Posts Tagged ‘leica’

Leica’s Bid

23 September 2008

Dear J-

Leica’s Project AFRika has borne fruit, the S2 and S-System, which are an interesting break from tradition — the full-frame 24mm by 36mm format was dictated by the Barnack camera using surplus movie film; rather than stick with that, Leica have picked a new 30mm by 45mm sensor and built a system around it.  At a projected €15-20 000, it’s clearly priced out of even well-heeled medium format afficionados, but for those who make a living with their cameras, it presents an interesting proposition:  the portability of a 135 camera with the quality of medium format (37.5 million pixels spread out on the larger sensor mean that noise should be lower, and the proven Kodak design eschewing an anti-aliasing filter should lend it startling visual acuity).

But let’s first go over what it is not.  It is not a replacement for the R-System (the rumored R10 may have some trickle-down technology).  It is not, in all probability, going to cannibalize much sales from the high end full-frame 35mm dSLRs, as Sony, Nikon, and Canon have established a beach-head at $3 000 with visual quality that’s more than good enough.  It’s clear to me that Canon have been fairly complacent with their products; now the 1.3x crop sensor 1D line face competition from nearly-as-fast (Nikon D700) 1x crop cameras from the lower end, and the high-end full-frame contingent have a migration path, albeit expensive, to a larger-sensor system with no penalty in handling.

Everything that they said about the benefits of a larger sensor and the attendant shallow depth of field control pays off in spades for the 0.8x-scale Leica S2 (that is, multiply the focal length of the Leica lens by 0.8 to get the equivalent 135-format focal length).  But it’s priced high enough that again, it’s unlikely to rob many sales from that 1Ds line.  I can only guess at the rejection rate for the huge sensor.  One thing that does intrigue me is the deployment of autofocus in a Leica-designed body.  There have been numerous reasons given for not forcing AF into the R-Series, chief among them being that the tolerances in Leica lens manufacture preclude building in sufficient play to allow for low-powered AF motors.  Aperture rings have disappeared.  What sort of continuous speed can we expect?  And will the sour grapes ever end?  (Leica, finally building a camera that professionals can justify with their heads, not just their hearts, have now caused untold consternation amongst gearheads, who declaim the new S2 as another boutique camera aimed at wealthy collectors; believe me, the advantages are palpable — part of the reason I bought into medium format once, long ago, was the series of photographs reproduced from the early SLR-on-steroids Pentax 6×7 in Yoshikazu Shirakawa’s Eternal America.)



Bike Rokkor

29 July 2008

Dear J-

Other things to keep in mind:  the agreement between Minolta and Leitz in the 70’s that led to joint ventures like the “compact Leica” CL and the R3 reflex camera doesn’t necessarily mean that the lens designs adapted from Minolta to Leitz are the same lenses in different clothing, right?  Why do I find myself trolling for old Rokkor 24mm and 16mm lenses, anyway?  Doomed, doomed to keep looking for more junk to acquire.

I woke up too late to ride my bike this morning; driving back, I found myself worked into frequent rages at the callousness of other drivers (this, after having driven the van a hundred miles to and back from work blissfully sanguine to other drivers); I overheard myself muttering bitter little monologues regarding their parentage and realize that it’s not just being able to spend a little free time to myself, it’s the nature of that time.  I’m a better-balanced person after an hour on the bicycle; perhaps I just lack the energy to be spiteful and mean without it.


35mm Elmarit-R (I)

19 July 2008

Dear J-

They talk about the expense of the last ten percent — that is, the most expensive part of any pursuit is getting that last ten percent of quality; should you be able to convince yourself that ninety is pretty darn good, you can save yourself a ton of dough.  Consider high-end audio; the people that lose sleep over the lossy compression of MP3s are probably the ones who still have turntables hanging around (or in other literally suspended situations) somewhere.

So too with photography; for a given amount of money you could buy a crapload of cheap lenses (I’ve done that) or, as I’m discovering now, you can train yourself to know one lens intimately (now nearly four months with the 35mm Elmarit and I’m only now thinking I’ve got it dialed in fairly well) and get the best effects — or the desired picture — from it.  My example is the first version of the 35mm Elmarit (with Series VI filters); indeed, it comes with but a single metering cam, meaning that it was released at the time of the original Leicaflex SLR, and never received an update from Leica for compatibility with any of their later models.

There’s a soft-focus effect at f/2.8, wide-open.  It’s not displeasing, unless you’ve got some lights scattered at the edges of the picture — then they tend to coma and look downright odd — a couple of stops down and most of that disappears.  But it’s an Elmarit, and it’s a Leica, meaning it lives most of the time at f/2.8.  For the subjects I photograph, that makes it perfect.  Depth of field is reasonable wide-open, so focussing via the E-1’s viewfinder isn’t too difficult.  What sells it to me, though, is the rendition of the out-of-focus highlights; I’ve gotten used to (via the Canon FD 50mm f/1.4 and pretty much all the Nikkors I’ve used) seeing specular highlights rendered as round blobs with bright edges.  The Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 AI-S (original version, not the compact later design) I hung on the camera before does downright evil things to the out-of-focus areas, even though there’s no denying how the contrast and sharpness pop.

It’s not the greatest lens, resolution-wise, and it’s probably far outclassed by modern zoom designs.  The focussing throw is long and slow, and it’s been replaced and then discontinued by the parent company.  Yet I finally understand why and what folks talk about when Leica lenses are referred to with reverent tones; it’s a lens that rewards the photographer by making them look far more talented than they deserve.  And the cost?  You tell me what’s more expensive:  cheap lenses that never get used, or moderately pricey (and Leica R lenses are reasonable secondhand) lenses you drag out every day to capture your memories?


Cheap Tools

26 June 2008

Dear J-

I never fully stated the implied second part of yesterday’s topic, as to the value proposition of Leica gear.  Now that Leica-branded lenses are affixed to nearly every product coming out of Panasonic/Matsushita, the brand name has gotten significantly more awareness, and as a result, there’s ever more scrutiny as to the true nature of Leica’s involvement with the Panasonic joint venture.

You have to remember that Leica had a long-standing relationship with Minolta dating back to the 1970s, when several Minolta lens designs were sold with Leica R mounts (stories I’ve read say that the lenses were shipped to Germany for final inspection and testing, resulting in a high rejection rate and products sold worthy of the Leica banner).  Leica also have had several on-going relationships with the other German titans of optics, Zeiss (who supplied the design and expertise on the original 15mm reflex lens) and Schneider (ditto for several retrofocus wides, including the two perspective-control lenses and several 21mm wides for both M and R).  Personally, I believe that the Leica brandng on Panasonic (and rebadged Panasonics) is useful, but not necessarily to the same standards as Leicas of the past — I doubt that each optical assembly is shipped to Germany for final testing, but similarly, I believe Leica must send some engineers to Japan to oversee design and quality control.

There’s simply not enough of a market to support a massive automated assembly line.  And conversely, such an assembly line would be out of place for the quality associated with Leica.  So they’re stuck with the reputation of high prices, because they don’t have the market to spread costs over, and high quality, because they can lavish time into optical design, tight tolerances, and quality control.  The point is that as a complete lens line, you can generally choose from any and not have to worry too much about casting an inconsistent fingerprint on your photographic work, which is where Leica is unique.  The other ethos I find fascinating is how Leica optimize many of their lenses for use wide-open, where other brands may equal the performance stopped down a bit.  This jives nicely with how my brain tends to picture things — although that may be a consequence of wearing glasses for the last twenty-five years, the idea of selective focus.  If photography is about sharing the way we perceive the world, we tend to gravitate to tools that facilitate that conversion. The pieces are clicking into place.  Ironically, I wonder if the availability of Nikkor glass hasn’t facilitated a laziness in my approach to photography:  hey, get another lens for that, they’re pretty cheap; instead of:  let’s find a way to frame this right — get closer, or find a different angle.


German Glass

25 June 2008

Dear J-

Several electrons have been spilled here regarding the use of German lenses and whether or not the premium they demand is justified or not.  You have to realize, of course, that no nationality has a corner on optical design; certain lenses will perform better than others at different stops (apertures) and focus distances, and not every lens is a consistent performer.  But I’ll stand by my original assertion that for 90% of the world’s photographers, it’s technique and not equipment that hold back wonderful images.

Still, there are those (and I begin to count myself amongst those, even though I know the current equipment is perfectly adequate) who’ll willingly pay a premium when the lens bears that Zeiss or Leica name.  Part of the reason I bought into the 4/3rds system was the ability to play with German lenses — the original intent, after spending multiple luminous moments with the Zeiss gem that comes on the Sony DSC-V1 and -V3 (and, reputedly, on the Casio EX-P600 and -P700) was to get a Contax/Yashica mount adapter as a supplement to a Nikon adapter, but a good deal came up on a Leica R adapter.  I know, rationally, that my photographs aren’t incredibly better just because of the brand of lens I put in front of the camera — and the results seem to bear it out, there’s nothing extraordinary about the Nikon/E-1 combo in relation to the Leica/E-1, at least to my untrained eye.  But there is something else at play here, whether it’s the tactile rock-solid feel of the Leica R lenses, or the way they balance, or the fact that, since most of my photos all year were taken with the Panasonic DMC-LC1 prior to shifting over to the E-1, I’ve become accustomed to the Leica direction of operation.

Funny thing is that I was that same guy who sneered at folks overpaying for that red dot — why, if the Leica R lenses were so much more expensive and slower than the Nikon exotica, would anyone pay the difference?  I can’t say that I’ve found some magic justification, either.  All I really know is that I’ve been shooting a lot more frames lately; whether that’s the camera or the lens, it’s having a decided effect on the proportion of keepers, or rather, displayers.  You can’t approach photography as an investment hobby, which is unfortunately the direction that rangefinder photography has drifted into; that’s like telling an auto mechanic to take good care of their wrenches as they’ll have collector’s value in the future.  Undeniably, there will be historical value; unfortunately, they make such good tools that you’re compelled to use them, wrenches or lenses.

The two Leica R lenses I do own were cheap because of their cosmetic condition; they duplicate focal lengths and abilities I’ve already got in Nikon mount so truthfully, I have no business owning them.  It’s strange that they already feel far more natural — reproducing the scene as-I-saw-it and not interfering with the process — than anything I’ve used before.  I may be compelled to make it a trio or more, especially as several of those lovely Telyt 400 f/6.8’s have materialized at reasonable prices … I could always use a bit more hand-held reach.


Glassy Eyes

19 June 2008

Dear J-

The more I shoot with my current setup (Olympus E-1 with vintage lenses) the more I’m tempted to acquire more glass, even though I swore off more acquisitions only a month ago, and this even despite already owning multiple lenses in those same focal lengths.  What I’d be smart to do is set money aside for some actual Olympus lenses instead of making do with the motley crew of lenses I currently rotate.

For example, Olympus makes a 50 f/2 macro lens for the 4/3rds system; that lens is fast, compact, autofocus, and a 1:2 macro lens to boot, so why would I even consider instead spending a fraction of its purchase price on something like a Summicron-R 50 f/2?  I will say that there’s something seductive in the way the Leitz lenses feel:  well-damped, solid, and with an impressively long focus throw.  Here’s where my limitations come into play, though; anything less than 50mm or so of actual focal length and I can’t honestly say that I’m focussing accurately.  Besides, giving up on manual focus and aperture rings would mean that one-handed operation would be a bit more feasible; considering that for most photographic opportunities I find myself juggling baby, dogs, and camera, a free hand would be greatly appreciated.

I’d also like to be able to regain wide-angle photography without having to resort to pulling out some of my exotic lenses; the full-frame 16mm Fisheye-Nikkor works surprisingly well with minimal distortion, but what I’ll probably save my pennies for is either the 11~22 zoom or the 8mm fisheye, along with the 50mm macro.  The 14~54 has had great reviews, but considering my recent usage of that focal length range (on the LC1, I’d usually rack the zoom out to full-wide or full-tele, 28 or 90, and be perfectly happy with those results).  I don’t generally find myself limited when shooting with single focal lengths, although that may be a by-product of the lenses I’ve owned.  Now if Olympus would just lower the price on that 7~14 …