8.02.2021

A concentrated adjustment period for a new lens. Working three days out in the field with the Leica 24-90mm.

Yes. I can get close and sharp while handholding the camera and lens.

I've been working with the Leica cameras for months now. Enough to know that I like the color and the way the sensor images tonal structures and detail. Over time I've come to appreciate the differences between the SL2 and the SL cameras. The first is amazingly detailed, with lots of highly accurate but less contrasty color. The older SLs have a nice bite to them and they handle higher ISOs very, very well. Not necessarily noise free but with noise that looks more authentically photographic than some other cameras. In a few ways the color science of the SL reminds me a bit of the color I was able to get from the Pentax K1 cameras I played with back in 2019. At any rate, if I'm shooting raw files either of the Leica cameras can be tweaked in post processing to match each other in overall looks. 

Current prejudices among consumers might point to the SL2 being the "better" camera by dint of having twice the resolution and the "all important" in body image stabilization but I don't really see it that way. I think both are amazing tools but each has its own distinct look and, frankly, if you can't get most jobs done with 24 megapixels you might want to revisit the foundations of your photographic techniques. 

As to image stabilization... I have mixed feelings. I've seen what I.S. can do when I'm trying to handhold a camera at a longer shutter speed but I don't see much advantage to the feature when shooting at the kinds of shutter speeds that freeze human subjects in motion. Once I go "north" of 1/125th of second I question whether there is any advantage to I.S. at all and also wonder if, at a certain point, the feature begins to degrade sharpness.

This is the second group of cameras I've used with a blatant disregard for the limitations of higher ISO settings. I'm equally happy with the Panasonic S1 and S1H cameras at ISOs as high as 12,500 and I use the Leicas in the same way. I use the SL cameras with the auto-ISO setting to a range of 50-12,500 and now set the lowest shutter speed to 1/125th of a second. With full sun shining I set the lowest shutter speed to 1/320th of a second. At these shutter speeds I'm fairly certain I can hand hold most lenses up to about 100mm without losing sharpness. 

Now, that's "losing sharpness" as a result of my hands shaking not as a result of subject movement. Image stabilization will do nothing to help you with lack of sharpness caused by lower shutter speeds and subject movement. That's a whole different thing! With most normal, day-to-day human activities I'm happy with using 1/250th of a second. A fast runner might require 1/1,000th to get good sharpness and hummingbird wings? Much faster shutter speeds. Image stabilization will do zero to freeze those fluttering little wings. 

So, over time I've come to understand how to use the Leica cameras well enough. I get their strengths and weaknesses (you are NOT going to get good continuous AF in video with either camera no matter how much you might wish for it). I'm happy with what I'm getting and I've even figured out how to make the batteries last for hours and hours. I'm good with the image settings and I'm actually surprised at how much dynamic range both of the camera have. 

The last step in the process was to find an everyday use lens that would match up well with the camera sensors and perhaps add a generous dollop of sharpness and contrast along with nice out of focus area rendering (which some refer to as "bokeh"). This led me through the maze to the Leica Vario-Elmarit SL 24-90mm f2.8-4.0 Asph zoom lens.

The 24-90 is not lightweight, not cheap, not affordable, not small and doesn't have a convenient front filter size. I bought a brand new one with a no little measure of trepidation. I don't mind wasting some money, now and then, on a dream and a promise, but I do mind wasting too much money duplicating something I might be able to get for a lot less money. But in some pursuits you might have to pay a lot more to get what will seem like a small quantum of performance difference to most people. 

I wanted to see just how symbiotic a genuine, modern Leica lens would be with the two different Leica SL series cameras. Would it complete the equation for best performance or was the mythology just a bunch of crap?

The lens was handed over to me last Wednesday, the day before I embarked on my third day of photography doing an ad campaign for the Texas Hill Country Wine folks. An association of some 64 winemakers sprinkled through the central Texas region; mostly to the West of Austin. I packed light. Well as light as you can pack with a heavy camera and a two and a half pound zoom lens. I actually packed two bags out of an abundance of caution. The one bag; my "intended use system" had in it the SL2 and the new Leica zoom. The second bag had an SL, a Panasonic 24-105mm lens, filters and a bunch of extra batteries. And the little Fuji X100V. Just for fun stuff. The second bag would stay in the car unless tragedy struck the first line system. 

A whimsical approach to wine somewhere out on Hwy. 290.

I left the house early on Thursday and made the trek all the way out to Kerrville, Texas, about 30 miles past the fast-growing wine epicenter of Fredericksburg, Texas. It's about a two hour drive from Austin. I'd grabbed a coffee and some water from Trianon Coffee on my way out of the neighborhood and NPR on the radio kept me company all the way to Kerrville. I was heading for the Kerrville Hills winery where I would get to document the arrival of huge tubs of freshly picked grapes and then the process of pouring the whole grapes into a giant hopper which then propels the grapes into the enormous grape crushing machine. 

From there the grape juice heads into large, temperature controlled tanks and then begins its journey from grape juice to finished wines. There was a lot to shoot and most of it took place outdoors. On a hot and steamy day.  

I got the camera and lens set up and tweaked the image settings and the focusing settings. I chose my apertures based on how much depth of field I needed and not on the imputed sharpness of any specific 
f-stop. I was testing Leica's claim that the whole series of SL lenses deliver high optical performance at all the apertures.

During the course of the day the crew sorted, moved and crushed grapes and I shot photographs for nearly five hours. Surprising to me were two things: First of all, the camera was comfortable to hold even though, objectively, it is a heavy combination. No sore arm or wrist the next day. Second, I was able to make it all the way through the day, shooting nearly 450 big raw files, without depleting the initial battery. That made me grin and helped me to stop worrying that I would need ever more of the $280 Leica batteries to feel secure on long assignments. 

Out in the vines first thing in the morning. 

Most lens reviewers talk about how big or how heavy the 24-90 and they couch those parameters as purely negative. I'd take a different point of view and, while admitting the weight is less fun to carry, would suggest that there is an advantage to the mass/density of the lens and camera together; they impart a remarkable feeling of steadiness to the operation. The camera and lens become a very stable platform because it takes more energy to move the mass. In effect the weight and concentrated mass of the system delivers its own kind of image stabilization. 

In truth, after years of using cameras like the Kodak DCS 760 (four pounds, lens-less?), the Nikon D2X, the EOS-1D mk3 and any number of big, 24-70mm f2.8s and 70-200mm f2.8s it's not so dramatic picking up and using the Leica stuff. It's rock solid and there is a physical cost to all those precision ground, not molded, aspherical elements inside the lens. 

The Leica SL2 and the lens both have Image Stabilization built in but I'm really into the idea of technical simplicity so when I don't need the feature I turn it off. This gives me a lot more battery life and some part of my brain tells me that I might even be getting better overall optical performance by reducing the complexity of movement within the camera and the lens. 
It's impossible to accurately assess the performance of a lens or a camera system while out in the field, looking at the rear screen of one's camera. It just is. There are way too many compromises and that's why I usually look forward to the time afterwards, in the studio, when I can open up the files in Lightroom and apply my favorite profiles before really making an assessment of image quality. Pulling up an image on a 27 inch 5K Retina screen quickly separates the great gear from the also rans. 

I got back to Austin around 7 in the evening and, after dinner, went straight into the office to pull in the day's take and check out the images on the computer. Everything I saw was good; really good. I didn't see any lack of performance across the frame and even wide open I was getting high contrast and good sharpness. I do wish I'd stopped down a bit more on a few of the shots just to get more depth of field but that falls squarely into "operator error" and isn't anything I can hold against the system. 

Unlike other zooms I've used this one doesn't really have a weak spot. There's no focal length, or focusing distance, that is visibly weaker than any other. Wide and close is sharp just as long and infinity is sharp. 

I'm even okay with that huge front filter size (82mm) since I think I'd dislike a trade-off that sacrificed resistance to vignetting for a smaller (77 or 72mm?) filter size.

Things looked good on the SL2 but I like to see just where the edges of the practice are so I went from the "sure thing" to a "let's try this and see if we can make it work" mentality. That led me to putting the SL2 into the "back-up" gear bag and promoting one of the older, SL (601) bodies into the primary position. How would a six year old camera stack up against the current flagship? Would I be disappointed? My film maker friend, James, calls this: Looking for where stuff breaks. ("Breaks... metaphorically").

The SL is a 24 megapixel camera and it's built around mostly same physical body as the newer SL2. Both take the same batteries but the menus are a bit different between the two. I prefer the newer menu but the SL menu isn't in a rural Martian dialect like some other camera menus so it's not a big deal to master the differences.

I woke up at 5 am on Saturday and was on the road to Stonewall, Texas by 5:30. The drive was actually enjoyable as so few other drivers were out at that time on a weekend morning. I'd planned on getting to a winery in Stonewall no later than 7 because that's when a big crew of volunteer grape pickers (from neighboring vineyards) were scheduled to start picking grapes by hand. I got there at 6:45 having driven the last few miles through a mix of fog and first light that had me stopping on the side of the one lane, country road time after time to try and capture landscapes. I couldn't believe it...me a landscape shooter...

When I got to the vineyard I grabbed a small, styrofoam cup of hot, black coffee and sipped it while sitting on my Subaru's open hatchback getting my camera kit together. 

There are a couple of differences between the SL and the SL2 that do require some getting used to while shooting. The first is the difference in the EVFs. The SL is an older finder which is still very high resolution but uses the older LCD technology. It's got a leaner dynamic range making shadows and black areas look a bit milky and weak. Your brain has to adjust to the reality that this is just the representation in the finder and doesn't accurately reflect what you'll see in post. The second thing is that the two cameras use different generations of processors and slightly different color science but since we're now shooting them mostly in raw format you quickly make adjustments knowing that any small differences you see while working require only small adjustments in post to bring back the whole file to the way you are used to seeing it in the other camera. While the processor in the new camera is much newer and faster the files sizes increased in tandem so there is little speed performance difference between the cameras. 

There seems to be a natural affinity between the SL and the 24-90 and maybe that's because they were launched together and were the new flagship products in the Leica universe at that time. While there is very little physical difference between the SL and the SL2 it seems to me that the older products are a perfect match for each other. They boost each other's performance. I didn't make use of it on Saturday but the 24-90 also adds I.S. to the SL, which can be a bonus.

I've been using the SL cameras in the single point focusing mode and find that switching the metering to spot puts a more visible circle around the focusing point indicator on the finder screen so I set the camera to manual exposure, watch the histogram and use the metering spot as a visual enhancement for the AF point indicator . 

While the contrast detect AF isn't snappy fast it can be very accurate once it's locked on to your subject. I've come to trust the system and when I need to do my own corrections I'm happy to switch to MF and punch in to focus, then let the shutter fly. 

The team of fellow winemakers started picking at 7 a.m. while the temperatures were still under 80°. The goal was to finish long before noon when the temps would begin to hit the mid-90s. I worked to a time tested formula: find a subject I like > shoot a wide establishing shot > shoot a tighter shot that still shows plenty of environmental detail > shoot tighter into the process > shoot the details > go in as tight as I can on the most visibly interesting detail. Then move on to the next shot. 

Every vineyard has a dog. There's even a book of vineyard dogs...I'll try to source a copy.

By the time we wrapped I'd shot hundreds of combinations of the above formula but I also took time to shoot video for social media. This time I leaned on my recent model iPhone (XR) for video. It's quick and easy to carry around in a back pocket and it does really, really good slow motion. For some of our shots I put the phone on a gimbal and walked down the rows where everyone was picking. It's really immersive and reveals the layers of the event. And hey! It looked great as 1080p in Final Cut Pro X. 

After the last of the tubs of grapes were loaded with a fork lift onto the bed of a truck we all took a break to eat German sausage wraps, guzzle down Gatorade, water or coffee (or some combination of all three) and get to know each other better. What a fun community these winemakers have.

I put the gear back in the car and headed out to Kerrville to follow the delivery and pressing of the grapes I'd just documented being picked. Each vineyard's grapes are carefully labeled and separated and the presser is well cleaned between batches. It's a cool process and I was a little surprised to hear how many people at the pressing had masters degrees in agriculture and viniculture. It's a real blend of science and art. 

Saturday was a long day and after I left the pressing in Kerrville I was tired, sleepy and wrung out. A combination of having to pay attention to stuff for a long time + heat that peaked near 100° and not enough water (that's on me). When I got home I put batteries on the charger and re-packed for one last shooting day, this time in Driftwood, Texas on Sunday. I had such a good time (and such good results) with the SL+24-90 combination that I just stuck with it for Sunday. And wouldn't you know it? Two of my favorite shots from the whole project were shot with that combo yesterday. 

So, after shooting agriculture in action, set-up wine still life, lots and lots of people engaged in the process and a couple of set up shots, what do I think of the Leica zoom? Was it worth the purchase price? Will I continue to use it in spite of its weight and size?

I think it may be one of the best lenses I've ever used; at least when it comes to putting a great image onto the camera sensor. I couldn't really find any optical faults or weaknesses and, I know it's a bit of cliché, but I think I understand when people talk about Leica lenses imparting an almost 3D dimensionality to the images. The lens feels solid as rock so it's one less technical thing to worry about about. 

Was it worth the purchase price? At first I had a lot of hesitation but every time I pulled a great image from the mix and shared it with very experienced advertising pros I got amazing feedback. They unanimously loved the look I was getting from the gear. Even my normally reserved, 30+ year veteran art director wife (working on mostly national accounts) was moved to say how great the look of the files was. 

Some of my passion for the new lens is the novelty of it. Some is a bolstered confidence in knowing that no corners are being cut in production, and then you have to assume that there is a huge placebo effect tied to the price of the lens. But I'm quick to say that I've made many worse purchases and there is a logic to buying a product that you always wanted once instead of buying stop gap products over and over again. Too bad I've done it both ways...

I have to be honest here though. I would have to say that the new Sigma 24-70mm DG DN is almost as good (99% versus 96.5%) in the focal lengths that both cover. If you never go longer than 70mm (which I tend to do at every shoot) you could easily save yourself over $4,500 and be very well served within the range. I would also have to add, again to be completely forthcoming, that the Panasonic 24-105mm lens is also a very, very good lens which also covers (and exceeds by 10mms) the Leica focal length range. In my hemming and hawing over the purchase of the Leica I spent a lot of time re-shooting and re-appreciating the Panasonic. If you shoot only video then any of these three lenses are great choice for L mount cameras. 

This was very much a circumstance of "want" and not "need." But in the end; when our hobbies and our professional work intersect, it's nice to be able to use the gear you want. Especially when it delivers the performance you hoped for.

I'm a bit sad today. The files have all been massaged and converted, the video processed and corrected and the gear put back into the studio. The wine project was the most fun multi-day shooting job I've had in at least the last three years. I made new friends, learned new stuff, made photos I really, really like and amply over-delivered to the ad agency. I wish I had another job like this one lined up and ready to go. 

The thing that made it so great? The agency spent one day with me on location and then gave me free rein for the next four shooting days. No enthusiasm killing, giant shot list. No one asking me to shoot everything as both a horizontal and a vertical. No one suggesting we try all ten shirt colors from wardrobe on our model; just in case. No overly tight shooting schedule. No committee master plan. No limits on shooting. No trying to shoehorn me into shooting somebody else's style and no arguments about budget. 

Just a wide open opportunity to go out, learn cool new stuff and make images that are as fun and creative as I can do. If only every job was just like this one. People would pay to do them... An odd thought. 

With some lovely portraits in the can and a nice project completed it's shaping up to be a wonderful Summer (for me) so far. And the new Leica lens is the cherry on top of all that whipped creme.
 
Added after first publication...



17 comments:

Michael Matthews said...

The top photo answers what would have been my next question about that lens. The answer: a resounding “Yes!”
Howard Huge at The Wine Garage says just about everything there is to say about color rendering, contrast, and sharpness. I’m glad, though, that you found time to “write a little something about that job…” as promised in the preceding post on Taco Art. Marvelous writing.

Looks like you’ve found your lens equivalent of a soulmate.

Chris DC said...

Kirk:

Having entered my 17th month stuck working from home and missing my hands-on lab work and research colleagues,I wish to thank you for letting me "spend" a few minutes living vicariously through your blog.

I am sure I would have enjoyed carrying your water bottle those days:)

Nicely written, and supported by lovely images.

Thanks!

CDC

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Thanks MM, I had an extra hour on my hands and it was enjoyable to write about the experience. I was being serious. It was the most fun assignment of at least the last two years. Spent almost entirely outdoors and traveling solo. I am so grateful for the opportunity. Especially after the last 16 months. I'm not taking anything for granted now.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Hi Chris, Thanks for writing what you did. I was so unhappy to be unable to work much at all last year. I did some free work for non-profits who were just trying to keep their heads above water but most clients didn't consider photographers to be "essential workers" for their enterprises.

To be 100% honest...I would have done the job in exchange for one bottle of good wine. Thank goodness I didn't have to.

I hope everyone freaks out about the Delta variant and rushes to get vaccinated ASAP. It's really life or death for so many. Only when the world is largely vaccinated will we be free to return to our normal or "new normal" lives.

But, damn! I'm thankful for a good bit of fun.

Augie said...

Wow, your words are almost as lovely as your photographs, and we’re probably not seeing the true gems. As Michael and Chris so well put it in their comments above it was a pleasure to go along with you on your assignment. At this point in time I can only dream about such engaging work coming back into my frame. But I have hopes, And I do dream, I’ve been fully vaccinated and at school I’m photographing those being vaccinated to share their stories in hope they will inspire other holdouts to step up, extend their arm and do some good. Thanks Kirk!

Eric Rose said...

After looking over the images several times, all the while soaking in the luscious tonality, I found they reminded me of prints from MF colour neg stock.

I agree the lens has a wonderful "look". It imparts an embrace of the subject rather than a clinical dissection.

For you sake, and ours, I hope you find many more fun assignments!

Eric

Anonymous said...

Kind of hard to argue with that first image if it was taken handheld at the closest focusing distance. The out of focus areas are beautiful and the leading edge of the metal cap is incredibly sharp. I guess there might be something to the Leica "look" after all. Either that or maybe the photographer is just really good.

-Steve

Unknown said...

Beautiful rendering. Don't know what percent credit goes to the camera or lens (both I'd wager) but very nice. Oh, and I almost forgot the photographer- 100% credit there!

Sooner or later anyone with a Leica becomes a leicaholic and needs friends to keep them from spending more than their monthly budget allows. They do seem to have fun and produce wonderful work with those tools.

In my opinion the money is well spent. As long as the other bills are paid, you are happy with the product, it really is ok. I'm sure you analyzed the purchase every which way possible before pulling out the plastic.

cheers,
Joe

FM said...

I look for sensible, no nonsense commentary from Kirk Tuck.

I have been mulling over the 24-90, a little bit put off by the size of the lens and of course it’s non-trivial cost.

And here you are telling me that this lens is everything it is claimed to be. Sigh…

FM

Greg Heins said...

It's good to know that shooting for a client can still be fun. Sometimes, anyway. An enjoyable read, and thanks for the reminder of Pentax K-1 quality. I'm printing a big group of those files now, done with the 43 and 77 limited lenses, and they are awfully good.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Hi Greg, I like the vast majority of my clients. Some are good friends and most know that I wouldn't do jobs for them if I wasn't having fun in the process. The pandemic helped me weed out the clients who were a pain in the ass or who would never understand how the creative process is supposed to work.

Nowadays my negotiating position is powerful. It starts with "I don't need this." Followed by, "How can we make this more fun?"

And, yes! the K1 makes gorgeous files.

Jerry said...

Yes, your blue whale with legs under the staircase photo done with the K1!

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Hi Jerry, I think the image you are referring to was taken in Denver, CO. with a Pentax K-O1. The weird looking, APS-C brick camera. And I thought it handled color well too. Thanks.

Augie said...

Kirk,

I’m curious if you had the chance to test out the 24-90 on your S1R?

Thanks,

Augie

ODL Designs said...

A great read with my cup of tea and biscuit. It is absolutely true that cameras and lenses work together, and in the age of digital some older sensors had compromises that actually contributed to the final image.

I recently bought the Olympus 14-35f2 used and for a song I am sure compared to the Leica, I can’t explain why I like many of the images from the lens, but there is definitely something there.

Hopefully your new lens inspires you to shoot more!

Ravi B said...

Wait till you try the 90-280. Not only is the extra 80mm useful, but it makes the 24-90 feel much lighter. Truthfully, it made me start using a monopod more.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Thanks Ravi, you've whetted my appetite