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.

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An interview with Alex Coghe by Stephen Cosh

WARNING : THIS POST CONTAINS EXPLICIT IMAGES

Alex Coghe is a world renowned street photographer and I’ve followed his work for years, however it wasn’t until I interviewed him that I saw there was more to the man than his street work…

 

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Hi Alex, please introduce yourself and tell us a little about your background.

I am an Italian Photographer, and have been living in Mexico for 5 years. I’ve never just been a photographer, I was born a writer.

My profession is therefore a union of various activities: I am a photo-journalist. In the past I have written articles about Mexico for an Italian Magazine. I have also had experience as a political journalist but now I interview artists, especially photographers, for my blog and for The Leica Camera Blog.

I also have experience as a photo editor, a skill that I now apply to my publications. The most recent is The Street Photographer Notebook, a project that I’ve just started but that already has been greeted with much enthusiasm from street photographers around the world.

I consider all my professional entities equally important, I’ve never been just a photographer. I hold workshops, for example. And I still offer my journalist services.

I think Photography for me has been an evolution, an extension of my experience as a creative a writer. Poetry is an admission of loneliness and when I realised that I had no more time for this, my camera has become my pen. I will never abandon writing, but I’ve delegated the exploration of my soul to photography.

 

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Alex you are known throughout the digital world for your street photography. How and when did you get into street as a genre?

Well I actually began seriously in 200, but before that I had studied it alot. All the work done without a camera helped me a lot in terms of a solid base.

There were just a few resources on the internet then and books have been very important for me.

 

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What is it about street photography that compels you to get out and shoot?

The sense of self challenge. Street Photography is probably the most challenging genre and I consider it a permanent school for the photographer. I would advise all photographers to practice on the street because even a studio photographer will benefit from it.

For me Street Photography is an attitude, a state of mind. When I am shooting in the studio i still apply the approach of street photography.

But the main reason I shoot street and walk miles exploring places in the city si the feeling that at any moment I can be surprised and get as excited as a child, and the street is always and experience within an experience where you can meet new people and hear their stories.

To be a good street photographer you must have empathy for people. If you do not have a sincere interest in your subjects you will never get good photographs of them.

 

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Recently you have entered into erotic photography. Why this move and how does it link with your street work.

I’m just exploring another part of being a photographer.

I’m a commercial photographer and sometimes I’m not a contractually restricted from showing the images I made which is a pain. I respect the agreements with my clients, but I am pleased with some of this work ,especially my work for fashion brands. I would share but I can’t by agreement, so a year or so ago I launched the Mexicana Magazine project. It is a project where my followers finally can know another side of my work.

I don’t think I need to find a connection between my street work and erotic or fashion photography, but you can certainly see some elements typical of my vision as a street photographer inside my work with models.

I use the available light most of the time and my approach to this genre is the same as my approach to street, looking for that special candid moment. Yeah, erotica and fashion is “set” photography, but I am always looking for the “random moment”, that special, natural moment avoiding fake expressions and poses.

Mexicana Magazine is not just erotic photography, inside you will also find good documentary.

 

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Between street and erotic photography, which do you find the most creative and why?

Both are creative in a different way. I think creative ideas in erotic photography can be more interesting as I am not alone like I am in the street.

I do not direct my models. It is real creative work with them. We have equal power. They are in front of a camera and I’m behind it, but there is always a dialogue and a shared experience. I think erotica is like sex; it can never be one-way. The result would be bad.

 

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Can you tell us about the kit you use to shoot with, especially the Leica gear and how you go about processing your images?

I have been using a Leica X2 for two years now after delivering work on assignment from Leica Camera AG.

The Leica X2 is my main camera. I use it for street photography, photojournalism, fashion and erotica.

As a photographer I don’t need a lot of equipment or big cameras.

I have two ways to work with Leica X2. When on the streets I use the X2 like an analogue camera: LCD turned off, and shoot black and white JPEG without RAW (DNG), optical viewfinder and pre-set focus. When I am working with models I prefer to work with the electronic viewfinder, autofocus and of course I work in RAW.

In my opinion, this camera is always best with manual exposure.

For street photography I don’t edit the files that much. Sometimes I add contrast but that’s all.

For erotica and fashion, yeah I work the images with Adobe Lightroom where I will choose colour or black and white and of course I alter the mood and aesthetics to suit the shoot’s particular requirements.

 

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What is next for Alex Coghe?

I will continue to devote myself to the projects that I have… with two magazines there is a lot of work to do.

I need to prepare work for the agency I am collaborating with: it will be a classical photojournalistic piece, here in Mexico City.

I have other projects and ideas for 2015, but right now I can’t tell you about them. I will announce them when they are ready to go.

 

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Thanks Alex!

Alex Coghe website

Over Confidence with the Leica M Monochrom

Shooting with the Leica M System takes practice. At first it’s not easy, but the more you use it, the easier it gets until after a while it’s just instinctive. You lift the camera to your eye, adjust the focus tab, overlap the two images in the viewfinder and press click. Or at least that is what you do if you shoot Aperture Priority all the time. If you don’t use AP, it’s a little more complicated, but being a street shooter, I need to capture my subjects very quickly and Aperture Priority is a must. It alleviates the need to set shutter speed leaving you with nothing but focusing to worry about… Unless you’re shooting with a Leica M Monochrom.

The Monochrom is a superb camera. It is black and white only, full frame and captures an uncanny amount of detail, so much detail that numerous people have stated it produces a sharper, more detailed shot than most black and white medium format cameras. I can’t back this up as I have no experience of MF cameras either digital or film. What I can say is that of all the 35mm cameras I have ever shot, both digital and film, nothing I’ve ever seen compares to the clarity, sharpness and tonal gradation that the Monochrom achieves. It is simply outstanding… Until it bites you in the ass!

I live in Scotland. Scotland, albeit a fantastic country full of haggis and whisky, is grey. We don’t get much sun here, so setting an M camera up for street shooting is easy. Here’s the drill…

  1. Fire it onto Aperture Priority
  2. Set slowest shutter speed to 1/60th of a second
  3. Set Max ISO to 5000 or 8000 depending on wether you are shooting day or night
  4. Get out on the street – you’re ready to go

This set up works great when the sun you do get in Scotland is forcing it’s way through layers of grey cloud. It never fails. Keep your lens wide open, click the button and let your camera sort out shutter speed and ISO and you have your photo. But last week I went to London for a day and took the camera… When I got home it bit me in the ass.

I took about 40 shots, got home and uploaded the shots from the card and all but a few were overexposed. Why? London was sunny! I was shooting wide open with the camera set up for grey Scottish light and the bright sunlight in London was just too much for the Monochrom. The (non-technical) reason for this is that the Monochrom has no Bayer filter and therefor lets in more light. Too much light hitting a sensor will burn out the blacks and cause overexposure. With a colour camera (one with a Bayer sensor), you can save nearly all overexposed shots by playing around with the colour channels in Photoshop, Aperture or Lightroom, but with the Monochrom you only have one channel – black.

The settings I should have used are…

  1. Fire it onto Aperture Priority
  2. Set slowest shutter speed to 1/125th of a second
  3. Set Max ISO to 2500

So there I was, sitting looking at 40 odd overexposed shots thinking what a waste and I started to delete them one by one, but then came across a few that had just enough black in them that I though I might be able to save some.

It’s testament to both the Leica M Monochrom and Leica lenses, that even in the harshest of sunlight and wide open with a shutter speed that is too slow, that they can capture and render such strong contrasts. It may be the main reason that Leica lenses are so damn good.

I opened up one of the shots in Silver Effex and started playing around with the contrast slider and hey presto, and totally by (happy) accident, came up with an image that looks like a deliberate hi-key shot. I played with a few more and managed to save 8 or 9 of the 40 i had taken. Lucky!

Lunch

So the moral of this story is that when you use a manual camera, specifically a Leica M Monochrom, just remember the word “manual”. Don’t rely on settings you used in one location just to “automatically” work elsewhere. Photography is all about capturing light and if your camera is set up for a different type of light than the one your shooting in… it’ll bite you in the ass!