Nov 192012
 

Lessons Learned – Using Classic Lenses on the Leica M Monochrom

By Ashwin Rao – See his blog HERE or his Facebook Page HERE

As a caveat, the article that I am presenting below is entirely subjective, and my opinions are subject to change. My thoughts represent my current state of thinking. I have found that the Leica M Monochrom is a flexible tool capable of pushing the photographer in new and different ways. It happens to be that the MM has pushed me in the direction discussed below, as of 11/2012, and we’ll see where the journey takes me in the months and years to come….

Hi fellow photographers, gearheads, and friends, today I am writing the first of my “lessons learned” articles regarding the use and function of the Leica M Monochrom (MM). The MM is unlike any camera that I have used in my time behind the viewfinder. Sure, one can approach its use similarly to how he or she would use a M9. In practical use, it’s a rangefinder and nothing more. However, shooting in black and white may necessitate a change in approaching the subject of the photo. For me, this has meant focusing on light and dark, highlight and contrast, and composition over color.

Of equal importance is the difference in the files produced by the camera, when compared to the M9 or any other camera currently in production. As I processed my first set of images, shot entirely with modern aspherical lenses on the MM, I started to notice a few “issues” with my files As many have discussed, images looked flat and grey, yet with occasionally overexposed highlights. To compensate for loss of highlight detail, I decided to under-expose by 1/3 to 2/3 stops. In some instances, using this method with modern glass, shadows were so deep that it became more difficult to recover details in the underexposed portions of the frame.

One other issue some images had a decidedly “digital” look to them. A fair number of commenters made mention that the files had a look that didn’t appear film-like. This is no fault of the MM, which after all is a digital camera, but rather with our expectation that files coming directly from the camera should look entirely “film-like” (whatever that means….there are many types of film)…What could be behind this? After all, the Leica M system is replete with some of the best glass ever made, capable of fantastic clarity and tonal rendition. The MM’s sensor is capable of resolving incredible detail, in some cases more than presently capable of the lenses in Leica’s collection. Shouldn’t fantastic glass coupled with a fantastic sensor produce…well…fantastic results? I haven’t always found this to be the case, within the confines of my own limitations as a photographer….let me explain why I think this (IMHO, as always).

Leica MM with 90 mm f/2 Summicron v2

QUANDRY # 1- Lens choice: Modern vs Classic.

When shooting with modern lenses, as I did in the MM-NYC article that Steve posted a few months back, I only used aspheric lenses, specifically the 35 mm Summilux FLE and 50 mm Summilux Asph lenses. On looking at these files again today, I find that the coupling of modern lenses with the MM creates files that are bursting with clarity and contrast. To me, it may be that the files offer too much clarity and contrast for my brand of black and white photography. For those willing to experiment with modern glass on the MM’s sensor, they may well be allowed to explore territory that has yet to be explored in BW photography. So when some offer criticism that MM files have an overly digital look, I’d respond that MM files have a unique look as offered by the combination of sensor and lens. The creative possibilities of exploring these combinations is both exciting and daunting, but offers up a type of black and white imagery that we may not be used to. Just as HDR images became popular and controversial several years back, the MM files offer something different from bread-and-butter CMOS and CCD sensor rendering. Images shot via the MM when using modern glass seem to have a “hyper-real”, almost surreal look to them. This is not a familiar look to many of us, and thus invites criticism or concern in some instances. Some of us, such as Kristian Dowling, have assumed this challenge, and are making the MM sing with modern glass. I went in a different direction….

Leica MM with 90 mm f/2 Summicron v2

I debated whether or not to stick with the “MM-Modern look”, as I have taken to calling it, and decided to put it on hold. I am not sure that I am quite yet ready to delve into that look without being met with significant challenge and criticism. Rather, I purchased the MM to progress as a black and white photographer, along the lines of the images that I have explored from the film era. With this in mind, I began to explore the possibility of how the MM behaves with vintage lenses from prior eras.

Over the past few months, I dusted the cobwebs off some of my classic lenses,that haven’t gotten much use in recent times. In particular, I have extensively used the Leica 50 mm f/2 version II Summicron, also dubbed the “Rigid Summicron”, as it was the first Summicron lens to have no collapsible elements. This lens was very popular in the late 1950’s through mid-1960’s, and it was highly regarded for its clarity (for the era), tonal rendition, and smooth out-of-focus rendition (i.e. bokeh). To this, I added a 90 mm f/2 Summicron II (E 49 filter thread, collapsible hood) which was manufactured in 1970. I also pulled out my old Leica Tele-Elmar 135 mm f/4, which I reviewed here several years back, and picked up a 35 mm f/2.5 Summarit, which to my eyes has a smoother tonal rendition than its aspherical cousins (35 FLE and 35 cron asph) and stands nicely side-by-side with older glass. Needless to say, I have been very pleased and excited with the results of these lenses on the MM.

Leica MM with 90 mm f/2 Summicron v2

While modern glass can be nearly jarring on the MM, due to lens sharpness and abrupt focus-fall off coupled with the MM’s resolving capabilities, these vintage lenses provide a different, less-clinical signature, which to my eyes, provides a dare-I-say “more pleasant” look…Here again, is where I feel that I am being entirely subjective. To my eyes, at the very least, vintage Leica lenses do very well with the MM. While they resolve slightly less detail than their modern counterparts, their lower contrast and more gentle focus fall off seems to allow and gentler tonal rendition and better preservation of shadow and highlight details. Further, color is taken out of the equation, and while many old lenses don’t always render color accurately, they tend to offer a very appealing greyscale rendition. I feel that the MM’s greyscale capacities take great advantage of lenses with lower macrocontrast. In general, I find that I am able to achieve a more “film-like” black and white look, at least one that more closely represents what’s developed in my thoughts as to how a BW image should look.

In particular, I was stunned by the performance of 2 lenses on the Leica MM: the Rigid 50 mm Summicron and the 90 mm Summicron II. Let me talk a bit more about these lenses

 

Leica MM/50 mm f/2 Rigid Summicron

 At this time, the 50 mm f/2 Rigid Summicron wins my award for “Best overall lens for the Leica M Monochrom”. I know that this is a very bold (and entirely subjective) statement to make, but I have my reasons. The Rigid ‘Cron was one of the best lenses, if not the best lens, in its era, combining high resolution with fantastic performance from wide open through f/11. It’s bitingly sharp if stopped down to f/4 and fully acceptable when shot wide open. Out-of-focus rendition is beautifully classic, and it has a tad of that “Leica glow” thanks to some of its aberrations, none of which goes overboard. If you are willing to live with a minimal focus distance of 1 meter, and if you can find one in good to excellent optical condition, you should buy one in a heartbeat. It’s simply a no-brainer, given that this lens is one of the most affordable 50 mm Summicron lenses on today’s market can be had for 1/10 of the price of the current 50 mm f/2 APO-Summicron.

 

Leica MM/50 mm f/2 Rigid Summicron

The 90 mm f/2 Summicron II has long been regarded as a fantastic performer for portraiture and people photography. It was first released in the 1960’s, and it is one of the only Leica M lenses with a built in tripod mount. It’s a big beast of a lens, though it’s not terribly heavy. It has a telescoping hood, which is a nice feature. But it’s nicest feature is its AMAZING rendering. This lens has become my “go to” portrait lens on the Leica MM, supplanting the 75 mm an 90 mm APO-Summicron lenses. I find the focus fall off of the version II 90 ‘Cron to be beautiful and the lens does an amazing job with OOF rendition and preservation of highlights. It’s one of Walter Mandler’s designs, and it shoes. In many ways, I am reminded of the Leica 75 mm f/1.4 Summilux when viewing images taken with this lens. However, it’s a much more economic offering than the 75 ‘lux, whose prices have entered the stratosphere in recent years. The 90 Summicron II wins 2 awards for me:

1. Best portrait lens on the Leica M Monochrom

2. Most underappreciated lens for Leica M (previous award had gone to the 135 Tele-Elmar)

If you are willing to put up with the 90 Summicron II’s size, which is its only drawback, you’ll be greatly rewarded, particularly if you use a Leica M Monochrom. It has that Leica Magic!!!

 

Leica MM with 90 mm f/2 Summicron v2

Finally, I wanted to put in a brief word on the Leica Summarit 35 mm f/2.5 lens on the MM. As you know, I think very highly of the diminutive Summarit, finding it to have the most pleasant bokeh of any of Leica’s lenses. In some ways, I’d call the 35 mm Summarit to be the “King of Smooth”…it’s very well controlled, renders sharply, and provides and image with moderate contrast and smooth tonal transitions.

 

Leica MM with Leica Summarit 35 mm f/2.5

In summary, at this time, I find that vintage lenses have a very appealing look on the MM’ sensor, and one can re-discover many old lenses using this camera. This does not, in any way, invalidate the use of modern glass on the MM. I simply feel that these lenses offer 2 different sets of solutions for the black and white shooter. The choice ultimately is upon the photographer to determine what better suits him or her.

 

QUANDRY # 2 – Greyscale

When first acquiring the Monochrom, I became enamored with the details and tonal magnitude of MM files. There is a wealth of detail in those greys, and I first attempted to capture and present those greys in a meaningful way. What resulted were files that had a lot of “grey”, which, on some monitors, projects out as flat or washed out. On my NEC High Gamut 27 inch display and on high quality archival prints, the images do have quite a bit of depth in those greys. Yet, there was a certain “pop” that may be missing in having images rendered with whiter whites and darker darks, so to speak, or at least a sharper fall off between darks and whites. In some cases, it actually is much easier to take an M9, convert the file to BW, and obtain a fantastic, more readily approachable image. Why then even bother with the MM?

Well, there are a few reasons, actually, for those who are willing to be patient and make adjustments in post processing. Buried in all of those greys is a wealth of information that allows MM files to be pushed and pulled in many different directions, without a dramatic loss in image fidelity. In other words, by processing carefully, one can adjust the look of their MM images so that they don’t look so…grey.

Leica MM with Canon 50 mm f/1.4 LTM (“Japanese Summilux”)

 

Leica MM with Konica Hexanon 60 mm f/1.2 LTM

Once again, you may ask, “Why bother? My M9 does it well and does it easier…” I would suggest that for the dedicated BW shooter or the photographer interested in getting different looks for their BW imagery, the Leica MM is unparalleled in its ability to produce files capable of being manipulated to achieve many looks in BW without loss of image fidelity. I am a Lightroom user, and I find that using the “Black” and “White” sliders, coupled with the “Shadow” and “Highlight” sliders (available in LR4 and beyond), followed by a dose of contrast/clarity tweaks, allows me to achieve any number of looks. Add to that a bit of dodging and burning, and suddenly one begins to appreciate that files from the MM are very flexible, and the greyscale depth, if I may call it that, is profound. Thus, if you like the Tri-X look, it can be achieved. HP-5, Neopan 1600, TMax 3200? No problem…. How about slow film, like PanX or Agfa 25 film? Yes, the MM can do those “looks” well too ….The one limitation that I see to the MM is that it’s native ISO is 320, which is relatively fast compared to slow film stock. In order to use fast glass at base ISO on the MM, one must either stop down or buy an image degrading ND filter to do so.

I enjoy being permitted many options on how to make my BW files look. The MM allows this in plentitude. MM files are incredibly flexible, and I have found the challenge of processing MM files to be ongoing. I suspect that in the years to come, I’ll come back to my old files, with new eyes and new processing techniques, and see them again for the first time. Here’s an example 2 files taken from the same photo session, where in-camera settings were the same but processing was a bit different:

Early processing – MM and 50 mm f/1.4 Summilux Asph

 

More recent processing – MM and 50 mm f/1.4 Summilux Asph

 

Looking at both files, I wouldn’t necessarily say that either version is “correct” per say, or represents the events as I “saw” them. They are both different truths to the same story, and this, to me, is where the MM excels. It allows one to tell many different stories, and provides files that are more flexibile than the M9 to do this, in some regards, despite losing out on R/G/B channels and selective channel tweaking…

 

QUANDRY #3 – USING FILTERS

The use of filters on the Leica MM has been well documented and discussed. In summary, it appears that the MM’s sensor takes well to the use of color filters, and one familiar with the use of such filters on their film bodies will feel at home using these same filters on the Monochrom. I have found that for ease of look, it’s best to use a yellow or medium orange filter to increase contrast straight out of camera. This can save time in processing, particularly for those of you whom are not enamored by overly grey images. Additionally, for shooting people, green, yellow, and in some cases organe filters brighten up complexion enough to provide a more “natural look”.

For many of us, using filters can be cumbersome. One has to take heed when using them, making sure to match the filter to the intended look or shooting circumstance. At times, I bring my filters, and at times, I leave them home. In either case, I find that the MM provides acceptable results. As I have lenses of many differing filter threads, I decided that I can’t own R/G/Y/O filters in every thread, so I elected to snag filters for 39 mm and 46 mm thread size. One could alternatively get several step up rings and purchase 60-72 mm filter size, and use the same filters on a variety of glass. The problem with the latter option is that it’s a bit clunky to use a 60 mm filter on a e39 lens. Filters still cost a fair chunk of cash, but keeping your filter collection reasonable is probably the way to go. If I had to choose 1-2 filters, I’d probably chose a yellow and orange filter, since the other filters tend to be a bit more specialized to more extreme looks.

 

Leica MM and 50 mm Summilux II (pre-asph) E43 lens

 

QUANDRY # 4- Too much resolution!

With the MM’s files, I marveled at the resolution capable of being displayed by the MM’s sensor, partricularly when paired with modern glass. It was definitely new territory, in terms of the camera’s capacity to resolve small details extraordinarily well, and in some cases too well. This is commonly a criticism of Leica’s current aspherical lens lineup (if there could be such a thing as that), who some state may be too “clinical” or can render details with the harsh clarity of reality, making the system’s new lens a bit controversial for portraits (see all of the internet fodder regarding the 90 mm f/2 APO-Summicron, a brilliant lens for which the devil may be in the “details” (that it renders), so to speak.

I myself have never found modern Leica glass to be too clinical when using my M8 and M9. I have seen brilliant work from many MM shooters using modern glass, by my own journey, has lead me to use older glass with slightly lower resolving capacity. Using these older lenses seems to “tame” the MM’s sensor a bit, but the results remain fantastic, and the images taken with older glass maintains adequate to superior resolution, albeit with less bite than modern glass…which I think is a good thing.

Leica MM with Leica Summarit 35 mm f/2.5

 

QUANDRY #5- ISO capability compared to film stock

I am thoroughly impressed by the MM’s high ISO capacities. Unlike the Leica M9, which I found to be limited in its ISO capacity, there appears to be no such limitation with the MM. When shooting a properly exposed scene, the photographer can easily capture files that look remarkably clean and details at ISO’s upto 5000. To me, this has opened up opportunities to shoot the MM in many new settings, including darkened street scenes. The MM’s high ISO capabilities allow the facile use of slower (smaller) lenses on the MM in more settings, opening up even more creative possibilities. . While much talk has been given to how the MM’s high ISO (3200 and beyond) looks film-like, I tend to disagree. While the camera’s high ISO grain seems fine and tasteful and allows for preservation of details of the image (without any introduction of mushiness into the pixel-peeping equation), it does not take on the look of film grain, to my eyes. The grain, particularly at ISO’s of 3200 and beyond, is decidedly digital, but not objectionable. Occasionally, when adjusting contrast or exposure when shooting at high ISO, banding may be seen. All in all, I am far more comfortable shooting the MM at high ISO’s than I ever was with the Leica M9. I try to keep my ISO cut off at 3200 for this camera, though on occasion, ISO’s beyond this are called for. Further. I find that MM’s capacity to render clean files through ISO 1600 makes it amenable to “adding” film like grain in post processing.

 Leica MM/50 mm f/2 Rigid Summicron

Alright, I have rambled on enough. I am sure that you all have had your fill of Leica M Monochrom reportage. Suffice it to say that it’s a fascinating camera capable of outstanding results for those interested in using it. It’s definitely not a camera for everyone. It is a fantastic option for those who desire superior ISO performance and broad dynamic range within the greyscale realm.

All the best,

Ashwin

Leica MM/50 mm f/2 Rigid Summicron

 

Leica MM with 90 mm f/2 Summicron v2

 

© 2009-2014 STEVE HUFF PHOTOS All Rights Reserved
21