Do you sometimes get that urge to write, or paint a picture, or bake a cake, or even fix up a shelf? A creative impulse. Have you even noticed the way sometimes, when that works best is when you just relax, don’t think too hard and let things happen?
That’s the way I feel about my Leica. It lets me get on with framing pictures based on 2-3 variables (ISO, Aperture and shutter speed). It’s ironic that a camera without autofocus can often be far less stressful to use that one packed with automation. Manual focus through a rangefinder is easy once you’ve got that knack of lining up the images. Too many people start out with a F1.4 lens and get disappointed when it misses focus. Even if you have that lens, stop it down to F2.8, get practice, soon it becomes easy.
One of the things I feel people in general don’t understand is how you can possibly take street photos while manually focusing the camera. A little secret: photography is all about zones of in focus areas that are (broadly) flat. So you have no need to point your camera directly at people if they are parallel with something you can focus on. Another point of confusion about shooting with a manual focus camera is how you can possibly take photos of action. You prefocus. That’s about it.
I don’t always use my M240. I wouldn’t use it by choice for sports or action, my Df does high ISO better and my D810 has better dynamic range. If you bring in smaller mirrorless cameras, the abilities of the A7 II re stabilisation should not be sniffed at. All of that said, there is something truly special about the output of the M240. It’s not the most accurate regarding colour but it does give wonderful rendering of colour detail (a seeming contradiction but the truth). None of that really matters when you factor in the satisfaction of the pure photography experience the camera gives you. The most critical thing to remember is that buying a Leica is expensive and it isn’t a system to splurge on every new lens or accessory. Keep it simple, buy secondhand and buy what you can afford. Even better, use or buy some old rangefinder lenses from the days of film. The voigtlander and Zeiss lenses are reasonably priced too and some are really excellent (although the best ones tend to be more expensive).
But what about the lack of 50plus focusing points? Don’t you miss things? Yes, of course you do. The real question is whether that always matters.
All too often we come locked into a monotony of always “getting the shot”, to the detriment of getting a shot that’s meaningful, or speaks to the photographer or viewer. Of course not every photographic venture can be an adventure of art and the possible, but it’s really a positive if sometimes we disconnect from that all pervasive mentality of getting 200 36mp shots of a hummingbird in flight…
A work colleague once said to me that she often forgets where she is when she takes photos for an hour, and sometimes ends up losing track of her husband in the process. Sometimes, just sometimes, that is what a great photography experience should be like (even if the results don’t always hit the mark, if you’ve actually enjoyed yourself, little has been lost*).
This brings me back to a post I recently put on a well known photography forum: “it’s about the gear that you enjoy using, not whether it has X or Y”. Now, there is nothing wrong with wanting a CCD or CMOS sensor, X frames per second, fast continuous focus in Liveview or any other myriad mechanism that notionally could improve your picture taking experience. However, sometimes we focus on what we want to the detriment of what we need. A funny thing to say about photography, because who “needs” photography exactly?
In my view, everyone, and if you measure photography by the number of people taking pictures and/or using them there’s no doubt photography is more popular than ever. We all crave memories and representations of the world around us. However it’s also true that we don’t need 14 different shades of art filter to accomplish that aim, nor do most of us need 10 frames per second. In truth, in this day and age we don’t need a camera at all, a smartphone will suffice for many people. However, assuming you appreciate the art of photography, a smartphone won’t always cut it. In fact it is the antithesis of what I’m getting at here because it’s automatic everything. For the kind of really amazing inspired photography I’m referring to, a camera that can shoot in full manual or aperture priority is key. It’s also important to be able to isolate your subject or choose to have everything in focus. For me that leaves everything between Micro Four Thirds and Medium Format as fair game.
It would be unfair or incorrect to say you can only do this with a Leica. Many of today’s Mirrorless cameras can function like this. I used to use Voigtlander manual focus lenses on my E-M5 and began to use M-mount glass on Sony NEX and Fuji X mount cameras with some lovely results. That led me in a number of directions: to film and a variety of cameras (my Nikon FM3A is my current film camera), to infrared photography, to “awkward” to use cameras like the Sigma Foveon sensor cameras, to the Leica M9 and its rich (and sometimes borderline accurate 😉 colours (I jest). Ultimately it led me to continue my adventure with Leica in the form of an M240 and a variety of M mount lenses.
For me, when I get half an hour to wander with my M, it’s not certain I’ll take any pictures at all. However, I will think a lot about composition, light and what might be an interesting picture. Sometimes, having had that thought process without distraction is good enough. It does mean though that the collection of pictures you take can be much more disjointed than anything other than film. Fewer snaps and repetition, more interesting pictures (I hope). Sometimes downloading the SD card can be a bit like getting a sporadically shot film developed 😉
None of this is to say that a digital M is the best way to capture a wedding, an event or a sporting occasion. However, for just wandering while taking pictures in places you enjoy and having fun in so doing it’s just about perfect. Satisfying in fact….
Taken with my Leica M Typ 240 plus: Super-Elmar-M 21mm, Summicron 28mm F2 ASPH, Summicron 50mm F2, Summilux 50mm F1.4 ASPH and APO-Summicron 50mm F2.
* of course this doesn’t apply to film photography
Great photos! You discuss the minimalism afforded by the M system – no 10 fps, no autofocus, etc. And yet, the shots above are made with over $30k of photographic equipment. What I’m wondering is, can this same satisfaction be achieved with a mass-produced, unwieldy, autofocusing setup? Alternatively, can a simple smartphone camera be legitimate to a photography enthusiast?
To answer your question, I’m not sure they can, though I don’t exclude it because this is all ultimately subjective. The thing I find frustrating about smartphone photography is the lack of exposure control and the imprecision of focus. That doesn’t mean it can’t be used for great photography, but it is challenging for me (again, this has to be subjective) to see a smartphone giving me the same satisfaction in photography.
I’ve used manual focus lenses on M43s, Fuji X, Sony NEX/A7 and Nikon F as well as Leica mount. I’ve sold most of these and these days I only really shoot Nikon or Leica with manual focus lenses. The main reason is the faff factor, because sadly things like corner aberrations, shading, lack of EXIF information and in some cases the frustrations of inaccurate focus methodologies have caused me not to enjoy myself.
Further, this brings me to whether you can enjoy yourself the same way with an autofocus camera. Perhaps you can, if it doesn’t get in the way. Personally, I loathe quite a lot of camera automation – I think it neuters photographers and can result in bland, uninteresting images. I’m also a hypocrite, because having stated I dislike automation you may note many of these are taken in aperture priority mode. It’s really camera control of aperture and /or ISO (particularly ISO) that I dislike, because it’s often too aggressive or conservative, ruining perfectly decent shots.
Sometimes controls of the camera can be unintuitive (I’m looking at you Olympus and Sony) or can be simply frustrating trying to get the camera to do what you intended (sadly the Nikon D800E was far too often in this category for me). Manually focusing most mirrorless lenses can drive you crazy, because of the fly by wire system many of them use for manual focus. The process of autofocus itself isn’t intrinsically bad, as long as it’s accurate and not laggy, both of which can be an issue.
If the camera actually does what you tell it to, there’s nothing to stop you getting to a similar place with regard to an autofocus camera. I mostly feel like this with respect to the D810 and Df, both of which just do the job intuitively. Ultimately though, there can be immense freedom and satisfaction in throwing away or turning off the automation that constrains us, whatever camera you use. That’s the point of this post and hopefully that’s clear.
Great writing, and pictures to come with it. I been through quite a few systems, and definitely the M has something special, (besides the price). The camera is expensive and even quirky, (mine blocks once in a while), but the outcome and experience is wonderful. I have more keepers with a Leica m + 35mm, when I go out an shoot, then with any other combo. D800 + 35mm 1.4 was a beauty, and focused fast and precise. But no results come closer to those I obtain with the M. Of course i was not shooting sports. Also for those who are not making a living completely from photography, it is a medium to relax, and escape from day to day tasks, so the experience in shooting is also something important, not only the results.
Alejandro, thanks for the comment (and praise) and I think you are spot on when you boil it down to the joy of the experience of shooting with the camera.
PS I’m now going to confess to being a blockhead in the hope it will be helpful to you and others who shoot the M240. I was seeing what I thought were increasing examples of the camera locking up following the most recent firmware update. I was a bit concerned and I was going to take it back to my dealer. Turns out that the M looks much the same as when it “locks” if you’ve either left the lens cap on or knocked the shutter speed dial to its maximum duration. At the very least, try rotating the shutter speed dial if you think you have a lock up. I don’t seem to have had one since I learned this…
Hi thanks for the tip, quite sure mine is not locking because of the cap or change in speed dial, but will check it next time just to be sure. (Is not common for the camera to lock, but it does happen once in a while).
By the way I just saw you got the A7ii, are you liking the camera? I got mine last weekend with the 28mm 2.0, but my idea is to use it with leica and nikon lenses that i have. My adaptor arrives today!
Depending on the results i might end slimming down to the leica and a7ii only as systems.
Did you try your leica lenses on the a7?