Hollywood and the Decisive Moment, The Leica S (Typ 007)

by Jono Slack

Introduction

In early July I was asked by Leica if I would like to test out the new Leica S (Typ 007) code named Hollywood. I pointed out that I had no experience with either the Leica S, or with medium format digital photography in general, but I was told that would make it all the more interesting! However, it does mean that this is going to be a rather lop-sided article: I can’t compare the results from the typ 007 with the previous S cameras, I can only give my feelings about this camera; it’s unlikely to inform anyone considering whether or not to upgrade, but perhaps it will help other photographers who are considering the new S as their first foray into the larger format.

I am a re-active (as opposed to pro-active) photographer, an observer rather than a planner; I always have a camera with me, and I take photographs as opportunities arise. The often stated idea that medium format photography makes you slow down and think a little harder is a complete anathema to me – the minute I start to think my photographs seem to lose all their life. For this reason I never use a tripod, and very rarely (and only in desperation) a flash.

Of course, I could have decided to use the S ‘properly’, to dust down my tripod, to hire some strobes and to make an attempt at product photography and some formal landscapes, but I would almost inevitably make a hash of it, so that seemed like a pretty bad idea. What I did was to take the camera and lenses to the Latitude festival in Suffolk and to shoot bands and people in just the way I would with any other camera. I decided to try some ‘action’ and candid photography, and a cousins camping weekend in our garden provided a great opportunity for this. All the pictures shown here (and in the accompanying web page) are hand held, and none of them use flash.

It’s worth mentioning that the images shown here (and in the attached link) were all shot with a prototype camera and with pre-production firmware, there have been definite improvements for the production cameras.

1 S0708547Ladybird paddling Pool – Vario Elmar 30-90 ISO 100 f5.7

Ergonomics and Handling

I think that the Leica S is one of the most beautiful cameras ever made – elegant and minimalist, indeed, in the latest camera the shutter speed dial has been changed to a simple dial without any engraved speeds, the only writing left is the rather unnecessary On/Off on its on/off switch – it seems to me that if you can manage to use all the buttons without any clues to their functions, you can probably remember where the on/off switch is!

Whilst the general direction in the camera world is towards more and more analogue controls, Leica have headed in the other direction with the S. Of course, this is so that the user can configure the buttons and dials to their own particular needs, and the annotation of the buttons on the back is shown in the LCD screen. There is also a crystal clear screen on the top plate of the camera which shows all the settings – arguably better to have them all in one place like this than scattered around the camera body.

2 S0708063Lemon Garlic and Courgette: Vario Elmar 30-90 ISO 100 f9.5

The camera isn’t just beautiful, it’s beautifully made, the controls fall to hand really well, and the little joystick at one’s thumb point is extremely useful. Pressing the rear dial to change Mode is also an excellent idea.

I’m not going to talk about the controls of the camera in detail (many readers will already be more familiar with the concept than I am). I did find it fairly intimidating in the first instance, but very quickly the controls become intuitive, and it’s really easy to configure them to suit personal preference.

3 S0707717Geraint Watkins at the Latitude Festival: : 70mm Summarit ISO 800 f3.4 

High ISO and Low Light shooting

The Latitude Festival is a weekend event held on the east coast of the UK, not as big as Glastonbury, but one of the main summer events. Although the S doesn’t seem like a natural camera to use for this kind of event, it did seem to be a great way to find out it’s strengths and weaknesses, and to learn how to use it.

Sadly, the longest lens I had was the 90mm of the 30-90 zoom, and this wasn’t really long enough to shoot the bands on the main stage (even from the press area just in front of the stage). However, a storming set from Geraint Watkins in the Film and music Arena proved to be just right. I used the 70mm summarit and mostly kept the ISO at 800 or 1600 and the aperture at f3.4 with a shutter speed of 1/125.

I was really pleased with the results – ISO 1600 was absolutely fine, and the focus was mostly spot on.

4 S0707863Watching Jon Hopkins: Vario Elmar 30-90 ISO 1600 f4.6

Having got the measure of the camera in low light, I found that shooting at 1600 ISO seemed to have few disadvantages – of course there is a little noise, but it meant that I could keep the shutter speed to manageable levels, avoiding camera shake even in the evening or in overcast light.

11 S0707629Latitude folk: Vario Elmar 30-90 ISO 1600 f4

Auto Focus and action

The AF on the Leica S is pretty good – I haven’t used the previous cameras, but I understand that it’s been improved for Hollywood.

Having the AF on the shutter release did occasionally cause hunting in low light and where the target goes from distant to close very quickly. As a result of this, most of the time I had AF on the toggle button on the rear of the camera (with the camera set to manual focus). This worked pretty well, with the focusing being quick and extremely accurate (even in fairly poor light).

You can always go to MF by turning the focusing ring with the shutter half pressed, this is simple and works very well in practice – I found it even easier than having an MF/AF push pull switch on the lens (like the pro Olympus lenses for example).

The lenses for the S are big, and the elements further apart, so for AF there is a lot of glass to move a long way. On the basis of this I wasn’t very optimistic about tracking with continuous AF. However, as it turns out it works surprisingly well: I spent a weekend shooting badminton and children and dogs rushing around at high speed. I suppose you wouldn’t choose the Leica S as a sports shooter, but I found it worked much more efficiently than I had expected, nailing focus on most occasions.

5 S0708629April: an Elegant Miss : Vario Elmar 30-90 ISO 400 f5.7 

For me, the absolute bottom line with a camera is that it should take a picture when you press the shutter. This seems obvious, but it’s surprising how many modern cameras fail this test, even some expensive modern models.

The Leica S performs really well here – there is no apparent shutter lag, and what you see is definitely what you get.

6 S0708912Walking the Dogs on a dreek morning: Vario Elmar 30-90 ISO 400 f5.7

Viewfinder and manual focusing

There are lots of times when I find AF only too likely to decide on something other than my idea, and focus and recompose has it’s disadvantages in terms of speed and accuracy, so I still find lots of circumstances when manual focusing is preferable.

The Viewfinder of the S is quite simply the best and brightest viewfinder I have ever used, it’s huge and glorious and makes manual focusing a real pleasure. It’s easy to get good focus anywhere in the frame, excellent for candid photography and casual portraiture.

7 S0708769Tom the Hat: 70mm Summarit ISO 400 f8

Image Quality

I found the image quality from the new S to be quite breathtaking – I had the 30-90 zoom and the 70mm summarit, and both lenses seemed to be quite flawless.

I followed my normal practice of shooting ‘Sunny’ white balance during daylight hours and then either using Auto WB or taking a reading from a grey card in mixed artificial light. I was really impressed with the dynamic range, the colour depth and the exuberant feeling the files seem to have. They are also immensely amenable to post processing, with no tendency to fall apart, even under much stress! I wasn’t so impressed with the jpg files, but I didn’t really experiment too much with the different settings, being a RAW shooter at heart. Files were processed in Lightroom (which doesn’t yet have full support for the camera, but which nevertheless works really well). Even really large prints look wonderful, I just can’t imagine a real life situation where one would need more resolution than this.

Black and white conversions work equally well (I use Silver Efex Pro II)

8 S0708868-EditMen an Tol – West Cornwall : Vario Elmar 30-90 ISO 100 f4.7

Conclusion

Generally speaking when writing my camera articles I’m pretty well acquainted with the competition, and I’m aware of the advantages and limitations on either side. In this case I’m only too well aware that I don’t have a full set of information to work from.

I haven’t even mentioned the video capabilities, as I’m not a video shooter – I’ll leave others to discuss the video capabilities of the S.

If you would like a better idea of the technical capabilities of the camera then you should take a look at Sean Reid’s site (reidreviews.com) where he has published Part One of a long term review of the Leica S.

What I can say is that the new Leica S can produce breathtaking files in most normal shooting situations. It certainly isn’t constrained by the conventional limitations of medium format, it shoots fast with accurate AF in fast changing situations, its low light capability is impressive (I found it to be quite useable up to 6400, and that 12,500 was okay in an emergency – I’ve not come across a colour camera that really does better than that).

It’s a wonderful camera which can easily be used as one would use a top of the range Nikon or Canon SLR, but with it’s larger CMOS sensor it produces true medium format quality.

9 S0707970Time for Bed at the Latitude Campsite

70mm Summarit ISO 200 f2.5

10 S0708511-EditApril

Vario Elmar 30-90 ISO 6400 f5.7

6 Months with the Leica APO Summicron-M 50mm

I’m a 50mm guy. For whatever reason, be it scientific or psychological, I just prefer shooting a 50mm over any other focal length. In my six or seven years of shooting Leica M bodies, I’ve owned pretty much all the modern Leica 50mm’s, a few of the classics and a few non-Leica brands.

APO Summicron-M 50mm, f/16, ISO 320

APO Summicron-M 50mm, f/16, ISO 320 (Click image to enlarge)

Until recently I thought that the Leica Summilux-M 50mm was without a doubt the best 50mm lens on the market. I’ve shot with it for four years and loved every minute of it. I’ve got to know the lens inside out and would have been happy shooting with it for the rest of my life.

However, when Leica announced the APO Summicron back in 2012 to much fanfare and exaltation, I decided to look into it. There were crazy claims flying about – some called it the best Leica lens ever made, some said it was even the best lens of all time, but it turned out I was going to have to wait a long time to find out how true these claims were.

Leitz Park, Wetzlar. 02.09.2015 Leica MM 246; APO Summicron-M 50mm 1/125sec; f/2; iso400

APO Summicron-M 50mm, f/2, ISO 400 (Click image to enlarge)

I put an order in for one with my local dealer and after waiting around six months, I started noticing articles on the internet pop up mentioning flare issues and that Leica were binning 9 out of 10 that they produced due to production complications. I really didn’t fancy forking out a fortune just to be a guinea pig, so I cancelled my order with my dealer and went back to being happy (more than happy) with my Summilux.

A few years went by and I just happened to be in the Leica Mayfair boutique in February and there were two APO’s in stock. I asked the shop manager if the flare and production issues had been sorted and he confirmed they had. The lens had actually dropped slightly in price as well and I decided to buy it there and then.

So now I’ve had the lens for a little over six months, shoot almost exclusively with it and thought it was about time I wrote up my findings.

APO Summicron-M 50mm, f/2, ISO 25000 (Click image to enlarge)

APO Summicron-M 50mm, f/2, ISO 25,000 (Click image to enlarge)

I know the claims out there. I’ve heard it called “technically perfect” and “the best render of any lens ever”, but rather than be sensational about it, I’m just going to simply state that it is the best lens I’ve ever used. Not just the best 50mm lens. Not even just the best full frame lens (I shoot S lenses too), but the best lens I’ve used period.

Ok, so that is a big claim, especially when it doesn’t render nearly as good as a APO-Summicron-S 120mm, but for a blend of reasons, it is the best lens I have ever used.

Here’s why…

  1. I shoot black and white and primarily on a Monochrome Typ 246. The APO is perfectly matched to this sensor. It has resolving capabilities superior to any other Leica M lens and suits the high resolution, Bayer filter-free Monochrom sensor perfectly.
  2. It has much more contrast than any other Leica M lens and therefor tricks the eye into thinking the image is sharper.
  3. It “is” optically sharper than any other Leica M lens due to the aspherical design and modern apochromatic correction. When I say “optically sharper”, I mean it’s “way” sharper.
  4. Leica have been accused recently of producing lenses that render too clinically. The APO renders classically on the Monochrome sensor and the grain at high ISO’s is so film-like it’s actually welcome. On the M240 colour sensor, the colour rendering is so correct that very little processing is required and of course it shows very little to no chromatic aberration.
  5. The unique sharpness of this lens wide open produces a level of subject separation that I’ve never experienced on any other lens in any other format. You will have heard people talking about Leica’s 3D image quality, the APO is like 4D!
  6. The thing I loved about the 50mm Summilux was it’s creamy bokeh. The APO is not quite as creamy, but it’s every bit as charming and you don’t need the extra stop that the Summilux has to achieve it. At f/2, the APO renders a lovely, clean, swirl free bokeh.
  7. The build quality is worth mentioning too as Leica have raised the bar with this lens. It feels solid and exact. Leica’s build quality on any lens has never been in question, but the APO just feels better. The built in hood is genius!
  8. It’s highly useable. This might seem a strange thing to say about a lens, but when you are shooting moving subjects such as people in the street, short focus ring travel is essential. The APO’s focus ring travel is small and precise. The lens is also short and light. At under 50mm in length and weighing in at only 300g, it is noticeably smaller and lighter than the Summilux.
    (Qualification: The most unusable lens I have ever shot with is the Noctilux.)

So for the reasons above, I’ve fallen in love with this lens and it’s never off my mount.

APO Summicron-M 50mm, f/4, ISO 320 (Click image to enlarge)

APO Summicron-M 50mm, f/4, ISO 320 (Click image to enlarge)

The last thing to talk about is price. This is an expensive lens. At the time of writing it is £5200 / $8000 / €7150. A lot of money.

However, if you’re in the market for this lens, you’ve probably looked at or owned a 50mm Noctilux, which is dearer and trust me, nowhere near as useable, as sharp or as portable as the APO. You may also have looked at the 50mm Summilux which at the time of writing is about half the price of the APO. Is the APO twice as good as the Summilux? No, it’s not, but consider the compactness of the lens, it’s awesome sharpness and it’s ability to separate subjects like no other lens in existence and the spend becomes more convincing.

APO Summicron-M 50mm, f/4, ISO 320 (Click image to enlarge)

APO Summicron-M 50mm, f/4, ISO 320 (Click image to enlarge)

Image quality is subjective and open to differing opinions, but to reinforce my experience with the APO I’ve included a few unprocessed comparison shots between the APO  and the Summilux below…

APO Summicron-M 50mm, f/2, ISO 2500 (Click image to enlarge)

APO Summicron-M 50mm, f/2, ISO 2500 (Click image to enlarge)

Summilux-M 50mm, f/1.4, ISO 2500 (Click image to enlarge)

Summilux-M 50mm, f/1.4, ISO 2500 (Click image to enlarge)

APO Summicron-M 50mm, f/8, ISO 25000 (Click image to enlarge)

APO Summicron-M 50mm, f/8, ISO 25,000 (Click image to enlarge)

Summilux-M 50mm, f/8, ISO 25000

Summilux-M 50mm, f/8, ISO 25,000 (Click image to enlarge)

If you decide the APO Summicron-M is your next 50mm lens, let me know if you’re as delighted with it as I am.

The Leica Meet Wetzlar

By ELAN

THE LEICA MEET group of photographers were invited to Wetzlar, Germany on Sep 2nd/3rd 2015, for a tour of the new Leica factory and a conversation with Leica CEO Oliver Kaltner. Twenty four of us came.  All photos here were taken with a brand-new 28mm Summilux-M f/1.4 that Marina at the factory store was kind enough to save for me 🙂 

TLM_Wetzlar-1The new Leica factory.  Back in its original home town in Wetzlar, this impressive building was completed in 2014.  The entrance lobby is enormous, complete with a photo exhibition, Leica museum, a fully-stocked Leica store and the Leitz Cafe across the way.  Open to the public and well worth the pilgrimage.

TLM_Wetzlar-2A peaceful corner in the vast entrance lobby.

TLM_Wetzlar-3The Lenny Kravitz FLASH exhibition.  The exhibition changes every three months.

TLM_Wetzlar-4Waiting for dad… to finish his shopping…

TLM_Wetzlar-5Our factory tour begins with an overview of the building.  Two hundred glass panels surround the building, many of them curved, and each weighing like a Volkswagen.  A glass ceiling above the lobby is designed to let light in but prevent shadows from falling on the interior, especially on the exhibition.  The building is green and high-tech and functional and beautiful.

TLM_Wetzlar-6No photos beyond this point!

The tour focused on what it takes to make lenses – the incredibly tight tolerances, the quality of the glass, aspherical polishing techniques, the high-tech (and low-tech) machines, and the amount of manual labor required to put a lens together.  No wonder they cost so much.

TLM_Wetzlar-7A conversation with Leica CEO Oliver Kaltner:  “It’s all about the image” and “The Leica M will remain pure – like the Porsche 911”.  Let’s hope so!

TLM_Wetzlar-8A working replica of Ur-Leica (“original Leica”), from 1914.  The original is stored in a bank vault and said to be worth millions.  This camera invented 35mm photography.  Below there’s a photo of the spot in Wetzlar where Oskar Barnack took his first photo with this camera.

TLM_Wetzlar-9A stroll through the Leica museum.

TLM_Wetzlar-10Every Leica camera ever made is on display.  Hundreds of cameras and lenses.

TLM_Wetzlar-11Children’s competition decorating a Leica M.

TLM_Wetzlar-12Show up unannounced at the Wetzlar Leica factory for simple service and they will do it on the spot.  Usually for free.  A dozen of us handed over our gear for sensor cleaning, lens painting and various tightenings, and it all came back fixed within a couple hours.  What other company offers you this service? Stephen Cosh getting his Leica back as Gunnar Johnsen waits for his.

TLM_Wetzlar-13Gavin Mills waiting impatiently for his 35mm FLE to come back from the paint shop… the number 7 wore out of Gavin’s focusing ring so they repainted it back in and touched up other faded paint.  Took an hour to dry.  Looks new now.

TLM_Wetzlar-14The main square in Wetzlar.  The night before it was full of people attending a concert.

TLM_Wetzlar-15A humbling moment to stand on this spot and take a photo with a Leica M.

TLM_Wetzlar-16This photo is taken standing on Oskar Barnack’s plaque (see above).  Oskar’s photo (which was taken with a lens longer than my 28mm) is much better than mine.  It can be seen here:  https://artblart.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/1913_oskar_barnack_wetzlar_eisenmarkt-web.jpg

TLM_Wetzlar-17The Meet organizer, Olaf Willoughby, at dinner with Fatima Salcedo at the Haupt Wache.

TLM_Wetzlar-18A group photo after dinner at the steps of the Haupt Wache.  Twenty photographers couldn’t pick a better setting? 🙂  Later, another group photo was taken in the square… see Gavin Mills’ photos.

TLM_Wetzlar-19Our friends from Switzerland heading back to the hotel after a long and wonderful day.

TLM_Wetzlar-20Early morning coffee by the river, at our hotel.

TLM_Wetzlar-21The Leica Meet bus to Marburg for a morning shoot.  We spent half the time sitting in Cafes 🙂

TLM_Wetzlar-22Welcome to Marburg.  It’s a nice day!

TLM_Wetzlar-23Stephen Cosh shooting the cathedral at Marburg.  Rolle Machtmabass captured some impressive photos of this cathedral…  look them up on Facebook.

TLM_Wetzlar-24Elisabethkirche – the cathedral at Marburg.

TLM_Wetzlar-25Walking the streets of Marburg.

TLM_Wetzlar-26Gunnar Johnsen in action.

TLM_Wetzlar-27Gunnar Johnsen and Gavin Mills discuss the fine art of photography.

TLM_Wetzlar-28Street photographers.

TLM_Wetzlar-29Gavin Mills shares a photo with Fatima Salcedo.

TLM_Wetzlar-30I missed this shot… but it demonstrates the wonderful soft bokeh of the new Leica 28mm Summilux-M ASPH f/1.4.

TLM_Wetzlar-31Leaving our hotel – Landhotel Naunheimer Mühle – just outside Wetzlar.

TLM_Wetzlar-32Autobahn, at 150 km/h, on the way back to Frankfurt airport. Many thanks to Marcel Wizenberg for the ride!