A Deal With the Devil

Intersection, Hwy 49 and Hwy 61, Clarksdale, Mississippi, 4×5 “Wet Plate”

Above is a picture of  the Mississippi crossroads where blues legend Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil in return for the ability to play guitar. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out well for Mr. Johnson; while he created some great blues, he died young and broke and unrecognized, his grave somewhere unknown in the Delta. It’s been sung and talked about enough in popular American culture to have become a recognizable thing globally. The Crossroads. Located at the corner of Highway 61 and Highway 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi, I took the photo on Highway 61 just north of the Highway 49 intersection so I could get the dead dog in the picture.  Seemed appropriate. If you look to the right side of the photo you’ll see the traffic lights that sit at the intersection.

The bargain Johnson supposedly struck at this intersection is what we call  “Faustian,” not really a bargain at all, where someone trades something essential for personal gain, the gain being to receive what they think will make them happy but doesn’t. It makes things worse when all is said and done.  If you’re familiar with classical European literature you’ve read about Dr. Faustus, the famous scientist who traded his spiritual and moral integrity for knowledge and power and then came to a ruinous end. Writing a gloss on the legend in his play Faust, Goethe took some liberties with the story, now a wager between Dr Faust, who can find no meaning in his life, and Mephisto, the Devil, who promises to give his life meaning if Faust  agrees to serve him forever after.

The the story is this: a man strikes a deal, depriving himself of a freely-willed human future in return for the quick and easy, a quicksilver shortcut to the goal, and in the process loses the good of what he possessed without gaining anything better when it’s all done, in fact, what’s been gained is a much impoverished version of what he started with. It’s called “a deal with the Devil.”

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Somewhere in the Mississippi Delta (Can’t Remember), 4×5 “Wet Plate”

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’d recently read Sally Mann’s Hold Still, a great read if you’re interested in the interior lives and thought processes of artists. There’s few photographers I’d class as ‘artists,’ but Sally Mann would be one of them, so I was interested to read what she had to say. In the process, I got to thinking about her use of a view camera and the slow, deliberate nature of her craft. It’s so unlike what digital, or even 35mm film, allows. I also like the results. There’s nothing more beautiful than an 8×10 b&w contact print. She’s also a Southerner, as am I, with an eye for the Gothic details of life in Deep South America. Her recent work involved a trip from Memphis to New Orleans via the Mississippi Delta taking pictures of things that caught her eye along the way. She did it with her view camera and with wet plates, liquid emulsions she brushed onto 8×10 glass plates and used as the negatives for her 8×10. In addition to involving a lot of prep work, she’d also have to immediately develop the plates in the back of her pickup under a black cloth. What she gets when she gets a good shot is something really interesting, imprecise, sometimes blurry and diffuse, often with serendipitous features that give a powerful character to the final prints. It’s obviously a difficult process to master, which gives heft to the work because they’re the result of skill and hard mastery. They say “this is something that took skill and hard work and incredible perseverance, and in the end produced something beautiful.”

Which got me thinking: I’ve been through the Delta a number of times with my camera, so I know it well, and I’ve also spent some time with alternative processes, and – you know – the idea of shooting the Delta with a view camera and some funky emulsions sounded like a great trip, so I started thinking of what I’d need to do the work. I’ve got a view camera and tripod, I’ve got the time; all I’d really need to do is figure out how to do the emulsions. Or even simpler, I could do set pieces on regular 8×10 negative film – they still make it – and then contact print it. That would be a fun project, and certainly one I could exhibit if the work was decent.

But then I had a further thought: I wonder, in all of the post-processing software I’ve got loaded onto my computer but never much use, do I have a “wet plate emulation?” I searched around and, yes, I did. So…I pulled up my Mississippi Delta photos and after cropping them to 4×5 for authenticity, started running a few of them through the wet plate emulation and damn!, a lot of them looked really good. Exhibition quality if printed on good pigment paper at 8×10. It really is powerful work if I might say so myself.

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But…there’s something wrong with this. I’m not sure I can articulate it, except to say that my ‘wet plates’ and Sally Mann’s wet plates occupy two different poles of artistic merit. Assuming you think my wet plates are as evocative as Ms. Mann’s from a visual standpoint, you could say they have equal creative merit, but is that really the criterion for assessing the relative worth of our Delta work, or is there something more, something more evanescent but crucial, that’s present in her work and absent in mine?

I would argue there is. Her’s possess an authenticity that mine mimics, even though they might look similar technically. She dragged an 8×10 view camera around for 1000 miles, jugs of dangerous chemicals in tow, which relegated her going places that would accommodate her. I drove around, pointed my Leica M8 at everything and shot. At each location, she’d spend an hour or two developing her plates, drying them, inspecting them, repeating the process until she got what she wanted. I pushed a shutter and chimped the results, brought thousands back on an SD card and ran the keepers thru emulation software on my Mac.  Once home she fastidiously contact printed her best plates, producing 20 or so exquisite silver prints. I tee’d up my Epson R3000, loaded in the Moab Lasal Exhibition Luster Paper, and effortlessly printed off 40 8×10 prints that could pass in a pinch for contact prints.

So…am I going to exhibit my Delta “wet prints?” No. Because to do so would be deceptive, although many photographers born in the digital age might disagree. It’s the result that matters, right? Tell that to Sally Mann. That’s the Devil’s Bargain we’ve made with digital. What used to be the product of craft and deep skill is now just a mouse click away. We still get the same results, but the honest pride of work well done has been taken from the process. We’ve wished for one thing and received another in the guise of the quick and easy, the thing that we thought would liberate us. Same thing Robert Johnson did at those crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississsippi, the story old as civilization.

Fuck You, Whipnet.org

I’ve taken to scrolling through past posts, because I’ve noticed on more than one occasion posts of mine have been edited by someone without my knowledge, usually to post a link to their site so as to better up their SEO score.

I found this in a recent post, the bold part being what someone added to the post on December 26, 2017:

Early on, I’d started using my iPhone to photograph and, as I went along I realized how easy it made things, no longer requiring a bag full of cameras, lenses, film and ancillary junk toted around everywhere I went. So I made the decision to keep my M4 and Bessa at home while I used my iPhone exclusively to start my art. Speaking of art, I found out that the best way to buy art is at whipnet.org, their collection is amazing.

Like that’s something I’d say in a post.

So, I’m not sure how to fight back except to delete it, attempt to further secure the site against unwanted intrusion, and, anytime I find an intrusion with a link, draft a post and tag it with something like “Whipnet.org Sucks”  which will come up in a Google search. So, if you’ve dropped in on this blog post to see what the deal is with Whipnet.org, they’re scumbags who are probably going to scam you in some way given they had no problem breaking into my little blog and posting their shit without my permission. Sound like stand-up guys you’d want to buy art from, huh?

As for my readership, if you’re paging through past posts and finding links that don’t sound like something I’d put there, please drop me a line and let me know. Thanks!

Need A “Sacred Bark of the Aztecs Amatl Box” For Your Leica?

If so, you’re in business. Somebody is selling one on Ebay as we speak, only $225 and another $25 to ship it straight to your door. Comes with a nice little leather pouch too. Whether the pouch is sacred is not clear.

Speaking of interesting things on Ebay, there’s a “Leica Rangefinder 1934 Black And Chrome Camera with Keith Elma’s 1:35 F=50mm” currently for sale as well. Who Keith Elma is isn’t explained either.

Leica Rangefinder 1934 Black And Chrome Camera with Keith Elma’s 1:35 F=50mm

Time, Memory and Photography

“Where is my home? It is indistinct as an old cellar hole, now a faint indentation, merely, in a farmer’s field. And I sit by the old site by the stump of an old oak that once grew there. Such is the nature of where we have lived.” Henry David Thoreau

Above is a picture of what remains of 9 Grand St, Wayne, New Jersey. It’s now just a muddy patch of bog in a run-down working class neighborhood, mostly abandoned, prone to flooding by the Passaic River, which it backs up against.  Back in the 70’s, when I lived there, it used to flood occasionally, but nothing like it does now, and most of the houses on the street, where people I knew lived, have either been torn down or are unoccupied,  surrendered by owners who cashed out insurance claims, gave up and moved elsewhere.

I’d been in the area visiting my mother, age 80, who lives nearby, and decided to ride by and see the old neighborhood. The house is gone, though I recognize a few trees in the yard and can, with a bit of imagination, remember how it sat on the land. What’s interesting to me is how vivid my memories are of this place, in part because I lived here during a time in my life when I was young and healthy and had my whole adult life ahead of me. Having a number of amorous young women living within a stone’s throw of my bedroom window didn’t hurt either. I also had a camera, something I carried everywhere with me, so I documented much of the life I then lived.

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Fun Times at 9 Grand St circa 1977

I’ve been thinking a lot about photography and memory since I read Sally Mann’s Hold Still. Sally Mann is a favorite of mine. She’s made her name documenting life and family growing up in the Shenandoah Valley. Her photography is beautiful and moving and anyone with an interest in documentary or fine art photography should be familiar with it. She’s also a brilliant writer and a strikingly beautiful woman even now. I won’t lie – I’ve got a serious crush on her.  Unlike most books written by photographers or about photography, Hold Still is a great read, both as an auto-biographical narrative and as a means to understand Ms. Mann’s photography. It’s the product of a lifetime spent documenting her life in an intentional way, a lesson of the payoff for photographers with the foresight to habitually record the quotidian details of everyday life.

Hold Still got me thinking about the emotional aspect of memory, how memories change over the years, some taking on broader emotional meaning and some fading to irrelevancy. It’s inevitable to an extent, new experiences encoding over old memories and changing those older memory’s salience, this being the normal process of how humans form a narrative of their lives. In particular, what I’ve been thinking about is how my interest in photography affected that process, warping it in a way that tracks the intensity of my photographic interest over the years.

In 1977 I was 18, a complete and total fuck-up, having had decided a year before to boycott my senior year of high school at an evangelical church school to set out on my own, which brought me to 9 Grand St, where I – typical dropout – did drugs, drank beer, chased women ( girls actually),  avoided work, and documented much of it with my beat up Nikon F and later my new Leica M5.  Nobody I knew had a Leica or even knew what they were. Leica’s were those odd cameras you saw in the back of Modern Photography, completely unlike the SLR’s everyone was buying, rare and expensive and mysterious. I remember being fascinated that, unlike other rangefinder cameras, whose market by the 70’s had been reduced to inexpensive fixed-lens consumer grade snapshot shooters, you could change lenses on a Leica. Wow. For some reason, a rangefinder with a 21mm wide angle or 90mm tele with auxiliary finder intrigued me, being the sort of thing that would signal to happy-snappers that what I was doing photographically was serious. I eventually bought one, a story I won’t bore you with as I’ve mentioned it often elsewhere.

Above are two sequential frames taken in that house, as best I can tell from the first roll of film I ran through my new Leica, a 20 exposure roll of Ilford FP4. That’s me to the left, and on the right, my girlfriend at the time. I have a clear recollection of it: the shiny new M5 passed between us while I shot a test roll and tried to figure out my new camera. If I look smug and self-satisfied, it’s because I was. Young and handsome, a new Leica, attractive and willing girlfriend – perfect. Or, at least, that’s what I think when I look at those pictures. The reality at the time, meanwhile, less idyllic, just another confused kid trying to figure out where his life might take him.

That I even have these memories is because I memorialized them with a camera. Had I not, the specifics would be long forgotten, the young woman a blurred memory. She was a summer fling, nothing special, but it’s amazing to me the clarity of my memory of her, all of which comes back when I see the photograph – the way she talked, the way she moved, the small particulars that made her her. A few years later I got serious about my life – college, then graduate school, then law school, in the process developing my first real adult relationships with women – but those subsequent memories, the one’s I should remember with particularity, are often less precise, blurry to the point of irretrievability, because I had put my camera away to get on with life and hadn’t documented any of it.

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I recently read a study that claims photographing our experiences impairs our ability to remember them. That isn’t the case for me. What I’ve photographed over the years comes back viscerally to me when I review old negatives in a way those not photographed can’t. Looking through contact sheets from my Grand St years, I’d spy a person I hadn’t thought of in 40 years, and instantly their name and some buried memory involving them would come back to me.

The difference may be this: today, iPhone photography is so quick and easy, so constantly available, that it’s become a rote, unthinking activity. I watched 17 y/o’s at a birthday party last night, hundreds of photos snapped with iPhones – along with the required gathering around the screen to look at the results, most destined for the digital trash can. Watching these kids – the same age as I was when I took those Grand St photos, I couldn’t help think that they were missing much of the experience itself, staring at their screens, texting instead of chatting, obsessively photographing the particulars – the food, the drink, the conviviality forced for the camera – instead of experiencing it.

Either that, or it’s become a means of distancing oneself from an activity, a way of keeping reality at arm’s length. You see this in art museums or tourist destinations, people with phone out, staring at screens, not experiencing what’s around them.

Film photography has, for me, always been about being in the experience, both the experience of the photographic act and the experience of what’s in front of me. It brings with it a level of mindfulness, an intentionality that comes from a certain focus required of a manual camera and film. It’s the sort of mindfulness that creates enduring memories – and tangible negatives to refer to years later. I can still remember passing that Leica between us, 40 years ago, sitting in my living room on 9 Grand Street with that girl. I remember her name, the contours of her body, the things we did. Had I grown up in the digital age, I’m not sure I’d have either those photos or those memories. Something to think about.

New Unused Leica M6 TTL, In Box

Shenikon Camera in Hong Kong are selling a bunch of “Brand New, Unused in Box” Leica’s on Ebay. They’re offering the M6 TTL and M7’s in both black and chrome. M6’s are $2199 and M7’s $2899, shipping from Hong Kong $50. From the looks of it, the seller is legit, with a long history on Ebay.

While I have no interest in the M7, that’s a pretty good deal for a NIB M6TTL. I contacted the seller to confirm this wasn’t a typical ‘nice camera + nice box = NEW!’ Ebay hustle and they responded:

Thanks for your enquiry. Our stock are brand new, unused and unopened in original box. It comes with original presentation box and shoulder strap. Thanks!

Best Regards,

Terry Shen
CEO, Shenikon Camera

Dragan Novakovic

Manchester, 1970, Dragan Novakovic

I’ve been lucky to have met a bunch of interesting, talented people via the blog. I’m repeatedly reminded that there are photographers out there doing exceptional work in anonymity, doing it not for the recognition or acclaim but rather simply for the love of what they’re doing.

The beauty of the internet is that it’s radically democratized photography as a practice. Anyone can exhibit their work to a worldwide audience; just post it to your flickr account or any number of other internet venues where your work can potentially be seen. No more gate-keepers i.e. self-appointed experts and curators and gallery owners in positions of power who determine what get’s seen and what doesn’t, often without reference to the strength of the work itself, too often determined by who knows who and who’s seeking to curry favor with whom.

As an American living in Paris, I was often amused by the cliched work of famous photographers who’d spend a week there and then push out a book. William Eggleston’s Paris monograph comes to mind, the work weak and uninspired, nothing but the standard romanticized take on the city, done in a weekend. It got published because it was William Eggleston. Not fair, but who said life would be.

The flip-side of the problem is now there are no gate-keepers. We’re awash in images with little or no means to differentiate the original from the cliched and derivative, the excellent from the mundane, but our own judgment in determining what’s good and what’s not. That’s why it’s more critical now than ever to have some sense of the broader history of photography as an art form and as a documentary vehicle, to have educated your eye to what constitutes an arresting visual image, to what works as a series of images that tell a story and give some sense of the reality that inspired them.

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So, at least insofar as Leicaphilia is concerned, I’ve become the gate-keeper for what gets exhibited here. Frankly, having had looked at, read about, and immersed myself in photography for as long as I have, I’m as competent as anyone to identify excellent work, and the work shown here, England in the 70’s, sent to me by Dragan Novakovic, a Serbian photographer from Belgrade, is exceptional. Superb work borne of a great eye, a stimulated intellect, a mechanical film camera and some Tri-X, the sort of stuff you’re capable of when your obsessions are the subtleties of light, tone, composition, subject and emotion. I have no idea what equipment he used, beyond knowing its 35mm Tri-X; I didn’t ask and it doesn’t matter, but it certainly does have the unmistakable look of what we call traditional “Leica photography.”

 

I hesitate to add any explanation to the work, to put a label on it or characterize it in a given way. Like all good art, it stands on its own. It’s simple and beautiful and thought-provoking. Each photo gives a profound sense of place and time, its own self-contained universe, yet the film aesthetic, the subject matter, the compositional and editorial choices all work together to create something larger than the sum of its parts. Go to Mr. Novakovic’s website below to see the full series. Photographs like this are why I fell in love with photography. It’s also why I find doing the blog so rewarding; Dragan is just some guy who reads the blog and thought I might be interested in some old photos, those old photos being as good as anything I’ve ever seen. I’m glad I’ve got the ability to disseminate them to a wider audience, something Dragan Novakovic richly deserves. According to him:

I wish I could tell you that these photos are the fruit of a well-thought-out project and expatiate upon it (projects and concepts seem to be all the rage these days), but the truth is, they are all completely random shots. Still, some background information will help to explain why and how I came to find myself there in the first place. While in secondary school, I came upon Friedrich Engels’s book The Condition of the Working Class in England and my imagination was fired by his descriptions of Manchester. Later I read George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier and, after I had arrived in London in the autumn of 1968, I bought Bill Brandt’s Shadow of Light and was blown away, particularly by his northern towns photos. From then on visiting and photographing the area became an obsession with me and I finally made several brief trips to it, mostly over weekends. In short, I was overwhelmed and awed by the surreal look of the place; there was so much to see and so little time that I often found myself moving at a trot, not always pausing long enough to explore the subject and frame carefully; and I took mostly single photos of individual subjects because I could ill afford to buy film and carried on average only two to five rolls of Tri-X.


Dragan Novakovic lives in Belgrade, Serbia. You can see more of his work at http://dragannovakovicphotography.com/

A Totally Anecdotal – Essentially Worthless – Lens Comparison

The Summilux 50mm f1.4 in LTM. Perfect for my IIIg

My wife claims I suffer from SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder. SAD is a type of depression that’s related to the change in the season — symptoms typically start in the fall and continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody. It’s why I can’t live in places like Amsterdam where you never see the Sun; I go nuts after a month or two of grey, skuddering skies. To support this she notes that every winter, once the sun gets low, I tend to put on my PJ’s and spend an inordinate amount of time watching dark, depressing Swedish movies with the blinds closed. I’ll occasionally walk the dogs in my bathrobe, which embarrasses her to no end. I’m generally lethargic and slow-witted, and my discretionary bourbon spending tends to increase.

I never really thought about it that way until she mentioned it to me, but I suppose she’s right. I have been feeling uninspired lately, especially in thinking of things to write about here. You can only say the same things so many times before it becomes stale. So, I’ve decided to do a “lens test,” you know, post a bunch of pictures from various lenses under marginally controlled conditions and then make sweeping judgments about them.

What motivated me to do this was this: for some reason, I’ve started feeling an urge to buy a new LTM Summicron for my IIIg, and I thought that maybe this would finally put a stop to my recurring, admittedly irrational desire to own at least one top-flight Leica lens, and a Summicron /lux- either the LTM 35mm ASPH or the LTM 50mm f1.4  Summilux- seemed the natural choice for the IIIg – the ultimate Barnack Leica paired with the ultimate Leica lens.  My sense is it wouldn’t make a bit of difference to my photographs (let me rephrase that – I know it won’t make a bit of difference). My opinion is this: unless you’ve got a really bad copy of a lens – super sloppy tolerances or misaligned elements, uncoated element surfaces, scratched or full of fungus –  most fixed focal length lenses from the 50’s onward give more than acceptable results, and many ostensibly “cheap” lenses can give results comparable to Leica lenses costing 10X- -100X as much. After all is said and done, a $2000 Summicron or Summilux won’t give me anything my Industar or Nikkor or VC can’t.

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What I did was this: I found every 35mm and 50mm lens I had that was capable of being mounted on an M-Mount camera, in this instance a Ricoh GXR with A12 M-Mount, and shot the same photo with it, same lighting, same f4 f-stop, same 1600 ISO. I chose f4 as the demonstrable f-stop because it was the first partial aperture each of them shared and it’s an aperture that’s wide enough to still give some sense of the character of the lens. Too lazy to go outside and find appropriate fence posts (why must every lens test involve fence posts?), I chose a bathroom mirror selfie; it offered a good gradation of tones, the tiled wall behind me, with its straight vertical and horizontal lines, might give some sense of any lens distortion and there’s also enough sparkly stuff in the shower door to highlight bokeh.  Perfect. As for post-processing, they were all shot as RAW and converted to jpegs in LR, where I also applied the exact same levels of marginal structure adjustments and sharpening, which is what I’d do with most any photograph I edit. Of course, all of the above decisions are completely arbitrary and  will affect the results in unknown ways, which is why informal internet lens comparison tests like this one are always problematic.

35mm lenses

The lenses tested were, in order of presentation – a 35mm f2.5 LTM VC Color Skopar Classic; 35mm f2.5 LTM VC Color Skopar Pancake; a W-Nikkor 3.5cm f2.5 for Nikon S;  an AF Nikkor 35mm f2 for Nikon F;  a manual focus Nikkor 35mm f2.8 for Nikon F; and a manual focus Nikon E series 35mm f2.5 for Nikon F.

Voigtlander Color Skopar Classic 35mm 2.5

35mm f2.5 LTM VC Color Skopar Pancake

W-Nikkor 3.5cm f2.5

AF Nikkor 35mm f2

Nikkor 35mm f2.8

Nikon E series 35mm f2.5

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50mm lenses

Lenses tested were, in order of presentation – a Russian made LTM Industar-22 5c.m f3.5 collapsible; a Russian made LTM Industar-26M 5.2 cm f2.8; a Russian made LTM Jupiter-8 5c.m f2; a manual focus Nikon Series E 50mm f1.8; and finally the current version AF Nikkor 50mm f1.8.

LTM Industar-22 5c.m f3.5 collapsible

LTM Industar-26M 5.2 cm f2.8

LTM Jupiter-8 5c.m f2

Nikon Series E 50mm f1.8

 

AF Nikkor 50mm f1.8

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Conclusions? With the exception of the AF Nikkor, all of the 35’s look pretty much alike. For some reason, the DOF is different on the AF Nikkor than the other lenses, why I have no idea. I see some marginal differences in contrast and how the lens deals with light fall-off behind its plane of focus, but that’s about it. You can easily tweak contrast in LR. Interesting because, while there’s not a Summicron in there for comparison, the VC Color Skopars, which will cost you +/- $350 used,  are considered to be excellent optics, not far removed from  the traditional 35mm Summicron, as is the W-Nikkor 2.5, at about the same price used, made for the Nikon S cameras. The other Nikkors are super cheap (+/- $200) while the E Series Nikon can be found for $30 used. I’ve always thought the Nikon E Series lenses, derided by purists when they first appeared in the 70’s because they contained some plastic parts, are incredible bargains, the entire line being excellent.

As for the 50’s, they all look pretty much alike again, with the exception of the Jupiter-8, which is markedly softer than the others. With all of the FED LTM lenses, sample variation is the norm. Both Industars look great at f4, indistinguishable from the excellent AF Nikkor 1.8 which Nikon enthusiasts rave about. I paid about $20 each for the FED lenses and the Series E and $80 used for the AF Nikkor.

Would a $3500 Summilux be much better? I doubt it. It may have better MTF charts, feel smoother in operation, make you feel special etc etc, but whatever marginal increases in optical performance it might possess mean little or nothing in practice. It sure is a beauty though; no doubt about it. Is the enhanced pleasure you’ll presumably get by toting it around on your IIIg instead of a 20$ Jupiter worth the extra $3475? Only you can answer that, although I don’t begrudge your decision. It’s your money.

The larger conclusion is that “comparison tests” of lenses are gimics, interesting to read, fun as an intellectual exercise, but of no real value if what you’re looking for is an objective evaluation of the critical optical merits of a given lens and its practical implications for use.

Suffice it to say I won’t be buying that Summilux.


  • I’ve posted slightly larger jpegs that you can click on and open for further examination if you’re that sort of person.