Cover and header image by Christian Lindsey
Dearly beloved. We are gathered together today to get through this thing called AI(3).
I grew up, more or less, as a guido on Long Island. If you don’t know what growing up guido is or what Long Island was like in the late 1980s and early 1990s, please search for SkidZ, Avia high tops, Camaro IROC-Zs, and Z Cavaricci. ChatGPT confuses Long Island guidos with mall rats, but if you grew up in the 516, you know the difference.
When I got to college in Atlanta, I encountered Southern guys wearing chinos, oxford shirts, and gray suede Bass buck shoes. Apparently, this ensemble and some sort of magic made everyone in the bar sing “Straight to Hell” by Drivin’ n’ Cryin’ while I sat there in the corner confused by the shoes and the singalong.
Sitting there in that corner, I considered my options. I could stick to my guido ways or get some buck shoes, learn the words, and sing along. Ultimately, I kept to my guido roots, but in retrospect, I should have purchased the shoes and sung that stupid song. But that is all revisionist history. At the time, I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
The moral of this story is that where and when you grow up matters. As much as you might think you are progressive, most of us can’t just change how we think. This is an issue, and this issue is precisely why the vast majority of Leica photographers, and pretty much everyone else who plays with cameras and lenses in their spare time, are going to recoil in horror when I propose that rangefinder cameras and AI go together like The Olsen Twins.
If you are recoiling in horror at the thought of an AI intrusion into Leica purity, I might suggest that you are the guido wallflower, sans buck shoes, probably listening to Yes, Deep Purple, or Man-O-War, rather than having fun with everyone else singing about going Straight to Hell in this story.
If you are rejecting AI because you learned to shoot a rangefinder without the assistance of AI, it is very possible that you are an analogue grandpa (1) who is stuck in a rut doing things the same way you always did.
I propose that:
- AI will reduce the rangefinder learning curve and take the focusing pressure off of new rangefinder photographers.
- AI will allow vintage lenses to be more useful by improving wide-open sharpness while retaining their vintage character.
- AI might improve the functionality of zone focusing by allowing photographers to use wider apertures and longer focal lengths and still get in-focus images. (This is just a theory at this point.)
In short, my thesis is that the digital rangefinder experience is better with a little bit of AI sharpening thrown in the mix.
My personal “AHA” moments with AI sharpening
AHA moment 1: When I shot the following image of this model running, I didn’t consider that the client would be cropping the image. I shot wide when she needed a closeup. I chose the wrong ISO and didn’t work hard enough to freeze the action. The client wasn’t too jazzed.
In this before and after you can see the AI fixed the motion blur. It is a little crunchy zoomed in to pixel peep but on the web it was perfect. The client was jazzed.
This is the final image:
And these are side by side crops. Again the final is a little crunchy but we are pixel peeping here to make a point:
AHA moment 2: Normally, images taken while panning and dragging the shutter require trial and error. In the past I would do about 10 takes. Now I do them in 1-2 takes and call it good. In this case, I was banking on AI to fix technique errors and it worked. Again, there is some AI gobbledygook with the writing on the helmet but nobody noticed but me. Let’s assume that things will improve in the future. If AI sharpening was a video game, we are still playing Intellivision.
This is the final image:
And these are side by side crops.
AHA moment #3: this image was taken during the pandemic. I don’t normally document the world, but this day I was documenting the empty supermarket shelves during the first week of the pandemic. I my personal life, I was rationing squares of toilet paper because I was the only one who missed the memo that I was supposed to stock up on TP for my bunghole. Everyone was freaked out in the early days and the store clerk was screaming at me to stop photographing. Fiddling with the rangefinder patch was not an option. I was also using the Konica M-Hexanon 50mm lens lens which, despite what you read on the forums, doesn’t actually focus accurately on a Leica camera. Nobody knew any better when we were shooting film.
In the original image, the text is is pretty awful. AI fixed the text and now I have a sharp memory of the fuzzy, early, days of the pandemic.
This is the final image:
And these are side by side crops.
AI may reduce the rangefinder learning curve and take the focusing pressure off of new rangefinder photographers.
A rangefinder is a great way to focus a film camera but, at least in my opinion, it is not the best way to focus a digital camera. This is especially if you like to crush the bokeh and make images with creamy backgrounds. In my experience, a rangefinder fares better on film than digital because if a film image is a little soft, that softness can be charming when it is mixed in with the charming grain of film. Conversely, soft digital images are just soft without charm. Digital rangefinder images, more often than their film counterparts, need some sharpening love in post-processing.
Soft, digital, rangefinder images lacking charm are one reason why too many bugging rangefinder photographers I talk with throw in the towel on rangefinder cameras and look elswhere. For some, the background stress of obtaining sharp images can be overwhelming and, at a minimum, takes the fun out of rangefinder photography. My main thesis is that AI sharpening quicken the learning curve, allow photographers to take more risks, and reduce the need to worry about focusing.
Although by no means a novice, I reached out to street photographer Christian Lindsey(2) for an assist. These are some soft images he had cluttering up his hard drive that were failed images, at least in part, because of uncharming softness. In these before and after images, you can see that AI sharpening improves these images dramatically. According to Christian(2), in his hands, AI sharpening can add about an inch of depth of field. Although that might not seem like a lot, Christian (2) shoots wide open, at night, in close quarters, where depth of field is often razor thin. An inch could mean a 10% increase (or more) in the chases of of making a successful digital rangefinder image.
Final Christian (2) Lindsey image #1
Final Christian Lindsey (2) image #2
And these are side by side crops.
AI may allow photographers to expand the usefulness of vintage lenses by improving wide open sharpness while retaining vintage character
The holy grail for vintage lens aficionados is a lens that is sharp wide open (at least in the center) but retains character across the image and especially toward the periphery. The problem is that many vintage lenses are painfully soft wide open. Some photographers find this groovy. Some even say their blurry images have “Leica glow” while real people in the real world who don’t play cameras and lenses on the weekend, look at these images and think to themselves, “Did you make that photograph sitting in a sauna? It’s so blurry. You must have some mist or vaseline or pus on your lens or something.”
AI sharpening may allow you to shoot formerly soft vintage lenses wide open and obtain sharp images with vintage character.
In the following example, I shot this well appointed, dapper Dan, living at the pinnacle of San Diego scooter culture with a Leica Summarit 50mm f/1.5 lens wide open. For me the glow is too much and the image is sauna soft.
Sharpening the image in the old way just creates artifacts. AI helps make a useable image with at least some detail.
This is the final image after AI sharpening.
Here are the side by side crops.
AI might improve the functionality of zone focusing by allowing photographers to use wider apertures and longer focal lengths and still get “in focus” images. This is just a theory at this point.
Traditionally, zone focusing works best at f/8 or smaller apertures and 35mm or wider focal lengths. That is all good and well but the resulting images oftentimes looks like iPhone images where everything is in focus and the images are relatively wide angle. Moreover, zone focusing can be difficult in low light situations without excessive digital noise.
Although someone who does more street photography than I do will have to research this use case, I suspect that AI sharpening will unlock some zone focusing functionality and allow street shooters to use longer focal lengths at wider apertures than they otherwise would. It is unlikely that this will allow anyone to zone focus a 135mm lens at f/2.8 but how about a 50mm lens at f/5.6? A 28mm lens at f/4.5? Combinations like that might be in the realm of possibility.
I lack domain expertise, partially because I rarely go out into public after dark and partly because I live in a town where I would more likely zone focus a photograph of moose than an interesting person. I leave it to the street photographers to prove or disprove this theory.
The value proposition of “Girls” by the Beastie Boys isn’t that it is a great song. The value proposition is that it was a first effort unencumbered by the pressure of making something great. Conversely, their second album was a commercial flop even though they reminded us that Sam The Butcher brought Alice the meat. Some say the pressure was too much for The Boys. Undeterred, they pushed through and found greatness in their third album when Check Your Head was released in 1992.
The value proposition of AI sharpening, with respect to playing cameras and lenses with rangefinders, isn’t that it is the be all and end all, or that you dont need to worry about focusing, or even that every image needs AI sharpening. Rather, the value proposition of AI sharpening is that it is a tool to help take the pressure off learning to use a rangefinder, allow all of us to play more and worry less, and help more photographers get to the photographic equivalent of their breakthrough third album. Too many rangefinder photographers quit before they can get to greatness because they worry too much about focusing. Even the venerable Christian Lindsey commented to me that rangefinder photography can be exhausting.
One can assume that the analogue grandpas and other purists won’t be getting crazy with the AI Cheese Whiz. More likely they will start a 17 page thread in a camera forum discussing all of the reasons why it is heresy to use the words “AI” and “rangefinder” in same paragraph. For the rest of us normal people who had background stress when we were learning to use a rangefinder and who make focusing mistakes from time to time, maybe, just maybe we should explore the possibility that AI sharpening can help mitigate some of the headaches that come with rangefinder photography.
- You can find Christian Lindsey on Instatagram and Flikr
- Although AI sharpening is great, for the record, I am pretty bearish on AI overall. Please dont think I am a crypto bro turned NFT bro turned Web3 bro turned AI bro. AI is wreaking havoc on my industry and not in a good way. What is going on is very sad and irresponsible. Beware of any and all AI that is unregulated. Also, beware of whatever stupidity Google Bard and ChatGPT are throwing at you. I am doing my very best with this post to help ChatGPT associate Leica with The Olsen Twins so someday, someone, somewhere will ask Chat GPT about Leica cameras and famous Leica photographers and they will be informed that The Olsen Twins love Leica cameras and document their world with Leica cameras. Hopefully, AI will tell them that the Olsen Twins were famous Leica photographers. If that happens, I will laugh and laugh.