“Jazz for the Eyes” with the Leica Digilux 2

“Jazz for the Eyes” with the Leica Digilux 2

“Photography is jazz for the eyes”

-William Claxton

I don’t usually review music or photography gear, but this is entry is a little of both.

“They” say the best camera is the one you have with you. Well, one night I found myself joining friends in Taipei for some quality jazz at a basement club reminiscent of NYC’s Village Vanguard – come to think of it, Vanguard Taipei would be a cool name for a jazz club here, but I digress…

I hadn’t given thought to maybe getting some pictures of the jazzy goings on earlier that day when I placed the Digilux 2 in my bag. Once we’d sat down and the ensemble started playing, I was overtaken by the quality of the music and moved to make a few images. What follows is part camera review and music appreciation.

“Ancient” Digilux 2 a True Classic Digicam

Released in December 2003, the Leica Digilux 2 was the result of a collaboration between Leica (optics, ergonomics and controls) and Panasonic (sensor and electronics). It is a five-megapixel digital camera with a fixed zoom lens with 28 to 90mm equivalent focal length range and maximum aperture of 2.0, which creeps slightly to f/2.4 racked out to 90mm. Its CCD sensor is noisy, but renders colors beautifully and produces pleasing high contrast, black and white tones similar to Tmax pushed two stops. Autofocus is slow, often inaccurate, and hard to confirm, and the electronic viewfinder is small, confusing, and not very nice to look through. Manual focus is achieved (or not) through a tiny patch in the already tiny viewfinder that magnifies the focus point. In more modern cameras with sophisticated electronic viewfinders with refresh rates pushing 100 frames/sec. this is called “focus peaking,” but with viewfinder clarity akin to early 80s video games compared to current LED display technology, the Digilux 2’s is more like “focus guessing.” It has a built-in pop-up flash that can point straight forward or lock in an upward position for bounce, which is a rather nice design that works well.

Yet despite all these quirks and limitations, which would never be accepted in a new digital camera today, this camera looks and feels great in the hands like a camera bearing the “Leica” name should, it can be used in aperture or shutter priority or full manual mode, and the Summicron lens is brilliant. The “tiny” 5MP CCD sensor outputs small JPEG files and RAW files, but the JPEGs come out looking superior either in color or black and white.

Studio portrait - B/W JPEG straight out of camera

Studio portrait – B/W JPEG straight out of camera

I love the ease of the zoom lens, the large max. aperture, and the handling of the Digilux 2, which can feel a lot like a film camera I’d use for shooting mostly under ample daylight, except that after I make as many exposures as the (max. 2GB) SD card can hold I don’t have to develop the film, wait for it to dry, and scan it every time I finish 36 exposures.

Blue Note Inspiration in Taipei

Color images made at 400 ISO on the Digilux 2 are not too pleasing, and I associate jazz music with sharp, emotive black and white images made during the music’s heyday of the 1950s and 60s, decades known to many as the “Blue Note era”.

Blue Note Records introduced and supported many musicians that were exponents of Hard Bop, such as Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Dexter Gordon, Hank Mobley, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Woody Shaw, Jackie McLean, Wayne Shorter, and Lee Morgan. Their records not only had a signature sound thanks to certain compositional and performance aesthetics, but also due to the equipment and approach used by recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder. And with Blue Note co-founder and accomplished photographer Francis Wolff on hand at the recording sessions with his Rolleiflex set at f/8 with a big flash on a bracket, combined with the talents of cover designer Reid Miles, the label also had a signature look. Whilst some of the covers used color, the images inside the record sleeves, what were called “session shots”, were always black and white. Given this association with jazz in my mind, and how poorly the Digilux 2 performs over 200 ISO in color, it was an easy decision to set the camera 400 ISO and to directly produce black and white JPEG files in camera.

It is with this atmospheric look and feel in mind that I began shooting. Limited to the camera’s maximum of 400 ISO, I was even more restricted than if I’d been shooting 400 speed film, which I would have probably pushed to 1600 if I’d been using film. So faced with the choice of freezing action with the camera-top flash or sometimes blurring the action, I opted for blurred fingers on fretboards and keyboards and torsos and heads swaying to the funk.

Multi-instrumentalist Kevin James

Playing their first gig together, the highly skilled band led by reed player Kevin James, a transplanted Ohioan, played a selection of funky jazz that ranged from Kenny Garrett’s “Sing a Song of Song” and “Happy People” to an original by pianist Matt cut from a similar cloth. Kevin had more horns with him than tunes to play them, and switched back and forth between tenor and soprano saxophone and the Akai Electronic Wind Instrument (EWI) made famous by the late, great Michael Brecker. I’ve never heard anyone besides Brecker play the EWI, which has an insane seven-octave range, and loved hearing Kevin wail on it. He also threatened to play an electrified bass clarinet, which he referred to as “Eddie Harris meets Eric Dolphy,” but the designated tune for that to happen, Harris’s “Freedom Jazz Dance,” wasn’t called before the night was over.

I’m a HUGE fan of jazz music, and draw tremendous inspiration from the jazz aesthetic of composing in the moment. In many ways photography is a lot like jazz, as the development of one’s style often follows a similar progression from emulation to assimilation and finally to a recognizably individual voice or style.

When it comes to photographs of jazz musicians there are few better photographers than William Claxton and Francis Wolff. They worked exclusively in black and white and often used one single flash. Some day I’d love to try using the same setup that Wolff used for his iconic images of jazz greats like John Coltrane, Lee Morgan, and Dexter Gordon to experience how he did it and then add my own variations. This is my first attempt at photographing musicians in the act of creation. I hope my delight at hearing such a fine group of jazz musicians in my adopted city of Taipei comes out in these images, made with equal delight on a true classic of a digital camera.

Recently, a 12 year-old Digilux 2, new in box, was listed on a Facebook camera exchange group and sold nearly instantly for NT$40,000 (around US$1250), which in my estimation makes it one of the few technologically obsolete digital cameras to hold any sort of value to this day. This is a camera that, despite its severe limitations, is a joy to use, making it an excellent choice for a digital camera with an analog soul suitable for everything from street shooting, to travel photography and even non-commercial studio/portrait work.


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