Photographing New York Wide Open by Ashwin Rao

Photographing New York Wide Open

By Ashwin Rao

Hi there, my fellow Steve Huffsters. It’s Ashwin, back after a long hiatus. I have been so busy taking photographs that I haven’t had much of a chance to sit down and write an article to share with all of you. Along the way, I have had many ideas for articles to write, but this one just jumped into my head after returning from my recent trip to New York City, where I dedicated nearly 2 days to photography! As most of you know, Steve has organized a daylong New York City photo shoot in October, which will be AWESOME. Sadly, I cannot attend this work shop, but it doesn’t mean that I can’t participate in my own way….maybe through a bit of inspiration or a prequel of many great images that certainly come from that exciting day of photography….

A Light Moment During Chess, Central Park West

I have been privileged to own the Leica Noctilux 50 mm f/0.95 for a few months now, and I continue to be amazed by its capacities as a lens. The Noctilux f/0.95 has been reviewed by many photo sites, including Steve’s wonderful review a few months back, and I must say that I have to agree with the primary sentiment: this is one heck of a lens This is an amazing lens to use wide open OR stopped down. It sure the heck should be, fore its exhorbitant price tag of more than $10,000. The New Noctilux is really comparable to the Leica Summilux 50 mm f/1.4 asph, who many, myself included, concur is the best 50 mm lens ever made. Truth be told, I sort of think of it as “Summilux on Steroids!” Yes, the rendering of the new Noctilux is very modern, clean, and well corrected, but in my eyes, the Noctilux f/0.95 has its own unique signature wide open that places it apart from any lens that has ever been made for 35 mm photography.

Spongebob and Elmo, friends?

Yup, They Sure Are!

I have always been one to use the lenses that I buy, and I recently ported the Noctilux and Leica M9 to New York for a couple of days of photography. I decided to challenge myself in a new way. How about shooting the city wide open, during the day, during the night, all of the time!!! How would you do this, you might ask? After all, shooting an f/0.95 lens wide open during the daytime would require very fast shutter speeds, ever at low ISO’s. The solution is a neutral density filter, so most of the daytime shots that you see here are composed with the Noctilux f/0.95 with a B + W 560 8x neutral density filter applied, which you can get here. In fact, a neutral density filter is really a must if you plan to use any Noctilux wide open during the day and take advantage of this series of lenses’ unique ability to control depth of field. The only issue that I could see in applying a ND filter is that at times, the Noctilux with ND filter applied can produce some vignetting in your images. Nothing objectionable really, but something that would be worth taking note.

Heading to Work in Style

Taking a Break from Work, Catnap in Bryant Park

No Time off For this Guy, and He’s Feeling It!

New York has so many photographic opportunities, and it’s not a place that you can cover in a day or 2.. It is one of America’s cultural meccas, and it is a city that has a palpable pulse, a huge diversity of culture, and endless opportunities for exploring your creative vision. During my stay in New York, I focused my efforts on exploring Manhattan. However, you would be equally enchanted by many of the other boroughs, including Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens. Some day, I will return to explore these areas and others, but for my 2 days, it was Manhattan, site of so many memorable places, including Times Square, the East Village, Central Park, Harlem, Grand Central Station, Madison Square Garden, the Empire State Building. Columbia University, Bleeker Street, Tribeca, Chelsea, and so much more. My strategy while here was to have my camera out, ready to shoot any opportunity, and capture life as I saw it in front of me. It was an exciting 2 days, filled with moments that were all parts tender, harsh, grand and intimate. I started my journey at Times Square, and set out on foot from there. I probably walked 60-70 blocks for each day of walking, making diverse trips to places such as B&H Photo & Video, Adorama Camera, the International Center for Photography, The New York Public Library, The Subway, Grand Central Terminal.

One of Many Characters in Times Square – Can You Help Find His Family?

During my stroll, I was amazed by how the Noctilux can have an amazing control of depth of field. Even when subjects are not at close distance, the Noctilux f/0.95 can create crisp separation of the photographed subject from its background. Unlike the Noctilux f/1, which has a creamier and swirlier out-of-foucs rendering (i.e. bokeh), the modern Noctilux is far more well corrected and renders in-focus elements far more sharply. This leads to the sense that my subjects POP from their background. I have seen this occasionally from the 50 mm Summilux asph, but Noctilux, with it’s f/0.95 aperture, can achieve this separation regularly.

Grand Central

Achieving focus with the Noctilux can be a challenge at times. Even at medium distances, the focus plane that the lens provides at f0.95 is RAZOR thin. At close focus, the challenge becomes even more daunting. Thankfully, I have had a few months to get to know this lens, and I found focus to be consistent. I came home and discovered that the lionshare of my images were in fact properly focused, or at least, close enough. And in some cases, even the out-of-focus images had their charm ;).

Achieving focus (The Seated Figure with Sunglasses was my Focus Point)

Bryant Park City Jugglers (this image is actually slightly out-of-focus, but I enjoyed it anyways)

The Empire State

Combining the Noctilux’s unique rendering with the wide and diverse palette of New York’s Photographic opportunies, I returned home with a veritable gold mine of images, that I will be sorting through and sharing with you for months to come. This is one of the great things about daylong photo strolls. You come home with so many images that you have raw material to explore for many months. This means that in some ways, you can continue to explore the city from the confines of your own computer monitor for many months and continue to enjoy the images that the city provides you. For all of you October New York work shop folks, I am excited to see what you will come home with. I am equally sad that I won’t be there with you. Hopefully, this article serves as inspiration to bring each and every one of you to visit New York. It’s a magical place full of life, culture, and spirit. And it’s a worthy stop for all of the photographers among you.

I will continue to add to my collection as I fiddle with images from these 2 days of shooting, which you can find here:

And of course, there’s a selection at my blog:

Until we meet again next, here are a few more images from NYC for you to enjoy!

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  1. Superb pics Ashwin. I will be trying a wide open day out in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia soon. Can’t imagine the difficulty in shooting wide open in the city though. It’s probably gonna be a nightmare.

  2. Great write-up and pics, Ashwin! Funny, because I, too, just returned from a trip to Manhattan and only took my Noctilux f/1 and shot wide open with it 99% of the time as well. A neutral density filter is indeed a must!
    I am currently culling through the images and although street shooting wide open at such an aperture is a bit of a challenge, I am happy to say that I am very pleased with vast majority of the images…there are many keepers that I will be posting!
    The older Noctilux is not as sharp out of the camera as it’s successor, but it’s still a charmer!

  3. Thanks for the great pics. Being a m4/3’s user I may have to breakdown and get the Voightlander 25mm .95 for the m4/3’s format now.

    • Would love to the the CV 25 f/1.9 shots once you have that lens…fascinating times in m4/3 world…hopefully it’s a new optic and not a rebradged old anginieux,,,,like the Noktor was a rebadged older lens

  4. @ Ashwin…yeah, another one of those polarizing issues..wide open, stopped down, what shall we do? As always, there is no right or wrong, but just a matter of finding the right situation for a given choice.
    I can’t deny that, by nature and too often, people love to shoot fast lenses wide open simply for the look and not because it’s required, needed or it is the best choice. When I hear..”look at that bokeh!” or “creamy”l I usually cringe. The subject can be a turd on the ground but, if it’s taken wide open and with a bunch of glimmering balls in the background, it’s stupendous art 🙂

    As far as the Nocti, when I first bought it, I did try to squeeze that f1 everywhere but soon realized that, just maybe, Leica named it “Nocti-Lux” for a reason 🙂 …night…light….wait a minute, this lens really CAN see in the dark..and finally found its intended purpose. Yes, I will still pick and choose those wide open shots but the truth is that 1) any 50 is usually a poor portrait lens so forget that in most cases, and 2) I will try to isolate the subject when needed and not because it looks cool.
    BUT, when there is very little and crappy light, that f1 (or even better 0.95), is an absolute gift from the lens Gods.
    This past weekend I was shooting a friends wedding and, while I shot mostly film, I did bring the M9 with the Noctilux. Well, the ceremony and party were held in this small restaurant, with incredibly dim lights and a few candles on the table. Put the M9 @2500ISO and opened to f1…let there be light! I shot most of the ceremony with it @ 1/15 – 1/30 and got away with murder. f1.4 or f2 would be in total blur territory and if I had that .95, I would have been in heaven. Color noise is obviously painful at that level with the M9 but it works wonders for black & white conversions. If I was a pro wedding photographer, I would kill to have that .95 and trash the flash.
    Anyway, I really believe that the Noctilux is EXTREMELY useful and almost indispensable for those situations, especially for those who hate flash (and I do) and, beyond those widest apertures, the Summicron is still the lens to own in my view so no contest there.

    Here is an example… light here and f1..

    @ Adam..oh yeah..I’ll be there. You?

  5. Hey Ashwin,

    No hating at all. I really appreciate that you tried a fixed experiment to see what might happen. Limitations, regardless of their outcome, will teach you a lot you had not previously considered. I sure there are many small lessons that you did not include in the article, but they will be evident in future pictures.

    Whether the challenge is shooting only one lens, using one F Stop, or locking the ISO, the ability to work around constraints will lead to a different road than the mega zoom, 102,000 ISO, HDR, image stabilized SLR world. Not that there is anything wrong with these advances in technology, but without a good foundation in the principles of image making there is not a technology in the world that can make a bland picture.

    Camera technology is like Salt in cooking. Many great dishes need some type of salt, but a bad dish cannot be saved by any amount of salt.

    Thanks Ashwin and looking forward to meeting you Ricci’s in NYC.

    Max, we are on the same page. Will you be in NYC?

  6. Ashwin, the beauty about the Noct 0.95 is that it gives you the option to get outstanding pictures wide open and stopped down. I don’t know any other 0.95 lens that gives you such option while maintaining the picture quality throughout the range. In my mind this alone justifies its price. I am working hard to get this dream combo in one day. Your pictures are stunning.

  7. Hmm, seems to be a mixed sentiment about shooting wide vs. stopped down….I say to each their own…it’s matter of preference, what not. Just to be clear, hoping that no body’s hating my images too much, this period of 2 days shooting wide open was an exercise …something I hadn’t really attempted before with the Noctilux f/.95. I enjoyed the experience, I must say, but as others such as Riccis, Adam, Max and 6 have commented above, it’s a matter of preference in some of these things. My 2c. I may soon be sharing a few images stopped down with one of my other favorites, the MATE 28-35-50…

    • Not hating the images at all (other than the creepy looking Elmo but that is not your fault :))… I hope my postings are not stirring too much of a crazy debate and instead inspire the readers to concentrate on finding/refining their signature style.

      • Hahaha…thanksw, man! I don’t mind the debate…makes things lively, and I agree, it’s a true challenge to find one’s signature style. I may still be searching for mine…wish I could be there with y’all in NYC…sometime soon thereafter, I hope!

  8. Good job there, Ashwin, well chosen spots. That Nocti certainly has the look, wide open. As a reply to Adam above, you have nailed it right on the head. It is so difficult to compare successful street shooting today to when Bresson made his magic. Confusion, over-crowded places, at least for me, are not suitable to the way I view things. Picking a few, carefully chosen shots for wide open work in an effort to isolate the subject, does work at times but it does not solve the problem. Looking at many of Bresson street shot, simplicity and a sense of emptiness at times is key to the images. Carefully played geometric patterns, shapes, shadows, and that human touch, perfectly placed, like an exclamation point. Minimalism as its best. Not easy to do these days, as traffic and population in major cities is overwhelming.

    This is how I see things, as an example, but it’s not going to happen often in NYC 🙂


  9. When the Henri Cartier Bresson show was up at MoMA on thing that is amazing about his photos is that many of his street scenes look like they were shot at 5.6 and up. Many have a deep field of focus. I hear Ricci and the crutch of Bokeh. Great bokeh and make a boring picture better, not saying these shots are boring. Many of them are quite nice Ashwin.

    Full depth of field is tough especially considering that modern clothes, advertising, and the ubiquitous caravan that manage to creep into shots. Sometimes I feel like Photoshop might actually help salvage some pictures from the fate bad backgrounds. Sure people can argue that the background sets the context, but the fanny pack wearing tourist should just be a shot on their own. They tend to make bad extras.

    At least we now have more choices then HCB. F .95 or Photoshop, there is something nice about being able to choose. And with more choices is tough to tell if taking street pictures is getting easier, harder, or somewhere in between.

  10. Ashwin,
    Amazing photos as always! Shooting wide open sure does give your images a cinematic feel, which I like very much. It also gives a slightly more serious tone to the images, which works in contrast to the light subject matter of the Elmo image of him alone on the street for example. I really like that push and pull.
    On another note – I was just in my local camera store – Service Photo in Baltimore – and they had a black M9 on the shelf. I was quite shocked to say the least! Just wanted to let you all know. They are a fantastic “mom & pop” shop where I do all of my business.

  11. @ Edward, great to see you here and on the forums elsewhere. Steve’s got one of the best sites in the Leica world, period! Thanks for the words of encouragement!

    @ Harald. THanks for your thoughts. Yes, I believe that shooting stopped down is just as valid as shooting wide open. Much is a point of preference, but lenses are much better corrected usually between f/4 and f/8, after which they become diffraction limited and lose resolution. I think bokeh is VERY subjective. I enjoy the out of focus of both Noctilux versions, but found the older Noct to have such a strong character as to be distracting to me. The Summitar is a gem of a lens with a unique signature, so I am thrilled that you own and love it. And the Summilux asph is one of the best lenses ever made, period….as for higher ISO/better performance in the M9 or its successor, I ‘d bet good money that Leica’s working on this. The megapixel wars are over, but low light/dynamic range wars have just begun.

    @ Steve: THANKS SO MUCH. It’s a privilege to write for you and participate! You are a beacon of light and excitement in this community. You ROCK!

  12. I love the images Ashwin! Thanks for writing another great post. I too am a fan of shooting wide open even in daylight but not everyone is. Thanks again! Great stuff as always!


  13. Nice article Ashwin. Must admit, though, I’m with Riccis here. I shoot wide open when it makes sense or is needed for what I’d like to achieve (composition) but otherwise I am more and more a f5.6 or f8 kinda guy.
    Of the three 50mm lenses I own I love my Summilux ASPH and the Summitar, while my F1 Noctilux is getting less and less camera time. The crazy swirly bokeh at f1 is slowly getting on my nerves. In my book it does more harm than good. Frankly, my Summitar from 1939 has a nicer bokeh than my Nocti. (Guess, it will be up for sale at some point in time soon.)
    If the Leica fairy would grand me a wish, I wouldn’t ask for the f0.95 Nocti but rather go for higher (noise free) ISO or at least a lot less noise for the current ISO settings.
    As much as i love my M9 and in particular my Leica glass, the noise issue is really starting to bug me. Yes, NoiseNinja and Co. do an okay job but loosing sharpness in the process is kind of counterproductive. (I hope Leica is reading this.)

  14. Ashwin,

    I continue to be in awe of your skills. These are EXCELLENT shots. I Know the city very well (lived there 6 years), and this is very much how my eye sees it.

    I really like what you captured, super well done. Also, thank you for not only inspiring we newcomers, but your continuing support and help on the forums.

    Edward (h00ligan)

  15. Hi Riccis, you are absolutely correct. I think using f/8 is far more worthy an exercise to test one’s photographic skills. However, it was still quite fun to shoot that crazy city wide open ;).

    One of my favorite lenses to use, to that end, is the MATE 28-35-50, shot at f/5.6-f8, and it’s a lovely way to see the world through Leica’s lens, so to speak! The 35 summaron f/2.8 is also tiny, and a great daytime shooter, and yet another way to see the world at f/8. Given your role as instructor at the course, it will be a great counter-exercise to the version that I attempted here…

    I am so bummed to miss the workshop. Have fun!

  16. Thanks for sharing, mate…

    I’m very glad you posted this as I will be encouraging Steve’s workshop attendees to actually go the opposite way, that is, not shooting wide open and instead inspire them to open up to f/8 at the fastest… I will share my thoughts about a term that I have coined “bokeh (sp) crutch” and challenge attendees to be able to see and compose in a way that allows them to have as much context in an image as possible.

    Of course, I am not saying either way is right or wrong but instead want to make sure the apertures in their lenses is not stuck at the widest setting 🙂

    Looking forward to next month, kids.


    • i have to shoot everything at f64 soon !
      camera is about 10 pounds heavier then a leica though, or even a d3 with another d3 strapped to it, on top of a d3.

    • ‘Go On’ Riccis Brother! Sitting here in my hotel room in Köln chuckling to myself after reading your post. About to start the Euro term of promo for ‘Commitment’. Brought the S2/X1 combo along for this twelve day haul, I thought they would compliment each other. Thanks for the kind words on the image my wife took of the little princess and I. Looking at the famous cathedral and contemplating whether to go frame it or head to the gym. Miserable whether outside, that of the challenging kind so may choose the former option.


      • My brother ‘6’ – Glad you got a kick out of my post… I honestly believe we all rely on the shooting wide open nonsense far too often (hence my bokeh crutch term) and, as a result, we sabotage our growth as artists as well as the development/refinement of our personal vision and style (I honestly can’t believe everyone has a personal style that involves seeing the world where most things are out of focus… I can see this for portraiture but not so much for street/documentary photography).

        I work very hard on trying to make meaningful images because of their content and not because they are made with a Noctilux, again, I am not knocking Ashwin’s images or the fantastic piece of glass that is the Noctilux ASPH.

        You brought the S2/X1 combo and no Ms? I think my craziness rubbing off on you 🙂

        Like I told you before, that image with the princess is what is all about, make sure you print it… Speak soon, my brother!

  17. Thanks to everyone here for your kind comments.

    To address the “blown reds” in some of the Elmo images, I suspect that this may be my own doing in post-processing. I have a touch of red-green color blindness, and don’t always pick up the subtleties or not-so-subtleties. I do conversions in LR using either a kodachrome 25 filter or direct positive filters, followed by additional modifications, which probably pushed the reds too far for you guys.

    @ Wei Chuan: Thank you. The Noct is a lovely lens, and a challenge to master, so thanks very much for your words.

    @ Markus: Thanks as well! Glad you enjoyed the images and words

    @David: Yes, please do try a ND filter on the Nokton and post some pics. I’d love to see how it renders in broad daylight

    @ pixelmixture: Thanks…agreed, get the M9 first. The summilux is far more practical, but the Noct has that special “je ne sais quoi” about it

    @ Barend…: Very kind of you to say. Thanks!

    @Jan: Yes, New York is well worth the visit! So much to see and do…and so many slices of life….

    @ J, thank you. I was lucky to be strolling down the street wit this view, and thought I’d be a nice way to see the Empire state, with so much geometry in its midst…plus the man in front of me taking it all in really made the pic for me

    @ Dan, thank you! Yes, I wish that I were born a multimillionaire and living in NYC as well. Another life, I guess…but it is always there for a visit! As for PP, nearly all was done in LR3, with pre-set filters and adjustments thereafter

    @ Shawn: Thanks, man! Huge compliment coming from a resident of this fabulous city

    @ Eric; Thanks. Initially, this didn’t stand out for me, as the focus was so slightly off, but then, it seemed to come out on its own accord…kind of in that classic sort of way! A very cute and in-love couple!

    @ Elaine: Thanks, my friend! I love the images of daily moments, making the mundane and framing the images….

    @Adam: See above. Blown Reds are my fault, I suspect, though the ND may contribute. It’s not the lens, for certain….

    • Hey there Ashwin

      For someone with a touch of red green color blindness, your color images are superb!

      Thank you so much for addressing the red “blown” highlights. My question was more one of technical curiosity than anything else – having blown many “whites” myself in the early days of digital – I’d never seen it happen with the red channel.

      Cheers and thank you so much for awesome images.

  18. Hi Ashwin

    Great series, truly. Only one thing bothers me – the back [top] of Elmo’s head blown reds. Is this the camera, lens, ND filter or a combination?

    Can anyone confirm? Steve?


  19. I love the Elmo pictures. So funny! The guy in the booth rubbing his eyes with the baby carriage sitting outside was a good one. Love the colors and detail. The B&W image of the guys walking in the park was awesome too. Forgot how much I liked the picture of the man sitting on the bench. Awesome framing and selective focus there. NYC is a wonderful place to take pictures. Great article, Ashwin!

  20. very last image is my favorite by miles, great shot. I have troubles focusing my 50 1.8 with a slr so i cant imagine how hard it must be to focus a .95 on a rangefinder.

  21. Amazing unreal images! you made the Nocti really shine… I especially love the seated figure with glasses photo. it was excellently done and Manhattan is truly an amazing city with so much to see and photograph. Why wasn’t I born a millionaire who lives in Manhattan? 🙂

  22. Ashwin,

    As always, terrific photos! And they brought back memories of places I’m especially fond of like Bryant Sq. park and the Public Library. Though I’ve been near Penn station often enough, I’d never *seen* the Empire State building in relation to the Post office in that way (as you do in my favorite of these shots).

  23. Great images, really shows how to use the noctilux works great in daylight.
    And I definately need to visit New York …

  24. Your images are amazing. I may buy a ND filter and Nokton 1.1 (the noctilux is way out of reach) and experiment wide open shots in bright day light.
    Thank you for the inspiration.

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