To Hell And Back: How Durable is the Leica SL?

In the year and change that I've owned the Leica SL Type 601, I've taken it around the world and tormented the camera in dozens of cruel and unusual environments. From the scorching heat of the Jordanian desert to the -20*C of Arctic Sweden (and then -10*C in Finland), the camera has seen it all.

I recently returned from the Scenic Traverse Road Trip, where I spent a month living in a van and photographing the American landscape with the Leica SL. While it never got as hot (though it did get nearly as cold) as some of our previous adventures with the Leica SL, this trip was the true test for the durability of the Leica SL.

I do not believe in babying a camera. American street photographer Jay Maisel once gave me the following advice when asked the best way to improve as a photographer:

Always carry a camera, it’s easier to take pictures that way.
— Jay Maisel

His advice is dead on, which is why I don't carry my Leica SL in a bag. I don't even use the lens cap. I took the lens cap off the Leica 24-90mm lens as soon as we got to Los Angeles for the start of the Road Trip and I didn't put it back on for 30 days and 3,682 miles. I expect my camera to be ready to shoot when I'm ready to shoot, and I am not going to coddle it along the way.

I don't even use a strap all that often, though that's partially because I don't like the strap attachment points on the Leica SL. There were days where I didn't use a strap to protect the camera from accidental falls and drops.... even when I was hiking in the middle of the river (the Narrows hike in Zion National Park). 

Look ma! No strap as I carry the camera through the famous Virgin River hike in the Narrows. Also, this drysuit isn't the least bit flattering. Photo by Seth Hamel, http://www.zion-photography.com.

This is all to say that, despite the camera and lens combination running upward of $12,000, I don't baby it or treat it any nicer than I would a $100 camera. The camera is a tool, designed to be used, and I can't be afraid of it getting a little beaten up.

Here's a quick snapshot of the abuses subjected upon the Leica SL during the Scenic Traverse Road Trip:

  1. Extended exposures to temperatures well beyond the operating range recommended by Leica Camera.

  2. Repeatedly soaked in heavy rain, without any protection or removal of collected rainwater.

  3. Banged against rocks, scraped against rocks, and otherwise brutally impacting rock.

  4. Rolling around the floor of the camera van as we drove, with no protection on the front lens glass.

  5. Completely submerged in fine sand in Death Valley's sand dunes.

  6. Caked with coarse salt in the salt flats of Badwater Basin.

  7. Coated in a fine dust from Arizona / Utah desert sands

  8. Splashed with ice cold river water while hiking the Narrows

Oops..... Hiking in Death Valley, I slid on a sand dune and landed camera first in the fine sand. The camera was 100% submerged, and this was taken while I'm still laying on the ground, but just after digging the camera out. A little shake off and we're back in business.

So how does the Leica SL hold up to the abuse? In terms of camera function, perfectly. The Leica SL has never once failed to shoot, slowed with startup or experienced any other issue. It is rock solid reliable. You want photo, you get photo. Done.

Arguably it is the function of the camera we're most concerned with. A camera that fails to turn on, stay on, or gets upset by a little weather isn't what a landscape photographer wants to use. So where it matters most, Leica delivers. The weather sealing is remarkably good. I have accidentally dropped my camera in water and totally buried it in sand, and none of that has penetrated the outer protections of the camera body. We spent an hour shooting in a heavy downpour - where the only protection I gave the camera was to use my hat to cover the lens between photos to keep water spots off - and still, it performed perfectly.

It was pouring - really pouring - in Malibu, California as I shot long exposures of waves. I had to use my hat to cover the front of the lens between shots to keep it from getting coated in water drops, but the SL stayed on and exposed the whole time. No problem.

But that's not to say it's perfect....

Considering how much the Leica SL costs, I am rather disappointed by the durability of the finish. I have lost a ton of paint, including white paint in the 'C' of the "LEICA" logo on the front. There are huge gashes on the side of the body and several dings that expose bare metal. Every edge of the camera has a heavy silver from loss of paint. And today I discovered some of the rubber on the grip is starting to peel and tear. 

I have attached some photos showing the dings in my Leica SL as a reference for what you can expect if you are a user of your cameras. I converted them to black and white to help with the contrast of black paint vs exposed silver metal.....

For comparison, I owned a Nikon D800 for several years and never had the finish on the body get damaged. I didn't treat the D800 any better or worse than the Leica SL, but I was able to resell it in great condition. I have had the Leica SL for 13 months, but it looks like it's been 13 years.

I don't know what Nikon and Canon do for a finish that is different from Leica, but this painted aluminum needs to be revisited before the SL 2.0 is released. The paint on my Leica M240 (black paint) and Leica Monochrom are both holding up better than the SL, so Leica's engineers need to revisit the finish. 

Would I still recommend the Leica SL? As long as you understand this camera will look used if it is actually used, then yes. But if you want a camera that can be put in a box a few months down the road and be sold for "like new" despite some use, then this isn't your camera.

Those who value performance in all weather will find it with the Leica SL. Those who value looks ought to keep shopping.

The Leica SL Is Not A Perfect Camera (But It Could Be!)

Any frequent readers of ScenicTraverse.com should know that I am an avid user and big fan of the Leica SL Type 601, a mirrorless 24 megapixel camera introduced about a year and a half ago. The Leica SL was the first major production camera from Leica aimed at gaining audience with outdoor and landscape photographers who have traditionally used Nikon and Canon products.

To me knowledge, Leica has never stated that they are trying to explicitly sell the Leica SL to outdoor and landscape photographers, but a look at the specs sheet for the Leica SL and it's clear that is an audience they'd love to get. Just look at the amount of weather sealing and rubber gaskets in the camera!

Anyway, all of this is a long way of getting at the point, which is that Leica needs to issue a firmware update for the Leica SL to fix one of the (if not the) greatest pitfalls of the camera. This is the one thing that keeps the Leica SL from arguably being a contender for 'best outdoor photography' rig:

There is no way to disable the long exposure noise reduction (aka LENR).

LENR is a process that digital cameras use to remove sensor noise from a photograph, resulting in an overall better output image file. During long exposures, it is possible for hot pixels or pixels with bad information to appear, which would degrade the final image. To resolve that, engineers force the camera to take a second black "exposure" of equal length to the first image. Any bad or hot pixels will show up on the second image (which we, the user, never see) and the camera can process that bad information out of the final product. Basically it's a way of subtracting out bad data from an image, which sounds like a good thing.

A 2 minute exposure of Joshua Tree National Park - that took 4 minutes to get.

In practice, this means that if you take a 15 second exposure of waves crashing on a beach, you need to wait 30 seconds (15 seconds for original exposure + 15 seconds of LENR = 30 seconds) before you have that single photograph. 

So what's the problem? This is less of an issue for daytime photography, but most landscape and outdoor photographers also will point their camera to the night sky for star trails and galaxy shots, which is where LENR becomes a problem.

Here's why: Let's say I want to shoot some star trails, and I want to create an image where the stars curve and bend into a circle following the rotation of the earth. An image like this one.....

Star trails over Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park, California

See those nice long star streaks in the sky? To get something like that, you need to photograph the nights sky for an extended period of time - upwards of 30 minutes. 

The traditional technique to take a photograph like this was to put it on a tripod, click the shutter open for 30 minutes or more, and wait. But what if a car drives past and puts some light into your image, or a strong breeze knocks the tripod, or a plane flies through the scene, creating a straight line of light? Your long exposure is ruined, and you have to start again. With the improvement of digital post-processing techniques, nighttime photographers now often shoot a series of shorter images (20-30 seconds on average) over a long period and stitch them together in Photoshop, creating the same star trail effect.

The technique of shooting a series of hundreds of images that get stitched together is becoming more popular, as it also lets you throw away any single exposure where a plane, car, or other light source disrupts the image without compromising the final result.

But here's where we get back to the issue with the Leica SL. Most other professional cameras let you disable LENR, and instead take a single "black" exposure with the lens cap in place during the shooting sequence. That file is imported into Photoshop with the rest of the series and Photoshop does the noise reduction processing, rather than the camera. The benefit to this approach is that the camera can spend more time shooting the stars, and you can get seamless star trails shots.

What do I mean by seamless? It doesn't take a very long exposure before a tiny bit of smearing (aka rotation) starts to show up in a star photograph. The exact time it takes before the rotation of the stars becomes visible in the image depends on a host of other factors, but the gist is that for a camera like the Leica SL with the 24-90mm f/2.8 lens, it's in the range of 20 seconds. Let's say I shoot 20 second exposures for 30 minutes and then process the files in Photoshop. Because of the LENR, I will really only have one exposure every 40 seconds, and only 15 minutes of rotation for that 30 minutes of imaging. In other words - half the star rotation would be missing!

Leica's engineers will argue that forcing LENR results in an overall cleaner image product, and as a company that expends considerable effort into creating the very best image quality, I appreciate their interest in preserving that; however, the inability to disable the LENR for nighttime shooting and do the processing in Photoshop means the Leica SL is ill suited for serious nighttime photography work.

I used some Photoshop magic to create this image- the files were all taken with the Leica SL, but I needed to be a little heavy handed with the edits to create the final product.

During the course of the Revolutions project, I photographed the sky and night at least a dozen separate occasions, and came to determine that, for now, getting star trails with the Leica SL requires a good amount of Photoshop Magic to fill in the gaps of star trails. While this cover-up technique creates some pleasing images, it's not the same as having the real thing - as having all the data.

So Leica, please publish a future firmware update and allow users to temporarily disable the LENR. Feel free to put a disclaimer in the menu warning people not to mess with the option unless they really understand the consequences. But if you make that firmware change, then the Leica SL really can compete for the title of 'best outdoor and landscape photography camera'.

Quick Shot: A Little Bit of Fall

These photos need little introduction! Fall is here, pumpkin spiced drinks are in vogue, and my camera has been busy soaking in all that action. Here's a collection of my favorite fall images from this season, taken with my Leica Camera SL Type 601 and 24-90mm lens.

Reflections on a perfectly calm day at one of the Tarns in the Lake District

Pine trees starting to yellow on the banks of Lake Buttermere

Yellow leaf on a log 

Quick Shot: A Little Abstract

My favorite landscape images are hardly considered landscape photographs - they are abstracts. They are small extractions from a larger scene. They convey a grand vista in a tight frame.

This landscape is exactly that - although the sky isn't visible in the image, the reflection of the sky in the water gives a much grander image. I took this image at Blea Tarn, one of the more isolated lakes in England's famous Lake District. 

Photograph with the Leica SL Type 601 and 24-90mm lens.

The Officially Unofficial Leica SL App Users Guide

Leica officially did not ask me to produce this guide, but I think I owe it to all the Leica SL shooters out there..... The Leica SL App is one of the best kept secrets of the Leica SL Type 601, so I'm presenting the "Officially Unofficial" users guide.

PS - this guide is virtually the same when used with the Leica Q ;-)

Why Use the Leica SL App?

The Leica SL app for your mobile device allows you to connect to the camera, enabling remote control of focusing, camera settings, and taking photos and video. It also allows you to review files on the camera, and download images and videos to your mobile device. It is a must-have for any travel photographer, or anyone who wants to work with their images on the go!

The Leica SL app is available in the iTunes store for Apple or Google Play for Android. I only own Apple devices, so all screen shots are from my Apple iPhone 6 Plus. The app also works on my Apple iPad Pro.

All brand names, product names, etc are the property of their respective companies. 

Installing the Leica SL App

The first step is to visit your respective app store and download the app. You can use the links above, or search "Leica SL" in your app store. Install like you would any other app.....

The Leica SL App seen in the Apple App Store

Connecting Your Camera

After you have installed the app, you will need to connect it to the camera. There are basically two ways - by scanning a QR code shown on the back of the camera, or by typing in a password. As far as I can tell, both work just fine. 

To start, you'll need to get your camera to broadcast the wifi signal that your phone will connect to via the app. Navigate to the 'WLAN' tab on your camera (I have this saved as a favorite).

The WLAN screen (hint: make this a page included in your favorites tab for fast access)

The WLAN screen (hint: make this a page included in your favorites tab for fast access)

On the next page you will see three choices. Select the "function" tab.

You will now see a setting that says "Remote Control by App" - this is the setting you need to link your phone and Leica SL. Click down on the joystick to proceed.

Your camera will now display a screen with two pieces of information. On the right side is a QR code that you can "scan" with the app to connect camera and phone. Or you can use the password on the bottom of the screen to link the two devices. It doesn't matter.

QR code on the right. Password on the bottom..... select your path from here

QR code on the right. Password on the bottom..... select your path from here

The QR Code Route

On the app home page you will see the "connect by QR code" button. Clicking that will enable the camera and a red square that you need to position over the QR code on the camera back. After the phone reads the code, it will bring up a screen in your settings to link the camera and phone.

The screen to have your phone read the QR code on the back of the SL screen.

The screen to have your phone read the QR code on the back of the SL screen.

At this point, depending on your device security settings, you may have a few prompts to enter a password to enable the connection. Once complete you should get a success prompt. Return to the Leica SL app and it will first say "Searching camera in Leica ...." and then change to "Tap to connect to Leica SL....". Tap where it says and you're connected!

The QR code scan will ask to install a profile. Follow all the prompts, then return to the app....

The QR code scan will ask to install a profile. Follow all the prompts, then return to the app....

The app will now try to connect to the wifi network broadcast by the camera

The app will now try to connect to the wifi network broadcast by the camera

Once the connection is made, the screen will say "tap to connect". Seems like an extra click - why not just auto connect?

Once the connection is made, the screen will say "tap to connect". Seems like an extra click - why not just auto connect?

The Password Route

I prefer the connect via password route, mostly because my iPhone remembers the password, so I can reconnect faster between shoots than with the QR code. But to each their own.....

Navigate to the settings and wifi network selection for your phone. Yes, your wifi has to be on and the camera needs to be on the screen where it is displaying the password and QR code. You should see a Leica SL wifi network appear after a few seconds. Click on it. It will ask for a password - use the number provided on the bottom of your camera screen. 

See the Leica SL network? Click to connect and type in the password from the bottom of the camera.

See the Leica SL network? Click to connect and type in the password from the bottom of the camera.

Once the wifi connects successfully, you return to the app and will see the same "Searching camera in Leica....." and "Tap to connect to Leica SL..." prompts. Tap and you are connected.

Controlling Your Camera

It is worth noting that turning off / time out your phone or camera can cause the link to disconnect, so be sure not to let the phone go to sleep if you are trying to remain connected.

Once the camera is connected, clicking the "Remote Camera Control" button on the app allows you to enter a remote controller mode, which is really the best part of the app. 

Once connected, you can click the remote camera control button to enable camera operations.

Once connected, you can click the remote camera control button to enable camera operations.

There are three tabs under the camera control - photo, video and play. Those are hopefully fairly intuitive names......

Inside the camera control screen

Inside the camera control screen

In the center of the frame you will now see a live view of what the camera sees. In this case, we see my cat looking out the window at the end of my desk. Stimulating, I know. As you move your camera around, this view will change, with a minor lag.

At the bottom you can see the camera's current settings (aperture, shutter, ISO, EV, white balance, etc). You can also see what mode you are in (aperture priority, manual, etc). There is a large button that acts as the remote shutter, and finally a button on the bottom right to adjust more advanced settings, like drive mode or exposure metering mode. 

The controls for adjusting some of the settings. In this case, I selected the ISO control.....

The controls for adjusting some of the settings. In this case, I selected the ISO control.....

Clicking on a setting like ISO will bring up a little bar where you can scroll left / right to adjust that particular setting. Some settings will be based on the lens - in this case I've got the Leica Noctilux attached, so I can't change the aperture in camera, only by changing it by hand on the front of the lens.

Some of the more "advanced" settings that can be adjusted from within the app

Some of the more "advanced" settings that can be adjusted from within the app

The app allows you to adjust all of the major settings of the camera, including file format (DNG or JPEG) remotely, which is great. Most wireless shutter releases do only that - but the app lets you not only collect images remotely, but also change every important setting. You could setup your camera on a tripod around a favorite bird spot and sit inside drinking a cocktail while remotely controlling the camera. I've used it for long exposures at night, when I wanted to sit someplace warm while the camera worked for several minutes. Opportunities abound!

Downloading Files to your Mobile Device

Under the play tab, you can see the images currently on the camera's memory card. Clicking an image brings up a large preview, which you can use to check the final product or show a client. If you shoot in .JPEG, you can also use the buttons on the bottom to download an image directly to your phone. Unfortunately, DNG files are not supported for download onto the phone. You also have options for favoriting a photo or deleting it, but I don't use these.

Files available to view on the camera's memory card

Files available to view on the camera's memory card

Clicking on a photo brings up a large preview, and options to download it

Clicking on a photo brings up a large preview, and options to download it

Leica SL Album

Any photos you download to your phone get saved in a special album called "Leica SL" - you can access this album via the app, or through your photos. For me, the view in app is rather useless; once I've downloaded the image, I will use my Apple Photos app to view them.

Photos saved in the Leica Photos album..... seems duplicative to me, but no biggie.

Photos saved in the Leica Photos album..... seems duplicative to me, but no biggie.

How I Use the App

The Leica SL app has had a surprising number of uses for me, and I use it as well with my Leica Q. I used the app to do comparisons between two lenses in a store - it allowed me to download full resolution previews and compare the bokeh effect between the old and new Noctilux before buying one. I have used it to do long exposures at night in the desert, star trails in England, and for long exposures where I don't want to introduce camera shake. On numerous occasions, the app has allowed me to download an image while traveling, edit it with Lightroom Mobile, and share it on my blog or social media. 

I have never used the video functions of the app, mostly because I don't use the video functions of the Leica SL.

Overall, the app is a great addition. It's not perfect, but I appreciate that I don't need to carry more equipment to remotely control my camera in the field. I'll always have my phone in tow!

Quick Shot: Lost in the Woods

Lake Buttermere is one of my favorite places in the Lake District - it's an hour drive from the central lakes and therefore a little quieter than many of the trails. With the silence and private feel of the lake, it's easy to feel like you have stepped into a magical place and become lost in the woods.

My hike around the lake was on one of the warmest and most beautiful days we've had in England this summer. The way the sun came through the tree canopy was incredible - it cast a soft light across a neon green bed of mosses and ferns. The result was too photogenic to pass up.... so I photographed virtually every tree in the forest! ;-)

After sitting down to edit the images, I felt these three best convey my feeling of being lost in a magical woodland, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I enjoyed taking them.

Shot with the Leica SL & Leica 24-90mm lens.

Quick Shot: Desert Panorama

I don't shoot a ton of panoramas, but if the location is right and I'm in the mood, I'll compile the odd panorama image. In this case, I had climbed a cliff in Wadi Rum, Jordan to enjoy sunset over the desert and happened to have a tripod handy, so I fired away.

The resulting image is 111 megapixels..... it's the composite of nearly 20 images, and the detail is phenomenal. In the full sized image, you can zoom way in and see a guy riding a horse out in the desert. Of course the full sized image is also 700 megabytes, which is a bit much for sharing on the internet! So you're seeing a compressed and smaller version here, but be sure to click on the image to maximize it to the full screen view. I'm glad I made this panorama - I can print it to wallpaper size and really let myself get absorbed in the experience of standing atop that cliff. I hope this view helps you experience what it would have been like to enjoy that sunset by my side.

Shot with the Leica Camera SL & Leica 24-90mm lens using a 3 Legged Things tripod.

Quick Shot: Camel Ride

Until a few weeks ago, I had never photographed, ridden, or even been in close proximity to a camel. Thankfully, Jordan has an abundance of these goofy animals, so I've scratched all three of those "to do's" off the list!

I didn't want my 'take a picture of a camel' item to be that simple - it's not fun if it's not a challenge. And everyone takes pictures of their funny little snouts. I wanted a camel photograph that captured everything I envisioned when I think about camels..... sand, hot, people riding, and Arab flare!

I was (barely) listening to our tour guide in Petra when I realized the sunlight was creating beautiful silhouettes with the camel riders on the bright orange rocks. I ditched the tour and began my quest to capture the perfect camel image using those silhouettes. Thankfully I took a bunch of shots - the camels were moving past really quickly and most of the shots are throw-away quality, but I nailed it on this one. 

Shot with the Leica SL and Leica 24-90mm lens.

Storytelling with the Leica Noctilux

What happens when the most brilliant engineers and lens design specialists spend decades perfecting the already near-perfect lens? You get the Leica Noctilux-M ASPH f/0.95 lens.

I can rewind to a year ago… it was about this time that I started looking to purchase my first Leica M camera - a Leica M-P (35mm film). Although I knew the reputation and brand, the specifics of the brand lineup and offerings were new to me, so I spent hours reading blogs from Thorston Overgaard, Ming Thein, Steve Huff, and others to absorb as much as possible about the Leica system. In all of this reading, I kept seeing mention of this lens, the Noctilux.

When Noctilux is mentioned online, it’s usually in one of two contexts: 1) Holy crap that thing is expensive and you must be nutty to spend that much on a lens or 2) This is the best lens ever made, and its performance justifies the price tag.

Seeing the $11,000 price tag of the Noctilux for the first time literally took my breath away. I sided in camp #1 - the “you have got to be kidding” camp. I already had sticker shock over the $2,000 of the ‘basic’ Leica lineup - how could another $9,000 improve on a lens that was already supposed to be one of the bests in the world? It’s not like Leica makes bad glass or cheap lenses!

For months thereafter I gave the Noctilux very little thought. Occasionally I’d bump into some review or post about the Noctilux and would read it, amused and wishing for the type of disposable income that could make that a reality…. the same way I also wish for a sports car and private yacht. 

Click on any image for a full-sized preview.

Once Upon a Time

There are lots of websites covering the history and legacy of the Noctilux, so I’ll sum it up simply. There are three versions, but only two were produced in large numbers: the f/1 and f/0.95 model. Done.

In my opinion, the real history and legacy of this lens hasn’t been written. We’re at the “once upon a time” part in Noctilux history….. Once upon a time there was a lens, called the Noctilux. It was adored, expensive, and specialty, but it hadn’t realized it’s true potential as a lens. Then one day a camera named Leica SL came along, and it was a perfect union of technology and optics. Finally, the Noctilux lived happily ever after.

Ok, that was a bit cheesy, even for me, but the point stands. The real potential - no, the real value - of the Noctilux is unleashed when it is mated with the Leica SL Type 601. 

The Noctilux Epiphany

When Leica announced the new SL Type 601 camera in late-2015, I was completely head-over-heels with the system. It was a great fit for my photographic style and would allow me to finally separate from some of the Nikon equipment I’d been holding onto. I sold everything that didn’t have a red dot affixed to it and went all in on the Leica SL. It’s been a phenomenal decision! But what I didn’t realize at the time was that the Leica SL would be the driving factor for my desire to get a Noctilux, and as much as this review is about the Noctilux, I cannot overlook the relationship to the camera behind the lens.

If you are not familiar with the Leica SL vs the traditional M-series, then there is one very important key difference you must understand going forward. The SL uses an electronic viewfinder instead of the rangefinder to focus. A common issue with the Noctilux when used on the M rangefinder bodies is the need for precise calibration between the rangefinder and the lens - but the SL’s electronic viewfinder negates this issue. Looking through the eyepiece, you see exactly what the sensor sees, leaving no doubt that you nailed the focus even when shooting with the razor thin f/0.95. There are plenty of other differences between the camera systems, but the focus mechanism is most relevant to our discussion here.

Ironically, in my decades as a film and digital photographer, I have only ever owned one 50mm prime lens. It was a cheap Nikon lens and I only used it for infrared photography. Prior to the purchase of a Noctilux, I had maybe only ever taken 200 photographs with a non-Leica 50mm prime lens…. a focal length regarded as one of the best. I wouldn't say that my lack of 50mm use was intentional - I used a lot of zoom lenses that covered that focal length and didn’t see the value in owning a prime lens that replicated the functionality of a zoom lens.

When purchasing the Leica SL, I nearly fell into the same trap again. I purchased the Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm ASPH zoom lens, which is an absolutely magnificent lens, to shoot on the SL body. Again, I told myself that I had a zoom lens that covered 50mm, why would I need another 50? I already had a Leica Summilux f/1.4 that didn’t get much use, did I need another (and far more expensive) 50mm lens?

Storytelling

Photography is about storytelling. It’s about capturing the emotions, expressions, feelings, mood, and world as it existed in that instant. It’s become easy to forget about the storytelling element of photography - we’ve become numb to having a camera and what that camera affords us. For instance, I will use my iPhone to take a snap of ingredients in a recipe book before I go grocery shopping, but that’s hardly storytelling. Likewise, as a Nikon shooter, I was too focused on technical perfection via equipment and accessories, and not focused enough on the story. That’s not to say Nikon equipment couldn’t allow me to be a storyteller; there are many phenomenal photographers who use that brand to create masterpieces. But storytelling is what Leica specializes in, more so than anything else.

You see, Leica doesn’t produce a lens that costs $11,000 for the sole reason of pointing out their technical superiority. They produce that lens because they know that, for the people who can afford it, that lens offers storytelling opportunities that no other lens can compete with. Leica’s emphasis on the essentials and manual controls force the photographer to think about the story they are telling when they click the shutter.

I didn’t buy the Noctilux because I was looking for a 50mm lens. I bought the Noctilux because I realized the opportunity that lens represents; the opportunity to tell a story in a way most other lenses cannot. That difference lets my work stand apart, and I value the opportunity the Noctilux offers enough to pay for the opportunity. Of course, if you saw my initial preview of the Noctilux, you know I didn’t spend anything close to $11,0000 either!

The Elephant in the Room - Price

So let’s explore the price. Chances are, if you read this far, you’re hoping that I’ll blow you away and the photographs will change your opinion of the lens, or you already understand the price and accept it at some level. Either way, price is what makes this lens so polarizing and yet so interesting. 

Considering the retail price of $11,000, the Noctilux is arguably the most expensive manual focus, manual aperture selection, fastest prime lens available. That’s right, you’re not paying big bucks for incredible autofocus or image stabilization…. it doesn't even have those features. What you are paying for is a lens that laughs at darkness and is crafted with incredible precision. And if you value quality, incredible feats of engineering and some storytelling opportunities, then the Noctilux’s price isn’t that crazy.

The glass used on the Noctilux represents the best-of-the-best. Leica saves the clearest and most perfect glass for this lens; it’s rumored that just manufacturing the glass elements takes years. And then the lens is assembled by hand to the most exacting specifications and tolerances. While I don’t know if it’s true or not, it’s been said that Leica makes almost no profit on the Noctilux because the overhead cost to produce is so high. Leica does make some overpriced collectors edition cameras and lenses that are artificially price inflated, but the Noctilux is not one of those.

The Feel of a Noctilux

I never held a Noctilux until the day I purchased mine. I knew that it’d be hard to put down if I ever picked it up, so I limited myself too drooling from across a locked glass display case. When I finally held the Noctilux for the first time, I was shocked by the sheer amount of glass in the lens. It’s a heavy sucker, no doubt the heaviest M lens in production, but on the SL body, the weight counterbalances the camera body nicely. The combination is similar in size and weight to a more traditional dSLR setup. The Noctilux on my M7 is another story - the body is not heavy enough to counter the weight of the lens, but this is one of those times when my mom would tell me that I can’t have my cake and eat it too. You can’t ask for f/0.95 and not sacrifice some weight. Pick your priorities and Leica’s probably got a lens to suit them.

When I was shopping for the Noctilux f/0.95, I took the time to compare it to the older f/1 Noctilux for image aesthetics, feel, etc. I reviewed the differences in my Noctilux Preview, so I won’t repeat it here, but there were two differences in feel that I’ll cover. 

First, the f/1 Noctilux was much stiffer when rotating the focus ring. While it could have just been the unit that I sampled, the stiffness of the focus ring was no where close to the smooth, yet firm, of the f/0.95 Noctilux. I realize that smooth and firm are contradictory statements, but that’s precisely how you want the focus on a lens like this to work; smooth enough that it takes little effort to rotate the ring, but stiff enough that it doesn’t turn unless you turn it. The focus ring on the Noctilux is perfect, and I hope it feels exactly the same as it does now in 10 years.

Second, the lens hood on the f/1 Noctilux did not lock in place, and a strong stare could have retracted the lens hood. While lens hoods are designed to prevent flare, I primarily use them as a front element bumper. I’d rather the lens hood get dings and scratches than the front glass elements. Therefore, a hood that doesn't stay securely extended is of no value to me. The f/0.95 hood pulls out and turns to lock into place. This design is far better, but I have encounter the lens rubbing along the side of my body when carried on a strap is often enough to unlock the hood. 

Noctilux as a Landscape Photographer’s Lens

Most of the reviews you’ll find on the Noctilux focus on it’s application for street and portrait photography, but I’m not a portrait person, so I will instead discuss the Noctilux as a street and landscape photography lens.

Landscape and street photography have many similarities, which is why I’d argue the Noctilux is so good for both. In these fields, photographers are often trying to use light and the surroundings to portray the subject. Whether it is grassy fields or a busy market street, the razorr thin depth of field on the Noctilux allows the photographer to isolate their subject, while maintaining as much (or as little) of the surroundings to story tell. The biggest difference between the photographic fields is the amount of time afforded to the photographer; street photography requires split-second decisions, while landscape photography is often at a more relaxed pace. Yet with proper technique, the Noctilux serves both admirably.

I have become partial to the Noctilux for landscape photography. Using the unique Noctilux look, I’ve been able to isolate a small patch of grass in a sunbeam or individual pieces of straw in a way that none of my previous lenses have done. Several people have commented that the landscape photographs I’ve taken using the Noctilux look “dreamy” and “surreal” - as though they were taken in a mythical place. Whether or not that is my intention is irrelevant (although it is)….. it’s a comment I’ve never received on my photographs taken with another lens. And that, my friends, is why this lens is so special. Viewers notice the look.

I split time as a color and black and white photographer - color for landscapes and nature, while street and urban photography is entirely black and white. For both applications, the Noctilux is incredible. The color rendition is fantastic; I used to always adjust the saturation in Adobe Lightroom, but its almost unnecessary with the incredibly sharp and vibrant colors captured in the RAW DNG files using the Noctilux. 

Technical (in)Perfection

The Noctilux is proof of what incredible engineering can give us - it pushes the boundaries of lens design in many regards, most notably for it’s incredible f/0.95 aperture. Yet for it’s technical accomplishments, there is one nasty side effect that you will face…. Chromatic Aberration.

Chromatic aberration usually occurs in the highlights where those highlights meet a strong dark and contrasty area of the image. For outdoor photographers, we’ll often associate chromatic aberration with the purple outline where tree limbs and bright sky meet. 

I hate chromatic aberration - but it’s an artifact of digital photography that we cannot escape, just like dust is an artifact in film photography. Unfortunately, at f/0.95, the Noctilux has very strong chromatic aberration, probably some of the worst I’ve ever seen in a lens. Stopping down even just to f/2 resolves all of the chromatic aberration, but at the cost of the storytelling benefits of f/0.95. Again I face the cake vs eating conundrum, and I choose cake….. to shoot at f/0.95 and deal with it in Lightroom.

Lightroom, Photoshop and Adobe Camera Raw all have great chromatic aberration removal tools available, and a shallow depth-of-field Noctilux shooter should get familiar with them quickly. Even when I convert to black and white, I will take the time to resolve the chromatic aberration to prevent weird tonality changes. 

Delivery

The Leica Camera marketing team clearly wants you to feel special if you’ve spent $11,000 on alens, so they’ve packaged the Noctilux far more luxuriously than the other lenses I’ve owned. The exterior box is the traditional silver and black cardboard affair, but it’s big enough that I could store a pair of shoes in it. All the talk about how big the Noctilux is compared to other 50mm lenses in the Leica lineup isn’t helped when the box is that big!

Inside the box is the usual buffet of Leica paperwork: an instruction manual (sort of funny, if you think about it), a guarantee card, a certificate of inspection, and Leica Passport card. Remove the foam insert holding these pieces and you are rewarded with yet another box. This box is solid black with the Leica Camera logo stamped on the top and with a ribbon latch. Except for it’s large size, you could mistake it for an engagement ring box- which might have been Leica’s intention. If you buy a Leica Noctilux, you’ve become married to the brand? Untie the ribbon latch and inside the box rests the lens… on a silky pillow. With this sort of presentation, I’m a bit surprised the Noctilux doesn’t include a pair of white gloves for handling!

Final Verdict - to Noctilux or No?

I love the Leica M system - there is something very genuine and raw about taking images with a rangefinder body. While I own what is arguably one of the best lenses for the Leica M bodies, it’s not my go-to shooting lens, because of it’s size and semi- temperamental focus. This isn’t to discount the work of the photographers who do like the Noctilux and M body combination - kudos to them for their success. But if I didn’t own a Leica SL, I wouldn’t own a Noctilux.

With the SL, the Noctilux is a completely different lens. You can nail tack sharp focus on every shot; it becomes easy to shoot with the Noctilux. I was at a photography trade show recently and several Leica employees engaged in a discussion of the Noctilux + SL combination. Apparently many of them share my opinion: that the Noctilux is a different animal on the SL. The Leica SL is everything I didn’t know I wanted in a camera, and the Noctilux is the lens I never knew I needed. Combined, they are the right tools for me to great artwork. They aren’t the right tools for everyone, but with the Leica SL and the f/0.95 Noctilux, I’ve found my combination - one that provides me with new storytelling and artistic opportunities.

Hands-On Preview of the Leica APO-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280mm f/2.8-4 Lens

I just had the opportunity to use the new Leica APO-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280mm f/2.8-4 ahead of the official late-March 2016 release date. A demo lens was available at the Photography Show in Birmingham, UK, and I spent awhile shooting and handling the lens during the exhibition today. Although I’ve had a chance to now go “hands on” with the lens, I won’t call this an official review, but it will hopefully help anyone who is considering the purchase of this lens when it releases next week.

Leica was kind enough to let me mount the lens on my body, so not only did I have a chance to handle and shoot it in the trade show, but I have some image results to evaluate….

First and foremost, this lens has the same incredible design and construction we’re used to seeing with Leica glass. While it’s big and heavy compared to most lenses they make, it’s actually quite compact and comfortable compared to similar zoom lenses from other manufacturers. I was particularly impressed with the internal zoom mechanism; looking down the front element of the lens while rotating the zoom allows you to see several glass elements that are adjusting internally. This process, which was incredibly smooth, allows you to zoom from 90-280mm without the lens expanding in size. When a lens expands as you zoom, the center of gravity of the lens shifts, which can make it harder to shoot. With everything internal, it was easy to hand hold and zoom in and out without experiencing any need to adjust my hand positioning. 

Leica, in typical German engineering form, also improved on the tripod collar mechanism. Unlike most Nikon / Canon tripod collars that just have alignment markings for rotating between portrait and landscape orientation, the Leica tripod collar has little stops that click into place. These stops would make it extremely easy to rotate the lens when mounted on a monopod or tripod without having to guess if you’ve correctly reoriented the camera - you can feel it click into place. The collar rotates all the way around the camera so it can be used as a carry handle if you fancy. Rotating the tripod collar is achieved by the traditional loosening of a knob. A second knob closer to the base plate allows for the removal of the tripod base plate. The base plate has a grooved notch on it to ensure that it can be mounted back square to the collar if it was removed. The lens hood is a long cylindrical hood- maybe 3-4 inches long. It used a twist to lock into place.

Size comparison between the 24-90mm and 90-280mm lenses.

Sample Images

Click on any image for a larger preview

First, I conducted a few tests of the lens’ performance at close focus. I stepped about 3 feet away from my subject and was able to focus on his eyes at 190mm and the result has incredible detail and clarity. Zooming out to 90mm at f/2.8 gives a sense of the soft bokeh that can be achieved with this lens; notice how the edge of his cap softly fades out of focus.

Shot from about 3 feet away @ 190mm, f/3.5. Nice soft bokeh!

Zooming out to 90mm @ f/2.8

Likewise, Leica boasts a 3 stop image stabilization, and while I can’t validate that figure, it was certainly very good. Normally anything below 1/60th of a second can be tricky for me to hand hold and keep tack sharp, but this image was taken at 1/50th and is perfect. 

The image stabilization was good enough that I hand held this photo at 90mm 1/50th

The bokeh on this lens is also very pleasing - shockingly so, actually. At 280mm, the lens shoots at a best f/4, but I still found the bokeh pattern very pleasing. In this image, you can see the bokeh renders in a circular / oval shape. While it’s certainly not the dreamy melt of the Noctilux, the bokeh results I see in my demo shooting suggest this lens should be great for framing sports, action, or even portrait photography. Personally, I’ll be using this lens for outdoor and wildlife photography applications, and I cannot wait. The bokeh throughout the zoom range should give very pleasing storytelling opportunities, no matter what the situation.

An example of the bokeh at 280mm @ f/4

Bokeh at 250mm, f/3.8

The autofocus speed of this lens is not to be overlooked. It’s easy to build long lenses, but long lenses that can jump instantly to proper focus without lots of hunting are another story. As much as I liked my Nikon 80-400, it would often do the obnoxious “dunk-dunk-dunk” of a lens hunting for focus. My experience is obviously limited, but the lens had no issues keeping pace with the busy exhibition hall, particularly as I turned from far away subjects to close-up shots. 

280mm @ f/4..... see crop below. Notice there were no corrections for any lens distortion or vignetting.

Crop of above image

Reviewing the results now in Lightroom, I’m noticing almost no vignetting and only minimal distortion. It’s the type of artifact that I’d probably never take the time to bother correcting (and that cannot be corrected now since Adobe doesn’t have a lens profile for this lens yet).

Included is a clip showing the internal focus mechanism - apologies for the video quality.

Thank you to Leica Camera for letting me demo their new APO-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280mm f/2.8-4 lens today - any doubts I had about the pricing have been erased and I’ll be looking to snag a copy upon their release this week.

Leica Announces Details on APO-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280mm Lens

Hooray! Today Leica announced the release and pricing of their second lens in the SL lineup, the Leica APO-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280mm f/2.8-4 telephoto lens.

I’m very excited about the announcement as several London-based Leica dealers indicated they thought Leica was behind on the release and it would not come in 2nd quarter 2016, like initially forecast. But this announcement proves them wrong and finally gives us something to get excited about.

Stock photograph of the 90-280mm lens mounted on the Leica SL body. Image from LeicaRumors.com 

Although I adopted Leica M-series cameras last year, it was not until the Leica SL was released that I could finally separate from my Nikon equipment completely. I had retained my Nikon gear for those times when I needed a fast autofocus telephoto lens, something that wasn’t a strong part of Leica’s lineup until the SL was announced. Even though this lens wasn’t available until now, knowing it was coming gave me the confidence to part with my Nikon 80-400mm lens and dSLR body.

The Leica Camera press release published today has a few small surprises with regard to this lens. First, and most exciting is that “….the overall length of the lens does not change when either focusing or zooming.” Awesome! Although I have not seen it in person, the 90-280mm lens appears similar in size to my old Nikon 80-400mm, except that lens did expand during zooming. I fully expected this lens would likewise extend in length while zooming, and am pleasantly surprised to hear that will not be the case. Second, the lens retains the weather sealing against dust and water, like the rest of the lineup. I expected it would, but happy to have confirmation. Finally, the press release makes mention of a detachable tripod place and rotating tripod collar, which I’m looking forward to seeing and really studying for quality. 

Weight and size wise, this baby is certainly larger than the Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4 ASPH lens. It weighs approximately 800grams more…. if that is as meaningless to you as it is to me, then here are some common objects that weigh 800grams:

  • Eight average sized apples
  • Just less than two loaves of bread (US) or one UK loaf of bread
  • A single mens shoe

In other words, this baby isn’t a compact or lightweight lens….. it’s a heffer, but so are most 280mm lenses, so lets not hold that against Leica.

Leica is also advertising the lens will have a non-rotating filter thread that accepts E82 filters and will include a lens hood with the purchase. The focus distance will range from 0.6 meters - 1.4 meters, which is surprisingly close for a lens with this sort of zoom. 

I am hoping that the bokeh of this lens will be similar to the surprising bokeh of the Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm ASPH lens; this will certainly be one of the first things I test once I purchase a copy.

The lens should be fully available by 24 March 2016 and is slated to sell at £4,650 in the UK, which works out to $6,550 US Dollars, as of the time of writing. That pricing is very competitive and on par with Canon’s pricing for telephoto lenses.

I’ll update this post as I get additional information and will prepare a full review once I have had an opportunity to purchase and shoot a copy myself.

Quick Shot: A Walk In Dreamland

I took the photograph at Thetford Forest Park in central England on a sunny day. The path is actually part of a network of mountain bike trailers in the park, and the light through the treetops was perfectly illuminating this patch of grass that I put into focus. The dreamy effect comes from the soft bokeh and focus of the 50mm Leica Noctilux f/0.95, which has a very distinct style. Images made with the Noctilux are known for this softness, which was the perfect tool to really give the viewer the feeling of a stroll through dreamland. 

Quick Shot: Half Punt

I usually don't intentionally shoot a photograph with the idea of making a sequence or composite, but this was one of the rare times where I wanted to focus on half of the subject. I was standing on a bridge over the River Cam in Cambridge, England, watching a couple rowing a punt toward me. I decided to shoot the punt in half - IE one image for the woman in the front with lots of negative space, and a second image with the man in the back with more negative space. I thought it would be cool to have this as a pair of prints hanging side-by-side, and I think it worked out really well.

Here are the two prints merged together into one photograph.... just the way I'd hang it up in my house. 

Shot with the Leica SL and 50mm Noctilux f0.95

Quick Shot: Peek-a-Boo

A great photographer once told me "you'll take better pictures if you carry a camera"..... turned out it's good advice. Most photographers will stash their camera on a public bus, but I had my camera out and ready incase any moments arose. And sure enough, a moment arose.

This little boy had been sitting on his mom's lap, but turned around to peer over the chair right as I readied the camera. I cropped the photograph to tell the story how I saw it.... a little boy playing peek-a-boo.

Shot with the Leica SL and 50mm Noctilux f/0.95.