By Pete Myers
After two years of photographing with a digital monochrome camera, I have returned to photographing with film and the Leica MP. Even if you are shooting digital, this article contains some thoughts that may make it worth your reading — so let’s press on.
I am a fine arts photographer by profession (www.petemyers.com). My work is in monochrome imaging—not color. I am 45 years old and reside in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with my wife, Kathy. Previously, I have written for Luminous Landscape on the subject of my adventures in shooting with a nearly one-of-a-kind digital monochrome camera—the Kodak DCS 760m. Additionally, my article, “Making Images—Not Taking Images” featured my encouragement to fellow photographers to spend more time in postproduction with their most beloved images.
In the art of photography, we can say, “technology is our friend”—but only up to a certain point. Truly, technology can get in the way of our end-goal of making beautiful images. Here is why:
Complexity is the Achilles’ heel of modern technology — it is wondrous when it works, and a disaster when it fails.
When I am out in the field photographing, I enter what for me is a “sacred space.” By this, I mean that I do not want to be disturbed in the field by the technology of the camera. Rather, I want to feel free, open to the moment and absorbed by the beauty of the view in front of me. It’s not about the camera, but about the moment. Given my feelings, I do not want a computer strapped to the back of my lens, with twenty-plus levels of menus, more buttons than are needed to launch a nuclear missile, and the perpetual pause to monitor that “all systems are GO!”
The Leica M series camera has been in continuous development for FIFTY YEARS — one camera body and lens system — the same camera body and lens system.
Over the Leica M’s fifty-year lifespan, this camera system has been refined in actual field use by some of the most prestigious names in photography, such Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alfred Eisenstaedt and Sebastiao Salgado. The camera has been slowly and conservatively shaped to create the essence of the minimal requirements of photography, at maximum performance. The camera system simply disappears, and it becomes a link between the photographer and the lens — the two covalent elements of photography as an art form.
To me, the essence of the technical part of photography in the field is the lens, the lens, and the lens. Simply put, the lens is the most sophisticated signal processor in the image-making chain. While composition is the art of the photographer, the lens is the essential element of the technical aspect of image making.
I use the Leica M series 35mm f2 aspheric as my primary and ONLY lens. Alfred Eisenstaedt reported that 90 percent of his Leica photography was at this focal length.
Leica makes three of the best lenses in the world — the M28mm f2, the M35mm f2, and the M90mm f2. Choose your weapon, and get to know it like the back of your hand. There are no better lenses. Take a look at Erwin Puts’ reviews here. He is the definitive Leica lens authority.
I have the same issue that Ansel Adams had with most photographers about gear — too many lenses and not enough practice. Simply put, extraordinary lenses, like the Leica M series lenses, give one enough technical versatility to master for a lifetime. There is intimacy in the image-making because of the performance of these lenses and because of their intended use — wide open.
One of my favorite books is Image Clarity: High-Resolution Photography by John B. Williams (Focal Press). This book is a must read. Try to take its wisdom to heart.
It is important to remember that a lens is actually capable of producing more resolution the further it is opened up. At f8, a lens it theoretically capable of resolving 94 lp per mm. At f2, the same lens is theoretically capable of 385 lp per mm. While no lens will resolve to this latter degree, and neither film nor digital has the capability to record the increased resolution; the theory shows the trend of performance of the best lenses as they are opened up. Depth of field may be shallow, but resolution increases as the lens moves towards wide-open. But this only occurs in practice with lenses of extraordinary design and manufacturing construction. The amazing Leica lenses listed above are such lenses and were designed to be used near or at full aperture — large aperture lenses have no other purpose on a rangefinder camera. There certainly must be a reason for their use. Read on.
Most photographic lenses sold by the major equipment manufacturers will never come close to their theoretical performance level at a given aperture. A typical lens quickly takes a dive as it is opened up. For the sake of lens correction and for depth of field, many photographers tend to get stuck in a rut of stopping down their lenses to f8 or more and just parking it there to correct for the strong aberrations of a poor performing lens.
There is a terrible artistic price to be paid by the photographer who falls into such practices. As the motion picture cinematographers know, focus itself can be a huge clue to the viewer’s eyes in terms of creating an illusion of three-dimensional depth. A lens that can be opened up, particularly when photographing with a wide-angle lens, has the advantage of offering this aspect of tool to the photographer. In the motion picture industry, neutral density filters are widely employed by cinematographer to move the lens open so as to take advantage of limited depth of field — thus allowing changes of focus between primary subject matter.
While it may not be possible to clearly see the results over the web, my new image below, Alas, Poor Yorick! uses my Leica M lens to maximum advantage. Shot at close range at f4, the focal point is one of the teeth in the skull. The lens’ out-of-focus areas transition both forward and back from the central subject matter extremely smoothly, and with fabulous “bokeh.” What this does for the final print is to force the viewer’s eyes to always return to the artistic center of the image. The wall has depth and flow — to and from the image — created by the cone of focus.
“Alas, Poor Yorick!” © 2005, Peter H. Myers]
“Alas Poor Yorik!”—detail ©2005, Peter H. Myers]
The Leica M 35mm f2 aspheric is one of the few lenses in the world that will arrive from the factory guaranteed to perform at this level. Yes, Leica uses the same glass and materials as every other camera-maker. The difference is in the precision of its manufacturing process and the endless quality control tests that occur at every stage of assembly. As a former National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) consultant and one who has space-qualified a number of systems, I can say without hesitation that the expense and the quality assurance of the product are always derived from the continuous testing of the materials. The testing far and away exceeds all other costs. When you buy a Leica lens, that is what you are paying for — the assurance that the lens performs to perfection. And further, you are also paying for a lens that can be tested and repaired.
As part of my Leica purchase, I have access to a repair department that will always maintain my camera to exacting standards. As a minimum, I send the entire camera and lens system to the Leica company once a year for a “tune-up.” Everything is checked by Leica to make sure that the lens works to perfection. It is all done without cost under my Leica warranty. The warranty is not there to fix a broken product per se, but to be assured that my camera is operating according to extreme standards. Leica guarantees parts availability for my Leica MP for at least thirty years from the date of purchase.
Forgive me if I drone on about Leica. The company is at a crossroad this year (2005). It has been hit hard in recent times because many photographers have gone digital and have left the world of film behind. Sales have slumped at Leica, while the photography world is off on a quest in the land of pixels. While Leica is beginning to ship its first digital back for its R series camera (it looks to be a powerful imager), the company’s long wait (with good reason) in developing a meaningful digital product has greatly stressed its place in the market.
Before we break out the trumpets to sound taps for Leica, let us reconsider film for a moment, and why I have returned to it. Remember, with my profession as a fine arts photographer, I can shoot with any camera system I desire. But I have chosen film, and I have chosen Leica. Let us consider why.
The quest for ultimate resolution is one of the grandest myths of photography, as is illustrated by John D. Williams in his book. Unless you intend to bolt your camera to the ground and cast concrete for a base, there is always going to be an upper limit to resolution in your image-making, because of shutter speed, aperture, and vibration. Simply put, at a certain poin t— enough already! Go make an image and get the spirit of what it is that you have envisioned as the photographer installed in your final print. What the viewers of your image feel is much more important than what they see.
Grain vs. Bayer Matrix:
Yes, film has grain. But digital has both a Bayer matrix and a need for an anti-aliasing filter (Nyquest Sampling Theory). Whether film or digital, each sensor system creates artifacts that need to be suppressed with math algorithms and software. Neither film nor digital photography is a limiter as long as one understands the medium and its use.
For those readers who might like to experiment with what I am shooting today, here are the details:
My photographic medium comes in a roll with thirty-six image sensors to a box. Each box also provides the user with a free, image-memory system — which is highly archival. And finally, the completed images don’t even need to be viewed on a computer monitor at all — you can just view the images directly on a light table with a loop! Magic.
I am sorry for the poor humor, but you do see the point — we may have invented film if photography had started out as digital. With all the debate about proprietary RAW image formats, DNG and the like, isn’t it refreshing to think of film as the ultimate “open RAW format”? Photography used to be simple — we made it complicated.
In all seriousness, here is what I use: I shoot monochrome, so the film of choice for me is Efke 25 — a relatively new, “old-school” film from Croatia. It is sold here stateside by John Anderson at J and C Photo. This is a microparticle film, with a high silver content, and extremely uniform grain. I rate the film at ISO 6 (six), and meter for the dark fields of the image subject with the camera’s internal light meter. I shoot my Leica lens opened up to f4 or f2.8, with a number 8 contrast filter (I like B+W MRC filters). I shoot with a carbon fiber monopod and a Really Right Stuff quick-release system.
My friends, Jeff and Katherine Cox at Cox B&W Lab, dutifully run the film though their dunk and dip Xtol system at 7 minutes and 21.25 degrees C. I ship the film to them by FedEx with “Do Not X-Ray: Exposed Photographic Film” stickers on the shipping box. Their personal lab care results in scratch-free negatives, which my Hasselblad/Imacon 343 scans as if it were butter–rich and creamy!
So much of what I have seen as problems for photographers in shooting film and using digital postproduction has been with the scanners they use. Frankly, most scanners are poor performers. I have used a number of what I would call “semiprofessional” scanners for my work in earlier times. My only regret is that I did not purchase an Imacon earlier. The prices of the Imacon scanners are now competitive with the prices of digital cameras. My scanner produces a sharp 35mm scan with 13+ million monochrome pixels (40+ million in color) and is grain-limited. Since I only shoot around one thousand frames per year — scanning perhaps one hundred negatives to produce — and make eight to sixteen portfolio images, the time to scan is meaningless. All the complex technology sits on my desktop at home, not on the back of my camera.
Cost: I remember when film was still in vogue, and the bitter complaint by photographers about Leica was in the cost of the gear. Now we have digital cameras that easily exceed the price of a Leica system; yet, no one complains in a similar fashion about the cost of digital. Further, these camera systems follow the eighteen-month semiconductor life cycle and are often replaced repeatedly.
The cost of a Leica lens looks a lot more attractive when the image quality of other manufactures lenses are taken into consideration — often overlooked with film, and obvious with digital. The irony of the moment is in the many complaints voiced by photographers about the now sudden and apparent lack of lens quality by many of the chief players in the digital camera world. Chromatic aberrations, lack of lens sharpness in the corners, vignetting and barrel or pincushion distortion have all become obvious to the users of these high-resolution digital systems. All of these lens defects were there before with film, but did not show up to the obvious degree they do now because of our ability to see the images at a large size on a computer monitor.
The cost of a product is often relative to its performance. I want my money in the lens.
Ease of use:
While you are looking up what C21 sets on your digital camera, I am already done shooting. While your auto focus system is still hunting for focus, I am already done shooting. While you’re backing up data and trying your darndest to clean all the dust off of the image sensor for tomorrow’s shoot, I am kicking back in my hotel room, sipping a ginger ale (my favorite is Reed’s).
While it is fully possible to use a digital camera in the field to good measure (and I have done so myself with great success), there is a technical burden that is now lifted from my shoulders as a result of my use of the Leica with film. It only takes a few minutes to clean the Leica MP, pop in a new roll of film and get my lunch ready for the next shooting day. The tail is no longer wagging the dog. I have FUN.
Also, my back is no longer breaking with the Leica when I pack into the field. My backpack has lost a significant amount of weight and bulk. Just the difference in weight between the current hot professional dSLR and my little Leica is more than one and a half liters of water—a priceless commodity when shooting out on the high desert. The accessories for the dSLR add even more to the system weight.
If I were a product, fashion, news, wedding, or sports photographer, what choice would I have but to produce instant results? None. It’s a demanding world. But for the rest of us, we do have the luxury of time and the potential grace of a simpler life — if we choose to embrace it.
I think the demise of film has as much to do with the stupidity of film manufacturers in not moving their product forward as it does with the “advantages” of digital over film. Most films stink in performance. And I do not mean to imply that it’s an issue of grain or film speed. While we have a better choice with monochrome films, color negative film and chromes are just terrible products for a digital age — reason enough to go digital. Color negatives are “thin” (low gamma) and designed for optical enlargement and separation. They were never designed from the ground up to be a digitally scanned product, with no intention of printing to paper.
Ditto, life with chromes. While chromes scan better then color negative material, the film has followed a traditional path of development based on projected, high contrast images — again, it is not a medium designed for scanning and digital postproduction only.
In my opinion, no one ever bothered to invent a film product to fit the new age. E6 and C-41 compatible film are dead paths for a digital world. We need something new and designed exclusively for digital scanning.
Thank goodness that there are more choices for film in monochrome. Efke 25 is a high-contrast monochrome negative film, reaching a gamma of 1.0 with ease. While paper printers hate the contrast of Efke, it’s just about perfect for scanning digitally. Uniform-sized microparticles of silver create a film that does in practice something that modern T-grain emulsions just do not do. Isn’t it ironic that an old-style film and an old-style camera are a path towards modern-day image making?
By now, many of you will be scratching your heads and wondering why we are talking about film and the Leica M in the digital age. All I can say is that there is a lot of noise by manufacturers in getting people to buy what is new and different, and we have all gotten used to being good little consumers. I am for digital photography and the power of the computer in image-making — I just don’t want it all stuck on the back of my lens. For many of us, film may be the best medium yet for our fieldwork.
Will I return to digital photography in the field anytime soon? In part, yes, I have already done so — using my Kodak DCS 760m on a limited basis. I have decided to continue to experiment with digital monochrome capture — despite the comments above on my difficulties with the current status of digital cameras.
Recently, Kodak was finally able to make repairs to my nearly one of a kind, digital monochrome camera (DCS 760m). It took a year for engineering to track down a CCD banding issue that had my camera sidelined.
There are a lot of great people at Kodak and I sincerely appreciate their efforts in having restored my camera to proper working order. Hopefully their efforts and my use of this camera will continue our pioneering efforts towards a future for digital monochrome photography. I consider the work experimental at this point, as there are no digital monochrome camera systems in production — and no backup system available should my camera fail.
The image below, The American Dream, was photographed this past month with the Kodak DCS 760m. It certainly attests to the potential of a digital monochrome future for all of us. But so far, no other manufacturer has expressed interest in developing a digital monochrome camera or medium format back. Given the precarious moment in the photo industry, I have my doubts that digital monochrome will be addressed any time soon. This makes my Leica MP all the more precious to me in my return to film. Long may it live!
“The American Dream” © 2005, Peter H. Myers]
“The American Dream”—detail ©2005, Peter H. Myers]
Simplicity is an elegant solution and one sorely needed in digital capture. I hope that digital cameras will mature to the point wherein we no longer consider the image sensor as the primary component, but once again return the spotlight to the lens, the lens, and the lens.
I wish Leica all the best in its upcoming year in making it through troubled times. The new Digital-Modul-R looks like a solid performer and is a few steps in the right direction towards what is needed in the field for effective digital capture. I, for one, am returning home to Leica (but with the MP and film for now) and find its value worthy of my support. If you feel the same way, now is the time to buy a new piece of gear from them.
I am closing with one final image, photographed with my Leica MP onto Efke 25 film. The first frame shows the final image, Chutes and Ladders. The second frame shows a snippet of the detail from the final image.