My Weekend With The Leica M

This post is going to be a bit longer than usual. I was incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to work with a Leica M (Typ 240), and I essentially shot it every hour of daylight, and most hours of the night. This isn’t a Leica M review, but an account of my experience.

The first camera I owned was a red Argus Bean point-and-shoot camera. I won that in a contest in late 2008 or early 2009. Later in 2009 I began shooting with a Canon Powershot something-or-other for a high school digital media class, and ultimately moved to a Nikon D90 in the spring of 2010. For the past few years, I’ve been primarily a film shooter. I shoot a few medium format bodies, a large format Speed Graphic, and this summer, after years of saving and dreaming, I bought my first Leica: an engraved Leica M2 on KEH.

I’ve become intimately familiar with my M2 over the past few months. I’m an engineering student, but this semester I managed to fit a darkroom class into my schedule, which has invariably expedited this process. Though I’m no longer enamored by the click-and-chimp digital world I enter when I’m shooting with my DSLR, I’ve always been curious about the shooting experience offered by a digital rangefinder.

The new Leica M is, unsurprisingly, out of my budget. Fortunately, a series of events led me to acquire an M for a weekend to shoot a few jobs for the organization for which I work.

After the shock passed that I was holding the value-equivalent of a mid-sized car in my hands, I began shooting, and I didn’t stop. When I first started shooting film, I couldn’t help but notice that even mundane objects, like laundry or a teapot, could be portrayed beautifully. Perhaps it’s just my mindset, but working with a digital M is much the same. The mundane becomes meaningful, and I can capture much more of an essence, or a feeling, through my lens. It’s not that the M allows me to make an uninteresting composition interesting; looking through a rangefinder window forces one to consider the composition of the photograph. I’m simply having an easier time finding the value in every scene.

Shooting with a Leica is embracing simplicity. I knew from the start that I wanted to spend my time looking through the viewfinder, not staring at the LCD screen. I turned the LCD review off immediately to remove the distraction, and also to conserve the battery (so I could spend more time shooting).

I shot the M in a multitude of scenarios and situations. I posed portraits and captured candids. I shot on the streets, at a music venue, on campus, and in my local library. If it seems ridiculous to try to spread myself over all of these photographic disciplines, I won’t disagree with you. I’m comfortable and confident shooting portraits with normal lenses on medium format cameras, but I was terrified of street photography, so I did what anyone should do, and this semester I pushed myself into an uncomfortable situation in order to grow (as a photographer and as a human). More on that some other time.

Street Photography with the Leica M (Typ 240) is a dream.

Rangefinders are ideal for street photography, and the M is no exception. The Leica M is so subtle and so unassuming. People don’t feel threatened when I bring it to my eye to photograph them, and I could justify shooting in quieter surroundings (like the local library or bus terminal, for instance). Those that did notice it often had no idea what they were looking at. One person said something to the effect of “Oh wow, that must be an antique, like me!” Another said, “That’s pretty nice, but you can’t see the pictures on the back of that one!”

Working with the M was a treat. Compared to a DSLR, the rangefinder is just smaller, lighter, quieter, more discrete, and just more fun to use. Perhaps it’s a twinge of pretentiousness within me, but there’s also a certain appeal to working with rangefinders since they don’t look like the same camera that every tourist, teenager, and new mom has strapped around his or her neck.

I don’t think I’ll be selling my car to buy [half of] an M in the near future, however, working with the M has influenced me to sell. If and when I need to work digitally again, I’ll be picking up a rangefinder. There’s no sense in making photographs if there is no love for the process, and The Leica M has confirmed, wholeheartedly, that working with a rangefinder is simply how I love to shoot.