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What I can do with a Leica 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux on a Sony A7rII that I cannot do on a Leica M Body

What I can do with a Leica 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux on a Sony A7rII that I cannot do on a Leica M Body

We all love bokeh. It’s what the Leica 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux does best. However, we are all quick to forget that the primary reason for a lens like the Noctilux is for low available light photography. Then again, how can you blame anyone for forgetting that? Although the Noctilux is great in low light, the Leica M bodies are not the best camera bodies in that situation. So it’s no wonder that low light photography isn’t the first thing that people think about, when shooting the Noctilux.

This image is an example of what is required to get tack focus on a Leica M240, under "suboptimal" light conditions. Shot on a Sony A7r MKII, the subject's face is actually in the center of the frame - in order to simulate optimal focus on a Leica body. In other words, this image was not reframed for composition after focus. Composition was fixed in post, by cropping out the excess area. Also note how dark the image is, since it was shot at ISO 6400. The only reason why the image still works is because the subject's smartphone was lighting up her face. 

I’ve already mentioned it a couple of times, on some of my other write-ups. The Leica M bodies are horrible in low light. Let’s face it, rangefinder focusing is pretty impossible when you can’t see in the dark. You’re basically trying to hit focus on the subject’s lead eye, under poor light that has diminished any contrast for you to even begin to or ever confirm focus - and at that - inside that wee little focusing window. Its just torture. But try and try again and again, one will eventually feather the focusing ring into accepting some manner of focus - which is an euphemism for not actually being in focus. But then, you’ll need to reframe the image in the viewfinder, thus likely shifting the Leica M body out of that perceived focus, for the sake of composition. And if that doesn’t take the cake, the high ISO of the Leica M240 begins to look barely useable at ISO 6400, in low light.

One of my warm-up shot in the dark. This shot would have been close to impossible, if I were to have shot it on a Leica M body.  Granted, I can't say for sure if I got tack focus, given the noise from the high ISO. However, given how far away the subject is - roughly twenty feet from me - I think that this shot works. It can only get better from here on in.

The thing is this… I do love my Leica lenses. I really do. I just really don’t like the M bodies, when it comes to available light photography. So it comes as no surprise that I have been adapting my Leica lenses on my Sony A7r MKII. And I’m telling you, it’s been a match made in heaven. With focus peaking and focus magnification, I can do things with my Noctilux that I could never do with my Leica M240. 

I can focus quickly in the dark. I can get focus from subjects that are further away - also in the dark. I can magnify focus and see greater details in the subject’s lead eye, so that I can better insure focus. And with that flippy LCD screen, I can focus on a subject without startling the people around me. For some reason, people seem more forgiving to waist level focusing than with eye level focusing?

Getting focus with focus magnification on the Sony A7r MKII  was easy. What would normally take me a great undertaking to focus with the Leica M240, the Sony enable me to do it in seconds. And once I hit focus, I didn't need to reframe the image, since with the Sony, I was able to move the focus point to the subject's eyes.

The combination of the Sony and Noctilux is so good, you can shoot in light conditions that is even too dark for the average Canon 5D MKIII + 50mm f/1.2. With the Sony and Noctilux pairing, I feel from my own observation that I’m gaining at the very least, one stop in speed. It might not sound like much, but one stop is huge, when it comes to low light photography. And to be perfectly biased, it seems more like two stops to me.

For my test, I took the Sony A7r MKII + Leica 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux pairing to a poorly lit bar - which is "code" for a very cool place with very cool people - and by the way, if I'm not clear on this, it was really cool in every sense of how cool Brooklyn is. And in being cool, the prerequisite light condition of the bar had to be horrible - in fact, absolutely horrendous, from a photographer’s evaluative point of view. I started out shooting with the Leica 28mm f/1.4 Summilux, and believe me, that one stop difference is completely noticeable. However, once I switched over to the Noct, night had become day, as if the Angels themselves brought forth the light from above to the chorus of hallelujah (well... not exactly, but it sure as heck felt that way).

I still cannot get over the fact that I was able to get tack focus on the subject's lead eye. As you can see, bokeh isn't that impressive, even though the image was shot wide open at f/0.95. However, the blurring in the foreground and background sufficiently does it job in isolating the main subject, thus giving greater emphasis in the image's narrative.

In addition, I didn’t want to exceed ISO 12,500. For my taste, going beyond 12,500 results in too much unpleasant artifacts in the image. And because I’m working a room, no one is going to stay still and pose for me. People were drinking and having a good time. It's up to the guy taking pictures to accommodate, and not the other way around. So, I to set the shutter speed at 1/250th of a second, just to make sure I freeze the action. And even with this setup, I was underexposed by one stop, which meant I had to push a stop in post on Lightroom.

It may not be apparently clear, but this image was taken in relative darkness, and required a little more TLC in post - meaning pushed more than a stop of exposure. But once the exposure is resolved on Lightroom, you can see just how much detail the Noctilux retains, even when shot wide open.

Another image shot in relative darkness and fixed in post. I still cannot get over how much detail is preserved by both the apparent sharpness of the lens wide open and the dynamic range of the Sony A7r MKII sensor, especially when compared to my experience with the Leica M240 sensor.

If I were shooting with a more popular Leica M240 + Leica 50mm f/1.4 Summilux pairing, that would have been impossible to do. At the very least, I would have lost two stops in speed. I wouldn’t be able to push the exposure one stop in post. With that pairing, I would need to push it by three stops, which is just too much to expect. Then, the solution would be to shoot at 1/60th of a second, but that would invariably result in motion blur - which I dislike as much as high contrast high saturated color images.

And the results - it speaks for itself. I can actually post these images online without having to hide myself in shame. The Sony sensor is superior to the Leica M body sensor. At ISO 12,500, I can tolerate the noise. Honestly, I think it even has a nice grain like quality. As for the dynamic range, pushing it by a stop, I can still recover the details in the shadows that would have been lost on a Leica M body sensor.

This image was shot in a relatively brighter area of the bar. As a result, the auto ISO was set at 6400. That meant that at f/0.95, I was able to get an even cleaner file.

I don't normally photograph people who are working... but in this case, I will make an exception. All night long he was giving me vodka tonic, even though I only wanted sparkling water. I think he was doing me a solid - only I've stopped drinking alcohol, for the last ten years.

The main subject and the foreground people kept moving and moving, so getting focus on her would have been impossible on a Leica M body. But with focus magnification, it was easy to get sufficient focus on the subject's lead eye, despite her animated personality. 

With a superior sensor, the Noctilux can properly shine in the dark. Inasmuch as any grainier ISO 12,500 image could be, the focus has the illusion of pixelated sharpness. Outside of focus, the supporting objects in the image melts away in both the foreground and background, which then further isolates the main subject. I've never shot the Noctilux in such awful light with so much success. And seeing how it renders the image, there's a very intimate feel to it. I like it. I like it very very much.

However, the cherry on the icing is still the bokeh (assuming you're shooting close enough).

Bokeh Bokeh Bokeh! Although the Noctilux was intended for low available light photography, it's really the bokeh that makes photographers love it. 

Bokeh aside, the Sony A7r MKII was incredible. It enabled me to do the impossible with the Leica 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux. For the first time, I was able to shoot in relative darkness wide open and hit focus sufficiently enough to keep most of my photos. As a result, I was able to string together a visual narrative of the night, given how amazing the images turned out.

One final shot - not from the Noctilux. This shot with the Leica 28mm f/1.4 Summilux was only possible, because it was taken in that relatively brighter area of the bar. If all I had was the Summilux, I would've only had one usable image file for the entire night. That would have been very disappointing.

Makes me wonder how the Leica SL would do under the same conditions. Only way to find out is to bite the bullet. Actually, I have already bitten the bullet... thanks to Craig @LeicaStoreNewYorkSoho for weakening me at the knees with that joystick focus on the Leica SL... I really bit the bullet big time.

I guess this means I have no choice but to conduct a Sony A7 versus Leica SL comparison. In the immortal words of Barney Stinson - Challenge Accepted! 

A note on post. Except for the first image shot to simulate focusing on the Leica M240, all the images have not been cropped - so look away for corner sharpness - although I really cannot imagine why you would want to, given that everything was shot wide open.

Special thanks to Chris for inviting me to Kinfolk 94, a really really cool bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  

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