An Astronomer Falls in Love with a Film Leica


By Henry Joy McCracken for Leicaphilia.

“Show me a great photograph taken outdoors in the daytime that couldn’t have been taken with a roll of Tri-X at any point since the 1950s”

I’m an astronomer, and have been interested in astronomy for as long as I remember. I wonder if there is a connection between this and my interest in images and photographic images. Astronomers of course can only take the pictures or spectra, they can never interact with their subjects. Some people say, half-jokingly, that it isn’t really experimental science in the strict sense of the word because we can never actually do any experiments. For a photographic analogy, in our work we are more Cartier-Bresson than William Klein or Garry Winogrand, the latter of which was always cracking jokes and interacting with his subjects.

Nevertheless, I was always interested in taking photographs of terrestrial objects too. I grew up in Ireland in the 1970s, and I remember pleading with my mother to let me take one picture, just one picture with the only camera we had at the time, a polaroid instant camera, and finally she gave in, and I took a picture of our garden. I must have been six or seven. I waited, and anxiously peeled apart the backing layers. My blurred thumb was in the middle of the frame: nobody had told me how to take photographs! I’m trying hard here not to fall in the classic Irish trap of writing an autobiographical text, because that’s not what I want to do, but it’s amusing to note that there reason we had these cameras at all was simply to take pictures of headstones. My father made tombstones, and there was no catalogue or internet web site of course, so my mother and I were sent out to take pictures of the ‘greatest hits’ of the local cemeteries, and for that you needed a camera. We soon upgraded to a Pentax K1000, and I was allowed to pictures of tombstones with it. I still have that camera today, almost thirty years later, and it still works, although the meter is broken.

hjmsc 1

Time passed. In the early 2000s, I switched to a small digital camera and shortly afterwards I moved to Paris. For me at the time it seemed one of the most important attributes of a camera is that it should be small and light, as I wanted to always have it with me when I was traveling; no, I didn’t know about Leica back then. To be honest, I never really thought much about photography since this switch to digital, even though I continued to take snapshots. Finally, I bought a better electronic camera and got rid of all the zoom lenses. I learned the latest software tools and stalked around the streets of Paris taking random images with my fixed focal length lens, as you are supposed to do. I looked at books of all the great photographers once again, and went more often to the museums. It is easy to be educated about photography here in Paris. Then a strange thing happened. I realised that I was spending a lot of time on the computer manipulating the colour and tonality of my images. Directly out of the camera they looked very flat and neutral, as they are supposed to. These digital images are supposed to be a literal representation of reality, but something was always lacking. Should I increase the contrast? Reduce the contrast? Convert to black and white? I couldn’t decide. The images were perfect, but just not right. Well, I said to myself, if you are spending all your time converting your images to black and white, why not just shoot directly in black and white with a film camera?


I like to be in control, so this proposition seemed crazy at first. I couldn’t give my negatives to someone else to develop. It would mean mixing up chemicals and developing in our small Parisian apartment and scanning the negatives afterwards: no space for a darkroom. But I thought I would give it a try. I bought a roll of HP5+ for the old K1000 and took 36 photographs, getting it developed at a shop in town to start with. My first reaction when I saw the first scan from one of these images on my computer screen was, “yuk, this is out of focus”. But it was not out of focus. It was simply because I was displaying the scan of a 35mm negative full-screen on a high-resolution 27” monitor, something which was never meant to be done. You have to understand my background: I’ve spent many years working with the largest digital images from the largest astronomical cameras. They are some of the most technically perfect electronic detectors ever constructed by humans. These cameras have revolutionised astronomy and made possible enormous advances in our knowledge of the Universe in the last few decades. But, despite this, there were one or two images in that first roll which were interesting, and I decided to continue.

Six months later: I have now developed and scanned more than fifty rolls of film. In one of the few film shops left in Paris, somewhere around roll number 6, I bought a second-hand Leica. I remember the first thought I had when I lifted it up: this thing is damn heavy (being used to light electronic cameras). But after advancing the film and pressing the shutter a few times I thought, hmm, now I understand…

The whole experience is paradoxical. Yes, the images are what we would call today “low resolution” but pictures of people on film look real in an indefinable way which is never matched by digital capture. After a few months of staring at scans of my negatives, I realised walking around Paris I was surrounded by these plastic digital images everywhere. I had never seen them before, really. In astronomy, photographic images were always a major pain to deal with because of the roll-over in the bright part of the density/intensity curve. But this effect, combined with grain, makes the images much more appealing to look at. No, you would never want to measure anything on this, but it certainly looks better. And no, it cannot be replicated in software.


I’m also partisan to the idea, expressed here and elsewhere, that the steady increase in resolution and sensitivity is completely pointless in terrestrial photography. In astronomy, of course, that is not the case, and we have been very grateful for our highly sensitive wide-format CCD detectors. These detectors have now trickled down from military to science to consumer. But how has this increase in creative and artistic possibilities been translated into better art? Show me a great photograph taken outdoors in the daytime that couldn’t have been taken with a roll of Tri-X at any point since the 1950s. Instead of making the image, we are assailed by an enormous range of technical choices. We are now spending an enormous amount of effort adding more and more transistors into smaller and smaller components, and a lot of the smart people who were working on ambitious projects (like the Apollo moon program) are now writing apps for mobile phones. Unfortunately, image-making seems to be the “collateral damage” of this trend.

All of this seems me to be why it is so important to take pictures on film. The process of taking the photograph is separated from the act of taking the photograph. I am not able to say if it has made me a better photographer (though being human of course I would like to think that it has). But it has certainly made taking pictures more enjoyable. There is no computer involved, and today computers are involved in almost everything. For the first time in my life, I had my photographs printed and framed by a certain Parisian agency that still employs two people to make photographic enlargements. I put them on the wall in my office and at home. I look at those photographs and I know that no computer touched any part of the image, which is strangely reassuring. I was motivated to make a physical object from the images I had made, something which never occurred to me with digital images.


The Leica is also a unique tool to take photographs with. Again, I was skeptical: during my first tour around Paris with it, I couldn’t even figure out at first how to hold it without blocking the weirdly-positioned viewfinder. The ergonomics of a bar of soap, as I have heard on the interwebs. But what is great is this: you press the shutter button and after the dry click nothing happens. Nothing changes in the viewfinder, nothing changes in the camera, other than the fact there is now a latent image of the thing you have just seen through the viewfinder recorded on a small square of film. To take another image, just advance the film, that’s all. The other wonderful thing is that one is conscious of light in a way one is never with a digital camera. After a few weeks I could estimate the illumination just by looking. The other paradoxical thing: despite being completely manual, the camera is actually easier to operate than any digital camera I have ever used. You look at the sky, you look at the object you want to photograph, and you set the aperture, shutter, and focus distance. Once they are set, they never change. Nothing changes them for you. For sure there are inconveniences. We are used to the amazing
performance of digital detectors at night. But now what I find it is that when I take pictures at night on film, they actually look like they are taken at night! And it is really true what they say: these cameras motivate you to take pictures.

I plan to spend 2016 explaining to my astronomer friends just why film is so great – and reassuring them that no, I don’t think it is a good idea to replace that CCD by a photographic plate. And, of course, taking photographs on film:

H. J. McCracken is an astronomer at the Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris.

Hits: 3346