Sicily, Through the Leica M9
Part 1 / Arrival & Erice
Late 2016 was unseasonably warm; we reflected on how incredibly lucky we had been as we made our way to the airport and a flight bound for Sicily.
Having an October Wedding was something budget had dictated and while the venue was technically able to provide the outdoors wedding we’d both hoped for, the weather would have the final say. As it happened, we celebrated in the sun and while the air was brisk, we’d gotten everything that we hoped for.
As anyone who knows me will tell you, I always have a camera on me, so there was no doubt that our Honeymoon would be well documented.
I decided to take the standard everyday carry setup that I would normally pack; my Leica M9, a Zeiss 50mm f2 Planar and a Zeiss 25mm f2.8 Biogon, a very lightweight kit that I knew would capture everything I wanted to.
I also added a Fuji Neo Classic 90 and a Leica Monovid 8x20 for the fun of being extra-touristy.
This kit is ideal for travel photography. Given the quality of the images the equipment is light and compact, easily fitting in a small Billingham bag with room to spare.
As we boarded the plane the weather was still mild. I already had my camera in hand.
The flight to Palermo from London is quick and easy, around 2 hours direct.
Ryanair wasn’t exactly sparing with the legroom but I was lucky enough to get a window seat and some beautiful clouds as the sun set. Oh and the moon lined up quite nicely too.
We landed in the dark, picked up our hire car and made our way into the night. Our first port of call was not far from the airport at a boutique hotel.
The decor was eclectic and charming, so naturally I took a lot of photos the next morning.
As we left the hotel and ventured out into the bright Sicililian sun for the first time, it was time to don the shades, both for myself and the M9.
I shoot the majority of my images with the Zeiss 50/2 wide open so I alway carry a 43mm 3 stop ND filter just in case. The 25/2.8 is almost always shot hyperfocal at f8, so the miss-matching 46mm filter size wasn’t an issue.
We were on the way to Erice for the day and to say that the weather was not what we expected from mid October would certainly be an understatement.
Subjects & Environment
Along the way it was difficult not to stop every half a mile to take photos, but I resisted. For the most part.
When we did, it was at a beautiful spot on the side of a mountain. I took the opportunity to make the most of both the 25 and 50 I’d brought along.
The 50 is fantastic for focusing on a subject, giving the statue depth and making it pop, but at the expense of it’s surroundings. The 25 gives it context and shows its wider environment in all it’s glory.
The same goes for landscapes. The 50 allows you pick out the detail in the scene, while the 25 pulls right back and shows you the entirely of the view you would have were you standing there yourself.
Landscapes with both lenses are wonderfully detailed when shot at f8. The Biogon is the sharpest lens I’ve ever used, regardless of the aperture, but the Planar closely matches it stopped down.
Having flown in the night before, this was the first coastline we got a chance to take in. What a view.
The medieval town of Erice is located on top of a mountain at around 2500ft, so it was an obvious photography destination. Small enough to see in it’s entirety within a couple of hours, the drive up was spectacular, if terrifyingly sharp in places.
The majority of the town is little empty cobbled roads lined with houses. What shops there are cater entirely to tourists looking for mementoes or meals. Very quickly you realise that the variety isn’t wide, but the charm certainly makes up for it.
With so many little details and textures, I found myself favouring the 50/2 Planar almost entirely. I love this little lens for it’s ability to work in close quarters and pick out subjects with surgical precision. A very fast and comfortable combo when paired with the M9.
Very quickly, we noticed that Erice had it’s own pack of [seemingly] stray dogs that made themselves home everywhere. Clearly they were very used to having their photo taken.
Though it was incredibly quiet the day we were there, there was still ample opportunity for me to flex my Street Photography muscles and capture some of the scenes. The narrow streets are great for funnelling people into expected spaces, but with such busy shop fronts, it was a challenge to ensure solid subject isolation.
Both of these shots were taken with the 50/2 Planar at F2.
Hard not to get the dogs into a lot of the shots as they were continually interacting with the tourists and locals alike.
Whether in black and white or colour, there are more scenic locations and photo ops than a town this small should really be able to contain!
Some of the buildings were open to the public, stepping into them can bring surprises such as this:
Above is the rather understated entrance to this small chapel named “Sant’Isidoro”. From the outside you wouldn’t suspect the treasures within.
While the town was beautiful, the views from it’s mountaintop setting were breathtaking.
I couldn’t decide how best to shoot this wonderful structure, so I shot it with both lenses. At the top, in black and white, is the shot with the 50. Below it, in colour, a shot from the 25 (once I’d got a little closer).
The 50 gives a more traditional landscape shot, compressing that perspective while maintaining a sense of distance.
The 25 shows a smooth transition from foreground to distant mountains and gives a sense of just how vast the drop below felt.
I can’t decide which I prefer, but I love being able to remember it both ways.
The castle it sits below it is just as impressive, seen above from both sides -again one shot with the 50 and one with the 25.
Oh and the wind was gale-force that day, rushing up the sides of the mountain with enough speed as to make it hard to walk, and hard for my wife to see properly… luckily the centre of the town was sheltered enough to get a proper portrait with her sunhat.
The other direction sees the Church of San Giovanni Battista, a domed structure that looks out along the coastline to the north.
Here the 50 picks out the details in the distance with ease. The AirBnB we spent the first week in, was just behind and to the right of that mountain
Manipulating your scene
In the 2 photos above, we can see how the different focal lengths can be used to “zoom” — however they can do more than that, they can actively change elements within the landscape.
With the 25 shot above, the foreground is a sea that’s detailed and in motion, the cliff is expansive and textured while the mountain is distant and the sky shifts from grey to azure.
[BTW that mountain is the same one seen in the earlier landscape shots, just from the other side.]
With the 50 shot below, the mountain now looms over the scene, the sea is futher away and calmer, the cliffs are dark compared to the volcanic terrain above it and most of the blue sky lost.
They were both taken at the same location (the 50 was taken while standing on the cliff shown in the 25) but the scene is painted rather differently.
Even when shooting with the 25 on its own, a small change in position can make a huge difference. The second image was taken from just in front of where the lady on the right of the first image was standing, yet the resulting image is dramatically altered.
However on close inspection, the only real change has been in the bottom half of the image. The top half is almost identical, in stark contrast to the difference when changing focal lengths.
Low Light Photography
With Erice done and night falling, we made out way to our Air BNB, only to be greeted by a large section of the mountain side on fire.
I pulled over and took a shot resting on the car roof at f2, 1600 ISO and half a second, expecting nothing amazing. Which is what I got.
Low light photography is not the M9’s forte, especially with such poor noise handling beyond ISO 800, I limit it to 1600 “if I must”.
Luckily, that wasn’t our residence in the photo, tho it does give a sense of just how much of the area was on fire. The locals weren’t too concerned to our surprise, but as we continued our travels through Sicily we came to the realisation that this was a pretty common occurrence, most of which are just left to burn themselves out.
Later on I decided to have a go at capturing the stars above us with tripod and the 25 Biogon. With a 32 second exposure (the maximum the M9 will take on A mode) and another 32 seconds of dark exposure to aid noise reduction (a mode that cannot be turned off) I managed to capture this at IOS 160 and f2.8.
Not bad. Nothing amazing, but fun none the less.
Pointing it out to the opposite side of the cove gave me this.
Certainly reasonable, but I wouldn’t class the M9 as a camera suitable for astrophotography 0r night landscapes.
With that we went to bed. Stay tuned for Part 2
All images in this article were shot with my personal Leica M9, Zeiss 50mm f2 Planar and Zeiss 25mm f2.8 Biogon.
All black and white images were processed with Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 and all colour images were processed with Nik Color Efex Pro 4.
The views an opinions expressed in this article are my own and do not constitute a technical review or product advertisement.
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