Gear Theory

Leica M-A – From Digital, Back to Film (part 2) – by Anthony Killeen

November 21, 2015

It’s been a couple of months since I obtained my Leica M-A film camera and wrote about my initial experience with returning to film after many years of using digital cameras. I mentioned that my first few rolls were deliberately shot in daylight for ease of exposure while I was getting used to the camera, and that I would do some shooting indoors in low light at a later time. The M-A, like pre-M5 Leica cameras, does not have a built-in light meter, and so indoor photography with the camera poses particular challenges of selecting the exposure in low light settings. I decided that the sensible thing was to get an incident light meter, so I obtained a Sekonic L-478D, which I could use in a lot of situations in the future, especially those involving a flash.

A recent art show presented a good opportunity to try some indoor shots. I decided to shoot in black-and-white, which seemed like a good choice for an art show, and opted for Kodak Tri-X 400. The lighting at the venue, which is an old warehouse building repurposed to artist studios, was quite challenging. The artwork hanging on the walls was fairly well lit, but the illumination in the interior of the rooms was rather variable, ranging between brighter areas near the windows to relatively dim lighting. I wanted to take some spontaneous shots and so a tripod, although useful for longer exposures, was out the question. A flash would have been useful, but would have defeated the purpose of this exercise, which was to see how photographs would turn out in the specific environment that presented itself. As a practical limitation, I chose not to use a shutter speed slower than 1/60th second to avoid camera shake. My lens is a Leica 50 mm Summilux f/1.4 Asph., and so its maximum aperture was the other limit as far as exposure was concerned.

After checking with the light meter in a few different locations, I realized that most shots would have to be taken at the maximum lens aperture and at the longest exposure time that I was prepared to use. Anything photographed near a window might work with 1/125th second shutter speed but using a smaller aperture than f/1.4 at the same time was likely to result in underexposure. As a result, most of the shots would need careful focusing because of the shallow depth of field with the lens wide open, and this had to be accomplished in a less than ideally illuminated space using a rangefinder. Challenges are good, I told myself! I also reminded myself that film has some latitude when it comes to exposure so I shot away without doing much checking for each photo. This was actually the first time I really had an opportunity to use the Summilux wide open. Outdoors in daylight, I find the f/1.4 aperture to be too fast for any available shutter speed without using neutral density filters, which I don’t have.

Studio 1

I am showing some of the photographs I took, and I was generally quite pleased with how they turned out. The first one (of the young lady seated) was adjusted in Photoshop to increase the contrast slightly, but otherwise all of them are as they were shot without additional processing except for a tiny scratch removal in the last one.


When I purchased the Summilux, I was wondering if I really needed a lens as fast as f/1.4, but now I am happy that I chose it. Even one stop can make a difference in low light, and I think the bokeh is quite an appealing feature of this lens. I also like the 50 mm focal length, which I wasn’t sure about in comparison to the 35 mm equivalent that I’m used to in my digital camera. To my eye, the 50 mm focal length gives a nice coverage of a scene while allowing for some intimacy with the subject but without having to be too close when taking the photograph.


As I mentioned previously, I find that using the M-A really forces me to think about the lighting conditions and adjust to them in a way that setting everything to “auto” does not. This makes the process of taking photographs more interesting and more enjoyable for me.

Once again, thanks for reading!

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  • Reply
    Hamish Gill
    November 21, 2015 at 7:23 pm

    These are some wonderful photos Tony! You’ve really captured the atmosphere of the place.
    This is exactly how I shoot. Less and less am I bothering with any sort of light meter in more and more circumstances – err on the side of over exposure and let the latitude do the rest… Makes life a lot easier!

    • Reply
      November 21, 2015 at 7:49 pm

      Thanks, Hamish. Yes, I try to just get a general idea of the exposure settings for a location and film speed, and then go from there. There’s some degree of mental awareness of the light conditions, but without being obsessed by them, that seems to work best, and film does have quite a bit of latitude to play within.


      • Reply
        Hamish Gill
        November 21, 2015 at 8:07 pm

        Yep. Definitely the best way forward.
        I find it to add even more to the joy of the M-A. It’s such a free way to shoot. I’ve tried convincing people of this lately, people really struggle to believe it.

  • Reply
    jeremy north
    November 22, 2015 at 12:02 am

    Nice article. I love the pictures too. My favourite by far is the engaging picture of the seated woman. You caught her beautiful open expression perfectly.
    Interesting that you went for an ultra light-meter. I was using an L-358 but I prefer the L-208 for its simplicity and size.

    • Reply
      November 22, 2015 at 1:10 am

      Jeremy, thank you. The photo of the artist with her paintings and medals is definitely my favorite, too. I took just one shot of her, and this was it. I’d love to claim that I had planned it carefully, but it was pure chance. She began to stand up when I asked her if I could take her photograph, but I requested that she sit down again for this shot, and it worked quite well.

      I would have gone for the L-358 light meter, but they don’t make it any longer. My plan is to have a small space in the future where I can do portraits, probably using some flash equipment, in which case the L-478D will be useful.


  • Reply
    Daniel F
    November 22, 2015 at 7:16 am

    Beautiful photographs, Tony. Thanks for making me wanting the 50mm Summilux again. Stay broke shoot Leica.

    • Reply
      Anthony Killeen
      November 22, 2015 at 2:13 pm

      Daniel, thank you for your comment! Yes, the Summilux 50 mm is a beautiful lens, but not inexpensive. Like the M-A itself, I am planning on having it for the rest of my life, or at least that’s some of my justification!

  • Reply
    November 22, 2015 at 2:06 pm

    Great photos Tony! Love the tonality. My first roll of tri-x is off to a lab now, and if they have tones close to these I will be very pleased.
    By the way, I also have a 50mm Summilux, and when I use it in low light conditions I often set the exposure to 1/30 sec, I rarely see any motion blur, so you could get a bit more light next time. Although the results show that you don’t need it!

    • Reply
      Anthony Killeen
      November 22, 2015 at 2:22 pm

      Thank you Aukje! I should try 1/30th next time. The recommendation I’ve read is not to use a shutter speed less than the reciprocal of the focal length for hand held shooting. Come to think of it, the M-A does have a 1/50th second setting for the shutter. Anyway, I’ll take your suggestion and try it out.
      I hope you can post some of your Tri-X photos when you get them back.

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