New Street Photography Setup

I’ve written in the past about the cameras I use for travel and landscape. Generally, I’d use one of the Leica SL’s along with the 24-90 Vario-Elmarit zoom. That setup can handle pretty much any situation as long as there’s sufficient light. I might also throw an L-mount 50mm Summilux into the bag as well for those low light situations. Those are two heavy lenses. And then there are the accessories, batteries, filters, etc. All this is starting to weigh me down as I get older, especially if I want to be reasonably quick on my feet all day and be able to climb or squat for vantage.

So on a recent month-long photography trip to Lisbon and Porto — both notoriously hilly cities — I reassessed my setup, aiming to downsize. I decided on a Leica M-11 and the new 35mm close-focus Summilux, which luckily became available just a week before I left. One camera. One lens. Hopefully a good setup to do some street photography, too.

I usually shoot street with a 50mm but I was open to trying something new with the 35mm.

With the 50mm, my default setting is to open up to f1.4 and zone focus to isolate the subject. That’s always been the style I aim for. It’s a distinctive look. If I need to open my depth of field I would jump up to f5.6 for that scene and then reset back to f1.4.

With the 35mm I reversed things. This approach was more scene-specific rather than subject-specific. This time f8 was my default and I jumped down to 1.4 only when I wanted to isolate a subject or needed more light. A more traditional street photography approach.

This worked well in the alleyways and small streets in and around Lisbon and Porto. I was happy with the images I got. Some were shot wide-open but most were full-in-focus street shots. Every once in a while I came across an irresistible landscape (or cityscape, as below) and this lens and camera combo rose to those occasions as well.

I”m still heavily invested in the SL ecosystem of cameras and lenses, and I still love 50mm, but I have to say the M11 and new 35mm Summilux are just fantastic (and light) photographic tools.

Eyes wide open: The TTArtisan 50mm f/0.95

The Leica 50mm Noctilux goes for about $13 thousand bucks. Ouch. That’s a lot of money for a manual-focus lens. But it is very sharp and it has an incredible maximum aperture of f/0.95—more sensitive to light than the human eye! Throw in a razor thin depth of field for subject isolation and buttery smooth bokeh and I can understand why the people who can afford this lens would pay that kind of money. Unfortunately, I’m not one of those people.

Lately, a number of Chinese manufacturers have been producing lenses with similar specs as the Noctilux but at much lower prices. The TTArtisan 50mm f/0.95 is priced at about $700 dollars, which is more in my comfort zone. I was even able to find a used version for a little less.

TTArtisian 50mm f/0.95 on Leica SL2

The lens itself is solid. Moving parts operate smoothly. It’s a bit heavy, and big. I’ve been using it on a Leica SL2 and it balances nicely. On an M camera it’s a bit unwieldy.

Is the TTArtisian as good as the Noctilux? Probably not. I don’t have a Noctilux to compare it to. (Here are some comparison shots on Flickr). But at the end of the day it’s not how well it holds up against the Noctilux – at more than fifteen times the price – but whether I’m happy with the images it produces. And I am. Here are some test shots, first, wide open with close-range subjects.

Bokeh is good in these situations and center sharpness is very good. Now, moving back away from the subject, still wide open at f/0.95…

Subject isolation is still pretty good. Some reviewers have complained that the bokeh is less smooth or too busy when focusing at midrange subjects. I’m not seeing that. To my eye it renders the out of focus areas nicely even when backed away.

This is a lens designed to be shot wide open but on occasion you may want to stop it down for a different look. This is where the lens falls short.

At f/8 the overall image quality isn’t horrible but it’s also not excellent. Center sharpness is decent but sharpness falls off at the edges. (Below are 200% crops, left edge and center.)

There’s the expected chromatic aberration, vignetting, etc. which can all be easily fixed. Distortion isn’t bad.

Overall I’m happy with this lens. It’s a speciality lens and it’s very good at what it was designed to do. I wouldn’t use it as an everyday lens but for low light or moody, atmospheric shots it’s a great bargain.

One lane, two ways

I’m really enjoying shooting with the Leica Q2 Monochrome. Although it’s a modern digital camera, it only takes black and white photos. There are no color filters on the sensor, which allows for greater sensitivity to light, more detail and a more subtle tonality. Anyway, I took the above photo this morning in the rain on the road heading out to Trouants Island. Here are a few more shots taken with the Q2-M over the last few weeks.

Scituate Harbor, April, 2021
Blueberry Island, North River, February 2021
Fourth Cliff from Damon’s Point, February 2021

Leica digital over a decade

When the Leica M9 came out in 2009, it was quite a technical achievement: A full-frame sensor on a compact rangefinder camera that accepted almost all of the existing M-mount lenses. The sensor was a CCD and it rendered crisp, warm images, reminiscent of Kodachrome (that sensor was made by Kodak, after all). The 18 MP resolution was more than sufficient at the time.

The M9 was my primary camera for several years. Leica released follow-up models with better, more modern sensors, live-view and other technical improvements. I stuck with the M9, choosing to invest in lenses rather than spending my money on incremental camera improvements. But over time those incremental improvements began to add up and by about 2015, the M9 began to feel dated. It seemed slow and it was missing important new features like the ability to use an EVF.

These days I mostly shoot with the M10, SL2 and particularly the Q2 Monochrome, pictured above. These cameras are very capable – fast, high resolution with incredible low light capability and bright and clear EVFs. All the while, my poor M9 was gathering dust.

But I wondered how would it stack up against the current state of the art. So I brushed off the dust and put the M9 into my bag with the Q2-M. I’ve been shooting with both cameras on my recent walks and taking comparison shots.

This is not intended to be scientific or precise. Just a little fun. All of the comparison images below were post-processed in Lightroom for tone and contrast and to allow for side by side comparisons. Also, since I was using a 35mm Summilux on the M9 and the Q2-M has a fixed 28mm Summilux ASPH, some cropping was also necessary where I didn’t zoom with my feet. I tried to use the same aperture and the lowest reasonable ISO on both cameras. The goal was just to get them to look as similar as possible.

Images on the left are from the Q2 Monochrome, released last year. On the right is the M9 from 2009.

What do you think? To my eye the M9 holds up pretty well. I’m actually seeing more micro-contrast in the images from the M9.

Obviously, when you zoom in, there’s more detail and crispness in the RAW files from the Q2-M due to the larger sensor and better lens. But, even after 11 years, which is an eternity in the world of digital camera technology, the M9 can still give the new guys a run for their money.

Here are some more images, old and new, from the M9 – this time in color to show off that sensor.

Winter walk

I trekked out through the Daniel Webster wildlife sanctuary yesterday afternoon. It’s a great spot, both for a walk and for photography.

The afternoon started out cloudy but the clouds thinned just before the end of the day and the light changed for the better. I set up a shot at my favorite two trees and a walker came through just in time to get into one of the photos – and that was the one I liked best.

This is just a first pass on processing. These versions are a little crunchy but eventually I’ll take some time to get the tones right. They were taken with my beat-up old Leica SL. For the twin trees I used a Voigtländer 15mm f/4.5 and my new Peak Design tripod. For the other two I used the Leica 24-90 f/2.8 at 24mm handheld. The shot at the top is a stitched panorama.

Thoughts on the Leica M10-P

If you’re a photographer, should you consider an expensive digital rangefinder?

Leica M10-P, Voiglander Nokton 40mm f/1.2

I’ve been using a Leica M9 rangefinder for almost ten years. It’s been a great camera. It forced me to get back to the basics of photography. Prime lenses. Framing each shot. Manual focusing. Considering exposure and depth of field for each press of the shutter. It was limiting but also liberating.

It’s easy to let the computer inside a modern camera do a lot of those things for you and I think I was falling into that trap. Too much automation can make photography rote. I still use my Nikon DSLR and mirrorless cameras and zoom lenses for speed and versatility, especially when traveling – but alongside the Leica.

Digital technology has a lifespan and, after ten years, the CCD sensor in the M9 was getting a little dated. It still produced beautiful warm RAW images but there was no live view and no ability to do focus peaking for very narrow depth of field shots – something becoming more important for my aging eyes.

I sat out several generations of upgrades to Leica’s rangefinders, successors to the M9, like the M240, the M and a few other variants. I thought the advances were negligible and didn’t warrant the price. My M9 was working just fine. Then, in 2017, Leica released the M10. It had a new 24mp CMOS sensor, a larger optical viewfinder and, most importantly, the ability to use a high resolution electronic viewfinder. Now I was tempted.

So after waiting (and saving) for a year or so I decided to pull the trigger. I checked the B&H used inventory and found an ‘open box special’ for an M10-P, a more expensive version of the M10 with no red dot and a quieter shutter. Because it had been a demo unit it was priced lower than a regular new M10. So I ordered it.

Leica M10-P, 50mm Summilux with Visoflex EVF

Although impeccably engineered, the original M9 was a slightly awkward looking camera. It was the first Leica rangefinder designed for a full frame digital sensor. To fit the electronics and a full frame sensor that could accommodate traditional M lenses, the camera ended up being a little thick and it had some jutting edges. But the photos were amazing so all that was forgiven.

Aesthetically and ergonomically the M10-P seems close to perfect to me. It’s beautiful to look at. The controls make sense. It feels solid in the hand. It’s the thinnest digital M yet. And the quiet shutter is incredible. The damping gives it a nice feel and you barely hear the Pa-lunk sound.

How are the images? I attached a 35mm Summilux lens to the camera. This lens is a little soft wide open but it’s a classic and I wanted to see how it looked with this new sensor. Pretty good, it turns out. Images had that classic Kodachrome look. The sensor was at least as good as the CCD in the M9 in its color tone and rendition.

Fall colors, Leica M10-P, 35mm

Next I tried the super sharp 50mm Summilux ASPH FLE and opened it up. I used the Visoflex EVF. Peaking worked flawlessly and I was able to nail focus.

Hawk on a post. Leica M10-P

I have been using the M10-P for just over a year now and it has not disappointed. It has been a pleasure to use. (My new favorite lens to use with it is the Voiglander Nokton 40mm f/1.2.) Here are a few more photos from the M10-P.

Connemara Ponies. Leica M10-P
Man in Portree. Leica M10-P
Leica M10-P
Portree Harbor. Leica M10-P

Leica gear is expensive, no getting around that. But the quality is undeniable.

Is something like the Leica M10-P worth the cost? I like to think of these Leica rangefinders as my version of a mid-life-crisis Harley Davidson, something a lot of people in my shoes go for. In that light the cost is not so bad. So yes, for me it was worth it. Your milage, of course, may vary.

Daytime long exposure

I’ve been experimenting with DLE photography. I ordered some ICE neutral density filters and downloaded the NDTimer app to help with the math. Here are a couple of experimental shots from this afternoon.

15 second exposure.
15 minute exposure

The first is a 15 second exposure with a 10X ND filter. The second is a 15 minute exposure, using a combination of 10X and 6X ND filters.

The effects from the longer exposures are apparent but it’s a matter of taste whether they’re desirable in a photo. The light diffusion is nice. But LDE photos can be a bit gimmicky sometimes. In this case I like the dramatic clouds in the shorter exposure but the glassy water effect in the longer exposure jumps out. Very situational. But, it’s another tool in the box so I’ll continue to experiment and hopefully learn more about it.