Thursday, July 14, 2011
A Newbie and the Leica M9
These are my thoughts for Leica Newbies.
If you are not a Newbie yet, you might be interested in my "why M8/M9" comments:
The funny thing about the M9 is that its a great beginners camera.
It makes your think about focus, shutter speed and aperture for every shot.
Shame that the cost makes this a non-sequitor :(
The standard advice for beginners, or those studying photography, is to buy a Canon A1, Nikon FM2, Pentax ME, Olympus OM1, etc. on ebay or from a second hand dealer with a 50mm lens. All these, and others, are great beginners cameras but ultimately I think, and will probably be flamed for this, that digital cameras are better then film cameras for learning.
This is simply because the feedback loop for shots is much quicker and also the marginal cost per shot is close to zero. The cost of films and processing means those on a restricted budget will not feel so free to experiment.
The problem with digital cameras of course is the race for automation, ease of use and features which ultimately obscure the camera as the photographer's tool to capture the moment with quality, atmosphere and composition.
BTW I will take a pause to recommend a book which describes well the thought process behind great pictures: The Art of Photography: An Approach to Personal Expression (Photographic Arts Editions) by Bruce Barnbaum
So, as a beginners tool, we are stuck with old film cameras for now.
After that tangent, back on topic.....
A typical M9 newbie is usually a seasoned DSLR hack.
The average DSLR hack is an expert in autofocus system settings, exposure compensation to "get the light right", understanding the limitations of their camera's "matrix/evaluative" metering modes with a bit of spot and aperture/shutter priority thrown in.
Of course I know that some DSLR owners are familiar even with things like manual focus, but I feel confident I am speaking for the majority.
I also know of course that most DSLR owners have generally experimented with most settings, but experimenting is different from being forced to pick the aperture for every picture.
A Lens Lineup
I know that recommending any lens is a road to nowhere. It all depends on personal preference and shooting styles.
However I thought I would mention a good starting vision to have in mind, if anyone is looking for a guide.
When thinking about the M series, a good way to project what you will need is to begin with is "the classic three lens lineup".
Most M shooters (again, not all) have a favourite lens that is on their camera most of the time.
Some M shooters will change this from time to time for variation.
This favourite lens is usually a 35mm or 50mm. I have heard of some folk using the 28mm and even a few using the 75mm, but 35mm or 50mm probably covers the vast majority.
My recommendation is to get the best version of the favourite lens that meets your needs with cheaper ones for the "other lenses".
You could start with "just" your favourite (Summarits, crons and luxes are all good choices here, new or second hand - rarer!), and later on, you can decide whether you want to upgrade your "favourite" (after asserting whether it is in fact your favourite focal length) and/or just buy some additional focal lengths.
Or, you could go to the best straight away for your favourite focal length. This of course saves cash and time :)
For example, lets say you are mainly a 50mm shooter, and you lineup is typically 28mm, 50mm and 90mm.
I would recommend the latest 50mm f1.4 ASPH Summilux or 50mm f0.95 Noctilux (both of which can be bought second hand, albeit fairly rarely). There are many people who will be happy with a 50mm Summicron (which is an excellent lens), but in my experience the Summilux and Noctilux are probably the best 50mm lenses ever made.
Combine this with the 28mm Elmarit and 90mm Summarit (new or second hand) would be a great kit.
For the 35mm shooter an alternative "three lens lineup" is usually desired. Typically 21mm or 24mm, 35mm and 75mm.
Its all personal preference but the concept of the trinity (to start) works for many people.
I would mention that some third party lenses are excellent, e.g. Zeiss, and usually at a much reduced cost.
If you are interested Google or Bing are your friends :)
Here is an interesting video of a Leica lens being made:
The Lens Cap
Remember to take the lens cap off when you take a picture.
It sounds funny but as you will probably be coming from a DSLR, which see through the lens, you will assume that if you can see the scene through the viewfinder that the lens cap is off. NO!
Having the lens cap on is an inconvenience when walking around. Most people keep a hood on (or extended) to protect the lens. Others, and this is where the controversy starts, use a filter.
Personally I am nervous about a £2.5k lens being exposed to damage, even with Leica's accidental damage warranty for the first year.
I use a B+W 010 MRC UV haze filter to protect the lens.
They are quite cheap, tough, well made, decent glass and also are easy to clean.
Some people swear by "clear" filters (difficult to find in the UK, which is why I bought a UV one).
Others say that they compromise the ultimate picture quality.
I personally don't think they make any difference, although in some circumstances, perhaps at night with competing light sources, they can introduce spurious reflections.
You could further absolve your conscience by buying a Leica filter :)
UV filtering was built into Leica lenses from the 1950s so does not add anything by the way.
Just a comment on 6-bit coding. These are a bunch of dots on the lens barrel which tell the M9 which lens you are using.
As well as recording the lens in EXIF data, it more importantly allows the camera software to correct for various things, such as chromatic aberations, curvature, vignetting and distortion.
In the M9, it can either automatically detect the lens (using the 6-bit coding) or you can choose to dial-in the lens type manually - useful obviously for non-6-bit coded lenses.
Leica's new lenses and bodies are adjusted for what is termed "standard focus".
With the quality controls in place today in Leica you are fine 99.9% of the time.
What you might find is that if you buy a second hand lens of some vintage (e.g. 80s, 70s, 60s, etc.) the "standard focus" at that time was different. In this case Leica can re-adjust the lens for you and also, as a bonus, in most cases, add 6-bit coding.
I recently took my M9 and 50mm lux into the Leica shop in London for them to test. It tested spot on within the f1.4 DOF, which is all you need. There was a smidgen more focus in front then behind (micro front focusing anyone!), but because it is well within the DOF for f1.4 it doesn't need to be adjusted.
If you are lucky enough to have a local/reachable Leica shop, you can always visit to firmly verify that all your problems are user error ...
The Leica M series are manual focus. That means that focus needs to be set by the photographer. It also means that focus can be changed when the camera is swtiched off!
When I first got the M9 I kept thinking that the second position on the shutter button locked the focus. Crazy huh!
BTW the M9 & M8 shutter button has three steps, unlike the two of most other cameras.
The first position switches the metering on, the second position locks the metering and the thrid takes the picture.
I find manual focus a revelation. I have never had an OOF picture with M9 (from stationery subjects anyway).
Focus is described in the manual, but basically you turn the wheel to achieve co-incident straight lines or superimposed images (your preference). As well as this, I would mention that when the subject is in-focus there is a contrast "pop".
Techniques vary, but generaly see-sawing is not a great idea.
Some people keep the lens at infinity and go one way, others the opposite side.
Myself, I start from whever the lens is and try to focus in a single movement, or to just overshoot a maximum of one time, i.e. focus one way, a bit further, and move back.
After some practise you sould be able to cut down to a single move or just two moves max.
For landscapes I often move it to infinity. An understanding of hyperfocal distance is a good idea:
Zone focusing is where you estimate the focus position.
This can be used for anything from general street photogrpahy to pre-focus for action shots.
On the lens you will see a focus scale in feet or meters. You will also see graduation marks on the ring closest to the camera, typically ranging from the largest aperture to the smallest (although not always, the 50mm ASPH lux starts with 2 for example).
This shows you the approximate range of distances, between the left and the right aperture mark, which will be in focus.
For example, on the 50mm ASPH lux, moving the focus to infinity and the aperture to f16 shows that approximately everything between 3 meters to infinity will be in focus.
If you are intested, how a rangefinder works vis-a-vis a SLR:
There is no right or wrong exposure. However blown out highlights (i.e. the light chopped off the right of the histogram) are gone for good, so in some situations it can be useful to slightly underexposure if you want more exposure latitude in PP.
The M9 meter is close to spot. Basically the technique is to meter off the place in the scene where you want the mid-tone to be. This could be the subject, or just a mid-grey patch. (pressing the shutter button to the second position locks the exposure).
Some photographers carry around a small grey card with them. Other, more hard-core ones, also carry around a light-meter.
They say seasoned photographers can mostly guess the aperture and shutter settings from experience, noticing the direct, incident and reflective light level just with their eyes. I can only dream here .....
For example, taking a picture of a backlit person in daylight ? Try metering off the ground in front of them (especially if its a grey pavement).
I actually find the M9 metering accurate and in fact pretty good for general scenes. There is, however, no substitute for experience.
Keep it Clean
I don't want to make you into an obsessive, but keep the windows on the front clean.
Try to develop a technique where you don't touch them, so no finger-prints.
The small one in the middle, if dirty, will make focus more difficult
The large one in front of the eyepiece, will make the scene more difficult to see
Be careful, every scratch could reduce the value by £200 (I would recommend keeping the plastic film on the base plate if you can).
Balance this, of course, with enjoying your camera.
Cases in general are personal taste. I use a Leica half-leather protector with no strap (I hold the camera in my hand), and keep it in a Kata DC-433, slung over my shoulder, when not-shooting (a small but hard case, just fits the M9 and Lux 50mm with some space for cleaning cloths and extra SD cards).
The Leica Billingham bag is a great walk-around if you want to carry more things. The Kata 3N1-11 (or above) is even better if you have more "stuff" or also want to carry a laptop.
The Crumpler 5500 is a cheaper alternative to the Leica Billingham.
The Leica every-ready case gets bad writeups.
Half-leather and full cases from leicatime get good write-ups. I have also heard folk praising the half-leather korean cases available on ebay.
The LCD Screen
The M9 LCD screen is no good for checking sharpness.
This is actually nothing to do with the screen, its to do with the file that the M9 creates to view the picture on the back screen.
Basically when you zoom in to the maximum the picture always looks fuzzy, even if that actual file is ultra-sharp.
Its slightly sharper on the second to last zoom setting but still no indication of the actual picture.
The M9 screen is also no good for checking exposure. It is always darker then the picture actually is.
The M9 doesn't do live view.
The screen is ok for checking framing though :)
To be fair, the uber LCD screens on the latest Canon and Nikon DSLRs usually make the picture look sharper then it really is when viewed full size, so you can never win .....
I find Adobe Lightroom excellent. Its so good I hardly ever use any other editing program any more.
I find the colours, contrast, sharpening and B&W conversion work very well.
Try it, see what you think!
The thing I really like about the M9 is that it does very little post-processing in comparison to other camera makers.
Sure there are many lens corrections, but there is hardly any noise reduction.
This can mean that you think the high ISO settings are noisy, but in fact thats becuase there is no noise reduction at all.
Using noise reduction in Lightroom works very well. There are other packages which are supposed to be better, like Noise Ninja (also integrated into Silkypix), but it works fine for me.
I don't use jpg. So don't ask me about this, e.g. white-balance in the camera.
There are some folk with techniques for WB, I have heard about someone who keeps a fixed colour temperature all the time, as most of his pictures are in this range. I have also heard of others who set JPG+DNG and JPG to B&W so they can scan for each picture whether they prefer B&W or colour.
The M9 RAW format is nice as its the DNG standard (created by Adobe), so many programs can load it without custom drivers (which are needed for Nikon and Canon RAW files).
I use uncompressed RAW.
Compression is lossy. Compressed RAW files are also at 8 bit, whilst uncompressed are at 14 bit.
Why buy the best camera and not use the best setting ?
Storage space is cheap and a few extra milliseconds when writing the file make no odds to me.
Many people say they can't see a difference, but 14 bit -> 8 bit is intuitively bound to compress dynamic range.
I have never used compressed RAW but thats my recommendation.
Try to avoid Class 10 SD cards as the M9 is reported not to agree with them.
Although there is no consensus about the actual type of card that is occasionally faulty.
As an example, I found that sometimes reviewing photographs whilst the camera is writing the latest picture occasionally caused a write failure when using my Sandisk Extreme pro 16gb card.
Perhaps this could happen on any card ? Although to be honest I don't review pictures anymore whilst the camera is writing.
My "unbranded" 16gb class 6 card has never had any issue though ...
Lastly this could just be a failure to handle bad sectors properly, which is why no one has been able to tie down a specific card make or type !!!!!!!
As an anecdote, I had a card failure on a Canon 5Dii, so nothing is immune.
I take SD cards out and use a card reader. You can use the USB socket on the camera but its slower.
The battery is good for 100s of shots (not thousands).
This is effected by how much you chimp of course.
If you want a spare battery please buy the Leica original.
I know its expensive but would you put dirty oil in a Ferrari ?
As well as potential reliability problems, copy-cat Leica batteries are known to confuse the battery meter in the camera.
Guides and Links
There are plenty of good information sources on the internet, here are some:
An excellent review, well worth reading, and a great guide to standard settings on pages 12 and 13:
A very good review site, particularly for lenses:
Lens serial numbers pre 2000:
Lens serial numebrs post 1999:
Useful tutorials on photography:
Ken Rockwell's partial guides. I equally agree and disagree with Ken's comments (especially on the M8, which is an excellent camera and on the summarits, which are excellent lenses), but he has an interesting section comparing the vintage of many lenses: