Quick Shot: Vanishing Point

This was 100% an experimental photograph, but it turned into one of my favorites from Paris! I wanted to do a test to see how the Leica M Monochrom would meter light if I gave it a really crazy scene with intense highlight and deep shadows (in plain English, I was screwing around). So I decided to shoot looking up into the daylight as I rode the escalator out of the Paris metro. The result is wonderful!

And for some reason, "Stairway to Heaven" keeps playing in the back of my head......

Photographing the Tour de France with the Leica Monochrom

If I told you I was going to photograph the iconic finish of the famous cycling race, the Tour de France, in Paris, you would naturally start to envision the types of photographs I might take. Like a high speed photograph of the moment when the winner crossed the finish with his hands thrust up in victory. The sort of photograph that could be put on the cover of an illustrated sports magazine and sold on newsstands around the world. A photograph that a few die-hard fans, sponsors, and probably the athlete themselves, would ever want to own or hang on a wall.

That's what you'd think if I told you I went to photograph the Tour de France.

Now if I also told you that I photographed the Tour de France with the Leica M Monochrom - a camera that only takes black and white photographs, and is not remotely close to the type of camera used to take the magazine cover images I described a moment ago - you'd think I was crazy (stupid).

Not only am I crazy (stupid), but I actually chose this camera to photograph the race.... On purpose. Right. While every other serious photographer is wielding a serious dSLR with a 70-200mm zoom and maybe a monopod, I'm shooting a small, manual focus camera that maybe shoots 2 frames per second..... In black and white.

What the hell was I thinking? For starters, without press credentials, there was no way I was going to get into a location that would offer the type of images illustrated sports magazines would want. Second, even if I took those glaring sharp images with creat color and detail, who is ever going to look at them? And third, I like to make art, and taking "serious" photographs of the race wasn't the sort of artistic look I wanted. So I set out with the goal of making artistic and creative images of the race. I wanted to make photographs that were completely unlike anything else that anyone else would shoot that day......

Of course I photographed one of the American women riding - Alison Tetrick

Before selecting the camera I would shoot for the race, I conceptualized the images I might want to make. I started by looking at past photographs of the Tour finish in Paris; most of which were the high-speed action shots that I wasn't looking to emulate. I then started to research locations and the race setup. The peloton of the Tour de France will do 10 laps along the Champ de Elysees as part of the ceremonial finish, so I knew I wanted a chance to photograph the riders as they ran that circuit. Why?

If you have never watched a professional bike race, then watch the following video clip, which was filmed on my iPhone, to understand how fast this race whizzes past.

Now imagine trying to get dozens of artistic and creative shots, with different focal lengths and effects, in that short window of time. Not happening. My only chance to build a mass of different photographs was to get 10 laps of them. I also read that lining up on Rue de Rivoili was a great spot for spectating, as it wasn't hard to get a spot along the barricades. The only variable was security - with the recent string of terrorist attacks in Paris, I knew the French Gendarmerie would be all over the place. Despite my best efforts, I couldn't find a lot of information about what areas of the route would be open to spectators..... I suspect it wasn't published widely to prevent any ill-intentioned persons from using the same information for less noble causes. As anticipated, the Gendarmerie had blocked off Rue do Rivoili on the park side - an area that used to be a great spot to spectate from because it was in the shade!

Anyway, back to the decision process..... If I had 10 laps to photograph the riders, then a slower camera could suffice to capture the action. And I knew the images would ultimately be presented in black and white to neutralize the bright colors of the race. Teams and sponsors cover the riders in an array of vibrant colors and bold designs to attract the attention of viewers, and I didn't want these designs to overpower the underlying theme of my images..... Motion.

When I really sat down to think about it, the motion of the race is what I wanted to capture. The riders whip around at speeds in excess of 30MPH and create a whooshing sensation as you stand along the spectating route. The tempo and speed are what make this race so impressive; hundreds of men going full speed inches apart from each other and with the grace and poise to make it look easy. That's what I wanted to capture.

I decided that it came down to either the Leica Q or the Leica Monochrom for this task. The Q images could convert to black and white, and its auto focus and faster shooting speed might be handy. But I also liked the idea of shooting some images at 50mm, and ultimately opted for the camera with interchangeable lenses. And, I would be doing some street and night photographs during the remainder of my weekend in Paris.

I packed two lenses to photograph the Tour: the Leica 35mm Summarit f/2.4 and the Leica 50mm Summicron f/2.0 (1983 Made in Canada edition!). The Leica EVF-2, a spare battery and some memory cards rounded out the kit. Lightweight, easy, and no frills. We also packed some cold drinks and snacks, as the plan was to watch the women's race and Tour de France caravan (a parade of sponsors) before the men entered the circuit. It was going to be a long, hot day, but we were ready (except the sun screen, doh).

Access to the route was very tightly controlled. Security inspected all bags closely - to the point they opened my wallet and flipped through it. Cool, and thank you to all the French security forces who made the race safe and enjoyable.  I got to an open spot in the barricade right as the women started to come through for their first laps as part of their race, called "La Course".

The women's race was a great chance to get dialed in for camera settings and configuration, and gave me a chance to work on my timing for panning shots. The women riders mostly preferred to be in the center of the road, or the opposite side; later I'd find myself wishing the men would do the same as they got too close at points!

As the ladies entered their last lap of La Course, it was clear something was afoul. Each team has a set of cars carrying the team director, mechanics, and spare bikes that follows the riders. If a rider has an issue, they can drop back in the peloton to their team car and get service (there is also a neutral service car that will help everyone.... But you might not like the equipment they give you). As the women entered lap 10, we could see the team cars at the back of the race suddenly stopped. A friend of mine watching the race on broadcast TV texted me the verdict- a big crash just happened with a bunch of riders caught up. On that last lap there were several different crashes, leaving the peloton in battered shape as they passed for the last time. Those riders who had been caught in an accident, many of whom had bandages and torn jerseys to show for it, finished their last lap at a more relaxed and casual pace as their chance to win in front of the Arc de Triumph passed. The crowd was wonderful, cheering extra hard for these battered women who fought to finish; as a photographer I was appreciative that the slower pace gave me a chance to get some different images.

At the conclusion of the women's race, we had several hours before the men would arrive. To fill the time, the Tour organizers arrange for the Caravan to pass. The Caravan is basically a sponsor parade. Each of the major race sponsors has floats with people dancing and singing. See the Tour elsewhere in France and the Caravan will throw out treats and freebies to spectators. But by the time they reach Paris, there are no more freebies to be had. Thankfully the Vittal float, which is for the official bottled water provider of the Tour, had "freebie" water sprayers to help cool the crowd. I could have asked them to pass a few more times.

Now all of this probably sounds like there was a lot of action to photograph, but that was hardly the case. There were hours of nothingness, followed by a flash 10 seconds of racing, followed by 10 minutes of waiting before the race came whipping past again for another 10 seconds. The street became rather crowded as the race approached, and since we had secured a space along the barricade, there was no choice but to stay and bake in the sun. At points we'd sit on the ground cramped into awkward positions and on the hot asphalt just to give our feet a short reprieve. I don't say any of this in an attempt to elicit sympathy - I had the time of my life - but getting these photos wasn't just a show-up-and-aim-affair, it required dedication and a lot of patience for 10 seconds of shooting opportunity.

Speaking of, let's get back to the photography. As I mentioned earlier, I brought two lenses for this shoot, but started with the 35mm Summarit for the women's race. In my pre-visualization of the images I wanted to make, I determined that I would be using slow shutter speeds to create the blur that viewers would associate with the motion of the race. Unfortunately, it was so sunny that with the base ISO of 320 on the Leica Monochrom, I had to shoot at apertures between f/11-16 to create shutter speeds in the 1/90th of a second range. While I might have preferred a shallower depth of field before I started shooting, not knowing exactly where the cyclists would line up on the roadway made a wider depth of field ultimately more favorable. At f/11-16, I could guarantee that the entire roadway was in focus, so I just had to be attentive to the timing and panning of my camera. Easier said than done!

As the riders would pass on their laps, I had a few minutes to review the images from the last lap to evaluate and make changes before they came around again. By the end of the women's race I had some images that looked like definite "keepers" on the LCD screen; more importantly, I felt dialed in for when the men would come through in a few hours.

Unfortunately, the sun and clouds felt like changing pretty significantly in that time. The women raced around 1:30pm, when the sun was directly overhead and very bright, but the men came through in the 6:30pm hour, so the light had faded and wasn't as harsh. As a result, all the settings I had dialed in earlier were completely moot! I ended up shooting at an ISO around 1600 to give me shutter speeds in that 1/90th range. But as I reviewed the images after that first lap, I had a lot more blur than when I'd used that same shutter speed with the women. Apparently the men are going even faster than the women and a shutter speed of 1/125-250th was more appropriate for getting the same level of blur. I'm sure some math geek can translate shutter speed (at the same aperture) to the speed of the bikers.... It probably involves terms like "square root" and "differential equation." Feel free to comment if you feel like doing some math.

After a few laps at 35mm, I switched to the Summicron 50mm with the idea of getting more close-up shots of the riders. Bad plan. Well not really, abstract is abstract, but there is too much shutter lag with the Monochrom to really try and frame and shoot like that. Using the 50mm turned into 'spray and pray' shooting, which I really hate, so I returned to the 35mm focal length for the remaining laps.

I found that shooting the high speed action of the Tour de France caused me to ditch some of my normal photographic techniques. Most notably is that I did a lot of chimping (checking my work on the LCD screen) - I would NOT recommend trying to shoot an event like this with a camera like the Leica M-D that doesn't have an LCD screen, unless you have balls of steel. I also spent less time framing each shot.... Okay, I spent no time framing. I would make decisions before each lap about my shooting objective for the next lap and would stick to it. Am I shooting them head on as they approach? Panning as they pass? Shooting their shadows and tires? Once I decided on the objective for that lap, I would do some test framing, but mostly hoped to get lucky!

Considering I brought a cricket bat to a baseball game with the Leica Monochrom, it performed surprisingly well; however, I attribute the success I had not to the camera, but to the pre-visualization and knowing what I wanted before I clicked the shutter. The Monochrom isn't the tool for getting that home run magazine cover finish line image, so don't try to use it as such. I wanted to bunt for a base hit, and I was able to use the camera to achieve that result. For all intensive purposes, I had to fight the Leica Monochrom to get these photographs. It's a camera that forces you to slow down. It's a camera designed for thoughtful and deliberate photography, not haphazard and reckless shooting. But it is possible to shoot the Monochrom with such abandon, and the result is stunning.

Would I bring the Leica Q next time? I'm not sure. I would have had a completely different shooting experience, and probably would have tried to get different images. For instance, I would have probably tried to get more blurring of the uniforms and jerseys to create images with a colorful smear. I wouldn't have gotten these photographs.

Overall, I am thrilled with these results - they are the abstract fine art photographs that I set out wanting to create. There isn't too much emphasis on the individuals of the race, rather these photographs capture the spirit of the race. The Tour de France has been running for over 100 years - it's a race that has (and will continue) to inspire millions around the world. Cycling is one of the most popular personal activities, and the photographs I made could easily hang on the wall of a cycling enthusiast who wants to capture the underlying spirit of their sport....... Motion.

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!