David English: Wide Lux Monochrom

If you have an M Monochrom camera, should you use a Summilux lens? The Monochrom performs quite well at high ISO settings, so why spend the extra money when you could buy a Summicron or Super-Elmar at the same focal length? The answer is versatility. Once the sun sets, or you go inside, you can often use an extra stop or two. It’s that ability to stick a lens on your camera and go just about anywhere that makes the Summilux lenses so popular. Because of that versatility, and my preference for wide-angle focal lengths, the lens that I’ve used the most has been the 24 mm Summilux-M.

The 24 mm Summilux is expensive, so it had better be good. It’s also a large lens. Some think it’s too large and unwieldy for an M-series camera. I’ve gotten used to it and have happily paired it with Leica’s 24 mm external viewfinder. Because it’s a fast lens with a broad depth of field, I find it easy to focus. Yet it’s still capable of providing beautiful bokeh when I photograph something relatively close. Compared with my 18 mm and 21 mm Super-Elmar lenses, the 24 mm Summilux has a less extreme wide-angle view. With the 18 mm and 21 mm focal lengths, people positioned outside the center of the frame are more likely to be distorted by the wraparound perspective.

The optical performance of the 24 mm Summilux is excellent, even wide open. I’ll often shoot it wide open so that I can keep the camera at its base ISO setting. Even with the Monochrom, I try to shoot at base ISO, in order to maximize the image quality. If there’s too much light, I’ll usually slow down the shutter speed first. Then I’ll stop down the lens to an aperture as low as f/8.

A Summilux lens lets you combine a fast shutter speed, large aperture, and base ISO for results that are very film-like on the Monochrom, due to that camera’s lack of a Bayer color filter. Every pixel gets the maximum amount of light, dynamic range, and sharpness that the lens can provide. And if you do decide to bump up the ISO setting on the Monochrom, you’ll be able to capture photos in environments where film cameras could never go, unless they were mounted on a tripod.

A key advantage for the Monochrom is its ability to handle extreme low-light situations and produce handheld images that are comparable in tone and dynamic range to classic black-and-white photos. Here a wide-angle Summilux lens provides an extra edge, because even though the Monochrom produces film-like noise at higher ISO settings, low-ISO photos will always look better than high-ISO photos.

As if to prove my point about low-ISO photos looking better, when it came time to select the images for this blog post, all the ones I picked were shot at the base 320 ISO. Sometimes just knowing that you can safely raise the ISO setting without paying a big penalty will give you the confidence to venture into a darker environment. The Monochrom files hold up so well in processing, I’ve learned that I can shoot at the base ISO and boost the exposure level later in Lightroom, without having the images become too grainy or washed-out.

I haven’t yet tried the 24 mm Elmar-M f/3.8 or 24 mm Elmarit-M f/2.8, so I don’t know if there are significant optical compromises in choosing the 24 mm Summilux over those lenses. I just know that compared with my current set of lenses, which include the well-regarded 21 mm Super-Elmar-M, 28 mm Summicron-M, and 50 mm Summilux-M, the 24 mm Summilux is able to hold its own in many, if not most, situations. The proof is always in the photos, and a sizable share of my all-time favorites were captured with this lens.

While the 24 mm Summiluxadds considerable bulk to the Monochrom, the combination is still more manageable than a typical DSLR. It’s also less conspicuous, which is handy for candid shots or street photography. For the photo titled Aria Lobby, I just happened to catch someone in mid-step as the light was streaming across the patterned floor. I didn’t need the extra stop or two from the Summilux lens for this shot, but I had just been walking through the hotel in areas where I did need to shoot at f/1.4. Here the deep focus from the 24 mm focal length, and the lens being stopped down to f/8, provide a sharp, even focus. The result is a floor that looks more like a reflecting pool than a hard surface.

When photographing the buildings in New York, I’ve found that a 24 mm lens can create a sense of scale that’s reminiscent of a forest or canyon. That’s not to say that I haven’t gotten excellent shots with my 18 mm Super-Elmar or 28 mm Summicron. It’s just that the 18 mm can take in too much, and the 28 mm can take in too little, at least for my purposes. The 24 mm and 21 mm focal lengths seem to be better suited proportionally to the streets and buildings. With the photo titled “Manhattan Buildings #1,” you can see the sense of balance that’s possible when the focal length matches the subject matter. Here everything is in focus and smoothly rendered, which enhances the infinity effect from the converging lines. The vertical lines on the banner echo the vertical lines on the buildings, as though the banner was designed to illustrate those particular buildings.

I love photographing store windows along the streets of New York. When the light is just right, you can see the contents behind the glass surrounded by the reflected objects from across the street. The 24 mm focal length helps increase the depth of focus, which makes everything seem to be in the same spatial field. In the photo titled “Store Mannequins #1,” the subject was relatively close, and the lens aperture was nearly all-the-way open (Lightroom estimates it at f/1.7). And that allows for a somewhat tighter depth of field. Almost everything is in focus, except for those objects closest to the camera, including the right sleeve and left hand of the center mannequin. You can achieve some shallow focus effects with the 24 mm Summilux that you wouldn’t be able to achieve with the 24 mm Elmar or 24 mm Elmarit, because they can’t open up to this large an aperture setting.

The photo titled “Circus Performer” shows what this lens can do wide open in less than ideal light. I was shooting with a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second because the performer was moving around quickly. With a slower lens, I would have had to bump up the ISO. The image still would have worked, but it would have lost some detail and contrast—even with the Monochrom. The expanded dynamic range from the Monochrom helped to tame the uneven lighting. And though the shot was handheld, the 24 mm focal length kept everything in focus, except for the areas of the carpet nearest to the camera. Because of the extreme lighting, I don’t think I could have improved this image with any other full-frame camera/lens combination.

Ask six Leica camera owners to name the best Leica M-mount lens, and you’ll likely get six different answers. There is no ideal lens. It depends on how you see the world and what you like to photograph. If you need a fast, wide lens for difficult lighting situations, the 24 mm Summilux-M would be an excellent choice. If you can get past the size and price of the lens, you’ll find that it’s extremely versatile. And for me, it has consistently churned out terrific images.

- 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 M Monochrom and X Vario. You can see his photos at protozoid.com. His main website is davidenglish.com, and his classic film blog is classicfilmpreview.com.