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Thursday, 28 May 2009


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Say it loud, say it proud! Any fully manual camera, preferably without a built in meter, will do.

I started like this with a pen FT and the standard 38mm lens I bought second hand (just because I found it such a beauty, didn't know anything about cameras, the 72 exposures on one roll were another reason :), and learned a lot. It does not have to be a leica, just a manual film camera rather compact to always carry with you, even a simple isolette would do (that I started using after the FT).

I couldn't agree more Mike. When I started carrying my Pentax MX with me everywhere I went all the time, I started shooting more film. The more film I shot, the more I saw.

You could even let them use 2 lenses, but only carry one out the door.

I also like the 1-film approach. This really teaches you to get the most from your roll. You try stuff that you wouldn't with digital.

I love digital, but while you're in the early stages of learning to make pictures, I feel this approach will work the best.


Mike, I fear this will be unpopular but true. It doesn't even need to be a Leica, a Zeiss Ikon or Bessa or anything that's similar would be fine I think - same principle as the lens. Of course, the biggest difficulty isn't just the shopping gene, but the desire to have everything now that we have become inculcated with. We have come to believe that we have a right to be able to buy anything - but like jogging, running or athletics you only get out in proportion to the effort you put in (the constants in the proportionalty are probably talent and making more or less appropriate effort).

I bought a Zorki 4K out of curiosity and that led to a ZI as I liked the way of working but my glasses didn't get on with the Zorki's finder. Since then my dslrs have been quite neglected, only being used where I need to do something the rf can't.


And another thought - whilst I love the rf, I also used a Ricoh GX100 exclusively for a while and again it made a huge difference to my photography. My modus operandi was simple - set the step zoom to 35mm equivalent using the custom my mode. Iso 100 and stick a great big old russian turret finder in the hotshoe.

Sadly that camera now 'belongs' to my wife... but the same impact from working with only one restricted approach.


I don't think it has to be a Leica. And thank goodness for that - I can't afford to look at a Leica, let alone the lens that goes on it. But using any camera with a single lens for weeks or months at a time is an excellent exercise.

A very interesting idea. However, I cannot afford a Leica, so I'm going to have to make do with a Rollei 3.5F. Heck, it's my favorite camera anyway. I hope at the end of the year I'll have something to show you.

I'd like to read some reasoning behind this idea. Why Leica? Why film? The film I can perhaps understand as you probablt mean to slow shooting down and make it more thoughtful, but the Leica thing I don't get. I've never owned one or even tried one.

What you are saying is absolutely true. I have been shooting large format film for a bit over a year and what a difference it has made. I went from mostly color to almost entirely B&W and the quality of the photographs has risen dramatically. For most of the time I shot with a single 210mm lens.

A 35mm 2.5 has kept me happy for 2 years as my only camera - and I couldn't agree more. charlyburnett.com for some examples and I'll upload some more soon I promise!

I bought a Leica M3 last year for exactly this reason. Black and White, no meter. I don't know whether I'm a better photographer because of it, but I sure know a heck of a lot more than I did before about light and how a camera reacts to it.

Using a Leica for this seems like an expensive way to go. There are other instruments that would work perfectly well for the same purpose. Using a D40 and generating black and white jpegs will teach you as much as using a Leica and Tri-X. Maybe more.

The point is to follow the discipline, not to use particular tools in particular ways. IMHO.

That's pretty much how I started except shooting Kodachrome instead of black-and-white, using a Leica (IIIf, I think) I inherited from my grandfather. The grounding I got in the technical principles and, to a lesser degree, artistic principles from that approach still benefits me some 40 years later. ("A lesser degree" because I was pretty much groping with composition and light -- and still am.)

I'm sure I've read that advice here before...

While I'm probably too old to be young and about 20 years past a beginner, I'd say it worked for me.

Bought my Zeiss Ikon about a year ago & a 40mm. rather than daily, I use it in bursts - about 4 rolls in a week once a month. I probably see more photographs quicker than ever before with any camera and enjoy the act of going out photographing more than ever.

Does it have to be a Leica? =P

I've been tossing around the idea of buying a OM-2N and 35/2.8 and learning how to develop black and white film instead of buying a LX-3/G10/m43/whatever.

"shooting with nothing but a Leica and one lens for a year"

Perhaps your readership is a lot more well-heeled than I am, but a Leica is expensive and so are the lenses. They are WAY beyond the budget of the average "young" photographer (keeping in mind there will always be be rich young amateurs, but they are the exception). Not to mention, encouraging young photographers that a particular brand of camera will help their photography is garbage. Why not a Voigtlander? A Contax? How about saying "a rangefinder." Or, what about a Nikon FM? Who cares what brand/model/type? Why not just say "I encourage you to minimize the gear you are using, and perhaps try one lens, one film, and one camera?"

Only "quarrel" is that even a used Leica can be expensive- any used, manual 35mm body with some decent glass will do...

This is true. Or it was for me, anyway.

For me it happened later, and it was Kodachrome 64, nothing but. I had up to that point shot almost entirely black and white film; I wanted to learn color, and I wanted to do it with a film that was not forgiving of poor exposure. But I learned a hell of a lot that way.

Deja Vu and very true!

I had that teacher years back, packed into a summer course in college, B&W only (but about a roll a day), process your own, yep contact em, bring 4 clean workpints a week to a critique, did nothing but photography full time for 16 weeks...

The prof was kind of a martinet (well I thought an ass at the time) no zooms, no switching lenses, no cropping. He's pull a print down off the wall in critique, "That's a picture of a lens!" if it used a zoom or different lens than your other work. The darkroom attendant though (called himself The Cosmic Viper) had a great eye and a lot of patience for teaching printing.

But the point of this memory digression is that such concentration with "limitation" will improve your photographic eye, and I'd only add to show your work to others as well. Feedback can be valuable.

Been there, done that, for way more than a year. What you just handed out for free is indeed the best advice anyone could buy! Nothing taught me more than that Leica with one lens, Tri-X, proofs and work prints. Golden, golden advice! Everyone who does this will thank you!!

Right on! Excellent advice.

At middle age and after three decades of shooting 4x5, 8x10, 11x17, 12x20, and a ton of Rollei TLR, I'd made little to no progress that I could be proud of. In my case, instead of a Leica, I started with a Canon Point and Shoot digital shot the entire time on its widest focal length. I shot easily 1000 images a month for two years. Each self imposed "assignment" was carefully reviewed and shared with others for gathering feedback. I caught up on the state of the art in image tools. I learned to ignore the camera and pay attention to the light (and composition).

I'm now well into my fifth decade on this planet and I suddenly have found myself sharing my work in Minor White's old CamerWork gallery, published in LensWork (Extended #78), and have one of my portfolios accepted by the Center for Fine Art Photography in Ft. Collins, CO for their third annual book (along with 14 other artists this year).

In short, Mike, your approach works! And it works BRILLIANTLY, regardless of where one is in photographic life.

I did this in response to Mike suggesting it back in the mid 1990s. I never changed. More than a decade has passed. 90% of what I do is still done with a Leica and a 50 mm lens and Fuji Neopan 400 or Tri-X. I did change from a 50/2 Summicron to a 50/2 Hexanon because I liked the latter lens better, but that was a minor modification.

I now have an M8 and a few more lenses, but one thing that working for a long time with one camera and one lens taught me was that the times when I really need a different lens or approach are few.


What you say is indeed true, but certainly not financially viable for most people, like it or not. Thus, I offer this sub-$1000 recession time compromise plan:

Buy a body-only Nikon D60 ($499 at B&H; sure you could get the D40 with a kit zoom for the same price, but then you'd just be tempted to use that zoom. Plus, the extra megapixels aren't a bad thing to have) and the Nikon 35mm 1.8 DX prime ($199 when it is back in stock). Add a 4gb card and an extra battery, and for less than $800 before shipping or tax, you've got a nice kit that's small enough to take everywhere, is versatile, and that you can shoot endlessly with no additional costs. It could also work well (better?) with a K2000d, K200d or K20d and the 21, 35, or 40mm DA Limited. There are certainly Canon and Sony equivalents as well, though without primes that are as well-suited to the job.

Shoot JPEG set to black and white to really follow the spirit of Mike's (entirely sound) suggestion, to keep you looking at light. Shoot only in manual, and manually focus as much as you can.

This plan requires a bit more in the way of self-control, but costs less than the Leica without any lens and before film costs (which, over a year, would be substantial). It isn't as good a plan by any means, but times are tough, and it gets you most of the way there.

Ok I'm game! Unfortunately I'm going to have to substitute the Leica for a Voigtländer with my trusty 40mm. In truth I started this exercise around a year ago when I first got into black and white analogue printing, and It really has done wonders for the way I see photography. Such a simple step as limiting myself to one focal length has enabled me to see potential images everywhere, with a good idea of framing before the camera even reaches my eye. Just wish I could afford that lovely ikon you're always on about!


It is a good idea (which I won't do). This is probably the purest way to discover photography and improve ones skills. Other cameras besides a Leica would work just as well. A Spotmatic or K100 would do the trick also.

Many other photo exercises will also work to improve one's skills. If Mike's idea is too daunting, try just a simple photoblog, a photo per day for one year. Your best work every day. I don't guarantee results, but it can't hurt.


Good advice. I did it... sort of... not a Leica or rangefinder, but I shot many years years doing black and white on a manual SLR with only on one prime lens (out of economic necessity more than anything else). I shoot digital now and have for years. Mostly in color but for the last year or two in b&w and I'll vouch for the fact that shooting b&w is good for your "eye" and shooting with a prime I think is good to develop your composition skills.

Dear Mike, glad you brought this up because I am actually on a kick similar to this except that instead of a Leica I have a Pentax LX and I am saving for a 43 Limited. This camera lens combo is small, so I can carry it with me without hassle, it is high quality; by the way the manual focus feel on the 43 is the best of all the Pentax limiteds that I had a chance to play with in the camera shop, and the LX offers aperture priority AE, a feature that I feel doesn't hinder the learning process as long as one understands the limitations of their cameras meter. I have a box of Diafine waiting to be mixed up and will use it to process Tri-X in my bathroom. These supplies are cheap and easy to use (I used this combo for a very short time several years ago when I had a Nikon FE and 50). And the frames I want to have a better look at I can have scanned cheaply and look at them on my computer. Furthermore, I am in a great position for this exercise as I moved from Seattle to Tokyo for a 2 year study program, so I have endless subjects and availability of supplies (except that Diafine is not sold here, I brought mine from Seattle).

Ultimately to do the project properly like you explain one would want to have at least a couple thousand dollars to get the leica body + lens you describe and have access to a dark room to make contact and proof prints. Ideally I would love to do that but it is not an option for me. But I am pretty sure the LX+43+Tri-X+Diafine+scanning will give me similar educational benefits.

Anyway, I DO see the point behind this kind of exercise and appreciate seeing you recommend it. Especially amid all of the obsessing over the latest digital technology (I obsess plenty myself), and how much that detracts from doing photography.

Thanks for your great blog!


Great idea. Started out doing "serious" photography with a OM-1 and a 50mm lens this way. Got away from photography. Now ready to get back to it....perhaps a Leica? So tempting.

...or perhaps that wonderful OM-1 and quality Zuiko glass...squirreled away in the basement!

For those of us with less change jangling in our pockets, would a compact all-manual film SLR (like the OM-1 or the K1000) do? I like the notion of this experiment and hope that the real benefit of it is in learning how to "see" with a consistent and reliable manually-controlled instrument, which hopefully is not limited to multi-kilobuck camera/lens combinations.

A manual body. One lens. I don't even know experienced photographers brave enough to take that challenge!


This is good, sound advice for any photographer, whether beginning or experienced. And while I can't see myself going out and buying a Leica, even the choice of camera is a good one; a used Leica, sold a year later, would show little if any depreciation.

You don't need to waste money on a Leica for that. I can guarantee the same thing if you get the cheapest digital P&S with a 16MB memory card. Anyone spending a whole year doing that much shooting will become a better photographer. Will the one using a Leica be better than the one using a cheapo P&S? Maybe, maybe not. I'd like to see you guarantee that though. The bulk of learning is using the camera that much for a year, not specifically using a Leica film camera.

I look forward to reading this blog every day. That said I usually agree with about 25% of what is said. That's why I like this place. Boring is something you agree with 100%. TOP is rarely boring.

That said I not only agree with you on basic training idea and I have been saying almost the same thing for 50 years. I got the same instruction from some long forgotten Pop. Photo. magazine article.

You're right in only 1, 2, or 3 will really do it. And they will be forever glad they did.

Absolutely. I did it with an M2 and a 50mm Collapsible lens. My work is much stronger because of it.

Sounds like fun! I think I will follow your suggestion and do it but I sure as hell can't afford a Leica. A Nikon FM2 with a 28mm 2.8 would have to do.

This is a very tempting challenge. I have two questions:

(1) I assume making contact sheets means you expect the photographer to have a home-darkroom too, right? How involved is that?

(2) Could you elaborate on why a *Leica* in particular? I understand why film, and why a single lens, but why not a fixed-lens compact rangefinder (like a Canonet or similar) or even a manual-focus film SLR like the venerable K1000? Is frustrating film-loading an essential character-building part of the exercise? ;-)

Thanks for the challenge and all the thought-provoking words you put up on TOP. I'm sure you already realize you have the best photography blog on all the Internets!


But why a Leica Mike?
When I have stale period I wack the 50mm on my usual camera, currently Canon 5D2, and do what you say. Works every time.


That approach will certainly work. I'm not sure the leica is terribly necessary, but it doesn't really matter.

I'd say that the important thing is working steadily at one's photography, reviewing the results and deciding how you want to improve/change things the next time out.

One lens/one film, well, that just limits the variables and lets one concentrate on the fundementals. That's a good thing.

Personally, I found it a bit easier to do the one camera/one lens exercise with a simple digital camera a few years back, mostly because the shutter and aperture info embedded in the jpegs made it easy for me to look at the results I got and see what I'd done to get them. (I know, notebook for the film camera, but I never managed to remember that when I was younger. :)

Also, those bad learning pictures are free with the digital camera, which is liberating in a way.

But absolutely, pick a simple tool, get good with it. Understand how you can make it do what you want. It's a good foundation for sure.

I'd rather do this with my Canonet or Minolta X-700. The Leica doesn't add much beyond cost and the need for an external meter.

I'd have to agree with this, even as a hobbyist. When I took a break from digital and went back to film, I spent almost 3 months using nothing but a 50mm, and produced some great images. To this day I always have a body with one lens in my bag, though I have a few more choices, but I can't help but think that the more I'm tempted to try and 'round out' my collection of glass, the less content I am.

It's easy to pick if you only have one choice, but the need (or novelty) of other focal lengths is a siren call that must be explored, even if/when I return back to the ever-useful 35 or 50mm for a day-to-day companion, which is proving to be the case.

I find that the experience gained from using only one lens for a considerable amount of time allows you to sublimate the task of metering and composition, instead leading your thoughts to the nature and quality of the light in the scene, and how (or if) it should be handled.

Excellent idea, though I don't think the camera needs to be a Leica, it just needs to be "Leica-esque", a quality "simple" camera as per your "Simplicity" essay (5 controls + ISO setting). Also, developing and printing needs to be similarily constrained, one developer each, film and paper, and one paper. Also, all proofing should be done at the same exposure for every roll all year, the minimum exposure that produces a max black from the "clear" film between frames. The selected prints for each week can be adjusted for exposure as necessary.

In my early learning days (late Elementary School through early High School) there were two periods where I was under a similar, though note as severe, photographic diet. The first was the one sales clerk in the one camera store in the town where I grew up. He wouldn't let me buy any paper other than Kodak Polycontrast F, SW, or any developer other than D-76 and Dektol until I could bring in a set of prints of high enough quality that he felt I was good enough in the darkroom to warrant considering other materials. I owe a lot to C. K.

The second was a little later when I became "addicted" to 16mm sub-minature cameras that I could carry with me every day. It was difficult to get decent images from the little negs. Study and polishing my skills (tight temp controls, precise timing, ...) led me to some decent images. When in early High School I returned to 35mm with my first SLR I relized how much the "16mm diet" improved my work, both the technical quality, after fighting the sub-minature negs, and my photographic eye, after the couple of years of daily shooting and weekly "publishing" (fellow students expected me to have a new set of pix of the previous weeks events at the beginning of each week).

Hey Mike -

As someone who's been shooting exclusively an M3 with a 50mm for the last two years (but not at the volume you suggest, alas), I can see the value of your suggestion. But... Tell us please why a Leica, specifically? What does it bring to the learning process that one won't get from a Spotmatic, or an FE, or a Canonet?

My hypothesis: If you're gunning the Leica, then you simply can't bust out the old "that picture would have been great if I'd had a better camera" excuse. Is that it?

I agree that what you suggest is probably a good method for improving one's photography, but is there something in particular about a Leica that makes it more suitable for this purpose?

Seems to me that a small SLR/rangefinder such as the Olympus OM series, one of the Nikon FE/FM series or any small, fixed-lens rangefinder with full manual control might be equally suitable.

I love the idea and hope at least a few people will take you up on this suggestion, and maybe even report back in a year. It is hard for me to imagine that the benefit to anyone who did this wouldn't be far greater than from whatever workshop or equipment purchase they've been dreaming about. It would probably end up being a heck of a lot more fun too.

I remember a piece someone else (Bill Jay, Jim Hughes?) wrote on the theme of advice to an aspiring photographer. He emphasized taking pictures of something you are actually interested in. That might be worth thinking about for this project too. The idea seems so absolutely obvious, but also so often seems to be the element missing in photographs.

I love cameras and taking pictures, but lately the drone of non-stop equipment, technique, and "IQ" chatter seems to overwhelm interest in actually making photographs of something.

Nice idea. I'd just suggest perhaps getting a Voigtländer Bessa RF camera instead of the Leica. Same lenses and same film (so the same results), but a much, much lower cost of entry. And since it costs less, there's less worry about the camera, so you end up bringing it and using it more often.

Are you proposing to finance this year of Leica-only photography?

Seriously though, it's a good idea. There's nothing like limits to force you to be creative with what you've got. It's one of the things I like about shooting with primes.

Perhaps I should find a less expensive rangefinder + b&w film combo....

There is, however, the danger [or possibility] that you might not want to sell the Leica or even return to the world of menus, tiny buttons and funny ikons.

Great suggestion Mike, but why a Leica specifically? Wouldn't my trusty old Nikon FM and Nikkor 50mm 1.8 do the trick?


Bravo, Mike!

I sense a definite trend in your thinking this last week...

Best regards,
Rod S.

While you're probably right about the number of readers who will actually do this, it wouldn't be that hard to adapt this to the digital world. Take a DSLR, a cheap prime, do your contacts in Lightroom or Bridge or whatever and do a minimum of post-processing on your prints. Print off your contacts and put them in a binder. Not the same, but not all that different, either.

I will use my Canon 450D and EF 50mm f1.8, shoot in B&W mode only.

Regarding the number of people that visit your website, I'd have to say that about thirty five to forty probably read your column and the others just come by to visit the Joyful Nudes.
i, of course, thoroughly enjoy reading what you have to say. -- Rich

Great advice. My first photography teacher, Larry Schaaf, had us do the same thing in photojournalism classes at UT many years ago. He told us "if you want a telephoto, take a few steps forward, and if you want a wide-angle, take a few steps back". It does help the eye, the reflexes as well. I still have that OM-1 with the 50 f1.4.

My Leica M2 from ebay and Cosina Voigtlander 28mm together cost me just over $1,000. Very good advice, Mike.

"and Mike's got it baaaaad."

Nope, I don't own a Leica.


Plenty of feedback on this one :-)

Considering the comments of my fellow co-readers of this blog, I seem to be not alone with my confusion about this excercise.

I understand the limitation to black and white as well as the restriction to one lens and couldn't agree more about the beneficial effect.

I have at least an idea why the choice of film over digital is another useful step.

However, I don't quite understand why it has to be a rangefinder camera and it seems I'm not alone :-). I'm very interested in hearing more about this exciting experiment.

Thanks for this exciting article.

The truth.

What is film? j/k

No seriously, do they still sell film? j/k

*laughs the boy with his Ricoh GR Digital II, dreaming of a Pentax K-7*

"Sounds like fun! I think I will follow your suggestion and do it but I sure as hell can't afford a Leica. A Nikon FM2 with a 28mm 2.8 would have to do."

The difference in price, if the Leica body is used and the lens is a Voightlander or a non-collectbile Leica, is less than you think.

" But why a Leica specifically? Wouldn't my trusty old Nikon FM and Nikkor 50mm 1.8 do the trick?"

I changed from Nikons (Nikkormat, FM2, FE2) to an M6. It's a completely different experience to use a rangefinder, and it changed my photographic life. Truly, it's not the same thing.

It does not have to be a Leica, either. It could be a Zeiss Ikon or a Canonet or a Voightlander. But it's gotta be a rangefinder, and it's gotta be used in full manual.

I've been perusing the comments and thought that some of your readers, who were concerned about cost, might be interested in The Leica Student and Educator Assistance Program which quotes Magnum Photographer David Alan Harvey in their downloadable PDF:

"I bought my first Leica (IIIF) with money I earned from my newspaper route when I was 12...".

It will take them more than a year to find a place that can develop the film.

I just tell people to pay attention to what they do and produce a product. Don't just have 30000 photos that are kind of okay. Actually take them to conclusion. Print, gallery, whatever. I think that is the key thing. Go through the firing of the shutter to the finished product. It is amazing how quickly you figure out what was and what wasn't worth bothering with if you take the time to print it. The pay attention part is so that once you do it right you can do it right again.


I started with a camera with a single, fixed lens, rangefinder focusing, and manual exposure. But I didn't really start to learn much of anything until I got past that.

I think you're wrong on this particular one, and would worry about it if I though there was much chance of anybody getting diverted down this path.

... or a Rolleiflex TLR, to ensure that the temptation to use more than one lens never arises. On the other hand, going back to digital afterwards may be just too painful.

It's a great advice and one that I give to everyone who asks me for advice. I know your addendum says that a Leica is not requisite, but a Leica does have the following advantages:

- Quiet shutter.
- The rangefinder experience of seeing the frame. After a while, you would intuitively know what a 35mm frame or a 50mm frame looks like.
- Simple to operate so composition and seeing the light is the only thing you need to worry about, which is the whole point of the exercise.
- Expensive gears tend to make a photog wanting to perform to the standard of the equipments :-)

Oddly enough, I've been doing just that. Only with a Yashica GT. PanF+, shot at 25, souped in Rodinal only.

One of the most important things I ever learned in photo schooling was "one film, one soup, one meter." Of course you can do more later, but learn one and then move on.

I still grab the occasional portrait with my 500C/M, but my rangefinder gets all my love these days.

Another approach, one that I found very valuable many years ago.

Use a big, heavy camera. I used a Hasselblad. Use a big, heavy tripod. I used a Bogen 3036. Carry it around. Hike with it. Walk around with it.

It will take forever to set up. You'll start to really think about why you want a given photograph. You'll start to think hard about how best to shoot a given photograph. You'll start passing by and not shooting images that you wouldn't really print in the end anyway.

Force yourself to think, force yourself to ask yourself "why"--why this image, why this angle, why this lighting, why this approach.



It really isn't like you to suggest that you've got a half dozen reasons why it "must be" a Leica and then not explain what those are. I have little doubt, and never doubted, that you went to such lengths to be specific without having reason, but honestly I'm in the dark as to why it couldn't be any rangefinder, and I'm curious as to your brand-centric reasoning.

Also, while you can figure one way or another to justify that the Leica is nearly free if you sell it later on, that doesn't change the fact that the Leica is expensive, and a person would need to have enough disposable income sitting around that they could not have that money on hand for an entire year. A year of less-than-ideal economic situations for many of us.

I still think it is a perfect suggestion for those that *can* afford it, and I think that those who cannot should adapt it as best they can to match their budget. I also want to second the suggestion of a daily photoblog. I did that for six months when I got my first digital camera, a Canon G5. Producing something and sharing it each and every day is a wonderful exercise. Ask all of your friends to visit daily and provide feedback, and you quickly determine what is working and what isn't.

But seriously, what's with the "I know best and I have my reasons and they're of no concern of yours, but they involve spending more money than many of you think you need to spend to actually do this right" stance? I think most of the fine folks that make TOP a daily (or thrice-daily) routine would be willing to pour over your further thoughts on the matter. Share already!

Excellent idea.

I take it one step further - My Voigtlander Vito B doesn't have a rangefinder either so distance estimating is another thing to get good at by practice.

Taking it out without a meter is about as basic as it gets.

A digital camera, such as a D40, is not the same as a Leica.

Digital cameras do things for you. They focus for you, set f-stops for you. They're easy -- that's why they're so popular. Nothing wrong with that. But if you want to understand photography intuitively, you need to do it yourself for a while. It's like learning scales on the piano. It's a bit of a chore, but that's the point.

I would argue that any manual camera without autofocus (and perhaps even without internal light metering or DX) would serve the same purpose. You can buy a Nikon FE for less than $100, often with the 50mm included.

This is simple, practical and excellent advice. It challenges the gearheads among us to think seriously about why we covet the cameras that we do. Are they not just machines for making images? Let's not be seduced by marketing hype, or be distracted by brand wars. Let's go out every day and make great images with the camera that we love. The simpler the better.

Bravo, Mike!

Off cause it doesn't have to be a Leica. Any prime will do and if you're really disciplined pick a focal length on a zoom and stick to it. If you're really disciplined you can do this with a digital camera too, but go manual and switch off the LCD - no chimping.

For those of us that have contracted Leicanitis this is a good way of getting back to what its all about. Time for me to stick a 50 Elmar on the M3 and thaw a brick of Tri-X.

- Carl

Many people asking "Why Leica?". Because the Leica, more than any other camera, will become transparent in use, by which I mean that it will cease to be an impediment between you and the image you are trying to capture. The simple, meterless Leica has just three controls (focus, shutter speed and aperture), easily learnt, and after a little time your fingers find them automatically, leaving you to study the light and the framing. There's nothing else there to distract you.

And guys, this doesn't have to be a new Leica! For less than the cost of a new DSLR you can have a suitable Leica and lens, and in a year's time, sell it again for probably the same or more. This is why Mike suggests Leicas are free for projects such as this.

Can I reach the same target, using a digital camera, in completely manual way , shooting in black & white with a prime?


"There are half a dozen excellent reasons why."

--Could you give us the reasons? I could come up with a half dozen for rangefinders vs SLRs and also for film vs digital, but for this experiment I don't see much difference between a Leica and a mechanical Bessa, which would be a much lower initial investment.

I also think there are problems with calling the leica "free" in the experiment. If modeled correctly, the costs in most circumstances admittedly won't be anywhere near the original purchase price of the leica and lens because of potential resale value, but free or near free is not accurate either.

That's exactly why I bought a Pentax P30T, as the cheapest solution available to me. Wish I could really afford a rangefinder though (Zeiss, Leica, or even why not a Bronica MF...).
FYI, Leica M3 with a 50 F2 on Ebay.fr is still sold at 800 euros... I tried and looked in the UK. Not cheaper. Of course you buy and sell it for teh same amount a year after, once the project is over. But still the entry ticket is not free.
That said, I have been wondering for a few weeks whether I should get my K200D all day with me, and you gave me a good reason to get my P30N again, with only my A50 F1.7. Got to buy some Tri-x.
Thx for all those nice ideas I can see here!.

I'd like to hear your half dozen reasons. :)

Do you agree with the other posters that it needs to be a manual camera? I haven't really shot manual before. Is other equipment required, or should the camera have specific features?

Hmm, this sounds like a prescriptive variant of the old advice to shoot lots:

"Many amateurs would see a big improvement in their work if they stopped reading and worrying so much, and simply went out and shot a mile of film." - Home Photography by Andrew Sanderson

I'll withhold judgement on the camera requirement until I receive my free Leica (thanks - so generous!).

A Leica is free only if you have the initial capital outlay (say an M4 and 35mm Summicron - £1200?) and sell it when you've finished the project. As has been pointed out, a lot of youngsters wont have that cash available and that route just wont be an option for them. And why would you want to sell something that you've just been getting to know and love for a year anyway?

And it doesn't have to be a Leica. The discipline is about shooting black and white (it could be colour) using one lens and a simple camera. The issue about whether you're looking through a rangefinder window or an SLR's viewfinder is irrelevant. An OM1 and 50mm lens would do just as well at 1/20th of the price of the Leica. If you're of the hair shirt persuasion, pretend it doesn't have a meter (if it's an old OM1 that might be the case anyway as it's often the first thing to go!).

The idea that it has to be a Leica is just a romantic notion espoused by old romantics like Mike. And we love you for it ;-)


This idea beats buying a Sigma DP2!
Keep up the good work.


I love how 90% of the responses in this thread are about the Leica!

I did something like this about two years ago, except in my case it was a YashicaMat. I carried that thing around with me everywhere, shooting at least 3-4 rolls of HP5 a week. Looking at my contact sheets before, during, and after, the results are pretty startling. You can't help but learn if you just focus on one thing and do it really well. As soon as you add in all the extras like color, digital, zoom lenses, etc, you are missing the point.

And no, shooting in B&W jpeg mode is not the same.

The is an excellent idea. But you seem to be getting a lot of resistance to the specification of the Leica. Here are some reaons I think you are correct in specifying this particular camera:

1) The inevitable mistakes will be your mistakes, not the camera's. It is a very reliable tool. It does everything you need, but nothing more.

2) The viewfinder in a Leica M has never been exceeded in functional excellence, IMO. In fact, the original M3 is probably the best of them all. The fact that you can see both inside and outside the frame is the key. Sure, some other rangefinders do this also, but they have shortcomings in focusing accuracy - which again, means that you may be uncertain as to the 'ownership' of a mistake.

3) The lenses are very good. Most are excellent. You have to go back a long, long, way to find a poor leica lens.

4) They are economical, in a way. Buy a used M3 on ebay and a good used 35 or 50 summicron, and use it for a year. Then sell it. The real cost over that time will be your transaction costs for shipping and ebay fees and possibly some minor price erosion. The value is likely to be as high as it was when you bought it. The value of some lenses increase markedly. The noctilux is an example of this phenomenon over the last six years.

I think the reasoning for stating that a Leica is essentially free is, that it actually is.

I paid $495.00 for my M2, $400.00 for my M3, $300.00 for my old Summarit, and $150.00 for a Summar.

When I needed to sell them all, I got the same I paid for the M2, an extra $100 for the M3, an extra $10 for the Summarit, and an extra $30 for the Summar.

So in fact, I was paid to shoot with them for 4 years.

Dave T.

I've been doing this for about two months with the cheapest B&W film I could find (Ilford Pan 400) and a champagne-colored Mju II.

I've noticed that most of the comments talk about the camera, but this post isn't about that (in my mind.) It's about locking down every technical detail but shutter and aperture. No mousing around in photoshop, no second-guessing yourself, no dialing in ISO. Enough latitude in b&w film that you don't have to be perfect, but you do have to be competent.

This exercise is photography boot-camp. Feeling the pain that is "argh, I missed that shot by this (fingers held really close together) much!" Realizing that you should've taken a step left, or that you shouldn't have crouched over.

There is one thing that should be considered: at first, you'll suck. It won't be as smooth an experience as you're used to shooting an DSLR, but after a couple rolls you'll start seeing what your lens sees, you'll start composing before your hand even moves for the camera. It'll be like magic.

Doing this with a used Leica and a used Leitz lens would likely be the *least* expensive method, if you could loan yourself the money for a year. At the end you'll be able to recoup most, if not all, of your investment, while a Nikon d40 would have lost more than half its value. I agree that almost any basic, manual 35 film camera would work almost as well.

Digital most definitely would not work in any incarnation. Film, and a single lens, seem to be the key components to this excercise, as they slow you down, make you more careful, and make you *see*.

Shooting film I feel like I'm making photographs; shooting digital makes me a photo editor.

Hi Mike,

I am one who has done exactly what you have recomended. I did exactly this about 6-7 years ago. I sold all my Canon EOS gear to buy a used M6 and a modern 50 Summicron. I mostly only shot Tri-X which I bought in bulk roll. I brought it to work with me everyday and shot about 2 rolls of film a week. I have a couple of ring binders full of contact sheets, a light box, and a loupe. I eventually bought a scanner to review my results on a computer.

I learnt a lot about photography that I wouldn't have learnt any other way. The basics of light and framing come to mind first. For instance, I now know what the exposure is on my DSLR before I even look through the viewfinder. Before I did this, I wouldn't have cared -- and let the electronics do the work.

Film wise, B&W is a requirement, since shooting colour didn't really teach me the same lessons that B&W did. I also taught myself how to process along the way, and that has had flowon lessons into Photoshop, as I now know what I want digitally.

It really has to be a Leica, because any other camera has either additional automation that would have impeded the learning or size constraints that would stop you from putting it into my bag to work and wearing it at lunch time every single day. Also it meant that if it all went terribly bad, I could sell it and get my money back.

Which I haven't done. Keep up the good work!


Love the idea. Find it very tempting indeed. But would love to know where you're finding "free or very close to it" Leicas.
Just been on Ebay. Nothing below 300 quid - body only - and most considerably more ...

For most of the readers getting a Leica and a lens is about as easy as our fearless leader (Mike) getting his Sony A900! I do think it is a great way to train photographers.

"Although, if you find yourself suddenly interested in buying a Leica from Ebay, I'd suggest waiting a few weeks so you won't be bidding against other people who have also just read this post."

Or, you could go ahead and buy one now so you aren't bidding against people who followed Mike's advice above and decided to wait a few weeks.

I'd also like to know why you recommended a Leica specifically.

I read essentially the same advice from David Alan Harvey sometime in the late ’90s. In 2001 I put a picture a week on my website, but I never could settle between the 28 and the 35 - so I cheated. In 2002 I shot a roll a day, more some days for a total of 500 rolls for the year. Now I’ve got about 75,000 Tri-X negatives. It worked. Now I’m making project oriented pictures on 4x5 color negative film, but I’ve retained something of a street photography M.O., I only expose one sheet for each picture, no bracketing, I rarely use the spot meter, often don’t meter at all, and I work very fast. I get about 10 keepers for every 12 exposures. This summer I’ve got work in three juried shows, including the Griffin Museum of Photography and the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art.

I think the rangefinder is the perfect tool for learning, better than a SLR because it’s less WYSIWYG, it requires some pre-visualization, and the Leica (or Contax, Bessa &c.) beats the P&S because it has those simple controls.

You don’t need a darkroom, just a changing bag; I still soup my B&W in the kitchen sink (color in a JOBO). Contacts can be made on any cheap flatbed scanner with a transparency adapter.

Remember that this is just an exercise. I’ve moved on, and while I use a DSLR for commercial work, I really feel limited when I’m using cameras that don’t have movements (tilt, shift, rise & fall) to control the composition. But it’s still just visualizing the world inside a rectangle and flattened out into two dimensions.

I very much agree with this suggestion, to shoot with a film camera with a single lens, perhaps a Zeiss or even the much cheaper Voightlanders. It will definitely change the way we shoot.

But the problem with Penang, from where I'm staying, camera shops doing film processing are getting fewer. Most importantly the quality of film processing leaves much to be desired. If I were to shoot blue skies or plain backgrounds I tend to see faint "roller" marks running across the picture.

I've even tried a few shops and the results are the same. And when I asked for an explanation, the reply is always the same, the machine is already old and they no longer want to upgrade it since less people shoot films nowadays. Some shops have even stopped dealing with film processing.

That's why currently I'm in a dilemma whether to invest in film or digital system. Because I would really want to do more serious photography and I trust films' IQ. I'm thinking of 2nd hand Leicas or brand new Zeiss/Voightlanders. The array of good lenses are available for me to choose.

But with the processing problems that I faced here has made me think twice. I know processing B/W films are not that hard but colour would be more complicated. I fear that I don't have the time to do it.

(Just a - very - silly question: if Leicas for this exercise are free, how can one sell it at the end of the year? :))

If you living situation makes it reasonable, ditch your car and walk to work every day. Take the money saved and gas and pump it into buying film. As an added bonus your body will love all the excersize you're getting.

I started doing this a year ago, only I'll rotate the lens every few months as my whims feel fit. Increasing my commute by 20 minutes in each direction by going on foot, and always having a camera with me has led to me shooting more rolls of film then I had in the previous six years combined.

I spot pick several image from each roll and print them off as 4x6s whenever I accumulate 100. I think I'll I'll take your advise and start picking my favorite 5% or so of each set I have printed and get them printed larger.

Great suggestion. I *did* this exercise, if not quite so formally, starting in 1978. I learned a great deal about making photographs; that knowledge is still with me, even though my professional work is mostly digital now. So is that 1959 Leica, for that matter.
This assignment will seperate the photographers from the camera-shoppers quite efficiently. And for the whiners who say "why a Leica" or "a Leica costs too much" remember that at the end of the assignment, you can sell the Leica at minimal loss, if any. This week's must-have digicam will be garage-sale material by then.

I did this several years ago (used M6 and used 50mm) for really not all that much money. Was the best thing I've done for my photography. I still shoot rangefinders - though I sold the 50mm for the same price I bought it.

Like many others, I really want to know why the Leica is necessary for this project! I'm sure your reasons are interesting -- please share them, Mike!

The danger in this is that after using a Leica for a year, you'll be even more frustrated with the lack of a digital DMD ! I've been in the camp with those waiting for a decent large(r) sensor compact for years now. A digital equivalent of my HiMatic 7sII would be wonderful. Fixed lens, interchangeable lens ... it could be very compact or less compact (there was a wonderful 70's era fixed lens rangefinder from Yashica with a sharp 50mm lens that was about as big as a small SLR) ... but just less obtrusive, easy to carry, easy to shoot, QUIET :)

I'd be interested in hearing your half dozen reasons for choosing a Leica, though I know the experience is different (from shooting with an SLR). The viewing system alone tends to make you look at things a little differently. And you lack DOF preview or the ability to see what effect filters have; you have to visualize everything without the aid of the camera.

Personally, I've found that digital capture and post-processing has given me a better understanding of light, dynamic range, and the differences between how our eyes see and how our cameras see than anything I did previously. But that does nothing for composition.

Anyway, count me in the 28000. Not that I don't agree with the premise; it's just not for me. (There are loads of things I could be doing to improve my photography, but I'm not doing them, either :)

Actually I did something very similar back in the 70's. I had a Leica M2 with 35mm Summaron (still have them, thank God) and shot about a roll a week for two years. Used Tri-X, developed in D-76. Some of my best photos came from that era, and have shown them in some recent shows. I was truly _seeing_ well, and would like to capture that again. Your article will nudge me forward to the past, or back to the future, or whatever.

Pretty funny to see all the responses. The ones that stick out the most are from the digital addicts and they run something along the lines of "I did the same thing but I substituted the Leica for a (canon, nikon, pentax) digital camera and I chose the three zoom lenses instead of one prime lens and I'm shooting with the finder set to black and white and I'm printing them on an Epson (model= $$$$$) and I don't understand why it has to be a Leica, I can't afford one of those...."

Good luck with that!

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