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Friday, 29 May 2009


Mike: My first 35mm camera was an Argus A5, which had 4 shutter speeds, 5 f/stops, 'guess' focusing, one lens (naturally) and no lightmeter (although I did have an external one). I used that camera for several years before I could afford an SLR (Pentax Spotmatic F), and it taught me a lot.

I think your exercise is a valuable one.


I feel ambivalent toward your last two posts. A potentially great idea ruined by your interpretation that it *must* be a Leica.

I carried a mechanical SLR (batteries only for the three dot under-, correct-, over-exposed meter) with me every day for a year and a half shooting film, about two rolls a week. Did it make me a better photographer?

I don't know. Probably?

It taught me some of the mechanics of photography - aperture, shutter speed, how to manually focus (which greatly helps me use autofocus), and gave me perspective on a more thoughtful way of shooting. But I could say that I've learned equally as much using digital - mostly due to the benefits of instant review, fearlessness in committing to an exposure, and the ability to practice, practice, practice without being bogged down by the mechanics of developing and printing or scanning. (Yes, I still shoot 6x7 and develop the film in my bathroom sink.)

And yet, I'm still learning that there is more to photography than understanding and being competent with your tools.

Your post inspired in me the idea to pick up a 35mm rangefinder and carry it around with me every day to expand my photographic horizons... but your insistence that it be a Leica and no other has left me with a bad taste in my mouth, and slightly confused. Your justifications seem to be more against the convenience and automation of modern dSLRs or even SLRs, and you mention some reasonable points of why it has to be a rangefinder and not a SLR. But your justifications of why it should be a Leica and none other seem weak, and very unworthy of you.

To assume I would be ashamed of the camera I wore around my neck is condescending. Whether it's a prestige model or a bargain brand, I have personally made a choice to use that camera. No one should be ashamed of their choice, and for you to accept or even cater to such superficiality is irritating.

I've never owned a Leica before, so yes, it would be nice to use one... or even hold one. But it would also be nice to drive a Rolls Royce or wear a Rolex. But rather bemoan the fact that they are too expensive, or work hard to earn enough money to afford one as you suggest, I'm going take the third option - drive a car that I can afford and wear a watch I can buy. No, it won't be a Rolls Royce and it won't be a Rolex, but I will still learn to drive, and I will still be able to tell the time. And for you to tell me that I will never reach the same skill as you with your Rolls Royce and your Leica... I mean Rolex, is terribly condescending. Then again, since I don't own a Leica, maybe this is all true and Leicas really are like magical unicorns.

Then again, maybe they aren't.

"Then again, since I don't own a Leica, maybe this is all true and Leicas really are like magical unicorns.

"Then again, maybe they aren't."

Then again, maybe you should just try it and find out for yourself. Then you'd know.


I think that you would learn a lot more if you bought three or four high-end DSLRs of different brands, and at least five lenses for each (ten is better). And every time you had any sort of problem at all, you should buy a new item. Not important what it is, just that you get used to that kind of problem solution.

Sure, not a cheap way to go, but what price education?

"...not a cheap way to go, but what price education?"

You're not helping!


A Leica. Is that black or chrome?

It seems just yesterday I read a quote by ol' Ansel- something to the effect of how small cameras simply allow us the opportunity to shoot lots more mediocre pictures.

Actually, I don't dispute the Leica, 1 yr premise- at any age. I plan on doing it sometime in the future (even if, alas, only with a Bessa), when I'm even older and stiffer and lazier. Should help infuse some much needed energy into my work by then, although I know I'll be cussing up a storm at first because my framing and composition won't be anywhere near as exact- which, of course, could be a plus right there.

So many people today don't understand the subtleties between say... what a 35mm can do as opposed to a 28- it's just one endless zoom ride as far as they're concerned. Actually, I also kind of like the idea of just shooting strictly with my Widelux for a year- that would definitely improve my panoramics.

I have to say I'm confused about which Leica too. In particular would you recommend something without a light meter, or with? (M3/4 vs M6, as an example) I've been interested in RF cameras for a while and this is finally pushing me over the edge. There are a lot more variations between the cameras then I expected and picking one is difficult.

Thomas Risberg wrote:
"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 do this equally well on any camera with absolute-position dials/rings and a shortish focus throw, i.e. on just about any non-auto 35mm camera with a suitable lens. If you're concerned about the absence of tabs you can glue them on.

Leica photographers develop the skill because the type of photography typically done with Leicas benefits from it. It's not restricted to them.

Dear Mike,

I've used Leicas. Eh, shrug.

Maybe they are magical unicorns, but then I'm no virgin.


Dear JC,

You just led me to a new realization. Up until this moment, I had never thought of this: while I have some clear ideas on how I would teach a class of students to be good photographers, I don't have the foggiest how I would teach them to be good printers.

Understand that I'm not using "good**" to mean "technically competent**." I can and do teach that all the time, through columns, articles, and books. I can say that being a really good printer is more than mere technical competence (the same way being a really good photographer is more than knowing the mechanics). So it's not that there's nothing to be taught/learned. But I don't know how.

I find this peculiar, seeing as I am a much, much better printer than I am photographer.

[**If there are any readers who are not understanding the distinction I'm making here, consider that I am a technically competent writer, while JC is a GOOD one. ]

~ pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
-- Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com 

You do realise you're in danger of agreeing with Ken Rockwell. Not saying that is good or bad, just sayin'. Simon

Great article, Mike. You have put the Leica in practical perspective much better than anyone else's ramblings on Leica's magical and ethereal qualities. It's just a damn good and honest camera. While I shoot digitals more and more, I will always keep and use my Leicas.

I don't miss film. Sorry for the heretical comment, but I don't miss it at all. Digital, for me, is essentially free, and with wife, kids, mortgage, car payments, etc, I could not afford film, especially as much as I love to shoot. There are days I miss my 4x5 and TLR Yashica 6x6 shooting Tri-X or Tech Pan in the Texas Hill Country. I learned from a professor who insisted we use Yashica TLRs with NO LIGHT METER, and shoot Plus X or Tri X in college. IMHO, the Leica is vastly over-rated when a good TLR will give sharper/better images on the film. If I could afford film again (and had a place to print real prints), I would use the Mamiya 7 series. There is no substitute for a large negative. That being said, a good 12 mp Nikon/Canon/Sony/Olympus/etc is just as good for any real purpose these days except for Fine Art prints. Just my two cents worth. Digital has allowed me to get back into photography. I use one lens, and one camera when I go shoot however.....

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


I'm seriously considering doing so. Probably the Yashica FX-3 with a Contax 50/1.4 although I might go with the FM2n and Voigtlander 58/1.4 instead since I'm not really sure the FX-3 can handle 100 rolls of film without self-destructing.

Hey, why even a rangefinder? What about a Rollei 35? Holds value, slips in your pocket, and you get real good thinking in terms of depth of field!

I can't help but think a lot of people are missing the point--camera snobbery is not the reason that Mike is suggesting a Leica. In fact, it's the very opposite. He's suggesting it simply because it has the reputation as the very best camera, enabling you to stop worrying about the damn box and start looking at what pictures you're taking. You'll never again wonder about whether you'd get better pictures if you had a Leica, because you've been there, done that.

Also, as the target audience (I just graduated college) I think this idea is great. Actually, before these two articles were posted, I just snapped up a M3. No, I don't think it's because of the magic inherent in the box, I just wanted to have the experience of shooting a meterless Leica and get it out of my system. I also don't have much money (for the next year I'm going to be in an Americorp program--good for subject matter perhaps, not so good for mountains of cash), but I took what I had from working campus jobs over the last 3 years and got the camera and lens for about $1000.

Last point--digital is what got me back into photography. I loved seeing the results on the screen immediately. But I started to notice that no picture I took was as good as what I was getting with my dad's Pentax Super A and 50mm 1.4, which I had used throughout high school. There's something about the process that changes when you're using a manual system. Don't ask me what, since I honestly couldn't tell you, but it's unmistakable.

So, in the end, it's not the camera, but it is the camera, but it's not...

I know I'm late to respond to this as there are over 100 other comments, but I have to say again it's not close to free in any reasonable financial model. This doesn't detract from your exercise suggestion, but I think saying that trying it is free is mean to any who may not be able to easily afford the Leica.

I would say there are a couple of categories of people who should not consider buying a Leica for your experiment. Worse, I think these would occur in higher percentage in your target group of the young. First, opportunity costs can be very high: Anyone who has large credit card debt would lose hundreds of dollars over one year compared to using a cheap camera and putting the rest toward the debt. Second, a leica is not a risk-free asset (damage, repair, theft, loss, etc), and constant use increases these risks. You may as well say the lotto makes people money by pointing out the guy who won. Anyone who cannot handle the thought of losing all or a large chunk of the resale value at the end of the experiment should also opt for something cheaper. With my income, losing $1000 so easily would be a paralyzing prospect. Getting a leica is right for some people to be sure, but there are very real costs. Please don't pretend otherwise by saying it's free.

As far as the relatively non-depreciating nature of a leica, I think you would find this is actually true with just about any mechanical camera today. If you take today's used price as the baseline (not original price), most will return fairly stable results. A $40 K-1000 will be around $40 when the experiment ends.

I've been going over this for a day or two, struggling with it, and the bottom line is that these particular two pieces actually made me angry. Hence this public navel-gazing.
Like many others, I recognize the value of curmudgeonly advice from time to time. (Like Kirk Tuck's film rants, some of this IS curmudgeonly, but "curmudgeonly" isn't always a bad thing.)

Some of this is personal. I'm ADD as the day is long and could stand to push a little more discipline into my photography. I'm an inveterate lens-switcher, perspective changer, and I scattershoot as a way to sketch until I find what I want to put down in ink. There is value in both discipline and in implementing some rigid limits in order to focus on specific skills. I do some coaching, and recognize that all drills have some elements that make them differ from real game conditions. They need to be done, focused on, and repeated to build the skills that you can draw on without having to think about them when they're needed. Some drills suck, but they make you stronger.

The bottom line to me is that the advice is so impractical for so many people. To be perfectly honest, it's probably monumentally bad advice for many others. And so I'm seeking something that more people can take away, can benefit from, and can return ultimately much greater value. If the goal is to create perhaps one more devotee of a certain style who has gone through this kind of learning process, then of course it doesn't matter that the advice is utterly unusable for everyone else. But the article doesn't say that.

It's not your responsibility to explain every bit of intent. It's not possible for you to make every recommendation a considered course of study for each individual, with his (all too likely) or her specific experiences, strengths, and weaknesses. So it's not like I'm angry with you personally.

I also know that I would miss shots that I consider worthwhile if I weren't able to paint with all the colors available to me. Breaking it down is important, but so is flexibility. (Coaching: even on some of the practice days where we most focus on specific skills, we get to play some, too.)

The suggestion to work hard - to take two jobs - is ill-timed in an environment where it's so hard to find one job. Work hard, save, prioritize, that all makes sense. But I'd like to hear you offer the alternative for all those folks who aren't going to be able to take two jobs, but who'd still like to develop. The point could be that you have to be 100% dedicated, that you have to suffer, that you have to go through those pains, or else you can never truly learn to be a great photographer. And maybe that's what really troubles me.

Tangentially, I wonder if the next great photographer is going to come out of some of the methods that produced great photographers in the past, or if using some of the same methods is an attempt to create another Winogrand (we already had one). I'm a believer in knowing where it's come from before ignoring it, so I wouldn't want to discount photography's past, but that's pretty far off the original purpose of the post...

But enough about me...

Will B&W slides do(DR5)? I know the darkroom work is part of the exercise, but I don't have access to one. Is reversal material too inflexible as it does not have the possible adjustments done at the printing stage? This is such a good idea, but it will be difficult not to use more lenses, and lose the benefits of total immersion into simplicity.

It's Eolake's world. We just live in it.

I posted here about this late in the last thread, but i need to repeat part of it. If you read the former post you will know i am not a leica "basher", and have used them.
The deal breaker for me, is that for me, it has a very irritating "feature", that i simply do not like. That is (even on the M8-god knows why...) its totally removes back/bottom plate, which has to be done to load film or apparently to change a memory card.
Apart from that, i consider them superb.
But if any other company, with a less historic/respected product line did that, we would all be flaming them for bad design.

Dear Michael,

In my opinion B&W slides would be BETTER!

The point of Mike's exercise is not to get lost in the details and craft/technical minutiae. B&W neg film and darkroom printing is actually a really poor model (from a craft perspective) for the kind of photography 99+% of the photographers are going to end up doing. It's a way to get you to see luminances. B&W slides will do the same thing, and provide you with much more useful feedback.

In my judgment, anyway.

pax / Ctein

"In my opinion B&W slides would be BETTER! [snip] In my judgment, anyway."

Yes, I think so. Actually the darkroom work is *the* major impediment to the process, a necessary evil. The point is indeed to learn to see luminances. Beyond that, the easier and less expensive the better.

I just don't have any experience with "black and white slides" and I don't know if they're attractive or dreadful. Any thoughts on that, Ctein, or anyone?


Well, I've just packed away most of my kit. I'm going to see how well this idea works for me starting in a week or so when I return a recently-borrowed 501CM.

I've decided on the FX-3 and 50/1.4 Planar. As to film, I won't buy anything other than HP5. I will however shoot non-HP5 from what's in my fridge, if only because buying 100 rolls of film is a non-trivial amount when I already have that much floating around.

We'll see how long I last.

That's great. Good fortune, and let us know.


Good choice!

20 years ago I began following an advice from teacher Cora W. Kennedy: a Yashica FX3 and two lenses: Tessar 45/2,8 and Sonnar 85/2,8.

Since I didn't find the "3" in Brazil, I bougth it's sister, the FX7.

I'm using them to this day, Plus-X loaded.

Bauru - BR

I have moved almost entirely to rangefinder for everything not requiring a tripod. It works for me, but it does depend on your style and the sort of work you are aiming for.

I am a Leica fan, but more the bodies than anything else. Splashing out on a Leica outfit was the best thing i ever did. It changed the way I work and I have never looked back. I am much more fluid, spontaneous and flexible. It helps me capture what is going on 'real time', up close and where it happens. There really is little substitute for getting in close with a RF and a 24-35mm lens and being part of the action. The longest I shoot is 50 and even then, rarely. My 90 has shot about ten frames in four years.

While the one body one lens approach can help, I find two bodies with lenses permanently affixed works for me. I simply could not do what i do with one lens (certainly not a 50, but everyone is different). With a 35 or 28 alone I could perhaps do about 75% though. I would never have thought that possible three or four years ago when using a canon SLR system. Dont get me wrong, that kit is fantastic when you need it, but now I have dramatically improved my personal skills - my 'patter' - and can just be there and get shots without people really giving a damn. This is partly why i totally disagree with the notion that you buy a Leica for the lenses. with Zeiss, Hexanon, CV and a few more) brands available, there has never been a better time for taking advantage of a totally different relationship between you, your camera and what you are pointing it at.

I know a lot of famous work was done with a 50mm lens, but feel that the 35mm is really the standard lens for the Leica. It sits somewhere between Cartier-Bresson and Winogrand!

I spent my first year, in 1975, working with a fixed lens Canon rangefinder. Did B&W with Tri-X and D-76. Learned a lot that I still use daily. I really like the advice and if I had a good film scanner I might be tempted to re-visit a year doing what Mike suggests. I can always find someone else to process the film and then scan negatives and make prints via my computer.

My learning came from an SLR, but a very simple one, a Pentax K1000. When I later found a classic Voigtlander fixed lens 35mm rangefinder with a 50mm f2.8 lens I learned even more. I now typically carry either a Pentax K10D with a 50mm f1.4 or a Pentax *istDL with a 35mm f2. I guess I am still learning (or at least I hope so).

I never wanted a Leica this much before...

To answer the question asked long ago, which Leica?

I would suggest the M6. Let's face it the meter does help and doesn't take away from the learning.
The M7 has Aperture priority so that wouldn't be the same. I guess an M5 would work as well but is a bit bigger.
For the lens I would suggest the 35mm. Rangefinders seem to be made for the 35mm so why fight it.

It's still a great idea and will be interesting to see who finishes.

You can come out ahead on the resale, but have you factored in the cost of film and processing? The cheapest film you can buy is around $3 a roll. You recommend shooting at least 3 rolls a week, that's around $500 dollars a year. Put another $3 processing per film and you have U$1000 spent, and that's a very low estimate with low quality material and service. Factor in the occasional print you could easily go over U$1500 at this rate. Now consider you can get a pretty good SLR for around $600, which will take pictures with more resolution than budget film, with no extra cost per picture (except for power, which is in the cents), and that will continue taking the same quality pictures for as long as it lives, assuming it doesn't fail ($$ depreciation doesn't make a camera worse). Which is a better deal? In the end you can do the same, just with a little more discipline, without spending half as much.

Today was my first with an M8(2)!

Have been taking photos since borrowing a bellows 120 camera around 1950. Have had darkrooms off and on through that time.

I picked up four M lenses 35, 50, 50 and 90 used while waiting for the camera to arrive.

I've switched from Nikon D300 after more than a year and thousands of images. Got to feeling more and more that the camera was getting between me and composition.

It doesn't hurt that Henri C-B and Robert Capa have been life-time heros.

Today was frustrating but I'm thinking the learning curve isn't all that steep.

Am THRILLED to be embarking on this journey, even as late in life as this...

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