Archive for Leica

Leica is Proving the Mark of a First-Rate Camera Company is the Ability to Hold Two Conflicting Ideas at the Same Time

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on August 14, 2021 by johnbuckley100
Leica M10r and 50mm Noctilux f/1.2

With apologies to F. Scott Fitzgerald, who famously wrote that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function,” I’ve been thinking a lot this year about what Leica Camera is up to.

Leica is, comparatively speaking, a tiny company — they measure revenue in the millions, not billions, and produce cameras and lenses in small batches. And yet they currently have the moxie to produce a 64mp medium format camera system (the S), a professional mirrorless camera system (the various SLs, along with their L-Mount little brother, the CL), their traditional rangefinder system (the M, in color and monochrome variants), and even a certifiable hit product, the Q2, which just spawned a Monochrom (B+W only) twin. On top of it all, in the very same calendar year, Leica released the M 35mm APO-Summicron, which is as precise and perfect a compact lens as exists on this planet, and what can only be thought of as its near antithesis: a “classic” reprise of its 1966 M Noctilux f/1.2 ASPH, a lens whose charm lies almost entirely in the idea that it is *not* perfect.

So yes, in the immense combined brainpower that is Leica’s product team, they are proving Scott Fitzgerald right, or at least proving their first-rate intelligence, as they continue to astound us with a lens roadmap that brings out lenses so astonishingly perfect there are those who call them antiseptic (e.g. the M 50mm APO-Summicron, both the M and SL versions of the 35mm APO, as well as each of the SL APO Summicron primes), while working into the mix modern revivals of some of their most intriguing lenses from decades past, whose charm lies in how their flaws intersect with new cameras housing 47mp modern sensors.

Leica M10 Monochrom and Elmarit R 180mm f/2.8

I’ve been using Leica Ms for long enough to remember the debate in the early ’00s over not whether Leica could produce a digital M, but whether they should. At one point, their largest shareholder, the luxury brand Hermes, purportedly counseled management to stick with film and become the 21st Century equivalent of a Parisian saddle maker, locked into high profits, but decreasing relevance to anyone other than a plutocrat. Thankfully, under the stable ownership of Dr. Andreas Kaufmann, Leica, since 2006, has been an absolute font of creativity. Of all the camera systems listed above, only the M existed in that year. And when what became known as the M-240 was released in 2013, by switching to CMOS sensors — which permitted the use of Leica’s R-system lenses — rangefinder photographers could suddenly use virtually every lens that Leica had produced since the 1950s.

The image above, to me, captures something quite magical. It was made using a 41mp Leica M10 Monochrom with a state-of-the-art sensor, but coupled with a 35-year old R-system lens. I think the combination has a timeless feel to it, and could imagine it used in a magazine spread on Jackson Hole, circa 1963. Because the lens cannot remotely draw as precisely as the sensor might receive the captured data, it combines imprecision with precision along a formula similar to the way Leica’s then-state-of-the-art cameras and lenses, from the 1930s to the digital era, drew on film. Evidently Leica thinks such old/new and perfect/imperfect combinations might hold buyers’ interest, which is why they have, in the last few years, released such lenses as a reprise of their 28mm f/5.6 lens from decades ago, and even the Thambar, which can only be described as a willfully distorting, extremely soft lens. Which brings us to February’s release of the “new” 50mm Noctilux f1.2.

Leica M10 Monochrom and 50mm Noctilux f1/2 ASPH

This past winter and spring, I immersed myself in a street photography project in an historic D.C. neighborhood. Everything was shot using the Leica M10 Monochrom, and for the most part, the 28mm Summicron, 35mm Summilux, and occasionally, the 50mm APO-Summicron. Now, I am a Noctilux photographer with 15 years experience utilizing Leica’s low-light, thin focal-plane lens. But I would almost never consider using my 75mm Noctilux f1.25 on the street, because it is so big and bulky; it’s a physical chore, not to mention negating the stealth aspect of using an M in those circumstance. But the early word, vouchsafed by reviewers such as Sean Reid and Jono Slack, was that the new 50mm Noctilux f/1.2 ASPH was about as small as a 50 Summilux, quite light, and while it had nowhere near the precision of the 50 Nocti f/0.95 or my 75 Nocti, it had beguiling characteristics. So, I jumped, and traded in some equipment to buy it. And I found it immediately appealing. I mean, the first time I looked at the LCD on the camera to see what had been captured, I broke out into a grin.

Leica M10 Monochrom and 50mm Noctilux f/1.2 ASPH

I could take my Monochrom with the new Nocti out on the street and remain relatively invisible. And while this lens certainly was soft in its rendering of the in-focus areas, because it also captures that glorious fall off to the out-of-focus area, there was something genuinely exciting about it, at least to me. One of the paradoxes of modern photography is how so many of us revel in the advantages of the digital revolution, which often results in clinically over-precise images, which we then work on in post-production software to render “film-like.” We want all the advantages of digital capture, but harken for the imprecision of classic photography on the far more forgiving sensor of celluloid processed in wet chemicals.

Leica, by virtue of making such incredible fast lenses, has always been at the forefront of a related aspect of visual poetry — the use of bokeh as a dramatizing technique. I wouldn’t say the image above is a great shot, technically. But in terms of creating atmosphere, using a black and white 41mp sensor and a deliberately soft lens with a drop off from the in-focus to OOF area that plunges with a depth and speed of Niagara Falls is, to my eye, fairly special. And I could carry the lens on the street!

Leica M10 Monochrom and 50mm Noctilux f/1.2 ASPH

I didn’t use it exclusively, and the project is better off for it, as there is wide variety between the many images shot at, say, f/8 and fairly small batch shot at f/1.2. (All Noctiluxes are, effectively, single f/stop lenses — you shoot them wide open or not at all.) But man, this lens was cool on the street!

Leica M10 Monochrom and 50mm Noctilux f/1.2 ASPH

There was something about its imprecision that rendered it in a category separate from the other modern Noctilux lenses. Now, you see, I was deep into a black and white project, which right there rendered it in alignment with photography from eras past. But the more I used this lens, the more I could see it helped evoke the fairly gritty neighborhood I was in, while capturing a moment in time: people wearing masks will always anchor these images in our COVID age. I wanted to ensure that if, 50 years from now, people looked at these images they would immediately place a time stamp on them — and for that reason, shooting in black and white was essential. Increasingly, the new Nocti seemed an ideal tool to bring to the mix.

Leica M10 Monochrom and 50mm Noctilux f/1.2 ASPH

The image above, shot in March 2021, to me has the classic feel of an image that could have been shot on an M4 using the original ’66 Nocti and Tri-X Pan. That’s a hard trick for a modern 41mp sensor to pull off, without Lightroom skills far beyond my capabilities.

Leica M10-R and 50mm Noctilux f/1.2

When the weather turned warm and cherries blossomed, I deliberately forced myself to take a break from my project to use this lens with a camera that could record in color as well: the M10-R. The result was every bit as interesting to me, the color rendering weirdly compelling.

Leica M10-R and 50mm Noctilux f/1.2

In early summer, my wife and I moved pretty much full-time to a small town in Western Wyoming, and I took the Nocti to the 4th of July parade there. To be honest, I think I would have taken more good pictures if I’d used the lens with the SL2, not the M10-R, because I would have been able to focus more precisely. But still, its color rendering with the M10-R sensor is quite nice.

Leica M10-R and 50mm Noctilux f/1.2

Having used the lens to shoot black and white on the streets of Washington, and now color at the Jackson, Wyoming 4th of July parade, I think I have an understanding of the 50mm Noctilux f/1.2 ASPH’s strengths and weaknesses. Its strengths are: small size and weight, making it ideal for street photography, its seductive bokeh, and when combined with a precise modern sensor on a digital camera, its imprecision, soft in-focus area, and characteristic drop off to the out-of-focus area renders the image with a timeless patina. This is, getting back to Leica, redolent of their understanding that we don’t want, at least not all the time, perfection in certain kinds of photography. We want character. This lens has it in abundance.

But what if you do want perfection, or at least sharpness in the in-focus area? Going back to 2012, when Leica announced the original M Monochrom, they coupled it with a brand new lens, the 50mm APO-Summicron. They said, in essence, because we have stripped the sensor of its responsibility to convert pixels to color, it will be a meaningfully more capable sensor than what we have in the then-flagship M9. And then, to illustrate this point, they released their new APO-Summicron lens, and in their nice way, sort of boasted that they had taken optical performance to a new and unheard of level, matching the possibilities in digital sensor design.

Leica Monochrom-246 and 50mm APO-Summicron

What that really meant was that the new APO-Summicron was so sharp in its in-focus rendering, while still maintaining a classical drop off from the focal plane, that a different kind of alchemy was possible. About as expensive as the Noctilux, the new 50 APO was startlingly perfect whether shooting wide open or stopped down. But it strived for a far different gestalt from the Nocti: perfect and imperfect wrapped into one package, which, when coupled with the second generation Monochrom sensor let the photographer achieve things heretofore unimaginable. It was almost as if it was challenging our conception of what great photography consisted of, as if to say, We can achieve optical perfection and, in the camera, the highest quality, and you, the photographer, can make images that will retain the same luster as what HC-B was able to achieve in the streets of Paris in 1938.

Leica Monochrom-246 and 50mm APO-Summicron

I for one bought into this wholeheartedly, and used the 50 APO a lot, whether in the streets or shooting landscapes. Which is why when Leica announced, literally weeks after the 50 Noctilux f/1.2 ASPH, that they were releasing a 35mm APO, my heart beat quickly, even as it sank with the understanding that I would have to sell more equipment to acquire the new reference point in optical perfection. You see, 35mm is my favorite focal length. So it was worth selling other lenses to get my hands on what proved to be a very, very difficult lens to acquire. (As I mentioned earlier, Leica produces cameras and lenses in small batches.) It took a little more than four months.

Leica M10-R and 35mm APO-Summicron

On the happy day it was to arrive, I waited a long time for the UPS truck to show up — but one walk in my rural neighborhood showed me the 35mm APO set, as Leica stated, a new standard. Its color rendering was typical for Leica’s APOs, whether M or SL. Coupled with M10-R, it seemed like it would become the lens I would keep on my rangefinders by default.

Leica M10-R and 35mm APO-Summicron

The next night, I took it to the local rodeo and, combined with the M10-R, realized I had in many ways as capable a combination as the Leica SL2 and SL 35mm APO, albeit in a package small enough for street photography.

Leica M10-R and 35mm APO Summicron

As with the 50mm APO, what was in focus was precise, and where the focus fell off, you could have fun.

Leica M10-R and 35mm APO-Summicron

This was a lens for the ages — amazing color rendering and precision, in as compact a form as the 35mm Summicrons from the last several decades.

Leica M10-R and 35mm APO-Summicron

Perhaps I shouldn’t fall into the marketing hype of calling this lens “perfect.” I will say only this: in combination with the M10-R, it achieves street photography nirvana. I have stuck with Ms because I am by now so comfortable with focusing manually, or shooting at the hyperfocal distance, that I believe I can utilize the technology more intuitively and just as fast as I would if using, say, the autofocus Leica Q2. I’ll admit to going “wow” when seeing how the Q2 lens and sensor renders images, especially in color, and the new Q2 Monochrom seems amazing. And yet, with the 35 APO on the M10-R, I don’t think the Q system has any advantages.

Leica M10-R and 35mm APO-Summicron

So here you have a lens that can be shot at f/4 and retain great character. This is anything but “clinical”, even though it may be optically “perfect.” This is a lens for the ages.

Leica M10-R and 35mm APO-Summicron

And if it is a standout given the way it handles color, I must say its B&W rendering is pretty satisfying. It has the added advantage of being so small, and in combination with an M, so light and capable, that I now find myself hiking with just the M and a single lens, not the SL2 and some of those big native zooms. Am I missing anything by not taking the SL2? Well, sure, of course — it’s a more capable, versatile system. But at the same time, nah. And, at the end of the day, my neck and arms thank me for carrying the lighter camera and lens.

Leica M10-R and 35mm APO-Summicron

I’ll conclude with this. To me, Leica has proved — over the last several years, but particularly in a 2021 in which it could release, back to back, both the 50mm Noctilux f/1.2 ASPH and the 35mm APO-Summicron — that it understands the modern photographer’s love/hate relationship with “perfection.” It *gets* our desire to create images that are half as enchanting as something Saul Leiter or Sergio Larrain would have captured in the 1950s — using the equipment available to them then. (Our skill and talent are, of course, quite different from theirs…)

The point is that the power and raw capabilities of modern sensors and modern lenses can bleed a little of the poetry from the pictures we take — which is one reason why we work so hard in Lightroom to achieve that paradoxical goal of making an image “film-like.”

To their immense credit, Leica — a company owned by a photographer and run by photographers, including the lens-designing genius Peter Karbe — wants to innovate in both directions. With the near simultaneous release of these two lenses, they have achieved making perfection and magic something other than antonyms. They have learned to drain my bank account but give me great pleasure through the tools they offer. They have held two seemingly opposing ideas in mind while retaining the ability to function. Oh, brother, have they ever.

John Buckley is a photographer in Wilson, WY and Washington, D.C. His Instagram is @tulip_frenzy, and his photography website is His photobook Pictures of U: Six Months in an Historic D.C. Neighborhood will be published in late 2021.

On Leica’s M10 Monochrom, And The Apogee Of Digital Black and White Photography

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on January 26, 2020 by johnbuckley100
Leica M10 Monochrom, 28mm Summicron

It has been a long time, but I can still remember the smell of the dark room, the odd feeling of being suffused in red light even as a print lay soaking in solution. I don’t miss processing black and white images, the chemical reek, the wrinkled fingertips, because fortunately digital photography makes it almost effortless to convert an image from color to black and white. And yet, since 2012, there has been another way of taking monochrome images. From the first moment Leica announced the Monochrom, which takes only black and white pictures, its purity appealed to me. It literally changed my life as a photographer.

I took the picture above the first day I laid my hands on what has become known as the M9 Monochrom, released in September 2012. For those who followed my journey using the original Monochrom – a journey so profound I wrote about it at several junctures — you may remember what a joy it was when the Monochrom was updated in April 2015 to what became known as the M Monochrom. Some Monochrom shooters resisted that transition, but I didn’t — I embraced the M Monochrom. Over time it became my favorite camera.

Those two cameras opened up an unforeseen dimension in my passion for photography. It’s not simply that the images each produced, coupled with Leica’s glorious lenses, rekindled my love of black and white photography. Their very limitations forced me to think about the act of photography in a different way. With a Leica rangefinder, you are already dealing with certain limitations — manual focus, until recently no ability to shoot with telephoto lenses. Taking away the color option was another, even more severe limitation. And yet it opened a world, and a way of seeing. And now, seven-plus years into the journey, the new M10 Monochrom has seemingly delivered the apogee of monochrome photography, the initial promise of that first black-and-white-only camera realized in what I can only describe as a thrilling manner. Before I get to this third generation Monochrom, let me tell you a little more about its two big brothers. The first was a poet, and the second was an athlete.

Leica M9 Monochrom, and 90mm Summicron

In 2014, I was fortunate to travel with my family to Botswana on a photographic safari, and I brought both the M-240 — the 2013 successor to the Leica M9 — and the M9 Monochrom. I shot color with the M-240, which having made the transition from a CCD to a CMOS sensor meant, for the first time with an M camera, being able to use long lenses via an adaptor. The Monochrom, however, was limited to a 135mm focal length. Because it was built on the M9 chassis and had a CCD sensor, it had no Live View and hence no way to use Leica’s superb telephoto lenses from the discontinued R platform. I quickly learned this wasn’t actually a limitation. I shot the image above with a 90mm M Summicron and the black and white images that combo captured are the only ones I choose to display on my photo site, or on my walls. It is as if, as a photographer, I visited Botswana with only black and white film, because the only images that matter to me, honestly, are the ones I returned with in monochrome.

I said that the original Monochrom was a poet, and I can’t analytically describe why other than to say there was something dreamy about the way it rendered images. The next generation Monochrom — the Monochrom M — was, as I said, more like an athlete. It happens that way sometimes in families. Because all Leicas Monochroms skip the step where a Bayer filter adds color pixels to the brew, they are able to serve up a purer distillation of grey shades, which means better high ISO shooting — with comparatively little noise or banding — than their color competitors. The second Monochrom had even better high ISO performance than the first one, and like the M-240 camera from which it was adapted, it was a workhorse. It could take long lenses. It seemed sturdier in the hand. The pictures it captured were amazing in their tonality and dynamic range, though as always with a Monochrom, because there were no color channels at all, if you blew out the highlights, there was nothing left, no data hiding in a red or green channel. (Another limitation of shooting with the Monochrom, and this one with no upside.)

Leica Monochrom M, with Leica R 70-180 zoom

In the summer of 2015, I brought the Monochrom M out West with me and used it with that same R telephoto lens that worked so well with the M-240. The picture above of Jackson Hole’s Sleeping Indian rock formation was shot at the 180mm focal length, and I have it in my office blown up to approximately 30×40. Few people would notice the difference between the original Monochrom images and those of its successor, which makes sense since they had much in common, including Leica lenses. It was when you were working with the files in Lightroom that you noticed a difference — the Monochrom M files in many ways superior to the original (better high ISO, at least as good dynamic range), but also missing a certain… something. Even as some Leica photographers bemoaned what was lost from the transition to a CMOS sensor, I put that out of my mind and concentrated instead on how much more versatile the M Monochrom was, how good it was in low light. It became, in so many ways, the camera I used more than any other, ever. Certainly, in 2019, the four-year old Monochrom M was the camera I clutched when leaving the house.

Leica Monochrom M, and 35mm Summilux

Cartier-Bresson referred to his Leica as an extension of his eye, and for months there last year, mine certainly seemed to be an extension of my arm. When I had the pleasure of spending a day with a man who is, perhaps, HC-B’s spiritual son, Rui Palha, I was able to wander the streets of Lisbon looking at the city the way he sees it, which is to say, entirely in black and white. While I had enjoyed using the M10 in the bright colors and sunsets of the Alhambra in Grenada, because I was with Rui — as poetic a monochrome photographer as there is on the planet — my mind jettisoned those color channels just like my camera had, and as we set out into the streets, my M10 was miles away, cozy in a seaside room. My beloved M Monochrom was in my hand.

Leica M Monochrom, 35mm Summilux

I don’t know how many pictures I took with that M Monochrom, but in the 55 months I owned it, it kept its position as my go-to camera even as Leica produced a number of new camera platforms, the SL (which I began using) and the Q, which I resisted. As it became obvious a new Monochrom had to be coming sometime — Leica had long missed its previous interval of 2.5 years between Monochrom — what I hoped for, honestly, was just an upgrade like the one between the M-240 and M10: a slightly smaller camera with an updated sensor, a further refinement of the Leica M digital rangefinder. I wanted the ability to travel with both the M10 and the M10 Monochrom and only have to bring one battery charger. I had zero expectations that Leica would boost the resolving power of the M10 Monochrom sensor from 24 megapixels to 40. Which was why the announcement earlier this month of just what the M10 Monochrom would be was like being hit by a thunderclap.

Leica M10 Monochrom, 28mm Summicron

The first picture at the top of this post, and the ones just above and below this paragraph, were taken Friday when, to my surprise, I wandered out of my office at lunchtime and found the city streets crowded with demonstrators. They became an opportunity for me to test out what kind of street camera the new M10 Monochrom really is.

Leica M10 Monochrom, 28mm Summicron

What was immediately notable about shooting with the M10 Monochrom was how delightful it is in the grip. (I remember receiving the M10 the day before Trump’s inauguration and using it two days later at the Women’s March, and it was a tactile revelation, a sense of a volume reduction to the Golden Mean — even as it was also clear what an upgrade in sensors the M10 had over the M-240.) By moving to a 40 megapixel sensor, it’s perhaps an unfair question to ask how the M10 Monochrom compares to its predecessor, but I should note that, while 35mm is my most comfortable focal length, having those extra megapixels has encouraged me to use the 28mm Summicron, and crop where necessary; I have, it now seems, pixels to spare. If I hadn’t been using that 28mm lens, I never would have gotten the first picture on this post, nor the one that concludes it below.

Leica M10 Monochrom, 35mm Summilux

The M10 Monochrom’s fastest shutter speed is 1/4000th of a second, but it has been grey in Washington these past few days and I was able to shoot the above wide open at ISO 160 — down from a base ISO of 320 on the M Monochrom — which protected highlights. I have been curious, at times, about the way the Maestro processor determines ISO when using Aperture Priority and Auto ISO, as I have over the past few days of testing. There were images that, had I not been using Auto ISO, I would have switched the external ISO dial (yay) to 400 or 800, only to discover that the camera’s brain decided the image was to be shot at ISO 160. I came to understand – duh – the Auto ISO is biased toward shooting at the widest possible dynamic range, which means the lowest usable ISO.

Leica M10 Monochrom, 35mm Summilux

I remember setting the ISO dial to 400 for the above shot, which was at f/5.6 @1/1500th. I’m curious whether the Auto ISO would have shot this at 160 and a faster shutter speed. I do know, however, that if you use Auto ISO when out at night, and take a shot you never would have even considered with the first-generation Monochrom, you won’t be disappointed. I won’t tax your patience with a series of images of dark alleys, but trust me when I say that shooting at ISO 10,000 produced images literally without noise.

Leica M10 Monochrom, 35mm Summilux

The above image was shot at ISO 400, on a corner so dark I could barely use the guy on the right’s glasses as the reference point for focusing. On my computer screen, it is clear how much latitude there is for making it as light as it’s posted here, or meaningfully darker but still with the two men distinct against the ambient lighting. It’s stunningly clean.

So, is the M10 Monochrom, with its amazing high ISO performance and subtle tonality in limited light, worth getting for that feature alone? No, of course not. At least not any more than one would buy a Noctilux simply because of its low-light performance; you get a Noctilux because you want that special look it provides, and the same is true for any Monochrom and this one in particular. In 2015, David Farkas of the Leica Store Miami did a test pitting the Leica M-240 against both the M Monochrom and the M9 Monochrom. His conclusion was the M-240 images converted into black and white were wonderful — but the M Monochrom’s were better at high ISO performance and dynamic range. I believe the smart testers — Jono Slack, Sean Reid and others — who say the M10 Monochrom has a likely two-stop advantage over the M10. Which translates into highly usable images shot at ISO 12,500 or even higher.

So does one actually, you know, need a 40 megapixel digital rangefinder than only shoots black and white? Of course not. But if the tonality of black and white images is your thing, I can’t imagine a camera shooting a shot like the one below — or better put, producing a file like the one below — with the same latitude and malleability in post-processing.

Leica M10 Monochrom, 28mm Summicron

It is absolutely true that I could have converted the below shot from one taken by the M10 and gotten an image that would look very much like this. Grey as the day was, it’s still daylight.

Leica M10 Monochrom, 28mm Summicron

The question is whether I would have seen the image in black and white, given the colorful Chinatown arch. By deliberately setting out today to take black and white images, the photo previewed in my minds’ eye had a very different set of values. Clearly one aspect of shooting with a Monochrom is an absolute embrace of the gestalt of black and white. But if black and white is your thing, and much of the time it is mine, then the M10 Monochrom is the best tool I know of for achieving your goal, short of going all in on a medium format or larger sensor.

It is said that because of the way the 40 megapixel Leica M10 Monochrom utilizes its pixel density without undermining it by first converting the image to color and then, in post-production, stripping the color away, it’s the equivalent of a 60 megapixel sensor or even higher. I’m not an engineer, but I can tell you that the detail visible on my computer screen when processing an M10 Monochrom file is like nothing else I’ve ever witnessed. I am just getting a handle on how detailed is what’s rendered by the 47 mp SL2, but early indications are that the M10 Monochrom renders even more visible detail.

Leica M10 Monochrom, 28mm Summilux

We started with an image from Friday’s lunchtime walk smack into a demonstration in the Nation’s Capital. If properly rendered by Tulip Frenzy, you should be able to see significant detail in the frieze above the nuns — even though the image was shot at only f/5.6. We end with this picture from this afternoon’s New Year parade put on by D.C.’s Chinese community. On my computer screen, I can read the signage on the parade reviewing stand, and glean every nuance of the painted archway. It’s impressive. No, it’s actually pretty amazing!

If black and white photography is why you get out of bed in the morning, the M10 Monochrom is the camera for you.

John Buckley’s images can be found on Instagram @tulip_frenzy.

Rethinking The Leica SL2 As A Camera For Street Photography

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on December 8, 2019 by johnbuckley100
Leica SL2 with Sigma 45mm f/2.8 L-Mount

For the better part of 15 years, I shot exclusively with Leica Ms. Small, discreet, you could lift them to your eye and take a picture on the street with no one noticing. To the extent people did notice, they often assumed it was some weird and non-threatening anachronism, a film camera from the last century, and not, as Leica’s digital rangefinders progressively became, a marvelously thought through and capable alternative approach to photography. I’d see street photographers with their big DSLRs that announced their arrival like they were driving up in a Hummer and would silently smile. I’ll never do that, I’d say to myself.

Leica SL2 with Sigma 45mm f/2.8 L-Mount

One of the limitations — if that’s what it is — of using a Leica M is that you have to shoot manually, as no automatic focus lens works with the rangefinder. But while my family would groan as I fiddled with the focus, and complain that they couldn’t hold their smiles any longer, in fact over time I learned how to focus as quickly and automatically with a manual lens as some photographers could with their big Nikons or Canons. And readers of this site may recall my recent posting about using a Leica M10 and a small 35mm Summicron lens to “shoot from the hip” in the Medina in Marrakech, taking street photos in a location where photography was difficult due to local sensibilities. I couldn’t have done that with a big DSLR.

Leica SL2 with SL35mm Summicron

In 2015, Leica announced the SL, a mirrorless camera system, and it promised to fill a gap in my needs. It was launched with a 24-90 zoom lens that early reviewers gasped over, a lens that promised to be as sharp as Leica’s prime lenses at every focal length, even if it was both slow (f/2.8-f/4) and cumbersome. That was okay, I had my M and Monochrom and a range of M lenses for the street, but with the large 24mp, full-frame SL and just that one zoom, for the first time, I had a camera — even if built like a tank — that really could do all the things an M couldn’t. It was a fantastic camera for landscape photography, even if big and heavy for hiking. It also was a great camera for action, sports, portraiture, even product photography. And because Leica brilliantly cast the new L-mount camera as a vehicle for using M lenses (far better than other mirrorless cameras), it was the answer to certain prayers: my 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux with its razor-thin focal plane was suddenly incredibly easy to use, given the SL’s bright electronic viewfinder.

Leica SL with SL 24-90 zoom

Suddenly, I could become a proper landscape photographer. Having an SL opened up a new world. I could use the amazing 90-280 zoom lens for wildlife photography. I could go to Iceland and shoot long exposure images, as in the above shot taken this past August. But I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, use it in the street. For that I had my Ms — small, light, and perfect for that use.

Leica SL2 and 75mm Noctilux, f/1.25

Just before Thanksgiving, I upgraded my SL to the new SL2, a 47 megapixel camera with IBIS — image stabilization built into the camera housing. It was launched with great early reviews from Jono Slack, a photographer who gets to test Leica’s cameras before they’re released. Jono has managed to keep the respect of Leica’s small, argumentative and opinionated users, because he is, first and foremost, a photographer, and even if his images are meant by Leica to stimulate the Pavlovian drool, we believe him when he raves about a camera, as he did with the SL2. Eminent tester Sean Reid, who does not so rave about cameras, but rather puts them through a series of sometimes eye-numbing tests, did so with this one. Even more mainstream sites spent time with the SL2 and gushed. It is telling, though, that three weeks ago when I picked mine up at the Leica Store DC, and one of the members of the team there asked where I was going to take the camera to try it out, I said I had planned to take it to the Library of Congress, Washington’s most beautiful interior, and not out onto the street. I just couldn’t think of the SL2 as a street camera.

Leica SL2 with 75mm Noctilux

For while the SL was significantly upgraded — twice the megapixels as the initial SL, with IBIS, an improved LCD and EVF, with an improved menu layout (which is saying something — Leica should be revered almost as much for their approach to software as they rightfully are for their lenses), I didn’t really think of the SL2 as a camera I’d take out into the streets. Oh, sure for static objects, the new camera was amazing.

Leica SL2 and 75mm Noctilux

And I took it out for a spin as an urban landscape camera.

Leica SL2 with SL 16-35 Zoom

But I still just couldn’t think of it as a street camera. Contrary to wishful speculation, the SL2 is not smaller than the original SL — while changing form factor and becoming ever so slightly more comfortable in the hand, it’s still a big, heavy camera and — here’s the key issue — the lenses are heavy. Even that range of prime Summicron lenses (all f/2) make the combined size and weight of the SL2 if not the equivalent of a Hummer, then at least, when posted up against using an M, like going out into the city streets looking for a parking space while driving an SUV. The M in this metaphor, of course, is like going out and parking with a small German Smart car.

Leica SL2 and Sigma 45mm f/2.8 L-Mount

Yet in the time since the original SL was launched, Leica did something bold and brave. They announced, with Panasonic/Lumix and Sigma, something called the L-Mount Alliance. The two Japanese camera companies would both be able to compete with Leica using a common lens coupling, enabling all SL lenses (and with an adaptor, Leica M and R lenses too) to be used with their cameras, and vice versa. Panasonic released two extremely capable L-mount cameras, the S1 (24mp) and S1r (47mp). And in fact, Leica at least temporarily lost some number of SL users to the higher megapixel S1r. I’ll admit, I was tempted too, as I knew last summer I was going to Iceland on a landscape photography excursion and I really hoped Leica would release the SL2, with its higher megapixel count, in time. They didn’t. And as the photo of the waterfall above can attest, the original SL is still, in 2019, a helluva camera.

Leica SL2 and Sigma 45mm f/28 L-Mount

But perhaps the most interesting development in the nascent L-Mount alliance was Sigma’s release of a set of new lenses, preparatory to their release of a Foveon-based sensor camera sometime in the future. One of the first lenses they put into the market was their 45mm f/2.8 Contemporary lens, which with its L-Mount is compatible with the Leica SL2. For the first time, a small and light autofocus lens could be used with SL camera. And it cost approximately $500, which compared to Leica lenses — typically, $4000 or more — is a bargain. I bought one in anticipation of the SL2 release, and when I put it on the SL2 and compared the size to my M10 with a 35mm Summilux, it no longer seemed so large. Hmmm.

Leica SL2 and Sigma 45mm f/2.8

Remember when I said that I could shoot the manual focus M lenses as fast as most people can shoot with autofocus lenses? That’s true. But it was a revelation taking the SL2 and the small Sigma out into D.C.’s streets. It did not feel like I was driving a Hummer. To be sure, it didn’t feel, as an M feels, like what Henri Cartier-Bresson referred to as an extension of his eye. But the SL2 as a street camera suddenly seemed to work.

Leica SL2 and Sigma 45mm f/2.8

Yes, I know, I could have been using the SL and Leica M lenses all along. But why would I do that, when the M is such a superior and small camera for street use? And in fact, when I went out with the SL2 yesterday in December light, I did bring an M lens — the 21mm Summilux — as well as the larger SL 35mm Summicron. These offered great possibilities.

Leica SL2 and 21mm M Summilux, cropped to a square

As I walked into the National Portrait Gallery, I had the Sigma autofocus lens on the camera, and caught the picture below. I think if I’d had an M, I would have been able to get both the sign and her feet into the picture, as I’m more fluid and experienced with an M and 35mm combo. But still, what a capable street camera this is.

Leica SL2 and Sigma 45mm f/2.8

Once inside, I discovered there was a free performance of the Washington Ballet for children, and I quickly switched to the faster 35mm SL Summicron.

Leica SL2 and SL35mm Summicron

It is an amazing combination, rendering color brilliantly. It focuses quickly. It is as good a lens, for color or black and white, as Leica has ever produced.

Leica SL2 and SL 35mm Summicron

It was immediately adaptable to the conditions. Just like my Ms! Importantly, in an environment with many photographers — parents with their iPhone, pros with their big rigs — the SL2 felt moderate in size, not a bazooka.

Leica SL and M 21mm Summilux

I walked over to the National Gallery of Art and used both the 21mm manual focus M 21mm lens and the autofocus SL 35mm lens.

Leica SL2 and SL35mm Summicron

I wanted to get to the Capitol building as the sun was going down on the Washington Mall, so I hustled over there just as the moon became visible. Of course, if you are thinking of landscape photographer, the SL2 is an astonishingly capable camera.

Leica SL2 and SL35mm Summicron

The revelation of the day was the the SL2 can absolutely work as an urban camera, out on the streets. Leica should add a series of Elmarit f/2.8mm lenses to their roadmap, because the Sigma 45mm lens shows how a small autofocus lens can be used in the same way M lenses on M cameras have always been used.

Leica SL2 and Sigma 45mm f/2.8

With the SL2 the stars — and moon! — have aligned. It is very much the camera I hoped for, and more. All the new features make it a better camera than the already very high performing SL. I found the new function button layout to be intuitive and, with new menu options, even faster than the SL. The big revelation for me is that in certain travel situations, I no longer have to choose between taking an SL or taking an M. I can take an SL and use it like an M, with both small manual lenses and the small autofocus Sigma. I know there are SL users who were already doing the former. The addition of the Sigma autofocus lens, though, is at least as important a new development as all of the added bells and whistles of the SL2. Leica, if you are listening — to paraphrase an appeal from someone, I forget who — get cracking on a series of Elmarit SL lenses.

Leica SL2 and M 35mm Summilux

The SL system is positioned for the future in an incredibly exciting way. I will never turn my back on my Ms. It is the camera system that feels most natural in my hand, pressed to my eye, pressed to my heart. But the SL2 is an astonishingly capable and adaptable camera, and with it, Leica’s future is bright.

Further Adventures In Black and White

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on March 29, 2019 by johnbuckley100

A few weeks ago I wrote about my revelation — honestly, it was an epiphany — that the way to think about “black and white photography” was to ignore the description of it as “monochrome,” and instead to press down really hard on the blacks and the whites. Simple stuff, obvious to many, an eye opener for me.

My rediscovery of taking black and white pictures, as I have mentioned before, came when Leica introduced, in 2012, the Monochrom, a digital camera that records images without adding an array of reds, greens and blues to the initial capture of blacks, whites and grey. Prior to the introduction of the Monochrom, seven years ago this coming September, I had not understood that digital photography is based on an initial imprint of black and white on the sensor, and that a gazillionth of a second later, what is typically known as a Bayer array of color is pressed down upon it. (Engineers and sensor experts may have a more exact description, but that’s the way most people should think of this process that takes place in tiny fractions of a second. Color is, typically, added to the black and white picture first pressed upon the sensor.) And yet the Monochrom, with its reference to monochromatic photography, really is a misnomer, given everything we’ve learned.

If you follow street photographers on Instagram, surely you’ve noticed images like the ones above and below, where there is almost a chiaroscuro effect, deep blacks next to bright light. It’s a thing. This approach bears a relationship to all of the black and white images we’ve looked at over the years. Yet the actual strategy of capturing contrapuntal blacks and whites — with entire regions of the image blacked out — is, I think, something that has at least been emphasized in the digital era, and championed by a new cohort of amazing street photographers.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I had gone to a photo workshop taught by the estimable Alan Schaller who is, in my opinion, the strongest exemplar of this approach. Instagram seems to agree, given his hundreds of thousands of followers. In the previous post, I alluded to his technique of dialing down exposure compensation so that images are radically underexposed, thus enabling darks to get darker, with what remains in the light intensified. It is, to my eyes, an attractive approach. Practical, if you shoot a Monochrom, which is brutally punishing if you overexpose what’s in the light. But as attested by all these pictures you’ve been seeing taken in subways and tunnels, where the light/dark juxtaposition can be, and often is, stunning, this is not a trick, a gimmick, a fad. It’s not even a trick like emphasizing bokeh with fast lenses (or a clever iPhone), which can get tiresome if overdone. This technique is simply an intensification of timeless black and white photography — itself a timeless art form — and in many ways its apogee.

There is drama in black and white photography if what is dark and what is light are each dialed up in opposition. Polarization is terrible for society, but man, does it work in photography. In the film and darkroom era, much of this manipulation of darks and lights took place when the enlarger was burning the image onto a piece of treated paper prior to its chemical bath. In the digital age, we’re given more leeway to capture it this way inside the camera, in these malleable, deeply forgiving files, with the picture’s actualization coming in post-processing in Lightroom. (Gary Winogrand once casually talked about how photography lets you make mistakes, and things could still look good, but digital photography offers an entirely wider permission structure.)

Penumbral photography, as Nabokov would probably call it, is when the counterpoint between light and dark falls in shadow. And so we go out into the street searching for shadows, for the drama of light falling in grids and patterns. We don’t really know why this is harder to achieve in color, given that one reason we all so love Caravaggio is because of the color that emerges from the gloom, not just the light. But the answer is, I guess, that in photography, it is just easier to make this work within the limitations of black and white.

When photographers typically are complimented by civilians, the nice, easy thing they hear is, “You have a good eye.” In recent weeks, I’ve been going out into the city seeking places where there is the clearest possible delineation between light and dark. That’s what I’ve been looking for. It’s not just a function of seeking out content and subjects that matter, though of course they do. The desire is to find light, and dark, in a formation where a human emerges from that meeting place.

Along the way, we’ve made pictures that would, six weeks ago, still have been fun. But by newly emphasizing what is black, things have, to our eyes, simply gotten more interesting. The picture above is something I would have enjoyed taking anytime over the last few years. I probably would have been pleased with the composition. But because it is now not taken as a “monochrome” image, but as black and white, I think it moves higher up in my own list of favorite images.

I would have been happy to have taken the above image because of the way it simply captures the baby looking at the camera, the little fella with the beret standing to the right, the reflection to the left. Yet because I went into the process thinking anew, because each of the 10 zones of black, white and grey have at least some representation, the picture comes out, to my eye, more interesting.

One of my favorite photographers, Rene Burri, is perhaps most famous for his pictures of people taken from above, freezing them in time. I love the idea of standing unseen and capturing the drama within the diorama before my eyes. Emphasizing the light and dark, though, opens up new possibilities. And of course, the little girl in white going down the steps makes the picture.

“Good things happen when light meets dark” is an aphorism for photographers, whether they shoot in color or black and white. Thinking of this in a wholly new way, thinking in the binary of BLACK and WHITE with shades of grey the connective tissue, the emollient; understanding that, as Schaller put it, there is no bad light, if you just think in terms of the contrast between shades of it, is liberating. We are seeing the world in a new way, and we find that thrilling.

If you wish to come along the journey with me, my Instagram is @tulip_frenzy. And if you’d like to see more work, my photography site is entitled John Buckley: In Black and White and Color.

Don Draper’s M2

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on April 8, 2013 by johnbuckley100

What does it say about Leica’s newfound, once-again brand hotness that in the season premier of Mad Men last night, Don Draper gives his doctor friend a Leica M2, which his agency represents?  We easily could imagine the writers having decided to have Draper’s agency talents dedicated to breaking Canon or Nikon cameras on these shores — jokes about overriding Made In Japan cultural limitations, etc.  Nope, it was the venerable German brand that Don has so many of in an office storage closet that he can give one to his neighbor.  (Who is, by the way, the first actual friend outside work we ever remember him having.  But that’s a post for someone else…)

How many Leicaphiles, waiting impatiently for the M they ordered months ago from their dealer, had the thought: if only it were so easy?  If only a friend had closets full of the new Leica to give away…  Either an example of brilliant product placement by Leica’s marketing department, or Matthew Weiner is a Leica user, or the show runners realize how hot Leica is, once again, as so many clamor for their products.

On Anton Corbijn’s “The American”

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on September 12, 2010 by johnbuckley100

The first Leica I ever saw in use was when Anton Corbijn took photos of Gang of Four for a piece I wrote on them in the Soho Weekly News.  I remember him from those days as a tall, quiet presence who made full use of the non-threatening size of a Leica M — what would it have been? an M3? this was 1980, I think — to take these spontaneous, intimate fully realized photos of the band. Nothing staged or artificial, though those qualities would later creep in when he took album cover photos of U2 and the like.  (Not a criticism; that’s the different nature of an album cover versus photojournalism.)

The photo of Gang of Four that ran in the Soho News piece I wrote showed them isolated against a crowd walking up 5th Avenue from the old WEA offices where the interview took place — a perfect example, though I didn’t know it at the time, not having yet been rebitten by my teenage photography bug, of bokeh, the Japanese word for selective focus, the image a mix of what is perfectly in focus, and the rest somewhat blurred. (See the post directly below this one.)

What brings this to mind is having seen last night The American, Anton’s thriller starring George Clooney.  It is a fairly ridiculous film, but as a work of visual art by a photographer now given use of a movie camera, it is brilliant. Orson Welles once said something to the effect that making a film gives a director the chance to play with the best toy train kit ever, and Corbijn makes full use of his opportunity to bring something visually wondrous to the screen. Some of the images from the small Italian city Clooney finds himself in could have been framed by Henri Cartier-Bresson, another Leica photographer. The landscapes are framed with a still-photographer’s eye.  A magnificent visual experience, even if the plot is silly.

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