Photography

Some lenses have a cult status, not always based on performance alone. The Leica Summilux 35mm is one of the most revered and hated lens from Leica. I decided to buy one. There are modern sharper lenses available new for a third of the Summilux used price. The Zeiss Biogon lenses and Voightlander Nokton 35mm f/1.4 are prime examples. I almost decided on the Nokton, but didn’t like the distortion. The Nokton is however said to be sharper at f1.4 than the Lux. So, why pay more for an “inferior” older lens?

Summilux 35mm

Summilux 35mm

My experience with the Fuji X100S has produced some very sharp images. In low light, skin tones look like plastic. I need to add grain in post-processing to make photographs look natural. That is the problem with digital cameras. When does perfection become undesirable? Look at runway models… They are all the same height, shape, with perfect features and faces… Boring. I was also looking at the Summicron aspherical photographs and they look like digital images. I have my X100S for that. Why try to make film look more like digital? Though I agree that the Summilux “Leica glow” is indeed a flaw, it does make one’s photographs look like they came right out of the fifties. I see the same look in images taken with my Summitar 50mm f/2. Sometimes I hate it, and sometimes I love it. The good part about the Lux is that it is sort of two different lenses: At f1.4/2 it is soft and dreamy. At f2.8 and above it becomes tack sharp. I like to take pictures in the evening, and f1.4 is important to me. Interesting things tend to happen in semi darkness. Imperfection can be more desirable than perfection.

The Summilux was manufactured for thirty five years! When you buy one, you buy a legend, not just a lens. Yes, there is a small amount of pride in owning one. Not because you paid a lot of money for it, but because you chose it. As much as I like my CV Color Skopar, it seems out of place on a Leica body. A leica camera looks better with a Leica lens. I would imagine that more famous photographs have been taken with a Summilux than most other lenses. There is a history behind it, one fraught with adventure. Although subjective, it does generate a warm feeling to know you have something that has survived the test of time and been the choice of many great photographers.

Speaking about money… The undoubtedly unreasonable price of this lens isn’t necessarily bad. It means people are willing to pay a premium to get one. I could easily sell it in a few years for more money than I paid for it. I think of it as an investment more than an expenditure. I will always have that amount available in case of emergency, and it would take a big one I suspect to make me sell it. If I had the same amount in cash, I would be too tempted to spend it. It will also not devaluate like the dollar… Keep in mind that it can be used on many modern digital cameras, not just Leicas. There will never be a lack of buyers for this highly desirable item. Try to sell an old worn out Nokton, see what happens…

The lens is well known for its flaws, coma, softness wide open and flare. Anything above f2 looks pretty sharp. See the related Flickr group. It does open at 1.4 however, and that can mean the difference between a soft image and nothing. I also like the fact that it has no visible distortion. Bright 35s are notoriously hard to make and I do not know of any model that doesn’t have one or more flaws, being it softness wide open, weight, coma, distortion, flare or size. Pick your poison… The latest aspherical version, aside from costing more than $5K, is noticeably bigger than the Pre-ASPH. My lens is serial number 3394739, built by Leitz Canada in 1986. It is a later pre-aspherical model rumored to have better coating. We’ll see… I will update this page with images later.

I also got the original metal hood #12504 and a series VII UV filter #13009. The hood is a must-have to avoid flare with this lens.

Let’s face it, getting a new lens won’t make your photography any better. If you can’t compose, expose and catch the moment, nothing but practice and study can help you. It will give your photographs, good or bad, a certain look. Call it “retro” if you may. I like to think of it as more natural. Film grain renders skin tones beautifully. The Summilux’s softness wide open can be great for portraits. Stopped down to 2.8 it should be as good as any other lens.

I do not think the Summilux is an unresonable choice. If I don’t like it, I can sell it and make a few dollars in the process. The lack of distortion was a major contributing factor in choosing it. If the Nokton had not distorded, I might have gone for it. The Nokton f1.2 is just too big. The Biogons and Summitar aren’t bright enough. A Leica lens will last a lifetime when well taken care of. I have no doubt I will enjoy it (I hope) for many years, hopefully decades to come. If you are thinking about getting one, you don’t have much to loose. It won’t devaluate, assuming you got a good deal. Sure, it might be a love/hate relationship, but as often is in these, the love parts can be great.

Update, July 18th: The lens arrived todat at noon, only sixty hours after ordering, from Hong-Kong! Unbelievable. I feel compelled to mention the seller, Breguet Camera on Ebay. The lens looks like new, with seemingly pristine glass. I am trying to finish my film with it today so I can develop it tonight and have a first look. I will also post some comparative shots with the CV Color Skopar at different apertures.

Summilux 35mm f/1.4

Summilux 35mm f/1.4

I was at Indian Beach tonight and took a few shots as the sun went down. I was able to take photographs much longer than I usually did with my f/2.5 Color Skopar. It doesn’t seem like a big difference in theory, but practice proves otherwise. I didn’t even take out my X100S, which is my low-light camera. The 1m minimum focusing distance annoyed me on one occasion trying to photograph a small dog.

Build quality feels better than the CV. You can tell that tolerances are closer, which is amazing for a 1986 lens compared to a much more recent one. The focusing is a bit stiffer, but not enough to be a bother. The aperture ring moves easily with solid clicks. The absense of threads for a filter is rather stupid coming from Leica. What the hell were they thinking? Overall I am very please with the lens though. It does not need a CLA at this time, which is good because I couldn’t afford one now! One advantage I noticed is that with the focusing tab at six-o-clock, the distance is 2m, perfect for street photography, in many cases. The aperture ring, or rather tabs, take a little time to get used to.

Now I need to develop my film and post a couple shots here. The Summilux/Color-Skopar duel might have to wait, we’ll see. I do have a few frames left on the film, so if I think of something interesting to do, I will post the images.

Update, July 19th: The lens appears to ve very sharp at f3.4. Here is my friend Erin at the coffee shop:

Erin, Summilux 35 at f3.4

Erin, Summilux 35 at f3.4

Film is HP5+ at 400ISO, developed in HC-110 dissolution B, six minutes at 68F. I have not taken any good shots wide open yet. I can tell already from a few other shots that performance at f1.4 or in any contre-jour situation is not going to be good. Oh well, I knew that before I decided to buy it. F1.4 would be an emergency-only aperture. So, maybe think of the Summilux as a Summicron with a last-ditch-resort f1.4 aperture… If you need sharpness full open, you will be better off with a Nokton, and so will your wallet. The Lux though definitely renders images with a certain look. It remains for you to decide if that, and the mystique, justifies the expense. I really like its small size.

Shots wide open coming soon.

Stay tuned…

Let’s face it, not everyone has $7000 plus $3200 to spend on a camera and a lens. Fortunately Leica has been in business since 1849 and has been producing cameras since 1923, so there are a lot of them out there. I have a Leica IIIc (1946) that cost me only $225. The Summitar 50mm f2 lens (1949) was $350. Add a CLA (Cleaning, Lubrication, Adjustment) for $160 and you get a reasonably priced kit. The problem however is that these cameras are very old and start having problems. Fortunately, they can still be repaired, but there are better choices in my opinion to start with Leica.

First, I do not think that a digital Leica is the way to go. Though newer Leica products are very well built, you are still dealing with electronics and a lot can go wrong. Digital photography is still a new market for Leica, one they have not mastered. Besides, there is the cost. An older film Leica is a better choice. Film photography will make you a better photographer. How old is too old? Well, the M2 and M3 are awesome, but they were made in the fifties and sixties. I could see myself eventually buying an M2, but not as a first camera.

Update, July 23rd: Waoh, it didn’t take me long, did it? I couldn’t pass this one up, a nice beater M2 for $435. It is full or scratches and a few dings, even has a name roughly engraved on the base plate, but it works just fine. The film advance system might need to be looked at (got $50 discount bringing price to $385!), but shutter speeds sound good and the viewfinder is perfect. I actually like the viewfinder better than my M4-P’s. So, if you keep your eyes open, and are not after a collector’s item, you can find good deals online.

Leica M2 & Summilux 35mm

Leica M2 & Summilux 35mm

Here is an excellent guide to Leica M cameras.

Some people absolutely want a camera with a meter… You do not need a meter! Chances are that you carry a smart phone, and there are plenty of meter apps available for free. You can also use the Sunny-16 rule, which works very well. Being a stop off is no big deal. As you get used to measure the light, guess the exposure and verify it with your meter. Before long you won’t need the meter anymore. A quick look around will tell you exactly what settings to use. It is liberating not to have to think about exposure all the time. Natural light does not change constantly. Once you have measured or guessed shadows and light exposures, you are good to go. Only at dawn or dusk do you need to change your settings often.

So we move to the M4. Here is a perfect camera! Easier to load, and with a frameline for 35mm lenses. They are made of brass and have a very good viewfinder. On hickup is, they are expensive and very thought after. Expect dropping $1200. Isn’t there an alternative? The M4-2 came out in 1971 and was made in Canada. The Canadian team had to learn the ropes and the M4-2 had some flaws. You can be lucky and find a very good one, or not… Nothing that can’t be fixed probalby, but why risk it? Leica then released the M4-P in 1981, correcting the mistakes of the previous model.

Here is mine:

Leica M4-P

Leica M4-P

This in my opinion is the best Leica to get. At some point Leica switched to zinc-alloy top and bottom plates instead of brass. You want brass… You can tell by looking at the viewfinder window. If the window is recessed, chances are you have a brass M4-P. If it is flush, expect zinc. The M4-P can be found for about $800, which for a camera of such quality is a real bargain. You won’t find a better bang for the buck. It is often said that the M4, including the early M4-Ps were the last exceptionally well made Leicas. Some will argue that was the M3. I still think after much use that I made the best choice in getting an M4-P!

Now that you got your M4-P and you are broke, you need a lens. Actually, I always suggest to get a lens first, then buy the camera that goes with it. We are making an exception here, since we focus on one brand. the best focal length for a first lens is probably 35mm. If you have $3200, get a Summicron aspherical! $2000? Get a Summarit. Getting down to $1000, you might want to look at Zeiss. Me, I bought a Voightlander Color Skopar at $409. It is a very good little lens, sharp and contrasty, which I really like for B&W. It’s no Summicron but it does pretty well compared to the $2000 Leica Summarit. Not in build quality but image quality. Sure the Leica is said to be better, but $1600 better? I doubt it.

M4-P with Color Skopar 35mm

M4-P with Color Skopar 35mm

Here it is with the CV Color Skopar, which is a very small lens. Oops, looks like the camera needs a cleaning! The is a bit of vulcanite missing near the Leitz red dot as well.

There you have it, the Leica M4-P with the Voightlander Color Skopar 35mm f2.5 for a whooping $1200 total. Now hopefully you have enough money left to buy a few rolls of film. There is nothing else like shooting a Leica though. It is truly an exceptional camera, well worth having to eat rice noodles for a few weeks!

There is a new trend in photography today to use HDR (High Dynamic Range) where three photographs are taken at different exposures and combined into a single image. The result is a horrible, unnatural image that looks more like an oil painting. I understand some might like it. Just don’t call it photography. Over-post-processed images seem to be the norm these days. Because you can use a computer or new wiz-bang camera to modify an image at will doesn’t mean you should. I am horrified at most images posted on 500px.com, especially in the Landscapes and Nature categories. It doesn’t stop there; even portraits are done in HDR.

Your clients want it? Sure, but you might want to educate them on what constitutes a good photograph. Too much post processing does not make a better image; it certainly won’t save a bad one. Maybe that is where the problem lies. Anyone can buy a Nikon D4 with a good lens and call themselves a photographer. Add a bit of special effects to make things pop like a christmas tree and WOW! Instant success… You can always sell a turd if you gift-wrap it well. When the wrapping wears off, you wonder where the bad smell comes from. I have seen “professional photographers” who’s images I would not even glance at, much less pay for. You will find their Facebook pages* under “So-and-so Photography.” If someone shot my Wedding like they do they wouldn’t get a penny from me and I would be pissed. their expositions and focus is good, colors are nice, but those are camera automated features. There is no effort placed on composition or capturing the moment. Like the movies Hollywood produces today: All special effects, no story. Here, no talent.

I am not calling myself a good photographer because I am far from attaining the level I want to reach and so many produce much better work. I do know crap when I see it though. Composition and capturing the moment are my primary concerns. I control my cameras in manual mode and would never add effects to an image. I very rarely crop images. Photographs should reflect reality, not look like a Disney cartoon, as nice as that might look to an uneducated public or wannabe real-photographer. The notable exception of course is B&W photography. We do not see in black-and-white. The lack of color however brings the emphasis on composition. Color is distracting. You can’t make a bad photograph look good in B&W.

When I worked for a newspaper, I was a professional photographer. It was my occupation and I got a paycheck every month for it. I was more paid for my inclination to be on time at different locations following a crazy schedule than for the quality of my images. Sure, it mattered, but not as much as being able to be there at the right time and get images no matter what, being it an overzealous security staff member or a blizzard. Picture quality was secondary to actually getting a picture. I did learn composition by looking at thousands of photographs and their critiques by professionals when available.

If you are tempted to use HDR and other gimmicks to save a photograph, wonder instead about what you could have done to make it better in the first place. Do you want to be a photographer or a graphics artist? If you answer the former, than learn to be one first.

* I have seen great work posted on Facebook under such pages, so by no means do I place everyone in the same basket…

Film is awesome, especially black & white. The grain appearance and dynamic range is unmatched by digital cameras. It has a certain analog visual charm that is hard to reproduce. Developing it only requires a changing bag, tank, reels and chemicals. The process is fairly easy. Film scanners are affordable. So, why not giving it a try? Ah, you don’t have a film camera…

So, what would be the greatest camera to start film photography? A Leica maybe? Sure, if you have the money, go for it! I would suggest a used M4-P, probably one of the most affordable “recent” Leicas, or even a IIIc. Of course there are all the great cameras of the past, Canon A-1, AE-1, Pentax K1000, Nikon FM2, Olympus OM, etc. many available used from $50 in decent shape. Also keep in mind which lens you are going to need because that should be your first priority and it might determine which camera body you should buy. Always spend more on the lens than on the camera body.

There is a camera that was produced for longer than any other (21 years) for professional photographers, that is the Nikon F3 or F3HP. You could still buy a new one after the F4 and F5 came out, and for good reasons. The F-series is a professional line of Nikon cameras that are more rugged than their “general public” models. I won’t get into specifications, you can find them here.

Nikon F3

Nikon F3

I will say that holding and using an F3 is unlike using any other camera. It feels very solid. The F3 body can probably take much more abuse than yours before biting the bullet. I used one during my newspaper photography days and it was subjected to abuse no other camera would have survived, including one motorcycle wipe-out while the camera was strapped to my back with no protection. It bounced on the asphalt a few times and got a few scars in the process but worked just fine. I viewed it as the tool it was to get the job done. Though I tried to take good care of it, the nature of the job takes a heavy toll on equipment.

Ergonomics are excellent and the viewfinder of the HP is one of the best out there, still to this day. Multiple accessories are available, including the MD-4 motor drive, which balances the camera perfectly to use with heavier lenses and give you 5fps. Note that Nikon still makes brand new manual focus lenses, and some of their best models to boot, like the 50mm f1.2 and the 28mm f2.8 AI-S lenses. These lenses alone justify buying a used Nikon. You can even use them on the latest digital models.

Nikon F3 with MD-4

Nikon F3 with MD-4

I made the mistake of selling my F3 and its MD-4 motor drive after leaving that job; what a mistake. I bought another one years later because I missed it, sold that one too. How can you get any dummer? Now I am waiting for my third one, and will never sell it, even if it means skipping meals because I am broke (which I am now!). At the time I also sold a couple Angenieux that are worth thousands today. I am still hitting myself on the head for that. Never sell lenses! They are an investment, especially famous ones from leading brands that are now or will be hard to find in the future. That includes any excellent manual focus lenses by Nikon.

A near-mint Nikon F3-Hp will set you back only about $200-$250. Compared to a new DSLR, that is pretty affordable. You will spend much more on good lenses of course, but until you save up some money you can always find a Nikon zoon like the Nikkor 35-70 f3.5 AI-S for about $75 to $125. I don’t like zooms much but that is a decent one for a very low price. A used MD-4 costs about $85. When it came out, this camera was very expensive, today it is one of the best photography bargains on the market, and there are plenty for sale online. I had thought about getting an F5, but you can’t separate the motor drive from the camera and it is heavy. I might settle later for a D2Xs digital, which will accept my manual focus AI-S lenses. I have enough cameras as it is though, and probably should sell one or two to finance new lenses.

Getting an F3 was for me righting a wrong done years ago (twice) because of my lack of foresight and empty wallet… If I had to sell everything and keep only one camera, I would be torn between the F3 and my Leica M4-P. I would get rid of my Fuji X100S before selling either, though I also love that camera. There is just something about rugged and durable metal manual* cameras that appeals to me.

Update, July 26: My F3 and MD-4 motor drive were dropped off by the mailman tonight. Both look like new and work flawlessly. I am very glad to have gotten an old friend back! Now I want to get a 50mm f1.2. One thing at a time…

* The F3 has only one mechanical shutter speed for backup but the battery lasts for years..

That’s what most photographers call it, because let’s face it, it is a beast!

Pentax 6x7

Pentax 6×7

That Leica IIIc looks pretty small next to it!

Why would anyone get into medium format film photography in 2014? One word: Quality. The 6x7cm negative beats any digital camera today under $30,000. For $400 to $500! Your garden variety 35mm film negative is roughly equivalent to 16 megapixels. The 6×7 is equivalent, depending on scanning, to 50-80mp! Right… The cheapest contender would be the Pentax 645Z at 51mp for $8500 (body only).

I was recently going through old B&W negatives and stumbled upon a photograph of my brother I took when he was a child, with a Lubitel 166B cheap Russian 6×6 plastic camera. That was more than thirty years ago (I’ve been into photography for a long time!) They are surprisingly good and the 6×6 of course is a large negative. Judge for yourself:

My brother Fabien, 6x6.

My brother Fabien, 6×6.

Keep in mind this is a highly scaled image. The original is much nicer. So, my interest for the medium format was revived. I had my parents ship me the Lubitel, but unfortunately the camera was in bad shape and I decided to throw it away. I remember when I was about 19, learning to fly ultralights, my instructor Gerard Landri used a Pentax 6×7 to take aerial photographs. I really liked the camera so I looked it up. What a monster! The rangefinder forum has a thread about the camera with many awesome images. I decided to look on Ebay… Prices were fairly reasonable. I had to buy a body, prism and lens separately. Since I was already processing film, I only had to buy a steel reel for 6cm wide films. I got the camera at 6pm and was out taking photographs the same night:

Meli in 6x7

Meli in 6×7

Again, this is a highly scaled image. The original is 7874×5917 pixels, so 47mp, scanned with a beat-up Epson V500. It is less in reality with the V500. I can’t wait to get a decent scanner, maybe a used Nikon Coolscan 8000.

You can find great medium format cameras on Ebay for a song. Well, around $200 for something decent like the Rolleicord or Yashica Mat. The Pentax is about $200 to $300 for a body, $80 to $180 for a prism, and you can get a good lens for $150. The quality is astounding. It almost makes me want to get a large format camera, 4×5″, yes, inches! Maybe next year… Medium format seems to be all I need right now. The Pentax has one drawback, that is weight. You need a good strap or the optional wooden grip to carry it for any length of time. Definitely not the camera to take on a long hike, unless photography was the ultimate goal. Probably not the best either for street photography unless you want to scare small children and make people jump in fear at the shutter noise. If anybody lunges at you, you can always use the camera as a bludgeoning tool. I will try street photography with it anyway 😉 The images that come out of this beast are out-of-this-world.

I have read that you can’t really use it handheld… BS! I took photos handheld at 1/60s that are perfectly sharp. Just hold your breath and imagine you’re a military sniper when your press the trigger, uh.. Button.. Smooth is the key.

What is there not to love about this camera but the size and weight? Images are awesome, it’s rugged, simple, fairly affordable, and it sure makes you look badass 😉