Lens Filters for Leica M Cameras
Have you perhaps moved from a SLR (maybe a Hasselblad) to a Leica M film camera? Did you use filters on your SLR? This post explains the advantages of using a Leica + filters (or any rangefinder camera) vs an SLR (and the disadvantages too). It also lists and explains the common types of lens filters.
Leica + Filters (What I use)
For model photography and my usual Leica portrait work I don’t normally use camera lens filters that often, and especially not for digital photography (more with film cameras). I own yellow filters, blue, various ND filters (neutral density), IR-cut, polarising filters, warming filters, cooling filters and lots of UV filters (and Skylight filters) in various sizes. Each filter has a purpose.
Lens Filters Explained
Quick summary of what I use each lens filter for (plus a few extra filters I have for other cameras) –
- Yellow filter: Black and white film photography (portraits & landscapes) – to lighten yellows/ darken blues
- Orange filter: B&W film photography (landscapes) – to lighten oranges/ darken blue skies (higher contrast), and helps penetrate mist and fog
- Red filter: B&W film photography (landscapes) – to lighten reds more and makes blues skies turn black (very strong contrast), also helps penetrate mist and fog
- Green filter: B&W film photography (landscapes) – to lighten green foliage
- Blue filter (“cooling filter”) (shades of blue like 80C & 82B): Colour film photography – to colour correct tungsten balanced film when used in daylight. Film like Cinestill 800T, Kodak Vision3 200T/ 500T
- Warming filter (shades of amber like 81A & 81C): Colour film photography – to colour correct daylight balanced film when used in indoors with tungsten light. Film like Cinestill 50D/ Kodak Vision3 50D, Kodak Portra 160/400/800, Fuji Pro 400H and most colour film available today
- Polarising filter (or more specifically circular polarising filter): (landscapes) – to darken blue skies and make the clouds “pop”. Can also be used to adjust reflections on water / surfaces (to more or less reflection)
- Neutral density filters (ND filters): For fast lenses (lenses with wide maximum aperture like f1-f1.2-f1.4)(all cameras) – I use ND filters when shooting in bright conditions with flash and also on the older Leica M film cameras (such as a Leica M3) that only have a maximum shutter speed of 1/1000 (vs. 1/4000 for the Leica M240). In practice I only really use ND filters on the Leica Noctilux 50mm f1.0 lens in the UK as the weather is rarely “too bright” for most lenses.
- IR-cut filter (Infrared cut off filter): (digital Leica M8 colour photography) – Without the IR-cut filter the colours from the M8 are not natural looking. (*See details in link below – Leica M8 & IR-cut filter post)
- UV filters: I went through a period of getting clear UV filters for most of my Leica M lenses to protect the front element from damage. I find I attach the UV filters for my Leica wedding photography mostly after an expensive lens was damaged at a wedding (Nikkor 35mm f1.4 G lens – pre Leica days). Apart from wedding photos and some travel photography I don’t use UV filters too much now.
Using filters on a Leica camera (compared to on a SLR/DSLR)
Leica vs. DSLR – Using filters – Disadvantage
One thing to note for fellow Leica photographers is if you’ve not used a circular polarising filter (CPL) on your Leica camera before you might find it is a bit of a fiddle (I did!). This was especially the case for me when I was frequently moving locations and shooting in multiple directions (north, south, east, west and all angles in between). When photographing with a SLR/ DSLR camera you look through the lens to compose an image. This means that with a CPL filter on the end of the lens you can just look through the camera to see the effect of the filter. Easy. (For example if you point the lens at the sky and then rotate the CPL filter you can see the sky get lighter or darker blue and you can stop at the desired look). With a Leica camera we don’t view or focus an image through the lens like a DSLR. Therefore to see the impact of a polarizing filter you have to take the CPL filter off the lens and hold it up to the scene/ sky to look through it and see what angle of rotation gives the desired look. You then need to reattach the CPL filter to the lens and remember the preferred orientation (for example to give a more vivid blue sky might be number 5 on the CPL filter ring at the 12 O’clock position ). To complicate things further, if you are then switching between landscape and portrait orientation when holding the camera you need to turn the polarizing filter each time you turn the camera. If you are then using a clip on lens hood (as I was) that covers the filter you need to take off the hood to see/ move the CPL every time you take an image in a different direction or orientation. Maybe I just like to make life difficult for myself!
For normal/ traditional landscape photography however where you setup a tripod with the camera pointed in one direction and wait for a few hours for the best light to hit a scene, this will not be an issue as you only need to go through the filter “setup” process once.
*Note – Please note this is only an issue with a Leica film camera or an earlier digital Leica camera such as the Leica M8 and Leica M9. The digital Leica M240 (and Leica M10) both have LiveView so you can review the impact of the filter if you compose with the LiveView option rather as with the viewfinder.
Leica vs. DSLR – Using filters – Filter Advantage
DSLR users don’t always have it easier than Leica photographers though. When it comes to neutral density filters like a 10 stop Lee Big Stopper, with a DSLR camera you need to focus on the subject first then attach the ND filter otherwise you can’t see anything through the lens. With a Leica camera you view the scene via the viewfinder/ window on the top left of the camera body rather than through the lens so you can leave a ND filter attached throughout a shoot and make various new compositions with ease.
*Note – The only downside to not looking through the lens with a Leica camera is you can leave the lens cap on all day and not notice until you get back to your computer/ dark room that all the images are black. (This is more of an issue with a Leica film camera as most digital Leica cameras have the rear LCD and default to a preview image after each photo is taken. With film Leica cameras there is no chimping at the LCD so you need to be more focused and make sure the lens cap is off!).
Filter Rings (Step Up Rings)
A set of good quality filters (such as some of those mentioned above) is expensive so it doesn’t help when lenses come in different shapes and sizes. Leica M mount lenses come in a variety of filter thread sizes and mine vary from the smallest thread size being 39mm (classic Leica filter thread size) through to 60mm for the Leica Noctilux 50mm f1.0 v2 lens. Some Leica photographers choose to invest in a set of lenses with a common filter thread size so any filter fits any lens. An example from the lenses I own is the following lenses all have a 39mm filter thread; Leica Elmarit-M 28mm f2.8, Voigtlander Color Skopar 35mm f2.5, Leica Summicron 50mm f2, Leica Macro-Elmar-M 90mm f4 and Leica Elmar 135mm f4. For this reason a bought a few 39mm filters to retain the small lens size/ diameter/ compactness of the 39mm lens-camera setup.
For my main set of filters I use the 52mm size as I already owned some 52mm filters that I had used on my smaller Nikkor lens (pre-Leica days). I then bought various low cost Chinese step rings on eBay to step up the filter diameter size from 39mm, 43mm, 46mm and 49mm to 52mm filter size. This is a much cheaper option than buying a set of filters for every thread size and I can use one set of filters on nearly all my Leica M mount lenses. The only exception is the Leica Noctilux 50mm f1.0 v2 lens where I had to get a few larger 60mm filters for it but I find I use these on some of my non-Leica camera setups (or with a 52mm-60mm step ring on smaller Leica M mount lenses). I guess the best tip is buy a set of filters to fit your largest lens and then get step-up rings so they can be mounted on your smaller lenses.
I’m sure most readers knew 99% of that information already but if you are currently using a DSLR camera and are tempted to make the jump to a Leica rangefinder camera it may be of some use. Equally if you are just starting out with your photography and have perhaps one camera and one kit lens some of this information might save you some money in the long run. Lastly if you have never used a film camera but are looking to try film in 2018 I think the coloured filtered used with black and white film photography give some of the most interesting results.