Leica M mount lenses on the X1D

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f1.4, medium format, comparable size and weight to ‘pro’ M4/3. What’s not to like, other than the price?

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been shooting with the rather unorthodox combination seen above. I’ve found it answers two questions/ solves two problems for me: firstly, the desire for something that operates in the way you want (i.e. transparently) and that makes you want to shoot with it; and secondly, the small/light question. (There’s also a whole separate discussion on the concept of practical equivalence and envelope that I’ll discuss at some later point). But the journey getting here wasn’t quite so straightforward, unfortunately, and this combination is not a Swiss Army knife – it’s got some pretty big limitations. But when it delivers, I find that it delivers something quite special by the truckload.

Additional X1D coverage is here: long term review; assessment with Nikon F mount lenses; field use in Iceland.

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Quick hands-on: The 2012 Leica M (Typ 240)

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Update: my full review is here.

I finally had the chance to have some time alone with the new Leica M (2012 Typ 240) this evening at an event held by Leica Malaysia for the 2012 Maybank Photo Awards (you’ve got until the end of October to enter here; I’m serving as head judge). Advanced note: it was a pre-production prototype, with the SD card glued in because the image quality is nowhere near final. I’m told there will be some notable improvements between this version and the production version; it’s mostly to do with the firmware. I won’t be drawing any conclusions on image quality, because it’s simply impossible to tell at this stage. Please excuse the crappy product shots, I was using my old iPhone 4.

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And that brings me to the first point: the LCD is now enormous. And a huge improvement on the old one; it’s now a 3″, VGA unit that’s on par with the rest of the market – it makes an massive difference to the whole experience. You can judge sharpness on it; exposure is still of course best done with blinking highlights and histogram. To go with the new LCD is a new, cleaner menu system with functions grouped into sensible clusters; there are more of them, but the M remains a camera that you pick up and shoot. M9 shooters will of course be at home after they figure out what the extra two buttons do – the one on the front is for focus peaking; the one at the top is to record a movie.

The M now has live view, and a neat focus peaking feature that only activates when you turn the lens, and disappears with a half-press of the shutter or when you leave it for a while. I presume it works based on a sensor interacting with the rangefinder cam. The next thing you notice is the loss of the RF frameline illuminator window; it’s now LED backlit in either red or pale blue-white; both are very visible. I actually miss the old frameline preview lever; perhaps I was one of the few. There isn’t any more information in the finder, though.

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There are four things that make the new M feel much more polished: firstly, the shutter release action has lost the notchiness of the M8 and M9; it’s a light half press to lock exposure, and slightly more pressure with a clean break to exposure. The shutter itself is a lot quieter and lower vibration; it simply feels better damped. Secondly, the whole thing is just faster – shuttling around the large 24MP DNG files was fast, and there was no waiting for the camera to zoom in/ scroll around. It simply felt snappy; easily as fast as my D800E (!). Next up is selectable metering: you now have the old centerweight, but also spot and matrix; I didn’t get a chance to test matrix extensively but it seems a lot less prone than the M9’s meter to drastic underexposure when you have a bright point source in the frame. This is a good thing for night photographers; as is the new sensor. I could only judge off the rear LCD, but it appears that we’ve now gained some significant high ISO performance – 3200 looked pretty good, with 6400 being useable. Once again, without seeing actual files, this is far from conclusive.

Although the body seems larger than the M9, it’s in fact identical in size to the old one. To accommodate that larger LCD and keep the lines intact, the scroll wheel around the d-pad has now moved to the top right corner, partially hiding behind a thumb rest. I was a bit skeptical about the utility of such a small nub, but it does feel much more secure in the hand than a regular M without a ThumbsUp – which is a good thing, because with the hotshoe serving double duty as an EVF port (didn’t get to try this, unfortunately) you won’t be able to attach any grip accessories. The prototype I handled also had the optional handgrip and wrist loop. I didn’t particularly like the feel of the loop because it didn’t feel comfortable – quite possible I had the wrong size installed for my hands – but the grip definitely improves handling. This one was a blank dummy, but I believe the final versions will have functional ports.

The big question of image quality, and utility of other functions like video will have to wait until I have a final production sample to review – I’m told that will be sometime around December. I’m looking forward to a number of things: firstly, shooting wides without having to use an accessory finder; trying out some macro work without the Visoflex and bellows, and finally, putting my favourite Zeiss ZF.2 2/28 Distagon on the front in a useable way thanks to a Nikon F-Leica M adaptor I’ve had lying around for some time.

All the signs are extremely positive that the M is a huge step forward from the outgoing model. Feel is an important thing; the M feels a bit more ‘button-ey’ than the M9-P, but also more polished. That said, I do like the simplicity of the M9-P – with the ever increasing number of features, I can now see the sense in keeping the product lines separate; the more features the camera has, the more settings and menus are going to be required to tame it. This does somewhat dilutes the photographic purity of the M – but then again, I’m not a videographer and I’m perfectly happy shooting 28/50 on my rangefinders. Now if only they’d do a Hammertone M-E with the new sensor…MT

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Leica M rangefinder calibration service

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I’ve had a number of enquiries about focus precision, rangefinder calibration and adjustment etc. in the last couple of weeks – I suppose it’s because of the need for precision highlighted by the Monochrom’s resolution and 50 APO’s resolving power.

I had the same problem myself in 2009 when shooting with M8s; new lenses would require calibration adjustments and the RF alignment would drift over time with frequent mounting and unmounting. A return trip to Solms for the entire kit of two bodies and several lenses would of course be impractical (both expensive and hugely time consuming), so I learned how to do it myself.

For Leica M shooters in Kuala Lumpur, I offer a rangefinder calibration service for the digital M8/ M9 bodies. It takes an hour, and you pick which lens you would like the body calibrated for – I recommend either your most used lens, or your shallowest DOF one. It is possible to have all bodies calibrated for all lenses, but this will require a long and expensive German holiday for your entire kit as there’s some lens disassembly involved to realign the helicoids…

The adjustment leaves no trace and will therefore not affect your warranty.

Please send me an email if you’d like to make an appointment or enquire about this service. MT

On Assignment: Architecture and the concrete jungle

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I recently shot a commission for the famous Japanese architecture firm Kenzo Tange Associates – whilst I’d heard of them before and seen their work in Japan, I didn’t realize that they had a number of projects closer to home. Turns out there are four buildings in downtown Singapore – all fairly close together – plus another one or two a little further out, and another under construction. And there are some underway in Kuala Lumpur. The scope of this assignment was to get a variety of general exterior views of the buildings during the day, at night and in the context of their environment.

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Architectural photography has always been something I’ve done out of personal interest – followers of this site or my flickr page will undoubtedly have noted my predilection for geometry, abstracts and general building form. The interplay of light, shadow, texture, and how the building sits in its environment are something that I pay perhaps an unhealthy amount of attention to. You just know if the design is balanced and ‘feels right’ by looking at whether it dominates the surrounding landscape, if it disappears and looks insignificant, or whether it looks comfortable.

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That said, although Singapore is an interesting architectural environment – there are a lot of modern, different cutting edge designs and a huge variety of facade treatments (that’s what happens when you have a lot of money flowing into the country; notably most of the places that spend big on their real estate are banks and malls – go figure) there’s also not a huge amount of landscape left to dominate (and that’s what happens when you’re a small island). This of course means that the dominating landscape is urban and of very high density; from a photographic point of view, this presents a huge number of challenges because of lines of sight and vantage points, not to mention permits, access and the like – you’ll need permits to shoot from somebody’s property, even if you’re not taking photos of their property itself.

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Since real estate is expensive, everything is high rise. The challenge then becomes perspective: how do you find the right position to get a perspective that somehow looks natural, but at the same time isn’t blocked by a huge amount of other stuff? It all depends on location. Some buildings can be shot from their plazas with a wide angle (though this is quite conventional and boring); across the street from another building’s rooftop (if the height is right, and the street is wide enough); or much further down the street with a telephoto. Ideally, you’d want a helicopter at low height and a telephoto, but that isn’t practical most of the time.

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Perspective is very important here because anything too wide will look unnatural; this isn’t how the eye sees it. I find when shooting architecture that the best results aren’t from extreme angles: they’re from natural perspectives and details; you want to be able to appreciate the building from a human perspective, because that’s how and why the damn thing was designed in the first place. It’s great if it makes a stool for King Kong, but an architectural failure if the podium steps are too high for people to climb easily.

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That said, shooting in tight confines requires you to get creative. Although you do want to see the whole building, there’s nothing wrong with focusing in on the details and going for some degree of abstraction; I’m sure every architect wants the attention to detail in their work to be seen. I know I would.

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For this assignment, I shot exclusively Leica; their M wide angles are superb, and much superior to anything available for the Nikon F system, though the Zeiss 21/2.8 runs pretty close. The other reason why I went with the Leica system was weight: there’d be as lot of moving around on foot to get the best angles and unique perspectives, which means schlepping everything around like a mule. Lightness is your friend. Oh, and don’t forget that the heavier your camera, the more rigid (and thus, heavier) your support needs to be.

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Sadly, there are no tilt-shift lenses for Leica M; in any case, they wouldn’t have been wide enough in some of the quarters I was working in. I used the new 21/3.4 Super Elmar ASPH M with finder, 35/1.4 ASPH FLE and 50/0.95 ASPH. In hindsight, the noctilux was not the best choice for this – not because of its optics, but because I never used anything larger than f5.6 (you do want everything in focus, and critically sharp, everywhere). I wanted the 50/2.5 Summarit, but turns out it was on loan already. Oh well. The 21 and 35 performed superbly, as expected. In fact, I was surprised by just how good the 21 was – even wide open, in the corners. I think I’ll need to do a full review of this lens in future. Suffice to say, if you don’t need the f1.4 speed of the ‘lux – it’s a no-brainer. (Aside: I owned and shot with the 21/1.4 ASPH as my primary lens extensively during the M8 days, on which it became a handy fast 28mm; however, it wasn’t great for architecture because of the distortion and ever so slight field curvature. Also, overkill when you need f5.6 and smaller.). A D-Lux 5 Titanium rode shotgun for spontaneous shots and the B-roll for this article (due to licensing reasons, I obviously can’t use the original images.) I also used the S2, 30mm and 70mm lenses for some of the daylight work.

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On the support side, I used my old Manfrotto 444 Carbon One – I think this thing must be at least ten years old by now, if not more. I got it used from a friend. Whilst it’s rigid and relatively light, I’d still like something lighter for travel – especially if I’m not putting anything heavier on it than a Leica M. Perhaps one of those Gitzo 00 series things. The problem is I can’t justify one because I do so little tripod work. The head – very important – was my favorite Manfrotto 468RC2 Hydrostat bullhead. This thing is amazing: it locks at any angle, with no ‘droop’ – either it’s locked, or it isn’t. As far as I know, it uses some sort of vacuum system and teflon rollers, but I haven’t needed (or wanted) to take it apart.

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I can’t help but wonder if a V-Lux 3 with it’s excellent 24-600mm lens and a much lighter tripod would have been a better way to go – perhaps something to experiment with in future. All cameras are more than capable of deliverin the required results at base ISO and shooting RAW, anyway.

One final note about processing: to maintain optimum quality throughout the tonal range, I shot at base (160) ISO and did something I rarely do and used a two-stop HDR on the night shots – there’s simply too much difference between the spotlit parts of the building and the deep shadows – easily four or five stops. There are right and wrong ways to use HDR, and that’s a discussion I’ll save for a future article. MT

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Photoessay: The Charles Bridge, Prague

The Charles Bridge – or Karlov Most in Czech – is one of Prague’s great landmarks. Spanning the River Vltava, it was constructed in the 14th century to connect Prague Castle with the old town. Until 1841, it was the only way to get from one side of the city to the other. It is a majestic 510m long, supported by sixteen stone arches and guarded by two towers on either side. The bridge has borne witness to both countless historical events and natural disasters; being severely damaged during several of these and most recently repaired following major floods in 2002. The span itself is decorated by numerous statues, under whose auspices various tradespeople ply their wares during the day.

From a photographic point of view, it’s an interesting place to observe life – both locals and tourists – and a picturesque backdrop to practice street photography or photojournalism, or even a little architecture if the fancy takes you. MT

This series shot with a Leica M9-P, 28/2.8 ASPH, 50/1.4 ASPH and Olympus E-PM1 Pen Mini and 45/1.8 ZD lenses.

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Not technically of the bridge, but you can see its lookout towers in the background.

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POTD: train journey

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M9-P, 28/2.8 ASPH

En route from Prague to Vienna. Flare can be a good thing. And everybody needs a muse – more on this anon. I’d also probably be remiss for not mentioning something about Valentine’s day; so make sure you don’t a) let your other halves down with lousy pictures or b) make them wait forever while you set up your tripod, lights and everything else. 🙂 MT

Macrophotography and the Leica M: seriously?

I’m a watch photographer first, and a photojournalist second. My collaboration deal with Leica requires me to use their equipment where possible; since horological photography is my speciality, this would be a focal point (no pun intended) of the arrangement. Except there’s one problem: everybody know the M system isn’t suitable for macrophotography, with the highest possible magnification being 1:3 – which is about 90x60cm on the M9, and nowhere near close enough for the kind of work I do. And let’s not even mention parallax and accurate framing issues. The S2 and 120 macro were suggested – 1:2 on 45x30mm, which is again 90x60mm. What about the compacts? They get close, but only at the wide end – meaning low magnification and high distortion.

So what does one do to get a pure Leica solution but still deliver magnification in the ranges I need – 1:1 and greater?

After a long time trawling the web and pestering my handler about exactly what was available and what wasn’t, I finally decided the M system was the platform to begin with. Not as crazy as you think; in the early SLR era, Leica made a series of attachments called the Visoflex that permitted TTL/ SLR viewing on a rangefinder body. The Visoflex III fits the digital Ms; I happened to find one for sale on a recent trip to Prague. Coupled to a 50mm lens, that would act as a natural extension tube and deliver 1:1 magnification. But what about lighting? The Visoflex prism housing sits very close to the top plate and of course blocks the hot shoe, so a flash or cable was out of the option. Early experiments involved using a large array (120!) of LED lights – normally for video use. Even then, limited stopping down was possible due to light loss from the magnification factor. The resultant images were different – but more of an impression of a watch, rather than a clear depiction. And there was still the low magnification issue to contend with.

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Impressions of a watch; Girard-Perregaux F1-047. M9-P and Noctilux 0.95

Fast forward a bit. A Bellows II was located, together with the Bellows to M adaptor; this solved the magnification issue. Some creative modification (read: cutting, filing, drilling and knots) involving a hot shoe cover, a flash stand and some speaker wire allowed primitive PC sync connection between the M9-P’s hotshoe and a Nikon SB700 slave flash, which would in turn trigger my primary SB900s. The cable is nice and slim and still leaves sufficient clearance for the Visoflex.

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Der Frankenkamera

So what can we achieve with this combination? See for yourself. I haven’t had a chance to test it out on a full blown shoot yet, but the early results are very encouraging.

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M9-P and 35/1.4 FLE

See more of my macro work with the Leica M9-P here on flickr