Los Angeles with Anna - Part II - Day and Night with the Leica 21mm f/3.4 Super Elmar + APO 50mm f/2 Summicron
Next time I wander through the desert, remember to bring a neutral density filter. Though to be fair, I never originally planned on going there - assuming if I actually made a plan before leaving Hong Kong. In all the years I've had a neutral density filter, I don't remember ever bringing one along, just in case I needed it. It's like my lens hood. I would never use it unless it's attached onto my lens.
One could only wonder what would happen if my head weren't attached to something useful?
But then, something happened that made me regret my oversight. I scored a proper car from a rental company for our stay. It was candy yellow, it had eight cylinders, and it could drive with the top down. I mean, how cool is that! It was 302 cubic inches of American splendor. One look at it, and I knew what I was destined to do. Road trip! Definitely a road trip. This pony car needed miles tacked onto it.
Well, maybe not a road trip per se. More like a day trip. It wouldn't make sense for us to drive too far afield only be too far to retire back to the comfort of our prepaid accommodations and nightly turndown service of complementary treats and bottled water. Besides, I don't think Anna would be too keen on staying overnight at a Motel 6, after getting an earful from me.
Still, where to go?
If I recall, there is a certain opinionated photoblogger who makes an annual pilgrimage to Route 66, where he photographs what he misguidedly calls his art. Having said that, the setting of his images somehow always finds a way to stir my imagination. It makes me wonder what it would be like to use it as a backdrop for my own bucket list documentation. And now that I'm within driving distance, it wouldn't make sense not to go the extra mile. Still, it's not as if I knew exactly what to expect or what to photograph. But I figured, I could always just play it by ear as the crow flies.
Oh, I was so excited. Something to fill our potentially empty days. It was time for Anna and me to have our "Thelma and Louise" moment with the top down. So with a direction in mind, I surrendered to my spirit guide with the help of Google Maps, following step by step the audio instructions fed through our rental's Apple CarPlay.
Only problem is, I had no idea just how sunny the desert is... and me without my neutral density filter. Well... too late to cry over spilled milk. Time to unleash the 435 horses from the gates. First stop, California's Historic Route 66 Museum on route to Barstow.
For someone like myself who seldom deviates beyond the confines of his obsessive compulsive comfort zone, it was befitting that we went on a road trip for this blog post... I mean, day trip. After all, it's not often I wander off the beaten path between the Valley and the Hudson. And even when I travel abroad, I keep on returning to where I've been before. I am a creature of habit, which is why I've grown roots on my preferred Leica 28mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH.
It's also why I've been collaborating with Anna for close to a year.
But I promised myself before flying to Los Angeles that I would venture outside my comfort zone. Yes, I still brought my 28 Lux with me. And yes, Anna is still here. But, I was determined to add some variance to my documentation. The world after all isn't always framed at the 28mm focal length, and it doesn't always need to be documented wide open at f/1.4. I figured we were going to be in sunny Southern California, anyways. So, I might as well dust off a pair of different lenses, passed over as of late, just to live a little less comfortably on the edge.
Thus, I brought along with me the Leica 21mm f/3.4 Super Elmar ASPH, and the Leica APO 50mm f/2 Summicron ASPH. From the perspective of documentation, I felt sufficiently confident that a super wide angle lens and a normal lens would provide enough angle of coverage for travel style reportage. The 21mm focal length would allow me to either get closer or wider, while the 50mm focal length would allow me to go in tighter or provide additional compression to the documentation.
Admittedly, it was easier than usual to optimize usage of either the 21 SEM or APO 50 on this day trip. I wouldn't exactly describe the region of the Mojave Desert on route to Barstow as crowded. Normally in Hong Kong, I'm pressed to shoot in haste in order to avoid including unwanted passersby in the documentation. But here in the middle of nowhere, photobombing wasn't going to be an issue.
Still, it wasn't as if we were completely isolated from the rest of the world. We followed the Interstate for an hour where signs of life dotted the landscape with commuters going about their daily routine. Eventually, I grew tired of the visually suburban route recommended by Google Maps. So then, I decided to duck into a side road where we pulled over onto a clearing for a photo opportunity.
I had hoped to find some privacy off the main road in order to reenact a scene from the first Transformers movie. After all, we had a candied yellow 2+2 with us. So naturally, I popped open the hood and asked Anna to do her best impression of Megan Fox. I figured we were remote enough to set up the shot correctly. But then, the unthinkable happened. A number of concerned drivers on this lonely stretch of road stopped to offer Anna their assistance. What were the odds? Obviously, this was cause for concern.
Needless to say, I shot in haste given the uncertainty of the situation.
Admittedly, we were becoming increasingly impatient with Google Maps. It kept guiding us to follow the main routes towards Barstow. In truth, Google Maps probably did get us there sooner, which was what it was designed to do. However, what we sought wasn't the quickest route, but rather, the scenic route through the road less traveled on California's section of Route 66. It was our goal to document the remoteness of the area for our visual narrative.
But as we drove through the Interstate, we saw signs of hope. The horizon started to flatten out from the San Gabriel Mountains - and for once I began to see clearly across the landscape. For miles and miles it seemed, there were no signs of any inhabitants. It was exactly what I wanted to find. The only thing missing was the iconic Route 66 sign.
There are probably stretches of road through California's section of historic Route 66 that still post that iconic sign. And I suppose if I did some more planning, I would have found it. But I didn't. Instead, my spirit guide released from the crutch of Google Maps led me to a remote desert road off the Burlington North Sante Fe railway line. It was there I found what I had been looking for - or rather my consolation prize. Although it wasn't "the" iconic Route 66 sign I'd seen photographed by that opinionated photoblogger, it was most definitely "a" Route 66 sign, as part of California's section of historic US Route 66 in San Bernardino County.
Honestly, that was close enough for proof of pilgrimage for me.
It's not often I have the luxury of time to savor the moment when shooting on location. Without having to worry about the threat of photobombing, I was able to fully appreciate the combination of using both the 21 SEM and the APO 50. Stopped down, under the bright desert sky, both lenses were easy to use. I didn't have to worry about sharpness or any unforeseen aberration in color. I just had to compose, shoot, and let the depth of field do the rest.
On the 21 SEM, I mostly shot from the waist. With the camera leveled, distortion was no longer an issue. However, on certain occasions, I opted to shoot from varying angles for a different perspective. On those occasion, especially when shot up close, barrel distortion became an issue. However, that was expected since the wider angle of view had to be accommodated.
What I liked most about the 21 SEM was how it better captured the vastness of both the landscape and the sky, without marginalizing the subject. I didn't have to shoot too far away from Anna, which made it easier for me to direct her. But the 21mm focal length does overdo its documentation of vastness, especially with how it pushes back the background further away.
It was for this reason the APO 50 was a welcomed complement to the 21 SEM. There are times when the compositional need is better served by bringing the subject closer to its environmental surrounding. In doing so, the tighter angle of view frames the subject in a more familiar context, even when shot from a distance.
Other than that, I just wished I packed a neutral density filter with me. With how sunny it was all day, I couldn't slow down the shutter speed enough to capture enough motion blur from the speeding train.
Later in the evening, after returning from our day trip, we decided to go for a late supper by the Santa Monica Pier. It gave us an opportunity to test the 21 SEM and APO 50 in low light situation. Despite the high ISO capabilities of the Leica M10, I decided to shoot at ISO 6400. these are Anna's vacation photos, and I wanted to keep the images as clean as possible.
Overall, the 21 SEM isn't ideal in low light. It can however be used, if you know what you're doing. One way of overcoming limitations is by finding creative ways to light up the subject's face. Often times, all that is needed is just a little more light from another ambient source. As for bokeh, at f/3.4, you could imagine it wasn't going to melt anybody's heart. Still, if you have sufficient ambient light, at f/3.4, there is a good chance everything around the subject will be in focus. That makes zone focusing easy in lower light situations.
As for the APO 50, it fared significantly better in low light, with the added benefit of rendering pleasing bokeh when shot wide open. However, without a complementary wide angle lens capable of shooting effectively in low light, relying on the APO 50 becomes rather cumbersome. Unable to shoot closer up for environmental portraits, the odds of getting photobombed increases.
With the difficulties encountered by the 21 SEM in low light, it invariably brings our discussion back to my comfort zone - the 28mm Summilux. From the perspective of travel photography, nothing beats a fast wide angle lens. Not only do you get an extra stop of speed when compared to the APO 50, but you can set the shutter speed an extra stop slower without incurring camera shake. And best of all, you can shoot closer up for that environmental documentation of the subject, in order to avoid the misfortune of getting your images photobombed.
The final two images of the next image set were taken with the 28 Lux. It's for this reason I can never leave home without it.
All images shot on the Leica M10. All daytime images shot at ISO 100 and stopped down at varying degrees from f/8 to f/11. All nighttime images shot at ISO 6400 and wide open. All images have been optimized in Lightroom. Some images have been cropped for composition.
Last, I would like to thank you for indulging me on this post. Yes, it was more narrative than a review. But given the image set, I felt it made more sense to write about the context rather than the gear. Besides, I have one more post left from Los Angeles with the 21 SEM and the APO 50. I will try to make that more technical than this one - "try" being the operative word.