Here is the old, old, old Leica M6 review I did for Photo.net. Thanks to Dave Jenkins for the unabridged version.

A Pro Photographer's review of the Leica M6 and lenses for it 

by Kirk Tuck

Everyone seems to have an opinion about the Leica M series rangefinder cameras, yet so few people have actually picked one up and used it for enough time to understand the unique features and benefits that make it one of the finest tools for certain kinds of photography.

The two current models of the M6 are called the M6 .72 ttl, and the M6 .85ttl and they represent the latest in the evolution of a family of cameras created in 1953, starting with the M3. All M cameras are rangefinder cameras. Unlike most popular professional cameras today the photographer does not view the image through the taking lens, rather, there is a viewfinder which displays frame lines that correspond to the focal length of the lens that is mounted on the camera.

In the center of the viewfinder is a rectangular patch of yellow, which is the rangefinder. A rangefinder works by triangulation. The user focuses the camera by overlaying two images within the small rectangular patch on top of each other in the viewfinder as he or she focuses the lens. When the images are coincident (when they match up) the image is now in focus. This system, when well designed and produced, is very superior in accuracy when focusing lenses of 50mm and wider compared to slr cameras. While accurate focusing with a manual SLR relies on the ability of your eye to distinguish sharp from unsharp, the rangefinder is much more "binary". The image is either in or out, there is no amount of gray area as there is in an SLR. As light levels drop the ability of the human eye to discern sharpness drops as well, making SLR's "iffy" for available light photography. The rangefinder only depends on matching up two identical images so that they overlap. Focus is much easier to discern in low light or when using optics that have slow maximum apertures. Additionally, the manual focusing puts the user in charge. Often, even the best autofocus cameras lock onto elements that the photographer did not intend and the focus is not what it could be. This "mis-focus" is hard to see in viewfinders that were not intended to be used for critical focusing as in the case of autofocus cameras, which are optimized to create the brightest images in the viewfinders.

While 35mm SLR's have dominated the market, and the camera bags of professional and amateur photographers alike, the M series Leica cameras have been steadily growing in popularity and are often the "personal" camera of choice for top working pros who also shoot Canon and Nikon autofocus SLR's. They find that their favorite photographs are often taken with the camera that puts the least complexity between the user and the image.

The way I use my M cameras and lenses.

The M's are great cameras for situations where you can't stop and set things up. You are capturing moments or documenting events. I often recommend Leicas to other photographers as the perfect wedding cameras. A typical assignment would be the one I did recently for a pro bono client, a People's Clinic. They needed images of the doctors, nurses, pharmacists and administrators providing services to their clients. They wanted the photography to be non-intrusive and unposed and yet they needed high quality color images for reproduction on posters and in brochures.

I went with three cameras and three lenses. The cameras were two M6's and an earlier model, the M5. All have excellent through the lens almost spot meters. Each was loaded with Kodak's Supra 400 color negative film. (this is a fine grain film that is easily correctable when shot under fluorescent lighting). The lenses were the 35mm Summicron ASPH, the 50mm Summilux 1.4 and the 90mm APO Summicron.

The two M6's, one with the 50 and the other with the 35 are worn around my neck on straps set to different lengths, allowing one to hang above the other. The 90 on the M5 over my shoulder.

I shoot quietly and wait patiently for the moment I want. The Leicas are almost silent. The image through the finder is always bright and in focus making evaluation of the scene easier. The frame lines show the current cropping while the area outside the framelines is visible and available. I start by quickly metering the room with the 50mm camera. I commit certain readings to memory. There are usually only two or three meter/exposure differences in each room. I set all three cameras and lenses to the same settings. While the people know I'm in the room I try not to have any eye contact with them. I become boring and try to visually recede so that the health practioner becomes the center of attention. I scan the room through the finder looking for the right composition. I move the camera a little from side to side to see if I can improve the framing. I may use the preview lever to see how the scene would look through one of the other lenses. I focus on the eyes and try to find something to lean against while releasing the shutter. I try to ignore all conversation so that I shoot for the design and composition and not emotionally.

If you hear that a person is a heroin addict, or that a person is dying, it changes your emotional response to the shooting but it doesn't change the scene. It doesn't come across on film. Better to leave the emotion out of it. I shoot quietly and work the scene with several of the lenses. The cameras are so quiet that the patient and doctor often forget I'm in the room. It's the same way I try to shoot corporate meetings and events. I work hard not to become part of the experience, not part of the entertainment. A motor drive in a 12 by 12 foot examination room is like a gun going off.

In most situations I like to shoot at f2 or f2.8, varying the shutter speed when necessary. With my Reflex cameras I'm lucky to be able to handhold the camera and produce sharp photos with any speed lower than a 125th of a second. With the M cameras I routinely produce images that are sharp at 1/15th of a second.

I mentioned that I meter the room and most times I do that by metering the tanned back of my own hand (poor man's incident meter). I then set the cameras and try not to look at the meter again. Funny thing is that I'm getting far more consistent exposure results with the M cameras than I got from my far more advanced Nikon F5 cameras in the same situations.

Here's why. When I meter my hand it meters the light falling on it and that light doesn't change during the shoot. When I shoot with the Leica I leave the exposure alone and since there is no option for auto-exposure I don't have the temptation to use it. When I used the F5 I was always lured by the siren call of advertising onto the rocks of "multi-matrix super integrated" automation. When I pointed the camera at the doctor's white coat the camera tried to compensate, kinda. When the camera pointed at the dark sweater of a patient the camera tried to compensate, kinda. According to my lab, this "kinda" automatic compensation means that most rolls of pro film are all over the map compared with film received ten years ago.

In fact, now my film rarely is more than 1/2 of a stop off and that makes a quality difference even with color negative film. At the end of a shoot like this the biggest compliment I can get is usually, "Gosh, you were so quiet I forgot you were here!"

What are some of the benefits of shooting with a simple, non-automated, rangefinder Leica?

Turns out there are many:

  1. The quietest shutter on the market. The camera is so quiet when the shutter goes off that normal room conversations are often enough to mask the click. In many situations, the less attention called to the photographer and the camera the better.
  2. The quickest, surest focusing with wide angle lenses of any 35mm camera. Photos taken with 35mm, 28mm 24mm and 21mm lenses can be critically sharp even at wide open apertures as the photographer no longer need allow for the slop of misplaced autofocus, or focus that it not critically sharp due to a legion of SLR focusing deficiencies.
  3. While on the subject of lenses, it is important to note that countless magazines, websites, independent tests and the testimony of countless thousands of professional photographers all concur that Leica's lenses (and especially their wide angles) are the finest in the world of 35mm. When you start with lenses that are sharp wide open, you have so much more flexibility in your shooting methods.
  4. A major advantage of the M6 Leica is it's general appearance. It looks so unlike the large professional camera, festooned with motors and prisms and enormous zoom lenses that most people mistake the M6 for an antiquated point and shoot camera. Not taking the camera seriously they relax and let their guard down. Just what you want if you are in the business of shooting candid photos.
  5. The lack of mechanical and electrical complexity, coupled with German engineering and manufacturing make for a camera that is supremely reliable. In fact, an independent magazine report noted that whereas the professional Nikons and Canons are engineered and produced with the target of 150,000 uses before failure, the M6 is engineered and crafted to deliver at least 400,000 cycles before wear makes repair or adjustment necessary.
  6. No moving mirror makes it easier to design lenses without compromise while at the same time assuring a smoother shutter release with less vibration to diminish the quality of the image. It also contributes to the reliability cited above.

The actual review

I have lived with both versions of the M6 camera for a little over two years now. Both are nearly identical but have viewfinders with different magnifications and a different assortment of framelines for different lenses. The M6 .72 has an image magnification in the viewfinder of .72 x life size. It will accommodate and show framelines for lenses from 28mm thru 135mm. The M6 .85 has an image magnifications of .85 x life size and will accommodate and show framelines for lenses from 35 to 135. Of the two, I prefer the .85 as I shoot at least half of the time with the 50mm lens and this version shows the 50mm framelines without any other framelines visible in the finder. The slightly enlarged viewfinder image also makes framing and composing a bit easier.

For the rest of the review I'll just refer to the M6 unless there is a compelling reason to mention one model.

If you've been using automatic SLR's and autofocus SLR's for a good while, the first few sessions with a non-automated rangefinder will leave you shaking your head and wondering what the heck you were thinking when you parted with upwards of $2,500 for a primitive camera body and one optic. Once you've had maid service, it's hard to go back. Most of us have gotten used to a camera that instantly sets exposure and snaps into focus the minute we bring it to our eye.

Even loading the film in a Leica seems awkward and confounding.

But then it starts to grow on you. The ergonomics are so much better than what we've settled for previously and the tight, well defined metering pattern makes metering less guess work and more science. The ability to prefocus without holding down special focus lock buttons seems so streamlined and easy. The depth of field scale on the lenses encourages us to play with hyperfocal distance focusing and to think more about the pictorial effect of depth of field. It's a camera you can take to lunch, a camera you can take on a date or even to a board meeting without attracting much attention or interest.

But it's really the image that you see through the viewfinder that will convince you that this camera is special. Very sharp and very bright. And one of the most delightful things for most serious shooters is the fact that there is one simple exposure indicator in the bottom of the finder and no other confusing letters, numbers, lights or arrows. If you are working with a separate, incident meter (as many pros do) you can remove the batteries from the camera altogether and it will still function. You just won't see any meter indications.

The best feature for me, when I am shooting in the street or in the board rooms of major corporations, is the fact that when I look through the finder of my camera, with a 50mm lens attached, the frame lines float in the finder and I can see on the other side of the framelines. This allows me to see new ways to compose or crop as well as seeing what may be coming into the frame. The SLR seems to impose a composition on it's user while a rangefinder camera shows you, the artist, what is available just a few feet to the left or the right (or the top or the bottom) of the framelines.

When I started to shoot with a manually focused camera again, the first thing I noticed about my style of shooting was that I began playing more with the edges of the frame. Unconstrained by centering the camera and locking focus and then recomposing, I would focus once and then shoot without bothering to focus again until I or my subject changed position or distance. Images started to come alive for me as compositions became more relaxed and I was able to take full charge of what I saw in the viewfinder.

Moving a step further, to a Leica rangefinder, I found the freedom of the viewfinder, with it's "window" to areas outside those shown within the framelines, pushed me to actively consider my compositions. Images are less centered and less formal. While a little lever on the front of the camera allows me to preview the framelines of any other lens whenever I please, without having to actually mount the lens on the camera.

Finally, I became permanently attached to the camera when I began to use it on travel assignments. Two bodies and four lenses took up about as much space in a camera bag as one Nikon F5 and one of it's companion lenses. Smaller and lighter is always better on overseas trips (or trips around the block, for that matter). I used to travel with the following in my bag for assignments:

Two Nikon F 5's, extra batteries, an 80-200 2.8 zoom lens, extra batteries, a 20-35 2.8mm zoom lens, extra batteries, a Noct-Nikkor 58 1.2 mm lens, extra batteries, and an 85mm 1.4 af lens. Almost twenty pounds of stuff, not counting flashes, film, accessories and connecting cords. Usually an extra, smaller body such as an N90 or the F100 went along so I could go out street shooting during the gaps in my working agenda. Let's call it twenty something pounds. The largest Domke bag, stuffed to the gills. Walking a block with this stuff was an exercise in, well, exercise. And back aches. Because of the heavy lenses and the mirror slap, a tripod was always required for available light photography, and you may have noticed that most professional users of autofocus cameras seem to use flash for everything, mostly to compensate for the inability to handhold these monsters securely.

Now I travel with the following: Two Leica M6 bodies. The 21mm ASPH, the Tri-Elmar 28-35-50 lens (Leica's answer to the zoom lens. One small, compact lens with three focal lengths. Very high imaging performance, even at full aperture). A separate brightline finder for the 28mm focal length, the 50mm Summilux 1.4 lens and the 90mm APO Summicron. A small Leica tabletop tripod and one small Leica SF20 flash unit. This kit tips the scale at only six pounds and change, and it fits in a medium sized Domke bag, giving me more room for film. This is a package that, with the exception of long focal lengths, gives me the same image range as the Nikon with results that are much superior.

Consider the case of the 21mm lenses. The Nikon zoom was very sharp, except in the corners, but it does have some pronounced distortion. To make the image as sharp in the corners as it is in the center requires stopping down to f5.6 or f8. This precludes handheld exposures in most interior locations. Out comes the tripod or the flash. With the 21mm ASPH for the Leica the distortion wide open is non-existent while sharpness and resolution wide open in the corners rivals the Nikon image's center at 5.6. Point and game to the M6 and the 21mm. Quick and painless. At the other end of the focal length choices one would assume that the 80-200 Nikkor would have it all over the 90APO Summicron but that isn't really so. Most of my use for long lenses is either for portraiture or the documentation of keynote speakers at corporate events. I'm usually positioned in the first row for the keynote speakers and am expected to get a good range of expressions during the speaker's performance while calling the least attention to myself. I also can't distract the speaker. Flash is strictly forbidden!

I generally use Kodak Supra 800 film with an 80C filter over the lens. This gets me halfway to the proper correction for daylight film with tungsten lighting and the lab can handle the rest of the correction. It also eats up a stop of light. Here's the choice: The huge, heavy Nikkor wide open at 2.8 with a shutter speed of 1/60th or the Leica 90 with an f stop of 2.0 and a shutter speed of 1/125. Guess which one is easier to handhold. Guess which one has less shake? Guess which lens is much sharper wide open? Yes, it's the Leica.

Additional Leica M benefits which are paramount under these conditions are it's much, much quieter shutter, quieter manual wind and a silent rewind.

The one area that the Nikon would seem to be superior is in the reach of it's 80-200mm zoom lens. But, the longer the focal length used, the greater the magnification of vibration from the mirror slap and the shake induced by human frailty. Surprising to me was the fact that a blow up from a partial area of the M6/ 90mm images was sharper than a full frame shot with the Nikon. The combination of the single focal length lens' higher sharpness wide open, the faster shutter speed and the ease with which the package could be hand held all were visible advantages.

Weaknesses of the Leica M System

While the M6 is the camera I choose for a lot of my work, it does have some weaknesses. To wit:

  1. This is not a camera with which to shoot sports or wildlife. The longest lens is a 135. And while it is arguably the best 135 lens in the world, most sports shooters and wildlife experts will tell you that, for them, photography begins at 400mm.
  2. This is not a camera for people who want a point and shoot. You must meter and set the shutter speed and aperture manually. You must focus. And you must master loading film like they did in the old days. No drop-in automatic film loading available.
  3. This is not a camera for folks who like to shoot outside with fill flash! The top shutter speed for flash sync is a paltry 1/50th of a second. About the only film you can reasonably use to do daylight fill flash would be Agfapan APX 25. And it's been discontinued by Agfa.
  4. The M6 would not be my first choice for studio camera as you cannot preview depth of field or attach an after market Polaroid back for testing. That being said, I've shot some great portraits with studio lights and the 90mm. The camera is a wonderful tool for non-intrusive photography, candid portraits and available light documentation, but the body is only half the system. The crucial point for many users is the lenses!

While the famous industrial designer, Alessi, stated that the Leica M camera body is one of the few designs of the 20th century which he thought was so perfect he would never try to change, it is the Leica M series lenses that are the real lure of the M system for most available light shooters. In the next section I'm going to talk about a number of the lenses and compare them with similar lenses that I've owned and used extensively in the Canon, Nikon and Contax G systems. As a corporate photographer I run a lot of film through my cameras and often log 100 to 200 rolls in a week. I get to know my cameras and lenses with an intense intimacy, in a short amount of time, that would take an amateur user years to match. Also, working with tools under pressure brings out the best and worst points in each piece of equipment. The following evaluations are subjective but are based on 20 years of looking and learning.

The Leica 21mm ASPH Elmarit. This lens is absolutely superb. It has a biting sharpness wide open that seems to be a shared family trait of all the newest Leica optics. I own the same focal length in the Leica R lens and find that I must stop down to at least f8 to even get near the ballpark of performance that the M lens gives me wide open. Both the Canon and the Nikon optics lack the corner sharpness of the Leica at any aperture and only come near to matching the performance of the Leica in the center of their images at f5.6 or f8. Also, most of the slides seem somewhat equal in sharpness until you put them in an enlarger and crank them up to a large size (16x20+). Then the differences really become apparent as the ultra fine detail just keeps coming in the Leica optic, the other lenses have no more detail to offer.

My experience with the Contax G series 21mm was relatively limited because the supplied finder exhibited high levels of distortion while the lens lacked contrast and bite. It was quickly returned to the dealer. In addition, the widest focal lengths really cry out to be manually focused and the manual focus of the G system is barely usable.

The Leica Tri-Elmar 28-35-50. This is a wonderful lens. Small and light, yet solid. I use it mostly in exterior locations as the f stop of f4 is limiting for use in low available light. At 50mm it is, to my eye, as good as the current 50mm M Summicron, thought by reviewers to be "the lens to beat" in 35mm normal focal lengths. At the middle apertures, most manufacturer's lenses are very good. Most of the difference is in the way they design for contrast rendition. The Tri-Elmar is a bit "snappier" or more contrasty than the samples from Nikon and Canon, and that is the main visible difference.

I do like the look of the Contax G series 45. It is not quite as snappy as the Leica product, but the colors and tones have a very pleasing, rich quality to them and the sharpness is equal to both the Leica products.

At 35mm the Tri-Elmar has high sharpness but there is a slight decline in contrast when compared to the 50mm focal length. The 35mm ASPH Summicron lens from Leica is the lens to beat in this focal length. The Tri-Elmar comes fairly close. Both are very far ahead of the single focal length lenses from the two Japanese SLR Manufacturers. The Contax G series 35mm lens has a flatter rendition and while the colors are rich, as in the 45mm, the sharpness is not as high.

Finally, at 28mm the lens is on par with the competition's lenses for the most part. The Leica has a bit more distortion but it also has a higher level of contrast. The images, on film, have their own characteristics, but, the ease with which the Tri-Elmar can be accurately focused on the rangefinder cameras becomes a clear advantage at this focal length as this is the point at which the SLR's limited wide angle focus/autofocus abilities start to fail. This is evidenced in the higher number of improperly focused images in both my samples and the samples and anecdotal evidence given by other professional shooters. Contrary to popular mythology, the depth of field of a 28mm lens wide open is not limitless! And it is certainly not enough to mask all focusing errors.

Since imaging quality is at least equal to all the single focal lengths compared, the real benefit is the tiny package this lens presents. The ability to carry three separate, high performance focal lengths in a space no bigger than a small SLR lens is a clear advantage. The ability to focus it accurately under all conditions is crucial to my success with this lens.

The 50mm Summilux. Leica's standard high speed optic of the M.

At this juncture I must confess that I love high speed, normal focal length lenses. I once bought an EOS-1 just to be able to use Canon's 50mm 1.0 L lens and their 85mm 1.2 L lens. Both of these optics were spectacular. It's unfortunate that they were rendered nearly unusable for quick reportage by USM motors that were as slow as molasses. Indeed, if these lenses had autofocus to match their on-film performance, or had a way of being used manually that would give you real time focusing, I would still be using them. They are superb and easily the equal of the Leica glass. That being said, the 50mm 1.4's from Nikon and Canon are nothing to write home about. Not very sharp wide open and not very contrasty stopped down. The 50mm Summilux blows them away at every stop. And it's half the size! The only high speed lens that is better wide open is Leica's latest 50mm Summilux for the R (reflex cameras) with eight elements and glass so cool that it must have been invented for NASA. This lens, the 80 Summilux and the 180 apo's are what keep me with Leica's SLR system for some assignments.

Both the Contax SLR 50's are decent normal lenses but, again, both are not as sharp wide open and both lack the contrast and super fine detail of the Leica products wide open. The only real contender is the G series 45 which, while different in it's rendition from the Leica products, is very, very good.

I use the 50 Summilux wide open for most of my "available darkness" shots. It is resistant to flare and nice and contrasty. The look of an image with a high degree of sharpness in a limited plane is a look that I think emulates the way the human eye actually sees and we are intrigued by all the stuff in the background that just blurs away. I believe that this lens and the M6 are the ultimate synergistic imaging system for me.

The 90mm APO Summicron. Too sharp.

I have owned four different 90mm Summicrons. The original with the tripod mount on the bottom. The next generation. The Summicron for the R series, and the current 90 APO. This lens cannot be compared to any competitor's lens or even other lenses within the Leica system. It is brutally sharp wide open, and retains that sharpness right on out to f16. If you must use this lens for flattering portraiture, be sure to filter it or shoot in low light so that the subject's breathing and slight movement take some of the sharpness out. I have kept the first version around for portraiture just for this reason. The first version is quite a bit softer wide open and has just a little flare in backlit situations. Using the latest APO version I have been able, using Kodachrome 25 and Fuji Velvia, to have 40 by 60 inch LightJet enlargements made that rival the sharpness I get with Hassleblad lenses and with most 4x5 lenses.

The above four lenses that I use most with my Leica M6's. Many Leica fans will be incredulous that I did not include either of the Aspherical 35mm's (the f2 and the f1.4) as they are widely considered to be among the best of the best of Leica's lenses. The truth is that I own the 35mm ASPH and have used it to good effect, but it's just not my favorite focal length. It's an impressive performer but one I use only when the 50 has my back up to the wall. I don't own the new 135mm APO-Telyt but I have used one. It's performance is wonderful, but I just can't seem to get comfortable with such a long lens on a rangefinder camera. The viewing frame in the finder is just too small. More experienced Leica users have told me that the almost life sized viewfinder of the M3 makes this lens a delight to use, but the M3 has no metering and no facility to use the modern lenses shorter than 50mm so I pass.

Contax G2 Versus Leica M6.

At first use the G2 seems to be a compelling choice. As the weeks drag on though, so does the camera. The G2 has a squirrely little finder that is not at all fun for users of eyeglasses. The autofocus doesn't always autofocus where I would like it to and the use of a focus hold button just bores/frustrates the hell out of me. There averaging meter pattern is less useful than the clearly defined pattern of the Leica meter. The rewind is motorized and much too loud to be used in a theater, a board room, a conference, a classroom or anywhere else when discretion is critical.

The limited selection of lenses doesn't include any high speed optics and, while the 28 and the 45 are superb the other choices are less so. The 90 is a nice lens but requires much skill to achieve consistent autofocus.

The manual focus makes the camera chancy for street shooting as many street shooters prefer to keep their lenses prefocused on a fixed distance and then fine tune the actual shooting distance the moment they bring the camera to their eye. The G2's manual focus isn't up to this challenge.

Finally, and this may just be a personal thing, but the G2 doesn't seem to have the right "feel". It seems just a bit off.

Leica M6 Body with Voightlander Lenses.

While I think it would be foolish to buy a Leica body and not buy some of their best lenses to go along with it. I've run into shooters at the Democratic convention in Los Angeles and fashionistas on South Beach in Miami who added more wide angle capability to their Leica kits with the Heliar 15mm lens and the 25mm Skopar lens and were very happy to have them. I must confess that I bought one of the 15mm's and used it extensively for an annual report job in December of 2000. It made wonderful images. Even the vignetting worked for the dusk images we captured. As to some of the other focal lengths, I would test them thoroughly before choosing. The Leica lenses that I've detailed are head and shoulders above most out there and are a great value/performance proposition.


An example of what I find very useful with the Leica 24-90mm Vario Elmarit zoom lens.


Last year I did a video project for our classical radio station here in Austin; KMFA-FM. They had a visiting composer and we made a video about their new program dedicated to bringing in talented new composers, having them work in residence to produce new work. While we were between interviews in their concert hall I watched their in house sound engineer miking their grand piano of a live performance. 

I walked around a looked at the orientation of the mic to the piano strings and immediately wanted to make a photo. I had the Leica SL2 set up with the zoom on it and I used it handheld, depending on the image stabilization in the body and on the lens. The shot was done at f4.0 which is wide open at the longer focal lengths and so was stopped down just a bit for these images. I especially love the way the focus falls off in the top photograph. It's just exactly what I wanted but I didn't know I wanted that effect until I saw it on the camera screen. 

The mic is quite sharp while the background just fades away. That's the benefit of having a zoom lens that's highly corrected for wide open aperture operation. Not all lenses can do both a sharp, close up at a wide open aperture and fun bokeh in the background. 

Shots like these can be really nice "b-roll" when you get down to editing the video. Not everything has to move...

Someone brought up rangefinder (M series) Leicas. I couldn't find a copy of the original M6 review I wrote for Photo.net in 2000 but here's one I wrote for them on the M8 and the Summarit lenses... If you have a copy of the M6 article can you send me a copy???



this link will take you to an early (2010) blog post which discusses my time with the Leica M8. 

Added: Matt Osborne's 14 problems with Leicas. He mostly covers all the problems with using Leica M cameras through the ages. Very good, brief video:


The lens I've been waiting for? A very inexpensive Leica lens? Or....a very expensive and re-dressed Lumix lens?

 Leica lenses for the SL system have been breathtaking in three regards. First, they are really good performers with high sharpness, great micro-contrast and wonderful colors. Second, they are breathtakingly large and heavy. Especially so for a 35mm format camera. And third, they have all been breathtakingly expensive. When I bought an SL2 brand new from a local bricks and mortar Leica dealer it was tough to choose one Leica SL lens that would cover my needs and that was (somewhat?) affordable. I just couldn't swing a bag full of Leica SL prime lenses. I would have cumulatively spent more than I did on my new car... So I bought the 24-90mm zoom lens. It's been a remarkable photographic tool but I wouldn't take it along on a vacation because of its size and weight and so I've been limited in my personal use of my SL system cameras to using third party lenses and legacy lenses when I want to go out and shoot in the streets of Austin, Vancouver or Santa Fe. I've long been dreaming that Leica would come out with a less expensive series of lenses that would be: smaller, lighter, and much less expensive. 

Dreams into reality. Leica answered. Today they announced two completely new lenses for the SL system. Lenses that will also be compatible across the L mount system, including on cameras made by Sigma and Panasonic. The two tenses they announced are the 50mm Summicron and the 35mm Summicron. These do not replace the 50 APO Summicron or the 35mm APO Summicron in the line up but are (welcome) additions which offer a different compromise. The new lenses each have three aspherical elements in their nine element, eight group design but are not apochromatically corrected. The other side of the compromise is that these two lenses are half the size, half the weight and less than half the list price of their APO siblings. 

New lenses for all of us who don't need the best 35mm or 50mm lenses in the universe. We just want lenses that are better than everyone else's lenses and in a package we can easily carry around on a great camera. 

The lens I am most interested in is the 50mm f2.0 Summicron. Why? It's the descendant, in my mind, of the very first M series lens I ever owned; a 7 element, rigid, silver 50mm M Summicron that I bought when I acquired my very first M series camera, the Leica M3. I used that lens for years but also shot many frames of film with the original Leicaflex 50mm Summicron and then the Leica R series 50. I got tons and tons of great images from that collection of German 50mms.  I'm also excited to get the new Summicron because it's exactly my favorite focal length and I expect to use the heck out of it in short order. 

The new 50mm Summicron is all metal construction, uses the Leica "Hydrophope Aqua-Dura" lens coatings, is dust and moisture resistant and from what I saw of the MTF charts should be a top notch optical performer. A brand new Leica 50mm f2.0 Summicron at a price I can afford, brand new: $1895.

I rarely pre-order stuff but when I got an email from my current favorite Leica dealer: Leica Store Miami, I almost immediately clicked the "Pre-Order" button. 

I have no idea when the lens will actually ship but I'm planning on cleaning out the equipment cabinet drawers of all the mountains of 50mm lenses I seem to have collected over the years and downsize my 50mm collection to one very useful lens. This one.

Now, if you shoot with the L mount system and still find this lens too dear I've already done the research that I'm sure will be trotted out by web-based Leica Haters everywhere. The optical formula looks nearly identical to the Panasonic 50mm f1.8 Lumix that came out about a year and a half ago. It's the budget, nifty fifty lens for the L mount system. When I look at images of the new Leica 50mm Summicron and the Panasonic 50mm f1.8 side by side I can't help but see that they also share a very similar size and overall configuration. The Lumix is housed in a plastic shell while the Leica version uses metal. Haters will overlook any differences as being "window dressing" or worse. 

My take is that the lenses might share some DNA but Leica states that their new 50mm is "Leica designed" and built in Portugal. The lens coatings will be different and there is also a difference in optical design, based on lens element configuration between the two lenses. 

If you are on a budget the 50mm f1.8 Panasonic lens is a great bargain. Stopped down one stop from wide open gives you really great optical performance and then, stopping down further from there you get even better sharpness and few discernible artifacts or "gotchas." The price on that lens (always on sale!) bounced around the $350 price point. And includes a lens hood (as does the Leica...). 

By writing this I am not suggesting that anyone abandon a different system which they already use and enjoy. I'm not suggesting that you should buy yet another 50mm lens. I guess what I'm really saying is that Leica is starting to price some "daily user" gear down below the stratospheric levels we've seen recently and that this is great for photographers who want small, light and relatively inexpensive tools. 

I think this lens will be the perfect match for the Leica SL and SL2 cameras I enjoy shooting with. We'll see soon. 

Here is the Leica press release: https://leica-camera.com/en-US/press/two-new-sl-lenses

On the front of the SL2-S...


After I posted some photos from Iceland, taken with a Lumix G9, we had some questions about what is "good enough"? And also why I continue to buy big, expensive, full frame cameras. I thought we might discuss just that.

Photography is a weird hobby/craft/profession. So much of our practice is tied to lore from the film days which purports to inform us about things like which ISOs to use or what format we "need" to have in order to succeed. Then there is the ever present rabbit hole of resolution and pixel size. A lot of the confusion surrounding technical considerations in our current practice comes from our inability to change our perspectives about the "rules" of how to make good photographs which have changed from the days of film to the current age of digital imaging. 

Most photographers are not scientists or engineers and because they lack technical groundings they tend to lean on simple measurements and shared legends and history to guide their choices when buying cameras and lenses. And lights, etc. 

In the days of film a bigger format was really, discernibly, better than a smaller format. It all had to do with how much information could be captured on a negative or transparency. Also, even the very best lenses were not nearly as good as the highest caliber lenses today. In order to get enough detail in a final print a conscientious worker had to start with the best negative possible. Image quality was dependent on exposure, the quality of lenses, the care used in developing film (and even in choosing the right developer, agitation technique and timing), the quality of one's enlarging pathway --- from the light source to the enlarger lens, and so much more. 

We learned, back then, that bigger film meant higher sharpness and resolution in the final print; assuming that all film formats were printed to the same size. We assumed that lenses were only at their highest performance level if set at least two or three stops down from wide open. We assumed that the smaller the camera's format the worse the technical performance of the camera would be. And, I believe, that all of these assumptions were based on how an image would like when viewed directly, at arm's length, on an 11x14 inch or 16x20 inch paper print. That was the de facto print size range for display prints from the 1960s until the end of film (and yes, dear pedantic one, I know that film is not yet completely dead....). 
Within that range and with the way film generally worked it was entirely possible to see exactly what bigger and smaller formats brought to the table.

The trade off of course was always that smaller cameras (35mm?) were easier to carry, easier to use, easier to buy and a lot less costly to supply with film. (per frame).  That's what drove their popularity. And honestly, if your goal, as it was for many back then, was to print at 8x10 or smaller, the format was competitive. 

So, folks of a certain age learned all about how FILM photography worked and have spent the last twenty or so years doggedly trying to apply the strict rules of technique they learned FOR film to what is essentially a different technology: digital. And they are also applying those rules regardless of the display medium on which they view the final results. 

I would estimate that fewer than 3% of advanced amateur photographers still make a habit of actually printing most of their images, which are shared, on paper prints. Just looking at the numbers the vast billions of images being shared, both for commerce and personal pleasure, are consumed on small screens. Most of them are viewed on cellphone screens. The second biggest viewing medium for the vast majority of images is on smaller computer device screens such as the 13 inch average screen size of laptop computers or the 10 inch average screen size of iPads and other tablet devices. Only a small fraction of users are daily viewing photographic images on professional, calibrated 27 inch and larger 5 and 6K screens/monitors used on computer desktop systems. 

My target market here at VSL might skew to more desktop users as people interested in the topics covered here are more likely to be older, more affluent and more disposed to viewing images on computers in the comfort of their own homes or private offices. If this is you please understand that you are NOT a typical sample group!

If we look only at the metrics of screen size and screen resolution we can pretty obviously see that we only need between 10 and 12 million pixels of camera sensor resolution to amply fill just about any viewing screen a person consuming photography is likely to use. When and if 8K screens come to market in quantity we night need to revise that number upwards to somewhere around 32 million pixels but upscaling from 20 or 24 megapixels is now child's play for most applications and users. And it's such a small degree of upscaling as to be undetectable by 99% of viewers. 

We also have to understand that unlike our conventional ideas of film size versus resolution we can have high resolution on all the common digital sensor formats from one inch sensors to the new "pixie" medium format sensors. Even phones can have as high a resolution as all the other devices. For the last decade or more plain old resolution has become meaningless when it is held up as a primary measure of quality.

We want to use the rules we learned in the film days because decades of reliance on those concepts more or less hardwired the ideas into our brains. We presume that all those rules are transferrable when they are not. Younger photographers aren't necessarily held captive by these older practices and concepts...

We can make the same arguments about the noise performance of digital cameras as well. When we shot film we took grain (analog noise) for granted. And, if you were a working photographer shooting under lots of different conditions you probably found out quickly that the maximum ISO you could use with film and still get a "nice" image unmarred by "noise" was around 800. Sure, you could push process film but there were always obvious trade-offs. Now, with digital processing, you can use cameras with any size sensor from one inch (which is less than one inch in diagonal measure) all the way to medium format and work with comfort at ISOs like 1600. Newer cameras can deliver even more ISO range before noise intrudes. But the reality is that few people actually work at the ragged edges of low light and therefore most will never really see much degradation in their digital photographs. The vast majority of images are made in good light. But even in lower light levels cameras such as the Sony RX10IV, which is a one inch sensor camera, are quite good when used with higher ISOs. And competitive with all formats in good light.

I didn't start out to make images at any particular ISO range with the samples I'm showing here but none were done above ISO400 and I think that's typical for most travel photographers (excluding night scenes). 

We are playing by different rules in the realm of digital imaging. Lenses for smaller formats are designed to take optical diffraction into consideration and so on the best of them the maximum (most open) aperture is what is referred to as diffraction limited which essentially means that wide open is its highest quality setting. We have artificial intelligence coming into the noise reduction post processing space and as can be seen by progress in the sensor output of phones that post processing works and is powerful. 

So, what does all this add up to? Do we need to pursue ever higher resolution in our sensors? Are full frame sensors a must for quality images? Do we need larger formats for any technical purpose other than for the way longer lenses render out of focus backgrounds and foregrounds?

Do we really need to spend money and sweat using bigger camera formats when our primary targets are no longer primarily large, enlarger made prints?

The photos here are basically my answer to every non-commercial photographer who asks (and by non-commercial I make no assumptions about artistic ability or technical chops. Many of my friends who shoot for pleasure are far better photographers than I). 

I have shot with three different medium format systems, all of which had geometrically bigger sensors than the current crop of Hasselblad XD and Fuji GFX medium format cameras. I have used every major camera makers full frame cameras; from Sony, Canon, Nikon, Panasonic and Leica. But I also have almost two decades of experience using four thirds sensor sized cameras (mirrored and mirrorless) as well as the one inch Sony RX10 series cameras. 

In my opinion, for the vast majority of the work we do for fun and commerce, there is no appreciable difference in quality between any of the sensors. No differences in sharpness unless you pixel peep. No differences in color purity or color discrimination. Nothing. When I went to Iceland where I shot the photos presented here I took two Panasonic Lumix G9 cameras. I still think of them as the "gold standard" for m4:3 cameras. I also took along good lenses. Lenses computed to work in sync with the smaller sensors. These included the Olympus Pro 12-100mm (which I think will be noted as one of the legendary lenses from the last ten years) as well as the Panasonic/Leica 15mm Summilux and a very excellent copy of the Sigma Contemporary 30mm f1.4 lens.

The camera's 20 megapixel sensor, combined with great lenses made for the format, resulted in images I think are mostly perfect; especially for the viewing setups most people in the modern world will be using. I'd also be confident printing them as big as 16x20 without fear of any obvious degradation. 

In my mind the system size, the lens ranges, the resolution and the ease of transport and handling of the micro four thirds cameras is the perfect balance for most diligent and persnickety photographers. From portraits to landscapes the images from those sensors are every bit as good as photographs from today's full frame sensors. Especially obvious if one only stops to take ego and pride of ownership totally out of the equation... And if one works in the fat and juicy center of technical parameters = good light!

But if I know this and it's all demonstrably true then why do I buy expensive, full frame cameras and equally expensive lenses to use in my business and for my own personal work? Let me answer the second part of that question first. I use my current cameras for my personal work because they are available to me as a result of my determination that there are some commercial projects at the ragged edges of performance that require them. Since I have them at hand I shoot them to stay fluid with them. With their operation. And I also chose them because I like the way they handle. How they feel.

The first part of the question, "why do I buy these particular cameras for work?" has a number of answers. First off, not being saintly and rigidly logical like some of you, my ego clearly influences some of these decisions. Having an expensive camera and lens on set is part of marketing. To some (but not all) clients it says you are successful and can afford "the best." Successful people want to work with other successful people and the gear you use is a shorthand signaling to those who know their brands. I get it. It shouldn't matter. And I have thousands of commercial images produced with smaller sensor cameras which should render this reason ridiculous. But there it is. And, from a marketing point of view it can work. Given the right market. So, ego. Justified as marketing.

Then there is the whole basis of fear. Will my competition get a technical advantage with a higher resolution camera that can perform better as the edge of the performance envelope? Should I pre-empt perceived advantages of my competitor's gear by arming myself with equal or better gear? 

Then there are work specific use cases. A recent job for a huge medical products company required very high resolution images suitable for very large trade show displays and large, printed magazine advertising. Their budget was not a constraint. But their parameters were set in stone. They wanted files in a certain size range and their in house art director wanted to work with the raw files. No post process cheating allowed. I only have one camera now that fit their specifications and that was the Leica SL2 (which does really brilliant big work). I might have been able to res up images from a sensor with less resolution but then we'd circle back to the idea that some part of these purchase has to do with indemnifying oneself against failure. If we buy for overkill we have more assurance that we'll hit client targets. And, again, theses targets aren't phone screens or even calibrated professional desktop screens but very large graphics that would be viewable at close range. Not the same as a billboard hundreds of feet away. So yes. Fear. 

By the same token I used to buy fast, long lenses and full frame sensor cameras for theater photography. Live action in lower light. Mostly to immunize my images against noise when working at high ISOs. I am aware though that with faster lenses I could have done equally good work with smaller format cameras. And many times did just that. For the fun and perceived challenge of it.

Finally, with all logic aside, I am as vulnerable to marketing as anyone. Tell me I'll be missing out if I don't embrace the latest thing in my field and I'll rush to "research" and quickly acquire the thing that promises to deliver golden eggs. But that doesn't change the fact that we could all do great and wonderful work with older, smaller cameras. Because we can. 

Some of my purchase choices are because of personal preferences that became embedded in my formative years as a photographer. I like bigger cameras. Most of the bigger ones exist as larger format bodies. I like certain ways of designing menus. I've tried cameras that "on paper" should be exquisite only to be put off by their handling, their build quality, their menus or any combination of all three "faults." 

I love the image quality of Olympus m4:3 camera and their lenses but I hate the Olympus menus and so when I buy cameras in that format they are almost always Panasonics. And so on. 

My current passion is all things Leica. It mostly stems from very early successes I had in the film days with used M series rangefinders and then the R series of cameras. The body designs are cool and some of their lenses really are demonstrably superb. But as a reviewer once noted, (paraphrasing) "Yes, lens X is slightly sharper than lens Y. But if I move the sharpening slide in post production a bit further to the right when processing images from lens Y then I can't tell the images apart. Is that worth an extra $5,000?" And I totally get that. 

I can probably (but maybe not exactly...) replicate the look I get from a Leica camera and lens with similar gear from Nikon, maybe Canon, with a lot of luck maybe even a Sony. But there are human emotional intangibles that also drive my decision making. Why does a baby boomer finally buy a Porsche? Not because it's efficient and economical transportation but to reward oneself after paying off their mortgage, getting their kids through college and navigating a long career. Why does anyone by an SL system Leica? For pretty much the same reasons. M cameras are different, but that's a topic for another day. 

The bottom line? Yes, pretty much any format you choose to work in today and make images to share widely will work and work well. You don't need anything more than about 16 megapixels of resolution and a good color processing system to get good images out of a vast range of cameras. You'll get great images out of the same camera if you invest in better and better lenses. But even there the final display limits the value. 

You can buy the camera you need pretty easily. But you can also buy the camera you want. And they may be different --- for a dozen reasons. And there you have my opinion on this divisive topic. 



Leica SL and Leica Vario-Elmar 35-70mm f4.0 go for a walk in the sunshine. This is part two of today's image collection. The words snappy, saturated and sharp come to mind.


The storm we just lived through is destined to take too much of my time in remediation and too much of my budget for tree services. We have some big branches that have snapped but not fallen and one big one is hanging right over my neighbor's driveway. I'd try to wrangle it but it's probably multiple hundreds of pounds of dead (or deadly) weight and it's about forty feet up in the air. I do know my limitations and that kind of daredevil tree trimming it outside my wheelhouse. The real issue is not so much the money but just being able to get a tree service in the near future. Nearly every home owner and business owner who has trees on their property is lining up to try to schedule. 

So, after getting a reasonable estimate for one service (that doesn't climb trees) to come and pick up the monstrous piles of dead branches I've pulled together in the side yard I took a breather and went out with that lens I've been talking about for the last few days. It's the Leica Vario-Elmar 35-70mm f4.0 and it's supposed to be pretty darn cool. I thought I'd take it for a spin on the front of a Leica SL camera body and see how the whole rig handles.

Here are my sample from an hour long walk through my urban "office." The camera is wonderful. And the lens gives me just the right set of features for good street photography; including being able (mostly at 35mm) to set an aperture and a distance and do grab shots without stopping to focus. Or at least not very often. 

So far I am impressed. Not much wrong here. I used a Novoflex R to L adapter, shot at my "Erwin Puts" mandated faster shutter speed of 1/250th and higher. Tried to stay close to f5.6 which is purported to be the optimum aperture and let Auto-ISO guide me through the exposure triangle. It's a great way to work. Fast and sure. And the "punch-in-ability" of the SL is perfect for fine focusing manual focus lenses with great accuracy. I love the focal length range and I especially appreciate the lens being less than half the weight of the Leica 24-90mm f2.8-4.0 lens. Zooms can be quite cool. A small kit with this lens as the primary, all day long tool, supplemented by something like the Zeiss 50mm f1.4 for evening, interior and night shooting. Not exactly a kit for professional work but certainly for a resourceful amateur or a true lover of photography.

Here are my favorite images from the outdoor shooting today. Shot raw and lightly processed in Lightroom. :

I saw them together and loved their look. I asked them to pose for me and 
they patiently waited while I manually focused and then, true to my professional training, proceeded to shoot a bunch of frames. I liked this one the best. I hope they do as well..
No lights. Just open shade.

A quick grab shot using hyperfocal distance coupled with a pleasant, non-threatening smile.

Same. Love the red. Wow! 

Everyone was enjoying the sunshine. Cabin fever was pandemic in Austin last week. 

Layer upon layer. Shot at 70mm with f5.6. 

Here's what the camera package looks like. I got a ripped professional model to hold the camera for me and pose. Looks almost authentic... right? which watch is that?

She's back.... but only so you can compare "oranges to oranges" with my photos of her 
from a range of other cameras. I'm worried about her thumb though. I hope she doesn't 
mess it up any worse. I'd hate to have to bring her to my dermatologist's office and 
sit with her in the waiting room. Jeez. I hope she has insurance.

That just about does it for a quick test in good light. 
Jury is currently on hiatus. should I buy it?

Let's see what this tree devastation correction is going to cost me first.
Austin prices....detached from reality.