We all have it. Restfulness. Sometimes you get tired of photographing the same streets, the same places, the same faces. And you need to go, somewhere, anywhere else. The camera is curiosity manifested in a physical form, how many times you have trespassed on private property, or maybe approached someone and asked if you could take a photograph of them? Would you have done it if not for the reward of a photograph? The camera makes us question, makes us explore, makes us confront.
One of most romantic enduring images of being a photographer is the road trip. Just you, your camera, an airplane or a car, a destination, or maybe the journey is the destination. Maybe you have the images in your mind that you want to make. Maybe you just need to be in an unfamiliar place and the photographs you make are a reaction to those surroundings. And you know how hard it is to explain to the non-photographers in your life why you just up and want to go somewhere randomly out of the clear blue. Four years ago I was working on a project, and I had this urge to fly to Detroit to make photographs. I remember telling my wife, and she asked me “Why did I want to go to Detroit?” Mind you this is right after Detroit had filed for bankruptcy, and my response, which has no become my go to response when talking about photo trips to non-photographers was, “I don’t know, I gotta see what’s going on in _______ (fill in blank with destination)”
Have a f**king Leica, Will Travel…
After I calmed down my buyer’s remorse from buying that f**cking Leica, I wanted to go somewhere with it. Personally I don’t think any camera has put the wanderlust in me like the Leica has. Just throw it in a bag, with a bag full of film, and hit the road. A few months after I bought it, I picked it up one day and it said to me “So, where are we off to?” I replied, “I think we’re going to go to Hollywood”
After developing the photos and resting at home for about 6 months, I got the itch again. I asked the Leica, “What do you think about going to Vegas?”
The funny thing is, I never considered going on a trip somewhere (with the sole purpose of making photographs) until I returned to film. I took a cruise with my wife back in 2009 and I took so many digital photos that it was such a chore for me to go through and edit them (I had the intentions on making a book….and I still do!). I never had the urge to take a photo trip with a digital camera for that reason, dealing with the deluge of photographs when I returned home. Traveling with film does have it’s challenges, mostly when you are flying somewhere, which would make a good future RTF discussion. But the perks far outweigh the challenges, which in my opinion is getting the film to and from where ever you are going, and remembering to bring enough film! I’m always of the opinion of there is not such a thing as bringing too much film (I personally love to fill a ziplock bag full of film)
A photo posted by Laidric Stevenson (@18percentphotographer) on
20 rolls of sweet Delta 400 in that bag, I ended up shooting 17, and that was me trying to be conservative! Last thing that you want to do is run around on a trip looking for film (especially if where you are going doesn’t have any camera stores that sell film, but even if I were going to somewhere like LA, Chicago, NYC, places where you know you definitely can find film, you never know what prices you’ll run into, and if they’ll have the film that you’re looking for!)
As I write this, my Leica and I are currently preparing to make a trip to Washington DC, and I am excited at the potential for photographs that should result!
Disclaimer – the thoughts in this post are self reflective of my personal choice to buy a Leica M, I am in no way or manner criticizing anyone else’s decision to purchase, use or collect Leica M cameras.
Well does anyone really need a Leica? I certainly didn’t. There are plenty of other ways to shoot 35mm; you’ve got your point and shoots of different flavors, Pro SLRs (Nikon & Canon), cheap SLRs (like the Pentax K1000) Pinhole, Toy, etc. I had a couple of fixed lens rangefinders that I had fallen out of favor with, as I felt that something was missing when I was shooting with them. I wanted a 35mm interchangeable lens rangefinder, I like rangefinders. But I didn’t want to get a Leica. I wasn’t a dentist (I’m not an anti-dentite though!), I wasn’t a doctor, or a lawyer or accountant, or any of those high paying professions that probably have a camera bag full of very lightly used Leica gear sitting in their houses. I wasn’t some fanboy screaming on internet forums how Leica cameras and lenses are the best evar.
I’m not a celebrity:
But I wanted an interchangeable lens 35mm rangefinder, I liked the way I shot when I photographed with a rangefinder, I was loose, relaxed. Maybe it was something about not having that viewfinder black out? Maybe it was the quiet shutters? Maybe it was the way that people tended to ignore you with this small, quiet camera in your hands? I started researching different rangefinders:
Voigtlander Bessa Series
Pretenders to the Throne?
I really liked the Zeiss, but I couldn’t find too many people with long term impressions on the camera, I found some initial reviews and tests, and everyone mentioned the camera in comparison to the comparable Leica M (in this case the M7 – both cameras have electronic shutters and are battery dependent), but in most of these reviews there was this undertone of “This camera is good, but it’s not a Leica”. Maybe because most of the reviewers also owned one of the various Leica Ms, so they basically were saying (without saying), “This is a good camera, but not enough to replace my Leica.” And it wasn’t a common enough camera that you could happen to run into someone shooting with one so at least you could cop a feel on it (camera feel is very important!) And not having a store locally that I could just run to check one out, left me with only the option to buy one, and then hope I could get back what I paid for it if it wasn’t the camera for me, not really a chance I wanted to take.
I wasn’t too initially high on the RF because it was a motor driven camera, and I really wanted a rangefinder with a manual advance lever, so I dropped it from my consideration without giving it too much thought.
The Voigtlander Bessas were priced right for my budget. At this point was really interested in buying a Bessa R3M + the 40 1.4, which would allow me to slide into the world of 35mm Rangefinders with a complete setup for the price of a Leica M6. Through a local film photography Meetup group, I was actually able to handle a R3A. It was nice, I didn’t shoot it as I didn’t want to waste someone else’s film, I liked the feel of the camera and the viewfinder, but something just wasn’t right. I couldn’t put my finger on it. But I started shopping for a R3M anyway, my want of the rangefinder was trying to trump my instincts and this odd feeling that I had about owning a Bessa. This feeling had nothing to do with the build factor, or the rangerfinder base length, or the viewfinder magnification, or any of those technical things that people put so much stock into when making a camera purchase.
Enter The Leica
Months after I was able to handle that R3A, I went to an Instant film photowalk at the State Fair of Texas. One of the other photographers there, just happened to bring his Leica M6.
I asked if I could hold it
I brought it up to my eye and looked through the viewfinder, the framelines and patch were sharply defined. The Bessa’s was just as sharp and defined, and the viewfinder was just as clear, but looking through the M6, was just…different…
I felt the solidness of the body, it felt like one piece of metal, you could feel the craftsmanship (I know the M6 isn’t one of the classic Ms – where you REALLY can feel the craftsmanship, so I’ve heard….just go with me here)
The instant my hands touched that camera, the moment I looked through the viewfinder, I immediately knew what was wrong before, maybe I knew all along and I just didn’t want to admit it to myself…
I wanted a Leica
Any other M-mount rangefinder would just be a substitute for the camera in my heart I truly wanted. There are thousands of different camera models out there in the world, and we only have a set number of years on this Earth to photograph, so why would you want to waste them shooting with a camera that is a substitute for the camera your heart truly longed for? Even if it’s something that you have to wait and save up for?
The Cost of a Leica
A lot of people tend to look at own a Leica like owning a luxury automobile, expensive on the front end, expensive accessories (aka lenses), and expensive on the upkeep. I think of a Leica as one of those cameras you buy and you feel satisfied, even before you take a single shot with it, mostly because you know that with the upkeep, it will pretty much outlast you. It’s a ‘Forever camera’; that gives you a sense of satisfaction that you bought the camera that you truly wanted in your heart.
But, let’s face facts. MOST Leica’s are expensive luxury cameras (notice I said most)
A new Leica M-A is $4100 (body only)
A new Leica MP is $4300 (body only)
A new Leica M7 is $4395 ($5795 with a 50mm Summicron f2)
So, yeah, when you look at those 3 cameras which Leica are still producing and selling as NEW (and expensive or not, props have to be given to anyone producing new film [and 35mm film cameras at that] cameras in 2017…). So for the most of us, these cameras are well out of our reach, so used is the way to go!
Okay, so given the fact that used cameras shoot just as well as new cameras, what are we looking at? I started out looking for a M6 which used run anywhere from $1200 to $1500 with some a little lower, some a little higher. I also was looking at the classic M4 which fell around the $900-$1100 range, only differences being that the M6 had 28mm framelines and a meter. I didn’t want the older M3 or M2 models, because I wanted the modern rewind knob and didn’t want to deal with the removal take up spool. The only camera I did not even consider was the M5 and that was simply because it wasn’t the classic M body style, although I’ve read somewhere that it has one of the best in-camera meters of any Leica, even the newer models. I was on eBay, KEH, B&H and Adorama almost everyday looking at M4s and M6s and lamenting the fact that I didn’t have the money for either of them.
The two ‘lesser’ Leicas
Somewhere along my search for my Leica, I became aware of two other models, the M4-2 and M4-P, these are generally thought of the ‘lesser’ Leicas because they were manufactured in Canada instead of Germany (due to Leica looking to cut down their manufacturing costs after the fallout over the release of the M5). The resulting bodies were made with stainless steel components instead of the hand polished brass materials, because of this, these two cameras can be a great bargain and generally can be found anywhere from $600 to $1000 depending on their condition. $600, that’s what I was talking about! So I began to search for the M4-P (as it was generally regarded to be the better of the two), and after a few weeks, I started to lament again, because I couldn’t find anything in the lower cost range, and then one day I went to Adorama.
And there was a G rated M4-P for $579
I knew it would take me 3 or 4 days to pull all the funds for it together, so I was hoping that it would still be there!
Those 3 or 4 days ended up being two weeks…
I just knew I had missed out!
I went back to Adorama’s used section, and there it was! It took me about .5 secs to hit “Add cart” then “checkout”
The two weeks ended up also being good because I was able to also get a Voigtlander 35 2.5 pancake lens to start out with, I like to call this the beginner’s Leica package, the M4-2 / M4-P and that 35 2.5, you can get out of the door with that around $1300 or so, and you’re ready to roll when it gets there.
I keep tabs on the tracking, anxiously awaiting when it would arrive on my front porch:
Opening the box and looking at everything, I had a weird feeling of buyer’s remorse, which is something that I never felt before with ANY camera purchase. I went over the camera to see why it was only $579, because looking at it, it was in almost perfect condition! I only saw one flaw, a dent on the top panel in front of the cold shoe. I ran through the shutter speeds, to my naked eye, all speeds looked right on. The only thing that really troubled me was the dent, could that mean that the rangefinder was out of alignment and run me another $200 or so for an adjustment?
The next nice day we had I went into downtown Dallas and burned a couple of rolls of Portra 400 to test everything out. Rangefinder was aligned and all shutter speeds were good! Because I was still feeling my way out and just testing the camera none of the photos I took are worthy of a second look, so they are not being shown here! But now that I had a Leica, what was I going to shoot with it?
I don’t think that they consider your film important enough for a Viking’s funeral, still from Youtube user Mukeybear
As film photographers in 2015, we get used to addressing a certain set of questions whenever we are out shooting:
What’s that? [Or as a current meme goes – WHAT ARE THOOOOOOOSE??!] (Since most people that shoot digital are used to certain camera body types, most common being a DSLR, they are naturally curious or confused when they see cameras like rangefinders, TLRs, Large Format cameras, pinholes, Polaroids)
You can still buy film? (Why yes, yes you can…some places you can even walk into a camera store and give a person behind a counter money in exchange for boxes of film!)
Why are you shooting film? (I, personally generally answer this question either sarcastically or snarky [which I know that I shouldn’t] depending on how my mood is that day. Maybe the person is genuinely curious as to why, not trying to attack your medium of choice, but sometimes they are trying to attack your medium of choice so maybe they need a little bit of snark…)
How are you going to see your pictures? Where do you get film developed? – Now, this is actually a question to be addressed…
Why do I say that? Dealing with getting film developed is seen by most non-film photographers as one of the major negative (no pun intended) reasons not to attempt the whole film photography process. As the years go by, we see lab after lab close down, labs abandoning certain processes (like developing slide film), or abandoning their film processing all together. Now there are film labs out there that are doing tremendous business, we all know them; Richards, Indie Film, The Darkroom, NorthCoast, Dwayne’s, FIND, and many others. And those labs are great, there’s a reason why they are doing the business that they are. But for those of us who don’t want to mail off their film all the time (or don’t live close to these labs), or don’t want to get their hands dirty developing themselves, there used to be another option if you shot 35mm only.
That option for 35mm shooters? The 1-hr photo lab.
Remember the drugstore 1-hr photo? Drop off a couple of rolls, come back in an hour to prints (if you wanted them), some decent low res scans, and sleeved negatives! All for a fairly reasonable price.
Why would you use drugstore 1 hour processing????
Maybe you’re doing a personal 365 day or 52 weeks photo project
Maybe you bought a used camera and you needed to test it out
Maybe you’re selling a camera and you need to test it out
Whatever the reason, the 1-hr photo lab was a nice way to experiment with different films, before you moved on to more serious shooting, or started using those same films in larger formats. Personally when I returned to film back in 2009, I was at my local Walgreen’s at least 2 to 3 times a week, adjusting back to my Nikon F3 and F4s, seeing if I liked 400H more than Portra 400, re-learning to shoot film. And that Walgreen’s got used to seeing me, the technician might say something like “nice photos” when I came back to get my negatives and scans. It was nice.
As the years passed, Walgreen’s (and other 1-hr photo places) began to stop developing film. Minilab equipment was stripped out of their stores (wonder what happened to it), and the ones that continued to develop film in store….their quality control went waaaaaaaaay down. Expired chemistry. “Technicians” that didn’t understand what film was and how it should be properly handled (I heard a story of a photographer seeing a photo lab employee using an un-sleeved negative strip to clean their fingernails).
Now many of these places are committing what to us should be the ultimate sin (even more than lab employees cleaning their nails with your negatives):
Film is now being sent out for processing, and you get a CD of scans, but…..no negatives.
They are destroyed, too much of a hassle (read: cost) to properly sleeve them and mail them back to you.
Throwaway culture has come to film photography.
But you’ve got the scans though right? Your photos are right there for you to view, and email them to your friends and family, post those suckers on Facebook, and hell if you wanted to print them you can do that too! You might be able to squeak a decent 8×10 out of those scans.
Photo CDs (even the archival ones) don’t last forever and since a lot of computers / laptops these days are dropping CD / DVD drives, you might not be able to even view them in 10 years.