It's been quite a while since I haven't written a post. It's not because I've been lazy (well, ok, not ONLY because I've been lazy) but it's also because I was on holidays testing my brand new acquisition... the infamous and bankbreaker... M240 from Herr Leica (wunderbar! I've covered all my German knowledge, won't have any more from here on... :) Promise!).
It's now time (tadaaaaaa!) for me to reveal my first impressions on this camera after owning it for a month and testing it thoroughly during my holidays.
Inception (if you want just my impression on the M240, skip this part, this is my usual blabla!)
|Saint Malo - France - the Leica is weather proof! So are the people there... :)|
Ok so you all should know by now how I am going from bigger to smaller, after I went the opposite direction... You also know how after thinking that the more gear I owned, the better photography I would be taking and realizing, as many of us, that this didn't make any sense, I have gone to a minimalist approach, going even as far as using film (yes, shame on me as I anyway scan them which makes them digital files in any case...Am snob, it's just because of that!).
Well a few weeks back, I went one step further in my minimalist aproach... As much as I love film, it's very hard for me travel abroad with my Hassie and all the films. Going through X-ray and explaining in Thai to the Thai border patrol guy that films should not be exposed to an X-ray machine as it can burn the films (explain THAT in Thai!) and that its not because there is a sticker on the machine that its really safe was a lot of hassle and could end up in quite complicated situations for yours truly. I needed something easier, and more portable (the Hassie is NOT the must of portability but what a camera!).
Anyway this is a lame excuse. This year, I moved truly and irrevocably (I haven't met Mephisto unfortunately so I had no choice) in my forties. Am an "old" man now, I have grown a beard and the belly that goes with it (am working on making sure that the belly is just a passing but man its a tough job!). Anyway, with age comes wisdom they say, well let me tell you, this is horse turd... With age comes a little bit more money that you have been able to put aside, like the squirrels in Tribeca put garbage aside (but a more useful version of that...) and with age comes the idea that it's now time to do the stupid things we couldn't do younger because we didn't have the money or the time. That's right where I am today, and this was at the top of my list!
After looking at various options, I decided to jump on the rangefinder bandwagon all guns blazing. I had tried rangefinders a long time ago, when film was the only option and still remembered a little it's versatility and discretion. It was time to see if those old memories, with the passed colors of a poor Instagram filter, were right.
So I did it! Not the 5 feet jump that scares you for half a second, the jump from the cliff, the one you don't even know if the water below is deep enough... The one where you feel your heart pumping in your throat... I looked, thought, went in and out and finally did it, I bought the M240... I was shaking... (ok I may be overdoing it slightly here...).
I had seen those in France for more than 7000Euros (that's around 70K HKD and 9000USD). That price was a no-no for me...
In HK, I have my personal dealer. I can't disclose publicly his name because I don't want anyone to go and ask him for the same price as me, I don't think he would do it and I think I would upset him and never have a good price ever again. I have bought him all my cameras since I have been in HK and he has seen me grow slowly, From my 7D to this new Leica, he's like my camera father... Ok now I sound weird...
|Time to bargain? Avignon, France Leica M240 and 28mm|
Everytime, his price has been lower or at the same level as the shops in Mongkok (if you want good deals, you can try Sim City in Mongkok, I'll do a post on this later on) despite being in the very heart of the city.
So one day, out of silly curiosity, I went to him and asked him the price as I had seen the second hand prices and I was really thinking about buying it. He gave a few calls and told me "35K HKD for a ME and 42K HKD for an M240".
Wow, this is the price that I had seen a second hand Leica for in another shop in Stanley Street (not the cheapest around though, I know, but still...)! I was in shock and it got me thinking. I asked him to give me some time, which he gracefully did, as he always do (am a good customer, he knows that!!!)!
I know what you are thinking and I was thinking the same. It's a lot of money, but if you are reading that post and know a little bit about Leica, it's what it costs. I then checked on Internet, its more than 1200USD less than the price I would have to pay for it on Amazon and even my beloved B&H (which I buy things from, even in HK) is around the same price.
So, for slightly more than the price of the new Leica M from an internet company, I could get the Leica M250 and a 50mm Summicron 2.0 lense... Wow.
So I jumped in the cold waters of the Rangefinder world.... When I used the credit card, I think I heard it scream... But there I was, I came out of the shop with my little box and this brand new camera inside.
First impression (This is the part about the M240, stop scrolling down lah!):
Just as a foreword and a disclaimer, don't expect some mumbo jumbo about the specs, I suck at that (among many things, but this one thik, I am fully aware of!). I don't count pixels for a simple reason, I can't count! I don't compare colors, because am color blind (not true...ok, am overdoing it again!) and I never, ever ever play in the famous game, who's got the biggest... Camera (among other famous games...).
|First Portrait, Check|
My cousin and actor Nathan Willcocks
Unravelling the beast:
So there I was, in front of that camera or should I say THE camera, the holy Graal of the Street Photography nerd...
I opened slowly the package. I have to say that everything is made so that you have an impression of precision and kraftsmanship. The box has many little drawers in which are stored all the necessary elements of the camera. On the top part is the Graal. The Leica M240 is sitting there, waiting to be taken out of it's black velvet coffin (maybe not velvet... Ok!).
Given all the efforts that had been put in the camera and the packaging, I did something I NEVER, ever.... like ever, do! I RTFM (Read The Freakin' Manual).
Yes, the kraftmanship is such that you feel compelled to read the manual, in a quasi religious state. You kneel and then open the booklet and start reading out loud (mmm, maybe not that religious though).
First launch... And we have a lift off (oooh no, you didn't think that!).
After that (it's not that long, don't worry!), I took out religiously the M240, a little bit like the Holy Grenade in the Monthy Python Holy Graal movie ("ye shall count to three...").
The first impression is that it feels sturdy and strong. It's a piece of engeneering, but like all German things, it's a piece of durable engeneering and you feel it when you take out this camera from its box.
Put the battery in, an SD Card my salesman had offered me, screwed in the 50mm (I will come back in another post on this but again, we are talking steel, sturdy fabric here, nothing like the plastic elements I am used to with my beloved DSLR).
Turned it on and there it was, the M240 ready for action. Menus are simple. This is a great change compared to my Canons (Even though Canon menus are fine, they lack simplicity!). There is no useless options, everything is there, clearly stated and it all finally comes to four things: ISO, Aperture, Speed and the guy behind the camera (this last part is my weakness!).
The camera (you're here for that no?):
The design has been there for decades. Its a slick design, black, simple but still has this old school feel that I personally love. The camera is easy to take and hold and doesn't require you a special gymnastic or to develop a tennis thumb (yes, its a remake of a tennis elbow... is there something like this?) as everything just falls perfectly in your hand. The knobs are just in the right place and so easy to find, even when not looking at them (it does take some practice though, don't expect mastering it right away).
The menus are simple and are quite limited in quantity ("only" 5 pages). Everything (well nearly) that has no use has been stripped down compared to DSLR. Still there are some fancy things there such as the HDR option (3 or 5 shots) and some other things I didn't even bother looking at. This camera is all about simplicity and this is all a Leica owner is looking for.
The getting used to (it does get some!):
It's not easy coming from the DSLR world but it comes in quite quickly as, as I mentioned earlier, it's all perfectly studied to make the experience optimal. After a few hours, everything becomes intuitive. The knobs are there you just need to memorize which is what and then, you won't need to take off your eye from the viewfinder, you will turn them without even looking at them.
This is probably one of the key points. As Leonardo da Vinci used to say "simplicity is the ultimate sophistication". And Leica does just this, make things so simple coming from such a complicated and fine kraftmanship. All the other camera makers will add those dials, modes, screens, rotating backscreen, selfie enhanced camera, coffee machine (am sure we'll get that someday) that you just can't choose anymore. There was a study a few years back saying that we faced too many micro decisions, the Leica takes many of those off your hands, there is no place for useless decisions, and I love that!
|Low light? Check!|
Ok, for the DSLR nerds like me, what are the real changes?
Well, for one, everything is manual. There is no autofocus with the super fast hyper great one touch of a feather button and the hawk view (am not sure that exists yet but do expect to see it someday). There is nothing that pretends they will do the work for you and that with this camera, you will become the new Joe Mc Nally (love you Joe! :p) as knowlegeable as Steve Huff (here, go and check his website, amazing source of info on the Leica but not only) or even Adam Marrelli (this guy is good, interesting and knowledgeable and yes, he shoots Leica! Go check his website!).
Forget the "scenery" mode, "Portrait", "fireworks" (ahahahahahhaha.... errr... sorry) or other useless modes also, this is not the camera for you if you think those modes (hahahahaha.... sorry again) are useful.
Oh I digress here, but quickly one small advice here, if you are starting photography: a) don't buy a Leica b) don't use those modes. Will come back on that in a later post.
Here, there is you, your creative view and your (up to) ten fingers. The camera will only go as fast as you. Auto Iso? There is, but honestly, who the hell would buy such a camera and give creative control to a chip? Not me. You? Get out!
There is no through the lense view (well this is not completely true). You look on the side of the camera and you will not see if you are under or over exposed. You have an indicator (a dot if you have correct exposure and some small arrows if not to show you if you are under or over exposed).
Depending on the lense you use, there is a small frame, red (you can change that) that indicated your frame. With a wide lense (I bought the 28mm subsequently) you cannot see a small part of the frame as it's blocked by the lense itself on the right of your viewfinder). It does need some getting used to as I mentioned, but its quite fast and intuitive.
One missing item is the bulb possibility to add a remote control. If you are doing long exposures, am not sure how that works but it does not seem to be possible unless you buy the additional grip (which is quite expensive!)
At first, I cursed...
At first, if like me you are used to DSLR and through the lense view, you will be struggling a little (not long don't worry). In the viewfinder, you need to align, in a small center square, two images so that they match perfectly and become one, this is when you know you are in focus.
|in focus; only one red dot! Good to shoot tiger!|
You will forget to do it at first (where is the autofocus mode damnit!), and you will miss some shots because of that . You will curse, and swear and you will maybe miss that decisive moment (love you HCB!). But it's fine, you fell when you first started cycling and look at you now! If you missed it, you will have other opportunities. Another reason to curse. is that there is no through the lense view... you will sometimes forget to take out the lense cap! This is annoying and you only realize after you've taken the shot or because whatever you do, it seems you are way underexposed... :) My advice, dump the lense cap, if you have a clean bag, you should be fine (or make sure it's a reflex to take it out the moment you take the camera off your bag).
|You see double! Two options; you're still drunk or it's out of focus!|
To solve this problem of lense cap, underposure and all, for the first time since they went digital, Leica offers a Liveview option. This button is easily accessible and will allow you to see exactly what you are shooting and the current exposure and what will the final result look like.
Also, WYSIWYG as they say (what you see is not what you get). What you see through the viewfinder is larger (if using normal lenses) than the frame itself that is outlined by a red square. It takes a little getting used to but there is a major advantage, you can see what is coming in the frame, unlike the DSLR where you see exactly what will be in the frame. Both are useful and both have their pros and cons.
But then, I decided to trust the force...
With experience, you adapt and adjust. I have only used the Liveview on a few very rare occasions, it's useful, but not sure it's a necessity for street photography (but haven't tried for landscape, the magnifying can certainly be useful in that situation).
After a while, I became like Luke Skywalker (yes, I did!). I started trusting the Leica force, and this voice in my head of a weird old man (HCB is that you? Meh I doubt given the quality of my pics!) telling me to trust my instincts and not rely on the crappy rebel technology (am I pushing the analogy too far here?!).
And guess what, it works. Ok, it's not always perfect but with a good exercise and reading some intereviews of Henri Cartier Bresson (did I say I loved him already?), I know now that for street photog, the basis is 3m distance, 1/125 and something not too far from F8. Starting from that, you cover 70% of the shots, now it's time to find a theme or a topic.
Let's face it, I took a huge and very expensive bet when I bought this camera and it turns out that the Leica is all I was hoping for. The quality of the images is litterally outstanding and to me gives a way better result than the DSLRs I have (I don't have the top of the line DSLR though). I know when I was reading others saying that, I would raise my shoulders and call them snobs. But trust me, there is a difference (stop saying am snob! I can hear you from here!).
|Will I discard my DSLR forever and let it rot?|
The great advantage of this camera is size. I have gone from a backpack full of useless lenses (well not useless, but I would carry way more than I need) to a simple side bag. My camera, two lenses and that's it. You are faster, more discreet and you look less like a DSLR nerd (but that has never been a problem to me!).
|My new backpack.... I just saved ostheopath money!|
Now, let's go to the bottom of this. Am I going to sell my 5D MkII and all my heavy lenses because I now own a Leica and I had to pawn my left arm for that? The answer is a clear no. To me (don't start sending me emails about this) the Leica is the perfect camera for street photography, personnal work and given its size, travel photogaphy.
But when it comes to sport, heavy duty, strange places, I am not sure the Leica would either work (for sports obviously but am sure some people manage to take amazing pics) or I would feel comfortable taking the camera in a specific environment (am thinking about the series I did in the slums and Manilla, I never ever felt unsafe, but I wouldn't take such a camera there).
Also, one other point is that the reach may sometimes be insufficient. I know, if the picture is not good, you're not close enough. But sometimes (when taking a picture of a lion for example) am not sure you want to be too close. A longer reach (above the 120mm currently available) can then be useful!
But despite those two points, the versatility, discretion, precision of this camera makes it an amazing tool and definitely a camera to own. It's not cheap, but there is a reason for this, it's worth every penny invested in it and given there aren't that many, depreciation is not as bad as for other types of camera (this is something to consider on the long run!).
So for now, as you have understood, I am a happy bunny. I have, I think the best camera I can find to do street and travel photography. This is clearly a tool that is a great addition to my Canon camera. I will still use both and the Canon (Which I used to shoot the Leica by the way... ) will have my preference for heavy duty works, sports or studio shoots but on a daily basis, for walks, street etc, there is no doubt that the discreet M240 is the camera I would choose without any hesitation when I leave home!