It's a Summer-y Winter in Austin this week. A great week for swimming. And a brief discussion of shooting video with an old Leica SL... How does that work?

 Noellia taking a break out back.
On a hot Summer day. A couple of years back.

My self-imposed embargo concerning writing about anything "Leica" is now officially over. They've gone and launched a new camera and, as usual, the average Joe Photographer doesn't seem to have a clue as to why a rational person might buy and use one. Here's a hint: Try one of the current APO lenses and see for yourself.... 

I think the M11 is a very well thought out camera and, in tandem with Leica's world class M lenses, will go a long way to moving the company right along. I was thrilled to see Leica add 64GB of internal memory to the camera. They have 32GB of internal memory in the TL2 and it comes in handy. Especially when you're juggling a tight schedule and forget to bring along an SD card. It's a small thing but it's a nice touch and a good rejoinder to all the mutts who chime in with: "What? Only one card slot? DealKiller!!!"

Much as I'd love to have an M11 (make mine silver with brass underneath) and a 50mm Apo Summicron for it I'm more interested in the SL series of cameras and, lately, the CL cameras. Any one of the SL cameras and the 50mm SL Apo Summicron would be the ultimate sweet spot for me. 

An explanation for the image at the top: I met Noellia when she was a senior in high school and already working as talent in the Austin area. My friend, Greg, an ad agency creative director, hired me to do a project for the Austin Chamber of Commerce and he had cast a wide range of people for the photographs. How long ago was this? Hmmm. I remember best when I think about the cameras I was using at the time. The A of CC project was shot with a Nikon D2X. Must have been around 2004 or 2005. 

Greg was designing large (5 by 10 foot) panels for a walk through corridor for a big trade show about Austin at the Convention Center. Hard to imagine now that people would have make such huge reproductions from 12 megapixel cameras but it all looked great to us. The lab that did the enlargements has some absolutely magical software for upscaling images for printing. 

Anyway, Noellia was cast, showed up at my studio and we photographed her against white and then dropped the resulting image into another image construction that had a dozen people peppered into the Austin skyline. The people were out of proportion to the buildings. So much so that a model would be leaning on her elbow which would be positioned on the top of a 20 story building. It was a really fun collage of people and a place. And Noellia, as our youngest model, embodied the youthful enthusiasm of the city. 

The next time I ran into her Noellia was performing in Zach Theatre's Spanish/English version of "Jesus Christ Superstar" and I was photographing marketing images of the show and then documentation of a dress rehearsal. This was a few years after the city campaign and I was amazed at how mature and talented she had become as an actor. We ran into each other once again when she was cast in the Dr. Seuss musical called, "Seussical." She was great in that play as well. 

Around 2009 I asked her to work with me as talent for my third book, "Photographic Lighting Equipment" and we had a lot of fun. She and my assistant, Amy, got along really well since I was the butt of both their jokes. We knocked out a nice book and she graced the cover and a number of pages inside. 

A few years later she was grown up, out of college and too big a fish in the small Austin theatrical pond. She moved to NYC where she was quite successful and coupled shows in the city with stints working for Disney. But the sweet thing about Noellia is that every time she came into Austin to visit her family she'd call and ask if I wanted to meet up and do some test shots with her. I'm a sucker for a beautiful face and a wonderful personality so I'm always ready to head out somewhere and play with the cameras. 

This shot (above) if from three or four years ago. She was in town on a Summer break and we shot one hot afternoon in the studio, in the house and in the back yard. Hence the bench. She brought five or six costume changes and we both had a blast. 

I'd been through three or four different camera systems by then but by coincidence I was working with a Nikon D810 at the time. Now Noellia is grown up and living in CA with her husband and a new baby girl (future gorgeous model). Thoughtful as ever, she called right before the holidays this year. We didn't get together because, well, new baby + Covid Pandemic + Surge. But it was nice to know we're still a photographer and talent team. 

Shooting video with a six year old camera model from Leica. The SL. As you probably know I dabble with video projects from time to time. I started out in the mid-1980s creative directing TV commercials and ended up a couple of years ago running backwards with a gimbal mounted Panasonic G9, tracking a dance number by a cast of 30 or so performers as they danced their way across a downtown bridge. Another 105 degree day with a camera in my hand and no shade anywhere.... And yes, the footage looked great and I never tripped or dropped the camera. 

When I bought a couple of used Leica SL cameras last year I didn't even consider how they might work as video cameras. I have a couple more recent cameras that are more of less state-of-the-mirrorless camera/hybrid-art for those times when I get a call to do an interview or toss some B-roll to a production company. But I like to know what's possible with the stuff I have and I also started hearing stuff from filmmakers about their enthusiasm for the look of video files coming out of not only the Leica SL2 and the SL2-S but also out of the older, SL cameras. 

Sony probably sells 10,000, or maybe 100,000, A7 series cameras for every ten SL cameras Leica sells. That means a huge proportion of current video shooters have never seen, touched or shot video with a Leica SL series camera. But the ones who do have experience with Leicas seem to come from the high end production side where they experience Leica cinema lenses first hand. And the halo effect of the cinema lenses lures them into trying out the SL cameras and less expensive (but no less amazing) SL lenses. 

I had no idea that back in 2015, when Leica announced and introduced the first SL camera that it had the video specs it did. While there aren't a ton of adjustable settings in the SL (by design) it's got most of the things one would need to shoot a film. And it's got that L mount for lenses. 

The SL featured 4K video in up to a Cine 4K size (slightly bigger/wider that UHD) and, natively, included a Log profile which is preferred by a lot of dedicated cinematographers and DPs. At a time when companies like Sony were horsing around with tiny and delicate micro-HDMI plugs Leica was coming on to the market with full size HDMI plugs.  That was pretty cool but the camera was a bit crippled in two ways. First, you only got about 15 minutes of record time in 4K and if you were shooting to the internal SD cards you only got 8 bit, 4:2:0 color. The second cripple was the lack of a dedicated microphone jack and a dedicated headphone jack. Instead, Leica used a tiny combination connection that required an accessory dongle that split the function of the port to handle both in and out audio. It was not a graceful execution of what should have been a simple set of features. 

Up until now I've barely used the SL for video. Why should I when the newer SL2 had the jacks I want and also could record 4K in 10 bit, 4:2:2 to an in-camera SD card? And with the latest firmware update the SL2 added waveform monitoring, Log profiles and viewing assist LUTs for the log files. It's nearly a perfect package.

But I can never leave well enough alone so this morning, after a marvelous swim practice in 60° weather, I came home, ate breakfast and set up the SL to finally try and figure out where it might fit into a video production set-up. 

I'll cut right to the heart of this ramble: The SL is fine as a camera you put on a tripod and shoot some quick, non-Log material for use as non-audio B-roll. You can tweak imaging parameters like contrast, saturation and sharpness but the controls for in camera audio are....a bit primitive. And all those in-camera files will be in less forgiving, less rich color spaces. 

My new rule of  thumb for these two cameras is that they should be dedicated to an external monitor such as the Atomos Ninja V and considered as part of a system in which the external monitor is not optional.

Once you add an Atomos external monitor you'll be able to take advantage of 10 bit information in a 4:2:2 color space coming out of the camera's HDMI port. You can have the monitor/recorder write these files as ProRes 4:2:2 files which will make editing in Final Cut Pro X very efficient and straightforward. You can shoot in Log with the camera and upload viewing assist LUTs to the monitor to show more accurately what the file that looks so flat, pre-LUT,  might potentially look like and helps remediate the trouble you might have trouble assessing the colors and exposures. 

And, speaking of colors and exposures, you get to choose between waveforms, a vector scope and false color information on the monitor in order to set exposures and to tweak colors. The camera will also run in cine 4K until the batteries in either the camera or the monitor run down. Everything you shoot will be recorded onto an SSD which you can then remove and seamlessly attach to your editing computer. Very nice. I've got several 1 TB SSDs and I'm pretty sure I could shoot as much as I need at the higher quality I'd desire for any commercial project that comes my way. 

But for me one of the nicest benefits to pairing the camera and the Atomos monitor/recorder is that you can run your audio straight into the Atomos, doing an end run on the camera m audio altogether. Ditto with the headphones. And you can use a much larger and more accurate set of on screen  audio meters to gauge and set levels. The audio is burned onto the SSD file right along with the high quality video. It's a sweet set up. 

I had one problem with my initial set-up today. I was using the Leica 24-90mm f2.8-4.0 lens as part of the package and I found the files to be far too sharp. I went into the camera menu and dropped the sharpness for the video profile all the way down. It was better but the resulting image still could have been softened just a bit. But I guess we could also do that in post. 

Final note. Sadly, with a fairly well illuminated subject, the camera and lens, when set to face detect, would occasionally and unpredictably jiggle focus from time to time. Not a big, all out loss of all focus and then some hunting, but a quick loss of eye sharpness for just second and then a recapture of focus. It would not be usable by me for a commercial project. I would instead focus the lens manually by using the magnification available on the Atomos monitor and then keep on top of it during a shoot by enabling the very good focus peaking of the monitor/recorder. Essentially, the camera should just be thought of as a barebones movie camera and then supplemented by a good, dedicated monitor. 

The rewards for doing this? Total control of audio. A much higher quality recording input to the SSD. Edit ready ProRes files. A big assortment of exposure and color checking tools. The ability to upload custom LUTs to use while shooting (not baked in). A longer run/record time. A bigger, better monitor on which to view your subject. And, the failsafe of being able to record the content to the camera (in 8 bit) and the SSD drive (in 10 bit). I haven't priced an Atomos Ninja V in a while. Wait here. Okay, I'm back....the Ninja V will set you back about $550 and you can use it with just about any camera you own. You can even use it for still monitoring. 

So, that's what I found out this morning. After swim practice. The SL is still my all time favorite camera. Not the SL2...just the SL. It's just so nice to use. Your Mileage Will Vary.


adam said...

got to looking at the m mount lenses yesterday, amuses me that zeiss seems to be the budget option

Ralph R. said...

Lovely tonal range on this image.

David said...

Kirk I know your fully entrenched into the Leica world now. But after reading and rereading many of the Fuji gfx 50Sii reviews, I think you would be happy with that camera.
Seems to have a slow autofocus designed for portraits and walks around your city. Also the IBIS helps pull out all the fine details.
If I could afford one I might get one one day. My problem is none of the native lenses excite me. I would only use adapters. But you might just get along with either the Fuji 110mm f2 or either of the Mitakon 65mm f1.4 (50mmish) or Mitakon 85mm f1.2 (67mmish) lenses. Or even all three as a 50mm, 67mm, 85mmish kit.