The Venn diagram describing the readership of 35mmc and of Mike Johnston’s blog ‘The Online Photographer’, may not have a huge amount of overlap—on the other hand it may, I don’t have the data. For those of you not familiar with Mike’s blog you may not know that in 2009 he set his class of eager followers an exercise. The premise is described in an article entitled ‘The Leica as Teacher’ and developed in a further article ‘Why it has to be a Leica’. Put succinctly, it challenges you (the aspiring photographer) to shoot a Leica rangefinder, with one lens and one type of black and white film exclusively for a year. You should aim to shoot two to six rolls of film per week and make one to six work prints per roll, without cropping. Every five to ten rolls make one nice print, again without cropping. The idea was that a year of doing this would radically improve your photographic ability.
I read the article with interest and then, like 99.97% of the readers, did not complete the exercise. However, the idea knocked around in my head and never quite left me, time passed and I accrued more and more cameras—some film, some digital and more and more negatives and digital files sat in folders and on hard drives but without any coherent idea of what I was doing or why. The appeal of simplifying things and following Mike’s minimalist approach grew and grew—I decided to take up the challenge.
Shopping is not the same thing as photography
In order to begin I needed a Leica. No problem there, I had a Leica—an M5 which was my grandfather’s and which I had used on and off for years. Attached to it was the tiny Leitz 35mm f/1.4 Summilux. A perfect set up for such a project, there was only one problem—using that camera would not involve any shopping. Shopping is not the same hobby as photography, but most of us (myself especially included) forget that simple truth nearly all of the time. Like the rest of the 35mmc readership I too had absorbed the endless online opinions criticising the M5—the big, ugly, haptically awful monster that the 1970s spawned. Compare this horror to the Leica M3—the meisterstück, the initial prelapsarian Leica, a paradise of camera design from whence we have fallen and can never return. That’s right, I wanted an M3. A good deal of agonising and eBay scrolling later I owned one. Was this foolish?—yes, do I regret it?—probably not, but it is ironic that an exercise designed to stop endless gear acquisition and focus you on the practice of photography sent me scurrying straight to eBay.
I won’t dwell on the merits of the M3 or make comparisons to the M5 here, this is covered in depth elsewhere. Suffice it to say the M3 is a different camera in the hand to an M5 and is very usable. It also does not have a light meter, but that’s ok because there are many apps for your phone that will provide this service for you and in many ways that actually speeds things up; arrive somewhere, take a light reading, set the camera up and shoot. As long as the light isn’t rapidly changing you’ll be fine and it’s one less thing to think about before you press the shutter each time. The ‘home’ focal length for the M3 is 50mm, a focal length I like very much and am very familiar with, but not one I owned in an M mount form; a brief trip to Red Dot Cameras sorted that and I left with a Zeiss 50mm f/1.5 Sonnar—well known to be a favourite of Hamish’s. Having equipped myself with a bulk loader and one hundred feet of Ilford Delta 400 I was ready to begin.
I began the project on my birthday, it seemed like an easy date to remember and starting it with my new M3 felt like a birthday present to myself. As always with any new bit of kit there is an initial excitement as you get to try it out that drives a lot of picture taking at the early stages—I was having fun. The strict rules of the project require you to carry the camera with you all day, everyday. This is not feasible in my job (nor I suspect most other people’s, unless your job is an as an aspiring photographer), but I did try to take the camera with me whenever I went somewhere and it certainly covered a lot of ground in the year—at least until the project clashed with the covid lockdown that descended on us two-thirds of the way through.
The first pleasurable thing to note was that, for someone as indecisive as me, having the choice of which camera to use taken from you was very liberating. I didn’t have to think, I just picked it up, pocketed a couple of rolls of film and walked out of the door. It became second nature to have it sitting on my hip as I walked. The aim of the exercise is to get you to see as the camera sees, so that when you raise it to your eye the picture you’ve already composed in your head is there, right in front of you, already framed in the viewfinder—all you have to do now is focus and shoot (you will recall that you set the exposure at the point you walked out of the door). It is also a blessed relief for your back as one camera, one lens and two rolls of film don’t require you to drag along a camera bag full of gear.
Great photographs don’t have bokeh balls
The reason it needs to be a Leica is that the viewfinder experience is not engaging, there is no getting lost in the beauty of shallow depth of field effects in an SLR viewfinder and no standing back to admire the ground glass of your Hasselblad or field camera. The focus remains on the scene in front of you. The temptation to improve bad pictures by resorting to extreme depth of field effects is gone, as the effect cannot be judged through the viewfinder. You’ll find that depth of field catches you out at times when pictures taken at wider apertures suffer from loss of sharpness in a critical element, and you’ll find that you start to favour mid-range apertures (light levels permitting) to get most of that composition in focus. This is all to the good—the great pictures, the photographs that endure, are all about the subject rendered well and not about the optical peculiarities of the way a lens sees the world. That’s not to say you won’t get bokeh balls because when you come to shoot in artificial light and are limited to ISO 400 your lens is going to be wide open, you’re just not going to be aware of them through the viewfinder.
The second reason it has to be a Leica (and in my case a fully manual Leica with no meter) is that it gets out of your way. I have a Fuji X-E1 which I sometimes use and it produces very nice images, but it has a maddening habit of changing settings accidentally and seemingly randomly at the drop of a hat. There is a button on that camera which engages a macro mode. I don’t know what the macro mode does, as pressing that button doesn’t put a macro lens on the camera or move you closer to the subject, but what it does do is place a large pictogram of a flower in the middle of your viewfinder, obscuring your view, when you accidentally press it—this is not a camera that gets out of your way. The manual, mechanical, film Leica by contrast will let you make as many mistakes as you like and won’t raise a finger to stop you, but it will let you release the shutter whenever you want and that is the skill you are trying to learn here.
The aim of the game is to arrange the frame
You are not allowed to crop, you need to get the composition correct in camera. I’m no purist about cropping, long having taken the view that not all scenes correspond to a 3:2 (or whatever) aspect ratio and you should change the crop to suit the subject. However, once you’ve mastered the basics of exposure and focus all photography comes down to composition. The aim of the game is to arrange the frame and as a learning exercise (which is what this is) this is valuable. Once or twice I was tempted to crop (mainly to straighten horizons) but the vast majority of the time I took what the camera gave me and lived with it. This also helped with my tendency towards perfectionism.
In the course of the year I exposed 88 rolls of film (mostly Delta 400 but I did allow myself to switch to FP4 plus when travelling to the bright luminosity of Greece, and a couple of rolls of Delta 3200 snuck in during times of available darkness). This is a total of just over 3000 frames and, averaging out at 1.7 rolls a week, this is below the specified target (and certainly not a Garry Winogrand level of productivity), but reasonable for someone with a full time job to do at the same time. I made 364 work prints, Mike allowed one to six prints per roll which is a 2-17% print rate. Mine comes in a 11.5% which is in the right ballpark therefore. This exercise took place before my darkroom was up and running so I digitised the negatives using a DLSR and printed on the Epson, but (nearly always!) without cropping and making all prints at 9×6 inches on A4 paper.
The subject matter varied from children’s parties through holidays and family outings to landscape and pictures taken on my daily dog walks (a genre that has been referred to as ‘path photography’!). Most of the pictures were mediocre, but then most pictures are. At Mike’s recommended rate of making ‘good prints’ (one every five to ten rolls) I should be looking at 9-18 ‘keepers’ from this and I’ll leave it to you to judge if any of the accompanying pictures reach that level. This isn’t really about the quality of the output though, it’s about the benefit of the exercise to the photographer.
What did I learn?
Am I a better photographer for it? I don’t know is the honest answer. I certainly came to recognise the 50mm view in front of me and got adept at sliding the camera up, focusing and pressing the button almost instinctively. Whether this resulted in better pictures by the end of the year I’m not sure. I’m not by nature a street photographer and where I live (rural west Devon) is perhaps not natural Cartier-Bresson territory. Some of my favourite pictures from the year actually come from the first few rolls, so on that basis perhaps the exercise should be judged a failure. After I finished I underwent a sort of rebound camera purchasing spree (having restrained myself for a year) and also shot a lot of 120 film (perhaps longing for a tonality that 35mm couldn’t give me) so it didn’t empty my camera cupboard to a level of Zen-like simplicity either.
All these objections aside, it does feel good to have a consistent body of work presented in a uniform style and comprising a year of my life. It is more coherent therefore than anything else I’ve done. My desire for simple cameras with direct controls that ‘get out of the way’ has certainly been strengthened by the experience. Above all, the enjoyable feeling of picking up the camera, putting it on like a piece of clothing and walking out of the door without a second thought is one I’m very grateful to have had, even if only for a year.