Leica SL and 24-90mm Vario-Elmarit: A perfectly matched team
Street markets, boot sales, period events—all are manna from heaven for the street photographer. And when people dress up in period gear they signal that they want to be photographed. Why else go to the trouble. There's also no need to be quite as discreet as usual, they love the camera. Even people in contemporary dress join in the fun and are happy to pose, as in the shot below. Lovely food, by the way.
Last weekend I joined Ivor and Elaine Cooper (and Pumpkin the Lurcher) together with John Cartwright and his family for a day at the Classic Car Boot Sale behind London’s Kings Cross station. It was another of those wonderful occasions when everyone was in a good mood and there were endless opportunities to grab a shot or two.
But what camera to take? I’ve tried everything at similar events in the past, from the Leica M (or, even, the Monochrom), various Fujis and pocket cameras such as the D-Lux or Ricoh GR. As you know, I’m essentially a rangefinder type of guy but I do know a good bit of autofocus when I see it. I’m also a prime timer, but a zoom can come in handy on occasion, especially at events such as this.
So for Sunday’s event I chose the biggest camera and zoom I could lay hands on: Leica’s new SL with the portly but highly efficient and undeniably competent 24-90mm Vario-Elmarit-SL f/2.8-4 ASPH (phew, a name as long as the lens). This is the antithesis of discreet; it’s a full-on, in-your-face Panzer of the photographic world. Don't mess with me is the loud and clear message.
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The SL isn’t a natural choice for street photography, where discretion normally takes the better part of valour. But it is suited to an event such as this where photography is an expected foible and where everyone loves to have their picture taken. On the quiet, too, it looks very professional and I could have been mistaken for the official photographer recording the event for posterity, not to mention for next year’s web site.
So, armed with Leica’s latest, I set forth with Ivor and the merry band to try out the capabilities of the 24-90mm zoom. It is a very impressive piece of kit and I have to say that the 24mm to 90mm range of focal lengths is perfect for any event such as this. The norm in pro lenses of this type (from Canon and Nikon at least) is 24-70mm. Lesser lenses tend to make do with 28-80mm, a little lacking at both ends. But 24-90 cannot be beaten. It is the ideal all-purpose mid-range zoom. At this event the wide end coped well with large vehicles in confined situations while the full 90mm cut a pretty portrait.
I love the definition of this lens. I firmly believe it is a jewel of a zoom that succeeds in replicating Leica’s classic primes at every focal length. Big it might be, a tad on the heavy side it certainly is. But to have a bagful of 24, 28, 35, 50, 75 and 90mm primes at your beck and call and not to have to bother changing them (not to mention buying them) is more than enough compensation for the weight and size. It feels perfectly balanced on the SL and this is where the large grip comes into its own. There should be no need for extra grips and accessories to make the SL useful.
This is a no-compromise lens except, perhaps, in the narrowing the aperture as the zoom extends; but the launch aperture of f/2.8 is as good as it gets for this type of professional optic. It is big and heavy because it has to be; even so, it is lighter and shorter than Nikon's narrower-range 24-70 which is something of an achievement in itself.
All these photographs were shot in DNG and processed in Lightroom. I love the colours, I appreciate the ability to define the subject despite the relatively slow aperture (f/2.8-4) which, on the face of things, might leave one wanting for the speed of a Summicron or Summilux. But it doesn’t. I was perfectly happy shooting at maximum aperture most of the time, varying somewhere between the two extremes as the lens was zoomed out. I think the results speak for themselves.
Having shot similar events in the past with a rangefinder M, I can testify to the benefits of autofocus where the decision to shoot and pressing the shutter has to be made in nano seconds. In almost all instances the 24-90 nailed focus; and even in those shots where it slightly missed the mark (see the two examples immediately below) the result was still usable.
This 24-90 is a professional-quality lens that justifies its hefty price tag of £3,150. It costs about the same as a 50mm Summilux M yet offers infinitely more versatility and superb results. The SL with this lens is big. It isn’t an everyday rig, especially not for street photography, but for event work, even for sporting events, it can acquit itself well. I am impressed. A full review of the SL follows when I've given it its head for a few weeks.
As it happens, the Leica SL wasn't the only camera I took with me. Leica had supplied but one battery and I feared being left high and dry mid-shoot (I wasn't) but it's always nice to have a fallback. On the way out I snapped a few interesting spots with this second camera but I'm not saying what it was. See if you can guess which very competent camera I packed alongside the SL in the Billingham Hadley Pro.
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Can you identify my mystery camera which I took as a backup to the Leica SL? I used it to snap a few frames on the way out of the King's Cross site: