David English: Shadow Play

With its extended dynamic range and high-ISO capabilities, the Leica M Monochrom is ideally suited to explore the relationship between light and shadow. But which lens should you choose? Assuming you want a film-like result, and you’re drawn to wide-angle focal lengths, you might consider pairing it with the 21mm Super-Elmar-M. Together they can produce the detailed blacks and shimmering shadows that we associate with classic black-and-white photography.

I mentioned in my previous post that the Monochrom and 18mm Super-Elmar-M had become my favorite camera-lens combination. However, during a trip to New York in March, I was able to try the Monochrom with a 21mm Super-Elmar-M. Keeping in mind that I shoot mostly wide-angle, I plan to use both the 18mm Super-Elmar-M and 21mm Super-Elmar-M going forward. But if I could use only one, it would be the 21mm Super-Elmar-M.

While both lenses are uniformly sharp with essentially no distortion, the 21mm Super-Elmar-M has more character. It’s a truly remarkable lens, right up there with the 50mm Summilux-M ASPH and 28mm Summicron-M ASPH in its mix of classic tonality and modern accuracy. The 21mm Super-Elmar-M is probably the best of the current Leica wide-angle lenses. The only real drawback has been the maximum f/3.4 aperture. And that’s not an issue with the Monochrom, because the Monochrom’s high-ISO noise is more like a soft film grain than the high-ISO noise from color-based digital cameras.

Another key benefit for producing film-like photos with the Monochrom comes during the processing of images. Because the images are inherently sharper (there are no color filters to slightly degrade the image as it’s captured), you can get by with a lighter touch with the clarity and sharpening controls. The result is a cleaner, more film-like photo that has a vibrancy and presence that seems to come from within, rather than being imposed artificially. If you want to explore light and shadow, the Monochrom can eliminate much of the distortion that has kept color-based digital cameras from achieving the same black-and-white tones as film cameras. By reducing the clutter, you’re left with a more powerful set of visual tools, where—now more than ever—you’re limited by your imagination rather than the idiosyncrasies of the medium.

The photo titled Manhattan Buildings #1 shows the broad tonal range and subtle transitions that are possible with a Monochrom and 21mm Super-Elmar-M. The span of tones is quite extreme with this image. They range from the almost burned-out whites, where the sun is shining on the top of the center building, all the way to the shadowed details that emerge from below. Previously, you had to use film to capture both sunlit and shadow areas with this kind of detail and fidelity.

Once you’ve mentally adjusted to shooting only in black-and-white, you start to see shadows everywhere. I was particularly impressed with this camera-lens combination when recording the diffuse light and incidental reflections that give real-life shadows a sense of mass and substance. The photo titled Sidewalk Shadows #1 shows the dramatic potential of these shadows. The image was enhanced through processing, but to a far lesser degree than you might expect. Even with the processing, it doesn’t look artificial. In fact, it looks much like backstage theatrical lighting, somehow transposed onto a city street. A big plus with using the 21mm Super-Elmar-M for this shot was the deep focus available from the wide-angle focal length. That made it easy to pre-focus the image by matching the approximate distance to the subject with the distance indicator on the lens.

A wide-angle lens can flatten an image through deep focus. And that lets you arrange disparate elements into a composition where the relative distances essentially disappear. This is especially useful with reflected images. In the photo titled Reflected Window Display #1, the buildings from across the street are being reflected onto the display window. By framing the scene as though everything might be behind the window, and then processing the image to emphasize that notion, you can create a real-life collage. The effect works best with a wide-angle lens that’s sharp from edge to edge. You’re not trying to fool the viewer, so much as invite the viewer to see the image from two different perspectives.

Because the Monochrom and 21mm Super-Elmar-M can faithfully record the black-and-white tonal range of a scene, you have a realistic base for making an image surreal during processing. If you think about it, the most effective surrealist paintings and films have a strong realistic base. With the photo titled Street Lamps, I thought the lamp holders resembled the candle-holding arms in Jean Cocteau’s 1946 movie version of Beauty and the Beast. Because the image had so much dynamic range and detail, I had a wide latitude to heighten the sense of depth using just the tonal controls in Lightroom 4.3.

As I learn more about photography, I’m coming to appreciate the different qualities of Leica’s M-mount lenses. While you could argue that all of the lenses have exceptional optical qualities, those qualities are not identical across the family of lenses. Each has its own signature, and each focal length has its particular strengths and weaknesses. If you’re interested in wide-angle black-and-white photography, you’ll likely be impressed by the film-like rendering of the 21mm Super-Elmar-M when paired with the M Monochrom. It’s a remarkably compact and lightweight combination. Yet you’ll be able to print the images quite large with excellent results.

– David English

This is a guest post by David English, who has a day job as a technology writer. He has written articles for CNET, Film & Video, PC Magazine, Sky and other publications. David started shooting with a Leica camera in March 2009 using an M8.2. He is currently using an M9 and M Monochrom. You can see his photos at protozoid.com. His main website is davidenglish.com, and his classic film blog is classicfilmpreview.com.