Getting More, With Less
Leica describes the 75mm as a
short tele, but what does that mean?
Caught somewhere between a
tele 90mm and a standard 50mm,
the 75mm proved to be more
versatile than its name leads us to
believe. It can handle a range of
subjects without weighing you
‹ Introduction ›
Before testing the 75mm APO-Summicron, I read all the reviews I could find. Every review had the same three things in common:
- They all talked about the focal length, rather than the lens first.
- No one said the 75mm was their first choice for a lens.
- And in the end, it was optically good, but there were very few converts to 75mm.
The preference for a lens is entirely personal. Picking a lens should be done based on personal shooting style rather than the opinions of other photographers. What works from one person may not work for the next. After shooting this lens, I see why reviewers all share the above traits in common. 75mm is not my first choice, in fact, its not even my third choice. In my fantasy list of Leica lens the 75mm was not even on the page. It seems too close to the beloved 50mm and just shy of the powerful 90mm for portrait work. The 75mm seemed like “The Middle Man,” who is best cut out of the equation.
‹ 75mm vs 90mm ›
For Leica M shooters the 90mm is a classic portrait lens. In the annals of photographic history, 105mm is the optical ideal for portraiture, but since Leica only makes a 90mm and a 135mm, your portrait lens ends up being a 90mm. In all of its forms, from the Pre-ASPH to the APO-Summicron, the 90mm lens is a no brainer for portraiture. Light is captured with a beautiful tonal range. The details like eyes and lashes are sharp without being clinical and the background bokeh is totally smooth. So if the 90mm is so perfect, why would anyone use a 75mm?
‹ Three Reasons To Go 75mm ›
[ TELEPHOTO ON A DIET ]
Most of my photo work happens outside of New York City. This means that all of my gear fits in my carry on and it must be lugged from place to place. When I used to catch Adventure Sports Races, where contestants cut the labels off of the bags to save weight, I thought that was ridiculous. But when they weighed their equipment after shedding the unnecessary labels, they managed to save a few pounds. A small effort can make a real difference. When I left on my last trip to India, the M9 and 75mm were around my neck. The first thing I noticed was the camera sat flat against my body. There is only a 70 gram difference between the 75mm Summicron (430g.) and the 90mm Summicron (500g.), but this reduction in weight means that camera is not pulled downward from the weight of the lens. Only one hour from home and I was liking the lens already. Even though the 75mm looks like its telephoto brother, it feels more like the 50mm Summilux on the camera. The body of the camera sits flat against my side, which keeps the base plate from stabbing me in the ribs and allows the screen to rest flat on my jacket.
[ GET MORE, WITH LESS ]
The background of a picture can make or break an image. We can all see how a sense of place comes from the subject, but the background can be the difference between a good picture or a great picture. As your isolate your subject, the sense of place can be lost. With the 75mm you can stand an arms length away from your subject and still retain some of the background. This is in part because the 75mm has a closer minimum focusing distance than the 90mm. The 90mm has a close focusing distance of 1 meter, which is bound to throw off any 50mm user. When I shot the 90mm I found myself being forced to take two steps back. But the 75mm has the typical Leica range starting at .7 meters. This allows you to get closer and tighter to your subject and not loose so much of the background. Now, its not going to capture the entire scene, but as an compliment to a 35mm or 28mm lens, the 75mm seems to perform better in close street scenes than the 90mm.
[ MAGICAL APERTURE RING ]
Leica aperture rings have a particular feel. Each lens is assembled and adjusted by hand. Even within the same series, there are subtle differences in the feel of a lens. The aperture ring on this 75mm was smooth, solid, and very easy to move between stops. Most lenses benefit from a “positive lock” on each half stop. I would not describe the 75mm stops as loose, but more accurately light. If you were not paying attention it would be easy to accidentally change the aperture setting. While this might seem like a draw back it was one of the aspects I enjoyed most about the lens. The ring was lighting fast and I could change stops quickly while photographing people on the street. I had a chance to speak to Leica about this feature because I wanted to find out if it was an exceptional case or a design consideration. We will return to the details of that conversation later in the review.
‹ In The Dark ›
The first city where I was able to shoot was Varanasi. For those of you have have never been to this wonderfully bizarre city, imagine Venice Italy in the 1300′s. Built mostly of stone, there is a twisting web of streets with people packed in every corner. It is one of the dirtiest cities I have ever visited. While germ-a-phobe might be turned off by the street side urinals overflowing with liquids of all kind, I kind of like it. There were no chain stores, cheesy malls, or Starbucks in sight. The only difference between 14th century Venice and 21st century Varanasi is Varanasi has power. It is a great place to experiment with low light street photography. Many of the scenes are lit by a single incandescent bulb. It was an interesting place to work and the 75mm did well in the dark.
As you walk from the main road towards the Ganges River, the streets taper and are barely wide enough for two people to pass by without hitting each other. Being shoulder to shoulder with a stranger is normal. For a photographer, this kind of compression is perfect. Being so close to people meant that I could make images without it feeling like the odd man with a camera.
At night, the people were lit by incandescent or fluorescent fixtures. The color temperatures were wildly different from picture to picture. In spite of the color balance issues, the lens pulled up warm highlights and round shadows. Wide open, the images felt full and took on a painterly quality. If we could make an analogy to art, if the new Summilux images are like the Photo Realism, the 75mm rendered color in a Baroque manner. It picked up gold, orange, and yellow in the highlights and held on to the umber (dark brown) hues in the shadows. At F 2 & ISO 800 many of the shots were taken at slow hand held speeds like 1/15th or 1/30th. While not every picture is tack sharp, the images were more usable than similar efforts I made with the 90mm in the past.
‹ Too Close ›
Trying a new focal length can be frustrating. I find that my brain automatically estimates the distance I need to be from a subject to create a certain image. The frame lines for the 75mm are in the same window as the 50mm. I have heard people, mostly 50mm users, complain about the clutter of the 75mm frame lines endlessly and with some justification. But for me, the challenge was trying to ignore the 50mm lines and only use the 75mm. I found myself needing to take one step backwards for the correct composition.
While I was shooting some female brick layers, I was working under one set of women and shooting another. They were repairing the ruins of the garden where Buddha gave his first teachings after his enlightenment. Careful to make sure that none of the bricks or tools slid down from up above, I hurried the shot of a woman working on the pointing of a few bricks. I fired three or four shots and realized back at the hotel, that I clipped her tool out of the image. It would have been a good shot, except you can’t tell what she is working on.
Reviewing the photos that evening, I saw the mistake. My eyes were still paying attention to the 50mm frame lines. For someone who is used to shooting the 50mm, you need to be a full step back from where you would normally stand. Its a simple concept, but absolutely critical to getting the most out of the lens.
‹ Faster Than Expected ›
The general rule of thumb, when it comes to selecting the slowest possible shutter speed for a given focal length is: add a 1 in from of the focal length and that will give you the slowest hand held speed you should use for sharp results. (i.e. 50mm= 1/50th) The 75mm, it would be safe to assume the slowest hand held speed that you could use for a sharp picture would between 1/60th-1/90th. I found with the 90mm that 1/125th was even a bit close to the threshold of a sharp image. But surprisingly, I was able to achieve acceptable sharpness at 1/30th or even 1/15th. This is a huge advantage for anyone doing available light street work. My sense is, due to the lens being lighter and the center of gravity falling closer to the camera body, the 75mm becomes easier to balance.
‹ Finding Your Distance ›
After a few botched efforts to shoot portraits or group shots, I finally got my distance down with the 75mm. Be patient with this, because once it is sorted out, it proves to be an incredible versatile lens. Paired with a 28mm on my M6, I felt like I could shoot any situation. From a distance, the 75mm can pick people out of a scene with a similar feel as the 90mm. The picture above of the bricklayer was taken from about thirty feet away. The field of view on the lens is wide enough to allow you to play with out of focus elements in the foreground and background and still reproduce a sharp subject. A few minutes earlier, I had taken a close up shot of the woman and her co worker. It was interesting to see how the lens would handle both situations. Without feeling too constrained, there were opportunities to shoot entire scenes and then focus in on a single person. All I needed to do was move my feet. The constant in the equation, was having human subjects. For many of the wide out temple shots, I needed the 28mm to open up the view.
‹ Details, Details, Details ›
There are buddhists monks who travel from down from the Himalayas, to visit the sacred spot where Buddha gave his first teachings. The only trace of their visits are the pieces of gold leaf left on the stone surrounding the pagoda. The gold leaf spots would literally glow in the afternoon sun. Loose pieces would float away in the wind. The broken pieces look like fairy dust as they scatter the grass. With the 75mm I never had to worry about capturing the little things. Sometimes there are small engravings, little flowers, or tiny details that are essential to a travel dialogue. The 50mm, 35mm, and 28mm are ideal travel lenses, but none of them can capture the tiny details like the 75mm.
‹ A Few Words With Leica ›
When I got back to New York, I was chatting with Rich at Photo Village. We were talking about the ultra smooth aperture ring on the 75mm. I wanted to see if he knew why the ring had a feel distinct from the other lenses in the Leica line up. He said he did not know what accounted for the feel of the 75mm, but all of the ones he had ever handled felt the same. Now this is not to say that they other Leica lenses are stiff or rough, but if you have handled a 75mm APO-Summicron you may know what we are talking about. The only other lens that has a similar feel (and this is purely my opinion) is the new titanium 35mm Summilux that comes with the Special Edition Titanium M9.
I had a chance to speak with Leica’s M Specialist Justin Stailey about the aperture ring on the 75mm APO-Summicron. I was curious to know whether Leica had made any special design considerations when making the aperture ring or if it was simply a by product of other optional/mechanical aspects in the lens.
Inside of the lens, where most of us never see, is a ball bearing which rides along an aluminum ring with detents. The detents are notches, located at each 1/2 stop. Justin explained that there are a few combinations of parts which account for the feel of each aperture ring. First, the overall size of the lens will account for the amount of torque we can exert on the aperture ring. Simply put, a bigger lens with identical detents and ball bearing will be easier to move than a smaller lens. When I looked at the engineering drawings of the 75mm, it appears (and this part did not come from Leica) that even though the profile of the 90mm aperture ring is thinner, the mass of the ring inside the lens is larger. This might account for the added resistance of the 90mm over the 75mm, even though the 75mm is a bit smaller in overall diameter.
Secondly, the relationship between the size of the ball bearing and the detents will also affect the feel of the ring. When we turn the aperture ring the “click” is created by the ball bearing riding over the detent. The spacing on the detents varies from focal length to focal length. It adds to the person feel of each lens. Since stainless steel is harder than aluminum, the ring will break in over time and feel smoother than the first day you bought it.
Thirdly, there is a spring which controls the tension between the bearing and the detents. The tension spring can be adjusted to suit the preferences of the photographer. On a lens like the 75mm, it was great to have the flexibility to change two or even three stops as I followed someone from an interior shot to an exterior. I could quickly react to the different light requirements of the shot. Justin said, depending on how the technician likes to set the spring, some lenses will feel tighter or looser than other. Its is completely dependent on the Leica technician.
Ultimately the 75mm aperture ring was not designed to have a different feel. The floating element in this lens was designed in conjunction with the 50mm Summilux. The primary difference between the two lenses are the 50mm has a floating element made of two optical elements cemented together. The 75mm only requires a single floating element. But the innovations that brought both of these lenses into existence have been applied the new 35mm Summilux and 50mm Noctilux. Justin said that while there were no specific design considerations applied to the feel of the aperture ring, that in all likely hood a combination of factors, like the size of the lens, the proportions of the bearings, and the shape of the detents all play a role in the overall feel.
Sharpness: The lens is tack sharp. In the upper echelons of Leica lenses, the 75mm APO is right there with the 50mm Summilux. It is amazingly sharp across the entire frame and reproduces a very natural looking image. To my eye it is right at the threshold of where lenses go from being perfectly natural to being clinical. While I think the 50mm Noctilux is an incredible lens, it has an “effect” to its images that is not present in the 75mm. This lens is like the eye sight we wish we had.
APO: The prefix (APO) is an abbreviation for APO-Chromatic and it refers to the lenses ability to handle chromatic aberration. There are lengthy optic essays written by Erwin Puts, which can explain this in detail. It is an interesting phenomenon, one worth reading about. The practical understanding is visible when viewing areas of high contrast. Essentially there is no color fringing that occurs with the lens. Between a black object and a bright background non-APO lenses will usually show a line of color, like magenta, where the colors change. APO’s keeps every color in its place, they are a like perfectionists.
Shutter Speed: Like I said earlier, I was surprised to get very usable images at 1/45th-1/15th of a second. The extra two stops are a life saver in the streets. Even as the images soften from movement the subject, the picture had a richness that can only be described in painterly terms, see Caravaggio, Jacques-Louis Davide, or Edward Hopper.
Depth Of Field: The depth of field is slightly more generous than the 90mm. At f 2.0 it is shallow, which is why I would often use f 2.8-f 4.0 for portraits. Close up, the focal plane at f 2.0 is almost too shallow. But from a few feet away from a subject, the lens is spectacular wide open.
Weight: My brain works in ounces not grams. 430 grams means almost nothing to me. Converted into ounces it makes a little more sense. 430 grams is 15.1 ounces. Its like buying a pound of ham at the deli. Its not too bad and as a travel lens it is easier to carry than the 90mm. I really enjoyed how the camera was not dominated by the lens and laid flat against my body instead of the lens pulling the camera towards the ground.
Lens Shade: The shade is telescopic and it locks. I have watcher reviewers use the lens and not lock the shade. Its like telling a joke and forgetting the punchline, “Locking it is the best part!” It pulls out, just like the 50mm Summicron, then it turns a quarter turn to lock. This tiny detail is genius. I wish my 50mm locked in place. When you are shuffling through a crowd with the camera over your shoulder the front element is safely tucked inside the hood.
Flare: I could not get this lens to flare. Even shot straight into the sun it makes a weird halo, but refuses to flare.
Leica Touch: Its worth mentioning again, this lens is as smooth as butter. For those of you who enjoy marveling at Leica’s ability to transform brass, steel, aluminum, and brass into a rotating barrel of optical goodness, this lens will make you smile.
Condition: The lens I tested was barely used. There were no paint chips, zero wear on the barrel, and the glass was flawless. It was the best used lens I have ever seen. Its previous owner must have only cradled it or it came out a a divorce settlement as the lens that was never opened.
‹ Conclusion ›
When I left for India to test this lens, I decided to leave my 50mm at home. As if shooting in five new cities would not be enough of a challenge, the choice to abandon my 50mm had me wondering, “Was that a good idea?” The only thing left to do was dive into the focal length and the lens. After a few days of shuffling back and forth, the lens and I made peace and the pictures started to flow.
It opened up a new realm of street portraits for me. Since I spent so much time focusing on the faces in ashrams, temples, and alleyways the 75mm was perfectly suited to the images I wanted. Its light weight, trimmed down dimensions were very convenient for long days. My shoulders and neck were happy. Each night, back in the hotel, I was immensely pleased with the performance of the lens optically. As the only member of the Summicron family with a floating element, this lens reproduces a scene with intense accuracy. When I got back to New York I checked other camera shops to see if anyone had this lens in stock. There was not a single 75mm APO-Summicron in the whole city. I started to wonder if the owners of these lenses are keeping this secret to themselves. Its does not matter whether there is an international conspiracy of silent 75mm owners or the stock is just low. The short tele or “Middle Man,” as I liked to call it, proved itself to be a worthy travel companion. Whether you are headed into the Amazon or up the Ganges, the 75mm APO-Summicron invites you to dance with your subjects. One step forward, two steps back; it may require a few missteps, but once you are in sync everything will feel just right.
The lens was available at Photo Village here: