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Tuesday, March 3

The LEICA Diaries: Part Three


Leica M2, 50mm Rigid Summicron, Tmax 400 developed in Firstcall Superfine.

BLOODY LENS CAPS! Yes, I've taken my first pic with a blinkered lens. The solution? The lens caps now live permanently in a drawer in my darkroom. I've put UV filters on the lenses instead. Just need to remember not to leave the camera out in bright sunshine in case the rays burn a hole in the shutter cloth. Mind you, it's less of a threat up here in Scotland than in California.

Here's another near-first for me. With an SLR, I practically never lose a frame through poor focusing. I'd certainly have no excuse if I did as I don't really photograph anything that moves and can take as much time as I want to get the focus spot on. But with the Leica? Everything looks in focus when you look through the viewfinder and I'm guessing that's the reason I forgot to focus on a couple of frames. On the plus side, the Summicron's bokeh is nice! Mental note: Leica lenses don't focus themselves.

My second trip with the Leicas was along the coast to Arbroath harbour. Another cold day, in fact, colder than on my previous outing so I was again extra careful not to drop a lens when switching focal lengths. There's quite a lot of lens changing going on, too, as I'm eager to try out all three.

A Different Perspective

The main difficulty I'm having just now is "seeing" the composition. Normally I'll spot something I want to photograph and put whichever lens I think will do the job on the OM2. When I look through the viewfinder I know two things straight away - whether it's the right lens and whether the pic is likely to be any good. I'm not getting that with the Leica. Because you don't see perspective like the lens does there's no way of judging the relationship of foreground objects to the background.

This isn't such a problem with the standard lens but it is with the Summaron and Elmar. Composing with the Leica is like holding a rectangle made of K'Nex rods up to a scene. I find that hard. It seems to require a different kind of visualisation that I expect might come with practise. Or maybe not.

It was the harbour water at the top of the frame that drew me to this one.

When you think about it, what do we do when we want viewers to be able to concentrate on a print? We mount it on card and then hang it on a plain wall. That isolates the image from the surrounding clutter and is the SLR way of viewing. With the Leica you see what's captured by the framelines but also everything that is going on around them.

Some photographers speak of this as an advantage. To me, it's akin to taping a print to a window and inviting people to view it against the backdrop of whatever is outside. It certainly doesn't help me concentrate on the image at all. But then again, if the Leica rangefinder experience was just the same as an SLR there wouldn't be much point in The LEICA Diaries, would there?

The shutter fault on the M2 is beginning to get annoying so I think I'll need to send it off for a service before too long. That bright band it intermittently leaves down the right hand side of the frame is threatening to spoil the odd shot. I was having a moan about this to Phil Rogers. I've handled a fair few Leicas, both Ms and screw thread, at local auctions and, quite honestly, haven't come across a fully functional one yet. A lazy second curtain seems to be the most common fault.

Now, this might have something to do with the fact that most of these cameras come from house clearances where the occupant has died. That pristine-looking camera might have been sitting in a cupboard with the shutter cocked for 30 years or only been used now and again over the course of its 60-plus years.

What The F?

However, and it's a big however, I've also handled a similar number of Nikon F bodies from the 1960s and early '70s that reach auction via the same unfortunate route and most of them are working just fine. My conclusion is that Leicas might be the most hard wearing and fixable cameras but they're certainly not the most reliable.

The same goes for the Leica lenses which always seem to come with some optical defects courtesy, I believe, of softer coatings - and sometimes softer glass - used by the good people in Germany as opposed to the harder coatings employed by their Japanese equivalents.

Phil said, "I know what you're saying and I agree that 60's Nikons are very reliable, but it's like comparing an axe with a fine-toothed woodsman's saw - they'll both get the job done, but one has more finesse. Of course you could just give them to me in exchange for a nice early 70's F and some lenses..."

And now on to the pics accompanying this post. All three were taken with the 50mm Summicron on a roll of Tmax 400 (the first roll was Silvermax). It was only when I started looking through the negs that I noticed a few that are what I'd call Gibson-esque. Or, at least, my interpretation of what Ralph used to get up to with his film camera and his curious method of exposure and development that would lead to a dense, contrasty negative. This wasn't intentional on my part and I joked to Phil that I've maybe started to channel Ralph even while he's still going strong - and hopefully will be for many years to come.


Not all the negatives had that graphic look that I'm quite keen on but the ones I've posted here gave themselves readily to the treatment. In my case, though, the "treatment" comes courtesy of Lightroom. I've not got round to printing yet and the negatives were exposed and developed normally. It's the work of but a minute or two to dilute their "representativeness" to something I like to imagine is a little more arty. You might have a different opinion, or course!

So, the second roll was a bit more comfortable from a shooting point of view than the first and I think the Leicas possibly took me by the shutter finger and led me along a slightly different path towards where I'd like to be photographically-speaking. I have to say as well that I love 400 ISO film.

I'd always tended towards 100 ISO when using 35mm for a finer negative but the faster film just frees up my shooting so much more. I've been enjoying this freedom when using the OM2 with TMY but I think it's even more beneficial when using the Leica to have a faster film.

You might also like:

More Thoughts on the Gibson Method
The LEICA Diaries - Part One
The LEICA Diaries - Part Two

21 comments :

Ravi Bindra said...

I started down the Leica path because my dealer stocks them and suggested I take one home for a week (M6 with Summicron 50mm/f2). On that one roll I got one stunner (my daughter still in crawling stage) and 3 good shots, which was far higher than on my R9. Like an idiot I bought the camera but not the lens. And a few weeks later when I went back to buy it, it was gone.

I did all the same learnings as you: lens cap on (the M6 & 7 warn you with flashing shutter speed), forgetting to focus as it looks in focus, etc.

The hardest thing is to judge the edges (you get to just know your lenses after 10's of rolls) and the effects of depth of field and the 'bokeh'. Focusing lenses longer than 50mm is harder to get right on a rangefinder than a SLR but the opposite is true for less than 50mm (there is mathematics behind this, to do with viewfinder magnification, distance between viewing and split view windows).

The best thing is when you start to appreciate seeing around the edge of the frame and you can suddenly re-compose or wait as something moves into the edge of your view (I use mine in towns mostly with people around). The lightweight means you can hold it all day (BTW try the Barton wrist straps, or the Artisan & Artist which has a loop to lock it to the wrist). If you like the Domke, try the A&A 1100 bag - it is truly small, light yet holds 2 M bodies with lenses plus 4 lenses plus some paraphanelia.

Steve Barnett said...

I think all Leica users have left the lens cap on at some time or other, and if they haven't they will. And the solution of leaving them at home and using a UV filter is the best way to deal with it.

But I can't believe you need to physically see the perspective of a lens before you are comfortable in making an exposure. You wouldn't set up your large format camera just to see what a lens will look like, you would know beforehand. I remember my first introductory course to photography, and the tutor got us all to hold our camera to our eye and point it around the room until an interesting composition occurred. We were then told never to do that again and learn to 'see' the photograph before raising the camera. You know all this stuff.

A 21mm lens on a Leica does exactly what a 21mm does with a Nikon, you trust to experience that perspective is the same law for both. What does change is 'certainty', looking into the tunnel of a Nikon SLR viewfinder you can only see what you can see, you are certain you've decided what you will get. With a Leica 'uncertainty' isn't a negative connotation and doesn't come from not seeing the actual perspective, it comes from seeing what is outside the image area, all of a sudden there can be options, and it is using this level of uncertainty to refine or test the composition which makes the Leica what it is. It works for landscape as much as reportage, seeing a clump of trees hovering outside the image area can be just as thought provoking as seeing somebody about to walk into the frame. And after all you know what your main subject will be, it will still be somewhere in the frame, so the uncertainty principle of not looking into an SLR tunnel can be harnessed for refinement.

Bruce Robbins said...

I've never been on an introductory course to photography so must have missed that lesson, Steve. ;)

Herman Sheephouse said...

Steve's got it right - the path of uncertainty. Spot on.

Bruce - these will print nicely - they are excellent!

Well done young'un.

DavidM said...

May I suggest that this illustrates that the Leica, or more specifically the viewing system, is best suited to photographing incidents, happenings, transitory occasions – the "moment." Continuous, uninterrupted viewing and the ability so see what's happening around the edge of the frame make it ideal. When you need other facilities, like critically examining depth of field or seeing the exact edges of the frame (as was essential with Kodachrome) then other cameras might be better and bit of lightness and prestige might have to be sacrificed.
But best of luck with your researches into the interactive man/camera interface. It will be interesting to see what sort of images you make when you are fully habituated and no longer so conscious of the physicality of camera itself.

Bruce Robbins said...

It's happening with increasingly regularity, David, but you've once again articulated my thoughts for me. Most Leica enthusiasts, from what I can tell, photograph movement of one sort or another where being able to see something entering the framelines might be an advantage and precise composition isn't really too important. I find it funny that some Leica enthusiasts pejoratively refer to the reflex viewing system as the "SLR tunnel": it's never looked like a tunnel to me.

Where precise framing is very important, there aren't nearly so many Leica users. I'm thinking of the likes of landscape photography or any "fine art" photography where composition is a - if not 'the' - key element.

John Carter said...

I've left the cap on enough times, and I do have some focusing and composition issues with my IIIf. I also have a right side line but at only 1/100 and 1/75 shutter speed. It is hard to find someone that will fix just that, as I've had it CLA'd too many times recently. Let me know what the repairman/woman does on yours.

I've been using my RFs more, but I'm having trouble focusing with an SLR 20mm and 28mm lens. I bought a AF box but that misses too. I guess I'll just stop down.

Antonio Aparicio said...

Not sure why you are having framing issues or why some here seem to feel that Leica's are not good for precise composition. Cartier Breton used an M3 for a good many years and was very concerned with composition and in the particular the edges of the frame, printing his images with the black negative borders to illustrate the point that no cropping was done after the event. Just give it time and you will master all of this I am sure. Its a great camera. p.s. you are producing some great images, which is what counts at the end of the day.

morris1800 said...

Hang on in there Bruce , I sense you are wavering.There are historically, as well you know many great images taken with rangefinder Leica's before the SLR dominated. Some images are easier to capture with one or the other but you should go with what suits you.My brother in law was a joiner who built the fittings inside yachts. Despite having access to electric saws, routers and drills in the companies workshops. He used antique hand made tools to create his personal wood work projects . Same end result but a more satisfying journey.

Michael Stevens said...

Like you, I learned very soon after becoming a Leica owner always to leave the lenscap at home.

A little later I found out in a similar fashion that it was not a good idea to collapse the lens whilst out and about either.

Derek said...

Hi Bruce

Is the SL66 sulking in a cupboard or is this new love affair only temporary?

Nick Davis said...

I think you nailed it, Steve. Not sure why this is causing you so much difficulty Bruce, especially since you print all your own work. Good point from Antonio too, to which I might add that for quite lot of his photographic life Cartier-Bresson used a screw mount Leica, so he didn't have the luxury of a bright line finder, which makes his mastery of composition all the more amazing.

Anonymous said...

Hi Bruce,
1) throw the lens caps away
2) the frames are more a kind of "guidelines" - they are too thick to actually show you the exact capture
3) 35, 50, 90 seems to be the home of the rangefinder
4) 15 to 28 will need external viewfinders
5) 135 can be done
6) for all the rest you need a SLR

I bet you knew all of that.

You seem to prefer quite static subjects. And your way of composing is static. No people, no movement and nothing that may not have been under your control.

Composing with a rangefinder forces you to be part of the scene, to foresee, prepare and take the shot: hit or miss, stay or run.

Sorry, but I doubt yours will be a long lasting love affair ...

Stephan

Francisco Solares-Larrave said...

Well, Bruce, I really like your first image. It shows you're a photographer and an artist.

As for the Leica gear and its quirks, the minute you stop drawing comparisons between rangefinders and SLRs, you'll start enjoying it for its own merits. I know because I got into rangefinders after getting bored with SLRs.

One thing... I'd like to add your blog to my links section in my own blog about using a Leica M4-2. I hope you don't mind about it. Take care!

Michael Darnton said...

Funny---I shoot both SLRs and RF, but the three photos you show in this post are definitely the kind of thing I do with SLRs, not rangefinders!

DavidM said...

This thread has prompted me to think that there are two names that clog up any discussion on photography. One is, as we can see here, Henri Cartier-Bresson and the other is Ansel Adams.
Once these names have been uttered, all discussion seems to stop. It's not hagiography, it's photography. They were both excellent photographers but both were human and fallible. Look at the original negs of HCB's Man v Puddle or AA's Frozen Lake and Cliffs. (Or for that matter, read Edward Weston'a account of his difficulties in producing Pepper No. 30.)
Perhaps we could have a moratorium on them and look and see and think for ourselves.

Anonymous said...

Bruce,
I was amused to see that you tentatively dared to suggest that Leicas may not always be flawless !
I have used cameras compulsively since I bought an OM1 in 1975
I have put several thousand rolls of film through many different cameras, but I have had more problems with Leicas than any other brand .
I owned six Leicas for a period of about five years .A IIIf ,four M3s and an M4-P .
The IIIf suffered from various light leaks and erratic shutter speeds (put down to old age ).Three of the M3s suffered from various repeated shutter and winding faults as well as a detached rangefinder prism .
I sold each during the brief window when they were working properly .
The fourth M3 was my fathers from new and had a gentle life. Always in use and never idle .It gave up in the most spectacular fashion .One of the shutter curtains tore in half while being cocked and the camera jammed solid .It is now a nostalgic paper weight because the cost of repair exceeds the value of the camera by quite a margin.
I sold the M4-P immediately .
None of the six cameras were ex professional and I knew where three of them had come from . The M4 was boxed as new.
It's too easy to put all this down to the age of the cameras and bad luck . But I have Nikons of a similar vintage which have had much harder lives. One of my Fs looks as if it was kicked down a cobbled street .It still works flawlessly
I have any Nikon or Olympus camera fail in any way .The odd bit falls off but they keep working . My ,now Forty year old OM1 is still the camera I reach for when I go out off the house.
My range finder fix is now served by odds and sods and a battered Bessa R with a big bright viewfinder which cost £75 and works every time .
I persevered because I found a tactile connection between hand and eye which I had not quite found in any other camera.
Enjoy your Leica .When you connect with them the experience is sublime .
Sorry to ramble on !

Nick S

Antonio Aparicio said...

In response to DavidM:

I mentioned Cartier Breton because he is someone I think everyone will recognise, but I could have mentioned any of 100s of photographers and probably most of Magnun to illustrate my point that correct composition/framing is not hard at all with a rangefinder, in this instance Leica but it also applies to Contax and others...

Practice makes perfect as they say, I even managed to master focussing/framing with a Hasselblad SWC/M! If you use any camera for long enough it becomes second nature. I have even got some great shots shooting from the hip.

DavidM said...

Antonio,
My apologies if my comment seemed to be personal. I didn't mean to do that. I was trying to make a much more general point about the way discussions on photography can sometimes converge into an exchange of saintly names. I'm not suggesting that you did this.
I re-read your comment and I think you've hit on a truth. The excellent framing of HCB (and of course, many others), as you point out, was due to his own personal skills, honed by practice, and wasn't the result of any particular feature of the camera he used. Some early Leicas seem to have had the crudest sort of aiming device, rather than a viewfinder as we know it, so they were virtually "shooting from the hip" and it's a tribute to these photographers that they did so well.
Thank you for pointing this out. I'm in agreement with what you say. Never had a chance to use an SWC, so that might be something to try.

Antonio Aparicio said...

David M: No worries. I see where you are coming from and agree :-)

Anonymous said...

There's something to be said for seeing things in a new way that comes with using different types of cameras. Most recently, I experienced this phenomenon when using a small Canon S95 digital point-and-shoot camera. The camera does not have a traditional viewfinder; instead, you compose pictures on a lcd screen, with the camera at bent-arm's length in front of you. The "difference" between using this camera and my other cameras, both film and digital, has been liberating for me. Could the same be true for the difference between using a slr camera and a rangefinder camera? Bill W