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The Leica Diary, Part II – Coming To Grips

Gear Talk

Part 1 of The Leica Diary can be found here.

Hold the Leica in your hand and the first thing that goes through your mind is, “Dang, that 50mm lens is tiny!”

The second thing that goes through your mind is, “This is a full-frame camera? It’s… kinda small.”

The M9 with a 50mm f/2.5 Summarit-M lens

The M9 with a 50mm f/2.5 Summarit-M lens

The Leica looks like a point and shoot. It doesn’t feel like a point-and-shoot, but it looks like one. Hold it in your hand and it feels… well, it feels like a piece of history. Which, given the fact that it isn’t all that different from the M-series film camera it succeeds, makes sense.

In my hand, the Leica feels dense. There doesn’t appear to be any wasted space here, either. The shooting controls on this 1.3lb body are sparse and easily reachable with my right hand, so my left stays on the lens.

Speaking of the lens, a number of Leica’s lenses have this nifty little notch towards the bottom that makes focusing the lenses a lot easier. With your right hand on the camera and your left supporting the bottom, your left index finger drops into that notch perfectly. On the 50mm f/2.5 Summarit, a short, perhaps 120º throw moves you through the lens’ full focal range.

The focus notch on the Leica's 50mm lens.

The focus notch on the Leica’s 50mm lens.

I’ll have a post on focusing with the Leica later (it really does deserve its own post), but suffice it to say that it’s very, very different from manually focusing a lens on your DSLR.

The top has just two controls – the shutter, which is in the center of the on/off/shooting mode switch, and the shutter speed dial. Again, painstakingly simple appears to be the way this camera has been built.

The shutter speed dial is close enough to the shutter button (which, by the way, is threaded for use with one of those old-timey plunger-style release cables) so that even my fat digits can reach over and spin it with my right index finger. Though I shot mostly in Aperture-Priority, leaving the dial set on ‘A’, it was nice to be able to spin it quickly to compensate for the camera’s built-in meter’s shortcomings.

The top of the Leica M9

The top of the Leica M9

As for aperture control, if you look at the front of the lens, you’ll see it marked on the front-most ring with with f-stops, from f/2.5 to f/16. The aperture ring clicks in half-stops, so you can, for example, set the aperture to f/13 by setting it in-between f/11 and f/16.

Incidentally, you can easily spin this dial with your left index finger (the one you use to focus the lens), so the entire camera’s exposure controls can be controlled with your two index fingers.

The rear of the body is sparse too. Five buttons and a command dial dominate it, and the playback and menu systems, accessed and manipulated on the screen, are pretty simple too.

This is not a camera, then, that you’ll need an instructional manual for – though this series of articles will help you navigate the sticky area that is focus and shooting with the Leica.

The handling and use of a Leica

It’s been a few years since I picked up a rangefinder. My last one was a Canonet QL17 GIII, the “poor man’s Leica,” which died a noble death (and is about to be replaced – thanks, eBay!).

My new QL17 (well, the eBay seller's photo of it, anyway. I don't have it yet).

My new QL17 (well, the eBay seller’s photo of it, anyway – I don’t have it yet).

Rangefinders are a curious lot. By eschewing things like autofocus and reflex mirrors, they end up being a lot more compact. Yet the images out of them can be pretty spectacular, leading one to believe that size does not, in fact, matter at all.

Working with the M9 requires a change in mindset, I think. I’m used to my 5D Mark II and my rented 5D Mark III’s controls. I’m used to sticking my face up against that viewfinder and seeing the world through a heads-up-display consisting of all kinds of readouts. The M9, by contrast, feels a bit like an antique, despite the fact that it’s newer than many of the DSLRs I’ve shot with.

On my DSLR, the fingers on my right hand are flying all over the body, spinning dials, locking exposure, setting in exposure compensation and ISO changes on the fly, while my left hand works the zoom ring or just supports the camera. On the M9, it’s a bit reversed – it’s my left hand that does more of the work, focusing and setting aperture, while my right just braces the body and squeezes the shutter button.

Yet the workflow change is more than about your hands switching roles. Shooting with the M9 almost makes you stumble at first. You’re looking for stuff to change, settings to adjust, things to do. Most of the time, though, it’s just focus, then shoot. Focus, shoot again.

Remember how I said the Leica looks like a point-and-shoot at the beginning of this article? Well, when you step from a DSLR to this camera, it kinda works a bit like one too. You get this sudden realization that, despite there being a very expensive CCD sensor in the camera and an LCD display on the back, you’re not really operating a computer attached to a lens.

Rather, you’re operating a camera that, despite its change of storage medium, Henri Cartier-Bresson would be able to pick up and shoot with without hesitation.

That was one of the hardest things to come to grips with. Using a Leica distils the experience of shooting down its very core elements, and when you’re used to the photographic equivalent of driving a loaded Lexus LS with all the amenities, being dropped into the equivalent of a 1970′s-era Porsche 911 is a shock.

A pleasant shock in many ways, but a shock, nonetheless.

Next up: Part III – Focus

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Sohail Mamdani is a writer and photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+. You can find his portfolio on his website at sohail.me as well as on 500px and Flickr.

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Comments

  • James says:

    There are some of us that learned photography on rangefinders and view cameras. These people compose differently, see differently and use a camera differently. Cameras have not gotten better during the shift to digital, just more complicated with unnecessary consumer features. There are only 4 real adjustments. The rest are someone’s idea of a short cut. The most important feature with a camera is the photographer.

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  • [...] Part I of the Leica Diary can be found here. Part II can be found here. [...]

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