Leica M9, part 6, intermezzo.
Before concluding this series with an analysis of the color reproduction capabilities and the comparison with film (Tmax100 and Spur Orthopan microfilm) it may be a good idea to pause for a moment and reflect on the more philosophical aspects of the M9 in the Leica lineage.
There is a strong connection between music and photography as both are based on the physics of the wave phenomenon. Waves generated by instruments in a temporal or sequential mode produce the sounds we hear and like. Sound wave share the same characteristics (period, frequency and amplitude) with optical waves. Light energy falls on a subject and the energy is bounced off the surface and the resulting waves fall on the eye as receptor in a spatial mode (static image) or a spatial/temporal mode (moving images).
The correspondence between music and photography is not only evident on the physical level, but also on the aesthetic level. The words to describe a piece of music are almost identical to the ones we use in photography like tonality, harmony, timbre (tone color). We know that a visual edge is made of of a superposition of high frequencies and the same is true of a musical sharp edge. The famous discussion whether a CD has a better sound than an LP is copied in the photographic discussion about film based and sensor based receptor technology. There is a slight revival of LP discs, and the LP engineers can easily explain the difference between the CD and LP. The LP cannot record the high frequencies as well as the CD does and this results in a warmer sound that many listeners appreciate. The same is true when looking at the film based images: the high frequencies are reduced due to scatter and grain and the edges are slightly smoother and this is pleasant to the eye which dislikes sharp transitions. The digitally captured and manipulated image can retain the high frequencies resulting in sharp edges which are so pronounced in images as to be unpleasant. The eye will eventually adjust to these characteristics we may assume.
In the musical world we find a wide range of musical instruments, each one capable of a unique sound with a limited tonal range and timbre. The manufacture of musical instruments is often a mind-bogglingly complex business, subject to scientific analysis to be true, but in the end it is the master craftsman who has to do the job.
When reflecting on the status and role of the Leica M9 in the current imaging world (would one still dare to use the word ‘photography’?) I was thinking about the analogy with music and musical instruments. I was (accidentally?) listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, also called ‘The Ode to Joy’. The Ninth is part mystery, part masterpiece and this would be a fitting description of the Leica M9 too.
The virtue of the M9 is to allow CRF-users the benefits of the high-end digital workflow in combination with the basic attributes of the CRF concept as developed by Leica, in particular the classic viewing angles of the Leica lens scuderia. The M9 performance positions the camera in the top segment of the 35mm format dSLRs, and this guarantees high quality, studio-like imagery. The M9 does not however directly challenge the medium format digital backs and cameras in the same way that the AgX Leicas were no direct competition for the Hasselblad images and the 8x10 inch loading field cameras. On the other hand we may also conclude that the performance is in many cases close to what the Leica S2 has to offer. The reference to the musical scene is quite apt. No musical instrument offers the full range of tones that the ear can cope with and clearly a violin has its role to play next to a flute or a piano.
The M9 is a masterpiece by keeping all the classical CRF virtues and adding the ease of use of the digital workflow while not intruding into the mental workings of the photographer’s eye. Current dSLRs of Canon and Nikon calibre are closer to a Moogh synthesizer than to a classical instrument (to stay within the music analogy). Here starts the mystery of the M-series. Basically the CRF concept has to be considered obsolete technology since about 1970 when the SLR screens matured and the concept was dealt a final blow with the coming of age of the AF technology around 1995. The concept and the Leica embodiment of it has proven so strong that it still today has its band of followers who create pictures that forcefully connect to the core emotions of artistic vision. But just as Beethoven’s Ninth, there is an end to creative genius and the emergence of discussions about an M10 is a bit premature as the range of options is beginning to become exhausted within the CRF concept.
Geoffrey Crawley in his review of the Leica M5 called the Leica M a bottle of pure fresh water in a Pepsi Cola world. This conclusion is still viable in the current digital imaging world. The Leica M9 (and to be inclusive the M8 too), is the only camera for the digital workflow that is fully linked to the classical way of taking pictures.
The current obsession with ‘clean’ images (without vignetting, noise or grain) and extended dynamic range is a remarkable departure from the technical tradition in photography. It is a bit artificial too. All great images in photographic culture exhibit some grain and many also have a shade of vignetting. One might say that these properties define the proper characteristic of a true photograph. And Ansel Adams found that a range of six to seven stops with clear nuances within this tonal scale is all you need for very high quality prints.
The M9 offers excellent tonal reproduction (at least in the BW arena) over a range of six stops and a speed from ISO160 to ISO400, with just that visual occurrence of grain that is seen in most great photographs at high magnification. In addition to this there is high end definition with crisp detail as you expect from Leica lenses.
For me that is enough for the style of photographs the M series is designed for. I do not need HD-video options, Live View studio options and HDR options. As a photographic instrument the M has its limitations, as does every instrument, but what it does, it does with elegance and purity.
For the curious I have added a few photographs that show a picture as it is processed by the camera, an identical picture as seen by the software before interpolation (reading the image data from the file without corrections) and an enlargement where you can see the actual pixels.
Leica M digital intermezzo 2 (november 13, 2009)
Where is the smile of the Cheshire cat?
In the German magazine, der Spiegel (the Mirror), there is an interesting section about analog photography or Filmchemie-Fotografie. The aim is to create a bit of a revival of classical photography with film. You cannot make headways nowadays without contemporary measures and the project can be followed on Facebook and Flickr. Great classica cameras like Hasselblad and Zeiss lenses can be bought for a handful of dollars and even less Euros and film is still available, even if you have to buy it online. But who doesn’t do much of their buying on the internet now?
One of the arguments to use films, is the specific color representation and grain impression of AgX material. This feature is now grossly neglected in the striving-for-perfection-and-uniformity in the digital arena. I have the big Magnum book on my table on a bookstand and can easily leave through the pages. The most arresting images are frequently the ones with special colors or monochrome tonality.
I noted in my blog and in my recent review of the color reproduction of the M9 and M8 that I prefer the different representations of the current slide and color films over the uniform reproduction of the digital post processing. The ubiquitous use of software test tools bring to the fore the slightest discoloring form the established norm (the Macbeth or other cards). In the film days no one would strive to reproduce the Macbeth colors perfectly, but the card was used to note the differences and how to use these differences to get the required color-images.
In this respect we may note the bad influence of the magazine- and internet-tests. It is nowadays extremely easy to calculate the color deviation in DeltaE values and conclude that big differences can be equated with bad quality. This is of course not true. Chemists in color photography often purposely changed the color reproduction from the possible to the desirable. It is known for a long time and digital capture does not change this, that pleasing colors are not the same as accurate colors. Kodak had a special film in its range that was tuned to get real colors, but that film was not very popular!
It was easy and is still easy in AgX days to see the special qualities of Leica pictures. It may not be obvious anymore, but the famous Leica fingerprint for images was the mixture of lens characteristics and the interaction with silver-halogen crystals. It is becoming increasingly difficult to discern the special Leica quality in todays digital image capture. Over a period of five years I have intensely photographed with Olympus E-1, Canon 5D and Leica M8 (with and without IR filters). If I print comparable images made with any of these three cameras and put them side by side on a table and ask for differences, hardly anyone will note specific Leica quality or Leica fingerprint.
To be honest, it is still there, but it becomes increasingly difficult to separate the image world in Leica versus the rest. It is not yet impossible, but the current tendency for uniformity in imagery, inspired by indiscriminately using the same test tools and demanding that results should be as close as possible to a norm, may be the cause for the Leica fingerprint to become an endangered species.
Perhaps the Leica digital designers could reflect on the peculiar characteristics of the Leica imaging chain and dare to offer a color space and a post processing algorithm that is not as close as possible to the norm, but supports the Leica fingerprint in image reproduction. And maybe Leica users should support the fact that Leica images are and need to be different from the mainstream norm.
In lens design the Leica solution has never been the easy way to design a lens that conforms to popular criteria, but to create a lens that supports a special vision of the world around us. Zeiss used the same approach but had a different view and that is fine because we had the choice. Now the relentless competition and universal support for uniform perfection is killing that precious characteristic. When you see the qualities of the Leica lenses as exposed by the famous K8 MTF equipment, you cannot but admire the design choices. After processing the digital image files, these characteristics start to fade.
In AgX photography is is easier to detect the Leica fingerprint. That is why the M7 and MP and the range of M6 versions are still in use and will stay in use.
My view is this: testing is more than just listing a range of numerical values, produced my software or physical instruments. Without knowing what these figures refer to and the context in which they are produced and the relevance of the numbers it does not make sense to compare results. And you should, when necessary, dare to say that deviating results are not always to be avoided, and should be supported when it helps to get interesting and important photography. I received many emails from readers who noted that my focus on the core of the photographic art and science is indeed a welcome approach that helps to create a proper distance from the tendency to use numbers as the defining norm for photographic quality.
Now the task is to rediscover and define the Leica quality in the digital realm.