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Alex Majoli points and shoots - Continued

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(March 2003) A demonstration in Amman, Jordan against the Iraq war. (Photo by Alex Majoli/Magnum Photos)

To be sure, doing effective photojournalism with point-and-shoot cameras requires some special techniques. Shutter delay is obstacle number one. Like the earliest digital SLR shooters who faced the same problem, Majoli has honed his anticipation skills and learned a new shutter timing rhythm, but he says he can't eliminate the problem entirely.

Still, he cuts the lag way down by always presetting the focus rather than relying on autofocus. This technique depends on the fact that precise focus isn't nearly as critical as it would be on a 35mm film camera or on a digital SLR. This is due, of course, to the comparatively vast depth of field provided by the very short focal length lenses on digital point-and-shoots. (The actual focal length of the zoom lens on a C-5060, for example, is 5.7 - 22.8mm, which yields the same angles of view as a 27 - 110mm lens on a 35mm camera.)

Majoli also sets his exposures manually or uses the exposure lock function when shooting in any automatic mode, which also yields marginal improvements in the camera's responsiveness.

Because Majoli is usually shooting magazine stories, his need for high frame rates and large image buffers is much less pronounced than it is for many newspaper and sports photographers. But while shooting in Iraq, where he needed to capture long bursts more often than he normally does, Majoli developed a method for overcoming problems with buffer stall.

He carried two C-5050 cameras on straps around his neck, with one strap cinched shorter than the other, so that the cameras hung at slightly different heights on his chest. The cameras were set for 3-shot burst mode. When a long sequence of shots was called for, Majoli fired a 3-shot burst with one camera, dropped it, grabbed the other and shot a burst with it. The first camera wrote its images to the card, thereby clearing its buffer, while Majoli shot with the second. He just kept rotating from one to the other for as long as the action in front of him continued.

"That was my way to shoot in Iraq," he says. "I'm talking about for news. In other situations, I don't need this." Majoli says he can't think of any shots he missed while trading cameras and points out that the overall system is faster than manually winding a Leica, his pre-digital practice.

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(2003) Soldiers train in the Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Photo by Alex Majoli/Magnum Photos)

Beginning with the C-5050, Olympus began fitting its so-called prosumer cameras with LCD monitors that either tilt or tilt and swivel. Majoli loves this capability, using it often to take pictures without holding the camera to his eye.

It's a technique that dovetails nicely with the virtually silent operation of these cameras when you turn off their indicator beeps and pre-recorded shutter sounds. "It's really changed the way I shoot," says the photographer. "People don't realize I'm taking pictures. It's fantastic. Fantastic."

Another quality of point-and-shoots that would bedevil many photojournalists -- their lack of interchangeable lenses, especially long telephotos -- doesn't bother Majoli all that much. When he was using Leicas, he shot almost exclusively with 28mm and 35mm fixed wides, so the zooms on his Olympus cameras actually provide greater lens versatility, and more telephoto reach, than he was previously used to.

All of Majoli's pictures are captured in JPEG format at the lowest compression level available on his camera. Outdoors, he generally sets his white balance to "sunlight" and his in-camera sharpening to the -1 setting. Otherwise, he leaves image parameters such as contrast and saturation at their default values.

Though he loves the dramatically wide depth of field afforded by his point-and-shoot cameras, Majoli struggles with himself over some other aspects of the look of his digital images, especially their contrast.

In his Leica days, he shot Tri-X and developed it in D-76. His Olympus files show much more shadow detail than those old Tri-X negatives, the photographer says. So he often finds himself increasing the contrast of his digital pictures in Photoshop, but part of him considers it a nasty habit.

"Digital, you can see everything," he says. "I used to try to catch as much detail in the blacks as I can, and now I can see everything. It's more than I need, so I try to go back to what I used to see in the past. It's wrong, psychologically. Digital is something different than film, but I try to go back to the idea of what film could do. Film is more black. I need the blacks."

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(March 2003) A protest in Damascus, Syria against the war in Iraq. (Photo by Alex Majoli/Magnum Photos)

In other respects, Majoli is satisfied with the images his point-and-shoots make, and so are his clients, he says. "In the beginning there was a general problem with digital, not with my specific camera. But you can actually say that I have shot for National Geographic [with the point-and-shoots]. We just do it and show the prints, and they forget about [what camera was used]."

Majoli's photojournalist colleagues have been a bit more dubious. "In Iraq, [other shooters] looked at me like I'm crazy," the photographer remembers. "They said, 'What? What are you doing with this?' But many of my colleagues are influenced by this. They are trying the point-and-shoots. At the beginning, they need a little bit of instruction."

Though he has had great success with his point-and-shoot cameras, Majoli has some improvements he'd like to see. When you add them up, they describe an enticing synthesis of the old and the new.

"I miss the strongest of the old generation cameras -- Olympus OM-1, the Leica. The dream would be a digital camera the size of the C-5060 -- not bigger than a Leica, let's say -- with exchangeable lenses. Small lenses. I would like to see fixed lenses, not zooms. Maybe some bigger apertures -- f/1.8. The file is fine. I don't need 20 million megapixels."

Oh, and there's one more thing. "I would like to have the same battery for everything -- iPod, camera, computer, cell phone, the Palm Pilot. All should work on the same charger. Just one charger. I get crazy."
 

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