er·go·nom·ics | \ ˌər-gə-ˈnä-miks: an applied science concerned with designing and arranging things people use so that the people and things interact most efficiently and safely (Merriam-Webster, 2021).
In the industrial setting, ergonomics is a matter of avoiding unnecessary fatigue, injuries, and discomfort. It is intended to promote both safety and efficiency. Ergonomics was first invented in 1949, after Barnack before the Leica M camera. There does not seem to be any suggestion that any camera made before about 1970 cared much about this science. Certainly, the Leica M camera – and most other small cameras – ignored this important principle of design.
Did you know that having an opposable thumb is not necessary to grip a camera the way Leica intended? It should not be a surprise that primates and even lower animals like raccoons have the right types of hands to grab cameras. Because small cameras are not actually designed for human hands. Let’s discuss small (6×9 and smaller) camera ergonomics in six rubrics.
1. How do you hold this?
Even before ergonomics had a name, small camera design went off the rails when small cameras were invented in 1914. Oskar Barnack – who being born in 1879 undoubtedly had shorter fingers than 21st-century camera users – designed the Ur-Leica with slippery round ends encased in a textured surface. This leicapithicus wetlzarensis was designed around a focal-plane shutter that did not cap and an arrangement that required a separate viewfinder. It was light, compact (65mm top to bottom), and for its weight and intended function, workable. Because you had to put the lens cap on between shots, it was not a speed demon; you were going to take the camera down from your eye to reset for the next shot costing a king’s ransom on rare double-frames of 35mm movie film. You could almost call it the mini 4×5 of its day.
There is a trope about the solid rocket boosters for the Space Shuttle ultimately tracking back to the width of a Roman horse’s haunches. Whether or not that is true is a much more difficult question than tracing our conception of how a “small” camera should appear. The Platonic form of a camera is, after all, a Leica M3, which for dimensional purposes is a taller and heavier Ur-Leica, matching dimensions to the single millimeters. The Leica inspired many also-rans from Europe and Japan, some of which turned out to be better, but all of them have the same formula: small squarish body, lever wind, viewfinder on the left. Most fixed-lens rangefinders were actually smaller than the Leica; once you substitute a leaf shutter in the lens for a focal-plane type, the body can be even tinier.
What’s wrong with this design? If the correct method of holding it it requires a paragraph-long written description, it is not a tool that is ergonomic. Leica’s own user manuals illustrate the poor hand-fit in pictures, but the written camera-holding instructions call into question whether it is the human who is being forced to conform to a tool.
Look at a Leica III or Leica M manual. Actually, look at a bunch of them. Needless to say, the right way to hold a Leica has evolved since the days of Barnack. The first suggested M grip, which tracked how the III was supposed to be grasped, completely disengaged your left hand from the focusing ring, meaning you would never be able to refocus and re-shoot quickly. The III series has you cupping the bottom corners of the camera in the fleshy parts of your palms. At least one version of the M3 manual says nothing about how to hold the camera; the more detailed one has the corner-to-palms technique again. If you look at other brands’ camera manuals from the 1940s to the 1980s, you will see a dizzying array of hand-cramping contortions.
The right hand position has stayed mostly the same. What you are supposed to do with your left has changed over time. Here is the end point of Leica’s evolution of descriptions with the M7 and M8/M9 (the M8 is shown; the M9 has the same description with the little Ikea Man holding the camera):
“As a practical accessory, we recommend the Mx hand grip which allows you to hold the Leica M[x] extremely steadily and to carry it with one hand/while keeping your hands free.” This begs the question – why can’t you hold an M extremely steadily without another $400 doodad? And how was it a hands-free device for the M[x]?
The record – at least as expressed in successive generations of Leica manuals – reflects a variety of “right” ways to hold a camera, then “suggested” ways (M6), then “correct” (M7/M8/M9) and with the M240 and onward, no guidance. The M240, in fact, moves the discussion of the optional M hand grip to the “accessories” section at the end. I guess given the number of Leica owners with postgraduate degrees, it’s part of the 400-level course you were supposed to take before you started at this school.
What you are even supposed to do with your right thumb seems to be a matter of interpretation, some manuals showing it, some not. The M6 manual references resting your thumb on the lever “in the standoff” position. The M240 and M10 have a nub on which to rest your thumb. The M10-D has an ersatz M2/M3 focusing lever/thumbrest whose position does not quite match an original lever kicked out. The new $300 Leica thumb-rest looks puts your thumb in the same position as the M10-D. As noted at the beginning of this article, the user of one of these cameras does not need an opposable thumb. This camera might require a totally different type of hand.
Hint: if you have long fingers, a good one-handed grip on an M240 is to put your index finger on the trigger, your middle finger on the function button, and your ring finger on the front of the camera. The camera can sit on your curled little finger (imagine a C parallel to the bottom of the camera). Your thumb rests vertically against the grip nub/control wheel. See? You can control everything, and your ring finger is still available to accidentally press the lens release.
They say if you injure your leg and then limp enough, you don’t notice it any more. This is probably the only reason that Leicas (or similarly-configured rangefinders) are thought to be “ergonomic” – it’s just the way it’s been for 100 years. Were “ever ready” cases really useful for protection – or were they makeshift “fat grips” around ill-shaped cameras?
As much as things like the Argus “Brick” are lambasted for their funny shapes and palm-poking corners, something that fills the hand is not all bad. Ask anyone who shoots Olympic pistol. But you can also ask Nikon and Canon, who figured out in the late 1980s that a fat right grip is advantageous, even if your winding motor is so small it fits inside the takeup spool. In fact, Leica uses that “fat grip” design on most of its non-M digital cameras.
3. The pocketability conceit*
“But wait, the Leica [or insert camera name here] is pocketable.”
Baloney. This might be true of a tiny minority of camera/lens combinations, or 1980s-style pleated trousers, but Leicas generally have not been “pocketable” since the advent of the long aspherical lenses if not since the M3. And grip-ability does not necessarily change the dimensions that would make something “pocketable.” Is a Hexar AF less pocketable with its front grip ridge than a Leica M3 with its flat front? Hardly. Even among other manufacturers of M-mount cameras, the ergonomics have been better, whether it is a palm swell on the back door, a grip ridge on the front of the right grip, or even something like a rubber covering. I suspect it is more Leica’s user base than the company that drives the need to keep things the same. Witness the fate of the CL and the M5.
Interestingly, what encouraged (and maybe forced) small cameras to become more ergonomic was the incorporation of batteries and motors into the right side of the camera, something that came in with cameras like the Konica FS-1, Canon T-50, and Nikon F4. Even in non-motorized SLR cameras, grip nubs began appearing on the right front of the camera (as on the Nikon FA). When you think about putting coreless motors and electronics largely on one side of the camera, and motor-driven shutters in the middle, the mechanisms in the bottom become considerably less complicated (open a manual-wind, mechanical SLR’s bottom plate to see the assemblage of shutter-cocking levers, pinions, and gears). And by a weird twist of fate, the lithium cells best-suited to powering cameras (like the 2CR5) had a chonk factor that made them better candidates for placement in a fat grip.
This brings us to a cruel irony: point-and-shoot cameras in the late 1970s and 1980s frequently had better ergonomics than what we would call “prosumer” cameras today. In fact, many of them have better ergonomics than the Leica, long-vaunted as the enthusiast’s camera. And I write that as a Leica user.
On the other end of the “small” camera spectrum are the ultracompact 35mm cameras (Rollei 35, Contax T*, Nikon 35ti, etc.). In a sense, you can cut them some slack because their major purpose is to be pocketable most of the time – at the expense of handling and durability. These were designed to fit in a sport coat at the racquets club or the horse track, to be shot for fifty or so exposures, forgotten by the owner, sold at his estate sale, rediscovered by some internet influencer, and then driven to stratospheric resale prices that hold up until someone discovers one of the following things: (1) despite often brilliant optics, they are miserable to use; (2) they are not as durable as once thought. Weight versus size is also a factor in ergonomics – and many of these cameras are lightweight and despite their shortcomings, not impossible to use.
*Ok, I only wrote this heading because the Pocketability Conceit either sounds like an old-series Star Trek episode name or a Robert Ludlum novel title.
4. O Camcorder, where art thou?
My maternal grandfather, being a doctor, retired at age 55 – assuming that like most men of his generation, he would be dead at 60. This did not come to pass (he was “retired” for 25 more years…), and after a couple of years of golf got bored and moved into TV production at his local station. Being an early adopter of almost every technology that existed, he would get the latest and greatest video equipment every year. This meant at every Christmas, he would open the trunk of his Lincoln Continental and among other gifts, pull out last year’s latest and greatest video equipment and leave it to the good offices of my parents.
One thing that was always striking about video cameras (and later camcorders) – especially by contrast to still cameras – was the amount of effort put into making them comfortable to use. This was important because the early cameras were really heavy. Pistol grips and shoulder rests for the “camera” were de rigueur when the “recorder” part was a huge heavy hard square silver purse, and even when recording decks merged with cameras in the mid-1980s, the emphasis was on one-hand control operation and anything that made it easier to hold a unit steady for a prolonged period. Zoom controls have always been able to be operated by the same hand that “presses the button.”
The “camcorder” design ethos bled over into consumer “bridge” cameras – the ones designed to bridge the gap between point-and-shoot and full-blown SLR. The Canon Photura, Ricoh Mirai, and Yashica Samurai – variously 35mm SLR and viewfinder AF cameras – acquired camcorder-like morphology, particularly pistol grips that were either parallel to the lens or adjustable. They did not experience some Chicxulub-level event; rather, they just didn’t catch on. In retrospect, it is not terribly surprising; they were expensive, didn’t look like “cameras,” and tended to be bulkier than their blocky cousins.
In an ironic twist, the replacement for camcorders was an atavism. But it was also a reversion to something else. When DSLRs, particularly Canons, became popular for video, they retained their DSLR shape – which was in turn based on a film camera shape dictated by a 35mm frame and the necessary film drive. This spawned an industry of workarounds – cages, grips, handles, and all kinds of other accessories that serve as indictments of functional design. Sony’s selection of a “quasi SLR” design for the A7 series is baffling; the a6x00 series is both more comfortable and (lacking a silly fake pentaprism bulge) true-to-function (as is the new A7C), especially when misused for video.
5. Left eye, right eye, leave me alone
About 25-30% of the human race is left-eye dominant, being made up of about 1/3 left-handers and 2/3 people who are right-handed but use their left eye for tasks involving critical focus or alignment. Eye dominance cannot be changed; this is a matter of hard-wiring from an early age. It is not a matter of visual acuity; it is a how efficiently one eye communicates with the brain.
For people who are left-eyed, cameras with left-side viewfinders automatically cause ergonomic problems with the use of top-mounted winding levers and cutesy “thumb grips.” On most such cameras, winding the camera requires you to move your eye from the viewfinder so you do not poke yourself in the right eye with a winding lever. This is disruptive. The Retina IIc and IIIc, as well as the Canon VI-T avoided this by moving the winding actuator to the bottom – and the Konica IIIA and IIIM avoided this by moving the winder to the front. Although the original Leicavit trigger winder was designed to speed up the knob-wind of the III series, the Leicavit M:
…allows experienced photographers to shoot up to two frames per second without taking the camera from their eye
The only reason you would need a bottom trigger winder to take two frames per second without taking the camera from your eye… is that you are left-eyed. This is likely the same reason that people tolerated Leica’s relatively sluggish motor winders.
Perhaps the most befuddling thing about left-viewfinder cameras is why users are in manuals are shown with both eyes open (left eye just hanging out there; right jammed against the viewfinder glass). For a right-eyed person, this means that your mind will be trying to reconcile a reduced viewfinder picture with an unaided non-dominant eye while supporting the camera against half your face. Consider also that the center point between your two eyes is now even further from the lens axis. If anything, the left eye should be closed.
If you look through the viewfinder with your left eye, conversely, you can jam the camera in a 3-point brace between your nose and eyebrows and block your other eye with the camera body. And it is here that people of Neanderthal ancestry have a secret weapon: brow ridges.
Blessed are those, I guess, who are left-eyed and have access to left-viewfinder cameras without winding levers. For they shall inherit the stable hand-hold.
SLRs are more egalitarian: with their center viewfinders, they exist to oppress everyone. And we shall know their users by the leatherette and film-minder-window patterns impressed into their noses.
6. TLR/MF/UC – WTF?
There is only one reasonably ergonomic twin-lens reflex: the Minolta Autocord, which allows you to hold the camera and focus without shifting your left-hand grip — and to fire and advance with your right hand. This is a massive improvement over the Rolleiflex’s insatiable need for constant hand-shifts (or having three hands if you use the pistol grip). Even in the Rollei’s end-state – the 2.8GX with its huge focusing knob – the operation is barely comfortable. The persistence of TLRs after the war is a strange thing. Germany always wanted to make medium-format SLRs, and a twin-lens was a way of approximating that before the mechanical engineering caught up. But the TLR, especially when used at waist-level, causes strange camera-to-subject angles for humans and is not the easiest thing to focus (at least Rolleis are not – an Autocord ground glass is slightly easier). Rollei stopped developing twin-lens cameras in the early 1960s, eliminated serial production of the F in 1976, and moved on to its own SLRs. Note that the user of the Rollei in the diagram below is not wearing a tie. This is an important safety tip. Neckties had a tendency to get ingested by the Automat’s film-detection roller, leading to asphyxiations. That is why seasoned Rollei shooters only wore ascots or bowties.
But more seriously, medium format has always struggled with how its cameras should be configured, starting with the Brownie that kicked off the 120 format. Some are boxes (like Hasselblads), some are oversized 35mm cameras (Fuji 6×9, Pentax 6×7). The earlier Pentax can be fitted with a bulky, heavy, and still somehow uncomfortable wooden grip. The 67ii finally got the message about having something of a right-side grip.
Other medium format cameras are standardized around Graflex-style film backs that were designed just after the war and make what would otherwise be slim cameras extra thicc. If a Horseman SW612 had a body with integrated film transport, it would probably be slightly wider but a lot thinner front-to-back. The Graflex-style roll back almost always requires an extended or set-back viewfinder so that you can actually put your eye to the eyepiece. Its principal virtue is that it is narrow, but it also sports a complex film path that brings you to this: if you have interchangeable backs, they are sufficiently slow to load that you probably need more than one.
There have been a few scattered ergonomic successes, like the Vivitar flash grip, the Linhof 220, and those camcorder-like SLRs and point-and-shoots from the 1980s. But those are exceptions to the apparent rules of camera-making: (1) all cameras must be boxes or cubes that don’t fit in the hand and failing that, larger versions of smaller un-ergonomic cameras; (2) all winding must require a hand off the camera or disrupted framing; (3) thou shalt never use the [left] side eye; and (4) if you don’t like what we’re offering, stuff it.
Months after it came out, there is nothing really out there on this lens except for some stock factory pictures and writeups that are predominantly plagiarisms of promotional materials, “why don’t you get to the point” videos, and vapid clickbait reposts of said videos. There are a couple of decent reviews, but I don’t feel like they were really pushing the lens.
So in the Machine Planet tradition of going off half-cocked, I will give you the dirt on this after spending a day shooting the Nikon F version of this in -3º C weather with a Leica Monochrom Typ 246. No need to start simple, or even with the camera body on which this lens (ostensibly) was intended to mount.
A Typ 246 is an all-monochrome, FX, 24mp Leica mirrorless body that can shoot to 50,000 ISO without looking even as grainy as Tri-X. It has a short flange distance, which means that virtually any SLR lens can be adapted to it. It has pattern, off-the-sensor metering, so there is no messing around with exposure compensation or trying to figure out why shift lenses underexpose on Nikon F100s and overexpose somewhat on the F4 (yes, this is true). It also has an inbuilt 2-axis level that you can see in its EVF, a welcome aid when it is cold outside. These features mean that you can use a shift lens handheld. This lens is a ~22mm equivalent on APS-C (DX) nd I believe a ~30mm equivalent on Micro Four-Thirds. This probably is not a lens for MFT, since it is absolutely massive on any MFT body. In fact, it seems really big for a Sony Alpha body…
The physical plant
The first thing you ask yourself about this lens is, “how could a lens out of China possibly cost $1,199?” But this is a shallow (if not also culturally chauvinistic) observation. Your iPhone is made in China, and there is nothing wrong with its lenses. Or apparently, you iPhone’s price. Venus is something of a newcomer in the camera lens market, and it uses the designator “Laowa,” which is a reference to frogs in a well (not kidding… check out the Facebook page). The idea, they say, is to look up at the sky and keep dreaming. That, of course, is possible where the cost of manufacturing a zillion-element, double-aspherical lens is relatively low. The front ring reads “FF S 15mm F4.5 W-Dreamer No. xxxx.” FFS of course stands for “Full-Frame Shift.”
The 15/4.5 lens is available in a variety of mounts. Word to the wise: get the Nikon F or Canon EF version. Nikon has the longest flange-to-focal distance at 46.5mm, meaning that it has the shortest rear barrel, meaning the maximum compatibility with mount adapters (with simple adapters you can go from Nikon to any mirrorless camera, including Fuji GFX). Canon EF is a close second at 44mm. If you have an existing Canon or Nikon system, just take your pick. Your worst choice is buying this lens in a mirrorless version (Canon RF, Nikon Z, or Sony FE), since you will end up locked into one platform exclusively. Remember that this lens has no electronics or couplings, so adapting it is just a matter of tubes.
The lens comes packed in a very workmanlike white box, just like $50 Neewer wide-aperture lenses for Sony E cameras. This is a mild surprise, but nobody maintains an interest in packaging for very long after a lens comes in. Nikon lenses, after all, come in pulpboard packaging that strongly resembles the egg cartons your kids might give to their hamsters as chew toys. The instructions end with the wisdom, “New Idea. New Fun.” And that is very on-point: for most people, photography is about fun.
The lens is a monster, and it’s not lightweight. It feels at home one something at least the size of a Nikon F4 (and balances well on one, btw). On an M camera, you need to employ the Leica Multifunction Grip (or something similar) to effectively hold onto the camera (this combo can still break your wrist…). Weight as ready-to-mount on a Leica is 740g. For comparison, a Summilux 75 (the original gangster heavyweight for M bodies) is 634g. An 18/3.5 Zeiss ZM Distagon is 351g.
The front element is bulbous. And you must remember that you cannot simply set the camera nose down, since (1) the glass sticks out, (2) there is no filter protecting it from damage from the surface the lens rests on, and (3) this is a really expensive lens. This is also a lens whose lens cap you cannot, must not, ever, lose. It is solid, pretty, bayonets on, and probably can’t be replaced. It is not clear why – if you can mount a 100mm filter holder to the front of this lens – that such a holder is not simply built into the lens – if for no other reason than protecting the front element.
I mounted mine with a Novoflex LEM/NIK adapter, which is pretty much the only dimensionally accurate anything-to-M adapter. Proper registration is a big deal because a 15mm lens cell has very little travel from zero to infinity.
The Novoflex’s stepped interior suggests a place to stick a filter — since the lens has no front filter threads — but for reasons discussed below, this is not a big deal. And in the back of the lens, it’s gel filters – or nothing.
First, this lens is easy to handle wearing gloves. Which, given the temperature yesterday, was fortunate.
This is a little bit different from a traditional PC lens, on which turning a knob would make the shift. The Venus has a third lens ring – behind the focus (front) and aperture (middle). This is different from a Nikon PC lens, for example, where the aperture is front and focus is rear.
The shift ring cams the lens back and forth along the direction of shift, 11mm in either direction. You would think this would interfere with focusing or using the aperture ring, but in reality, it’s likely the only ring you would be moving on a shot-to-shot basis. This lens has such staggering depth of field that you will put this roughly on ∞ and forget about the rest, and you will probably turn it to f/8 and leave it there. Shift is locked with a knob that looks like the knob Nikon uses to shift the lens.
There is a small tab that locks the rotation of the shift mechanism, which can be set to 0 for horizontal pictures, 90 or 270 for verticals, and 180 if you are strange. It moves in 15-degree increments. A 28/3.5 PC-Nikkor does not have a lock, which occasionally can make things exciting if you start framing and realize that your shift is now 45 degrees from vertical (or horizontal).
The aperture ring has light clicks and is logrithmic (unfortunately) – each stop at the wide end is the roughly the same amount of movement, but things do bunch up at f/11, f/16, and f/22. It’s puzzling in this price range.
The focus ring has a short throw, infinity to 1m being about 1cm of travel. Set it and forget it. If you’re looking at pictures on the net and wondering why the focusing scale makes it look like the lens focuses “past” infinity, it’s a mystery.
- At the hard stop and no shift, the lens is indeed focused at infinity. But the scale is off.
- At the hard stop and shifted, the focus is still correct at infinity.
I verified optical focus at the stop both on a Nikon F4 with an adapted red-dot R screen (grid/split prism/f<3.5), the Nikon F4’s phase-detection AF sensor, and with the Leica.
To understand the strangeness of the Venus focusing ring, consider that in an old-school, manual focus lens, you typically have three things in synch for “infinity.”
i. The lens is at its physical stop, meaning you can’t turn the focusing ring to make the optical unit get closer to the imaging surface. This is normally an inbuilt limitation. It is not typically a critical tolerance on a lens due to the two adjustments below.
ii. The lens is optically focused at infinity, meaning that an infinitely distant object is in-focus on the imaging surface. This is usually a matter of shimming the optical unit or in some lenses or using a similar adjustment for forward/backward position of the optical unit.
iii. The focusing scale reads ∞. In the old days, this was simply a matter of undoing three setscrews, lining up the ∞ mark with the focus pointer, and then tightening the screws. If you are a super-precise operator like Leica, your lens stop/focusing ring/scale are made as one piece and so precisely that no separately applied focusing scale is required.
When a manufacturer of modern autofocus lenses (or even high-performance manual telephotos) is confronted with design constraints, it generally omits the relationship (i), the physical stop, and (iii) the infinity mark. It will do this on telephotos (like the 300/4.5 ED-IF Nikkor) because heat-related expansion might otherwise prevent a telephoto from actually focusing on a distant object. With AF lenses, hard stops are not the best for the fallback “hunting” mode — and with the user relying heavily on AF anyway, there is no need to inject another thing to check in QC. By the way, on a lot of AF lenses, the focus scale is basically just taped on – eliminating the setscrews.
Cheaper lenses, like the Neewer I-got-drunk-and-bought-it-on-Ebay specials, don’t really couple any of these things precisely. The stop is set so that you can optically focus past infinity and yet when the lens is optically focused at infinity, the focus scale might read somewhere between 10m and the left lobe of ∞.
For reasons that are frankly baffling, Venus uses a different idea entirely, which is to match the collimation and the stop – the hard part – and yet to omit matching the focusing scale. This provides no ascertainable benefit unless the focusing ring is not just a ring but an integral part of the focusing mechanism. I don’t see any setscrews, so maybe this is the explanation. And really, something in this price range should have things line up, even if it means adding one more cosmetic part to make the focusing scale adjustable.
On the surface, this design choice is frustrating to perfectionists and degrades the value of the focusing scale. That said, in 99% of pictures you take with this lens, you’re going to set it to the hard stop and get more than sufficient depth of field for close objects just by virtue of stopping the lens down.
If you are reading this, Venus, the focus scale design needs to be fixed.
There was nothing remarkable about shooting this lens, which is a good thing. As long as you realize it has no electronic connections or mechanical control linkages to the camera it… works like any Leica lens.
They used to advise that PC lenses had to be used on tripods. That was true when (1) cameras did not have inbuilt electronic levels and most did not have grid focusing screens, (2) viewfinders blacked out at small apertures and with shift, and (3) through the lens meters freaked out at the vignetting.
None of those conditions exist with mirrorless cameras, where viewing is off the sensor, focusing is by peaking, and signal amplification makes it possible to frame a picture even closed down to f/16. On the Leica Monochrom, for example, it is very easy to use this lens – no different from using any other with the EVF. The M typ 240 series cameras have inbuilt levels that are visible through the EVF; the later M10s do too. A visible level is absolutely essential if you are going to shoot this (or any shift lens) handled.
Speaking of the sky, the sweep of this lens, its vignetting, and its self-polarization mean that in many pictures, the sky will be darker than you expect. Most people will not mind. I suppose you could mount a 100mm filter to the front or a gel in the back, but this is highly dependent on what you are trying to do, your tolerance for the expense, and the light response of your camera.
One thing you begin to realize is that if you switch from a 28mm PC lens to a monster 15mm PC lens, you go from shifting exclusively up to avoid converging parallels – to also shifting down to cut down on excessive sky. You might think of the shift as the “horizon control” adjustment. The challenge is, at the end of the day, that this is still a 15mm lens with a super-wide field. Unlike a 28 or 35, you need to think about both the top and the bottom of the picture.
One other thing you will see in a couple of the pictures in the article is that a slight forward tilt of the camera can make things look slightly bigger than they should at the top. This is user error and the unintended opposite of converging parallels.
With wide lenses, you need to watch 3 axes of alignment – left/right tilt, front/back tilt, and critically, parallelism to the subject. This last point can be a major irritation with this lens since cameras don’t typically have live indications of whether you are square with the subject.
Note: WordPress scales pictures down and not in a flattering way; if you want pixel-level sharpness comparisons to other lenses, there are other reviews out there that do that.
The jury is still out here – at least until I get a sunny day and hook this up to an A7r ii, which is more representative of cameras most people would use with this lens. But the foreman is asking some of the right questions for the verdict we want. Field curvature is also something that needs more exploration. As it stands, though, the lens seems to be more than sharp enough for its intended purpose.
All wide-angle lenses have degradation toward the edges of the frame. Many cameras don’t have the resolution to make it obvious, but this is a well-known reality. Shift lenses have a bigger image circle, which gives them comparable performance (not stellar, but comparable) performance to normal lenses over a wide area. They are “average,” but average in the sense that they are reasonably sharp over the whole frame, not super-sharp in the center and falling apart at the edges.
Put another way, a shift lens for 35mm is essentially a medium-format lens. Medium format lenses do not have the highest resolution – because they don’t have to. But they do deliver their performance over a wider field. But by shifting the lens, you are bringing lower-performing edges of the field into the 35mm frame.
But… you protest… my AIA book has all of these perfect architectural pictures of xyz buildings.
No, it does not. First, they are tiny, and that with the halftone screens, they give off an impression of being much sharper than they are in reality. Second, if you look at an original print closeup – pixel-peeping on prints was never normal when people made prints – you’ll see that the pointy top of that building is fuzzy because someone used a 4×5 or 8×10 camera and shifted it to accommodate the tall object in the picture. But seeing it in a gallery or an exhibit, you would (i) be standing back from it and (2) paying attention to the center of the frame, which is where most pictorial interest is. That pointy top is in your peripheral, not central, vision. The central part still has adequate performance for the purpose.
For this reason, the sharpness of a shift lens can only really be understood in terms of shift lenses or shifted medium- or large-format lenses: if you leave a little sky above a tall building, you don’t have to confront so much the inevitable performance falloff in those last couple of mm of the frame. All shift lenses have this issue, and it goes both to illumination and sharpness. Go to maximum shift on anything, and you can expect image degradation at a pixel-peeping level in the top third of the image.
So what? This is the same thing that people with shift-capable cameras have faced since… forever.
And why do shift lenses exist? The answer is pretty simple; it’s easier to get to a good result than many types of post-correction. If you plan to do post-correction, you have to use a much wider lens than you normally would, you have to crop (because tilting an image in post makes the field a trapezoid that must be rectified), and you have to have an accurate measurement of the scale of the original object. On this last point, if you don’t know the XY proportions of a building’s windows, perspective-correcting it in post-processing will result in awkward proportions. So if you have a 42mp image that needs serious correction to make a tall building upright and correctly proportioned, you may end up with less than 20mp of image by the time the process is over. And since tilting magnifies the top edge of the image, you are magnifying lens aberrations in the process.
Post-correcting does have one advantage, though, which is that you can use a lens that performs highly across the frame. I do it a bit with the Fujinon SWS 50mm f/5.6 on a 6×9 camera: when you are working with a wide lens, from a 96mp scan, you have plenty of resolution to burn in fixing one degree of inclination. This is not so much the case with a 35mm lens on a 35mm body.
As of this writing, Leica just announced in-camera tilt correction for its 40mp M series cameras. This is an idea long overdue, since the camera knows what lens is mounted (or can be told) and the inclinations at the time of the shot. s.
You don’t escape post-processing with shift lenses, particularly when you have to fix skew between the image plane and the subject (rotation around the vertical axis of your body). PC lenses also have distortion to contend with, and simple spherical distortion sometimes seems less simple when the “sphere” is in the top half of the frame. But the corrective action is far, far milder.
The complication with digital and shift lenses is diffraction. With a shift lens, you need a small aperture to even out the illumination and sharpness, but that small aperture cannot be smaller than the diffraction limit without degrading sharpness overall. That’s f/11 on a Leica M246 and roughly f/8 on a Leica M10 or a Sony A7r II or A7r III series camera.
A further complication with all shift optics is dust. Small apertures, smaller than f/5.6, tend to show dust on the sensor. Shift optics have at least one extra place for dust to get into the camera body (the interface where the shift mechanism slides the two halves of the frame).
Sharpness seems to peak at around f/8 on the Venus, which is not surprising. The sharpness itself is good as well as consistent until the very margins of a shifted frame; I did not need to turn on sharpening on Lightroom. As with all lenses, apparent sharpness is higher on closer objects – because their details are bigger in the image, pixel-level aberrations are not as apparent.
The goal is “Zero-D(istortion).” The lens gets close – and better than most SLR lenses in this range, and certainly better than a lot of SLR PC lenses – but not completely distortion-free. Unshifted, it looks like a relatively mild +2 in Lightroom (the shot above is uncorrected except for slight horizon tilt). Shifted might be a little tougher to correct, but you can either create a preset for Lightroom or use some of the more advanced tools in Photoshop.
Yes. It has flare when light hits it wrong. Check out the picture above. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it is an irritation. Luckily, it does not seem to happen very often,
There is a real tendency to abuse superwides in photography today, usually to disastrous effect due to the inability of photographers to properly compose pictures. Companies like Cosina/Voigtlander have fed into this, as has Venus, with about a dozen high-performing superwide lenses that would have seemed impossible just a few years ago. “Wide” used to mean 35mm; now “wide” tends to mean 24mm, and “superwide” is below 15mm. The Venus has all of the vices of a wide-angle lens, notably posing the question, “what do I do with all this foreground?”
By the same token, shift lenses are very specialized tools. Old-school shift lenses were the least automated lenses in their respective SLR lines; new ones are marginally more automated (mainly having automatic apertures), but they are staggeringly expensive.
The Venus somehow manages to combine the best and worst of all of this. You cannot argue with the optical performance as a shift lens, but the lack of automation (and frankly, ease of use) makes it just as miserable to use on a native SLR body as any old-school shift lens was. You’ll note where people complain about this lens in reviews, that’s what they complain about. I’m not sure that merits much sympathy; you know what you signed up for. What makes the Venus more fun is that it connects to mirrorless bodies that, by virtue of their EVFs, remove a lot of the irritation that would occur using the lens on a traditional SLR body.
Whether you will always be shooting 30-story buildings from 200m away is a matter of your own predilections, and that might be the deciding factor. Unless you are really good with wide-angle shots – or are a real-estate photographer in Hong Kong, you may not have a very solid (or at least somewhat economically viable) use case. But in reality, the market is not driven by professional needs. If it were, the only things that would ever be sold would be full-frame DSLRs, superfast 50mms, and the “most unique wedding I’ve ever seen” presets package for Lightroom.
Pros: solid build quality, clever shift mechanism, wide angle of view,* reasonably low distortion, actually collimated correctly for its native mount.
Cons: non-linear aperture control,** odd (incorrect?) focus scale calibration,** facilitation of compositional errors you never previously imagined possible,* bulbous front element, no inbuilt filter capability, and a lens cap that only mounts one way.
*Qualities that would be inherent to any lens this wide with shift capability.
**Qualities that do not typically belong on lenses in this price range.
This is just a quick note on a technical problem that plagues digital Leica cameras when used with older Nikkors: back focus. It is gratifying to know that Leica has finally recognized that many of its lenses don’t work so well on digital Ms due to “focus errors” that allegedly compound over the years. The real reason is probably more that film planes are actually and unintentionally curved, and a lens that makes the grade at the center there back-focuses elsewhere.
I was struggling a bit with a 10.5cm f/2.5 Nikkor, which though absolutely lovely aesthetically is one of the worst-engineered Leica lenses ever from a mechanical standpoint. And it back-focused. It back focused more with some Leica M adapters than others, but still.
Strike one with this lens is that the aperture unit rotates along with the entire optical unit. This means that if you adjust the collimation washer (for reasons I don’t fully understand, it’s always 0.05mm needed with any lens – just about the same thickness as Scotch tape), you also then have to reset the aperture ring to read properly. Also not 100% sure that infinity optical focus was really the problem.
Strike two is that the amount of front cell movement needed to compensate for back focus is absurdly great. So here, you’re messing around with focal length, but this the same way the MS-Optical Sonnetar gets calibrated…
Strike 3 is that the RF cam is not adjustable at all, with the tab pushed by a plunger running on a wheel that fits in a spiral track in the helicoid. Guess how this tab was adjusted for infinity at the factory? With a file. It makes sense, in a way. Calibrate the fixed infinity point on the focal plane by shimming the optical unit, calibrate focus at infinity by grinding the RF tab, and fix close focus by shimming the front cell. But it utterly sucks when you find out, 60 years later, that the tolerances that looked good on film with a Leica IIIc look like holy hell on digital.
So when you are dealing with focus errors, you have to imagine that the standard is a 51.6mm lens. At that focal length, if the RF matches the film-plane focus, the focus will always be correct, even if the infinity stop of the lens is beyond “infinity” on the scale.
For a telephoto lens, the rear cam still pretends it moves like a 51.6mm lens, but the actual optical unit moves much further. Hence, in a lot of cases, you can simply use a thinner LTM adapter (I think I’ve written about this before… somewhere). Most cheapo ones are thinner than the 1.0mm they are supposed to be.
But there is a different way to hack this with the 135mm, 105mm, and 85mm Nikkors: simply apply a thin and even coat of clear nail polish to the RF tab on the lens. This is a trick that you could theoretically do with lenses that have a rotating RF coupling ring (not tab), but it works exceptionally well with the Nikkors because the camera’s RF roller simply rests on the tab and doesn’t roll along it. This means that you only need to get the coating thickness right over a very short distance. Materials needed:
- Sally Hansen clear top coat (not “nail nourishing,” just the hard kind).
- CVS Beauty360 brand Nail Polish Corrector Pen (essentially a marker full of acetone that you can use to thin or remove extra nail polish).
- LensAlign focusing target (if you own a Leica, you really want one of these anyway, just to figure out what the devil all your lenses are doing as you stop down).
- Reading glasses.
So basically all you need to do is put a very thin coat of polish on the polished surface of the tab. Let it dry for 20 minutes. Here is the goal:
- At f/2.5, your focus should be such that the 0 point is barely focused, with most of the DOF in front.
- At f/2.8, your focus should be dead-centered around 0. The lens is actually way sharper here than at f/2.5. Doesn’t seem like much of an aperture change, but it is.
- At f/4, your focus will be such that 0 will barely be in focus, with most of the DOF to the rear.
- From f/5.6 down, the DOF will grow so that 0 is always in focus.
If it works, you’re done. The focusing errors this might induce further out are subsumed by depth of field increasing. If you need another coat, add one. If you are now front-focusing too much, use the Corrector Pen to remove some of the extra (or use a very fine nail buffer to remove some).
Never file or try to grind down the tab if your lens is front-focusing. Unless you can do it totally square, your lens will behave differently on different cameras. Leave this situation to a pro.
This is an article originally written in 2001; with a lot of updates.
How did these things get started?
The former Fujisawa-Shoukai had quite a bit of pull over Konica. Recall that by 1992, Konica had made what was seen as its last serious film camera, the Hexar AF, with its legendary 35mm f/2 lens. F-S, as we will call it here, commissioned in 1996 a run of Hexar lenses in Leica thread mound (LTM). This was long before the what people in the U.S. called a “rangefinder renaissance;” in fact at the time, very little in LTM was being produced in Japan, with the exception of the Avenon/Kobalux 21mm and 28mm lenses.
The first product of this program was the 35mm f/2L Hexanon, which looked like this:
This lens is simply a clone of the Hexar AF lens, right down having the same filter size. The coatings look identical, which is not a surprise. Consistent with some other contemporaneous LTM products, it did not have a focusing tab. On close inspection, the scalloped focusing ring looks like that on a Canon 35mm f/2 rangefinder lens, or more contemporaneously, the 21mm Avenon/Kobalux lens. The chrome finishing on an alloy body is reminiscent of modern-day ZM lenses. None of this, of course, will disabuse you of the notion that the Japanese lens production industry revolves around common suppliers. This lens shipped with a black flared lens hood (no vents) and a bright sandblasted chrome “Hexanon” lens cap that fit over the hood.
F-S would then go on to commission the 50/2.4L (collapsible) and 60/1.2L Hexanon lenses. The latter is famously expensive now; I have an email from F-S where it was 178,000 yen (about $1,400). The 50/2.4 will get its own article here.
In 2000, around the time that Avenon was re-releasing its 21mm and 28mm lenses as “millennium” models, F-S had another run of the 35/2 made. These were at least superficially different from the silver ones:
- At the time, black paint was all the rage, so the lens was executed in gloss black enamel and brass. The enamel in the engravings is almost exactly the Leica color scheme.
- The filter size decreased to 43mm, the aperture ring moved back, and the focusing ring thinned out to give the impression of “compactness” and justifying the “ultra compact” – UC designation that was historic to some Konica SLR lenses.
- The focusing mechanism changed to a tab (which helped justify the thinner focusing ring and lighter action).
- The coatings changed to a purplish red to help support the notion of “ultra-coating.” As you might know, multicoating can be customized for color.
The close-focus distance (what would be the third leg of a UC designation) and focusing rate of the helicoid (0.9m to ∞ in about 1/4 turn) and overall length did not change. The new lens was priced at 144,000 yen, which in dollars would have put it at just under the cost of a clean used 35/2 Summicron v.4 (at the time, these ran from about $700-1,200) and about half of what a Leica 35mm Summicron-M ASPH would cost.
Handling versus Leica lenses
Since both of these are optically identical, it might make more sense to discuss the ways in which these are similar to, or different from, the vaunted Summicron v4 King of Bokeh License to Print Money®. They are both like the Leica version but in different ways.
The UC has the same smooth tab-based focusing as the Summicron. It is very smooth and fluid. That said, the aperture ring is very “frictiony.”
The original L has a focusing feel a lot like a Canon RF lens, owing to the similar focusing ring, which has more drag and no tab. The aperture ring, however, has the same “ball-bearing-detent” feel as the Leica.
The overall length of all three lenses is similar, though as noted above, there is something of an illusion that the Leica and UC are smaller than the L.
The Konica lens, like the Hexar lens it was based on, is a clone of the 3.5cm f/1.8 Nikkor rangefinder lens, but for all practical purposes, the Hexanon is the same lens as the Summicron 4. As you can see, there is a very smooth falloff from center-to-edge wide open and pretty much eye burning sharpness at f/5.6,
Whoah. That looks familiar! Below is the Leica 35/2 v4 as shown in Puts, Leica M-Lenses, their soul and secrets (official Leica publication). Except the Summicron’s optimum aperture is a stop slower.
On interchangeable-lens bodies, all three lenses have the same focus shift behavior, requiring a slight intentional back-focus at f/2 and front focus up to f/5.6. It’s not like on a 50 Sonnar, but it’s there.
The original chrome version is a lovely lens and a nice match for chrome Leicas, at about 1/3 the price of a chrome Summicron v4 (yes, they exist…). If you like Canon lenses, you’ll be right at home with it. On the other hand, the UC version is smooth and sexy but getting to be as expensive as a 35/2 Summicron ASPH, which is actually a better lens.
People understand why tilt lenses exist – making super-expensive Canon DSLRs produce pictures that look like they were taken with a toy camera (or making the subjects themselves look like toys). No one knows, though, why shift lenses were once a thing. It’s all a matter of perspective.
The truth, from a certain point of view
Photography always has (and always will) present this problem: needing to fit a large object into a frame that is constrained by lens focal length. Conceivably, with a superwide lens you could, but then you end up with a lot of extra dead space in the frame. Which defeats the purpose of using large film or sensors.
If you want to get the whole thing in frame with the minimum number of steps or expenditure of time and money, your choices are to use a really wide-angle lens, tilt a camera with a more moderate wide-angle up, learn to fly. All of these are sub-optimal. First, the really wide-angle lens is great in that you can capture the top of the object without tilting the camera. The problem is that making an engaging photo with a wideangle is actually extremely difficult – because it tends to shrink everything. Depending on how the sun is, it also stands a better chance of capturing the photographer’s shadow. Second, tilting up a camera with a more moderate wide-angle lens “up” turns rectangular buildings into trapezoids, which works for some pictures but definitely not others. Finally, learning to fly is difficult. But watch enough Pink Floyd concert films, toke up with the ghost of Tom Petty, or study Keith Moon’s hotel swims, and you might.
Do you skew too?
Assuming you are reasonably competent, you can correct perspective using software, by skewing the canvas. This is a take on the old practice of tilting the paper easel with an enlarger. This was a limited-use technique, generally practiced by people who could not use view cameras and tripods but still had to come up with a presentable representation of a tall object. There were (and substantially still are) three issues here: crop, depth of focus, and dis-proportion. First, the crop came from the fact that tilting an easel meant that the projected image was trapezoidal and not rectangular, meaning that from the get-go, it had to be enlarged until the paper was filed. This still happens with digital. Second, the depth of focus issue is related to the fact that enlarging lenses are designed to project to a surface that is a uniform distance from the enlarger (i.e., projecting one flat field onto another). You would have to stop down the lens severely, or use a bigger focal length, which in turn required a taller enlarger column to maintain the same magnification.
The digitization of perspective correction uses computation to project the flat image onto a skewed plane, using interpolation and unsharp masking. This solves the apparent sharpness issue, but it degrades quality. Finally, dis-proportion comes from the fact that straightening converging verticals starts from a place where certain details are already compressed via the original perspective. For example, looking up at a tall building from a short distance, the windows look shorter (top to bottom) than they would if you were looking straight at the window from its own level.
So even when you manage to re-skew the canvas/field/whatever, you now have an image that is too “fat.” On enlarging paper, you would be forced to make a cylindrical correction to the negative (which is not practical in real life). On digital, there are specific transformations that you can perform to correct (for example, the adjustable ratios on DxO Perspective and Lightroom.
So skewing is a useful technique, but it’s still better to skew less.
Shifting your thinking: the mirror years
View cameras have used the concept of shift and tilt to adjust for situations where the viewpoint was wrong (shift) or depth of field was insufficient (tilt). Raising the front standard of a bellows-type plate camera was always standard practice to improve photographs of tall objects, especially in an era where wideangle lenses were not super-wide by today’s standards. Lens board movements were easy to achieve because there was always some distance between the lens mount and film plane in which to insert a mechanism to raise the lens relative to the film. And because there is no control linkage between the lens/shutter and the rest of the camera, you’re not losing automation. You never had any!
But these cameras were not small. The smallest bellows-type camera with lens movement features was the Graflex Century Graphic, a delightful 6×9 press-style camera. On many bellows-type cameras, though, there was no real provision for using a shifting viewfinder. The press-style cameras had wire-frame finders that provided a rough guide, but nothing could tell you whether the lens was actually level outside a gridded ground glass. Later in the game, the Silvestri H would present as the first camera with automatic finder shift, as well as a visible bubble level. Linhof used a permanently-shifted lens assembly (and viewfinder) on the Technorama PC series, and Horseman provided shifted viewfinder masks for the SW612P, though these were available only as “all the way up/down” or “all the way left/right.”
The shift mechanism, though, could not be adapted to SLRs easily due to three constraints:
- Most SLRs lenses are retrofocal – meaning that the nodal point of the lens is more than the stated focal length from the imaging plane. It takes a ton of retrofocus to insert a shift mechanism into an interchangeable lens that has to focus past a mirror box. More retrofocus means bigger lenses So when perspective control lenses began to appear for SLRs (35mm and 6×6), they were huge. Maybe not huge by today’s standards, but a 72mm filter size is pretty big for a Nikon SLR whose normal filter size is 52mm.
- To achieve an image circle large enough to allow shift around what is normally a 24x36mm image circle, it is necessary to use a wide field lens and stop it down severely (illumination with almost any lens becomes more uniform as it is stopped down).
- Most cameras can only meter PC lenses correctly in their center position, wide-open. Where shift mechanisms eliminate direct aperture linkages to the camera, you’re back to the 1950s in metering and focusing – then shifting – then manually stopping down to shoot (now corrected by the use of electronic aperture units in $2K plus modern Nikon and Canon PC lenses).
Viewing is not a lot of fun with 35mm SLRs; when stopped down, PC lenses black out focusing aids (like split prisms and microprisms) and still require careful framing to keep parallel lines parallel. So you need a bright screen – plus a grid or electronic level. Suffice it to say, a lot of people regard perspective control to be a deliberative, on-tripod exercise when it comes to SLRs and DSLRs. Maybe it’s not.
A new perspective: full frame mirrorless?
So here come mirrorless cameras (well, they came a while ago). Now you can fit any lens ever made to any mirrorless body. The optical results may vary, but at least physically, they fit.
— Getting the lens in place
So I grabbed the nearest available PC lens I could find, which was a 28/3.5 PC-Nikkor. Not AI, not even from this century. Released in 1980, it is a beast. I plugged this into a Konica AR body to Nikon lens adapter, and from there into a Imagist Konica lens to Leica body adapter. Why all these kludgy adapters? The answer is actually pretty simple: the Imagist has the correct tolerance to make infinity infinity, and the Konica adapter does the same. This is not a small consideration where you might be zone focusing a lens.
Then I plugged this kludgefest into a Leica M typ 246 (the Monochrom). Because why not start with the OG of mirrorless camera platforms? Of course, you can’t use a rangefinder with a Nikon SLR lens, so I plugged in an Olympus EVF-2 (which is the ‘generic’ version of the Leica EVF-2.
— Getting it to work
The Nikkor has two aperture rings. One is the preset, where you set your target aperture. The other is the open/close ring, which goes from wide-open to where the preset ring is set.
I turned on focus peaking and set the preset for f/22 and the open/close for f/3.5. I was able to establish that infinity was correct.
Next, I stopped down the lens (both rings to f/22), expecting that just as on an SLR, the EVF would black out. Worked perfectly.
I hit the “info” button to get the digital level, and it was off to the races. The lens has a rotation and a shift.
— But how well does it actually work?
The functionality is actually surprisingly good. On a Leica, it’s just stick the camera in A, stop the lens down to f/16 and 22, and point and shoot.
The digital level obviates the use of a tripod or a grid focusing screen, and you really just frame, turn the shift knob until the perspective looks right, and there you go. There are a couple of limits
You can’t use maximum shift along the long side of the film, but the only penalty is a little bit of a tiny shadow in the corner. And that’s with a full-thickness 72mm B+W contrast filter. You get 11mm shift up and down (i.e., along the short dimension of the firm) and 8mm left and right (nominally; as I stated, you can get away with more under some circumstances).
Aside from that, there are some minor annoyances like making sure you haven’t knocked the aperture ring off the shooting aperture. Or knocking the focus out of position (it’s a very short throw…).
BUT THE DUST! And here is the rub – shooting at f/16 and f/22 brings out every dust spot on your lens. Normally, you would shoot a Leica M at f/5.6, f/8 max. But PC lenses – like their medium and large format cousins – are designed to max out their frame coverage at very small openings. So I had never cleaned the sensor on my M246 in four years, and I got to spend an evening working on a hateful task that included swabs and ethanol and bulbs and the Ricoh orange lollipop sensor cleaner.
— And how sharp?
Very. Diffraction is supposed to start becoming visible at f/11 on this combination at 1:1, with it showing up in prints at f/22.
Pictures stand up to the old 1:1 test, except in the corners where you have over-shifted along the long side. Recall that in lot of situations, two of the last bits of corner are usually sky, where a tiny amount of blur is not going to be of any moment.
How well this will work on a color-capable camera is a question, especially since lateral color would come out. But right now, this is posing the most acute threat to 6×4.5 cameras loaded with TMY.
Smithers: “They’re fighting like Iran and Iraq!”
Mr. Burns: “What?!”
Smithers: “Persia and Mesopotamia.”
[Written April 16, 2012] All over the world, there are provincial towns believed by their residents to be equal to New York City, Tokyo, or Paris. In a way, Leica M might be such a town. Leica (the company) is not so myopic in terms of technology, but for whatever reason, digital M arguably has become both a technological and a cultural backwater. As Carlo Levi would have put it, Cristo si è fermato a Solms.
The duality of Leica
As this author has observed it over a 15-year period, M culture is basically drawn from two groups (a) people who put up with Leica’s quirks and price due to a belief (often justified) that the resulting image quality is better and (b) a group of photographers cool to modern technology and suspicious of the idea that in spending tens of thousands of dollars on a system, someone might want features that make an M look more like a practical “only” camera. We can call the first group the Opportunists and the second group the True Believers.
Surmising what you can surmise about them, the Opportunists are fairly mobile between camera systems. In fact, given Leica’s cyclical appeal, this group largely abandoned Leica’s system in the early 1970s and abandoned it again when Leica was dragging on a digital body in the early 2000s (recall how lens prices fell back then). Despite claims that demand for M9 cameras and lenses outstrips the ability to produce them, production is small – and even so, the market price for used M9s has now drifted to 60% of new prices. Even new cameras are being discounted by designation as “demos” (no camera that was really used as a demo has five or fewer exposures on it). We know from this that there are definitely fair-weather fans and that they are starting to head for the doors again. When things change precipitously, we know the Opportunists are on the march. And some Opportunists march by keeping their M8s and simply supplementing their missing capabilities with D700s and X100s. The effect, however, is the same – that they stop buying brand L and begin experiencing the forbidden fruits of other manufacturers.
The True Believers – a smaller group but more influential with Leica’s management – hold that the world stopped producing useful new camera features in about 1986 (or, alternatively, in 2002 with the M7). For that reason, they believe, Leica M must be locked into a world of vestigial and functionally-useless removable baseplates, frameline preview levers, and ergonomics lazily whittled from a bar of Ivory soap. The True Believers deny that any feature a Leica M currently lacks is significant, desirable, or valid. Their faith is strong despite the fact that Leica itself has proven them wrong by introducing the very things True Believers claimed were nonessential to the M system: film backs that opened, lever winding, combined rangefinder/viewfinders, TTL metering, electronic shutters/autoexposure, TTL flash, and ultimately, digial imaging. For this group, the M9 – which emerged years behind technologically – is “enough.” In fact, it is already too much (one dares not speak of the D-Lux, the Digilux, the S1, the S2, or the DMR – all of which were actually cutting edge when released). [One would note that since this article was written, that this faction won and got the M10 into production, omitting some features that had been included in the intervening M typ 240/246.
When things run their commercial course, we can call them effectively obsolescent. Obviously, nothing actually stops taking pictures (or anything else) when it is superseded by newer, flashier products – or even products with better specs. But new products often do the same thing with more speed, better efficiency, or fewer avoidable annoyances. The world is littered with well-built, well-designed items that should have lasted forever in the market but were passed up by things that were simpler, cheaper, or more appealing to the masses. Fountain pens, for example, a durable, perfected designs that are largely ignored for cheaper, less messy Bic Biro ballpoints.
When it comes to cameras (or anything), this author would take it a step further and point out that that is not fair to judge an older product for lacking features that had not been invented when it came out (and this is being charitable where Leica did not, for whatever reason, implement technology that was available at the time). So talking about digital M, let’s leave aside things like live view and video. Let’s even forget about DSP speed, screen density, and frame rate. But it is fair to compare apples to apples: to take the core features (or selling points) of an old product and examine their uniqueness in the marketplace and whether they are necessary or desirable solutions to problems.
The five points of Leicas
Leica cameras have five big selling points: high sensor quality; high lens quality, a great synergism between the two, a superb optical viewfinder and a superlative mechanical rangefinder. Take them in turn:
1. Sensor image quality.
Image quality is really the reason why serious photographers buy Leicas. The Leica magic (at least at the body level) comes from two things: (1) lack of an antialiasing filter, which gives a perception of an additional 25% in resolving power (or the ability to up-res by a like amount) and (2) image processing algorithms that build a unique look. These huge determinants of quality do not depend on the overall build quality of the camera body; they reside entirely in a CCD sensor and a couple of hundreds dollars in electronic parts. As long as the same glass formula were put in front of this sensor, the end result would be identical, even if the body were ABS plastic and even if the lenses operated by autofocus.
A lot of things have happened in the 7 years since the basic digital M technology arrived. First, other manufacturers have caught up to the filter-free sensor (Kodak actually preceded Leica with many models in which the AA filter was absent or removable). Sigma has the Foveon sensor, which omits it. Fuji has the X-Trans CMOS sensor – which in addition to lacking an AA sensor, has a randomized color pattern that obviates the anti-moire processing that bogs down Leica’s cameras. Nikon put a weak filter in the D3 and D700, and the D800E effectively has none (as well as twice the pixel density and much better low-light performance than current Leica sensors). Ricoh is making GXR modules that take Leica lenses and have no AA filters. And the Leica “look,” while challenging to replicate, can indeed be achieved in relatively cheap software like Lightroom.
But backing up a little, the world has also moved away from CCD in favor of CMOS chips for lower power consumption, higher sensitivity, and live view capability. Sticking with CCDs constrains Leica’s sensor choices for any future digital M (unless Leica changes the imager completely) and puts Leicas at a long-running disadvantage in higher ISO performance. CCD chips do have great color, but so do a lot of CMOS chips. In the end analysis, slipping behind the sensor speed curve is a big issue; the number of megapixels, not so much.
2. Lens image quality.
Leica was an early participant in the Lens Speed Wars that started in the 1920s and 1930s. Back then, you needed superspeed lenses because film was rated at a blistering ISO 12. And let’s be clear here: from about the 1960s onward, Leica was pretty much unchallenged in terms of lenses, in the build, quality control and resolving departments (and in many ways still is). But a few funny things happened on the way to the 21st century.
When the world went digital and addressed low-light situations by upping sensor capabilities, Leica instead focused on simply making faster lenses. Although this technically gets to a correct exposure in a lot of situations without upping sensor performance, it also locks users into what could be called the “Noctilux Aesthetic,” shorthand for pictures where there is a razor-thin plane of focus and often heavy shading of the corners. Some people prefer to do things with higher ISO sensitivity (rather than wider apertures) so as to have more things in focus. And if it’s the aesthetic that appeals, there is always Instagram.
Leica’s drive to make faster lenses made lenses for a compact system heavy, large, and insanely expensive (a 24mm f/1.4 Summilux, for example, costs $7,000). An M9-P and a 24/1.4 will run you approximately $14,000. A D800E with a 24/1.4 Nikkor runs about $5,500 – and can either shoot in a quarter of the light with the same noise or the same light with four times the depth of field. Sometimes it is nice to have the luxury of choosing the method of taking low-light pictures. Although the expense is typically met with the refrain of, “it’s expensive because it’s good,” or “it’s not for everyone,” it is worth pointing out that many of the nouveau riche who buy things like Leicas did not get there by spending money just to spend money- cost/utility analyses go on all the time (albeit among much more expensive products). In units produced annually, Leica M9 production is about equal to the M6 – though the number of eligible buyers in the world has increased radically. Leica’s sales are up in China, but with flat overall volume, that means that they are diminishing in other parts of the world.
Leica M lenses have very limited options for addressing focus shift [with the exception of partial corrections like the 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M FLE]. All lenses exhibit focus shift when stopped down, and this can make rangefinder focusing more inaccurate than it should be. Digital has less tolerance for error, and the only ways to mitigate focus shift in fast lenses is to use floating elements and aspherics, both of which – when executed to Leica standards – cost a mint. Closed-loop focusing (in the guise of contrast-detection AF) allows things like the $600 35/1.4 Fuji X lens (for the X-Pro1) to perform comparably to the $3,500 35 Summilux ASPH. But even before that, the lowly Hexar AF was able to keep up with the legendary 35mm Summicron ASPH by adjusting its focus to account for the selected aperture.
Leica’s 20th-century lenses hold the digital M system back. Users often fixate on speed, but older, high-speed lenses are not world beaters (though many people pay those types of prices for them). The 75mm Summilux command prices that are more driven by rarity than its relatively humdrum performance on a flat sensor (or the somewhat provincial appeal of shooting a portrait with just the eyelashes in focus). Even some of Leica’s more innovative designs like the 28-50-35 Tri-Elmar are fairly unremarkable performers on a Leica digital. The standards required to make a good digital lens are far more exacting than what made superlative film lenses in the past. There are always third-party lenses, but sometimes it seems silly to attach a $300 lens to a $7,000 body.
None of these are show-stoppers, but they tend to paint Leica M into the corner of being a very specific solution to any given problem. And getting to the place where a Leica M optically outperforms the competition requires very expensive gear.
3. The synergy.
One thing about Leica M was that for a long time, you had to use a Leica body to get the Leica M lenses. This was due in part to patents on the lens mount. Even where other manufacturers made M-mount cameras (like the Minolta CLE, Hexar RF, Bessa R, Zeiss-Ikons, and Rolleis), Leica always had a little bit of an edge due to its huge and wide pressure plate. Today, though, the entire synergistic advantage of using a Leica lens with a Leica body lies in the microlens pattern on the Leica sensor glass. It is not a perfect solution, but it is currently the only way to get the Leica resolution all across the board – and on a 24x36mm sensor. All of that said, the synergy between Leica lenses and bodies really only matters if you assume a Leica M lens to be an essential part of the equation. Where other cameras are built as a cohesive unit (lens and sensor), the 80/20 rule kicks in (80% of the performance at 20% of the price). Only here, Leica’s pricing now pushes that toward a 90/10 proposition.
4. The optical viewfinder.
One of the big points of excitement about the Leica M is its big, clear viewfinder. Though Leica fields the brightest and least-distorted finders in the industry, those finders are expensive to produce and, given the mechanical nature of the framelines, are incapable of showing accurate framing except at one arbitrary distance. This tends to make shots frame looser than they should be, thereby wasting real estate on the sensor. Japanese manufacturers have not surpassed the Leica clarity, but they have managed to produce close equivalents for much less money. But the bigger issue came with the rise of hybrid viewfinders that use LED overlay displays to (a) show instant playback; (b) project a digital level and composition gridlines; (c) display a computation of the depth of field based on focal length, aperture, and focused distance; and (d) show field-corrected framelines appropriate to any focal length. This is to say nothing of allowing an instant TTL lens view as well. These features – which can universally be shut off – add a considerable amount of utility for people who want them. They don’t take away from the beauty of the Leica version, but one line of 8-segment LEDs provides no warning about running through an SD card or a battery, two conditions that did not really exist when the viewfinder was last redesigned, 10 years ago. In the end, the major compelling feature of that Leica view is…
5. The rangefinder
Part of what makes the Leica M is the rangefinder. Leica Ms will always have rangefinders, because the “M” actually stands for Messsucher (rangefinder). When the Leica II was developed, there were no small SLRs. Leica and Zeiss based their competing 35mm cameras on coupled prism rangefinders. This was, at the time, the only technology that allowed a compact camera to focus accurately, particularly with high-speed lenses.
Even when 35mm SLRs came into the mainstream in the 1950s and 1960s, rangefinders persisted. Rangefinders were smaller in general, and it was easier to make wide-angle lenses for them. Back then – and now – rangefinders also did a better job of focusing those wide-angle lenses. Where a rangefinder system has a constant magnification and starts running into problems with longer lenses, SLRs benefit from assuming the magnification of telephoto lenses they use.
Many competitors have made runs at matching the Leica rangefinder, and the common vendor to Fuji, Mamiya, and Konica almost managed to do it. The Leica mechanism is a wonder of precision and high-end manufacturing. Today, though, it seems like a precisely engineered, laser-engraved, CNC machined, hand-honed … typewriter. The rangefinder’s competence is in focusing wideangle-to-normal lenses – but run-of-the-mill autofocus is just as good at doing that.
Aside from struggles with relevance to Opportunists at a core technology level – i.e., creeping effective obsolescence – Leica M carries a lot of baggage. The weight (all apologies to Rick Danko and Robbie Robertson) goes beyond simulating the size and weight of a camera of 1953 (the weight is, in fact, simulated – the brass covers of a digital M account for almost 25% of ite weight). It goes beyond doing things they way they have always been done – in the name of tradition. It goes beyond being accosted in public by weirdos who recognize your M8 as “an M4.” To this author, the most perfidious part of it is the cognitive dissonance that arises when one carries $10,000 in gear around his neck but fancies himself to be a photographic Zen Buddhist.
Leica used to think outside the box – not only did it popularize 35mm film photography, it also invented things like phase-detect AF, made innovative cameras like the M3, and otherwise kept up with the world (even Leica’s current S2 is technological light-years ahead of the M). Had this progressive philosophy carried over into the M series (or an updated successor), the M8/M9 would not have slavishly copied film cameras in looks, live view would have been added to stand in for the Visoflex, and it would have been Leica to introduce hybrid viewfinders. Maybe this will change on May 10, 2012 with some huge product announcement [it did not, but the M typ 240 did introduce the use of electronic viewfinders – EVFs – to Leicas].
But in our hearts, we know it won’t. The world of Leica is somewhat frustrating. The products are high quality, the resulting images are excellent, and the general solidity of the system makes all of us keep our lenses as we repetitively upgrade digital bodies (and upgraded film bodies before that). We always want to think that some vastly improved new M is around the corner, yet ultimately, we just end up settling for something that is behind the curve, for a lot of money. One could get the sense – reinforced by the rapid pace of the rest of the photographic world – that this bubble of IR filters, color vingetting, bottom-plate loading, and black paint is going to burst.When you look at things like the Fuji X-Pro1, you begin to think that perhaps it already has. Maybe the better thing would be for Leica to declare victory in 2013 after 60 years of M – after all, it outlasted Contax, Alpa, and everyone elese’s film rangefinders (and even outlasted Polaroid, Kodak, Agfa, and Ilford…) – and reboot with something as earthshaking as the M3 was in 1953.
Disclosure: the author has been a Leica user for the better part of two decades and was an early adopter of the M8 [and M240, and M246].
The Multifunction Handgrip M (14495), $895, is a depressing piece of hardware. It’s not the price or the alleged GPS slowness. It’s the depressing feeling that like a lot of things, the M camera reached its highest point of elaboration and now is on the path of decontenting that hit a lot of other types of consumer electronics.
Hello and goodbye. The story of this product is wrapped up with the M typ 240 (and its cousins the M-E 262 and Monochrom 246). The 240 was a watershed moment for Leica – the first time the M had actually become functional like other people’s cameras. It signaled a few firsts:
- Video. Not the best HD video ever, but with the new EVF(!) it was passable.
- Audio input. Plus it actually had a way to get audio into the camera! But no EVF and mic adapter at the same time. In every life, some rain must fall.
- A digital horizon that operated in 3 dimensions (so it could detect pitch and roll).
- A high capacity battery.
- A function button on the front that could trigger exposure compensation adjustments or viewfinder magnification.
How many of these features made it to the M10? The front button. Now let’s see where the Multifunction Handgrip takes you:
- GPS. Every want to auto-tag your photos with the location?
- SCA flash connector. Now you can connect to a flash via a metal plugged-cord or a standard PC outlet.
- AC connector. Now you can run your camera on video for the allotted 29 minutes at a time (before the auto shut off).
- USB port for tethered operation (likely why the AC connector is so important).
But then there came the M10, thin like a 90s shoulder pad. No more video. No more need-to-keep-it-level landscape photography (apparently…). Smaller batteries, as if the thrill of living had gone.
Weight? The 14495 adds surprisingly little weight to the M. That’s because everything but the baseplate part is plastic. Naturally, the light grip does not change the balance of the camera, so you need to use brute strength (and grip) to keep big lenses level.
Grip? The ergonomics of this are something that grow on you. At first, you feel like it could be a centimeter taller to accommodate your index finger. But wait – that’s the one you need to press the shutter. It doesn’t take long to adapt to this grip, and it greatly enhances the handling of the camera with huge lenses like the 75/1.4. Every little bit counts, and an M is pretty slippery, even with the little nub grip built into its case.
GPS? It works. Just put your camera in standby, and within a few minutes, it will get a fix. Once it’s running, it seems to be pretty accurate. A lot of people seem to complain that when it loses a signal, it continues to log its last known location. That’s actually beneficial when you go indoors (since you don’t want it to revert to a location in the center of the earth, for example).
“Near-field” communication. You always wanted this on a digital camera, but you didn’t want Android. Well, here you go. To get a wifi signal out of a card (like the Toshiba Flashair, which will be treated in a future installment), you basically need to have your handheld touching the top plate of the camera (which apparently is the most porous surface for radio waves.
Flash. Flash. Flash. So you want to know how well the 14498 SCA setup (another bazillion dollars) works? It consists of a bracket and an extension shoe. The idea of this product is to allow you to move the flash off camera both to enhance balance and to free up the hot shoe for an optical or electronic viewfinder.
The disappointing thing is that there is no vertical grip piece, meaning that your flash head is much closer to the lens axis in landscape mode than you might like. So this works better out of the box with taller flashes like the SF 58 or 64.
The weird thing is the SCA plug, which is both unusual and insanely well built. It probably requires 200 different machining operations. But like the EVF connector, it’s proprietary, meaning that you have exactly one choice for off-camera work. The exit of the cord near the body of the camera body seems weird at first, but after you use it a bit, you wonder why Nikon screwed up so badly with the SC hot-shoe adapters, which have huge cords that on an M camera either end up blocking the viewfinder or getting in your face, literally.
But the good thing with the 14498 is that you can get and use your favorite old Vivitar handgrip – because the extension shoe detaches from the bracket. And can be used without the bracket.
Flash operation is unremarkable (as it should be). You do not get a flash-ready indication in the EVF if you have it attached, and shot to shot lag time is not affected.
Conclusion. The Multifunction Grip M, if you can score one used for under $400, is a pretty good item. At that price, it’s not quite as outrageously expensive as list, and it helps tremendously with heavy lenses. As to the SCA set, it’s a tougher call, unless you can get one for under $200. Where the grip gives you a standard PC connector, you can use any handle-mount auto flash you want (such as a Metz 45 series). Flash may or may not be in your personal program, but I would remind you that the higher-end Leica flashes do high-speed synch very well.
The 28mm M-Hexanon, like the its focal length, occupies a strange space that is neither here nor there. I have never had good luck with 28mm lenses, if only because the angle is a little wide to be comfortable for close shots of people and a little narrow for some of the landscapes I shoot.
Only on the verge of selling mine (for lack of use since way back when I had an M8) did I shoot a bunch of tests with an M typ 240. This particular lens had been recollimated to be at exactly Leica spec (most lenses made before the M8 were not set up to hit the center of a flat sensor).
This piece will not editorialize much but instead show it like it is. Which is quite good, far better than I had remembered.
First, the obligatory “how sharp at a meter” exercise. This is f/2.8.
Next: does it shoot good pictures of children? Yes.
E poi – how is the bokeh? Strangely, it’s actually really good, especially for a wide lens. Here is the sequence f/2.8, 4, 5.6, 8.
Sunstars? Got ’em too. Here is f/2.8-8 (clockwise):
Gross resolving power (again, f/2.8-8):
And now, we laugh at your Elmarit-M!
Flare resistance, same range:
Another test; can’t remember why. Seemed like a good idea at the time.
As you contemplate modern lenses, It is difficult to associate these optics with the proud civilizations that created them: Tokyo, Rochester, Sendai, Jena. They worshipped image quality, because it is strength that makes all other values possible. No picture survives without it. Who knows what delicate objective lenses have died out of the world, for want of the strength to continue.
It’s a long way from the Canon 7sz to Andre Agassi, from the Serenar to the EOS Kiss Merkur XR4ti (…or whatever the amateur model of the week is). Canon used to be a hard-core producer of Leica knockoffs, many of which were more functional, convenient, and reliable than the rickety prewar designs that Leica kept elaborating. The Canon P was a standout, as were the VI-L and the 7 series.
The Canon 50mm f/1.2 (September 1956… can you believe that it is now almost 60 years old?) was the company’s penultimate halo lens. It came out with the VT (not Deluxe), and it would not be surpassed until 1961 with the Canon 7 and its 50/0.95 Dream Lens (from a size, weight, and cost standpoint, dream is clearly defined broadly to include nightmare). Ironically, the 50/1.2 cost more than the 50/0.95. Modern Canon lenses are quite good, but they don’t have that certain fun factor to them.
Synergies. This is a new thesis on my part, but I am starting to suspect that the M typ 240 and 246 tend to interact with lenses in ways that might not be immediately intuitive. Some lenses seem to work unexpectedly well with the color sensor (possibly the demosaic-ing algorithm accidentally boosting sharpness). Many lenses work better than expected with the Monochrom camera — likely because the color-bind sensor is not bothered as much by chromatic aberration. The “why” these things happen is probably insoluble; it is merely interesting that they do. And yes, some dog lenses do stay dogs, and some lenses have bad corners to f/8. Nulla regula sine exceptione.
Look and feel. Perhaps “Carré Otis” is the best way to express the relationship between the size of this lens and Canon’s more common 50mm lenses (2.8, 2.2, 1.9, 1.8, 1.5): generously proportioned, slightly flaky, and exhibiting certain, ahem, virtues.
The finish of the 50/1.2 is typical mid-to-late Canon that came into vogue in February 1956 with the 50mm f/1.8 mark II: a black enamel focusing ring and sandblasted chrome aperture ring and distance/DOF scale. This is much more pleasing than Canon’s contemporaneous all-black lenses (like the 35/1.5, 35/2, 100/3.5, 100/2, and 135/3.5), whose finish looks good in smaller lenses and feels chintzy in larger ones. But the affect with the 50/1.2 is solid. It will keep your M typ 240 on balance.
The focusing effort is heavy, and even the aperture turning is heavy. Unless, of course, lubricant has leaked out onto the aperture blades. The focusing pitch is very slow. Even the interesting push-button infinity lever takes a deliberate effort to dislodge. Is there a problem with any of this? No. Will you have issues tracking fast motion or switching from near-to-far subjects (or vice-versa) as if you were a D700? Yes.
Flare and use with filters. The first thing you have to remember with this lens is that you are dealing with an SLR-sized front element that sits very close to the front of the filter ring, seven elements, and single lens coatings from the mid-1950s. This isn’t going to flare, right?! Really, cleaning marks are the least of your problems here.
The big (physical) hazard with this lens is filters – as in don’t tighten down a filter without checking the clearance between the filter and the front lens element. If you want use conventional filters, you will likely need to use an empty ring as a spacer or fit a rubber o-ring around the threads on the filter. The only alternative is to use Canon RF filters, which are expensive and present a flush glass surface on the front of the lens. Not only does cabin your choices for lens hoods, it also presents ample opportunity for sidelight flare. Like the picture below (and let’s be fair – this is shot outdoors with floodlights everywhere). But be sure to use some kind of hood if you can.
Canon filter ghosting (at f/1.2). All hell is breaking loose here (not surprising with Christmas lights a scant two feet from the lens), but it’s not all bad, given the motif:
On balance, it is better to use a filter if you don’t want to deal with the rickety Canon metal lens caps, which never want to stay on. Just watch how you use it, and if you can space it correctly, consider an MRC.
General optical performance. On an M, at 24mp, the 50/1.2 really acts like Beauty and the Beast. At its largest aperture, it has microscopic depth of field, though with practice, you can tell where it is going to land. It does what most other super-fast spherical lenses do: it front focuses at wider apertures and settles down at middle ones. Every one of the three copies I have owned seems to have had slight differences in the midpoint of depth of field at close ranges and large apertures, which is not surprising. But this is par for the course; all fast 50mm lenses are testy on Leica rangefinders. As you start stopping down, the 50/1.2 becomes exponentially sharper. F/1.4 is light years better than 1.2; f/2.8 is orders of magnitude better yet.
Rather than dragging through every optical trait one at a time, let’s take it at f/1.2. Soft contrast, heavy vignetting, reasonable resolution of details, with a field that seems to curve at the edges toward the camera. This vignetting persists, even when the lens is coded as a Leica Noctilux. To be fair, this was more than enough for most 35mm film use. A lens like the Canon 50/1.2 would be used at night, where contrast would be high. It was not designed for thin depth-of-field fetishism. You can click on the picture below for a full-sized image.
The picture at the top of this article is also shot at f/1.2. In terms of controlling bokeh, if you are into that thing, this is yet another lens where your best bokeh is achieved by (a) getting the subject as close as possible and (b) getting the background as far away as possible. Not to belabor a point from the previous article (on the MS-Sonnetar), but an easy and almost unavoidable rule of thumb is that the better a lens performs wide-open, the worse the bokeh. The list of these suppressed lenses is long and distinguished: this Canon, almost every Noctilux, the Hexanon Limited, the Nokton 1.1, the Nikkor 1.1, and basically any lens faster than f/1.4.
The next click, f/1.4, is a touch more contrasty, and is still a good setting to use in harsh nighttime conditions. Take a look at the field curvature here – there is no way the Gummi Bear wrapper should be so close to being in focus like the boys. Actually, it seems unlikely that both boys should be in focus, but there you have it. And here you also have the bokeh vibe. As in vibration.
Just for fun, below is one shot wide-open with an M8 (you can click on it to see it at full size):
Stopping down to f/2 gives better results yet – and the focusing point is now exactly where you would expect it to be. And here is your bokeh test outdoors. This is essentially minimum focusing distance with a background that is 50m away.
At f/2.8, the lens is starting to hit its stride. Especially with the M set for emulation of the Leica 50/1.2, the lighting evens up, the sharpness goes up significantly, and the field flattens a bit. Although this begs the question of getting a slower lens and shooting more wide-open, with these old lenses, you are often better off with a fast lens stopped down than a slow lens wide-open. Also, the big old glass looks cooler and makes child ward nurses less likely to think you are using some kind of super-high-tech digital camera to document medical procedures (when you’re actually just bored).
At f/4, performance starts to max out (like the 1.2 shot, you can click on the one below to get a full-sized image). You almost go into double-take mode because a good example of the lens looks sharper than lot of modern glass. I’m thinking particularly of the 50/1.4 AF Nikkor, which the Canon crushes – and likely because the Nikon is usually tied to a somewhat limited AF system (phase detect systems seem pretty much incapable of compensating for the focus shift that occurs when a lens stops down).
F/8 is where performance starts to degrade a little bit (see the full-sized image). Sharpness starts to decline. People take on cartoonish, ascetic, or vampiric features. Bring your gloves, lightsabers, and garlic.
Conclusion? This lens was sold as the premium lens on a lot of Canon cameras – and in some ways a “bragging rights” lens vis-à-vis Leica and Nikon. The performance at f/1.2 is reasonable but not world-beating; but given limits seen even in digital M shutters (1/4000 sec), you would rarely be trying to shoot this lens wide-open in daylight. At least absent a neutral-density filter.
The pricing of this lens is all over the place; super-clean examples (from a cosmetic standpoint) seem to command a hefty premium, but almost all will exhibit microscopic scratches (cleaning marks), and oil haze is a recurring theme (and it is fairly destructive to these lenses’ coatings). But as with a lot of things, cosmetics are not indicative of performance; you never know whether a lens has been abused over the years until you actually try it.
Be ready to poke around through multiple examples to get one that works really well; keep an open mind about the condition of the coatings; what makes these lenses flare badly has little to do with the coatings but rather with the hazards of having that really big front element.
The MS Optical Research Sonnetar is like The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. You either get it or you don’t, and if you don’t understand Jacques Cousteau, Willem Dafoe playing a subservient gay German, or Wes Anderson in general, there is no one who can make you like it. By the same token, if you drive Jaguars, no one with a 276hp front-drive Camry is ever going to win you over by telling you it has a higher thrust-to-weight ratio than an XJS V12 with the flying buttress hard top.
You don’t buy a Sonnetar as your only 50mm lens; in fact, you don’t even buy it as your only fast 50mm lens (and by the way, 50s should either be fast or fun – there is nothing more bland than a 50mm Summicron). The Sonnetar has strange controls for most (the rotating front barrel is exactly like using a Contax or Nikon rangefinder). It vignettes like crazy. At any distance, you can have your choice between correct focus and optical correction.
Why would anyone like it? It’s actually a big question whose only easy answer might be that when you have to shoot an f/1.1 lens in ultra-low light conditions, you pick your poison. You’re playing the limits.
N.B. All pictures shot in b/w are shot with a new Leica Monochrom (typ 246). All shots in color are with an M (typ 240). It’s absurd to change color pictures to monochrome to try to judge sharpness.
What is it? The MS-Sonnetar is the second modern revival of the 50mm f/1.5 Carl Zeiss Sonnar (West Germany, 1950s-1960s), the first one being the Zeiss ZM C-Sonnar 1.5/50mm. Why this type of lens is popular today is puzzling; when lens coatings enabled highly corrected 50mm lenses like the Planar, all of the expensive cemented groups of the f/1.5 Sonnar became obsolete. Today, the popularity of the Sonnar pattern might be in its imperfection: focus falloff in the form of field curvature and vignetting. The Sonnar yields marginally smaller and lighter overall packaging than a Planar or Double Guass, and it has slightly higher resistance to flare.
Every Sonnar revival/clone/ripoff over the past 50+ years has had its own set of strengths and weaknesses; it seems that almost none of them shows the balanced performance of the original Zeiss design. They either sacrifice sharpness for bokeh or go gaga for bokeh and live with a lot of focus shift.
The Sonnetar goes for the gusto with fewer elements and only one cemented group; a lighter, more compact barrel; and almost an entire stop of extra speed. It is the fastest Sonnar-style production lens in terms of T-stops, edging out the 50/1.1 Zunow by virtue of having fewer elements and more effective coatings.
Getting a handle on it. The Sonnetar is a very compact lens; the barrel is smaller than a 50mm Summicron, flaring out to a wider front section that takes 52mm filters (and no, full-sized B+Ws do not vignette). It’s hard to say whether it is modeled after a Zunow, a 50/1.1 Nikkor, or an Opton Sonnar. But all of them have a particular shape to them. The Sonnetar looks most like the Zunow, with the focusing and aperture rings reversed.
The frontmost ring is focus (supplemented with a small lever in the back if that’s what you want); the rearward ring is the aperture control, which smoothly adjusts from f/1.1 to f/16. Like a lot of older lenses, as the aperture numbers get higher, they get closer together (it is probably also a side effect of the Sonnetar’s super-nifty, perfectly circular German iris. But no matter in splitting hairs between f/11 and 16; you won’t be shooting there anyway.
The tough part of the ergonomics is something you’d never expect: the rear lens cap. It screws into the rear lens group, which unfortunately is also the thing that is the coma control. As for the front cap (which also screws in), you’ll probably leave that in the box with the hand-drawn spherical aberration measurements and the pretty hood. You’ll either use an MRC filter or a pinch cap to keep your fingers off the front glass.
Overall build quality. Done out in matte black chrome, the finish of the Sonnetar is a good match for a black Leica M-P or Monochrom typ 246. The black anodized finish is very tough, and the mounting ridges that you grasp to mount the lens will take bits of skin along with them. Numbers are clearly engraved and filled in white. They are legible and inoffensive. There is no way to 6-bit code this lens, since the rear flange is integral with the lens barrel (it is very much built like an old rangefinder lens with a rotating optical unit).
The glass (modified Sonnar design, more air-spaced) is perfectly clean and perfectly coated (from what I understand, MS Optical’s multicoating is a simple 2-layer). The reality is that the efficiency of modern coatings and the low element count makes internal flare a non-issue. Interior blacking is actually dark grey, which may seem puzzling, but if it’s good enough for telescopes, it’s probably good enough for camera lenses.
There are some build quality nits. One is that the lens (both on the sensor and in the rangefinder) hits infinity with about a mm of travel left in the focusing ring. This is probably an artifact of having that ring be the same part that provides the rangefinder cam. This might be of concern if you are trying to focus at infinity by feeling for a stop – and it is no different a problem than using an Asian LTM adapter that is a fraction of a millimeter too thin. It almost seems like you could just loosen the focusing ring screws and shift it so that infinity was on the stop
The other is that MS-Optical only uses a couple of actual lens mounts. The 51.6mm lens mount provides cam action that approximates a 51.6mm (Leica-spec) lens. Its frameline selection is determined by whether the mount is compressed around a notch in one of the bayonets or not. This lens uses about 90 degrees to go from 1m to ∞, which is quite short. This gives you a much faster acquisition time for focus but degrades the focus accuracy. Contrast this to 1950s and 1960s LTM lenses (and indeed the 75 Summilux), whose ponderously slow focusing rate can cause you to miss the moment completely. In any case, you are much better off using the ring than the lever because the larger diameter of the barrel provides better precision (because it takes more movement of the control surface per unit of focus change).
The $&@(!#% “coma adjuster.” The most famous feature of this lens is a “coma adjuster,” a ring around the rear element that has a white indicator dot and four distance dots (1m – white; 2m – white, 4m – red, and infinity-white). The lens is sold with an instruction sheet that tells you this is for adjusting “coma,” which would be the shape of point light sources (round or not). Why does anyone care about coma? It’s a big deal for telescopes, and that’s what Miyazaki designed for most of his life. What you get in terms of optical performance in the near range is a set of very subtle changes. Perhaps this operates better at a distance, but for its stated purpose, the adjuster seems a little bit gimmicky.
What is not so subtle is that the same control – determining the position of the rear lens group – has a tremendous effect on focus (because it changes the focal length of the lens) and on field curvature (whether the plane of focus is flat across the field or curved inward at the edges). This almost off-label use is actually very easy to exploit (see the discussion of what the directions actually say below).
Focal length control is very important on a super-speed lens. A Leica rangefinder assumes the same movement as a 51.6mm lens. Nominal “50mm” lenses that have a 51.6mm focal length can rely on simple movement of the lens cell when focusing to track from near to far at the correct rate. Shorter lenses (like 35mm lenses) have to translate a smaller amount of lens cell movement (front to back) to a relatively larger amount of rangefinder cam movement. Likewise, a 90mm lens needs the cell to move more than the cam moves. With most 50mm f/2 lenses, variances of a couple of 1/10s of a millimeter in actual focal length are not of great consequence because the lens has a little depth of field (or “fudge factor”). Lenses that have super-thin depth of field, such as an f/1.1 lens, require far more precision in their focal length to work well with a rangefinder. One can also surmise that the coma adjuster ring also serves as a calibration method for the lens that does not require reassembly.
According to the directions, this is how to use the coma adjuster ring:
Adjacent to the coma adjustment ring, you will find a white reference point (see the above illustration) to which an appropriate ring position has to be matched by rotating the ring. Using the coma adjustment system, a very high level tuning/focusing optimisation is made possible.
For Leica M Type Rangefinder Camera Users Initially, bring the red dot of the ring to the white reference point by rotating the coma adjustment ring. As you familiarise yourself to this lens, you may wish to change the ring position either to the left or right. For example, at the infinity best point, the actual focus point will be slightly brought forward (therefore, take a photo with focus point slightly backward). At the white dot that is best for 2m distance, a focus point will be slightly brought backward (therefore, take a photo with focus point slightly forward). This might take some practice and experience to achieve best results.
In real life, the tips for using this are:
- Turning the adjuster toward longer distances will make the lens focus closer to the camera.
- Turning the adjuster toward shorter distances will make the lens focus farther from the camera.
- Putting the coma adjuster on 1m will cause a back focus of 15-20cm at 1m, which is not insignificant.
- Putting the coma adjuster on ∞ will cause the lens not to focus (optically) to infinity.
- Putting the adjuster about 2mm short of the 4m mark will produce best focus at f/1.1-1.6 from just under 1m to infinity. This is not surprising, since it is a distance of about 50 focal lengths (2.5m), which is a conventional distance at which lenses are tested. It is also apparently the setting used to measure MTF (as shown on the instruction sheet).
- The lens will decouple from an M rangefinder at the minimum distance stop, so don’t do any testing below about 0.8m.
IN MOST CASES, YOU WILL ONLY BE MOVING THIS ADJUSTER 1 or 2MM FROM THE RED MARK. UNLESS YOU WANT TO GO CRAZY.
It really, really, really helps to have a LensAlign to calibrate the lens because you can see the zone of focus very correctly. Although you can trial-and-err it without this $80 plastic device, the problem is ascertaining the effect of focus shift. You want to hit a calibration where the zone of focus includes the intended point through as many apertures as you can – because like a lot of lenses in this speed class, the Sonnetar has under corrected spherical aberration that causes focus shift with aperture changes. The LensAlign lets you observe a band of high contrast as it moves (and expands) as you stop down. You don’t even need to shoot it head-on as you would with a DSLR; you need to check this from oblique angles too – because that is how you will focus your Leica in real life. Needless to say, if you are going to use this lens with a film camera, it helps to have a digital to get it dialed in.
Even within any calibration, the M viewfinder system (including the improved rangefinders for the M typ 240 and 246) has enough lash in it that the direction from which you focus – as well as small movements that don’t even produce a visible change in the RF alignment – can affect the focus point. So the word is “practice.” Wide-open, you will nudge to a slightly farther focused distance (without making the RF spot move).
Performance. All high-speed 50mm lenses (f>1.4) involve tradeoffs. The simple answer is that the Sonnetar has characteristics that vary depending on the coma adjuster setting, and these correspond pretty closely to the optimization differences in an Opton Sonnar, a 50/1.4 Nikkor LTM lens, and a 50/1.5 Canon LTM lens.
For most testing, I have kept the lens optimized at f/1.1 to 1/6 at distances up to 3m. It performs very well from 0.8 to 10m at f/1.1-1.6. If you get the calibration just right, you can keep it sharp through f/5.6, and it’s sharp across the field. At long distances, however, you get progressive blur toward the frame edges. This is gone at f/8. I suspect that the coma adjuster could overcome things, but distance shots are a little outside the use case for this lens (for distance, you are always better off with a slightly smaller aperture lens).
Sharpness seems to max out at f/1.6 (the dot between f/1.4 and f/2 on the focusing scale). Contrast is about double that at f/1.1. If something like the Canon 50mm f/1.2 LTM lens is your frame of reference, at wide-open settings, the Sonnetar is visibly better (and focuses far more accurately). If you are shooting at f/4 or smaller, something like the Canon provides much more balanced performance.
Here is a sequence that should show the differences at the wide apertures. If you click on the picture, you should be able to see it full-size. First, 0.8m, whole scene. Yes, the 44-year-old unopened bottle of Beam is real, as is the gaffe of keeping champagne at other than depressed temperatures. And no, I can’t explain the presence of the CFL bulb on the bar, since I own no fixture that takes them.
Next, check out the difference between f/1.1 (left) and f/1.6 (right) at 100%. The apertures shown in the metadata are computed by the M typ 246, so they are not entirely accurate. There is quite a bit of contrast jump in one stop.
Next, here is the same comparison at 200%. The focus point here is the stamp “Spring 1963.”
Next, here is the mid-right side at 100%. Still holding together.
Extreme left, 100%. Same story.
Real-world, stressed out, trying to get enough distance to focus in almost complete darkness, you still get good results. This is f/1.6 at ISO 2500 and 1/12 of a second:
And a bit better at 1/45 sec (by the way, the Last Word is something you ought to try sometime):
And this is the obligatory f/8 shot outdoors with a G filter.
Flare is very well controlled except in extreme side-lighting, where you can get some bizarre effects. This is a characteristic of Sonnar-type lenses. There is some “glow,” which is the normal Sonnar flare on hard dark/light interfaces that occurs when the focus point is ahead of the object. It is more visible in the preview mode of an M camera than it is in the final files. Resistance to extreme backlighting is pretty good, a lot better than with the old Canon 50/1.2:
Here is the difficult-to-replicate total flare failure mode. You might want to use a lens hood when the sun is in the corner. Or maybe not.
Vignetting is not going to be a huge issue at close distances, since the barrel is extended. At f/2 and down, it is not obnoxious, especially when combined with the automatic corner correction on the M8/9/240/246. If you want to go very heavy duty on perfect corrections, use the Adobe Flat Field plugin for Lightroom. You will need to shoot baseline calibrations at the distances and apertures you normally shoot. You can do that after the fact.
Color rendition can be a little weird. The “tantalum” glass in this lens (probably standing in for less-exciting sounding “rare earth”) shows mild versions of the color enhancing effects of a didymium enhancing filter (like a B+W 491, Tiffen Enhancing Filter, or Hoya Redhancer). Magenta and yellow seem to be favored here. Here are some pictures that should illustrate this. For your evaluation of secondary characteristics, this is at f/2:
Chromatic aberration is a factor here but not in the traditional way. Wide-open, this lens tends to have the blur from adjoining colors bleed together. On an M typ 240, this looks a little bit like soft focus. On the M typ 246, this disappears completely, and the lens develops some killer contrast. This is characteristic of sticking a lot of old-school lenses on the new Monochrom body; a lot of older optical designs suddenly start looking awesome.
Bokeh is such a bourgeois concept. With spherical lenses, you either get universally good bokeh but bad focus shift (ZM C-Sonnar) or poor bokeh and reduced focus shift (50/1.4 Nikkor, 50/1.5 Canon). Unfortunately, with high-speed lenses, the latter combination (or in this case calibration) is much easier to live with. With the Sonnetar, you want to get as close to your subject as possible with as great a distance from it to the background as possible. Otherwise, you can enjoy what generation of Canon and Nikon Sonnar clones have experienced. By the way, here is a direct comparison between the bokeh of the 50/1.2 Canon and the Sonnetar. Maybe you can tell which is which?
Conclusion. If I did not currently own eleven 50mm lenses (just temporarily), I don’t know how I would feel about this one. That said, the Sonnetar is the one that seems to be welded onto my Monochrom. It’s quirky, it takes a lot of practice to use, and even after a couple of months of practice, there is still a lot to master. That said, it’s an elegant alternative to the Coke cans and second mortgages that tend to dominate the super-speed 50mm space.