Nov 022010

Testing New Lenses

N E W  Y O R K  C I T Y

At the PDN Photo Expo here in NYC,

Leica was on hand with an arsenal

of lenses.  It was a great place to

handle some of the new equipment

and take the images home thanks

to my M9.

Leica Boutique

Leica Boutique

The crowd at the PDN Photo Expo looked very different from last year.  In the wake of an economic collapse, last year’s Expo was spacious.  The booths were pared down and the attendance was low.  There were no waits, no counters filled to capacity, and no crowds to negotiate.  This year, everyone seemed to be back in action.

The black towers of Leica’s booth were packed with equipment from their entire range, from the S2 to the D Lux 5.  The red lined cases were attended by a delightful staff of Leica salesmen and women, who were willing to entertain every optical fantasy.  Attendees fired shots from “A-La-Carte” M7s next to their ears and anyone with an M8 or M9 could pick through all the lenses on hand for testing.

For those who have never been to the Expo, it is a great place to go touch and test all the lenses and cameras that camera shops leave behind glass.  There is a democratic mix of professionals, journalists, and amateurs all united in the single curiosity to see what is going on in the Leica world.  The only way to tell the difference in status is by looking at the tags everyone wears on their necks.  While I was there Michael Reichmann, of Luminous Landscape, and Sean Reid, of Reid Reviews, were getting a preview of the M9 Titanium which worked out very well for me…more on that later.  First let’s run through the lenses which made their way on to my M9 for some test shots.

35mm Summilix f 1.4 ( $ 4,995.00 )

35mm Summilux F 1.4 

The much anticipated release of the 35mm Summilux had everyone on the internet peering into their crystal ball looking for an answer to when this lens would be released.  After an initial release and recall, it is finally here.  Units are shipping and based on my impressions, this lens will be delivering smiles to new owners all over.

We know the lens is sharp, it’s depth of field is shallow, and it’s rendering is second to none, but the feel of this lens was the big surprise.  Let me confess that 35mm is not my focal length of choice.  It’s not that I don’t like it; I just shoot 28mm and 50mm more often.  Maybe someday I will migrate towards 35mm.  If anything could promote the idea of trading my 28mm for a 35mm, this would be the lens to do it.

It feels like a retro lens.  When Ebi, the Leica salesman from L.A., handed me the lens I was first struck by how well it felt in the palm of my hand.  It feels like it is as wide as it is long.  In reality this is not the case, but the width of the barrel and the stubbiness of the lens gives the impression you are holding a sphere not a cylinder.  If every lens could be this size, I would be thrilled.

Once it’s on the camera, the focusing ring jumped out at me.  It is stiff, really stiff. For those who love the 1960′s 50mm Summicrons or scalloped Summiluxes, they will know what I mean.  The lens offers considerable resistance when focusing, which feels great.  Akin to a proper glass of wine, the lens feels like it has structure, body, and character.

After flicking the aperture ring, which is wonderfully smooth, back and forth a few times, I opened it up to f 1.4 and fired a few shots.  I did not have the time to do close focusing tests to see if the focus shift was properly eliminated with the new floating element, but for anyone who buys one, they will surely have all the time in the world to test how well it performs.  But I can say, if I had only one lens with which to travel the world, this would be it.  Portraits, landscapes, detail shots, and wide out vistas, the 35mm Summilux could handle it all.

90mm Summicron f 2.0 ( $3,695.00 )

90mm Summicron F 2.0

The two lenses I really wanted to compare were the 90mm’s.  Most of my years have been spent between 15mm and 50mm, though more and more I find myself missing a good portrait lens.  In medium format, the 150mm Sonnar on a Hasselblad is my portrait lens of choice.  But in the Leica realm, I have spent more time on wide angle photography.  It is more forgiving to handheld shooting, but with the increased ISO’s of the M9 and some great trips abroad I am looking into buying a telephoto lens.

The consensus is the 90mm Summicron is an optical powerhouse, but will cost you a trip to the chiropractor if you try and carry it all day long.  At 1 lbs. 10 oz. it is like carrying around a bag of sliced ham from the deli, but there is an advantage to the weight.  Using the old formula for determining the minimum shutter speed for a focal length to create sharp pictures (90mm = 1/90 of a second) this lens requires that you grab the barrel and brace yourself before firing away.  In lower light conditions, 90mm can be a demanding focal length if you want tack sharp images.

The saving grace of the lens is the long barrel. It is a firm piece of machinery to hold on to while shooting.  Hanging on your shoulder the lens will actually tip an M camera towards the ground, like we see all the time with dSLR shooters.  But for the style of “sniper” shooting that comes with the 90mm, the added weight and stability are welcome.  If anything, the lens offers a counterweight to the camera body.

Optically this lens delivers.  For all the same reasons I love the 50mm and 28mm Summicrons, the 90mm makes portraits easy.  It renders light around the curves of faces and necklines, while blending razor sharp eyelashes into diffused poofs of hair as the bokeh takes over.  This lens does all the things that a Leica lens is supposed to do, all for a price that you would expect to pay.

90mm Summarit f 2.5 ( $ 1,695.00 )

90mm Summarit F 2.5

When the Summarit line was released, it did not catch my attention.  It seemed counter intuitive to buy into a camera system and then buy their slower lenses.  The 50mm Summicron was not going to be out done, 75mm seemed too close to 50mm, and 35mm is just not my thing.  But if you do not have a collection of lenses yet, they may be a good entry point.

There is some criticism about the build of these lenses, particularly the 90mm.  The engraving of the numbers on the barrel is shallow and looks like over time the paint could chip out more easily.  But aside from the engraving issue, which has nothing to do with the lens’ performance, the lens is great.  It is only half a stop away from the 90mm Summicron instead of the normal gap of 1 stop that usually separates the Elmarit ( f 2.8 ) from the Summicron ( f 2.0 ) lines.  This does not mean that the Summarit is just like a Summicron, only half a stop slower.  The lens has a different fingerprint.  To my eye, it looks slightly more clinical and may tend to the bluish side instead of the inherent warmth of the Summicrons.

21mm Summilux f 1.4 ( $ 6,995.00 )

21mm Summilix, two guys plus the whole scene.

21mm Summilux F 1.4

Wide angle photography in ancient cities is one of my favorite ways to shoot.  Walking through thousand year old buildings, over grown with trees is like being in a playground for me.  Up until now, the 21mm Elmarit f 2.8 has been the only option for wide angle photography, without excessive distortion.  If distortion is not a problem a Voigtlander 15mm Heliar will do the trick.  But in order to retain some bearing to the straight lines of reality, 21mm is right at the threshold of a usable focal length.

Up until the expo, I had only seen one 21mm Summilux in person.  I did not have my camera on me and put it onto an old M6.  So I had no idea how this lens actually performed.  It is larger than its Elmarit predecessor, but again feels no bigger than a 90mm.

This lens is exciting and was my favorite lens of the day!  Why was it my favorite?  Because of the potential that this lens could fulfill.  There is a scenario I find while traveling and have not had a lens to deal with it yet.  The scene is, two people, engaged in an activity, both facing the camera, and I want to capture them and the setting, but want to really make the picture all about them.  When traveling through locations around the world, I can’t always ask if someone can step forward into the light a little more.  They are often working and I am only watching.  With f 1.4, this lens allows you to deliver some punch to a subject in a scene without ideal lighting.

Compared with the 35mm Summilux, the 21mm, even wide open has a greater depth of field at f 1.4.  Translated into real world dimensions the 35mm can will create an in focus image from someone’s nose to their eyes, while the 21mm will make their entire body sharp.  Have a look at the charts Leica provides in their download section for the bar graphs.

All technicalities aside, the potential of this lens is superb.  The aperture ring is silky smooth and the long throw of the focus is easy to handle.  I understand that this is not everyone’s ideal lens, but for those who enjoy wide angle work, this is a brilliant piece of glass.

50mm Noctilux f 0.95 ( $10,695.00 )

50mm Noctilux at a distance.

50mm Noctilux F 0.95

If there was ever a lens that should have been named after a Greek god it would have been the 50mm Noctilux f 0.95.  Maybe after years of Leica feeling like the photography world was leaving them behind, they decided to eclipse the lens world.  This lens is a standalone in the Leica line up.  All their lenses are nice, but this lens feels like it came out of another factory.

Its movements are so smooth that it does feel like it is made of metal.  With my eyes closed I would guess it was fabricated from some space age polymer made by DuPont. The Noctilux shows us what a machinist, some engineers, and a few computers can do with brass, paint, and glass.

Once it’s on the camera it looks bigger than it feels.  At 700 grams (a little over 1.5 lbs.) it is nominally heavier than the 90mm Summicron.  Just as the 90mm raises some eyebrows with its weight, those same eyebrows relax after looking at the results.

Ebi, the patient Leica Salesman, told me this is the easiest lens to sell, everyone wants one.  Looking at the lens at the case, I would not understand why.  Holding the lens on my camera it is perfectly obvious.  The lens is an anomaly.  Low light photography is one of the reasons I started shooting a Leica and this lens finds more light in the shadows than anything I have ever seen.  It’s ability to light up shadows must be what gives its images a distinct look. Beyond the paper thin depth of field, it renders shadows brighter than my eyes.

If I were hit by a stroke of insanity and I bought this lens (it could happen ) I could foresee two immediate uses.  First, it would take the most flattering pictures of people.  When I am not shooting the wrinkled faces of people around the world (I love models over 70) I find that regular people are very critical of their portraits.  But at f 0.95, you can focus on just the eyes and softly blur any imperfection.  It makes for a strange, very distinct, but flattering picture.  If the eyes are in focus the picture looks right.  The same way Timothy Greenfield-Sanders admits he takes the same picture over and over because he believes it is an important picture, this lens could do the same thing.

The other place I would like to take this lens is out on the streets after sunset.  My guess is this lens would make me miss dinner reservations constantly.  Unfortunately the bland lighting of the Expo would not give me a chance to test this theory.

M9 & 35mm Summilux f 1.4 ( $ 26,500.00 )

M9 Titan & 35mm Summilux

Just in case you were thinking about buying the new titanium M9 and matching 35mm Summilux f 1.4, think again.  Leica said they are all sold.  While I was testing all the lenses above, Michael Reichmann and Sean Reid were getting a private showing of the newest special edition from Leica and Walter De Silva.

Before it was set back in its case, I had a few minutes to handle the body, feel the new wrap and see if it was worth all the hype.  I am not sure if it’s possible to say whether this camera is worth it.  As a collector’s item, it might be worth it, as a camera to use it might also be worth it.  But to use a $27k 35mm camera as a working unit, I trust that the photographer has a day rate in excess of $10k.  But I was not hoping to handle the titanium to see if it was worth the money.

I wanted to see what Leica does when they are left to their own devices.  First let’s look at the strange things about the camera, like its funny textured grip, the cartoon like logo, and the LED framelines.  The grip is great. It’s easy to hold and the transition from a titanium back to the recessed rubber face acts almost like an external grip.  While I am not crazy about how it looks, it is a good feel.  The logo is like having a spotlight on the word Leica.  This will not be the camera to take to a favela in Rio.  I would save this for red carpet events.  The LED framelines are strange.  In the future we may see it on more Leica’s but I would need a few weeks of shooting to decide whether I like the LED.

Secondly let’s look at the clear positives and one unexpected disappointment that I should have seen coming.  The 35mm lens is as smooth as the Noctilux.  It does not feel like the black 35mm Summilux, it is much smoother.  The aperture ring is slick enough that it could be blown out of place with a strong gust.  It has a dainty feel of an elegant tie or evening dress.  On a normal Leica that would be a drawback, but on a limited series of five hundred cameras, it’s a suitable match.  The lens hood, also all titanium, has a retro shape that I wish Leica would put on their other cameras.  My suspicion is the hood is so thin because of the titanium.  If it were made of painted aluminum it would need to be thicker.  Either way, it wins in the style department.

Lastly, the titanium body is much lighter than a regular M9.  Less weight should be an advantage, but it makes it feel like plastic.  For some reason, everything else in the world could be made out of carbon fiber and titanium, but when it comes to cameras, I like a weighty metal.  But, this will not be something I will have to fret over.  After just a few short minutes, my time with the Titan M9 was up and it was packed into its red-lined coffin.  It may never be shot again, who knows.  Hopefully it is not relegated to a shelf to collect dust and compliments.


By the end of day I was all “camera-ed” out and ready to head home.  Leica did a great job of representing their core traditions and entertaining some eccentric designs.  It gave me quite a bit to think about.  To anyone who has never been to a photo expo it is worth a trip.  We can read websites, go to exhibitions, and ask others for opinions, but nothing replaces the feeling of having equipment in hand.  So when the opportunity comes to play with an array of lenses and cameras, jump on it, you may be surprised how your preferences change as they travel from the computer screen to the palm of your hand.

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