On Using The Leica Monochrom On A Safari

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on August 21, 2014 by johnbuckley100

  TF Lion Portrait


Leica Monochrom, 90mm Summicron, all images w/ ND Filter, @f/2

A few days ago, we published in Tulip Frenzy a field report on using a Leica M-240 as our main camera while on safari in Botswana.  We took the M-240 as our main camera because it is, in fact, our main camera.  Some people have responded as if we did this out of some need to prove a point, or as a bizarre experiment, given that of course one would more naturally shoot with a Canon or Nikon — DSLRs made for this kind of photography.  In fact we used the M because Leica M’s are the only camera system we own.  

However, in addition to taking along our M-240, which at least has the benefit of being able to use telephoto lenses via an adaptor, we also took along our Monochrom, the Leica M that only takes black and white images.  We took it along because frankly we were determined to escape the bounds of cliche, to take photographs that aren’t typically what one returns from Africa with.  Moreover, we thought that taking along the Monochrom, and shooting either the 90mm APO-Summicron-Asph or the 50mm APO-Summicron-Asph (and quite rarely, the 28mm Summicron Asph), and as much as possible shooting wide open (using an ND filter), we might be able to come up with memorable images.  

TF Lion Tongue

Leica Monochrom, 50mm APO-Summicron-Asph

We have to declare that taking the Monochrom along as our second camera was a complete delight.  Thinking in terms of light, not color, in an environment with, at times, a hyper-abundance of both, was a conceptual joy.  And the images we took, in our own subjective view, are likely the ones we will print and put up on our walls, because they’re in many ways more compelling images than the color shots.

TF Leopard Portrait

Leica Monochrom, 90mm APO-Summicron-Asph

There was something about isolating the animal against its background — taking advantage of the bokeh inherent in shooting fast Leica lenses wide open — that appeals to our eye.  Admittedly influenced by the brilliant photography of Nick Brandt, whose shots of animals in Kenya and Tanzania are so unbelievably naturalistic — as if lions came to his plein air portrait studio — we knew what we wanted to achieve visually.  Taking along the Monochrom and using it as an alternative to the Leica M was like shooting in black and white film, with all that entails both in limitations and the liberation of simplicity.

TF Lion Teeth

Leica Monochrom, 50mm APO-Summicron-Asph

Those who read our post on using the Leica M-240 last week in Botswana will remember that I complained I had some trouble focusing with the EVF.  But after a dozen years using a rangefinder, focusing with the Monochrom was second nature, and I felt in some ways that if I really needed to focus quickly, this was the camera I wanted to use.

TF Leopard Grass

Leica Monochrom, 90mm APO-Summicron-Asph

But it wasn’t just ease of use that made the Monochrom such a delight to work with.  It was the conceptual possibility of what one could do shooting within the confines of black and white, and the simplicity of knowing I was only going to shoot wide open.  That if I nailed the focus, the contrast between, say, the leopard’s fur and the grass behind it would be pleasing.

TF Giraffe

Leica Monochrom, 90mm APO-Summicron-Asph

As always with the Monochrom, you go into taking the picture visualizing it in terms of light and form, not color.  Because I had both cameras within reach, I would make a conscious choice about which to use.  Yes, sometimes the matter was solved by the expedient of needing a telephoto lens, which meant using the M.  Sometimes I used both cameras and took multiple images in color and black and white, leaving it to later to sort out which was better.  But sometimes the matter was solved by seeing something and saying, That will simply look better as a black and white image.

TF Elephant Trunk

Leica Monochrom, 90mm APO-Summicron-Asph

We said that Africa is filled with light and color, but perhaps it should be noted that where we were, many of the colors were muted — the grasses dry and the same tone as lions fur, surrounded by many dead trees.  But of course these conditions lend themselves to monochrome photography.

TF Lion Male Female

Leica Monochrom, 28mm Summicron Asph

Finally, there was one other reason we loved taking the Monochrom along: it limited us to shorter lenses.  This meant both that there was background in the picture — not just the lion’s nostril, but the fields behind it — and that ours was a more intimate view than is often the case when using tellys.  The picture above was taken with a 28mm lens, which we often use for street photography.  Being this close to a lion is a thrill.  We hope this comes through in the pictures.

Please note: if you like these photographs, in the days ahead, several of the ones above will be available for purchase through The Stephen Bartels Gallery.  

On Using The Leica M (Typ-240) On A Photographic Safari

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on August 18, 2014 by johnbuckley100

TF Botswana Color 1

Leica M, 90mm APO-Summicron-Asph

Some years ago, when contemplating going on a safari to Africa — maybe the better description is “praying to someday have the opportunity to go on a safari” — it seemed likely I would have buy or borrow a different system camera than my trusty Leica M rangefinders, because no one goes to take pictures of wild animals while limited to a focal length of 135mm.  For prior to September 18th, 2012, that was the maximum focal length you effectively could use with an M9 or other Leica M cameras that preceded it.  But on that date, Leica announced the M-240, which like Clark Kent changing in a phone booth, could be converted from a rangefinder into something approximating a DSLR.  With an adaptor, and an Electronic Viewfinder, now — mirabile dictu — all of Leica’s glorious R lenses could be used on an M camera. For the first time, one could contemplate a safari using an M and long lenses.  It seemed like a dream come true.

Last summer, I used the M and the Vario-Elmar-R 80-200 f/4 lens while taking photographs of animals out west, and it was a revelation to use the M as a multipurpose tool — by day a rangefinder, but in the evening light along the Gros Ventre River, when the moose come out to play, I could stand there with all the photographers with their long lenses and, yep, take perfectly adequate pictures.  It was a delight.  And as I knew then that this summer my family and I would be going on a long-planned safari to Botswana, it filled me with hope.

TF Botswana Color2

Leica M, Vario-Elmar-R 80-200

Having just returned from the trip, and having returned with a number of pictures I would never have been able to take previously with a rangefinder, I think it’s safe to say that using the M-240 with long lenses on a safari can be mostly successful.  With the right lens, it can certainly take pictures at a distance.  A world of possibilities are opened up. With that said, it’s not an entirely pleasing experience.  Put differently, the M-240 in use as a DSLR is clearly a kludge.  My analysis of benefits deems it a worthy effort by Leica to give its loyal M users an opportunity to shoot long distance. But there are some drawbacks.  (To see a gallery of images taken with the M-240, go here.)

TF Botswana Color7

Leica M, Vario-Elmar-R 80 -200, with the APO-Extender-R 2X

When taking a picture of animals in a static, or semi-static position, you have the time to focus the M manually.  Remember, even though the R-system lenses you can now use with an adaptor are superb telephotos, they are still manually focused.  And to a rangefinder user, they are not easy to focus.  I continually found myself pressing for Focus Assist, the device that with Focus Peaking enables one to see a magnified version of what he’s focusing on, along with indicators of whether the surface he is aiming at is in optimal focus.  But Focus Peaking doesn’t work as well on animal hair/fur as it does on, say, a brick wall surface.  And often it didn’t work at all.  Which means that even when I got the opportunity to take a photo of an animal, it was not nearly as easy for me to get the shot as it was for my son, sitting beside me on the back row of the open-air Land Rover, whose Canon 6D could autofocus on the animal in a split second, while I was fumbling with Focus Assist.

TF Botswana Color3

Leica M, Vario-Elmar-R 80-200

And then there is the matter of the EVF that Leica acquired from Olympus and rebadged with its brand.  The EVF has a very slow refresh rate — some three seconds or longer between when you take the shot and when you can take the next one.  As anyone who has ever tried taking a picture of a child — never mind two lions snarling at each other — can attest, a lot can happen in a few seconds.

But this post is not meant to be a complaint.  Objectively, using a manual focus DSLR with a slow refresh rate puts you at a disadvantage when it comes to getting the shot.  On the other hand, you can use your Leica M on a safari, and you can also use any of the amazing Leica R lenses that were manufactured prior to 2009.  And you can use the Leica APO-Extender-R 2X, which turns your 200mm lens into a 400mm lens, without carrying a bazooka-sized contraption or paying so much money for the lens you couldn’t take the trip in the first place.  You might have the reach to take the picture of the black rhino below…

TF Botswana Color6

Leica M, Vario-Elmar-R 80 – 200, with the APO-Extender-R 2x

But it is hard to anticipate… and to focus… and to take multiple quick shots.  Yet for a quality combination of lens and camera, shooting an animal that is not moving, I would confidently put the M-240 up against Canons or Nikon combos.

TF Botswana Color5

Leica M, Vario-Elmar-R 80 – 200, with the APO-Extender-R 2x

And then there are those magical moments when you are out there and something materializes before your eye, and with your Leica M — yes, with the Leica rangefinder you brought on safari, despite all the advice from others to take along a Canon or Nikon with autofocus… you know, the kind of camera made for this, not a gussied up street camera more appropriate for wide-angle shooting in a crowd than capturing an animal on the move… you suddenly find yourself in a position to take a shot you never dreamed you’d be able to get with a Leica M.  It was a real privilege, and joy, to go on safari.  And it was a mixed blessing, but on balance, it was a blessing, to be able to take along my familiar Leica M and be able to use it in such a setting.

TF Botswana Color8

Leica M, Vario-Elmar-R 80-200, with the APO-Extender-R 2X

How You Know You’re Going To Have A Good Day

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on August 5, 2014 by johnbuckley100

Leica M, 50mm APO-Summicron-Asph.

Robben Island Day 1-2

This View Never Gets Old

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on July 30, 2014 by johnbuckley100

As Wallace Stegner long ago pointed out, Europe’s cathedrals are man made.  Ours were made by nature.  The Cathedral Group, Grand Teton National Park, a few weeks ago, alas.  This view from the Horse Trail coming down from Cascade Canyon never gets old.  Leica M, 50mm APO-Summicron-Asph.


We Live In A Golden Age of Rock’n’Roll, Thanks To Ty Segall, John Dwyer, and Tim Presley

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on July 29, 2014 by johnbuckley100

Our summer vacation is well planned, though on August 26th we are scheduled to be sitting up straight and paying attention at our work desk.  Somehow we doubt we’ll be of much use that day, given the new Joe Boyd-produced Robyn Hitchcock album and Brill Bruisers by the New Pornographers will both have been released by the time we sip our first taste o’  joe.  Yet we know already that the first album we will download that Christmas-in-August morn will be Ty Segall’s Manipulator, a double album — let that settle for a moment — that Uncut Magazine today declares is the definitive work by the 27-year old tyro.  To say we can’t wait the three weeks ’til it is out slightly understates the facts.

Yesterday, we saw a list put together by GQ of the best albums of the Millennium to date.  We eagerly looked… and found a grand total of one rock’n’roll album on the list that truly mattered.  Lots of Kanye and Beyonce and JayZ, but the only album on the list that we would put on our own compendium was PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake.  This might lead you to believe that, since 2000, there hasn’t been a lot of great rock’n’roll music.  That would be wrong.

It is true that we have had a problem since the odometer rolled over on 2000 to even come up with a proper name or description of the decade we are in, which is one reason why the Teens, or whatever it is we call this cohort of ten years following the miserably named Aughts, seems so shapeless.  So inconsequential.  People don’t even think of it as a proper decade, as if it has been one long continuum since the booster rocket fell off on December 31, 1999.  Ladies and Gentlemen, we are floating in space, and of course no one up here can hear you scream.  But if they could hear us… we would right now be sounding a lot like one of those girls in the old Ed Sullivan Show reruns when the Beatles hit the stage.

Yes, allow me to say that since 2010, we have been living in an absolute Golden Age of Rock’n’Roll, and it is largely because of three personalities: Ty Segall, John Dwyer of Thee Oh Sees, and Tim Presley of Darker My Love and of course White Fence.

They will be seen on no such lists as those compiled by the hacks of the magazine stand.  But any sentient being who cares about real rock’n’roll surely knows that, nearly halfway through the decade, the Teens are shaping up as at least as consequential as the ’90s, which was the best decade for music since the ’60s.  (The ’90s were the ONLY decade since the ’60s when the era’s best and most important music could also claim to be among its most popular, with bands as disparate as Nirvana, R.E.M., Oasis and Blur accompanying less well-known but equally meaningful acts likes the Brian Jonestown Massacre, Dandy Warhols, Whiskeytown, Spiritualized, Alejandro Escovedo, and Luna, to name a few, on any proper rundown of the era’s best music.*)

If you read lists like GQ’s, you would be forgiven for immediately wishing to down a bottle of Clorox and ending it all.  But if you think about what pleasure has been handed down to us by Messrs. Segall, Dwyer, and Presley, there is hope.  Better, there is a revelation, milords: this is a Golden Age.

Ty Segall is about to release his 7th album under his own name.  That number doesn’t even include his work with Fuzz, and I don’t think it tallies his collaboration with Mikal Gilmore, or maybe even Tim Presley (Hair by Ty Segall and White Fence.)  Seven of the most exciting fuzz-based, Beatles-infused, punk-rockin’ slabs o’ joy since the British bands dueled with X and our friends in the New York City-based post-CBs cohort to produce that glorious moment between 1978 and 1980, before it all began to go south again, only to pick up the pulse later in the decade with the advent of the Pixies…

John Dwyer’s Thee Oh Sees have produced so many great albums since 2010 that my playlist is two hours long.  And Tim Presley, confused as he has sometimes been about the right medium through which to capture his muse… a slight man sprinting after Tinkerbell with a cup… who can also morph into a rock’n’roll buzzsaw when he hits the stage… has nonetheless released in just the past nine months a wicked live album and, as of last week, a spectacular White Fence studio album.  Three obscure acts.  A Golden Age.

Look, so far this decade, we have loved work by Capsula, PJ Harvey, the black ryder, Bob Dylan, BJM, Cat Power, Cosmonauts, Crocodiles, Dean Wareham, The Evens, First Communion Afterparty, Kelley Stoltz, Kurt Vile, Black Mountain, Magic Trick, Mikal Cronin, Neko Case, Parquet Courts, Phosphorescent, Quilt, Woods, Sleepy Sun, White Denim, and even Tame Impala.  With all the bad vibes emanating from points near and far, we should settle down and settle in, for the ’10s or Teens or whatever we call it are producing some of the greatest music in the 60+ year history of rock’n’roll.  There is a lot more crap out there, of course, and few of the bands named above are making a dent on the Big Lists by the Big Magazines.  But in no small part due to three men, the aforementioned Segall, Dwyer, and Presley, when the real history… the secret history… of music in the new Millennium is written, it will be written in gold.


* We understand the argument that the ’70s, like the ’60s, had some of its best bands also turn out to be the most commercially successful.  The Stones, Bowie, Led Zep, yeah, we get it.  But since we think the truly best albums of the decade were by the Clash and Television and Brian Eno, and since none of them really were all that big commercially (the Clash didn’t become big in the US til 1980), we’re going to let our statement stand, if you don’t mind…

Amber Waves Of, Well, Maybe Not Grain

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on July 27, 2014 by johnbuckley100

We can attest that we saw deer and antelope playing.  Above the Yellowstone.  Leica M, 50mm APO-Summicron-Asph.

Yellowstone Grass

The Vacant Lots’ “Departure” Updates Spaceman 3 For A New Generation

Posted in Music with tags , , on July 27, 2014 by johnbuckley100

Since 2010, we’ve been tracking the Burlington, Vermont duo The Vacant Lots, whose status as opening act for Dean Wareham and the Brian Jonestown Massacre tells you a lot.  Their sound is really a cross between Spaceman 3 and Suicide — electronic drones generated by machines, with guitar and vocals riding atop the Fritz Lang concoctions.  Departure isn’t exactly what its title promises: it’s much of what you’d expect from the band’s earlier work, and is for this reason excellent, occasionally thrilling, and one of the summer’s highlights.  If you heard “Never Satisfied” on the radio, you really might think that Jason Pierce and Sonic Boom had run into each other at an insta-studio and cranked it out — that’s a high compliment!  We intend to listen to this one ’til our hard drive fails.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 267 other followers

%d bloggers like this: