My name is Ajit Menon and I am a hobbyist photographer from New York City. I started shooting seriously in the summer of 2012 when I procured the Nikon D800. The shift from casual amateur to serious hobbyist is itself an interesting story; however this article is focused more on a subtle shift in focus over the last couple of months and beginning to shoot both with a camera I was (until now) too snobbish to accept and also more casual subject matter which I found hard to fit into my (perceived) style of photography.
A little background first. I work as a visual effects artist in NYC and coming from a digital background, photo manipulation and technical know-how was part and parcel of my job. This gave me an initial advantage to quick-start my photography obsession and polish my images enough to give them a refined look. For the last few years, landscape is what I have primarily shot and feel comfortable in and I have travelled to some interesting places in pursuit of that “moment and place” with my Nikon gear, the D800 and a host of lenses, some of my favorites being the Zeiss 21mm and the Nikon 45mm PC-E.
Early this year, I had a “traumatic” moment when I visited the ICP (International Center for Photography) for a portfolio review and was bluntly told that I had fantastically good technique and polish in my photos… but no emotion. I left deeply disappointed though I understood what the lady meant. ICP is an incredibly artsy school and I knew that this brand of landscape was not going to be their cup of tea. Yet I had hoped that a few of my black-and-whites might seem interesting – yet she barely batted her eyelids.
At this juncture I must admit that however frustrating it was, it was a chance for me to take this snub as an opportunity to open my horizons further. Admittedly, there is a lot of landscape photography being done these days by very capable amateurs and pros with fantastic results; and it’s harder and harder to be unique or have a distinct style. Of course, a “unique” style matters only if it’s what you want because (at least as a hobbyist), photography is something you do for your enjoyment; not just to procure “likes” on Facebook.
This set me off on browsing the internet again; searching for emotional imagery – in landscape and without. I was curious to understand it and see if it was something that I wanted to do and explore; if there was indeed value in trying something different, especially in the months when I wasn’t travelling and was at my day job. And I remembered an online ad I had seen a while ago – something I was nervous to try because I feared I might get sucked into the hype. And this was the hype of Leica.
The Leica store in New York (and probably others too) has a program that allows you to rent the Leica M typ 240 and a 50mm Summicron (an f/2 lens in Leica jargon) for a 24 hour period. I was a bit lucky because it had happened to be extremely cold in NYC at the time and no one had reserved the camera for the next day and I ended up getting it for an entire weekend. For people not too familiar with Leicas, these are rangefinder cameras where, unlike SLRs wherein you view directly through the lens, here you view through a separate window with frame lines based on the focal length. Focusing is done by aligning the double image within a small rectangle in the center of this optical viewfinder. But since this view is only a representation of what you can shoot, a lot of Leica newbies (myself included) might take a photograph looking through the optical viewfinder and only later realizing the lens cap was still on the lens.
After a short handling period while I got accustomed to shooting with my new borrowed toy, my wife and I took the subway to Jackson Heights to run a few errands for the day. I tried some discreet shooting techniques using just the distance scale on the lens but my early efforts were a bit weak. Out in Jackson Heights though, we stepped into a couple of Saree stores and one gentleman in the store was kind enough to let me take a snapshot.
I am not (yet) much of a portrait photographer but it is something I am definitely interested in; something to do in the off-months when I am not travelling. This is a black and white conversion from the DNG file in Capture One. I shot more portraits but unfortunately I can’t show off any of those since they are pictures of my wife and she is not too keen to have her images plastered on the internet. However, I did have a destination in mind which was near where we were; and this being the New Calvary cemetery in Queens. For those not familiar with it, it’s probably one of the biggest cemeteries in the country and is broken into 4 lots – three of them being an expansion of the first and housing over 3 million graves.
I had been meaning to visit for a long time now. It was also nearing sun-down and I was excited to shoot images in the soft evening light. The combination of a snow swept cemetery and late evening light was very compelling. And something that was beginning to be apparent to me from the photos I was taking was that there was something definitely special about the system.. The color was always quite beautiful and the images (when in focus) were always sharp; but unlike the aggressive contrast seen in some other cameras, the tones were very soft – something that I like to call “the sharp yet soft look”; very film-like perhaps.
Enjoy the following shots from New Calvary Cemetery. They haven’t been touched in any way and are straight out of camera from the original DNGs.
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 strange 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 its “special” quality. I kept looking at the pictures and trying to figure out if they were indeed special – I felt it but could not define it immediately.
It reminded me of when I first used Carl Zeiss lenses on my Nikon D800 body. Before I bought the 21mm, I was aware of it’s reputation of being sharp lens and arguably, one of the best lenses for landscape. The 100mm f/2 Makro-Planar which I also own is another 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 color 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 colors 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.
So is the Leica hype true? As always, it depends. No photographer worth his salt would disagree that the images that the Leica lenses create are not beautiful. 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. As you can tell, 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 film look. It helps that the M has no anti-aliasing filter but the quality from the lens was very evident.The contrast and color, combined with technical sharpness all combine into a beautiful package. Where most people disagree would be whether it is worth it. At such a high price tag, it is very hard to justify.
And so begins a new stage in my photographic evolution. I couldn’t afford the M (and even though I lusted for it, the price tag was a bit too high 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 an 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 some very interesting options – Fuji and Sony.
I already had good experience with Fuji cameras having owned the X100s (which now belongs to my wife and allows me the “excuse” to find a replacement). Of the modern crop of digital cameras, I really like the direction the Fuji cameras are 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’s Fuji XT-1 for a bit. He had the entire kit – the 14mm, 18mm, 23mm, 35mm and 58mm lenses. I tried the set and although I tried the 23mm f/1.4 initially (for it’s 355 field of view), I found the 35mm f/1.4 to be a stellar lens – fast autofocus and gorgeous color rendition (and if I were not such a fool, I’d say I should have just stopped right here and bought the Fuji instead and saved a bundle).
However, it’s not easy not being a fool when you “dream”. And the Fujis have a “catch” which I was glad to point out – the APS-C sensors. I wanted a 35mm equivalent lens and I didn’t enjoy the 23mm as much. And if I chose a Leica lens, I did not want to lose 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 and the crop would lose that.
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; especially of the A7 successor which I had barely noticed but had been released 2 months earlier – the Sony A7 II. I thus started my next major internet study, browsing as many reviews as I could; but always ending up at one site – Steve Huff’s site. 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 and not get too carried away by a review. But Steve had reviewed the A7 II (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 of which there are a few.
The main among them being the fact that the Sony sensor is unable to sufficiently resolve the edges of the frame with regards to Leica lenses and hence, the sharpness reduces quite a bit on the fringes. The other major con is that the sensor is not capable of using lenses wider than 35mm without serious vignetting and color overlay issues.
However, I did not intend this combination to replace my Nikon system. I still intended 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 as a light travel and everyday 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 A7 II – the newer model had a much more ergonomic grip. It was a bit of a quest actually since it seemed out of stock almost everywhere – but when I make up my mind to find something, I am quite the devil in finding every option that would get me the gear in as short a time as possible. I found the camera on Newegg and then 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). The only thing that stopped me from getting the 35mm the very next day was the panic closure of NYC in fear of the “armageddon” snowstorm that never came. But the “delay” was three days – hardly anything and presumably by now, you have this image of me being a reckless gear hunter, scurrying around and finding morsels of gear in the hardest of areas. I can’t argue not being a bit of a gear head but I do make the effort to use most of my gear in as productive a manner as my skillset allows me.
Next on the line 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 (and 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). Ergo why I also bought the Summilux and not the Summicron.
The combination is surprisingly (or should it be unsurprisingly) NOT light. The camera with adaptor and lens has a surprising heft to it. Everyone who has lifted this tiny combination has been surprised at how “dense” it is. It doesn’t really compare if you are used to a dSLR like the Nikon D800 and a good professional lens. To me, it was just right- solid and reliable and not cheap and plastic-like.
But enough chatter. Here are some images and I’ll let you be the judge; some of these are casual street shots mixed with a couple of landscape shots. These are hugely out of my regular comfort zone and I would admit that I don’t have enough of an understanding of street photography (or the nous) and I have yet to shoot something that I like a great deal. Yet the camera and lens combination produce images of stunning colour and contrast and are appealing just by that very nature if not the content. The other startling fact (at least for me) is how little post-production has gone into these. All of these images are pretty much straight out of camera – other than perhaps a subtle shift in white balance or so- and rendered out of Capture One for this post.
Black and white conversions come out with beautiful clarity straight off the bat and with minimum obsession in post.
Here are some photo-journalistic shots of a fire very close to where I live in Williamsburg. This alone is a story in itself and one I hope to blog about soon on my site. For now, enjoy the pics.
And here are a few landscape shots from very near where I live.
So do I love it? I think to everyone, the perfect camera is the one you have with you when you need to shoot and the one you are most comfortable with. Manual focussing is not easy but gets easier the more you do it. The Sony itself is quite a capable camera, not without it’s faults but much more capable and enjoyable to use than I had expected. I am sure the auto-focus Zeiss lenses being made for it are stellar but for now, I love my current system and hope to carve out a new space in my photographic ventures.
Ajit Menon is an amateur hobbyist photographer based in New York City. In his day-to-day life, he is a visual effects artist, having plied his trade for over 10 years in New York city (and around) and currently working at The Mill, an industry heavyweight in this field. Photography has become quite a passion for Ajit over the last several years during which he has traveled to different parts of the world to capture the spellbinding natural beauty of the world. You can visit Ajit’s website to see more of his work.