Life with a Leica

Part one – December 2016

Life with a Leica.

I recently did something the majority of people would think is ridiculous. I spent £2,500 on an out of date six year old digital camera. On specifications alone it was a poor purchase. It’s full frame, but it’s only eighteen megapixels. After taking four photos you have to wait four to five seconds before you can take any more. The screen on the back is tiny, and awful. It has no autofocus, realistically likes to stay below ISO400, and has only one metering mode. And you need to source old SD cards, because new ones won’t work. And it doesn’t come with a lens. That’s at least £600 more (if you go budget).

Until you try one the entire idea is preposterous.

I bought a Leica M9. The first full frame digital Leica and a pivotal moment for digital photography. It is made from a piece of solid brass. It is hand made in Germany by craftsmen. It is still serviceable and will be for a long while yet. It’s a medium sized, heavy, technically poor camera. It’s a work of art.

Technically poor?

This is the wrong way to look at it. The Leica M is not lacking on technology. The Leica M is a tool, and it’s feature set (or lack thereof) is distilled to the minimum in order to let the photographer focus on photography and not technology. Yes it is full frame, but that’s about as new as this thing gets. It is, sort of, a film camera with a sensor inside it*.

But that is the point. Until marketing teams worked out how to get the ear of the person holding the cash, cameras were tools with three primary controls. Focus, aperture, shutter speed. ISO was determined by the film you used and just like the Leica M9 if you wanted minimal grain you stuck to ISO400 or less. Cameras did not have, and they did not need, the collective list of must have features from a dozen focus groups. To sell a camera it had to be good, and it had to let you use the best lenses**. It would be something kept and cherished in the family, replaced rarely if ever. Or it would be a reliable, well made tool for the professional. It’s only recently that cameras have started to add dozens of features that do nothing but get in the way. To make a great picture you need to understand light, geometry, and people. You do not need a multitude of modes for portraits, pictures of hills, or people skiing. You do not need GPS auto tagging, or 48 megapixels, or a 12 frames per second shooting rate.

You need to practice.

The greatest images, the photographs that have inspired generations of photographers, were all shot on cameras that had none of these features. They had focus, aperture, and shutter speed. The essentials, and nothing more.

And this is why I have always coveted Leica cameras. They give you only what is needed, and they do not assist you. If you want to make a great image with a Leica you must do it yourself.

Does it produce the goods?

Yes. In both ways. The sensor on this camera has something special going on. A lot of people write endlessly about the Leica look, the three dimensional feel, the Leica “magic”. I think that whilst the colours produced are different to any other camera I’ve owned the primary factors to any Leica magic are in the lenses. They are stunning. Nikon, Canon, and Fuji really do not come close. Reviews disagree with me but you have to ignore the charts and study the output. Pixel peeping is a nasty habit. Leica lenses are fantastically rich and sharp, with only the Carl Zeiss ZM range coming in a(very close) second. If you mount a Leica lens on a Sony, and adjust the curves in Lightroom, you can achieve the same output as my M9. For less money.

So why exactly did I do this?

Why not buy the Sony? Because a Leica has soul. Because a Leica M from the golden era has not had features forced into it with a ramrod. Because it is not made of plastic by a machine but from brass and glass and aluminium by a person. The Leica M camera is the perfect example of what great design can be.

I love photography. I believe it is the greatest, most powerful art form we have. Unlike moving image, photography leaves room for the human imagination. A great photograph leaves more questions than it does answers. A great photograph is the perfect distillation of event, timing, technical brilliance, and light. A great photograph can leave you smiling, shocked, angry, upset, numb, or laughing. It is a complex mix of composition, physics, and chance. And yet it lives on a piece of paper. A photograph is often the most powerful storytelling tool we have, and yet when you consider what you are holding it is in itself incredibly simple. Simple but powerful. Less but better. To me a great photograph is the epitome of great design and I do not want features getting in the way of it.

*this is of course reducing the technical achievement of this camera to ludicrously low levels but you see the idea.

**the lens is and always will be the most important part, the camera is essentially a light tight box.

The images in this post are from a series recording my ongoing experimentation with composition. Each is converted to grey scale, but otherwise unedited.

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