A Leica, an Exhibition, and a Walk

Last week I attended a workshop at the Leica Akademie in London and not only held a Leica M but also spent an hour walking around Mayfair using it. That is likely to be an unrepeatable experience. And it was just the first part of a very long and rewarding day in London.

So, you are probably wondering, how did I come to be in the privileged position of being loaned a Leica M for an hour? The answer is that I’m a member of the Camera Club for retired fellows at the Royal Society of Medicine, and the club was informed that the Leica Akademie in London (as part of Leica’s centenary celebrations) was offering a limited number of three-hour workshops to experienced photographers wanting to have an opportunity to learn more about, and use, Leica’s unique top-of-the-range digital rangefinder camera.

LeicaMThis was too good an opportunity to be missed. So five of us took up this offer and gathered at the UK’s Leica HQ, discreetly tucked away in a quiet location in London’s Mayfair. As well as being the UK’s flagship store, there is also a café for Leica customers, and first floor facilities offering Akademie courses & workshops and also a small photographic studio. For details of other workshops offered by Leica click here.

Our workshop was led by Robin Sinha – a professional freelance photographer and Tutor at the Akademie. The workshop commenced with a brief history of Leica cameras starting with the Ur-Leica in 1914, through the celebrated M3, and on to the current Leica M (named in full as Leica M typ 240). Leica cameras are world renowned for their build quality, durability and superior optics. The current Leica M (a full-frame camera) should be seen as evolving from previous Leicas and that pedigree is perhaps best illustrated by two facts. Firstly, the Leica M includes backward compatibility with previous Leica lenses; and secondly, like all previous models it has not embraced auto-focus. It remains, unusually in today’s market,  a manual focus rangefinder camera.

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Leica M, Summilux-M 35mm lens, F11, 1/180, ISO 800

We moved on to learning how to use the camera. It’s a surprisingly heavy camera when you first pick it up, but once you get used to the weight it can be comfortably cradled in the hand. It has a minimalist appearance: the camera is not studded with an array of buttons and dials. And internally the menu structure – compared with most other digital cameras – is refreshingly sparse.

The principal difficulty for the majority of us who are accustomed to the idea of focusing taking care of itself is having to master manual focus. That takes time, and in action, constant reminding. The manual focus ring conveniently has a projection with a finger indent that with practice allows single finger focusing. Looking through the viewfinder you will find a small central circle within which you will see two ‘images’ out of alignment. To focus, you rotate the focus ring until those two images become one. There is however a simpler way to manage manual focus. Leica lenses feature a depth of field scale for a range of apertures imprinted on the barrel of the lens adjacent to the focus ring (a feature that will be familiar to any of you who once upon a time used manual focus lenses in the film era). A glance at the depth of field scale will show what will be in focus for any given aperture. So, manual focus can be ‘managed’ by selecting an aperture of, for example, F8 or F11 and estimating distances – a technique known as zone focusing. I won’t go into any more detail. If you are interested to learn more, and see more images of the camera, then there is a useful review of the Leica M in Amateur Photographer: click here to read that review.

Leica M, Summilux-M 35mm lens, F1.4, 1/750, ISO 400

Leica M, Summilux-M 35mm lens, F1.4, 1/750, ISO 400

The introductions over, it was time to venture outside. At this moment, the rain that had been an intermittent feature ever since I left my house earlier, decided it would resume, but fortunately only as very light drizzle. It did, however, make proper street photography difficult. I did not feel happy walking around with the camera fully exposed to the elements, whilst trying some candid shooting-from the-hip photography. However an hour later we all returned, and so did the cameras, from our independent photo walks. The images were uploaded and all reviewed in Lightroom, and finally the best images from each of our shoots were rapidly and efficiently processed by our Tutor in Lightroom. That in itself was a valuable experience for me as a complete stranger to Lightroom.

Leica M, Summilux-M 35mm Lens, F6.8, 1/750, ISO 800

Leica M, Summilux-M 35mm Lens, F6.8, 1/750, ISO 800

I shot about 30 images, and the three I judged to be the best on technical quality are shown above. Remember to click on an image to see a higher quality enlargement – it is certainly worth it.

Finally, we have to come to the issue of cost. A Leica M body will set you back 5,100 pounds. The Summilux 35mm F1.4 Lens will cost an additional 3,850. Total cost: 8,950 pounds sterling. The economics tutor on my Business Management course would have said: think of the opportunity cost. In plain English – What else could you buy with that sum? Sadly such an iconic camera will remain beyond my reach, but it was a privilege to try it out.

And that was just Part 1 of that busy day. From Mayfair I hotfooted it to Tate Modern in half an hour to see ‘Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs’.

Blackfriars - shot taken on the move, on a hurried walk to Tate Britain.

Blackfriars – shot taken on the move, on a hurried walk to Tate Britain.

This was such a refreshingly different exhibition featuring the unique output of Matisse in his twilight years when ill health and reduced mobility meant he was no longer able to paint. But he could still cut painted paper with scissors.

_DS81127All of us as children cut coloured paper with scissors, and pasted those shapes onto other sheets of paper and made patterns or collages. At one very superficial level this is the appeal of Matisse – it’s child’s play. We’ve all done it. But then you look deeper and longer and you see the beauty, the skill and the creativity that affected every aspect of what he achieved – from pre-visualisation, to colour choice, to cutting, to placement. The works on display ranged from his early, small, folio sized work (especially a book he created called Jazz), his Blue Nudes and finally his  monumental canvases that stretched almost across the full width of the exhibition rooms. I emerged from that exhibition, as I do so often from similar events, inspired by the work of a celebrated artist.

By that time it was nearing 4pm and I still hadn’t found time to eat lunch! A brief stop for a sandwich and a coffee and I then set out on the third leg of the day’s journey – walking to Tower Bridge.

This is a walk that I haven’t done for about five or six years, and is so often the case in London, development takes one by surprise. So much has changed on Bankside as that area is called. The whole area is rich in photographic potential. Over the course of the next two hours I shot just over two hundred images.

These included two semi-abstract, geometric, architectural shots; the green algae on the water in the dock surrounding a full-size replica of Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hinde; a close up of HMS Belfast; an image of one of the fifty ‘Books about Town’ benches that I have just now finished photographing; and finally an image taken at the Tower of London of the poppy fields – a subject I covered in detail in A Sea of Poppies and the Roll of Honour. If you are interested in a very personally orientated commemoration of WW1, then do read that Post.

Enjoy the short gallery below. Click on the first image and then navigate through. There will be other posts from this walk in the weeks to come.

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About LensScaper

Hi - I'm a UK-based photographer who started out 45+ years ago as a lover of landscapes, inspired by my love of outdoor pursuits: skiing, walking and climbing. Now retired, I seldom leave home without a camera and I find images in unexpected places and from different genres. I work on the premise that Photography is Art and that creativity is dependent on the cultivation of 'A Seeing Eye'. I'm not averse to manipulating images to produce derivatives that may sometimes be far removed from the original.
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13 Responses to A Leica, an Exhibition, and a Walk

  1. oneowner says:

    I would love to get my hands on a Leica for an hour! Glad you had the opportunity. But truth be told, I really like auto focus and I don’t think I would give it up. (I’ll use that as my excuse not to purchase one).

    • LensScaper says:

      My first SLR camera, given to me when I was 21 (and that’s a very long time ago!) was of course manual focus and that was easy to use. I didn’t find the Leica’s rangefinder version easy to use – but then in fairness one hour was a very short time to play with a camera. It’s a very specialist camera which I was thrilled to have an opportunity to use – but I won’t be saving up for one. Thanks for commenting Ken.

  2. Sounds fascinating! And you have taken great shots too. I think I would be too scared of using one as they are expensive and my Nikons take a lot of battering on the moors in all weathers (I have smashed 3 Nikons beyond repair, 2 Canons and 2 Pentaxes – along with numerous lenses). Not that I am particularly careless – they just get banged on rocks, dropped on the moors and in mud and get wet through, and I don’t like carrying them about in my rucksack when I am out. I have yet to find a camera which lasts more than 2 years using them the way I do 🙂

    • LensScaper says:

      I suspect the Leica is rugged, but then would you really wouldn’t want to test out its ruggedness. So far (reaching for a piece of wood to touch) I haven’t ruined a camera but I’ve bent lens hoods and smashed a filter – miraculously the filter fragments didn’t scratch the front element of the lens. And that’s despite climbing, skiing and walking extensively with a camera, and like you it’s rarely in my rucsac – usually round my neck or slung diagonally across my body. No point carrying a camera if it’s not available for use is my motto. Thanks for commenting James.

    • oneowner says:

      You should see my macro lens. Though it works fine, it can only be used as long as it remains perpendicular to the ground and the outside ring around the front element is missing. I can’t use any filters on it but as long as it continues to perform well optically, I guess I’ll keep it.

  3. Manual focus – that takes me back Andy!!
    As well as my cheap digital cameras, I’ve got an Olympus OM2 with a standard lens plus a 24mm lens and a 70-210 zoom lens, and I should really get them out more often! I remember when the OM2 came out it was unaffordable to me, yet the body I have now came from ebay for £40 – how times change!

    • LensScaper says:

      The Olympus was well respected in its day. Somewhere I’ve got a couple of old Nikkormat bodies and I’ve still got some old manual lenses – haven’t had the heart to dispose of them yet. I still look back very fondly on those old days. Photography is becoming an expensive hobby, and the frequency with which new cameras are announced is getting ridiculous. Always good to hear from you, Paul. Many thanks.

  4. It sounds like you had a great day despite the rain. I really enjoyed reading this blog post. Now that you have had time to study your Leica shots at home have you noticed anything about the quality that you couldn’t achieve with your Nikon? I really struggle to see how anyone can justify paying so much for a rangefinder camera and I do wonder at what point I would see the benefit or difference in quality. I remember years ago that Panasonic released a compact camera with Leica optics. Leica released what appeared to be an identical camera except it had Leica branding and perhaps a case and some sort of Leica back up guarantee. The truth was that these were in fact the same cameras only the Leica cost twice as much. I was advised by a reliable source that essentially the Leica was made by Panasonic but set up slightly differently so the output would be different. I suspect that Leica trade a lot on their heritage and it would be interesting to know who makes all the component parts of the Leica M. Just as Sony make the sensors for Nikon I wonder if Leica also use other manufacturers. Often I think cameras these days are a bit like buying a computer. They are all branded differently and perform slightly differently but inside it’s Intel as they say. I mean by this that many computers share the same components despite the brand on the outside. Often it is our perception of quality, brand names, and marketing that can lead our loyalty to a particular brand. Our perceptions are not always borne our under scrutiny. The AP review wasn’t exactly shouting this is a brilliant camera!
    Before I go I should say that I enjoyed your shots in the gallery from your walk. I particularly liked the ship image. Thanks for the sharing the images and for the interesting post.. Best wishes. Mr Cafe 🙂

    • LensScaper says:

      Thanks very much for those thoughtful comments, PC. There are a lot of what one might term incestuous relationships across a wide range of technology industries and white goods too. You never quite know what is under the bonnet. I still recall how upset I was when shortly after buying the one and only Porsche I was ever likely to own – a 924 – a friend told me most of it was made up of VW parts! The one thing I do believe is that the Leica Summilux and Summicron lenses are of superb quality. I was impressed by the detail and sharpness in the first and third images that I posted from my personal shoot. There will always be people who will pay mega-bucks for a camera, just as there will be for those who buy hugely expensive handbags, watches or cars.

  5. Len says:

    Lucky you Andy. The quality of Leica’s are well known and these images seem to prove that. Maybe if I was a professional, I might think about forking over that amount of money but I guess I will never know.

    • LensScaper says:

      The quality is very good, certainly. But the manual focus would be the biggest hurdle to overcome. And if you fancied a second lens – then you would need to part with a further 3,000 pounds.

  6. Chillbrook says:

    Sounds like a great experience Andy. I had a Phase one medium format camera for a long weekend and while back. It’s fun to try out these cameras but I can’t see the day I’ll ever be shelling out £30,000 on a camera system with a couple of lenses. My D800e nips at its heels image quality wise so I’ll stick with what I have. I would like to try a Leica though. I saw an interview with Joel Meyerowitz recently and he was talking about the uniqueness of the offset viewfinder on a Leica allowing you to see the whole scene with one eye while framing with the other. A useful facility when deciding what to keep in and leave out of a picture.

    • LensScaper says:

      Thanks Adrian. When you look through the Leica’s viewfinder you actually see more than the actual frame of the captured image (which has a white line delineating it). This allows you to see what is creeping into the image as you view. I have to say that remembering to note there was a frame within the viewfinder window took a little bit of getting used to.

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