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The Leica SL - Zone Focusing + Street Photography - Part 2

The Leica SL - Zone Focusing + Street Photography - Part 2

It's still cloudy with rain threatening at all hours of the day, which I suppose is normal in Hong Kong, especially this time of year. It is typhoon season, after all, which does seem to surprise many who are not from around here. Unbeknownst to those from far and away, Hong Kong is a tropical city. So half the year the sun is blazing overhead, while the other half, it's just wet and miserable, with the odd chance of typhoons hitting the city.

Needless to say, I'm not going to be testing the Leica SL under the hot blazing sun, anytime soon, The test to evaluate the dynamic range, when there's extreme highlights together coupled with extreme shadows, will have to come at a later date. That will be pushed back to part 3. Until then, because the weather is not cooperating with my schedule, part 2 will be a test on what I normally do with my Leica M bodies - which is zone focusing on the street.

It may appear that I'm stalling for time - which sadly is the case. But let's put it this way. Anna was here, I had some free time from work, and the weather for the most part was agreeable. The only thing missing was the intense direct sunlight. Not quite a quote from Meatloaf, but three out of four ain't bad. Honestly, the weather outside was perfect for taking photos. I just needed an excuse to go out and take advantage of nature's natural light diffuser. So zone focusing on the streets with the SL it was.

Anna tagging along with me. Or is it the other way around? In any event, it was much too dark to do any zone focusing inside that dimly lit hallway. Shot wide open.

My regular "ideal" zone focus shot, with the entire body in the frame, with enough environmental background to establish setting.

Where to begin... The size.

The size of the SL is definitely a problem, when it comes to street photography. The Leica SL looks like an imposing beast. Forget about using the 24-90mm zoom lens. That pairing will scare off the natives. People on the street will look at you with great trepidation - more so than if you were carrying a regular DSLR and zoom kit. I don't know what it is. Perhaps it's that glossy black paint and angular look of the SL that makes people take notice of it.

Even adapted with a Leica M lens, the SL doesn't look any less imposing. It just has this serious façade. And trust me, the natives are wary when I point in their direction.

Thankfully, I've decided not to do anymore unsolicited street photography for my write-ups. For the look that I am trying to achieve with my content, there's too much uncertainty in depending on the good nature or forgiveness of people I don't know. Thankfully, Anna was with me, so I didn't have to deal with that.

The paradox of street photography is to shoot successfully without crowd cover. You don't want the crowds photobombing you, but the crowds can distract the subject from your intent. Without distraction, the SL would definitely attract attention, given it's imposing facade.

When I am shooting away from eye level (not necessarily from the hip), rotational shifts become more exaggerated at closer range. Needless to say, this image has been cropped.

 

The Leica SL feels big and heavy, especially when shot from the hip. I can't seem to get it leveled instinctually, and all the images tend to slant towards the right - roughly a clockwise rotational goof by 5 to 10 degrees more than my regular goof. It's no big deal. It's nothing that cannot be fixed in Lightroom. But having to correct more on Lightroom pretty much says it all about shooting from the hip or away from eye level with the SL. It's just not going to feel like a Leica M body.

Frankly, I don't know why this happens. If I were to take a guess, I would point my finger on the weight distribution of the SL or even it's size. When I shoot from the hip or away from eye level, I depend on leveling the shot with only the feel of the wrist on my shutter hand. So for whatever reason it is - probably size related - many of my off eye level shots were not leveled.

I'm not enthusiastic about shooting at the hip with the SL. But when it comes to shooting at eye level, the SL is so much better than the M. You can frame the shot with so much more accuracy. And with zone focusing, you can capture spontaneity with more success. In this image, I was able to get the shot the instance Anna turned around.

Honestly, it would be such a waste not to shoot at eye level with the SL. After a while, I stopped shooting from the hip. 

Mind you, it was a weird sensation to zone focus at eye level with the SL. I felt this overwhelming need to adjust focus, only because I was framing through the EVF.

Before long, I gave up shooting from the hip, and started to frame exclusively from the viewfinder. What was interesting about that was my compulsion to focus accurately, when framing through the EVF, despite not having to do it, since I was zone focusing. I couldn't help myself, because the image in the viewfinder was not in perfect focus. Think of it as an itch you just had to scratch, or a knee-jerk reaction.

With the Leica M bodies, you didn't have that problem, because the viewfinder is never blurry, with focusing done in the small focusing window. It's easy to ignore the small focusing square, and thus frame without a blurry distraction while zone focusing. With that said, I still couldn't stop adjusting the focusing ring when zone focusing on the SL. Eventually, I did muster enough self control to not feather the focusing ring for perfect focus. However, I still adjusted it enough to reduce the blurriness in the EVF, for the sake of better composition.

After a while, zone focusing with the EVF on SL was rather fun. You start to shoot thinking about composition. In my case, I wanted to highlight the street elements of Hong Kong. In this image, I waited for a Hong Kong streetcar to pass by.

I asked Anna to stand between one side of the streetcar shelter and the street light. This naturally frames her in the image. The SL feels much better at eye level than away.

This image has been cropped. Anna's dress was having a Seven Year Itch moment. The passing streetcar blew a rushing gust up her dress not as elegantly as it did for Marilyn Monroe. Mind you, cropping isn't anything abnormal when it comes to street photography. 

It should also be noted that the Leica SL feels much better zone focusing when compared to DSLRs like the Canon 5D or Nikon D800, largely because the SL accepts Leica M-mount lens. With M-mount lenses, shifting focus is much faster and easier with the focusing tab, when you need to change focus blindly on the fly. Often in street photography, the scene changes, requiring an adjustment in focus, even while zone focusing.

Another advantage with using M-mount lenses are the depth of field guides on the lens. It provides immediate reference on how deep the focus would be at a selected aperture setting. When I'm zone focusing, I need to be constantly reminded of my range of focus.

In addition to the advantages of the Leica M-mount lenses, the Leica SL also has the benefit of having a dedicated shutter dial and a functioning aperture ring on the Leica M-mount lenses. Changing exposure on the fly is so much faster and easier on the SL than competing DSLRs.

Anna's Bridgette Bardot moment... or rather the turnaround look reminiscent of Claudia Schiffer's incarnation of the French actress for Guess. I'm disappointed at myself for tracking her at 1/500s, while both of us were moving rather briskly. So the image has a slight motion blur when Anna whipped her head around to look back. Still... I kind of like that imperfection, in that it reinforces the feeling of motion in the most inviting way. 

Final boring shot at the barricades. But there were no-one around to photobomb this image, which was fine with me.

So how do I feel about the Leica SL with regards to zone focusing on the street? Honestly, this is a silly question. Of course it's possible, because of how accessible the controls are for both aperture and shutter speed. It wouldn't be the end of the world. But with that said, it's not ideal, unless if you're good at getting strangers to cooperate with you. Plus it doesn't help with the EVF situation, with regards to zone focusing. Stick with using something smaller, like a Leica M body. If anything, an M body just feels right on the street, and it looks less imposing than the SL or any DSLRs.

On a side note, now that I have my new Canon 5D Mark IV, the more appropriate question to ask is how the Leica SL with the 24-90mm zoom compares to the Canon 5D4 with the 24-70 zoom. One has a slightly longer focal length at 90mm, while the other is consistently faster at f/2.8 across the zooming range. Sounds like a challenge to me - and yes - challenge accepted. How I'm going to do this, I just haven't figured it out yet. I just wish I had more time to do this.

Many of the images in this writeup have been leveled on Lightroom - so some are cropped. Furthermore, all images have been slightly tweaked in post. With the overcast weather, there really wasn't much of a reason to optimize the images.

Thank you Anna, my accomplice in crime!

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