Lightening the load - from medium format to DSLR

01st December 2013
In Iceland, earlier this year, I came to the conclusion that I had reached the age where carrying a medium format system around was not a good idea. It may have been something to do with the cortisone injection to my wrist on my return, and the painful 23 hour trip home after lugging heavy gear around lava fields but I had to accept reality.

I have been using medium format gear for many years. In that time, I have used Hasselblad, Pentax, Fuji and Mamiya MF cameras, and also had a Leica M8 and Sony A900. Since 2006, I have been using Hasselblad digital gear for any serious work.

Having made my decision, my next question was the replacement. A 40MP Hasselblad with superb lenses is a very hard act to follow. The Hasselblad is a serious picture-taking machine. It doesn’t have many of the things that most DSLRs have but it takes beautiful images that can be pushed and pulled in post and still look superb.

My interest in DSLRs over the last many years has been close to zero. I only knew that a Canon was not on my list. Apart from not going to 36MP, I used Canon film and digital gear for many years, and only ever liked one lens – the 300/2.8. It wasn’t until years later, and a lot more experience that I understood that Canon lenses and I don’t see things the same way. They are fine lenses in every way but I just don’t like the look.

A number of friends were shooting with Nikon D800E bodies and various lenses, either Nikon or Zeiss. The D800E was highly regarded by people whose views I trust. Second choice was a Sony but I wanted more than 24MP, and there was a rumour was that a new higher MP body was imminent. Having said that I wanted more than 24MP, the 24MP Leica M was the third choice.

The list quickly got down to two. I couldn’t lay my hands on a Leica for love or money, and I wasn’t willing to pay the staggering Leica premium sight unseen. I was shooting with a friend in Iceland who was using a Leica M, and was most impressed which is why it was on the list at all. Leica Ms are just so different that I needed to know that I could work with it.

It was while I was looking at Leicas that I discovered that I could adapt Leica R lenses to just about any body via a Leitax mount. This is not an adapter but a replacement mount. I prefer the mount rather than adapter approach. Adapters vary and aren’t always made to the same level of precision. Leitax has turned out to be a very good choice.

With the Leitax mounts, with many lenses, you can unscrew one mount and attach the new Nikon mount. Being a clumsy soul, I had a camera technician do it for me. I couldn’t bear the thought of damaging a lens. The 28-90 had to be shipped to Spain as Leitax does it themselves. This is not for the faint hearted as getting the lens there and back is a bit of a fiddle. The 19 requires a bit of filing to let the lens clear the mirror in the D800E. Leitax have a template to assist in the filing. Again, I left this to a camera technician

I also discovered that Leica R lenses which were very cheap a year ago, have skyrocketed in price, particularly after Leica announced an adapter which lets you mount R lenses on M bodies. I waited a few months for the Sony announcement and then decided that Sony was being Sony and not particularly fussed about producing pro-level bodies. That left me with the D800E.

In the meantime, I researched Leica R lenses to find the best of the best. GetDPI.com is head and shoulders above any other web site for just about any topic, and Leica is no exception. There are a number of Leica specific sites that are excellent but GetDPI beats them all. In the end my research led me to buy the following:

19mm Elmarit
28-90 Vario-Elmarit
100 APO Elmarit

and a 50 Summicron which I bought after reading this: Tim Ashley on the 50 Summicron R

I also got the new 135 Zeiss, and have the Zeiss Otus 55 on order.

I have always liked the look of images produced by Leica lenses, either R or M so going this way has been a no-brainer for me. I have used Zeiss lenses on my film Hasselblads and again love the way they look.

Using the Leica lenses is not without its challenges. To take a shot:

1. Open the aperture right up
2. Focus
3. Stop down to your desired aperture
4. Take it

Thanks heavens I am a landscape photographer and fast shooting is not a priority. I don’t even get EXIF data as there is no feedback from the lens to the body. The Zeiss lenses are pure luxury by comparison.

The greatest challenge in going to the Nikon after the Hasselblad is the viewfinder. On the Hasselblad, it is big and clear and beautifully usable for manual focus. On the Nikon, it is like peering through a dirty, small window. Given that all my lenses are manual focus, I have had a steep learning curve. I am using focus confirmation which has proven to be very good, but it has taken a while.

So far, I don’t miss the Hasselbad. Files look great in Capture One, full of detail, and the colour is good. It’s different in subtle ways but not that I am tearing my hair out, or regretting the change. It’s been quite a voyage of discovery but I’m happy so far, and the easier handling is wonderful.




Nikon D800E with Zeiss APO 135 f/2

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