In the Darkroom - The LEICA M Photographer: Photographing with Leica’s Legendary Rangefinder Cameras (2015)

The LEICA M Photographer: Photographing with Leica’s Legendary Rangefinder Cameras (2015)

Chapter 9. In the Darkroom

The Pros and Cons of Image Processing

Do we really need to process our digital images? To shoot with an analog camera, you have to select a film that suits the project at hand: either black-and-white or color (negative or slide). You can also choose between various brands and different film sensitivities. At the development stage, you can influence the look of black-and-white negatives by altering the strength and temperature of the developer fluid or the duration of the process. Slide film can also be developed with negative developer using a technique called cross-processing. And after you have developed your film, the enlargement and printing process offers you choices of hard or soft paper with a plastic or Baryta substrate.

Even in these digital times, analog techniques are still held by many to be the benchmark for authentic photography, although alongside the processing possibilities listed above, blatant forgeries, too, have always been a regular feature of the everyday photo workflow. In analog times, people and places were grafted into and sliced out of images, and details that existed in negatives were often simply dodged to the point of invisibility or burned until they were unrecognizable.

I know plenty of sports photographers who inserted “missing” footballs into their prints and many were never found out. Limiting yourself to making digital manipulations of the kinds that were possible in the analog darkroom doesn’t guarantee authentic results. Of course, it is a lot easier to manipulate images digitally, but photographic fabrications have been around as long as photography itself.

The digital equivalent of an analog negative is a RAW image file

The Digital Darkroom

I have to break my promise about treating analog and digital Leica photographers equally. Most analog photographers choose whether to shoot in color or black-and-white by selecting an appropriate film before the shoot even begins, whereas (with the exception of the Leica M Monochrome) digital photographers can leave this decision until later. I say “can” because I prefer that you think in advance how you want your results to look. Black-and-white photography isn’t just color photography with the color taken out; and although an average-quality color image can sometimes gain impact if you convert it to monochrome, it will rarely become really good regardless of how you process it.

In a color photo, the composition and the colors have to form a harmonious whole, and it is rare that images benefit from kitschy colors. Gaudy colors can be fun but usually make an image look overblown. Successful color images usually contain either repeated tones, subtle tones, or carefully positioned signal colors.

The most important elements of a black-and-white image are the nuances that exist between the various grayscale shades it contains and its contrast.

In the digital darkroom, you can develop your images according to the look you have planned for them. Many news agencies have a written code of ethics regarding the processing steps their photographers are allowed to apply. If you take a look at the standards recommended by The Associated Press, you will find that the organization even frowns upon use of the anti-red-eye effects. Generally speaking, processing tools should only be used to subtly enhance attributes that are already present in an image, especially in documentary photography.

Even if you are not shooting for photojournalistic purposes, excessive post-production is usually counterproductive. High dynamic range (HDR) images created by merging a sequence of underexposed, correctly exposed, and overexposed images have become extremely popular in recent years and are, in my opinion, a great example of an impressive technique that quickly loses its appeal when overdone.

Your Leica is a fantastic tool that I hope will encourage you to shoot great images from the get-go, rather than average images that you can pep up later. Of course, all RAW images require a little processing, and the best option here is a powerful but intuitive all-in-one program like Adobe Lightroom, which is supplied with every new Leica. A well-thought-out photo will only require subtle post-processing to help it reveal its best qualities.

Photo Exercise #9

Select a scan or a photo file and try out as many different processing options as you can. Don’t hold back; adjust the sliders as much as you like. Save each version and compare the results. The most highly processed image is not always the best, and you are sure to find that some combinations of processing steps produce more authentic-looking results than others.

On Assignment

Using Third-Party Lenses

Your choice of lens is another way to influence the look of an image. Although the current crop of Leica lenses offers high-quality reproduction characteristics, some legacy models produce results with a more distinctive look. Some lenses produce obvious vignetting effects, while others produce soft-looking images when used wide open or at short distances. Optically speaking, such lenses aren’t of the highest quality but are still capable of producing visually exquisite images if used correctly. There are plenty of highly respected images that were captured using crude pinhole cameras, providing further proof that the concept and the quality of execution are just as important as technical perfection when it comes to creating great photographs.

I love to test the technical limits of my gear. As you can see from the photos in this book, I like to shoot at wide apertures, and the brighter the lens the more fun this is.

Voigtländer and Zeiss are the best-known manufacturers of third-party lenses equipped with the Leica M bayonet. While researching this book, I came across a number of photographers who use third-party lenses to achieve specific effects with their Leicas. Jan Garup is a lovable and talented Danish photojournalist whose main lenses are highly specialized 35mm f/1.2 and 50mm f/1.1 Viogtlander Noktons, which he uses for his warzone photography.


The ladies leaving the field of play


The “Queen” and her escort in a Daimler landaulet

His technique made me curious, so I approached Voigtländer with a tentative request for the loan of a lens or two. A couple of days later, four lenses landed on my desk. I don’t need to explain how shallow the depth of focus is in an f/1.1 lens, but these lenses are still a dream to work with, even if I did end up producing more reject portraits and close-ups than usual.

This chapter’s assignment took place at the annual British Days festival in Hamburg, which is visited mostly by Brits and Anglophiles. I used just the 35mm and 50mm Voigtländer lenses and shot exclusively at maximum aperture. I really love these lenses, even if they aren’t appropriate for every scenario. I certainly have a few more ideas to test before I give them back!


The Bentley wing with a convertible in the background


Pipe and drums enhance the mood of the day


A game of cricket, shot from a distance to produce a pleasing graphic effect


People being silly in front of silly-looking tents