The Leica M Monochrome and the Nokton 50mm F/1.1
Meets the Human Form
By Andrew Kaiser
ATTN: This post contains artistic tasteful Nudity. If you are offended by this or at work you may want to wait until later to read.
UPDATE: Due to a complaint, Google found the tasteful nudity offensive and threatened to shut off my Adsense acct, which is how this site earns its money to keep on going. I had to remove 3 of the photos here, sorry. Always amazed at those who are so ashamed of the human form and see nudity as dirty or offensive. We came into this earth naked, it is who we are, how can anyone be offended with that? Sorry Andrew. Your work is beautiful.
Leica M cameras are often described as the ideal “street” cameras. They are relatively small, fully manual, fast, discreet, durable, and afford photographers the opportunity to work with a treasure trove of quality glass spanning decades of photographic innovation. I can’t say I disagree with any of those attributes and they are one of the primary reasons I was drawn to giving the Leica M Monochrome a try. Strange thing is though, I am not a street photographer. I do however dedicate a very large portion of my work to the human figure and when working outdoors with models baring it all, having a small, fully manual, discreet, and durable camera comes in quite handy as well!
Now before I go too deep into this review I will give full disclosure and say that I primarily work with film. Even though I have quickly fallen in love with the Leica MM I don’t see that as changing anytime soon. That being said I have always hated the “film vs. digital” debate and have considered it one of the most ridiculous arguments in the entire pantheon of artistic history. In the same way that the world is big enough for both electric and acoustic guitars, oil paints and pastels, and wood working and bronze sculptures – the image making community can make room for both analogue and digital mediums. I only bring up my preference for film because one of the things that keeps me going back to that medium is the simple fact that film cameras can often be a more intuitive user experience. I mean lets face it, as camera designers try to pack more and more features (some would say gimmicks) into their latest offerings the more and more it feels like one is taking a picture with a computer as opposed to a simple light capturing device. Sometimes the zen of photography comes from simplicity.
The Leica M series is one of the few digital camera systems on the market which still adopts this philosophy. But hey. I could rant about that forever so let’s get back to talking about the Leica MM specifically. So where was I? Oh yes, discreet, durable, small… In my line of work speed and subtlety are incredibly important. I simply cannot afford to be fussing with camera settings while my model is exposed to wind and rain and the ever-present possibility of onlookers who may be offended by nudity, or worse, the random passerby reaching for their camera phone ecstatic about the free peep show they’ve stumbled upon. The Leica MM works perfectly under these conditions. When I bring the camera up to eye level it is ready to go instantly. The all black body looks completely unassuming from a distance and its whisper like operation means I can work in silence and not break the rapport I have with the model, or attract unwanted attention. Even when working in remote forests and obscure locations I need to get in, set up my shot, and get out quickly. There just simply is no better camera on the market that embodies these characteristics quite like the Leica M series.
Now to the question everyone asks when they find out I own a Leica MM – what is it like working with a black and white only camera? To tell the truth I don’t miss the ability to work with color at all. With film I am using black and white stock about 95% of the time so I suppose you could say I am a die-hard black and white enthusiast. Just the kind of photographer Leica marketed the MM toward. I am drawn to the way the human figure is rendered in black and white, minimizing complex and unique people into simple shapes and forms. The nude is a perfect fit for the abstract nature of black and white photography. The digital files produced by the Leica MM are exactly what I typically aim for when shooting black and white negative film. In other words, yes they do tend to be on the flat side. However, this is not a bad thing! A neutral RAW file is exactly what I want from the camera as it gives me the latitude necessary to toy with my images to get the final tone and vibe I am looking for. Working with MM files in post really feels like printing negatives in a darkroom, or at least as close to working with a digital file ever could be to a chemical work flow.
Since purchasing the MM my favorite lens to pair it with has been the Voigtlander 50mm F/1.1 Nokton. I won’t deny I experienced more anxiety about purchasing the Nokton than any other piece of photographic equipment I own. That is a rather bold statement coming from a guy who shelled out eight grand for digital camera that can’t capture color images. The reason for my hesitation was two-fold. 1) The 50mm f/1.1 Nokton seemed to be a lens that users either loved or hated with equal amounts of vigor. For every goof review of the Nokton it wasn’t hard to find a bad one. Some people described the lens as a godsend compared to the equivalent Leica lens costing ten times the price while others turned their noses up at it claiming it to be lackluster in character and pop. 2) I was nervous about my abilities to accurately focus a rangefinder while utilizing such a thin depth of field.
I mentioned before that I am primarily a film photographer. Surprisingly most of that experience is not with rangefinders but rather with medium format cameras using gigantic waist level finders and ground glass to focus. Compared to that, rangefinders can honestly be a challenge, or at the very least a different way of working that I was not entirely used to. I got over the first problem by telling myself if I hated the lens I could probably turn around and sell it for nearly as much as I bought it for. I pushed past the second problem by just simply sucking in my gut and remembering that practice will always in the end create a better photographer. So far the issue hasn’t been nearly as challenging as I had feared though I have learned even the slightest movement in or out can be the difference between capturing that perfect sweet spot on my subject or instead getting the tip of a model’s nose in perfect focus.
When used wide open at f/1.1 I won’t deny the Nokton can be a bit soft. However, when working with the nude this is not entirely a bad thing. Razor sharp rendering may be great for certain subjects but the human body will often benefit from a more painterly rendering. Or at least, that is what my subjects are always telling me anyway. I have little doubt the lens sharpens up nicely when stopped down but I enjoy using this lens precisely for its dreamy softness and extreme bokeh.
Bokeh is of course one of those things that is purely subjective. Some people find the bokeh on the Nokton to be fairly harsh. I can’t help but feel like those people are making an unfair comparison between the Nokton and the Leica f/0.95 Noctilux. Let’s be clear about something – the Nokton is NOT the Noctilux and considering the Leica lens is ten times the price I would certainly hope not. If it was I would say Leica is ripping people off. The Voigtlander lens is an animal all on its own and there is nothing at all wrong with that.
If my overall impression of the Nokton was that of an imitation Leica lens I would not be happy with it at all.
No, the Nokton renders scenes rather nicely and helps to make your subject pop without feeling too much like a gimick. I like a little “grit” in my photographs, particularly with black and white work and for that the Nokton is perfect. There is a feeling of realism with the Nokton that I really appreciate.
I did learn rather quickly that if you want to work wide open with the Nokton a neutral density filter is pretty much a must have. The native ISO of the MM is 320 and if you want to go lower you will experience a noticeable loss in dynamic range. I have a two stop ND filter parked on the front of my lens nearly all the time when working outdoors and i keep a three stop filter in my bag for when it is really bright (a rarity in Oregon). Thankfully this isn’t too big of a deal. If one is forced to use ND filter I am happy it is with a rangefinder as opposed to an SLR.
In the interest of complete honesty it wouldn’t be fair of me to only talk about the positives of photographing with the MM and the Nokton F/1.1. The biggest drawback by far would be the size of the Nokton. Though it may be considered small on most camera systems, by rangefinder standards it is rather huge. It is so big that the MM feels a tad front heavy when you hold it in your hand and it definitely tilts in a lop sided way when carrying the camera on a shoulder strap. Typically I am carrying the MM in a messanger bag so I can deal with this particular phenominon but for those who carry their Leica’s on a neck strap this is something you may want to consider.
My second criticism has more to do with the MM body. In fact it is the same criticism I have of every Leica M body. It would be incredibly useful if Leica would utilize the same vibration technology that every other manufactuer uses now days to keep dust off the sensor. The Leica M system can arguably utilize the best collection of lenses ever made in the history of photography. It is only natural for M users to change out their lenses a lot, not to mention use their M cameras in dusty dirty environments. In my experience the automatic sensor vibration used by Sony, Canon, Nikon, etc. works wonderfully to keep little dirt particles off the sensor effectively cutting down on the need to get your camera cleaned on a regular basis. Thankfully this hasn’t been an issue yet but I have little doubt it is only a matter of time before the sensor gets dirty.
But hey, no camera is perfect, not even a Leica. All-in-all I am quite happy with my little black beauty!
If you are interested in following my work you can find my website at: www.absoluterealitystudios.com
For my most recent work be sure to check out my blog at: www.absoluterealitystudios.blogspot.com
From Steve: Don’t forget the latest contest at I-SHOT-IT.com where the grand prize is a Leica Monochrom plus Cash. Check it out here. Deadline is 21 more days! The last winner camera from this website and won the camera plus over $20k in cash.