Filming with the Leica SL & Summicron-C Lenses

A few weeks ago CW Sonderoptic sent me a couple of their infamous, and exquisite Summicron-C lenses to take out for a spin on the new Leica SL. But wait, Cine Lenses on the Leica SL? Yes, you read that right. Sonderoptic has done an excellent job at engineering a PL to SL adapter which they also shipped me to use on the Leica SL.

Over the past decade of my life I have been in the filmmaking arts, but I don’t consider myself to be one of the greatest DPs or filmmakers out and about. I know there are better. The Leica Cine primes are used in some of the biggest cinema productions across the globe. These optics are highly sought after by world class DP’s, due to their unprecedented performance. So, I am greatly humbled to test such great tools.

Disclaimer: you will find the following adjectives a lot throughout the duration of this write up; precision, excellent, superb, and perfection. I guess you could consider this a theme rather than a repetition.

The Leica SL as a Filmmaker's Tool

First off, let me discuss my thoughts on the Leica SL as a filmmaking tool.

I have been shooting films since we first got our demo Leica SL and 24-90mm Vario Elmar lens at Leica Boutique Rancho Mirage. I am accustomed to using  large bulkie cinema cameras. The Leica SL is such a great compact cinema camera that one can have everything he needs at his fingertips. Does it take the place of a proper cinema camera? No. But it is the right tool for the right job. The SL sports an EVF that rivals that of many high end external EVFs in the cinema word. Being able to simply put the camera up to my eye and begin shooting and see exactly what is going is en extremely helpful feature. Since, I have a decent amount of experience with the Leica S system, and the SL and S system share many features  I find ergonomics of the SL are familiar and comfortable. The button layout is very logical once you learn what each button does. After this, using the SL becomes muscle memory. All, the technical apsects aside, the SL repoduces excelent color.

EVF

As mentioned earlier the Leica SL sports a superb EVF (Electronic viewfinder). This viewfinder is the best built in EVF on the market by far. In comparison to the other Leica, Olympus, Sony, and Fuji viewfinders the Leica SL come at the front of the pack. Not only is the EVF 4.4mp dense, but it is also accurate in color, lacks lag, and gives an accurate preview of what that camera is capturing. I absolutely love this feature on the camera, and in my book almost justifies using the Leica SL alone for filmmaking.

L-Log & High Frame Rate

I have greatly enjoyed Leica’s attention to the video side of this camera. One of the features that I have loved in the SL is Leica’s edition of the L-Log Gamma Curve. L-Log gamma curve is absolutely wonderful to grade with. The colour rendition I have been able to achieve with the Leica SL is lovely to say the least. I have found the stabilized 24-90mm Vario Elmar lens is excellent for “run and gun” type shooting. I recently shot a music film where I was riding in a car on a bumpy road, without a rig, and was able to achieve smooth footage utilizing the 24-90’s superb image stabilization. I would love to use the Leica Cine Primes all the time but sometimes the 24-90 just fits the ticket. I wouldn’t own a Leica SL without one. The Leica SL also features the ability to shoot at 120fps in full HD which I find myself using more and more often. The Following images are are frame grabs from the Leica SL. The first one is ungraded and the second is graded. 

Glass, Glass, and More Glass

Another item I have found very useful for filming on the Leica SL is the ability to use all of my favorite Leica glass. The Leica SL is essentially a bridge camera between all of Leica’s systems, both past and present. I can use M, T, R, Cine, and eventually S lenses. I can easily attach a Noctilux to the Leica SL without much fuss at all (yes, this is now my favorite way to shoot a noctilux). Much of the Leica M and R glass make for exquisite and unique cine glass. This is where we get to the Summicron-C lenses.

Finally, I can trust the Leica SL. The build quality is outstanding. When I put the Leica SL into the hands of others the first thing I usually hear is, “this thing is built like a tank!”  - Yes, it is! The Leica SL is encased with two milled blocks of aluminium, and then weather sealed to survive an indian monsoon and a desert sandstorm if they could happen at the same time. The Leica SL can take just about anything you throw at it. I have heavily used cameras before from Canon DSLRs to Sony cine cameras, and mirrorless cameras. A lot of time and thought was put into making the Leica SL a robust and durable camera for the working professional. Filmmaking professionals can put the most wear and tear on their cameras, and the Leica SL can handle all of it. I have never felt so reassured by a camera's build quality than the SL. It is truly phenomenal.

The Leica Cine Primes

As I have already mentioned the Leica Cine Optics are legendary. The CW Sonderoptic/Leica Cine Primes have been used in such major production as Birdman, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Iron Man 3, Dawn of Planet of the Apes, Transformers, Horrible Bosses 2, and the list goes on and on. Last year the developers of the Leica Summilux-C lenses were awarded with the Scientific Engineering Award from the academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Every Director of Photography I have come across wants to shoot on these lenses. It is an epidemic of optical perfection.

The SL to PL Adapter

Sunderoptic has recently released a new Pl to SL adapter. They have done an excellent job with this adapter. When I first got it I was struck with fine craftsmanship that this adapter exhibited. The adapter is milled to the point of perfection. The adapter fits perfectly with the SL mount, and the bottom of PL mount features a ⅜”-16 hole that fits flush with the bottom of the SL. This is very convenient when mounting bases to the bottom of the Leica SL which allow for two mounting points to the bottom of the camera and to the bottom of the PL mount. The Summicron-C lenses I was given fit very tightly into the PL mount. Everything about this adapter is very positive, and I have no problem mounting a $15,000+ lens to the front of it. But the best part about this adapter is the front cap. I wish I was joking, but I’m not. It’s really awesome!

The Summicron 35mm and 100mm Summicron C Lenses

Sonderoptic shipped me two Summicron-C Lenses, the 35mm and 100mm. These lenses are not built to cover the entire sensor of the Leica SL, since they are built for the Super 35mm sensor area. Since, the Leica SL already crops down to a Super 35mm sensor area when shooting 4k I had no problem with this. I did notice that the 35mm vignetted a lot when shooting photos utilizing the full sensor. The 100mm on the other hand covered the sensor very well, and it shocked me at how sharp this lens was. I was able to shoot a few photos with it before heading out out shoot a micro doc film with the lenses. The 100mm resolves like a medium format lens! If one was looking for the ultimate portrait lens. This would be the lens to have. Is it excessive? Yes. Is it extraordinary? Absolutely.

When it comes to extraordinary photographic optical engineering I put this lens in that category along with the Leica Noctilux 0.95. Seeing that this lens is just a bit more than a noctilux I would have no hesitation considering this lens for photography purposes on the SL if looking to acquire a lens in that category. The following shot of another legendary lens was shot @ minimum focus distance with the SL/100mm Summicron-C combination.


Filming With the Summicron-C Lenses with the Leica SL

Halstyn from MadeinWetzlar on Vimeo.

While I did not have a whole lot of time to shoot these lenses. I was able to find some interesting content  to shoot. I love doing these micro doc films that act as a sort of “visual biography.” Thankfully a local artist here in the Coachella Valley/Palm Springs area was kind enough to let me invade her studio for a short period of time and shoot this film. This was a perfect instance to test the Leica SL and Summicron C lenses because it was a small area, I did not have room or time to find an assistant, and I didn’t have the liberty to take an entire day setting up shots, lighting them and shooting. The Leica SL fit the ticket perfectly. It was light, and agile. I could easily switch between a set of sticks and hand holding the camera. I could move between high frame rate shots, and standard framerate shots, 4k and 1080.

I went it very light for this film. I had simply the two Summicron-C lenses. The Leica SL, a set of tripod legs, the Rotolight Anova LED panel, and a Rode Filmmakers Lav kit. Rather basic, but it got the job done and in an efficient manner. If you plan on recording your audio in the Leica SL you will need the Audio-Adapter AA-SCL4 (16067) which includes a 3.5mm microphone and a 3.5mm headphone jack. Unfortunately, I did not have this adapter so I ended up recording all of audio separately into a Zoom audio recorder.

Concerning the post-production of this film I finished it in 1080HD. Why 1080 and not 4k? Well a couple reasons. First, the 4k off the Leica SL looks excellent when down ressed to 1080. Second, I shot a lot of slow motion/high frame rate in 1080 that I wanted to use. Third, for the interview part of the film I was able to re-frame the 4k footage on my 1080 timeline making it seem like I had 2 angles. Yes, the resolution of the sensor, combined with the resolution of the Summicron-C lenses made it more than possible to do this. I edited and graded everything in Adobe Premiere CC 2016.

The Summicron-C lenses are an absolute joy to use. The optics in them render images that one would expect from a leica lens. Light, and color are rendered in a way no other lens out there can replicate. This is why the majority of us shoot Leica, and the Summicron-C Lenses are no exception to this rule. As I have mentioned earlier these lenses are not built to cover a full frame sensor but rather a Super 35mm sensor that is popular in your RED, Sony, and Arri cameras.

The Summicron-C Build Quality

Stepping aside from the optics the materials, precise engineering and build quality of these lenses are unbelievable. Even though I shot this film by myself, I would be just as happy being 1st AC using the Summicron-C lenses. The silky smooth yet razor precise focusing makes focus pulling a pure joy. I have never felt a cine-lens, or any lens for that matter that is as good as the Summicron-C when it comes to focus accuracy, and ease. The Summicron-C lenses feature a classic linear focusing scale which is easily recognizable by camera assistants. When reviewing some of the shots I pulled focus on I noticed that the shift from out-of-focus to in-focus was smooth. The shift was not a quick or abrupt shift from out-of-focus to in-focus that you would find in a M lens, or a standard DSLR lens. This is of course superbly cinematic.  All Leica Cine Prime lenses feature bright yellow distance and T-stop markings making them easily visible. Something I did learn from Camera West Group CEO, Sean Cranor is that each of these lenses is marked uniquely for distance when being produced in the Sonderoptic factory. This insures that each lense is precisely accurate. The exterior of these lenses are robust and machined to perfection.

As expected these lenses, since they are cine lenses do not have hard stops or clicks when changing the aperture allowing you to change aperture while rolling. The aperture mechanism was of course silky smooth. The T2.0 aperture is an excellent balance in these lenses. With the incredibly fast aperture Summilux-C lenses comes incredible weight and bulk. The Summicron-C lenses bring a happy medium of fast aperture and compact size. They are a real joy to work with. For example the 35mm Summilux-C weighs in at around 3.6 Ibs and the Summicron-C weighs at least 1.5 Ibs less and the overall length is reduced by almost 2.5 inches in the Summicron version.

While shooting the “Halstyn” film I found it easy to pull my focus using the Summicron-C lenses and the SL. The 4.4mp electronic viewfinder on the SL made finding focus from one point to the next a walk in the park. The Summicron-C lenses when on the SL make for a neat little package, and I  was able to hand hold the Summicron-C lenses without the use of a rig to capture shots. The mobility was excellent!

The Leica SL for as a filmmaking tool isn’t perfect, but then again. No, tool is. There are a few things I would love to see concerning the video side of the SL in the coming months as Leica continues to upgrade the firmware for the SL. I have no doubt that Leica will continue to increase the capabilities of the Leica SL and refine its features as they release firmware in the future.  Two things such as the focus peaking in live view as well as the two separate video format menus have already been addressed and fixed in Firmware 2.0. I do wish that there was an option to record in something other than H.264 on the Leica SL. This is partially my fault. I should have had an external recorder such as the Atmos Ninja Flame ready to capture the uncompressed footage from the Leica SL’s HDMI output. But, I didn’t have enough time to get one. This would have further enhanced the capabilities of the Leica SL’s footage in post production. My biggest bug that I have run into with the Leica SL and video is the noise reduction which becomes noticeable over ISO 1600. I hope Leica addresses this and gives us the option to choose our levels of noise reduction in the future like they have the Jpegs, but for now it is locked in.

The Leica T and Cine Lenses

Since I usually have a Leica T around, and since the Leica T and SL share the same lens mount I decided to mount the Summicron-C lenses on the Leica T.  Although unconventional. With the use of the Leica T, Pl to SL adapter, and the Summicron-C lenses I was able to the use the Leica T as a type of “director's viewfinder” since you can use the 16:9 screen on the back of the Leica T in conjunction with the T’s Super 35/Aps-C sized sensor.  Just something odd I ran across while trying out the SL to PL adapter and lenses, but fun!

I think after being able to use the Leica SL and the Leica Summicron-C lenses I was able to see the usefulness for these lenses and camera for a broader range of shooters than I had originally thought. If you are a filmmaker with access to cinema lenses of any type, and are looking for a compact, but powerful cinema camera for specific applications look no further than the Leica SL and the Sonderoptic SL to PL adapter. If you are a photographer looking to purchase some of the greatest lenses in the world that will bring to you unique and inspiring images the Leica Cine lenses carry the best optics in the world and are well worth the investment. Finally, The legend is true. Leica cine optics are truly the best in the word. There is a reason these lenses are so highly sought after by filmmakers across the world. Because they are the best.

I am excited to announce that Camera West Group and Leica Store San Francisco is now the first privately owned Leica dealer to sell CW Sonderoptic. Leica cine lenses, and adapters can be purchase through our group of stores. If you have any questions concerning these products or are looking to invest in Leica cine products please drop us an email or give us a call for more information.

Special thanks to CW Sonderoptic in LA for allowing me to use these lenses and the adapter, and cw for her graciousness in allowing me to tell her story.