Last month, I penned the 5-part Like a Leica series of articles for this blog. In it, I expressed dissatisfaction with my attempts to coerce both a dSLR and an advanced point-and-shoot camera into street photography duty. Like a million photographers before me, I identified the rangefinder as the ideal tool for the job. Unfortunately, rangefinders are currently out-of-favor and, unless I’m willing to return to my film roots, my only digital choice is the Leica M8.2 — a $6,000 camera body. Add a pair of Summilux lenses and toss on the sales tax, and I’d be staring down the barrel of a $15,000 bill.
So, once again, I exercised fiscal responsibility and opted for a ‘work around.’ In this case, I decided to try the new ‘micro four thirds’ standard — a standard with exactly one camera to support it: the Panasonic DMC-G1. What lured me to the system was its adaptability; specifically the ability to adapt M-mount lenses to the body. In part 4 and part 5 of the series, I presented my initial assessment of the G1 and identified several issues with the camera — particularly in regards to adapted lenses.
Since I first published my report, one of those issues has been rectified. Specifically, I identified a problem in which all adapted lenses focused beyond infinity. This caused several problems. First, it meant the scale markings on the lens barrel were inaccurate, which made zone-focusing impossible. Without accurate lens markings, there is no way a street photographer can focus the lens when shooting from the hip. Second, it meant that the lens’ full 90 degrees of focussing rotation could not be used. Rather, only about 15 degrees of rotation existed between the minimum focus distance (.7m) and infinity. This made it nearly impossible to achieve accurate focus.
So how was the issue rectified? By getting another Novoflex adapter. This sounds easier than it was. For starters, Novoflex is one of the most respected lens adapter manufacturers in the world. Since these adapters are machined on automated equipment, there is no way I could have a rogue ‘bad’ adapter. If my micro four thirds (MFT) adapter was bad, then every Novoflex MFT adapter was bad. But there were no reports on the internet about bad Novoflex MFT adapters. My posts on various forums were met, mostly, with the usual “my adapter works fine” response. My dealer told me he had sold several, and that none of his customers had complained. The same was true with the Novoflex distributor in Canada. Fortunately, on rangefinderforum.com, a fellow named Nemjo, from Hungary, had seen my post and confirmed that he’d experienced the same problem with his Novoflex adapter. This spurred him into calling Novoflex’s German headquarters, and Novoflex admitted that all their MFT adapters had been manufactured to the wrong thickness. Nemjo posted his findings and, suddenly, the internet was awash with photographers complaining about their Novoflex adapters. I find it inconceivable that hundreds of photographers could have used the Novoflex MFT adapter and not noticed this glaring error until it was confirmed by the manufacturer — but this is a blog about photography, not human nature. After an interminable three week wait, I finally received my replacement adapter last Thursday.
With the new Novoflex MFT adapter, my Voigtländer 35mm f/1.4 Nokton no longer focusses beyond infinity. The distance markings on the lens barrel are seemingly accurate (I haven’t done any scientific testing), and the lens’ full 90 degrees of focus rotation can be employed — meaning I’m able to focus far more accurately through the G1′s electronic viewfinder. I do get a sense that my Nokton now focusses ever-so-slightly short of infinity or, perhaps, just reaches it. It’s certainly impossible to make it focus beyond infinity, even slightly, meaning there’s no tolerance here at all. It remains to be seen if this becomes a problem in different climate conditions.
With the second generation Novoflex MFT adapter, the G1 has become a much more viable street camera. The shot taken at the top of this article was a classic hip shot — zone-focussed using the lens barrel markings. It was exactly the type of shot that wouldn’t be possible with the previous Novoflex adapter.
Last night, I decided to ‘torture test’ the G1/Novoflex/Nokton combo. I took it out into the nightlife along Vancouver’s Granville Street, shooting wide-open at f/1.4 with the G1 set to ISO 3200. This shot of a girl, waiting impatiently to enter a night club, was blindly zone-focussed. At f/1.4, the narrow depth-of-field yields no margin for error and, sure enough, the focus is a bit off. But the fact that I manually focussed, blindly, using only the barrel markings and my ‘guesstimate’ of the girls’ distance validates my reason for originally choosing the MFT format — to use rangefinder lenses for blind, zone-focus shooting. Note that the G1′s noise level at ISO 3200 is excessively high, but as I discussed in my Tempted by Texture post, I don’t consider ‘faults’ such as soft focus or noise to necessarily be detrimental to an image — in this shot, they’re what make the image.
For the following shot of the late night street musicians, I used the electronic viewfinder. The doorway in which they played was extremely dark and, at f/1.4 and ISO 3200, I could still muster only 1/60s — too slow to freeze their kinetic action, and also a bit too slow to handhold with the 70mm equivalent focal length of the adapted 35mm Nokton. This shot would have been difficult, if not impossible, to capture with a rangefinder. But the G1′s ability to brighten the viewfinder to compensate for low-light conditions allowed me to achieve at least a modicum of focus. Granted, this shot would be a breeze with my 5DmkII, but I didn’t have my 5DmkII with me — I was testing the limits of the G1 under the most extreme conditions possible, and its performance exceeded my expectations.
As you might expect, the experience of shooting with adapted lenses on a G1 is much improved when you use a properly manufactured adapter. I mentioned several other issues in the original ‘Like a Leica’ series, and they still remain. In particular, there are two matters I’d like to see Panasonic address: First, I’d like to have 1-button access to the zoomed-in MF assist mode. It’s still cumbersome to trigger the 2-button sequence needed to enter this mode and, when using adapted lenses, you need to enter this mode on nearly every shot. Second, I’d like to see a user-selectable minimum shutter speed when using Aperture priority mode. The camera’s default setting of 1/30 is simply too slow for a non-stabilized lens.
So, after using the G1 for a month now, am I any less inclined to like a Leica? Well, the more I use the G1, the more I see it as a perfect compliment to a rangefinder. It lets you take telephoto shots that would be difficult with a rangefinder, and it lets you focus in conditions much darker than would be possible with a rangefinder. But, in spite of everything the G1 offers, it’s still not a rangefinder and, as such, lacks many necessary attributes inherent in that tried, true, but hopelessly forgotten format. The more I use the G1, the more I yearn for the rangefinder experience. But I now yearn for a rangefinder as an addition to — rather than a replacement for — the G1.
20 July 2009 Update: Addicted to gear talk? Wishing for a sequel? Then you’re in luck. In a subsequent series of posts, beginning with “The M8ing Ritual (Part 1),” I discuss adding a Leica M8 to my ‘street’ kit. And in a follow up post, titled “Geeking out with a 50 ‘Cron,” I discuss the performance differences between a DMC-G1 and an M8 when both are fronted with a 1991 Leica 50mm Summicron.
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