The Day the Leica SL Failed Me....

The day I hoped would never arrive has, unfortunately, come. The day all photographers hope to avoid. The day their gear fails them.

My experience came a few days ago in Yellowstone National Park - an area with very sparse cellular signal and no camera shops (much less Leica dealers!). Stranded in the middle of a National Park, hundreds of miles from the closest camera shop (800 miles from the closest Leica shop), and on assignment, is no place to encounter a major fault with your gear.

As I have previously discussed, I am a big fan of the Leica SL as a landscape photography camera, although it does have a few faults (durability, LENR issues). But this issue was a major blow to my trust of this camera, and it will take some intense therapy for me to rebuild a relationship of trust with my SL after this experience.

So what happened?

One morning mid-trip, I went out to one of the smaller geyser basins to capture some early morning images of the snow falling over the geothermal landscape. On my way out to my shooting location, I took a few side-shots and everything was working fine. It had been all trip - I was approximately 2,000 images into the project without a glitch. Then it happened.

I zoomed the Leica SL Vario-Elmarit 24-90mm f/2.8-4 ASPH lens to 90mm to compose my photograph, and the lens jammed. For no explainable reason, the lens just stopped zooming, stuck at 90mm. It was never dropped, it just stopped.

I wiggled the zoom ring on the lens and could feel a grinding resistance. It felt like the teeth that control the gearing of the zoom had seized upon themselves, and even with moderate force, there was no movement. Of course I did not want to force the zoom, and since we were not far from the car, we walked back to sit down and inspect the camera.

Inside our vehicle, I removed the lens from the SL body and set the body aside. I then filmed this short video clip as I tried to wiggle the zoom ring:

As you can see, there is very little movement in the zoom ring as I try to rotate it, and the force I was exerting on the lens was about the maximum I was comfortable with.

I was pissed. Up to this point, the SL lens had been very dependable, and normally it is electronics that are more prone to breaking and failures (not to say a lens can't, just not as common). I essentially had a massive and heavy 90mm f/4 prime lens - and while the autofocus still worked, that was about all the lens had going for it. 

The diverse focal lengths covered by the 24-90mm lens makes it my go-to, so the next option available to me was the 16-18-21 Tri-Elmar. There is a LOT of range in focal lengths between 21mm and 90mm.... couldn't the lens jam someplace more useful, like 35mm?!

Frustrated, swearing, and feeling drained of all creativity as my head throbbed with anger at the lens, we went back out to shoot, but I struggled to compose anything of value with the lens. Here I am, working - trying to create images and content that I can sell to pay for these expensive Leica lenses, and the damn thing fails me.

Using the Leica Vario-Elmar 24-90mm lens as a 90mm zoom once it had jammed.....

Some time later, the lens spontaneously retracted back to 24mm; I had my hand applying a light pressure to the front of the lens as I rotated the variable polarizing filter, and slowly felt the lens retracting back toward 24mm. Go figure. For no more reason than the jamming of the lens, it was unjammed.

Feeling daring, I rotated the zoom ring a few times. Clearly all was not well; I felt a stiff resistance in the ring and could hear it blowing air as it zoomed in and out.

For the remainder of the project, the lens "worked" in sub-ideal conditions. At times it would jam (sometimes at other focal lengths), and then it would un-jam just as quickly. Of note, my sensor was covered with dust very quickly, which leads to my un-official suspicion as to the root of the issue.

100lbs heavier and 20 years older.... this Canon 400mm f/2.8 lens may be a beast, but it worked flawlessly with my Leica SL, despite being far less sophisticated.

While I'm not a certified camera technician, I am suspicious that one of the weather sealing o-rings in the lens jammed in one of the gears, causing the jamming. The reason I can hear so much air, feel resistance and have all the dust in my sensor, I suspect is the result of one of those rings becoming displaced, allowing air to be sucked in volume through the lens and into the camera body. When I dropped off the camera with the Leica Store in DC for service, I mentioned the dust being blown into the camera at astonishing speed; the salesperson removed the lens to look at the sensor and nearly gagged with the dust storm present.

I have dropped the camera off with Leica for a trip to Germany, and I hope Leica makes right on this situation by repairing everything under warranty. 

However, this incident has shook my confidence in the Leica SL. I owned Nikon equipment for five years and handled it / used it in the same conditions as my SL. In those five years, I never had a failure. The only issue came at my own hands, when I dropped my Nikon 24-70mm lens on cement. While it didn't break the glass, the zoom mechanism was a little stiff (although it still worked!). 

In two and a half years of full-time Leica use, this will be the THIRD time a piece of Leica equipment has had to take a trip to Germany for a warranty repair that is not the result of user issue. 

Sure, Nikon's / Canon's / Sony's / etc can fail too. But the ratio of Leica failures to Nikon failures is starting to pile up, and my patience for a Leica failure is slimmer given the price of admission. I expect a $600 off-brand, made in China, plastic without weather sealing camera lens to fail. I don't expect a $5,000 camera lens assembled by Germans in white lab coats to fail. 

I understand things can and will break, and I appreciate that Leica's are not immune to failures. But the frequency with which my gear keeps going to Germany for failures ... (1) defective glass on my M240, (2) a sensor issue in my M240 and (3) now this....either makes me the most unlucky person in the Leica universe, or this equipment isn't built to handle the stressors of heavy-duty professional use. 

How did I manage to infuriate the Leica Gods? Why do they damn me with misfortune?!

How did I manage to infuriate the Leica Gods? Why do they damn me with misfortune?!

My local Leica Store (Washington, DC), is convinced I may have one of the most heavily used SL's out there - and given the cosmetic condition of the camera, I'd be inclined to agree. But there are plenty of Nikon / Canon shooters who use their cameras more than I do and do not have the same volume of issues. I never had an issue with those brands..... and this is the point where I start to wonder if it's me or the camera. 

I'm not giving up or throwing in the towel. What happens once the camera comes back from Germany will go a long way in determining my future with this system. I love the camera, I love the Leica lenses, I love the files they produce, but I dread thinking about what piece of gear will be next to take a trip to Germany. And since I don't own a thriving money tree, it's hard to swallow the Leica price tag with the repeated reliability issues I'm having....

Anyone else encounter issues with the reliability of their Leica SL?

Update (Dec 2017): My Leica SL came back from it's spa treatment in Germany working just as well as it was the first day I used the camera. I was charged a minimal fee for the service, but the repairs were covered under warranty. Glad to be re-united! 


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.

Quick Shots: A Harsh Reality

As beautiful as the Middle East is, it's hard to ignore the turmoil and near-constant conflict that hangs over the region. Israel - a country that can polarize - had many sobering reminders of the bullets shot and lives lost over this contentious property. As a photographer, it is important that I capture these uglier reminders of our world; my camera is an opportunity to show people the most beautiful parts of our planet and remind them of our less proud moments.

These two photographs capture what I believe is the essence of conflict in the Levant region. The first is part of a building just miles from Gaza. The holes in the side of the building are bullet holes - reminders of previous conflicts between Hamas and the Israeli military. If you look closely, you can also see Hebrew and Arabic writing on the building's facade.

The second image was taken in the north of Israel, in the Golan Heights, and is part of a UN Disengagement Observer Force post looking into Syria. In the background of the image is Syria - I could hear artillery and gunfire in the distance. These UN observers are stationed on this hilltop as a neutral force to monitor that Israeli and Syrian military forces respect a 1973 agreement to establish a buffer zone between Israel and Syria. 

I am very fortunate; there are no bullet holes on the buildings around my home and there are no UN observers in my backyard. The local reminders of war and conflict date to the 1940s or cold war - they are not reminders of a current and ongoing fight. Seeing (and hearing) the ever-present evidence of Middle East conflict was extremely sobering, and I believe it's just as important to capture as the beautiful sights.

Shot with the Leica Camera SL and 24-90mm SL Lens.

Noctilux vs Vario-Elmarit 24-90mm on the Leica SL

Leica is regarded as one of, if not the, best camera lens manufacturers in the world. The crowning jewel of Leica lenses is the Noctilux-M ASPH f/0.95 lens that retails for a cool $11,000. On the Leica SL (Type 601), the Noctilux has become my go-to 50mm lens because of it’s incredibly thin depth-of-field and night vision like capabilities. 

But I wanted to see how the Noctilux - the best lens in the world - compared to the Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4 ASPH lens that was released with the SL. The comparison isn’t exactly fair… the Vario-Elmarit has a best aperture of f/3.6 at 50mm (compared to f/0.95), but I was curious to compare bokeh on like apertures as well as sharpness.

A quick note - I’m not a professional lens comparer, but I am a professional photographer who wants ‘good enough’ comparisons. If you are looking for results in a lab, look elsewhere!

For this test, I setup my Zone VI large format camera against a neutral wall and put the Leica SL on a tripod nearby. The primary light source is a large window to the right of the camera, although there was also a floor lamp on elsewhere in the room.

All photos were taken at ISO 800 and the Vario-Elmarit was set to 50mm. The focus point was the shutter speed numbering scale on the front of the lens. Files were shot at .DNG and converted to .JPEG in Lightroom with minimal image adjustments (all adjustments were synchronized between images).

Finally, it’s worth noting that the EXIF data for the images shot with the Noctilux does not accurately reflect the exact apertures I used; since the SL cannot communicate directly with the lens, it makes a ‘best guess’ at the aperture. I am providing the aperture values off the top of the lens for the Noctilux images and any images where the aperture and EXIF value don’t match are denoted with a “ * ”. 

Click on any image for a full-sized preview.

The first comparison is at f/8. I chose f/8 because it’s an aperture that should render most of the camera in sharp focus. Side-by-side the results are very similar, but a crop shows the Noctilux renders the entire camera in focus, while there is still a bit of soft bokeh on the Vario-Elmarit. I was a bit surprised by this, considering the Noctilux has the ‘king of bokeh’ title!

The next comparison was to evaluate the ‘best possible bokeh’ from each camera by shooting at the largest respective apertures (f/0.95 for the Noctilux vs f/3.6 for the Vario-Elmarit). Clearly the soft bokeh of the Noctilux won here (no surprise), but I was really more curious to compare detail at the focus points. Both were equally sharp along the numbers, but the Noctilux displays some very strong chromatic aberration along the lever that cocks the shutter and the edge of the lens. The colors between the two are remarkably similar, and although I can pick out differences of darkness between the lenses, those are adjustments that could be made in Lightroom.

Note: This is best viewed on a computer or tablet - the mobile version removes the side-by-side images.

Noctilux 50mm ASPH @ f/8*

Vario-Elmarit ASPH, 50mm @ f/8

Crop of Above
Noctilux 50mm ASPH @ f/8*

Noctilux 50mm ASPH @ f/0.95

Crop of Above
Noctilux 50mm ASPH @ f/0.95

Noctilux 50mm ASPH @ f/4

Noctilux 50mm ASPH @ f/5.6

Noctilux 50mm ASPH @ f/2*

Crop of Above
Vario-Elmarit ASPH, 50mm @ f/8

Vario-Elmarit ASPH, 50mm @ f/3.6

Crop of Above
Vario-Elmarit ASPH, 50mm @ f/3.6

Vario-Elmarit ASPH, 50mm @ f/4

Vario-Elmarit ASPH, 50mm @ f/5.6

Vario-Elmarit ASPH, 50mm @ f/4

The final round of comparisons were aperture-for-aperture side-by-side shots at f/4 and f/5.6. Like with the first comparison at f/8, the Vario-Elmarit shows more bokeh and softness along the back of the camera, while the Noctilux has rendered the camera as fully in focus.

So what have I learned from all this nonsense?

  • The best possible bokeh comes from the Noctilux at f/0.95 (if this surprises anyone, we have a problem).
  • At f/4, the better bokeh actually belongs to the Vario-Elmarit. Shooting the Noctilux at f/2 actually renders bokeh very similar to the Vario-Elmarit at f/4
  • Even at f/8, the Vario-Elmarit maintains some soft bokeh compared to the Noctilux
  • Sharpness and color rendition is very similar between the two lenses. Any differences could easily be the result of Lightroom adjustments (and could be resolved in Lightroom).

So what?

Well that’s the $11,000 question! This is where individual photographers need to evaluate their particular needs. If you want the look of the f/0.95 Noctilux, you aren’t going to get it from the Vario-Elmarit. Likewise, if you have little use for a lens faster than f/4 at 50mm, then you can save some serious cash!