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Bill Pierce - Leica M photog and author

 

“Our autobiography is written in our contact sheets,  and our opinion of the world in our selects”  

"Never ever confuse sharp with good, or you will end up shaving with an ice cream cone and licking a razor blade."  

 

Bill Pierce is one of the most successful Leica photographers and authors ever. I initially "met" Bill in the wonderful 1973 15th edition Leica Manual (the one with the M5 on the cover). I kept reading and re-reading his four chapters, continually amazed at his knoweldge and ability, thinking "if I only knew a small part of what this guy knows... wow."  I looked foward to his monthly columns in Camera 35 and devoured them like a starving man.  Bill has worked as a photojournalist  for 25 years, keyword: WORK.  Many photogs dream of the professional photographer's  life that Bill has earned and enjoyed.  Probably Bill's most famous pic is Nixon departing the White House for the last time, victory signs still waving. 

 

Bill  has been published in many major magazines, including  Time, Life, Newsweek, U.S. News, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, New York Magazine, Stern, L'Express and Paris Match.  :His published books include  The Leica Manual,  War Torn, Survivors and Victims in the Late 20th Century, Homeless in America,  Human Rights in China,  Children of War.  Add to that numerous exhibitions at major galleries and museums.  Magazine contributions include  Popular Photography,  Camera 35, Leica Manual,  Photo District News, the Encyclopedia of Brittanica, the Digital Journalist, and now RFF.  Major awards include Leica Medal of Excellence, Overseas Press Club's Oliver Rebbot Award for Best Photojournalism from Abroad,  and the World Press Photo's Budapest Award. Perhaps an ever bigger award is Tom Abrahamsson's comment: "If you want to know Rodinal, ask Bill."

 

I met Bill in person through our mutual friend Tom Abrahamsson.  In person his insight and comments are every bit as interesting and engaging as his writing.  He is a great guy who really KNOWS photography.  I am happy to say he has generously agreed to host this forum at RFF  From time to time Bill will bring up topics, but you are also invited to ask questions.  Sit down and enjoy the ride!

 


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Disparity
Old 03-31-2019   #1
Bill Pierce
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Disparity

Do you have a favorite lens? May favorite and constant companion was a 50mm Summicron in spite of my apprehension that using something that was considered normal or standard would damage my reputation as a modern photographer. But after a lifetime of love, I have found a new favorite. Compared to the Summicron, it’s small and cheap. I don’t know how my infidelity will now damage my reputation as a modern photographer, but the 50/3.5 Voigtlander Heliar VM is sharper. It may be the sharpest lens I own. While many positive reviews have been written about it, Erwin Puts, hardly easy or superficial when he reviews gear, said no Leica lens was as sharp. That was before the introduction of the 50mm Apo Summicron. But I’ve heard folks say the Heliar, while not as fast, is as good; some say better. I say the App Summicron costs $8000 and the Heliar costs $530. I’ll accept a speed loss of a stop and a half in today’s digital world for a savings of $7470.

Just a while back we were discussing how price wasn’t an indicator of a camera’s ability to take good pictures. Ditto lenses even when you are looking for a lens that has the ability to capture fine detail. Or, if you are looking for a lens that conceals detail, you can buy a Leica Thambar 90/2.2 for $6500. I had one of the old original ones that I bought used for much, much less and then gave to a friend. It was a lovely lens, but I could get more control out of the variety of diffusion filters used to mitigate reality in the movie industry. My other favorite “price disparity” item is gadget bags that can range from $450 fora beautifully designed leather bag to $10 for a canvas bag at a military surplus store.

Any other examples? Or, any thoughts why these price disparities exist?
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Old 03-31-2019   #2
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Nice to see you back, Bill!. Thank you for keep on coming back.

Summicrons 50mm are very different animals. IMO. From next to MF (film format) collapsible to total no name, no character, no rendering IV with plastic aperture parts. On BW prints it is no name lens. IMO.
On color they are very opposite, it seems. IV was awesome on M-E. In color.

Any way...

With Leica many, if not most, are paying to feel good. Sometimes it makes sense. Actually, most of the time it makes sense, as long as you are willing to pay x3, x20 times more for same focal length and max aperture.

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Old 03-31-2019   #3
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I don't think your reputation will be hurt by using a Heliar. My reputation hasn't been hurt by still using an Elmar 50mm f3.5 that I bought 55 years ago. In fact, it has been upgraded just by the fact that I use it; a lot.

Maybe they think I know what I'm doing: even though I'm not sure I do.
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Old 03-31-2019   #4
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I will always remember the first roll of tri-x i exposed with the contax 50mm f1.7 mm

The only other lens to have the same impact was the 43mm for Mamiya 7. Significant price difference though
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Old 03-31-2019   #5
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I have been though a phase recently of buying old time classic lenses- all of them inexpensive (and in fact some of them ridiculously cheap) and pretty well all of them producing lovely images that punch way above their weight especially considering their cost. Of course some of these "cheap" lenses were also damned expensive lenses back in their day but have fallen out of favor as the camera systems they were designed to mount on have died off. The deciding factor today is that with a $20 adapter they can once again be used with great success on a mirrorless camera. The best bargains tend to be found amongst lenses deigned to mount on systems like Minolta, Konika, Exakta etc which are in less demand than even identical lenses with mounts for m42 etc.

Lenses that come to mind as having disparity in terms of being inexpensive but producing stirling results that I have been tried lately include the following (many of which I still have not tried properly as I have been too busy snapping them up as they have come along):

Schneider Kreuznach 105mm f3.5 Xenar - a beautiful portrait lens that cost me maybe $60 Australian

Konica 135mm f3.2 - this has the reputation of being one of the sharpest lenses Konica made and that is saying something. Cost me around $75 Australian. It is a cracker.

Vivitar series 1 70 -210mm f3.5. In my case this is in Minolta mount. Apparently this is the least good of a series of this lens all progressively redesigned over time but it is never the less a very good performer. Though it is HEAVY. I think I paid $20 for it when I found it in a Bit n' Bobs box at a camera store.

Konica Hexanon 28-135mm f4-4.6. Ditto its pretty heavy. This lens is another superb performer that cost me, I think, less than $100 Australian. I have not had much chance to try it yet but will update as I go.

Minolta 80-200mm f4.5. This lens is so good that back in the day Leica, who were looking for lenses to upgrade their SLR range, did a deal with Minolta, rebadged this as a Leica lens and charged about 4 times the Minolta price. Great work if you can get it and for perhaps $60 Australian an excellent buy.

Vivitar 135mm f2.8 Close focus lens. Like a couple of others listed here I found this in a Bits n' Bobs box at a camera store and bought it for $20 just because it looked good with its 62mm front element. Well it performs superbly too. This lens is superb in my view - one of the sharpest 135mm lenses I have ever used.

Carl Zeiss Triotar 135mm f4. This lens has a great reputation which is a surprise considering its simple design and will often go for $100-$200. But this was for me, another Bits n' Boobs lens I got for $20 and the cost in my time to relube it and re polish the somewhat dowdy looking aluminium body shell. It is a super performer for portraits and the like as befits its reputation. The price range for these seems to vary a lot with physical condition as the aluminum body often looks bad (but cleans up easily) and if the opticas are clean you have got a bargain.

Hoya HMC Tele Auto 135mm f2.8. Another $20 lens that performs like a modern $500 lens (and young enough to have multi-coating, which helps terrifically). Hoya had lenses made by other third party lens companies and marketed them for a while under its own name. This one is a beauty.

Ricoh 50mm f1.7. I am told that all the 50mm f1.7 lenses sold by Japanese companies in the 1970s/80s were originally designed by Zeiss, rebadge and sold under license by various Japanese makers. Mine certainly performs like a Zeiss lens and only cost me $15, though in the case of the Ricoh one, its build quality is cheapish (lots of plastic etc where a German manufacturer would use metal). But this has not compromised it optically. If you find any of these old 50mm f1.7 lenses - buy it.

Canon Fd 50mm f1.8. I picked this up in a Red Cross shop for $25. I knew it should perform well, as all versions of Canon's 50mm f1.8 I have tried have done. But this one which is a later model (Fdn) is very very good indeed. The pick of the bunch. Maybe you will pay a bit more than I (I got lucky - I realize that) but believe me it is worth it as it shoots like a modern 50mm except for being MF only.

In general I have to say that if you have a few bucks to spare and are willing to experiment you can pick up some superbly performing lenses from the 1970s and 80s (and earlier) that cost pennies almost, but shoot like a million dollars. Now that's what I mean when I say a piece of equipment has disparity between price and performance in the best possible way.
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Old 04-01-2019   #6
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My best-performing lens, which I've had for years and am never selling, is a Nikon Micro-Nikkor 55mm f/2.8. Sharper than any other lens I've used – old or current, regardless of make – with zero distortion and chromatic aberration. It's also very good across the aperture range, and, despite being a macro lens, it's equally good close up and at infinity. And it's built like a tank from metal.

And there's more to it than technical box ticking. Like all top-class lenses, its rendering – tonality and colour rendition – is subtle and pleasing. Hard to describe: I find many modern lenses create images that have a soulless "clinical" feel that fails to draw you into the picture. This Micro-Nikkor is the opposite.

There's a reason why it's one of the very few manual lenses that Nikon still manufactures. Second hand, it's peanuts, considering how good it is.

Simply stunning.
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Old 04-01-2019   #7
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You are not wrong about the brutal sharpness of the Voigtlander 50/3.5 Heliar. I owned and used one for about six months. But I found its sharpness too much. For portraits at least. When I first got scans back from a roll of Portra 400 from my usual lab I thought that they had sharpened the files. Did not really like the rendering much less the ergonomics of the lens.
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Old 04-01-2019   #8
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I have a 75mm f2.5 Color-heliar in LTM, adapted to M mount as well a 75mm f2 APO-Summicron M. I fact, I bought the Voigtlander lens when the Leica lens was off being recalibrated. Yes, the Leica lens is sharper, mainly at the larger f-stops, but sometimes too sharp for portraits. The Color-heliar, purchased used for less than $250-, is nearly as good. It's also a better match for my other Mandler lenses [e.g. 35mm pre-asph Summicron and 21mm f3.4 S-A] in the way it draws. Finally, it also weighs half as much. Lately, I'm taking the Voigtlander when I head out the door, along with the 35mm Summicron.
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Old 04-01-2019   #9
Larry Cloetta
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Quote:
Originally Posted by PunkFunkDunk View Post
You are not wrong about the brutal sharpness of the Voigtlander 50/3.5 Heliar. I owned and used one for about six months. But I found its sharpness too much. For portraits at least. When I first got scans back from a roll of Portra 400 from my usual lab I thought that they had sharpened the files. Did not really like the rendering much less the ergonomics of the lens.
That mirrors my impressions. I have thought about buying this lens, on and off, almost since it was introduced, because it “tests well”. Every time it comes back on my radar, I spend a few hours looking at every web example I can find, hundreds at this point, before, always, deciding I don’t really want one. Outside of the very small percentage of photographic situations where sharpness really works to yield a stunning result, I find the rendering in most situations, not just portraits, to be uninteresting, occasionally almost unpleasant, like fingernails on a blackboard. Not sure why, just doesn’t click with me. Might just be “what I’m used to”, or maybe not that at all.

Heresy, I know. Just not a “sharpness is everything, and it’s even sharp in the corners” kind of guy. I am not at all opposed to sharp, I just need to see that sharpness married to other attributes I don’t find with this lens.
Though I admit this thread did cause me to research image sources again, before reaching the same conclusion I always do.
(I won’t ever have one, but I like everything about the images I see coming from the 50 APO Summicron, which seem very different to me than the ones from the Heliar. If you prefer the images from the Heliar, count your blessings.)
Different strokes for different folks.
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Old 04-01-2019   #10
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I have followed the 50mm Heliar since when it was first introduced with the Bessa camera package. Curious to try one I ordered a used copy in Silver, and assume it is similar to the new black one I've seen pictured. Images and portraits I've seen over the years have looked really good; sharp but not unpleasantly so and very nice in the way it renders. I'm sort of hoping I don't like it because then when I go out, I will have to choose between taking that lens out or the Zeiss 50mm C-Sonnar!

And for me the CV 75mm f1.8 is a lens that I picked up for about 350.00 used. For my purposes it holds it's own against the more expensive Leica 75s.
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Old 04-01-2019   #11
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Emperor Hirohito of Japan only wanted the Heliar lens used when getting his official studio portrait taken.
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Old 04-02-2019   #12
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The new generation of CV lenses are mighty fine too. I have the 15 SWH and just recently got the 21 Color-Skopar and either of them on my M9 are tack sharp to say the least. That said, the older versions of either lens only had vignetting problems for the most part, they've always been pretty sharp lenses.
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Old 04-02-2019   #13
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You know, Bill, there is a awful lot of good camera gear out there that has just as good a reputation as Leica, so don't feel bad about slumming around with a Voigtlander lens.


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Old 04-03-2019   #14
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Hey Bill, picked up a 50/3.5 Voigtlander S Heliar for my Nikon S2 a few weeks ago when the head bartender had them on sale for $299. Couldn't be happier with it. Also use it with the Nikon Z6. Really is a remarkable little lens, and after years of buying and selling Leica lenses, I did love the price.

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Old 04-03-2019   #15
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Timmyjoe View Post
Hey Bill, picked up a 50/3.5 Voigtlander S Heliar for my Nikon S2 a few weeks ago when the head bartender had them on sale for $299. Couldn't be happier with it. Also use it with the Nikon Z6. Really is a remarkable little lens, and after years of buying and selling Leica lenses, I did love the price.

Best,
-Tim
That must look crazy!
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Old 04-03-2019   #16
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I spent many years wanting only the best lenses and acquired quite a few of Leica's asph lenses. Today my favorite lens is the humble Nikkor 50mm f2.0 for rangefinders. I have four of them including a collapsible ltm version that is a great travel package on a IIIc.


Honorable mention to the Elmar 50mm f3.5, a really good Jupiter 8 I have and the old 58mm f2.0 Biotar


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Old 04-03-2019   #17
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Quote:
Originally Posted by jsrockit View Post
That must look crazy!
Wha ya talkin' 'bout?



You don't think that's what Nikon had in mind when their Industrial Design folks were mocking up the Z6?

Best,
-Tim
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Old 04-03-2019   #18
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There have been a few stand-outs over the years.

The SMC-Takumar 85/1.8 was the reason I held on to screw-mount Spot F bodies as long as I did. Excellent balance and handling with bright, smooth rendering in both b&w and color.

Nikon's 35/1.4 and 180/2.8 kept me similarly stuck with manual focus long after it made sense to switch. Easy to handle, balanced on the camera, quick to snap into focus. The 75-150/3,5E is starting to get some use again with a switch from DX to FX. The focal lengths work for me and I would love to have an AF version. I'm still using a 50/3.5 Micro very often, but found a great deal this week on a 60/2.8AF. We'll see if it measures up.

Minolta's 40/2 and 90/4 M-Rokkors always return great results. The fact they were great low-price buys at the time did not hurt.

The Voigtlander 35/2.5 and 50/2.5 are also in the go-to category.
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Old 04-03-2019   #19
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Timmyjoe View Post
Wha ya talkin' 'bout?



You don't think that's what Nikon had in mind when their Industrial Design folks were mocking up the Z6?

Best,
-Tim
haha, that's great... thank you for posting!
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Old 04-03-2019   #20
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The difference in cost between shooting my F2 and my DF is disparity. Not so much difference in the price of the camera bodies per se both are really nice tools
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Old 04-17-2019   #21
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I agree to your remarks on the big price gap - and in the past some have pointed to the fact of [former] ties with the likes of the LMHV group: Leica as positioned as an upmarket brand.
That does reflect in the channel strategy: brand stores. And you do agree with me: camera shops will rather sell boxes of CanNikons and the likes than an occasional Leica.

My best portraits have been shot with the Russian Jupiter-3.
But a Leica is always spot-on, and I'ld rather have the Leica quality than have to check focus often. That said, I also volunteered with a Canon RF and that is good too in constant RF-quality, general image.
Still, my Summicron 50 non-A is the easiest to work with. And hence worth the modest price.

Too bad by the way the head bartender did not dare to send a copy of the VC Heliar lens to me in Europe.
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Old 04-17-2019   #22
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Some famous dude once said, "ever ever confuse sharp with good, or you will end up shaving with an ice cream cone and licking a razor blade".
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Old 04-17-2019   #23
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Just a follow up on the lens Bill is discussing in the original post. Using an Amedeo adapter, I put my Voigtlander 50mm f3.5 Heliar on an M-9 Monochrom to see just how sharp it was wide open on the Leica. Below are the results, both shot wide open. The first was shot with focus at minimum (about 1 meter):



This is 100% zoom crop, straight out of the camera with no sharpening:



The second was shot with focus near infinity, again wide open:



And again, this is 100% zoom crop, straight out of the camera with no sharpening:



It's a pretty sharp lens, even wide open. Maybe the Summicron is sharper, and it certainly is a stop and a half faster for low light work, but there's something to be said for the little $529 wonder.

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Old 04-17-2019   #24
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Mr. Pierce -- I used to think you were an outstanding photographer. However, the recent revelation that you now shoot with a 50/3.5 Voigtlander Heliar VM has caused my great consternation. Great consternation, indeed!
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Old 04-17-2019   #25
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As for the disparity of which you speak, I believe Thorstein Veblen pert much nailed it back in the turn of the last century.
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Old 04-17-2019   #26
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Quote:
Originally Posted by NickTrop View Post
As for the disparity of which you speak, I believe Thorstein Veblen pert much nailed it back in the turn of the last century.
It looks like the "conspicuous consumption", albeit, by taking off the red 'expensive camera button' on the front and not using it all the time, not many recognize the camera brand anymore. The body should have the Ł sign all over the body perhaps to really show off.
[rumour: I heard that leica camera has to pay for each red logo to Leica Binoculars . . .]
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Old 05-12-2019   #27
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Erwin Puts puts it as following
Quote:
It is good when the prestige element would be diminished for the high speed lenses. Most photographers would be delighted to have high performance, moderately-sized lenses to shoot their pictures in bright sunlight.
. . . and as far as I am concerned, even in normal light situations.

from his March 2019 blog.

Quote:
The cult of selective focus was born and with it the idea that this style was the best for general photography.
There is one thing I do not really agree with him but it is nice rant: it is not the culturing of very selective OOF 24x36 RF pictures by star firms but movies and TV that made that shift in style. For me it is always a surprise that with an aperture of F4 I can get great isolation from backgrounds too at short (portrait) distances) - with 50 and 90 mm and even 35mm.
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Old 05-13-2019   #28
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- Voigtlander 1.2/35

- Voigtlander Super-Wide-Heliar III 4.5/15


I am using the SWH with the Voigtlander 15-35 multi format Zoomfinder - great value for money.
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