LEICA SF-40 AND THE LEICA M MONOCHROM TYP 246
Published April 22, 2017
This past weekend we were in San Francisco again for my wife's niece's wedding. I was under no obligation to take wedding pictures (thank heavens), but I wanted to see if I could pull off some flash pictures with the Leica M Monochrom Typ 246. Over the years Leica's TTL system has proven a complete mystery (to me), so to get into fighting shape, the last couple months have been filled with 100s and 100s of test shots. I'm seeing spots... the dogs are seeing spots... my wife is seeing spots... we are all fucking seeing spots, but I was on righteous mission!!!
Deciding which flash proved to be an adventure in and of itself. Every two weeks was a new flash and 100's of test shots -
- Leica SF-26 - I already had this flash. It is wonderfully compact and I like its bounce feature, but its output proved too undependable. It felt as if the flash had only 3 or 4 output levels, so either it was too dark or too bright. The SF-26 has no manual controls, so there is no way to set a fixed output power.
- Leica SF-58 - It is an overly large on a Leica M, but it works. If shooting indoors in bounce orientation, all worked pretty well. But if outdoors and trying to do daylight fill, that was an elusive mystery.
- Leica SF-64 - The SF-64's touch screen is sexy, but there is alot of tapping to get things done (the SF-58's interface is more direct). For indoor bounce work, the SF-58 and SF-64 results looked identical. The SF-64 cycled faster, was quieter and didn't seem to have to work as hard. But it is even bigger (than the SF-58), and outdoor daylight fill proved just as elusive.
- Leica SF-40 - The Leica SF-40 is a Nissin i40 with firmware for Leica's TTL system. Paying $500 for an otherwise $200 flash was irksome, but the SF-40 is semi compact and has manual controls. Indoor bounce was reasonably predictable, but outdoor daylight fill was still a freakin' mystery...
By now the days had ticked down and we on our way to San Francisco. My only "a-ha" was to disable auto-ISO, which seemed to stabilize performance for indoor bounce. The other flashes had been sold or returned, so for better or worse (pardon the pun), it was an all-in bet with the SF-40. Wedding day rolled around and while the "official" photographers did their thing, I took some family pictures. The day started with -
- 35mm - Used the 35mm because it is wide enough for group shots, and the closer shooting distance (vs a 50mm or 75mm) means less flash power needed.
- F5.6 - Stopping down helps to ensure everyone in a group is sharply focused. Also, focusing with the F5.6 and 35mm is pretty doggone easy (and quick).
- ISO - Raised ISO until the initial test images where 1 or 2 stops underexposed, then flash would add the balance of needed light.
- SF-40 - The SF-40 was set in its forward firing position with its included diffuser attached.
With the Monochrom in A mode and the SF-40 in TTL mode, there was some trial and error to get the right mix of ISO and FEC. That set-up worked for awhile, but midway through I had to shoot into the sunlight - the dreaded outdoor daylight fill use-case... I did not intend to shoot in full manual mode, but had to do something. Set the shutter to 1/125, thus ensuring the flash would fire. Then put the flash in manual mode and took ~5 test shots to find a good balance of ISO and flash output power. In hindsight I probably could have shot ISO 1600 (instead of 3200) and upped the flash output by 1-stop, but I was scrambling at the time.
Looking at the DNGs later that night, I was pleasantly surprised. The SF-26 would have been a fail because there are no controls to manually set the output level. The Leica SF-40 proved to be a good choice because its manual controls were directly accessible and easy to change on-the-fly. It would been nice to have used the 75mm APO, but I have learned the hard way when taking these kinds of pictures, sharp keepers are paramount - that means stop down, boost ISO and maintain healthy shutter speeds. It is better to come home with sharp, in focus pictures versus lamenting all the mis-focused shots with a wide open Noctilux ASPH.
Out of all these flashes, the Leica SF-58 is probably the best value since used prices are ~$300 USD. It is not nearly as sexy as the new Leica SF-64, but the SF-58 worked well on the M-246. While I like the Leica SF-26's compact size, I just do not trust its output. So in a way the Leica SF-40 is the Goldilocks choice - not too small, not too big... more puns, sorry 😝