Capturing Beauty In Asia with the Leica M9 by Neil Buchan Grant

Capturing Beauty in Asia with the Leica M9

By Neil Buchan Grant See his Website

A little background

I have been making landscapes and travel images for 10 years, using almost every digital Canon from the Ixus to the 1Ds Mk III. In the past few years I had started noticing the special quality of images shot with Leica equipment. When I started experimenting with micro four thirds cameras I bought a Leica 35mm Summilux and a 75mm Summicron to use with a GF1. Even with this cut-down sensor, I was amazed at the quality of the images coming from these lenses. The resolution seemed endless and the look seemed to be in a different class. It was as if I had been eating omlettes all my life and suddenly I was given a souffle. I hardly used my Canon equipment for over a year. Becoming more intrigued by all things Leica, I soon came across Steve’s site and devoured almost every page. Finally, last year, I realised that if I sold all of my Canon gear I could just about afford an M9 and 2 more lenses, a 28mm Elmarit and a 50mm Summilux.

Eventually after what seemed like a lifetime (only 6 weeks in reality) the box arrived! Compared to even the mighty Canon pro bodies, the build quality and materials used lent the Leica M9 a truly ‘industrial’ feel. Even its shape had a strangeness I soon came to adore. I found the transition from AF to MF was a bit hit and miss for the first few weeks, but I soon got to grips with the rangefinder focusing. These first full frame images simply blew me away, they even surpassed those of my best Canon primes. In particular, giving a beautiful ‘organic’ look to the out of focus areas. The sensor seemed to hold a ridiculous amount of detail in the dark areas of pictures. I had not felt so connected with the sheer joy of making photographs since I had used manual SLRs in the late 70’s.

An early shot with the M9 and a 50mm Summicron at f2

A new direction

As much as I love the aesthetic beauty of good landscape photography, I had been wanting to make more people shots for some time. There’s something very powerful and mesmeric about a well shot pair of eyes that no landscape can equal. In the best work of this kind there’s a perceived connection which can induce the full gamut of human emotions, and for me anyway, reaches the parts that landscapes cannot reach. I discovered a web-portal called Model Mayhem where models of all levels of experience often seek out photographers who could help them develop their portfolios, in a reciprocal trade of time for images. This discovery was soon followed by a long-postponed decision to visit my brother who lives in Jakarta, Indonesia in South East Asia. The trip would last 3 weeks so I set about using the website to find models in Jakarta who would be interested in a shoot with what I fully admitted, was a novice in this genre. I had very few responses but fortunately just enough to plan a few definite shoots. Having a set budget I decided not to go for 20 nights in a 3 star hotel or to stay with my brother for the duration. Instead, my accommodation would switch from a selection of nights in five star hotels to a mattress on my brothers spare bedroom floor! Of course I co-ordinated the shoots to make the most of the plush hotels.

Sheila, the first model I shot in Jakarta M9, 50mm @ 1.4

My first shoot was with Sheila, a lovely 19 year old girl who’s portfolio was full of very edgy, high fashion shots using extreme make-up and black leather costumes. As the shoot was to take place in the refined surroundings of a 5 star hotel, I suggested she wore something classy. She turned up in a stunning long sequinned gown which it turned out, she had worn to her prom night. The M9 came out and I went to work with the 50mm summilux and a simple 42 inch reflector disk. I shot wide open for most of the session, the lens’s wafer thin depth of field seemed to be designed for this kind of work. The methodical procedure of focusing on the models eyes and recomposing for each release of the shutter, seemed to create a steady rhythm allowing the model to anticipate the next shot and adjust her pose for maximum variety. I found the better we got at this, the quicker I shot and a few times I had to take a break to allow the M9’s CPU to catch up, as it processed a stream of RAW images. Undoubtedly, a fast-shooting SLR would probably be a more common choice in a fashion or beauty shoot, but I was really enjoying the slow, sure pace of the Leica. When I stopped to show the model some of the results on the screen, her reaction was one of complete amazement that such incredible images could come from such a simple looking camera.

Angie, my second shoot, M9, 50mm @ 1.4

Angie M9, 50mm @1.4

Adik M9, 50mm @ 1.4

Adik M9, 50mm @ 1.4

Adik M9, 50mm @ 1.4

Paradiska, M9, 50mm @ 1.4

Paradiska 50mm @ 1.4

Finally, after years of trying (and more often miserably failing) to photograph reticent friends, relatives, girlfriends or wives, I was actually taking photos of someone who actually ‘wanted’ to be photographed! It was nothing short of a revelation! The nature and pace of the interaction occurring here was quite unique, I’ve never experienced anything quite as rewarding as capturing a fleeting look that could melt an iceberg. There were no awkward silences or embarrassing screams of “Yeah Baby!” I was simply engrossed in the challenge before me, confident in the knowledge that the tools I had chosen were up to the job. The hours flew by.

Kartika worked in a sports bar, M9, 50mm @ 1.4

Over the next few weeks, the M9 (and mostly the 50mm) helped me make some pretty ok beauty images (by my own novice standards) which I burned onto CD and gave to each of the 10 models I photographed. The models ranged from a very professional girl who arrived with 10 fine dresses, 5 pairs of shoes and 2 large men (one of whom was a qualified make up artist!), to girls I spotted working in bars who were clearly beautiful and luckily upon further enquiry, had a desire to be photographed properly. Although I speak no Indonesian, many Indonesians speak a little English and its quite amazing how effectively an iphone’s picture library can act as a communication tool.

From the roof of one of Jakartas hotels, M9, 28mm @ f11, 2 minutes (B)

This was my first visit to Asia. Its no understatement to say that I was completely enchanted with the people of Indonesia. Mention Jakarta to many people who have visited more popular destinations in the far east, and you may hear stories, gleaned on a quick stop-over, which could put you off visiting. But for all its traffic problems, pollution and the obvious chasm between extreme wealth and desperate poverty, Jakarta was a fascinating and exciting city. I very much intend to return there whenever I get the chance.

A bus drives past a mural of President Obama wearing a turban, M9, 50mm @1.4

Caddies from one of Jakarta’s many golf clubs, M9, 50mm @ f2

Waiting for a bus, M9, 50mm @1.4

This was shot with a 75mm f2 @ f2 on a Sony NEX5

Shot in very low light at dusk with M9, 50mm @ 1.4

Shot in very low light at dusk with M9, 50mm @ 1.4

Doing around 25 MPH M9, 50mm @1.4

Batavia Square, Jakarta M9, 50mm @ 1.4

As for the M9, it was a joy to use. I shot 5,000 images in 3 weeks using only one spare battery, I didn’t run out of power once. The sheer discipline of manually focusing each shot gave me a much higher rate of in-focus shots than with any of the auto-focusing cameras I have used. I was quickly able to employ manual exposure settings regularly, which freed me up to interact with the subject and concentrate on their expressions. The M9 is a total workhorse and at the same time a tool capable of incredible finesse. Thanks for reading my story and keep up the great work Steve!

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  1. Which Leica M 50 mm Lux were you using? The last Pre ASPH version or the new ASPH Lux? Have you ever compared the difference between the two for this kind of photography?

  2. I’ve been browsing this site since 3 days back and I keep coming back. Today I just finished reading your article and I was totally amazed by your story and pictures.
    I live in Jakarta and I use a Nikon D3S also a D300 and I’m thinking to buy a Leica M9, but after reading this article I definitely will buy one very soon…
    Thank you for the enlightenment!

    • Hi Puguh

      Thanks for the message, I certainly would like to get around a bit more the next time I visit, I was down to visit the volcano area but it was closed off due to rumblings:-) You have a lot of natural beauty over there in every respect.

  3. M9 is way out of my reach. waiting for the Fujifim X100.

    and the photos above are brilliant and love the “prime lens” look.

    I also confess that after I stopped using manual cameras, i have basically stopped thinking …maybe sometimes in the future I will be go back to simple joy of photography with a proper camera.

  4. Hi Neil,
    Thanks. I was sure Zeiss is heavier than the Nokton 35 1.4. Biogon 35 mm 2 looks great indeed and the price is ‘friendly’ (Leica is out of my current enthousiast budget). I still wonder if Color Skopar 35mm 2.5 would not be a great value lens (about 400 $) and with 134g it looks pretty compact for the Nex. You have any experience with this lens? I will ask also Steve as I think he made a comment in another post about this lens.

  5. Hi bogdan
    Thank you for your very kind comments. I can only talk about the cv nokton 35mm 1.4 which I used for a few months on my gf1 and ep2 micro 43rds bodies. It was a well made but heavy lens. I’m afraid I didn’t like it too much because it was so soft wide open, it got much better @ f2 and smaller but you’re as well buying a zeiss lens if you just want f2, although I haven’t tried one myself. Steve has reviewed a number of zeiss lenses on this site and I have always been very impressed with the images. I imagine a 35 f2 would be worth trying on an NEX.

  6. Neil, the photos are amazing, and your web-site gorgeous!
    I never seen such rich and beautiful portraits! Colors are amazing and the blurred backgrounds gorgeous.
    Steve and Neil, may I ask advice? You both use Nex so maybe you can help me with this – what ‘all around lens small and compact would fit best to my nex 5? I hesitate between CV color skopar 35mm 2.5 (light and inexpensive), Steve you were saying earlier somewhere it is a gem, and Nokton 1.4. Would Nokton work well also on bright photos (ski or seaside), or I should take another lens with me for such scenes?
    thanks and keep posting great photos and reviews!

  7. Neil, your works are great! Especially the portrait compositions and a landscape of the view from the roof.
    I am sure you could have done it with any camera with fast lens, but you just confirmed that M9 is a peace of a dream!!!

  8. Hi Neil, very nice work. Inspiring photos. And I like your approach. It shows, that you were able to give the girls a very comfortable feeling. The pictures show a wonderful relaxed, balanced feeling with passion and joy in the girl’s eyes.

    Very nice, thank you.


    • Hi Falk,
      Thanks for your kind words. Shooting beautiful models has been a real learning experience for me and I’m enjoying that immensely. There are, for sure, many more dynamic factors involved than with landscapes. Part of the reason why the models seem to respond with natural smiles may be because I am usually giving them feedback on their work as we go along, although thankfully I have now managed to curtail the “scooby-doo-like” sounds I was emitting on my first few shoots:-)

  9. Lovely work Neil a bit of everything, portraits, street and cityscapes, all expertly photographed. I especially liked your black and white portraits. Stunning models and excellent use of the Summilux wide open. I would love to see more!

    • Hi Stephen
      Thanks for the very kind words. Most of these black and whites have been processed in silver efex pro which I came across on this site. Much of the subtle post-processing I’ve done employs a lot of tips of steve’s which I picked up here. I can’t remember which page I saw it on, but he had some fantastic techniques for enhancing eyes in portraits which I now use all the time.

  10. Amazing images. I hope I can do that good when I transition to Leica.
    My only complaint is I would like to see the images a little bigger.

  11. All this tech talk about the M9 and the images i have seen just show how far we have not come in digital and photography in general. Ken Rockwell said it best. It amazing that someone like HCB in the old days shot with a Leica III and an M3 and was able to capture such beautifully composed images. And yet with all the technology and supposive advances we really have regressed. All everyone talks about is Adobe Lightroom, megapixels, resolutio blah blah blah and not one person talks about real design. HCB images are completely uncropped beautifully executed with master craftmanship. Look through a copy of Contantine Manos “Greek Portfolio” and you will see some amazing photos. I would love to throw out all these disposable digital cameras, batteries, usb drives etc and have people actually learn about design and composition and take pictures again that will have lasting quality, good composition and integrity of a Helen Levitt, Gary Winogrand or a Leonard Freed. Ever hear Cartier Bresson talk about what camera he used when describing his work? Nah. Watch the video The Impassioned Eye, and he doesn’t mention resolution. He talked about the Golden Section, the decisive moment and that composition was the foundation of every great image. Images don’t matter anymore its what we shoot with that matters. Sorry, not motivated here at all. The M9 is a beautifully crafted camera, I just wish i could see some good shots taken with it. As far as image quality goes, as with digital, the highlights look completely blown out.

    • Hi Jim
      Thanks for the input, I hear what you’re saying but I don’t quite understand what your point is.

      I don’t know much about HCB except of course that I admire his wonderful images. But I would imagine that although in documentaries and public forums he chose only to discuss the more important elements of his work, with his friends, peers and associates he would have almost certainly discussed his equipment and technical issues. I think that you may be looking at our photographic heroes through magenta coloured filters.

      I also agree that composition is the basis of most good pictures, the facilities we have at our disposal today can be used well or badly, they can make us lazy as photographers but they can also allow us to improve our photographs in the same way that a skilled printer would highlight the aspects a photographer wanted brought to the viewers attention. Most great photographers have used great printers to enhance their work.

      Digital photography is great, just because it has helped make a billion bad photographers it doesn’t mean you can’t use it and all its advantages to make great pictures.

  12. Great shots Neil, and excellent write up. The beauty shots are sexy but NOT cheap, you really captured the emotion in the girl’s eyes. Great one.

    • Hi Zheng
      Thanks, I appreciate the comments, I have to say though that I think a big part of the ‘classy’ look that has been referred to with these model shots, is down to the beautiful look that the 50mm Lux offers. That and the fact that natural light can be the most flattering light source there is.

  13. I wish I could do more street photography like this, but suffer from the common ailment of shyness. Very nice job – these are top-notch photographs. I am also at the point where I want to switch to doing more people shots.

    • Hi Nigel
      Thanks for your comments, I’m not particularly bold with a camera either, but its certainly easier to overcome shyness in a country where people welcome you taking their picture, in fact you feel like you’re paying them a compliment by doing so.

  14. Great story. Like you, I’ve always been shy about photographing people that weren’t my family or friends. Thanks for sharing an inspriational story and showing people how to get into model shoots. I’ll definitely want to people shoot more!

  15. Great piece Neil, really enjoyed reading it and the photos.

    What was it Mark Twain famously said? – ‘Golf is a good walk spoiled’. Same can be said for carrying heavy equipment around with you as you like so many others have realised. Just had a nice amble around a local food market earlier and couldn’t help but chuckle at the good 4 or 5 people I saw wearing great big backpacks full of photo gear and using big heavy Canon/Nikon DSLR’s.

    I had way too much gear myself with my Rolleicord around my neck and an M8 + 28mm in my fleece pocket. All that weight! Should have left the M8 in the car as I never used it in the end. lol 😀

    • Thanks for the comments Cidereye, I agree, golf is a good walk spoiled but if I lived in Jakarta I think I would probably be taking up golf:-) Yes it’s a great thing to not have to drag all that gear around and have to choose all the time about which lenses to put in your bag!

    • Now, if I were a spring chicken, carrying the Nikon or Canon around wasn’t an issue. Now, it’s a pain in the ass. Thinking back, I thought nothing of carrying around a Mamiya RB67, hand held! LOL! Now I cringe at carrying my Nikon d90, and it’s considered one of the smaller D-SLRs. Funny how things change.

  16. Hiya Neil,

    Just to say your photos are really beautiful and you have an amazing eye. The models look stunning and as you say capturing their personality through their eyes which makes the photos mesmerizing and beautiful. I also loved the travel photos especially the lady with the baby and the family on the bike!
    Sorry it is wrote from a visual perspective and not technical one but I am sure you understand what I mean.

    Well done keep and keep going with your passion and talent.
    Ali x

  17. Hi
    Very nice photos!
    Relaxed models, excellent composition,
    3D lens/camera rendering… Superb sharpness across the frame…And much more 🙂

    That post made my think again about M9 with 35 or 50 Lux

    Good luck

  18. Hi,

    At last! Your write up is here, and I am glad I have seen it.

    I really liked it.

    And as I have already said to you before, I liked the images and the Leica lenses really do produce lovely looking images.



  19. Great images, Neil. Really inspiring stuff, and amazing work with the 50 lux! Your models are so well seen and displayed, and the images end up tasteful but very sexy as well. Great stuff, and thanks so much for sharing!

  20. Lovely shots and the additional story is wonderful too. Your experience reminds me why I’m continuing to save for the M9 instead of taking the quick way out (Pentax K5). Thanks for sharing and keep up the great shooting. Regards, Ben

    • Thanks Garry, I was very fortunate to become quite friendly with the head of security at one of Jakarta’s top hotels. He had to accompany me up there for security reasons of course. We were there for about half an hour then it started to rain, that exposure finished about 20 seconds after the rain started and then we quickly we made a dash for the door.

      Before the Leica bug bit, I would shoot a scene like this with a 16-35 zoom probably set between 16-24mm. As I was shooting this shot with the 28mm Elmarit, I was quite glad it was the widest I could go, It may not have the unique perspective of wider lenses but it captured the principal elements with incredible detail and absolutely no distortion. I have it on my wall at A3+ and the resolution is quite phenomenal. For the tiny size of this lens its such a great one to have in your bag!

      • Thanks, Neil. Due to the crazy weather here in the Northeast, my photo excursions are put on hold while I shovel yet again and am housebound due to the roads. We are getting another storm Saturday! But, I’ve been reading a lot, which is cool. I can’t wait for Spring though.

        I adore your portraits. They are very full of life and spirit.

  21. Neil

    Great article and images – really enjoyed it and it has inspired me again to move from Canon to Leica
    Many thanks


  22. Wow, stunning pictures! Love the last two pictures and the first model pics. Must have been photographer’s heaven. I’m very jealous! Thanks for sharing!

    • Hi JH and thanks for the comments, yes it is a great place for photography. I took the Sony NEX out there because I’m so used to seeing Europeans flinch or turn from the camera if they see you taking their picture. The NEX, having an a discreet almost ‘waist level’ capability would have countered that problem. But when I arrived in Jakarta, it soon became apparent that posing for photos is the Indonesian peoples’ national past-time. You just have to raise a camera to your eye and people 100 yards away start brushing their hair and moving towards you! So if I wanted some form of interaction I would just use the M9, and the Sony hardly got a look in.

      • @Neil I’m a happy owner of a Nex-5 and I’m still toying with the idea of buying into Leica glass first (e.g. 28mm Elmarit ASPH => 42mm on a Nex, 50mm Summicron => 75mm) before adding a (used) M9/M10 in a few years time. I mean, lets face it, the value of those lenses won’t decrease but I’m not that sure about the body (which I can’t afford) . Have you, by any chance, tried the Leica glass on the Nex?

        • Hi JH
          Yes That shot above of the girl holding what I imagine was her little brother was shot with a 75mm Summicron ASPH on an NEX5. I haven’t tried the 28mm or the 50mm of the NEX yet as I’m having too much fun with them on the M9! The Leica lens I have used more than any other on both M43rds bodies and the NEX is probably the 35mm Summilux, here’s a shot below, using it on an NEX 5


  23. Great article and stunning images! This is the kind of story that truly inspires you! Really good work 🙂

  24. Thanks for the comments guys, I’m really thrilled to have the opportunity to share my enthusiasm for this equipment in this article with what must be the most ‘pro-Leica’ forum on the planet!

    And you’re right Nick, the fact that most of this work was shot with only one lens (even though I usually carried a little bag with 3 more in it and an NEX5:) suggests how much, as DSLR users, our reliance on zooms and AF is not just unnecessary, but can often get in the way of a decent picture.

  25. This is one of the most amazing & organic images I have ever seen. I love how natural they came out. Personally, I’m not much of a portrait guy, but with these photos, I might have to reconsider. Have you consider any other lenses for your future arsenal?

    • Hi and thanks for the glowing comments! I assume you are referring to the title shot at the top of the page? That was Kartika a stunningly beautiful girl who worked in a bar. I put her next to a huge floor-to-ceiling window in my room at the Ritz Carlton hotel. The strong sunlight, although not directly into the lens, had completely blown out the window behind her. I used the muslin curtain to adjust the intensity of light on her face much of which was reflected from the room and the reflector. Its my favourite shot of the whole trip and needed the least post work.

      As for other lenses, I sometimes wish I could get a little closer, so one day I may pick up a 90mm Sumicron ASPH APO which would probably replace the excellent 75mm Summicron I used to make that shot. With only 15mm between the 2 lenses it would seem excessive to have both of them in my bag.

  26. Love the work. I love hearing tales of simplicity. To me this story sounds a lot like one camera, one lens, one “film.” Its amazing when you just let all the techno babble fade and just use a camera that gets out of your way why insuring high quality.

    It takes a little courage to believe in yourself traveling with an expensive camera and convincing yourself that you really need at most two lenses……

  27. Thank you Neil for your lovely images. This really motivates me to get rid of my DSLRs as well. Having used the M6 for a while, I truly adore the performance of the M9 and the simplicity of using this little [compared with SLR] camera. Once again, thanks for sharing.

    Poti – Cardiff UK

    • Thanks for your kind comments Poti, dumping the heavy DSLR gear was the best decision I’ve made in years. I now take ‘all’ of my kit wherever I go and feel capable of getting good results in most situations. Its not a light decision to take and I suppose some will find its not for them but I have to say, I do feel quite differently towards my equipment than with the Canon gear. Its a whole new way of life!

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