We photographers are a strange lot: sometimes we make our lives difficult when there’s absolutely no need to. I recently shot a watch photography assignment using a Leica M9-P, of all things. (This setup has been the subject of another post, here)
You probably know that my usual rig for this is a Nikon with a whole bunch of extension tubes. Why did I do it, you might ask? See the end of the post for the answer.
Let’s start back-to-front, with a few highlights from the results:
I would conservatively say that this was the most difficult shoot I’ve ever done, and the only one that required the services of an assistant – normally, I find they just get in the way and it’s much faster for me to do what needs to be done rather than have to explain it. Firstly, this rig is one which does not focus to infinity, is entirely manual, and is both heavy and unwieldy. Put one finger wrong and you’re liable to make a hole in the bellows, which being the better part of half a century old, is extremely fragile. (The mechanical parts are still in amazingly good condition though, and operate very smoothly.) You need to set magnification first – also restrictive, between about 2.5:1 to 1:2 only (with the Visoflex and 90/4 only) – then move the entire rig to frame – and because it’s unwieldy, you can’t do this handheld. I made a kind of gimbal head out of a Manfrotto 468RC0 Hydrostat head tilted at 90 degrees, to which was vertically mounted a Manfrotto geared focusing rail, with the rail on the Bellows II attached at right angles to that – which allowed me tilt and yaw motion, and precise front/back and up/down movements. Slow going – there were ten adjustment points on support system alone, to say nothing of photographic controls – but accurate.
Secondly, the Visoflex prism obviously blocks the M9-P’s hotshoe, ruling out the use of flashes – at least by any conventional means. With a custom-fabricated cable (read: a hotshoe cover with holes made in it to thread through speaker wire, which was then soldered to the contact points of a donor slave – in this case, a Nikon SB700), it was possible. The slave flash would fire at minimum power and trigger the other flashes in SU4 optical slave mode. Optical slave mode is a polite way of saying 100% manual – so it’s either light meter (which I don’t have) or experience (which I do have, from shooting the same thing with slide film). My assistant would run from flash to flash poking buttons and turning wheels in response to cryptic instructions like “top, up one; back, thirty-two and fifty millimeters, up ten degrees; kill the right one.”
[Translation: Top flash, increase power by one stop. Back flash, change power to 1/32 and zoom head to 50mm, tilt the head up ten degrees. Turn off the right flash.]
It was a near thing. The entire job relied on a single critical part: that sync cable. At one point, there was an internal short somewhere which either kept the flash firing frequently enough to trigger epilepsy, or not firing at all. And to compound things, I suspect the trigger voltage of the hotshoe and flash didn’t agree, which would occasionally cause the M9-P to not fire its shutter at all. And then the Visoflex jammed…let’s just say the Victorinox earned its keep on that day.
It took me just over nine hours to make a final cut of 80 photographs – which is excruciatingly slow, considering I’ll normally do three times that number in two thirds of the time. Most of the delay was due to moving and setting the camera, or fine-tuning the flashes.
However, I think this conclusively proves that the Leica M system is a lot more versatile than most people think. Now, if only Leica would produce modern versions of these accessories – and perhaps something to trigger a flash. I don’t think most people have any idea how difficult it is to find a Bellows II-screwmount to Leica M adaptor until you look…
One quick comment on image quality: the 90/4 Macro-Elmar is a superbly sharp lens with great micro contrast, if you use it in the optimal range. At maximum aperture (f4), there is very visible chromatic aberration – both longitudinal and lateral. Stopped down between f5.6 and f11, it’s superb. At f16, diffraction suddenly kicks in – there’s a huge difference between f13 and f16, it’s as though somebody has run a Gaussian filter over the entire image. (I think at this magnification it’s probably closer to f32, though). I wouldn’t even go near f22. I had to pay careful attention to lighting with the M9, for the simple reason that its dynamic range is probably 2-2.5 stops less than the D800 at base ISO. All in all though, I think you’ll agree that the combination is capable of some spectacular results – even more impressive considering that it was never designed for this.
Because we photographers have a particularly odd fascination with checking out other people’s equipment, I’m going to leave you with some gear shots. I will also say that if anybody is in the market for a tripod head, the Manfrotto Hydrostat series is truly excellent – it’s the only head I’ve ever used that doesn’t exhibit any ‘droop’ when locking down the head, no matter the weight or magnification of the camera and lens combination attached. It’s rock solid.
Yours truly at work. (You’ll notice I’m not using the tripod here; I put it aside for the further-away shots of whole watches.)
My exhibition of fine art horology sponsored by Jaeger Le-Coultre and Leica will be on display at Starhill Gallery, Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur from 3 May onwards – please drop by if you’re in town! If you let me know in advance, I’ll try to give you a personal tour. MT
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