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Castaways of the Marshall Islands | Exhibition October 19 to November 11 in Saint Brieuc

The Photoreporter Festival in Saint Brieuc, France is exhibiting the new work of 15 selected photographers. My project, “Castaways of the Marshall Islands,” focuses on Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean where the lives of the Marshallese people have been upended by decades of U.S. nuclear bomb experiments and ongoing ballistic missile tests.

October 19 to November 11

Galerie du Point Virgule
Langueux, Saint Brieuc
France

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For more upcoming events, please check my latest newsletter.

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Recent publications: 100 Photos du XXIe Siecle, Facebook offices in TIME and Korea in LIFE

100 Photos du XXIe SiecleDecember has brought a diverse batch of publications featuring some of my photos. Most notably, one of my images from the Maoist revolution in Nepal was chosen for the book 100 Photos du XXIe Siecle (100 Photos of the 21st Century), which was just published by la Martiniere in France and covers key global events from 2000-2010.

The photo, taken in 2005, shows a young female guerrilla soldier training with a battalion of other Maoists in the village of Gairigaon, which at the time was part of the rebels’ stronghold in far Western Nepal. Bizarrely, the girl in the photo is wearing a Britney Spears t-shirt, despite the fact that she is an indoctrinated Marxist fighter.

100 Photos du XXIe Siecle, Nepal 2005

The village was two separate plane flights and then another five days walk from Kathmandu. There was no electricity, and the soldiers were training in the yard of a dirt-floored school. Exactly how Britney Spears’ likeness appeared in such a remote scene remains one of the mysteries of globalization. My partner on the trip through the Maoist heartland was TIME journalist Alex Perry, and he recounts more about that journey and other adventures in his book Falling Off the Edge: Globalization, World Peace and Other Lies.

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Next up is a rare peek inside the Facebook offices in Paris, France.

Facebook Office

Linked with the announcement that Mark Zuckerberg was named TIME’s Person of the Year, the magazine sent photographers to four of Facebook’s offices around the world. To see some of the images that didn’t make it in TIME, I’ve posted a larger selection here.

Flattr this Flattr this photo essay

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And finally, LIFE.com has compiled the work of five award-winning photographers for a revealing photo essay about Korea.

North Korea: Inside a Secret State

Hats off to LIFE’s editors for including long, well written captions with each image. The additional information is especially helpful for a place that is so difficult to decipher.

Testing the Leica M9

Slideshow: Testing the Leica M9 in Paris

Just before the holidays, I managed to get my hands on a new Leica M9. Over the past several weeks I have been putting it through the paces around Paris.

Since late 2005, the only cameras that I have consistently worked with are the Leica M6 and the Canon 5D (and then 5D Mark II). Although I preferred the discreet working style of the M6, it became less and less convenient as a tool for modern photojournalism. Slide film is increasingly expensive, annoying to transport, and nearly impossible to develop in the places where I work such as Nepal, North Korea and Cuba.

Eventually, I began using the Canon much more often than the Leica. I adapted my shooting style around its abilities, though this was not always a good thing. SLR cameras encourage a kind of tunnel vision. You see everything through a rectangular dark cave that blackens every time you press the shutter. This makes it harder to anticipate moments — and that often makes for more static pictures. A key advantage of rangefinder cameras is that you have an uninterrupted view, and your left eye is not blocked behind the camera body. In the finder, everything is sharp, unlike an SLR which lets yours eyes only see sharply what the lens is focused on. (If you are focused on the foreground, then the background is a bit blurry.) For my purposes, the best benefit of rangefinders over SLRs is their unobtrusive size and discreet sound. Subjects notice and react awkwardly much more often to a big SLR than to a small rangefinder.

Why the M9?

Before investing in an M9, I looked back through my portfolio of the last five years. Although I was using Canon much more frequently (for reasons of digital convenience), there were many more shots that I preferred from within the smaller batch shot by the Leica. If I want to have those kind of shots in my portfolio in the years ahead — while at the same time retaining the ability to quickly transmit pictures from abroad — the best solution seems to be a digital Leica. Since I don’t like non-full frame cameras, I never seriously considered investing in a Leica M8.

Resolution, Sharpness and Color

After several weeks of use, I feel that the M9 does offer the same shooting style as my older M6. The M9 files, when shot between 80 to 800 ISO, actually are much sharper and show less noise/grain than shooting on slide film.

© Tomas van Houtryve

(Full frame) Leica M9, 35mm Summicron at f6.7, 1/1000, 160 ISO

© Tomas van Houtryve

(100% crop) Leica M9, 35mm Summicron at f6.7, 1/1000, 160 ISO

The colors however are much trickier. Normally, I can scan a slide and with very minimal adjustment get a normal color cast with pleasing skin tones and accurate landscape hues.

It took me some minor adjustments, but eventually I was also able to approximate the slide film look using Canon RAW files. The same task proved far more annoying when using M9 RAW files and Adobe Camera Raw software. The embedded Leica RAW profile gives blotchy skin tones and tepid colors. Adobe’s own profile is better, but still not as good as the Canon profiles (which do not work on the Leica). A rich spectrum of color information seems to be recorded in the robust M9 RAW files, but converting them to a usable color file requires far too much tinkering. Leica needs to come up with more refined profiles that take full advantage of the sensor’s abilities.

High ISO

After 800 ISO, the M9 quickly looses the noise battle to the Canon 5D Mark II. You can get very good files out of the Canon all the way up to 2000 ISO, where as the M9 needs treatment with noise reduction software from 1000 – 1250 ISO. It becomes basically unusable at 1600 ISO. By comparison, my old M6 with color slide film was useless when the film was pushed past 800 ISO.

Processor Speed

The major area where the M9 feels inferior to the 5D Mark II is with the speed of the internal processor. It takes around one minute to format an 8GB memory card on the Leica, while the Canon only takes about one second.

(*UPDATE, March 15, 2010: the firmware update version 1.116 significantly improves formatting speed and image preview rendering.)

If you are shooting RAW+JPEG, once the buffer is full of pictures on the Leica, it takes 7 seconds before your can fire the next shot. When using an equivalent speed card (Sandisk Extreme III) on the Canon, it only takes 2 seconds.

The best solution to this is to shoot the Leica in RAW only mode, without JPEG. The buffer will be ready to shoot again after 3 seconds. Unfortunately, this means you will have to spend more time on the computer later converting your RAWs to JPEGs.

Cost

The M9 is a very costly investment. The price is roughly the same as the combined cost of buying a new 5D Mark II and a new Leica MP or M7. (Although having to buy lenses for two different systems would eventually drive the price of that combination past the M9 alone.)

Conclusion

The M9 is a very precise tool that is very good within a highly limited range. Where as the latest digital SLR cameras can accurately shoot with lenses from 12mm up to 800mm, the Leica’s optimal working range is only from 28mm to 50mm. While the DSLRs can shoot much higher ISOs and now also video, the Leica can not. But within its tight range, the Leica M9 is the smallest, quietist, sharpest full frame camera available. I happen to take about 90% of my pictures within that small range where the M9 excels, so it turns out to be just the right tool for my kind of work.

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