The LEICA M Photographer: Photographing with Leica’s Legendary Rangefinder Cameras (2015)
Chapter 2. Less is More
Selecting Your Gear
Now that we have talked about the importance of your demeanor, I want to help you see your equipment in a different light. In photographic circles, the question of what gear to use is hotly debated, so let’s be clear about it from the start: There is no right or wrong gear! A photo captured using an iPhone can get printed on the cover of Time magazine, while other photos captured using the most expensive gear can be best described as visual pollution.
I have always been curious to hear and read about the gear used by established photographers, and I have often followed suit and purchased some of the items they mention. However, I have never been able to duplicate the images that impressed me just by using the same equipment. Familiarity with the gear is essential and there are certain things you need to perform specific tasks—for example, sports photographers simply must use telephoto lenses; and you can’t do without a macro lens if you want to shoot extreme close-ups.
Digital or Analog
So what is the best way to approach the Leica system? The first question you have to answer is, digital or analog? In principle, the only real difference between the two is the type of storage medium they use, and this makes no discernible difference to the image-capture process. You have to admit that it makes no difference whether you save images on a SanDisk or a Lexar memory card and, by the same token, it doesn’t matter if you store your images on film or digital media. Images captured by these two very different methods may have distinctive appearances, but images captured using different types of film have their own look too, and images captured using different digital cameras look different as well. Our overarching aim, however, is not to store images but to present them, and I will go into more detail on that particular subject later on.
I can almost hear cries from the analog community telling me that digital image capture can never be classified as true photography—primarily because images captured digitally can be duplicated at will. This may be true, but a great image doesn’t care whether it was captured digitally or using an analog process. This book is all about images and what they represent, not about esoteric questions of brand loyalty or the effectiveness of marketing strategies. In all the chapters that follow, I will not be differentiating between digital and analog Leicas.
Choose a Lens—or Better Yet, Use Your Feet
Once you have decided which camera body to use, you need a lens to go with it. This, too, is a hot topic. Personally, I hate the endless conversations that take place between seasoned aficionados, so let’s just keep to the facts.
Leica markets standard, wide-angle, super-wide-angle, and telephoto lenses. Budget permitting, the lenses within these groups cover just about any photographic task you can imagine—and this is where the “less-is-more” approach comes in.
My DSLR camera bag contains lenses with focal lengths between 14mm and 200mm, a macro lens, various teleconverters, and a bunch of other bits and pieces that add up to a total of almost 30l pounds of metal and glass. My Leica bag, on the other hand, usually contains just one body and two lenses. You are probably wondering how I can achieve the results I am looking for using so little gear. I don’t claim to be able to cover the same ground with my Leica that I can with my DSLR, and I will continue to mistreat my neck and back doing the jobs that require heavy lifting.
I don’t use my Leica to capture close-ups or long telephoto shots, and only rarely do I use it with flash. So when do I use my Leica? The quick answer is, in any situation in which I can freely select my shooting position. Joining a group of professional sports photographers squeezed into a dugout with their huge telephotos lenses is definitely not a “Leica moment.”
If we can move around freely, any limitations to how we shoot are of a completely different nature and have primarily to do with our fear of being too conspicuous or of getting too close to strangers. In these kinds of situations, using your feet is the best way to change your viewpoint. Two steps forward or back can make the difference between wide-angle and normal perspectives; the same is true for the switch between normal and short telephoto.
Now that I’ve got you moving, I nevertheless have to ruin your dream of a one-lens kit. Every lens has strengths and it would be a shame not to have two or three different choices on hand.
I am not about to present the ultimate solution to all of your questions about what to take with you and what to leave at home. First of all, you need to consider what you as a human being bring to the party. In other words, I want to talk about your eyes.
The Focal Length and Depth of Field of the Human Eye
What do you think is the focal length of your eyes? The human eye has a very similar angle of view and perspective to that of a 50mm lens, and the only Leica exception to this rule is the M8 with its crop-format APS-H sensor. This means that a 50mm lens “sees” the distances between objects just like we do. A wide-angle lens increases apparent distances; the shorter its focal length, the more pronounced the effect. The opposite is true of telephoto lenses that compress distances; and the greater the focal length, the closer distant objects appear to one another. Lenses can deceive the eye, and that is an important factor in the process of image composition. We also assume that we can see everything from the near foreground to the farthest background in focus. Unfortunately, real-world experience teaches us otherwise—especially when we hit 40 years of age and we realize that it takes a little longer than it used to switch focus from a page in a book to the view outside the window. Because our eyes instinctively focus on the middle distance, we think we see everything in focus. Like our eyes, camera lenses have a limited depth of focus, which is why they have a focus ring in the first place. All Leica lenses have a depth-of-field scale engraved beside the focus scale and, if you take a close look at it, you will discover that depth of field is very shallow at large apertures and deeper at smaller apertures. To add to the confusion, the shorter the focal length of a lens, the greater the depth of focus for a constant aperture setting.
Let’s look at an example: for a 50mm lens set to f/16, the depth of focus ranges from about 2.4 meters to infinity, whereas the field of focus for a 35mm lens set to f/16 begins at a distance of about 1.2 meters. Finally, you need to know that the closer you get to the subject, the smaller the field of focus will become.
§ Long focal length = shallow depth of field; short focal length = greater depth of field.
§ Large aperture = shallow depth of field; small aperture = greater depth of field
§ Close subject = shallow depth of field; distant subject = greater depth of field (dependent also on the focal length of the lens)
Focal Lengths and Angles of View
We haven’t yet discussed the differences between the angles of view produced by short (wide-angle) and long (telephoto) focal lengths. In this respect, human vision and the visual data captured by camera lenses differ significantly. If you let your eye wander from one side of a room to the other, your brain creates the illusion of viewing a wide-angle image, although what we actually see is a series of “standard” 50mm images arranged in sequence to form a kind of virtual panorama. Remember, a 50mm lens captures an angle of view and perspective just like that perceived by the human eye.
If I want to capture an image of the same room in a single shot using my Leica, I would have to use a wide-angle lens, which would then produce an image with a very different look and feel from my human view. Because a wide-angle lens makes objects appear farther apart than they actually are, the resulting image makes the room seem larger than it really is. Before I delve into what is inside my camera bag, we need to look at one other aspect of the difference between human and camera vision. Most humans are able to see in three dimensions, whereas a camera can only record two. Because a camera cannot “see” in three dimensions, other aspects of the image capture process take on increased significance.
Photographic compositions often use the relative distances between objects to contribute to the feeling of depth in an image, and this is where the quality of lens optics comes into play. Leica M-series lenses have their own special way of portraying physical depth. They distinguish very clearly between the sharp and blurred portions of the field of focus, enabling us to precisely control the degree of background blur, thus enhancing the three-dimensional appearance of a photo. This high-quality background blur—also known as bokeh—is one of the most important compositional tools available to Leica photographers. I am telling you all this to encourage you to actively select your lenses and utilize the compositional control they provide.
What’s in My Bag?
So, what wonderful things actually find their way into my Leica bag? I usually carry my 35mm and 50mm f/2.0 Summicrons, if necessary a 28mm or 24mm lens, and sometimes a 75mm as well. The reason I use this modest setup is because I like to shoot densely packed images from quite close up. Because most of my subjects are people who don’t like having their personal space invaded, I rarely use wide-angle lenses. My 50mm is my favorite Leica lens. It shows life the way it is and all I have to do is construct an image around the events at hand. I also like using my 75mm because of its obvious telephoto effect, but also because the frame it produces in the viewfinder is still large enough to focus accurately.
In addition to a body and lenses, I carry spare memory cards for my M9 and my Typ 240, a piece of white plastic for making manual white balance settings, microfiber cleaning cloths, and a tabletop tripod that I can also use as a chest support if necessary. I also take along a pencil or a roller ball pen (these usually work in cold and the wet weather) and a notebook. I have a number of small, inconspicuous bags that don’t look like camera bags, and I often take just a camera and a single lens with me, and I carry a spare battery and a few memory cards in my pocket.
Even if you own several lenses, try going out on a shoot with just one. You will be amazed how inspiring such a voluntary limitation can be.
Photo Exercise #2
What you need: Your Leica, a 35mm or 50mm lens, film or memory card, insulating tape
Use the tape to fix the focus ring of your lens at a distance of about 1.5 meters and use the aperture to control focus, always remembering to adjust the exposure time to suit your settings. I know this is a challenging way to shoot, but that’s the point: It’s a great way to learn about your own capabilities and those of your camera.
Leica Customer Care
I have always been motivated by curiosity and wanted to find things out for myself. I discovered that my camera gave me access to people and places that are not accessible to everyone.
Leica as a company has interested me for years. I had been lucky enough to get first-hand experience of the camera-manufacturing process but until recently I didn’t know what happens to a camera that has to be serviced or repaired. Usually I give my camera to a friendly person at a counter who asks me to come back in a few days and then he and my camera disappear through a door. This book gave me the perfect opportunity to take a look behind the scenes at Leica Customer Care.
Once I received permission to shoot, I drove the 280 miles from my home in Hamburg to Wetzlar in heavy fall rain—not the best shooting conditions. Leica’s new head office lies on the outskirts of the small industrial town of Wetzlar and I had originally planned to include an outdoor shot of the building in my report. As I approached, I saw the building as a background to the raindrops on the windshield. I parked where I could see the whole complex in one broad sweep through the glass. I focused some of my shots on the raindrops and some on the building, and once again saw proof that any weather can be great weather for taking photos, as long as you go with the flow.
While I was shooting, the sun appeared from behind the clouds, the light changed completely, and, because it was still raining, a wonderful rainbow formed above the Leica building.
The new Leica head office building is home to Customer Care, company management, the Leica World exhibition space and gallery, and a Leica store. Visitors are also allowed to take a peek at the manufacturing process.
Part of the Leica M maintenance department
“Undressing” a Leica MP
If I had allowed myself to be put off by the weather, I would never have had the opportunity to capture that unusual architectural shot. The next day, I was taken into the inner sanctum of Leica Customer Care. I don’t remember what I was expecting, but it definitely wasn’t the view that awaited me. The sheer size of the department amazed me. I had underestimated the sense of responsibility to its customers that had been created in the 60 years of Leica M history. I had also overlooked the fact that Leica also manufactures binoculars, microscopes, and other precision optical instruments.
The most impressive part of the experience was being allowed to observe the love and care with which every camera was handled. I was allowed to photograph a member of the M group as he repaired a heavily used analog MP.
I had my standard M9, Typ 240, 28mm, 35mm and 50mm kit with me, which turned out not to be the best choice. The engineer who was working on the MP didn’t just service it; he dismantled it completely before cleaning and lubricating its various moving parts and replacing worn-out components.
The shutter is nearly all that is left in one piece
A DSLR with a macro lens would have made my work easier; but that was out of the question. In the end, with a little extra effort, I was able to shoot good images of the small parts using my M, simply by including a little more of the surroundings in the images than I would have using a macro.
Watching the MP being taken apart almost caused me physical pain, especially when the engineer began to peel off the leather coating to gain access to the screws that hold together the core of the camera. Leica technicians are surrounded by cupboards and drawers filled with M-series camera parts. Digital and analog cameras undergo the same rigorous initial inspections, although digital Leicas are analyzed using many more computer-based tests than their analog counterparts.
Order is key and every single screw found its way back to its original location
Siegbert Merz is an analog camera expert. This image shows him adjusting the rangefinder mechanism using a screw that is usually hidden behind the famous red dot.
The modern reception hall is the starting point for all visitors to the Leica building.
Café Leitz is located just across from the main foyer.