Archive for May, 2014


What a long and grueling trip it’s been from a film camera kit that worked perfectly in the late 90s to a digital kit that finally works in 2014.

The goal for this bag has been a lightweight all-in-one-bag 2-camera documentary kit that I could use to produce most documentary-style available light assignments (commissioned and personal) without compromising image quality. Trying to replicate my film kit: 2 M6s with 21mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 90mm Leica lenses in digital has taken 15 years. Everything up to that point was a big case of Canon DSLRs and lenses for pro work, and increasingly disappointing point & shoots (Canon, Nikon, Fuji) for carry-around. That part was partially solved with the Olympus E-20 and then eventually the E-P1, but the Micro 4/3 sensor felt inferior, even though the images looked great.

Then in 2010 I bought a new M9 with 2 lenses: a 35mm f2 Summicron and a 24mm f2.8 Elmarit, adding a 50mm F1.5 Zeiss ZM and finally a 75mm f2.5 Summarit. The 24 was a conscious decision to avoid the distortion of the 21 since I mostly shoot people, but I felt pretty early on that it was just never quite wide enough. I also longed for a second body, but at $6K for another M9, I was pretty sure that was not going to happen.

Every year I watched Fuji and Olympus try to out-trick each other, but am a confessed full-frame snob and couldn’t commit to APS-C or M4/3. Each new Fuji dashed hopes that they would get it perfect which it would have to be to go to a smaller sensor, and each new Olympus was superb – but still 4/3. And then out of the blue (for me anyway, I never thought of Sony as pro still equipment) came Sony with the a7 and a7r.

And so today, after 2 months of testing, my kit is complete. The a7r with a Fotodiox adapter and a Voigtlander Scopar 20mm 3.5 gets me the wide angle I’ve been missing (no way to get acceptable results from super-wide M-mount glass), and a Voigtlander VM adapter for the 75mm which works beautifully. The 35 and 50 work mostly on the M9, except when extremely low light requires they jump onto the a7r. All manual focus, all with the soul of working with rangefinders, but with a couple of welcome perks from the more digital Sony. Files and colors are very compatible, and if needed the Sony will take all my other Nikon glass too.

I use an Olympus LS-10 digital voice recorder for field audio, Apple 11″ Air for location downloads and basic file prep, which along with the requisite Moleskine, spare batteries and cards and Passport Color-Checker all fit very manageably into a compact and innocuous Artisan & Artist “Sebastio’s Reporter Satchel”.

It’s been a decade-and-a-half search to assemble this collection of gear that works so perfectly for my needs, and at a fraction of the all-Leica approach. I really am breathing a sigh of relief, and looking forward to the next assignments.


UPDATE July 2, 2014:

I’m really enjoying this kit. The ability to work with two cameras with complementary lenses – the 20 + the 50, or the 35 + the 75 – just feels right, like I’m prepared for what may show up and with the flexibility to make different images of the same situation. By chance, I’ve been shooting a fair amount of local, small-venue concerts and found the Sony to be amazing in low-light (no surprise – that’s what everyone reports). I do find the 75mm a little short for performance work, however. So I’ve added a recent purchase – a 135mm f2.0 AIs manual focus Nikkor which replaces the 75 for performance and portrait shoots. The F2.0 is great for low-light, the 135mm reach is much better if I can’t get close, and wide-open for portraits it’s amazing. The lens is heavy and the built-in sliding hood is loose and uncontrollable – but those are the only drawbacks. I haven’t shot a 135 since the late 60’s and this focal length is refreshing and useful.

In The Bag – v2.0

©2014 Mark Berndt | All Rights Reserved


I work at home, and I suppose I often go out just to put myself somewhere where I will find the day’s pictures. I don’t go searching for them, but just to make myself available to see. They’re hiding everywhere – and the surprise is in not knowing what they’ll be or where they’ll show up.

In the beginning there’s a nearly imperceptible tug on my eyeball that suggests there’s about to be a photograph. It’s not spiritual, like a whisper or hair standing up on the back of my neck. It’s more like a speck of grit in my eye that makes me blink, squirts a little adrenalin into my system, and causes my right hand to slide around the right side of my camera and flip the ‘on’ switch.

It’s always hanging there, 50mm lens, f/stop wide open, focused at infinity, ISO at 160 unless I’m inside, and the shutter speed set, as leave the house, to something appropriate for the day’s conditions. Without looking, my left hand slides to the lens and I might rotate the focus ring by feel a little bit, channeling some future distance-to-subject setting.

I’ve noticed that the process of making a picture works like this for me:

First, I become aware that there’s a picture nearby – a little story disguised as everyday life. It could be a movement, a patch of light, a reflection, a pattern or a face. Once I find it, I make an initial intuitive exposure – quick, before it gets away. Sometimes that’s all I get, but if there’s an opportunity, I’ll try to do better – adjusting my position (no zooms), camera angle, framing, double-checking focus and exposure. I might get another 2 – 5 exposures.

The rear screen on my camera is set to off by default so there are no pictures popping up while I’m shooting. This allows me to make the image come together in the viewfinder, rather than looking afterwards to see what I shot.

Most often the first and the last images are the ones – the first for spontaneity and authenticity, or the last for the refined composition and exposure. It’s exciting every time, and just 50% of the image – the darkroom still to come…