Monday, 23 June 2014

Leica Summilux-R 50mm f/1.4 E55

A while back I had a look at the Leica R8, a 35mm film SLR launched in the last few years of the 20th Century. It was one of the last new film SLR designs to emerge before digital photography stormed through the door and knocked everything over.

The R8 had a mixed reception, and never developed much of a following. Its bulk and weight were curiously un-Leica-like, and for all its fine metalwork and clever ergonomics it was technically no more advanced than a cheap Nikon F801. The lenses were apparently at least good and often excellent; internet opinion has it that the telephotos, particularly the 100mm f/2.8 APO and 280mm f/4, were special. But Nikon made some pretty good lenses too, and they were generally cheaper.

In retrospect it's hard to see which market Leica was going for. Wealthy Middle Eastern types opted for the rangefinders, because what was the R System? Working professionals put the numbers into their spreadsheets and decided against it. Amateurs generally couldn't afford it, besides which what was the R System? The R8 was replaced by the similar R9 in 2002; the long-awaited DMR digital module that turned the R8 and R9 into a digital SLR was an expensive flop; the R System itself was terminated in 2009, unnoticed and unmourned by the world at large.

Yeah, you remember it. So do I. But you and I are specks. I write about centuries and masses of people, the great sweep of history, not individuals and not today. Take everything that happened in the 20th century and drop the box on the floor and then pick it up and try to stuff the pieces back in; that is what people of the future will remember of the 20th century.

Leica was founded in 1849 and has survived a period of human history that killed millions and obliterated empires, that saw the conquest of space and of the atom - and, as a consequence, the possible end of human civilisaton and all multi-cellular life on Earth. In Leica's time we realised that death is the end, that the stars are beyond us, that there are limits to our reach, and that without restraint we would kill ourselves and everything we wanted to keep.

Leica outlasted the planet Pluto. The Leica name will probably survive; it seems that Fuji came close to buying the company a few years ago, the last time Leica faced down disaster. Leica is a cute name.

Variations of this image appear frequently throughout my blog. It's because I'm trying to demonstrate narrow depth of field, so I photograph something flat and see-through. Hence all the images of bicycles propped up against lamposts, stickers on glass etc.

In 2012 the next logical step would have been for me to write about the 50mm f/1.4 Summilux, but I was never particularly impressed with its performance. Quoth me, then:
    Word on the street has it that the lens is soft wide open, and it is. Dramatically steps up at f/2.8. Leica launched the R8 alongside the E55's replacement, the apparently superb E60, which is very expensive and popular with Canon digital SLR videographers (for example). You've seen how the E55 performs on film throughout this post. Lovely smooth bokeh, characteristic moon-shaped bokeh circles, slightly swirly as per the first photograph but not nauseatingly so.

And that bothered me, because it was downright unimpressive wide open. After debating whether this was normal or not I decided to bite the bullet and send the lens off to be serviced.

In the UK this is difficult. Leica's official UK servicing centre retreated to Germany several years ago. The remaining choices are (a) a chap called Martin Taylor, who doesn't have a website or even an email address; you are supposed to telephone him and then send your lens to him, (b) another chap who has a website that doesn't work, and half a dozen email addresses that don't work, and you're supposed to telephone him and send your lens to him, (c) Red Dot Leica, who couldn't help.

I always get worried that my naked body will appear reflected in the glass. And so whenever I photograph something reflective I use a time delay exposure and hide behind a sheet of cardboard.

Seriously chaps, its 2014. There's nothing charming or quirky about not having a website. It's like boasting that you don't know how to use a microwave oven, or that you can't make Windows 8.1 automatically log you in. It's not endearing any more. It was never endearing. I picture a fat bearded self-righteous man who will die convinced that he was a major player in the world, when in fact he was a monster to the few people who could not escape his influence, a nobody to everybody else. The kind of flip-flop wearing painters who paint awful nudes and are convinced that they are artists, because no-one has ever forced them to see sense. The deathfat who works in a machine shop and is an expert on global politics, but has never met anyone of genuine substance, and would be silent if he did. These people leave behind only scars.

So I sent the lens - along with some precious precious money - to the Netherlands' leading Leica technicians who I will not name because we do not have a financial relationship, and presto they adjusted the focusing helical and sent it back. And now it's super effective. I heartily recommend them and would recommend them even more heartily if we had some kind of promotional deal, which we do not.

R-system lenses can be adapted to Canon SLRs with a simple cheap adapter ring, ditto for Micro Four Thirds and other mirrorless systems. Nikon SLRs require a custom adapter mount because the registration distance is slightly too short for an adapter ring. For the shots in this post I used a custom adapter mount made by a company which I will not name because etc, which screws on top of the existing lens mount and is basically overkill. Doubly overkill because it was an expensive adapter mount.

I am hiding behind a sheet of cardboard.

Leica made two 50mm f/1.4 lenses for the R system, positioned as posh upgrades from the standard 50mm f/2 Summicron. The Gen One Summiluxes have a 55mm filter thread. They were built between 1970 and 1998, with several variations. Later models, mine included, have a built-in sliding lens hood. Leica launched a new Summilux in 1998, which has a 60mm filter thread and is apparently slightly better than the original, although I have never used one myself.

Physically the lens is mostly metal, with rubber grips. Mine was built in Germany, in 1989, judging by the serial number. The table of serial numbers suggests that production faltered and tailed off in 1989 and never fully recovered. Whether this was a consequence of German reunification or the table is faulty or the R-system was running out of steam or something else, I have no idea.

The following bunch of shots were taken with the Leica R8 with Kodak Ektar, on a cloudy day:

Writing about the R System is tricky, because the internet doesn't have much about it. As with the Contax RTS, Voigtländer VSL, Rolleiflex SL range - essentially the whole German 35mm SLR industry of the 1970s - the R System had some lovely lenses but sold in small quantities and was generally ignored by the popular press. Google Books' archive of Popular Photography and American Photographer is no help. In the popular consciousness the Leica R was always overshadowed by the Leica M rangefinders, and as far as I can tell the R was never advertised by or associated with famous photographers or actors etc.

But enough waffle, what's the lens like? "Lovely smooth bokeh, characteristic moon-shaped bokeh circles, slightly swirly ... but not nauseatingly so", as I wrote back in 2012, and my opinion has not changed. Wide open it has a distinctive but not unappealing softness where other lenses are just mushy, and the bokeh is slightly fussy but still charming.

Wide open there's a lot of vignetting, which flummoxes the Canon's exposure system (it tends to overexpose the centre, no doubt compensating for the edge darkness):

At f/1.4 in the centre it has a slight glow, generalised softness, and a fair amount of purple fringing, but it's surprisingly sharp. Stopped down to f/2.8 it seems to reach its peak, and at f/8 I could detect no difference, even zooming right in:

Stopped down, central sharpness is extremely good, more than enough for my 5D MkII. The 5d MkII is getting on a bit now but it has aged well, although in my experience it has a fair amount of shadow noise and has trouble with highlights. Here's a familiar scene at f/8:

And here's a central crop of one of London's older landmarks, at 100% size with a very mild unsharp mask:

The EXIF says I took the image at 13:12, and judging by the clock on St Paul's I probably did. It looks as if I was leaning slightly to the right, no doubt drunk again. The lens has mild barrel distortion, no CA to speak of.

In the extreme full-frame corner it's dark wide open, lighter at f/2.8 but not especially sharper, but sharpens up at f/8 until only the last few hundred pixels are soft, and then not very soft:

The mixture of good central sharpness wide open, heavy vignetting, appealing bokeh and not unattractive soft bits pleases me; there's a lot of waffle on the internet about the magical Leica 3D glow, which I suspect is the result of a mixture of these things.

By coincidence I happened to bump into some kind of carnival or other. One of those carnivals where you can't tell what they're so happy about, because everybody has joined in, and you wonder if they actually spend most of their time fighting each other in order to be rulers of the carnival. As I stood there photographing it with my full-frame digital SLR and a Leica 50mm Summilux I briefly contemplated the world's poor people. Now that we have robots, what are the poor people for? Some of the women are attractive, but what use are the men? We have drones to do the fighting, robots to build the drones, Indian people to program the robots, middle class people to supervise the Indians. And when the Indians ask for too much money we will ask the Chinese to lease us some of their Africans.

The same people - perhaps not the NUT, perhaps not literally the exact same people - but the same kind of people protested against the Iraq war, in greater numbers, eleven years ago. If they had stormed the Houses of Parliament the security forces present would have been hard-pressed to machine-gun 750,000 of them, although the front ranks would have been mown down. I can imagine them bursting into the chamber of the House of Commons, perhaps live on TV. Tony Blair would have held up his hand and said "enough!", and they would have stopped and filed out again to their houses which were appreciating at a rate of 12% a year.

It seems to me that if any Tories were watching this protest, their attitude would have been "I don't care about these people; they're not going to vote for us anyway, so why bother listening to them?". Perhaps if they had paraded with banners that read CAMERON - WE LOVE YOU! BUT SOME OF YOUR DECISIONS CONCERN US they might have got their wish.

My solution? Pick out the most attractive protester and have her become David Cameron's mistress, and get her to subtly influence his decision-making process. Helena Bonham-Carter is attractive, I'm sure David Cameron would listen to her. Or buy a hundred of those radio-controlled quadcopters and get them to drop bags of chilli powder onto the House of Commons. Then, when the politicians rush outside to dunk themselves in the Thames, rush into the House of Commons wearing protective gear, and just sit in the chairs and declare yourselves rulers of Britain. No doubt the army will try to intervene; that's your problem, I've done the hard stuff for you.

It was the longest day of the year. Next stop: winter.