A recounting of an experience at the Leica Akademie, Mayfair. Testing the Leica M9 digital rangefinder.
Leica M9 with 28mm Summicron ASPH (source)
Early November 2011 provided me with an opportunity to take this camera out on the street. It’s a machine I’ve become increasingly interested in: not just because of the qualities of the device itself, but also the reported philosophy behind its restrained technical specifications, renowned craftsmanship and cultural heritage. It draws the attention of a wide-ranging crowd: purist photographers, fashionistas and wealthy collectors.
Leica glass. Photo: Thorsten Overgaard
Edmond Terakopian was hosting small groups of interested individuals at Leica’s UK HQ and store in Mayfair, London. Terakopian is a photojournalist whose images are very likely to be familiar to anyone who has followed the news over the last decade. Necessity demands Terakopian uses a full range of hardware, including the ubiquitous Canon range of dSLRs and L-series lenses to complete his daily job. But should chance allow, Terakopian equips himself with a set of very portable and discreet Leica M9 / M9-Ps Leica’s current leading digital rangefinder cameras. This is why we had all convened in Leica’s Mayfair workshop and gallery, on whose walls hang impressive looking prints, to eat biscuits, drink coffee and become familiarised with a camera few modern digital photographers give much thought to, let alone enjoy and use on a daily basis.
Spend an evening researching a camera or any other device, and it’s unlikely that you will find any others that invite so much gushing and eulogising as the Leica brand, albeit from a relatively small clique. From one extreme to the other: Overgaard’s epic Leica M9 review, possibly the most informative, as well as longest and most aesthetic treatise of any product on Earth. To Rockwell’s almost deranged tracts, railing at the supremacy and inadequacy of this that and the other, espousing Leica above all.
Complementary workshops such as these are a prime chance to see if even the idea of obtaining one of these cameras is worth pursuing. Having never used one before, and flinching at the idea of spending, or perhaps -investing- in the camera and required prime lenses, I had to really feel the manual controls in my hands, and the rangefinder in front of my eyes to see how we got on.
After a perfectly succinct and impressive exposé of Terakopian’s work using both film and digital Leica, we were each temporarily gifted an M9 for the duration. Next came an interesting and relaxing reminder of some photography basics in comfortable and predictably illuminated surroundings. Then coats were donned and we were outside in upmarket Mayfair, attached to and clutching a small but weighty device that may well have cost more than some of the cars sat nearby in traffic, trying to both absorb new controls that were not yet reflexive and instinctive, and execute photography in a way we found familiar through unusual glass.
Perhaps the locals are used to groups shuffling around with cameras, but it’s true that the Leica M9 is very unassuming and discreet, even with it’s iconic brazen daub. The M9-P even more so, and minimally branded such that the observer would struggle to distinguish it from the bearer’s black coat. It’s value and utility is only really known to the person holding it: to the unfamiliar it could be any non-threatening retro camera. Terakopian claimed to have put that successfully to the test whilst covering recent riots and demonstrations, recalling little or no unwanted attention. Maybe in part due to the lack of an overbearing dSLR and lens?
Thorsten Overgaard’s M9, exhibiting a healthy patina. (source)
On a typical photo-minded expedition, I would find myself venturing out with Canon dSLRs. As sturdy a worker as the modern dSLR is, regular usage can induce some …ennui. It’s difficult to avoid the feeling that you are distracted from the experience at hand by technical matters. You may find yourself standing amongst friends, strangers, lampposts or trees, booting up a camera shaped computer and stabbing at little menus, hoping you have remembered to set all the options to your liking. “What did I change yesterday?”. A modern dSLR will better the Leica M9 in many areas, but an interface should never obfuscate that which should be an intuitive process.
Then followed an enjoyable but rushed hour on the street shooting with the M9 andLeica Summicron 35mm lens as the winter sun began to recede. Once my M9 was reluctantly returned, I was nowhere near thinking of it as a natural extension of my photographic mindset. That I expected, it was just a brief introduction. More important was the realisation that with a few more days of repeated use, the manual controls atop the body and beneath the lens would never get in your way. To set for a shot was to move your fingers. Even within that encroaching crepuscular hour, I could conceive a possible shot and begin to pre focus the lens before I had moved the rangefinder to my eye. Phase autofocus on dSLRs is incredibly fast, but anticipating what you are thinking as your raise your arms? This is the essence of a perfect tool to me. It applies to computer interfaces, cooking utensils, and video-game mechanics as well as to cameras. Never obstruct intention or alacrity.
Bruton Place, Mayfair, London.
A nice touch: the SD-HC memory card contained in each M9 was free to be removed and taken home, complete with our exploratory shootings. I already had an inkling, but when I got home my expectation was confirmed: it wasn’t a great photographic outing for me; in fact it was quite disastrous. There were a few reasons for this, an unfamiliar camera, with a lens in a focal length I’m not used to and can’t pre-visualise well. Bad luck with falling light, when the glimmer of a beautiful golden hour seemed likely. All avoidable problems on my part, but they certainly didn’t help me, as I struggled to adapt to this unforgiving instrument. Utilise the Leica M9 and Leica Summicron 35 well and they reward you with pause-inducing sharpness suspended in liquid bokeh, and smooth tones with subtle highlight gradation. Expose badly and you are introduced to the M9 sensor’s unique noise patterns. All-corner magenta blemishes with merciful concession to film like grain structure. Monochrome is welcome here.
I would encourage any interested photographer to grab any chance to test themselves with a Leica M series rangefinder. The longer you can hold onto it, the better. Aim to acquaint yourself with the immersion and constancy of the uninterrupted rangefinder view, the tiny but optically and mechanically sublime lenses. Learn from the punishing, unflinching results that remind you of what you have to re-learn about exposure, yet celebrates when your intuitions are in tune. If sole ownership of a Leica M-series camera is not in your future, and I doubt it would be in mine at the moment, then we can only hope the lessons it teaches so succinctly are adopted widely. Then we could spend more of our time thinking about the why of photography* and less time worrying about the technical, banal and transient: the how of photography.
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