Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Shooting with the new Noctilux-M 50mm f/0.95 ASPH

After months of buildup, anticipation and discussion, the new Noctilux 50mm f/0.95 ASPH started shipping to dealers last week. I was fortunate enough to receive some out of this extremely small first shipment. And, I was even luckier to be able to take a few pictures with one that passed through our store, thanks to an understanding customer.

The new Noct handles a bit better than the old one. The focus is a little smoother with a bit less focus travel on the ring. It is still quite hefty and definitely makes the M8.2 front-heavy, but certainly not unusable.

I must admit to never being the biggest Noctilux f/1 fan. I like sharp. I like perfect. For the most part, I am a major Summicron guy, but I do have a soft spot for the Summilux 50mm f/1.4 ASPH. It is a lens with very little compromise. Fast, sharp as a pin, great at close-focus and infinity. The old Noctilux had vignetting, softness wide-open, and a pesky blue fringe that could creep up on you. Part of the look of the lens comes from the fact that Dr. Mandler didn’t correct for the blue spectrum of light. So, especially on B&W, the image seems to glow. I know a lot of people really love this. It just was never my taste. If I have to stop down to f/2 to get a sharp picture, what’s the point?

That said, as I was glancing down at this $10K beast mounted on the front of my M8.2 and seeing “0.95” on the aperture ring, I will admit to a certain jolt of excitement. That’s pretty fast, but what will the images look like? And what am I giving up (besides $10K)?

My first shot was of my lovely wife Juliana. We work together and she was curious about the new lens as well. Call her a target of opportunity. I took one picture and decided it best not to push my luck. Notice the complete lack of vignetting wide-open. Okay, maybe this lens has some potential.

1/180 sec @ f/0.95 ISO 320

So, I moved on to a more willing subject, my 2 year-old daughter Sophia. Everyone loves a cute kid and she qualifies. Having her stand still long enough for me to focus accurately before she moved again was an interesting challenge. But, I was able to get some pretty decent results. The depth-of-field wide-open on this lens is razor-thin at best. At minimum focus distance, you need to be aware of body sway or even breathing, lest you miss focus by a few precious millimeters. You can certainly see the classic Noct character in this new lens, at least at f/0.95. Very soft rendering. Not unsharp, but just very subtle and gentle.

1/180 sec @ f/0.95 ISO 160

1/180 sec @ f/0.95 ISO 160

1/250 sec @ f/0.95 ISO 320

1/250 sec @ f/0.95 ISO 320

After chasing Sophia around the store for a few minutes on my knees, I opted for an easier subject. My good customer and friend Amy was around and willing to pose for me. Here, you can see just how much sharper the new formula is wide-open. Sure, the glow is still there, but details are much crisper without hindering the beautifully smooth bokeh.

1/180 sec @ f/0.95 ISO 320

Next, my mother Elaine came down from her office to play with her granddaughter (we are the definition of family business). I pointed the Noct and tried to capture some genuine spontaneity. Moving subjects. No DOF. Pretty much impossible to get consistent focus, but… despite lacking in technical perfection, I like the feel and emotion of the images. There is something just very natural in the depiction of these two and their relationship.

1/250sec @ f/0.95 ISO 320

1/250sec @ f/0.95 ISO 320

1/180sec @ f/0.95 ISO 160

Then, my curiosity took hold and I wondered what results I could get outside. Here are a few shots taken around the parking lot of random plants. It was overcast outside, so I was still able to shoot at f/0.95. Obviously, these aren't prize-winning pictures. They are just to get an idea of lens rendering.

1/500 sec @ f/0.95 ISO 160

1/750 sec @ f/0.95 ISO 160

1/3000 sec @ f/0.95 ISO 160

1/3000 sec @ f/0.95 ISO 160

And lastly, I took two totally non-scientific series at different apertures to get a feel for the lens performance as you stop down. No tripod, just handheld. First series:






Second series:





All in all I was impressed with the new Noctilux 50mm f/0.95 ASPH. It maintains the creamy dreaminess of the old, while improving on contrast, vignetting, sharpness, and color accuracy (no blue fringe). As you stop it down, the Noctilux approaches the look of the Summilux 50mm f/1.4 ASPH. Best of both worlds? Maybe. For me, I still prefer the 50 Lux ASPH, but there is no mistaking the look of the Noct. While I don’t expect Leica to make or sell huge quantities of this new lens, I do think that those who choose to take the plunge will not be disappointed.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Leica S2 side-by-side with D3x and 645AFD

We had a Leica Demo Day yesterday at the store (Dale Photo & Digital). A few days ago, I found out that we were going to get a mockup S2 body and the four CS lenses for the event. So, I thought with all the unanswered questions on size and weight that I’d take the opportunity to measure, weigh, and photograph the S2 against its closest competitors.

First, full disclosure: The S2 I had was just a chassis and shell with no internal components. No shutter, no mirror, no electronics (except for LCD assembly), no battery, no motors. Two of the lenses, the 70mm CS and 180mm APO CS were real, functional lenses, but without leaf shutters. The other two lenses, the 35mm CS and 120mm APO Macro CS were mockups with only the front element in place.

The only cameras I had easily on-hand for comparison was a Mamiya 645AFD with a film back and a Nikon D3x. I also had some Hasselblad HC lenses, the HC 4/120 Macro and HC 4/210 that could be used for lens size comparisons.

The S2 body measures 16cm wide at the base and tapers a bit towards the top, measuring 14cm from strap lug to strap lug. The body is 12cm tall and 7cm deep from lens mount to eye-cup. The lens mount diameter is a whopping 80mm.

Starting off, here are side-by-side shots with a Nikon D3x. It is actually pretty amazing that the S2 is smaller in size than a FF 35mm DSLR. The Leica is no thicker than the Nikon, but one look at the lens mount and corresponding mirror box shows just how much larger the S2 sensor is (if there was a sensor in my mockup). Also, both the D3x and the S2 weigh the same at 1.3kg (the S2 mockup chassis and outer shell only weigh 740g).

Here are some side-by-side shots with the Mamiya 645AFD. I didn’t have a Phase One back for my shots, but a digital back is roughly the same dimensions as the 120/220 back that is mounted on the camera.

The Leica 70mm f/2.5 lens is a lot larger than the Mamiya 80mm f/2.8. The Mamiya lens feels very much like a Nikon 50mm f/1.8 AF, in other words, like plastic at 298g. The 70mm CS weighs almost three times more at 782g, measuring 10cm long and 89mm in diameter.

I’m trying to reconcile why the Leica lenses are so much larger and heavier than the Mamiya 645AF lenses. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far (besides any imaging performance differences):

  • Internal focusing – The Leica lenses don’t change their size during focusing. The Mamiya lenses do.

  • Fully weather sealed – The Leica lenses are completely sealed against dust and water. The Mamiya lenses are not.

  • Integrated high-torque focus motor – The Leica lenses have internal focus motors. The Mamiyas are driven through the body like old Nikkor lenses. This is noisier and slower for focusing, especially for larger and heavier lens designs.

  • All metal construction – The Leica lenses are all aluminum and brass construction. The Mamiyas use a fair amount of plastic.

  • High refractive and exotic glass – Leica is using exotic formulations of optical glass. This kind of glass is significantly denser than “regular” optical glass.

  • Central shutter mechanism – The Leica lenses have optional leaf shutters at the center of the lens. Mamiya doesn’t currently offer any leaf-shutter lenses.

  • Closer minimum focus distance – The 70mm Leica lens focuses closer than the 80mm AF lens.

I think the Hasselblad HC lenses make for much better head-to-head comparison. They are all metal, have leaf shutters and internal focus motors.

Here are some shots of the 120mm f/2.5 APO Macro CS vs. the HC 4/120 Macro. In this case, the Leica is considerably smaller, especially considering the fact that the Leica is 1.3 stops faster in the same focal length. The 120mm is 13.5cm long and 87mm in diameter. It takes a 72mm filter. I didn’t bother putting it on the scale as it is just a mockup.

Next are some shots of the 180mm f/3.5 APO CS vs. the HC 4/210. Here, both lenses are about the same size. The Leica lens is slightly more compact at 15.5 cm long, 85mm in diameter, and weighing 1.3kg. This lens also uses a 72mm filter size.

The last lens is the 35mm f/2.5 CS (but certainly not least if it performs as well as the MTFs say). Again no point in weighing the mockup. It measures 12.5cm long, 89mm in diameter and takes an 82mm filter.

Just for kicks I wanted to see if the complete S system would fit in my Crumpler 7 Million Dollar Home. I used to carry around the R9 with DMR and five lenses in this bag. So, how did it work out? Surprisingly, everything fit with just enough space left over for an SF 58 flash. I’m not sure how comfortable it would be to carry around, but it did fit. I’d be more inclined to use either a roller bag for studio work or a backpack for field work. Or, use the 30-90 zoom and carry either the 120 Macro or 180 as a second lens. This would be far more manageable, especially if you didn’t require leaf shutter capability.

I hope my measurements and side-by-side shots can settle some of the misconceptions regarding the size of the S2. The body size is indeed equivalent to a full-frame 24x36mm DSLR. The lenses are comparable in size to Hasselblad HC lenses, but the S lenses offer faster apertures across almost the entire range. If I can gather more specs on the other lenses, I will post an update.

Finally, I have to admit that handling the S2 and lenses yesterday made me even more impatient for September. Just a few more months now….

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