Mirrorless camera technology has given us the ability to use adapters and put vintage lenses to work with our modern systems. This combination of heritage with technology can often result in a unique look and feel to our images. Even though I primarily use Leica SL with the APO version of its Summicron 50 mm lens, I have acquired (or have been gifted) some other 50mm glass — Canon dream lens and a Lecia f1/50mm Noctilux lens. They are excellent diversions, especially when making portraits of friends and colleagues, but they aren’t what I look for in a lens when I go out and capture landscapes or abstracts.
The Leica SL, with its 24-megapixel sensor, is a highly competent camera, and these vintage lenses often result in pleasing photos. One of the issues with the SL is that it is hard to hide the vagaries of age that inflict the old lenses. It becomes even more of a problem when I use my capturing technique with these older lenses.
I am predisposed to capturing photos wide-open — at f2 on my 50 mm Summicron — as it gives a beautiful glow to the image. Also, the APO version that I own is by far the best lens Leica makes and sells. It is sharp at f2, and it is tack sharp at f16 — and each renders a different feel to the photo. I use a 3-stop ND filter (from WineCountry Camera), and my ISO is usually 50. More often than not, I expose to the right of the histogram to get very bright images that make them ideal for conversion to my B&W preset that mimics Tri-X.
With Canon’s widest aperture of 0.95 and Noctilux’ aperture of f1, my approach to image-making comes a cropper. They aren’t good enough when wide-open and deliver images that are somewhere between unsharp and unclear. I need to go to f2 to get reasonably decent photos. Don’t get me wrong — I love these lenses and like the results. But I think of them as truffles — great when consumed in limited quantities and not too often — too much is just too much.
I wanted to see what kind of results does the new SL2 with its 47-megapixel sensor produce with the vintage glass. I put my Noctilux on the camera and ended up in the city of Pacifica yesterday morning. And as expected, the wide-open photos turned out to be entirely unusable — the bigger sensor makes the aberrations in the lenses even more exaggerated. If you are future Leica SL2 owner, you should be delighted to know that focus peaking is better than ever and a big step up compared to the SL. Even in bright conditions, the camera was able to help me focus properly. Unfortunately, the lens wasn’t quite up to the snuff when wide open.
However, when I stopped down the lens to anywhere between f2.8 to f5.6, the results turned out to be magical. There was a beautiful glow to the images. The glass, somehow, rendered the morning light even more beautifully than what I had experienced in person. The morning light was getting trapped in the low-lying mist and giving the mist a golden glow, with a hint of pink. The lens put more emphasis on the pinks than the yellows, so the whole morning had an apricot hue to it. I took many photos but decided to edit only a handful. You can see the results — they have been edited (lightly) in Photoshop.
In conclusion: Despite the pleasing results and nice, warm rendering of reality, I don’t think using vintage glass on big sensors is worth the effort. The shortcomings of the lenses are a bit more evident.