Rangefinders (Changeable Lens)

Leica M-A – From digital, back to film – A guest post by Anthony Killeen

The Leica M-A is a fully mechanical rangefinder camera that is the latest in the long line of Leica M film cameras. Leica manufactures three film M cameras today, the M7, the MP, and the M-A (typ 127). The M-A is the only one of the three that does not use a battery; it has no electronic components, not even a light meter, and therefore is similar in function to Leica M cameras of decades ago. In this era of electronic cameras, some people may view that as insanely retro. I think it’s wonderful!

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Because the Leica M-A has already been reviewed by Hamish and is similar to other Leica M film cameras prior to the M5 (when electronics first appeared in the form of an integral light meter), I am not going to write a full review. Instead, I want to describe my initial experiences with this camera as someone who used to do film photography and also has a more recent digital photography background, and share some photographs from the first two rolls of film I shot using the camera. Knowing that many younger people have never held a film camera, I’m going to address some of the differences I perceive between film and digital photography. For those who are lifelong film aficionados, please bear with me. A lot of young photographers are interested in film!

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I have been taking photos for nearly 50 years. I used to develop and print my own black-and-white film when I was in school. Over the years I’ve owned several point-and-shoot film cameras, then SLR film cameras, a Mamiya 7 II medium-format film rangefinder, and several digital cameras including a current Fujifilm X100S.

Recently, I was looking for a new camera with interchangeable lenses to add to my Fujifilm X100S. I was very close to purchasing the new Sony A7R II, in fact, I had an order in for one, but delivery was delayed because of the backlog when it was first released. While I was waiting for it to arrive I began to read about the typical kinds of issues that people fret about in digital photography, such as whether the 14-bit lossy compressed RAW files lead to inferior image quality, and the appearance of moiré interference patterns. These concerns forced me to reconsider what I really wanted, and my quest for a new camera took me in an unexpected direction back to film photography.

I had recently sold the Mamiya 7 II because I had never really warmed to it. It is a technically very good camera, but a bit too large for my liking, and so not used very much by me. Some further research led me to the Leica 35 mm M format, and the latest version in that line, the M-A, which was released just about a year ago (2014). Of course, one can buy used Leica film cameras, but many of them are now at least a half-century old and I wanted a new camera that would last the rest of my life. My choice was influenced by my digital camera experience, which is that they don’t last a lifetime. Few people would buy a digital camera today and expect that it will last them the rest of their lives. There is the constant pressure of the upgrade cycle for more megapixels, more menu options, and more useless features. If you don’t succumb to the marketing pressures, you’ll cave on that sad day when the electronics stop working and the warranty has expired. Digital cameras have become expensive consumer items with a lot of marketing pressure for replacement every few years. But one can buy an M-A today and expect that it will last for decades and be the only film camera one would ever need. It’s from the same pedigree as other Leica film cameras, and they have been proven to last.

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So the M-A was what I chose, the current successor to Leica’s storied tradition of German engineering, and to the 35 mm cameras that defined photography for much of the last hundred years. I cancelled my A7R II order, and went in exactly the opposite direction by placing an order for an M-A and a 50 mm /f 1.4 Summilux Asph lens.

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Back to Basics

The M-A offers nothing more than the most fundamental photographic controls. You have three settings to think about: the choice of film (including its ISO speed), the aperture stop, and the shutter speed. That’s it. After you’ve loaded a roll of film, one of those options is fixed until you change the film. This is photography at its most basic and arguably at its best.

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There are no menus, film simulations, or special effects. There’s also no battery and therefore no light meter, no auto-exposure, no autofocus, no rear LCD screen, no EVF, no memory card and no wi-fi. It does have an accessory shoe, so I imagine that somewhere inside there are a couple of wires that can connect the shutter mechanism to an external flash, but it’s just a switch. Everything in the camera operates by mechanics, including the timing mechanisms for the selectable shutter speed. Many people looking at this camera would think it’s from a different era, which is true from a design perspective, but it’s a design that has been shown to work extremely well both functionally and aesthetically. On the other hand, it’s manufactured today, being one of the few film cameras that is still in production.

I said I wouldn’t do a full review, but I must comment on how solid and reliable everything feels. The film advance lever, which also cocks the shutter, is wonderfully smooth. The rewind mechanism is solid with no wobbliness at all. The weight and form of the camera feel just right. The shutter sound is just a quiet click. The act of taking a photograph is a moment to enjoy.

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Many younger people today have grown up with digital cameras and have never used a film camera. Using a film camera, and especially a fully manual camera like the M-A, forces one to slow down and think about each shot. There are only 24 or 36 shots on a standard roll of 35 mm film. Each shot is a deliberate act, thinking about the composition, the lighting, the camera settings, framing the image, getting it all right before squeezing the shutter release, and then a single push of the thumb to move the film advance lever. There is a ritual, both mental and physical, to this kind of photography that is a pleasure. The experience is also, for me, different than digital photography. Fairly or unfairly as a comparison, my own practice with digital photography was less intentional. When a camera is capable of auto-everything: focus, ISO setting, speed and aperture, and has an essentially unlimited storage, I tended to default to a kind of lazy photography that involved taking many photographs on those auto-settings. Those auto-selections remove many of the challenges, but also much of the fun of photography, and this is an art form in which quantity doesn’t compensate for poor quality. Hours spent on “post-production” at a computer to correct problems that should have been avoided at the time the photographs were taken are not particularly enjoyable for me. I rarely used most of the fakery and weird effects that come from image manipulation in Photoshop. They can be interesting in some situations, but can also become clichéd very quickly. I generally prefer to look at photograhs that represent the original scene that caught the photographer’s eye.

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Gaining Confidence

At first, I was most apprehensive about the absence of a light meter. I wasn’t worried about focusing a rangefinder because my Mamiya 7 was one, but getting the right exposure setting I wasn’t so sure about. For decades, I’ve never had to think about ambient lighting conditions. My old film and digital cameras had built-in light meters. When set to auto-exposure they generally took care of it, except in situations like strong backlighting. But then I remembered that my earliest cameras didn’t have a light meter, and really had very few other settings, but I was able to take photos that were reasonably well exposed as I recall. Maybe it wasn’t such a big problem.

An internet search on how to select the exposure settings yielded the “Sunny 16” rule, which seemed to offer a simple rule of thumb: set the shutter speed to the reciprocal of the film ISO number (or the closest available speed) and the aperture to f16 for a sunny day. Open it up for increasing cloudiness or less light according to general guidelines (easily found on the web). Not too complicated. The M-A came with a roll of Kodak Tri-X ISO 400 film. The closest reciprocal shutter speed is 1/500, so I selected that. As a backup, I installed the Light Meter app on my iPhone, which is excellent, very easy to use, and is actually much better than many built-in light meters. I also bought the fellow who wrote the app a pint of beer (it’s an in-app purchase!). After a few shots I felt as if I could take off the training wheels (stabilizers for those of you in Britain) and just use my own judgment of what shutter speeds to use. From what I’ve read, film is much more forgiving of under- or over-exposure than are digital sensors, and an exposure stop either way is probably not going to ruin a photograph.

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The other skill involved with a rangefinder is manual focusing. I have used cameras with both manual focus and autofocus before. The former is better whether it’s a rangefinder or an SLR. With autofocus you have to be careful that the focusing system and what you’re interested in are at least at the same distance from the lens. A rangefinder involves manual focusing of the lens by getting the images from the optical viewfinder and the rangefinder to align. It’s not difficult. You can also use the engraved scales on the Leica lens to pre-focus to certain distances. The latter is a skill that I have to improve on by learning to better judge distances up to about 25 feet.

I loaded the camera with the supplied roll of Tri-X and went to try it out. At first I was very careful, even writing down the exposure settings so I could check them later in the event that photos were incorrectly exposed. I then shot a roll of Kodak Ektar 100 (shutter speed set to 1/125 s for the Sunny 16 rule), and seemed to get more at ease and confident so that I wasn’t compulsively making technical notes with each shot. I deliberately did not challenge myself with lower lighting situations for the first couple of rolls. I just wanted to get comfortable with the basic operation of the camera in the easier situation of summer daylight. Low light operation will come later.

I took the Ektar roll to a local processing lab. The owner mentioned that the previous business day, he had received 50 rolls of film for processing! Another conversation with a young woman at the store where I was buying film led to her telling me how one of girlfriends loved to fix up old cameras, and how some other friend wanted her wedding photography done with film. These are people who grew up with digital, and they are looking at film as an interesting and desirable alternative. Maybe I’m not the only crazy one!

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The Tri-X roll I sent to an Ilford lab in California that processes and prints black-and-white film as a specialty. I’m not sure what the best options are among labs. I’d certainly like to support the local lab because there aren’t many of them. I’m also interested in relearning how to develop and print B&W prints myself. If I could do it when I was 13, I think I could do it again! Both the local lab and the Ilford lab return the negatives, the prints, and the scanned images on CDs

I waited with anticipation for the photos to come back. If there is any downside to film, it’s that you don’t see your results immediately, which is also a part of the slower pace of film photography. I really had no idea how things would turn out. It was a brand new camera, I might have been making some basic mistake with each shot (I realized I had left the lens cap on for one shot), I might have set the exposures all wrong, the focus might have been bad; all kinds of things might have gone wrong. All of those doubts went through my mind as I waited for the photos to come back. I had to travel out of town, delaying further the time before I could see what exactly I had. But at last I held in my hands two packets of photographs and two sets of negatives. In my opinion, having real prints and negatives is an enormous advantage for film photography for archival purposes. Today’s jpg or RAW files may well be like a set of old computer punch cards in the future: unreadable by most people. If Vivian Maiers had stored her images digitally on 1960s or ‘70s magnetic tapes, her life’s photographic work would almost certainly have been lost.

So how did I do? Most of the exposures on both rolls were fine. The focus was off on just one of the 72 images. As mentioned, one was taken with the lens cap on (with a rangefinder one doesn’t see through the main lens), but somehow the roll had 37 exposures, so there were 36 good images and one blank. I am attaching a few sample images from both rolls. These are just as the lab returned them without any further editing on my part.

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Overall Impressions

The Leica M-A is a lovely camera in the long tradition of Leica M film cameras. My biggest concern about the absence of a built-in light meter was unfounded; I did not miss it and in any event, there are alternatives including the iPhone light meter app. My experience of shooting with the M-A is very different from shooting with a digital camera: I find that each shot is more of an intentional engagement with the subject, and I find that very satisfying. This camera has renewed my interest in photography as a creative process.

Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy the photos from the Leica M-A!

 


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17 Comments

  • Reply
    Hamish Gill
    October 6, 2015 at 8:13 pm

    Hi Tony,
    It’s fascinating to hear from someone who’s path has changed so profoundly and successfully.
    Some great results too, especially the last shot!
    Thanks again for posting this, I really appreciate the effort!
    Hamish

  • Reply
    Tony
    October 6, 2015 at 8:31 pm

    Thanks, Hamish.
    Returning to film feels like coming back home to family and old friends.
    Tony

  • Reply
    Rob
    October 6, 2015 at 9:12 pm

    Tony, that was a great read. I want one! I like your photography a lot, and the camera seems to suit you. I have some cameras without a light meter, and think it amusing that most of us use an app for the purpose – it might as well be in the camera. But it’s hard to break away from having that help. I’m not very good at shooting without some kind of help for exposure, but have had some good successes among the bad. Would I splash the cash for the Leica? I’m not sure – certainly I don’t have that kind of free cash at the moment – but who knows what the future might bring. Your write-up has me contemplating saving my pennies…

    • Reply
      Anthony Killeen
      October 6, 2015 at 11:08 pm

      Thanks, Rob!
      Yes, I too wasn’t sure at first about not having a light meter. But honestly with the iPhone app, I have a light meter at all times, if I really need to use it. But I feel like I can get by without one in many situations.
      I didn’t go into the price issue in my write-up. Leicas are expensive, as we all know, but their film cameras should literally last a lifetime. The M-A will thankfully never have an upgrade cycle. There’s nothing to upgrade! If one wants a light meter or some more electronics in a film camera, there are the MP and M7 to consider, too. Another point is that it’s really the lenses that are so important, and nobody makes better production lenses than Leica. Thanks for reading!
      Tony

      • Reply
        Rob
        October 7, 2015 at 8:46 am

        Tony, thanks for the reply. You have more experience than me in photography, so I’m sure you can put me right here. If there is nothing electronic, and all functions are manual and mechanical, why is it so much better than, say, a Pentax Asahi K1000, which, being built like a mini tank, would also last a lifetime? I’m honestly not trying to be facetious. Once we set aside the lens (and I agree with your comment about Leica lenses) what is left other than a box with a hole in the front? I once held an M7, and fell in love with the engineering, and how it felt in my hands. I get that. Is that enough, I’m wondering, or is there so much more I’m missing?

        • Reply
          Anthony Killeen
          October 7, 2015 at 11:11 am

          Rob, thanks again for the comment. I haven’t used the K1000, but it looks really great. My article was written to describe my own initial experiences with the Leica M-A, which is about as basic a camera (in terms of controls) as one can find, and any comparisons were generalized to cameras that have the bells-and-whistles, such as my X100S. I agree that cameras like the M-A, M7, and K1000 are boxes, but there are differences (e.g., light meter vs. not, rangefinder vs. SLR, available lenses, size, in production vs. not, and so on). There is, as you point out, a strong personal preference in this. We know when a camera just feels right. My Mamiya 7 II was a great camera, but for whatever reason I never really warmed to it. I have an old Chinon SLR, which I like except for its motorized film advance, which sounds like a vacuum cleaner. The M-A is exactly what I wanted: simplicity of operation, the right size and form, great build and expected longevity.
          Tony

          • Rob
            October 7, 2015 at 4:21 pm

            I perfectly understand, Tony. If you ever decide to sell it, let me know 😉

  • Reply
    jeremy north
    October 6, 2015 at 9:17 pm

    I really enjoyed reading this article. I liked also the accompanying photographs. The words and pictures really convey the impression that you loved using this camera.
    Good work!

  • Reply
    Matt
    October 6, 2015 at 11:29 pm

    Great article – and some excellent pictures…

    From the looks of it, you’re in the Twin Cities. Recently inherited an M3 myself – and was wondering what local lab you were referring to for processing?

    Thanks!

    • Reply
      Anthony Killeen
      October 7, 2015 at 12:11 am

      Thanks, Matt!
      You’re right about the location. That’s Lake Harriet in the last photo with the Minneapolis city skyline in the distant background. The B&W photos were taken at the university and at the Oktoberfest celebration in St. Paul. The Kodak Ektar film was processed at Linhoff Photo in Minneapolis. As mentioned, the Tri-X went to the Ilford Lab in California. I’m not entirely happy with the tonal quality of the prints from them, but they do use real silver gelatin paper, not a color photo paper, for B&W. I need to explore B&W labs a bit more, but I’m quite happy with Linhoff for color work.
      Good luck with the M3! Everything I’ve read is that it’s a great camera.
      Tony

      • Reply
        Matt
        October 7, 2015 at 1:54 am

        I’ll have to give Linhoff a try – I sent the first test roll from the M3 out to Richard Photo Lab, who did phenomenal work, but unfortunately that work came at a price I’m not sure I can sustain.

        Thanks Tony!

  • Reply
    Petr
    October 8, 2015 at 10:41 am

    Hello,
    thank you for a great article.

    • Reply
      Tony
      October 8, 2015 at 1:08 pm

      Thanks, Petr!
      Tony

  • Reply
    Rodney
    October 24, 2015 at 5:41 pm

    Sir, I have been a Leica shooter for a long time and I really enjoyed your article. I currently have an M6 TTL, M2 and a bag full of Leica Glass. My digital camera is a Sony Rx1R. The sony is a fantastic camera but I always return to the M bodies when I want to get involved in the process. Digital technology is awesome, but I often find myself wishing that I could return to shooting film for 90% of my photography. When I read about the M-A I wanted one without even seeing the camera. Not because it was new, but because I wanted to support a company that still makes cameras for people that enjoy shooting film. I don’t regret my purchase and looking forward to using it the rest of my life. Thanks for your writeup.

  • Reply
    Zvonimir
    April 2, 2017 at 3:06 pm

    This series is astonishing. Something very interesting is happening: serious photographers are stripping away the layers of automation impairment that began in the 1980s–auto focus, auto exposure, etc.–that imposed control over creativity. What is equally encouraging is the rediscovery of film. A hobby is being rescued from corporate dictatorship.

    I hope that the next step will be the rediscovery of the darkroom. My first darkroom work was in 1956. In 2017, I’m still learning and enjoying it.

    My Leica M3 was built in 1955 or so. It has been CLA’ed once. I don’t see why it should not last a few hundred years more, by which time all current digital offerings will be landfill.

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