Archive for the ‘Photography’ Category

Special Places

Sunday, February 20th, 2011

There are a nearly infinite number of places to go take pictures.  Some, though, are more special than others…

battle flag

kennedy gravesite

guarding the tomb

Own the Night

Saturday, February 12th, 2011

(Reflections on the Noctilux)


If you’re a photographer, those two simple characters represent a mystical place, one without peer.  It speaks of lens speed so fast that light itself seems to bend in strange and magical ways.  A prism through which the world is revealed via a new dimension.

The reality, for the few photographers fortunate enough to have experienced it, might be more plebian.  To the optical designers chartered by their bosses with coming up with a piece of glass of such luminosity, an f1 lens is a nightmare of conflicting demands and compromises.  It seems an impossibility, their very own Gordian Knot.  And so what results, if they are able to build it at all – most never do – is a thing both wondrous and difficult.  Like a beautiful, talented, and yet recalcitrant child, an f1 lens remains an enigmatic challenge to most photographers.  It’s magic seems forever wedded to heartbreak.

Like most photographers who have fallen down that rabbit hole, I debated long and hard the merits of the Noctilux – Leica’s own fabled f1 lens – before sending along my credit card information.  The stories surrounding that storied lens were legion, with as many shaken heads as there were smiling faces.  I’d guess no lens in Leica’s long history has ever been sold by disappointed owners as often as has the Noctilux.

Mine arrived on a cold winter night.  Dense and heavy, the thing seemed foreign to the Leica ethos – which is all about small and light.  But gingerly removing the lens cap and peering at the large globe of glass was like looking at a mystery.  The lens seemed otherworldly.  The weight itself seemed to speak of things indescribable within it.

After a hurried supper, I tentatively mounted the pristine, new piece of glass on my M6 with its half-spent roll of Tri-X inside and climbed in my truck.

Two miles away, the bridge with the waterfall was shrouded in darkness.  I knew that even the Noctilux couldn’t make that work.  But the other side of the road, where the creek flowed under the fence, was lit by a couple of small sodium lights.  There wasn’t much of it, but just enough light to reveal a hint, an intimation, of a beautiful scene.

The M6 felt heavy, strange in my hands.  Raising it to my eyes, the single red triangle of the meter glared back at me.  Click, click, click – trying to make it go away.  By the time it did my shutter speed was flat on the floor.  I couldn’t see the dial in the darkness, but I knew.

And so there was my first lesson with the Noctilux.  Despite pulling out all the stops and injecting all the arcana that the then-current lens maker arts would allow, Walter Mandler’s magnificent creation bought only… one stop

Like I said, heartbreak.

And there was more coming.  In the succeeding weeks and months, the Noctilux proved to be a challenge.  The sterling images I had heard about – and actually seen on the Internet – remained elusive.  Most of my shots with it were disappointingly soft.  Only occasionally would I get a glimpse of the magic that was supposed to be bottled up inside.

I slowly came to see why people would sell it, wondering what all the fuss was about.

A few years later, when the M8 and Summilux 50 ASPH came along, I pretty much stopped using it.  The cropped sensor of the M8 meant that images lost much of their character, the unique signature that, along with its speed, was the raison d’etre of the Noctilux.   And when the 50 Lux showed up on my doorstep I was instantly smitten.  Probably the best 50mm lens ever built by anyone, it was a far better all-around lens than the Noctilux.  Smaller and lighter.  Better image quality at all apertures, save the one it was missing.  And only a stop slower.  What more could you need?

Another couple years and the M9 made its appearance.  Along with its other merits, it brought back to me the full-frame view that I had long loved in my M6 and M7.  It felt like going home again, only with all the benefits of a modern digital camera.  Somewhere in the back of my mind was the quiet, murmuring thought that the Noct had gotten its canvas back.

Ironically, it was a series of shots at work one day with that still newish and sexy 50 Lux ASPH that prompted first a worry, and then a result.  You can read about that little experience here, in “Of Cameras and Lenses.”  The short answer is that I discovered that that Noctilux of mine was back-focusing significantly, something I never before had suspected.  It was an intriguing discovery.  I had always thought the softness I usually got with that lens was simply part of the design.  Perhaps there was more to the story, after all.

I’ll stop here and note that Dr. Mandler designed his Noctilux back in 1976, before digital was even a gleam in anyone’s eye.  Film emulsion has an inherent depth to it – typically on the order of 120-250 microns – and the image you capture actually lives within that depth.  Among other things, that characteristic has the salutatory effect of attenuating some of the minor focus errors that all camera systems invariably introduce.  Said differently, the level of calibration precision that lens makers must manage was less back in the days of film.  Today’s digital world imposes far stricter requirements and all the lens makers have had to up their game.

All of which is to say that the necessarily less precise calibration and quality control procedures that Leica previously employed were probably a factor in my lens leaving the factory with the back-focus it did.  I’m guessing that was the case with a lot of Noctiluxes.  And I imagine that it contributed very much to the mixed success that many of us had with it.

Well, in December, after nearly a year of procrastinating, I finally got around to shipping my lens to Leica’s repair facility in New Jersey.  I asked simply that it be recalibrated “for perfect focus at f1.”  A few weeks later here comes the brown box with my lens.  The good folks at Allendale didn’t even charge me for the work.

A few days later the annual DC Motorcycle Show arrived in town.  Walking from my truck, I had the freshly-reworked Noct mounted on my M9 and my 35 Lux ASPH and a spare battery in my pocket.  My thought was to shoot a couple quick frames of the ticket girls at the door with the Noctilux, and then switch over to my 35 for the rest of the show.

But a funny thing happened.  Those first couple of shots were encouraging enough when chimping the rear screen that I left it on for a few more.  And after a dozen frames I had pretty much decided to shoot the whole show with the Noct.

My reasoning was simple – venues like that are crowded with people, they have poor light, and the backgrounds are usually pretty crappy.  Using the Noctilux wide open was a way to gain even more shutter speed and subject isolation than even my vaunted 35 Lux could achieve.

More importantly, it was the first time, in all the years I’ve owned it, that I ever used the Noct for more than a few frames at a time.  The first time that I didn’t think of it as a specialty lens, intended for a very specific and limited effect.  It was the first time I used it for an entire “shoot.”

Examining the images later on my computer, my first thought was that the Noct shots didn’t have the ‘pop’ that I expect from my 50 and 75 ASPH lenses (and to a lesser degree, my 35 ASPH).  But the good news was that focusing was spot-on.  Even shooting quickly – most of my subjects were of people – and wide open, my focus hit rate was very high.

And despite not having the contrast and resolution that would have been wrought by my more modern lenses, the more I looked at those images, the more I liked them.  Notwithstanding the high levels of chromatic aberration and coma that join the party at f1, I found the slightly muted, slightly pastel renditions to have an enchantment all their own.  There, hidden in the tapestry, was the Leica glow of legend.

2011 DC Motorcycle Show (all images taken inside the bike show were with the Noctilux, at f1; subsequent shots taken outside were with the 35 Lux ASPH).

And so begins the journey.  Over the last few weeks I’ve used the Noct almost exclusively.  Afternoon shots of old town Warrenton.  Snow scenes of the tiny church and cemetery nearby that I love.  Night shots of The Plains.  A visit to Arlington Cemetery and the Iwo Jima Memorial.  What I can say after three weeks is that I love this lens.  I love the vignetting that darkens the corners at f1.  I love its unique signature.  I love its slightly dreamy, slightly breathless way of rendering what it sees.

And so what are the details, the photographer-geek-stuff, beneath this new-found love affair?  The thumbnail would go something like this:

  • Excellent flare suppression.  The shoot-into-the-light wash of illumination that disperses across the glass elements of most lenses, like unruly children in a grocery store, is extremely well controlled.  The built-in lens shade hardly seems necessary.
  • Moderate contrast at f1, increasing proportionately at f1.4, f2, and coming in fairly high at f2.8, where it seems to peak.
  • From f2 on the Noct renders similarly to my 50 Summicron.
  • Focus shift while stopping down, while probably measurable, is not noticeable in any practical sense.  The urban legend that f1.4 to f4 are compromised because of focus shift is just that – urban legend.
  • Wide open, close range performance (under 6 feet) is mediocre at best.  Resolution suffers significantly.  The 50 Cron or 50 Lux ASPH are much better lenses to use in that situation.
  • Wide open, medium distance performance (6 – 30) feet is excellent, with dramatically improved resolution and sharpness over closer distances.
  • Wide open, vignetting is very obvious (on the order of ~3 stops loss of light along the edges versus the center of the frame).  Contrast and detail are much reduced in the corners versus the center.  At f1.4, the vignetting is significantly reduced.  And by f2 it is gone altogether.

There’s no question that the size, weight, and long focus throw of the Noct make it a slower handling package when mounted to an M-body.  But it’s not that much worse.  Surely you can, in a pinch, use the Noctilux as an all-around, all-aperture 50 prime.

Not that you’d want to.  Nobody buys a Noctilux so they can shoot it at f8.  You buy it for that magical aperture that no other lens provides.  You buy it for the vignetting and the falloff in contrast and detail in the corners.  You buy it because of the special bokeh.  You buy it because of the unique fingerprint, the texture and the micro-contrast that are written into its images.  You buy it because of its razor-thin depth of field – so fragile and ephemeral that it seems if you so much as squint, the image will disappear.  You buy it because of its ability to literally see in the dark – to extract the last, spare photons of light that might be there.  You buy it knowing that your compositions, the subjects within your images, must harken towards the center of the frame because that’s where all those other things will pull a viewer’s eye.

In the end you buy it because of the ethereal quality that f1 wraps an image in.  There’s nothing else quite like it.

And because of that, yes, you’ll want – you’ll need – a 6-stop neutral density filter.  So you can continue to wield that magic in the light of day.


I’ve long carried a Leica nearly everywhere I go.  First my M6.  Then my M7.  Then my M8.  And now my M9.  And although I’ll frequently carry a bag with a couple of spare lenses with me on the weekends, the reality is that I rarely use them.  I tend to choose a given lens, stick it on my camera, wrap my head around that focal length and that lens and how it interprets the world, and then leave it on there for many weeks and months.

Now it’s the Noctilux’ turn.

a good woman is hard to find

come in we're open


the rail stop

Winter Makes an Appearance

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

We’ve been fortunate so far this winter.  We received a dusting or two of snow from previous storms, but nothing to be concerned about.  A couple of the storms actually tracked a weird right-hook-loop such that they clobbered the folks to south of us, to the east of us, and then big-time to the north of us.  We’ve been spared.

At least until this week.

It wasn’t a surprise.  All the meteorologists called it.  And sure enough, on Wednesday here it comes, roaring out of the west.  The Federal Government (the guidance of which my company follows) released employees two hours early.  I’m not sure if that was a blessing or a curse.  What it meant was everyone and their brother was on the road just as the storm broke hard upon us.

It was a fast, heavy, wet snow.  Traction disappeared in a hurry.  Those without 4-wheel drive quickly found themselves unable to make it up even the slightest grades.  And traffic very soon became deadlocked across the region.

I was okay.  I had my truck.  And even though the last five miles took two hours – making my total commute four and a half hours – at least there was electricity and a warm wood stove waiting for me once I finally made it.  A lot of people had the worst commutes of their lives – eight, ten, and twelve hour sagas.  And some people never made it home at all.

The next morning, upon discovering that the Federal Government was only on a two-hour delayed arrival, I took a vacation day.  The wet, heavy snow had brought down lots of trees and there was plenty of work to be done before my driveway would be passable again.

Here are a triplet of images.  The first was taken during that long drive home Wednesday night, during the storm itself.

sanctuary in the storm

This image gives an idea of how heavy the snow was, and how it weighed upon everything it touched.

the morning after

And finally, a day and a night later, after all the angst and weariness had mostly washed away, what was left behind was just a quiet beauty.

heflins store

Welcoming the New Year

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011

I don’t much care for winter.  Once my week of hunting is done I’m ready for spring – and warm weather.

But I do like the New Year.  The turn of the calendar always seems such an opportune time to reflect on things both in the past, and in the future.  To start with a clean slate.

Here are a few images from the last day of 2010.

Peyton Place Christmas

first night in Warrenton



And, finally, the first image from 2011….

train to the future...

New York

Saturday, March 13th, 2010

It’s dense with people.  It’s dense with energy.  And it’s dense with a strange, seductive creative impulse – a spirit which seems to imbue the very concrete and bricks of the physical place itself.  It’s the most amazing place.

I’m talking, of course, about New York City.

Strangely, I had never been.  What a regret.

But better late than never.  Late last year Thorsten Overgaard, a professional photographer from Denmark whose work I admire, announced that he would be doing a photo seminar in New York in March.  I figured if I signed up it would force me to make that visit I had put off too long.

So I did, and it did.

It’s funny.  Even for those of us who have never seen it, New York City is such an integral part of the consciousness of most Americans.  It holds such an important place in our culture.  But if you’re like me, never having been, you have this kind of amorphous vision of the place.

Like any good tourist, I bought a guide book to the city.  Cheesy as it sounds, that was actually an excellent entree into what’s what.  I bought a map of Manhattan and began studying that – almost like memorizing a track map before showing up at a new racetrack.  I was delighted to find that the city is eminently approachable.  All you need is a good pair of walking shoes.

Their reputation for brusqueness notwithstanding, I found New Yorkers to be nothing but warm and friendly.  They make their city a place in which you want to stay.

And the city itself – it has everything save the space to shoot a rifle or run a motorcycle at speed.  Almost anything else you can imagine is right there at your fingertips.  It’s an adult playground.

It’s a serious place.  The energy that pervades it derives, I suspect, from the limits of the real estate itself.  Twenty three square miles ain’t a lot.  Which accounts for the rising-into-the-sky impetus of the city.  And the sheer density of people.

As you might expect in a place of such rarified ground, it’s an expensive place.  Everything costs.  But what struck me is that it’s also probably the most intensely capitalistic place on earth.  Want to open a [fill in the blank] shop?  Fine.  Just know that there are probably six others of those already within a 5-minute walk.  Mediocrity is rewarded with a quick exit.  And success depends upon continual reinvention.  And because of that what’s left, what’s there at any point in time, has the sheen of robust substance.

It’s a very cool place.

Mostly, mostly I was amazed at the energy, the creative impulse that lives there.  You sense it everywhere, lying just beneath the surface.  You see it in the velocity of movement, in the pace of life.  You see it in the diversity of everything, in the rich multiplicity of possibility. That’s the thing, I think, that gets under your skin.  That’s the viral contagion that makes you want to go back.  That makes you never want to leave.

You can’t really begin to take the measure of a place in four days, of course.  All you can do is get a taste.  But I’ll be back.  Most definitely.

new york at dawn

new york at dawn

world trade center

world trade center

9/11 was an awful day for everyone, of course.  But when you wander along where it actually happened – lower Manhattan is not that large – it gains a visceral charge.  This is the now-being-constructed One World Trade Center, built upon the ruins, the hole, that once was the old World Trade Center.

hotel chelsea

hotel chelsea

I stayed at the Hotel Chelsea, a building erected in 1883.  Mark Twain, O Henry, Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Eugene O’Neill, Thomas Wolfe, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Patti Smith, William Burroughs, Arthur Miller, Leonard Cohen and William de Kooning are among the luminaries who have stayed there over the years.  Dylan Thomas died there.  Sid Vicious stabbed his girlfriend to death there.  Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001:  A Space Odyssey while living there.  And Jack Kerouac wrote On The Road while staying there.

The hallways are filled with art and photography.

new york subway

new york subway

New York is probably the only major city in the world where one can easily get by without a car.  Despite being obviously older than most, their mass transit system does exactly what such a system should – quickly and efficiently whisking people wherever they want to go.  Any time of day or night.  Anywhere in the city.  For not much money.

DC’s Metro system should take a few cues.

central park

central park

It was a miracle.  Carving out a huge chunk of some the most valuable real estate on earth and setting it aside simply as a recreational pleasure for its inhabitants.  And yet that’s exactly what happened.  Central Park, in its own way, is every bit as amazing as the city in which it resides.

More images from my visit can be seen in New York City, 2010


Sunday, January 3rd, 2010

If my Picture of the Week attempts are too often characterized by seven days having gone by with too little photography and too few pictures to choose from, well, every now and then the reverse is true.  I go somewhere and get a bunch of shots I like and wish I could post more than one.  So it was this week, when I headed out to Arlington one evening just as dusk was falling. It was cold.  But not bleak.

This was the image I chose.  But I’d have been just as happy to post these others, images which are related. They all speak to much of the same thing, but in different ways.

tomb of the unknowns

tomb of the unknowns

fresh grave

fresh grave

the wreaths of autumn

the wreaths of autumn

eternal flame

eternal flame

Time Passes

Thursday, December 31st, 2009

It happens slowly.  So you don’t often notice it.  But every now and again you look in the mirror and there’s a moment of quiet dissonance.  Inside, you’re still that same young guy you’ve always been.  Same belief in your ability to do things.  Same yearning to go on this trip or head out on that adventure.  Same everything.

So who the hell is that fifty-something guy staring back at you?

Charis Wilson died a few weeks ago.  She was the young woman who once took up with Edward Weston, the renowned 20th-century photographer, back in the thirties.  She was 28 years his junior.  She was sexually adventurous.  And he immortalized her in a bunch of his images.

When I watched Eloquent Nude, the documentary of their relationship, I had a hard time seeing the young woman I’ve so long thought was so sensual… inside the face of that 93-year-old woman in front of the camera.

But she was in there, I’m sure.  Wondering what the hell happened.

She was a smart young woman.  And she wrote with a polished intimacy that is a pleasure, these many years later, to read.  It was her words, not Edward’s, that got him the Guggenheim grant in 1937.  And it was her descriptive passages that graced the pages of California and the West, the book chronicling their 2-year road trip to get the images allowed by that grant, and which lead to that book.

Published in 1940, it’s been out of print forever.  I found an old copy, a bit the worse for wear.

It was a very different world back then.  And, yet, you read her words and you look at his pictures and suddenly you realize… it really wasn’t that different after all.

california and the west

california and the west

page one

page one

Of Leicas and Celebrities

Saturday, November 28th, 2009

Leica M rangefinder cameras are easily my favorite type of camera.  Mostly manual, they harken back to a time when you had to be rather deliberate about one’s photographic technique.  Even their M8 and M9 digital equivalents today require a degree of engagement that is anathema to most DSLR shooters.  Exposure?  What’s that?  What do you mean it doesn’t have an autofocus button?  You mean I have to actually focus the lens by hand?!

I also like Natalie Merchant.  I liked her music long before I found that she herself is a connoisseur and practitioner of the fine art of rangefinder photography.  I liked her even more once I discovered that little bit of personal trivia!

Here’s a shot I took a few years back, while she was out with what I think was her M3.  I’m not sure what kind of film she was shooting – but the shot of mine was on Tri-X, developed in Xtol.

And, no, it’s not what you think…

Natalie Merchant & Her Leica M

Natalie Merchant & Her Leica M

The Cost of Leica

Wednesday, September 16th, 2009

One of the new members on the Leica forum ( I occasionally frequent posed the excellent question of how – given the high cost of Leica cameras and lenses – anyone other than professionals can justify their cost.  He received a number of thoughtful replies.  Here was mine.

It’s a slippery slope. After years of enjoying an SLR/DSLR, you look at all those timeless, iconic images taken with Leica rangefinders and all the great photographers who used them and you begin to wonder what all the fuss is about. So you decide to give it a little go. Just one Leica M body and a single lens. You probably buy them used.

After a few days, you suddenly realize that this strange rangefinder thing is kind of cool. It’s a heck of a lot easier carrying around your new Leica than that big, clunky SLR. And that one Leica lens you’ve got sure does render some really nice images. They have a crispness and a definition and a look that’s, well… just hard to describe.

Mostly, though, you find that using that M camera is just different. You start to see the world through a window, instead of through a tunnel. And that soon starts to be reflected in your images themselves. They are somehow subtly different from how they were before.

You’re quite pleased by all this. But there’s something that still nags at you, there in the back of your mind. That single prime that you’ve been using brings a freedom, sure. You love the simplicity it brings. It’s a revelation after all those years of using a zoom on your SLR. But, still, there are times you wish you had a different focal length. And so after awhile you start idly looking around. You visit Ebay and Craigslist and the Leica internet stores. You wander down to your local camera shop and look at that silver Lux behind the glass in their display case. You shake your head at all this. It’s way too expensive. And, heck, you’re just an amateur, a simple guy who does this for fun.

But you keep thinking about those images. The one’s you’ve gotten since you got into this rangefinder thing. You can’t get them out of your mind. And you can’t ignore the belief that you’ve become a better photographer for it.

And so you spring for that second lens.

And there it starts. You’re down the hill and gone.

Leicas are expensive cameras. Always have been. Always will be. They call to only a few. But if you’re among those few, you’ll find a way.

Leica M6

Leica M6

The Death of Kodachrome

Sunday, July 19th, 2009

It was my favorite film for years and years.  Now it’s gone.

You knew it was coming, of course.  Kodak sold off the complex developing process many years ago.  And then the number of labs which processed it got less and less, until in recent years there was only one lab in the entire world which developed it.

Mostly, of course, people just didn’t shoot it anymore. I don’t blame Kodak.  It’s hard to make a business out of a product that people love, but no longer use.

And so now it’s official.  Kodachrome is no more.

What we’re left with is the memory of a film so fantastic that it lasted 70 years.  From the very beginning of color film.  Until the age of digital.  It was the one and only film technology that did not get superceded by something better.

That, and countless amazing images.

Every now and then we’re blessed with remarkable weather for a day or two on our motorcycle trips into West Virginia.  Days when the humidity is so low and the air is so clear and the sun shines so brightly and the sky is such a deep shade of blue that the mountains have an etched-in-stone look.

“A Kodachrome Day,” you whisper, looking up in awe.

So long old friend…