Back to Analogue – Leica M6

in Gear Review, General, Travel by on February 4th, 2013

I began ‘serious’ photography back at university, when digital was only just getting going. At the time I didn’t have much money, so scrimped and saved to buy myself a semi decent analogue camera kit based around the Nikon F601. I was the picture editor/photographer for the college paper, so ended up spending a fair amount in the darkroom, mostly against a deadline, getting my black and white films developed and printed for inclusion in the following issue. As time went by and I got a reasonably paying job, I was able to upgrade the film gear to a Nikon D70, one of the earlier Nikon digital cameras, and I haven’t looked back since, progressing through the various models in the Nikon family up to the D800 that I have today.

Whilst the Nikon gives truly excellent image quality, there is one thing that frequently frustrates me – carrying a D800 with one or other of the pro lenses I own is just not a compact solution. Especially when walking around on a trip with my family, the camera stays in the bag to avoid getting in the way whilst pushing the pushchair or carrying my daughter. So at the end of last year, and with an upcoming trip to Japan being planned, I decided to take a step back in terms of technological progression, and bought myself a film camera. But not just any film camera – my intention was that the chosen platform would be compact, simple, expandable, a pleasure to use, and above all something that I could slip under my jacket or into my laptop case when I want to travel light.

 

Leica M6 with 35mm Summarit lens

Leica M6 with 35mm Summarit lens

 

 

Of course, I could have found myself any number of digital (compact) cameras that would have fulfilled some or all of those criteria, but I wanted something a bit different. Something that would make me stop and think before pressing the shutter button, to avoid returning home with hundreds of shots and having to sort through 10 of the same shot, looking for the one with the perfect smile or ultimate sharpness in the subject’s eye. My thought was that if I only had 24 or 36 shots per roll, this wouldn’t be an issue.

Researching beforehand on the internet I realised that there was still quite a following for various film models, even though the selection of films and the number of locations to get the films developed is reducing year over year. I’d previously toyed with the idea of buying myself a Leica digital rangefinder, so, with this in mind as a potential future upgrade path, I decided to look at the Leica film rangefinder cameras as a possible solution. One of the main advantages of the Leica rangefinder platform (the M system) is that all of the lenses that have been produced for the range of Ms, from the M1 to the latest M9 or MM cameras, are backwards compatible. There’s no problem about lenses not working with the latest AF system or not being able to stop down automatically – everything in the Leica world is manual, including focus and aperture control.

 

Taken with the Summarit 35mm at f/4 (at least I think so, since I don't have any EXIF to rely on ;))

Taken with the Summarit 35mm at f/2.5 (at least I think so, since I don’t have any EXIF data to rely on ;))

 

Japan is a haven for secondhand Leica, at least in terms of second hand selection – one of the the store salesmen told me that many elderly Japanese had invested in Leica years ago, and were now offloading their gear to second hand camera stores on a consignment basis to get some money for retirement. My plan was to pick up both a camera and lens whilst we were in Tokyo for 5 days over Christmas, preferably on the first day, so that I could then spend the rest of the two week holiday using the camera and getting to know it. However, as luck would have it, I got a good deal on a Leica 35mm Summarit lens that I was bidding on on eBay, and picked that up a couple of days before I was due to depart from a seller in Belgium. The Summarit range of lenses are newer to the Leica range, introduced as a low cost (in Leica terms) alternative to the more expensive Summicron and Summilux lenses. It boasts a maximum aperture of f/2.5, and various Leica aficionados on the net rate them very highly, so it seemed like a sensible option. Ultimately, if I didn’t get on with the lens I would be able to sell it on to someone else for pretty much the same as I had paid, so it felt like a safe bet.

So I set off to Japan with just a lens and no camera, and a list of addresses to visit. (Actually, that’s a slight lie as I did have my Panasonic Lumix with me as a backup, but ended up not using it).

Film 2 Image 16

We were staying in the Shinjuku area, which is well known for it’s abundance of second hand camera shops, and, along with Ginza, is one of the better locations to head to if you are looking for something new or not so new. The evening of the day we arrived, I went for a walk around and started to look at my options.

As I mentioned earlier, Tokyo has a fine selection of (preowned) gear from all of the main camera manufacturers. Whilst the prices aren’t necessarily the lowest in the world due to the current exchange rate, this is made up for by the choice that a prospective buyer has. I had researched the various stores before hand and had an idea of where I would be going, based upon the great buyer’s guide by Bellamy at Japan Camera Hunter. I started wandering round the stores looking at row upon row of well cared for, and, in most cases, mint condition, M bodies. I already knew that I would be looking for a Leica M6 0.72x body, so that was my main target. After looking round various stores, I stumbled across Lemon Camera, and found what I was looking for – a boxed, as new condition M6, complete with the original box, strap, and paperwork. Even had the warranty card included, although this had long expired since the camera dates back to 1993. Luckily the guy in the shop spoke pretty good English, so we had a nice conversation whilst he let me test all the usual stuff when buying a second hand camera (if you’re in the market, check CameraQuest’s checklist before you buy), and I had made my decision.

 

Shot with the 35mm Summarit at f/2.5

Shot with the 35mm Summarit at f/2.5

 

Lemon Camera seems to be a really good shop and well worth a visit if you are in Tokyo. Most of the gear they sell is done so on consignment – meaning that the price is set by the owner, and then the shop adds 10-20% to the price and takes on the responsibility of selling the gear. This means that you typically receive the product with no right of return, and no warranty, although I was lucky that this particular camera was not being sold on consignment, but instead by the shop themselves. They had fully tested it and were even prepared to offer a 6 month warranty against failure (not that the older mechanical Leica’s ever seem to have problems, according to what I have read). I would never be able to use the warranty as I would be taking the camera back to the Netherlands, however it was a good piece of mind to have that the shop was prepared to stand by the condition of the camera. Lemon’s shop in Shinjuku is fairly small, but they have a much larger store in Ginza. I stopped in there later in the week, and as luck would have it was approached by the same guy who had dealt with me in Shinjuku when I purchased the M6, and he helped me choose a very nice Artisan and Artist leather half case for the camera. The Ginza store had over 20 M6 to choose from, as well as a similar number of M4, M5, and M7 bodies. Also a number of rarer lenses, such as not one but two copies of the revered Noctilux 50mm f/1.0 lens, although that is way out of my budget for now…..

Usain Bolt's Nissan

Usain Bolt’s Nissan

My first impressions with the camera are very positive. Every aspect of the camera is a joy to use, from loading the film, to winding on in between exposures, to the flexibility that shooting with a fully manual camera provides. I found that people generally ignore me with the camera due to the discrete form factor, which is a welcome change compared to the angry stares you get if you hold a D3 with a 24-70mm in someone’s face to take their photo. I’ll certainly be writing more about my experiences with the camera in a future blog post, so, for now, stay tuned!

 

Self Portrait - taken with the M6 and Summarit 35mm at f/2.5

Self Portrait – taken with the M6 and Summarit 35mm at f/2.5

 

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Camera Stores in Tokyo

in General, Travel by on June 18th, 2010

I am currently on vacation in Japan, and we started our trip by spending a couple of days in Tokyo. One thing that always impresses me when I am in Tokyo is the abundance of photography equipment that can be bought in the shops.

There are a couple of large camera stores in Japan, and all have multiple branches in Tokyo. Our hotel was in Shinjuku, primarily in a business district, but within a couple of minutes from the hotel I had access to a large BIC Camera store, and a Yodobashi Camera. Out of the two, I think Yodobashi is my favorite – this particular branch had 5 or 6 floors, and each floor had a different ‘theme’ – the ground floor covered ‘consumer’ cameras, the first floor was for Digital SLRs, the next for Medium Format and Studio, the next for Tripods and Darkroom, and so on….

The nice thing about these stores is that they always carry a wide range of photo gear – this particular Yodobashi had stock of all the exotic Nikon telephotos, as well as the small accessories that always seem to be impossible to get in Europe.

There are also a number of photo stores, and further Yodobashi and BIC branches, in the Ikebukuro region.

Tokyo also has a thriving second hand market for Nikon gear, and there are a couple of stores worth visiting. Probably the best known is Nikon House in Ginza, but you can also find good second hand selections at a small shop in Ikebukuro (just keep walking from the Metro down the road with all the electronics stores, and you will find it on a corner on the right) and a very complete store in Shinjuku (kind of inbetween the park and the New South Entrance to the Metro).

(I realise the above descriptions without shop names and addresses are pretty useless, for which I apologise, but looking at kanji on a roadsign or shop front doesn’t work for me)

One thing that hasn’t helped in my quest for Nikon gear is the exchange rate. Whereas when I was here a couple of years ago I was able to pick up a 24-70/2.8 for a couple of hundred Euros less than it cost in the Netherlands, it now is much more expensive to buy lenses in Tokyo. Probably the most outrageous example I saw of this was a 200/2VR for around 5000 Euros (3500 in NL), but even the cheaper lenses cost a lot more (for example a 14-24 was around 1800 in Tokyo, compared to 1350 in NL). I realise that shopping on the high street is never the best place to get the cheapest prices, and I am unaware of what they would cost via mail order, but it is certainly in stark contrast to the prices I experienced a couple of years ago.

The good news though is that accessories are still significantly cheaper.

So what did I buy? Two 77mm neutral color filters. Just couldn’t find anything else I needed :D

The photo accompanying this blog is a HDR image of a rice field before the storm in Chino City, Nagano Prefecture, where we are spending the rest of our vacation (obviously not literally in the rice field). Taken with the 24/1.4 and D3 at f/5.6

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My Favorite Wildlife Shots from 2009

in General by on March 7th, 2010

Have been meaning to post this blog entry since around January 1st, but things kept getting in the way. Whilst i didn’t have as many opportunities to shoot wildlife as I would have liked in 2009, I still ended the year with a couple of shots I was happy with.  Here are my five favorite shots from the year….

The first shot, and probably my favorite of the year, was taken on field trip to Feldberger Seenlandschaft in May. Together with Patrick and Tom we had driven 8 hours into Eastern Germany to spend some time with Fred Bollmann from Ranger Tours. Although the photo opportunities hadn’t been as rich as we had hoped, we were able to come away with some nice images of a local sea eagle. More shots from the trip can be viewed in this blog post

Sea Eagle, Feldberger Seenlandschaft

My next favorite shot was a grab shot from the car whilst driving round the Biesbosch in the Netherlands in July. I had my D3 together with the 600mm lying next to me on the passenger car seat, and this young deer ran out in front of the car. I was able to stop the car and grab a few shots before he disappeared completely into the corn field.

Deer in the Biesbosch

Every year in March the black tailed godwit stops off in the Netherlands on the way to warmer climates. A local farmer uses the opportunity to flood one of his fields to give the godwit a chance to refuel energy during the trip. There are thousands of godwits present, and it makes for some good viewing opportunities. It is not easy to get individual godwits in the frame, as they are just a bit too far away – the shot below was shot on the D3 with the 600mm and a tc-17e – a focal length just over 1000mm….

Black tailed godwit at 'Landje van Geijsel' near Ouderkerk aan der Ijssel

I spent a number of Sunday mornings at the Oostervaardersplassen in the North of the Netherlands. There are a lot of birds of prey around this area, as well as kingfishers, deer, foxes, and wild horses. Although I typically like to be able to isolate birds from their surroundings, I liked the composition on this shot of a buzzard, taken in March, and the camouflage that she was able to get from the surrounding branches.

Buzzard in a tree, Oostvaardersplassen

The final shot was taken on a weekend trip to Texel, one of the islands just off the coast of the Netherlands. Texel has a wide variety of species, and is a good location for bird photographers. I took this shot of a common tern taking food back to the nest in April, one of the busiest times for migratory and nesting birds on the island. More shots from this trip can be seen in this blog entry.

Common Tern, Texel

So, not a totally unsuccessful year, but nevertheless I would like to have more images to choose from at the end of 2010. Here’s hoping….

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Off to Germany

in General by on May 6th, 2009
Buzzard in a tree
Buzzard in a tree
Originally uploaded by DigitalHeMan

Today I am leaving for East Germany, near the Polish border. The plan is to return home with pictures of sea eagles, and other birds of prey.

I’ll update the blog once I return!

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First steps into HDR

in General, Technique by on January 10th, 2009

Clipper Nelly
Originally uploaded by DigitalHeMan

According to wikipedia, HDR is “a set of techniques that allows a greater dynamic range of luminances between light and dark areas of a scene than normal digital imaging techniques. The intention of HDR is to accurately represent the wide range of intensity levels found in real scenes ranging from direct sunlight to shadows.

Digital has made the creation of HDR images a lot easier, since many cameras now include an auto bracketing mode, which allows the photographer to make many images of the scene using different exposures. It is not uncommon for an HDR photographer to blend together 3 or even 5 images to create an image that is able to give good representation of both the light and dark areas of the image.

I’ve always been a bit of an opponent to HDR photography, for no other reason that I believe(d) that it should be possible to get an aesthetically pleasing shot without the need for excessive post processing in digital imaging software afterwards. Additionally, many of the early users of HDR techniques maybe didn’t understand what they were doing, so ended up creating unrealistic, over the top representations of a scene, giving the whole HDR scene a bad name (at least in my opinion).

However, a friend of mine, Philip, who goes by the name of milliped on Flickr, has been a long time user of HDR, and the results he comes out with aren’t that bad (in fact, they’re mostly very impressive!). Recently we were out together on a recent photo trip around Rotterdam harbour. It was a pretty grey day, and ‘normal’ photos were coming out a bit dull, so I decided to give HDR a go…..

Quack Quack

As mentioned above, modern cameras make HDR photography (or at least the image capture part) very easy, and all I really needed to do was set my Nikon D3 to 5 shot bracketing, and expose 5 shots, each at a different exposure either side of the original exposure reading. With earlier versions of HDR software it has always been necessary to use a tripod to ensure that the images actually line up once they are combined in the digital darkroom, but whilst discussing the latest version of Photomatix Pro with Philip in the car on the way to Rotterdam, he informed me that it was now able to automatically able to realign slight deviations in image alignment, so, combined with the high frames per second speeds of the D3, I figured I could get away without using a tripod.

I chose to use Aperture Priority Mode on the camera (which I typically do for most daytime photography) and exposed at -2, -1, 0, 1, and 2EV deviation on the base exposure reading. This left me with 5 shots of each scene, and when I reached home, all I would need to do would be to combine the images in Photomatix, and I would be able to create my HDR image.

I have been a long time follower of Trey Ratcliffe’s Stuck in Customs blog, and I knew he had an excellent tutorial on how to get started, so I downloaded a copy of Photomatix, paid my license fee, and read the tutorial. (Incidentally you can get a discount on the purchase of Photomatix if you visit Trey’s website and use the discount code he has there)

Railway and Fence

It turns out creating the HDR image is a lot easier than I had thought. Once you open Photomatix, you choose ‘Generate HDR image’ from the menu, and Photomatix allows you to choose the images you want to combine. Clicking OK takes you to an options screen – normal usage seems to be to leave everything unchecked, although I enabled the ‘Align Source Images’ option, and chose Adobe RGB as my colorspace.

The generation of the HDR image can take a while, especially on a slower computer, and once it has been generated won’t look that impressive. The next step however is to click on ‘Tone Mapping’ in the main menu, which will start the main work to get the HDR looking good.

The options available here are numerous, and Trey’s tutorial provides a lot more detail on how to use them than I will write here, but suffice to say, you can have a lot of fun playing around. So far I have not needed to do much more than up the strength to between 80 and 100, increase saturation a bit to maybe ±70, and adjust my white and black points to improve exposure. Sometimes I will play with luminosity, or adjust smoothing to High or Very High, and from time to time the other settings may be changed also, but there is no real right or wrong way of going about it – just play until you find a mix that works for you!

Once the image looks good in the preview window, all that is left to do is click on process, and choose to save the image. This can then be further improved in Photoshop or Lightroom, although typically I find that not much more needs to be done.

In order to show the improvement HDR can make to an image, I have posted two images. The first one shows the train signal with the standard Nikon matrix metering exposure choice. As you can see, it was a pretty grey, uninteresting day weather wise. The second shot shows the same train signal, but after having gone through the tone mapping procedure in Photomatix. Of course, everyone has their own opinion as to which is the better image, however I think the HDR treatment in this case has created a much more dynamic, more intriguing to look at image.

Train signal
Originally uploaded by DigitalHeMan

So after making a couple of shots and converting them back home on the computer, my impression of HDR imaging has changed. Although I won’t be using it for every shot I make from now on, I can definitely see uses for it, and will be keeping it in my toolbox as one more tool to use to improve the results I am able to get out of my camera.


(As a side note, all shots in this blog entry, with the exception of the first shot of the Clipper Nelly, were taken using the Nikkor 16mm f/2.8D Fisheye lens. One of the lenses I thought I would miss most when moving over from DX format was the 10.5mm fisheye, but it seems the 16mm is able to offer the same excellent images as his younger DX brother. This was my first major outing with the lens, and I think I will be using it a lot more in the future.)
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