Back in January, I had the chance to attend Steve Huff’s Workshop in Los Angeles. I also had a chance to play with the SLR Magic’s Hyperprime 50mm F0.95 Noktor Lens for a couple hours. So this post will be a double fisted review of both!
I’m a fan of Steve Huff’s blog so it was exciting to hear from my friend Todd Hatakeyama, owner of Hatakeyama Gallery, that he was working on getting Steve to come to Los Angeles, to do a workshop. Then Steve actually announced it on his site and followed it up with another announcement that he needed ‘teachers’ or ‘presenters’. I quickly jumped at the chance and offered to present a short history, masters and basics to street photography. Much to my luck and surprise, Steve thought it was a great idea. It secured my spot.
Steve is as affable in person as he is on his blog. He and Todd put together a fun filled weekend of pure photography that involved presentations, hands on learning, shooting and sharing. It’s very different from the last post I made regarding Frank Jackson’s B & W class. There, it was more the teacher – student relationship. Here, it was like going to photography camp.
To give you an idea, I thought I would just tell you what we did. So here goes:
DAY ONE started Friday, late afternoon with a meet and greet at Hatakeyama Gallery. Todd created a kind of “hot spot” or “home base” where photographers can gather and hang (there’s couches, TV and refrigerator :-)). His gallery doubles as workshop space in the basement which is adjacent to studio shooting space. He’s working on expanding it to include a permanent workshop/classroom and dark room lab. You can also buy basic lighting and camera equipment through his store, Simple Studio Lighting, which occupies the main street level storefront. So basically a one stop photography environment.
30 attendees from around the country and Australia attended. Half of us had Leicas (film and digital) while the others had a variety ranging from Canons, NEX-7 to Fuji x100. It was also great to meet Ashwin Rao after reading his many posts.
The first presenter was Andrew Chan of SLR Magic, who introduced his new Hyperprime 50mm F 0.95 Noktor lens, the challenger to Leica’s Noctilux 50mm F 0.95. He brought 4 prototypes for the attendees to play with to get some feedback. And there were several points Andrew needed to fix which he said he would.
We took the lenses out for a spin around the neighborhood of downtown Los Angeles. Since it was night time, I decided to use the Ricoh GXR with the M-Mount to test out the Hyperprime.The results were pretty impressive.
Hyperprime on Steve’s M9-P
I shot the following two pictures just before we left for the walk to test the Hyperprime against the Noctilux. I did not edit the pictures. It’s just a jpeg of the raw images as is.
SLR Magic Hyperprime
You can see, sharpness is pretty much on par between the two. The colors of the Hyperprime are a touch on the blue and cool side. While the Noctilux has warmer tones. There is more contrast in the Hyperprime image than the Noctilux. Rendering for both look great. The bokeh is lovely and smooth on both.
Photo by Ashwin Rao (See the Hyperprime on my Ricoh and on Steve’s Leica. Andrew is in the middle.)
I did notice that the Hyperprime lens was a touch loose on the M-mounting ring of my Ricoh. Andrew told me that it was quite normal. It did not affect the images. Although, I’m not sure if I felt better hearing that.
Physically, the Hyperprime is longer and heavier at 975 grams, than the Noctilux which weighs 700 grams. And I can personally attest to its ruggedness. While we were walking the streets the weight of the Hyperprime caused the standard issue Ricoh strap to loosen and the whole camera fell on the concrete pavement. (Ouch!) When I heard the THUD, my heart stopped. I was horrified to say the least. It was loud enough that everyone came over to see that the thick lens hood took a small dent but the lens and camera was in perfect condition. Thank goodness, Andrew was all gracious and that it was a prototype and not a final production model. Luckily I didn’t have to pay for its replacement. :-)
The Leica Noctilux Aspherical has 8 elements, 9 aperture blades and focuses to 1.0 meter.The
Hyperprime has 12 lens elements, 12 aperture blades and focuses to 0.7 meters ( equivalent of an f/0.92 aperture at f/0.95).
Andrew told me the Hyperprime glass comes from China as well as Schott in Germany because not all Chinese glass can perform at the their high quality expectations. However, the housing and all other materials come from China. They assemble in China and Hong Kong. To maintain quality control, the calibration is done entirely in Hong Kong. The combination helps keep the cost down and the quality up.
SLR Magic is committed to making this lens to work for many cameras other than Leica. So you can also get it with a Canon EF Mount, Nikon F Mount or Four Thirds Mount. But the coolest of all, the PL Cinema Mount. You can shoot this with movie cameras too!
Now, it’s hard for me to give a true verdict for the Hyperprime because I only had it for a couple hours. And from other people’s reviews of this lens, I can see the day time shots look pretty good. But at this point, I really still prefer the Noctilux. I hate to carry heavy elements, so the added weight and size of the Hyperprime is already a deterrent (every gram counts with me). However, I can say that if you can’t afford the Noctilux, the Hyperprime is an excellent alternative at half the price.
UPDATE: OCTOBER 8, 2012
Since my last update and updates by other blogs and websites, there has been quite a lot of commotion and out-of-context accusations in forums and Facebook regarding the causes, claims and remedies of SLR Magic’s 50mm F0.95 Hyperprime lens, which I gave a first impression review here. As a result, lots of finger pointing and heated exchanges have taken place between SLR Magic and some disgruntled test users regarding the pre-production models. So it’s time to update and hopefully put all issues to rest.
To provide an equal forum, I asked Andrew Chan at SLR Magic some pointed questions. He wrote back at length giving me detailed explanations. Here is Andrew’s response to my questions. I have only replaced names with initials:
1) So it is not clear to me, as there are different claims. Were the lenses that everyone in the tester program got, a pre-production model or a first short run production model?
Check the email you received before for the lens. All LA workshop lenses were pre-production lenses. Only D’s lens had a loose ring and only S’s lens had a mount that need to be replaced. Ever since their lenses the other customers have no loose ring issues or frame line issue. There was never a sho[r]t run production. It was just pre-production that had a stealth version then the production version that is either in green or in black.
2) You claim that some of the performance issues of the pre-production models were caused by poor packaging, which you have since changed- So, with the new packaging, do you have any more issues with loose rings and not focusing at infinity or any other problems?
The new packaging resolved all the issues. Only two people had issues with shipping. M’s was the first person who received the lens and we noticed the issue. We told D to wait since we need to improve the shipping materials but he said he will take a risk since he wants to use it to shoot a wedding that cannot wait. If we did not ship to him by his request there would have been no issues. T sent his lens to his buyer with no issues in our new packaging. We sent M his serviced lens that took one day turnaround time in the new packaging and he had no issues either.
3) So after the ‘testing’ period, have you resolved all of the lens problems? Can you say that your lens performs exactly how you and your team have envisioned it now?
The lens is performing fine. No one at Photokina had issues apart from three people. Two of them was due to human error as they cannot even constantly take accurate photos against a focus chart with Leica camera and Leica lens. The last person had a back focusing camera. He tested his own Voigtlander lens and Leica Camera. His lens is a 1.2 and a 35mm so there was more DOF and backfocus did not matter to him before. Someone did come with a Noctilux 0.95. His lens has very slight back focus that is within tolerance but he cannot constantly take photos on the spot with our chart. He was also comparing the Noct at 1m with the HyperPrime at 0.7m with different DOF properties.
The lens had always perform as we envisioned but what we did not expect was the amou[n]t of camera error and human error involved on the consumers end. When face to face we can test right on the spot. When by mail order it is difficult and with what everyone has read on the internet they automatically feel it is the lens that has issues.
Every lens returned has no focus issues. We have customers not using magnifiers for assist or needing to use diopters that may not be 100% perfect for their eyes and it is a difficult situation for us. To see clearly we need to stack two multipliers so it is impossible to shoot 100% accurate with no assistance. Erwin Putts also said to see 0.95 accurately it helps to have more than one magnifier.
4) When the customer wants a refund within a customary period, are you willing to refund?
Discounted Pre-production lenses had no refund policy as stated in the email. Regular customers may refund in one month only if there is a serious issue with the lens that cannot be repaired or exchanged. Reasons we received was I want to save up for the new Leica M instead, or bought three other Leica lenses this month, or my dealer called me and my Noctilux is in and I want to return, or I found a 50mm Summilux and I need money now. Those are NOT valid return reasons. The only one we felt was decent was he had an unexpected child and cannot afford to commit to the lens at this time. Strictly speaking that is not a valid reason but from the heart that is ok as it is a real financial situation. DA originally cancelled because all his gear was stolen and he need to use his money to get a new camera but he kept his order at the end by changing the LM order to CINE order. We tend to only accept cancellations or refund due to real urgency and not because of another Leica lens purchase. They can refund the Leica gear instead as it was the more recent purchase.
5) What is the expected turnaround in email correspondence between a customer and SLR Magic?
As F said, sometimes you cannot respond to everyone at once. That is totally true. We are a small company and apart from dealing with extremely complicated technical questions I also have to be in charge of the production line. Some on the internet complained we do not respond to emails. Many listed to him. Did he mention he emailed us at 11pm Hong Kong time on Sat and filed a complaint to us on Sunday afternoon? Those are not even our work hours. Leica in Hong Kong are closed on Sat and Sun as well. No one can respond so quickly. I have emailed S. K. from Leica before that is in charge of Leica Asia region. 4 months ago I emailed him and he said he is on business trip and till now there is no reply. The second time I emailed him was a week ago to order the Leica M and he did not respond to me ever and got another customer rep to reply to me a week afterwards. Even Leica company cannot reply immediately and they are a lot larger than us.
We usually respond in 1-5 business days depending on the difficulty of the question. If it is about Toy Lenses we respond in 1 day. if it is about RF lens then usually only I respond and it takes 5 business days. As you can see I typed a lot on facebook on this issue. I have over 28 emails with each Leica lens customer ever since the rumour mill.
6) Are you now selling the full production model?
Yes and we make the lens as a concept lens. We planned to have 10 lenses a month but ever since the rumor mill I was stuck with many emails to attend to and out lens makers were stuck with many people returning lenses for check up and re check up again that would not solve any issue as focus issues were due to human error and not lens error. The rumor mill caused a delay dropping production speed to 2-3 lenses per month only. Thus, S’ claim for dozens of people having issues is not possible as we don’t make so many lenses.
UPDATE: July 14, 2012
Since my brief review of the prototype here, a series of first production models were bought by “testers” for around 60% of the retail price in exchange for feedback. And apparently, the lens has failed in its performance. I saw first hand a loose ring on a friend’s lens. And Facebook is now seeing many complaints regarding the len’s inability to focus at infinity in addition to loose rings.SLR MAGic has been blaming it on packaging in shipping, even when there was no shipping involved. Because of the commotion, Steve Huff, who raved unusually much about the lens and pushed for people to buy and check it out quite heavily on his site, placed an update asking people to hold off on buying. Although, he says his lens is still okay. You can read his post here.
To add salt to the wound, the complaints don’t end with lens performance. It continues with bad or near non-existent customer service and rather nasty return policy for those who have cancelled pre-orders that have not shipped.
What a shame. SLR Magic is just ruining it’s potential as legitimate brand when it shuns its first most devoted and even forgiving customers. If SLR Magic wants to stay in business, it needs to do major damage control by immediately offering full refunds to all those who cancelled pre-orders and provide a prompt and complete warranty service or full refund option for those who already have it. In other words, SLR Magic needs to own up and suck it up.
DAY TWO started off with a presentation by Jay Bartlett, a commercial portrait and fashion photographer here in Los Angeles. He gave us some basic tips on how to shoot portraits, followed by a hands-on studio model shoot. He brought in a professional model Jade Corinne, and professional make-up artist Marjorie Bartlett, who is also his wife (very handy). Jay was very cool. He explained to us why he set up the lighting the way he did and helped us to adjust our cameras to achieve the look we wanted. I had a ball shooting with strobes and a model. Everyone else did too.
I found out how difficult it is to shoot fashion and models. The pose, facial expression and emotion is everything. But to get the model to look natural is really hard. So many of the shots I did made the model look like a manquin. The ones here are the best from a ton of shots.
Oh, and I finally learnt how to use my Sekonic light meter. Thanks to Jay’s tutelage.
After the model shoot, we all walked a couple miles to Little Tokyo where we had a buffet lunch. Steve was a good host. You can ask about all sorts of photography questions and Steve gives you his opinion. We all sat together and talked ‘shop” and got to know the attendees as well. On the way there and back we got some street shooting in. This time I did not have the Hyperprime so others could try it out too.
We returned to the gallery to see a presentation of impressive work by Sean Armenta, another fashion photography based here in Los Angeles. It was followed by Ashwin Rao, who gave a talk about how he built his on-line presence with examples of his photos. Afterwards, some of the attendees had dinner with Steve, but I had to take off. I heard they had a great time.
DAY THREE started with my presentation of the history of street photography, the masters, contemporary and the basics of street photography. And yes, I squeezed in a little shameless self promotion. :-) Jeff Garlin, the comedian/actor of Curb Your Enthusiasm fame, popped in early to listen to my presentation. Which he told me he liked by the way. :-) After my schtick, the true highlight of the day was when he did a “street photographer’s” stand-up routine for about 30 minutes. Everyone laughed their heads off. To all those who don’t know, Jeff is a huge street photography and a Leica fanatic. He is also a street photographer himself but is too shy to show his work. Hopefully he’ll reveal his art one day. But for now, he is the producer of the Vivian Maier documentary which John Maloof will direct.
After the laughs, we went to a Mexican restaurant nearby for lunch. We shot some more on the streets and came back to the gallery to edit our photos. Then we presented our best 3 street images from the weekend. There was a lot of talent amongst the attendees, including first timers. Afterwards, some of the attendees went to dinner again with Steve. Looks like they had a good time.
The only complaint I have is that there was no water left after the first half of the second day and the third day. I know it’s a small, even petty thing but I had to run out and get water from the corner store up the street. I think it was because everyone got so involved into the workshop that it was simply forgotten.
Otherwise, I recommend this workshop to anyone who wants to get in on the know of new equipment, learn new techniques and be part of a street photography community. I mentioned at the start of this post, it’s like going to photography camp. Like one big hangout. The only thing with this camp, there’s no sleep over. However, you make friends with a lot of like-minded people, who are all interested in the same thing as you. Community is really the most valuable thing you walk away with more than anything else. It’s like being a part of a club. In our case, we are now on Facebook as a group, constantly sharing and critiquing each other. Whenever there’s a question or some cool thing to share, we all get to see and talk about it. Steve is part of the group as well and puts in his two cents all the time. Even Andrew at SLR Magic is in the group. And whenever anyone wants to go shooting, we just post in FB that we’re in town and we meet up at Hatakeyama Gallery.
I’ve linked very one’s websites with their name if you wish to find out more info on them.