Tag Archives: Leica Noctilux

The Myth of the Superfast Lens

Sigma sd Quattro, ISO 100, f 2.8 Handheld

I’ve been engaged in an ongoing documentary project, photographing the grounds and buildings of the Dorothea Dix State Mental Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina. (The photos that illustrate this piece are of the hospital director’s residence, now abandoned). The Dix campus is a stunningly beautiful piece of property that sits on the edge of downtown Raleigh. The city has been eyeing it for years, hoping to raze the hospital and buildings and convert the grounds to a public park. With the push to de-institutionalize mental health sufferers, the hospital and its numerous support buildings currently sit empty, falling into disrepair while waiting to be bulldozed and replaced with luxury hotels and manicured lawns.

I often walk my dog on the property, and when I do, I’ll usually make a point of taking a camera along with me, if for no other reason than it makes me look – really look – at what’s around me, and it affords the opportunity of recording it for posterity. One thing I’ve learned in 50 years of photographing things is that the things you most take for granted – the things you expect to always be there – are the things that ultimately aren’t. Time has a peculiar way of transforming the most ‘permanent’ of things.

I think, for example, of the year I spent in lower Manhattan in 1978, walking almost daily through the World Trade Center Plaza on my way to school on Broadway just north of the Twin Towers. I usually carried a camera – I was on my way to and from Art School studying photography – and yet I never bothered to photograph what was right in front of me because it all seemed so obvious, so blindingly ‘there’. In all my negatives from that time I find one photo – one – of the WTC towers, a basic tourist snap of the buildings themselves. In hindsight, I’d been given an incredible gift – and I’d squandered it. This, of course, is how we learn, if we learn at all. Often the most effective pedagogy is regret at missed opportunities.

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Sigma sd Quattro, ISO 100, f 2.8 Handheld 1/30th Second

As I’d expected to remain outside in the late-afternoon sun, I’d taken my Sigma sd Quattro with 17-50 2.8. Not exactly the camera I’d have taken were I expecting to be photographing inside, given the Sigma’s reputation for lack of usability at higher ISOs ( I most profitably use it at 100 ISO), but I’d tried a back door to the residence, found it open, and knew I’d probably not have  the opportunity again, so in I went (missed opportunities and all that). All of the photos used to illustrate this piece were shot handheld at 100 ISO…with an f 1:2.8 lens. Indoors obviously. The point being, it can be done. Those of us raised shooting film became quite adept at it. We had to. Either that or we lugged a tripod around with us, which wasn’t always an option.

Which is all preface to a larger issue – the digital age’s fetish for large aperture lenses. Like most fetishes, it can’t be justified rationally. It makes no sense. In the digital age, when hyper ISO is a reality (10,000 ISO being common), there simply is no need for them. None, other than to pimp the one-trick pony that is ‘bokeh,’ which, to my eyes, is the single worst visual affectation brought about by digital capture. Suffice it to say that, as a general rule, the more you rely on bokeh to make your photographs interesting, the shittier the photographer you are. Full stop.

Back in the film era, high-speed lenses served a purpose. Most usable film stocks maxed out at 400 ASA. Tri-X and HP-5 – 400 ASA box speed films – were considered ‘fast’ films preferable for low-light handheld work. 10,000 ISO was a thing of science fiction, akin to flying cars. We learned to work within the parameters of the limitations of the technology. We became ‘photographers.’

The Noctilux: A $12000 Photographic Affectation.  If You’re Rockin One of These in the Digital Age, Freud Would Say You’re Probably Insecure About the Size of Your Penis

It was these constraints that led to the production of high-speed lenses. It wasn’t for the bokeh. They were made and used for a reason – to maximize one’s ability to shoot in low light. Doing so was usually a two-fold strategy. Push your Tri-X or HP5 to 1600 ASA, and use the fastest lens – usually an f 1:1.4. If you had unlimited funds, you’d take advantage of the speed gain of the Noctilux or the Nikkor 50 1:1.2, but you usually did so only as a last measure, given the optical compromises inherent in large aperture lenses. Best bet was to learn to shoot handheld, which, with some practice, was easily doable down to 1/15th/sec with a 50mm lens and even lower with a 28mm.

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Given the above, I find it a delicious irony that high-speed optics are now all the rage. Were you to believe what you read on the enthusiast websites, any optic f2 or above is inferior. Serious photographers rock big aperture lenses. The irony, of course, is that we no longer need them. Lower light? Just jack up the ISO. Understanding this, and fighting the ‘common knowledge’ that says you need a Noctilux allows you the use of generally better optics, optics that just happen to be much less expensive because they’re so much cheaper to produce. You can buy the VC 35mm 1:2.5, a super sharp, contrasty modern lens if there ever was one, for $300; or you can buy the optically inferior VC 35mm 1:1.2 for 4 times the price. Your choice. Using an M10, it won’t make any difference in terms of low light ability. None. What the 2.5 will give you is sharper photos, all at 1/4th the price. Hell, it even has decent bokeh.

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A $300 Noctilux

7Artisans, a Chinese lens manufacturer, has introduced a new M mount 50mm f1.1 lens, manufactured in Shenzhen, China (where they make your iPhone).  A 7 elements in 6 groups optical formula like the Nokton 50/1.1, but apparently, it’s a clean sheet design, not based on the Voigtlander offering.  It has clickless f-stops, a .7 minimum focus, and the focus can be calibrated for personal usage (focus shift, film to flange issues etc).

The most interesting thing is the price: $320 on Amazon, although you can buy one direct from China for a few dollars less than $300. As for the “Made in China” issue, your iPhone is manufactured down the the street from 7Artisans.

Mass produced, consumer grade lenses are not as hard to make as they once were – all the equipment you need can be purchased if you’ve got the cash. These days it’s pretty much a function of computers and money; you can design a lenses from the bottom up with raytracing software running on your laptop. 20 years ago you’d have needed a mainframe.

Not bad for 300 bucks, shipped.

Like the Noctilux and the Nokton, it’s a big lens. It’s also heavy, weighing in at +/- 400 grams. Unlike the Nokton, it can close focus. As for its comparison to the Noctilux, suffice it to say that a Leica polarizing filter costs $150 more than the 7Artisans lens.

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The Leica Rep

leica-hongkong-ifc

By Derek McClure. Mr. McClure is a photographer who shoots weddings, corporate and other portrait type work as needed. To escape from the commercial digitalized product flow that overwhelms his life, he shoots 35mm film with his three Leica’s –  an M7, an M3 and a Barnack iiib. He lives and works in Adelaide, South Australia. You can see his film  images on his instagram feed, @backwater_beat .

 

The glass was millimetres thick, yet it might as well have been made from solid steel. I beheld the items before me, displayed like endangered zoo creatures surrounded by a force field of glass that were designed to tempt even the most stoic of shooters. My breath fogged up the glass as I glared at the elite system that was both within and without of my reach. To the bloated rich, they were just another camera system, to everyone else they represented a kidney or a lung on the black market. The Leica M system.

I sighed and turned away from the glass case, feeling like an intoxicated drunk who had been rebuffed at ordering his last pint. I cradled my own Leica like a new born as I began my usual mantra of why I would always be satisfied with just one Leica.. and the other two that had been shelved prior to my early morning departure.

As I was about to proceed out of the store I found myself face to face with a man in a suit sporting a murse and equipped with red dot on his lapel. The Leica Rep. His visage was that of a person who had been caught in a conversation with their grandmother about a fungal growth on her goitre. The cause of his countenance was an enthusiastic camera noob peppering him with questions about megapixels and Instagram filters.

As I went to step past his eyes widened at the sight of my M7, his demeanour changing suddenly from clammy to rhapsodic as he recognised a fellow luddite. “I love your camera strap!” Apparently I was to buy the drinks and say how often I come to this place. I tightened my grip on my Hardgraft leather and wool camera strap which comfortably grasped onto my chrome Leica M7 and Summicron 50, all of which was set off beautifully by my ebony Artisan Obscura soft release.

The conversation moved rapidly as though we were at Beach Club Café pretending to order a drinks. The mention of Leica’s, lenses and photographic intentions were numerous, and growing at a fantastic rate. The Visco app enthusiast stood awkwardly with a smile plastered on her face like a jilted bride on her wedding day. “I love lamp,” she may have mumbled.

The moment arrived when mutual admiration was trumped by insecurity. The global obstacle of two photographers wrestling to impress the other, but having no real foothold in their ability to astonish the other. The stalemate to which we had found ourselves lead to the situation I should have foreseen.The Leica Rep revealed his Holy Grail. The Noctilux 50mm f/0.95 ASPH.

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All sound within a kilometre radius ceased, birds stopped in mid-air and a little bit of pee may have worked its way down my leg. “I love lamp..” I mumbled. He handed the lens to me with a knowing winners smile. I felt it slowly pulse in my hand like a beating heart newly ripped out from someone’s innards ala Indiana Jones. In my hand was the unattainable, legendary, real, and more than what I could sell one of my children for. I had never had a moment like this one where I wished I could run as fast as Usain Bolt. “How would you like to try it out for a month, we have..” His voice trailed off as I stared at the Noctilux. My heart was beating so loud in my ears that I thought it was about to implode. “Sure, I’d be keen.” I squeaked.

I gingerly handed the Noctilux back and gave him my card. A brief handshake later and I walked out of the store feeling alive. Colours seemed more vibrant, my senses alive like I had never seen daylight before. I skipped down the street as a trail of Disney creatures followed me. Their joy reflected my own as I broke into song. I twirled around like a giddy school reaching the crescendo of my canticle. I felt incredible. I slept fitfully that night dreaming of bokeh, thousands of Facebook followers and my new job at Magnum.

I never heard from the Leica Rep again.

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