Sunday, March 28, 2021

HOW TO GET THE MOST OUT OF YOUR INVESTMENT IN LEICA M CAMERAS AND LENSES

 


By Heinz Richter

Leica M cameras definitely take a special position on today’s camera market.  As a camera with an optical rangefinder and viewfinder and interchangeable lenses, they are virtually without any competition.  DSLR and mirrorless cameras rule the camera market.  Yet the Leica M steadfastly maintains its position as one of today’s top cameras.

Considering the myriad of modern features on other types of cameras, the Leica M could be considered an anachronism, a camera that is trying to hang on to its past glory.

The camera is definitely not for everyone, yet some of the greatest photographers have done and are doing their work with the Leica M.  I grew up with a rangefinder and even after owning and shooting several Leica SLR cameras, I always gravitated back to the Leica M.

An often mentioned drawback of the camera is the limited number of lenses, ranging from 21mm to 135mm.  Longer lenses can be used, but they require an adapter and an electronic viewfinder accessory which is only available for the latest versions of the Leica M, starting with the Leica M240.  Earlier M cameras did require the Visoflex which converted the cameras to an SLR, but it was rather bulky and not overly convenient to use, compared to a typical SLR DSLR camera.

Leica M 240 with 200mm f.3.8 Novoflex and electronic viewfinder

The other major drawback of the rangefinder design is a definite lack of close-up capabilities.  Here the same accessories as for long lenses are the only help available, although in the past some other accessories like the Dual Range Summicron offered some help.  But the Dual Range Summicron cannot be used on any of the Leica digital rangefinder models.

The final drawback of the Leica M cameras is the relatively high price of the camera and its lenses.  They rank among the most expensive on the market.

Since most of us are not blessed with unlimited incomes, it makes sense to look at how to make the most out of our camera budgets.

The greatest saving can be realized with the lenses.  Fortunately Leica lenses are among the best in the world. Their performance is unrivaled when it comes to contrast, resolution, and tonal depth. While the extra input that is necessary to assure this high performance level does have a negative effect on the cost, it is this high level of performance that also allows us to save considerable amounts of money.

After selecting the Leica M camera that best meets our needs, particular attention should be paid to the selection of lenses.  Of course if you can get by with just one lens, read no further.  Other than selecting a lens based on cost, there are no other savings to be had.

One drawback of the rangefinder lay-out is the fact that no zoom lenses are available. If we need a variety of focal lengths, we need a variety of lenses.  Most people agree that a 35mm of 50mm lens are the best choice for a standard lens. For anything wider, there are 28mm and 21mm lenses, just as there are 75mm, 90mm and 135mm lenses for telephoto work.  Even if we had the ability to afford owning all or most of these lenses, changing lenses does take time and could possibly prevent us from getting a great shot.

This s where the overall performance of Leica lenses comes into play.  I have made a 50mm f/2 Summicron the central part of my lenses.  For a wide angle I skipped the 35mm and got a 28mm lens instead.  As a matter of fact, I often just use the 28mm exclusively, like when I travel. 

Why does that work?  Do I not lose out on shots that would be better done with a 35mm or 50mm lens?  For me the answer is ‘no’.

I rarely make enlargements bigger than 8.5x11 inches in size.  My house has only limited wall space; why make an enlargement if you don’t display it.  Instead I apply cropping to get to the field of view of a 35mm or 50mm lens or anything in between for that matter.  The performance level of my 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit is such that I can easily do that without sacrificing image quality.  As a matter of fact, this has often allowed me to come up with more than just one extra photograph.  I often find more than just one picture hiding in a single shot.

Leica M8, 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit, not quite full frame

Same file cropped

Same file, cropped even more
Three different photographs from the same file

Leica M240, 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit, full frame

Same frame, cropped

Leica M8, 28mm f/2.8 Elmart, full frame

Same frame, cropped, converted to black and white

Leica M240, 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit, full frame

Same frame, cropped

Same frame, cropped even more

Leica M240, 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit, full frame

Same Frame, cropped and converted to black and white

The same is the case when close-ups are in order.  Here I use my 50mm Summicron most of the time.  I focus as close as possible and then crop the image to get the close field of view I wanted.

Leica M240, 50mm f/2 Summicron, full frame

Same frame, cropped

On the other end of the spectrum I have both a 90mm and a 135mm f/2.8 Elmarit.  Depending on my needs to get closer, I use one or the other lens and, if necessary, crop the resulting image to get a smaller field of view.

Leica M8, 135mm f/2.8 Elmarit

Same frame, cropped

Leica M8, 90mm f/2.8 Elmarit

Same frame, cropped, converted to black and white

Not only did this approach allow me to limit the number of lenses I needed to buy, it also allows me to overcome the lack of zoom lenses for my camera.

The late models of the Leica M camera line are often criticized for not offering autofocusing.  It is certainly correct that a line of autofocus lenses would eliminate any of those criticisms.  But is the lack of autofocus really such a hindrance?

With the advent of autofocus one little trick to speed up focusing of our cameras has all but been forgotten.  I am talking about hyperfocal  lens settings with the help of a depth of field scale.  Most lenses available today no longer have depth of field scales and thus make focusing via hyperfocal settings impossible.  Fortunately, most Leica lenses still offer this advantage and its application can overcome the lack of autofocus to quite an extend.

A lens can only be accurately focused at one certain distance.  Everything in front and behind that point of focus is effectively out of focus.  Yet we all know that the pictures we take show scenes and subjects to be sharply in focus over a considerable distance.  Are our books of physics wrong?  Not at all.  The reason for this apparent contradiction is our eyes.  Fortunately they aren't good enough to recognize out of focus areas in our pictures unless they reach a certain level.

Imagine photographing a small point.  When not properly in focus, this point will become larger and show up as a fuzzy disc.  This disc has to be of a certain size before our eyes recognize it as out of focus.  This representation of a point is referred to as the circle of confusion.

In these days of virtually everything being auto focus we rarely pay any attention to focusing anymore.  As a matter of fact, many outsiders consider the Leica M rangefinder cameras with their manually focusing lenses an anachronism.  Yet in quite a variety of situations these lenses can be focused as fast or faster than any auto focus system.

That is because the Leica M lenses are non-zoom lenses.  That is the reason why to this day all of them have a depth of field scale.  Many photographers and picture takers have no idea what a depth of field scale is, and if they do, they rarely know what to with it.

It is a known fact that the aperture setting on our lenses, the f-stop used to take a picture, determines how much of what we photograph will be in focus, how much depth of field there will be.  The smaller the aperture, the more depth of field.  That is what a depth of field scale is all about.  It will show the distance from the point closest to the camera to the point furthest from the camera that will be in focus.

Increase of depth of field by decreasing aperture size

Effectively one third of the total depth of field will be in front of the point of focus and two thirds will be beyond it.  If applied correctly, this can actually greatly improve the sharpness of our photographs.  Imagine taking a picture of a mountain scene.  The mountains are obviously far enough away to constitute infinity as far as the focus settings on our lenses are concerned.  Subsequently it seems to make sense to set our lenses to infinity to make sure the mountains are in focus.  As a matter of fact, if we use the rangefinder on a Leica, this is exactly what will happen.

However, let’s remember the above rule which states that two third of the depth of field is beyond the point of focus.  That means in our mountain scene, two thirds of the depth of field will be wasted.  The depth of field scale will help to prevent that, if properly applied.Our exposure settings will always be a combination of shutter speed and aperture.  Once we or the camera determine the correct exposure settings, we will know what aperture the picture will be taken with.  Back to our mountain scene.  Instead of setting the infinity mark opposite the focus mark on the lens, all that needs to be done is to set the infinity mark opposite the marking of the aperture we are using.  That will still give proper focus to infinity, but it will greatly increase sharpness in the areas closer to the camera as indicated by the other aperture mark on the depth of field scale. 

Above focused on the background
Below focused on the foreground

Focused at hyperfocal setting with one third in focus in front of the point of focus and two thirds behind the point of focus
Picture examples form "Kleines Leica Buch (Little Leica Book), 1952 edition

In this example, the boy flying his kite is obviously the main subject and therefore 
should be in focus. However, focusing on him would most likely render the 
background out of focus. Utilizing the depth of field scale assured that all is in focus.

It is a fact that the smaller the aperture, the more depth of field we will have.  But we shouldn’t indiscriminately use the smallest aperture all the time, because this can easily lead to the necessity of too slow a shutter speed which in turn can lead to blurry pictures because of camera movement.

As I explained above, the circle of confusion determines what detail in our pictures appears in focus and which not.  Unfortunately, the size of the circle of confusion must also be based on a certain picture size.  In most cases that is an approximate enlargement of five times or a 5 x 7 inch enlargement from a 35mm negative or full frame digital sensor.  With other words, up to a 5 x 7 inch size enlargement our pictures will display maximum sharpness and maximum depth of field.

But what about enlargement greater than a 5 x 7 or if considerable cropping is necessary?  Does that mean the depth of field scale on our lenses is useless?  Not at all.  All we need to do is use the depth of field settings on the lens with an aperture one or two stops larger than the aperture in actual use.  With enlargements of 8 x 10 or 11 x 14, the next larger aperture will usually be sufficient.  If the enlargement size is greater than that, use a two stop larger aperture.  With other words, if the aperture used is f/11, use the apertures of f/8 or f/5.6 on the depth of field scale.

Why do all of this instead of just using the rangefinder and focus on our main subject?  Because you can greatly increase your speed of operating the camera.  Using the depth of field scale and setting the lens as explained above, using hyperfocal setting, will eliminate the need to focus altogether and thus make the operational speed of your camera that much greater.

The above figures are based on 35mm size negatives or full frame digital sensors.  Larger or smaller negative and sensor sizes will lead to different depth of field.  Different focal lengths of our lenses will do the same.  In general, the shorter the focal length the more depth of field there will be.  This, however, is nothing to worry about because the depth of field scales will reflect that.

Give it a try.  You might very well find that your pictures in some cases will display a greater range of sharpness and you will be able to use your camera a lot quicker.  It might very well be the difference of being able to catch a great moment on film or memory card instead of losing it to your camera being too slow.


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17 comments:

  1. Thank you Heinz for an extremely helpful and useful article. What you said and demonstrated regarding lenses make sense. It will save me some money in the future. Not sure why but I have read about hyperlocal distance and circle of confusion a dozen times at least but it never sank in until I read your article. Have always used rangefinder to focus on subject then set aperture to get desired DOF, however as you said this often resulted in too slow a shutter making for blur or less than tack sharp focus. I am excited to get out and put this manual focusing method to use on my M3, M9 & M10. Thanks again!

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    1. Thank you very much for your comment. It is gratifying to see that it was helpful and very well might help you to use your Leica more efficiently in the future. I was lucky to learn about hyperfocal settings at an early age from my dad. That was especially helpful because at the time I used a Leica IIIf. It did have a rangefinder, but compared to a Leica M, that wasn't even close to being as easy to use.

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  2. It would be a great idea to develop a new Leica M camera with rangefinder AND autofocus system. It would be more commercial and at the same time a solution for M users with glasses to shoot "wide open". The system is simply; build in the camera body a little servo motor to move the M coupling 5mm forward/backwards based on phase detection. On the moment the only "autofocus M camera body" is a Sony a7II or a9 with a Techart autofocus adapter !??? The system was invented in the '70s by Leica itself see "Leica Correfot", in that time the autofocus system was too heavy and too big. With the technologie of today it has to be possible to make the autofocus system small and build it in the body. It would be easy and practical to enjoy even more the wonderful Leica and Voigtlander M optics.

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    Replies
    1. If I understand you correctly, you are saying that the original Correfot system used a servo motor in the camera body to move the lens mount for focusing. That is incorrect. The Leitz Correfot used a servo motor, attached to the lens, which engaged with the knurling of the focusing ring via a small gear, to physically turn the focusing ring of the lens to achieve focusing. I had a chance to use a prototype briefly in 1980. The unit actually did not add a huge amount of weight and was quite functional, even under adverse lighting conditions. The problem at the time was power consumption. The unit used a converted motor drive housing from a Leica R3 to house the batteries. Even with the relatively large number of batteries, there was only enough power for about 1 1/2 to 2 hours of use.
      Building the servo motor for automatic focusing into the camera body has been tried before with one of the Zeiss SLR cameras. That was basically a failure because it increased the depth of the camera body by an uncomfortable amount. Leica has gone through considerable efforts to make the Leica M10 body equal in size to their previous film cameras. The extra size of the Leica M240 lead to constant complaints. It is highly doubtful that a once again larger camera body would be very welcome.

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  3. Another great posting. Good photography is thinking photography.....know your tool.

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    1. You are totally correct. The overabundance of automatic features on modern cameras do make it all too easy to quit thinking and to let the camera do the work for you. This works most of the time. But try to take a photograph with tricky lighting, especially when set up in a studio or situations where the auto features can be fooled (there are many), and the results usually are a failure unless there is still a thinking photographer behind the camera.

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  4. Isn't using hyperfocal settings kind of awkward?

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    1. Not really, because you do this only once and then just compose and shoot.
      I often use a 15mm f/4.5 Voigtländer Heliar. It doesn't even have rangefinder coupling. Instead I always use hyperfocal settings. Even wide open at f/4.5, the depth of field ranges from 3 feet to infinity. This increases to 1.5 feet to infinity at f/8 and 0.5 feet to infinity at f/16, meaning that in virtually all shooting situations I can literally point and shoot with no focusing problems at all. That is faster than any autofocus system.

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  5. Looks to me that you are just making a bunch of excuses for the lack of autofocus and the high cost of Leica cameras and lenses.

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    1. Not at all. One of the advantages of the Leica rangefinder cameras is their highly accurate rangefinder focusing. It is one of the most accurate forms of manual focusing. But any type of focusing, including autofocus, has to rely to a certain degree on adequate depth of field to overcome its inherent shortcomings. As such, using hyperfocal settings really is no different. Thus, the speed and time gained for concentrating on shooting is of a huge advantage, one that is as desirable today as it has always been.
      Also, it cannot be denied that cropping to cover two or more focal length with one lens can definitely save a lot of money.

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    2. But that is something that can be done with any camera.

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    3. Yes, that is correct, but only if the performance level of the lens is adequate to do so. You must also realize that many invest in the Leica M system because they prefer rangefinder focusing.

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  6. Holy Mackerel. This for me is revelatory, and I've been shooting a long time. Imagine, setting up the M so that you don't have to focus. Did everyone besides me already know this? For street shooting this is marvelous.

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  7. Wouldn't this change with cameras like the M8 which have a smaller sensor? All lenses, when used on the M8 function like a longer focal length and the article states that depth of field changes with different focal lengths.

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    1. That is a very valid question. The answer is "no". Depth of field is a function of the lens. Yes, a smaller sensor will give the impression of using a longer lens, but that is a function of the sensor. The lens will still illuminate a full frame, the smaller sensor simply uses a smaller portion of it. This is no different than cropping an image. The depth of field will always be the same, regardless of the sensor size used.

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  8. Leica rangefinders are great fun! I know they're expensive and not for everyone, but if you can afford it then why not? If you can't, get over it or save up your money. I have an M9 and M10 with 8 lenses. They're a blast! I also have Sony and Canon cameras. They all get equal use for the job I need them to do. My Leicas are my go to for the fun element in photography...like my convertible sports car, great bottles of wine, elegant watches, or anything else we enjoy in life. Don't let anyone shame you into not enjoying what you have. Hyperfocal settings are a super way to speed up your shooting opportunities...but, for the fun...I still prefer to manually zero in on my subjects!

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    1. Thanks Scott for this excellent endorsement of Leica cameras.

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