Getting Sharp: The Importance of Calibration

You have spent hundreds (thousands) of dollars on camera gear, but are you really getting the best image possible with that lens and camera combination? Do you read reviews about sharp lenses, only to find your photographs never look as impressive as the ones you see online? If you have never calibrated your lenses, then there is a good chance that you are loosing the opportunity to get sharp images.

For instance, see the following photo of a bee pollinating this flower (click to enlarge):

A bee on a flower in an indoor garden in Pennsylvania. Shot with a Nikon D850 + Nikon 200mm f/4 micro lens that was calibrated with the camera.

What is Calibration? Do I Need to Calibrate?

If you have a dSLR camera with autofocus lenses, then you need to calibrate. It does not matter if your camera is only a day old - calibration is not a factor of camera age. Very simply, because your camera and lenses were not manufactured together, there is a slight error that almost certainly exists as the camera and lens communicate in the autofocus mechanism. This error varies lens-to-lens, but exists in virtually every single lens.

The result is that the camera and lens think they have achieved focus, but the resulting images will be out of focus when you look at it later. This is a byproduct of how light is bent around the mirror and prism in the dSLR body, with a different piece of light routed to a focusing element.

Unfortunately, this error probably exists in every lens you own.... even if you have one lens that is perfect, another could be off by a huge factor. So you need to calibrate each lens with each camera individually.

Examples of Calibrated vs Non-calibrated Lens

To help illustrate this, lets look at two photographs I took in a nearby forest. These aren't the best photographs ever in terms of composition, but they do a fine job illustrating the importance of calibration. These photos were taken with the Nikon D850 and Sigma 85mm f/1.4 art lens. The Sigma 85mm lens is considered the sharpest lens ever tested by DxO Labs, so the photos taken with it should blow my mind, right?

The following images shot at f/1.4 with the focus on the scar on the tree bark:

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Notice a difference between the image on the left vs right? The one on the left hardly seems sharp.... especially since it supposedly came from the sharpest lens ever tested?! I took several shots and can confirm they all looked like this - clearly out of focus on the area where I was aiming.

Now let's look at the rightimage, with the lens calibration programed into the camera. For this particular lens, the calibration factor was +20. The result here is clearly better. The bark is nice and sharp, with lots of detail. This looks more like the performance from the sharpest lens ever tested....

Here is one more view, side by side, of the two images cropped in on the focus area.

The non-calibrated image

The non-calibrated image

With lens calibration activated

With lens calibration activated

Bottom line: As you can see from the above images, calibration has a huge impact on the sharpness of your photos. And if you are shelling out the big bucks for camera and lenses, then you should be prepared to spend another $100(ish) to calibrate them.

Lens Align & Focus Tune

The Lens Align target. It is best arranged with a neutral background. I used a cheap $8 tripod to hold the Lens Align.

Without question, the top product on the market for calibrating your own lenses is the Lens Align Focus Calibration System and Focus Tune Software. Designed by Michael Tapes, it's easiest and recommended to buy both products together as you will get the best results by using both.

Lens Align

The Lens Align Focus Calibration System is a set of precision manufactured targets that you use to measure optimal sharpness and identify front/back focus alignment issues. The target includes a vertical front panel of calibration targets and a horizontal "ruler" with geometric designs that the Focus Tune software can read. While it's possible to buy and use the Lens Align without Focus Tune, it really doesn't make much sense.

Focus Tune

The Focus Tune software accompanies the Lens Align, and you really can't use the software without the target. The software will help evaluate the sharpness of each image and will measure the front/back focus, helping you identify the best focus adjustment for the lens.

Basic Calibration How-To

For starters, you need to have the Lens Align target, a good tripod for your camera, a cheap tripod for your Lens Align target, and - ideally - the Focus Tune software. You also need to make sure your camera will permit lens calibration / lens alignment adjustments. 

A comprehensive set of instructions is found in this YouTube video - the below directions are designed to give a basic overview of using the system.

The Focus Tune software with all of the images imported and the neon green target set.

  1. Setup your camera, lens to be adjusted, and Lens Align. Use a tripod for the camera and Lens Align. A cheap tripod works best for the target, while you need a sturdy tripod for the camera.

  2. Align the camera and target according to the specifications of the lens (see instructions).

  3. Set the camera to JPEG fine, low ISO (400 or below), and the maximum aperture of the lens (f/1.4, f/2,8, etc)

  4. Shoot a series of five images at the following focus tune adjustments: -20, -15, -10, -5, 0, 5, 10, 15, 20. Defocus the lens between each shot so that the camera has to refocus.

  5. Use Focus Tune to find the cluster of images that is sharpest, then shoot another set of images to refine the setting. For instance, if the sharpest images appeared around 10-15, shoot another series of fives images at adjustment value 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15.

  6. Use Focus Tune to find the sharpest images and identify the value for that particular lens.

  7. Although the camera should remember each setting for the lens in the internal memory, it's a good idea to write them down

  8. Rinse and repeat with each lens!

Sounds easy enough - and it really is! Taking 30 minutes to watch the video instructions will equip you with all the details for the process, but it is really straight forward. Once I knew what I was doing, it took no more than 20 minutes per lens to complete.

But what about zoom lenses? Personally, I calibrated a zoom lens at the focal lengths that will get the most use. For instance, I calibrated my 24-70mm lens at 50mm. A quick test showed that the setting identified for 50mm was also good for other focal lengths. Likewise, if you are using a teleconverter, you should calibrate the lens with and without the teleconverter as you may get different values for each. 

Refining Focus with Focus Tune

A screenshot of the output from the Focus Tune software. The graphic depicts that most of the shots have a front focus issue, but that the last cluster of images are very close to accurate on the sharpness. After additional refinement, it was determined an adjustment of +20 was best for this particular lens.

A screenshot of the output from the Focus Tune software. The graphic depicts that most of the shots have a front focus issue, but that the last cluster of images are very close to accurate on the sharpness. After additional refinement, it was determined an adjustment of +20 was best for this particular lens.

The Focus Tune software really is pretty incredible, and a good buy for anyone calibrating their lenses. In a matter of a few clicks, the software will read each image, evaluate it for sharpness and front/back focus, then will generate a chart and table with focus values. The ideal is to get focus values close to 0. Negative numbers denote front focus, while positive numbers are back focus. 

Looking at the graph on the right, we can see that I had the Nikon D850 setup with the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 lens. The clusters I imaged were all front focused, and badly so (as you noticed from the earlier tree bark photos). 

Only the last cluster of images (shot with a focus adjustment of +20 in camera), were remotely close to in focus. 

It takes a little trial and error with testing different values, but Focus Tune does a great job of helping you jump directly to the best results so that you can find the optimum value for each lens. 

Don't be intimidated if you aren't a math major - Michael Tapes makes some great how-to videos to orient you to the whole process.

Focus Tune will show you the sharpest images and overlays a red mask on the calibration ruler, allowing you to see where the precise focus area lies.

Focus Tune will show you the sharpest images and overlays a red mask on the calibration ruler, allowing you to see where the precise focus area lies.

Finalizing the Calibration

Once you have completed the whole process, you will have values ranging between -20 and +20 that represent the lens calibration that needs to be dialed into your particular camera. I would also recommend writing these values down, because they could drift over time, and it is good to know where you started.

Applying the calibrated lens values for my Nikon 70-200mm lens in my D850.

Applying the calibrated lens values for my Nikon 70-200mm lens in my D850.

For reference, these are the values that each of my lenses needed. What you'll see is that every lens required some adjustment - which is why calibration is so important.

  • Nikon 14-24mm: +1

  • Nikon 24-70mm: +14

  • Nikon 70-200mm: +12

  • Nikon 70-200mm w/1.4 Tele: +8

  • Nikon 300mm: +6

  • Nikon 300mm w/1.4 Tele: +6

  • Sigma 85mm Art: +20

In closing, I hope this blog has helped you understand what lens calibration is, why it is so important, and provided a brief introduction into the process. 

The super detail - eyes, pollen, and little hairs - are only possible from an accurately calibrated lens.

The super detail - eyes, pollen, and little hairs - are only possible from an accurately calibrated lens.

Why I am Divorcing the Leica SL... It Was a Fun Fling!

It is official. The paperwork has been filed. As of last week, I became the owner of a Nikon D850, and my divorce with the Leica SL is complete.

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By my estimation, I shot roughly 20,000 images with the Leica SL during our relationship - so it was certainly a serious relationship, but one that cannot continue. 

There were three major driving reasons behind my decision to ditch Leica and return to Nikon:

Issues Surrounding Durability and Reliability

As I have previously chronicled, I have had several service and reliability issues with my Leica cameras. The most recent one, which caused my Leica SL 24-90mm lens to suffer a fatal failure during a trip to Yellowstone National Park soured me permanently.

I understand no camera is immune from breakages, but the failure rate I encountered with my Leica gear far surpassed any issues from any other company. As a professional, I cannot tolerate that level of performance.

Compounding the service issue is the length of time needed for service to be performed. In the case of my SL and lens - they left for the factory in Germany nearly 6 weeks ago, but by Leica's estimation, I probably won't get them back from repair until early 2018. I cannot be without a camera for 4 months - particularly not one that costs as much as the SL.

Lack of New Leica SL Lenses

I was an early adopter of the SL, which carries some risks. One of those risks was that Leica would not release additional lenses for the system with the frequency needed to support the development of the SL line. 

By my analysis, that risk became reality. Leica is woefully behind the curve on the SL lens releases.

I recently met a gentleman who had been part of a Leica SL focus group sponsored by Leica. He signed a non-disclosure agreement with Leica, so he couldn't share the details of his conversation, but the gist was that Leica was trying to find their way with the future of the SL line. It was also suggested that some of the invitees Leica brought to this focus group were people who didn't use this camera all that often. In other words, Leica is seeking advice on how to sustain the system from people who aren't frequent users - that isn't a recipe for success.

The Market Beat the Leica SL

Leica has a long production schedule, but they didn't move fast enough to stay ahead of the industry, and they are being usurped. Nikon is probably releasing a full frame mirrorless camera with a high resolution (~50 megapixel) sensor in the next year...and they just released a D850 that has received mind-blowing reviews.

Using companies like DXOmark, which conducts laboratory testing of sensors, I evaluated my Leica SL to the Nikon D850. In these results, it is clear that the D850 totally surpasses the Leica SL, offering several stops more dynamic range, better ISO performance, and more lens options at a fraction of the price.

Sensor testing by DXO Labs shows the superior dynamics range of the Nikon D850

Sensor testing by DXO Labs shows the superior dynamics range of the Nikon D850

For a small company like Leica to have been successful with the SL, they needed to stay very engaged with their customers and needed to continue to produce lenses and upgrades to keep me interested. They squandered that opportunity. Instead, Leica has focused on their M line, which is probably a better business decision for them.

Now what?

Photography is about so much more than the gear and equipment. But the gear and equipment play an important role in photography.

For instance, I love macro photography, but had not shot any macro work since becoming an SL owner. Why? Because the equipment needed to shoot macro photographs was either unavailable, too expensive, or a combination thereof. I don't want a camera to dictate the types of images I can or cannot make - I want to explore my creative whims! A system that is more mature and offers more flexibility is better for the type of images I want to create.

With the release of the D850, I have decided to return to Nikon. Those people who visit my website and admire my work probably won't notice the change; good photographers can make a great image with any camera. 

Five Things To Know Before Buying the D850

The internet is ablaze with excitement over the Nikon D850; dealers cannot keep them in stock and incredible reviews are fueling a buying craze that has the camera industry in a whirl.

But before you pull out your credit card, there are five things you should know before buying a D850….

1.       A great sensor is only as good as the glass in front of it

I see this on the internet all the time - a photographer attributes too much value to the camera and disproportionately invests in cameras vs lenses. For instance, I recently met a photographer at a trade show who had a D850 and was looking to purchase an 18-400mm all-in-one zoom lens for his camera. The lenses he was looking at were sub-par quality, slow, and not of the same caliber as the D850. Yet he was confused why his photos were not as sharp as others on the internet.

I would recommend having twice as much money invested in lenses as you have in a camera body; the lenses will outlast your camera and a poor lens will only degrade the quality of the image. 

Nikon publishes a list of recommended lenses for the D850. Of course they only recommend Nikon brand lenses, but if you study the list closely, you'll notice they are suggesting lenses with the quality needed to take advantage of the resolving power of the D850. There are no cheap all-in-one lenses on that list for a reason.

Personally, I will be using the following lenses with my D850 in order to maximize the quality of images this camera can make:

  • Nikon Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 G ED IF AF-S
  • Nikon Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 G ED IF AF-S
  • Nikon Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 G ED VR II
  • Nikon Nikkor 300mm f/4 E PF ED VR N AF-S
  • Nikon Nikkor 200mm f/4 D Micro ED IF
  • Canon 400mm f/2.8 FD L * (Modified to Nikon mount)
  • Sigma 85mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art for Nikon

If your wallet can't stomach the idea of buying all of these lenses, I'd recommend looking at buying used lenses from KEH. Buy good glass - even if it's used!

The Nikon 300mm f/4 lens - this thing is an incredible travel telephoto lens

The Nikon 300mm f/4 lens - this thing is an incredible travel telephoto lens

2.       You most likely need to buy a lot of new memory cards

The XQD memory card format used in the D850 is not extremely common - and while you might have a pile of SD memory cards laying around, it might be time to invest in new memory cards. Again, this is an area where quality matters. A cheap memory card won't have the same write speeds as a quality card, which again impacts the performance of the camera. As of late October 2017, a 128GB quality card cost around $200 each, and holds approximately 1,000 RAW images. Be prepared to drop a few hundred more dollars on cards (and a card reader)!

The D850 eats memory cards for breakfast with huge 50MB RAW files! Be prepared to shell out some serious cash to feed this monster.

The D850 eats memory cards for breakfast with huge 50MB RAW files! Be prepared to shell out some serious cash to feed this monster.

3.       You probably need to calibrate your lenses

Have you ever calibrated a camera lens? Do you even know what that means?

Let's say you buy a D850 and mount your old Nikon 24-70mm lens to it. That specific combination of lens and camera were not calibrated by Nikon at the factory, so it's possible there is a minor error in the focusing. If that is the case, then the area you focus on won't be as sharp as it could be...defeating the value of the high resolution sensor.

I have been calibrating all of my lenses to the D850 and would say it is more essential with the extra resolution of the D850 than it might be with other bodies. In some cases, my lenses were seriously mis-calibrated and would have given me flat and less-sharp results. If you want to take advantage of every pixel, then you'll want each image to be as clear and sharp as possible! 

A calibration kit with software costs approximately $125.

Calibrating my lenses for optimum autofocus performance with LensAlign and FocusTune

Calibrating my lenses for optimum autofocus performance with LensAlign and FocusTune

4.       If you want a D850, order from a local dealer

The wait list with major companies is months long, but a local smaller dealer will probably be able to get a camera faster. I was able to get my D850 within 3 weeks of joining a waitlist, and had two dealers get one in stock at the same time.

In other words, if you want to see a D850 this year, order locally.

I got my D850 much faster by joining pre-order lists from several local dealers

I got my D850 much faster by joining pre-order lists from several local dealers

5.       Nikon will probably introduce a mirrorless full frame camera with the same sensor within a year

All of the rumors point to Nikon releasing a full frame mirrorless camera with the same high resolution D850 sensor within the next year. While we don't know much about this camera, if mirrorless appeals to you, then it might be worth waiting. There are no guarantees with these rumors, but I think the assessment is accurate. Before you drop $3k on a new camera, make sure you're not going to suffer buyers remorse in a few months!

Long Lens Shooting with the Leica SL

The Leica SL was clearly designed with outdoor, nature, landscape and travel photographers in mind; the abundant weather sealing, GPS. and high-speed shooting were not put into the camera for studio photographers. 

As a landscape photographer, I routinely have use for a telephoto lens. So today I'll discuss the long lens setup I use with the Leica SL.

Using the vehicle as a blind while shooting in Grand Teton

Using the vehicle as a blind while shooting in Grand Teton

For starters, I do not own the Leica 90-280mm lens made for the SL system, much as I would like to. The reason for this is multi-fold:

  1. The Leica 90-280mm, while well made, is overpriced at $6,400. Every other camera manufacturer has a similar telephoto lens offering (normally in the 70-200mm range), and those lenses generally retail for $3,000 or less, with plenty of used options coming in around $1,500.
  2. Competitor lenses, which are already less than half the price, also are faster. The Leica lens only musters f/4 at full zoom, while the Nikon and Canon counterparts are f/2.8 through the entire focal length of the lens. 
  3. In Canon-land, you could buy a 400mm f/4 lens for the same price as the 90-280mm from Leica. In Nikon-land, that same money would buy you a 600mm f/4 lens and still have $2k leftover to spend on a trip! The reality is that for the money they are charging, this lens needs to either be as fast (or faster) as the competition, or it needs to have more range.
  4. The 280mm focal length is just at the short end of what most wildlife photographers would consider a reasonable starting point for their lenses. Most wildlife shooters will carry a 400mm or longer lens.
Bull elk in Yellowstone. Leica SL with Canon 400mm f/2.8 with 2x teleconverter. 

Bull elk in Yellowstone. Leica SL with Canon 400mm f/2.8 with 2x teleconverter. 

As it stands currently (October 2017), I am pretty miffed with the rate at which Leica has released lenses for the SL system. Three lens offerings in the two years since the camera was released is weak. Nothing wider than 24mm is weak.

Instead of making a 50mm prime for the SL, Leica should have expedited the production of the 16-35mm lens. There a number of 50mm lenses available on the market for Leica M mount is incredible, so there wasn't a dire need to release that lens first....but that's beyond our discussion here.

Frustrated that I have been left to jerry-rig a long lens solution together, I turned to a manufacturer who knows a lot about how to make great long glass....Canon. For decades, Canon has been a leader in the long lens market, and there are thousands of used lenses to select from. 

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I happened to find myself a very old 400mm f/2.8 bazooka of a lens, and had it modified to accept a Leica R mount. I call this lens a bazooka because it has to weigh upwards of 25lbs! There is no autofocus or image stabilization - it's just a big, old, and solid piece of glass. Because it lacks some of the more modern touches, the Canon 400mm f/2.8 bazooka was pretty affordable - I paid around $800 for the lens with conversion. 

Unfortunately, because it is a bazooka, it's not terribly portable, and I need to have a hefty tripod solution to use it. But that is okay - with the sack of cash saved by opting for this lens, I was able to afford a nice Wimberly head for my tripod to resolve that issue.

You lookin' at me? Leica SL with Canon 400mm f/2.8

You lookin' at me? Leica SL with Canon 400mm f/2.8

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The nice thing is that this lens is extremely sharp, and the EVF of the Leica SL makes it easy to manually focus and track a moving subject. I have now used this lens in Yellowstone for a number of wildlife images, and also used it to shoot the 2017 solar eclipse. In both applications, the lens has done a wonderful job resolving details. And when 400mm isn't enough, I also have a Leica R mount 2x teleconverter that makes the lens an 800mm f/4 lens. Not too shabby!

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As you can see from the snapshot of images included, the Canon 400mm f/2.8 renders beautifully and is incredibly sharp. When supported properly, I am very impressed by the sharpness that can be achieved at f/2.8. I have used the lens for a few landscape images as well, and am very pleased with the results - I don't know if it's good as the 90-280mm lens, but at the price, the results are spectacular. Remember, this isn't a cheap $800 lens -- this lens used to cost $10k, but since it is a few generations old, the lens price has dropped significantly while the quality remains unchanged.

Pronghorn in the snow. Leica SL with Canon 400mm f/2.8 lens

Pronghorn in the snow. Leica SL with Canon 400mm f/2.8 lens

Two young deer graze in Grand Teton National Park.

Two young deer graze in Grand Teton National Park.

Have you adopted another long lens for your Leica SL? Or did you purchase the Leica 90-280mm lens? Leave me a comment and let me know how you solved this problem!

Behind-the-Photo: Eclipse Over Washington

Yesterday I shared a remarkable experience with millions of Americans... I joined them in looking up at the sun and enjoying a breathtaking display of the 2017 solar eclipse. During the eclipse, I made a series of images that were later merged into the following photograph (Buy a copy):

The final composite photograph of the August 2017 solar eclipse over the Jefferson Memorial.

The final composite photograph of the August 2017 solar eclipse over the Jefferson Memorial.

Today I am going to break down that photograph to share insight into the capture... part of my process to decelerate from the excitement of seeing the eclipse!

PLANNING THE SHOT

The eclipse came as no surprise - unless you have had your head buried in the sand, you probably knew for weeks (or months) that it was coming. While I knew the eclipse was coming far in advance, it was only in the last three weeks that I started to really plan my photograph.

Unlike many other photos, this is a 'one time only' shot. The next eclipse that would cover the Washington, DC area won't be for at least seven years, and that will no doubt look different from this one. Where the sun will set again tomorrow, offering another chance to re-do a sunset image, the moon and sun won't repeat this alignment every day. One chance. Had to be prepared.

NASA compiled a number of great resources, including some interactive maps that let me calculate the exact time the sun and moon would position themselves over Washington, DC. Using that map, I determined the maximum eclipse coverage over my area would be around 2:45pm EST.

A screenshot of the NASA interactive map, where I could determine the time of the eclipse over Washington, DC.

A screenshot of the NASA interactive map, where I could determine the time of the eclipse over Washington, DC.

With the time and date of the eclipse known, I went to one of my favorite apps for planning shots - the Photographers Ephemeris ("TPE"). The TPE app is wonderful because it lets you place a pushpin anywhere in the world and adjust the time and date to see where the sun and moon will align relative to that location. I normally use this app to plan sunrise and sunset shots because I can determine the exact location of the sun rise/set in advance and position myself and my camera for that event. 

This was the first time I'd used TPE to calculate a photograph at mid-day, but the app responded beautifully. I changed the date to 21 August 2017 around 2:45pm EST and looked at the alignment of the sun and moon to find a location in the DC area that would offer a nice alignment. Many people would photograph the sun that day, so I wanted my final image to include a foreground element that was clearly "DC" - something that gave context and location to the sun images I would also capture.

A quick look at the TPE app and I found my location.... there was almost perfect alignment between the sun, moon, and Jefferson Memorial. Shooting across the Tidal Basin would offer a wonderful alignment for the elements I wanted in my final composition.

A screenshot from the Photographers Ephemeris app, showing the alignment of the sun, moon, and Jefferson Memorial. In the bottom right corner, the app also displayed the lunar coverage of the sun in a small animation, providing exact information for me to use in planning the shot.

A screenshot from the Photographers Ephemeris app, showing the alignment of the sun, moon, and Jefferson Memorial. In the bottom right corner, the app also displayed the lunar coverage of the sun in a small animation, providing exact information for me to use in planning the shot.

I started to imagine the image in my head - a spectacular composite showing several stages of the solar eclipse staged over the Jefferson Memorial and Tidal Basin.... I may not get totality in DC, but I would have a chance to make a beautiful image anyway!

At this point I had a mental construct of the final product, and it was time to deconstruct the image into its individual elements to plan. The first step was to calculate if it would be possible to get all of the elements in the scene in the camera at the same time, or if I would need to shoot everything as individual elements and merge it later. I suspected it would need to be a composite, but still wanted to do the math to be sure.

Based on the information I had, I put together the following sketch:

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This sketch depicts the information I had - the relative sun angle above the horizon (57.5 degrees), my calculated distance from where I would stand along the Tidal Basin to the Jefferson Memorial (1,200 ft) and the height of the Jefferson Memorial (129 ft). From there, I needed to calculate the height of the sun over the memorial. 

Ouch.

It's been awhile since I did geometry, but Google is a great resource for those of us who have forgotten how to do math! I calculated a height of 1,754 ft from the top of the monument to the sun, and my sister, who also happens to be a high school math teacher, confirmed my work. Phew.

After putting down my calculator, it was clear I would have to shoot this as a composite - each element would be a separate image and I would merge them all in Photoshop to create the product I envisioned.

THE EQUIPMENT

With my plan in hand, it was time to get the equipment needed to create my image. Through my math and mental deconstruction of the final image I wanted, I determined there were two different elements I would need to photograph: 1) The Jefferson Memorial and 2) The stages of the solar eclipse.

Those two elements would require completely different equipment, so let's look at each one in turn:

The Jefferson Memorial

Normally, this is a very easy photograph. Point camera at memorial and click, right? Not so fast.... I am taking this photograph at 2:45pm remember. The sky will be a light blue, there will be harsh light and no bright colors. A yellow sun on a baby blue sky will look....out of place. The solar eclipse is also going to darken the sky, so it would be more appropriate to depict the solar elements on a darker sky. But it's still 2:45pm.

I solved this problem with the help of several neutral density filters, which allowed me to darken the sky and create the impression that it was closer to dusk than it really was. Normally I wouldn't employ this tactic during a mid-day shot.... I would just wait until dusk (no filter replaces the real thing), but I felt like this was an acceptable time to use the filters.

I decided that I would get my shot of the Jefferson Memorial before the solar eclipse show started so that I could be totally focused on the sun during the eclipse. 

To get the photograph of the memorial, I used the following equipment:

  • Leica SL Type 601

  • Leica 24-90mm Vario-Elmar lens

  • Gitzo Tripod

  • Acratech ballhead and leveling base

  • Several stacked neutral density filters and a polarizing filter

The Solar Eclipse

The images of the solar eclipse were the ones I was more nervous about getting correct; I have never shot directly into the sun during mid-day, so I needed to get smart in doing so! Thankfully there is no shortage of websites from astrophotographers who explain their techniques!

The longer the focal length, the better. I have a Canon 400mm f/2.8 lens that has a modified Leica R mount that I got to photograph wildlife with, and figured that would be a perfect choice. Even at 400mm, the sun would be fairly small against the sensor - this really is a time for big glass to shine. So I got a 2x teleconverter - which made this lens the equivalent of an 800mm monster! Normally the teleconverter offers a major loss in light reduction, but I knew that wouldn't be an issue when shooting straight into the sun!

The next thing I needed was a solar filter for my lens to protect it and the camera from the harmful sun. The lens is over 6 inches in diameter, so my best solution was to use a piece of solar film and cut my own filter.

I found a piece of solar film on Amazon and used the shipping box and some gaffers tape to engineer a removable holder for the film to sit in front of the lens.

The following equipment was used for each of the solar shots:

My camera rig pointed up at the sun during the eclipse

My camera rig pointed up at the sun during the eclipse

The homemade solar filter mounted to the front of my lens

The homemade solar filter mounted to the front of my lens

GETTING THE SHOT(S)

Alas, eclipse day arrived and I packed some gatorade, a beach towel, and my camera gear for an Uber ride to the Tidal Basin. I setup in the grass in the area I'd pre-determined was the right spot for my final shot.

As previously discussed, I planned to shoot the Jefferson Memorial element first, which I did. But the one I ended up using in my final image came last; scattered puffy clouds earlier in the afternoon meant I'd have to contend with a cloudy sky when placing the sun elements in the composite. Since clouds always cover the sun (and never the other way around), I could not place the sun on top of a cloud.... but by the end of the eclipse, the cloud situation had stabilized and I only needed to contend with a few puffy guys over the horizon. A storm cell had moved in, darkening the scene (which I was already going for with my filters), and the uniform grey sky provided a better and more realistic location to place the solar elements.

Because I had planned so meticulously, I was ready the instant the first bit of the moon started to move across the sun. Since I had never photographed the sun, I used these first few moments of eclipse activity to test my settings and focus, ensuring everything was exactly as I wanted.

All of the solar images were shot at an ISO ranging between 100-400 at f/11. Shutter speeds varied based on the amount of sun visible.

Shooting the eclipse at the base of the Tidal Basin.

Shooting the eclipse at the base of the Tidal Basin.

By the end of the afternoon, rain and storms were starting to move into the area, so I packed my gear and returned home to finish building the final image in Photoshop. I was confident that I had all of the elements needed to build the final image, it was just a matter of assembling them all correctly....

BUILDING THE FINAL IMAGE

The final image would require a composite of several solar elements from various stages of the eclipse overlaid onto my foreground shot of the Jefferson Memorial. In terms of complexity, this is probably the most challenging image I have ever assembled - everything had to look like it was real - the assembly had to be seamless. We've all see poor Photoshop hack jobs - this could not be one!

Is This a FAKE Photo?

Some people will accuse me of making a fake photograph. Sure - the sun never looked like this over the Jefferson Memorial - so in that regard, the photo is a fake. But that's not the point. The point of my artwork is to share an experience. This image is an accurate depiction of my experience - I watched phases of the eclipse move across the sky above the memorial. The photograph I created and shared is an accurate capture of the feeling, emotions, and experience I had. Every element is genuine - there was nothing I created that is not authentic, it is only the combination of those elements that is not genuine.

Assembling the Solar Elements

The photographs of the sun, while the trickiest to get, were actually the easiest to edit. I cropped them all to 1x1 squares (each one in the sensor was the same size since it was a fixed focal length) and adjusted the exposure slightly to correct any over/under exposure. I shot the sun at 10 minute intervals during the early stages, then at 2 minute intervals during the periods of maximum obscuration. The images used in the final shot were taken at the following times (as derived from my in-camera GPS):

  • 21 August 2017, 13:36:10 EDT

  • 21 August 2017, 13:51:35 EDT

  • 21 August 2017, 14:02:50 EDT

  • 21 August 2017, 14:14:39 EDT

  • 21 August 2017, 14:28:56 EDT

  • 21 August 2017, 14:39:30 EDT

These images were not selected for the precise interval separating them (clearly!) but rather because they were good images depicting the various stages of the eclipse. In other words, it was an artistic decision, rather than scientific decision.

Each of the six solar elements that would appear in the final composition were then exported at high resolution to be merged with the foreground shot of the memorial.

One of the six solar elements used in the composite image

One of the six solar elements used in the composite image

The Foreground Image

The photograph of the Jefferson Memorial proved a trickier prospect than initially expected. I thought I might present the whole capture in black and white, but the sun started to look more like the moon when done in black and white. Having the sun remain a brilliant orange was the only way to convey to the viewer that it was actually the sun.

That meant the foreground also needed to be in color. I went through several iterations of how this should look before building one that looked correct. In each iteration, I found the balance between the brightness of the solar elements and the brightness of the background sky to be the most challenging element.

Finally I adjusted (and re-adjusted) until I had a foreground image I was happy with. Below is that image before I cleaned it up in Photoshop and added the solar elements.

The early version of the Jefferson Memorial image that was used to create the final composition

The early version of the Jefferson Memorial image that was used to create the final composition

Before adding the solar elements to the composition, I also went through and 'cleaned up' this photograph. There were many dust spots on the sensor, and I didn't like the distraction of the people on the stairs (although I did like the blur of the people on the paddle boats). So I removed each of those things and made slight lighting adjustments to the rest to bring out the best colors across the image.

I brought the final foreground image into Photoshop and then created several layers with each of the solar elements. Using the 'lighten' blend mode, I brought each into the foreground shot and started to build the composite.

I will spare you all of the Photoshop clicks - partially because I don't remember them all and there was a lot of trial and error - but the end result was six solar elements and one background image layered together. 

The next step was to adjust the size and location of the solar elements. For this, I drew a hot pink line across the sky, and used the Photoshop ruler and measurement tools to align each sun at equal intervals along that line. The line trick was a lifesaver - it made the alignment so much easier! I also used this to ensure each solar element was sized similarly.

A screenshot from Photoshop of my final image coming together. Notice the pink line I drew the align each of the solar elements as I built the final image.

A screenshot from Photoshop of my final image coming together. Notice the pink line I drew the align each of the solar elements as I built the final image.

THE FINAL PRODUCT

After weeks of planning, the final product had come together. The weather cooperated. The equipment all worked. The planning paid off. 

I let out a huge sigh of relief when I had finished assembling the final image. Unlike most of my other photographs, I was not confident I would be able to pull this off until the very end, and it was a huge relief to finally celebrate the success. Without a doubt, this was not only the most technically difficult photograph I have ever captured, but it was also the one with the slimmest margin for error; failure to capture the solar elements meant there would be no finished product!

Thank you for taking the time to read this behind-the-photo entry, and leave me a comment if you have any questions about the final image!

You can purchase a copy of this photograph for your home and have it delivered framed and ready to hang!

Review: RNI All Films 4 Pro

Over the past few years, there's been a resurgence in film photography- folks are going out to buy vintage film cameras and put them back to good use. Two years ago I joined the ranks of photographers returning to film and analog photography techniques. Since then, I've studied printing in darkrooms and explored a variety of film processing and development techniques.

As consumers flock to buy old film cameras, companies are joining in the movement by offering "easy out" film photography.... that is, film photography without the film. One such company is RNI (stands for Really Nice Images), a London-based company selling film presets for digital Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop.

Two weeks ago, RNI approached me asking if I would review their "All Films 4 Pro" software suite, which retails for $122 US Dollars. Full disclosure, they provided me a free copy of the software in exchange for my review- though I have reviewed this with the mindset that I had just shelled out my hard earned cash for the software personally. This lady can't be bought with free software (but maybe for cars).

Anyway, I downloaded the software and began the installation on my MacBook Pro. While they offer the features for Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw, I only tested it for Lightroom as that's where I now do 90% of my editing.

Essentially the software is a suite of Lightroom presets designed to make your digital images look like they were taken on film. So if you aren't awesome enough to rock some film and learn a little development, this is how you can get the "look" with your digital files.

The installation of the software was relatively uneventful- RNI provides detailed step-by-step instructions for installing all of the presets and features, and it took me only a few minutes to complete. The software package took approximately 100MB of hard drive space.

After the installation, I restarted Lightroom and saw that I now had hundreds of new presets in the development module. So many presets that I stand no chance of capturing them in one screenshot...... 

When RNI says the software includes "All Films" they are only slightly off.... it includes presets for the most common films, and then a healthy stock of more obscure film. There was only one film I love to use frequently missing from their list, which is the Adox line of film, specifically the Silvermax film.

Anyway, I had a bit of shell shock seeing the list of film choices. It's actually overwhelming! To help with the organization, RNI has folders for each type of film, as follows:

  • RNI Toolkit (contains features like frames, vignettes and lens effects)
  • RNI Films 4 BW (Black and white films)
  • RNI Films 4 Instant (obviously, instant films like Polaroid) 
  • RNI Films 4 Negative (negative color films/ films developed with C-41 chemicals)
  • RNI Films 4 Slide (color slide films / films with development in other chemical combos)
  • RNI Films 4 Vintage (a selection of films that aren't produced anymore)

Ok, so I haven't come close to shooting a 10% of the films offered in these presets, so I stuck to presets for films I have used - Kodak, Ilford, Fuji, etc. As noted previously, my beloved Adox Silvermax is missing from the preset list.

Test 1: Finland Window

I took this photograph on my Leica SL Type 601 in Finland a few weeks ago, and the colors and textures are a good subject to explore the various film presets with. We'll start with the original image as I edited it, then go through a list of presets. Read the subtitles for each to get the film preset name, and click on the files to see an enlarged version.

My original file - edited without any RNI presets

Color Negative Film Presets

Kodak Ektar Preset

Kodak Portra Preset

I don't shoot much color negative film, but when I do, it's either Kodak Ektar or Portra, so those are the presets I can fairly judge. Before applying either preset I thought about the films, what I know about how they render colors, and formed my expectation for how the preset would look, then clicked the button. For the Kodak Ektar, the resulting image is pretty true to my expectation - colors are bright and vibrant with strong black tones. The Portra, however, was not what I expected. In my experience, Portra renders nice pinks and red hues, which is why it's popular for portraiture. But the reds and pinks in the wood became muted and the black looks wimpy. 

If I am judging these presets based on my experiences actually shooting these films, then the Portra comes up a bit short, while the Ektar meets expectations.

Black and White Film Presets

The true test is black and white film. I shoot a LOT of black and white film, specifically Ilford Delta 100, HP-4 and Adox Silvermax. Since Adox wasn't a choice, I experimented with Kodak T-Max, a popular film, but one I don't shoot as often.

Ilford Delta 100

Ilford FP-4 Preset

Kodak T-Max Preset

From my experience, these three presets are fairly true to expected performance, particularly the Delta 100 and HP-4 presets. I have shot hundreds of rolls of each film, and the preset looks pretty true to the tonal composition, contrast, and detail of those films. The T-Max preset is maybe a little heavy in contrast, but I have only shot a handful of T-Max rolls, so I am not the expert on that film.

Other Presets (Slide & Effects)

As previously mentioned, the RNI film presets pack includes some slide and vintage films, plus some effects. I have only shot one roll of slide film before, and it was such an epic disaster to develop that I quickly gave up and retreated to the safety of C-41 color negative film for those times I want color. 

Here's our starting image, again from the Leica SL Type 601. This is Esa, a Finnish man who leads dogsled teams.

Esa, our dogsled guide. Original image from the Leica SL Type 601

I first played with the Fuji Velvia preset, which is the only slide film I'm remotely familiar with. But as mentioned, my experiment developing it at home resulted in a lot of green film, so the RNI preset was sure to be better!

Fuji Velvia 50 preset

Sure enough, nice pop in the colors and beautiful saturation. This is what Velvia is famous for, and the preset delivered. Next I took the same image and played with some of the effects filters. There are a billion effects, from vignettes, contrast, etc.... but I went for "Vintage Lens 4."

Velvia + Vintage Lens 4 Preset

Apparently "Vintage Lens" means reduce sharpness and add a vignette? Because, as far as I can tell, that's what this effect did.

Choices Galore

RNI All Films 4 is full of film preset choices - so many choices that I couldn't possibly begin to represent an opinion on all of them without a heavy amount of BS'ing involved. And I was overwhelmed with choices before opening the camera profiles, at which point I ran for cover. If you want an endless selection of choices, this is your software, but I'd have to start deleting some of the presents I don't like to de-clutter my workspace.

The Problem....

On the surface, RNI All Films 4 offers a lot of presets in their package, which is good considering it's moderately pricey software at $122 US Dollars. But thats the problem. There is other software with film presets (albeit not as many choices) that you can download for free. So you have to be pretty dedicated to wanting almost every film emulsion known to man to shell out the money, and I suspect many folks won't know the difference. If you've never shot film, would you know the difference between the dozens of black and white film emulsions available? Doubtful. 

Which brings me to the next question - who is the target audience? Surely someone who shoots film regularly will just shoot film and bypass the filters. So I am assuming that RNI intends this for a digital photographer who wants to give their images the film look and feel without actually shooting film. But again, so many choices - are there that many Nikon-Shooting-Joe's who know enough about film to appreciate all the film presets?

RNI has a solution for this - which is the Lite version of the software. For $59, you get a smaller subset of the film set, which I expect will appeal to most photographers. If you are enough of a film die-hard to know the difference between HP-4 and HP-5, then you probably shoot them, and don't need a preset.

Sidebar: This Isn't Film Photography

I need to detour away from the RNI product for a second to explain that film photography isn't this simple. I don't just load some film into my camera, snap away and voila. There are two other chemical processes after I take the photograph that determine the look of the final product - development and enlargement. I won't attempt to expand upon this too much, but let me start by explaining that Ansel Adams wrote three very long and detailed books about this process.

To click a preset button in Lightroom - no matter where that preset came from - is disingenuous to film photography. A film photographer goes through three different chemical process to produce a print - it's not just a button click. I can make a film that is light on contrast have more contrast in the final print by changing how I enlarge the negative. I can lighten or darken a negative by extending development by a matter of seconds or changing the water temperature. 

If you want to make film photographs, buy a film camera and learn about film photography. Using presets won't give you the same experience, and your hands won't smell like fixer!

RNI Mobile Apps

RNI also offers a suite of mobile apps for applying these sorts of presets to images and then sharing them on Instagram, etc. To be honest, this is probably the most interesting application of these presets for me personally - I don't use one click filters for most of my photography, but I will use a quick filter if I'm sharing some cutesy selfie on my personal Facebook page. 

I was not given a trial of the RNI mobile apps to review, but based on the photos and videos on their website and Facebook page, I think RNI has built a nice platform for Instagram'ers to modify and share their iPhone images.  

In Summary

The good:

  • Lots of presets to choose from
  • All major film emulsions represented, including a nice selection of vintage films
  • Easy installation
  • One-click use. Easy for any Lightroom newbie to use

The bad:

  • The full suite is pricey, particularly given some of the free choices on the market
  • Adox Silvermax is missing
  • The number of choices can be overwhelming to someone not familiar with film photography

Would I Buy It? Would I Recommend It?

Personally, I would not buy RNI All Films, though that doesn't have anything to do with the product RNI offers. I already shoot film, and if I want the look of film, I'd just grab a roll and go. Some of the features, like the vintage lens presets, are a bit gimmicky too. Not to sound like an elitist, but I shoot Leica cameras - I spend a lot of money to have my images look good and don't have any intention of introducing flaws to a photograph on purpose. 

Would I recommend it? Hum. Depends. I probably would tell someone looking at the RNI films software to start with one of their cheaper and smaller scale products to see if they like the presets before diving into the deep end with preset mania. Had I used the pro version before becoming familiar with film photography, I think I would have been very intimidated by the number of choices. If you don't know much about film photography, start with one of the Lite versions and upgrade later if you like it. RNI lets you upgrade at a discount, and that's where I'd start. 

If film photography does interest you, then also consider spending $50 on a cheap film camera and a roll of film. You'll learn something and have a ton of fun - more fun than you'll have clicking preset buttons in Lightroom!

Have you used any of the RNI products, like their mobile apps? What was your experience? Leave me a comment!

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.

Street Ninja: Leica 28mm Summaron Re-Issue

In October 2016, Leica introduced a re-issue of one of their most popular screw mount lenses, the 28mm Summaron f/5.6. The original 28mm Summaron was introduced in 1955 and was very popular, and the re-issue brought the character, design, and delightful imperfections of the old lens forward to modern times.

The most obvious change to the new 28mm Summaron is that it now has the M-mount, so it can be used with any of the modern Leica M lineup without the need for a screw-to-M-mount adaptor.  Other modern updates include the Leica 6-bit coding, which is really just six painted squares inside the lens that tell the camera which lens is mounted for the purposes of metadata, and some modifications to the exterior casing. 

But the classic design, which leaves a particular color rendering and distinctive vignette, still remains.

Leica is known for being expensive, but that expense comes with perfection. Many of their lenses possess some of the finest optics available - lenses like the 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux are the pinnacle of optical engineering. So for Leica to re-release a lens that has many imperfections struck many as very un-Leica.

But when has Leica ever been predictable? This is the company that had the guts to make a black and white only camera, and price it over $6k. Then they made a digital camera without a screen. Remember that "predictable" company? 

So in predictable Leica form, they release an old lens without any optical design improvements, and then sell it as 'made to order only.' Guts.

I was drawn to this lens for several reasons:

  1. On paper, it looks like a great street photography lens. I often shoot at f/5.6-f/8 on the street, so having a 'slow' lens was fine with me.
  2. It's the smallest and most compact street photography lens that Leica makes. It's the non-exsistant lens.
  3. There's a certain charm and nostalgia to using a lens with the design and styling from 1950s. And who says you can't look awesome while taking awesome photos? Leica shooters do care about the look of their camera, and any that says they don't is lying to you. 
  4. I like the look of old lenses. I own several 1980s era Leica lenses (from the Made in Canada era) and I love their imperfections.

The first few of these features are self-explanatory, but let's talk about #4. Compared to my other Leica lenses, the Summaron has a distinctive contrast and color rendition that the others lack. I struggle to describe the look with a word other than "unique" - images taken with this lens are just a little different from every other lens. There is also a distinctive vignette - very distinctive - and I love it. Vignettes are seen as imperfections, but many of us add a vignette to an image in post processing to help focus the eye on the subject of the image. I don't see the vignette on this lens as an imperfection, it's adding character, but there are certainly times I don't want vignettes, and I would select another lens for those times.

I wouldn't recommend the Summaron to anyone who is looking to be a one lens shooter, and I will rarely carry it as the only lens on a day of street photography. It's small size lets me pack a second faster lens (like a 35mm f/2 Summacron) and easily stash the Summaron in a pocket. But if you have a few other lenses and want something that will look totally different from your other nearly-perfect Leica glass, then I highly recommend the 28mm Summaron. It's a great lens for street photography, and the unique renderings from this lens look great in color and black and white.

The Leica 28mm Summaron comes in a lovely jewelry box case and includes a metal hood and lens cap. The hood, while fantastic in the construction and feel, totally defeats the point of having a stealthy and compact lens - so it stays at home when the lens goes out and about.

Of course, in Leica fashion, they are asking a pretty penny for this lens re-issue - over $2,500 USD for an f/5.6 prime lens may seem crazy to a lot of photographers. And that is reasonable. It's expensive - as are all things Leica - but the look and feel of this lens is unlike anything else.

I draw a parallel here to film. The cost per image of film can greatly exceed digital, particularly if you shoot thousands of images, but folks (myself included) still flock to film because we like the look. And if you want a unique look, this lens is another tool to get the vintage feel, imperfections, and unique color rendering that otherwise only comes through editing.

Five Thoughts: A Day with the Leica Monochrom

I remember when I was first researching Leica's camera and lens lineup - well before I even considered purchasing my first Leica. As a self-admitted gear-obsessed woman, I researched the cameras and lens based on price alone. And how can you avoid it? You see cameras and lenses that cost around $10,000 USD and you can't help but be intrigued by their offerings.

Two of the many Leica products I drooled over in that initial research stuck out in my memory. They were the Leica Noctilux f/0.95 lens and the Leica Monochrom. At that point the Monochrom was built off the M9 platform as the new M246 Monochrom was not yet announced.

These two products stuck out for several reasons beyond their pricing..... most significantly it was their uniqueness. A f/0.95 lens was (and still is) unlike anything else on the market, and the incredible bokeh and low-light it offered was remarkable. And the Monochrom - a camera that could only take black and white photographs! 

I have since secretly lusted for both. Earlier this year I had a chance to snag a Noctilux for a killer deal by monitoring the currency fluctuations (see my earlier post about the purchase of the Noctilux). And while the Monochrom still lived in my fantasies, it would take another killer deal before I could consider purchasing.

Low and behold, another killer deal came along.... this time a combination of the Leica rebate + trade in promotion + a weak British Pound / US Dollar exchange rate. Leica introduced a program where I could trade in another camera (I chose my lovely M7) and get a part exchange, plus $750 rebate. Alone this is a good deal, but the real killer is the exchange rate. After the June 23rd vote by the UK to exit from the European Union, the British Pound crashed to a 30 year low. I waited until the Pound traded at $1.29 on the dollar and jumped..... I purchased my Monochrom at Red Dot Camera in London.

I haven't owned my Leica Monochrom long enough to do a proper review, so I'll share my initial five thoughts on the camera and follow-up with another review when appropriate.

Three Leg Thing - Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

Pokemon Go - Leica MM with Leica 50mm Noctilux f/0.95

I: Oh Panchromatic....

Obviously you don't need to take many photographs to figure out that the Monochrom only captures black and white, or more technically correct, panchromatic images. In fact, if you take one photograph without figuring that out, you're either asleep, lost, or both.

Still, even though I knew I was going to get a greyscale product back from the Monochrom, there is an element of excitement and anticipation in downloading those first images into Lightroom. I was blown away by the tonal depth of the photographs..... millions of shades of grey never looked so good!

I would say it is different from film - at least from my preferred film, Ilford Delta 100. Scans of my film (which I self-develop in HC-110B) tend to be more contrasty and have bolder blacks and harsher whites. The Monochrom RAW files are more flat out-of-camera, but really sparkle with a few seconds of editing in Lightroom. The detail and resolution of the Monochrom files is also very impressive - I was able to get very heavy handed with some crops but maintain acceptable file resolution and detail.

Absorbed - Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

Road Markings - Leica MM with Leica 50mm Noctilux f/0.95

Two Phones? - Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

II: Neutral Density Filter Required, ASAP

I LOVE shooting with the Leica f/0.95 Noctilux on my Leica SL - it's become one of my favorite lenses for the truly unique look and feel that it gives each image. But mounted with a maximum shutter speed of 1/4000th and a base ISO of 320, I will need to invest in a neutral density filter for the Noctilux before I can really get the most out of the lens in daylight. I took a few shots in London later in the evening when it was darker, but look forward to having a chance to play in more diverse light with a filter. I wasted no time ordering a 3 stop ND filter made by B&W!

Interrogation - Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

Walking - Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

Selfie - Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

III: My Friend, EVF

Going back to the Noctilux - the reason it is such a great lens on the SL is because of the electronic viewfinder. In fact, I really struggled to decide between the older Monochrom (based on the M9 body) and the new Monochrom Type 246, but ultimately decided that the ability to use an electronic viewfinder (EVF) was worth the extra cost. 

The electronic viewfinder on the Monochrom is a nice addition - it helps you 'see' in black and white if you are trying to learn to see the world without color, and the focus peaking is a must-have to improve your focusing hit-rate with the Noctilux. Of course there is no comparison between the Leica EVF-2 and the viewfinders on the Leica SL and Leica Q.... it lags and is much lower resolution, but if you can accept those things and just want a tool to help you ensure critical focus, then it's a great buy.

Taxi Driver - Leica MM with Leica 50mm Noctilux f/0.95

Self Portrait - Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

Wine Tasting - Leica MM with Leica 50mm Noctilux f/0.95

IV: Underexpose

Several reviewers have discussed the importance of underexposing photographs to ensure no blown highlights as highlight detail cannot be recovered in the Monochrom files, but I had to play with it to really see it for myself. I took a variety of test shots against a bright window with a backlit subject to see how much I could "sneak out" of the highlights. Sure enough, blown highlights are really blown. (Sidenote: this is like a child being told something is hot, but not believing it until they touch it themselves and get burned. I had to try it to know!) 

In some cases, I actually like the blown highlight for the contrast it can apply to an image. I wouldn't do this all the time, certainly, but for a few of the images, I think the blown highlight helps draw the eye back to my subject.

I intentionally underexposed this photograph of my husband by several stops to see how much I could recover before I introduced noise...... see below. Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

The result. I would like to have pulled back a little more in the shirt, but noise started to be introduced at a level I was uncomfortable with. For me, this is as far as I'd push the image. All-in-all, a completely acceptable result! - Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

V: See Differently

I convert 99% of my street photography, and probably 50% of my landscape photography to black and white, so the idea of pre-visualizing an image in black and white isn't new to me. However, there is still something to be said for knowing you can only capture an image in black and white vs capturing in color and knowing you have the option to convert. There were times in my walk through London that I saw some bright colors or shapes that made me reach for the camera, only to remember that the subject wouldn't translate into panchromatic. This isn't a bad thing..... I don't miss any of those 'missed' shots. Having a camera that only captures panchromatic images helps focus my attention. I studied the light and the way the light reflected off a subject. I experimented photographing shiny and reflective surfaces to see how those translated in the eyes of this sensor, and I found myself discovering contrast and intrigue in new scenes.

Moorgate Station - Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

Examine - Leica MM with Leica 35mm Summarit ASPH

Shoryu Ramen (the best!) - Leica MM with Leica 50mm Noctilux f/0.95

There's a certain amount of learning required for any new camera, and the Monochrom and I are still in the flirting phase; still figuring out what the other likes while avoiding touchy dinner table conversations like religion and politics. We'll get there soon, but for now I need to continue to learn how the Monochrom responds to the world around it. I am incredibly excited by this camera - it begs to be picked up and to go shooting, so I'm sure it won't take long before Donald Trump's hair is broached at dinner......

Review: Thumbie for Leica M (Type 240)

I never used a lot of the thumb grip accessories available for Leica cameras until I got my Leica Q. The Match Technical Thumbs Up grip for the Q has made all the difference in the world, and I can't imagine shooting without it now.

When I got my Leica Monochrom (Type 246), I wanted to get another Thumbs Up grip, but the problem was that I wouldn't be able to use the Thumbs Up and the Leica EVF-2 in the hot shoe at the same time. Since I use the EVF-2 whenever I shoot my favorite lens, the Leica f/0.95 Noctilux, it was a non-starter to consider the Match Technical Thumbs Up grip.

Thankfully there is no shortage of inventive people out there! An English gentleman has designed a different product for the Leica M bodies called the Thumbie that provides the same grip benefit, but without hogging the hot shoe. The Thumbie is also significantly cheaper than the Thumbs Up grip (around $30-40), but it isn't available at mass retailers like the competition. I found mine on eBay and it was delivered to my home in the UK two days later.

The Thumbie arrives in a silver box - although it's not a Leica silver box - but seriously, who is that snobby? Inside is the Thumbie grip, some spare adhesive strips, and instructions for installation.  Nothing fancy. 

Of note, the Thumbie fits a whole range of M bodies - the Monochrom uses the same version as the M240. Versions are also available for the M8, M9, film bodies, etc.

The Thumbie as delivered. Nothing fancy, but it is a silve box, in true "Leica fashion" 

The Thumbie as delivered. Nothing fancy, but it is a silve box, in true "Leica fashion" 

The instructions are fairly straightforward and suggest that the double sided tape (which is apparently designed for use in the automotive industry) will not damage the finish of the Leica body, assuming you remove it without a jackhammer. 

Inside the box is the Thumbie, some spare adhesive strips, and instructions for installing the Thumbie onto a Leica M240 style body

Inside the box is the Thumbie, some spare adhesive strips, and instructions for installing the Thumbie onto a Leica M240 style body

Thankfully the adhesives for the Thumbie are pre-cut, which is good, because the actual flat surface isn't a simple rectangle. The little notch fits above the scroll wheel on the back, and the provided adhesives are cut pretty close to size. Good, I don't want more arts and crafts projects! 

The Thumbie, as it comes out of the box. Construction is metal coated in a black paint. 

The Thumbie, as it comes out of the box. Construction is metal coated in a black paint. 

Before installing the Thumbie, I wiped the back of the Monochrom body down to ensure there was no oil or grease from my hands on the surface that could interfere with the adhesive. The instructions call for a very tiny amount of dish soap added to a bowl of water and to lightly coat the adhesive in this soap water mixture prior to adhering the Thumbie on the camera. This allows you to carefully setup the Thumbie in precisely the right location before the glue sticks. Clever. 

Preparing to install the Thumbie. The instructions call for using some water with a little soap to help position the Thumbie into the correct location before the adhesive sticks.  

Preparing to install the Thumbie. The instructions call for using some water with a little soap to help position the Thumbie into the correct location before the adhesive sticks.  

The adhesive on the back of the Thumbie, just prior to installation. 

The adhesive on the back of the Thumbie, just prior to installation. 

The installation overall was very easy, and took less than 5 minutes (including time spent taking photos for this review). The instructions suggest waiting 30 minutes after installing to ensure the adhesive is fully stuck on - after 30 minutes the attachment felt pretty strong. 

The Thumbie nests right next to the scroll wheel on the back of the M bodies, so I was a bit concerned that it would interfere with the operation of that dial. However, I was pleased to see that the Thumbie's smaller size and profile keeps it from interefering with the dial's operation.  

In all fairness, the Thumbs Up grip certainly is beefier and feels more solid on the M than the Thumbie...but it is also three times the price, and hogs the hot shoe. I played with the Thumbie for awhile after installation and it did a satisfactory job of giving my right hand more tactile control and surface to hold the camera body. It may not be as sexy as a naked camera, but I'm a real photographer, who really uses their camera to take real photographs. And if an inexpensive attachment prevents some hand fatigue and makes it easier to carry my Monochrom with the Noctilux all day, then sign me up.  

Thumbie installed on the M Monochrome (Type 246) 

Thumbie installed on the M Monochrome (Type 246) 

Thumbie tucks around the back scroll wheel and does not interfere with the operation of the dial (which I have set to control exposure compensation) 

Thumbie tucks around the back scroll wheel and does not interfere with the operation of the dial (which I have set to control exposure compensation) 

Time will tell on the durability of the Thumbie. Assuming that rubbing along my pants and side doesn't cause it to rub off into the street gutters one day, I think I'm a satisfied customer. And if that ever does happen, I'll update the post to let you know. 

Overall, for the money, Thumbie may be one of the best purchases I've made for my Leica!

The finished result.... Thumbie installed, EVF-2 in the hot shoe, and Noctilux on the front. Everyone wins! 

The finished result.... Thumbie installed, EVF-2 in the hot shoe, and Noctilux on the front. Everyone wins! 

Leica Q: First Impressions of Leica's Quirky Compact

The Leica Camera Q has been on the market for almost a year now, so it may seem a bit bizarre to have a "first impressions" take on something that has been around this long, but as long as Leica still struggles to meet demand for this camera in some markets, I think it's fair game to write like the camera is brand new. 

Leica's quirky Q camera

If you are a frequent reader of my posts (website, Facebook, Instagram), then you probably already know that I got the Leica SL Type 601 in December 2015 and have fallen head-over-heels in love with that system. The SL is my primary camera for all things digital (as I still shoot plenty of film)... So why buy into a Leica Q?

The SL system and most dSLRs have one glaring thing in common- they aren't small and subtle. Everyone in a 100 mile radius knows when I bring that camera up to my eye, even if the shutter sound is nearly silent. That's okay, the Leica SL isn't trying to be small or discreet. 

Since owning an SL, when I wanted a smaller camera, I turned to the iPhone. While the iPhone is a decent camera, it isn't a tool that I felt comfortable using to create fine art photographs (kudos to those who have done so successfully). I wasn't willing to skimp on image quality for the sake of compactness - again, the goal is to create fine art photographs. After some reading on the Leica Q, I realized I could get the same incredible image quality that has drawn me to the SL in a smaller body by investing in a Q system...... If I could find one!

The Leica Q released to much fanfare and has been touted as the best compact full frame digital camera ever built. And for that reason, it's still very difficult to find one for sale almost a full year after the camera's release. 

Let's take a quick look at the highlights on the Q's spec sheet. Aka, the features I cared about:

  • 24.2 megapixel CMOS full-frame sensor (same specs as the SL, if not the same sensor)
  • Maestro II image processor (same as in the SL)
  • Fixed Summilux 28mm f/1.7 ASPH lens
  • Electronic viewfinder (like on the SL)
  • Near silent shutter
  • Good battery performance
  • Ability to use autofocus or manual focus
  • Macro mode
  • Overall small size

A Q-uick Note

With the exception of the Leica SL and Q comparisons below, the images in this post were converted to black and white in Lightroom. I prefer to present street photography in black and white to remove some of the natural bias that color can introduce.

The settings used for these images were Auto ISO, f/1.7 and aperture priority. 


"Taking a Break" - Leica Q at Hawker House, London

Getting the Q

As previously mentioned, the Q is very hard to find in some markets, including the United States. While I live in the United Kingdom, I had a work trip to the Washington, DC area where I was hoping to find a Q for sale so I could buy it stateside and avoid paying her majesty the 20% VAT. 

Leica Store DC.... No stock. Actually, they did get a camera one morning but sold it in a few hours, before I had any chance of getting to their store. 

B&H Photo.... No stock.

Amazon...... Only if you are willing to pay $1,000+ more than MSRP (nope)

Ace Photo.... One in stock!

"Waiting Game" - Leica Q at Canada Water, London

By some miracle, Ace Photo, which was my go-to camera store when I lived in DC, had a Q in stock, but the way their website displayed the stock implied it was sold out. I had emailed Mo, the owner, and he replied that he had one and was willing to hold it for me... Woohoo!

For what it's worth, the Leica Q is equally challenging to find in London right now. There is limited stock at some retailers, but Leica Mayfair continues to be out of stock on the Q. Clearly, Leica did not expect and produce for the demand this camera generated. 

After getting the Leica Q, I returned to my hotel and tossed the battery on the charger, eager to play with the camera before taking it to a Washington Nationals baseball game later that evening. 

"Pop" - Leica Q at Southbanke Center, London

Learning the Q’s Personality

While the Leica Q bears many similarities to the Leica SL, it has its own personality as a camera and a few distinctive nuances. First of these is the menu screens, which have some notable differences. One of the first obvious differences is the layout - the SL has four sections to the menu (Camera, Image, Setup, and Favorites) while the Q menu is all in one section. This isn't a problem, but I do like having a favorites menu in the SL to quickly jump to my most commonly used settings.

Also of note, the Q does not allow the user to capture DNG only - it's JPEG or JPEG + DNG. As someone who doesn't care for the JPEG files because I'll always give at least a basic edit in Lightroom, it'd be nice to have a firmware update allowing the user to only shoot .DNG raw files.

Finally, you’ll need to read the manual or some online reviews to know what some of the titles in the settings menu adjust - like ‘OIS’ - which stands for Optical Image Stabilization. Apparently spelling that out in the menu would be too hard? How about just "Image Stabilization?"

"Ride" - Leica Q in London's Underground

Did I Break it Already? An Early Design Flaw

At the ballgame that night, the Q performed well - although the 28mm focal length is hardly the right one for shooting sports! But a few fan and stadium photos gave me something to pixel peep on my iPad later. Going to the game did highlight one of the first (and maybe the only) real problem with the Leica Q. The diopter adjustment for the Q sticks out the right side of the viewfinder, meaning that as the camera back rubbed against my shirt as I walked around the stadium, the viewfinder got out of focus. At one point I raised my new camera to my eye to take a picture and felt like screaming.... It's broken! The image was blurry and the camera never came into focus?! Was it something on the front of the lens? No. It was the dang diopter adjustment. While I figured it out after a few panicked seconds, there was momentary freak-out as my new camera suddenly was very blurry. I had read on other reviews that the diopter adjustment could be a bit too sensitive to the touch, and experienced the problem day one.

Thankfully, adding the Match Technical Thumbs Up grip to the Leica Q covers that wheel and prevents it from accidentally spinning. I also love the grip the Thumbs Up adds to the Q - it made it very comfortable to carry one handed in London all day.

"Skater Boy" - Leica Q at Southbanke Center Skate Park

"Vertical" - Leica Q at Southbank Center Skate Park

"Grind" - Leica Q at Southbanke Center Skate Park

Battery Performance

I have this weird thing about batteries. I get stressed when my iPhone drops below 50% - this irrational fear takes over where the phone could die any second! Ironically, the same phobia doesn't cripple me when it comes to filling the car with gas….

Anyway, this fear of dead batteries manifests itself in my photography. I dread the idea of being without power at a critical photo opportunity. I carry three batteries for the Leica SL to ensure I can go for days without a charge. So one of the first tests with the Q was the determine how much endurance that little battery had after a day of shooting.

Leica rates the battery to somewhere in the 300 shot range, but I easily got that type performance and then some. Granted I have the screen auto power off after 30 seconds and the camera shortly thereafter; I avoid using the LCD screen on the back, and never record video (I’m told the camera can do that). While I am conservative in the screen usage, I am not afraid to walk with the camera turned on for stretches at a time, particularly when taking street photographs. During a full day of walking through London, I used maybe 50% of the battery, so I think Leica’s rating is very conservative. Of course, that didn’t stop me from buying a spare!

"Supervisor" - Leica Q at Moorgate, London

I’m Awake!

The Leica Q impresses me with the turn on and revive from sleep speeds. Turning the camera on, it can be ready to shoot in just over a second (I didn’t time this, but if I am carrying the camera on my side and I flip the switch to on and bring it to my eye, it’s just about ready to shoot once it gets to eye level). And if I think a photographic opportunity is imminent, I’ll carry the camera on because the revive from sleep time is near instantaneous. I distinctly recall being pleasantly surprised while walking in London; the Q had gone to sleep, but I brought it up and clicked the shutter to take a picture, not realizing it was asleep. The camera didn’t seem to care - it woke and took the photo immediately. I actually remarked to my husband my surprise that the Q awoke and shot that fast.

"Sharing a Secret" - Leica Q at Trafalgar Square, London

"Check In" - Leica Q in Soho, London

Eye Candy Creator - Summilux 28mm f/1.7 ASPH Lens

The real gem of the Leica Q is the lens; a Q with a 50mm f/4 wouldn’t be nearly as impressive or popular. I don’t own a 28mm M lens for comparisons, but I did shoot some side-by-sides with the Leica SL at 28mm, which we’ll cover in a minute. However, I think the 28mm Summilux f/1.7 lens that Leica has paired with the Q is a perfect match. It’s a great focal length for travel and street photography. And with the macro mode, the lens is far more versatile than most of the Leica M series lenses.

I will comment that I wish the focus ring was as smooth on the Q as it is on my M lenses. It’s not the same buttery feel and takes a little bit more force to rotate, but one of the appeals of this camera is the autofocus - if I want to shoot manual focus I can do it, or I can reach for one of my M rangefinders.

The aperture ring clicks into place with the feel familiar to my other Leica lenses. It is maybe just a tad tighter than my Leica f/0.95 M Noctilux, but that’s if I’m being picky and comparing the rotation of them side-by-side (which I just did).

Optically, the performance of this lens is wonderful. The bokeh is soft and creamy, although not Noctilux dreamy. And while 28mm is a newish focal length to me, I found it familiar and natural to use. I owe this to my iPhone, as the focal length of the Q and iPhone is very similar. 

For day-to-day shooting, I will always equip the lens hood to protect the front of the lens, although the cap goes into my pocket and doesn’t come out between shots. Honey badger doesn’t have time for a stinkin’ lens cap.

"Canon in D" - Leica Q at London's Southbanke Center

"No Place to Go" - Leica Q at London Homeless Shelter

Automagic Focus

There are times when I wished my M series bodies had autofocus. Times when I missed a shot because I am a mere mortal (or when I was shooting the Noctilux, which has extremely narrow tolerances for focusing). As much as I love to manually focus and to have the total control afforded to manual focus, there are times when it’s nice and easy to have autofocus - particularly if the goal of the photograph is documentary. 

The autofocus of the Q is what makes this camera so wonderful. It’s all the great stuff of an M body (except for interchangeable lenses) but with autofocus. The focus is fast and nearly always accurate. All of the images in this preview were shot with autofocus.

And in those instances where the Q fails to correctly read your mind and selects the wrong focus point, you can re-press the shutter half way and it’ll select a new point. I can’t tell you how wonderful this is - I felt like my Nikon and I would fight over focus point selection, but the Q knows it is your camera, and graciously offers alternative focus points if it missed on the first try.

"Partners" - Leica Q at Millenium Bridge, London

Image Quality

I am totally smitten with the image quality of the Leica SL, so the question for me was, can the Leica Q replicate the same quality but in a more compact package? Challenge gauntlet thrown!

I compared the cameras by matching similar settings - auto ISO at f/4 and let the camera choose the shutter speed. Both cameras had -1/3rd stop exposure compensation dialed in. The images you see here are both .JPEGs that have undergone the same post-processing in Lightroom (IE, both got the same adjustments for clarity and vibrance). I conducted this comparison hand holding the cameras, so minor differences in composition are “user error.”

Remember to click on an image for a full preview

Leica SL

Leica Q


Leica SL

Leica Q


Leica SL

Leica Q

Overall, the three tests are very similar. In a blind taste test, I don't think I’d be able to correctly identify which camera made which image. There are slight differences in the casting of the blue and green shades on the helicopter body, and the Q reveals slightly more shadow detail than the SL image does.

When comparing the flag photographs, big differences can be seen in the sky - the SL has almost a greenish hue (likewise, the flag is a little more green) while the Q seems to render the sky more accurately. However, recall that I shot in aperture priority - the SL in that image was a full stop brighter than the Q, which is probably a difference in metering off the reflective car hood, and may have caused some of the sky detail and color to be lost.

Of these test shots, I prefer the Q image in 2 out of the 3….. will the Q overtake the SL in my eyes as the king of image quality? It might be a little early to crown it, but the Q has certainly joined the SL in “Kristen’s smitten circle of cameras.”

"Lean" - Leica Q at Street Market in London

"Shine" - Leica Q in Soho, London

Silence is Golden

It’s worth noting that while the Leica SL is near silent, the Q is totally silent. Unless you are in a totally silent room, you cannot hear the shutter of the Q. On the street or in an area with any ambient noise, the Q will make as much sound as your iPhone (that is, none). The people you photograph on the street will never know you took their picture from audible clues. I have found myself occasionally questioning if the camera actually took a picture - it’s ninja silent. And that’s perfect, because the Q will certainly be thrust into situations where the loud sound of a shutter would not be appreciated, but where it will tippy toe through the scene without notice. 

"Poetry Slam" - Leica Q at Trafalgar Square, London

Who Should Q?

I don’t know who Leica was targeting when they produced the Q, but the continued demand for the camera suggests they underestimated the market for a perfectly engineered, full-frame, mirrorless, compact, 24 megapixel, f/1.7 28mm, stealthy, silent, shooting machine. So who should want a Q?

Without doubt, the Leica Q is a professional tool, and it can produce fine art prints for consumers and professionals alike. The image quality, which is probably owed to a combination of wonderful glass, a drop-dead gorgeous sensor and the Mastro II processor, produces results that rival Leica’s new larger body Leica SL. 

Personally, I will be using the Q to fill a space that the Leica SL didn't fill for me - the desire to have a small travel camera that I can discreetly use on the street or to document little moments that aren't "worthy" of the Leica SL. There are times when it's not appropriate to use the SL - for instance, with a shy subject in a tribal village - and where the small and silent Q will allow me to still collect those moments with incredible quality. And with travel to Norway, Germany, Austria, Thailand and a month long road trip through the US upcoming, the Leica Q will get plenty of use, and a formal review after more extensive work will be forthcoming.

As Craig Mod put it, the Leica Q is the “unicorn of consumer products….you can’t help but wonder how it clawed its way from the R&D lab” - and I cannot agree more with his sentiment. Although the Leica Q was released before the SL, the best explanation I can offer is that it’s like the M series and SL series mated, and produced this beautiful bastard child that was so quirky that Leica had no choice put to apply the same moniker to name it….. It’s the Leica Quirky Q.

And quirky is very good.

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.

Preview: Noctilux f/0.95 on the Leica SL

If you could “steal” an $11,000 lens, that also happens to be the fastest lens in production, would you?

Of course you would!

The Leica Noctilux-M 50mm f/0.95 ASPH Lens has a bit of a cult following, which is reasonable for something that costs this much and that is rumored to be one of the most complicated lens designs ever made by Leica. When I first heard about the Noctilux, I thought “maybe one day…” The feeling was similar to what I felt as a kid on December 23rd - I could see the presents under the tree, but actually being able to open and enjoy those treats seemed like a tease that would never come.

I have virtually read the entire contents of the internet on the Noctilux; if there is such a thing as the end of the internet, I found it. I knew all the technical specs and rumors of underground cooling for the special glass. Maybe I was crazy, but I thought that knowing everything about this lens would somehow make it more resistible.

About a week ago, something amazing happened…. magic. The stars and moon and earth must be in some special alignment, or the Leica Gods were just in a good mood, because it became suddenly financially viable for me to purchase a Noctilux. I didn’t win any lottery, but the strength of the US Dollar relative to the British Pound suddenly turned to my favor. With Leica’s 12% promotion pricing in place and a strong dollar, the normally $11,000 lens was now available for the mid-$8,000s. I also recently got my Leica M-P Type 240 back from Leica service in Germany and was ready to trade it in as I’d settled on the Leica SL. All said and done, I only had to shell out about $4,000 for a new Noctilux - a killer deal - and one that made me feel like I’d stolen my way into the elite Nocti' club.

The British Pound relative to the US Dollar was at a low not seen since 2009.....

The British Pound relative to the US Dollar was at a low not seen since 2009.....

Given the internet’s worth of information about shooting the Noctilux on an M-series camera, I’m going to focus this sneak peek on using the Noctilux with the Leica SL; the Leica SL Type 601 actually makes a TON of sense with the Noctilux.

One common complaint with the Leica Noctilux series, particularly the f/0.95, is that the size makes it awkward and front heavy. But mount the Noctilux on the SL body, which has a front hand grip, and suddenly the weight and ergonomics seem quite comfortable. After purchasing the SL, I walked around London for the day taking some photographs and never experienced any fatigue in my wrist or hand. If, like me, you are used to bulky dSLRs with a zoom lens, then the SL + Noctilux combination will still feel small and comfortable. It’s all about what you are used to using!

The other frequent complaint is that the Noctilux can be hard to focus. With a super razor thin depth-of-field at f/0.95, Leica had to create a long focus throw so that you could actually achieve sharp focus on a rangefinder, but the process is very slow compared to the snap of my other Leica lenses. Mounted on the M7, the Noctilux feels like it takes twice as long to focus as say, the 35mm Summarit. Most of the slow shooting is the dance between focusing the rangefinder and then re-composing. This is where the SL comes to the rescue; the old line-up-the-square-patches-and-then-re-compose dance has now been replaced with a new dance called ‘focus’. The SL’s electronic viewfinder allows you to see when your subject has come into focus and fire immediately. And for those times when critical focus is required, you can tap the back joystick to zoom in, hit focus, and then shoot. Voila!

Now I’m not saying the Noctilux is a bad lens for the M series bodies - I’ll certainly use my Nocti with the M7, but I am arguing the Noctilux is EVEN better on the Leica SL.

Prior to settling on the Noctilux f/0.95, I first had to decide if I wanted the new model, or one of the older Noctilux f/1 series. The internet is very divided on this issue with 50% of the bloggers swearing to the f/1, while other 50% swore to the f/0.95 and a third 50% swore the Noctilux was a rich-mans stupid toy. (Yes, I know that 50% + 50% + 50% = 150%, which isn’t a “real thing” according to my sister, who is a math teacher. But to her I say, look at the internet posts and tell me there isn’t a third 50%…..)

The Leica Noctilux f/1 - focus point was on the edge of the frame near the Leica logo.

The Leica Noctilux f/0.95 - same focus point.

Here I knew the Leica SL would once again help. I went to a Leica dealer in London that had a used f/1 and a new f/0.95 in stock and played with them side-by-side. Using the Leica SL app on my iPhone and the built in WiFi, I was able to take a series of test comparison shots using each lens and then review them in great detail on my phone, which has a higher screen resolution than the back of the camera. 

This turned out to be a great way to examine the results of both lenses prior to purchasing one. Comparing the bokeh, particularly in the lights of the display case, I found I liked the soft and more round shape of the f/0.95 to the harder and more oblong shape of the f/1. I also thought the transition of the edge of the display case to the wall was softer at f/0.95.  Finally, I preferred the locking lens hood and smoother focus ring of the f/0.95. 

I did notice a little more chromatic aberration (purple and blue shading that normally appears along hard transitions from highlights to dark and areas of high contrast) on the f/0.95 lens in my test image, but my preference for the smooth bokeh outweighed the slight difference in chromatic distraction.

My very patient friend poses for a candid while I compare the f/1 and f/0.95 Noctilux at Richard Caplan Photography in London, UK.

After purchasing the lens, I spent the day shooting almost entirely at f/0.95 as I walked through downtown London, specifically the Soho and Southbank districts. It happened that my walk took me through a protests against England’s stockpile of nuclear trident missiles….. this was a perfect chance to play with shooting the f/0.95 Noctilux. Protestors love having their photo taken, so I was happy to oblige with a series of shots.

A London traffic police officer closes the road to Trafalgar Square awaiting protestors

Thousands of protestors marched through London demanding the Trident missile program be dismantled to put money against the national healthcare system and welfare programs

Protestors walk down the main streets leading to Piccadilly Circus.

The Noctilux is a great storytelling lens. Here it isolates just this one protestor, while telling the story about the size and scope of the protest.

Discarded signs await trash pickup

A masked protestor listens to a speaker at the anti-nuclear rally in Trafalgar Square

The Noctilux has been critiqued for not having enough contrast, but I found the results quite pleasing, especially after post processing

Skaters take a break to have a discussion near Southbank Center

Is anything in focus? (yes) - but this is where the Noctilux really shines with storytelling.

A young skater watches others in the park

A BMX rider prepares for another trick

A little girl pops bubbles along the Southbank Center boardwalk

Some tourists pose for a group selfie along the London waterfront

Yeah, that can't be comfortable.....

A self portrait of my husband and I in a silver orb

The pigeon, which is in focus, provides a great sense of how quickly focus melts from the subject

So why do I like the Leica Noctilux? For me, it’s all about the story telling that an aperture of f/0.95 affords; I can completely isolate a subject from the rest of the world and bring my viewer into the scene in a way that only the Noctilux can do. I also expect this lens to become an interesting addition for landscape and nature photography, and will share those results soon.

Considering I practically stole my way into the Leica Noctilux, I’m very happy with the lens and look forward to a full review once I've had a chance to run it through some more shooting. Stay tuned!

The Leica SL (Type 601) Camera Review

The SL (Type 601) is Leica Camera’s first foray into the world of mirrorless cameras. On the surface, this camera looks over priced and unable to compete with the dominance of companies like Sony…… but looks are often deceiving! As it turns out, the Leica SL is just what the photography market ordered and is a masterpiece by the Germany camera maker.

In fact, this isn't just the best Leica ever made, it's arguably the best digital camera ever made for professional photographers.

Release Thoughts

When I first heard about the Leica SL in the press releases, I was not impressed. The photos provided by Leica made the camera look monstrous and none of the technical specs jumped off the page. I was quick to dismiss it.

After the camera started to ship, some of the regular internet blogs I followed started to discuss the Leica SL and there was a overall sense of pleasant surprise; I wasn’t the only one to write off the camera before using one. Since initial looks and previews were positive, I decided to go play with a demo unit at the Leica Store in Mayfair London during a weekend trip to explore the London winter markets. 

I was so impressed, I pre-ordered my own copy that day.

Unboxing

I was having a bad week; a mouse had chewed through plumbing in our house, causing mass flooding. Thankfully nothing was damaged, but it was a close call as the ceiling nearly collapsed in my photo studio. I was lucky to salvage everything without issue! 

When the Leica Store Mayfair emailed me mid-week to let me know that an SL had arrived and it was mine for the taking, it did a wonder for my morale. New toys and gadgets can fix almost any problem! I asked Leica if they would charge the battery for me, as I’d come down to London to pick it up on Saturday and would want to shoot around town after I picking it up. True to their word, Leica generously charged everything and had it ready to go so I could enjoy a first day of shooting. Kudos to the Mayfair team for superb customer service!

The SL comes in a large black cardboard box. It’s about the same size as the boxes from Nikon for the D800 and D610. Unlike the M series cameras, which come with a box that is reminiscent of a jewelry box, this one is more straight forward and not as luxurious. But who cares about the box? The SL isn’t made for people who want schnazzy boxes, it’s made for photographers! 

Inside the box is a large foam insert with slots for all the components: battery, charger, cables, camera strap and the camera itself. 

The only surprise in the unboxing is that the SL does not come with a UK plug adapter as standard. I found this a little surprising considering the Leica M-P (Type 240) includes this and I purchased the camera in the UK. They offer a European two pin and the American two prong plugs, and I have plenty of adaptors, so no problems.

Charger & Batteries

The Leica SL takes a proprietary lithium ion battery that is sealed with a gasket so that, when inserted into the camera body, it maintains the weather sealing. The battery bottom also acts as the door for the battery hatch. Initially I though this was a little strange, but on reflection, I like the design. I have nearly ripped the battery hatch door off my Nikons before, so Leica has just removed a potential failure point.

The charger is like most Leica chargers; it includes lights to tell you when the battery is 80% charged and then fully charged. Batteries are inserted into the charger and then popped down snuggly into the charging station. Unlike the Leica M charger, where the cord is only a few inches long, the cord on the SL charger is long enough to be plugged into a floor level outlet while still resting on a table. 

A spare battery runs £95 GBP / $150 USD, which is reasonable. 

Strap

Leica provides a fairly solid camera strap with the SL. It has a stretchy neoprene neck pad and would probably be fairly strong if someone tried to cut it off you. That said, I won't be using the camera strap provided because I prefer even more solid designs, but what they give isn't terrible. There is no big and obscene Leica branding - of course the camera itself isn’t very subtle about being a Leica!

USB Cable

Provided with the Leica SL is a USB 3.0 cable that is also longer than expected. I don’t shoot tethered to my laptop very often, but it seems like the cable is just barely long enough to permit some tethered shooting. 

Accessories

At the time of launch, Leica announced several other accessories for the Leica SL that could be purchased after market. These include a battery grip, protective cover film for the back LCD screen, and a series of filters for the also released lenses. At this time, I haven’t purchased any accessories for the SL beyond what was provided, so any feedback on those will wait until they are released/purchased.

Construction & Build

Leica makes a lot of collector cameras - sets designed for the obscenely rich to buy and put on a shelf (I feel bad for those cameras). The Leica SL is not a collector camera. It’s not for those looking for a sexy and delicate camera. This is a photographers camera, and it shows.

The body is milled from a single solid block of aluminum, which makes it extremely solid and rugged. Design graphics provided by Leica show they have included a ton of little rings and gaskets to weather seal the camera from water and dust. In fact, Leica has even produced a video showing the Leica SL having a bucket of water dumped on it! As a landscape and outdoor photographer, this was a tremendous selling feature. 

The camera has a very simplistic design - rather than overwhelm the user with a zillion little labelled buttons, they have stuck to their value of “the essentials” and provided intelligently designed controls. I really like this; there are several buttons on the Nikon’s I’ve owned that I have literally never never used. Ever. Of course the risk with cutting buttons is creating cluttered menus, but even here, the construction and design is brilliant. The SL cleverly adds long press functionality like seen on some recent Apple products to give each button a series of options and commands. That allowed them to quickly cut the number of controls needed to a bare minimum without risking frustration from photographers who needed to work hard to change a setting like ISO.

Beyond the physical construction, Leica has taken some steps to appeal to tech savvy photographers by including elements like GPS and wifi into the camera. 

Ergonomics

The truth is, Leica didn’t design this camera for a woman’s hands. The majority of the people who buy and use an SL are men who will have bigger and longer hands than I do. As a result, I am always concerned that a camera’s ergonomics won’t fit me quite right.

Alas, the Leica SL fits comfortably in my small hands. All the controls are easily within reach and I actually think the size of my hands plays to my favor when holding the SL. My right thumb can easily reach the scroll wheels and joystick control while holding the camera to my face, and my right hand comfortably wraps around the hand grip. 

Weight wise, the Leica SL body is lighter than I expected it would be, considering the construction of the body. It’s heavier than a Leica M, so if that’s what you are accustomed to, it’ll seem like a brick, but for dSLR shooters, this isn’t “heavy.” Leica says that, with the battery, the camera weighs 850 grams. I can’t visualize 850 grams, but according to my calculator, that’s the same as holding five Apple iPhone 6’s. It’s also the same weight as the Nikon D800. The lens combination obviously has huge impact on the overall weight of the camera too.

Camera Sensor

The Leica SL comes with a 24 megapixel full frame (6000x4000 pixel) CMOS sensor. It has an infrared filter, but no low pass filter, which helps ensure maximum sharpness. This is probably the same sensor that was used in the also recently released Leica Q and that has received rave reviews. Side by side comparisons of the Leica SL and Leica Q still show differences in image quality, and that's because image quality is also based on processing, software, and other factors beyond the physical sensor. 

Battery Life

Using the camera all day (10+ hours) while walking around London and shooting in a variety of environments with the GPS enabled, I finished the day with the battery still having almost 50% of the original charge. I also used the onboard wifi and connected with the iPhone Leica App during that time, both of which really can tax batteries. In normal shooting conditions, assuming you aren't using too many of these features, a battery will easily last a day of shooting.

Of course I am too paranoid about missing a shot because of a dead battery, so I always carry a backup.

Lens Choices

Leica proudly boasts how the Leica SL can, with the right set of adaptors, be used with almost every lens they've ever made. But in reality, most of us will use the newly released SL series of lenses or will mount M lenses. 

SL Lenses

As part of the announcement of the Leica SL, Leica announced three lenses that would be released over a one year schedule to mount directly onto the SL mount. These lenses are designed to take advantage of all the camera's features, but owners of existing Leica glass can mount those lenses with a series of adaptors, so we aren't stuck waiting for lens releases. The most commonly mounted lenses will probably be the M series glass, so I'll address that below.

Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4 ASPH

The first lens released with the SL is available at the time of shipping, and it's the most versatile of the lenses announced for the SL to date. A 24-70mm lens is considered one of the gold standards for professional photographers to own and Leica is improving on this common focal length by offering a 24-90mm with extra reach. This is a variable aperture lens, meaning it is f/2.8 at 24mm and f/4 at 90mm. Because it is an electronic lens, the aperture between those focal lengths varies and is digitally controlled; apertures in electronic lenses don't have to move in 1/2 or whole stop increments. Here's the largest aperture provided at some common focal lengths:

  • 24mm: f/2.8
  • 28mm: f/2.9
  • 35mm: f/3.1
  • 50mm: f/3.6
  • 75mm: f/3.8
  • 90mm: f/4

Leica doesn't build a lot of zoom lenses, and the reason is pretty simple - the engineering required to make a zoom lens that maintains consistent image quality through the zoom range is extremely complicated. Leica has very high standards that they have built a reputation on - and that reputation can't afford to release a flop lens. The Leica 24-90mm lens lives up to all of Leica's exacting standards, delivering fantastic clarity, contrast, color saturation, detail and sharpness at all focal lengths. At the same time, it's about the same size and weight as the 24-70mm lenses made by Canon and Nikon, so they achieved this incredible quality in a reasonably sized package.

For folks accustomed to using the M lenses, it will feel like they are hauling around a bazooka with this lens, but if you are like me and are used to the Nikon 24-70mm lens, this will feel very natural. Leica's goal when releasing the SL was to appeal to photographers like me who have always needed dSLRs, but with lenses like the Leica 24-90mm, I'll be ditching my remaining Nikon gear.

When I first heard about the lenses released for the Leica SL, I wasn't sure I wanted to buy the lens. I figured I could continue to use my M series glass and keep the setup more compact. After shooting with the demo body and lens at the Leica Store Mayfair, I changed my tune. The 24-90mm was incredibly fast to focus and staggeringly sharp. The only thing my M lenses offer over this lens is faster apertures and smaller size. Because this lens was really delightful to shoot with, I opted to purchase it, while still maintaining two of my M lenses for those times when I want a more compact and lightweight setup. 

Leica APO Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280mm f/2.8-4

Just like the 24-70mm is a standard midrange zoom used by most professional photographers, the 70-200mm lens is considered the professional's telephoto of choice. Keeping with that, Leica has announced, but not yet released, a 90-280mm f/2.8-4 lens to meet the needs of professionals who are considering leaving their dSLR setups. Unfortunately, the lens is probably not going to be widely available until summer 2016, and I haven't seen any reliable pricing information. There have been some photos of demo units floating around at some Leica stores, but otherwise, little is known about this lens outside Leica's promotional materials. The good news is that with a focal length this long, Leica is promising superior autofocus and image stabilization (they claim it can compensation for 3.5 stops of camera shake). 

From the photos I've seen, the lens looks to be approximately the same size as the Nikon 80-400mm zoom that I've used for wildlife photography. If that's the case, it'll be larger than the other 70-200mm lenses on the market - but it also offers 80mm more reach than it's competitors. Either way, I will be eager to try one as soon as possible to see if this lens can meet my needs for wildlife shooting.

Leica Summilux-SL 50mm f/1.4 ASPH

Leica rangefinder users will probably be most excited for this 50mm prime, which is set to release late 2016. Again, no pricing information, but I can assume it will be a pretty penny. The 50mm Summilux lens for the M series cameras costs between $3,500-4,000 (depending on promotions), and it is a manual focus lens. Add autofocus and a much bigger lens (more glass), and I can't imagine this baby will be cheap. For that reason, I'll stick to the M series 50 Summilux, unless Leica blows me away with reasonable pricing.

For those who can afford what I imagine will be a pricey lens, the 50mm Summilux in the SL mount may be the lens that draws Leica rangefinder users to the SL. Those who are accustomed to prime lenses and crave lens speed over zoom will swoon for this lens, so I imagine it'll be a top seller. I also expect Leica will release several other fast primes in the SL mount - I'd guess a 35mm comes next?

M Lenses

The Leica SL is an incredible camera, and unless you really lust over a rangefinder, I suspect many M shooters will ditch their trusty M bodies in favor of an SL. The SL is nearly the same size and weight as an M, but with way more features, so why wouldn't you?

The appeal of using the SL with M lenses is that the electronic viewfinder can display any focal length lens without needing crazy adapters. No add-on field-of-view optics - just look into the viewfinder. What it shows is what you'll get! And if you like to shoot with a narrow depth of field at apertures ranging from f/0.95 to f/2, you're more likely to hit precise focus with a digital viewfinder than blindly trusting the calibration on the rangefinder. 

To use an M lens on the Leica SL, you'll need the Leica M-Adapter T (aka a M to T adaptor). The adaptor is pretty small and reasonably inexpensive and, as an added bonus, can read 6 bit coding on M lenses and transfer that information to the camera.

Camera functions like autofocus are disabled when you mount an M lens (for hopefully obvious reasons), and you can choose to shoot in aperture priority or manual mode. Features like focus peaking in the electronic viewfinder make achieving tack sharp focus much easier and turning those features on and adjusting them is easily done in the menus. Firmware update 1.2 also enabled a super zoom in for focusing by just pressing down on the joystick while looking through the EVF. It's a fantastic feature!

....And it Makes Some Fine Images!

Image Quality

I always shoot in RAW (14 bit color depth) and edit my images to get the maximum quality in the finished result. Since RAW images assume no sharpening, contrast, color saturation, etc, RAW images tend to look dull until edited. The RAW images from the Leica SL are far from dull!

The first time I downloaded the images into Adobe Lightroom, I kept excitedly telling my husband how great they were. Although they were still RAW files, there was incredible dynamic range, color, and detail present. A few selective adjustments and the images really popped - easily the best quality I have natively seen from a camera. The image results totally dominate the RAW files created by the Leica M-P (Type 240). Likewise, they far exceed results I’ve seen from any of my Nikon’s. 

I don't do scientific reviews, because I also don't shoot with a lab coat and clipboard. I shoot in the real world and use real world photos as the basis for my review, and I have been nothing but impressed by the image quality that comes from the SL. Leica's engineers clearly have worked very hard to squeeze every drop of goodness out of this sensor and it makes the sensor of the Leica M-P (Type 240) look like a kids toy. Lenses like the 50mm Summilux f/1.4, which have a distinctive "Leica look" only look better with the SL!

If you are a landscape photographer, then this is your camera. I am totally blown away by the quality of this camera, especially with the 24-90mm lens. The following images were all taken with that combination, and required minimal editing in Lightroom to deliver the results you see here.....

Window Dressing - Leica SL & 24-90mm @ f/3.3, 1/40 sec

Incredible detail and color - the sand looked more black to my eye, but the Leica SL captured all the little golden flecks that really give the sand interest and texture. f/4 @ 1/160th

Of course, the Leica SL generates some lovely images to convert to black and white. This was converted using Nik Silver Effects...... oh, and this was hand held at f/22 @ 1/6th!

The Leica 24-90mm practically serves as a macro lens, offering incredible color and detail on a nice short focus. f/22 @ 1/80th

Check out the detail and sharpness! I barely touched any sliders in Adobe Lightroom to get this image from the RAW .DNG file.

Color bands on the Hunstanton Cliffs on the coast of England. f/4 @ 1/60th

Leica wants the SL to appeal to landscape photographers. With results like this, that won't be an issue! f/7.1 @ 1/100th

Leica wants the SL to appeal to landscape photographers. With results like this, that won't be an issue! f/7.1 @ 1/100th

Lots of texture with shadows and highlights, yet the Leica SL renders it beautifully.

Nice results when using a neutral density filter on a f/22 @ 2.5 second exposure. Nice and sharp and clean.

Great cropping potential with a 90mm lens and some tremendous image quality. This is a 100% crop and the bird eyes are still tack sharp.

ISO Performance

Like I previously mentioned, I am not a scientist, so I don't shoot crazy side-by-side comparison photos. But I am a real photographer that shoots in real environments, and the ISO performance of this camera, when used in the real world, is incredible. I normally shoot at auto ISO settings and only override the camera if I want something like a long exposure via neutral density filter. Using manual ISO, the Leica SL did a nice job maintaining a low ISO while balancing a shutter speed I could hand hold; when shooting in Aperture Priority, I normally found the camera would prefer ISO 50 while maintaining shutter speeds above 1/80th. I did shoot some photographs of my Christmas tree and found unbearable noise didn't show until above 25,000 and 50,000 was pretty noisy - but it's also stupid crazy ISO to really shoot at. If you are shooting at ISO 50k, you've made the decision to sacrifice quality in favor of getting an image, so who cares?

Video

One of the features that appealed to me on the Leica SL is the video functionality built into the camera. Video features never made sense to me on the Leica M series - it’s not the kind of camera I would use to film anything beyond a 10 second memory clip. For that reason, I still had been holding onto my Nikon D610 for video work.

Now that I own the Leica SL, I’ll be selling the Nikon D610 as the SL has met and surpassed the video capabilities. I am not a professional videographer, so I’d be speaking out of turn to evaluate the video quality, but 4K video should be more than enough for me to film short snippets for YouTube videos.

The video specs are as follows:

  • Resolution: 4K (4096 × 2160) @ 24 fps; 4K (3840 × 2160) @ 25 and 30 fps; 1080 @ 24, 25, 30, 50, 60, 100 and 120 fps; 720 @ 24, 25, 30, 50, 60, 100 and 120 fps
  • L-Log gamma selectable
  • HDMI video output (enabled recording via external monitor)
  • Compatible with Leica Cine-Lenses
  • Record in MP4 and MOV formats
  • Stereo microphone, 48 kHz
  • Audio in/out via additional connector
  • Up to 29 min recording duration

Shooting Experience

Electronic Viewfinder

The EVF has to be one of Leica’s crowning achievements in this camera and I suspect it will force other camera manufacturers to step up their game when it comes to viewfinders. 

Until demo-ing the Leica SL, I had never used an EVF. The Nikon’s, Leica M, and analog film cameras that I’m most accustomed to using are optical viewfinders - either a rangefinder or a mirror with prism. I had never been drawn to an EVF because it seemed like it would introduce problems; a mirror doesn’t use any battery power! My experiences using Live View features has never been all that great - it’s a "nice to have" feature but lags and is slow to start. Installing a small Live View screen into a viewfinder just struck me as opportunity to fail, not to succeed.

What I’d failed to consider was the benefits of an EVF. Most notably, the EVF allows you to preview and review images in the viewfinder. I don’t have to take my eye away from the eyepiece to check if the camera captured the image correctly anymore. I don’t have to consult with the back screen for any detailed information. While I shouldn’t have been so surprised that an EVF offered more functionality than a traditional optical viewfinder, I had never put any thought into the issue. So if you are used to an optical viewfinder, try an EVF just to see if it changes your life like it did mine!

The EVF in the Leica SL is 4.4 megapixels and is very sensitive. According to Leica, it has a 37 degree field of view and is full frame. There is an external diopter control for those with glasses, and folks with glasses can also adjust the eyepiece auto-on sensitivity. I found that it did a nice job adjusting to ambient light and was easy to use in near total darkness later a night. It is also very fast and responsive to the human eye and automatically turns on/off when you look through it. Unlike most Live View functions, which need a second or two of startup time, the EVF is almost instant, so if I miss a shot, it’s not because of the EVF!

While I can tell it isn’t an optical viewfinder, the EVF is nearly life-like in the quality, colors, and rendition of the image. I appreciate the various in-screen information that can be displayed via the EVF, including a histogram to see clipping, focus peaking, or zooming for precise focus. Again, none of these features should surprise me, but coming from an optical viewfinder world, I find the ability to access this information via the eyepiece really wonderful. 

We will talk about pricing later in the review, but this EVF is incredibly well built and designed, and I think the difference in price between this and competitor cameras can easily be justified by considering the EVF’s clarity and performance.

Joystick

Leica did away with the extra buttons that clutter the back of other SLR cameras by utilizing a series of smart controls. One of these controls is a little joystick near the viewfinder. The location of the joystick is such that you can use your thumb to control the joystick while still looking through the viewfinder, which is great, because the joystick can allow you to move a focus crosshair around. The joystick was also very fast and smooth; it reminded me of the joystick on a video game controller with the smooth operation.

One of the cool features is that with firmware 1.2, you can click in on the joystick with a manual focus (M series) lens and the camera will zoom in the EVF to help you achieve pinpoint focus. If you are shooting a lens like the f/0.95, that'll be a huge focus assist.

The joystick also controls functions in the menus, which makes it a breeze to zoom through the menu screens.

Leica SL App

Many people dislike the Leica apps that allow integration with a smart phone, but, for me, the app is actually one of the surprises of this camera and shouldn’t be overlooked. Like the EVF, this app will change the way I shoot.

The Leica SL app is found in the Apple iTunes or Android app stores and using it requires the camera to be put into wifi mode (which probably shortens the battery life) and it then broadcasts its own wifi signal. To connect your phone to the camera, you either enter a unique password, or scan the QR code that comes up on the back of the camera. Once connected, the app serves as a remote control for the camera.

Using the app, you see a real-time preview of what the camera sees. You can touch the screen on the app to move the focus point or adjust shooting settings like aperture or shutter. There is a capture button that then lets you take the image remotely. Virtually all major camera controls are adjustable via the app.

Why is this important? Let me tell you how many hundreds of dollars I’ve wasted on remote controls and other external operations for my other cameras..... None of them worked as well as this did. If I had owned this camera on my recent trip to Wales, I would have used it to shoot long exposures without having to touch the camera and risk introducing camera shake. It’s completely brilliant and very easy to use and allows me to forgo more gadgetry like shutter releases.

Another added bonus of the app is that it allows you to view photos on the memory card and download them to your phone. Awesome. Now I can use the app to grab that photograph I just took and upload it to Facebook before I’ve even left the site. With the improvement of Adobe’s Creative Cloud system, this type of technology will change the way photographers share images with clients in near-real time. 

Touchscreen

Leica did something very cool when they made the screen on the back of the camera touch enabled. I actually forget that the back screen is touch enabled because I am not used to a feature like that! But with the touch screen, you can easily control the focus points, or quickly swipe through photos. It's a handy bonus feature built in - one I didn't need to be sold on the camera, but that only makes it that much better!

GPS

The Leica SL includes built in GPS functionality, which I rather enjoy. As an outdoor and landscape photographer, this enables me to view images spatially on a map and not have to worry about keyword tagging the location of the photo. I always wanted to play with GPS accessories for Nikon, but was too cheap to buy the accessories to enable GPS tagging. I wouldn’t have blamed Leica if they didn’t include the GPS, but the fact that they did is just another great bonus. I found the GPS acquires a signal in surprisingly fast time, but I haven’t been able to accurately evaluate the impact to the battery life. Using the GPS all day walking around London, I only half drained the battery, so as long as I carry a spare battery, it shouldn’t be an issue to use for a day of shooting. 

Problems & Complaints

No camera is perfect, but the Leica SL is damn close... that said, I can offer one problem and two complaints:

SD Card Issue

There seems to be an issue where using a large memory card in slot 1 causes a slow start up. As far as I've been able to diagnose, the problem is that the camera wants to index the memory card before being ready to shoot. When I put a 128GB card into slot 1, it takes almost 7 seconds to be ready to shoot. If I put a 16GB card into that slot, it takes 1.5 seconds. Using that same 128GB card in the Leica M-P (240), it starts immediately, so that tells me the problem is software based. I recorded a video of the issue and have swapped emails with Leica - they confirm the issue can probably be fixed in a future firmware update. If Leica fixes this (which I believe they will), then I won't have any issues with the software.

On/Off Switch

So this will sound crazy, but the Leica SL is the first camera I've owned where the on/off switch isn't located where accessible with my right hand. As a result, it takes two hands to get the camera 'ready to shoot' - my right hand holding the grip while the left flips the power switch. This is a muscle memory problem, but it will take me a few weeks to get used to this arrangement. 

Camera Strap Lugs

I love the way the Leica M camera straps attach with the little lugs on the side. The SL has slots where the strap feeds through, and that irritates me because I can't use some of the great straps I own already. Even when I buy a new strap, I don't like the way it sits on my body with the straps fixed in that position. Sure, I can use a sling strap that attaches to the tripod mount on the bottom, but then that blocks access to the tripod mount. It may seem fickle, but its the little things that make the biggest annoyances. Of course, that's not a reason NOT to buy the SL!

Pricing

When it comes to Leica, pricing can be an awkward subject. 

“Oh, that’s a nice camera, what does it cost?”

Holding a Leica, I always feel like I’m being judged. Is she filthy rich? (No: I sold all my Nikon gear and some other old stuff to purchase this)

When you really break apart this camera and compare it to some of the ‘competition’, I think Leica actually priced this camera very fairly. Sony doesn’t make a body like this, and neither does Nikon or Canon, so determining the market value is a bit tricky. The Nikon D4S, which is the top of Nikon’s line and is presumably the type of camera competing with the Leica (despite differences like EVF, sensor resolution, shooting speed, etc), costs $6,500 at the time of writing. That’s $1,000 less than the Leica. But no one is gawking at that saying “wow, Nikon is just inflating their brand!”

Bottom line, I won’t pretend that at $7,500, the Leica SL is a cheap camera, because it’s not. But I also will stand here and say with a straight face that Leica priced competitively when compared to other top-of-the-line cameras from Nikon and Canon. I think the Leica SL will also sell very well because there are far more features built in for the price than something like the Leica M, which lacks EVF, auto focus, etc.

About this Review

I buy all the gear I review - no freebies, no demo units. This camera was paid for with my own hard earned bucks, and therefore I'm not indebted to anyone to say nice things. The fact that I've paid this much for the camera and am absolutely silly stupid in love is 100% genuine based on the goodness the Leica SL has delivered!