I'm really rather exhausted...lots of comments to the two previous posts, plus, many people have sent me private emails, many of them long and involved.
Some of the comments got pretty far off track. I was pretty sure they would. I'd remind some of y'all that this is just one possible learning exercise I've proposed, and I proposed it explicitly for beginners (remember?). It's not the secret of happiness or the One True Path, and I'm not Sir Dektolius, Keeper of the Grail.
All this stuff...it's really all about what happens in the mind. The didactic strategies are just ways of opening up the pathways of thinking—which, since this is photography we're talking about, means visual intelligence—seeing photographically. How you train your mind to see is the whole puzzle.
Some people are very eager for the camera not to matter, but like it or not, the camera can help. Cameras don't take pictures, true; but then, people don't take pictures either. People with cameras take pictures.
And you're unlikely to be able to train your mind to hit an exact moment if you have a camera that can't respond immediately. You can't learn how the lens sees if you're constantly switching lenses. You can't learn how to operate the camera without thinking if the camera requires too much thinking to operate. It's just a question of deciding which lessons might be worth learning and how best to get them into your brain. Don't make too much of it.
Now then, a few variations on the theme from the previous posts.
Variation #1: Substitute a simple "MMM" (metal, manual, mechanical) SLR for the Leica. Maybe you have one in the closet.
Variation #2: Substitute a different rangefinder for the Leica.
Variation #3: Substitute a medium-format rangefinder for the 35mm Leica. Easier to scan the filmstrips on a flatbed, for one thing—this is the way I'd go if I were doing that.
Variation #4: Substitute color negative film for the black-and-white negative film. There's just no way other than using black-and-white film any more to reach that state where you learn to "see" luminances and ignore color, and I really do think it's an interesting and instructive way to see the world, even if you only do it temporarily. But let's face it, darkroom work is too much for most people these days (even me, and I never thought I'd say such a thing), and finding good black-and-white processing is tough. Even with photo processing contracting as a business, it's still a lot easier to get color neg film processed and proofed. So, if you must, okay.
I'm probably just getting my head turned by those 50-100 people who say they intend to actually take my advice and do the "TOP training" thing for a year...I know most people who are all fired up now will probably not stick with it for long. But let's make a date for next May. If anyone actually manages to follow through, I'd love to hear how it went.
Variation #5: Do it for 4–6 weeks instead of a year. It's not total immersion, and not long enough to get "the feel of the wheel." But you'll know a lot more about how the water is if you get your sock off and stick your toe in.
A short primer on black-and-white films
• Tri-X. Tri-X (say "try ex") is made by Eastman Kodak. The code is "TX" and it's ISO 400 speed. There's another film called Tri-X that's a totally different film, Tri-X Professional (TXP rollfilm and TXT sheet film); the way to tell them apart is the nominal speed: the Pro film is labelled 320 and the regular Tri-X is 400. Stick with the 400 stuff. But I recommend not pushing it: it's actually closer to a 250-speed film than 400, so shoot it at 200 or 250.
• HP-5 Plus. Ilford's 400-speed film is sharper than Tri-X but not as forgiving and (IMO) not quite as nice tonally. On the other hand, it matches better to Ilford's papers.
• 400 Delta. A thin-emulsion, fine-grain 400-speed film from Ilford that's a bit touchier and tougher to master the the two above. Better for scanning, though, if you're going to go that route.
• Fuji Neopan 400. Fuji's competitor to Tri-X and HP-5 Plus; I like it marginally less well than the other two. In D-76, at least, its grain is a bit mealy and the upper part of the curve seems a bit exaggerated.
But basically I'd use whichever of these films is easiest to get wherever you are.
• Ilford XP-2 Super and Kodak BW400CN. So-called "chromogenic" films that use color negative technology to yield a monochrome negative. Require C-41 (color negative) processing, the advantage being that most labs and some drugstores will process it along with regular color neg film. Two possible downsides are that the negatives aren't as permanent as silver negs (at least, that was true ten years ago), and drugstore-made proof prints often have a color cast. Printed well by a good custom printer, the prints can be very beautiful. The chromogenic films have a different look than regular B&W films; when heavily-exposed areas are replaced by dye clouds, the result is very grainless and smooth, meaning that the films handle highlights well, especially things like clear skies.
NOTE: If you're looking for good black-and-white processing, I can recommend my friend Bob Meier. Bob charges $12.50 to develop a roll of B&W film and proof it by contact, plus $2.00 return postage for any number of processed rolls of film. He does good work.
Featured Comment by Jonathon Delacour: "Mike, the only thing that could have been more dispiriting than the carping and/or hostile responses to your last two generous and insightful posts is what has transpired: that, under the onslaught of ill-considered nitpicking, you've felt compelled to water down your original suggestion.
"Hopefully, three out of your 30,000 daily visitors will have the courage and humility to do the exercise, exactly as you prescribed. No ifs or buts, just buy the Leica and a single lens and spend a year shooting. For me, it was an M2 plus a 35mm Summicron using Tri-X developed in D-76. Where did the money come from? Like you, from part-time jobs. (At what point in our lives do we begin to echo our parents?)
"Consider the (ultimately reimbursable) cost of the Leica as representing a kind of challenge, similar to those encountered and overcome in any hero's journey. In other words, someone says he or she is serious about learning to take good photographs, let's see how serious. (A friend who taught printmaking in an art school was stunned when a student told her he couldn't afford the materials needed to complete an assignment. She said to me in exasperation: 'So why doesn't he give up smoking?')
"I suspect that much of the resistance is prompted by the fact that, as eloquently as you explained it in your second post, unless one has actually shot with a Leica, it's truly difficult to understand why a Leica is the only tool for this particular job.
"Not a metal, manual, mechanical SLR. Not a different brand of 35mm rangefinder. Not a medium-format rangefinder. Not color negative film. And not for 4–6 weeks.
"A Leica. One lens. Black-and-white negative film. For a year. Report back at the end of May, 2010.
"As the Zen master said, 'The further you travel along a narrow path, the wider it becomes.'"
Mike adds: Really, the only reason I suggested the original exercise is empirical. I've been a nut about photography for many years. It's true that I'm more of a writer and teacher than a photographer, but I've been enthusiastically learning and experimenting in all manner of ways since about 1980. Timewise, that puts me ahead of some people and behind some others. The quality of my effort has been sporadically very good; I've read a lot and looked at a lot of original work, listened to a lot of people, deliberately chased a lot of experiences. Again, that puts me behind some people (especially those who have chosen different tangents to their journeys, or more specialization) but ahead of...and here I will say most others. As a photographer, I've been interested in didactics as much as accomplishment. What's valuable and what's not? What's interesting and what's not? Which lessons are worth pursuing? And there I can't say for certain what every practitioner will experience—people are, after all, different.
The exercise that I suggested was just one of the ones that helped me the most over those years, and that I found the most informative and interesting.
Frankly, I've noticed that viewfinders that do more for me help me more—that is, viewfinders that go more of the way towards suggesting what a scene will look like reduced to two dimensions bounded by distinct borders. Digital viewing screens are probably the best for this. I had a minor personal Renaissance—and a blast—when I acquired my first "live view" digicam. I suspect the EVF in the Panasonic G1 would also make it easier to "translate" pictures. Its viewfinder looks like a tiny TV, that strongly reduces every view to two dimensions. But handy as they are, they're not challenging. The rangefinder window, on the other hand, doesn't help you at all. It leaves the visualization entirely up to you.
Why is this valuable? Well, only because the rangefinder view is very close to how we see with the naked eye. The more you are forced to learn to visualize a picture through a rangefinder window, and accommodate to that, the easier it becomes to see pictures just by looking at the world without using a camera at all.
Naturally, there are a thousand ways to learn most things, and, just as naturally, most people will never learn most things there are to know. But the premise of my original tossed-off post is that the Leica, specifically, is itself a kind of teacher, in that it lays bare the need for certain skills and abilities that really have to be provided by its user. I can't say that's something that I would like to be stuck with permanently...I'm not sure I'm talented enough to cope with it. But engaging with it for a year was an experience that I valued at the time, and find that I value even more now, almost fifteen years later.
I was shocked to learn, the other day, from that little "Do they still make the M7?" video, that Leica is only selling 100 to 150 film cameras a month, mostly to Asians, for whom camera collecting is a more prestigious and popular pasttime than it is elsewhere. Probably, few of those cameras end up being used hard, even for a year. What it made me realize is that this very fecund strain of influence is sifting inexorably out of currency: it's absolutely on the way out. For 55 years, the strange little device that is the Leica M has had an incalculable influence on many of the world's most talented and accomplished photographers. It suggested ways of working, encouraged certain skills and mental abilities and habits, that helped many people create a huge body of work that is valuable in very many ways, in its corpus and its typical characteristics and its influences, and will continue to be. Some of the "nitpickers" as you call them choose to emphasize that we find ourselves at the beginning of a new era in photography. Which is true. But just as surely, everyone reading this also finds themselves at the end of an era that is not quite yet gone. Embracing the future certainly has value. But taking hold of the best of the recent past while it still retains a little currency and viability might be valuable too. Especially for the young, whose life journeys will take them farther away from it than us "old guys" will ever get. Specifically, from the not-so-lofty perch of my modest 52 years, I'm convinced that any 20-year-old who spends a year shooting Tri-X with a Leica now will value that photographic experience more and more as the years of their own lives slip past, and as that method, and the possibility of that experience, slips ever more irretrievably into obscurity. I just can't imagine them regretting it, thirty years from now.
Featured Comment by Bernd Reinhardt: "I want to plug a custom lab in Los Angeles for Black and White. It's called Schulman Photo Lab. They are a small custom black and white lab, and the owner is a master printer in his forties. I think the price for processing and proof sheet is in the twelve dollar range, and they are very good. He is one of the few master printers left that do real darkroom work and I know that this economy can be rough on a place like this. I have no affiliation to them other than being a happy customer."
Featured Comment by Chris Bertram: "I appreciated the advice Mike, even though I'm not going to take it...I'm not a 20-year-old with a possible life as a photographer in front of me, but a 50-year-old with a demanding non-photographic job. I've got a keen interest in the medium (and its history) but I'm never going to follow the zen path you suggest. For those of us in the middle-aged amateur enthusiast category, I thought this post over at Shutterfinger was very useful."