Street Shooting Wide Open with Leica's 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux and the Sony A7rII
Shooting wide open on a prime lens is never easy, especially for a lens like Leica's 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux. With a paper thin depth of field, there really isn't any room for focusing error. But compound that depth of field with the fluid demands of street photography, and you've made your work a lot harder. Add framing (or rather reframing for rangefinder photography) to your mix of things to do and remember, and your chances of hitting focus fades furthermore. And if you want to get your street subject's face, and not just the back of their heads, then you really have to perfect your focusing technique, in order to make that happen.
Mind you, it's not impossible to get perfect reframed focus on a rangefinder with Leica's 0.95 Noctilux, but it's pretty damn hard to do it. So when I had the opportunity to try the Noctilux on the Sony A7rII, I was actually blown away by the experience.
it's not to say that the Sony A7rII is superior to the Leica rangefinders. In truth, there's a lot that I don't like about the Sony A7rII. But when it comes to shooting the Noct wide open for street photography, it increases your chances to hit focus - not just in the center of the frame, but anywhere on the frame.
With a traditional rangefinder, focus can only be made in the center of the frame. So if you want your subject's eyes to be in tack focus, you will have to focus on the lead eye, at the center of the frame. But to photograph a well composed image, one will need to reframe the image after focus. That means repositioning your camera, and risk losing focus on the lead eye.
But on the Sony A7rII, you don't need to do that. With focus peaking, you can focus anywhere on the frame. For a street photographer, what this means is that you eliminate one step, thereby speeding up your focusing process while at the same time eliminating the variable of repositioning that can ruin your focus.
It's one thing to be aware of that benefit. I've always known that the Sony Alpha cameras can do that with fast Leica primes. But when you actually do that - meaning use focus peaking on your Sony Alpha camera with the Noctilux wide open, the experience will blow you away. All of a sudden, taking street photograph's with people's faces facing you with bokeh in the background is possible. And when you actually get tack focus on your street subject's eyes - the Sony A7rII will turn you into an EVF convert. It's amazing.
Of course, it's not all perfect, with regards to the street shooting process. It does take time to adjust your shooting technique. For one thing, you really can't zone focus wide open at f/0.95. I mean, you could, but your chances of hitting focus isn't going to be good. But why would you need to zone focus, or for that matter, shoot blindly at waist level. With the Sony A7rII, you can focus peak with the LCD screen flipped up at waist to chest level, depending on the distance of the subject relative to your height. You could even focus by walking into focus with the flippy screen flipped up, which I discovered over the weekend with Leica's vintage 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux. Think Captain Rameas in the Hunt for Red October reducing the distance between his sub and the launched torpedo against him, and you'll know what I mean.
The biggest problem with the Sony A7rII with regards to street photography is the 42 megapixel sensor. I mean, don't get me wrong. I think it's a great sensor when you hit focus. But street photography can be a very animated process, and remaining still to prevent camera shake is not always possible. I've had the same problem with the Nikon D800E and the Canon 5DSr in street photography, so I know of this issue. However, the solution is easy. If you want to hit focus wide open with a Noct, get the Sony A7II instead.
A final issue that I have with the Sony A7rII shooting wide open may not necessarily be a street photography issue. From my sample images, I noticed that the bokeh doesn't have that characteristic creamy Leica look to it. I don't know if it's because that creamy bokeh can only be rendered at closer focusing distance or whether there's something more to it that requires the use of a Leica system. This irregularity is something that I will need to investigate at a later date. Follow my Instagram or subscribe me for updates on this.
Here are two more bonus images that I've just included after publishing this post. They're example of what this combo looks like at night, with not much available light from the street lamps.
So my conclusion - If the Noct is this good on a Sony A7rII, it must be amazing on the Leica SL. But the Leica SL is so much more expensive, and a much larger camera body too. For my purpose, I will resist upgrading to the Leica SL, since I still prefer rangefinder street photography. However, that may change later this week when I test drive the new Techart autofocus adapter for Sony Alpha cameras with Leica M mount lenses. This should be interesting.