Rediscovering film with the Leica M7
Six years ago I gave up shooting film entirely and made my transition to digital photography complete. In the process, I moved from an SLR with nice lenses to a series of point-and-shoots whose convenience, I thought, compensated for their subpar image quality. Eventually, I gave those cameras up and moved on to more robust digital cameras…a couple of which have inspired me quite a bit. So last week when I had the chance to shoot a couple rolls of film with a Leica M7, I wasn’t expecting much, having not shot any film since 2004.
I took the camera to cocktail night at the Ferry Building in San Francisco, a fun event where admission gets you unlimited drinks and appetizers from some of the best bartenders and chefs in San Francisco. This is the organization that puts on the event, and I encourage everyone to attend, if they do another one.
Before I could go or shoot anything, I had to load up the film, which is quite easy. Some people complain about it being more difficult than it is in other cameras with a rear door that flips out. Perhaps, this matters for critical jobs where you need to reload film very, very quickly, but it didn’t bother me at all, nor did I find loading the film slow in any way. I’ll have a video of the process up later.
A few years ago in the New Yorker, Anthony Lane described the sound of a Leica shutter as a seductive kiss. I had never handled a film Leica M series camera before last week, and I have to say that Lane’s ostensibly cheesy observation is dead-on. After I loaded my first roll of Kodak Portra 400VC in the camera and advanced it a couple frames, I thought there was something wrong with the shutter. “Why isn’t it making more noise?” I asked myself. Seduction begins with a little mystery, I suppose.
Handling the camera was great, especially with one of Gordy’s wrist straps. It just feels absolutely right when you’re holding it. And I had mounted on it my favorite lens of all time, Leica’s 50mm f/2.0 Summicron. To test it out before going to the Ferry Building, I took it to Elite Sports soccer store on Haight, where Boone and I watched Spain defeat Germany in the World Cup.
One of the great things about the Leica M cameras is that you can shoot them at very low shutter speeds—even with the 50mm lens, I can reliably get shots as slow as 1/10 second. It’s like having a faster lens or better high ISO performance or just, generally, an extra stop! This comes in quite useful indoors where light is usually low. With the exception of the first shot below on the street, I don’t think any of these were taken at speeds above 1/50 of a second. Normally, on an SLR with a 50mm lens mounted, that would be the minimum shutter speed that someone could expect to use—here, it was my maximum shutter speed.
Another thing I like about the M7 is the viewfinder. It’s bright and the focusing patch is fairly easy to align in most conditions. The camera I was using had a viewfinder with 0.72x magnification. As I don’t find much use for wide angle lenses, I think a 0.85x viewfinder would suit me even better.[1. I tried out someone’s M3 last weekend. It has a 0.92x viewfinder, which means that things appear nearly life-sized when you look through it. That would be perfect for shooting 50mm lenses.]
Looking through the viewfinder, I was able to wait until I saw something I wanted to photograph, whether it was someone walking through the frame or an already framed subject looking towards the camera or smiling. The viewfinder is easily the brightest on any camera I’ve ever used, so I feel like my perspective on a given scene is not particularly compromised even though I’m looking through it. Conversely, when I’m looking through an SLR’s viewfinder, I feel less a part of my surroundings. When I’m looking at a liveview LCD viewfinder on the back of a digital camera, I feel like I’m somehow watching a cropped, delayed, and pixelated version of what’s really happening in front of me. Not so with the M7.
Because I was shooting film—expensive film that would need to be developed at additional cost—I was patient waiting for shots I was anticipating. I tried to avoid wasting a single frame, although I inevitably did because of user error, though not user intent. I spent more time thinking about what I was doing rather than blindly snapping away.[2. Okay, I admit I took one shot from the hip. It didn’t work out so well, and knowing the odds that that would be the case, I regretted it almost immediately.]
The big advantage of the M7 over other M series cameras is that it has an aperture priority mode. I found this quite useful, as I could focus my concentration on controlling the depth of field and framing of my shots. Some Leica purists eschew the aperture priority mode, but I think it’s a nice convenience. Not using it or overriding it is easy on the M7, which has Leica’s traditional shutter speed dial.
Shooting, with a Leica, as many others have noted, makes you slow down. It makes you more careful about composition and exposure. And shooting with film compounds those effects. In general, I’ve spent the past few months trying to regain two abilities I feel I’ve lost in the Internet age—that to be patient—to delay gratification—and that to concentrate on something for an extended period of time.
Digital photography conditions us to expect instant gratification, providing us with instant previews of our images. In some cases, this is useful and helps us get the shot we wanted. However, more often it’s simply a distraction from doing the thing we should be focused on—taking photographs. Is there any other activity in which people so immediately evaluate their performance with such scrutiny as photographers checking the LCD image previews on their cameras? It’s like watching an instant replay of yourself walking down the street. Perhaps, it’s useful if you’re, say, recovering from an injury, but, probably, it will just make you miss the door that’s about to open right in your face.
When I had the M7, all I was thinking about was taking pictures. I was fully engaged with the process because it’s all the M7 could do. I couldn’t change the ISO or the saturation or the scene mode, and I definitely couldn’t review my images. How difficult it has become to engage so fully with an activity, to limit yourself thus! And yet, who would disagree that doing so is more valuable and memorable than not?
Moreover, the M7 makes this process entirely pleasurable. It’s small enough to take anywhere, and, combined with one of Gordy’s wrist straps, can stay in your hand for hours at a time, unlike an SLR. It feels like a well-made object because it is one. Everything from focusing the lens to advancing the film and releasing the shutter feels completely, wonderfully satisfying in a way that no other camera I’ve used before does. The shutter is the quietest I’ve heard. Approach a scene, lift the camera to your eye, focus, frame, kiss.
It isn’t just the process that blew me away; the results were awesome. I waited with anticipation for the local lab to develop and print my film. What would it look like? What surprises lay in store? I can say that I felt my patience was rewarded. Even though their content is boring, the prints I got back from the lab had a contrast and vividness that makes them look not only unlike digital images, but cinematic in a way that I absolutely love—rich, textured, almost tactile. Unfortunately, getting to that result means paying a lab for developing and printing, which is why I don’t think I can shoot exclusively on film. My digital color management and workflow isn’t quite yet at the point where I can use film scans to produce prints that are as good as those I received from the lab.
Despite the costs, the joy I had shooting with the M7 and the cinematic quality of the prints I got from the roll of Portra have convinced me that film still has a place in my photography. Now to find a suitable M-mount body for myself—[3. The Zeiss Ikon and the Leica M6 both seem like viable options.]
Here are some images I scanned with my Nikon CoolScan. Unfortunately, this line of film scanners from Nikon is no longer available, and prices on the secondary market are high. My friend CK over at 39 East Photography uses the Epson V700, which he highly recommends and which can can larger batches of negative strips than the Nikon, saving you time. And we all know that time is money.
Next time I’ll share my thoughts on the Leica S2, which I was able to borrow from Leica for a weekend when I was in France earlier this year.
I even shot a roll of Kodak Tri-X, and made this print in the darkroom. Unfortunately, I was too lazy to do the work necessary to make a more contrasty print.