Leica M10 Field Report 1: DNG File Resilience

As it inevitably happens with any new camera, Leica M10 spawned countless internet debates regarding its abilities. Some like it unconditionally, others suggest that it is just an incremental upgrade of an M240 model. Yes indeed, M240 is so good that within its normal operating range it is hard to imagine how it can be improved. Leica engineers, as I imagine, were acutely aware of this fact when they started working on the M10 project and instead of trying to fight the law of diminishing returns they simply pushed the limits. Conditions that M240 users would regard as marginal at best, M10 handles like it is business as usual. Below is just one example.

During a studio portrait session I decided to shoot a few frames without flashes, just using modeling lights. So, testing the light setup, I set ISO to 6400, and right before my releasing the shutter, my buddy Charan turned on the overhead lighting. These lights, mind you, are fluorescent bulbs that fully deserve to be referred to as the photographers’ nightmare. As a result, the image was overexposed and, at least on the LCD screen, it looked hopeless:

Leica M10, Noctilux 50mm @f/2, 1/50 sec, ISO6400
Leica M10, Noctilux 50mm @f/2, 1/50 sec, ISO6400, AWB

Later, just out of curiosity, I decided to see how this DNG file will hold up in Lightroom. To my amazement, pulling the exposure down -2EV resulted in the following, with minimal adjustments to contrast, highlights, shadows and clarity:

Same file, crudely adjusted in Lightroom

Why is this significant?

First of all, back from the film days, we all know that pulling usually is a much less successful endeavor than pushing. Secondly, higher ISO means higher contrast and narrower exposure latitude. It translates to a vital necessity to be spot-on with exposure, because even a slight shift in any direction causes a dramatic drop in the dynamic range. To rephrase it into the normal people’s language, overexposure at high ISO results in loss of detail in the highlights, and underexposure causes havoc in the shadows. Now, what does it mean, high ISO? Before I got my hands on M10, my understanding was that ISO3200 was beyond high. My M9 highest ISO setting was 2500, and going there was strongly unadvisable. Here, at ISO6400, without any dodging and burning, I was able to recover highlights while preserving the shadows in a matter of seconds.

Why this example is relevant?

The importance of this particular example is in the fact that overall contrast (a.k.a. the difference between the brightest and the darkest parts of the image) is somewhere around 7EV. It meant that with two stops of overexposure, the highlights were some 5EV above the correct integral exposure. Naturally, I was expecting that any attempt to recover highlights would lead to at least some color shift on the edges of the highlighted areas and loss of detail. It did not happen.

Do not forget that pulling the exposure sinks the shadows. Recovering the shadow detail at such a high ISO may have caused excessive noise and even bending. It did not happen either.

One more problem that I expected to fight with was white balance and skin tones. Remember, the picture was shot with fluorescent mercury bulbs that completely obliterated my setup made of halogen modeling lights? Leica did a great job improving M240 color fidelity with numerous firmware updates, but even that did not make it impervious to fluorescent light with its famously incomplete spectrum. M10 held up to the fluorescent light in an extremely tough conditions: ISO6400, and 2EV overexposure.

The final note

Eventually I managed to take a picture the way I wanted: wide open at f/1, using only modeling lights. The result with a classic “Leica glow” is the image opening the article. Revealing the grain required a special effort: extra sharpening and setting noise reduction to zero. By the way, this picture an answer to those who lament a CCD sensor of Leica M9. Yes, it is more than possible to get these “CCD colors” from a CMOS camera. Believe me, in reality, colors have nothing to do with the nature of the sensor.

Irakly Shanidze © 2017

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