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Friday, 29 May 2009

Comments

One of your best posts ever Mike!

Brilliant post

Or an Argus C3, just keep the prints small.

I have to say, I almost totally (respectfully) disagree with this whole line of thinking. It is a classic teaching technique, and may work in some cases, but I think it's a hard way to go that basically has one good idea buried in it -- hard work for an extended period. That will help no matter what camera you use.

The digital camera with a good color LCD is about the best thing I can think of for teaching yourself photography. If you're a relatively thoughtful person, who really wants to learn to do it well (or some subset of it), the best thing is to shoot as much as you can, and chimp all the time. Take the year, but shoot tens of thousands of shots.

Shoot fifty shots of the same motif, then look at them on your computer and see which one worked best, if any worked at all. Chimp as you're doing it, and see if you can find ways to improve right on the spot. Just having the camera in your hands for 10,000 shots will make a large difference, as long as you're using it with a bit of intelligence.

I'd suggest that if you look in any field at all, that the people who excel are simply the people who did the most of whatever it is. Who do it all the time. Taking one shot, that you see two days later, and that turns out to be bad, but you don't know exactly what the alternatives might have been, is not the best way to learn, IMHO. Even if you try to be thoughtful about it.

Another critical factor is actually finding something that you're deeply interested in. I suspect that you could become quite a good portrait photographer by taking photos of your kids, if you're willing to think about the process (rather than the kids) as you go along. But having something you're truly interested in, like your kids, or wildlife, or landscape, or cityscapes, or streets, or whatever, will make a huge difference, because you'll be driving for a technical perfection. If you do that intelligently, it's much more important than any camera, but the camera that's best is the one that will allow you to do the most experimentation, and give you the fastest and most thorough feedback, and that's a digital with an LCD.

Only if the year with the viewcamera is after the year with the
Leica!

Which film ?
I am unembarrassed to admit my film-clueless-ness.

I would guess that your advice to all the youngsters out there, "texting" messages to their friends on their cell phones, would be to "go take a typing class an learn how to write real correspondences to your friends!"

The quietness of a Leica would be an interesting topic on its own. I've found contrary to popular belief, quietness, to the degree of Leica, makes very little difference. The times when you actually need it to be quiet are very infrequent too. More important is to catch the subject in the moment, during which, in more cases than not, the subject will be focused elsewhere and not notice. The visible act of taking the picture is more likely to attract attention than the sound. I've had a Leica, annoyingly, I often could not hear whether I had taken the shot or not. My Nikon Fm2 does as good a job, frankly.

Until I got to number 6, I was making mental "My Canonet QL17 can do that" checks in my head.

Where I agree with your argument is the 'feel' you may get or the responses you may get when people see the 'red dot'. On the flip side, the anonymity you'll achieve with a random, cheap, easily replaceable rangefinder may add much to the ease of work, the ability and willingness to carry it around, on your bike, bus, car, walk, hike, trip-through-a-bad-neighborhood etc.

I actually very my liked your advice, having bought 3 film cameras (including, of course, the above mentioned Canonet) in the last year or so. In addition to 2 primes for my DSLR.

I hope some people do purchase a Leica, and go out and shoot. And learn. And enjoy. I recently read a response on a web site which related the photography experience to painting. I've boiled it down to it's essentials:
Camera - Easel.
Film - Canvas.
Lens - Brush.
Light - Paint.

Thank you for a couple of though provoking postings.

Bjorn

Oh, stop it with the curmudgeonly bit. Admit it: if only ONE of us does this over the next year, it was all worth it. ;-)

Seriously, thank you for spelling out the details. What you're suggesting is a big commitment (as you emphasized) and as much as we all love you, "because I said so" wasn't really enough for us.* It's not you, it's us wanting to find an easier route.

Oh, and some of us just MIGHT be middle-aged parents who want to do something to radically improve our photography, too, but who have a little less flexibility than a swinging single and are used to looking for ways to simplify our lives.

Just sayin'

This is a great pair of posts. I'll start saving and check back with ebay in the fall!

~~Charles

I'm doing it. And I'm not young, goddammit, except photographically.


Thanks, Mike. Perfect timing for me.

"I would guess that your advice to all the youngsters out there, 'texting' messages to their friends on their cell phones, would be to 'go take a typing class an learn how to write real correspondences to your friends!'"

And what would be wrong with suggesting that a modern kid write one or two handwritten letters just to experience it, to see how it differs from texting? Would it be useless for students to spend just a few hours learning about penmanship, even calligraphy, to allow them to appreciate it, even though they're not going to grow up to be Bob Cratchit, and will do most of their writing in their lives on keyboards? What's wrong with learning experiences that differ in kind from the bog-standard, lowest-common-denominator habits and trends of the present moment?

Mike

Snort! Now I've got yer action. I'm gonna report you to the SEC for jerking prices of Leicas up on eBay!!!! LOL

Which film?

Many here would say Tri-X or an equivalent; I'd go with a slower film, and learn how to work at wide apertures and handhold the camera at slow shutter speeds.

Mike, you're spot on here.

I cannot recommend strongly enough to anyone else considering this that it is not just about breaking the cycle or doing something different (for the sake of being different), it is about learning the fundamentals of photography.

Akin to something else I do, playing a piano, this is like practicing scales and arpeggios. The discipline to do technical work reaps untold rewards only afterwards when you play pieces of music. Why? Because the technique you learn becomes habit. In order to get to this level however, it will seem like such a drag (and my wife to be still hates to listen to me practice)!

I think what you have missed in your post is that the Leica is about implicit technical knowledge that you will learn through habit. And there is no other camera that enforces such a picture taking process (and habit) through an extremely restrictive interface.

A great example is that I can go from these habits to use just about any modern camera I know of (P&S, DSLR, medium format) without much direction and be almost immediately proficient; however I'm not sure if the reverse is true.

I'd also add more practical advice to get people over the line:

1. Money for body: Buying second-hand is the way, but be careful. I'd add that you really want to put a roll of transparency film through it first, and check the slow shutter timer (> 1/8th) and fast shutter timer (1/1000).

My particular M6 is a dud -- it doesn't select 1/8 or 1/15 all the time (it just goes to 1/30)! And you should expect it to be out by about 1/3 of a stop. As long as you shoot B&W, this should not be a concern due to Tri-X's latitude.

2. Money and Time for Film: Use Tri-X. Use a bulk roll and roll your own film. Process yourself - this is not as hard as people think. Buy a changing bag, a light proof tank, some graduated cylinders, and a thermometer and you won't need a darkroom (you can do this in the light).

It takes about 35 minutes for me end-to-end for 2 rolls (less if I had a bigger tank). Cost is about $4-5/roll of film, depending on the chemistry you use. Now that I don't have so much time, I just use liquid developer and mix on the spot and also use a Wash Aid to reduce the final rinse time.

3. Display and Review: Scan digitally and use a computer. I use an Epson V700. If you're old (or young), in either case, you'll have family photos and negatives to scan and share. If it isn't for the Leica experiment, you can always reconnect with those old memories.

Pak

Mike, I still think that all the advantages you mention re: the Leica apply to a Rolleiflex TLR - except coolness. Walking around with a Rollei is WAY cooler. On a trip to Venice 12 years ago I was fighting off nostalgic locals with a stick.

Mike, to heck with all the digital freaks, one of your best posts. Obviously those who argue against Leica and/or film are those who didn't put in their year :)

John Camp,

Not that Mike suggestion needs defending, but (respectfully) if you only see one good idea buried in Mike's suggestion, then you may need a new shovel.

Rob

I have to respectfully disagree with John Camp.

I've watched countless people so busy chimping constantly, they missed the moment to shoot (actually several minutes of shooting time in some cases). The time for thoughtful reflection on your shooting is almost never in the field (or in the moment), since you're too close to see the shot for the scene.

In more than one instance I've found aspects of a shot that had I chimped them at the time, I'd have been disappointed, but upon closer examination they had subtleties to them that I would have missed in the field.

And to Andrea B. I respectfully suggest Kodak Tri-X. It served a couple of generations of us admirably, and for some the newer emulsions will never have the same appeal.

So what should we old, slow, stiff and lazy do?

Regarding the contact sheet, I found some interesting thoughts on that in "On Being a Photographer". It's interesting that the authors claim they can see a photographers working method from contact sheets and that most accomplished photographers (they're talking primarily photojournalists/essayists) have a similer working style in which they approach and hone in on their subject, working toward a final selection. It's not so much figured out what worked and didn't as figuring out how you approach the subject; how you "get there". (I think there's a belief that if you learn why one shot works and why another doesn't, you can work toward becoming a zen master photographer who can analyze any situation and then make a perfect picture with a single exposure). I tend to keep a lot more than my best shots on my HD (and in my catalog - formerly PS Elements and now LR) because it's interesting for me, at least, to look at the "story" that unfolds even if I only share a couple a select few.

"Which film ?"

I'm not sure it matters too much for this exercise, but FWIW:

AFAIK, those great photographs Mike wrote about were predominantly shot on Kodak Tri-X or Plus-X, or on Ilford PanF, HP5, and maybe FP4 as well. Generally speaking, Tri-X and HP5 are fast and grainy, while Plus-X and PanF are slow and very fine-grained (Fast/slow as in sensitivity, aka high/low ISO). Each is also unique in more subtle ways. Josef Koudelka, one of those legends, and I'm sure others, also used European films (e.g. Efke, Foma). Tri-X may be the most versatile and forgiving film ever. Fuji makes good B&W films too, called Neopan.

But cost does matter, for most of us. Following Mike's regimen, you can spend more money on film and processing than on a vintage Leica. Students used to economize by buying a 100ft or 50ft roll of film (it's movie film, after all), a bulk loader and reusable film canisters, and roll their own cartridges for a fraction of the cost of pre-rolled. One can still do that for equivalent savings, but it is time consuming, and a skill to be learned, though not especially difficult. Expired film, then and now, is sold at discount and often in largish batches.

I say "used to" be cause there are more economizing options today. Arista Premium film from freestylephoto.biz, which some swear may as well be Tri-X and Plus-X, at less than half the price. They also package other inexpensive film, made for them overseas, under the Arista brand.

Another consideration these days is that, unless you do it yourself, B&W processing can cost a lot more than color processing. Both Kodak and Ilford make B&W films that can be processed in 1-hour color labs. The Kodak version returns a monochrome color negative, which can't easily be edited or contact printed at home, but Ilford's XP2 will come back looking and acting like a traditional B&W negative. However, these films (at least the Kodak, not sure about the XP2), will give you all the latitude of color film, which may undermine somewhat the point of the exercise.

Audition a few, to see if any sing to you, but I imagine the idea here is to choose one film and learn it.

I notice that Winogrand (in the photo Mike includes) is not making much use of that Leica viewfinder...

;-)

Yay! For me it was (and still is) a Fujica GS645S, medium format, fixed lens rangefinder, B&W film.

I like the idea of contact sheets; you can really see a) how many keepers you got % wise, b) how well you got the exposures, %wise.

Hi Mike,

I haven't read all the posts, just enough to get the gist. Don't be so sure nobody will do this. This sounds like a fantastic idea for a series of articles. "One Year With a Leica" or somthing like that. Hmmmm. I've been at a loss for material lately. Maybe, just maybe.

Chris

*sigh*

I think some people are still missing the point.

The reasoning for using a Leica is because a Leica does what a good photographic tool should do, which is to become completely transparent. It's pretty hard NOT to notice a huge glossy LCD screen, which basically is anything but transparent.

I sold my Nikon Gear yesterday and bought Leica today.

Reading this just after I followed my inner voice down the same path you describe I realize that you wrote fully what I had been feeling.

I did something akin to what you are describing, with a Rolleiflex, when I was young. Then thirty years experience. I want to repeat the idea. I does work, but aside from learning the experience of photographing in such a way is worthy in and of itself.

B'sides. Where is the passion ... without sacrificing some comfort?

A wonderful article. This is why people should visit TOP.

1. The "ps" made me not just LOL, but actually, really, laugh out loud.

2. Mr Camp makes a good point. Yet, FWIW, my digital photography always gets better after some time with a film camera, but almost never the other direction, chimp as I may. I can't necessarily explain it, yet neutral observers tell me, and I find it to be true. Perhaps because I learned the Mike describes. My first camera was a Canonet rangefinder. I didn't know it was supposed to be a little Leica; it's just what I could afford with paper route money.

Just one more data point.

Again, love the worms.

Really that's one reason, maybe 1.5. Yeah, they're quiet and the shutter lag is short.

The value proposition doesn't work in a day where a basic manual film SLR costs less than the shipping or tax on a Leica. By film camera standards Leica's are ridiculously expensive. A comparable film SLR is $20-50 and the same for a basic lens.

All your other reasons apply as much to a Nikkormat or a Spotmatic as they do to a Leica. And unless you're talking to photographers, the Spottie or Nikkormat has just as much cachet as anything from Wetzlar or Midland. The cameras are equally basic (you get one extra control, the DoF switch).

The essential idea (shoot with one camera, lens and film for a set period) is an excellent one. But the Leica portion is nothing more than nostalgia.

Winogrand shooting under his leg is a photo I have never seen before. That made my day. He looks so happy. It also looks like he has a cigarette in the other hand. Priceless.

I have never done exactly what is suggested but I was lucky enough to be able to spend a year in New York shooting for a small daily.
We didn't have Leicas with just one lens. We carried Nikon FMs and bunch of lenses.
Two bodies and four lenses was standard equipment. 24, 35, 85 and 180. And a Vivitar 283.
That year I learned how to shoot with a flash. Joy when one came home with pictures that were well lit but impossible to tell that a flash was used.
Even more importantly, and I think this is one aspect of Mikes exercise, I came to a point when I didn't see colors anymore.
I don't know what to liken it too. Maybe learning how to play an instrument comes closest.
I've never been able to get back to that state of mind since. But I am greatful that I got that experience.

/johan

I've been thinking a lot about your Leica for a year idea since the first article was published. Kudos to anyone who goes through with it. With paying portrait jobs and a new child in the house, only using one camera is out for me, but I'm really drawn to the idea.

I have a hand-me-down M2 from my mother in low, but I don't tend to bring it with me very often. When I do, I really enjoy shooting with it. It's a great camera, and I feel like I tend to get more keepers when my M2's in hand.

However, the big thing that stops me from carrying it everywhere is the weight - it's a brick. It's not *that* much lighter or smaller than a DSLR. According to the kitchen scale, the M2 is about the same weight (and size) of a Nikon D80, and about a pound lighter than a D300 (and a little smaller).

Your first article inspired me to take my Leica out, put some film in it, and take some pictures. It won't be my only camera for the next year, but I've resolved to bring it with me more often. I won't be able to stay monogamous for a year, but using it is always fun and inspiring.

Unlike John, I think it does matter that it is not a digital camera, or specifically that what you do is *minimal*.

I think this based on experience in another field: playing and recording music. Something rather similar has happened in this area to what has happened to photography. 30 years ago it was just about possible for an amateur guitarist to afford a guitar, a decent amp and maybe a pedal or two. Some people even had their own recording equipment, in the form of a portastudio.

Today, anyone can afford something which will do a good job of simulating any amp ever made, and apply any set of effects you can think of to it, and record a thousand tracks. And good guitars (as well as real amps) are a lot cheaper too.

So what happens? You spend all day pissing about with the billions of possible options (billions is a severe underestimate) available to you, and trying endlessly to make everything sound "perfect". Layer everything, pitch-correct the vocals, use one of the thousands of professionally-designed, beautiful-sounding presets.

And you end up with yet more mediocre dross, sounding the same as everyone else's mediocre dross.

Because you have forgotten something: the way you get good at this game is to do it, a lot. And "this game" is "playing the guitar" not "mucking around with pro tools". You need to be practising *playing* several hours *every day*, and playing with other people for maybe 5-10 hours a week. Preferably you need to be doing more than that.

You may think you have the single-mindedness to do this, and not waste your time playing with the tools. Some people are that single-minded, but the chances are overwhelming that you are not. If you have the tools you will waste your time playing with them, because practising is *boring*, especially until you get good.

So do this: get the best guitar you can afford, the best amp (it should be a valve amp, and as low-power as you can find, other than that the choice is up to you), and a lead. If you don't have understanding neighbours get a powersoak. Put everything else away, and practice for a year (hours as above, and remember, they are a minimum). When you are not practicing, listen to music. At the end of this time you can go back to using modern tools.

I know this, because I have failed to do it.

Mike, I appreciate the follow-up post, even though I'm still tempted to have a go at this with my $40 Yashica GSN.

But now that you've gotten so many people thinking about Leica cameras again, promise us one thing: in another 13-14 months you'll do another great article on the virtues of shooting with one, so that we can all make our money back.

There are two great frustrations every serious photographer faces. One is looking at something and visualizing exactly what you want but you don't know how to achieve it.
The second and more painful frustration is looking at a print you just made, seeing a perfect example of everything you wanted to do and realizing you don't have a clue as to how you did it. That means the likelihood of a repeat is low.
The only way to beat this is to really understand your equipment and materials.
This applies equally to both film and digital.
A really great way to start is one camera, one lens, one film, one developer and one paper for one year.
I'm sure there's a digital equivalent to this but I'm still fine with a 2.8f, TXP, HC110 and Multigrade.
I'll chime in when my computer spits out something I like more but for now this nourishes my spirit just fine.
By the way, I wasn't being cute about the Argus C3. My pop carried one all over Korea during the war. His Kodachromes are still a revelation to me.
In the right hands even "the brick" could bring home the bacon.

"what did the guru say to the hot dog vendor? "Make me one with everything.""

As the guru is about to leave with his 'dog, he holds out his hand. The vendor says "change comes from within".

This TOP is one helluva read mister.I love this site!

I really think that a digital camera with instant feedback is a much better learning tool than any film camera. If someone is going to switch to digital after their year with their Leica why not start out with the camera you intend to end up with. I have been photographing for about 60 years having used a number of Leicas, Hasselblads, view cameras and numerous 35mm cameras. I feel that the digital camera has done more to advance the learning process than any other medium. I can see the value of only using a single prime lens until you understand the capabilities of that lens. You can do this with a digital body as well. In any case, no developing cost and no film cost make it much easier for the beginner to shoot, shoot, shoot!

I can see major improvements in my photography since I went to a digital dslr when Canon introduced the D30. I've never looked back and don't miss my color and monochrome darkroom. I much prefer working at my desk with no chemical smells or stained fingers.

mike, i accept the challenge! today was payday, too, so i'm that much closer.

Andrea - Tri-X souped in Rodinal 1:100 stand is both foolproof and brilliant.

I'll stick to my OM-4T. It doesn't cost me anything, cause I've had it 15 yrs, and I don't have $1000 to put into a Leica, even if I get the money back at the end. I don't have it at the beginning! Seriously, you don't need a Leica. I'm a damned good phootgrapher and I have never used a Leica, and in fact I had never even used a Rangefinder camera until a few months ago when a friend sent me a Bessa R2 to play with.

"Again, remember, nobody's going to actually do what I'm suggesting."

Ok, fair enough. The obvious question I'm left with then is, can you recommend an exercise that preserves most of the spirit of what you're suggesting, but that a serious student of photography in 2009 is likely to actually follow?

I'm sure that there are still a few who are committed enough to follow your prescription, but I'm sure you'd admit it's much less easy to put in practice than it was in the 70s and 80s. In the 60s, it was probably even a normal thing to do and wouldn't have felt like a sacrifice. Today it probably feels akin to learning typography by emulating Gutenberg's method, or learning to farm using only a horse-drawn plough.

Surely there's a way to study photography in a similar sense, that doesn't rely on (what is today) arcane knowledge of the darkroom or spending large sums on film and processing. These things don't make us better photographers; it's using the camera that counts.

I think part of the problem with going the digital route is the lack of a good no-frills digital camera, one that takes black and white RAW files, for example. But still, since this is all about discipline anyway, could you not use a DSLR to shoot Black and White jpgs, use manual focus and exposure modes, and turn off the LCD review, use only one prime lens, and walk away with a similar level of attainment?

I started photography when I was quite young (about 12) and couldn't afford a Leica. I got a Yashica J (fixed 45/2.8 lens, 1/300 top speed, no meter). I shot a roll of Kodachrome II every week or two for a few years (taking notes about conditions and exposure). I learned to estimate exposure well enough to get good slides and how to live with a single focal length.
The benefit is that I know when and how to override the meter in the cameras I use today, both film and digital.

I could not agree more - I will never, ever, be without an M-Leica and a 35mm lens.

Remember Larry Clark's comment: "When I have my Leica with me, I feel like I have a pistol in my pocket."

He should know.

Great stuff, Mike.

Jon L. in Austin

I should add after my last comment and after reading John Camp's comment, that I do tend to agree with John, that digital cameras have improved many people's photography skills immensely, those who were never able to spend the time and money needed to shoot for hours a day with a film camera. I include myself wholeheartedly in that bunch.

I tried to become serious about photography in the mid-nineties, but the expense of film and developing killed me. That and the delay between taking the photo and seeing the results. I'm undecided about chimping on-scene (it can be a crutch that prevents you from learning to get it right the first time), but in general I think the immediacy, efficiency, and lack of expense beyond the initial purchase is a boon to any student of photography.

Amen, bro.

"Which film ? I am unembarrassed to admit my film-clueless-ness."

Tri-X, 100' rolls, bulk loader, reloadable cassettes. I did.

I developed in Diafine, pushing the ISO to 1600. If I wanted standard speed, D76. Paterson tanks. Film changing bag - light tight.

When I was in college, we were not allowed color, nor flash. They were absolutely correct.


Echoing Andrea B. up there:

I have never shot film in my life, other than maybe three rolls of "whatever is on sale" in the drugstore, with a point and shoot, during my early 20s . I think I actually never got around developing the last one, it still lying somewhere among my stuff.

So every time I think "I should try shooting film"(I think about old manual pentax cameras though), what stops me in my tracks is the film itself. Which one? Everyone says Tri-X. But is it a specific film? A brand? I get embarrassed just by imagining myself walking into a camera store and ordering "Tri-X", and then being asked about some specification I have no clue about.

And where to process it? (I want to shoot film, but I have no interest in developing it myself). What about the costs? How to optimize?

Mike, maybe a follow up article in the lines of "Beginner B&W Film Photography for Digital Shooters" might be in line.

Re: "Which film?"--Tri-X

Re: "...worms..."--Give it a week, maybe a month, maybe six months, but go ahead, I'll lend you a can opener.

John,

Sorry mate. But you sincerely missed
the point of learning to take photographs.

Andrea, if you are going to go along with the whole program, no film other than Tri-X will do.

I agree that using eBay for buying and selling older cameras and lenses just for the purpose of trying them out for a while is a great idea. About six years ago I did that for about a year, had great fun with it and it hardly cost me anything. (But I don't approve of those people who simply buy a new camera, use it for two weeks and then return it for a full refund).

Brilliant!

There's no such thing as "a year with a view camera."

I decided to give that a try several years ago and am still working on it. Great fun, very educational, but not something that you do for a year and then move on from.

But that's probably true for the Leica exercise too. In fact, I can almost guarantee that a pretty high percentage of people who follow Mike's advice on this will not relinquish their Leica after their year of apprenticeship, even if they don't use it all the time.

Go on ... take the plunge ...

Cheers,


"The essential idea (shoot with one camera, lens and film for a set period) is an excellent one. But the Leica portion is nothing more than nostalgia."

Adam,
Fine. So go shoot with one for a year and then get back to me on that, will you?

Mike

I was all prepared to tease Mike a little further about Leica love until I read John Camp's post.
The problem with that approach is the "bit of intelligence" necessary (3rd paragraph) only comes from doing it Mike's way.

Great post Mike and a great idea. After a (self-enforced) six months using just a Contax Aria and 50mm f1.4 with ektachrome 100 (and lately some velvia), I'd decided this morning (after wandering about at 7:30am in the fog on the Manx hills and wishing I had b&w) to change for the next while to my Leica M6 & ZM35mm (I love the Contax Zeiss look with colour but not b&w) with just b&w film. But I will bend the rules slightly to allow for FP4 (in the summer) as well as TriX.

Which film?
You can not go wrong with Kodak, Fuji and Ilford. ISO 400 is very versatile, ISO 100 is also fine if you live in a sunny place. Now, as you are down to only a few films, I suggest that you check availability and prices where you live.

Good luck! Myself I might even try this...

Mike

Thanks for a timely prod in the back. Fortunately, I don't have to slog and go without some dinner or beer to save up for a Leica. I have my Leica M6 hibernating in my dry box for longer than I am happy with. My old love for film and RF Leica photography has about being overtaken by them new digital gizmos.

So beginning today, I AM GOING TO BRING OUT MY M6 LOAD IT WITH TRI-X AND START LUGGING IT AROUND TO TAKE PHOTOS.

I know that my inertia will take about 50 shots of so to overcome but I am going to take up the challenge to use it for at least ONE YEAR!

Dan Khong

I am afraid that I have to join the pile on john camp.

John the point is that you learn to see and you get to appreciate a crafted piece of hardware that is built to serve and not encumber.
I "wish" that I had started with a litlle more instruction on the image side and not the physics side. My Spotmatic with 50 1.4 and roll after roll of plus x taught me exposure but I failed miserably at "making" pictures but I took a lot:-)

After selling my later film gear and loving the fact that I no longer have to carry two bodies to support ISO 100 and ISO 400. I still use my D200 like my spotmatic( more lenses tho)I do ALL the thinking so that I can blame myself for my shoddy work.
Last year I did buy a IIIc and love the machine. but alas, I am too old, too stiff and far too lazy to do much more than appreciate the fine piece of hardware that left the factory floor the year I was born.
have fun all!
dale

I'm gonna do this and shoot nothing but cats.

"I'm gonna do this and shoot nothing but cats."

HAR. No, you won't be able to resist a few flowers too, I bet.

Mike

Hmm...wonder if the new MFT camera from Olympus could fill in here in a pinch?

John Camp,
Try it. A Leica and B&W film for a year. 4-6 hours a week. Hire out the darkroom work. Then tell me what you think, whether it was worth it or not.

Bet you change your tune. Seriously. (Although I do admit it's to my advantage to sentence you to a year's hard labor in order for you to win the argument [g].)

Mike

Mike: Great post. Thanks for spelling it out for me, and thanks for the kick in the pants "if you want to afford it, you can afford it." My only real thing about it is I kind of wish you had written it before I had bought a dslr. I get fine pictures with it, but I know for sure I'm not growing as a photographer the way I was when I was shooting film everything.

Mike .... just curious ... how do you feel about substituting a Zeiss Ikon for the Leica?

These posts are thoroughly badass.

Yesterday, I was going to reply to the original Leica post with 'No, it has to be an OM-1!' to echo my joking reply from the other day about simple cameras. but in reading the new explanation, I think I agree that the Leica makes excellent sense for the depreciation reason given. I also somewhat disagree w/ John Camp's disagreement, since Mike specifically explained the reaosning is to teach composition, exposure, and how to 'see' light, which color confounds.

I do think other simple cameras could serve just as well (I think Pentax made a model of SLR.... the K1000*ist? (I really hope the person that came up with the name *ist was fired over that one).

Personally, I agree with John Camp. This all seems focused on a very narrow aspect of photography, the "cult" of the street shooter, with a large dose of Leica worship. I always thought it was the person behind the camera; the camera was just a tool.

The premise is good, but like John, I think the discipline is key, and is not tool specific.

About the "Leica vs. manual SLR":
I used an Nikon FM2 for about 21 years (the same one) and shot about 35 rolls a year, on average. I sold it and got a Leica MP with a 50mm Summicron.
Practically speaking, I suppose the FM2 was the winner (choices of lens, macro, etc.), but I love the Leica. The fast response, quiet shutter and looking at the world through a bright rangefinder window really have to be tried to be appreciated. I wish I'd bought the Leica 20 years ago.
I suppose you could say it's like having less barriers between the photographer and photograph.
FWIW,I had a Leica IIIG for a while. Do NOT buy a Leica with that style of film loading!>)

Joe

I used both the Leica and the Fuji GW 690. The Leica was fine for situations where many photos had to be taken quickly. But I prefered the Fuji for the better quality of the prints. I also liked having 8 pictures per roll. It forces one to take more time before making an exposure, and cuts down the editing time.

I am sitting here, making a list of all my cameras as I downsize to a smaller home. I have used Leicas since 1969. I will sell most all of my Nikons, Roleis, and view cameras but none of my Leica equipment. I take digital almost exclusively now, however, there is no experience like wandering around a different environment with a quick, quiet and efficient Leica. M2s and M6s are what I use now but once in a while I go out with an ancient screw mount Leica. I still take photos that I like. What more is photography?

I'm sure that your idea has merit. But, please tell me where I can get a usable M6 and lens for $1000.00.

Great post, Mike, but I'm not convinced.

1. The view through a rangefinder is different but not necessarily better than an SLR. They both have their plus and minus points and it could be argued that the SLR viewfinder would teach you more than the Leica's.

2. Simplicity can be found in many cameras such as the OM1, MX and FM. It's certainly not exclusive to Leica.

3. No arguement here - a Leica is certainly quiet. But that's really only going to be of use to someone who is taking pictures of people up close and doesn't want to be noticed and I believe photographers who do that are in a small minority.

4. Totally agree with you here: there aren't many more responsive than a Leica. But whilst not being a drawback in any type of photography, it's only a real advantage in a few.

5. Camera snobbery

6. Camera snobbery

I'd concede that you've probably got two good reasons for using a Leica on a year-long project. But depending on the type of photography the student practices, they might well end up being largely irrelevant. And whilst your third and fourth points might confer some advantage on the Leica, they are not going to make much of a difference to the learning process which is, after all, the reason for the project in the first place.

Puzzling.

I have learned more about taking photographs with a decent digital SLR than I did in years of shooting film.

If I were suggesting an exercise, I would tell someone to get the best digital slr they could, a 50mm lens and a laptop computer so they could instantly view the photos they had just taken to get immediate feedback.

For me it's the difference between taking pictures, and *seeing* photographically. Very different things. The first is about enjoyment and memory, the second is about craft and skill. Learn the latter and the former gets much enhanced.

Like most crafts, it is beneficial to spend a period, preferably early on, with a lot of artfully-chosen constraints, and equipment that does not encourage too much over-noodling (that's a technical term) on a single artifact. The Leica achieves that by accident or intent. But shooting with a simple camera with a single lens also has a similar affect.

And about that "what you see is what you get" with an SLR, digital or otherwise? Not so, because you're always seeing through the lens at its maximum aperture, meaning its minimum d.o.f., aberrations maximized.

This is only a problem if you use new-fangled SLRs and lenses. A well-chosen classic film SLR, or even the most automated DSLR equipped with a proper m42* lens and adapter, will keep you safe from the horrors of composing wide open. (I admit that my old Spotmatic II had an annoying tendency to leave the aperture open while composing, but I could solve the problem just by turning the meter on.)

Feh ... kids these days, with their cameras that need batteries to shoot and their fancy aperture priority modes...

I know the point is that there's no such thing a perfect WYSIWYG viewing system anyway (and that, for various reasons, there prettymuch can't be), so we should let ourselves be free to make tradeoffs. Still... I sorta think maybe my exercise should be only shooting a screw mount lens on my DSLR for a while - the experience clicking the aperture smaller by hand and watching the viewfinder darken does really make you think about aperture and DOF in a way that you lose (well, that I lose, I should say) with even the most minimal automation. I don't think I have a year of it in me, though.

*This was, of course, the only lens mount any of us ever really needed.

"John Camp,

Try it. A Leica and B&W film for a year. 4-6 hours a week. Hire out the darkroom work. Then tell me what you think, whether it was worth it or not.

Bet you change your tune. Seriously. (Although I do admit it's to my advantage to sentence you to a year's hard labor in order for you to win the argument [g].)

Mike"

That's right, pile on the injured guy.

Actually, I started out (as a military journalist) shooting a Speed Graphic, god help me, compared to which a Leica was the latest word in modern convenience. I eventually bought a Spotmatic at the PX and never looked back. I also have two Leicas -- an M7 and an M8 -- which I would like to sell, but I really do treasure the glass. I even thought that if we could find the perfect test subject, I could loan out the M7 with one lens, throw in a few bricks of BW400CN (if Kodak still makes it -- I haven't checked lately) and see what happens...

Really, I don't doubt that your program would work somewhat, for people of exactly the right temperament. Any sustained, intelligent work program would help; I just think my program (which I stand by) would accomplish the same ends, much more quickly. Not quite as romantic, though.

I also think the discussion is an important one, not especially for young people, but more for older people who are picking up a late life serious hobby or art-form (or even second career) and really need to master the discipline quickly.

I'm missing Ctein's comments. You know, this whole discussion is not how to get to be okay at something, but how to get good. Ctein is an accomplished printer, and I would like to know -- does he think it'd be better for a new printer to make one or two prints a week, for a year, and spend some serious time contemplating them? Or to make, say, ten prints a night, and spend a somewhat shorter time contemplating them?

I really couldn't predict what he'd say.

JC

What if ya do it for a year avec hat and tie a la Mr. Callahan?

"But still, since this is all about discipline anyway, could you not use a DSLR to shoot Black and White jpgs, use manual focus and exposure modes, and turn off the LCD review, use only one prime lens, and walk away with a similar level of attainment?"

BINGO!

Fantastic!

I sold a rare book to buy my Leica M6 from Rich @ PhotoVillage. Best purchase I ever made.

Thanks so much for this great post -- and the great photos.

Forget digital. Leica is where it's at. It's where it's been. It's where it will be.

"I sold my Nikon Gear yesterday and bought Leica today."

I did exactly the same thing about ten years ago - two Nikon bodies and several lenses for an M6, a 50 and a 35. It was one of the two best things I ever did for my photography. YMMV, but for me it was a tremendous leap forward.

"The value proposition doesn't work in a day where a basic manual film SLR costs less than the shipping or tax on a Leica. By film camera standards Leica's are ridiculously expensive. A comparable film SLR is $20-50 and the same for a basic lens."

In my not-humble opinion, you're wrong about the value, you're wrong about the expense, and you're wrong about the cameras being "comparable."

I recently sold the staggeringly good* Leica 35/1.4 ASPH lens that I bought a decade ago, in mint condition, for $50 more than I paid for it. That was after I added significant cosmetic wear to the lens because I shot hundreds of rolls of film with it. So I lost some interest income on the damn thing. That's still an outrageously cheap rental on the single best optic I've ever owned** with which I took a disproportionate number of the best photos that I've ever taken. Could I have done the same with any (non-collectable) Canon or Nikon lens***?

*Yes, that lens was in fact a hell of a lot better than the Nikon 35 f/2 that was up to that time my most-used lens. It was as good at f/1.4 as the Nikon lens was at f/2.8. It was markedly better at f/2 than the Nikon was at f/5.6.

**I don't actually own the $90,000 Olympus microscope in my research lab.

***We won't even get in to how digital *bodies* depreciate...

"I'll stick to my OM-4T. It doesn't cost me anything, cause I've had it 15 yrs, and I don't have $1000 to put into a Leica, even if I get the money back at the end. I don't have it at the beginning! Seriously, you don't need a Leica."

Ooooooooh. An OM-4T. I always wanted one of those, but could never afford it. By the time I could afford it, a M6 actually was not so much more expensive!

Hey, what makes texting "lowest common denominator" and writing by hand not? Is getting hand cramps from using the pen somehow more noble? Feh.

Anyway. I did my two years of darkroom work, black and white only. Even set up a fiber printing darkroom in my house. Then I got more job and more family and less time and I have not touched it since. I think it teaches you a lot, but nothing that you can't learn in other ways if you practice well.

I like the idea of simplicity in operation, although I think it can be realized with almost any gear. When I was first getting excited about photography, and buying lots of stuff (oh yeah I wanted a Leica, or whatever was hot that week) one of my mentors put it to me like this: "You've got the 120 pack of crayons, but you need to learn to use the 8 pack first."

I'm one of the 90%+ who won't do that, even though it's probably a good idea. But I did spend pretty well a whole year shooting with the original Pentax *ist-D and the 40mm limited prime "pancake". Would that get me to first base?


I still miss my OM-4T's too.

Mike

Mike,

My mistake with using the typing/texting analogy.

Your suggestion is more analogous to asking a math/science/engineering student to use a slide rule for a year. I'm not sure that a student needs to start from the same/similar starting point as the master did.

Jeff

So interesting articles and comments. I have been using my Nikon D200 as a manual camera for more than one year now. Spot metering, Single focusing point, single frame, with manual old nikkors, but shotting color. I am trying some black and white conversion recently. Upon reading Mike's article, I turned the camera to B&W mode and took some frames,and quickly realized that if I want to go B&W, I would be better off begin from B&W,and learn to shot B&W rather than conversion from color. Many thanks for great suggestions.

This is my first time reading these blogs.

I work as a pro and teach one day a week at college. This is great advice.... and yes I think it should be a Leica. Myself I use the Zeiss Ikon's but I have been through the Leica phase and feel it was important.

It will be interesting to see how many sign up for this.... and more interesting to see how many finish.

Maybe start a flickr group for the best photo of the month each person gets.

As a slide film photographer for many years, I would argue the best way to learn is to shoot slides, because, what you see is what you get. You can't alter the results. And it is expensive, not cheap, so you better learn. And if nothing else, unless you have endless reseouces, you will learn to shoot more sparingly. Digital has cheapened the process of photography to the point that people all over the net feel free to crop and critique images they see to death. You would never do that at a camera club. Joining a slide club is the best thing I ever did to learn photography and I quickly learned most of the people there were older or retired or very well off. So I shot sparingly!

JR

I've actually done what Mike suggests--though not because he suggested it or because I had any particular love for Leicas. I just had some extra cash at the time and saw a very used M4 on sale for $425 at the time. I soon found an equally well used 35mm Summicron and the adventure began. I had a darkroom in my apartment at the time and, more importantly, I was single and had the time to shoot.

The M4 (which didn't even have a meter) was perfect for developing mad skillz at the street shooting and candid interiors I love to do. I wouldn't recommend it for people interested in more specialized shooting such as portraits, macro, sports and so on. It's a great way to learn certain things about photography but I'm of the belief that there's more than one path to the mountaintop.

I did several years with a Leica M6 and 35mm 1.4 ASPH and a 75mm 1.4. I also had a Leica R outfit. Shot for newspapers. Turns out I almost didn't need the R system, except when I was shooting football or baseball. Whenever I was doing real photojournalism, it was 85 percent the M6 and 35. I really learned to get so much out of that combination it almost made the rest irrelevant.

I learned so much from that camera, even though I had been shooting for years before. But today I'd never give up digital. Film is over. I'd love a full frame M9 with a 35 again. Not for the studio, but out in the field. Whatever, it must be digital now.

Besides, digital saves so much money over film and paper, that even at $5,000 a digital rangefinder would seem like a bargain to me compared to what it cost to shoot a year's worth of film back then. People forget just how expensive film, chemicals and paper cost when they complain about the price of pro-level cameras now. I just shake my head and thank my lucky stars I lived to work in this marvelous age of digital imaging.

John Camp, I'm down with 'ya buddy (except for the chimping). I shot and analyzed and improved more with a DSLR than I ever could burning film (and money). Brooks Jensen's podcast on "Passion in the Old and New Media" says it all for me.

Self-discipline. It's all what separates us from the animals - I can make my DSLR do what I want it to. It's not hard, M, MF, turn wheel. Done. I would argue that digital made me a better FILM photographer - and I have nothing against film, in that it's the quicker way to get a particular vision suited to the film's color/tone palate across and allow me to progress more. A Minty Nikon N8008s is on the way, it will be used manually (focus and exposure) as it can't hold a candle to my DSLRs in the speed department. I've tried afternoons with the Bessa/50 and...it's got a romantic value, but the pics just aren't hitting it for me.

Maybe it's the demographics - I'm in my late 30's, I've been photographing since I was 10, but made photography my passion with digital.

If the long way around the tree was always the best way, then why aren't we shooting wet plate? I see more arguments being put forth as anecdotal, by people gravitating instead to their comfort zones. My comfort zone is the computer, I have used Photoshop since version 3. I see what John Paul Caponigro and Vincent Versace do and it clicks with me and both are firmly grounded in traditional techniques. I do study darkroom techniques, but only in how to apply them in Photoshop (or Lightroom). I've no desire to spend time or money on anything darkroom related. I'm not trying to bash Leicas or film. I'm still saving for an M4-P but because I want one, not that I think it will make me a better shooter. Nor am I saying that Mike's way won't work, but I don't think it's THE way.

Hollering from the other side of the generation gap,

Jason

I think it has to be a Leica because as far as I know it is the only non-automatic camera that let's you use it without looking at the camera. You can keep you eyes on the scene you are photographing, raise the camera to your eye, frame and shoot.

You would have to learn to set the aperture, shutter speed and distance by feel. This is where lots of practice comes in. You can set the aperture by counting the click stops from wide open. You can set the shutter speed by finding the click stop for the 1/50s flash sync and then counting clicks to get to your desired shutter speed. You can use the position of the focus tab to determine the distance you have set the lens to.

I have tried this, it's not that hard, it just takes a lot of practice. I never had the discipline to spend enough time to really master it, but this is what most master Leica photographers are able to do.

Mike's two pieces and all the comments are interesting, but what will be important in the future will be equally effective ways to learn photography using contemporary equipment.

I find the theory that one has to use a technology that is being rapidly abandoned by everyone somewhat depressing.

When I started to learn computer programming, each card we punched held only one line of computer code, and it took hours to get the results back after we dropped off the deck of cards on the counter at the computer center.

I developed the ability to write hundreds of lines of code with very few errors. Otherwise, I'd spend weeks just getting the program to run the first time.

Today, I make hundreds of little mistakes a day, half of which are corrected by the editing system I use before I've finished typing the word.

Was I a better programmer in the old days, and would I recommend that as a good way for a novice to learn? Absolutely not. The old tools were so cumbersome that we were unable to really tackle anything major unless we literally had years of time available.

(I know what some of you may be thinking. No, programs were not more reliable in the old days. They are much more reliable now.)

Surely there's a way to learn photography using contemporary technologies that's BETTER than what was feasible with film?

Is Mike's idea the best he (or anyone) can come up with?

--Marc

There's a really, really good idea here: a formal learning project with deliberately limiting parameters. The rest of it directly contradicts much of what has been written here previously and a lot of my own experience. I've got a well-loved and very heavily used M4 and other manual rangefinders and they've taught me an enormous amount about photography.

But so have all the other cameras I've used!

It's just not about the box of portable darkness. It's just not. It's about study and practice, just like everything else worth doing.

Figuring out that it is not about the camera is THE single biggest hurdle the typical beginner needs to get over. This admittedly slick and beautifully written argument that it must be a Leica just adds to the vast ocean of complex junk thinking about camera choices, even though the intent is surely to do the exact opposite!

For the true ab initio student, there's just no reason to insist on a particular camera. I will concede that if the student has already become trapped by The Great Cycle of Masturbatory Camera Obsession, the Leica might make sense because he can't blame the camera for his own mistakes, since "there's nothing better." People trapped in the The Great Cycle almost always buy that hook, line and sinker.

re: john wintheiser, there is (was) an M3 + 50 'cron sitting on Ebay for $1000 buy-it-now, so while an M6 might be hard, an M3 shouldn't be that far out of the range. And the whole no meter thing? Someone might tell you to get over it, I'll just tell you that it costs a couple weeks worth of film.

But really, I wanted to clarify what I said earlier about learning more shooting film than I do now shooting digital. I think the most important part was that I wasn't getting immediate feedback. I couldn't shoot, look at the result, shoot again, and so on until I got something acceptable which is how I shoot digitally a lot of the time. I had to think the shot through, click the shutter, and then wait until the roll was finished. The thing is, I only know what I want out from a picture now because I did that back then.

The other thing I want to add is that often, there is a considerable lag between when you learn something the hard way and the payoff for having learned it. For everyone else who's decided to tackle the exercise, don't expect results from it right away, or even by the end of the year. But they'll show themselves.

Thanks Mike. These are the exact sorts of articles that keep me coming back every morning. And then some.

OK, let's get serious here :-)

Which Leica? M4 (-2, -P), M6? Does it matter?

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