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Pairing the Leica M246 Monochrome with the 35mm f/2 Summicron ASPH II

Pairing the Leica M246 Monochrome with the 35mm f/2 Summicron ASPH II

It may seem that I don't like the Leica 35mm f/2 Summicron ASPH as much as I did, seven months ago, when I first reviewed the updated version of that lens. It's not true. I love all my children equally, even if they're slower than faster f/1.4 lenses. I mean, could any self respecting parent hate their baby, just because they're a little slow? Besides, what is there not to like about the updated 35 Cron? I love the 35 Cron. I've even compared three generations of it. And as for the updated version, it is a remarkably sharp lens that can resolve greater detail at higher resolution.

In addition to the reaffirmation of my utmost affection for this updated version of the 35 Cron, I've also noticed an increased number of visits to that earlier review - from many finding their way here from a Google search! Well, given renew interest, and given that this blog has evolved considerably from it's humble beginnings as a regular run-of-the-mill gear review site (using unsolicited street photographs for sample images), I've decided to update my review of the updated 35 Cron with Anna. It only seems right.

Unfortunately, all that I need to say about the updated 35 Cron has already been said. So doing an updated review would be redundant. Though... what isn't as redundant is providing more sample images shot from this lens. With that said, there has to be something more relevant for me to write about. Then it occurred to me that I could write about my musing on the 35 Cron - namely paired with the Leica M246 Monochrom.

Warm up shot at ISO 800, f/2, 1/60s. Pushed 1/2 a stop. From this point onward, pushed a stop is an euphemism for bad exposure.

Warm up shot at ISO 800, f/2, 1/60s. Pushed 2 stops.

Warm up shot at ISO 800, f/2.8, 1/125s. Pushed 3 stops.

To me, it makes perfect sense to write about the M246 with the 35 Cron. It is not as if I settled on this pairing arbitrarily. I mean I did shoot with this combination exclusively for over two years, given that the two are a match made in photo documentation heaven. So it made perfect sense to expand on this narrative arc.

The only problem is, I haven't been shooting with a rangefinder for quite some time. So it took a little more than a couple of warm up shots to get the hang of it again. Okay, I'll 'fess up! My focusing and exposure reading was off. I shouldn't have been so ambitious, and started the shoot indoors and under poor lighting. It's not so much that the M246 and the 35 Cron cannot handle low light. It's more an issue of the location being too dark for me to determine focus from a distance... in other words, user's shortcoming. 

Then immediately after fumbling around in the dark (deep in the underbelly of a typically more modest local Hong Kong establishment), I remerged back into the light of day, only to bring to attention my most maligned shortcomings in mishandling highlights under the bright afternoon sun. Though eventually, I got the hang of rangefinder photography again with the M246. It's like riding a bicycle, I guess. Once you've shot with a rangefinder, you'll always know how to shoot it.

More warm up shot at ISO 800, f/5.6, 1/500s. The highlight in Anna's face has completely been blown out.

More warm up shot at ISO 800, f/8, 1/500s. Pushed a stop.

More warm up shot at ISO 800, f/8, 1/500s. With this much backlighting, and at that range, fill flash wouldn't have been a bad idea.

Still the shortcoming... I suppose I could excuse myself by saying I deliberately blew the shots for the sake of testing dynamic range... yea, that's the ticket! It's just too bad that I've already written about crushed shadows and blown highlights on a previous article. But to be fair to myself, I've never crushed shadows or blew highlights with Anna on the M246. And in deliberately capturing the incorrect exposure, I have reconfirmed that the dynamic range on this monochrome body is significantly more forgiving towards underexposure than overexposure - at least a 3 stop cushion of underexposure versus 1 stop overexposure.

As a result, it makes sense to err on the side of caution, or rather slightly underexposed, when shooting with the M246. Admittedly, I understand it's always better to get the right exposure to reduce the extent of editing in post. But the world is generally not so ideal to give one all the time in the world to get everything just perfect. The thing is, getting the right exposure isn't always as exact and immediate as one would like, given the algorithm of automation or the response time of doing it manually. And to miss a shot because you're too slow to determine the perfect exposure is just being obstinate for the sake of proper form. From that perspective, it is better to get an imperfect capture than no capture at all - meaning an underexposed image to prevent blown highlights.

As a result, I generally set the exposure compensation up a stop when I'm outside. Given a 3 stop cushion on the dark side, it makes sense to take advantage of the dynamic range, in order to facilitate image capture. You would think that when I am photographing Anna that I have the luxury of time to sort out the exposure setting. But you would be wrong. In order to capture her as naturally as possible, I photograph her as we go along, moving about, in the ever changing light. So the exposure changes constantly too. To me, underexposure is the lesser of two evils. If I shoot too deliberately without spontaneity in reacting to Anna's quirks and idiosyncrasies, her body language and expression would become overly rigid and much too staged.

Shot at ISO 800, f/5.6, 1/500s.

Shot at ISO 800, f/5.6, 1/250s.

Shot at ISO 6400, f/5.6, 1/250s.

Shooting with the 35 Cron, my preference is to zone focus. The generous depth of field enables me to shoot quickly without having to fuss over tack focus. Just as long as my subject is within the range, focus will be pretty likely. There's no aggravation with acquiring focus points. It's wonderful. You just look through the viewfinder and compose. It is so much better than having to autofocus.

Generally for zone focusing, I prefocus at around 5-6 feet from the subject (which is roughly 1.5 to 2 meters away). From my experience, 5-6 feet is an easy distance to prefocus, because it can be eyeballed in the context of a person's body length. But more importantly, at 5-6 feet, the depth of field covers a sufficiently wide range when stopped down, to provide a margin of error in focus. At that distance with the 35 Cron, I can capture around 3/4 of the subject - although with Anna, it was probably a little less, given her obvious stature.

Admittedly zone focusing is not limited to rangefinder photography. I suppose one could also do that with a DSLR. But why would anyone do that? The point of autofocus is to autofocus. Besides, the manual focus experience is seldom ever good with autofocus lenses. There is never enough tension and tactile feedback when you turn the manual focusing ring. But then again, I suppose too much tension would impede the autofocus motor from turning smoothly.

Shot at ISO 800, f/4, 1/500s.

Shot at ISO 6400, f/4, 1/2000s.

Shot at ISO 800, f/4, 1/250s.

Practically speaking, zone focusing offers the photographer a great deal of creative flexibility. Because there is certainty of focus within a range of distance, it is possible to photograph the subject in motion with relative freedom. To take advantage of this, I asked Anna to do her best impression of John Cleese's Silly Walks... it didn't quite work out, given that Anna isn't a Python fan, and rather frankly, it's not in her to look inelegant in any way.

Then I asked her to jump. It seemed like the next best thing to do. We had practiced jumping before, from another shoot, so we knew what was the most visually pleasing way to launch one's self into the air. Needless to say, Anna did cause quite the sensation, having made one jump after another after another in plain view. Passersby, particularly mates named Bruce (presumably after a pint of lager) greeted Anna's leaps with boisterous exuberance.

Since we were attracting a little too much attention, we decided to cut short the jumping, and resumed a less animated course of action. Besides, it is not as if Anna could have continued to jump indefinitely. The poor girl wasn't prepared for this kind of workout, dressed in a smart casual blazer ensemble.  

Shot at ISO 800, f/4, 1/125s. Shooting from far away.

Shot at ISO 800, f/8, 1/60s. In front of an erosion retaining wall. 

Shot at ISO 800, f/11, 1/30s.

When evaluating the 35mm Summicron, the comparisons to the 35mm Summilux are unavoidable. Yes, it is true that the Summilux has an extra stop of speed. As such, the Summilux is just that much better in available light, isolating the subject, and rendering bokeh. However, the 35 Cron never asked for or wanted to be the 35 Lux. The 35 Cron was made for quite a different purpose. It was never about isolating the image or doing head shots, it's about providing context, especially in the case of photographing environmental portraits.

Functionally, the 35 Cron has some quantifiable advantages over the 35 Lux, with respect to photographing environmental portraits. For example, the depth of field is slightly more generous; the corners are sharper even wide open (or rather comparatively at f/2); and there are slightly less barrel distortion - all of which I've been told - given that these differences are too minuscule to be relevant to me. From my perspective, the advantage of the 35 Cron is the relative ease of use when compared to the 35 Lux - albeit very subtle.

It isn't just one thing that makes the 35 Cron better in doing environmental portraits. It is a combination of little factors. For example, it's doesn't cover the viewfinder, so its better for composition. It isn't designed to shoot at f/1.4, so the focusing throw is shorter - reflecting a more forgiving depth of field wide open. And because it cannot shoot at f/1.4, you won't need to fight temptation to shoot wide open all the time. As a result, you're more likely to shoot stopped down and not isolate the subject from the environmental context.

Shot at ISO 800, f/8, 1/500s.

Shot at ISO 800, f/5.6, 1/500s.

Shot at ISO 800, f/2, 1/750s. Not especially the best bokeh again... and not exactly from very far away.

Mind you, its not all smiles and sunshine shooting stopped down. The problem with not isolating the subject and documenting everything is the fact you're not isolating the subject and documenting everything. It's not as if the background is always ideal for image capture. With a faster lens, you can always shoot closer-up wide-open at f/1.4 to melt away distracting background details.

But with the 35 Cron, shooting wide open at f/2 is nowhere near to what the 35 Lux can isolate wide open. And when stopped down, which is generally the conventional use of the 35 Cron, all the ugly details behind (and in front of the subject) will be unobstructed with great clarity and relative sharpness - including potential background eyesores taking attention away from the subject.

The best way to minimize this issue is to shoot black and white - and in my case with the M246. By not shooting in color, you eliminate the variable in composition. As a result, clashing colors of vibrant intensity become shades of gray, which then blends into the background in a more innocuous way. So the clutter in that more modest local establishment can reorganize into a series of shapes on a grayscale. The same goes with the calcium deposit on the concrete retaining wall. And those ghastly colored tiles lining the streets and buildings of Hong Kong? They become a series of shapes breaking up the negative space. for the sake of composition.

Shot at ISO 400, f/2, 1/4000s.

Shot at ISO 400, f/4, 1/500s. Anna was almost run over by that double decker bus. That is the expression of Anna seeing her life flashing before her eyes. What Anna wouldn't do for a picture. I didn't see it coming, with my back facing the approaching bus.

Shot at ISO 400, f/4, 1/500s.

Still, there are some with the opinion that black and white photography is a cop out. In a manner of speaking, it is. Black and white photography is a demonstration of simplification. How could it not be? When shooting in black and white, the variable of color is eliminated from photographic concern. And it is not a little variable. It is a big one. Without color, a photographer no longer needs to worry about clashing colors in the composition or suboptimal lighting affecting white balance.

With that said, when has copping out ever been entirely a bad thing to do? An argument can be made that copping out with monochrome photography is simplifying the photographic process for the sake of providing the photographer with compositional clarity. Free from the concerns of color, a photographer only needs to focus on shapes and contrast of light in composition.

The experience of black and white photography is therefore very liberating. For someone like me, it's pure fun. It lets me shoot more freely, capturing photo opportunities that I might have otherwise passed up, if shooting color. It is for this reason that I love the Leica M246. It documents a simplified version of the world to facilitate image capture. Don't believe me? Count the number of sample images in this writeup. It's on the higher side.

Shot at ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/500s. underexposed a stop in order not to blow the highlights on Anna's shirt.

Shot at ISO 400, f/2.8, 1/125s. Checking the distortion at the edges and corner, which isn't bad at all.

Shot at ISO 400, f/2, 1/350s. Close up to evaluate the bokeh. Not great, but not bad either.

Of course an argument can be made that one doesn't need a monochrome sensor to shoot black and white in a digital work flow. For black and white, all one needs to do is desaturate a color image capture, either in camera or in post. But then the question remains whether desaturating color images would result in the same level of quality as images from a native monochromatic sensor?

Conveniently, I've already done some preliminary exploration into this question. In that writeup, I compared the image capture between the M240's color sensor desaturated and the M246's monochrome sensor, From what I could assess, there didn't seem to be much of a difference under normal ambient light. However, I am mindful that the M246 can shoot relatively cleanly at ISO 12,500, whereas the M240 begins to look noisy at ISO 6,400. And I'm also aware that the M246 handles shadows significantly better whereas the M240 handles highlights better.

In that respect, the different characteristic of the image sensor makes the M246 a more appealing choice for me than the alternative of desaturating a color image from the M240. In my experience, there have always been vastly more situations in which the need to bump up ISO or push the exposure a stop of two is required. Speed in exposure, especially in poor lighting, is of greater concern to me than the alternative of overexposure or pulling a stop or two. It is for this reason that I shot exclusively with the M246 for over two years.

Shot at ISO 6400, f/4, 1/500s. Zone focusing and tracking focus with the focusing tab on an approaching Anna.

Shot at ISO 6400, f/4, 1/500s. The focus tab on the 35mm f/2 Summicron ASPH II glided smoothly.

Shot at ISO 6400, f/4, 1/500s.

But what of desaturating color image files from competing DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, like the Canon 1Dx Mark II, the Canon 5D Mark IV, the Nikon D5, or the Sony A7s? All those cameras have very capable high ISO and forgiving dynamic range in their RAW capture? To be frank, the shooting experience will be different, despite the possibility of comparable image quality with their desaturated files, under extreme light conditions and/or with the exposure captured incorrectly.

In the end, what makes the Leica M246 with the 35mm f/2 Summicron ASPH II a delight to use is the shooting experience. It's something that DSLR and mirrorless shooters may not necessarily understand. The thing is, there isn't a single defining characteristic that makes this pairing better than another pairing. But there are many subtle differences that when stacked together, makes all the world the difference. In fact, it has taken me this long to thread together this meandering narrative to explain why I love about this combination.

Now, I know that I've been giving rangefinder photography a hard time over the last many months. But I must say, picking up this pairing was like reacquainting myself with an old friend. I really did miss them, and am happy to have written this article - even though it has taken me quite some time to do it. With that said, I cannot wait for the upcoming rumored M10 with the dedicated ISO dial... and of course, the likely ensuing Monochrome edition.

Shot at ISO 6400, f/2, 1/750s.

Shot at ISO 6400, f/2, 1/750s. Extreme backlighting close up.

Shot at ISO 12500, f/2, 1/60s. A final high ISO example.

All images in this writeup have been optimize in Lightroom. The first three images have been cropped, for the sake of framing... or rather, I forgot to level the camera... and I do hate unleveled images.

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