What’s not to Leica?

    20 September 2014

    Just off Oxford Street, there is a dusty little camera shop. At first glance, you would think it had been there for 100 years. But when I walked through the door of Aperture of Rathbone Street for the first time last year, I was pleasantly surprised to find it opened in 2012. It was the day that my love affair with Leica cameras, which are celebrating their 100th anniversary, began.

    It’s not just the outside appearance that gives Aperture the appearance of a time capsule. Inside, there is not a digital camera or memory card in sight. Behind the counter, an elderly gentleman patiently waits for customers. He serves everyone with an understated grace and knowledge you are unlikely to find in Jessops or Currys. Despite the near supremacy of digital cameras, my new acquaintance was happy to guide me through the retro world of film.

    Armed with a small pile of inherited wealth, we bartered over a 30-year-old Leica M6 camera body and an even older 50mm f/2 lens. Just over £1,000 changed hands and I left with a warning. ‘This is the beginning of a dangerous hobby,’ said the Aperture salesman. ‘Once you start buying Leica, you will never stop.’ My bank balance was depleted but I was on the road to rediscovering a hobby ruined by the digital age.

    Russian soldiers flying the Soviet flag over the Reichstag, 1945
    Russian soldiers flying the Soviet flag over the Reichstag, 1945

    Introduced in 1982, the M6 was the first Leica camera to include electronics. The built-in light meter makes it usable by mere mortals who are unable to calculate exposures in their head. They remain fêted on the secondhand market, thanks to their robustness and relative ease of use. My chosen 50mm lens with a fast f/2 aperture (how much light is let in) is the standard Leica lens for ‘street shooting’ — people, nearby buildings and static objects.

    I loaded up the camera with Kodak Tri-X 400 black-and-white film, the same used by Ansel Adams. I walked around Fitzrovia and Soho, snapping anything of vague interest. I rapidly discovered the first thing that makes Leicas special. They are rangefinders, meaning one focuses through a window on the top left by laying objects on top of another. Unlike SLRs or compacts, you aren’t looking through the lens and there’s no motor. Focusing with a rangefinder takes time, forcing the shooter to think carefully about the composition of the shot.

    Ed Miliband (this one’s mine)
    Ed Miliband (this one’s mine)

    There is no end of inspiration for taking photos with a Leica. So many iconic images from the last 100 years were shot through Leica glass: a solider celebrating VJ Day in Times Square, Alberto Korda’s image of Che Guevara, troops landing on Omaha Beach, the Soviet flag flying over the Reichstag, naked children running from a Napalm attack in Vietnam and Henri Cartier-Bresson’s images of everyday life in France.

    Thirty-six frames later, I dropped off the roll of film at Snappy Snaps, who returned a CD three days later. My impatience was mollified by the stunning results; nearly every photo was beautiful. They were grainy, full of contrast and inexplicably interesting. My ever-helpful friends on Facebook were quick to point out they looked old-fashioned and I should just download Instagram onto my iPhone (I did and voraciously use that too).

    But I also had a lot to learn. Many snaps were not fully in focus, my framing was poor and the lighting was questionable. With just three controls — the aperture, focus and shutter speed — it’s all down to the photographer to make a good photo. This particular photographer had discovered a challenge and an engrossing, if expensive pastime that had nothing to do with technology.

    Children running away from a Napalm attack in Vietnam, 1972
    Children running away from a Napalm attack in Vietnam, 1972

    Ever since, the Leica has barely left my side. It knocks around in my bag, popping out at every opportunity. The photos have gradually become better and I have even taken some shots I’m pleased with: Ed Miliband not looking awkward, Nigel Farage grinning in the Spectator garden, Boris doing the rounds at Tory conference, a rousing gig with classic electro-rock band Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and a Geordie café proprietor serving coffee.

    My Leica relationship entered a new phase a few weeks ago. Just before I was heading to Martha’s Vineyard on a work trip, I noticed Leica were loaning out M240s — a fully digital, 21st-century remake of my old M6. With a starting price of £6,000 for the body alone, with the lens at £2,000 upwards, Leica is clearly not appealing to your average man with this camera.

    I dropped by the Leica boutique in Washington DC, a world away from the dusty confines of Aperture, to look over the M240. Despite 30 years of evolution, the camera felt exactly the same as the M6. Heavy, robust and wonderfully sculpted. After I explained the purpose of my trip to the store manager — covering President Obama’s summer vacation — he was generous enough to hand over a camera for a whole week.

    Using the M240 confused me at first. I didn’t know whether to shoot as if it was my M6 or a digital camera. Eventually, I married the two halves of my brain together and began to enjoy it. The photos were so enormous that my laptop crashed when I tried to compare two side by side. They were full of bold colours, incredibly sharp with a huge level of detail. With a little bit of knowledge, the M240 produces precisely what every photographer wants.

    On the days I was riding in the presidential motorcade, I took both cameras along. The professional photographers from the Associated Press and Reuters looked at the Leicas with interest but dismissed them as a rich man’s toy. Either that, or they couldn’t figure out the archaic rangefinder focusing. I will admit their Canon and Nikon SLRs were far better at long-lensing Obama on the golf course.

    Yet every time I picked up the modern Leica, a part of me was yearning for the M6. It feels so much simpler and more organic. The digital version, wonderful as it was, negated the reason I fell in love with Leicas in the first place. Having the ability to check your shot immediately removes much of the pressure to get it right. When I returned the M240 to the Leica store — in one piece, thankfully — I did not feel too sad to decline discussing a purchase.

    So, to the £10,000 question: is a Leica M240 worth the price? For professional photographers, the money can be much better spent elsewhere. For Leica enthusiasts, it’s the best digital camera the company has ever produced and you will love it. For Leica newbies, try out a film one first — they are not for everyone.

    And for me? It was an honour to have such a powerful piece of equipment for a week, but I’ll stick with my tatty old M6 for now. We’ve made it through our first year together; it would be a shame to turn back to digital now. Plus, I’d be proving my friend on Rathbone Street right.