On assignment and studio review: Watch photography with the Leica M9-P

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:

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Deep Sea Chronograph.

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.

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Duometre a Quantieme Lunaire 40.5

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.]

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Amvox World Chronograph

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.

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Duometre a Quantieme Lunaire 40.5

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.

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Duometre a Spherotourbillon

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…

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Master Ultra Thin Reserve de Marche

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.

leicamacro01

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.

leicamacro02

leicamacro05

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.)

leicamacro06

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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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Comments

  1. My definition …. patience & painstaking work, but delivers awesome images and concepts.

  2. Ciao, truly amazing, such detail and precision, care and patience, thanks for showing all the equipment and set up. Lynne

  3. parameteres says:

    always love your horology photos.

    Quick question, why did you decide to crop the bottom of photo 1 & 4?

    • I didn’t. That’s the most balanced composition I could manage with that as a minimum magnification – the Visoflex/ 90/4 combination doesn’t let me pull out any further.

  4. Good job Ming – always interesting.

  5. philip o says:

    you are one patient dude….i would have gone bald tearing my hair out in frustration…kudos…excellent work.

  6. This is the first time I see your work, arrived here from the (very nice) comparision of S2 vs D800, I must say I’m very impressed with this photographs, they’re really amazing. Surely will be seeing your work often.

  7. Ming: Will your exhibit at Starhill still be on in June.
    I am visiting KL in mid-June. (from USA).

    Patrick

  8. I recently started looking at yur work and like the pictures

  9. Hi Ming! Sorry to use this thread’s comment section to ask something, but I think it’s fitting. I just got a Leitz Bellows for next to nothing, and I plan to use it with my Pen EP-3. However, I do not own a Visoflex. Is it possible to fit the Visoflex side of the bellows to a Micro 4/3 camera body? I suppose it’s possible to use the bellows on a Leica body without the Visoflex (I can be wrong, though). Thanks!

Trackbacks

  1. [...] everything else as well. He has a blog where there was some amazing JLC pictures – worth a look On assignment and studio review: Watch photography with the Leica M9-P Jon Reply With [...]

  2. [...] tips Here you can see how a pro is doing it…. This is from an old friend, Ming Thein On assignment and studio review: Watch photography with the Leica M9-P To the rest of us – keep trying until it seems okay. I do like cloudy daylight and a tripod, but [...]

  3. [...] for the readers who can’t make it to Kuala Lumpur. An article on how the series was shot is here on my blog. [...]

  4. [...] both the Bellows II and Visoflex III for US$330 plus shipping. I shot this watch photography project with the exact same equipment for [...]

  5. [...] of lighting experimentation in between the two; to make things more challenging, it was shot with a Leica M9 and huge frankenrig. Note how this image maintains the same contrast, but has much better highlight transitions and mid [...]

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