Photography / Features

Why I Switched from Nikon to Leica: Doug Menuez

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Although he has spent most of his career riding the rollercoaster of emotion that comes with documenting the human condition, Doug Menuez is pragmatic about his camera gear. “I’m not a fetishist about a camera, I’m not a romantic typically,” he says. “It’s a practical thing for me.” Yet this unflappable attitude recently met its match when Menuez got his hands on a Leica SL. “As soon as I learned about it I thought it might be perfect,” he says. “Once I tried it, I was immediately sure.”

This is ninth in a series featuring the many stories and myriad reasons prompting users to switch brands. Follow the links at the end to read about other gear switches—from one DSLR to another, from DSLR to Mirrorless, between inkjet printer brands, and from digital to analog film.

The following views expressed are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent that of B&H Photo.

Photographs © Doug Menuez

Menuez cut his teeth in photojournalism interning for The Washington Post, in the early 1980s, before setting out on a freelance career covering major stories for top magazines and newspapers.

A Nikon user since 1970, Menuez used Leica M-series cameras, “for street photography and walk-around stuff,” he says. “Leica was always about the minimalist camera and the essential camera. Shooting with my M cameras was a deliberate, kind of zen-like process for me. You’re more aware.”

Menuez brought his decisive-moment aesthetic to a wide range of early assignments, from his documentation of the Ethiopian famine, to his coverage of the Oakland drug wars and the AIDS crisis, to sports coverage that extended from the regular season to World Championship games. In 1985, his instincts for news led him to recently ousted Apple CEO Steve Jobs. His photographic documentation of Jobs’s passionate quest for technology, and the subsequent rise of Silicon Valley would occupy his next 15 years—with waves building to this day through his multifaceted project, Fearless Genius, published as a book in 2014, and slated for future release as a documentary film, TV series, education program, and more.

During an offsite company meeting, Steve Jobs listens to a presentation from an engineer at his new start-up, NeXT Computer, which he founded after being fired from Apple. Santa Cruz, California, 1987. Probably Nikon F3 analog camera; AF NIKKOR 180mm f/2.8 lens; Tri-X film; probably rated at ISO 800.

Making the Switch

Over the years, Menuez has developed an expertise in working the gap between documentary authenticity and the corporate world. “I bring my documentary ethos and style into commercial work; that’s what I have to offer in the commercial realm,” he says. “I know what real life looks like and I can create that.”

This real-life approach made him appreciate Nikon’s commitment to traditional design elements and the continuation of ergonomic product design throughout the company’s development. Yet, in the past few years, the increasing popularity of mirrorless cameras and the associated advantages of a smaller, lighter system made Menuez reconsider his options.

“There’s not a photographer out there who doesn’t say, ‘God, I wish my camera was lighter,’” he points out. “Everybody’s back has got a limited tolerance for pain.”

The turning point was after the launch of the Nikon D5 in early 2016. “It’s a great camera in many ways, but I was tired of the weight and not happy with the larger file size, which was slowing down my workflow,” he explains.

The morning after my friend Michael died of cancer, his oldest son digs his father’s grave on their farm in upstate New York. January, 2017. Leica SL; Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4 lens; 1/250 sec.; f/6.3; ISO 200.

Intrigued with Sony’s mirrorless system, he started playing around with a Sony a7R II and an a6500. While he found several aspects of these cameras appealing, he was not impressed with the menus and ergonomics. Says Menuez, “After a few months, I figured out it was not going to work for me.”

But his quest did not stop there. “I got really interested in mirrorless systems that might replace the bigger Nikons,” he notes. “I always had Leicas and their insanely great lenses, so once I really started looking for the perfect mirrorless system, the Leica SL just hit me.” He got his hands on an SL, in January 2017, and tried it out during a significant personal event.

“I immediately realized this ticked all the boxes,” he says. “The camera fit me like a glove.”

A New Tool for A Different Era

He says, “I still had a lot to learn about the camera, and wanted to get the whole system, so I jumped right in. That’s something I’ve always done—I just go for it, and learn on the fly. It’s a way to force myself to adapt and learn. I realized this was a new tool for a different era, so by April, I had switched 100 percent to all Leica, all the time.”

Despite the risk of using a totally new system, Menuez dove into commercial projects, from inventive portraits at the EG Conference in California for Adobe, to troubled teens for the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation in Massachusetts, to a New York University Hackathon, when he used the SL’s video capabilities for his Fearless Genius documentary.

A college student working with a team of fellow hackers during the weekend-long hackNY Spring hackathon competition at New York University, March 2017. Leica SL; Leica APO-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280mm; 1/200 sec.; f/4; ISO 800.

The ultimate test came in May, when Menuez used the Leica SL for a FedEx campaign on the tarmac and runway of one of the world’s busiest airports for freight, in Memphis, Tennessee. “It was super high pressure,” he says. “Things could not have been trickier, working around jets loading and unloading on the runway, all night in the pouring rain. There was nothing anybody could do, and I couldn’t miss a shot, but it was flawless. These things are waterproof tanks,” he adds. “And they’re also great in low light—much better than I had expected.”

Favorite Features: Intuitive Design

Menuez is a stickler for good design, and this is one of the most essential aspects of the Leica SL. “The user interface design is astonishingly elegant,” he says.

One of his biggest complaints about cameras today, regardless of brand, is that the menus are atrocious. But he quickly realized this is one area where Leica stands apart from the pack. He says, “It’s like they hired a UX designer from Silicon Valley to design this camera—somebody who thinks about fonts. This means the menus are easy to use—to find stuff, and to change stuff—which makes it so fast to shoot.”

Women in a traditional Arabian Hammam (sauna) in Dubai, shot for Emirates Airlines through Leo Burnett, 2008. Likely shot with Nikon D4 and AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8 lens.

From the simplicity of the top dial for changing settings to the big, bright, 2.95" LED touchscreen, four customizable buttons, and a joystick for moving the focus points on the back, “Everything is designed to be fluid and fast,” notes Menuez. “You can squeeze and pinch the screen and use your fingers to focus the camera or enlarge the image. Things like that make it easier for me to change on a dime in the middle of a shoot, which means it’s less interrupting to my workflow. It turns out humans do better with tools when there’s good UX design,” he adds.

Lens Quality

Menuez was familiar with the quality of Leica lenses from shooting with his M-series primes, but he was particularly impressed by the quality of Leica’s autofocus zooms for the SL, the Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4 ASPH and APO-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280mm f/2.8-4. “It’s stunning,” he says. “I swear they have the quality of a prime at every focal length.”

He points out that while the Leica Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-90mm f/2.8-4 ASPH is heavier and wider than the corresponding Nikon lens, the AF-S NIKKOR 24 – 70 f/2.8 E ED VR, the two lenses are the same length, and the Leica lens has an extra 20 millimeters of throw.

Yet, in terms of quality, it all boils down to the laws of physics. “If you want your lens not to vignette, you need enough width in diameter to cover the whole sensor,” he explains. “That’s why these lenses are so wide, and that’s why there’s so much glass in there.”

The issue of vignetting had been a sticking point for Menuez with his Nikon glass. “The zoom lenses vignetted all the time, and I was getting more and more frustrated with that,” he says.

FedEX Jets waiting for cargo at their Memphis Hub, June 2017. Leica SL; APO-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280mm f/2.8-4; handheld at 1/15 sec.; f/4; ISO 1600.

Another factor in lens quality is stabilization, which Menuez also finds to be incredibly good in his new Leica glass. He describes a situation from his FedEx shoot. “We were moving around the airport in a van, and I was doing Hail Mary shots out the window in the rain. I was shooting into a hanger where something was happening by a plane. It was just a great shot, and I was heartbroken that we couldn’t stop because we were on a deadline to get somewhere else. I was handholding this heavy long lens to get grab shots at around 1/15 of a second, and the images I got were just shocking to me.”

While there are currently only two zooms in Leica’s SL-series lineup, a 16 – 35 wide-angle zoom is currently in development for release, in spring, 2018. Additionally, a trio of Leica adapters—the M-Adapter L, S-Adapter L, and R-Adapter L—makes the SL compatible with Leica M, S, and R-series lenses. “I use my M-series primes all the time,” says Menuez. “I think everything Leica ever made can go on this camera, so you have tons of lenses to choose from. Additional adaptors are also available for use of the camera with other lens brands.”

Electronic Viewfinder

Before Menuez discovered the SL, he had an initial resistance to mirrorless systems due to the resolution of the electronic viewfinder (EVF), which he found lacking. “I got an uncanny feeling when looking through other cameras with an EVF; there wasn’t enough resolution for me, and it confused my brain,” he explains. “With fast moving things, I couldn’t see and confirm the focus with my brain. I had to trust the autofocus system, but I just couldn’t do that, I wanted to see it.”

A capoeira expert demonstrates his moves during a shoot for Nikon, featuring the new D5200 camera, in Honolulu, Hawaii, 2012. Nikon D5200; AF-S DX VR Zoom-NIKKOR 16-85mm f/3.5-5.6G ED lens; 1/600 sec.; f/5.6; ISO 200.

But with more than 4 million pixels packed into the Leica SL’s big bright EVF, “I feel like there’s enough resolution, that I’m not looking at a Tv screen of my world,” says Menuez. “My brain gets more feedback, and I’m more comfortable with that.”

File Size and Alternative File Format

As noted earlier, Menuez was not a fan of the Nikon D5’s uncompressed 14-bit file size of more than 40 MB. “This was killing our workflow,” he says. “We did one shoot with that camera, and my client was going nuts because I couldn’t keep up with the pace they were used to me setting. I had to make sure what I had shot was sharp, and the import wasn’t even done before the client wanted to move on.” This was also an issue when Menuez was testing the Sony a7R II. “It was just killing me for editing,” he notes.

A teacher works with her students at the Harlem Kipp Academy charter school. Shot for the Robin Hood Foundation, 2016. Nikon D4S; AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8 lens; 1/125 sec.; f/2.8; ISO 1600.

On the other hand, he is extremely happy with the 24MB files he gets from the Leica SL. He describes the 8-foot wide prints he made for a show at the Leica Gallery in Los Angeles this past September. “I walked up to the prints and said, ‘Wow, these files are amazing,’” he exclaims. “They were shot at like 800 ISO, and I could probably blow them up as big as I want.”

According to Menuez, image quality also holds up at higher ISOs. “I’m thrilled with the high ISO stuff I’m doing, shooting at ISO 1600, 3200, and even up to 6400,” he says.

One truly distinguishing characteristic of the Leica SL is its DNG format for raw files. “I don’t have a problem with that,” he notes. “This is Adobe’s attempt to create a standard, and they’ve done a pretty good job. The DNG files look great, they have a quality to them that’s just gorgeous.”

As for color rendition, Menuez finds there to be a similarity to Kodachrome. “However, I think there might be a slight red bias,” he points out. “I haven’t had to correct for this in the stills, but with video there’s definitely a red bias to sunsets and sunrises, which we have to tweak. But Leica just did a firmware update, and tons of stuff got improved, so they’re really working on it,” he adds. “It’s a relatively new camera, so it’s a work in progress. And I love that they are taking feedback.”

Video Capabilities

Since he first started shooting with Leica in January, Menuez has been doing video interviews for his Fearless Genius documentary, completing seven interviews to date.

“I had shot a little bit of the documentary with my Nikon,” he notes. “I’ve also done some with the RED, and other systems as I’ve had money for different crews over the past three or four years.”

In the video above, Menuez shares his impressions about the Leica SL and the camera’s EyeRes viewfinder.

For top quality, he recommends using an external recorder for 10-bit recording, an Atomos, and not shooting above 800 ISO, although recording internally is generally fine when shooting under 400 ISO. “I’m just loving the video using the default profile,” he says. “It looks fantastic, especially when I adjust the settings to lower the contrast, saturation, and sharpening.”

He elaborates: “What’s nice about the default is you can still retain all the dynamic range in post. But to get the maximum dynamic range, we use L-log and create a custom look up table (LUT). The SL is extraordinary because it has capability to record true Cinema 4K resolution, as opposed to the typical ultra HD 4K that’s available in most cameras. "

Although Menuez uses prime lenses most often for video, “the autofocus is also very smooth,” he says. “And you can touch the screen to focus, so if a person moves a lot while you’re doing an interview you can very, very quickly correct without having to touch the lens.”

What’s more, Leica also offers a selection of dedicated cinema lenses. “The quality is just astonishing,” says Menuez. “It makes quite an impressive package for video.”

Wish List: Better Buffering and Tracking

There is one area where Menuez has concerns in terms of optimal performance—shooting sports. “I do think I’d have to make some accommodations for that in terms of the buffer, which is not as big as Nikon’s,” he notes. “The buffer needs to be bigger, and the write-to-disk time needs to be faster.”

While buffering can pose a challenge if you really need it, Menuez gets a lot of use out of the SL’s continuous fast drive mode at 11 fps. “I don’t hold the shutter down for the full 11 frames, I get like one or two bursts off,” he says. “This is a great thing to have even for a portrait, because expressions are so fleeting. People don’t think about motor drives for portraits, but I like having them,” he adds. “Faces have a subtle nuance of shifting micro muscles that you might not even notice until you see the image.”

A wedding portrait shot as a gift for my friends Michael and David, San Francisco, 2017. Leica SL; APO-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280mm f/2.8-4; 1/250sec.; f/9; ISO 200.

Menuez has not used his Leica on assignment for sports yet, but he recently tried it out with some skateboarders in Venice Beach, when he tested the camera’s tracking capabilities. “Although the tracking isn’t as subtle as Nikon’s, it seemed to work well,” he says.

“I was also alternating between focus modes—from manual to auto variations—to learn the different focus options for action. From street photography to assignments, I’ve been really surprised to discover that I’m able to nail grab shots I would not have expected to get before.”

A Whole Different World

When describing his first impressions of the Leica SL, Menuez shows his pragmatic side. “My first consideration was whether I could use the camera for both personal documentary work and commercial work, which I shoot in a documentary style. The SL met the smaller, lighter mirrorless criteria for the body itself. But what sealed the deal was getting autofocus zooms and motor drive capability in a Leica. This allows me to do what I do the way I like to do it.”

He sees the camera as being well suited to commercial photographers and photojournalists who need to work fast, yet he feels that a lot of pro photographers are not aware of the SL’s all-purpose usefulness. “I think people put this camera up on a shelf as a specialty item thinking it’s too expensive,” he says. While admitting that the lenses do come at a considerable cost, he suggests, “Lots of photojournalists use Leica M’s and have M glass, so it would be less of a stretch for them.”

Coming up on a full year since he first picked up the camera, Menuez sees his switch as “an advantage in so many ways. It actually expanded my brain creatively, and it somehow made me a more thoughtful photographer,” he says.

During New York University’s hackNY Spring Hackathon, a college student crashes out during the first night of a 48-hour, non-stop competition among top college hackers to create the best app. Leica SL; APO-Vario-Elmarit-SL 90-280mm f/2.8-4; 1/25 sec.; f/5; ISO 800.

He tells the story of his first day shooting with the SL on assignment at New York University’s hackNY Spring Hackathon. At the end of the day, his assistant asked if there was anything wrong with him. “And I said, ‘No, what are you talking about?’ And he goes, ‘You’re shooting half of what you normally shoot,’” says Menuez.

“Well, every shoot since then, it’s been consistent. I’m shooting half of what I used to, and I’m keeping more of the selects,” he says. “Somehow, I’ve suddenly become a more deliberate photographer, even though I’ve tried to do this for years. I don’t know what it is, but I feel confident, and I love this camera in a way that I haven’t loved a camera since I was a teenager. It’s like a love affair. So, it’s the right camera for me, and I think a lot of other photographers would also enjoy it if they kept an open mind and looked at it the way I am,” he adds. “It’s smaller than a DSLR, the quality is astonishing, and the interface is so much better than any other camera on the market. This camera opens up a whole different world.”

For more of Doug Menuez’s images, click here to view his website. To learn more about his Fearless Genius Project, click here.

To read the other stories in our series, Why I Switched, click here.

Do you have a story or some insights to share about switching brands? If so, please add your voice to the Comments section, below.

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