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

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:

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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