I apologize for going quiet for the last month. I’ve been in New Zealand and Australia, the former for the scenery, and the latter, mostly, for the total eclipse of the sun. I’ve been home for about a week, and I’ve been dealing with jet lag and the three thousand images that I made while I was gone. The number of images is a little misleading, since I am still fascinated by handheld (sweep) panoramas, each of which consists of 3 to 16 component images, and I made a lot of these panoramas on the trip.
Packing for a week on the South Island of New Zealand during late spring (we got seriously snowed on the first day) followed by a week on a boat in tropical waters off Cairns, in northern Australia, was difficult, even leaving photography aside. Add the selectively-enforced Qantas 7 kilogram limit for carry-ons, and I had to make some changes to my usual practices.
Unless I have special projects in mind, I’ve been traveling with one or two pro-series Nikon bodies and three or four single-focal-length lenses. Over the years, the Nikon primes have gotten better and faster, but they’ve also gotten bigger and heavier.
I decided to not take any SLR at all. I figured my main camera would be an M9. I brought three lenses: the 18mm and 24mm f/3.8 Super Elmars, and the 50mm f/1.4 Summilux. I also took a Sony NEX-7 with the Zeiss 24mm f/1.8 for low-light situations, and for times when I couldn’t take the time to accurately focus the Leica. The whole kit, packed in a Slinger case with extra finders, memory cards, and batteries, weighed about 5 pounds. I figured I’d leave the camera bag in my carry-on unless the airline made me surrender it, then I’d pull the Slinger out of the carry-on and carry the cameras on.
Those of you who’ve been reading this blog for a while know that I take a contrarian view of how to use memory cards. The conventional wisdom seems to be to use many small cards, so that, if you have a card failure, you won’t lose many pictures. My philosophy, based on the theory that almost all memory card failures are the result of changing cards in the field, is to use the largest cards I can find, and change them as infrequently as possible. I know it’s a small sample space, and I am tempting the fates by saying it, but I haven’t lost an image due to a memory card problem in 15 years and close to a million images. I stuck a 128GB SD card in the Sony, which announced that it now had room for more than 5000 raw files, well over what I expected to create on the trip. I put a 32 GB card in the Leica, which is the largest it can take. I ended up filling it and swapping in another towards the end of the journey.
So how’d it go? Altogether, it worked out great. There were some surprises, though.
I ended up using the NEX-7 for far more images than the Leica. The reason was the small buffer size and the slow write speed on the German camera, which didn’t work well with multi-shot panoramas. Let me explain. For the past six months I’ve been making a lot panoramas composed of sets of handheld images. I’ve found that, with fast cameras such as the D3 and D4, I can actually capture moving subjects by setting the camera to continuous and holding down the shutter release while I spin the camera by twisting my wrist. The Leica isn’t fast enough for that, but made some slower handheld panos with it. The M9 buffer size is about 7 or 8 raw images, which is not enough to make a couple of preliminary images to get the exposure right and bang off an entire pano. Even worse, when the buffer does fill up, the camera writes the data to the SD card what seems like a month per image, but is probably more like ten or fifteen seconds. However long it is, it’s annoyingly slow. The SD cards I’m using in the M9 aren’t the fastest, since I bought them some time ago (if I get time, I’ll do some testing and report on the results). However, even if the write times went down, it would still be a pain.
The NEX-7 has none of these problems. I don’t even know how big the buffer is, because it empties so fast that I never get it full. The 24mm lens on the NEX-7 is about the same angle of view as a 35mm lens on a full frame camera, which is usually good for making panos when the camera is held vertically. Here’s an example:
Putting the 50mm on the M9 and shooting a bunch of verticals can also produce good results if you’re patient:
and the Summilux is probably the sharpest lens I own, so the amount of detail is endless:
The user interface of the two cameras differ widely, mostly to the Sony’s disadvantage.
The Leica doesn’t have many features, but provides direct and precise access to most of them. You want to change the aperture? Twist the ring. You want to change the shutter speed? Twist the dial on top of the camera that looks like it would be at home on a 1950s M3. You want aperture-priority? It’s a position on the shutter speed dial (it should have a detent that feels different from the others, but it doesn’t). You want some other exposure option? Forget about it. You want autofocus? You can’t have that, so there’s no need to change AF mode. You want to change ISO? Press the ISO button on the back of the camera, and hold it down while you pick the one you want with the four-position switch on the back of the camera (because the ISOs are laid out in a grid, you can go up or down a full stop with just one click. You want to invoke live view? Not possible.
If the kind of photography that you want to do is within the M9’s capabilities, it is a superb tool. If you need really accurate framing, precise focusing for lenses 50mm and longer at wide apertures, or rapid-fire continuous exposures, you’ll be happier with another camera. Fortunately, the NEX-7 is good at all those things.
The Sony has an endless list of features, and a user interface that is not up to the formidable task of providing intuitive, rapid access to those features. The advanced user would be far better served if the camera had a mode that locked out most of the bells, whistles, and foxtails (sweep panorama that dumbs down the resolution and produces only JPEGs, smile-detect shutter release, etc.), or a firmware version that didn’t support them at all. The camera’s controls take too little effort to actuate, making it easy to take two steps when you want one, or, worse, activate a control without meaning to or even knowing that you did so. On the trip, just about every time I handed the camera to someone to take a picture, I got it back with one or more of the settings changed. Usually the ISO was different. Sometimes the program mode, f-stop (I use aperture priority a lot), or the exposure compensation. I once got the camera back in sweep-panorama mode, which was more than a little confusing. I didn’t have this problem with the Leica, and I’ve never had it with any of my Nikon SLRs.
Spending more than two weeks swapping back and forth between the two cameras made me acutely aware of a difference that (I think) has nothing to do with the images made. The Leica is a fine piece of machinery, built the old-fashioned way, and it’s a joy to manipulate the controls. The lenses focus silkily. The shutter release is gratifyingly tactile, and the sound the shutter makes is delightful.
On the other hand, putting all that steel and brass into the camera and its lenses makes the Leica more of a chore to drag around than the Sony. The aluminum-housed Zeiss 24mm is marvelously light and easy to handle, even if it is larger than you’d expect given its short focal length and the fact that it doesn’t have to cover the full 35mm-sized frame.