Let me say at the very beginning of this post the the choices I make are very personal, and have been refined over the past 40 years of making photographs.
What you end up using will also be a personal choice, that is the fun and interesting thing about photography, there are so many choices!
Secondly, I use a Leica with a nifty fifty 90% of the time. I have other cameras, and other lenses, and I do occasionally use them. It’s all about the right tool for the right job.
So I’ll start out with the camera. Why do I use a Leica? Part of it has to do with a Leica is a hand made precision instrument. Everything about the Leica M is top notch and well thought out, with a time tested design used for decades, with only minor design modifications through the years. The camera is meant to last a lifetime, my other cameras will never last a lifetime, even with reasonable care they will wear out over time and need to be replaced. In the digital age I can see myself wanting to upgrade my Leica’s when technology has reached a point that it makes me want to get the latest and greatest, but that will be a personal choice not a necessity.
OK so much for the excellent build quality. Now I’ll talk about what is called the “Leica Experience“. A Leica is a manual focus camera on the traditional M series, which is what I own and prefer. If you miss focus it is your fault. There are no front or back focus issues, no focus point to move around, no contrast detect to miss in low light. You focus by looking at the focus patch, then line up the overlaid images by turning the focus ring. If your image is out of focus, look no further than in your bathroom mirror. It was your fault, so it’s time to practice. Focusing is fast and easy. The split image is fantastic to work with. I find a line, like the eyes, or the face edge if farther away, or even clothing like the edge of a collar on a shirt which is the same distance away as the eye. It will take a few days for the new Leica owner to get the hang of it, but when you do you will love it.
Exposure with most modern Leica M cameras is achieved with manual exposure or aperture priority. Aperture priority mode is as easy as it sounds, set the f stop on the lens, frame focus and shoot. However, I prefer manual. Shutter speed is just as important as aperture to me. A slow shutter speed can cause soft images because of camera shake or subject movement. – Here is a quick story. I was a wedding photographer, shooting with a Nikon. I noticed I was getting soft eyes, not blurry, just soft. I couldn’t figure it out. Then one day it came to me. Blinking! Humans blink their eyes quite often, and fast. We are so used to it we don’t even notice it. So I increased the shutter speed, and the soft eyes went away. So that is something to be aware of. Manual exposure on a leica M is determined by a dot and arrows on the bottom of the viewfinder window indicating over, under or dead on exposure. What is dead on exposure on a Leica M? Newer Leica’s are equipped with live view, which I don’t like and never use, so I’m not going to get into live view. The way I shoot a Leica M with traditional metering is with the camera’s center weighted metering, or with a hand held spot light meter. I could write an entire blog post, or even a book, on metering. It is easy to understand, yet it is complicated. When you look through the viewfinder, you are obviously looking at the image you are going to make. This image is usually not a flat grey card on a table. It is usually a scene filled with high and low values of light. The light meter (center weighted) is looking at the center of the image and trying to average that area out to make it 18% grey – middle grey – Zone 5 or technically defined as 18% reflectance in visible light. The big question you need to ask yourself before making the photo is – is this what I want? Is the center area of the image being zone 5 going to make a good image? What about the sky, what about the foreground, what about the subject? Exposure just got complicated didn’t it? Ideally I would prefer using a hand held 1 degree spot meter for metering. Then I can meter a caucasian face set it at zone 6, for fair skin, then I can meter the shadows, then the highlights and see if they are acceptable, or easily fixable in lightroom. If they are not, if the sky is going to be blown out, or important shadows are going to turn pure black, I need to make an adjustment in exposure. The thing is, metering with a hand held spot meter is time consuming, and usually not my style, so generally I do rely on the in camera light meter, but, and a very important but, I’m aware of the high’s and low’s in an image and make adjustments all the time. As stated earlier, I could talk about exposure for a long time, and do in my photography classes, but for now let’s move on.
The nifty fifty. I shoot with a Leica 50mm Summarit-m f2.5 lens. Although it was sold at an affordable (for a Leica) pricepoint the Summarit-m f2.5 has been reviewed by Leica experts and their verdict was, it is one of the best all around 50mm lenses Leica ever made. It is a given fact that Leica’s lens line is the finest in the world. It is also accepted that any Leica lens made today, or recently, and most made in years past are outstanding lenses. The Summarit-m 50mm is sadly now discontinued, as is the entire Summarit line, so used or old stock is your only choice if you want one. My next choice would probably be the Summicron-M 50mm f/2, again personal choice. Leica lenses – my my, in this post I’m touching on several areas that would easily take a book to do the subject justice, and Leica lenses are one of those areas. Instead I’m going to talk about the focal length. 50mm is called a “standard” lens, meaning it is a lens that gives a normal perspective of the world when looking through the viewfinder. What most people see when looking straight ahead is roughly a 50mm view. I “see” the world in a 50mm view today. This wasn’t always the case. When I was a journalist in Iraq for the Army PAO, my job was to shoot high profile VIP events. I had trained my brain to usually “see” a 200mm viewpoint, as in the images below.
When I left Iraq after 3 years, it took awhile for my 50mm mind set to kick in again. I did have a Leica M6 and M9 in Iraq, but they were my fun cameras, my workhorse equipment was a Nikon D3s and a D3 with a 24-70mm and a 70-200mm attached to the cameras.
I found it easy to transition from zoom lenses to using my feet to “zoom” into an image. I especially liked the relief it gave my back and neck not carrying two heavy cameras on assignment.
Now let’s get into my favorite part of the “Leica Experience” the frame lines in the viewfinder. The frame lines indicate what your camera will record when you press the shutter. Unlike an SLR the framlines are smaller that the field of view, and they change with different focal length lenses.
In the illustration above I’m indicating what the frame lines are for each of the standard Leica lenses. Only one set of frame lines are visible depending on which lens you have attached, and the numbers do not appear, they are for reference in this post. Also frame lines change with viewfinder magnification 0.58x, 0.72x and 0.85x are available on some Leica cameras an 0.72x, is pretty standard and what my Leicas have.
In the above image you see apromaxitly what I see with my 50mm lens attached, and why I love that focal length so much. The thing that is so handy is I see what is in the frame and in this case what is about to be in the frame. A person is about to walk into my photo, so I can make the image quickly to avoid that.
I can quickly recompose the shot and make my final image without distracting elements or people entering my frame.
Above is the approximation of the final image.
There are a few things I haven’t got into in this post, like some Leicas have a lever to preview frame lines for different lenses. I usually only carry 1 lens and don’t use that feature. I also haven’t mentioned image quality, which is indeed important. Without going into detail, my Leica M240, and Leica Monochrom 246 both have amazing Leica quality. I’m sure there are other things you may want or need to know, if so, leave a comment, and I’ll try to get you an answer.
I hope this post gives you somewhat of an introduction to Leica cameras, and why they are my first choice to make images with in 2021.