Leica is to photographers what the Stradivarius is to violinists: not only the ‘best’ tool from a technical perspective, but also the one with the most ‘spirit’ – the one that represents photography and what it means to be a photographer, just as a Stradivarius represents the essence of being a violinist. Using a Leica, one can’t help but imagine Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa, globe-trotting and making iconic images with this magic little camera.
The big question for a contemporary photographer, though, is whether a film Leica has significant enough advantages over a DSLR, and whether the Leica will enhance your creative ability or inhibit it.
To answer this question, I decided to rent a Leica M7 and the legendary 50mm f1.4 Summilux for several days, and make some images on the Tokyo streets using Kodak Tri-X film for black and white, and Kodak Portra 800 film for color.
The first time you hold a Leica, you immediately notice the unique tactile feeling of it, as if it’s a splendid sculpture in your hands – all smooth metal and glass, with every button and switch located in the perfect place. One feels rather humbled by the experience, similar to using a Moleskine notebook – one isn’t worthy of such perfection.
After several days of use, however, I discovered that this ‘perfect design’ wasn’t necessarily so perfect after all. For one thing, the controls are very stiff to the touch, and tricky to maneuver. The shutter speed dial, for example, can’t easily be moved with one finger; you have to stop, hold the camera with your left hand while moving the dial with index finger and thumb, by which time you’ve possibly lost the shot you were trying to get. The film advance lever is also poorly designed, since the end of it is pointy and sharp, and being right next to the hot shoe, which is also sharp, means that your thumb can get hurt pretty quickly.
Framing things inside the viewfinder is also a challenging experience. First of all, there’s the problem of parallax (i.e. what the lens sees and what the viewfinder sees are two different things, since the viewfinder is located above the lens). Then there are the indicators inside the viewfinder – one for 50mm, another for 75mm. Instead of simply seeing the image you’re going to get, you see much more and have to imagine what the image will be like. Some photographers, like the great Elliott Erwitt, claim this is precisely what makes the Leica a better tool than other cameras – it forces you to consider the frame more carefully, since you often see more in the viewfinder than the framing of the specific focal length you’re using.
Another challenge is focusing. In the middle of the viewfinder is a small circle with two ‘double images,’ and when you focus, you line up those double images until they overlap each other. It sounds fine in practice, but I found there were many situations when this just didn’t work well. Basically, it’s a great system for focusing on clear, contrasty lines. If you’re photographing a person, their ear might provide a clean line to be focused on easily. But what about trickier, less contrasty things, like eyes? Lining up ‘double eyes’ in the viewfinder seemed virtually impossible to do quickly and accurately. Another quirk of the Leica is that it’s impossible to judge depth of field through the viewfinder – you have to imagine what it will look like. In a way this is rather fun, since when you get the film back it looks quite different from what you saw with your own eyes.
One problem I consistently had was shooting in bright light. The 50mm Summilux only stops down to f16, and the highest shutter speed on the Leica M7 is 1/1000th of a second, so in brighter conditions it was often hard to get a photo. Compare this with my Canon 5d Mark III. Using the ‘Nifty Fifty,’ I can stop down to f22, and the camera’s shutter speed goes up to 1/8000th of a second. This gives me much more versatility in brighter conditions, and makes it easier to use wider apertures and get beautiful bokeh.
So, did I hate my experience with the Leica? Definitely not! I enjoyed cradling it in my hand as I walked the Tokyo streets; I liked the smallness of the lenses in comparison to their mammoth DSLR cousins; and the craftsmanship and precision of the camera, and that wonderful little ‘click’ when you take a photo, were quite enchanting. Of course, there’s also the history of the Leica – photographers like Sebastiao Salgado, Robert Frank, Josef Koudelka and many others, all of whom made some of the most memorable images in the world using Leicas.
However, I found myself being more conservative in the things that I photographed, and also how I approached photographing them. The whole process felt more rigid, less fluid than using a modern DSLR. By the end of my time with the Leica, I appreciated all the more the advantages of modern DSLRs: their speed, responsiveness and versatility. And because of the LCD on the back of a digital camera, the ability to shoot, review, and tweak things.
So, is Leica the right camera for you? Only you can decide. My advice would be to hit the nearest rental shop and try one for yourself.
UPDATE: I’ve now received the film back from the scanners, and have started to reconsider the whole experience. For one thing, what seemed like ‘conservative’ choices while I was shooting now appear to be good instincts that, although I didn’t entirely trust them at the time, resulted in some nice images. The ‘keeper’ rate from the two rolls I shot seems higher than my keeper rate when using a digital camera. Also, there is a certain beauty in how colors and tones are rendered by film. Colors are arguably more natural and nuanced than what one gets with digital, and tones have both grit and softness, as compared to digital, which tends to render tones in a rather clinical way. Of course, the Summilux lens doesn’t hurt either – incredibly sharp, with beautiful bokeh. I’ll be keeping my Canon DSLR, but I can certainly imagine how, with enough time and effort, the Leica could help one to see things in a special way.