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Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Leica M9 - Full Review

Leica M9; the Marmite of the camera world

You either get it or you don’t!

“You’re so lucky”. This was the greeting I got from a wedding photographer; someone I had never met. Alas she didn’t seem to be talking about me, my dress sense, my personality or my photography. She was talking about the fact that I had a Leica M9 around my neck. There are occasions when cameras spark off conversations between complete strangers in the field, but I have to say that none have induced more talking and question asking than the Leica M9. It seems to be a magnet for chatty photographers from all spectrums of the profession.

Going back to me being so “lucky”. Actually, it was true. I was taking some photographs at a friend’s wedding, and all my kit which comprised of the M9, 24mm Elmar and finder, 35mm Summicron and 75mm Summicron lenses, fitted into a tiny Domke F5 shoulder bag with room to spare. The young lady making the “lucky” comment was weighed down by a back pack, two DSLRs with their big and weighty zooms and flashguns.

Whilst a DSLR is much more versatile in being able to help you photograph most situations, given the right lenses (which can range from fish-eye to macros and zooms to super telephotos) a small, light, precision made rangefinder is something else. If any camera can come close to being Marmite, it’s the Leica rangefinder. You either get it, or you don’t as much as you either love or hate Marmite.

The size of the M9 and the tiny lenses certainly has appeal, but it’s the way a rangefinder works and looks so non threatening that really appeals to me. Its been such a joy to use a Leica rangefinder for work again. In the days of film I used to use the Leica M4-2 and M6 for around 80% of my work. The rest would require long lenses and an SLR would be called into service. The number of times the people I’ve photographed have taken pity on me and told me that one day I’ll be able to afford a real camera. The first time seemed comical as they obviously had no idea about the cost or quality of Leica kit, but I soon realised that the advantage was that people were always relaxed in my presence as they didn’t take me as a serious professional photographer.

The Leica M9 in use. Photo: Antje Bormann

It’s All About The Lenses

I’ve been very fortunate in my career and have used and owned some fantastic lenses. Stunning lenses like Canon’s 35mm f1.4L or 85mm f1.2L II and the 50mm or 85mm f1.4 lenses from Zeiss have all been superb. These have been partially eclipsed by a superb 180mm f2.3 APO lens I had which was made by nowadays little known firm called Angenieux. However, by far my favourite optics have been Leica’s. The 21mm Elmarit, 35mm and 50mm Summicrons from days gone by have helped me make some of my favourite images on my Leica M cameras. The 90mm Elmarit on my Leica R6.2 also worked wonders.

Well, after the absolute disappointment of the M8 and the M8.2, the M9 is an absolute breath of fresh air. It’s not only full frame, but the sensor is great. It now opens up the digital photographer to the wonderful and amazing world of Leica optics; used how they should be used - full frame and without any multiplication factors. Thankfully, you can use the majority of the lenses ever made by Leica, dating all the way back to the 50s, with only a handful of exceptions (these are helpfully listed in the manual). To help out with older non-coded lenses, you can even manually set the lens in use on the camera using the menu system. Naturally there’s also the option of sending any old lenses to Leica for them to code it for you; at a cost.

The main thing with Leica lenses is that they just give a certain look to your photographs. I’d even say that some of the old Summilux lenses aren’t even that sharp, compared to the best modern lenses. However, they all have this magical ability of rendering light sources within the image beautifully and give you a beautifully contrasty image regardless of the light sources visible. In black and white you’d get an amazing tonal range and in colour the true rendition of colours as well as the tonal subtleties captured is wonderful. To finish off perfectly, you get beautiful bokeh. When shooting wide angle you also get such little distortion, as the design of the camera allows the rear elements of the lens to go deeper into the lens mount of the body.

I’ve used many camera systems during my career, starting with the Canon FD system, then the Nikon AF system, Nikon digital and for the past five or so years the Canon digital system. The one thing that remained constant through most of this time was the Leica M system and some R equipment too. What is also amazing is that Leica somehow has the ability to awaken a passion within photographers who generally only look at the equipment as a tool. Not only is it a passion for the cameras and lenses, but when the company gets it wrong, it’s almost taken personally. I have to admit to almost feeling heart broken when I tried the M8. The image quality didn’t live up to expectation, although in ideal conditions it would produce nice enough images, it just wasn’t consistent through its ISO range. To top it was the horrid problems with having to get IR filters for all one’s lenses. The cherry on top was the crop factor. I tried it when it first came out and then re-visited it around six months ago, and still, it was a disappointment. For a camera where zooms aren’t available and the majority of photographers don’t use the tri-focal lenses but stick to primes, it’s important to have full-frame; a 35mm lens should give a 35mm view. Well, thankfully the M9 and its full frame sensor have answered my criticisms of its predecessor. To top this, it’s actually a wonderful sensor and works rather well all the way up to 1250 ASA.

Portrait taken using the legendary 50mm f0.95 Noctilux at 400 ASA

Is It All Good?

You can probably have a suspicion that I’m rather fond of the M9; well, I am. As I mentioned earlier, it’s opened up the opportunity for us photojournalist types to use Leica for deadline work again, and this time, unlike with the M8, its with very little compromise. Its very nicely built and works extremely well.

The issues I came up with, apart from the sadness of only having it for a week and then returning it, was the buffer is easy to fill. I was originally shooting jpeg and RAW combined. I realised that shooting RAW (DNG) compressed made things much quicker and relatively snappy. It’s no Canon 1D MkIII when it comes to buffer speed, but compressed DNG works wonders. If there’s any visible quality difference between compressed and not compressed, I really can’t see it.

Another issue I came up with was the feel of the shutter button. Coming from the old mechanical rangefinders, it felt different. I could feel the stages in travel it has to have to accommodate the exposure lock for aperture priority use. However, the great news is that this can be changed in the custom functions. Another very useful function is to delay the wind on. I had these two custom functions (Soft and Discreet) constantly set and loved the way the shutter release now felt and worked. It’s still not the same silky smooth gentle release of the old mechanical Leicas, but then again having a yearning for it is unrealistic. After all, it’s a totally different camera.

Lastly, although thankfully there is now a dedicated ISO button, I’d welcome either a mechanical dial that showed the speed setting, or perhaps an LCD on the top plate showing the set ISO. For me it’s essential to be able to check this setting at a quick glance without having to go into the menu system.

In Use

I found the auto white balance to work amazingly well. It worked fabulously outdoors, like most modern cameras. However, it was under tungsten light where it excelled. The results are amazingly good. When shooting a series of images, you do occasionally get one in the set where for some reason the white balance jumps, but it’s generally completely constant. This in itself isn’t an issue if you shoot DNG as it’s very easily fixed.

Photograph taken using the 75mm Summicron

Although Leica offer the camera with a full download of Adobe’s Lightroom, my software of choice is Apple’s Aperture. I do applaud Leica for not bringing out yet another RAW format and the files from the M9 processed beautifully in Aperture. Editing through the 18 megapixel images has been a joy and the image quality began to remind me of looking at Kodak Ektachromes on a lightbox. Maybe the Kodak engineers who made the M9’s sensor were looking at the look of Ektachrome? Main thing is that the files look fabulous.

With the M8, anything over 400 ASA started to look terrible, especially early on when the IR filtering issue was not yet publicly known. The M9 shoots beautifully at up to 1250 ASA and nicely at 1600 ASA. Its maximum of 2500 ASA can be used in emergencies, but I’d personally steer clear.

Whilst the menu system works well, it does take a little getting used to as it’s not as intuitive as some of the modern Japanese camera systems around. I’d for example love to see the SET button placed inside the direction buttons. I have a small gripe with the delete mechanism too. I have a dislike with any delete function which gives the option of delete all. If in the middle of a fast moving news job, it seems a little to easy to delete all images by accident, even if there is a confirmation needed.

On a positive note, the bright-line frame markers work perfectly. The M8 had serious issues with the frame markers not corresponding to image view photographed. This was partly addressed in the 8.2, but the M9 seems to work even better and I didn’t have a single issue.

Does It Make Sense?

If logic were to dictate, then no, not really. At £4950 body only, the M9 is a very expensive camera. Leica have always been expensive, but this is expensive, even by Leica standards. Leica are not a mass manufacturer and there’s a fair amount of hand assembly and finishing that goes on. To top this off the quality control is extremely high and has always been so. However, I just feel that the price tag is too high. It pushes it outside the grasp of most professional photographers and possibly makes it only accessible to the enthusiast photographer who has a well paid day job. Its a shame really.

The image quality, especially at high ASAs, doesn’t come close to my favourite DSLR, the Canon 5D MkII; the Canon produces smoother files at 2000 ASA than the M9 does at 1250 ASA. It also is more versatile and being a DSLR can take lenses from 15mm to 800mm, making it much more useful. However, the Leica M9, and these wonderful Leica lenses just produce images with life; there is a quality and look to the images which no other camera system can produce. Logic dictates that a large and cheaper DSLR makes more sense; the heart though, wants what the heart wants; after all, photography is a passion. Also the form factor is fabulous; this tiny camera takes up so little room and the lenses even less. It affords a very subtle and gentle way of working which is wonderful. I applaud and congratulate Leica on the M9; it’s an amazing camera and as soon as this recession lifts, I’ll be making a visit to the Leica Store in Bruton Place.

For a full range of photographs taken with the Leica M9, please visit my Flickr page.

This article first appeared in the BJP on December 16, 2009.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Printer Profiles With The ColorMunki

It's always very exciting when evaluating a new product. Being one of the first on the planet to try something out that's going to enhance one's future workflow or a new tool which will add benefits is great. It goes without saying that this is how it felt when Canon asked me to evaluate their new 12 ink large format printer aimed at photographers; the iPF6300.

However, it's not all excitement and fun as there is a surprising amount of hard and laborious work involved. One of the things I was asked to evaluate was how the printer behaved with various papers; both Canon and third party. This entails having to make hundreds of prints, in colour and black and white, using a variety of images and also a variety of print settings on all these different papers.

One hurdle I soon came across was that as this printer was so new and hadn't even had it's European launch, I was missing a large number of paper ICC profiles. These profiles, along with the correct media setting tell the printer how to print (how much ink, how to print the correct colour, which black ink to use and a host of other 'under the hood' settings which are chosen automatically) once the ICC and media settings are applied in the printer driver or plug-in. These ICC profiles simply didn't exist. Canon had supplied me with most of the profiles for their wide range of papers but Hahnemuhle and Ilford didn't yet have profiles and were working on getting them to me for some of their papers. I also had other papers from other manufacturers like Olmec too.

At this point I asked to borrow a ColorMunki photo from Canon's Gary Vaughan who had kindly trained me on the printer. Apart from being used for screen calibrations, the ColorMunki from X-Rite can also be used to create ICC profiles for printing.

I loaded up the software, read the concise instructions and was good to go. Although my screen was already calibrated using my Eye One Display 2 and Color Eyes software (with which I've always been happy) I decided to calibrate my screen with the ColorMunki too. One very neat feature is that it can measure the room's ambient light and take this into consideration when calibrating the screen's luminosity.

After the screen was done I proceeded to getting my paper's profile done, and chose Canon's Glacier paper as my first port of call. I had already made some prints with this paper using a profile of a very similar paper but the results just didn't sing. One extremely important thing to remember when making paper profiles is to make sure that colour management is switched off in the printer driver. The software guides the user through and I must say that I'm very impressed by the way it makes it child's play to use. After a few steps, it prints out a colour chart which one then 'reads' with the ColorMunki puck. All you need to do is basically run the unit over the coloured bars, one column at a time. It then creates a second print out with a different set of colours and the same step is repeated, allowing the software to create an extremely accurate ICC for that paper. So easy and very smooth.

I chose my newly created printer profile and made another print - this time the print sang. I must say, I'm so impressed with this unit. It's so straightforward to use with extremely user friendly software and is such a capable unit calibrating my screen and printer paper that I'm in absolute awe. I cannot recommend this highly enough.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Canon's European Launch of the iPF6300

Canon's European Launch of the iPF6300 from Edmond Terakopian on Vimeo.

I've been fortunate enough to have been asked by Canon to evaluate their new large format printer aimed at photographers; the iPF6300 which had its European launch yesterday in Lisbon. I've been testing it for a few weeks now with various papers and still have a long road ahead my tests on lots of papers from Ilford, Hahnemuhle, Olmec and so on. I'll share these when I'm finished with my tests.

I'm sharing my presentation text below as it's a great way to let you know my thoughts on this printer:

Exhibition of images printed on the iPF6300. Photo: © Graham Smith

Canon Launch New Large Format Printers, Lisbon, Portugal

"Being from the school of hand printing to exhibition standard, for many years since the switch over to digital I’ve been making compromises when it came to prints made from my digital images. Having used desktop printers from Canon and Epson and also having had a variety of labs print my work, I’d never been fully happy with the quality of the prints.

I was then introduced to the Canon iPF6300.

Giving my presentation on the iPF6300. Photo: © Graham Smith

As soon as I printed the very first image from the iPF6300, I knew it was something special. With it’s 12 inks I was expecting something amazing, but the quality achieved was just stunning and left me speechless - and this, was only after a test print!

The printer is of such a high standard that to the naked eye printing on the standard setting and the highest setting produce no difference to the quality of the print; what it does do is produce such a speedy output, utilising so little ink, that it has to be seen to be believed. However when ultra critical detail and subtleties have to be resolved, the higher print settings produce this at very close inspection. I was looking at the pupil and eye lashes from a studio model shoot and at the highest setting, every single eye lash is visible; every single line in the pupil, every colour change is rendered perfectly, no matter how subtle.

Exhibition of images printed on the iPF6300. Photo: © Edmond Terakopian

Having tried a particularly testing landscape shot taken in the Lake District brought another smile. Every cloud, from the darkest to the lightest was rendered beautifully; every highlight and shadow detail, no matter how subtle was printed without any loss to this detail. It’s performance like this that elevates prints into becoming something special; something collectible. As a result, this printer is something special.

I then moved away from the Canon papers and started printing on the very popular Hahnemuhle Photo Rag which is a coated matt paper. Matt papers are very unforgiving to images with lots of dark shadow detail, so the first image I printed had exactly that - lots of dark shadows. I was astonished at how much of the subtle black detail was printed from a photo of a cafe scene. Throwing more and more images to this excellent but unforgiving paper kept producing great print after great print.

Exhibition of images printed on the iPF6300. Photo: © Edmond Terakopian

I was also very pleased with the print driver and the Photoshop plugin. After around an hour I had come to grips with all that was possible using them. After getting the photograph and processing it correctly, it’s extremely critical to get the settings right in the driver and the way it has been designed makes life easy which is such a bonus. The ability to free print and send print jobs to a separate application to maximise paper usage is a fantastic feature, especially in this day and age of recession and awareness of conservation issues.

I also found the barcoding option on paper rolls extremely useful and an idea that is to be commended; with good quality paper demanding a premium, the last thing I would want is to mix up papers which would lead to wastage.

I also must comment on the printer’s quietness in use. My office is generally pretty quite and quite compact. Considering the size of prints capable, the unit’s relatively compact and amazingly quite when printing. The fact that it’s also such a speedy machine means that the printing’s done quickly and total silence returns very quickly; a must in a creative environment.

Having spent a couple of weeks with the iPF 6300, printing on various papers, both Canon and third party, I would have no hesitation in using it for my future exhibitions and collector’s prints".

You can check out the iPF6300 HERE.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Focus On Imaging 2010

Doesn't time fly?! It's already that time of year where we all move up to Birmingham for a few days. It's Focus on Imaging at the NEC.

I'll be at the show on the SnapperStuff stand (C41) talking about ThinkTank Photo bags; by far my favourite bags. Like them so much I'm on the design board! As a special treat we have the president of ThinkTank Photo, Doug Murdoch joining us, so do pop by and say hi. Reliable sources do tell me that the brand new ThinkTank bags will be there to see too! We'll also have the Enlight Photo’s Orbis ring flash and arm with the CEO James Madelin.

Also, every day at 1pm, I will be talking about my work and my workflow and how Aperture fits in with how I do things. With the release of Aperture 3, the role of the application has increased and become more vital. Pop by the Apple Solution Expert Demo Theatre (stand E54) every day at 1pm.

Hope to see you there :-)

Homage - Behind The Scene Photos

Some photographs from the filming of Homage, showing the Olympus E-P2s in action. The microphone is the Rode VideoMic with a Rode "Dead cat" attached and mounted on a Manfrotto flash bracket.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Homage - A short film shot on the Olympus E-P2

Homage from Edmond Terakopian on Vimeo.

A thug with a hoodie breaks into an abandoned country manor house...

A short film featuring Haylie Ecker (formerly of "Bond").
Assistant Antje Bormann.
Shot exclusively on Olympus E-P2 cameras and Olympus lenses.
Edited using Aperture 3 and Final Cut Pro.
Microphone by Rode.

I'm delighted to say that I've finished another short film called Homage which was premiered today at the PEN event in the Brickhouse in London's Brick Lane.

The Brickhouse screening of Homage

To read a little about how it was conceived and some behind the scenes stuff, please have a look at an article in the British Journal of Photography online. It goes into some detail so I didn't want to just repeat all they have written, so please do check it out.

The Brickhouse screening of Homage

To get the full effect of how great the 720p HD is, I do suggest you go over to Vimeo and view it in HD.