Quick Shot: Hustle and Bustle

London's King's Cross rail station is certainly one of the busiest I've ever been to and rivals some of the stations in Washington, DC and New York City. The hustle and bustle of people coming and going from regional and international trains makes it a great place to people watch, which is what my Leica and I did! To get this photograph, I went to the upper deck of the station and held the camera on the railing for stability. I set the shutter speed for 1 second and click...... a conversion to black and white and here's the result.

Twenty Four Hours with the Leica M-P 240

A little over 24hrs ago, I walked into Red Dot Camera in downtown London. I was full of giddy anticipation - the kind you get when you know something exciting is about to happen, a feeling I associate with opening Christmas presents as a kid. The time had come; I was about to become the owner of a Leica digital camera.

My introduction to Leica as a brand came early in my photographic journey - I heard it referenced as being top-of-the-line equipment so I Googled it. After seeing the price tag on the cheapest camera, I closed the browser in dismay…. I’d never own one of those! A few years later I had a chance to demo a Leica S2, which is the $25,000 dSLR system made by Leica Camera. It was a beautiful machine and the images it made left my Nikon D7000 feeling inadequate. 

Not longer after I upgraded to what I thought was going to be the end-all-be-all of my photographic equipment - a 36megapixel Nikon D800. I loved this camera. Together we took over 25,000 photos, won awards, got printed in magazines, sold plenty of prints, and even had a guest appearance on CNN. 

Within the past year, I had the lofty ambition to refocused my photographic efforts to be a more patient and thoughtful photographer. As part of that effort, I wanted to explore the roots of photography by shooting more film. Early this summer I decided I could finally afford a Leica, but only as a 35mm film camera.

To say that Leica MP 35mm film camera ruined me would be an understatement. The Leica rangefinder system is the perfect tool with which I can create a masterpiece. Being fully manual, it requires thought and patience to work, along with a very strong understanding of photographic principals. I invested in a 35mm and 75mm lens and was blown away by the quality of them relative to their size. My Nikon glass was huge and heavy, this could be tossed in a purse!

I began seriously considering my future equipment setup - the lenses I was investing in and loved for film don’t work on my Nikon and vice versa. When I travel I may want to shoot digital and film, would I have to bring both setups? After days (ok, weeks) of deliberation, the truth was clear - I was going to become one of those people who sold off their dSLR setups and moved to Leica.

Fast forward to Saturday - I’ve arrived at Red Dot Camera in London to see a barely used Leica M-P 240. The M240 is the top of the line model of digital rangefinder made by Leica and the “P” version is upgraded slightly from there (cosmetically and with a 2GB buffer). The camera I was eyeing vas virtually new - the battery still in the original plastic wrap from the manufacturer. Apparently someone with more money than common sense decided after buying this that they wanted the black instead of chrome one and I was eager to take advantage of them paying the initial depreciation. 

Unfortunately the battery was nearly dead, but the folks at Red Dot are fantastic and offered to charge it while we walked around an outdoor street party for a little bit. An hour later, I came back and picked up the camera for a stroll through London. 

As of this writing, the Leica M-P 240 and I have been together for 29ish hours and 15.87 miles (or 36,855 steps, according to my Fitbit). It’s certainly premature for me to offer a comprehensive review, so this represents my impressions after a day and a half of shooting.

First, the Leica M-P 240 is a wonderful camera. Unlike the film version that I own, the camera is not fully manual, but focusing and setting the aperture are still manual operations. Initial edits of the files shows tremendous depth and color - although I haven’t done a side-by-side comparison, there appears to be more dynamic range than found in my Nikons. 

Pros:

  • Silence. The sound this camera makes when the shutter actuates is a whisper; the Nikon suddenly sounds like a machine gun.
  • Quality. Even with the best Nikon glass, there is distortion and vignetting. I haven’t seen any artifacts on the images produced by the Leica. 
  • Weight. It is such a joy to carry lightweight equipment! I never appreciated how heavy and burdensome a dSLR is until walking around with this camera all day.
  • Feel in my hands. I really liked the feel of a D800 in my hands, so I was concerned that the lack of hand grip was going to make the Leica awkward to hold for a long day of walking around; however, I found the little thumb notch/rest near the scroll wheel to be a surprisingly comfortable grip and the camera never felt out of place. I think that’s largely a factor of weight as the D800 had to offer more ergonomics to accommodate for the heft!

Cons:

  • The menu system is a little cryptic to me, which may be a result of being so accustomed to a Nikon format. Changing settings like file type from .jpg to .DNG was surprisingly tricky..... on a Nikon all adjustments are made from the "Menu" button, but the Leica uses the "Set" and "Menu" buttons to adjust settings. This wasn't obvious to me without reading the manual, and I think if I have to read a manual, it could have been done better. I do like that I can set a profile to save particular settings though!
  • I am used to the Nikon providing a lot more information in the viewfinder display, so it’s been a little jarring to not see the aperture displayed. With time, I’ll become more used to this.

General Observations:

  • The increased buffer size for the Leica M-P 240 (from 1GB on the Leica M to 2GB on the Leica MP) makes a difference! I was shooting some images from the train home from London and would rattle off a burst without ever worrying about the buffer. 
  • I’m surprised that Leica will let you change the film mode to something like black and white when the camera is saving .DNG RAW files. Why isn’t that menu greyed out? The files don’t save black and white, but they give the illusion that they do.
  • The shutter is smoother on the Leica M-P 240 digital camera than it is on the M-P 35mm camera. I attest this to being a digital camera vs a fully manual camera, but the difference in shutter feel is rather significant. I don’t dislike either.
  • The external “leatherette” cover on the 35mm and digital Leica M-P is very different. The Leica M-P (35mm) is more finely textured, like sand paper, while the Leica M-P 240 is like real leather.
  • The Leica M-P 240 is taller and wider than the M-P 35mm brother. It is also significantly heavier, but still far lighter than my Nikon’s.
  • Thank you to Leica for including adapters for the charger for the most common plug types!

Clearly the Pro’s outweigh the Con’s on this list, especially because the negatives are mostly things I need to learn or become accustomed to doing. It took me months to fully master using my Nikon D800 without thinking as I worked the menus and expect it will take some time for me to really get comfortable enough that I could use the camera by touch only. 

Overall, I am extremely happy with my purchase. Saying goodbye to the Nikon D800 was heart wrenching, but I am not regretting it for an instant! Having the quality, optics, size and flexibility of Leica is well worth the adjustment. 

Stay tuned for more reviews of the Leica M-P 240 once I’ve really had a chance to put ‘er though the paces!

Big Ben and Parliament as seen from across the river. Black and White conversion done in Nik Silver Effects 2 (shot in RAW).

A Chinese News Agency Shop - I liked the bright red color and was curious to see how it rendered. I think the result is very pleasing. Notice how there's no vignette on the photo - that's the Leica optics at work!

One of the busy (er, not busy?) Soho streets

Taken from the train as we passed a train station. The colors are a little more muted and yellow looking, but I was shooting through dirty train glass, which I suspect is partially to blame.

Technically this is the first image I took with the camera. Most people take a picture of whatever crap is on their desk - I'm happy with this result!

The camera performed beautifully in low light situations. This was hand held at 1/30th of a second.

My favorite street in Cambridge. Edited in Nik Silver Effects 2.

A row of punts lined up on the River Cam

Quick Shot: Geometry

One of my favorite subjects in school was math, despite the fact that I wasn't particularly good at it! My love for math started in geometry class - I thought geometry was a puzzle just waiting to be solved and I love puzzles. 

Eyeing my negatives from Belgium, one theme was prevalent - interesting geometry. There is so much fascinating architecture and activity in Belgium to photograph and, when shot in black and white, the lines and shapes are even more exciting. To illustrate the geometry of Belgium, I've selected three negatives to share, each with a different geometric idea.

The first is based on 90 degree angles created between this otherwise bland brick building and the shade from the opposite building falling across the windows. The result is a host of squares, rectangles, and interesting angles.

The second is based on curves - the curves found on the old stone columns inside one of the cathedrals in Belgium. The location isn't important - it's the wide sweeping curvature of the stone.

Finally, the complex shapes of the skyline causes me to see a lot of triangles in the Bruges buildings. The little lines from the crosses on the top of churches break up the skyline's many triangles.

I don't know about you, but I think that was more fun than anything I ever did in math class! Shot with the Leica MP 35mm camera and Adox Silvermax film.

First Time Shooting a Leica M Rangefinder

I had looked forward to this day for years, so it’s arrival brought nervous excitement. No, I am not referring to my wedding day - I’m talking about the first time I created photographs on a Leica M rangefinder.

As you may know, I am a long time Nikon shooter. The D800 and D610 are extensions of my body - they are extra limbs that I can control and manipulate without thinking. My fingers know which way to turn the dials, which way to rotate the focusing rings and I spend very little conscious thought operating the camera. As a result, I’m focused entirely on the artistic aspects of getting the image I want from the camera.

I had the opportunity to shoot a Leica S dSLR a few years ago. The camera body alone cost upwards of $25,000, but the quality of the images was in a league of their own. Comparing side-by-side photos taken from that camera against my Nikon dSLR ruined me - I knew that I wanted a Leica from that moment forward.

A Leica dSLR is not only financially impractical, but didn’t fill a niche for me. I knew if I ever shot Leica, it would be with one of their world famous expertly engineered M series rangefinders. For years I have drooled at the prospect of owning one of the finest pieces of photographic engineering, and this week I finally brought that dream to reality with the purchase of a barely (if ever) used Leica M-P Film and Leica 35mm f/2.4 lens.

Like I do with most purchases, I had researched everything imaginable prior to selecting this combination. I understood how rangefinders worked and how they differ from my Nikon, but understanding is half the battle. I understand the basics of driving a stick shift car, but that doesn’t mean I won’t stall out a few times!

Eventually I will take the time to do a review of my thoughts on the Leica M-P, but I wanted to first offer my day 1 impressions of shooting a rangefinder. Many of you reading this may be considering the same thing and hopefully this helps you know what to expect the first time you step into the batters box with a Leica M.

First, you can’t help but marvel at the brilliant engineering and design behind a rangefinder when you first pick one up... especially a Leica. There are no frills or gimmicks. No extra buttons that you don’t know what they mean (there are some buttons on my Nikon I can honestly say I have never pushed.... *cough* depth of field preview *cough*). The controls are focus, aperture, shutter speed, film advance and the shutter button. What the camera lacks in fluff it makes up for in precision engineering.

The first photograph I took with the Leica was of my dog, Juno. She is a great subject for practicing on because she’s a fairly patient model and everyone loves photographs of puppies. At first it was all very awkward. I am normally a left eye dominant shooter, but the Leica is designed with the idea that you would use your right eye to look through the viewfinder. While this isn’t a problem, there is a big challenge to override years of muscle memory as you bring the camera to your left eye.

Then my right index finger started to become an issue. On my Nikons, there is a scroll wheel that controls aperture or shutter settings on the front of the camera. Again, muscle memory draws my hand to the front of the body, but on the Leica M, that can cover the viewfinder that is used to focus the camera, which makes it impossible to focus until you move your finger.

Lastly, I am accustomed to looking through the viewfinder and seeing a heads up display that tells me the aperture and shutter speed, but the Leica is all about simplicity, so the only thing visible in my viewfinder are the image frame lines and the meter, which looks like this:

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Since the MP doesn't have a heads up display, I constantly had to remind myself that “I am on f/8 and 1/250th.”

By the end of my first roll of film, things were getting better. I was getting faster with the focus and metering. Speed is critical with street photography so as to catch the apex of the action, but I need to continue working to get my shooting speed up to par. It felt like I was driving the finest sports car for the first time - I didn’t know what to do with all that power and engineering!

IMG_2148.JPG

This whole experience was extremely humbling. I kept forgetting to advance the film (with a Leica, you don’t advance the film after you shoot because you can accidentally bump the shutter walking around - so you wait until you are about to shoot). My fingers were clumsy with the controls. But it was liberating…..

Shooting a totally mechanical and manual camera is a very freeing experience. I used to let my Nikon make lots of decisions - or at least do some of the thinking for me. The Leica may have a light meter, but it’s up to me to still set the aperture, shutter speed and focus. I normally shot aperture priority with my Nikon D800, so half of the “thinking” was left to a computer. Seeing developed negatives that come from a mechanical camera is much more rewarding!

I know the Leica will make me a better photographer and can’t wait to take it back out again tomorrow. With practice, I’m confident the Leica will become just like my other cameras where the movements and controls are second nature and I can spend more time on the photograph. 

If you are considering ditching your dSLR in favor of a Leica…. do it! This has been some of the most fun I’ve had shooting in a long time!

Stay tuned to see my first photos from the Leica later this week!