8.09.2010

An irreverent, emotional and nostalgic review of the Leica M9 and the latest 35mm Summilux.

Leica M9 with latest version 35mm f1.4 Summilux M lens.  The current flagship of the Leica M Series digital cameras.

It's very important for you, dear reader, to understand that I don't review lenses and cameras in the analytical way that scientists do.  I'm interested in how sharp an optic is but I'm also interested in how it handles.  What the ancient greeks called "haptics".  What modern culture refers to as ergonomics.  On another level I'm constantly trying to figure out where an lens fits into the way I see the world and how I would use it.  I put the lens on an appropriate (and sometimes also inappropriate) camera and go out and shoot and shoot.  I make a mental notes of the things I like and the things I don't.  I look at the final photographs.  I even pixel peep.  But here's the deal in 2010:  We have to look at the whole system, we can't really assess the lens on it's own.

If every lens could be fitted to a very high resolution camera such as a Nikon D3x we could designate that camera as our test camera and make some sort of objective appraisals.  But there's no way Leica M lens or Olympus SHG lens would work on the majority of cameras that have deeper distance between lens flange and sensor.  In the days of film testing was easier because the tester could choose one kind of film and use it in every camera.  It afforded a good objective measure.  Now we have to evaluate a given lens in the context of its intended "system".  That would include the body and sensor as well as the firmware and, finally, the RAW conversion software.

Finally, FTC housekeeping:  1.  I am not an employee or subcontractor of Leica.  2.  I have not been given or promised any product of consideration in exchange for writing this review.  3.  I have been loaned the lens being reviewed directly from Leica and they expect me to return it promptly.  4.  They are not holding my family hostage in order to leverage positive comments.  5.  I borrowed the M9 body from Precision Camera in Austin, Texas in order to test the system.  Points 1, 2, and 4.  pertain to Precision Camera, as well.  In the spirit of total honesty I have, over the years, walked out with at least a dozen of their promotional, ball point pens.  I asked the staff if I could take the pens.  I think they were just being polite when they told me it was okay.......

What I am  ostensibly reviewing is the brand new, best in the universe, 35mm Summilux f1.4 lens that was just released by Leica in July of 2010.  What I am in reality reviewing is my long term, on and off again, affair with Leica M series rangefinders, and the confusing and perhaps ultimately useless pursuit of perfection.  The question at the heart of every recent Leica discussion, if distilled down to its core, is:  "Does it make sense to spend a small fortune in order to get the last 5% difference in ultimate performance?"  It's not a logical exercise.  I will presume I just lost all the people with accounting and business degrees.  And yet, there are people in the world who are sensitive to the last 5% of anything.  You see it in quarter million dollar Bentley cars,  half million dollar home sound systems and in any number of pursuits where craftsmanship, art and technology become intertwined.  We could just as easily be talking about shotguns or yachts.  But, as the world expands the opportunity to have brushes with perfection seem to be shrinking.  And where does the Leica M system fit into the whole mix?

I am not new to Leica M cameras and lenses by any stretch of the imagination.  I wrote an article for Photo.net back in 2001 that sparked nearly a decade of comments and, for me, hundreds of e-mails from Leica lovers and haters around the world.  You can read it here:  http://photo.net/equipment/leica/m6

I was asked to review the M8 and three Summarit lenses back in 2008 and you can read that here:  http://photo.net/equipment/leica/summarit-m-lenses/review  In the 1990's and the early  years of this century I shot many of my corporate event photographs with a system that consisted of several variants of the Leica M6 ttl and a bag of M lenses that included:  21 Elmarit, 28 Elmarit, 35mm Summilux 1.4 (two versions ago) 50 Summicron, 50 Summilux,  75mm Summilux and a 90 Summicron.  Over the years I probably shot somewhere near 100,000 frames through various Leicas.  I started out with an M3 and a dual range Summicron and have owned most of the models between that and the M7.  Once I started shooting digital for clients it became harder and harder to justify shooting and developing film.  But handling the Leica M's is like riding a bicycle.....

Belinda at TacoDeli on Barton Skyway, Austin, Texas.

Let's cut right to the chase.  I'm not a big fan of 35mm focal length lenses on full frame cameras.  I don't currently own a prime 35m lens for any of my cameras.  They're there on the zoom lenses but so are a lot of other focal lengths that I seem to like better.  Give me a 50mm any day.  But......the above photo is what 35mm 1.4 lenses do very well and why they are so important to photojournalists.   They show unfiltered context.  A 50 mm lens would exclude so much more of the frame.  A 24 or 28 would include so much that the lack of filtering would,  I think, reduce the impact of a single subject within a frame.  What the Leica lens adds to this is twofold.  It adds a fast aperture, 1.4, which yields a very narrow depth of field for this focal length.  In some ways it tricks the viewer.  Most of us are used to shots taken with lenses of this angle of view having much deeper focus.  The quick fall off of focus incorrectly cues one part of our brains to regard this as a telephoto shot.   The second thing the Leica M lens adds is sharpness at this wide open aperture.  That reinforces the power of the illusion created by the limited depth of field.

I don't usually do this but I included a 100% crop of Belinda's right eye so I could show you the sharpness from this shot, which was handheld at a 1/125th of a second.

I don't put much credence in 100% crops like this on the web because I think they are pretty meaningless.  If I were being rigorous I'd find a file shot at ISO 100 instead of ISO 400 and one that was made on a tripod instead of handheld after a cup or two of TacoDeli's strong and delicious coffee  (also not holding my family ransom....).  But I do see impressive performance for a wide open aperture.Here's another example,  it's an image of my friend, Will van Overbeek, being a bit silly at Trianon Coffee House.  If you blow it up a bit you'll see how detailed his face is and how quickly and elegantly the background goes out of focus.  
Internationally famous advertising and editorial photographer, Will van Overbeek, playing to the camera at Trianon Coffee House in Westlake Hills.


This is a jpeg that right out of the camera.  We're sitting in a coffee house with windows on two sides and mixed lighting coming from florescents and MR 39's in the ceiling.  While the M9 is sometimes critiqued for color balance issues I sure didn't see that in my tests.  The colors were very accurate.

So, the reason to own this lens is to do sharp images with defocused backgrounds.  The selling and value proposition is that it is sharper, constrastier and has other, less tangible but no less valuable, optical characteristics that other optics can't match.  Can I prove it?  Nope.  I can compare it with shots I've taken on the copy I had from two generations back (the first aspherical)  and from images I've taken with a 35mm Summicron but most of my images from those optics are on film and, after scanning and film quality constraints I think we'd be comparing apples and oranges.  I think it's an impressive lens.

I shot several hundred test shots with the lens and I did dumb stuff with it too.  Like shooting at meaningless apertures like f8 and f5.6.  Most lenses do well there.  Here is another image.  This is a shot of me taken by fellow professional photographer and part time psychiatrist, Keith Kesler.  It's his first time shooting a digital Leica M.  He usually shoots with Nikon D3x's.  But he nailed focus like he'd been using it for a while.......
Your somber author, sitting patiently while another photographer plays with the "Leica on Loan."

And to prove it,  I've also included a 100% crop of my left eye in the image directly below......

I focus with the other eye.  I use this one to look seriously at people.....

Uh-Oh,  need to do something about those bushy eyebrows.......  But you can see that the lens is very sharp and well behaved wide open.  By the time you get to my ears they are going out of focus and the background is wonderfully unsharp.

Sure it was 102 degrees today but who could resist tooling around town with a black M9 and a 35mm Summilux.  I shot the image below at the Texas capitol.  The young woman was there to have photos taken for her quinceanera (sweet sixteen celebration).  I used an aperture of around f3 at 1/1500th of a second in the open shade of the building.
An innocent bystander at the state capitol building gets included in the Leica mania.


It's got the two attributes that will make this lens one that journalist will be able to rationalize:  High subject sharpness with lots of context and it falls out of focus quickly and elegantly.....

Just for grins I thought I'd snap a few interior shots at the capitol.  I didn't know what to expect.  You assume that great depth of field is generally required for architectural shots but I just went ahead and shot it wide open so I could handhold at a reasonable shutter speed.  I was fairly amazed when I went for the 100% crop to show detail.  See below:
I'd focused on the second level of the rotunda so I grabbed the 100% er from there......

But then I decided to shoot some stuff outside and to see what a lens like this might look like at it's middle apertures.  I was thinking that you'd be a little nuts to buy a lens that's this expensive if you weren't going to use the speed but I figured if I bought one it would end up being my only 35mm so I'd hope that it was at least as good as my older Summicron when stopped down to f6.7......

Here's our magnificent state capitol from just across the street.....

And here's the 100% crop of the Lady of Liberty on the top of the building.....

The one thing I can see in the englarged portion of the image is some aliasing.  This is happens because Leica has used a compromise that I endorse.  They are using an 18 megapixel, full frame, sensor from Kodak that DOES NOT have an anti-aliasing filter on the front.  We've seen this in previous Kodak professional cameras like the DCS 760 and the SLR/n and it's brethren.  Here's the compromise:  You get incredibly sharp files.  Much sharper than my Canon 5Dmk2.  Maybe as sharp as the Nikon D3x.  Incredible amount of detail.  But, with some scenes you might get some aliasing artifacts.  These can be removed via software.  It's a design feature that allows you to squeeze out the full optical potential of the Leica lenses.

Then I decided to do something decidedly naughty.  I took the Leica 35mm Aspherical Summilux off the M9 body.  I walked across the hallowed halls of the Kirk Tuck Studio and, using an adapter, I put the Leica lens on the front of another manufacturer's body.......The Olympus Pen EPL.  $500 body,  meet $5,000 lens.  A perfect fit.


With the crop factor the 35mm makes a snazzy 70mm portrait lens equivalent for my Pen EPL.  It works perfectly!!!!  With live view magnification I can zoom in to check critical focus and then go back to reckless shooting.  I walked into Medici Coffee shop later today with the LeicOly around my neck.  I ran smack dab into a committed and serious Leica aficionado and watch his eyes bug out.  He stammered, glared at me and then walked away.  It was priceless.   But it's fun.  Mating one of the world's finest lenses with a camera body that's one step up from a point and shoot.  But such a nice step up.  I didn't spend a lot of time doing comparison photos because, again, it's apple and oranges.  The focal length changes so the lens philosophy changes.  The sensor on the EPL is the ultimate limiter in the equation.  It's good but it sure doesn't challenge the Leica optic.  You can see than when you look at the relentless detail in the M9 files....All you see in the EPL files is relentlessly beautiful files....
Belinda.  In the garden.  Camera:  Olympus EPL.  Lens:  Leica  35mm 1.4 Summilux      Aspherical with adapter.  Wide open.  ISO 200.

I've been giving you 100 % crops all along.  Why stop now?
100 % crop.  Belinda's Eye.  Olympus EPL.  Leica 35mm Summilux.

Long and rambling wrap up.  These reviews never seem to end well, do they?  You wind up thinking, "What the hell is he trying to say?"  "Should I buy the lens or not?"  "Will this purchase launch my career as an artist?"  "Is there a god?"  "What's on the other side of infinity?"

Well,  I'll wrap it up for you as neatly as I can.  This lens is probably the finest high speed 35mm focal length in the entire world at this point in time.  Nikon has a 35mm 1.4 and I used to own it.  It was designed in the 1970's and it was well thought of in its day.  Now,  ho hum.  It's still reasonably good and you'll need good technique to make images that better it but if you do use good technique it shows its age.  Canon introduced a 35mm 1.4 in 2002 but it doesn't get a lot of attention.  It's huge and I'm sure it's pretty good.  The two friends who own them tell me they vignette like crazy and that the corners are less than great at wide open.  I'm betting I'd be pretty happy with it.

Everyone makes a 35mm f2 and all of them are pretty good but you don't get the same look at 2 that you do at 1.4.   That sharp subject, soft background, ample context look is so different.  Especially to a generation of zoom lens users.

Okay, so the lens rocks.  It's three times the price of a Canon or Nikon 35mm 1.4 but so what?  There are ten dollar steaks and sixty dollar steaks and there are people who can tell the difference.  And who are willing to pay for the difference.  Why should it be any different with lenses?

The magical thing is the interplay between the rangefinder concept and optical supremacy.  Neither is obviously superior on their own.  Today I remembered why I liked the M's so much.  When you focus with a well calibrated rangefinder and a moderately wide angle lens you are getting an acuity of focus that is largely unbeatable.  You can nail the exact spot you want sharp with no second guessing of the little computer.  Once you set an exposure in a wide scene with a medium f-stop you can shoot and shoot without touching the focusing ring and you'll come away with sharp images.  I instantly abandoned the need to check AF.  I hit the rangefinder once for a medium distance and I could concentrate on framing and know that I'd always be in sharp focus.

And when I focused right up to the close focus limit of the lens I knew that I could shoot wide open and not be concerned that the lens might be soft, or that it might be front or back focusing.  I could count on a zone of sharpness that I don't encounter with lesser lenses in the same way.

But it's all part of a system.  The lens is great, yes.  But it would be meaningless if left to the untender mercies of the typical anti-aliasing filter.  You win some you loose some.  Especially with optical systems.  Nikons and Canons rarely show any sort of aliasing.  But when you compare their files to a camera that doesn't include that one step of unsharpening (later fixed in software, kinda) you can see just how sharp a lens can really be.  And that may be the unfair measure in all of this.  It is possible that the Canon 35mm 1.4 is remarkably sharp.  But with the influence of the AA filter we'll never know in the same way we know that the Leica lens is bringing the A+ game to the table.

So, would I buy it? Would I invest in the system?  I'll admit.  I can't justify the $9000 for the camera and the $4900 for the lens at this point.  I would also need the 90 aspheric and the 50mm Summilix and a back up body and.........just figure on around $30,000 for a system for me.  I know the lenses outperform my Canon zoom lenses.  They do.  You can see it.  But the argument becomes, "Is it enough of a difference to make a difference?"  And there, you have me.  It depends on what you do.

If money were no object I'd own everything in the Leica catalog in a heartbeat.  I'd sign a contract not to touch another brand as long as they kept producing.  But nothing in this world is so cut and dry.  I'm not another David LaChapelle, and, at 54 years old I finally have to admit that I'm not the next Richard Avedon.  I'm pretty much a regional photographer with a mortgage, a bunch of really nice regional and local clients, a kid to put through college and feeling the impact of the 2009 recession.  I forgot to get a trust fund.  Haven't won the lottery.  Didn't take that "self-actualization" class that would have helped me charge a million dollars a picture.  So when I look at my budget and then I look at the gear I want there is always a disconnect.  Let's call it a chasm.  I want the best stuff in the world but I'm only going to see the difference when I shoot in a way that I don't usually shoot.  I love the look of the 35mm Summilux wide open but I rarely shoot that way.  I love the way the Leica lens and a camera blow up.  But my clients are looking for work that fills magazine pages and websites.

Here's my final distillation:  If you are just getting started as a commercial photographer and you don't have rich parents to support you,  cover your eyes and run away before the siren song of the world's best lenses snares you and drag you in.  You can't rationalize this in any commercial way.... But... if this is your passion and you were lucky enough, through advantageous birth or clever choices or hard won professional acclaim so that this kind of expenditure won't cause you lost sleep, panic or indecision; jump in with both feet.  This stuff is wonderful.  Having the best lens in a focal length in the world puts the onus on you though.  You have no more technical  excuses not to come back with spectacular stuff.

But you'd better like working with rangefinder cameras because that's the only way you'll squeeze that last 2 to 5% of perfection out of these lenses.  And it takes practice.  In many ways all the DSLR's we normally use are just variations of a Toyota Camry or a Lexus.  They are nice and well behaved and easy to drive.  But driving a six speed Ferrari well actually takes skill, practice and talent.  More people wreck high performance cars in the first month of ownership than any other type of car!!!!  You won't wreck your Leica but it will demand a level of skill you haven't had to deal with yet if you've always worked with DLSR's and AF and AE.  The rewards?  The Leica system may just be in the midst of recapturing the high end of the 35mm format world and the medium format camera world at the same time.  Amazing.  These aren't your father's Leicas.  And yet, in every sense, they are.

For me?  I'm pretty amazed by one thing this week.  In years past I would have been filled with adrenalin to be handed the current top Leica and their ultimate 35mm lens to test.  Excited and filled with inspiration.  But I think I'm over an important hurdle.  I find that I just don't care about sharpest and best any more.  I'm not rushing after the best technical gear.  I'm pretty happy just looking for the images.  For the emotion of the image.  For the power of a connection.  And I'm finding that, while it's nice to have the very best......it's in no way "mission critical" for my work.  YMMV.

Go out and have a great week.  Shoot some stuff, just for fun.

   Red cup at Taco Deli.  Austin, Texas.