Fast Leica Lenses are Made for Shooting Wide Open

Jul 31, 2017  By Horatio Tan
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There are two kinds of Leica photographers. There are those who believe fast Leica lenses have the option of shooting wide open. Then there are those like myself who believe fast Leica lenses have the option of stopping down. The distinction may seem minuscule as a matter of semantics. But, the difference is quite profound. It largely determines the type of photographer you are. So, it’s an issue that needs discussion, despite appearing trivial.

Leica SL & 85mm Summarex

Those who believe fast Leica lenses have the option of shooting wide open will only shoot wide open when a need arises. Usually, it’s because of insufficient available light. In other words, they normally shoot stopped down when there is enough light. The reason they do this is obvious. They do this to ensure sharpness of focus by increasing depth of field. Essentially, they are pragmatic. They document the world around them. And they strive for the decisive moment. What they want more than anything else is accuracy in their image capture. And the significance or beauty of their final work is the composition of their visual narrative.

If you ask me, stopping down is like looking at the glass half empty. It’s a waste of a perfectly fast lens. Why would anyone by default opt to stop down with fast Leica lenses? Honestly, I believe stopping down only to ensure sharpness of focus is just downright pessimistic. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of missing focus wide open when the need arises.

By comparison, I’m a glass half full kind of a photographer. As one who believes that fast Leica lenses have the option of stopping down, we shoot wide open because we’re optimists. We’re confident that we can hit focus, despite missing it from time to time. But we’re okay with it. We accept the risk, head on. And missing focus doesn’t faze us to stop down for more confidence in accuracy.

You see, for those of us who shoot wide open, photography has never been about the decisive moment. What we strive to capture isn’t an accurate documentation of the world around us. Moreover, what we find beautiful or significant isn’t the composition of the visual narrative. Rather, what we strive for in shooting wide open is greater visual control. In doing so, we direct the viewer’s eyes squarely onto the subject by blurring out anything distracting in the foreground and background that may draw attention away from it. So, through a softening of details, a more idealized version of reality is rendered, where the subject is more inviting and more relevant to the viewer.

It’s not as if I have anything against stopping down. Even I am compelled, from time to time. There are reasons to do so. It may be too bright outside. Or I may need to extend the depth of field to include a group. Or I may just want to capture a background for documentary context. But as one who focuses on photographic rendering, the problem I find with stopping down is the uniformity of look.

But isn’t that the point of stopping down? The hope is to capture reality as it is, where uniformity of documentation is expected, regardless of lens or camera selection. I mean, how many different versions of reality can there be? Reality looks the same from a Leica, a Nikon, or a Canon. So, it makes no difference whether a fast Leica lens is used or not, when stopping down. By comparison, we need fast lenses wide open to render an idealized version of reality. Consequently, lens selection becomes crucial. The unique characteristics of fast Leica lenses come into play and become instrumental in how the image is rendered.

There are lenses made by Leica that insist on being shot wide open. And it would make no sense to shoot them stopped down, since it would negate any benefit of its maximum aperture. Most notable is the vintage 85mm f/1.5 Summarex. Originally a screw mount lens, it may very well be one of the most unique lenses in existence. When stopped down, it isn’t particularly sharp. In fact, the lens is downright soft at the edges and corners. However, when wide open, the lens comes into its own. Given the right background, the lens begins to deconstruct shapes behind the subject like an impressionists brush, where points of light become dabs of colors. No other lens renders like the 85mm Summarex.

A lens often overlooked by traditional Leica M photographers is the 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-R E60 version. What’s unique about this lens is its closest focusing distance. At twenty inches, it can focus eight inches closer than the 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH or twenty inches closer than the 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux-M ASPH. Admittedly, this lens is an R mount lens. But adapted onto the Leica SL or viewed with the Visoflex 020 on an adapted M10, this lens can isolate the subject by going closer to reduce both depth of field and background documentation.

Leica SL & 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-R (E60) focused at minimum focusing distance of 20 in.

Finally, the most notable lens used in this article is the 50mm f/1.2 Noctilux Double Aspherical. When stopped down, the first version 50mm Noctilux is brought down to earth from its lofty perch, looking much like any ordinary nifty fifty of average sharpness. But as soon as it’s shot wide open, this legendary lens begins to reveal its superhuman resolve in cutting down the depth of field to blur out details. It presents this trait, the closer you are to the subject, and the further away the background becomes. And with the right background, especially filled with points of light, a swirling pattern emerges. No other lens renders bokeh like this lens.

With any of these lenses described or shown in this article, it would be a crime to stop down by default. If you insist, for the sake of accuracy, the decisive moment, or even because of a lack of confidence, might I suggest an alternative to fast Leica lenses? Leica has an entire lens lineup for stopping down. It’s called Summicron. They’re small, sharp, exhibit less barrel distortion, and are intended for documentation. They’re literally made to be shot across the aperture range since they’re not especially unique wide open. And with the high ISO capabilities of the Leica SL and Leica M10, it’s now possible to stop down in relative darkness. So, get a Summicron – any Summicron – and stop down in the dark to your heart’s content.

Admittedly, I may seem overly exuberant in what may first appear to be a trivial concern. However, I do feel strongly that fast Leica lenses are intended to be shot wide open, with the option of stopping down when the need arises. Otherwise, you’re just carrying around extra weight just in case it gets too dark to stop down – despite advances in high ISO technology negating any need to shoot wide open in low light. And by the time you need to shoot wide open, you’re likely going to miss focus, seeing you’ve been stopping down for most your life. Like I said, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

SO, DO YOURSELF
A FAVOR. TRUST YOURSELF.
SHOOT WIDE OPEN FOR
THE SAKE OF RENDERING.
IT IS WHAT THESE LENSES
WERE MADE TO DO.

You won’t regret it – unless if you miss focus – I suppose. But you know what they say. Practice makes perfect. 









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