Retro photography mashed up with a Lumix G1

I’ve been settling in with my Lumix DMC-G1 and manual lens combination for a few months now, and have made some discoveries along the way. For the most part, I’ve been shooting exclusively with an f1.4 40mm Voigtlander Nokton in a Leica M-mount and the time has been wonderful. That said, owning a G1 and using manual lenses is a different kind of photographic experience and one that has, for me, become both a retro and instinctual excursion.

Aside from turning the heads of more than a few photo buffs who recognize the camera + lens just isn’t right, street shooting is a pleasure. The camera and lens combination doesn’t announce itself as being more than a glorified tourist camera, so for the first time I feel like those smug and unobtrusive rangefinder photographers who can capture shots that most big SLR owners only dream of. When I carried my Nikon D200 equipped with a battery grip, I had folks come up to me wondering if I had a card for my photo studio. I simply don’t want to be noticed like that (thanks, but I am not a professional photographer).

Technically, there have been a few glitches and quirks. To me, the shutter noise could wake the dead, which shatters the stealth quality that rangefinder owners enjoy (and I wistfully dream of). Now when compared to the flappy mirror box in a DSLR, the noise probably isn’t any worse but I do believe that taking all of that mechanical action out of the camera should reduce the shutter clatter. Shutter development has been around for a long time, so it really shouldn’t have been that hard for Panasonic to incorporate something a bit less noisy.

Optically, my Nokton is great except that it “blooms” wide open. The blooming disappears when I stop down, so I typically need to shoot at f1.8 or f2 to get a crisp shot. Knowing that, however, turns the flaw into a feature. It is like having high-key lighting on demand; open up the lens and everything gets a wonderful soft glow. I particularly like shooting at night in dynamic black and white mode with the lens wide open. Toss in some snow and a single street light and the contrast-filled scene transforms into classic film noir.

By far the biggest challenge in using a G1 with a manual lens has been with light metering. I’ve read post after post about setting the camera “no lens” mode, flipping the metering to aperture-priority, and letting her rip with shot after shot. Well, it ain’t that easy, folks. Maybe that works for a 25mm lens, but something long (like a 40mm) becomes a bit of an issue. The problem is that the camera defaults to a shutter speed of 1/30, which is too slow for a 40mm lens that crops to an 80mm medium telephoto in classic 35mm film. Fortunately I have steady hands, but even then I get motion blur more often than I like. As a result, I have to fiddle with the ISO setting (auto ISO also seems to default to 1/30) or do other tricks to get the right shot. Automation, in this case, lets me down. A simple software fix of bumping up the minimum shutter speed to something like 1/60 would help, but it still isn’t a perfect solution.

While on a recent trip to Norway, I switched the camera into full manual so that I could deal with a complex evening lighting situation. After shooting a few frames, I inadvertently left the camera in manual and much to my surprise and many shots later, my photographic instincts took over for the computerized exposure system that was letting me down. Within a handful of images, I found myself using the camera in an entirely familiar and yet unusual way; I was match-needle metering.

For those of you who have never experienced SLR photography before the inclusion of onboard photographic computers and advanced matrix metering systems, match-needle metering involved using a classic needle-style photographic meter that was embedded within the camera to set exposure. Basically, a needle appeared in the frame that was linked to a center-weighted light meter. A circular target attached to the lens aperture and shutter speed, and calibrated to the film’s ISO rating floated in the frame as well. To set the proper exposure, one adjusted both the aperture and shutter speed until the meter needle was in the center of the circular target. Since in high school I typically did sports photography with a Minolta SRT-201, shutter speed was more important than aperture so I learned to set the shutter speed prior to shooting and then match-metered with aperture during events.

Given all of the G1’s embedded technology, how could I have been match-needle metering? Well, one of the things I set as default on all of my digital cameras is to display as much information as possible on the screen and with that on the G1, not only do I get a histogram but I also see the exposure compensation graph at the bottom of the frame. The exposure compensation graph, which is coupled to the right-hand adjustment wheel below the shutter release, works like a match-needle meter. Here’s how:

  1. I set the ISO (auto ISO is disabled in manual mode) and shutter speed, adjust the aperture for the general conditions (like what I did for sports photography).
  2. Then I compose my shot, lightly touch the shutter release button and glance at the exposure compensation graph.
  3. Next, I turn the adjustment wheel left or right with my index finger until the graph indicates either +/- 0 or a little over or under exposed (depending on the situation).
  4. When I’ve hit the “exposure target,” I snap the picture.

I realize the whole process sounds complicated, but believe me, it is not. In fact, I started doing it without even thinking. This is my retro photography moment for you see, my brain somehow wired the action of my right hand with the exposure compensation graph and those nearly automatic match-needle metering instincts took over. Shooting with the G1 suddenly became very natural.

Photography for me is delightful blend of the creative and technical. The greatest delight thus far has been to reawaken those instincts and skills I learned oh so long ago. Truly retro photography mashed up with decidedly not-retro technology.