Back in May 2009, Mike Johnston of “The Online Photographer” wrote a controversial blog post entitled The Leica as Teacher. (The URL slug of the post, a-leica-year, suggests an earlier title that I almost prefer.) Leica evokes a lot of strong emotions among a lot of people, but for me, as an amateur photographer who came of age in the digital era, it’s never been a brand that meant much. Still there was something in Mike’s post that intrigued me—and I wasn’t alone. It spawned an unusually passionate reaction in the comments (both for and against), and then two follow-up posts, essentially clarifying and expanding on his original proposition:
[If you] would like to radically improve [your] photography quickly and efficiently, I suggest shooting with nothing but a Leica and one lens for a year. Shoot one type of black-and-white film (yes, even if you’re completely devoted to color and digital, and hate film and everything it stands for. You don’t have to commit to this forever; it’s an exercise). Pick a single-focal-length 50mm, or 35mm, or 28mm. It doesn’t have to be a “good” lens—anything that appeals to you and that fits the camera will do. Carry the camera with you all day, every day. Shoot at least two films a week. Four or six is better (or shoot more in the spring and fall and less in the dead of summer and winter).
It’s funny because much of the spirit of the exercise I was doing already (thanks to reading T.O.P.): I was carrying a camera with me everywhere, and I was shooting with a single-focal-length lens (at the time, a Ricoh 28mm-e GR-D II, later a Pentax K-7 with a 35mm (53mm-e) lens). I wasn’t looking to “radically improve” my photography, but I was curious to see if I could play the same song on a different instrument, and how that might affect my visual perspective in the long run.
Unfortunately the timing was wrong. I was about to head to my brother’s wedding, where afterwards, while driving through Grand Teton National Park, I would begin scheming with Stephanie about taking a year off to travel. I was also on the cusp of buying my first-ever digital SLR, the aforementioned Pentax K-7, which I pulled the trigger on that August. Since we weren’t planning to embark on our travels for at least a year, I wanted to make sure I had time to get comfortable with the new camera before we left. Alas, “A Leica Year” wasn’t in the cards.
Recently I stumbled upon the Holga D, a digital camera concept so simple that it doesn’t even have an LCD screen. The designer asserted that “this makes the experience quite similar to the good old film based cameras.” My first thought was: Cool! I want. The only problem was that this digital Holga didn’t exist, so I couldn’t have it. Or could I? The words “good old film based cameras” reverberated in my head. Good old film based cameras…
That’s when Mike’s “The Leica as Teacher” post came flooding back. If I wanted delayed gratification, I didn’t have to wait for a chimerical digital Holga. I could have it right now! And unlike three years ago, there wasn’t any upcoming event that would prevent me from putting my travel-worn DSLR on the shelf—in fact it already was. So at the beginning of April, after lurking on eBay for a few weeks, I picked up a Leica M3 (circa 1956) and a 50mm Summicron collapsible lens, along with 10 rolls of Kodak Tri-X (to get started).
I have to admit, the economics of this exercise are a little insane. And I don’t mean the fifteen hundred bucks I’ve already shelled out for a 50 year old camera and lens. If I were to follow Mike’s suggested minimum of 2 rolls of film a week for a year (he goes further and suggests 4–6), it would cost me $2700 to process and scan it all, not counting prints! Yowza.
2 rolls/wk × 52wks × ($4/buy + $7/develop + $5/contact sheet + $10/scan) = $2704!!!
The truth is that taking 72 exposures per week is hard—assuming your life/job doesn’t involve going out everyday with photographic assignments in mind. I’ll be lucky if I get through 2 rolls of film per month on average, which is good, because that keeps my expenses at a more manageable $50/month.
The real challenge in this undertaking is determining exposure. How the heck do you take a picture with no immediate feedback? How did our parents and grandparents do it in the old days!? Thankfully I (re)discovered the Sunny 16 rule (of thumb). Basically on a sunny day, take the reciprocal of the ISO of the film (OMG, ISO of film is fixed!) and use that as the shutter speed. Then set the aperture to f/16. Since the Tri-X film I’m using has an ISO of 400, on a sunny day I should be taking shots at 1/400th of second at f/16. In darker settings, I need to open the aperture (or decrease the shutter speed) to let in more light.
I have to admit, taking that first exposure required an act of faith: Did I put the film in correctly? Did I advance it far enough? Does this 50 year old camera still work? Is the lens any good? Is there enough light coming through my back window in the early evening to take a photo at 1/250s, f/11? *Click* When I got my first contact sheet back, I was kind of amazed that any of the shots came out at all. I mean, the whole time I was just guessing!