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Returning to the Fold

A Medium Format Photographer Rediscovers Leica After a 20 Year Absence.

by Bill Caulfeild-Browne

 December Storm, Tobermory, Ontario
M9, 35 mm Summilux M ASPH, ISO 320

Powerless, I watched as the thief forced open the trunk of my rental car and removed the spare tire – and then my camera bag. I could do nothing but witness the crime as I was standing at the twelfth-floor window of an office building overlooking the parking lot in San Francisco. Of course I called the police but the unsub was long gone by the time they arrived. Gone with him were my Mamiya 1000, a few lenses and several rolls of film of surfers in Hawaii, where I had been for the weekend. I’ll never know how they turned out. I didn’t get much sympathy from the police who figured the thief was boosting spare tires and in a moment of serendipity (for him), grabbed my camera bag too.

Nor, on returning to Toronto, did I get much sympathy from my dealer. He said the bad guy had done me a favor, and why didn’t I consider replacing the Mamiya with a real camera – a Leica? He was a pretty good salesman and before long the insurance claim had been invested in an R4 and a 50 mm Summicron R lens.

This all took place in the early 1980s. The standard lens was soon joined by several other pieces of Leica glass as well as a second body. For the rest of that decade I was dedicated to Leica, delighting in the lenses and the Leica “look”. Even today those crisp Kodachromes are impressive.

Of course, the “real” Leicas were the “M” rangefinders and so it was quite natural that I should add an M6 to my arsenal. I had played with rangefinders before but I’d never owned one and it took a while to get used to the focusing and framing. I even bought a Noctilux, though it was really wasted on a photographer mostly interested in wildlife and nature. Still, the camera was a joy.

King of Haytor, Devon, UK
M9, 35 mm Summilux M ASPH, ISO 200

But at heart I’ve always been a medium format guy, having been weaned on Rollei TLRs. In the early 1990s I sold all my Leica gear in order to go back to MF, and bought a Rollei 6008. This was to be my prime system for another decade, and turned out to be my last film camera before I turned to digital technology in 2001.

Fast forward to the present day, another ten years later. I’m looking for a really high quality compact camera to carry for casual shooting when I don’t want to lug along the MFDB gear or even my Sony DSLR. Something without confusing menus – something really analog and straightforward and light. I’m intrigued by the reviews of the Leica X1 (including Michael’s report on this site) and despite its shortcomings, decide that its image quality warrants the outlay. Little do I realize that this is – probably – exactly what Leica’s marketing people hoped; I was now infected with the Leica virus. Again.

If the X1 image quality is so good, I asked myself, what must the full-frame M9 be like? (I’d not paid much attention to the M8; it wasn’t full frame and had IR problems and anyway I was broke after chasing a Phase MFDB.)

The disease progressed quite rapidly. The initial infection, the X1, occurred in August. By September a Leica M9 was on order and the fever was beginning. By October, a 35 mm Summilux ASPH joined the M9 and from then on it was all downhill. The fever only abated after I’d picked up a bunch of lenses. Finally I was back in the Leica fold, after a twenty-year absence.

End of Summer, Ontario

  M9, 35 mm Summilux M ASPH, ISO 320

This is a system not really designed for wildlife and landscape photography. It doesn’t have auto focus, doesn’t have long lens capability and doesn’t have serious macro ability. In short, it simply doesn’t have the versatility of a DSLR, something that most nature photographers value very highly.  So why did I return to it?

Well, first, it also doesn’t have the size or weight of a DSLR. My Sony a900 with my “normal” lens, the ZA 24-70 mm zoom, weighs a little over two kilos, or about 4.5 lbs.

The M9 with the standard 50 mm Summilux, the 28 mm Summicron and the 75 mm Summicron all together only weigh 1.60 kilos, or about 3.5 lbs. (I chose those three lenses as covering much the same focal lengths as the Sony zoom.) In fact, I can throw in the 135 mm Apo-Telyt or the 35 mm Summilux and still not reach the weight , nor the bulk, of the Sony kit. And although I need to change lenses rather than zooming, I get an extra stop or two of light.

Is the lower versatility worth the saving of a pound in weight and less bulk? On this site a few months ago, my wise friend Jack Perkins wrote of the advantages of lower weight to carry as one gets older, and as a fairly active hiker in my sixties, I can only agree with him. With the camera around one’s neck and a couple of extra lenses in one’s pockets, the Leica’s weight is quite unnoticeable.

Second, I find I actually enjoy focusing manually. After all, I grew up that way – I never owned an auto focus camera until ten years ago. As Michael alluded to in a recent column, auto focus is very good – as long as it’s focusing where you want it. No such problem with a rangefinder. I find it particularly useful in intimate landscapes where the primary subject isn’t anywhere close to the middle of the frame – no need to lock focus on the scene and then re-compose. Though, in a sense, that’s exactly what I’m doing without the benefit of electronics. Just seems easier somehow.

I will admit it took me several days to get comfortable with having to focus a rangefinder and I forgot to do so several times! (No ground glass to look blurry!)  But the old habits soon came back and now it’s become second nature again.

Simplicity, Bruce Peninsula National Park, Ontario
M9, 50 mm Summilux  M ASPH, ISO 640

Third, I’ve started seeing differently. One of Leica’s strengths is its wide-angle lenses; they are smaller and easier to design when you don’t have a mirror to clear. (True, such compact lenses so close to the sensor can cause other optical problems but they’re pretty much licked in the camera’s firmware.) When I started using the 28 mm Summicron , which incidentally is sharper than any DSLR 28 mm I’ve ever used, I began getting much closer to my subjects and getting a more intimate perspective.

I could go on about the lovely feel of the camera, the quiet, refined click of the shutter, the lack of mirror vibration or the simplicity of the menu system; these have all been covered by other reviewers so I won’t dwell on them. What I will dwell on is the most important reason I’ve returned to the Leica fold. Quite simply, image quality.

The X1 blew me away back in August. Here was a 12 megapixel camera that gave a crispness and clarity which rivaled much larger (though not more expensive!) system cameras. The M9 does this in spades. I believe the CCD technology and the lack of an AA filter mean this 18 mp camera easily challenges my 24 mp Sony – and clearly beats it for wide-angle photography.

Don’t get me wrong. I won’t give up my Sony for telephoto work where it shines, but I simply don’t use it for wide-angle stuff any more.

 

28 mm Summicron ASPH, ISO 320

Last of the Apples, Tobermory, Ontario
M9, 28 mm Summicron M ASPH, ISO 320

When Nick Devlin (also a wise friend!) added the M9 to his Pentax 645 review a few months ago, just for fun, I wasn’t the slightest bit surprised at his findings. I repeated the shot of the apples shown above (no brick walls for me, Nick!) with the Phase One P65+. It wasn’t until the printed image got beyond about 30 inches that you could see any difference in resolution. (The perspective was a bit different because I used a 45 mm lens on the Phase at an appropriate distance to render the field of view the same.)

It strikes me as quite curious that I should be so satisfied with an anachronistic instrument with its roots in the 1920s. I feel like a Luddite, forsaking a lot of modern technology to use such a very simple camera. Of course, it’s really not that simple inside at all, but it feels so after using more technologically advanced instruments. Still, out-of-date or not, the shape of the human hand hasn’t changed and nor has the desire to eke the maximum image quality out of a “miniature” camera. Nor, in my case, has the desire to control the camera in an analog fashion been hijacked by a camera menu trying to control me.

Cascade, Bruce County, Ontario
M9, 135 mm Apo-Telyt M, ISO 400

Leica seem to have surprised themselves with the success of the M9. While the body is now reasonably available, many of the lenses are not. In fact, the five ASPH lenses and the Apo-Telyt I’ve acquired were all used, though several are only a few months old. Seems there have been quite a few folks who have acquired the Leica mystique only to find a rangefinder just isn’t their cup of tea. Good for those of us who are hooked!

The M9 will accompany me on a month-long trip overseas next month where I'll be traveling every day, often on foot. To be able to capture very high quality images while toting so little weight will be most welcome.

I’m fortunate to be able to compare the M9 with some other pretty impressive gear I own, and this leads me to feel justified in my enthusiasm for having returned to the Leica fold. I have a feeling that it will lead to another decade of pleasure.

February, 2011

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About Bill Caulfeild-Browne

Bill Caulfeild-Browne is a retired business executive who has been a photographer and a lover of nature for most of his life. He is presently Treasurer of the Nature Conservancy of Canada. He recently supplied many of the photographs for the new university textbook "Ecology: A Canadian Perspective". His website may be seen at www.billcaulfeild-browne.ca

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Concepts: Leica Camera, Camera, Wide-angle lens, Photographic lens, Digital single-lens reflex camera, Single-lens reflex camera, Normal lens, Angle of view

Entities: San Francisco, Toronto, a Leica, Sony, Pentax, Canada, fever, Nature Conservancy, new university, ZA, Bill Caulfied Browne, Michael, Summicron, Michael, Leicas, Jack Perkins, Bill Caulfeild-Browne, Nick Devlin, Nick, Hawaii, CCD

Tags: Leica, camera, mm summicron, image quality, mm summilux, Leica M9, auto focus, Sony, rangefinder, camera bag, spare tires, wise friend, DSLR, Leica X1, ZA 24-70 mm, mm summilux asph, high quality, Leica glass, Leica gear, Leica virus, quality compact camera, auto focus camera, DSLR 28 mm, Leica mystique, standard 50 mm, full-frame m9, real camera, menu, mm lens, film camera, mm apo-telyt, wise friend jack, medium format guy, pretty impressive gear, lower versatility worth, megapixel camera, mp camera, Phase One P65+, wide-angle lenses, camera menu