Part 2: The Leica Look
When you start to look into Leica you quickly you start hearing about something called the “Leica Look.” There is not a lot of consensus on what the “Leica Look” is or even if it actually exists. Most of the believers are actually Leica owners and they support their claims by posting nice photos taken on their Leicas. Since they don’t have comparisons and since they don’t talk about post processing it is hard to know what is really going on. As I mentioned in my last post, to my eye there does seem to be something different about how Leicas render the world so let’s dig in.
One of the aspects of the “Leica Look” usually mentioned is blurred backgrounds. In other words the photographer shot with a wide aperture making the depth of field shallow. This, of course, is not something Leica owners have a monopoly on. So, is there a difference? To that end may I present a pair of photos. One taken with a Leica with a 50mm 1.4 and another taken with a Nikon also equipped with a 50mm 1.4, both cameras are 24 MP. Disregard, if you will, color differences.
If we zoom in on the blurred section we can compare a little better.
Both photos have blurred backgrounds. The one on the left, however, has a more pleasing blur to me. The best way I can describe it is is watercolor like. There is a lot less “high frequency” noise giving it a much softer look. Is it a huge, earth shattering difference? No. Do you need to shoot wide open to even see this difference? Yes. Do these lenses cost the same amount of money? Not remotely. Does the Leica photo on the left have a look? Yes.
This next section has taken a few days and changed many times. I was trying to find a nice photo that would show how, to my eye, photos taken with a Leica have more contrast. Photo after photo had differences that were just too subtle to show with compressed JPGs and were different to capture with the two cameras correctly. When I dug deeper I realized that the truth was not what I had expected.
In a fit of desperation I turned to a color chart to show the contrast difference and at first blush it does indeed look like the Leica’s blacks and dark grays are darker. This is because they are. But the real explanation is that given the same scene the Leica meter is a good 2/3 stop below the Nikon!
If I pull the Nikon exposure down to match the “light middle gray” that photos are almost identical. I now believe Leica photos appear darker because the are exposed 1/2 – 2/3 stops lower at least given my Nikon and Leica and this explains what I was seeing while trying to capture different photos to show off contrast. This seems to be the real explanation of why the “Leica Look” on average appears more contrasty. So good news, if you want this part of the “Leica Look” just change how you meter.
You may have noticed one other thing. If I zoom in further it is easier to see.
The Leica is actually blowing the doors off the Nikon when it comes to (incredibly) small, high contrast details. In fact I saw this in many of the photos I took but couldn’t show it well on a web page until this photo. I had been thinking that Leica lenses produced more “local contrast” and indeed if I apply an unsharp mask (i.e. local contrast) to the Nikon I get something closer…
…but it is hard to say if this is contrast, lens sharpness, or even just the fact that the Nikon 610 has an antialias filter and the Leica does not. No matter the cause this is another aspect of the “Leica Look.”
So the “Leica Look” does exist. Interestingly enough the macroscopic part of it can be obtained largely by changing your cameras exposure compensation. The other main aspects like blur and detail are subtle. They would be invisible on a smart phone screen be they are there and I believe our eye can tell the difference when viewed side by side. Also, it is now clear to me that the Leica lenses are indeed something special. Apologies for devolving into pixel poking. I am hoping that most posts will me more about art but understanding the science is never a bad thing.