I remember the day in May 2010 when my Leica M arrived in the mail. Until then, I’d never held one before and when I took it out of the box, it felt very strange. As my brain tried to make sense of it, to associate the feeling with something I’d experienced before, the memories that came to mind: the .22 caliber revolver my Dad let me fire when I was 12, the gold Kugerrand coin my parents used to keep in a little drawer on their dresser, and the first time I held a meteorite. Altogether, the sensation is one of slight surprise. How weighty and serious these objects felt. How unfamiliar and alien.
To someone grown used to taking pictures with hunks of ergonomic plastic, it was some time before I got past the feeling like I was going to drop the camera every time I picked it up. Leica’s are ergonomic in a classical sense and very comfortable to hold and use, but they don’t fill your hand securely like a modern DSLR does.
I also felt very self conscious about it in the beginning. I bought it used, but it was still more money than I’d ever spent on a camera. Would it make me stick out? I don’t want to stick out—particularly when I’m photographing. After awhile, that feeling also passed as I realized that almost everyone, even other photographers, simply saw it as a cute old camera. Note the surprise on their face when they ask me how old my camera is and I casually answer, oh… about 10 years. No way, really? Film, huh? Bet you got it cheap. And I say… umm… well, I think so. Ahem.
My first camera was a Kodak Pocket Instamatic. It took child friendly 110 cartridge film and disposable cube flashes. Extremely easy to load for a kid my age. It had a viewfinder you looked through to frame the picture, not unlike a rangefinder. The red shutter button made a toy-like sounding plasticky click when you pressed it.
Now, when I look through the rangefinder on my M, I’m vaguely reminded of that simple camera from my childhood. The window on the world is curiously similar, and the Leica isn’t much more complicated. I’d all but forgotten my Instamatic, and it’s only now that I realize, decades later, how much it defined my early experience of photography and continues to influence what I value in the machines I use for taking pictures. Although a Leica is, for a small format film camera, functionally the polar opposite of that little Kodak, they’re still brother’s in spirit: small, simple, inconspicuous. Carry them with you everywhere.
The more I use my M, the more I seem to like and appreciate what an exceptional thing it really is. There’s something about an extraordinarily well built machine that makes me want to use it to death. Wear it out. That is, after all, why they are built the way they are. Not to fondle or put on a shelf to admire, but to use. Given the demands of life as an amateur, with so many other things competing for my attention, having a camera that compels me to use it every day is a welcome thing. I always leave mine out where I can see it for just that reason.
Simply put, rangefinder photography, and specifically the Leica M, works for me in ways that no other camera ever has. I will keep mine and use it for the rest of my life.
The Wand Chooses The Wizard
Of course, knowing all this about me won’t do you any good. Just because I like Leica rangefinders doesn’t mean you will. In fact, given the relative scarcity of rangefinder users, chances are pretty damn good that you won’t like them. Cameras are individual things. I hope I’ve made it clear that my reasons for digging this camera are very personal. They go back to my childhood. What could be more individual than that?
But there is a more generally useful message in all this, that you might find helpful if you haven’t already experienced it first hand:
The camera does make a difference. Everyone knows you can take good pictures with anything, but the process of making those pictures can be radically different. Finding a camera that really speaks to you in terms of the process is hugely liberating. It means you can stop worrying about the gear and get on with enjoying photography.
So try machines that require a different approach to picture taking than what you’re used to. I’m not talking Canon versus Nikon or Leica versus Voigtlander. I’m talking SLRs versus rangefinders versus TLRs versus view cameras versus toy cameras. One size doesn’t fit all. Although we can all adapt to using a DSLR effectively, it’s not necessarily the optimal solution for every photographer or every subject. We’re all different and in a perfect world, our tool choices would reflect that fact.
Sadly, relative to film, digital doesn’t offer a great number of real choices yet. With most camera companies playing it ultra-conservative and chasing each other to compete on features and price, there’s little to distinguish one from the other when it comes to process. Fortunately, that situation is changing as the technology matures. It’ll get better. Meanwhile, film cameras are there for us, daring us to wear them out, and the price of admission is still so cheap.
Even for a Leica.
Picture of the Kodak Pocket Instamatic courtesy of eBay seller papasaidso.
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