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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Well, the 4 part article you posted about street photography was the most interesting piece of article I’ve read in months.
I couldn’t agree more with your opinion about Leica (definately the king of street photography, but also an out of reach price for most people), I am also at the quest of finding a suitable and affordable “street” camera.
I am waiting for my old Leica M1 to be repaired and test it again on the streets (of course the lack of a rangefinder is a con for the specific model).
Meanwhile, I will give a try on the G1, and let’s hope that eventually a company will release a digital rangefinder camera that you won’t have to sell your car in order to buy it!
Thanks for the article.
Sean Reid on his website tested the G1 with an M lens and found that resolution dropped off dramatically at the edges of the photo. Do you find the same issue?
For several months, the only major image-related issue I’ve had with my M-lens/G1 combination is some rather strong axial chromatic aberration at the widest apertures. Unlike lateral aberrations, these can’t be fixed (satisfactorily) in Photoshop. Stopping down helps but isn’t always practical. Over time, I realized that a slight lens de-focusing would reduced the aberrations dramatically. The defocussing had very little detrimental effect on the overall photo and was much less offensive than the big blue halos. In a way, this is one of the advantages of the G1 — since I can actually look through the lens, I can point it at the source of maximum contrast, reduce focus slightly (to minimize the aberrations) then confirm that overall focus is still satisfactory. It’s important to mention that, at this time, I haven’t used any M-lenses other than the Voigtlander 35mm f/1.4 Nokton on the G1. Nor have I used that lens on an M8 — so I can’t yet comment on where the fault lies: as an issue with the G1; as a problem with the G1/Nokton combo; or just a fault of the Nokton itself. I’ll be getting a used M8 in a couple weeks and will be better-positioned to report on this phenomena at that time.
But you asked about corner resolution and, specifically, if I had the same issues that Sean had. Before I read Sean’s review, I had personally witnessed this in a small subset of my photos. Even without pixel peeping I would, on some shots, see a marked softening in the corners. In general, it was most obvious in infinity-focussed, deep depth-of-field shots that contained trees. In those shots, where DoF wasn’t a factor, tree branches in the corners were noticeably softer than those branches in the center. So I knew the softness was there, but assumed it was the Nokton lens.
When Sean’s review came out, I hesitated to read it. I was, after all, reasonably happy with the shots I had captured with the Nokton/G1 combination and I was afraid his review would point out some fatal flaw that would forever taint the way I viewed my photographs. But I read it anyway. And, of course, I immediately started pixel peeping all the images I’d taken. The result? Yes there is definitely softness in the corners… but it has very little effect on the way I, personally, use this lens/body combination. As I mentioned, the soft corners are very evident in landscapes. In my architectural shots, I can see it if I look for it, but it’s not as ‘in your face.’ This is likely because buildings and details change across the frame and, as such, one’s eye is less likely to unwittingly compare a corner detail of one building with, say, a center detail of a completely different building. As with landscapes, I wouldn’t choose to use the Nokton/G1 combination for architectural photography, but the architecture shots I have taken with this combo have not been offensive. My main reason for using the G1/Nokton combo is street photography — and in that regards, I have absolutely no issue with the softer corners. I can see them if I pixel peep and if the depth-of-field is deep enough, but I have to look for it since, in general, the softness is in the areas of least concern and, often, obscured by DoF issues.
In many ways, I can achieve technically better results with the kit lens than with the adapted Nokton. But ‘technical’ isn’t always better. And for most of the shots I take with this combo (street), I’m much happier with the way the Nokton draws than the ‘clinical’ look of the kit lens.
So, long-winded answer to your short-winded question: Yes I can definitely confirm what Sean sees but, given the way I use this lens/body combination, the corner softness is not a problem for me. The benefits (f/1.4, barrel markings, drawing quality, dual-use for M-lenses) far outweigh the detriments (soft corners, chromatic aberrations, crop factor), and I have no regrets using this system. Obviously, my satisfaction is due to the type of photos I shoot with this system. Were I to shoot landscapes or architecture professionally (which, actually, I do), then I would (and do) choose to use a 5DmkII and L-lenses…
This is an interesting post and I thank Michael Reichman for pointing me to it.
It’s also interesting that when I write a review what’s often taken away from it, and widely discussed on the web, are whatever weaknesses are revealed. But, in fact, a review is also much richer than that and the G1 review looks at many strengths as well as weaknesses.
I think Egor’s point is important. Various combinations of lenses and bodies will have strengths and weaknesses but what really matters, to the individual photographer, is how each combination works *for the specific pictures he or she wants to make*. There, obviously, are no absolutes in determining that.
Lastly, its a myth that one must buy expensive lenses to work well with an M8. Some of the CV lenses are excellent and also inexpensive. There are also the Zeiss lenses as well as some more affordable Leica lenses (new and used). The camera itself is expensive (about $5K for a used M8.2 or $3500 for a used M8) but the lenses needn’t be. The common cliche that a Leica camera is wasted if one does not use Leica lenses, is of course, ridiculous.
Thanks for the post.
Great article. Have you tried the canon G10?
M8 is not the only digital rangefinder out there – check out Epson R-D1, it has good write-ups, takes M lenses and does not cost much more than G1 (my guess).
Good luck with your search!
Thanks, everyone, for your emails and your comments. And, regarding said comments, I’ll address them here… so stand when your name is called:
Sean: I’m honored you took the time to read this post and respond to it. After resisting for many months, I recently subscribed to your site. I kept thinking, “why should I pay for editorial content when so much is available for free?” Within 30 minutes of signing up, I learned the answer — your reviews are the most informative and even-handed photography-related critiques I’ve read. You present clear and useful findings and let us, the photographers, judge whether those findings are relevant to our own needs. I may be a 20 year veteran of the SLR, but the rangefinder world is still a little ‘mysterious’ to me. But thanks to the investigative efforts of the extremely helpful people at popflash.com, I’ll soon be the proud owner of a ‘beater’ demo M8 — and at a price that matches the self-imposed and ridiculously impoverished limit I set as my entry into the rangefinder club. I look forward to your upcoming articles and I hope, once the M8 is in my hands, to share my experiences. To date, most articles seem to approach the M8 from the viewpoint of the veteran Leica film user. I’m hoping to offer a different point-of-view — as an experienced SLR photographer who’s making his first serious foray into rangefinders.
Scott: I have fiddled with the Canon G10 in stores. It seems like a very nice camera and I have no doubt, if I owned one, I’d probably love it at least as much as my little DMC-LX3. But as I mentioned in one of my “Like a Leica” tomes (Part 2, I think), I didn’t need a replacement for the LX3. I needed a street camera. And no enthusiast camera was adequately equipped to address my needs (such as lenses with barrel markings for zone-focusing).
Filip: Thanks for suggesting the R-D1. When I wrote this article, the R-D1 was a long-orphaned product and, though I considered hunting for a used version, I had several concerns about it (not the least, of course, was whether or not I could get it serviced). Since I published that article, Epson has re-released the R-D1 and I admit to being somewhat tempted. But I had reservations about the sensor. Not that I’m a megapixel guy — quite the opposite — but 6 of ’em was just a little too few for the way I wanted to shoot. I knew I’d be grabbing some fast shots (some from the hip), so cropping often comes into play in my photographs. As with the Canon G10, which Scott (above) asked about, I’m sure the R-D1 is a good camera. Honestly, I’ve never seen a camera I didn’t like. It’s just that, for the price of a ‘new’ model R-D1, I kept thinking I would eventually find a used M8 that, ultimately, would provide me with more of what I, personally, wanted. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not a Leica ‘fanboy’. I don’t even have one yet. I never bought into the Nikon vs. Canon debate. I have Canon gear, not because Nikon is ‘bad’, but because I started with Canon and, as such, have built up a nice collection of Canon gear over the years. It would be pretty foolish to switch just because, every couple of years, one company’s product trumps the other for a short period of time. Similarly, if you’re a good guitarist, you’ll sound great on either a Fender or a Gibson. Or, in my case (as a bad guitarist), I sound awful on both. So I own Rickenbackers because I love the way they look. There are certainly elements of the R-D1 design that I like, and who knows… if I get addicted to rangefinders, I just might end up with an R-D1 at some later date. Particularly since, I’m sure, its sensor would give me a different look than the Leica. That’s one of the things that intrigues me about the rangefinder market. Todays rangefinders seem to be ‘standardized’ on the M-mount, meaning I don’t have to ‘buy in’ to one manufacturer or another.
plevyadophy: Thanks for your description of the Sony R1. I had not used one, but it does sound like a better implementation of manual focus than the G1. Sean Reid (who checked in above) offered up a really interesting idea for an MFT digital rangefinder in his G1 review. I’d love to see one of the MFT developers implement his design concept. It would certainly increase the utility of the format. For that matter, I’d like to see this feature built-in to cameras with larger sensors. There’s no reason why it need be an MFT-only methodology.
Dave J: I agree wholeheartedly that “Leica Love” does not necessarily require a $15,000 investment. I chose that figure because that’s what a new M8.2 and a couple of wide Summilux lenses would ultimately cost me — a kit that I would define as ‘ideal’ for the way I like to shoot. Obviously I don’t need to purchase new, nor do I need to necessarily purchase Leica lenses of that speed (though I am admittedly addicted to fast primes, courtesy of the many happy years I’ve spent with Canon L-class primes). As I mentioned in my response to Sean, popflash.com has managed to find me a used, demo M8 that fits within my self-imposed and previously impossible budget constraints. They promise it’ll have its share of cosmetic battle scars, but that’s fine — I’m a photographer, not a collector. So I’m perfectly happy to own a camera that won’t devalue every time it brushes against a lamp post. I’m already sitting on a CV 35mm f/1.4 Nokton, so you can tell that lens snobbery is not actually in my DNA. In fact, given Sean’s assessment of the 35 f/1.4 Nokton’s focus shift issues (an aberration that doesn’t exist with the G1, since I’m focusing through the lens while stopped down to its actual aperture), I’m rethinking my entry-level lens strategy — perhaps getting a 28mm f/2.8 for ‘normal’ shooting and using the 35 for those f/1.4 and f/2 situations. By the way, thanks for planting the medium format bug in my head… I wrestled with that temptation for nearly a year in the early 1990’s. 🙂
Excellent review. This is the first time I have been to your site having just arrived via The Luminous Landscape site.
Anyway, just wanted to add a few words regarding the following comments you made:
– Qoute – 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. – End Qoute –
I actually find the way manual focus works with even the kit lenses highly irritating. I think it should work the way it does on the Sony DSC-R1. To illustrate (mainly for those who don’t have the G1) here’s the G1 sequence.
1. Turn dial to Manual Focus (at this stage you have no idea what area of the frame will be focused upon and magnified)
2. So, to find out …………… touch left cursor key ( strangely, if you touch any of the other three cursor keys, instead of moving the focus area frame they instead enable such things as ISO even though you may have told the camera to use the cursor keys only for the purposes of moving the focus frame via the Setup menus (this is not an issue in autofocus modes by the way))
3. But, you still can’t do anything useful as turning the focus ring will do nothing. You now have to press the MENU/SET button in the centre of the cursor pad.
4. Now you can manually focus and get the magnified view.
This contrasts most unfavourably with the Sony R1 where one sets the camera to Manual Focus and is instantly greated with a focus area frame which you can move around STRAIGHT AWAY or leave where it is and start focusing which immediately results in a magnified view.
The R1 way is WAAAY more intuitive and fluid. As the focus area frame is constantly displayed and active, you simply use the joystick to move it around, focus and then fire.
Another issue I would like to see Panasonic address, is what happens when you try to autofocus on a subject and fail. If this happens and you then resort to manually focusing, the camera manually focuses but you DO NOT get the magnified view (the magnified view is only available if you have selected the AF+MF option in the setup AND you actually achieve focus lock in autofocus first). To my mind it would be much more useful if the AF+MF (aka. Manual Focus overide) worked where autofocus failed.
I agree with your point regarding a user selectable minimum shutter speed.
What would also make sense is if the user selectable max-ISO setting worked in the 1/3 stops(pecularly, you can manually choose 1/3 stop ISO settings, say ISO 640, but you can’t set the camera’s Auto ISO to go no higher than ISO640 as it must be ISO400 or 800 since it only works in full stop increments).
Many thanks for your comments, Gregory & Sean!
I have the G1 and shoot with a few CV lenses, the 15mm, 25mm and 40mm, I have never used the 35. I would make a few comments about your hypothetical 15K, by searching the used market, you can find an M8 for about 3K, and making the same lens choices as for the G1, you’re into Leica Love for “only” 3500 …. still its about 5 times what the G1 costs + lens + adapter, but for a great deal more folks, 3500 is manageable. If you are willing to look at unsupported technology, you can get and Epson RD-1 for about 2000, + 500 lens, so all in for 2500, and your only about 2.5 times or so what the G1 costs. For most of us normal guys/gals with a full time day job, significant other, mortgage and kids even 2500 on a niche camera is not happening.
I too have been down the retro path, the Bessa was bought and sold, I now have an M6, which will probably go on the block soon. On the other hand, the Fuji GA645 medium format range finder was my introduction to medium format, and a lead in to the exceptional Bronica RF645. True rangefinder shooing, medium format quality, and by using a local lab to develop and scan, it’s not too inconvenient.
You have captured what I have seen with the G1, I just need to get into more street shooting situations to use it.
Thanks for the great article. I am a longtime LeicaM street photographer, and found my digital happyness in a Ricoh GRD camera.
I had the same focus issues with Chinese m42 adapters, the Pentax K20D and Nikon D300 (m42 adapter with negative lens element). But as a side issue, I’m beginning to wonder about certain Voigtlanders. I tested the new 58mm f1.4 Nokton and found it to have excessive chromatic aberration wide open(in-focus, tints to the out of focus images) and I also tested the 35mm f1.2 Nokton and it got clobbered (sharpness, contrast) by a 25mm f1.4 Fujinon CCTV c-mount lens I mounted on my G1. But it did have a very nice look to its out of focus image parts.
Plevyadophy seems to go through much of life highly irritated with the G1. In fact, what he is describing is the sequence with MF ASSIST set to OFF. When it is ON, you just touch the focus ring, move the focal box as you wish, focus, and shoot, almost exactly as the R1.
Im march 2009 the german website http://www.forum-fourthirds.de made a test with several adapter for Leica M lenses. They wrote about the differences between Novoflex and the other products from asia. They also wrote, that novoflex changed the adapter thickness in february 2009 due to mistake of manufacturing at novoflex. Since march 2009 all novoflex-adapters have the right thickness and novoflex will exchange bad adapters.
Quote: Plevyadophy seems to go through much of life highly irritated with the G1. In fact, what he is describing is the sequence with MF ASSIST set to OFF. When it is ON, you just touch the focus ring, move the focal box as you wish, focus, and shoot, almost exactly as the R1.
That’s a good point James but I wonder if this happens only with the MFT lenses by Panasonic, Olympus and Leica? How about if you’re using Leica M lenses with an adapter? I don’t yet have a G1 but am considering it and am trying to learn all I can beforehand. I plan to use M lenses mostly if I decide to get a G1.
Gus: There’s no electronic coupling between non-MFT lenses and the G1 body. When Leica M lenses (and other non-MFT adapted lenses) are mounted, then the camera must be set to manual focus mode using the 2-button presses. I simply trained myself to always perform the 2-button presses while I was lifting the camera to my eye. It became part of the muscle memory of using that camera. I don’t know if Panasonic ever improved on this methodology, or if they ever implemented a 1-button solution (I no longer have the G1), but it would have really helped the usability of the camera with adapted lenses.
Well I now have my G1 and have been using my Leica M 35,50 and 90 lenses on it along with the VM adapter from Cameraquest.. So far so good and I’ve enjoyed using the Leica glass again after a few years of neglect and have gotten a few nice shots. Has anyone here had experience with the Voigtlander 15mm 4.5 M lens on the G1? I’m just wondering if, due to the enormous depth of field of that lens, it would be easy enough to actually focus using the EVF.