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Thursday, 28 May 2009


I haven't read the above posts, but I can tell you that the advice you give is exactly what my photography mentor had me do when I took my first darkroom class with him, and he recognized artistic talent in my novice prints. I'd like to add one extra stipulation. It should be an M4 or less. That's how I learned to read light, by not depending on the camera's internal meter. After a while I got sick and tired of popping out my hand held light meter and learned to see better.

As for the questions of 'why a Leica?' Well, 1) buy a Leica now, and sell it for more in a couple of years, 2) buy a Leica now, and fall in love with it and never sell it even though you want to shoot digital, 3) buy a Leica and get astoundingly clear acutance and contrast - regardless of your level of expertise, 4) buy a Leica and......

My feeling on the range finder cameras (& yes I owned Leica's and got rid of them)--just to limiting on what you can do with them--your stuck between 3' and infinity--your never right on with parallax etc.
My solution today would be a Rebel type digital camera with live view and set it to monochrome (shooting Raw--you get color or B&W that way). You can get a sense of what color filters will do in B&W, I think there included in the monochrome list.
Buy a Macro lens. Best all around shooter for a single lens.
Use a tripod while shooting (unless your doing street shooting).
If you plain to move to a 4X5 view camera later shoot the camera upside down.
Last and most important--Find a good teacher to critique your work. It's not easy to get there without a good map.

"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."

I´m sorry, but you´re joking, right?
Leicas, Ikons, Spotmatics and Bessas were not an impediment FORTY years ago. Nowadays, they´re a hindrance more than a help to it.

Seriously, stop this "oldtimer" show. You can do as good on taking "a picture a day" project with a broken lcd digital camera [for that matter, an old Epson RD1 with the lid closed], in manual metering mode.

Lets face it. The complicated fact of this exercise if to take the camera everyday and take everyday a shot no matter what [and rangefinders are not really the best for that, they are HUUUUUUUGE for today´s standards]. Then, the second most difficult fact is to be critical with one´s shots, fairly critical.

Third, quite far away, comes the camera.

Yep. True all around. I learned much about photography -- light, composition, limits and capabilities of cameras, film, optics -- through my first camera (Nikon FM, 50mm f1.8) and my second (Pentax MX, 50mm f1.4, which I still have and use), and many many rolls of Tri-X and HP-5, hand-developed and printed. Wouldn't trade that experience for anything.

Thanks, Mike!

Possibly the reason Mike says shooting a Leica shouldn't cost much is that if cared for it will retain it's value, and maybe even become more valuable. It shouldn't be too difficult to sell it for what was paid for it.

I'm very interested in the reasons why it should be a Leica. I've got a IIIf that I enjoy shooting, but I've never managed to find Leica enlightenment. I've got an old, fully mechanical Ansco camera that gets chosen for use much more often than the Leica.

When I taught photojournalism in New Zealand in the 90's. I had a choice of darkroom or digital. I chose the darkroom for the following reasons:
1) Watching a print appear in the soup is a totally magical experience.
2) Film and paper was expensive for the students. But when it hits the wallet, people tend to think more about what they are shooting,printing and cropping.

Of course, I taught digital too. But only for a mock deadline assignment.

I enjoy your blog.

Tim Baker

It's a shame to see so many readers have failed to grasp that something specific does not necessarily claim to be universal, and that something assertive is not necessarily authoritative.

The responses were obvious and expected. People like gear. People like their own gear. People like to say how good their gear is. I've often thought of starting a 'gear-free' photo website revolving around images and technique. No specifics would be allowed. A member could claim his or her photo was 'taken on a medium-speed small-format monochrome film with a moderate telephoto lens, wide aperture selected to render distracting background out of focus, printed at a hard grade', but no names, no numbers, nothing quantitative. It would be a disaster, probably.

I think your choice of a Leica is spot on. There have been lots of other suggestions, but it's hard to better the Leica's combination of small size, reliability, indestructibility, battery independence, weather agnosticism, simplicity and control. I don't deny a year's worth of D40 JPEGs could teach a certain photographer just as much in certain circumstances, but the suggestion of digital misses two vital points of this exercise - workflow, and discipline. You can't 'chimp' with a film. You are bound by the rhythm of 36 shots. Images are only viewed at a time emotionally removed from their taking. Technical merit is assessed on a holistic empirical basis rather than the presence of flashing blown highlights or a left-heavy histogram. Care and attention are rewarded.

All the world's great art is accompanied by a high level of craft. Very little craft is required in digital photography to get good results, and that reduces the chances of great shots.

I think your suggestion of only one lens is spot on, too. It removes a superfluous variable. Composition will benefit from the necessity to move and adapt, the need to include more or fewer elements in the picture. One lens will induce in the eye a natural compositional perspective the photographer won't even be aware of, rendering the identification of photo opportunities more automatic.

I wish I would take up this challenge. I wish I was the kind of person who could take up this challenge. But I'm
weak, and cameras get in the way of my photography.

Mike - I would gladly donate a Leica and a lens for a year to someone who could afford one if there was a good chance he or she would have the discipline to see this challenge through (and maybe send me a print once in a while). Seriously. If you can think of a way of identifying a willing autodidactic light seeker, I'll send you my Leica M2 and an Elmar 50mm. I won't miss it for a year. I'll be too busy mucking about buying and selling and shopping for gear like the average hobbyist.

"There are half a dozen excellent reasons why [it must be a Leica]."

It seems rather churlish to not provide them, given how many people are interested.

It also raises questions about how valid those reasons are.

Half-dozen reasons?

Maybe the next post might relay what those reasons might be. It seems more than a few of us are quite curious.

Personally, I've gone through a couple phases shooting with one focal length, but this pushes things decidedly more. Going back to film in B&W.

I have a copy of the article "How to beat Photographer's Block" from Camera and Darkrom. This article has been my working exercise for many years. The camera I use is a Mamiya 6 which you wrote a good report on in Camera Darkroom May 1990. I always enjoy your writing and ideas.

Many thanks

Bob Tung

Leica's aren't nearly the cheapest option. You can get a Nikkormat with a 35/2.8 or 50/2 for the shipping cost on that M3. And while the capital costs of the M3 are likely a wash, the transaction fees, taxes and shipping are your sunk costs and will handily cover the cost of a cheap manual SLR with a cheap 50 or 35.

My Nikkormat FTn (which has now moved on) cost me all of $20 with a Nikkor-S 35/2.8. My far more capable FE2 was only $90. In fact of the 8 35mm film SLR's I own only two cost more than $100, one being the ever-popular Nikon FM2n and the other being a near-mint Nikon F2a. The others, which include 3 Nikons(FE2, F80, F801s), a Pentax(ZX-m), a Contax (137MD) and a Yashica (FX-3 Super 2000) ranged from $80 down all the way to $5 for the Yashica.

Lenses can be cheap as well, especially very common lenses like the SMC-M 50/2 and Series E 50/1.8

"There are half a dozen excellent reasons why. I'll try not to get my feelings hurt that people would think I'd specify something like that (in the title of the post no less) without good reason."

So, what are those six reasons? You didn't even specify whether you mean Leica-M or -R, so i'm super curious to know how this ambiguous 'mandate' could so significantly affect the process. And, if you meant Leica-M, wouldn't using an M7 be a drastically different experience from using an M2? Everyone seems to be asking.... What would i miss by using a Bessa or Ikon, or FE2?

When I first started photography three years ago with a Pentax digital camera I shot in jpeg B & W only and did not allow myself to crop or enhance my photos in any way for the first year.

Most photographers I met thought my idea was crazy or just a waste of time... or both.

For me it was a great learning experience as well as being simple and fun.

No, it's not the same technique that Mike suggests but there is always more than one way to learn something.

Been there, done that (sort-of).

Only had a manual SLR (Canon F1n), 35mm and 135mm lenses for two years. Only used HP5+ BW film and one developer for at least 10 years.

So worthwhile!

I would agree with the intent of the post. I shot using a 2nd hand Fuji GS645 medium format rangefinder with a built-in 60 mm lens and Fuj Provia 100 film for 10 years. After a while I was able to previsualize the picture the camera would take and even guess the exposure correctly, especially useful when the battery for the meter died.
I have since moved to a DSLR, but retain the essence of that philosophy by shooting with a prime lens in manual mode.

There are half a dozen excellent reasons why.

I'll join the chorus: do tell, Mike. I'm quite interested in hearing those reasons; I'm sure they'll do my photography good even if I don't end up being one of the chosen few....

Guys, give me a minute, will you? This stuff doesn't write itself.


How many leica's you need to sell?

Sorry to go again the grain here, but this rather sentimental/romantic (nostalgic?) idea seems like something along the lines of - if you want to learn how to use a computer, you should spend the next year using only an old Smith Corona (non-electric) typewriter with paper and carbon paper. Doing so will improve your understanding of how to use words.

"How many leica's you need to sell?"

None, and I don't even like the company that much, either. I've certainly been flagellated more than my share by insufferable Leica snobs in my time, too.


I couldn't agree more with you. Photography is about catching light - and absence of it.
I started out 30 years ago with a nikkormat and a 28mm - still have the pictures and some of them still baffles me. Lately it has been more automatic cameraes - canon, nikon, minolta and contax - and finally digital olympus, samsung and pentax. What I look for today is a camera that isn't loaded with ptogram and scene modes - and I recommend this approach to anyone out there - Stay away from the scene modes and fully automatic program modes and the camera will teach you how pictures are made - also - have spot metering as default and use your exsposure lock and optionally focus lock vigorously. The camera is the important bit - and today I would recommend digital just because it's easier to see afterwards how each picture was taken, in my day I had a small notebook where everything was written down - but this is not practical - at least not knowing that a digital cameara already does this.

[sorry, hope the following is not redundant, but I don't have time to read all 100+ comments this morning]

Mike's challenge is a good one. Personally, I think that an alternate challenge has equal merit: shooting with a digital camera and simulating the basic tenants (manual, b&w, sticking with single focal length, using a viewfinder, etc.). Plus, the digital "version" adds three advantages.

First, results are available instantly. This allows a quick feedback loop which can accelerate learning/progress.

Second, shooting digital is cheaper.

Finally, negative environmental impact is lessened. (For some, this might be the most important reason to choose digital.) Photography needn't be dependent upon the use of fresh water (which is increasingly an issue) or toxic chemistry.

Leica mystique not included, of course. (Unless you opt for a Leica Digilux 4 with the optional and very cool-looking optical finder. Less cost than most used 35mm Leica's, and not much more depreciation over 12 months, I'd wager...)

You think, for the purposes of this exercise and especially if you're "all-in" for digital now, you might use a nice chromogenic (c41) B&W like Ilford XP2 or even Kodak BW400cn? BW400CN is available at WallyWorld for about $3 a roll and they can even process it and scan it too!

No home darkroom for me, fer shure.

"How many leica's you need to sell?"

There was supposed to be a smiley on that. It looks like it ended up not needing it but there was supposed to be one.


Have fun reading this:

Written by Mark Hobson over at the Landscapist blog.


"a nice chromogenic (c41) B&W like Ilford XP2 or even Kodak BW400cn?"

Sure, why not? The point is to learn to "free yourself" by accepting limits. I do think it's helpful to learn to see without color, without having the OPTION of color, even if what you want to be is a color photographer.

The only downside is that chromogenic film when not washed properly will deteriorate over time. Although maybe that's not so much a problem any more. You might want to discuss that with the lab manager or do a little research about it, to see if people still have that problem.


"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."

Nope. My experience after working from the mid eighties to the late nineties with nothing other than FM/FE/FA/Nikkormat, then selling the lot of them and getting an M6, is that the nikons and the M are not remotely the same. Not even close.

It's not that one is really better than the other. It's that they are very, very different. OK, that's not true. For learning technique, the Leica is vastly better. And for shooting wide apertures, the Leica is also vastly better.

If you shoot at f/8 from a tripod, it does not matter. But if you shoot at f/8 from a tripod, you probably should not be shooting 35 mm, eh?

I'm not sure that what Mike is after could be achieved with any SLR, digital or otherwise. The only thing I'd change is to say "a good rangefinder camera". Why not an SLR? Well, it's many years since I owned or used a rangefinder (and I've no idea if my reasoning is the same as Mike's), but I think it helps you to be more aware of the gap between what you see in front of you and what will eventually appear on your print: you have to "envisage" more. The viewfinder on an SLR is closer to what you will get, more "photographic". My experience was that the viewfinder on a rangefinder feels much more involved with the reality of what's in front of you, more like actually seeing, less obtrustive, less "technical". And that is why you need to think about the outcome more, which is one way of improving. Even managing DoF and parallax issues keeps your mind jumping. Using B&W forces the envisioning process in the same way. I admit to being not very good at this: despite years of B&W only when I started seriously in 1977, I still find it hard to truly "see" in B&W. I keep seeing all the lovely colours, and the meaning and responses they create.

Paradoxically, I feel there is also benefit in going the other way as well: to dance around the subject, taking lots of pictures as you work your way into understanding it, and edit contemplatively later. The low cost and low environmental impact of digital are positives here. For this, I use a Nikon D60 with the 35mm/f1.8 set mainly to 400 ISO.


Wow, alot of responses. Guess i will throw mine in.

1. First, i find it interesting that in web-world whenever the new DMD hopeful appears, the conversation eventually gets round to Leica rangefinders. Understandable. I have used other folk's M3, or M4, or M6 on occasion in the past. Truly beautiful instruments, with very nice lens. Apart from the prices, the only reason i have never gotten one, is what for me, a really irritating "feature", even on their M8. That anachronistic totally removable back/bottom plate.

For me, it is a deal breaker, before i even get to the financial aspect. I know it is part of the Leica "charm", but, if anybody else still did that, it would be considered a very bad ergonomic move, and people would dragging the company through the virtual coals.

If i ever get another 35mm film body (doubtful) it will be a Voigtlander rangefinder, with a Leica 50mm f/2 lens on it.

Anyway, yes one body one lens. Exactly.
It is called discipline, and art is often dependent upon what is done within tool boundaries.

When i used to do large format, i only carried one lens at a time.
When i sometimes do film-medium format, i use a fixed lens TLR.
I still keep out of storage one of my FM2 bodies with a 50mm f/1.2 on it.
My most used camera right now, is a D200 with a 35mm f/2 AF D.
If i want to go light, it is the same lens on a D60.
And, yes, i have other lenses, and i do use them. But one lens aspect simplifies my visualization, and eases composition and ideas.

Sound advice on your part.

Mike, the chromagenic B&W doesn't deteriorate any faster than other chromagenic (color) films, so it's not THAT bad. And of course you won't suffer from color shifts, at least :-).

The problem with inadequate washing I'm familiar with is actually with silver-gelatin materials (film and paper). Though I suppose inadequate washing is likely to have some kind of bad effect in C41 also.

I'm giving in. I've got an M6 and a Voigtlander 40mm f/1.4 on its way. I start shooting on wednesday, and i'll be documenting my experiences over on Focal Intetions.

For better or worse, I don't know if this will be the only camera that I shoot with over the next 52 weeks, after all I have a new 5d mk II that I hope to put through a lot of use over the next year. But somewhere in there will be a minimum of 1248 b&w, 35mm shots.

Leica???? Film???? It's 2009!!!

Damn you, Mike Johnston! And the world can watch while I mess around...

Seriously, I think this is the best advice for just about any photographer (well, with a few exceptions) out there.

I'm in.

The best option would be a M2 with cheap 35mm lens like a 2.8 summarit. Total outlay about $500-1000, depreciation in value after 1 year zero or more probably negative i.e. the profit will pay for about ½ the cost of the films. But even more likely is that you will keep the M2 and will start saving for an M8.

Any small digital camera with one fixed lens (35/2, 50/1.8...) will do just as well. Plus: You dont have the cost and hassle of film.

The Nikon D40(X) and Nikons cheap 35/1.8 G is a super compact, great quality kit to carry everywhere. Doesnt have to be an antique Leica and hundreds of dollars for film and processing each month.

Txs for this great idea. The timing couldn't be better. I'll take you up on this. Let's talk in May 2010.

Ooops. When I said "I'm in," I forgot to post a link to the place where you can watch this happening. It's here.

Also - for those people jumping in on this, I've set up a group on flickr: A Leica Year.

I like the idea, but would suggest thinking of a simple DSLR (the Pentaxes might be the best option, although a Nikon D90 (or its predecessors right back to a D70) actually comes close - it is the simplest Nikon that has full shutter and aperture controls, and can deal with old Nikkors). The other option (short of a used M8, which would be perfect) is the DP2 and dealing with its odd controls. The reason for this is that it eliminates the cost of film as a reason to experiment.
I actually experiment a ton with a D3x (I know many folks will say "a D3x is as far from the spirit of this post as it's possible to get"), but the reason I love it for shooting a lot of different subjects (I do landscape in various forms) is that it has the detail of shooting very large medium format, or arguably entry-level large format WITH NO FILM OR PROCESSING COST. I have made 5000 images with that D3x, exploring realms of detail in nature that 35mm could never show me. For someone trying to find the subject matter and composition that speaks to them (I've been at this 20 years, and am pretty confident in the basics, while trying different approaches to familiar types of subjects), I would think the fact that each picture doesn't cost anything with digital would be very valuable.
You certainly don't need a D3x (or any other UberDSLR) for this unless you are specifically working on detail - for the first exercise, an old D70 would be great. Another (albeit expensive) option is actually an Alpha 900 - its simplified LCD and "photographer's camera" mechanical handling fit right in here, and it gives you the detail of using medium format.

This is a great idea, but it's kind of tough for a "gearhead" like me. ;)
But then, this is the way I have started about two decades ago: one Ricoh SLR and a 35-70 lens (OK, not a prime but still...)
And I still benefit from that experience today.

A classically effective plan ! Good to see in these consumerist times.

I have the impression that one of the points of suggesting a Leica is that the cost is pretty much zero. After a year you can sell it for what you paid for it. The same would be true of other higher-quality rigs of course, but a very cheap buy (meaning an 'economical' low-end film camera, specially for this plan) would be more costly over the period as a whole.

The second point of choosing a higher end camera is probably that you can't blame the tool anymore . . .

I'd also remark that you don't need much gear at all to make contact-prints, and the result will be a much clearer (more brutal?) indication of the quality of the exposure etc. than auto-adjusted jpegs of some sort. The blog noted that the workprints could be made equally effectively in ones usual way, via neg-scanning or an enlarger.

Totally agree.
Since October, I've been only shooting with Leicas (only film and mostly black & white). My photographs have significantly improved as you have to build the image in a way you won't do with a DSLR. It's now 10 months since my DSLR and its fancy lenses haven't been used...

One of the best things I've read in a very long while -- and something I told every person I ever had a conversation with / or student / about how to make images they'd be proud of -- I usually say 6 months with one camera / one lens / one film / one developer -- but your idea is equally compelling.

Very good post. I sort of agree with you ; when I begun photography 15 years ago, I considered buying a canon Eos 500 (that would be rebel in the US, I think), but went instead for a 2nd hand, beaten OM-1 in the shop, to the dismay of the salesman, just because it felt more 'right'. I did about what you suggested at the time, and I think I learned a lot and entered photography on a good foot.

But more recently, I wanted to understand the fuss about RF cameras and bought for nearly nothing a Canonet new 17 QL as a cheap and convenient way to get into that type of photography. And I was surprised by how much I improved again, in a short timeframe.

I haven't had the chance (yet) to try a Leica, but I have a feeling it could again help me climb another step in picture making.

This said, I'm not a professional, and I usually carry a Panasonic LX2 set in full manual mode for everyday pictures. I've got a Pentax DSLR too, but this one is too bulky and automated for my tastes, and get out of the bag only for some special and anticipated events. I'm not ready yet for your adventure. But this is an advice I will keep at hand reach for the time I re-build a functional darkroom. Very soon, I hope.

How in the world do you get a Leica for free?!...

Anyways, awesome article and I'm thinking of trying this out, with something I can get my hands on. If free Leica magic doesn't appear, I'll just use my Nikon FE. Now to choose a lens...

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