was especially keen to see how the Fuji would perform as a portrait lens given that I mostly shoot portraits with my Canon 50mm or the 85mm. It was only in Bhopal that I finally started to get the hang of the camera…

Evenings in Bhopal bring people in their hundreds out by the Upper Lake. The rains had been good this year, and all of Bhopal seemed to be enjoying the now rare spectacle of a full lake. Undaunted by the cold winter wind, families came to the lake side to ride the pedalboats, or to board the ferry for a languorous tour around the lake.

And finally off to Kolkata!

If you’re in Kolkata, you can’t miss the bright yellow Hindustan Motors’ Ambassador \(fondly known as the Amby\) taxis. Like most of the architectural elements in the city, this is another relic from British times that has soldiered on into the 21st century. And that too in style- a recent BBC Top Gear episode pitted iconic taxis of the world against each other on a racetrack and the good old Amby beat out the others to win the best taxi award. The other contestants were no lightweights either; the Amby was up against a New York yellow cab, the Mexican Beetle, a German Mercedes Benz and so on. The way these taxis were being driven in the congested roads of Kolkata made me wonder just what it was about yellow cabs everywhere in the world that causes the cabbies to drive like possessed men.

After a month of shooting only with the Fuji and leaving my Canon in the bag, I’ll say that I finally started to see things the way the camera does. You know you’ve reached that happy place when you stop worrying about fiddling around with camera settings and just get on with shooting and reacting to the scene. Like driving a car becomes automatic after a while, photographers should reach a level of familiarity with their tools so that one can just forget about the tool and concentrate more on expressing themselves through their art.

I like to shoot in aperture priority mode 90% of the time and prefer to work with minimum fuss when shooting. For this reason it was important to me that the buttons on the Fuji be intuitive and the menu functions be easy to access. It took a while to forget the muscle memory associated with the Canon and switch over to the Fuji. Here’s a trick I learned from David DuChemin; to get acquainted with a new camera, sit in a dark room and learn to operate the controls by touch alone. Do this a hundred times and the camera becomes an extension of your thoughts. Where initially I’d fumble and take my eyes from the scene to mess around with the Fuji’s controls, once the Fuji and I’d broken the ice, we got along famously.

Not to say that I don’t have my frustrations with the Fuji. A mayfly lives longer than the Fuji on it’s battery. Make sure you have spare batteries at hand. Also the delay when the camera writes to the SD card can be pretty annoying as well, unlike the DSLR where it’s pretty much instantaneous. And of course the AF, while it’s much more improved over the original X100 can still do with some work. It took some getting used to, coming from the snappy autofocus of the Canon 6D. It’s still not a camera that I can comfortably use where speed is of the essence, but I’m a lot more familiar with it now and pretty much nail the focus 95% of the time. \(Note to ever complaining self: That’s a huge improvement given that in my analog SLR days, I was shooting with a manual focus DSLR. How technology spoils you!\). In the larger scheme of things, when I consider the fabulous image quality of the camera, along with the build quality and styling, these are all really minor niggles that just take some getting used to.

So is it a “DSLR killer” for me? Even though I didn’t take my Canon out for four weeks, doesn’t mean that there won’t be specialist situations where I won’t need it. I love the full frame sensor on the Canon along with the shallow depth of field which is certainly useful for my portrait work. The Fuji, I suspect though, is going to become one of those indispensable little companions that will come along with me wherever I go.

Fashion Inspiration- David Bailey

I’ve spent a large part of the morning looking at the works of the English fashion photographer, David Bailey. Bailey, thrust himself into British Vogue and upended what until then had been the preserve of the foppish, upper- crust photographer. With his crusty cockiness and tell-it-to-them-like-it-is personality, Bailey became the chronicler of the Swinging Sixties, and in many ways with his own segueing from one relationship to the next, quite the poster boy himself.

_Jean Shrimpton shot by David Bailey. Image borrowed from the Phaidon website-

The photo itself is deceptively simple, with the model \(Jean Shrimpton\) in front of what seems to be a mottled canvas backdrop. The lighting looks like one large light source \(softbox or window light?\) from camera left and high. Some might find fault with Bailey for not lighting the model’s dress enough, but I’m sure to that Bailey would have replied as he did once- “I never cared for fashion much, amusing little seams and witty little pleats: it was the girls I liked.”

The composition is stunningly simple with the black and white photo showing off the contrast beautifully. The pose adds to the symmetry offered by composition and lighting. There’s both stillness and dynamism, a quietness infused with radiance. No props, no artifice, no blurry out-of-focus background, no “captivating” locations, and I’m guessing, possibly no retinue of assistants and art directors peering over the shoulder!

I’ve also gone through a book of Bailey’s portraits, and I love Bailey’s style. There’s a directness in his approach that is probably a reflection of the man himself. His stand-out work, particularly portraiture, pulls the viewer to the eyes, with an almost scary directness. I think it speaks volumes of the photographer’s ability to inspire trust among his “sitters”, to place themselves at the complete mercy of the photographer’s direction and command.

The world of fashion photography is replete with iconic and unforgettable images. Avedon’s photo of Dovima with the elephants, Irving Penn’s striking “corner” portraits, Guy Bourdin’s provocative photos for Charles Jourdan, Tim Walker’s storytelling compositions…All stunning in concept, composition, tone, clothing and model. Yet, this photo by Bailey draws me back again and again to the beauty of a simple, well-executed concept. If, as they say, photos could speak then this one would speak a thousand lines of elegiac poetry.

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