5.23.2021

Tale of two lenses. Why I like the Leica SL as much as I do. How it feels to shoot in the rain.

 

This is a tight, center crop of the image just below.

There is a certain sweetness to having the time to spend time doing not much. I used to feel guilty when I'd leave the office and go out for long rambling walks. Testing a newly purchased lens or camera was always a good excuse for an outing but now I'm not even sure I need an excuse to spend at least part of the day just walking, looking, exploring and playing. It's almost like I'm subconsciously trying to unwind decades of compulsive and constant activity aimed at financing life. And feeding an ego.

I'm married to an introvert. She enjoys time alone to work on paintings, fabric design and other graphic design derivatives. My spending time in the office typing (as I am doing right now), or walking through a familiar urban-scape, are important periods of time during which she can recharge her introvert batteries. It makes for a happy relationship.

The walks serve the purpose for me of staying informed about life outside my close-in suburban neighborhood. Yesterday I learned that this Summer's big fashion trend for women in Austin is the return of a 1970's standby, the cut-off denim short pants with the frayed hem. And of course, they have to be "faded."  I walked by a bar that has a huge outdoor patio and which caters to college students, and just post college students, and witnessed a crowd of thirty to forty women standing around the bar, all wearing the some variation of the classic cut-off denim shorts. I also cataloged a larger than average number of young men wearing 1960's style, short sleeve shirts over T-shirts. Another observation is that fewer and fewer people walk down the streets anymore. That's not to say that the streets aren't populated it's just that a growing number of them are riding on rental, electric scooters. No helmets, riding on the sidewalks, barreling through red lights at intersections and, essentially acting like bullet-proof youngsters. You can read about stuff like this but it's different to witness trends first hand. It's easier to understand. Easier to assimilate the knowledge. 

The lens I took out yesterday was that old Canon FD 50mm f1.8 that I talked about a lot a couple of weeks ago. I like to think I'm a contrarian (I'm not) and that by choosing to use an ancient lens with a frictionless focusing ring I'm making a statement of protest about the newest generation of insanely over-engineered 50mm lens on the market right now. But the reality is that trying to make photos with older gear might be a way of adding necessary (for me) friction to a process in order to make it more "challenging" and therefore more satisfying. It's also an interesting, personal assessment of just how good the old glass can be if you are using it in an optimum way. 

Five years ago I was of the mindset that everything had to be "technically" perfect and I bought specific lenses to pursue that belief. I pored over charts and reviews to single out the best lens designs and spent way too much time showing off the lenses' prowess instead of showing off the actual work....the reasons to photograph. The photographs.

But over the last year something has changed in my approach that was unexpected. I found that lenses from the film days were satisfying to use if I didn't try to make them do things at which they did not excel. The 40 year old Canon 50mm is a great example. It's not sharp at its largest apertures. It wouldn't be a top ten choice of lenses to use if you wanted to have a very sharp central subject while tossing the rest of the frame out of focus by using the lens's widest f-stop. Why? Because the central subject wouldn't be nearly as sharply defined as it could be and then the contrast between in focus and out of focus would be compromised and less dramatic. And it's that obvious distinction between sharp and soft that makes wide aperture photography work.

The lens is fine when used at f2.8, even better at f4.0 and excellent at f5.6 or f8.0. I started shifting my style of shooting from one in which vast areas of a frame were bokeh-ed to death and starting roaming the streets shooting at bizarre apertures like f11. I learned to love disregarding the whole notion of diffraction induced softness in favor of more stuff in focus. It was pretty freeing and it coincided with my newly found indifference to high ISO noise. 

Yesterday I experimented with f8.0 and f11. When I used f11 on my full frame camera I was finally able to make good use of hyperfocal distance settings to eliminate the need to focus almost altogether. I'd set the ISO to auto and let it ride all the way up to 12,500, if that's what a scene called for. I set the minimum shutter speed to 1/250th and I'd walk down the street with the camera pre-focused at 10 feet. When I saw something of interest I jockeyed into the right distance (between about 7 feet to about 30 feet), pulled the camera up to my eye to frame and then tripped the shutter. The only fine-tuning I found myself doing was to use the EV compensation dial to lighten or darken the image in the EVF. If the image was slightly dark I let it go. I was shooting uncompressed raw and figured I could fix one or two stops of underexposure. And, hell, since I was shooting for myself did I really care if the files did get a little noisy? If something was on the verge of burning out I'd dial in some minus compensation and pull back the highlight detail so it was readable. 

I've marked with captions (way down below) to separate the images shot with the old Canon 50mm and the old, manual Leica R 28-70mm but both lenses respond well when sticking inside their performance boundaries. 

It's funny to me that I just bought the Sigma 24-70mm f2.8 Art series lens for the L-mount cameras and when push comes to shove, when I'm standing in front of that drawer full of lenses, the one I want to shoot with (almost always) is the 28-70mm which was a rebadged, manually focusing, adapted Sigma lens from all the way back to the 1980's and wasn't renowned for its optical performance even in the day. I use it because it's smaller, lighter and I enjoy using manual lenses far more than I expected I would in this day and age of ever faster autofocusing.

The lens vignettes a lot when used at maximum aperture and the barrel distortion at 28mm is atrocious. But, if you go back to what I said about using it within its performance boundaries it starts to shine. For "found object" or "street still-life" work there is also the easy practice of being able to really magnify the viewfinder image when fine focusing. Combine this with an aperture like f8.0 and you end up with photographs that look like photographs. Sharp, even, nicely textured and contrasty. 

In the early days of using the Leica SL and SL2 I felt as though I should only use them with the "best" modern lenses. Otherwise, why bother to buy them? But as my point of view shifted I realized that in the digital age one camera doesn't make demonstrably "better" photographs than any other as a result of sensor technology or, even color science. But the haptics, the handling, and the bond between a camera body and a user provides an assist in getting a good image. A logical menu eliminates the mental clutter around making an image and that helps too. I'm starting to get a kick out of making wonderful images with an expensive and brand new camera coupled to a lens that costs less on the used market than a really good bottle of wine, and which has infused into itself the mojo of four decades of picture making. 

I was at the furthest point of my walk yesterday when nature decided to provide a cleansing shower of rain for me, my camera and the streets. The temperature was mild so I didn't mind getting wet. And as I walked through the rain with the camera swinging on a strap by my side I didn't bother to worry. I have finally internalized the idea that most of this equipment can handle half an hour of gently rain and the world won't come to an end. But there is a visual beauty that comes from walking in the rain without an umbrella, without a hat, without a rain jacket, that comes from the whole of the experience. 

I like the experience of walking and photographing without an agenda. What I really like about it all is the intertwining of the processes. I walk with a spring in my step and a nod to balance and physical pleasure. The running of a nicely tuned engine. I photograph only what I'm interested in seeing more of over time. And jointly I survey the Austin downtown culture because it makes me feel more connected to everything when I go out and experience change first hand. Instead of seeing culture and life "reported" by some third party with a perspective that is probably completely different than mine. We intuit by combining lots of "data points" and experiences and processing them faster than conscious thought. But it's important that the data points be original to our experience and not just an anecdotal story of someone else's reality. 

Manual focusing is more fun.

This is the full frame of the image just above.

This is a woman zooming through the streets of Austin's downtown, driving a scooter 
with one hand while looking at her phone. I hope she survived. 

This is also a photo of a woman zooming through the streets of Austin's downtown, driving a scooter 
with one hand while looking at her phone. I hope she survived. 

That is not Kendra Scott. I've met Kendra Scott and she looks nothing like either of these guys. And I'm betting she doesn't drive a rickshaw.


An homage to Chris Nichols. 


Dog helping her human figure out what the best camera mode might be for photographing 
smart dogs. She suggested: "Bark."

"I'm ready for my close up. I'm not sure how much longer I can hold this pose..."

Fashion.


"done!"




Photo of a restaurant worker taking a break. 
The restaurant he works at dresses their staff in 
funny looking pants and high, black boots. 
This man seemed happy to de-boot for a few minutes and just chill with his phone.

I asked permission...


It rained on me for about 30 minutes. 
I was ready for it. I was using the Canon 50mm and I wrapped the intersection 
of lens adapter and camera lens mount in electrical tape earlier. 
I figure if I plug the most obvious point of water intrusion the SL camera 
can fend for itself.




Love the "gun fighter" arms.

Sacred Taco Art. 




The images below were done with the Leica R 28-70mm lens.
The images above were made with the Canon lens.

Yes. We have a train in Austin. 
It carries nearly 7 people a day from north to south and back again.
It cost a billion X a billion dollars. We can't call it "mass transit" 
until we get more people than can fit into a Dunkin Donuts to 
ride on it every day. Jeez.

Loving the way the Leica SL and the Leica R 28-70mm lens render blue skies and
bright colors. Happy magic for me.



Tau Ceti. This is where the white dog was posing.




Oh damn. It's that same bridge again. 
But yeah, you've never seen it at this exact time on May 22nd before. 


Paean to Texas skies. Sometimes nice. Always different. 


Image added the next day for Robert Roaldi: 

electric bike tours of downtown Austin. Helmets given out to clients to comply with safety regs and insurance. 

Forgotten text added after the fact: In my headline I said I would write about why I like the Leica SL so much. And why I like it more than the SL2.  Here goes: 

The Leica SL seems to me to be more "industrial" than any of the other cameras and, by industrial, I mean it in the best way possible. It's largely bereft of features that are added to cameras to appeal mostly to the uninformed or the lazy. No panoramic modes. No fireworks modes. No access to 50 different ways to configure twenty different buttons for silly crap. If I could rip out the antennae for bluetooth and wi-fi I gladly would. What you get in return from a body that's been weaned of junk is an incredibly solid build and an interface that a poet would love. The camera feels, to me, more focused on just getting on with photography than even the SL2. I like putting my hands on bare metal instead of textured plastic and I like the fact that the strap lugs are flush with the body and don't stick out. To my mind the strap lug configuration is a big reason to select an SL over the SL2 if you can't swing having one of each. 

As a contrarian I am aware that most people are put off by the simplicity of the body and the paucity of the offerings (modes, AF configurations, "looks" and multi-dimensional bracketing) and that endears the camera to me even more. 

I've read reviews (DPR) in which people whine (whing: for the UK-ers) endlessly about how uncomfortable the camera is to hold. I think they are weak and spineless. I have medium sized hands and I've consistently found the camera to be comfortable to hold; whether its sporting a small, 45mm Sigma lens or the big, 70-200mm zoom. I'm of the belief that Sony reset people's expectations that a full frame camera should be small, light, clad with thin metal, assembled with lots of plastic, have tiny buttons that even a person with tiny hands would find frustrating, and be absolutely painful to hold well precisely because it's too darn small. To add insult, all these "features" are paid for by the compromise that the bodies have no engineering aimed at wicking away heat and tend to shut down at the first breath of hot air. Then there's the embarrassingly small lens mount. 

Like an industrial tool, the Leica eschews mindless miniaturization and opts for unimpeachable build quality and ease of use. The larger body and minimalist physical controls make for a less complicated structure and give the Leica the right to actually use an IP rating for weather resistance as opposed to vacuous claims that are backed by.....advertising copy and little else. 

I'm currently using the SL with an inexpensive wrist strap for my street shooting and recreational photography. That's the stuff you do with small, discreet lenses. To my mind anyone trying to handhold monster telephotos and then complaining about the hand grip on a camera is clearly brain damaged. 

Again, this is my recurrent and ongoing problem with "reviewers." To hold a tool for a few days or a week and expect for it to reveal all of its secrets, and the best way to hold it, is insane. That's not the way to review a camera. Hold the camera in your hand every day for weeks and weeks at a time and then you'll really know if it's a good or bad design. For you. 

I like the camera because it works with the simplest of inputs. The color I get in .DNG files is perfect. The automatic WB is perfect. And the feel in my hand makes me want to go out every day and take photographs. That's the best reason I can think of to own a particular camera.