I honestly didn't mean this to be a big thing on the blog this week, but I guess, by popular demand, I have to elaborate. But please see the note at the very end of this post.
First of all, what I'm suggesting is an exercise. Young people think a year is a very long time. All us older people know it isn't. A year spent learning several important aspects of photography at once, in a concerted way, will pay off for many years after that, regardless of where you take it later. That's assuming you really want to be a photographer in the first place, of course.
Why using a Leica for a year doesn't cost anything, as several commenters have correctly guessed: a used M6 goes for between $1000 to $1200, give or take, and won't depreciate much (if at all) in a year. How much interest would your bank give you right now for keeping that grand parked in a savings account for that period of time? I don't know if you've checked interest rates recently, but the answer is "not very much." At the end of the year you'll lose maybe $100, counting shipping and Ebay fees and lost bank interest, maybe $200 if you're unlucky and/or impatient. Dave Terrell recounts, in the comments to the previous post, how he used some Leica gear for four years and came out $140 ahead. The same has been true for me. I've owned three Leicas at various times over the years, and I made money on two of them. Not much, but the upshot was that the three together ended up not costing me a dime to own and shoot with for a while. Not a dime. (Wish I could say the same for my digital cameras, which have collectively depreciated more than enough to cover a nice Leica and a good lens.) If you do what I suggest, film and paper, or outside processing and printing, will cost much more than the camera will—and both will be dwarfed by the value of the time you'll put in.
And in case you're feeling all whiney about not being able to come up with a grand for the camera: you're young. Work. Save up. Get an extra job. Sacrifice a little. Drink less. Get motivated and go find the damn money, for chrissake. (Malcolm Forbes used to say that no motorcycle enthusiast should be jealous of his motorcycle collection, because any working stiff could afford one motorcycle, and one is all anybody really needs.) Even if you don't have enough credit with anyone on Earth to borrow a grand for a year, it's still not impossible. When I wanted my first camera, I worked two jobs, seven days and 70 hours a week. Granted, I wouldn't have wanted to do that for the rest of my life, but after a few months of that grind I had my camera and lens. In any event, if you're not committed to being out of pocket to the tune of $100 or $200 for a camera you're going to use every day for a year, well, then maybe you aren't committed enough for this exercise, is all. No penalty, no prison time. But don't complain.
Why it has to be a Leica: well, other cameras can be good teachers too. But the Leica is the best teacher, and here's why you should pick it and not a substitute:
1. It's no fun to look through. Totally boring, in fact. Just a window. The framelines aren't even accurate, so you you can't get all prissy about edges and exact framing. 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. That particular distortion is just as distracting as parallax and the other flaws of rangefinder viewing, just different. The RF camera sees like you should during this year: at a glance, taking everything in at once. A few months of shooting with a Leica and you'll start to get a feel for what aperture you need for what depth of field. (Mostly I think you'll learn it's not as all-fired important as the SLRs—and the online forums—would lead you to believe.)
2. The Leica is really simple—truly, "as simple as possible, and no simpler." (Well, except for that frameline-preview lever.) You know what "the feel of the wheel" is? It's when you've been driving for a few months and suddenly you realize you don't have to think about anything consciously any more. When you first got behind the wheel of a car, you had to think about everything. After a while it becomes second nature. You think what you want to happen, and it happens. I'm not saying this is some deep spiritual thing. I'm reminded of the old joke—what did the guru say to the hot dog vendor? "Make me one with everything." But "becoming one" with the camera is a cool thing, and a good lesson. It is really, really hard to achieve on a modern DSLR, because they're not built for that. I'm not saying it's necessary to learn to handle the camera this way to do good work or anything like that, but it is really cool, cool enough that it's worthwhile experiencing at least once in your life with cameras.
3. The Leica is quiet. Not super quiet, any more, but quiet enough. It changes how you can shoot compared to most SLRs. You'll see.
4. The Leica is really responsive. First of all, it doesn't ever do one damn thing you don't tell it to do. Modern cameras are your servants: always stepping in trying to help, always trying to take things out of your hands and do the work for you. Which is fine. But we're talking about learning here, and you will learn more if you have to do everything yourself for a while. Think of the difference: who is better off, the rich man who has servants doing everything for him, but who is fully capable of taking care of himself if he has to, or the rich man who is helplessly dependent on his servants to take care of him, and would perish without them? Learn to pull your own weight, then go back to all the helper-cameras. You'll be infinitely better off. Forever, not just for the time being.
And the shutter lag is 18 milliseconds, with a very positive mechanical shutter feel. That, coupled with the total absence of blackout in the viewfinder window, will teach you to take the picture at the exact right moment, not some vague approximation of it. All good pros know how to do this, regardless of how they learned it.
5. A Leica is cool to wear in any language, in any country. You don't need to make excuses, feel sheepish, wish you had something else, worry about your image, etc. If you can't get better, then you never have to fret about not having good enough.
6. Finally, and just as importantly as any other reason here: a Leica is a Leica. The icon, the legend, all that, yatta yatta. It has been responsible for far more than its share of great work; more great photographers used it in the second half of the twentieth century than any other camera, at least part of the time. You can see even in the comments to the previous post that the camera provokes strong emotions and opinions; no other 35mm excites nearly the same passions nearly as universally in our little craft. Until you get to grips with a Leica, you haven't gotten to grips with a Leica. So, do it. Then you'll know firsthand what everyone is bloviating about, and need never suffer a scintilla more angst on that account.
Do this while you're young, and have time in your life. Do it while you have the energy to commit, while all your possibilities are still open, while you still have the motivation to stay in training. Because make no mistake, photographing the way I suggested in the previous post is the photographic equivalent of being a top athlete: it takes dedication and coordination and talent and time and sacrifice and lots of training. Not everybody can do it. (I can't, these days. Too old, slow, stiff and lazy.) This whole idea works better—it's simply more possible for most of us—when we're young and have energy to throw away. You can tell from the comments that a lot of our readers have done something similar to this at some point in their lives, and only a few don't agree it was a good thing for them.
So what I'm suggesting is that you devote a year and some cash and work your butt off and learn some lessons about photographing that will stick in your brain pan throughout the rest of your life. It's not a film vs. digital thing; you can go back to digital and never look back and it will still never stop helping you. It's not a black-and-white vs. color thing; a year of seeing "luminances only" will help your color photography too, even if you never shoot another "capture" of B&W in your life. It's not a rangefinder vs. any-other-kind-of-camera thing; I think you'll find that the lessons the rangefinder will teach you are exportable. And it's not even a Leica vs. other-rangefinder thing, either. But until you've gotten to know life with Leica, you don't know about life with Leica, and it's just going to keep on being one more thing you don't know. So why not get to know it, firsthand and for yourself?
I don't even really like rangefinders. Most other people don't either. (What they like is Leicas, not rangefinders, for many reasons, some sensible, some stupid.) If they did, there would be more people buying them, and there would be a few viable digital rangefinders on offer. The reason there aren't is that only a few people really like the damn things.
They still have a lot to teach you, though, in my humble opinion. Most people will never get to, but a year with a Leica as a teacher is something every passionate photographer would experience once in their lifetimes if they were really lucky.
P.S. A year with a view camera, too. But, as Ctein would say, "Put down the can opener and step slowly away from the worms...."
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N.b.: Again, remember, nobody's going to actually do what I'm suggesting. It's an historical moment whose time has passed. I'm glad I got my year in, but the experience is going to be extremely rare in the future. So if you're tempted to get your bonnet all askew over this, please don't bother.
As to why then I bothered to spell all this out, people asked, that's all.
UPDATE (5/6/10): Two illustrations were removed from this post at the photographer's request.
Featured Comment by Tod Papageorge: "Two great posts, I think, and not only because they echo a sweet tirade I've been abusing my graduate students with for the last several years (none of whom has used any kind of 35mm camera over that period). I resist getting mystical about the Leica, as the fact that I earned my great friend Garry Winogrand's less-than-benign puzzlement when I gave it up for a medium-format Fujica should testify. But, sorry everyone, or some of you, there really is nothing else remotely like a Leica for in-the-hand picture-making, and the only reason I could consider setting it aside for the clumsy Fujica was precisely because I'd put in a decade of steady practice using it and was ready to apply what I'd learned to a more ponderous kind of process.
"Also great to see Garry and his between-the-legs method. In all the years I knew him, never once, not once, did I observe him resort to this particular shooting style. He must have been inspired by Arnold."
Featured Comment by Paul Amyes: "I teach photography at an art school and we are just starting to get the first totally digital generation of students coming through—they have never used anything but digital. The first year of the three year program has them shooting monochrome, developing and printing. We recommend totally manual cameras with a 50mm prime. They all bitch about this and say they know all there is to know about exposure and composition. Second semester tranny [transparencies] is introduced to teach them a little more about exposure and composition. The rate of improvement is considerable as they learn that they have to work for an image. At the end of the first year they have to produce a portfolio of 16 B&W prints of professional standard. It is at this stage the penny drops and they realise what we h ave been on about.
"Oh, and second year it's all 5x4 transparency in the studio and on location.
"As to Mike's suggestion about the Leica, yes I would tend to agree with him, only because the depreciation is very small. Any rangefinder would do, and a few of the students who really catch on buy Bessas. But I think most people would benefit from doing this exercise using an OM-1, a K1000 or an FM, as long as they used just one prime. when I first started I had an old Praktica Super TL and a 50mm ƒ/2.8 Zeiss. It was truly an agricultural experience but I have still got a couple of the photos from those days which have stood up rather well to the test of time. So just get a mechanical 35mm camera and just one lens—35–50mm is probably best—and shoot away."