Guest post: Street photography with Leica M Monochrom and Noctilux M 50mm f/0.95 ASPH lens

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Today's guest post about shooting the Leica M Monochrome with the Noctilux M 50mm f/0.95 ASPH lens is by Rob van Keulen (flickr stream):

As a digital camera specialist and product manager I get the chance now and then to play with new and exiting stuff. I used to own a Sony A700 with a lot of Minolta AF lenses, but recently sold everything for an Olympus OMD with prime lenses. My decision to do this was the fact that I practice more and more street photography. For this I do not want to carry a big and visible camera with me. Since I followed a workshop street photography from Eric John Kim, were we all used Leica M camera's, I became very fond of the compact rangefinder system. I like the way that you see your subject in a very bright and clear way without any distractions (because of my personal budget the OMD was the next best thing). For street photography I normally use "zone focusing" and guess the correct distance to the subject which I am about to take a picture of.

All images are shot in RAW and then edited in Lightroom 4. I change the brightness, contrast and very important for me the "blackness" of the image. With the brush tool I use dodge and burn take brighten the eyes and darken parts that distract from the main subject. Sometimes I even use the clone tool to remove annoying items in the background. To get it a "real" street photography look I turn it after that into black and white. In the beginning I only used Lightroom 4, but I was not totally happy with the results. Some one recommended Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 and I instantly fell in love with this software. I got much better highlight detail, a higher level of detail and more "analogue" looking end results. I have used the Leica M9 for a couple of times with the Leica Summilux 50 and 35mm F1.4 and like the fact that you can actually use it at wide open aperture, and get very sharp results. The special, almost 3D, feel to the images is something even digital camera "laymen" notice when looking at the Leica images.

So, when I was given the chance to try the brand new Leica M Monochrom, with the Leica M Noctiliux 50mm F0.95 ASPH, I happily accepted the offer. It was a pre-production model with a firmware like 0,0012 or something like that, but fully functional. Because of the extreme narrow depth of field of the Noctilux, only 1 cm when focused at 2 meter, I was given a small additional magnifier lens for the viewfinder. Because I am wearing glasses this gave me an even smaller field of view through the viewfinder. The size of the Leica Noctilux is also relatively big, in comparison with the Summilux 50mm F1.4, and therefore blocks part of the viewfinder. A positive aspect of the size of the lens is the very nice focusing ring which fits perfectly in your hand and give the combination of the Monochrom and lens a good balance. I decided to make a small tour in town to shoot as much street portraits wide open at F0.95 as possible. This turned out to be a bit of a problem because of the light level. I search of shadows I walked the main shopping street up and down were the shop staff was waiting for the shops to open. The first girl I asked for her picture was a bit anxious but after a small talk she agreed to do it, but only if she was allowed to keep on listening to her music on her iPod. I took 3 shots and one off them was bang on in focus on her eye and were she gave her best look.

When I opened the DNG in Lightroom and looked at 100% I was amazed by the level of detail in her eye. The background had some bright reflections so I diminished them and then gave it my treatment in Silver Efex Pro. Here you see the 100% crop.

Some people recognised that my camera was "special", namely a Leica. When they heard it was a black and white only version they were very interested in knowing more about it. This was the case with a guy with a nice black leather jacket in front of a phone shop. He called his friend to join in on the picture and I took 2 shots of them. I managed to get them about 2 meters from the wall and shot at F0.95 to get the 3D look.

When you want perfect sharp images at wide open apertures you can step the Noctilux down to F1.4. The difference in sharpness is much bigger then what you would expect. The image however also has then a more "normal" look and misses that special blurry almost mystical Bokeh of the Noctilux. Two nice examples of this effect you can see in the image of girl with her boyfriend and the older men with the nice hat.

She was very enthusiastic into photography and persuaded her friend to let me take the picture with this special camera. The older men carried a Leica X1 and did not mind to get his picture taken.

He was however the first one to reject my proposal to mail him the images. Because I always send the best images to the people I take pictures off. I love the smiles on there faces when they look at the lcd of the camera and there even bigger compliments when they got the edited final versions. For most people it is rare to get a picture of oneself on which you look good and natural.

I had read about the large dynamic range of the Leica M Monochrom, but also about the possibility to blow out the highlights. So at the beginning I went for underexposures, but after a while I started to correct the normal way I always do. So put people in backlight and overexpose between 2/3 and 1 stop or use a minus 1/3 or 2/3 correction when they are standing part in the sun and part in the shadow. Luckily the measurement system of the Leica M Monochrom is not a matrix system so there is a natural tendency to under exposure. The best thing to do when shooting with the Monochrom is to think about it as an old analogue camera loaded with slide film. So expose to the right side of the histogram. Because of the very large dynamic range and the low noise level you can lighten up the shadows with no problem. I searched form subjects with deep dark and bright whites and found them in some new boots on display with very nice "shades" of black, a parked car and a window dummy.

To test the level of detail of this unique combination I also took some shots at F8.0 and I must say it is indeed very impressive. See in the 100% crops the prices in the Dutch sirup waffle mobile van and the world maps on the back off the wall in the room of the row of houses.

You can see my Monochrom images at a high resolution on Flickr: www.flickr.com/photos/rvkphotography/sets/72157631692254364/

All images were shot in DNG , edited in Lightroom 4 and then in further enhanced in Nik Silver Efex Pro 2. It is good to know that both come standard with the camera. One warning when you use the silver Efex Pro 2 software. The default sharpness and level of detail of the Leica M Monochrom is so high that you should turn off the "detail structure" option in the software. For my own Olympus OMD camera I can set it to 40% and I still have a normal sharp image when zoomed in to 100%. For the Monochrom you can use max 10%! If you overdo it you get a very strange, sort of dried earth like, effect.

I like the way of shooting with the Leica m Monochrom. Just you and your subject, visualise your final image in your mind, set the correct aperture and exposure, set the distance and frame in on your subject. Then wait for the right moment and shoot. You can keep on looking during the shot so you know if it was successful or not. Then at home I look at the results, so no peeking during the shots. This way of shooting gives you an unprecedented thrill and is something I can recommend to anyone which is currently using a DSLR.

I can only say that I love the very deep blacks and large dynamic range which you get with the Leica M Monochrom. Also the level of detail and sharpness of the images is amazing. There is a thing I would like to be improved in the Monochrom and that is a sort of high eye point viewfinder for eyeglass wearers like me. Also the Noctilux could do with a bit closer minimum focusing distance, but to be honest I thinks the DOF will be that small it will be almost impossible to get a good result.

My “final” word: if you are a passionate photographer and would like to go back to basics, to rediscover photography in its purest form, buy one! If you are a DLSR lover, rent one for a week or two with a Noctilux or Summilux and enjoy!

Enjoy my images and i'm looking forward to what others haven taken with the Leica M Monochrom.
Rob van Keulen
Leiden, The Netherlands

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  • joe

    this is not street photography!

    • http://haroldellis4444@gmail.com Harold Ellis

      oh yea, those nooby portraits where somebody have to shoot wide open even if he shouldnt
      what is sense of double portrait when one is complete blurry mess? it is not useful for neither of those on it and as a picture also complete crap.

      rate: 3/10 just Blackandwhited snapshots, would not pay a dime

      • fjfjjj

        Beautiful tonality in this photographs, but otherwise they are nothing special. Great equipment, very amateur picture taker.

  • http://www.davinellicson.com Davin Ellicson

    I second Joe’s comments. Absolutely awful pictures! How did you get on here?!

    • Ez

      Well maybe he shot the photographs in the streets. Maybe that’s why he calls it “Street Photography”. :P Sad that someone who has so much money with such little imagination.

      • MJr

        Doesn’t own the thing.

    • guest

      Davin…Just went to your website. What makes your photos so special? I guess Ego feeds you imagination of talent and your desire to put down others. Enjoy life being an asshole.

  • Mark

    I hope you’re happy with your 18,000 dollar camera and lens because this photography is terrible. They look likes snapshots with out any sense of composition or artistic vision. Not at all surprised considering the kind of people who buy Leica these days…

  • Oliver

    Leica today brings forth the worst in photographers, the gadget maniac.

  • andy

    Instead doing half a job, you could go the whole hog and use a film Leica M

  • http://inevitablecrafts.wordpress.com alex

    nothing to add here hehe

    but guys they are black and white, they must be artsy :)

    i dont know how you define street photography, for me personally, non candid protrait shots are not street photography just because some one took them on the streets ^^

    its more about making art with whats available on the street/in that moment, or capture moments as they happen … on the streets

    but portraits ^^

    NOOO! :)

    also there is absolutely no composition going on, i bet he never recomposed after focusing because he feared to be oof when moving the camera hehe

    more money than talent … classic ..

  • Daniel Maissan

    I see we only have jealous people here, who can only leave nasty remarks… to bad… waste of energy. Most of the time it feels a lot better when you say something nice instead of sagging in your darkest misery.

    To Rob, nicely written and I envy the opportunity you get as a product manager to play around with such wonderful stuff! Good to see you enjoy it so much!

    • Mark

      How is anyone supposed to get better without criticism. I’m not going to just pat subpar work on the back with a “participation” trophy.

      Since I was less contructive before, and the OP obviously wants to be a street photographer…

      GO BUY SOME GARRY WINOGRAND BOOKS! “Good bokeh” alone rarely makes a good photo.

      • ProtoWhalePig

        This isn’t good bokeh.

      • guest

        @Mark How is just saying the photos are terrible criticism? Criticism would involve some suggestions on how to improve something or what didn’t work in a photo, not just ‘terrible’ or ‘how’d you get on here’. The guy never said he was a professional photographer. Apparently everyone who reads LeicaRumors is the top in their field and infallible.

  • Larry

    Nice shots , everyone has a different definition of street photography. i dont see what is the point in giving harsh critism, like hey this shot sucks etc. Give something constructive as to how to improve, whats wrong etc. i just hate people who give such stupid and unconstructive comments.

    99% of the time, when people make these comments, they cant shoot shit.

  • Ronan

    That… wasn’t good photography. :/

  • danny

    Wow
    Some nusty remarks here.
    It might not be pure street photogrphy shots but some pics are very nice and the leica quality shows in a few pics
    Street photography is about street ‘ you should see and be able to understand the shot was taken un the street
    Dont pay too much attention ,go on shooting and things will improve
    :)

  • e

    I’m amazed with people that came here only to write rude comments. Almost nothing constructive. You can criticize but what’s the point in being so rude and unfair? As the author explained he went out to shot “street portraits”… he didn’t say “street photography” even if he explained before his way of doing “street photography”. Is he mixing both concepts? I’m not so sure. Besides, he was testing the camera in some conditions with some settings; he’s not pretending doing big art. So, again… what’s your point guys? I really don’t understand your manners, and I guess you didn’t even read or understood what the author intended. Sorry, but I’m tired of this kind of angry and maybe jealous comments in many photography forums. And sorry for my bad english too, it’s not my langue.

    Actually, I thing the photographer capture people in natural ways even if people are posing. I don’t like the first portrait because the girl on the left is out of focus. But I like other portraits, in special the three ladies because the movement on their hair and their expression, and the man with the hat because the strong bokeh effect. And I appreciate the flowers vase shot too. In the other hand, I don’t agree with his practice of removing annoying things in background when he explains his street photography. For me street photography must be as natural and real as possible, not twisted, otherwise is not street. Of course, good street photographers adapt themselves to shooting conditions and made visual poetry with what they find. I don’t agree neither with his concept that “real” street photography look is black and white. Must street in these days is color photography. Besides, I don’t like the excess with blacks. In these days many photographers give strong contrasts to their pictures but it’s a shame because they lose many grey and delightful tones. All in all, thanks for your effort in bringing us your experience with the camera.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/34767179@N08/ Araakii

    I think this type of work is acceptable if someone just shares it in a forum. But when it is featured in a site like this, harsh criticism is always inevitable. These shots are fine as “personal” memory shots, but for strangers who don’t know these people, there’s little emotional connection. And composition wise, there’s not much to look at either.

  • Camaman

    Nice shots all except the 1st.
    That one is a complete dud.

    Not street candid shoots but nice street portraits, IMO!

  • Bourdieu

    I’m sorry, but this current “street photography” phenomenon is devoid of content and context. These are simply photographs taken on the street. They have no context. There is no connection to anything social or political, nor to the history of photography itself.

    People like this (and Eric Kim) are not intellectuals like Koudelka or Frank, etc.. Nor are they working within a context like the photographers of the FSA (Evans and Lange, etc..) Today people are simply snapping away at anything for the sake of taking pictures. There is nothing behind these images but the surface only. It’s mindless filler. It means nothing in the end, and it will end up in the landfill of insignificance.

    If one wants to make a communicable impact, then they need to learn about the environment they are working in, and the social implications to their work. A photo of somebody on the street is nothing but a photo of somebody on the street. And what does it really mean to look at an endless sea of photographs of homeless people?

    • E

      What do you expect Sir? The author is only testing the camera, not doing art. What you say shows that you don’t even read his text. But, let me say something more, in my opinion you are confusing documentary photography and street photography. These are two very different things. Street Photography doesn’t needs that context that you are talking about. Street photography is more like visual poetry, these are images that justify themselves and in same time are capable of showing us new aspects of reality, or show them in an interesting way. So, reducing it to homeless people as you say is a completely wrong understanding, even if some photographers make the same mistake… But even with homeless people you can do real and powerful street photography.

    • Ernst Leitz

      Dear Bourdieu,

      It is true that the pictures taken by Pierre Bourdieu in Algeria, while he was serving in the French Army, are much, much better than Rob’s! (See the maaaarvelous exhibition here: http://www.jeudepaume.org/index.php?page=article&idArt=1510&lieu=6&idImg=1649)

      Your pompous and arrogant style reflects the emptiness of Pierre Bourdieu’s books and essays: Words, words, words … well, “mindless filler” as you would put it.

      Also: I have met with Josef Koudelka several times and I am sure he would feel uncomfortable being called an “intellectual”.

      “Regarde la paille …”

      Ernesto

      • E

        Dear Ernesto (Ché? ;) I didn’t know that Pierre Bordieu was a so good photographer. Thanks for sharing, specially the video.

        • Ernst Leitz

          Well, Pierre Bourdieu was a French sociologist. I studied for several years in France and had to read a couple of his books. Believe me, it was a nightmare: What you and I would manage to convey in a couple of paragraph was diluted over hundreds of pages.
          I am not impressed by Pierre Bourdieu’s pictures in French Algeria, yet believe he was a better at photography than at his actual job as a sociologist.

          ernesto

    • http://igorsoykaphotography.com/ Igor Soyka

      Hey,

      Did you see a showcase of a new Leica M’s images at a Leica’s official site – http://us.leica-camera.com/photography/m_system/m_new/ – it’s the worst advert you can only imagine or find for a camera.

  • http://44sunsets.me 44sunsets.me

    For the author of these pictures, from Wikipedia:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Street_photography

    Street photography versus documentary photography

    Street photography and documentary photography are two very similar genres of photography that often overlap while having distinct individual qualities. Street photography has the ability to document while documentary has the definite intention of recording history. Documentary photography can be candid, but street photography is defined by its candidness. Street photography produces ironic amusement while documentary provides emotional intensity. The language of street photography is subtle and not as loud and outspoken as documentary photography often is. In the 19th century, the peak of street photography, most photographers were naïve to the fact that they were “documenting” history. As street photographers they had no definite intentions or goals beyond the production of a candid print. Documentary style is defined by its premeditated message and intention of documenting particular events in history. The documentary approach includes aspects of journalism, art, education, sociology and history. In documentary’s social investigation, often the images are intended to pave way to social change. Documentary’s underlying motives complicate its ability to give a clear, impartial vision of the world. Street Photography is disinterested in its nature, allowing it to deliver a true depiction of the world. Street photographs are mirror images of society, displaying “unmanipulated” scenes, with usually unaware subjects.

    • E

      Interesting, thanks. This is an extent approach of what I was trying to say in very few works before. But I disagree in some aspects: first, street photography is not necessarily an ironic amusement. That could be the style of certain photographers, but not all of them. In other styles of street photography you have intense emotion or at contrary some kind of cold formalism, even minimalism. Some street photographers work only with shadows, lines, geometrical patterns, colors, etc. Second, how one can say 19th century is the peak of street photography? That not makes sense historically speaking. In 19th century you have mostly heavy cameras with relative slow emulsions for portraiture, war scenes after battles, architecture, trips, etc, but not really “street” as we understand it nowadays. In 1888-89 the commercialization of the first nitratecellullose films and portable cameras like the Kodak, starts the tendency. There is the beginning of modern photography. After that, street photography became easier with little 35mm cameras from 1913. From there you have more and more street until now…. In my opinion the peak is just now with little digital cameras. But of course I don’t believe that street photographers have the pretention of documenting history, at least not big one. I think Wikipedia is something to take with clamps. Sorry for my bad English again.

  • Dr Croubie

    mmm, lekker Poffertjes.

    And who cares if it doesn’t fit your definition of “street”? Would you have been happy if they were called “documentary” photos? Or “snapshot” photos? Don’t forget that the author isn’t even a native english speaker, things can change in translation and have very different meanings (I know, I lived there for 2 years and had my fair share of mistranslation gaffes).

    Still, can’t beat the look of that Noctilux, it’s on the list (1 rung down from “win the lottery”).

  • Alex

    I like those pictures and the text acompanying them.
    A joyful use of a camera and a special lens, the photographer and the people photographed are happy about it.
    Beautiful grey-scale and subjects isolated from the background.
    Who cares what the noncompoops say?

  • Photo Commenter

    Truly amazing comments here. What a cesspool of self-importance. The post is about using this camera and lens combination for street photography and sticks pretty close to the technical abilities of the camera. This isn’t a dissertation on composition, or, for that matter, what makes good photography. From that point of view, it’s a solid summary of the guy’s experiences with the gear.

    When you can stroll down the street testing a new camera and can repeatedly pump out Kertesz, Doisneau or Cartier-Bresson level photographs, I’m sure we will all welcome your input. Until then, stop worrying about this person’s photography and go out and shoot.

  • John

    I would love to see the garbage photographs being made by the experts who left negative comments. The Internet… the little-man’s place to be negative and rude because they can’t do it in real life.

  • http://igorsoykaphotography.com/ Igor Soyka

    Thanks for a review and images. I liked a look of a “girl with her boyfriend” image. Really impressive picture. By the way, if you can afford a new Leica M camera, I hardly believe you will find any reason to buy a Monochrome. With ISO limitations started from 320 you will loose a lot of images during a sunny day. The new Leica M is 20% cheaper than Monochrome. And with a Silver Efex Pro you’ll always create magnificent B&W photos from any color ones.

    Regards,
    Igor

  • James

    Great camera, lousy photographer.

  • burux

    in the name of lord, why that guy has such hardware in his hands?

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