Analogue Portrait Photography with Leica M rangefinder Cameras – by Marc Wick

This is not a review of Leica M cameras. There are quite a few, and every one has its pros and cons. All of them are rangefinder cameras and have one thing in common (at least for me), they look beautiful and work very well. I used an M6 but switched to a black M4 which I now use for most of my portrait photography. Like many analog cameras, the M4 is very easy to operate, there’s no need for a 500 pages instruction manual. Choose the film, measure the light, set the aperture and shutter speed and I’m all set to go.

My chosen films are Tmax 400, Ilford Delta 400 and the Tmax 3200 (shot at EI1600). For film development, I use X-Tol (1:1). The scans here were done with a Braun FS-120, but I now more often use the Negative Lab Pro. My favourite color film is Kodak Portra 400 (at EI200) which I develop with the Cinestill C-41 Kit.

Leica M4 with 90mm Apo Summicron
Leica M4 with 90mm Apo Summicron

Why portraits on film?

Why not? The short version of the answer is just because I like it. It’s nothing to do with the old digital vs. analogue discussion, it’s more just about what makes me feel better as a photographer. It is more or less an affair of the heart. Film has its own magic, its own aesthetic. In some light situations with strong contrasts, film is more forgiving. Furthermore, and this is very important for me, I do not need to spend a lot of time post-processing the images on the computer to I get a b/w photo I like. After scanning, I just control the contrast, shadows and lights and the work is done.

Of course, there are some pitfalls, the worst-case scenario is that I ruin a film during the developing process (which happened to me once, what a bad day). It takes longer until I have the final results too.

Kodak TMax 400 pushed to 800, M4, APO 50

I find the whole shooting process to be different. I cannot control or improve my results as I shoot. The model gets a mood board before the shooting begins to them to be prepared for the desired style as well as possible. Before we start, we talk about the lighting situation, clothing, poses, examples. I then choose the right film, meter the light, choose the lens (mostly 50 or 90mm), and then we start.

One of the big advantages of the M mount cameras is the viewfinder. It’s so clear and bright – it’s almost three-dimensional. It’s contrasty also in low light environment too. All this provides a great view which I like more than that from an SLR.

I then press the shutter. There’s no way to look at the monitor, no need for the model to hurry from one pose into another. After a little while, it’s a very relaxing way to shoot. There’s no machine gun shooting at 100 photos a minute. After a three hour shoot, I just have three or four rolls of film. That’s enough for me, and gives me just the same amount of keepers as I’d get from shooting digital.

Kodak Tmax 3200 @1600, M4, APO 90
Kodak Tmax 3200 @1600, M4, APO 90

The bad thing is I can’t really know my results. I can’t fully control sharpness, background, composition or the pose as I could with digital. The time until I have my negatives in my hand is very thrilling and, of course, there are situations where I missed a good shot because of something I did not properly control.

One time my lens was out of focus after a heavy fall and I didn’t notice, most of my photos were out of focus too. Life can be hard. But the moment when the negatives are good is very special not to mention from the moment when I first have a print in my hands.

Kodak TMax 400 pushed to 800, M4, APO 50

In low light situations or with a flashlight (which is very seldom, I prefer daylight) I also have my digital camera as a backup. If I push my film too much in low light situations, I’m not always happy with the result. But when comparing the results in almost all situation, I am more drawn to the analog results, though this may also be because I appreciate more the whole process more.

I know some might accuse me of giving too much weight to the process and insist that the results are a lot more important. Some will probably suggest that if I don’t want so much control, I should just turn off the monitor. Of course, this is absolutely true. But photography is my hobby and not my living. I don’t have the pressure that every shot be perfect, so I just like to have fun and enjoy what I do in the way I personally enjoy it the most.

Ilford Delta 400, M4, APO 50
Kodak Max 3200 @1600, M4, APO 50

Ilford Delta 400, M4, APO 50

With all of this said, there is no strict ‘only analog’ one way street for me and my kind of photography. For my next shoot, I will be trying something new. I will still be shooting with the M4 for film, but I will also be shooting digitally with a Leica M-D 262. It will be very interesting to use this special digital camera without a screen. I am very curious to see whether the M-D also gives some of the film feelings I enjoy. I can’t wait to start…

You can check out more of my work on

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40 thoughts on “Analogue Portrait Photography with Leica M rangefinder Cameras – by Marc Wick”

    1. Thank you very much Uncle Tang! We all know that taking photos with a Leica is more an emotional thing , but of course this is also very important to have fun!

  1. “…some might accuse me of giving too much weight to the process and insist that the results are a lot more important”.

    And they’d be horribly wrong. It’s totally up to you.

    Fab. work.

  2. These are beautiful and timeless Marc. I never tried the 90mm as I always feared that I would miss focus with the small framelines. Do you use any magnification out of curiosity? I always found it odd that some photographers think of a Leica purely as a documentary tool. Not having your face covered allows you to interact with your model in a far more natural way.

    1. Thank you Adam for your kind comments. I do not use any magnification. The 90mm works fine, but of course I have some photos which I can not use because they are not sharp or the point of sharpness is not where I thought it should be, especially with 2.0. But with an aperture of 5.6 or more it is easier. For a very short period (one roll of film) I tried a 135mm lens but the results were really frustrating. But most of my portraits are done with a 50mm lens, not a typical portrait lens, but it works fine for me. And I agree with you, a small rangefinder makes the interaction with the model easier.

    1. Thank you very much Ken! Maybe it is due to the film that there is not such a difference between a rangefinder and a SLR. I have an old but full working and still great looking Minolta XE-1 from my father-in-law which I use sometimes in combination with the Leica. But to be honest, looking at the photos after development and scanning, I do not see which photo was taken with which camera.

    1. My setup is very very easy: I use natural light as often as possible, very seldom the flash. Depending on the effect I wanna have, I use frontal light, but not a strong frontal light which would prevent structures in the face. Or for a more dramatic look, light in an angle from approx 45°. I use a flash just to create a 70ties look or for a hard direct light (only the detachable flash SF-40). But for sure 95% are with natural light.

        1. Yes, I use it on the flash shoe and remove it as soon as possible. On a camera without TTL like my M4 you have to calculate with aperture, distance and guide number (I hope this is the correct English word). ISO 100: Aperture=guide number/distance

  3. Love the photos. I shoot film and digital but much prefer the process of film….and I prefer the look/feel of film. And the fun shooting it!

    I’ve a load of film cameras including an M3 and M6 but there’s something about the M3 that does it for me. No wonder it’s arguably the most iconic camera of all time.

    Keep up the good work!

    1. Thank you Alex! You are right, the analog way is more laborious, but I also prefer the analog look which is not always 100% perfect. And it is a kind of handcraft until you have the result in your hands. And the M3 is really a stunner. Especially if you have one with a bright viewfinder

    2. Yes Alex, I also thought that the APO is too clinical, too sharp for film. But it isn’t at all. The bokeh is wonderful and you still have some “life” in your photos. And not to forget, it is very small and handy.

  4. Im a little lost at the begining. You talk about Leica but scan with a Medium Format scanner? When you switch to Negative Scanner something plugin means you switched to a Digital process of taking a picture with a digital camera and then processing through LR and a plug in? I got lost in your words.

    1. Sorry to confuse you Reuben. I had the Braun FS-Scanner for 35mm and mediumformat. I had a Plaubel 67 and the Braun was one of the few which could scan both formats. Now I have changed to a system with the Software Negative Lab Pro. You take digital photos from your negatives and convert it in Lightroom with Negative Lab Pro. The results with the Braun were very good but it took a long time and was very loud. I do not want to spend such a long time in front of a PC. With Negative Lab Pro it is much faster and easier.

  5. Excellent perspective Marc, nice to see these pics again. The next lot with the M-D262 will be interesting too, look forward to seeing them.

    1. Thanks a lot Gary! I am also looking forward using the MD but as most of us, our radius is a bit limited at the moment. For sure, better times will come….

    1. Hi Jenae,
      1.) practise practise practise
      2.) get some books of your favorite portrait photographers and have a look how these masters compose their photos, have a look at the lights, the pose of the model
      3.) get books about light, shadows, natural light. I think this is very important. A good light can turn a good photo in a great shot.
      4.) practise practise practise

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