I had looked forward to this day for years, so it’s arrival brought nervous excitement. No, I am not referring to my wedding day - I’m talking about the first time I created photographs on a Leica M rangefinder.
As you may know, I am a long time Nikon shooter. The D800 and D610 are extensions of my body - they are extra limbs that I can control and manipulate without thinking. My fingers know which way to turn the dials, which way to rotate the focusing rings and I spend very little conscious thought operating the camera. As a result, I’m focused entirely on the artistic aspects of getting the image I want from the camera.
I had the opportunity to shoot a Leica S dSLR a few years ago. The camera body alone cost upwards of $25,000, but the quality of the images was in a league of their own. Comparing side-by-side photos taken from that camera against my Nikon dSLR ruined me - I knew that I wanted a Leica from that moment forward.
A Leica dSLR is not only financially impractical, but didn’t fill a niche for me. I knew if I ever shot Leica, it would be with one of their world famous expertly engineered M series rangefinders. For years I have drooled at the prospect of owning one of the finest pieces of photographic engineering, and this week I finally brought that dream to reality with the purchase of a barely (if ever) used Leica M-P Film and Leica 35mm f/2.4 lens.
Like I do with most purchases, I had researched everything imaginable prior to selecting this combination. I understood how rangefinders worked and how they differ from my Nikon, but understanding is half the battle. I understand the basics of driving a stick shift car, but that doesn’t mean I won’t stall out a few times!
Eventually I will take the time to do a review of my thoughts on the Leica M-P, but I wanted to first offer my day 1 impressions of shooting a rangefinder. Many of you reading this may be considering the same thing and hopefully this helps you know what to expect the first time you step into the batters box with a Leica M.
First, you can’t help but marvel at the brilliant engineering and design behind a rangefinder when you first pick one up... especially a Leica. There are no frills or gimmicks. No extra buttons that you don’t know what they mean (there are some buttons on my Nikon I can honestly say I have never pushed.... *cough* depth of field preview *cough*). The controls are focus, aperture, shutter speed, film advance and the shutter button. What the camera lacks in fluff it makes up for in precision engineering.
The first photograph I took with the Leica was of my dog, Juno. She is a great subject for practicing on because she’s a fairly patient model and everyone loves photographs of puppies. At first it was all very awkward. I am normally a left eye dominant shooter, but the Leica is designed with the idea that you would use your right eye to look through the viewfinder. While this isn’t a problem, there is a big challenge to override years of muscle memory as you bring the camera to your left eye.
Then my right index finger started to become an issue. On my Nikons, there is a scroll wheel that controls aperture or shutter settings on the front of the camera. Again, muscle memory draws my hand to the front of the body, but on the Leica M, that can cover the viewfinder that is used to focus the camera, which makes it impossible to focus until you move your finger.
Lastly, I am accustomed to looking through the viewfinder and seeing a heads up display that tells me the aperture and shutter speed, but the Leica is all about simplicity, so the only thing visible in my viewfinder are the image frame lines and the meter, which looks like this:
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Since the MP doesn't have a heads up display, I constantly had to remind myself that “I am on f/8 and 1/250th.”
By the end of my first roll of film, things were getting better. I was getting faster with the focus and metering. Speed is critical with street photography so as to catch the apex of the action, but I need to continue working to get my shooting speed up to par. It felt like I was driving the finest sports car for the first time - I didn’t know what to do with all that power and engineering!
This whole experience was extremely humbling. I kept forgetting to advance the film (with a Leica, you don’t advance the film after you shoot because you can accidentally bump the shutter walking around - so you wait until you are about to shoot). My fingers were clumsy with the controls. But it was liberating…..
Shooting a totally mechanical and manual camera is a very freeing experience. I used to let my Nikon make lots of decisions - or at least do some of the thinking for me. The Leica may have a light meter, but it’s up to me to still set the aperture, shutter speed and focus. I normally shot aperture priority with my Nikon D800, so half of the “thinking” was left to a computer. Seeing developed negatives that come from a mechanical camera is much more rewarding!
I know the Leica will make me a better photographer and can’t wait to take it back out again tomorrow. With practice, I’m confident the Leica will become just like my other cameras where the movements and controls are second nature and I can spend more time on the photograph.
If you are considering ditching your dSLR in favor of a Leica…. do it! This has been some of the most fun I’ve had shooting in a long time!
Stay tuned to see my first photos from the Leica later this week!