New Horizons Part II: Enter the Leica alternative

After having used the Leica M for a few days, I must admit I kept poring over the images I had shot (and salivating effusively at the image quality). I was in a tricky position – for one, I was quite aware of the “elite” status of Leica in the camera world and I was having a bit of a hard time figuring out if the camera – lens combination was indeed special or if it was just me being overly enamored by it’s “special” quality. I kept looking at the pictures (I had shot more than I posted; quite a few of my girlfriend wife but she’s not too keen to be plastered over the internet) and trying to figure out if they were indeed special – I felt it but could not define it.

Angel of Calvary Cemetery II | Leica M 240 | 50mm summicron ASPH

Angel of Calvary Cemetery II | Leica M 240 | 50mm summicron ASPH

 

It reminded me of when I first used Carl Zeiss lenses on my Nikon D800 body. Back then, the main distinction was that they were sharp – inhumanly sharp. The 21mm f/2.8 Distagon must be one of the sharpest wide-angle lenses around and the 100mm f/2 Makro-Planar is a beauty. The detail from both lenses is quite spectacular and their reputation is well deserved. But besides how sharp they were, they also have beautiful colour rendition. I finally sold my Nikon 16-35mm f/4 lens recently just because I was relatively “disappointed” with the results a lot of the time. I know it’s rather harsh to knock off a lens that is quite a steady and strong performer – the images were quite sharp and the focal length is an extremely useful range on 35mm. But something about the color rendition seemed “muddy” and I felt I always needed to play with the colours in post to make it more appealing. In contrast, 90% of the images I shot with the Zeiss 21mm were beautiful straight out of camera and rarely need much post beyond some contrast and shadow/highlight adjustments. In short, the myth of Carl Zeiss was true.

Good Morning Vestrahorn

Good Morning Vestrahorn | Nikon D800 | Zeiss 21mm f/2.8

And that brings me back to the Leica. What I noticed with my in-focus shots from the Leica was that they too were sharp. But unlike the Zeiss lenses, they had a different character to them. They were sharp – yet soft at the same time. It is how I like to describe the look. Wide open, the image was sharp where in focus, but the detail was also soft – giving the images a lovely filmic look. It helps that the M has no anti-aliasing filter but the quality from the lens was very evident.

And so begins a new stage (almost – wait for part 3 of this series). I couldn’t afford the M (and even though I lust for it, it is a high price tag for something that will depreciate rather rapidly; and I must say, the electronics seemed a tad fiddly and not as robust as my Nikon). But I did begin to look at the alternative – a body that could mount a Leica lens with an adapter. After all, 99% of the magic is in the lens. And perusing the internet, there were 2 very good options – Fuji and Sony.

I already had good experience with Fuji cameras having owned the X100s (which is now my wife’s). Of the modern crop of digital cameras, I really liked the direction Fuji was heading. Their cameras are a mix of classic nostalgia and clever innovations in the electronics. They also handle beautifully and are a joy to use. I even played around with my friend Chris Palazzo’s XT-1 for a bit. He had the entire kit – the 14mm, 18mm, 23mm, 35mm and 58mm lenses (and if I weren’t such a fool, I’d say the Fuji 35mm 1.4 is a beauty of a lens. And it has auto-focus. See the pics below – it’s quite stunning).

DSCF7705_fuji1

Navi | Fuji XT-1 | 35mm 1.4

DSCF7719_fuji2

Surprise | Fuji XT-1 | 35mm 1.4

 

But there is a catch – they sport APS-C sensors. And I wasn’t too keen on losing a third of the outer area of the lens because of this crop-factor- not least the fact that I would need to compensate a 35mm to a 50mm equivalent. Also, I was a fan of the subtle vignetting that the Leica lenses produced and I loved how they brought the focus inward.

Reluctantly I started pursuing the second option – the Sony. Being a staunch Nikon fan, I was snobbish and had haughtily dismissed the Sony full-frame cameras until now. But it remained that the Sony was a full frame 35mm camera and I was reading glowing reviews. I started my next major internet study, of which there was one man who had a ton of reviews and experience with various gear – Steve Huff. In general, I try to keep an open mind whenever I read a review and try to distill it with my own experiences and requirements. But Steve had reviewed the A7ii (and the older A7 and A7s) and seemed to present a very compelling view of the camera-lens combination. Other sites such as Mike Evans’ blog at Macfilos had also presented the pros and cons of this combination – main among them the fact that the Sony sensor seemed unable to sufficiently resolve the edges of the frame and hence, the sharpness reduces a bit on the fringes. The other major con was that the sensor was not capable of using lenses wider than 35mm without serious vignetting and color overlay issues.

However this combination was not (yet) intended to be a complete replace of my Nikon system. I still intend to shoot my landscapes with my sturdier and proven Nikon gear. The Sony-Leica combination was intended to be a step into street photography and a light travel combination. Something I could carry with me much more regularly because of it’s small size. And the fact that the edges were soft didn’t bother me much. I had spent the first few years of my photographic hobby obsessing over sharpness and my Zeiss lenses were the answer. This camera however was to be used for more casual photography or even some portraiture. And the edge drop-off didn’t matter – the edges would most likely be blurred from shallow depth of field anyway.

And so I bit the bullet. I looked around for the newly released A7ii (I favored the newer model primarily for its much more ergonomic grip). It was a bit of a quest actually since it seemed out of stock almost everywhere – until I found it on Newegg. I found a used 50mm Summilux on ebay and then a grand “deal”  for a like-new 35mm Summilux from a well known Leica dealer by the name of  Ken Hansen ( his ebay store is a good place to look for used Leica gear or you can just email him at the afore-mentioned email).

Next up was the choice of adapter – there were several options but a lot of them seemed to be a bit iffy. The one adapter that was considered solid was the relatively more expensive option – the Voigtlander M-E close focus adapter (as Thom Hogan likes to say, if you are going to buy equipment, buy the best – otherwise you will end up constantly upgrading and ultimately spending more over time than the one initial expense).

Sony A7ii and 35mm Summilux ASPH with Voigtlander VM-E Close Focus Adapter

Sony A7ii and 35mm Summilux ASPH with Voigtlander VM-E close focus adapter

The combination is NOT light. The camera has a surprising heft to it, given the combined weights of the body, the adapter and the f/1.4 lens. Everyone who has lifted this tiny combination has been surprised at how “dense” it is. But it feels about right in general – solid and reliable and not cheap and plastic-like.

But enough chatter. Here are some images; some of these are casual street shots mixed with a couple of landscape shots.

The Red Hats | Sony A7ii | 35mm Summilux ASPH

The Red Hats | Sony A7ii | 35mm Summilux ASPH

Daytime Stroll | Sony A7ii | 35mm Summilux ASPH

Daytime Stroll | Sony A7ii | 35mm Summilux ASPH

 

Snowman |  Sony A7ii | 50mm Summilux pre-ASPH

Snowman | Sony A7ii | 50mm Summilux pre-ASPH

Motorcycle in Snow | Sony A7ii | 35mm Summilux ASPH

Motorcycle in Snow | Sony A7ii | 35mm Summilux ASPH

Black and white conversions come out with beautiful clarity and with minimum obsession in post.

The Art of LevitationI | Sony A7ii | 35mm Summilux ASPH

The Art of Levitation I | Sony A7ii | 35mm Summilux ASPH

The Art of Levitation II | Sony A7ii | 35mm Summilux ASPH

The Art of Levitation II | Sony A7ii | 35mm Summilux ASPH

What up? | Sony A7ii | 35mm Summilux ASPH

Patience and The Goodbye Kiss | Sony A7ii | 35mm Summilux ASPH

Patience and The Goodbye Kiss | Sony A7ii | 35mm Summilux ASPH

And finally some landscapes, my most familiar theme.

Manhattan Sunset | Sony A7ii | 35mm Summilux ASPH

Manhattan Sunset | Sony A7ii | 35mm Summilux ASPH

 

Add Content here

Add Content here

Frozen New York I | Sony A7ii | 35mm Summilux ASPH

Frozen New York I | Sony A7ii | 35mm Summilux ASPH

Frozen New York II | Sony A7ii | 35mm Summilux ASPH

Frozen New York II | Sony A7ii | 35mm Summilux ASPH

Deep freeze | Sony A7ii | 35mm Summilux ASPH at f/1.4

Deep freeze | Sony A7ii | 35mm Summilux ASPH at f/1.4

This has perhaps been my longest post, rambling along as I get accustomed to blogging and writing about my experiences. In short, and given my initial misgivings about Sony, I must say I am quite pleased with the Sony-Leica combination. A lot of people online feel it is a bit pointless to use such a combination given that the lens collection for the Sony is growing and many point to the stellar performance of the Zeiss 55mm 1.8. And I would agree… if auto-focus and speed were of the essence, then yes, a good autofocus lens is the solution. But choosing a Leica lens is not really about speed and efficiency. It is about taking your time and understanding your objective and using the distance scale to understand depth-of-field in a way modern cameras do not. Plus the images that the Leica lenses generate are so beautiful that most of the time, I do not feel the need to touch them in post.

What are your thoughts?

3 replies
    • ajitmenon
      ajitmenon says:

      Hi Angelina
      You do bring up a valid point.
      When I bought the A7ii, I meant to use it primarily as a street/ travel camera – something I could carry around with me all the time. My main Nikon system is still my workhorse for landscapes, primarily because I have all the lenses I need and because it’s such a rugged, dependable system I have used in some extreme weather.

      The A7r, at the time of buying was more expensive than I wanted to spend at the time but I was also put off by it’s body shape. The A7ii has a much nicer grip and although a bit heavier, feels a lot more solid in hand. That said, this is my first experience with the Sony so far, and it’s far nicer than I had expected. The 24mp of the A7ii is no slouch but I am glad to have smaller file sizes (compared to my 36mp Nikon D800) for my more casual work and focus on the big mp Nikon for my landscape work.

      Reply

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