Thoughts on Cameras

My failing right eye, an old watch, the Leica M7 and learning how to frame a photo again…

leica m7

The following is an anecdotal tale of how and why I have come to own a Leica M7, and more importantly what this beautiful bit of kit has brought to the table for me as a photographer. I know it isn’t strictly speaking a 35mm compact camera as I have defined them, but then this isn’t really an article specifically about the M7, it is mostly a fairly self deprecating article about the slow decline of my eyesight in my shooting eye … Where the M7 come in is that it is actually helping me solve the issue! What better excuse is there to own such a luxury thing?!

So… After shooting again with my Voigtlander R2A back in the summer I realised that actually carrying a rangefinder wasn’t as bad as I had made my self believe! And in fact that I could carry an RF and a compact quite happily all day long! The problem I found with it was that I wasn’t sure the rangefinder was still accurate! I’d been online and read reports about the R2A’s RF drifting, had noticed that some of my shots weren’t in focus and put two and two together. This in my mind gave me an excuse to “upgrade” to a Leica and was the first step in this recent journey of mine.

llanfair caereinion train station
A shot from Wales in the summer, I missed focus on this a little. It was this image that started me worrying that the camera was faulty.

I have owned a Leica before, an M6, I loved it when I had it, but functionally not as much as the R2A. I like automation in a camera, and I liked having AE more than I liked having an M6! The M6 went, the R2A stayed. Madness by some people’s standards, logical by mine. After this initial decision to by a Leica again had come into my head I thought I would I would go back to an M6. After all, I had all the automation I needed in my compact cameras, and I could always keep the Voigtlander; an M6 would be a complete departure and offer me something fully manual and mechanical again!

Around the same time as I was making this decision I had also made the decision to finally settle on the “perfect” SLR. I have owned pretty much every Nikon SLR made over the years (with the exception of the FE2, F5, F6 and some of the later plastic slrs – F55 et al). I’d also never had the only one that I really wanted, the FM3a! I had a mint FM2n at the time, but when an equally mint FM3a appeared in my local LCE it was bought and the FM2n, as well as few others were sold – I’d not used them for ages anyway! I got the FM3a home and put it to my eye, the viewfinder wasn’t very good, I couldn’t focus the damn thing! Reviews online didn’t mention anything about a poor viewfinder, in fact quite the opposite. I was a little concerned and the camera was put to one side for a little while whilst I carried on shooting with my compact cameras. At this point I was even more convinced I wanted a Leica again! A couple of days past and I thought I would give the Nikon a bash again, it was dark in our bedroom, I was trying to take shots of Connie (my daughter) playing on the bed. Whatever compact I happened to be shooting with at the time didn’t cut it! I had got my self into a position lying on the bed where I couldn’t quite see through the viewfinder with my right eye … So I used my left … All of a sudden everything through the finder was clear as day! A little taken aback I stood up and peered through the finder with my right eye again, again it was crappy! Stupidly, it took me a few moments to realise that I had used my left eye whilst on the bed without thinking. I put the camera to my left eye … Clear as day again!

Ben and Family
A photo taken with the FM3a whilst I was struggling with it – not a clue what I was trying to focus on, clearly I missed … It did make a nice shot mind, but that was sheer luck!

I imagine you have joined the dots yourself by now? It wasn’t the camera that was at fault, it was my eye! I hadn’t used a manual focus camera for so long that I hadn’t realised that my eyesight in my right eye had deteriorated to a point that focusing was an issue! Of course thinking back there have been so many telltale signs! I never got on with plain matte screens in my Hasselblad (which I shoot with a prism finder). I also always used to be picky about viewfinders, often struggling with older ones. I’ve always been a fan of AF and have always found good quality rangefinders more easy to focus than a split prism!

One of my clients is an optician, so soon later I popped in to his place to get his thoughts on the matter. He let me have a play with a bunch of un-cut spectacle lenses, I found one that seemed to make the most difference which he informed me was equivalent of a -1 in camera diopter terms. Not much of a prescription really … I explained that it wasn’t perfect so he said I had better have a proper eye test. Some time later, eye test done, and yes I have a prescription, but I also have an astigmatism which basically means they can only make my vision in my right eye better, and not perfect! Brilliant!!

“Just use your left eye” everyone tells me! Of course if you are a photographer (I guess you are if you’re reading this) you will know that using your wrong eye to take a photo is a little like trying to use your wrong hand to write with… It just doesn’t really work as well! I personally find that with my left eye, despite being able to see better, I can’t compose the frame properly!

As you can probably imagine this left me feeling a little morose! Still, at least there was nothing wrong with the Voigtlander R2A… Yes, as it turned out, it had been my eye that was causing the problem, not an issue with the rangefinder!

So, my only option is to teach my self to shoot manual focus cameras with my left eye… at least when focus is critical! I tried shooting with the FM3a left eyed, no joy, I just can’t frame properly, my eye doesn’t find the finder properly, I’m just not comfortable with it! The main problem seems to be that I can’t concentrate on the whole frame in the same way as I can with my right eye. Photos come out even more wonky than they usually do, and subjects don’t end up in the sort of position in the frame that they are when I shoot with my right eye!

By this time, my R2A was on loan to my mate Ben (it was he who in fact confirmed for me that the RF was still accurate), I wasn’t getting the manual focus kicks I wanted from the Nikon and this idea of a Leica kept coming to me! Ben was also really enjoying the R2A and had suggested he was now looking to buy one. At some point soon later the idea of selling my R2A to Ben and buying an M7 came to mind. There was no way I could buy an M6 again without having an AE m-mount camera to shoot with when I was feeling lazy, and since me and the FM3a weren’t getting on something else a little bit more indulgent felt like the right thing to do!

What’s the relevance of the “old watch” in the title I hear you ask… Well, I had to get the funds from somewhere… I had a watch that I bought after I lost another watch that I bought with the first bit of money I was left by my nan when she died. I didn’t wear the watch, I didn’t even like it, it was far to heavy and it just reminded me of the really nice one that I lost! So I sold it, and put the money into the Leica pot!

Not long later, I won an eBay auction for the camera you can see at the top of this post… I should add, on the aforementioned subject of self deprecation, in the 3 1/2 years and 2000 odd photos I have put on my two flickr accounts, that one above, a photo of a camera, is the only photo that has made it into flickr’s “explore” thing … and it was taken with my iPhone! The irony …

Anyway, I digress, I won the Leica you see above! I’m not sure I have even been so excited to receive a camera, certainly not since the M6! All the time worrying that actually I was just pissing money away on something that I wouldn’t be able to use because of my dodgy eye! Rather excitedly I opened the package when it arrived, and what a beautiful thing it is! I have to say my old M6 must have ben a bit of a dog, because this M7 is far superior in the way it feels to anything I have ever used before… But more on that another time!

I mount my 50mm 1.5 Summarit to it, and put it to my right eye. Not bad, but not great! My heart sank a little, Ah well, I thought, I will just have to see how I get on with it, it is certainly better for me than the FM3a’s split finder! Then I think to try it with my left eye, just to see who good the finder is! Wonderful of course… But at that moment I instantly feel a bond for this new camera in my hand. Looking through the finder I can see the 50mm frame lines, I can see the photo framed by them and realise that using a rangefinder camera I can frame a photo with my left eye! It isn’t the most natural feeling, but it is a damn slight bit better than trying to frame with my left eye and an SLR!

Heron Tower
One of the favorite shots with the M7 so far – taken with the voigtlander 35mm 1.4 nokton and cinestill film

So now I am hooked on the M7, for all of it’s loveliness… and it is lovely!!! But also for the fact that I feel it has solved a problem that for a time I thought I wasn’t going to be able to fix! I also feel like I am learning to frame again, not from scratch of course, but it has given me a slightly new perspective! It’s funny how things work out! SO you are going to have to excuse me if little bits of rangefinder this and M7 that start to show up on this blog … I might yet even do an M7 review, but don’t worry! I’m still dedicated to the compact cameras, this experience has even made me realise a new love for the Olympus 35 RC I bought not so long ago, it’s a lot better now I can see properly through the viewfinder!

If you are interested in seeing how I am getting on with the M7 there are some photos on my flickr here

Thanks for reading my ramblings!

Hamish


Since writing the above article, I wrote the this “review” of the M7

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12 Comments

  • Avatar
    Reply
    jojonas
    December 15, 2013 at 9:46 am

    wow, Hamish! This is all quite sudden. I guess you’ve been struggling with this for a while now before writing.
    I’m certanly glad it worked out for you with being able to get comfortable using your good eye. but this just shows how dependent we are on our eyesight.
    I’e no perfect eyes myself so I’m always glad hearing about photographers coming to terms with lacking eyesight.

    I tried to find the link to a practically blind photographer that shoots churches but I couldn’t find him. here’s an american instead: http://petapixel.com/2013/05/07/how-one-photographer-rediscovered-his-passion-after-going-legally-blind/

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Hamish
    December 15, 2013 at 4:13 pm

    There are a few around! I follow a chap on twitter with very poor sight, I can’t think of his name now though to find him … He is a journalist too I think …? Thankfully I am a good way away from that, but it has certainly made me think how much I take my eyesight for granted!
    More than anything the whole thing just made me feel a bit stupid for not realising what was happening to me!

  • Avatar
    Reply
    Kevin Allan
    January 1, 2014 at 1:24 pm

    I have very little sight in my right eye, so have always composed with my left eye. Many photographers close the other eye when composing, but I can’t independently close my right eye when I compose with my left eye. I’ve never really thought about how this affects composition or focussing – but perhaps subconsciously this is one reason why I prefer waist-level finders.

  • Reply
    The Olympus 35rc – yet another classic Oly
    January 11, 2014 at 10:04 pm

    […] entirely comfortable with the viewfinder/rangefinder … But the reality is, it’s fine, my issues lay elsewhere! More on the VF in a […]

  • Avatar
    Reply
    jeremy north
    May 3, 2015 at 3:39 am

    Hamish, I enjoy reading your blog. I hate to state the bleeding obvious but why don’t you just add a dioptre correcting lens to your cameras? I, as do many, have suffered the same problem as I got older, that of eyesight deterioration. In my case I have become long sighted so I use cameras with built in viewfinder dioptre correction (Contax G2, RTSIII and 645) r just used a screw on or clip on viewfinder lens (Nikon F, Olympus OM etc)
    I have a couple of cameras I enjoy using for which I don’t have said adaptors, a Leica M2 and Contax ilia. For these I am going to fabricate a solution. Cheapo specs from a shop cost a couple of quid and I’ll cut little circular pieces from them and attach them to the viewfinders as neatly as I can. In my case that is relatively simple as I need positive correction and the cheapo specs tend to be in that range +1 +2 etc. I don’t know if they come in negative values though.

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Hamish Gill
      May 3, 2015 at 6:13 am

      My eyesight though not severely affected really has gone duff from an astigmatism which at least from a diopter point of view is a little more complicated to fix. My glasses make it quite a bit better, but even with them I find critical focus difficult, and can’t use an slr with them at all.

      Since writing this I’ve got a lot more used to shooting with my left eye, but even now, when it’s not critical I revert to my right eye.

      Have you read my post about the viewfinder – I wonder, looking back, if some of the disharmony I felt with the slr was to do with that too .. Either way, I’m happy with my RF’s and this was the start in the big turning point.

      • Avatar
        Reply
        jeremy north
        May 3, 2015 at 11:34 am

        I’ve not read all of your posts, as I’ve only just come across your blog. I see that your eyesight problem is not as easily fixed as most. I find that one big advantage with RF focussing is that an overlapping image is easier to match up than getting it in focus on a fresnel screen, SLR/TLR style.

        I’ll go and read that post now.

        • Avatar
          Reply
          Hamish Gill
          May 3, 2015 at 2:43 pm

          I find them easier than split screen too, despite that being the opposite to most – all these things are so subjective…

    • Avatar
      Reply
      Hamish Gill
      May 3, 2015 at 6:29 am

      Incidentally, I would have gone with “blinding” over “bleeding” ‘-)

      • Avatar
        Reply
        jeremy north
        May 3, 2015 at 11:29 am

        Darn it, I wish I’d thought of that pun!!

        By the way, we are virtually neighbours, I live in Cheltenham.

        • Avatar
          Reply
          Hamish Gill
          May 3, 2015 at 2:42 pm

          Well, hi county-neighbour! 🙂
          I work with a guy who is some sort of pun machine … Sometimes it rubs off!

  • Reply
    My Nikon F75 Project - Part 1 - Going off on a tangent from my usual direction of travel - 35mmc
    December 17, 2017 at 10:28 am

    […] a brief flirtation with a FM3a that made me realise just how well suited I am to Leica cameras (read that post here), and a roll I shot with a Nikon F100 and Sigma 50mm ART lens when I still had my Nikon DSLRs […]

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