… Livin’ la vida Leica.
New Year, new website, still the same love of puns. Like many people, I’m still not sure if I’ve quite processed the idea that we are now living in 2020. I remember being in Middle school (my town had that, it was a thing we had – along with the Isle of Wight – apparently … I mean the Isle of Wight had Middle schools … I still can’t be trusted with brackets … maybe I should have learned that in Middle school) and thinking how far away 2020 sounded. It is now 2020 regardless of whether I like it or not (haven’t decided) but I’m one of the many people either still using film or using film again for my photography. An analogue man in a digital age … but why?
I started off in Photography with film back in the mid-2000s, initially with disposable cameras my parents bought me and later with my own first 35mm SLR (after a brief stint on the family digital compact camera in between) in 2006. I later bought a digital SLR but continued to use film throughout University where I was able to experiment with Medium and Large format and both Colour and Black & White darkrooms. After leaving University in 2010, and moving even further away from home (namely abroad) digital offered by far the more convenient and easier to maintain option for picture making.
Film was still something I used occasionally. When I chanced upon an old neighbourhood shop still selling rolls in consumer film in Madrid I decided to buy some and run it through an old Canonet 28 I still had resulting in a few decent enough pictures of my dad when he came to visit. Later, I came into possession of a Yashica SLR which prompted the purchase of a few more rolls of film.
This camera was really fun to use, and I made some photographs (particularly of friends and family) with which I was really happy. Unfortunately, it did have some issues due to having spent a long time in an attic in Salamanca. I eventually worked out that the base shutter speed of 1/1000 sec. fires manually, with all the others being electronically regulated by a damaged electrical system. This allowed me minimise the occurrence of problems with the camera but still occasionally led to blank frames, wasted film or an inability to use the camera. I really enjoyed using it but couldn’t be sure it would work correctly or continue working during a day.
The digital cameras I own are more than good enough for my needs as a Documentary photographer not working with fast-moving subjects or difficult lighting conditions. There are newer and much improved cameras out there but that does not render my older models incapable of producing great photographs, and none of these modern digital cameras appealed to me as much as the possibility of owning an iconic part of photographic history – namely a Leica.
It was a lot of money to spend on a film camera, but seeing as Photography is something I do for my own enjoyment and fulfillment, if I was going to enjoy owning and using one then why not? Having got a better paying job for September, I decided to treat myself with my ‘finiquito’ from the previous year’s work and have something to show for it.
My budget, bolstered by trading in a few lenses from my digital cameras, afforded me the choice of an M3 Double Stroke or an M4. The M3 was very tempting, being as it is the original M body but I chose the M4 primarily because it includes framelines for a 35mm lens where the M3 caters to telephoto lenses, and although I chose a 50mm as my first lens, I see myself more likely to use a 35mm in the future than a 90mm or 135mm – which the M4 also has.
I wasn’t bothered by the absence of a light meter compared to an M6 or M7. Like everything else electronic in the Yashica I had been using, the light meter had stopped working so I had been working around that for a while and was already feeling quite comfortable with the Sunny 16 rule which is even easier to use when you live somewhere with 300 sunny days per year. Indeed, while on my second roll of film in the M4, I was photographing at a friend’s daughter’s birthday picnic in the park. I had eyeballed the exposure and taken about a dozen pictures when I got into a conversation with one of the other guests about the camera, how old it was and how everything was manual including the exposure. I decided to do a quick check with the Light Meter app on my mobile phone and was delighted to discover that my guess had been spot on. The pictures came out beautifully and it was really nice to be able to give prints of her little girl to my friend. Obviously you can (and should) print digital photographs but this still felt extra special.
Feeling really is the key to the appeal of film photography – which is a somewhat controversial topic in the photography community. Film obviously has its limitations compared to digital in terms of immediacy and ensuring the photograph is made correctly in the moment, and for most professional work I can see why nearly all photographers use digital, it just makes sense. However, film is a really enjoyable medium to work with if you are just interested in making pictures for the sake of art or enjoyment.
With my old, manual camera I have to look through the viewfinder and think about how that is going to transfer onto a frame of film. I need to look at the tones, the highlights and the shadows and think about the exposure settings I need to record what I want to show in the photograph. These are, of course, things that need to be thought about with a digital camera but there’s a screen on the back which lets you check whether you’ve done it correctly or whether you want to have another go and try to do it better.
Some would argue that purposefully going without these technological advances makes little sense, and the argument is a valid one, but not everything humans do for enjoyment makes perfect, logical sense. For myself and many others, there is more enjoyment to be had in forcing the imagination to work harder in the creation of a photograph. This is particularly true with Black and White film photography where the photographer has to imagine how the scene before the eye will translate into tones of grey with the colour gone forever. Unlike a RAW file converted to Black and White after the fact, a Black and White negative will only ever be Black and White, and this needs to be pre-visualised by the photographer’s imagination when making the photograph.
Another commonly cited positive of film photography is removing the interruption of the LCD screen from the experience of photographing. I do feel like this is a positive thing, for me personally. I enjoy taking my time and making a photograph carefully before moving on to explore the scene or the area further rather than pausing to check if everything is indeed to my liking on the back of the camera. I do think it helps one to be present and in the moment.
In any case, since purchasing my Leica M4 in September I have barely touched my two digital cameras. There are many, many fine film cameras out there and one could definitely argue that I did not need to buy a Leica to enjoy film photography. However, as a Photography enthusiast I was keen to own and use a camera from an iconic marque in the history of the medium. I really enjoy using the camera, and have been really happy with the photographs I’ve made with it, and that’s what Photography should be for someone like me – enjoyment.