The 75mm Summilux-M f/1.4 is a legendary lens, designed in 1980 by Dr. Werner Mandler, and it only became more legendary when it discontinued in 2007. As it is with most Leica products, that which is no longer available goes up in price. Which naturally leads to the question, "Should I get one (before it is too late)?"
A lot has happened in lens design since 1980, and even the 75mm Summilux is often described as "Dr. Mandlers favorite lens", it is a soft contrast lens compared with later 75mm designs such as the 75mm APO-Summicron of 2005 and the 75mm Noctilux f/1.25 of 2018.
Dr. Werner Mandler was the CEO and chief lens designer of Leitz Canada, the factory set up in Canada after World War II as an insurance for Leica that they could always produce despite wars. Leitz lost their entire Russian market (and more) after World War I, and World War II was also straining and difficult. The factory in Canada was set up as a replica of the factory in Wetzlar, Germany, and as time went by, the Canadian factory sometimes was ahead of the German counterpart. Not only was Dr. Mandler somewhat a genius at lens design, he also implemented computer-aided lens design before anyone else.
The 75mm Summilux-M was the personal favorite
lens of Dr. Walter Mandler (in the middle in this photo)
The 75mm is recognized by the narrow depth of field wide open. Traditionally 90mm and 75mm lenses have been considered good portrait lenses because one can isolate the subject from the background.
With a tele you isolate the background with a more narrow angle, and the backgrund appears more solid or flat (whereas a wide angle includes more of the background due to a wider angle, and the backgrpund appears with more details and more distance between them).
This is still true, though the faster apertures of todays 50mm lenses enables us to blur the background with a 50mm f/1.4 lens the same was as you used to use a 90mm lens to do.
My take on that is that the isolation of the background (in a portrait) was only possible with small tele lenses (75mm, 80mm, 85mm and 90mm) back in the day when those lenses were not that lightstrong (f/4.0) and their counterpart 50mm lenses captured way too much of the unwanted background being f/2.0 to f/3.5.
When I read "My Life with the Leica" by Walther Benser, that is what he stated as the new fantastic possibility with the 90mm lenses back in the 1940s. The ability to isolate the subject from the background. Walther Benser worked for Leica for many years, and I think the term "portrait lens" is more of a marketing term than a "rule of correct photography".
In other words, my perception of a good portrait lens is one that allow me to isolate the subect from the bacground. The main subject is the person, the background can be gone, a beautiful bokeh, a vague supporting story, sparkling blur or a painting of interesting colors that set a mood.
Composition is storytelling. It is what is relevant for the story, and for a portrait the story is most often the person. The background will disturb if it is too dominant, unless the background is in fact part of the story one want to tell.
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I'm sure some will sit more upright in the chair reading these words. And perhaps that is why I say so. It's good to be challenged in ones viewpoint and try something else and re-think how things can be done.
Somebody told me to use the Leica 21mm Summilux-M ASPH f/1.4 for portraits, so I did. I don't know if I agreed with the person after that, but was interested to learn why he would recommend that, and in the end I did learn something that was useful by using a wide angle with narrow depth of field for portraits. It made me interested, gave me some hard days with my eyes wide ipen, and finally paid off with something that ... shall we say it was a combination of how I knew it had to be done, meeting how "everybody knows" it shouldn't be done. Something new got to be the result of that melting pod.
One of my recent 21mm portraits with the Leica 21mm Summilux-M ASPH f/1.4. Obviously the background is very "busy" but could then be part of the story you want to tell. The wide open aperture of f/1.4 allow me to make the "busy" background into a dreamy effect.
The same portrait as it could have looked with a 90mm lens. The crop changes and there is less background to deal with.Isolation of the subject is just so much easier with tele lenses, traditionally. If that is what you seek.
Today, a 50mm f/1.4 or f/0.95 will isolate the subject quite as well as a 90mm once did. Hence, one might as well use a 50mm lens for portrait. If not for anything else, becaues it is versatile and thus often sits on the camera. At least that is what I mostly do despite that I have the very good Leica 90mm APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0 in my bag as well.
If you wonder what I am talking about, it is this: A 90mm lens has a more narrow depth of field than a 50mm. And a lens with a wider aperture has a narrow depth of field. If you mix it up, a 50mm f/1.4 will have as much narrow depth of field as a 90mm f/2.0.
The angle of view is more narrow for the 90mm, and maybe you will want that. Or maybe you will work around that potentially busy background to use the 50mm instead.
If we think back to the Leitz 85mm Summarex f/1.5 in 1943 we have both a small tele lens with a narrow depth of field, and a wide aperture which makes the narrow depth of field even more narrow.
Fast-forward to 1980 - 39 years of lens technology and better contrast due to better light control - we get to talk about the 75mm Summilux-M f/1.4 with an extremely narrow depth of field and a very high quality of contrast, colors and details.
Mmmmmm ... Leica 75mm Summilux f/1.4
A 75mm Summilux-M f/1.4 has as narrow a depth of field as a Leica 50mm Noctilux-M f/1.0 or f/0.95 which is why the relevant question is if it is actually the same as a Noctilux?
To add to the confusion, the introduction of the Leica M 240 (in 2013) and Leica M10 (in 2018) that takes Leica R lenses via an adapter, opens up for a another possibility; getting that special Leica look with narrow depth of field with lenses such as the legendary Leica 80mm Summilux-R f/1.4.
I may not clarify what to do, but hopefully I can help clarify the choices you have!
Leica M 240 with Leica 75mm Summilux-M f/1.4. I like the colors in this one which is actually a crop of the original (see the bottom of the page). "Being Ben Affleck" we called this image, though it is guitarist/photographer Michael Swisterski. He is used to be "recognized" as "the famous guy".
Perspective and depth of field
In short, one could say that perspective and depth of field is the same for all lenses and all apertures. It's the crop (and anlargment) that changes when you change lens. One can take a 18mm lens and if one crop into the middle, the image one will be looking at will be the same as a 400mm lens would make. That is the simlicity of this.
Almost. But let's state that as an almost correct rule for now.
As far as perspective and aperture goes, it is something you can put into a calculation and it will stick.
What you can't put into a calculation is the individual charasteristics of lens designs (which is reason for "the Leica glow" in essence). But perhaps the largest factor in what lenses and cameras produce the best images is this: What the user feels he or she can make with a certain instrument. If you are convinced that a Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 is the best lens ever, it is. If you are convinced it is the worst lens ever, it will be. For you.
One of the factors why a certain lens is great, is that I have decided so. As the photorapher and not the camera makes the photographs, being convinced this is the right instrument, is a very important factor.
The 75mm Summilux-M was designed in 1980 and accompanied the then brand new Leica M4-P. It is said to be the favorite lens of legendary lens designer Dr Walter Mandler (1922-2005) who designed it. He also fathered the Leitz 50mm Noctilux f/1.2 and the Noctilux f/1.0, so that puts things into perspective.
One could wonder why it was his favorite lens ... what things fell in place in this lens that made him like it that much? I think he had a lot of elements to be proud of ... colors, details, sharpness, as well as an extremely elegant handling of light. I'm sure he was also happy with the overall construction.
And when I say extremely elegant, I am referring to when precise lenses become magic in the sense that they look like a naturalistic painting done by one of the great masters.
Few want a lens that reproduces precisely what is. No, what we really want is a lens that reproduces reality so the beauty is amplified and the errors are erased. Like a painter would choose which things to amplify and which to blur.
It's a fact that the lens was so perfect that whilst many other lenses were redesigned in the 27 years of the 75mm Summilux regency, the 75mm Summilux-M continued with the same unchanged design all 27 years untill it was discontinued in 2007. Though the lens mount inside the lens was made 40 grams lighter when the lens production was moved from Canada to Germany in 1998.
The Leica M4-P (-rofessional) of 1981 was begging for some high-speed lenses. Here with a motor winder on the bottom and the Leica 50mm Noctilux-M f/1.0 that had come out just four years earlier, and the Leica 75mm Summilux-M f/1.4 came almost at the same time as the camera.
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Leica 75mm Summilux for video and cinema
When an older design is applied to moving pictures, it gives some extra features like flare. Moviemakers often look for a special look, rather than the perfect optical look.
It doesn't make it easier to get a 75mm Summilux, but it does make it more exciting, that companies like T M Camera Solutions in Hollywood buys up Leica 75mm Summilux-M lenses and re-house them into PL mount houses for movie use on Panavision, RED and other camera systems.
Then of course there is the "real" Leitz Cine Summilux-C 75mm, which is an entire different lens, and also a different price. About $38,000.
It's not more difficult to focus a 75mm lens than a 35mm or 50mm. But the idea that it is, that's what makes it difficult.
The harder you try, the harder it gets. If you go easy and 'sloppy', it works better.
What I mean is, turn the focusing ring, and when you see that the focus 'clicks in' in the viewfinder, take the photo. Don't go back and forth to try to find the idal focus. You will only miss it. It will get confusing.
That said, the 75mm Summilux has a long focusing throw. Modern lenses have a shorter focusing throw where the focusing ring turns 1/3 of the barrel (from 1 to 5 o'clock on a watch), but the 75mm Summilux turns 1/2 the barrel (from 1 to 7 o'clock on a watch). This makes focusing slow, especially if you started turning the wrong way and now realize you must go the other way back to find focus.
Further, the 75mm Summilux-M is the only lens I know of where the lens itself can go out of adjustment. Typically it is the rangerfinder mechanism of the Leica M that needs adjustment, and very seldom does lenses go out of adjustment. But the 75mm is one that can go out of adjustment and may need to be calibrated by Leica Camera AG in Wetzlar. If you happen to wish for a 6-bit code on the lens, they can do that too, so that may be an excuse to send it in for 6-bit coding (so the camera can recognize the lens automatically) and focus check and/or adjustment.
The German vs. the Canadian version
The Leica 75mm Summilux-M exists in three versions which are essentially not different - photographically speaking. The lens design itself is exactly the same.
But the first version (1980-1982; Model 11 814) is with a ventilated hood attached. And then two years after the introduction, the lens was redesigned with a built-in lens hood (Model 11 815). The weight increased a tiny bit by this redesign of the lens barrel that had to fit the lens hood. But that is all.
Leica 75mm Summilux, 80mm Summilux and 85mm Summarex lenses
Leitz 75mm Summilux-M f/1.4
Version I (Canada)
Leitz 75mm Summilux-M f/1.4
Version II (Canada)
Leica 75mm Summilux-M f/1.4
Version III (Germany)
APO-Summicron-M ASPH f/2.0
Leitz 85mm Summarex f/1.5
with lens hood (reverse)
In 1998 the production of the Leica 75mm Summilux-M f/1.4 was moved from the Ernst Leitz Canada factory to the Leica Camera AG factory in Solms in Germany, and here they did a small redesign of the lens so that the weight dropped 40g. It's not a very visible change as it is only the lens mount inside that is changed (Model 11 810), as well as the focus tab in the bottom of the lens.
Ernst Leitz Canada (ELCAN)
Leica Solms, Germany
There is one visible change of the lens, and that is that it now says Leica instead of Leitz ... and if one looks really closely on the barrel, one can see an engraving saying "Made in Germany" on the lens barrel.
This little change made some think this was a more "real" Leica lens than the Canadian.
I find it ironic that the latest version, Leica Germany, generally is considered the most valuable or "most Leica" because given the choice between having the lens made where the designer, Walter Mandler was, and Germany, I would trust the originality of the Canadian version the most. But that is a detail. The German and Canadian factories were in many ways copies of each other (as mentioned in my article Leica History).
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The Leica 80mm Summilux-R is in my opinion the crown jewel of the Leica R lenses, the lenses made for the Leica SLR cameras. As such it is a fairly economical way to get the Noctilux look. It's $2,000 secondhand, and then a $300 adapter to mount it onto the Leica M240. The Leica 50mm Noctilux is a $6,000 to $11,400 lens, depending if you go for a second-hand f/1.0 (previous versions) or the new (current version) f/0.95.
Likewise, some will ask if the 80mm Summilux-R and 75mm Summilux-M are almost the same. In many ways they might be, they are even designed by the same designer in the same year. But for two different camera systems.
Leica 75mm vs Leica 80mm Summilux-R
They seem to have much in common. I think that if someone sent me the glass used in these lenses, I wouldn't be able to tell which belonged to what. They are very similar in design.
Similar lenses in many regards, but the Leica 75mm Summilux-M is more compact and fits right onto the Leica M 240 where it activates the automatic Focus Aid (that enlarges the image 5x or 10x so it is easier to focus accurately). The Leica 80mm Summilux-R f/1.4 is a bit more bulky and sits on the adapter that requires you to press the Focus Aid button on the front of the camera. Focus turn: They both require that you to turn the focus ring 50% around the lens barrel to get from 70 cm to infinity (more modern Leica lenses require only 30% movement around the lens barrel). The 75mm is usually twice the price of the Leica 80mm.
The 75mm Summilux doesn't have this ability to see in the dark, and that is what a future 75mm Summilux-M ASPH f/1.4 would mainly improve.
An let me point out that I am talking about shadow details and not darkness. Shadow details are the details inshadows in a normal lit picture where you have quite a range. A picture in darkness is a picture where the whole scene has very little light (which you would usually handle with faster ISO). It's an intersting subject I shall get back to.
Surprisingly I discovered the Leica 75mm Summilux-M to be almost impossible to distinguish from the Leica 50mm Noctilux-M f/0.95 when I used the two lenses for a portrait session. For what I did and what I wanted to accomplish.
I'm not talking about the distance to the subject which of course has to be closer with the 50mm than the 75mm. And as you can tell, I didn't have to deal with the background perspective. What I am talking about is that the micro details, the feel, the skin and the handling of contrast was very similar. Maybe in essence the artistic and dreamy look is what I find strikingly similar. I think this is something I will spend some more time to investigate.
British actress Rebecca Grant. Leica M 240 with Leica 75mm Summilux-M f/1.4
Now, close-up ... would you be able to tell which was the Noctilux and which was the 75mm Summilux if I didn't write it below the image..?
Leica 75mm Summilux-M - a 100% crop of the image
Leica 50mm Noctilux-M ASPH f/0.95 - a 100% crop of the image
What is Sharpness?
I've done this video about sharpness, or perhaps we should call it clarity, which is another definition of sharpness, less understood and used in today's hunt for razor-sharp edges.
Working on the edge of what is possible
Now, let it be no secret that if you want technical quality, using a lens wide open is not the way to go. If you stop the 75mm Summilux-M f/1.4 down to f/2.8 you of course get more sharpness overall, details and all that. Though the 75mm is better performing than many in that is has rather good sharpness all over the image.
But the art is to work on the edge of what is possible: Where aesthetics meets technology and engineering. I talked about the master paintings before, and that is what I see of potential in the Summilux f/1.4 and the Noctilux f/0.95 lens.
It is no wonder that many photographers want to record reality with as many deails as possible, preferably with details that can be seen when blown up on a wall. On the other hand, it shouldn't surprise you that the subjects in your photographs - the people - just as often have a different agenda. They prefer to be portrayed with as few unpleasant details as possible, leaving only the good.
This is obviously one of the things that makes photogprahy difficult, yet has to be solved in a diplomatic way that satisfies all interests. The one who does the work, as well as the one who pays for it.
A great example of a detailed painting that doesn't go into unpleasant details. Dutch painter Vemeer's "Young woman with a water pitcher."
Lenses that work in the zone between not revealing everything, yet pretending they record every details is very valuable. That is why well-constructed f/1.4 and f/0.95 lenses are very special!
When high-speed photography seemed to be the new black in the 1970's and 1980's several manufacturers made high-speed lenses. But one thing is to take a f/2.8 lens and open it up to f/1.4 so it can photograph with only 25% of the light (detoriation of quality as a result). Another thing is to design a f/1.4 lens that can actually do what a f/2.8 lens can do (in terms of sharpness and contrast) with only 25% of the light.
Now, that's what we are talking about.
The Leica 75mm Summilux-M f/1.4 works very close to the subject. Mind you it is a small tele lens, and yet it goes down to 70 cm as the closest focus.
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The 75mm Summilux vs the 75mm Noctilux
Leica Camera AG released the 75mm Noctilux f/1.25 in 2018, a lens designed by Peter Karbe and his team of Leica Camera AG in Wetzlar.
38 years apart in lens deisng, the Summilux and the Noctilux are very different. The 75mm Noctilux is even, within the Leica M lenses, a new era of lens design. Perfection on every level, with color control, micro details, high contrast, contrast falling off in out-of-focus areas, no distortion, and no purple fringing.
There has been produced a few anniversary editions of the 75mm Summilux-M f/1.4 with engravings celebrating this or that, but if you want a really special piece to put on display, the Leitz 75mm Summar f/0.85 with a Leica M3 takes the prize. It's a very limited edition and was designed in 1934 by Max Berek for X-ray photography (X-ray lenses for 35mm film were used in the 30's to 50's for photographing radiographic screens (lung/TB screening) because 35mm film was cheaper than X-ray film.).
No household is really complete without the Leitz 75mm Summar f/0.85
Hugo Meyer Kino Plasmat 75/1.5 is a very rare lens from the 1930's that sell for $25,000. Comes with an E39 mount, which is the original Leica mount (fits on a Leica M with an adapter). It is not known for great qualities other than blurry images (great for kino) very similar to the 90mm Thambar, but it's extremely rare.
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How does the 75mm fit in to it all?
When I used the Leica SLR system for almost everything back in the old days - like in five years ago - my main lens was the Leica 80mm Summilux-R f/1.4. I would use 80mm for everything, and even when the digital back, the DMR, was made for the Leica R9 and the crop factor was 1.3X, I still used the 80mm as the most natural lens, even the crop factor basically made it a 105mm.
Crop factor doesn't change a lens
Now, crop factor is simply what is says. It is how much of the image that is cropped away. In a Leica M8, Leica M8.2 and a Leica R9 with DMR digital back it is 1.3X. It basically means that you divide the frame with 1.3X (and a 24 x 36mm full-frame bcomes 18 x 28mm). You lost 30% of the image.
It doesn't change the qualities of the lens, which is important to take a note of. Not that you are likely to ever stumble into another Leica M with a crop factor; they are all full-frame sensors from Leica M9 in 2009 and forward. But if you use lenses on so-called mirrorless cameras, you will still stumble into the term "crop factor".
A 35mm lens doesn't loose it's qualities when cropped. You just lose the edges of the image. That's why, in my opinion, it was an error that many bought 28mm lenses for their Leica M8 cameras so as to have a frame similar to the 35mm lens they were used to on the Leica M7 and Leica MP film rangefinders. The 35mm is just not the same as the 28mm.
Likewise, when I moved from using a 80mm on a Leica R9 film camera to a R9 with a digital back, I didn't change lens. I just stepped a little back so as to have the same frame. The type of photo I got was the same. Perspective - the backgrounds relative size comparted to the subject in front - was changed, but I usually blurred that background aways.
What on Earth am I talking about?
Cropped frame 75mm Summilux
Full frame 75mm Summilux
A 75mm lens is always a 75mm lens - cropped or not.
A 90mm lens has a 27 degree angle, a 75mm has a 33 degree angle, and a 50mm lens has a 45 degree angle.
Using a 75mm or 50mm and just stepping back or forward, will give the same magnification of course. But the foreground-background relation will change. The depth of field will change. Quite a few things will change.
That is why a 50mm f/2 and a 90mm f/2 are very different. But a 50mm f/1.4 and a 90mm f/2.0 has a very similar depth of field in the final image.
The eye vs. a camera lens
The eye is close to the 50mm lens only in the regard that it is the same enlargement. But your eyes basically have a angle of view that is about 180 degrees combined. That's how wide you see things.
They eyes could basically be said to be part of our alarm system: We keep an eye out for things within a 180 degree angle, and the ears help us notice any unusual activity behind, above and below us so we can turn our head and find out if it is a hungry lion attacking or a London bus approaching.
Leica M 240 with Leica 75mm Summilux-M f/1.4. See the cropped version in colors on top of the page.
At the same time you only focus on one specific area. One of the problems a photographer faces when doing razor sharp large format landscapes is that to the eye a landscape isn't sharp from corner to corner: We scan the landscape with the eyes so as to have the image details.
The camera takes the same image with everything in focus in one snap, and that could be said to be one of the problems in composing landscape images.
This in my opinion is why I used to find the 80mm Summilux, and to a large degree the 75mm Summilux-M a more natural look. It is very much like how I see things, combined with how I want to see them. It has the similarity of the eye that it focuses on a relatively small area but records the rest in a blur. And it adds aesthetics in the way it does it.
It is always interesting to see what another person comes up with when they have to portray you. In a portrait session two people meet and have to work together to accomplish a portrait that they can agree is good.
A portrait is not a recording of how the person looks. It's an artistic presentation of a personality.
The lens - or technique - of course plays a part in how this can be done.
Think of it as poetry. A Bob Dylan song may be words, but when it becomes beautiful it is not the actual literal meaning of the words that makes it beautiful. It is the emotion it creates.
I mention Bob Dylan because he does not only use some very Dylan-ish words, he also often sings them so you can hardly hear what he sings. In other words, he is a great example that poetry may convey an emotion rather than the actual meaning of the words.
"She was workin’ in a topless place
And I stopped in for a beer
I just kept lookin’ at the side of her face
In the spotlight so clear
And later on as the crowd thinned out
I’s just about to do the same
She was standing there in back of my chair
Said to me, “Don’t I know your name?”
I muttered somethin’ underneath my breath
She studied the lines on my face
I must admit I felt a little uneasy
When she bent down to tie the laces of my shoe
Tangled up in blue"
- Bob Dylan
This may also explain why a manual for a camera or a washing machine is seldom aesthetic to read. It is trying to give you data rather than convey emotion.
It is not what Hemingway factually tells you in "The Old Man and the Sea" that is of importance. It is how it makes you feel.
This should give us a hint about the actual importance of MTF charts for lenses (Modulation Transfer Function) and all that measurement of lenses. It's not that I don't find them interesting. I actually love to read Erwin Putts' descriptions of lenses and have probably read all of them by now. You should know your tools in detail, but then you should choose with your heart.
The best in test may not be the best in real life for what you want to tell.
What should hit you first when you see a photo or portrait, is the emotional impact. And this is why the lens' ability to create a pleasant and aesthetic look is much more of interest than the sharpness, focal length and all that.
Lenses for portraits
Focal length does play in for portraits in the sense that a 21mm or 35mm lens will make the nose relatively larger, whereas a 50mm, 75mm and 90mm creates a more natural look with proper proportions.
The 90mm will be the most proper proportions - with a long background so to say (that will actually appear flat), the 75mm will display a wider view than the 90mm of what is in the background.
I teach in my workshops that light is the most important thing to look for when doing portraits. When looking for a location to do a portrait, you apply a "tunnel look" because the lens only records the face and the very limited background you choose to show behind the person. It doesn't matter what happens outside the image. If the background is blurred out with a 90mm f/2.0 or a 50mm f/0.95, the background is reduced to a blur with - preferable - some sparkling light in the bokeh.
In the practicality of daily life where we are often concerned with explaining to our self and others why we have the lenses we have, a 50mm and 75mm will often be considered too close. I usually carry 21mm, 50mm and 90mm lenses with me, and the 90mm is the one that get's the least use. It's a very nice lens, but I just don't need it that often.
Likewise one could say that 21mm, 35mm and 75mm would go as a good set. But given what I just said above, the viewing angle shouldn't be the only guideline for which lenses to own.
I could easily argue that the 75mm lens is not necessary between my 50mm and 90mm. I can also just as easily argue that it is a lens with a very special look that gives me a great working distance to the subject.
There really isn't any rules for this. As far as myself goes, I tend to focus on lenses that help me express what I want, and lenses that make me want to take photos and explore possibilities.
Thorsten von Overgaard is a Danish born multiple award-winning AP photographer, known for his writings about photography and Leica cameras. He travels to more than 25 countries a year, photographing and teaching workshops which cater to Leica enthusiasts. Some photos are available as signed editions via galleries or online. For specific photography needs, contact Thorsten Overgaard via e-mail.
I am in constant orbit teaching
Leica and photography workshops.
Most people prefer to explore a
new place when doing my workshop.
30% of my students are women.
35% of my students dotwo or more workshops.
95% are Leica users.
Age range is from 15 to 87 years
with the majority in the 30-55 range.
Skill level ranges from two weeks
to a lifetime of experience.
97% use a digital camera.
100% of my workshop graduates photograph more after a workshop.