Thursday, June 17, 2010

Putting "Magic" into Leica

The word "Leica" and "magic" are frequently used together in a sentence by many.  I don't know if there's a better word than magic to describe Leica images.  Over the years, I had not paid much attention to Leica images until recently.  There's something special about the way the lights are captured and rendered in those images.  The magic of Leica, I believe, lies largely in their very special lenses.  As special as their cameras may be (and they truly are), it's the lens that paints the images.  

As my interests in Leica grew, I started browsing the internet for more and more images taken with Leica cameras.  Many of them possess that dreamy and painterly look that is unique to Leica.  Later I discovered that there's one particular lens, the Noctilux, that is renowned for this special quality.

Many have written about the Noctilux, its history, quality, and the different versions over the years.  I'm not even going to try.  One version that I find most interesting is the last series of the f1.0, before Leica replaces it with the f0.95 version.  The optics isn't technically perfect since its root dates back quite a few decades.  But the refinement over the years have made this f1.0 a truly unique lens.  The bokeh of this lens is truly unique in a sense that it almost has a signature look to it.  At f1.0, it renders the bokeh with a swirly effect and the focus area remains on the soft side, much like older cinema lens would.  Stopping it down a few clicks, and it sharpens up while keeping a watery-smooth look in the bokeh.  This quality seems to be missing in the new and technically superb f0.95 version.  

Late in 2009, luck came my way when a used 6-bit coded Noctilux popped up in the local market.  I didn't even have the M9 when I decided to buy it.  The seller showed me a few shots he had taken with the lens, and I tested the focusing on his M6.  After some more inspection, we had a deal.  No matter what camera format you normally shoot, the Noctilux is a heavy lens.  By Leica standard, it's huge!  By DSLR standard, however, it is on the 'normal' side.  Focus throw, on the other hand, is quite long and it takes time getting used to unlike Leica's smaller "Lux" and "Cron" lenses.

I started shooting the Noctilux on Olympus EP-1 before my M9 arrived.  Even with Micro 4/3 format, I was already impressed by the images.  But not until I shot the Noctilux on the M9 that I truly appreciated its special quality.  For some, the Noctilux will remain an occasional lens.  For me, I don't really mind carrying  and shooting with it.  Most of the time, I shoot the Noctilux between f1.4 - 2.8 so that the images remain sharp with silky smooth bokeh.  I shoot at f1.0 only when it's very dark, or when the swirly bokeh is desired.  For me, the Noctilux will always be the definition of Leica magic.  There are other great Leica lenses, no doubt, but the Noctilux has its place secured in the history book.


This photo must have been shot at f2.0 or so, note three dimensionality and the creamy bokeh.  

One of my early shots with the M9, testing out the Noctilux.

One evening, we had to pick up our son from the boy scout camp at school.  This teacher in the photo also taught me years ago, so it was really special to see him working, still!

"Star Spotting" - This shot was made in near total darkness (later adjusted in Aperture). I came away impressed with the ability of the Noctilux.

A recent photo taken at a local concert, showcasing the warm glow of Leica lens.

Hope you enjoy the photos,


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