A Landscape Photography Experiment
On the Trail With the Leica M9
My photography has always straddled two worlds – documentary and street shooting, and landscape work. My original career was as a photojournalist, and I still greatly enjoy photographing people as part of my international travels. But, I also have always loved the outdoors, hiking, and doing landscape and nature photography as well.
While the same camera, an SLR or DSLR, can be used for each, neither is necessarily the ideal tool for both. DSLRs can be large, acoustically noisy, and their lenses are also bulky and a bit intimidating for discrete street shooting. A high resolution DSLR is fine for landscape work, but because I make large gallery prints I've always done much of my landscape shooting with either large format or medium format, (film and digital).
But as I get older I am getting a bit lazier, and while as little as five years ago I'd think nothing of hiking all afternoon with a 30lb camera pack, along with a heavy tripod and ball head on a shoulder sling, not so much anymore.
Of MLU, Tripods and Pockets
Leica M9 with 50mm f/1.4 Summicron @ ISO 160
With the Leica M9 we finally have a full frame 35mm digital camera that has the resolution necessary to make large display prints available in a small and lightweight body appropriate for hiking.
Of course I'm going to hear from some folks (defenders of their faiths) that a D3x, 1Ds MKIII / 5D MKII, or A900/A850 will provide comparable quality, though of course with somewhat more bulk and weight. But this doesn't take into account lenses.
Three or four high speed Leica M lenses can fit in a smallish belt pouch or a couple of coat pockets. High speed, high quality SLR lenses, on the other hand, are large and heavy. Think of a 24–70mm f/2.8 zoom. But an M series 24mm, 35mm, or 50mm f/1.4 (two stops faster than the already fairly fast f/2.8) are each small enough to fit in the palm of ones hand, or in a pants pocket.
Then there's the tripod issue. Doing serious landscape work means using a tripod, because in the lowish light levels one usually encounters in the field, mirror vibration can kill resolution, making MLU a must, and therefore using a tripod also a must.
Put a DSLR (even a smallish one like the 5D MKII) together with a few decent speed quality lenses, a tripod and ball head, and while certainly back-packable when hiking, it's not what "I" want to do any longer. Also, I frequently combine wilderness trips abroad with city outings, and a large DSLR simply isn't what I want when walking around foreign cities. So, I need to carry two systems.
As for my medium format gear (currently a Phase One 645 with P65+ back), the image quality is unbeatable, but the weight is no longer back-packable, at least not on the 3-6 km hikes that I typically do these days. That means that my full medium format kit with 5 lenses and a heavy-duty tripod with Arca Cube head is for shooting out of the car, or within about 100 meters of the road – which frankly is where much of my traditional landscape shooting is done in any event.
Leica M9 with 35mm f/1.4 Summilux @ ISO 250
High Resolution / Small Size
We all want a pocket-sized Hasselblad; very high quality combined with very small size. I've found what I believe to be the best compromise solution to this quandary in the form of the new Leica M9.
Now – I know that the M9 is out of the range of most photographer's budgets, and it isn't my purpose to cause marital disharmony or credit card abuse. But, for some photographers that are of a certain age and financial means I don't believe that there is another camera available that combines the qualities needed for marrying maximum image quality with minimum size. At least it does so for me.
Of course for those doing documentary style / street shooting this will come as no surprise. M Leica's have worn this mantle for the past half century. But I'm going to be a bit of an iconoclast and propose that the M9 is in fact an ideal landscape camera in many situations. These include light weight international travel, situations where landscape and street shooting will occur on the same trip, and when extensive hiking or other strenuous outdoor activities are involved.
Stability is the first issue. Hand-held shooting is de-rigeur for street shooting, but anathema for landscape work. There one wants to be able to use the lowest possible ISO, and an optimum aperture for best depth of field. This means slow shutter speeds a lot of the time, and that means a tripod.
But putting an M Leica on a tripod is a bit like bringing a hooker to a church social. You can do it, but your peers will frown upon it. (Lighten up! It's a joke).
The solution is a monopod, and about a year ago I discovered what I regard to be the ideal one for my needs. It's the Manfrotto 685B and my review can be found here. We produced a small video on its use and you can find that here as well.
The 685B works really well with the Leica M9. I've found that I can shoot as low as focal length / 3. In other words, I can shoot a 90mm lens at about 1/20 sec, or a 35mm lens at 1/8 sec. Not every time, but if I take a few frames of the same set up one of them is almost always tack sharp at this ratio.
Of course an M9 is limited to 135mm as its maximum focal length. I have always done quite a bit of my landscape work with long focal lengths so as to achieve compression and isolation, but I accept this trade off to achieve the light weight and portability that this set-up offers.
One last issue is that of framing. One usually does landscape work with a groundglass, and taking these types of images with a rangefinder is at first a bit weird and imprecise. But, because it's digital a second later one can look at the LCD and do a fine job of judging exact framing and depth of field. So, with a bit of practice I don't find this style of working at all limiting. In fact it's liberating because of the mobility of a monopod compared to a tripod.
During the 2009 Fall colour season in Ontario I did almost all of my shooting this way, with really satisfactory results. I have two trips coming up this winter – the island of Gomerra in the Canarys for a fortnight in January, and central Mexico for two weeks in February. It's my intention to do all of my shooting on these trips with the Leica M9, my collection of seven M lenses, along with the Manfrotto monopod. I expect to have a follow-up report here in late winter as to how it all went.
Leica M9 with 35mm f/1.4 Summilux @ ISO 800