My Precious

Less is more

Leica M7 by Leica Camera AG
My precious...
Sunrise over the lake
The lesson

If you want to make great photographs, leave your pro DSLR, your big heavy lenses and your tripod at home. You don't need them, they'll just get in your way.

This is everything I put in my bag when I want to do serious photography:

1) A notebook and a pen

2) My banged-up Leica M7

3) Three rolls of film.

People say rangefinders are harder to shoot than SLRs. In a sense, it's absolutely true. There is no auto-focus, no 3D matrix metering, no Program mode, no Auto White Balance to save your butt. Then again, with a rangefinder you don't have to fuss about menus and buttons and batteries and, gawd save us all, Face Recognition settings. You're back to the four fundamentals: frame, focus, aperture and speed. Nothing else. With a DSLR, you take pictures (lots of them, usually). With a rangefinder, you create photographs.

On top of the simplicity and sheer effectiveness of this camera, you also benefit from the stunning performance of Leica M lenses. Leitz has been making the best optics in the world for over a century, and it's because they just don't compromise. You won't find a Leica M zoom, they don't make one. Nor will you find an autofocus or motion-stabilized M lens. All Leica M lenses are hand-made, all-metal, optically superb primes. They have the uncanny ability to breathe life into your subjects, to reveal the subtleties of color and texture in a way that no other lens system can rival.

Paradoxically, another thing I love about the M7 is the constraint of film. You only have 36 frames. Each one costs money and loads of processing time. So tell me now: is *this* shot worth taking? Will you print it? If you're not sure, don't press the shutter.

So where does all this lead to? Well, for one you learn to take your time. You observe more. You train yourself to see the print before taking the shot. You suddenly realize that waiting is good. Waiting for the light. Waiting for the expression. Waiting for the moment. And, having mastered the four fundamentals with such a supremely well-crafted tool, when it all comes together you only press that release once. No need to look at a preview screen. No need to take a couple of other shots "just in case". You've already created your photograph and you know it.

Finally, a few words about discretion. My bag is an old ammo bag I got at the local surplus. It looks like hell. I lined the inside with pieces of rug and sheepskin. I've covered my M7 with black hockey tape, mostly to protect it, but also to be invisible. I don't have a neck strap with bright yellow brand names. In fact, I don't have a neck strap at all, just a wrist bungee with a clip I made from parts at the local hardware store. The small bungee lets me get the camera in and out of the bag very quickly. I just took a shot of you reading this article, did you notice?

My point is this: if they don't notice you, then your presence, the "presence of the photographer" won't be felt in the shot. And that makes a big, big difference in your ability to transmit the emotion of the moment to your viewers.

Don't get me wrong. I also own a complete pro DSLR system, with multiple bodies, big zooms and a couple of travel cases full of gear. I use it to cover specific assignments in sports, news and shows. I must say I get some pretty nice shots out of that gear. And there is simply no way to cover those events commercially with a rangefinder. It's just not fast enough. But when I look at everything I've done over the past 35 years as a photographer, there is a much higher ratio of great photographs that came out of that little black brick made by Leica.

Again, it's not only the gear itself. It's mostly the constraints it forces you to overcome that make all the difference.

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—The JPG team

21 responses

  • Trandafir Alexandru

    Trandafir Alexandru said (6 Oct 2009):

    no words, respect.

  • Jason Sipus

    Jason Sipus gave props (7 Oct 2009):

    You my friend made me even more convinced to shoot w/ film and get a leica!

  • Harry Lew

    Harry Lew said (8 Oct 2009):

    This is exceedingly well written. A wonderful argument for the rangefinder esthetic. And the images aren't too shabby, either.

  • Maraguetto

    Maraguetto said (8 Oct 2009):

    I would love to to this. I'd love to have an M6 or M7 with a good lens. I'd love to have good place to reveal the pics cause most of them disappeared and now they only print. Getting good B/W labs is more and more difficult. Last time I used my analogic SLR with b/w film my pictures came home in green and white :-)

    Voted.

  • Antonio Sorrentino

    Antonio Sorrentino said (9 Oct 2009):

    obvious vote

  • Renee Rocole

    Renee Rocole gave props (9 Oct 2009):

    Insightful!!!!!!!

  • Mike Olbinski

    Mike Olbinski gave props (9 Oct 2009):

    Great story Richard..well written, thought-provoking...you got my props and vote!

  • Tom Mertens

    Tom Mertens gave props (10 Oct 2009):

    It's got my vote.

  • Al Gieryna

    Al Gieryna gave props (10 Oct 2009):

    Great story, photos and insights. Your title is the our mission statement.

  • Monz Ahmed

    Monz Ahmed said (10 Oct 2009):

    I agree with everything you say. I use an M6 myself.

  • Bruce Miller

    Bruce Miller (Deleted) gave props (10 Oct 2009):

    I've heard a lot of photographers lament the passing of film cameras and the branch of the medium. In some ways I agree. I take an instant resentment to images I see that are over digitally processed. The old school boy in me sya "That's Not Photography". And I'm right. It's not. It's a different medium that is still in it's infance and developing it's structure and language as an art. The only time I use film anymore is for my realist 3D camera. I honrestly don't miss roll film. I usually try not to make my images with anything I couldn't duplicate in the dark room. I have no idea how to use photoshop. I' between worlds on this.

  • Suvarna Mollerup

    Suvarna Mollerup gave props (10 Oct 2009):

    So true, It really isn't the gear but the eye of the photographer that makes artful images.

  • Catherine Hadler

    Catherine Hadler gave props (11 Oct 2009):

    great story, well put - I love the discipline of these old cameras, and they are so satisfying to use compared to the digital, but it's great to have both

  • Duncan Madaris Hill

    Duncan Madaris Hill (Deleted) said (12 Oct 2009):

    Nice article, however, you're not just talking about some cheap rangefinder camera. It's a leica, most people can't afford one and those that can are lucky. You may won't to rephrase some of the lines making it sound like a leica range is a wallet friendly camera. Just a thought. Good points about the skill of shooting film.

  • Richard Blouin

    Richard Blouin said (12 Oct 2009):

    It's true that buying a brand-new Leica M system is not for everyone. But this has little to do with the spirit of this story. Besides, you can get very good used rangefinder bodies and lenses from Zeiss, Contax, Voigtlander and even Leica on eBay and Adorama. I got mine from the local classified and believe me, I paid a lot less than for my DSLR system. Considering it will last a lifetime, is not subject to digital rot, and will resell for more than I paid for, I'd say it's a pretty good deal.

  • K Fizaine

    K Fizaine said (12 Oct 2009):

    No need to get an expensive Leica to experience the beauty of rangefinder photography. Leica is definitely the king of the rangefinders, but unaffordable for many of us (especially for amateurs). One can experience what it means using a rangefinder camera getting a cheap Yashica for example. It's more a mindset than a matter of having a Leica. Having said that, since I got a digital DSLR, I know it will be difficult to get back to films; I'm still shooting with my film bodies once a while, but it remains the exception (less than 20%). What has converted me to Digital is not the sophistication of the bodies with all the electronics, but the workflow.

  • Tim Smith-Laing

    Tim Smith-Laing gave props (27 Oct 2009):

    Voted. Love my Leica, and love people who actually use them rather than collecting ... Great shots too!

  • Ibam Arafi

    Ibam Arafi gave props (16 Nov 2009):

    couldn't agreed more.. sometimes we all forget the roots, sometimes..

  • Orlando Emmanuelli

    Orlando Emmanuelli   said (10 Mar 2010):

    you have absolute great points in this article. while it in border on leica advertising, it does tell all of us the importance of patience for the right shot, that patience we have lost for the immediate gratification D-ANY CAMERA gives us. I definitely agree. Time, patience and understanding your tools is what makes a great photo, and you can make a GREAT photograph with any camera, if you take that time.

  • Adam Ogle

    Adam Ogle gave props (15 Apr 2010):

    Excellent story. I'm new to photography (by no means a "photographer"), and it just seems to me that film has more........ soul?

  • Pablo Cabrera

    Pablo Cabrera said (29 Jan 2011):

    I fully agree with this article. The constreƱir majes the difference.

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