I’d heard about Leicas even before I started to get serious about photography let alone film photography. But I’d never held one in my hands, and never shot one until a few months ago. My friend Matthew, who is a bit of a Leica enthusiast, offered to lend one to me so I could get a feel for it.
We agreed to meet in Tai Hang on a sunny early afternoon so the sunlight would still shine on the narrow streets and alleys. I packed a few rolls of film, and decided to give the Kodak Ultramax 400 a try. I never purchased Kodak Ultramax, but I was offered three rolls by Kodak after participating and getting an honorable mention in a competition they ran late last year with the Phlogger podcast.
The Leica Matthew brought for me is a Leica M6, and the lens he had equipped on it is a Carl Zeiss biogon 35mm f/2 ZM. These things (apart from 35mm and f/2) mean very little to me but I’m led to understand they matter to Leica enthusiasts.
I should stress that since the Xpan is my main film camera, I was happy and comfortable with the rangefinder side of the Leica. In fact, I found that the focusing ring was a lot faster and a lot easier to use than the ones on my xpan lenses. On the other hand, I’m used to shooting in Aperture priority mode most of the time, and occasionally compensate the exposure when I feel it’s necessary, so having to go (nearly) full manual was another kettle of fish.
I say nearly because the Leica M6 has a meter and you’re therefore not entirely on your own. The (limited) information you get is confusing however. I’ve used cameras with meters in the viewfinder in the past (starting with my first film camera, the Spotmatic F) but the information it gave you was on a scale. The M6 gives you partial information (ie. the LEDs don’t always show) and then only tells you if you should expose more or less. And the dials to adjust exposure (at least the speed dial) goes in the direction opposite to the arrows you’re shown.
Needless to say, I was (very) confused. I had never, I think, until that walk around Tai Hang, been so slow in shooting. I missed some scenes because I was fumbling around. Not an ideal experience although I can see how you’d get used to the information you get. It’s just a matter of rewiring your brain so some extent.
Ultimately, what I awaited anxiously were the pictures. The good news is that I messed up surprisingly few of them. I even got a couple of pictures I really like. Kodak Ultramax turned out to be a fun and poppy film stock, with a lot more brightness and colour than the Portra 400 or Fuji Pro 400H that I normally use when shooting colour. It’s definitely a film stock I’ll be using again, especially on partly cloudy days when muted colours can really make the pictures lackluster. I also found out that I quite liked 24 exposure rolls. Too often I tend to shoot crappy shots at the end of a roll just to get it over with. Less chance of that with 24 exposures.
Can I see a difference in picture quality between these and pictures from other cameras ? I think I can, at least with some cameras. Not sure I see a big difference with my Xpan shots, I definitely see a difference with my Minox shots (which is reassuring to some extent). Do I see a difference with my Canon A2 shots? Not sure to be honest.
I definitely did not get a “these pictures pop in a way I’ve never seen before” effect. Don’t get me wrong, I like the pictures a lot, but not to the point where I think I can see a Leica or Zeiss mark on them. I also did not find the handling of the camera to be all that natural and while I could imagine learning to use it properly, it’s surprising that ergonomy in a camera that expensive would be so… clunky, I guess?
Still, I can’t pretend it didn’t spark a little something in me. Not to the point of wanting a Leica right here right now. But it’s somewhere in the back of my mind, and I suspect I might take the plunge one day. I’m very glad (and grateful to Matthew) that I could try one for a few weeks. I shot three rolls altogether, three film stocks I’d never tried before (the other two were Ferrania P30 and Cinestill 50D). If you’re interested, I might talk about those later.
If you like my work and want to see more of it, follow me on Instagram at @benfelten.
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8 thoughts on “5 (7) Frames with a Leica M6, Zeiss 35mm f/2 and Kodak Ultramax 400 – A Double First – By Benoît Felten”
Thanks for sharing, Ben. I really like the colours and composition of the shot of the ladder and the door. It doesn’t really surprise me that you’ve not seen a difference between cameras, as your shots seem to be with the lens stopped down. I only get particularly excited with my own shots (to the extent that I pretend that it was worth the extra expense) when I shoot wide open. I am surprised that you didn’t enjoy the ergonomics though – I think you would, given time.
Thanks for the comment. That’s my favourite shot from that particular walk as well. I see what you mean when it comes to shallow DOF. Not always easy to find the opportunities to use that when walking around the streets. Re : the ergonomy, that’s what my friend Matt says as well.
Fwiw, the M6 TTL and the M7 have the meter arrows and shutter speed dial going in the same direction. I haven’t used either, my main camera is an M3 which of course doesn’t have a meter at all. I don’t mind metered cameras, but I feel like if there is a meter, it should provide more information. Like my cheap-as-chips Minolta X-370S, which shows the full range of shutter speeds on the right. In manual mode, an LED indicates my selected shutter speed, while another indicates the camera’s recommended shutter speed. This way I can see not only whether I’m over- or under-exposing, but by how many stops. Likewise in aperture priority mode, by moving the camera around and watching the LED go up and down, I can get a sense of the dynamic range of the scene. None of this is possible with an up-arrow-down-arrow meter. In short, either give me a completely uncluttered viewfinder, or give me one which has more usable information. Just my preference, of course.
I’m only recently entered into the world of no-meter, and it’s a little easier than I anticipated. Sure there are some missed shots, but not as many as I feared. I’m still far from being able to gauge light just glancing at a scene, but slowly getting there. I agree with you though. Partial information is worse than none, it induces paralysis.
I’ve used that exact same camera/lens/film combo quite a bit and though I don’t find the M6 awkward to use, I kind of agree with your assessment of the results. I think they’re great, both with the Biogon and the 50mm Summicron I have but are they really better than what I get from my Nikon FM2n, 35mm f/2 Nikkor-O.C and 50mm f/2 Nikkor-H? I’m not sure. I definitely use the M6 less than my Nikon bodies, partly because of the slower max shutter speed but also because I’m often shooting in NYC neighborhoods where I would feel nervous carrying a rig that’s worth over 3 grand. I don’t think I’ll sell my Leica just yet but I may eventually.
This may ultimately be a result of our excessive focus on the impact of gear as opposed to all the other aspects of photographic experience. Still, I can’t argue that the Leica felt good in my hands. If my financial means allow for it, I might very well go for a Leica at some point…
I really like the pic of the MINI. It just grabs me, there is a pop there.
As far as metered info goes, I agree that Leica provides extremely limited manual metered information in all its M cameras – even the digital ones!
But for one… the glorious M5. It’s kinda weird that the M5 provides more exposure information in the viewfinder than even the newest Leica M10R!!
For easiest/quickest shooting, the M7 is the best film Leica (AE exposure does that), then the M5, then the MP/M6, then the rest. Of course if you get proficient with no meter, you’ll have your camera settings already, umm, set and any M can be really quick to use.
Thanks Huss. Yeah, that mini is pretty cool, you’re right.