Category Archives: Leica

Gear Excess or Minimalism: What Makes You Happy?

stuff

Lately, in a conscious quest to simplify my life, I’ve found myself thinking:

  • Why exactly do I own what I own?
  • What could I sell and not miss, practically speaking?
  • Do I really need that?
  • What is it costing me to own that?

I have way too much stuff. Cameras and lenses to be exact. It’s a first-world problem, no doubt, a function of an affluence we often don’t recognize because it’s become so common. It starts with the best intentions, but usually ends up where I find myself – with a surfeit of beautiful, shiney, pleasing things I never use. Which is a shame, because the mechanical cameras and lenses I’ve collected – whether they be Leicas or Nikons or something else – deserve to be used.

When I hold onto camera I don’t use, even though just the possessing gives me pleasure, (and this is especially true for the mechanical cameras I tend to buy and collect), it does indeed cost me something, if only in the time spent organizing, contemplating, and/or servicing the camera I’ve accumulated. And it costs the larger gearhead community something too – a camera that could be being used by someone as opposed to sitting on a shelf.

So, I’ve decided to start selling off the things I can’t justify sitting on my shelf. It’s difficult, as I can always find a reason to hold onto something. But usually the reason I find is the same reason I bought it – it’s beautiful/cool/iconic/historic etc and I want it. Good enough reasons, I suppose, but not compelling enough to convince my wife, who is currently in desperate need of a shiney, new, large capacity refrigerator.

With this in mind, I’ve started a new page you can reach from my homepage entitled, simply enough, “For Sale.”  Everything you’ll find there is mine. It all works. There’s nothing wrong with any of it. I’m not selling it for any other reason than I just don’t need it.

I’ll be listing further items as current items sell, so feel free to check back in for other items in the future.

Hollywood Gets the M3 All Wrong ( errrr…Possibly Right?)

kong

The above is a still from the new Hollywood “Blockbuster” Kong: Skull Island, the premise of which, apparently, is that King Kong is found running around what appears to be Viet Nam in the 60s/70s wreaking havoc and the people above, among others, are tasked with capturing /wounding /incapacitating /killing him.  The young woman is, apparently, a PJ. She’s shown using a Leica M3 with what looks like a 50mm Elmar (note the indented bevel on the front of the lens) and the close focus attachment for a DR Summicron, which makes absolutely no sense under any imagined scenario. Even were that a DR Summicron, I’d question what a 60’s era PJ in Viet Nam would be doing using macro focusing while on combat assignment in SE Asia.

[Editor’s Note: Within 30 minutes of posting this, I’ve been inundated with smarter, more knowledgeable readers noting that it’s clearly a Summaron 35 3.5 with goggles for the M3. Of course.  One more example of why one shouldn’t drink whiskey and then write things on the internet. In this particular instance, the culprit was a 200ml bottle of Old Malt Cask Unfiltered Single Malt Scotch, bottled at the “preferred Golden Strength of 50% alc. vol” by Blair Athol Distillery, that my wife had just brought me back from Scotland.]

Camera Ergonomics

ergo

By Christopher Moss. Dr. Moss is a family physician in Canada. He has been using film cameras for over forty years as an amateur and still enjoys doing it.

Using a camera in a fluent and efficient fashion is vital if you’re going to get the photograph that suddenly presents itself to you. Camera manufacturers can either help or hinder this, by designing a camera’s controls to be as intuitive and accessible as possible. It would seem to be in their interest to help in this way, but the fact is that it isn’t. How can that be? Well, sadly, only a small subset of photographers are interested in a camera that works with them in this way; most want a camera that will do it all for them, and technology has not yet advanced to a state where this is compatible with taking the best possible photograph in any given situation.

Manufacturers follow the money and make cameras that help the average buyer achieve something most of the time. No camera maker wants a disappointed buyer, so they turn out designs that automate and simplify everything so that an inexperienced user can get something worth posting to their Facebook page. That is as it should be in a capitalist world, and the rest of us really can’t complain if we want camera manufacturers to stay in business and continue to feed our needs. It is true, however, that the automation and simplification has got to the point that a photographer who wants more than a minimal degree of control over a picture has to work against the ergonomics of many modern cameras. This isn’t a new problem, as a few examples will show!

The Pre-Electronic Era

Lots of old cameras tried to make life simpler for not just the amateur, but for the completely ignorant photographer. In the days before any kind of autofocus (beyond the depth of field of a small aperture) or auto-exposure (beyond the latitude inherent in negative films) this didn’t always work so well, but expectations were different too. Remember when a photograph was said have ‘come out well’? And if it didn’t satisfy it was said that ‘it didn’t come out’? There was a kind of black box that an exposed film entered, and it might come out or it might fail to come out, but the workings of the black box were inscrutable. Well, a very little thought tells us that this was a way of excusing a multitude of sins, from inept exposure, failing to hold the camera steady, getting the focus horribly wrong, not taking off the lens cap, all the way through the chain to some error in development and the film ‘being lost’. All happily under the umbrella of ‘it didn’t come out’ which answered any query and was never questioned. My first camera was a Univex AF-4 from the 1930’s that had only one control – the shutter could be set to instant or time. Nothing else at all, which was very convenient for the user, but likely to lead to disappointment when the film came back. Later a Number 2 Kodak Autographic Brownie came along from the mid-1920’s, and it allowed shutter speeds of 1/25 (“Clear”) and 1/50 (“Brilliant”) along with “B” and “T” for those who had confidence in what we now call risk- taking behaviour. Focusing was limited to Portrait, Near View, Average View, Distant View and Clouds/Marine. If you couldn’t quite figure out which to use, you had the ready fall back that the photo didn’t come out, which was probably just as well, all things considered.

ergo2The Univex AF-4: “AF” Does NOT stand for “Auto-Focus”

But not all was so obscure and not every photograph required all fingers and toes be crossed. Miniature photography in the form of the Leica and the Contax cameras during the same era as the models mentioned above had multiple exact shutter speeds, apertures and distances that could be set. The addition of a rangefinder allowed the focusing to be precise, but exposure values were still generally estimated, or at best measured with an extinction meter (my father had a dandy little device that had a wedge of opaque material inside, and he looked through it and tried to read off a scale of numbers. The last number that could be read was entered on a handy slide rule on the outside of the casing and apertures and times could be read off. All this allowed great precision, but wasn’t for the masses of people who wanted to take a snap without being expert in the dark arts of photography. The next stage of affairs for those folk was the invention of the C-22 colour negative film process, which had enough latitude to allow the widespread sale of Instamatic cameras using 126 film. Fifty million cameras were sold between 1963 and 1970, many with no controls beyond a shutter release and a wind-on thumb wheel, and the more sophisticated having two shutter speeds (sunny and cloudy), and two focusing distances (a head and shoulders outline and a mountain). Many of us will remember the dull grainy quality of the prints that came back from these mostly under-exposed films that we took on our holidays. Most of my memories of my early teens have taken on that veiled look as a result – I’m remembering photos of those times! Better latitude came with the C-41 process in 1972, but this was offset by the marketing decision to push 110 size film as a replacement for 126 film. Kodak must take some blame for selling us less film at higher prices and requiring new cameras to be bought. This was probably the lowest point of unskilled consumer photography in history.

Electronics

In the meantime the descendants of the Leicas and the Contaxes had continued to evolve, and the development of the single lens reflex from early Exacta and Kowa models had proceeded to the point where very good SLRs were challenging the dominance of the rangefinders. The addition of electronics was the catalyst that almost destroyed the rangefinders, as Japanese SLR manufacturers adopted these improvements and Leica did not. From the mid-1960’s onwards we saw closed-aperture metering, then open-aperture metering, then auto-exposure quickly develop. Powered film wind on came quickly as a development of motor-drives, until it was available in consumer point and shoot cameras. Despite Leica’s early interest in auto-focus, they let others introduce it into the market and from the late 1970’s to the early 1980’s it became the norm in SLRs and compact cameras. Notice how the term ‘point and shoot’ has crept in there? This was the first time a camera could be used the way my Univex AF-4 was used in the 1930’s, but with auto-focus and auto-exposure to save the day from the ‘it didn’t come out’ problem. Briefly, cameras of this era became easy, simple and reasonably reliable to use. There weren’t a dozen different exposure modes, and while auto-focus quickly diverged into single and continuous forms, there weren’t dozens of AF points to choose between or activate in groups etc. All that nonsense came along soon enough, but it was still mostly manageable until the next big thing.

 

ergo3A Contax G2, a High-Point of Electronic Film Camera Design

Digital

Once cameras produced digital images there was a huge change in the way cameras were used and controlled. Manufacturers seemed to feel that endless complexity could be introduced and hid it all in so very many menus that could be accessed through arcane combinations of button pushes that required one of those mythical teenagers who could program your VHS recorder in the days when no one else could. Most buyers of digital cameras don’t explore all the menu options and the thick small print manuals that used to be offered before it was decided that all this was more cheaply put on an optical disk or, better yet, available for download online, were hardly welcoming models of simplicity and clarity. The most byzantine set of menus and controls I have met with so far belong to the Olympus OM-D series. Nice, small, light cameras with decent picture quality – but those menus! Having set it up I shall hope I never have to do so again. In use, I have to try out various wheels and buttons to see what they do, or have been user-programmed to do. That’s neither quick nor efficient.

What Would Be Ideal?

There’s not much point in talking about mechanical only cameras here, as the only ones in production are the Leica M-A and large format cameras, which were probably designed in a world where ergonomics had never been invented. But a modern camera with a light-meter and autofocus? Lots of things that can help or hinder there! I believe the ideal camera could be set to allow all the usual controls to be easily accessed with physical dials and buttons if desired, with each allowing for an ‘Auto’ position if the user wanted the camera to take care of it for him. At a minimum, this means an aperture control, preferably as a ring on the lens, but at the very least as a thumb or finger wheel on the camera body. The same applies to shutter settings, but since more users prefer aperture priority over shutter priority, the setting for this can be a traditional dial on the top plate or a thumb or finger wheel as available.

ISO must also be able to be set outside any menu system, and can even be a dial in an awkward place or a menu setting for a film camera where it is set just once per film, or a wheel, dial on a digital camera that is reasonably easy to access, even if this means taking the camera from the eye. At the very least, a dedicated button and instant access menu on the LCD of a digital camera is needed. Things like the parameters used in setting up auto-ISO on digital cameras can be buried in menus, but switching from the lowest native ISO of a sensor (best quality) to the highest necessary for this particular photograph via Auto-ISO have to be available quickly and easily. Finally, exposure modes ought to be easily changed between spot, centre-weighted and matrix with a physical control.

When we consider focusing, a physical control to change between manual focus, single autofocus and continuous autofocus is by far the fastest way of changing between them. Niceties like how to choose which autofocus point to use, which group of autofocus sensors to use and so on can be relegated to the menus, as far as I’m concerned as I tend to set them once and stick with that setting. I suspect I am not alone in using autofocus in a way that would disappoint the clever engineers who made these devices. I want single autofocus on the centre of the viewfinder. I want to focus on the important part of the scene with a button press, hold that focus and recompose and fire.

Anything else at all is rarely used by me. If I were a sports photographer with fast-moving subjects I would have to get into all sorts of continuous tracking autofocus between various groups of focus sensors, but for goodness sake, keep that stuff out of the way of the majority of us who don’t need it! Talking of focus lock with a button press, it is pretty obvious that a half-press of the shutter button is the easiest way to do this. A separate button for exposure lock would be nice, as focusing on the part of the image desired isn’t always the same thing as getting the exposure right after you recompose.

Some Examples of What We Can Do if We Try

I’m not sure how many cameras I have owned or used over the years, and come to that, I’m not even sure how many I own right now. Some things are best left unsaid. But some stand out more than others and I’m going to describe in detail the cameras that I have found to be the easiest to use from the point of view of ergonomic efficiency. Firstly a purely mechanical camera without no electronics at all. All it needs is an aperture ring, a shutter speed dial, a shutter release and means of winding on the film. It doesn’t get much simpler than this, but even here design considerations can make all the difference. Compare my 1963 Leica M2 with my 1971 Hasselblad 500c. Apart from the slightly awkward film loading system (which I actually like more than that in modern Leicas as the take up spool grips the leader so tightly it is easy to rewind the film and leave the leader out), the Leica just works.

DSC_0340

My left hand controls the aperture ring and focusing tab on the lens, while my right index finger turns the shutter dial, presses the shutter release at which point my right thumb can wind on the next frame. The only pause comes when I have to meter the light and reset the aperture and shutter controls. When I had an M7 and an MP even this obstacle was removed. The Hasselblad is also far easier to use than a present day compact if you want to do anything other than auto-everything. But, it has to be said, it’s not as simple as the Leica. While the controls are different, focusing, shooting and winding on are just as simple. It’s the lenses with their coupled aperture and shutter speed controls that complicate things.

DSC_0337 (1)

Hasselblads are not designed for those who want to estimate an exposure, the use of the EV ring on the lens pretty much requires the use of a meter, and once it’s set, the coupled aperture/shutter rings can be turned together to allow some decisions about a suitable combination. Hasselblads have their quirks, and everyone sooner or later makes the mistake of changing the lens with the shutter uncocked (you cannot reattach that lens until the shutter has been cocked by careful use of a strong screwdriver), and who doesn’t forget to remove the darkslide at least once per session? Generally, though, they work pretty smoothly, and are simple enough, like the M2, that it’s hard to mess up from a control point of view.

Next, let’s look at something far more complex—a camera from that brief era when auto-exposure and autofocus had yet to be combined with the menus of a digital camera. I’m going to spend more time on this as there is far more to describe, and far more to get right or wrong! The Pentax 645n was a medium format film camera made between 1997 and 2001. It has no rear LCD and thus no menus, so everything that can be changed must be changed with a physical control. It is a large, rather heavy, boxy camera as might be expected from trying to have a medium format camera with a powered wind on and all the batteries needed to drive it (especially as this was made before lithium ion batteries were in common usage). Despite it’s weight and size, it stands out from the crowd in ease and speed of use, simply because the designers thought carefully, and also, I have to say, because they didn’t have the option of hiding settings deep in nested menus!) Let’s go through the available controls:

1. Focusing. The camera can be used with autofocus or manual focus. In a moment of inspiration, all the lenses for this camera (except for the small standard 75mm/f2.8) had their focusing rings made so they could be pushed forwards, revealing the words “Auto Focus” on the lens barrel, or pulled back, covering those words and switching into manual focus mode. So by simply grabbing the focusing ring, pulling back and twisting you have manual focus. Push forwards and a half-press of the shutter button gives you autofocus again. Very nice indeed! On the back of the camera body are two sliding switches, one that selects either ‘Servo’ (which you might call Continuous these days) or ‘Single’ autofocus, and the other which selects either a single or three AF sensors. Autofocusing is triggered with a half-press of the shutter release, and holding the shutter button in this position locks the focus. Easy!

DSC_0339 (1)

2. Exposure. There are traditional aperture and shutter controls with a ring on the lens barrel for aperture and a dial on the top plate for shutter speed. Both have an ‘A’ position in which the setting becomes dependent on the setting of the other control. So if the Shutter speed dial is set to ‘A’ you can manually set the aperture and the shutter speed will be automatically set ie aperture priority exposure. Alternatively, the aperture ring can be set to ‘A’ and the shutter speed dial can be manually set, resulting in an automatic aperture selection ie shutter priority exposure. If both controls are set to ‘A’ the camera enters a Program mode, and uses combinations of aperture and shutter speed that it’s designers think best. This cannot be shifted to other combinations, but to be honest if you want to do that you ought to be using one of the priority auto-exposure modes anyway. There is a ‘Memory Lock’ button under the right thumb which can lock exposure for twenty seconds after a single press, or if the shutter button is half-pressed during those twenty seconds the locked exposure will remain in effect until the shutter is finally released. I simply hold it down as long as I want the exposure locked, and release it if I want to re-measure exposure as this is simpler and easier. Three metering modes are available, and a dial under the shutter dial has three positions for Spot, Centre-
weighted and Six-segment (these days: matrix) metering. The other control related to exposure is a dial on the top plate at the left which controls exposure compensation in 1/3 stops from -3 to +3 stops.

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3. ISO. There is a small LCD on the top plate, and this is used in combination with a switch under the exposure compensation dial to set ISO. If the switch is held in the position marked ISO (it is spring loaded and will return to normal as soon as you release it), then ISO may be changed with the up and down buttons on the top plate, the ISO showing in the LCD as you do so. This is the least convenient of the controls, but for a film camera it doesn’t matter as this is set when a film is loaded and not changed until the next film, if a different speed.

4. Drive mode. Around the shutter release is a collar with settings for single, multiple and timer. Pretty obvious.

5. Other controls. Only three more – a power switch which has three positions: Off, On (with sound confirmation of focus) and On with no sound. Secondly there is a multiple exposure switch which lets the shutter cock without the film winding on, and finally a depth of field preview lever to close down the aperture. The only remaining button is the lens release.

For all the fact that this is a large and heavy camera, it is easier to use than most as the controls are easily visible and accessible. It’s a shame that it’s descendants, the Pentax 645D and 645Z have many of these functions accessible only via menus, as there really isn’t any reason other than expense not to have dedicated controls for the important and frequently changed items in addition to a menu system for selecting just whose face gets recognised and sepia toned to what degree! The digital Leica M cameras pretty much get this right, with physical controls for the important stuff, or at least a dedicated button to take you straight to the right menu (eg for ISO). And so far, it has only been Leica that has been eccentric enough to make a digital M with no menus, the M-D, which will appeal strongly to users of film cameras, given that it allows all the same controls that a film M has, and a lot fewer options that would normally be set on a digital camera. There will probably be little opportunity for other manufacturers to show their skills in designing cameras that can be used easily without relying on automatic functions, as the marketplace dictates cameras that can do more than their competitors, not less, and at the same time they have to be idiot-proof. Of the three modern cameras I have (Nikon D810, Nikon F6 and Olympus OM-D E-M5), all have been set up the way I like them and I never touch the menus any more as it took a very long time to get everything just so. It means I can use them as I want to, changing apertures and shutter speeds as I go (though I really don’t like control wheels over traditional controls) and not worrying about stuff I won’t miss. I guess I am trying to use them with the same basic controls that I can use on the M2 and the 500c, and even on the 645n I rarely change the autofocus or metering settings. So it’s possible to use a modern camera the way you used a film camera, but the lack of standardisation across brands still means that when you go back and forth between them there can be confusion about which control wheel does what. I think it’s worthwhile to try to do this, as it saves the confusion of too many choices, speeds up the use of the camera so that you can concentrate on getting the shot, and allows the satisfaction that comes from feeling that you made the photograph, not the camera.

Talking Leicas with Astrophysicists

20160701-R1100511-EditParis Observatory telescope. This 60-centimetre telescope, installed in 1890, was designed by French astronomer Maurice Loewy (1833-1907). Loewy was Director of the Paris Observatory from 1896 until his death.

In spite of my obvious critical stance toward many of the fruits of the digital age, it certainly has its benefits, one of which is the ability to connect people of like mind across distances. Prior to the internet, if you wanted to share your interests with others, you did so on a local basis. Now the world is open to you. Through this blog I’ve been lucky to meet interesting, intelligent people from around the world – the Far East, Africa, South America, Europe – and also around the corner where I live in Raleigh, North Carolina.

So I was pleasantly surprised, while travelling recently, to receive an invitation to visit from Dr. Henry Joy McCracken, an Astrophysicist at the Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris and a dedicated Leica film shooter. Dr. McCracken works in a contemporary building located on the campus of the Observatoire de Paristhe foremost astronomical observatory of France, and one of the largest astronomical centers in the world. Its historic building is located on Boulevard Arago in the 13th Arrondissement in Paris.  Louis XIV started its construction in 1667, completed it in 1671. It thus predates the Royal Greenwich Observatory in England, founded in 1675.

While the Observatory is open to the public on a very limited basis, nobody gets up on the roof and in the cupola where the telescope is found. Dr. McCracken brought me up on the roof and into the cupola. The telescope there is very old, very big and very impressive.

20160701-R1100506-EditOn the Observatory Roof with Dr. McCracken. Behind him is the cupola where the Observatory telescope is housed. And yes, that’s a film Leica Dr. McCracken is sporting.20160701-R1100518-EditInside the Cupola20160701-R1100525-EditGraffiti Scratched into the Stone Wall in a Space Under the Cupola

The irony of our meeting is that, while we connected through Leicaphilia, a site dedicated to the enjoyment of Leica film cameras and film photography as a viable ongoing means of photographic practice, only one of us was sporting a film camera – and it wasn’t me, which, I’m sure, gave Dr. McCracken pause even though he was a gracious enough host not to note the obvious to me. I had with me an M8 with a Amedeo adaptor and vintage Nikkor attached; he had with him a beautiful M6 with 50mm Summicron that someone had given him, loaded with Tri-X. Of course, there was a reason I wasn’t toting a film camera, as I claim I usually do, and it was because I just didn’t feel like dealing with the hassles of film on an international trip – the X-ray scanning and rescanning, the repeated explanations at security about what exactly the bag full of home-rolled film cassettes actually contained, the time spent developing and scanning the developed film once home etc; all of the reasons normal people embrace digital and see the continued use of film as quixotic in the extreme. If you were to accuse me of being a hypocrite, you’d be right. Consistency is not my strong point, although, in my defense, I am in agreement with Ralph Waldo Emerson that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, requiring one to be as ignorant today as one was yesterday.

20160701-L1003744-Edit-2These markers are found throughout the Observatory grounds. Something to do with the Meridian Line

So, did this trip help soften my antagonism toward digital Leicaphiles? Yes, it did, actually. I enjoyed the time spent with my M8 immensely. It’s a wonderful camera, offering the simplified Leica experience digitally. I borrowed a 35mm Summicron from a Parisian photographer friend and shot exclusively with the M8, the Ricoh GXR and the D3s staying in the bag. Along the way I lent it to a photographer who for years used both an M4 and M6 but never saw the use for a digital Leica – always saying “I just don’t see the point” when I’d enquire as to why he no longer used Leicas but now used professional Nikon DSLRs. Sitting on his Paris balcony, a few drinks in us both, I handed him my M8 with his Summicron attached. He picked it up, fired off the photo below and said “feels pretty much like a film Leica.” Yup. Pretty much.20160706-L1004281-Edit

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So, back to my thoroughly enjoyable day at the Paris Observatory, courtesy of Dr. McCracken, who, I should add, is an excellent photographer in addition to being a fine human being and a very intelligent guy dealing daily with issues that most of us simply aren’t smart enough to understand, let alone discuss. He publishes 52 Rolls: One Roll of Film for Fifty Two Weeks, where he shoots a roll a week and posts the photos on his blog.

As part of my tour, Dr. McCracken brought me into the bowels of a building on the Observatory campus where is located the darkroom that was once used to develop the Observatory’s photographs. Down a few flights of steps and behind a locked door stood a perfectly functional darkroom, still stocked with papers and chemicals with expiration dates from the 1990’s. Apparently, it had been locked away and forgotten, a sad commentary on the state of analogue photography. Fortunately, he has rescued it from disuse and it is now, again, being used for its intended purpose, although certainly now not in any official Observatory capacity. At the very least, it made me feel good that it has been resurrected and that maybe, just maybe, this blog might have had some little thing to do with it.

20160701-R1100578-EditThe Paris Observatory Darkroom

After my tour we settled in for a cup of coffee on the terrace of Dr. McCracken’s building, where we were joined by fellow Astrophysicists. We discussed, among other things, Dark Matter, String Theory, whether the Universe is expanding or contracting (its “bouncing” apparently), and, parenthetically, why we still all loved film cameras. We talked about the incredible vistas digitalization has opened to science, but we also discussed the problems that come along with our move from analogue to digital. Someone noted to me that there still existed, somewhere deep in the bowels of the Institute, negatives from more than a hundred years ago that charted the positions and conditions of the cosmos at that time, and that these offered a contemporary scientist the ability to go back and recreate those conditions in light of new theories or data, necessary work if you subscribe to Thomas Kuhn’s theory of how science changes. With digital data, so susceptible to degradation and loss, he noted, scientists 100 years from now might not have access to the same sort of data from our era, so eager are we to embrace new technology without thinking through the full consequences for the ongoing transmission of scientific culture. Who, I asked, is thinking about these issues? No one, he replied.

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20160701-R1100486-Edit-2The Observatory Stairwell

Having thoroughly enjoyed my visit with Dr. McCracken, off I went. Somewhere in the Marais, I lifted my M8 to take a photo of something, and as I did a gentleman walked past me with a curious look on his face, turned around and tapped me on the shoulder. “Are you the Leicaphilia guy?” he asked, to which I replied, yes. That’s me.  A nice enough guy, we spoke some time, him being a reader of the blog. He, of course, had a beautiful Pentax MX film camera with him, although he assured me there was an M2 at home. I, of course, had my digital M8, another slightly uncomfortable situation which he was gracious enough to ignore.

And so now I’m home, having gone through my DNG files and processed the keepers. You’ll notice that they’ve all been processed to emulate the film look. I’m not sure what I should think about this. Is this “cheating,” inauthentic in some way? Even if it is, who cares? Isn’t it the end result that matters? In any event, I feel vaguely like a poseur, someone who advocates one position while acting in accordance with another. Regardless, I think I really like my M8. Will it become my tool of choice? Probably not, and probably for those same archival issues articulated by the Astrophysicist. But who knows.

A Considered Reply to a Leicaphobe

By Peter Becker

This is in response to the recent Leicaphila article “Who Are You Trying to Fool?

This blog definitely causes a Leica owner to pause, at least for a moment. Am I a poseur? A hapless dilettante trying to be like one of the great photographers of history by using the out-dated equipment that was the best in their day but certainly not what they would choose today? “Salt of the Earth” definitely shows the Salgado of our time using the longest Canon lenses I’ve ever seen, on multiple late-model Canon bodies strapped across his chest as he treks across the farthest reaches of our planet. No thought, apparently, to using a somewhat lightweight “M” to ease the burden.

Is it wise to rely on manual focus when autofocus has been perfected to the point of offering so many weighted alternatives? Every time I aim my Leica M at something on the move or try to capture one magical but fleeting moment, I wonder. Am I sacrificing convenience or perhaps modern necessity in a subconscious (or maybe conscious) attempt to come across as a shirtless Brad Pitt?

camera spy game

Do I fondle the flawless German design and workmanship and swoon over the heft of an object that will last several lifetimes, even though Leica itself will probably try to make it seem obsolete in a year or so.

I’m not sure.

But I wouldn’t trade a modern, less expensive building for my historic office, built in 1913 as dressing rooms for an early movie studio, where all the rooms are en filade and there’s no reception area. The unusual configuration of rooms causes everyone to interact a lot more, encouraging the collaboration that I, at least, believe is an essential part of an architectural practice. And everyone wants to come to my studio and revel in its history and its beauty. Not a bad way to attract and keep clients and associates alike. And its spaces are taller and quieter than the new ones, with exceptionally stout walls that keep the elements out very nicely and grow into parapets that hide more solar collectors than the greenest of new buildings generally receive.

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Newer conference tables are bigger and stronger and cheaper, with chairs that provide individual lumbar support and glide around effortlessly, but I wouldn’t exchange these for my Biedermeier set from circa 1820, whose table is a lovely ellipse, the perfect shape for getting everyone involved, and made of inlaid fruitwood veneers that surely tend to make people think a little more seriously before they speak. And the beautiful but slightly fragile chairs tend to keep people’s feet on the ground, holding their attention and providing comfort for only as long as any meeting should last.

I have a Tesla, the latest thing on four wheels by far, just as I have a Nikon 800, huge and heavy, weighed down by countless electronic shortcuts that no one can remember but at least it balances out its oversized lenses with their motors that act like gyros on a spaceship and can autofocus at the speed of light and will, like the Tesla, stop on a dime. But, parked right next to the most innovative automobile on earth is my 1960 TR-3, which seemed to me like a Tesla or a Maserati when I got it in high school and still gives my goosebumps like nothing else, with its top down, its side doors hardly a foot above the pavement and its under-sized engine filling up an entire city block with its signature roar as I double-clutch through the gears with a whine that reverberates through the history of every race course ever made. That is exactly what it was meant to do and it now does it even better than ever, for there is hardly anything like it left on the road. Not every journey in life should be taken in a straight line, as quietly, comfortably and efficiently as possible. And my Leica, though elegantly quiet, is similar to the TR, light and small and nimble – and nothing is automatic. It won’t focus instantly, but it WILL, like nothing else, stop on the date that dime was made.

tr6A Nice TR3, with some guy who isn’t the author. [Editor’s Note: Has it really come to this? Are Leicaphiles now just a bunch of old bald guys who drive vintage cars?]

The Tesla and the Nikon are phenomenally well-designed and well-built pieces of equipment, perfect for a great many of our needs in life. But the TR-3 and the Leica were made to satisfy those other necessities, which are often a lot more important. And the latter two will also turn heads as if a movie star had just passed by, a byproduct that can’t be denied of a time-honored aura that goes beyond their function. But the function remains, irrefutably. The Leica M surely won’t come in first in every category, sports in particular, but in its own very wide niche, in the right hands, it still takes some of the best pictures in the world.

The Leica M will not allow the slightest bit of complacency, something so easy to fall into with today’s automatic wonders, usually set on aperture-priority, turning them into massive point-and-shoots. The Leica forces you, on every shot, to consider all the technical elements that have made up great photos from the beginning of photography and to calculate, from the myriad combinations of f-stops, shutter speeds and ISOs, the best setting for this particular situation; and then you must decide exactly where the focus should be. It absolutely requires that you think, deeply, and the resulting image is very often a reflection of that extra effort.

Also, there is something magical that often only comes from taking a portrait with a Leica. It takes so long to get all the settings right that the subject can no longer hold their made-for-pictures smile and they become more like their real selves. This is especially true when you are shooting wide and going for maximum bokeh and focusing, as only a rangefinder can, on the eyelids, and, because the depth of field is so ridiculously narrow you have to say, “Don’t move!”  The person in the photo not only comes to life, you occasionally get the chance to look into their soul.

And Brad Pitt, himself, has published a great many stunning photographs with this sexy little camera.

Peter Becker is an Architect (and photographer) from Santa Barbara, California.

Leica: Please Make a Decent High Speed Film Scanner

1976AA001-Edit-2Muhammad Ali on my TV, 1974. This is the stuff you find when you scan your old negatives

Patek Philippe, maker of exquisite hand-made mechanical watches for the one-percenters, justifies their stratospherically priced goods with following advertising slogan -” You never actually own a Patek Philippe, you merely take care of it for the next generation.”

I think of this when I think of my film Leicas, which, to my mind, embody the same mechanical timelessness as does a vintage Patek, albeit at a much more forgiving price point. A Leica M3, or a Iiif, one dad bought 60 years ago, still works just fine, no obvious end in sight. Your grandkids, were they of a mind (seriously doubtful, though, in an age of instant digital communication), might easily be loading it with Tri-X (probably now manufactured by some niche film concern) and photographing their grandkids with it come 2056.

There’s something comforting about that thought, a certain continuity of tradition that’s been almost wholly swallowed up by digital technologies. Traditional silver halide photography – film photography and wet printing – has become a niche within a niche, having been, within the last 15 years, completely bludgeoned on two major fronts: Communication is now digital,  and the immediacy of the internet, WiFi and iPhones have caused a complete consumer embrace of digital.

Call me completely clueless, but I’m happy to chug along enjoying the pleasures of what I think of as “photography,” loading film into cameras, controlling what my camera does (as opposed to my camera controlling what I do) via shutter speed, aperture, metering and choice of film. And choice of development. It seems to me that I’m practicing a wholly different craft than the one most “photographers” practice today.

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I’ve recently embarked on an epic quest to digitize every negative I’ve ever shot since 1970. It’s my one concession to the digital age; like many of us otherwise tried and true film photographers, I’ve succumbed to the inevitability and ease of digital printing as an acceptable hybrid solution to the continued use of film.

To do so, however, requires serious dedication, because the process of scanning negatives with a consumer grade scanner is incredibly time-consuming and monotonous. My Plustek scanner, a nice little piece of equipment, takes about 3 minutes to scan a 35mm negative to approximately 30 mpx. Given I’ve accumulated over 300,000 negatives since 1970, all nicely sleeved and sitting in orderly binders, I figure that if I dedicate 8 hours a day, every day of the week going forward, I should be finished when I’m past 120 (not theoretically impossible as I’m a remarkably youthful 57 as we speak).

1971_1976AA024-Edit-4Me, a very long time ago

Of course, such unfortunate realities push many of us over to digital capture, where we can shoot to our heart’s content and fill hard drives full of 36 mpx RAW files at the mere push of a button. What’s not to like, right?

I’m sorry, but the whole digital process simply doesn’t do it for me. Somewhere, deep in the recesses of my being, probably encoded in some archaic section of my lizard brain, is the idea of photography as a craft that produces tangible things via tangible processes. Photography needs to smell like fixer. It needs to afford you the opportunity of choosing a film and developer, of hanging a roll of film to dry, of contact sheets.

But it’s not just the process, but the result as well. Currently working now with reams of negatives from the 70’s, I’m constantly struck by the difference in the aesthetic quality of my  film photos when viewed with an eye now acclimated by the digital aesthetic. Film looks different. It has an unmistakable fullness and perfect imperfection that’s been swallowed whole by the sterile perfections of digital. Run your Monochrom files all you want through Silver Efex 2, tweak those sliders all you want, add an overlay of faux Tri-X grain, and it still looks, well…like digital. It will never look like a well-exposed film negative, no matter how many S curves and grain emulations you apply. Might it be a sufficient substitute for an unsophisticated digiphile? Probably, but anyone who has spent any time shooting and developing film can notice the difference immediately, and it’s not a marginal difference, but a subtle yet profound aesthetic difference that really matters to how your photos transcribe a subject.

So, some of us, the hard-core holdouts, have been experimenting with ways to make scanning faster and more efficient so that we can continue to use film cameras as viable working instruments and not merely objects to fondle. To that end, I’ve employed an unusual scanning solution that’s completely transformed my ability to shoot lots of film without becoming back-logged and overrun with undeveloped, unprinted film photos.

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A year or so ago I purchased a Pakon scanner on Ebay. In the early 2000’s Pakon made film scanners for retailers who developed film. The scanners themselves were professional grade, able to quickly analyze, correctly expose and scan uncut rolls of film in 2-3 minutes and give you 6mpx tiffs.  In the last few years they’ve been showing up on Ebay in good numbers, the result, as I understand it, of a national chain that got out of the film processing business and sold off their scanners. I grabbed one before they became well-known, really cheaply.

1971_1976AA026-Edit-2Somewhere in New Jersey, 1976

The Pakon F135 Plus is a really well put together machine. It gives better scans out of the box than any other non-drum scanner I’ve used. It’s fast, efficient and makes scanning almost effortless. I say almost, because, as always, the devil is in the details. These Pakons are orphaned, no longer supported or serviced. They operate with proprietary software that runs on Windows XP computers, XP being outdated now by at least a decade. In order to run one, then, you’ve got to find an old computer with XP on it and use it as a dedicated scanning computer, and then you’ve got to jimmy-rig the software to run on a PC; either that, or figure out some way to run XP as a virtual machine on a current computer, which, I’m told, is a complete pain-in-the-ass.

So I’ve bought the best XP laptop I could find and use it to power my Pakon. The next problem is constantly transferring the reams of resulting tiff files from the laptop to my editing computer for editing and storage. To deal with that issue, I had a software guy design a ‘push’ program that automatically pushes the resulting tiffs from my laptop to my editing computer via a network cable. Now scanning in bulk is super-easy: develop rolls of film in batches of eight in a large Patterson tank, let dry, run the uncut rolls through the Pakon, load em into Lightroom, and voila, you now have 8 36 exposure rolls of film, fully scanned and loaded into your editing software, 30 minutes max. As for archived negatives that are cut and sleeved, remove em from their sleeves, hand feed them into the Pakon in strips of 5 or 6 and the Pakon processes them quick and easy and sends them over to Lightroom, no fuss.

Needless to say, this has re-invigorated the use of my film cameras, not just as objects to fondle, but as photographic tools. Unless it’s something quick and easy – and throwaway – I almost never reach for a digital camera anymore.

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Which is really cool, because it allows me to actually get my film photography out there, in people’s hands, or more usually, in front of people’s eyeballs via digital media. Usually these ‘people’ are born and bred digiphiles, having known nothing else, who consider my attachment to film cameras as evidence of incipient senility. You know, the old clueless guy who thinks he’s hip but is really just embarrassing himself. (It doesn’t help that I’m still rocking a ponytail, wearing camouflage shorts and expounding the brilliance of Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited to kids in their 20’s). Tsk. Tsk. But, the problem in convincing them otherwise is this: they rarely get to see my film photos, given the labor intensive means of producing them. There’s been a running joke in my circle of friends for years: don’t worry about him and his ever-present camera taking pictures of you at the most inopportune times; you’ll never see em – “he’s shooting film!” Laughter all around.

Not anymore.

paris_2016AA024-EditChristina in Paris

I recently had the honor of transporting my niece Christina, a fine young lady who lives in the nether regions of USA flyover country, to the UK for a semester abroad. Being 20 y/o, and never having been out of the States, a chaperone was needed, at least to get her there in one piece. I was nominated. We first went to Paris to visit friends. I took only a film camera – a Hexar RF and a bag of HP5 – which I used to chronicle her trip for posterity. [As an aside, this put to bed any notion that x-ray machines will fog your film. Between a connecting flight in the States, then to Iceland, Iceland to Paris, Eurostar from Paris to London, then everything back again, my bag full of HP5 must have gone through at least 8 full scans during the trip. No fog.] Upon return home, I developed about 20 rolls, scanned them quick and sent out some shots via an extended email to update family and friends about her trip. The responses were interesting. Almost to a person, they noted how ‘cool’ these simple b&w photos looked. Nothing like what they got with their iPhones. “How do you do that?” was a typical reply. Easy. Learn how to be a real photographer and shoot film.

20160125-20160125-R1099396-EditSomewhere in the UK, 2016. HP5@800 in Diafine.

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Film is not dead. It doesn’t need to die unless we let it, and that, to my mind, would be tragic in a very real sense. An entire expressive medium and unique aesthetic gone the way of the mechanical watch in the interests of the quick and easy. It’s our choice as people dedicated to the craft – Leica M6 or iPhone, Patek Philippe or Apple watch?

The problem going forward,as I see it, is the failure of the market to offer us film users a viable means of efficiently digitizing our negatives. Progress on this front was never paid attention to as all R&D efforts went to the emerging competitive digital camera market. Film technology available to the consumer simply stopped developing around 2004. No one solved the film to image, or film to digital post processing issue. Granted, some revel in the old post-processing ways as a “slow boat to China” method of enjoying photography … which makes it a shrinking market unsupportive of any manufacturing advancements that would attract new users in great enough numbers.

What we film users need is a good scanner, a scanner that can efficiently scan negatives in bulk, and quickly. Something like the Pakon (see, it can be done), but updated with software and features to run it on today’s computers and to couple it quickly and easily to post-processing software. It seems to me that this is right in Leica’s wheelhouse. It would offer us film users a practical solution for using our film cameras as viable tools instead of as sentimental throwbacks. It would compliment the sale of new Leica film cameras. It would be incredibly seductive to the hipster crowd in Austin and Brooklyn, Paris and Beijing, not to mention us old dudes. It might just save film photography as a viable photographic option going forward. If Leica can find the time to build something as funky as an M262 digital camera without LCD, surely they can build us film Leicaphiles a decent bulk scanner. Are you listening, Leica?

The Duality of Leicaphilia

Valbray-Leica-watch-cameraWhen I speak of “leicaphilia” in what follows I’m referring to the love of all things Leica that animates many of us partisans of the iconic Leica brand. If you don’t suffer from it you probably won’t understand it. If you just read about it, without having suffered from it yourself, with all the semi-mystical attributes often ascribed to Leicas by folks who should know better, you’d be within your rights to dismiss the whole phenomenon as simply another irrational mania that afflicts humans in a myriad of ways, whether it be in the form of the religious or political, psychological or philosophical. Even for us long-time Leicaphiles, suffering the most from the malady, it’s difficult to justify many of our enthusiasms in our more rational moments.

I understand, and I’ve often used this blog to try and deflate some of the more pernicious claims seriously addled Leicaphiles sometimes make – you know, your Leica makes you a better photographer, or you’re not really serious about photography unless you use a Leica, or there’s an identifiable ‘Leica Glow’ one gets when using Leitz optics, or one can easily identify negatives and files produced by Leica cameras and Leitz lenses, or your M8, with its obsolete sensor and abysmal DXO score, somehow still produces files rivaling what you can get with a Nikon D5.

And then there’s all the ancillary crap attempting to hitch its wagon to the exclusivity that association with Leica can provide – bags, grips, leather cases, thumbs-up contraptions, lens hoods, soft release shutters, red dots, black dots to cover up the red dots, replacement leather skins of various textures and hues, and my personal favorite for ridicule, Frankensteinian dual hot-shoe brackets that allow you to mount both an external finder and meter on the top of your diminutive little IIIf, akin to putting a lowering kit and spinning neon wheels on your beautiful vintage BMW 2002.

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I don’t pretend to be a ‘fine-art photographer’. Photography for me is a process of documenting things, of keeping records. As a documentarian, I try not to romanticize the tools I use. And, while, emotionally, I’m still stuck in the film era, from a practical perspective the ease of digital wins out when I need something with a minimum of fuss or on a deadline. (When I need something absolutely permanent, however, film always wins out). My philosophy, when it comes to choosing a camera to use for a given need, is this: grab whatever works best. Lately, that usually means a Nikon D3s or, if quick and easy, a digital Ricoh, or, for what’s really dear to me, a film camera, preferably a rangefinder – an M4 or M5, a Hexar RF, a Voigtlander Bessa R2S or a Contax G, all great cameras –  or a Nikon F5 loaded with HP5.

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Amsterdam, 2015, Hexar RF and 28mm M-Hexanon, HP5 @ 800 in D76

It’s really only peripherally about the camera you use. It’s ultimately about the photographs you create, and the photos you create are a function of your technical mastery of your tools coupled with your aesthetic and reportorial sense. It’s about understanding shutter speed, aperture and depth of field, mastery of exposure; using the correct lens for a given task; understanding how perspective changes with distance and focal length; understanding the physics of the color of light; and last, and most importantly, knowing what’s important to point your camera at.

Having said all that, I’m just as susceptible to all the nonsense than are the unapologetic fanboys who give Leica a bad name in more serious circles. I obsess over the particulars of thoughtfully made photographic tools — the tiny details done just right, the haptics of a knurled knob or the aesthetic balance of chrome and vulcanite, the muffled ‘thlunk’ of a mechanical shutter.

Damn if I don’t spend a lot of my time fondling my film Leicas, ‘exercising’ the shutter while waiting for the decisive moment, or just simply carrying them around with me, admiring them for their mechanical beauty. Right now my enthusiasms seem to be centered on a Leica IIIg with cool vintage 5 cm lenses attached. Of course, tomorrow it might be different; I could very well pick up an M2 and switch emotional gears, now proclaiming it the coolest camera ever, or a black M4 mounting a Summicron that feels sublime in use. It need not even be a Leica. It could be a Nikon S2 or SP or F or even an F5, a Hexar RF or my current obsession, a Bessa R2S. Consistency, I must admit, is not my strong suite when it comes to my irrational attachment to film cameras. In this I am in agreement with Salvador Dali, who advised that it’s best to frequently contradict oneself so as not to be predictable, because the worst, the most boring one can be is predictable, consistency being, as Oscar Wilde once noted, the last refuge of the unimaginative.

The sorts of fondler’s interactions many of us enjoy speak to a need that is embedded in our relationships with traditional film photography, a tactile enjoyment of the process of photography and the pleasures given by the finely crafted tools we’ve used in that process. A fascination with, and admiration of, the tools themselves is part of what drew us to photography in the first place, and us fondlers have no need to apologize for this.

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Our often irrational attachment to our old cameras, I think, is ultimately about a desire for permanence in an endeavor whose technologies now evolve at warp speed. The charms of really nice film camera are many: the look and feel of tools well-crafted for long use, the familiarity created by using them for decades. It feels nice to use a camera for a long time. Do you remember the digital camera you were using 15 years ago? Mine was a Nikon d100. And there were those funky experiments that wrote their files to 3.5-inch floppies. Remember those? See where this is going? In 15 years, at our current pace, you won’t even recognize your ‘capture device’. In any event, I have no interest in having to learn the nuances of a new technical device every other year.

toughest Leica

Its why I love my iiif and iiig, my M4 and M5, my Nikon F and S3. Mechanical cameras, and the technology they embody, can be passed down from fathers to sons and daughters without the need of technical manuals. Learn the traditional skills of photographic capture: aperture, shutter speed, film speeds, and you’re able to figure out the marginal differences of any mechanical camera in a matter of a minute or two. In learning to master it, it becomes an habitual extension of your way of seeing, rather than a device that stands between you and what you see. I can pick up an M4 after not having touched one for years, and can still immediately operate it almost unconsciously. If I let my digital camera sit for too long, invariably I’m scrolling through menus and submenus trying to figure out some basic operation, usually standing flat-footed while what I grabbed the camera for plays itself out unphotographed.

The advance in digital technologies is stunning, but it has vitiated quaint notions of any practical longevity for a camera, even those, like Leica’s, that still pay lip-service to the idea that you might purchase a camera with longevity in mind. Camera product cycles now track the cycles for computers, because your digital camera is a computer. Manufacturers fight to see who can cram the most buttons on the back of their latest image capture device, and ‘camera nuts’ dutifully hand over their money for the latest best new thing.  Hard-core consumers, longing for the next thing even as we’ve just laid hands on the current version, are where the money is, so as we queue to buy the latest ‘must have’ camera we reinforce and reward manufacturers and help perpetuate the very process by which we remain dissatisfied, perpetually craving the next update. I suppose, given the realities of consumerist capitalism,  these cycles are inevitable and will remain with us as Nikon and Canon, and to a lesser extent Leica, cram more “new and improved” digital cameras down our throats well into the immediate future.

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When it was new, a Leica M4 camera cost a lot of money.  Fast forward to 2016, and a simple online calculator using the Consumer Price Index (CPI) indicates that the relative purchase price of an M4 today would be $7,080.00. This answer is obtained by multiplying $1500 (approximately what a black M4 would cost new in 1974) by the percentage increase in the CPI from 1974 to 2015. So, a new Leica M4 in 1974 cost about the same, in real dollars, as a new Leica MM costs today. But the difference is this: when you bought the M4 you expected to use it for decades.  I have an M4 made in 1974. It still works exactly as intended and I use it often. It’s not just a collector’s piece that sits on my shelf. I will eat my hat, however, if that MM you buy today will still be in your bag in 15 years, let alone working.  And forget 40 year-old Monochroms. In a relatively short time you’ll have to sell it at a loss, or its electronics will fail and you’ll be out-of-pocket for its replacement with something else.  This is the current reality now that cameras have gone from being something like a durable good, as was the M4, to a consumer electronic commodity that you replace every two years or so.

Maybe, leicaphilia isn’t simply about fondling and exclusivity; maybe it’s also the most prominent manifestation of a fading photo-cultural memory that many of us value highly and don’t want to see disappear. I’m convinced there remains a market for modern cameras (even with electronics) that are intuitively simple and built, cameras that eschew the technological dead end in favor of efficiency and directness of function, yet we often sneer when someone like Leica gives them to us.  Some of us still like the notion of over-built even if there is less intent to keep something forever. It speaks to a psychologic longing for some sense of permanence in a temporary world.

Part of what makes us leicaphiles, more than just the fetishization of a particular camera, is the appreciation of the tools we’ve traditionally employed as photographers, when a Leica or a Nikon, Canon or Hasselblad film camera was the simplest, best means to do what was important. Our camera was our tool, and we built a relationship with it that lasted for decades. It’s this that’s been lost in photography’s evolution, a sense of rootedness and tradition that spanned product cycles. A simplicity and directness, a tactile pleasure in the use of our photographic tools, seen in the continued appeal of slow-boat analogue techniques and of old Leicas.