Documenting Moving Subjects in the Dark with the Leica M10 + Leica APO 90mm f/2 Summicron-M ASPH
Judging from the feedback the blog has been receiving on social media feed, I'm guessing the slow news cycle has taken a toll in dampening interest. To be fair, I can understand the response to the monotonous cycle of repetitiveness. So this week, I'll try to mix it up a bit. Having said that, I kind of had to improvise. With the monsoon season finally upon us, my weekly photowalk had been rained out. Not exactly the best way to counter the doldrum.
As luck would have it, I actually had something in mind for a rainy day. A couple of weeks ago, I was compelled kicking and screaming to see Cirque du Soleil perform in Hong Kong. Normally, I would try to find some excuse to get out of such a fun ordeal. But then, I was informed that non flash photography was permitted. Putting my thinking cap on, I decided that opportunity was rife under the tent of the big top.
But then... what to bring? It's always decisions, decisions. For full disclosure, I've never been to any of the other Cirque du Soleil worldwide. However, common sense would suggest that the venue was going to be dark, full of acrobats, and all in motion. Logically, the best approach for me to take would be to bring along a low-light autofocus system, like the Sony A7s Mark II, the A9 or the A7R Mark III with the Sony FE 85mm f/1.4 GM.
However, I decided against the Sony. For me, bringing one would feel too intentional - as if I were on the job. I mean, I was going to have dinner afterwards, and I didn't want my camera to ruin the silhouette of my evening ensemble. Instead, I decided to bring the Leica M10, which seemed far less obtrusive. That being said, I knew I would be sacrificing at least two stops without autofocus tracking, and at least one stop in high ISO usability.
Still, the road less traveled is often more rewarding. Besides, what fun would it be to take pictures in the dark with a Sony? It's not as if we haven't already seen the Sony A7/A9 shot in difficult low light situations. In contrast, far less common are instances when moving subjects are documented in darkness without the benefit of autofocus tracking. From my perspective, it would be far more interesting to see how the Leica M10 performs under those conditions.
Without fail, my expectations were confirmed. The darkness under the big top was dim enough to make my efforts interesting. But since this is a performance, I knew I could probably rely on some stage lighting to provide some added relief. That said, a couple of spotlights won't be enough to provide consistent illumination on the performers across the stage to ensure proper exposure at all times. At least, that's what Karl Freund, the noted cinematographer would point out.
Needless to say, I had my work cut out for me. With the Leica M10, I knew I had to make difficult choices to expose the image capture with sufficient light. That meant I had to decide which imperfection to accept. Was it going to be motion blur, soft focus, or increased noise. In other words, I had to decide where to make the sacrifice in optimization for the sake of capturing the moment at a workable exposure - that is to say, slower shutter speed, wider aperture, or higher ISO.
With that said, motion blur and soft focus are normally viewed as unforced errors committed by amateurs. As such, the lesser of the evil is to accept increased noise. For that reason, I decided to open up the taps on light sensitivity to ISO 12,500. In doing so, it enabled me to freeze motion at 1/1000s, and have a little more depth of field at f/4. Since I didn't have autofocus, measures had to be made to compensate for movement of the subject between focal planes.
No less daunting was my decision to bring along the Leica APO 90mm f/2 Summicron-M ASPH. Although I was sitting close to the stage, I still wanted some reach. That meant I wasn't going to roll over and use a wide angle lens at maximum aperture - just to gain two stops. When shooting a wide angle lens wide open from a distance, depth of field increases, thus improving the margin of error in hitting perceived focus.
Of course, there's no guarantee the setup in exposure that I've committed myself to using would be sufficient to provide proper exposure to the documentation. Though I suppose I could adjust accordingly throughout the performance. Unfortunately, that wasn't possible. From the moment the performance had begun, the lights offstage were completely out. You couldn't see your own hands in front of your face.
As you could imagine, changing the exposure setting on the fly became an issue, given how any visual confirmation of the actual setting was not possible in the dark. To overcome that, I started to confirm exposure on live view. Unfortunately, the ushers quickly put an end to that. Apparently, stray light emitting from the rear LCD might prove too distracting to the performers executing their death defying acts. This made any use of the rear LCD a hazard.
Admittedly, I could always just rely on memory to keep track of changes in the exposure setting. But we all know what that's like, in the real world. After repeated changes, I completely lost track. Although I was able confirm correct exposure with the internal LCD inside the viewfinder, I wasn't able to confirm the actual setting. I mean, there's no telling if the shutter speed was fast enough to freeze motion or whether the depth of field was forgiving enough for manual focusing.
Increasingly, I realized I didn't have much flexibility in what I was able to do. My exposure setting was fixed. My seating position was preassigned. And much of what I could photograph was at the mercy of where the performers were. In other words, my decisive moments depended on the off chance when the performers were at the right angle, and when sufficient light made possible the prospect of documentation at a workable exposure settings.
At ISO 12,500, you'd think the exposure setting was ample enough to properly document in the dark. But at high shutter speeds in excess of 1/1000s and the lens stopped down, any benefit of high ISO was canceled out. I mean, I still had to push between one to two stops in post. Normally, that wouldn't be a problem. However at ISO 12,500, the dynamic range is much less workable. As such, a number of photos could not be recovered in post without noticeable loss in image quality.
Even so, the images I produced from documenting moving subjects in the dark wasn't the end of the world. For the most part, ISO 12,500 seemed to be workable enough. As to whether I'd bring the Leica M10 again, if dragged once more unto the breach, I probably would. Though to be fair, the Sony A7/A9 + the Sony FE 85mm f/1.4 GM would be a much better choice. With autofocus tracking and cleaner high ISO file on the Sony, there would have been a three stop advantage.
Some images have been optimized in Lightroom. All images shot on the Leica M10 + Leica APO 90mm f/2 Summicron-M ASPH. Some images have been cropped slightly for composition.
ANNOUNCEMENT: I might take a short break in a week or two, or maybe post more sporadically or more superficially. I haven't decided yet. But I figure I should tell you in advance, on the off chance I do.