The Leica M camera is legendary. I think most people would have heard about that brand. Photographers most certainly have. I have nothing to add to the history, the hype or the hyperbole sentiment that surrounds this camera and brand. You can educate yourself on hundreds of website – here is the wikipedia entry or go Leica’s website.
This small blog entry is my thoughts and experiences of having bought a Leica M6 earlier this year (2020), and having the opportunity to go about photographing with a camera that I always thought was to hyped, to expensive and just not worth the money.
What I write about here, are things that you probably have no idea about if you’ve never had a Leica M camera in your hands and shot some frames. All you people who have been fortunate to do that, will probably not learn anything new (you were warned).
Spoiler alert: I really like the camera, I don’t love it. Do not get me wrong: It’s a really really really nice camera and I like handling it. The craftsmanship and feel of the Leica M6 almost sends shivers down my spine. The simplicity of the camera is something quite extraordinary (why have most modern cameras become so complicated with soooo many dials, knobs, menus and switches?).
The thing is: To really enjoy working with the Leica M6 you need to put in the hours. Just like preparing for a marathon, using a Leica rangefinder camera requires effort and perseverance for you to succeed. And you have to keep using it or you will loose feel for operating it. It looks so simple but it really isn’t. Or at least not for me.
The G.A.S mistake
As my finances were not infinite I bought a cheap 35mm prime from 7Artisans. I know some would say that it is a waste because Leicas lenses are immaculate, and part of the “Leica look and feel” but it is just not possible for me. So… I bought a cheap lens and the image quality is ok, and it seems like the handling is very close to the original Leica lenses. Eventually I sold the 7Artisan and bought a secondhand Voigtländer Nokton 35mm because all the reviews and samples I have seen are really good, and as far as I can tell, a price/quality is a no brainer, and I got a good offer.
First roll – first fix – first world problems
Shooting the first roll of film was exciting. To finally be able to photograph with this fabled camera was really a dream come true. But also a frontal crash with reality and my skills as a photographer. I am normally a Fujifilm camera user and I enjoy the mirrorless technology and the electronic viewfinder that gives you a fairly accurate view of the composition, preview of the exposure and backbutton autofocus – not forgetting Focus Peaking function when using apertures like 1.4 or 1.2.
As the Leica M6 is 100% manual you have to do everything yourself (Makes you wonder: why even buy such a device?!?!). Since ISO is determined once every time you change your roll of film, aperture and shutter speed is the only thing you have to adjust while shooting that roll of film. There are no further buttons or dials to fiddle with.
Focus and framing
What makes the Leica a different beast altogether is framing and focusing. It has it’s quirks. Why is it so? If you have no idea what I am talking about check this video. There are two approaches to focusing: zone focusing or normal look-through-the-optical-view-finder focusing. The rangefinder mechanism takes a lot to get used to. I kind of feel, that it will be very quick and convenient when the muscle memory just knows the feel of the lens and your eyes have adjusted to the focus method in the rangefinder and know which things to look for in order to focus. I am not there yet, and until that occurs it requires concentration and trial and error from my side. I can say for sure, focusing in night settings is veerry difficult.
Framing with a rangefinder is also something to get used to. As opposed to SLR or mirrorless systems you will see more of the scene in the viewfinder, than what will be framed on the film. You will see white frame lines that will show you what you have in your photo. These frame lines changes according to what lens you have on the camera (ie 21mm, 35mm or 50mm). Following image is borrowed from this site.
The obvious benefit is, that you are able to see moving objects that are about to enter your frame/photo. The obvious down side is that framing/composing can be a little rough around the edges.
Also the exposure is something that will be on your mind more often than not. The Leica M6 has a build in light meter (which is one of the reason I bought that and not the older models). I am getting better at guestimating exposures, but I like having the information from the camera (it’s small red led arrows in the optical viewfinder that light up for 10s if you spooled the film and half press the shutter.). The arrows (on my M6 model indicate the opposite direction of the direction you need to turn the shuttes speed dial… really kind of annoying… But the arrows show the right direction for the aperture ring).
So here is are some frames from the first couple of rolls of film shot with the 7Artisan 35mm. Lots of poor shots, a few decent ones. As I recall it’s Ilford HP5+, Kentmere 100 and Agfa APX 400 all developed in Caffenol.
So far I have only shot one film with the Voigtländer 35mm. The film is Kentmere 100, developed in Caffenol so there are just a few exposures from that.
To sum up
I think the Leica M system (the one I have tried at least) is a wonderful tool. It’s a beautiful camera, the feel is like nothing else in the world (except maybe for the Hasselblad 500 series).
I will keep working with my Leica M6 and see if I eventually get the hang of it. If I do not get that, I will say thanks for the fish, and sell it to someone else that it’s better suited for.
But at least I can says; for once in my lifetime, I had a Leica M6. I gave it a shot and it wasn’t meant to be…
But for now we are still honey mooning….