Exploring NYC, Part 3: Faces of the City

Over the last few years, I have taken an interest in a form of photography dubbed "street photography." Unlike other photographic disciplines with obvious sounding names (wedding photography / newborn photography), the name "street" does not convey a clear meaning of the art form.

Waiting for an opponent. Two people playing chess outside a park in Manhattan island. Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Waiting for an opponent. Two people playing chess outside a park in Manhattan island. Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Catching a ride. A young girl rides on her father's shoulders over the crowds of tourists visiting Rockefeller Center during the holidays.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Catching a ride. A young girl rides on her father's shoulders over the crowds of tourists visiting Rockefeller Center during the holidays.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Street photography might be more aptly dubbed "genuine photography" - the goal is to capture everyday scenes and interactions in a new and fresh way to highlight the beauty in our routine life.  When I am shooting the streets, I am looking for genuine interactions; faces, reactions, expressions, moods, and emotions that are genuine and not prompted by the presence of a camera.

Think about it.... when someone holds up a camera to your face, the first natural reaction is to smile and say cheese. But does that smile truly express your emotions and feelings in that moment? Unlikely.

I spy.  A woman looks out from her window on the busy New York streets below. Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

I spy.  A woman looks out from her window on the busy New York streets below. Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Selfie.  A woman dressed up in her finest fashion prepares her selfie in Times Square.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Selfie.  A woman dressed up in her finest fashion prepares her selfie in Times Square.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Crowd Control.  A NYPD officer directs traffic and keeps the crowds safe as thousands of holiday revelers descend on New York's most popular attractions. Leica M10 with 50mm Summicron f/2.

Crowd Control.  A NYPD officer directs traffic and keeps the crowds safe as thousands of holiday revelers descend on New York's most popular attractions. Leica M10 with 50mm Summicron f/2.

As a street photographer, I want to capture the subject's emotions and state of being without having the camera enter the equation and effect the expression. In order to do that, I often need to be stealthy and discrete.

A large camera is off-putting. People don't want a stranger shoving a camera in their face. Which is why I use a Leica rangefinder (specifically, the M10) for my street shooting. The small and discrete nature of this camera lets me attract less attention, thereby increasing the odds of going unnoticed by my subject.

Coffee Jolt.  A kid carries two cups of coffee while walking with his parents around the 9/11 memorial.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Coffee Jolt.  A kid carries two cups of coffee while walking with his parents around the 9/11 memorial.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

The Eye.  A passenger looks out of the window on an express train to Wall Street.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

The Eye.  A passenger looks out of the window on an express train to Wall Street.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Philosophically, I want every picture I take to be a flattering one. I try to avoid any photograph that could embarrass or humiliate my subject. For instance, I don't photograph the homeless or disabled persons, with few exceptions. 

Ideally, when I am taking street photographs, I am invisible. The person never knows that I took their photograph, or if they do, they are not embarrassed. If someone sees me taking their photograph, I will smile and wave, showing that I'm not a threat. Sometimes I'll tell someone they were beautiful and interesting to me. Surprisingly, most people respond very well to this, and I have never had anyone get mad because I took their photograph.

BFFs.  Two women pose for a photograph in Times Square. I "plucked them out of a crowd" by using a longer focal length and narrow depth of field, thereby blurring the people around them and focusing the attention of the photograph solely on their faces.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

BFFs.  Two women pose for a photograph in Times Square. I "plucked them out of a crowd" by using a longer focal length and narrow depth of field, thereby blurring the people around them and focusing the attention of the photograph solely on their faces.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Stroll.  A man walks in front of the United Nations building. The harsh light and strong shadow became the sparkle that drew me to make this image.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

Stroll.  A man walks in front of the United Nations building. The harsh light and strong shadow became the sparkle that drew me to make this image.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

As a photographer, I find street photography offers a unique challenge over some of the other photographic disciplines. When I am making landscape images, I often plan the photo, sometimes to a scientific extreme. But as a street shooter, I take whatever I get and roll with the punches.

If it is sunny outside, I have to work with that. If it's raining, I work with that. 

The impromptu and impulsive nature of this type of shooting means I often "follow my nose" - if the light looks particularly good one direction, I'll walk that way. I walked 14 miles in New York one day without having any real plan - I just wandered Manhattan looking for things that caught my eye.

I remain hyper aware of the location of the sun and will switch to another side of the street if the shadows and light is better there. My head is on a swivel, constantly looking for that sparkle.

Street Blown.  A woman's hair blows around in the wind caused by cars rushing past on the street nearby.  Leica M10 with 50mm Summicron f/2.

Street Blown.  A woman's hair blows around in the wind caused by cars rushing past on the street nearby.  Leica M10 with 50mm Summicron f/2.

Patience.  A cyclist waits for the crosswalk sign to turn in his favor.  I was drawn to the fact that his face was covered, so the only place from where I could draw expression was his eyes, and he rewarded me with a very expressive moment.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Patience.  A cyclist waits for the crosswalk sign to turn in his favor.  I was drawn to the fact that his face was covered, so the only place from where I could draw expression was his eyes, and he rewarded me with a very expressive moment.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

"Sparkle" - that is what I am looking for as I walk. Sparkle is the photograph. Sparkle is the emotion, the color, the contrast, the shadow, the expression...the thing that pushes me to take the photograph. 

As a street photographer, I am instinctive. When I see sparkle, I shoot. If I wait too long and think about it, I have lost that moment of sparkle. 

When someone looks at one of my images and comments "I never would have seen that" or "how did you catch that," I know they see the sparkle. They are looking at the print and see the sparkle that pushed me to create the image in the first place.

Lost.  This is one of the very rare exceptions I have ever made to my rule about not photographing the homeless. This particular gentleman had positioned himself in the middle of the sidewalk, forcing pedestrian traffic to divert around him and creating a bit of a traffic jam. I wanted to capture the reaction from other people to having to divert around him and the story of what his day must feel like as thousands of people pass him by.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

Lost.  This is one of the very rare exceptions I have ever made to my rule about not photographing the homeless. This particular gentleman had positioned himself in the middle of the sidewalk, forcing pedestrian traffic to divert around him and creating a bit of a traffic jam. I wanted to capture the reaction from other people to having to divert around him and the story of what his day must feel like as thousands of people pass him by.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

Smile.  A man smiles as he reads something on his cell phone while riding the subway in New York.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Smile.  A man smiles as he reads something on his cell phone while riding the subway in New York.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Street photography can also be about story telling. Not every image has a story, but sometimes the story is the sparkle. For instance, take this pro-Tibet rally I saw in New York. Thousands of people were marching across Manhattan to the site of the Chinese Consulate peacefully carrying signs and flags supporting Tibet. 

At one point, their march passes in front of the McDonald's restaurant near Times Square. I immediately saw a story, and began photographing that story.

I was moved at the juxtaposition of American consumerism and the protected right of speech. Here are some people peacefully exercising their First Amendment right to free speech in front of one of America's biggest corporations. To me, this captures the essence of what makes America an incredible country -- there are so many places in the world where this scene would not be allowed, and the combination of the two created an emotional sparkle.

Pro-Tibet rally participants march in front of one of America's icons of global consumerism.... McDonalds.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

Pro-Tibet rally participants march in front of one of America's icons of global consumerism.... McDonalds.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

The pro-Tibet rally walked through Times Square demanding peace.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

The pro-Tibet rally walked through Times Square demanding peace.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

Stage. Rally goers assembled for a speech near the Chinese consulate.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

Stage. Rally goers assembled for a speech near the Chinese consulate.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

Street photography often involves people, but there are some images I'll photograph without humans that still tell a human story. Usually, I try to convey human interaction with the environment in the non-people prints. These images may be more abstract and invoke the idea of people without clearly showing any in the scene. Sometimes they capture an irony or something so familiar that we stop noticing its existence. 

A Dinosaur.  A bank of pay phones that see very little use in Grand Central Terminal.  Leica M10 with 50mm Summicron f/2.

A Dinosaur.  A bank of pay phones that see very little use in Grand Central Terminal.  Leica M10 with 50mm Summicron f/2.

Ready and Waiting.  A FDNY truck sits at the ready to respond to any incidents around the city.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

Ready and Waiting.  A FDNY truck sits at the ready to respond to any incidents around the city.  Leica M10 with 35mm Summicron f/2.

The Commute.  I purposefully blurred this image by jerking the camera in a violent pan as the taxi approached. The goal was to create a shot that captured the blur of commuting and traffic in a city as busy as New York.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

The Commute.  I purposefully blurred this image by jerking the camera in a violent pan as the taxi approached. The goal was to create a shot that captured the blur of commuting and traffic in a city as busy as New York.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

The Message.  A simple chair might not have had the sparkle to catch my eye, but this chair, with the "No Crying Allowed" message caught my eye.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

The Message.  A simple chair might not have had the sparkle to catch my eye, but this chair, with the "No Crying Allowed" message caught my eye.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

In some ways, everything I just described about street photography makes it sound like there is a good amount of "pray and spray"- but the art is anything other than. Pray and spray is a phrase used to describe what happens when I photographer just holds down the shutter and aims the camera recklessly in the hope of capturing a good shot.

Look carefully at my photographs and you'll see that isn't possible. Scroll down and look at the three images below (then come back).

Notice anything in them? Only the subject is in focus. Everything else has a smooth soft blur. That blur, which is referred to as bokeh (a Japanese word), is where the art comes into play. As a photographer, I drew your eyes to the subject- to a pre-determined spot - by precisely choosing what area of the print will be in focus. Don't believe me? Scroll down and look again.

Steps of Time.  Two friends take pictures on the staircase in Times Square. I loved the attire and face of the individual holding the cell phone, so focused the attention of the viewer that direction by having the rest of the image slightly out of focus.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Steps of Time.  Two friends take pictures on the staircase in Times Square. I loved the attire and face of the individual holding the cell phone, so focused the attention of the viewer that direction by having the rest of the image slightly out of focus.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Sharing a Snack.  A mom and son enjoy a Sunday morning snack at an indoor food hall in New York. The scene is very busy with elements that could distract from the story of the shared meal, but selective focus and bokeh help me isolate them and tell the story the way I want.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Sharing a Snack.  A mom and son enjoy a Sunday morning snack at an indoor food hall in New York. The scene is very busy with elements that could distract from the story of the shared meal, but selective focus and bokeh help me isolate them and tell the story the way I want.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

The View.  A boy is carried on his dad's shoulders to see the holiday tree in Rockefeller Center.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

The View.  A boy is carried on his dad's shoulders to see the holiday tree in Rockefeller Center.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Each of those photographs has a super thin area of the image in focus. Now consider that the camera I use is a manual focus system - there is nothing automated or automagic about it. If I do a poor job of quickly focusing the lens, then my photograph is missed. I usually get one chance - a split second - to turn the focus ring on my Leica lenses to capture that sparkle.

I won't lie - it's hard. I miss more than I catch. But the more I go out and shoot, the better I get. I have a lot of close misses - photographs I'd love another chance to take. But that's not how this works. 

In some ways, the thrill of getting it right is my drug.

I'm addicted to the elation that comes from seeing a perfectly focused shot with the story I wanted captured. That feeling drives me back to the streets, looking for my next fix.

Stormtrooper's Have to Eat.  This man was dressed in a Stormtrooper costume, but had stopped at a deli to get a snack.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Stormtrooper's Have to Eat.  This man was dressed in a Stormtrooper costume, but had stopped at a deli to get a snack.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Patience.  A police officer waits patiently for the light to chance before she begins directing more traffic over the intersection. The harsh light and strong shadows gave this scene the sparkle I was looking for.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Patience.  A police officer waits patiently for the light to chance before she begins directing more traffic over the intersection. The harsh light and strong shadows gave this scene the sparkle I was looking for.  Leica M10 with 90mm Summicron f/2.

Exploring NYC, Part 2: A Day in the Snow

Few things are as magical as a visit to New York City during the holidays, when stores put on extravagant displays, Santa is available for a visit, and holiday markets pop-up across the city. Add a fresh heavy snowfall into the equation, and you have a truly memorable winter wonderland in the city.

A New York City Police Officer prepares this police horse for a ride in the snow

A New York City Police Officer prepares this police horse for a ride in the snow

A couple seeks refuge underneath an umbrella during the snowfall

A couple seeks refuge underneath an umbrella during the snowfall

Photographing snow can be a bit of a challenge. Bad weather always makes for a great photograph, but it's not as easy as just stepping outside, taking a quick image, and having success. I walked over 10 miles in the heavy snow to get these images, and faced several technical challenges along the way.

Snowfall blankets a quiet New York City intersection

Snowfall blankets a quiet New York City intersection

A man strolls through the snow in Central Park

A man strolls through the snow in Central Park

First was the challenge of keeping the camera dry enough. The Leica M10 is technically not weather sealed, but it is pretty hardy. Unfortunately the temperature outside was just warm enough that the snow melted almost instantly when it made contact with my body and the camera, making my hands and the camera very wet (never mind that it also made me very cold!). After several hours, this caused the viewfinder to fog completely.

During periodic breaks indoors, I wrapped the camera in a dry shirt with the hopes that it would help dry out the camera's viewfinder. That worked to an extent, but the remaining moisture would condense anytime I subjected it to a temperature change stepping between the outdoors and indoors. 

A man emerges from the 14th street subway station

A man emerges from the 14th street subway station

Steam rising from street vents adds to the dramatic effect of the snowfall on this New York street

Steam rising from street vents adds to the dramatic effect of the snowfall on this New York street

Second to keeping the camera dry is the challenge of keeping the lens dry. I was far more successful in this endeavor because I kept the camera oriented in my hand so that the lens was either facing downward, or facing downwind of the snow. I never - EVER - use a lens cap when out taking photographs, and certainly was not about to miss a shot because I had covered the lens. 

Taxi cabs lined up on the streets of Times Square during a late evening snowfall

Taxi cabs lined up on the streets of Times Square during a late evening snowfall

A streetsign covered with snow outside Times Square

A streetsign covered with snow outside Times Square

Finally, capturing snow can be a challenge. In a close-up photograph, snow can appear like a blur, rather than a snowflake. The trick was for enough of those blur's to be present in the photograph that the viewer would understand it was not a mistake, but that it was a snowflake.

I don't know how much snow fell in New York on this particular day as it never accumulated beyond a slush on the streets, but it certainly made for a beautiful day of photography.

Two women - presumably en route to a holiday party - stop for food from a street vendor in the late evening snow

Two women - presumably en route to a holiday party - stop for food from a street vendor in the late evening snow

Exploring NYC, Part 1: World Trade Center

Like all Americans old enough to remember the events of 9/11/2001, I have a very vivid and raw memory of that morning. That day would come to define some of my life's most important decisions; would drive me to a career in public service and safety.

A flower in the memorial to the World Trade Center. The shadow of One World Trade casts across the memorial.

A flower in the memorial to the World Trade Center. The shadow of One World Trade casts across the memorial.

This photograph is very powerful to me. I was standing outside the museum and noticed a jetliner flying over One World Trade. My mind started racing with thoughts.... anywhere else in the world, seeing a plane fly over a building is so routine, that it hardly registers. But here, it seemed raw. This is a view similar to the one thousands saw on 9/11 - but with a very different outcome. I took four images of the plane's track over New York City and combined them in this composite. 

This photograph is very powerful to me. I was standing outside the museum and noticed a jetliner flying over One World Trade. My mind started racing with thoughts.... anywhere else in the world, seeing a plane fly over a building is so routine, that it hardly registers. But here, it seemed raw. This is a view similar to the one thousands saw on 9/11 - but with a very different outcome. I took four images of the plane's track over New York City and combined them in this composite. 

The 9/11 memorial and museum only opened in the past few years, and while I have seen the outdoor memorial ponds before, I never had a chance to visit the museum until this most recent trip to New York City. 

I was a bit conflicted about taking photographs in such hallowed ground.

Artists painted 3,000 cards a slightly different shade of blue - each one painting the color of the sky they remember seeing on 9/11. These cards now hang on a wall as a reminder that the memory of those lost on 9/11 cannot be erased.

Artists painted 3,000 cards a slightly different shade of blue - each one painting the color of the sky they remember seeing on 9/11. These cards now hang on a wall as a reminder that the memory of those lost on 9/11 cannot be erased.

September 11th isn't a tourist attraction. The artifacts and memories captured in this museum mark millions of lives changed in the span of a few terrible minutes. I don't want to disrespect the memory of the over 3,000 innocent people killed on that day by turning 9/11 into a photography spectacle. 

A visitor to the memorial paying tribute to some of the victims from 9/11.

A visitor to the memorial paying tribute to some of the victims from 9/11.

A message from supporters of Ladder Company 3; this was part of a fire truck that was smashed when the towers collapsed. 

A message from supporters of Ladder Company 3; this was part of a fire truck that was smashed when the towers collapsed. 

But after a few minutes in the museum, my opinion changed. September 11th was the most terrible of days, a day that we cannot forget. Walking through that museum reopened the emotions from that day that I had long since repressed. I was flooded with sobering memories of what happens when we become complacent and when freedom is not allowed to prosper around the world.

A section of steel from inside the World Trade Center. This particular piece came from the area where the first aircraft tore into the tower, gashing a hole in one of America's most iconic buildings.

A section of steel from inside the World Trade Center. This particular piece came from the area where the first aircraft tore into the tower, gashing a hole in one of America's most iconic buildings.

Names and organizations listed on the memorial wall surrounding the pools in the memorial.

Names and organizations listed on the memorial wall surrounding the pools in the memorial.

Recognizing that many viewers to my website will never have a chance to visit the museum in NYC, I decided to make a handful of photographs that could help convey the emotions and experience I had walking through the museum. 

Four tie-down points. The museum is underground and some of the foundation walls that made up the twin towers are incorporated into the structure of the museum. This part of the foundation remains in the original location. It is one of the few pieces of the towers that still remains as it did on September 11th.

Four tie-down points. The museum is underground and some of the foundation walls that made up the twin towers are incorporated into the structure of the museum. This part of the foundation remains in the original location. It is one of the few pieces of the towers that still remains as it did on September 11th.

Less than a block from the World Trade Center is a fire station home to ladder company 10. Six fireman from this company died rescuing others on 9/11.

Less than a block from the World Trade Center is a fire station home to ladder company 10. Six fireman from this company died rescuing others on 9/11.

I cried twice in the museum. Once while looking at / listening to a selection of voicemail messages left by passengers of those doomed flights to their loved ones. People who left a final message, knowing their fate. I crumbled under the idea of ever having to do something so brave. My second breakdown happened in front of a projection of "missing posters" hung by friends and family searching for their lost relatives. Many of these posters carried a deeply personal message, and my heart broke for every family that had to write a sign like that. One particular sign that pulled me was from a daughter looking for her daddy.

Memories attached to the "last column" - this was the last piece of steel removed from the site. Prior to it's removal, it became a shrine of sorts, with family and friends affixing messages, photos, and flowers to the beam.

Memories attached to the "last column" - this was the last piece of steel removed from the site. Prior to it's removal, it became a shrine of sorts, with family and friends affixing messages, photos, and flowers to the beam.

The top of the last column, with messages and photos to loved ones lost on 9/11.

The top of the last column, with messages and photos to loved ones lost on 9/11.

I could not photograph these things. I could not bring myself to make artwork from the pain of those families. Instead, I chose to photograph objects that were more symbolic of the tragedy.

May we never forget. 

A close-up of some of the memories written upon the "last column".

A close-up of some of the memories written upon the "last column".

A Sea of Contrast

California's legendary coastline offers no shortage of incredible seascape vistas to photograph. While I normally would look for colorful scenes, my time along the coast was plagued by bad weather and heavy rains. To carry that drama into the artwork, I used high contrast black and white adjustments, along with a strong vignette and bold blacks to create images that capture the emotions of that gloomy day.

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

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A Handful of Bridges in Prince William Forest

Winter can be cruel to photographers, so I'm spending the last days of fall capturing the remaining warmth and bright colors before the grey gloom of winter arrives.

Prince William Forest Park is one of the many national parks within a short drive of Washington, DC, but it is one often overshadowed by parks like Shenandoah, Great Falls, and Assateague. It has been a number of years since I've been to the park, so I grabbed my Nikon D850 and set out to see what sort of hidden gems I could find to mark the end of the fall season.

Prince William Forest has a number of small streams that snake through a lightly hilly forest. On this particular day, the park was relatively empty, and I came upon a few bridges that I thought were ideal for photography subjects.

I used my Nikon D850 and Nikon 24-70mm / 14-24mm lenses to capture these images. I am still getting used to this new camera, but find myself getting more comfortable with it by the day.

This tree next to the bridge was not that golden when I started walking around the bridge, but a beam of sunlight came through the forest canopy, lighting this tree up in a beautiful golden light

Over the river and through the woods

This single tree really stood out against the yellow leaves in the background

The wires on this suspension bridge create a nice composition element

I stood in the water (with good boots) to get a long exposure of the creek running under the bridge

Another bridge at the edge of the Prince William Forest scenic drive

A Familiar Friend

Whenever I get a new camera, I spend a few weeks getting oriented to the unfamiliar controls and system before embarking on any challenging shoots. As I go through this orientation, I like to revisit sites that I know as good trial grounds.

One of those places is Great Falls, which is on the Washington, DC / Virginia border. The falls are a great place for some spectacular long exposure photography. And most nights, the sky will give some nice pastel colors to reward a trip to the falls.

I have made a number of images at Great Falls before, but this one is very different. First, it was taken with a different camera system than the others. Second, my other images have had spectacular sunsets which made the process very easy - but this time the sun didn't cooperate. I had to do a lot of work to pull the colors out of the sky while preserving the detail in the rocks. Thankfully, the dynamic range of the D850 made this easier than I expected. 

It may not be the most spectacular sunset, but those don't happen every day. It's important to capture the world as it exists, and I think this image does a great job of depicting the world as it was on that night.

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.

At the Corner of Color and History

With a weekend of beautiful weather, fall color, and a new Nikon D850, I set out to capture some of the wonderful sights in the area. One of my favorite go-to's for a great shot is Harper's Ferry, West Virginia. This small city, which is also part of the National Park System, sits at the intersection of Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Harper's Ferry is incredibly picturesque, but my favorite spot is on top of the Maryland Heights overlook. It has been several years since I've hiked the 2.5 mile trail to the overlook of the town, so we set out with the dog for a hike and a view.

The trail to the overlook has the following profile: uphill, followed by extreme uphill, then a stretch of straight uphill with a tease as though it will go back downhill before going uphill..... In other words, by the time I reached the top, I was more focused on my jello legs than I was on the photography.

Thankfully the view brought me back to the task at hand quickly, and I took the following images before the knee-breaking downhill journey. 

This was also my first serious outing with the new Nikon D850, and a chance for me to see how it held up in real-world landscape shooting. So far so good! There are certainly some notable differences between the D850 and Leica SL, but I'm leaning to embrace my new camera.

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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. 

Yellowstone: Tiles on Film

In March of 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant did something remarkable; he created the first National Park in United States in an area of Wyoming. This park, known today as Yellowstone National Park, comprises over 3,000 square miles and hosts more than 4 million visitors each year. Those visitors have come to see the over 10,000 geothermal features that comprise the park - ranging from the famous Old Faithful geyser to small steam vents - two-thirds of the world’s geysers are located within Yellowstone.  

The geysers and thermal features of Yellowstone are famous for numerous reasons, least of which is the color. Few places in the world are home to the vibrantly colored pools that dot Yellowstone’s landscape. These memorable colors form the basis of a dazzling mosaic, captured in individual tiles.

Today I am sharing a selection of images - dubbed "tiles" - that were taken with a medium format Rolleiflex film camera. The tiles were shot using Kodak color films, and other than scanning the images, slight cropping, and dust removal from the scanned negatives, there are no other adjustments. The vibrant colors and surreal abstract art is the natural look of these film images.

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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!

A New Chapter: The Nikon D850

Those of you who follow me on Instagram (@ScenicTraversePhoto), might have noticed a day ago when I posted a picture of the Nikon D850 box....

After a visit to the Photo Plus Expo in New York on Thursday, I decided it was time to make the switch back to Nikon. I have loved the Leica experience, and I'll still use Leica's for street photography, but my needs as a landscape photographer will be better met by this new system.

In the coming week I'll share some updates to detail the decision, but for now, I'm excited to take the camera out shooting! Given the super high resolution of the D850, I have also invested in a lens calibration system so I can get the maximum detail out of the sensor, and I'll also share some updates about the calibration process. Stay tuned for new and exciting things!

Finding Local Inspiration: Fall on a Farm

Fall has officially started on the east coast of the United States! Temperatures have finally mellowed, pumpkin spiced everything is available for sale, and the trees are starting to show their fall colors. So last weekend I headed out into rural Virginia to get a few images in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

One thing I often hear from new photographers is that they don't have anything to photograph, and they can only travel once or twice a year. That sentiment represents a lack of creativity! There are photographs to be found everywhere you look. So today I'm sharing over a dozen images that were all taken within a 300 foot radius of a farm house in rural Virginia - all made on the same day (although taken at different times to reflect changing sun conditions).

You don't need need to travel to exotic locations to make some photographs, and I challenge you to find some local inspiration in your back yard!

A white picket fence surrounding the property lines. 

A white picket fence surrounding the property lines. 

Playing with reflections and silhouettes in the window. That's actually my mom sitting at the kitchen table.

Playing with reflections and silhouettes in the window. That's actually my mom sitting at the kitchen table.

A shed sitting along the edge of the property.

A shed sitting along the edge of the property.

A pile of fresh leaves on the lawn

A pile of fresh leaves on the lawn

Two ladders leaning up on the side of the workshop

Two ladders leaning up on the side of the workshop

Peeling paint on the side of the shed

Peeling paint on the side of the shed

Playing with the high contrast late afternoon shadows on the leaves

Playing with the high contrast late afternoon shadows on the leaves

The view from the back of the property

The view from the back of the property

Looking over the fence toward the neighbor's farm

Looking over the fence toward the neighbor's farm

The tree in the front yard

The tree in the front yard

A workshop with an old horse-drawn carriage in the back

A workshop with an old horse-drawn carriage in the back

A pile of leaves on a table in the yard

A pile of leaves on a table in the yard

Leica SL: The Mystery of the Lost Lenses?

When the Leica SL hit the market in October 2015, it caused a whirlwind of excitement. Here was the mirrorless full frame camera system that professional photographers had long awaited. I visited the Leica Store in Mayfair (London) and played with the demo unit. I was instantly hooked and placed my name on a wait list. On that day, I broke from years of Nikon shooting and transitioned to Leica, believing it was the future.

Today, nearly two years to the day since the SL was released, I am not so sure. While I've had a remarkable experience shooting the Leica SL, there is one major area where the SL lags behind the competition, and where my patience has nearly run dry....lenses.

At launch, Leica only had one lens for the SL system - the 24-90mm lens - and promised two additional lenses would follow shortly (a 50mm prime and 90-280mm telephoto). To offset this lack of lenses, Leica also touted how the SL was versatile in it's ability to use lenses from Leica's other lines - including the M and S lenses - when paired with an adaptor. Leica seemed to realize that no one was going to buy a camera system with only one lens option and was trying very hard to cater to photographers by offering cross-system compatibility. While that's all fine and good, using other lenses comes with some disadvantages - most notably the lack of weather sealing and auto focus. For a landscape photographer that is regularly shooting in poor weather, this was a point of concern, although I have used the adaptability in my SL setup.

A year after launch, Leica had come through on the promised lens releases and all was well in SL-land. Three SL system lenses were available, and they had more on the way. 2017 promised to bring the release of four additional system lenses, including a 35mm, 75mm, and 90mm prime lens, along with the 16-35mm wide angle that landscape photographers lusted to own (hint hint.... that'd be me).

Leica SL System Lens Roadmap, as of September 2016

Leica SL System Lens Roadmap, as of September 2016

Quietly, something happened. Lenses stopped showing up. According to the roadmap above, by October 2017, we should have at least two more lenses available, with two more coming any day now. Instead, Leica silently pushed off the release date of these lenses. Now only one lens, the 75mm f/2 ASPH, is slated to arrive in 2017 (maybe? still no word on it), with the other three lenses listed as "coming soon" or "spring 2018."

Could Leica really go a full calendar year without releasing any new lenses for the SL? (The 50mm was released in December 2016, so we won't have to wait long to find out!)

Would anyone really think that's a sign of a healthy camera system?

The rational side of me argues that Leica is trying really hard to produce quality lenses for the SL system, which is why they have been slower in the release schedule. They want only the best lenses on the market, and are busy perfecting them..... right?

Then I open my inbox this morning and see this:

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Seriously? Instead of announcing or releasing lenses for the SL system, it seems the engineers in the glass department of Leica have been on a craze to re-release old 1930s lenses. This is a slap in the face to all of the people who invested in the SL system early. Leica has prioritized these money-grab lenses - collectors pieces for people who will never shoot the lens - over lenses for people who actually want to make photographs.

Fuming over the announcement of a 1930's lens re-release, I decided to stage an armchair war and look up other manufacturers and their lens release schedule for new systems. I compared four other systems - the Fuji GFX 50s, Hasselblad X1D, Sony Alpha A7r, and Pentax 645z. 

What I quickly found is that Leica is behind the curve. The Hasselblad X1D, which is a natural competitor to the SL, only has 4 lenses currently on the market, but it also has been available for 440 days, compared to 750 days for the SL.

Shockingly, Fuji has rocked the market by having six lenses available for it's new medium format system less than a year after launch! Here's a table showing my results:

A comparison of camera systems by release date and current lens availability. In every metric, the SL system is behind the competition. It's worth noting that Sony already had some lenses on the market when they released the Alpha A7r, but they have continued to release new lenses on a somewhat routine schedule. 

A comparison of camera systems by release date and current lens availability. In every metric, the SL system is behind the competition. It's worth noting that Sony already had some lenses on the market when they released the Alpha A7r, but they have continued to release new lenses on a somewhat routine schedule. 

Lack of lenses isn't the only problem facing the SL community - price, speed, and size are also major factors. The SL lenses are massive, and while they may deliver great performance, in an era where competitors are releasing significantly smaller lenses, it's hard to get excited to haul around big glass. The lack of motivation to drag a heavy lens also stems from the fact that these lenses are surprisingly slow; both the 24-90mm and 90-280mm lenses have variable apertures ranging from f/2.8-f/4. Coming from a company that has released f/0.95 lenses, I would expect to see these big heavy (and expensive) lenses maintain at least an aperture of f/2.8 through the zoom range. Finally, we have the price. These lenses are eye-watering expensive, even by Leica standards. 

In an effort to keep the SL relevant in the mind of prospective buyers, Leica recently slashed the price of the camera system. In my mind, this was a sign of bad things....companies only slash prices of a camera when it is doing poorly in sales or about to be replaced. There are no rumors of a "SL2" system hitting the market anytime soon, which suggests to me that current sales are poor, particularly compared to the M10 release. With the new price adjustments, the SL sells for $500 less than the old Leica M240 ($5,995 vs $6,595). In what economic universe does a camera made in 2013 sell for $500 more than a camera made in 2015 with more features? 

I will pause here to say I am not Leica bashing--- I LOVE my M240 and the Leica M system. I just think Leica has stumbled with the release of the SL system, and barring a dramatic turn-around, I would not be surprised if Leica refocused back to the systems that have been very successful. 

Leica does not release sales figures to the public, so we're left to speculate. Price slashes.... delayed lens releases.... a clear focus on producing collectors pieces and historical re-releases.... behind-the-market performance in delivering new options. Are these signs of a healthy system?

Why would anyone buy an SL now? What consumer is looking at the limited options for organic system lenses and is excited by the offerings? And with competitors offering systems with more lenses, more capabilities, and better specs at a lower price, Leica risks loosing adopters of the SL system to newer cameras. 

Personally, I believe the slow release of lenses may be the doom of this system. For the price of joining the Leica SL club, one could easily invest in a 50 megapixel medium format camera (Hasselblad X1D). I have been insanely frustrated by the slow release schedule of the SL lenses - so much so that, combined with recent issues with my gear - I'm considering jumping ship and heading for pastures that have proven to be a bit more reliable in past years. 

What do you think? Am I being too harsh? Or is the Leica SL still a worthy buy?

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!