Thursday, March 05, 2009

Shooting the new Leica 24mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH

Christian asked me on the first day of the show if I’d be interested in taking the 18mm Super-Elmar-M ASPH and 24mm Summilux-M ASPH out for a night to do some testing. I asked if I’d be able to post samples and the answer was, “Absolutely. Go see Justin and he’ll set you up.” This is what we call an offer you can’t refuse. That night was spent blogging on the S2 (see below) and I was leaving Thursday (tonight), so the only night to go out was Wednesday. I cleared my social calendar and headed out to shoot the famed Vegas Strip.

The 18 (left) and 24 Lux on my desk in the hotel

I would have loved to take some shots inside the casinos, with all the lighted slot machines and great colors. But, I figured with the eighty million or so security cameras in the ceiling, I’d only have about 30 seconds before I got a not-so-nice tap on the shoulder and an invitation to leave. So, I braved the cold (and it was really cold and extremely windy) and concentrated my shooting on the outdoor scenes. I popped indoors to thaw out and regain feeling in my hands every so often.

1/30 sec @ f/1.4 ISO 160 hand-held

Okay, now the full disclosure: I do not usually shoot with a 24mm on the M8.2.

Have you ever been driving home from work and know that you need to go to the grocery store to pick up some milk? Somehow, even though you know you are headed to the store, your car magically ends up in your driveway…and you don’t have any milk. We get so automatic with our daily routines that our subconscious patterning takes over our conscious intentions. Well, this is what happened with me and the 24 Lux. I am just such a 35mm shooter that I’d look through the viewfinder and gee, there are my 35mm framelines. Eventually, I explained to myself that I was shooting a 24 and not a 35. I also used the 24mm M finder in the hotshoe. This was convenient as I was testing out both the new 18 and the 24 Lux. The full-frame marks in that finder correspond to the 18 and the inner marks work with the 24 (obviously, it is a 24 finder). After that, everyone was friends.

1/90 sec @ f/1.4 ISO 640 hand-held

Bearing in mind that I’m not much of a 24 shooter, I came to one conclusion after spending a few quality hours with the 24 Lux. This is one amazing optic. If you go purely by MTF charts, you may dismiss its performance wide-open. That would be a big mistake. If you look at some of the pictures here, you can see both the outstanding technical performance and a heavy helping of good ‘ol Leica magic mojo. The bokeh is phenomenal, yet points of focus are crisp without a trace of low-contrast haziness that bugs me so much. What is the point of having an f/1.4 lens that you have to stop down to f/2.8 before you get a truly sharp plane of focus? Well, this new Lux delivers the goods and begged to be used wide-open and close-up, thanks in part to the incorporation of a floating lens element. Take a look at the fence shot (my impromptu brick wall test). I shot this wide-open from about 0.7-1.0 m handheld. I did not straighten it or apply any Photoshop trickery to it. All I can say is “wow.” The vertical lines at the edges are just about dead plumb. The plane of focus is consistent to the corners and the out-of-focus area is nice and creamy. Same with the picture of three flower vases in my hotel lobby. The color palette is rich and the lens draws so beautifully.

1/22 sec @ f/1.4 ISO 640 hand-held

1/45 sec @ f/1.4 ISO 640 hand-held

But, the 24 isn’t a one trick lens. If you examine the vertical shot of the Bellagio’s shopping corridor or the tunnel to Bally's, you can see how sharp small details are rendered at middle-to-long distances wide open with decent depth-of-field.

1/90 sec @ f/1.4 ISO 640 hand-held

1/125 sec @ f/1.4 ISO 640 hand-held

Handling was nice. The size is just right for the M8 and the camera and lens strike a nice balance in the hand together. My only issue was that the focus throw was a bit longer than I had expected and there is no focus tab on the bottom of the focus ring. When I compare the 24 to my 35 Cron ASPH or a 90 Summarit, the lens was just a little slow to focus, especially when going from infinity to close-focus. I do understand the need for having more precision due to the shallow depth of field at the close end and I think this is something that I could get used to with more practice. In fact, I was starting to warm to it by the end of the night.

1/45 sec @ f/1.4 ISO 640 hand-held

I have to admit that I had a hard time giving the lens back to Justin. My heart actually sank when I dismounted the Lux from my M8.2. Is it worth the price? Well, besides the really nice box the lens is a solid and magical performer. Now I want to see if the yet-to-ship 21 Lux puts in the same showing. They share the same optical formula and were designed simultaneously by the same optics designer. So to quote the Magic 8 Ball, “My sources say Yes!” Now the question becomes: 21 or 24? Hmm. Decisions, decisions.

1/60 sec @ f/4 ISO640 hand-held

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Shooting the new Leica 18mm Super Elmar-M ASPH

My friends at Leica were nice enough to loan me the brand new 18mm Super-Elmar-M ASPH to take for a spin on the strip along with the new 24 Lux (see previous post). Before taking the lenses I took a few minutes to examine the hood and filter system a little more closely. Here you can see the specially designed 58mm filter which threads on over the lens. Then, the screw-on metal hood attaches to the filter threads. If you don’t use the filter, the hood will mount to the lens also. This might sound strange at a distance, but in practice, it works very well.

There is also a filter adapter that allows use of standard 77mm screw-in filters. The rear of the adapter is cut away on the top so that you can see the effect of a circular polarizer through an external finder. Of course, the hood doesn’t mount to this configuration.

All the following shots were taken with the IR filter in place, using the latest 2.004 firmware. As you can see, there is absolutely no ghosting or green blobs in any of the shots. The 18 Elmar is staggeringly sharp. The smallest of details is crisp and well defined. I’ve also taken out a bit of sharpness insurance by using a tripod on all these shots. My Gitzo GT1541 and GH1780 head only weigh 3 lbs together, yet give me a stable platform from which to shoot, even with the camera six feet up.

0.7 sec @ f/6.3 ISO 160 on tripod

2 seconds @ f/5.6 ISO 160 on tripod

I’m sure there will be many that criticize the 18 for being “only” an f/3.8 and that it can only be used on nice sunny days. Well… you may notice that all of these shots are at night and there is no written rule that you can’t use a tripod with a Leica. Longer exposures tend to give a nice character, both to the light and to the surface of water (as long as you’re shooting water). Showing people or objects in motion and the background stationary works well to create movement and fend off a static image. So, I chose to use a ‘pod. Don’t hold it against me.

1 sec @ f/8 ISO 160 on tripod

1/2 sec @ f/8 ISO 160 on tripod

The 18’s huge DOF makes it a great "point-and-shoot" lens. Really a lot of fun to shoot. It takes just a bit trial and error to get the precise framing, even using an external viewfinder (I was using the new 24mm finder). But really, just set the lens to about 5 feet at f/8 and you’re good to go for just about anything. For more landscape shots, I’ll push that to 10-15 feet at f/8 which I found provides a bit more detail at infinity.

1/2 sec @ f/5.6 ISO 160 on tripod

1.5 sec @ f/4 ISO 160 on tridod

2 sec @ f/5.6 ISO 160 on tripod

I'm already used to this focal length as the Wide-Angle-Tri-Elmar (WATE) is in my regular kit. But, I think this new 18 has some real advantages over the WATE. The filter/hood design is far improved over the WATE, where you can't use a hood if you use an IR filter. Sharpness and distortion control seem a bit better on the new 18. Keep the camera level (I use a Manfrotto hot shoe bubble level) and you get straight lines without nasty curving into the corners. Being an 18mm, you'll still get keystoning if you angle up or down. The 18 is also smaller and half the price, which doesn't hurt. You do lose the convenience of having three focal lengths in one lens, but if you can live with that, the 18 is $2895 well spent.

3 sec @ f/8 ISO 160 on tripod

2 sec @ f/8 ISO 160 on tripod

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PMA 2009 – Updates on the Leica S2

Thank you for all the comments and questions that you submitted. I made a list and went back to Leica on Wednesday for some answers. I hope I was able to answer everything. If not, post a comment and I'll try to ask today.


Q: How will service be handled?

A: All sales, service, marketing and support will be handled 100% through Leica and Leica dealers. The service structure will be handled completely differently to how it is now. Leica is fully aware of the missteps of the past and is creating a new infrastructure to handle pro-level support, both at Leica and through the dealer network. They realize the importance of service and support and understand that fast, reliable support is crucial to the success of the S2.


Q: Will there be live video display when tethered?

A: No. The sensor architecture doesn't currently support this, but Leica is looking at developing this, along with live view on the LCD for future cameras.


Q: Will there be an AF-on button on the vertical grip as well?

A: Yes. This is already in the works.


Q: What about a picture of the AF-on button?

A: This hasn't been added to the cameras brought to PMA.


Q: What software will support the S2 for RAW processing?

A: Leica and Phase One have a strategic alliance in place. Capture One was optimized for use with the M8, DMR, and D-Lux 4. The M8 and D-Lux 4 ship with a licensed copy of C1. Leica would obviously like to continue this with the S2, provided it provides the absolute best image quality available. Of course, the S2 uses the DNG format for storing RAW images, meaning that the photographer will be able to use whichever software he or she is most comfortable with. If a photographer is using Lightroom or Aperture for his workflow now, he would be able to continue using that software. And, because no lens correction is necessary, there would be very little sacrifice in overall quality.


Q: When will the vertical grip ship?

A: The grip will either ship with the camera at introduction, or a few weeks later. So, this should be readily available from the outset.


Q: When will Wi-Fi be available and will the EyeFi SD card work in the S2?

A: Leica has not tested the EyeFi card, but did explain that there would be a fair amount of RF interference in the camera body. The memory card door will be metal and might also block or degrade a wireless signal. So, until they test it, we probably won't know until someone with a production S2 tries it out and posts the results online.


Q: Where are the wide angle lenses?

A: The camera will most likely be available in late summer and will ship with the 70, 120, and 180. The 35 and the 30-90 zoom will ship a month or two later in early fall. The 35 is wide and the 30-90 covers a lot of bases for most non-studio shooters (no leaf shutter). The 24 will be the next up, shipping most likely in late fall. Leica realizes the need for wide angle lenses. As I posted online yesterday, it took Hasselblad four years between the H-system introduction and the availability of a 28mm lens. Mamiya only recently came out with their 28mm lens as well, about a decade into the 645AF system. So, I think Leica is way ahead of the curve here.


Q: There is a large gap between 35 and 70. Will this be filled?

A: The 30-90 zoom will certainly cover this gap. As far as fixed lenses go, Leica is, first and foremost, an optics company. While the system is shown with the first nine lenses, we need to assume that Leica will flesh out the lens lineup in the coming months and years. Just for a bit of perspective, I heard Dr. Kaufmann speak at the 2007 LHSA meeting where he said that Leica would be bringing 24 new lenses to market in the next 18 months. So far, Leica has introduced 1 7 new lenses since then! There are no less than 20 different lenses for the M system now, and about half of them are designs less than five years old. Leica is an optics company. They don't depend on partners to make lenses for them, meaning if and when they see a need for a lens, they can design and manufacture that lens on their time schedule and to their exact specifications. This is a huge advantage.


Q: How much will it cost?

A: Leica is still not saying, except to reemphasize that the S2 will be competitive vs. existing MFD systems in the marketplace. The bottom line here is that we all (myself included) will have to wait to see what the price will be.


I hope this helps clarify things a bit. I went out last night and got to shoot with the new 18mm Super-Elmar and the 24mm Summilux. I will post pictures a bit later. Now, I have to run. About 20 forum members from the L-Camera-Forum and the GetDPI forum are joining me for a VIP demo of the S2 at the Leica booth this morning. Thanks again for the questions and comments.

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Wednesday, March 04, 2009

PMA 2009 – Day 1 – More Details on the Leica S2

I headed over to the PMA show this morning and went straight to the Leica booth to find out if there was anything new and exciting that wasn't in the pre-PMA announcements. No such luck. No M9, R10, digital CM, or <insert other oft-rumored product here>. All the new lenses, SF 58 flash, and Safari Edition M8.2 were on demo, and even better, I was offered use of some of the lenses to go shoot the Las Vegas Strip tomorrow night. So, after the show on Wednesday I'll head out for the blue hour and beyond with my M8.2, the new 18mm Super-Elmar-M ASPH and the just-starting-to-ship 24mm Summilux-M ASPH. Sweet. And, because these are full production lenses, I can post all the pictures I want. Whoo-hoo.

My day was pretty much filled with various meetings inside the Leica booth. I got even more time than I had anticipated with Stephan Shulz and Andreas Wahlich. Stephan is the S2 product manager and Andreas is the S2 sales manager. Both are extremely knowledgeable on the S2 and were great about answering all my (many) questions. They caught me up on the developments since Photokina and we discussed some of the S2's strengths.

Let's start with some basics. The Leica S2 is still on target for shipment in summer 2009. Contrary to what you may read online, the S2 was always scheduled to be launched in summer and is not delayed. The camera will probably be available in two versions, with and without a sapphire glass LCD screen. This may seem like an odd differentiator at first, but does actually make sense. Making a 3 inch piece of sapphire glass is extremely expensive. As it is, the sapphire glass on the M8.2 is already one of largest manufactured at 2.5 inches. The extra 1/2 inch adds greatly to the cost. So, the model without sapphire glass will cost a decent amount less for those that don't require it. But, this camera is aimed squarely at the professional market. Rental houses and commercial studios can really benefit from the stronger, scratch-resistant screen. So, if the camera is destined for rigorous use and not-so-careful handling, sapphire is the way to go.

The S2 will ship with three lenses at the outset: The 70mm, 120mm Macro, and 180mm. The 35mm will come very shortly after in early fall 2009. Then, by the end of 2009 the 24mm and 30-90mm zooms will ship. The fast 100mm, 30mm T/S, and 350mm will follow on in the first half of 2010. The other interesting twist to the story is that the four CS lenses with leaf shutters will also be offered without leaf shutters as well. The reasons behind this are very simple. Not everyone needs a leaf shutter for their photography and the non-leaf-shuttered lenses will cost less. I happen to think this is a very customer-friendly approach. Rental houses and serious fashion shooters will opt for leaf-shuttered lenses, but a landscape photographer will only use the focal plane shutter. Those that don't need it have the option of paying less. The CS lenses were designed with this modularity in mind. The optical and mechanical design is identical, but the shutter module can be omitted.

Okay, now some cool techie-geeky stuff. Because the S2 is designed completely from the ground up for digital, it has some real tech advantages over existing MF systems. For example, in a typical MF digital back there are two pieces of glass over the CCD. The first is a protection filter, the second an IR absorption filter. In the S2, the IR filter is fused directly to the sensor. So, there is one 1mm piece of glass in front of the CCD. Now the really cool part is that Leica, being the perfection-obsessed (but in a good way) optics company they are, designed the S lenses with the IR filter as part of the optical path. The optical formulation carries through to the sensor cover glass, which does impart a shift in light rays. Current MF backs create spherical aberrations when used with lenses designed for film. Stephan explained how Leica was able to realize certain advantages because they didn't need to cater to film and digital. You might wonder how other manufactures deal with the introduction of spherical aberrations. They correct it partially in software by sharpening. The aberrations and subsequent software correction serve to create rougher transitions from in-focus to out-of-focus areas. The S lenses promise to deliver exceptional bokeh and buttery smooth focus transitions.

I did manage to get a few more details on the Kodak KAF-37500 CCD sensor used in the S2. It does, in fact, use offset microlenses, just like the M8 and DMR. So, this will be the first medium format sensor to utilize this technology to dramatically reduce sensor vignetting. It works extremely well and is proven tech. Why no one else uses offset microlenses is beyond me. The A/D converter is 14-bit. There has been a lot of discussion and confusion on this point. I inquired, "why not 16-bit?" The sensor has a native 12 f-stop dynamic range. 12 bits is sufficient to contain this information, meaning that there is an extra 2-bits of headroom. A 14-bit A/D can contain 14 f-stops, so 16-bit would be overkill and unnecessary. Stephan explained that earlier in his career he worked for Phillips in CCD development. So, I'm going to take his word on this. I asked about sensor cooling. The CCD is mounted on an aluminum plate, which is then attached to the magnesium alloy chassis. So, essentially the camera body acts as a giant heat sync. Not active cooling, but well thought out, nonetheless.

Many want to know the ISO range of the S2. This is not written in stone yet, but 800 ISO is a certainty with 1600 (or more) a definite target. Much of this depends on the sensor readout board and getting the cleanest signal off of the CCD. These signals are analog and are subject to noise. So, the more efficient the readout, the less noise is present heading into the A/D converter. This means that less high-frequency clipping is required to reduce noise. If you clip this data, you are essentially discarding resolution. And nobody likes that, do they? On that note, though, the S2 will implement optional pixel-binning. You have the option in the current firmware to select DNG output resolution of either 37.5 MP or 9.3 MP. The 9.3 MP is the result of combining four pixels (2x2) into one. Theoretically, this should allow one to two stops extra ISO with the same noise characteristics. If the S2 can turn in good 1600 ISO performance at full res, then by pixel binning it should be able to deliver good 3200 or 6400 ISO shots at 9.3 MP. Not too shabby for a medium format camera and 9.3 MP is fine for prints up to 20x30 inches.

To answer another frequent question, Live View functionality will not be implemented on the S2. While this is unfortunate, Leica is well-aware that this is a feature they need to offer in the future. I was led to believe that this will be included in future cameras. Apparently, given the sensor architecture it was just not technically possible with the S2. The heat generated would be extremely high and lead to unacceptable noise in the final image. Leica is also exploring the possibility of using CMOS sensors in the future, as it would allow Live View and some other features. Frankly, I was surprised to hear this, but I'm sure I'll eventually get over my CCD-loving ways when the time comes. The current sensor does allow for long exposures, though. When posed with the question whether the camera would shoot an exposure longer than 30 seconds, Stephan switched the shutter dial to Bulb and clicked. We watched the top deck OLED as it counted up in seconds (another nice touch I think). It went past 30, then past 60, then past 100, then Stephan got tired of holding the shutter. He told me that there is no limit in Bulb mode. In Program mode, the maximum exposure time is limited by the light meter's minimum EV sensitivity. Of course, if you shoot a really long exposure, be prepared for a really long dark-frame subtraction. After that, the internal processing on the S2 will look for any hot pixels that the dark frame missed and correct them. In other words, you can use the S2 for night shooting. And, don't worry about holding the shutter in for your long night shots. There will be a dedicated electronic cable release as one of the earliest accessories.

Let's talk a bit about Auto Focus on the S2. The big news first. Several people have asked me about programming the top right button to be AF-on. Well, Leica has provided an even better option. There will be a separate AF-on/lock button for your right thumb to enjoy. This is a new button that is not on the current prototype but will absolutely be on the final product. Good news, huh? There is also more to the lenses than meets the eye. I wanted to know if there would be user fine adjust from the camera. No….but, the lenses actually will be programmed at the factory with some interesting data. Each and every lens will be tested for focus accuracy. Any fine-tune adjustment will be dialed in so that this correction follows the lens on any S2 body. Also, each lens has extremely precise info on actual aperture information. f/8 on one lens might really be f/7.96 or f/8.02 on another due to the physical aperture having minute variation. Because the S2 compensates for aperture-based focus shift (yes, you read that right) the camera needs to know the exact aperture to calculate the adjustment. If you are into manual focus, you will feel right at home with the tactile feel of these lenses. Also, you'll have the option of several interchangeable focusing screens: standard uniform ground glass, microprism field, split-image, and grid. There is also a very good chance that there will be a screen with 4:3 frame markings for those that want to shoot page-safe for magazines.

Next, I'd like to address some lingering speed specs. The frame rate seems to be set at 1.5 fps, which is still faster than just about any MF system right now. It won't win any speed contests with a D3 or 1DIII, but it's pretty fast for close to 40 MP. We already knew that the S2's buffer is 1GB, holding about twelve 75 MB DNG files. Some simple math says that we'll hit the buffer in about eight seconds, but life is never simple. The S2 is already optimized to take advantage of the new UDMA 6 specification, which allows up to 96 MB/sec. According to Leica, with one of those yet-to-be-released 600X UDMA 6 cards, you can shoot continuously until your card fills up. The Maestro and internal bus are not the limiting factor as they are pushing through about 120 MB/sec. This is one camera where you do not want to skimp on the card. Get the fastest, biggest card you can. As I mentioned in my Photokina report, the S2 is crazy fast. Startup time from off to shooting is less than 0.3 seconds. Image review is instantaneous, as is zooming and scrolling.

Another speed question, and one that I'm particularly interested in myself, is the sync speed on the leaf shutter. The answer is "at least 1/500th of a sec, hopefully more." I asked about meeting or beating certain market competitors. Apparently, the team at Leica benchmarked their competitors and what is claimed on spec sheets is not always reality. The Sinar Hy6 with PQS lenses actually syncs at 1/750th not 1/1000th. The H3DII was clocked at 1/650th not 1/800th. Stephan gave me a brief education on leaf shutters. Leaf shutters do not work in a vacuum. Their speed is dictated by the aperture setting as well. The exposure time will actually double from wide-open to fully stopped-down. In other words, a leaf shutter that can sync at 1/500th wide open can only sync to 1/250th when stopped down. Most manufacturers rate their shutters for wide-open performance. Leica finds this method inaccurate. So, they will actually rate the shutter for stopped-down speed and slow it down as the aperture is opened up. This way, there is no exposure shift at varying f-stops. This means that Leica's 1/500th spec applies to all apertures.

I know this is getting to be a lot of information, but here are a few more neat things I learned today. The S2 offers the largest exposure bracketing range I've ever seen on any camera. You can set it up to go from -6 EV to +6EV in either half or whole stops. This would result in a 25-shot exposure sequence if you use the entire range in half stops. HDR lovers rejoice. This led my mind to focus bracketing so I made the suggestion. While a feature like that won't be shipping with the camera, it is something that Leica would consider adding. We discussed about a half-dozen possible future features, like a hyperfocal distance aid on the OLED. Another really cool feature is the ability to back up all your menu and profile settings onto an SD card. That profile can then be loaded onto any S2 to clone the camera quickly. Rental houses will love this for getting a camera back to "house defaults." Photographers who rent can store their own personal settings on a spare card and load it into any camera from any rental house quickly and easily. With a camera as advanced as the S2, this is a great pro feature.

The S2 is incredibly well thought out from both a user and an engineering perspective. The interface is simple. The quality is uncompromising on so many different levels. Leica has managed to make tremendous improvements in the short time from Photokina until now. Stephan and Andreas assured me that this was because all development and manufacture is now in-house. Such an undertaking would not have worked if Leica needed to depend on technology partners. All-in-all, the S2 is shaping up to be a truly professional tool. Is it summer yet?!!

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Monday, March 02, 2009

Vegas Baby

I arrived in Las Vegas yesterday afternoon after a long day of travel from the East Coast. The weather is picture perfect here and anticipation is building for what lies ahead. I am really looking forward to the PMA show opening tomorrow as well as the GetDPI/L-Camera-Forum member meet-up and demo on Thursday. Tomorrow, I have appointments lined up at the Leica booth all day and hope to gather some more concrete details on the S2. While the PMA show pales in comparison to Photokina, it is still one of the largest photo shows in the world and may just hold some juicy secrets. So, stay tuned.

Here is a shot I took out of my hotel-room window last night with the M8.2 and 35 Summicron ASPH. This is probably the best view I've had in Las Vegas in all my years coming here for trade shows. Usually, I get the unobstructed parking lot view. So, this is a nice change. And the Renaissance Hotel is literally just a few steps from the Convention Center entrance.

Right now I'm off to the the DIMA conference.