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Wednesday, April 1

The LEICA Diaries - Part Seven

One of the enjoyable things about getting a Leica and a few lenses is the fun to be had researching the history of the equipment and what people have been saying about it over the years on the internet. There's little doubt that the marque has the strongest and most loyal following and that's excellent from the point of view of reading material. If anything there's too much!

I've been learning stuff that all my Leica-totting readers will have learned ages ago about the "drawing" qualities of Summarons and Summicrons, the various versions of lenses, their relative scarcity and their desirability. Non-Leica users can relax - I'm not going to bore you with all that gubbins - just some of it!

I can't comment on the negatives produced by up-to-date Leica lenses as they're way beyond my price range but I have to concur with many web commentators that there is a certain look to photographs produced using the older lenses, such as I have.

I want my MTF*

This is hardly a revelation, but I tend to agree that it's the result of Leitz's decision to concentrate on high resolution at the expense of micro-contrast. In the 1950s, it was difficult to measure contrast in a meaningful way and MTF testing didn't really appear until towards the end of the decade.

Japanese lens designers concluded in the late 1950s and early 1960s that what photographers really wanted was definition which is a product of both resolution and contrast. Good lenses since then have tended to produce considerable "bite". The original, collapsible Summicron was a low contrast optic by comparison. My Summicron was a different design that probably fell someway between the original and the later higher definition lenses.

The results I get aren't particularly easy to put into words or show by way of examples but I reckon I could pick old Summicron and Summaron prints out of a pile. This isn't to say that the look is superior in any way - unless you happen to like it, which I do.

Whereas a "modern lens" - more or less any decent ones produced since the mid-1970s or thereabouts - will, given the right conditions, tend to produce a sparkling print older lenses can result in more muted photographs. Areas of similar tone in a negative may be more inclined to register with less texture or contrast. For some subjects, this would be a drawback but for certain others it's a way of helping to simplify the image. You'll notice there are a lot of weasel words being used here such as tend, might, could, etc, but that's because you can't make hard and fast rules about these things. Film stock, developer, development, print grade and lighting conditions all play a part in the end result.

However, with these caveats out of the way, I reckon a rigid Summicron such as I have can be a blessing for the Ralph Gibson-type shot where there are often large areas of shadow or highlight tones. Hopefully, you'll get an idea of what I'm talking about from the shot at the top of the page (it's not a Ralph-type shot, obviously, but speaks of the lower contrast look). It's a farm scene a few miles from my home that I happened to drive past last week. The various elements in the scene seemed to come together in a nice, balanced composition.

A Crocodile sandwich - and make it snappy!

I was looking for a melancholy atmosphere and the Summicron delivered in spades. The result is soft in contrast and rounded but still with quite a lot of detail showing courtesy of the Summicron's high resolution. The same shot with my 50mm f2 Zuiko macro would have been much snappier, a look that may well appeal to more photographers than the one I was after. To each his own.

The photograph below falls into a similar category. It's another Summicron shot which I cropped a lot because it just works better as a square with the left hand edge of the breakwater splitting the frame in two. Copious quantities of micro-contrast aren't needed or even desirable. The image is all about three or four areas of tone - and that's it, really. I wish I could take more like this but it's not easy finding the right subjects.

I could have used my old Rolleiflex Standard from 1932 for this shot with about the same result as it, too, is a highish resolution, low contrast lens. In fact, many old lenses are capable of this type of photography the only difference being, I suspect, that you get more resolution with the Summicron.

Finally, here's one taken with the 90mm f4 Elmar. How mysterious and moody old standing stones can appear. Modern standing stones can achieve much the same thing, though. These ones are adjacent to a beach-side kids' play park and are just large lumps of stone erected for effect by the local council not too many years ago .

It was a tricky shot to take as the stones are hiding a variety of road signs. The tiniest movement of the camera seemed to reveal a pole or poles in between the stones, any one of which would have given the game away.

For a while I didn't think there was a viewpoint that wouldn't uncover at least one of the signs but I eventually managed thanks to a one-knee on the damp ground squat. It's quite a funny pic, really, once you know the background - or rather what's in the background. Not so much the Callanish Stones of Lewis as the Playpark of Monifieth.

* With apologies to Dire Straits


Dave Jenkins said...

James Ravilious lives! :o)

John Carter said...

Where do you get this macro, micro, resolution information?

Michael Stevens said...

Interesting stuff Bruce. My first Leica lens was a Summar which was about as far down the low-contrast and resolution scale as you can get. I liked the images it produced but the flare it gave meant I ended up looking elsewhere.

The collapsible Summicron and some of the Canon LTM lenses were a good compromise between older and more modern rendering, but nowadays I find I use the 40mm Summicron the most as I favour the 40mm angle of view and the lens is nice and compact. It's a little on the "modern" side but still has enough of the more "vintage" qualities you describe.

Steve Barnett said...

The micro contrast vs. resolution design approach can be seen even with modern Leica lenses. Compare images from a Contax G camera and its Zeiss lenses with those from a current 35mm Asph Summicron and the Zeiss lenses give much more of the 'snap' you talk about, whereas the Summicron has more resolution. You can add or take away micro contrast (up to a point)in the way you develop and print the film, but you can't add resolution.

Bruce Robbins said...

It's all out there if you're sad enough to want to dig it up!

DcAnalogue said...

Surely, these are three very good shots (I like more the 1th and the 3rd)...
But I'm sure the most belong to the photographer (art least in this case), rather than to the gear used.... ;-)

morris1800 said...

The results (and taking the time to research on the web Leica material) demonstrates your relationship with Leica is blossoming Bruce. I always found it interesting that European lens makers gave names to their lenses not sure if it was a marketing move but it certainly for me is a different(intimate?) experience taking my '135mm hektor' out to grab some shots than my 135mm f3.5 Nikkor.Nothing to do with the different mechanics involved in capturing an image.Hope you understand what I mean. I do use some of the more modern Voigtlander lenses on the Leica which are the only Japanese lenses I have that are individually named. I will say that my earliest Leica lens a 200mm telyt (1935) which I use with a Ploot (pre visoflex 1)which is uncoated can give some interesting results on colour film and is very sharp if handled properly.

John Carter said...

Bruce, I find it very interesting. I have many lenses from 1950 to late 60s. And then no new lenses until 2000 to present. I did have a bunch of P&S cameras in there but I'll forget those. Anyway what you said above is something that I have unknowingly was a aware of. Now that I have proof positive, I'll explore further. One of my older lenses is an Screw Mount 90mm Elmar; beautiful.

DavidM said...

Well, interesting. Very interesting. May I throw a very small spanner into the applecart?
Quite a few Panasonic digital cameras have Leica lenses.
Do we see similar lens effects in digital capture as we do with film? This is pure curiosity on my part; I have no axe to grind.

morris1800 said...

David M makes an interesting point. I have a Panasonic digital camera with Leica adapter. I tried my oldest lens(1935) a leica 200mm telyt on it . Had to use some tubes to get infinity focus.The results looked flat but ok after post process of auto contrast using photoscape. The camera was at default settings and shot jpeg only. Was it flat because of jpeg or lens ? But who knows as users would find it easy to correct in post processing. I did post a couple of shots on flicker with the 200mm testing for resolution wide open but proof of contrast not sure as lens is uncoated. But if testing should you shoot in colour and turn mono post processing or shoot in mono to capture a usefull test image???