May 172012

Last week’s announcement of the Leica M9- Monochrom camera sparked off the Leica bug in me again. Whereas the new camera with its dedicated B&W sensor does not hold all that much appeal, despite my love of B&W photography and the great many images that I convert to B&W, I would still want the colour option in any camera that I might own.

Award winning photographer Edmond Terakopian has had the chance to put the Leica M9-M through its paces and without a doubt the results are mightily impressive.

I have seen some people say that they will now carry two Leicas, the M9 and the M9-M, citing the days of film when they carried two cameras – one loaded with colour film and one with black & white film. In those days, there was little option but to carry two cameras if you wished to shoot both colour and b&w shots but digital photography has freed photographers from that constraint or should I say burden. People are strange.

Canon 40D and Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro. ©Calvin Palmer 2012. All Rights Reserved.

The Leica M9 prompts the old head versus heart dilemma in me. The head tells me that in terms of value for money far better cameras than the M9 are to be had. Who in their right mind would pay nearly $7,000 for a camera that boasts a 230,000 dot LCD screen, no AF capability, no live view and a top ISO of 2500?

The heart tells me that the Leica M9 offers unsurpassed full-frame image quality and one only has to look at images shot by skilled photographers to see that they have an image quality often referred to as the “Leica look”.

Factor in the weight of the M9, a mere 585g or 20.64oz, and its size — 139 x 80 x 37 mm or 5.47 x 3.15 x 1.46 ins – and suddenly the heart appears to be winning the argument.

The Canon and Nikon fanboys on DPReview take great delight in slagging off the Leica M9 as an overpriced under-featured camera, the plaything of doctors, dentists and lawyers who can afford the Leica price tag.

I would hazard a guess that many of those same fanboys have no direct experience of film SLR photography and are digital through and through. When they rant and rail against the Leica M9, as they often do, they are missing the point and one that came to me in a moment of epiphany after reading Thorsten Overgaard’s treatise on the Leica M9.

Leica is the only camera manufacturer that made a seamless transition from film cameras to digital ones. It kept the size, shape and form of the Leica M film cameras but gave them a digital heart. Thus those shooting film with a Leica M could switch to a Leica M8 and later M9 with a relatively shallow learning curve and without having an extra pound or two added to the weight of the camera.

For more than 25 years I shot with a Minolta XD-7 SLR camera, known as the Minolta XD-11 in the United States, which weighed 560 g or 19.75 oz and measured 136mm x 86 x 51mm or 5.35 x 3.38 x 2.01ins. My Canon 40D weighs in at 822 g or 29.0 oz and measures 146 x 108 x 74mm or 5.75 x 4.25 x 2.91ins and without the luxury of a being full frame. To achieve comparable performance with the Minolta, I would have to look at the Canon 5D Mark III, all 33.51 oz of it, or the 48.85-oz Canon 1Ds Mark III.

It is easy to see why so many photographers of my generation would love their Minolta XD-7, Nikon FE or Canon AE-1 fitted with a digital sensor. Those people who used to shoot with a Lecia M3, M4, M5 or M6 got exactly that with a Leica M9.

We can also cope with manual focus lenses and centre-weighted metering because that is how we learned our craft. AF is a convenient option but not an essential one if a camera has focusing aids in the viewfinder, which the Leica M9 has unlike the Canon models mentioned above. That being said, I still manage to focus manual Zeiss ZE lenses on my Canon 40D. Admittedly , it is a lot harder than focusing with the Minolta but it is still achievable.

Back in my film days, I kind of negated the weight benefits of the Minolta XD-7 by shooting with a 70-210 mm zoom lense. With age has come wisdom and the decision to only shoot with prime lenses. My days of lugging heavy camera equipment are long gone. If I miss a photo opportunity because of the focal length of the lens on the camera, so be it. I am no longer answerable to the demands of a picture editor. I shoot what I want to shoot.

Leafing through Thorsten Overgaard’s guide to the Leica M9 and reading how he shoots with it – set aperture priority, ISO at 200, manually focus on the subject and fire the shutter – reminded me of shooting with the Minolta XD-7, even down to the centre-weighted metering. And in a Road-to-Damascus moment, I could see the obvious appeal of the Leica M9 and why so many photographers value it so highly.

I think with a Leica M9, two or three Zeiss ZM lenses and possibly the Voigtlander Nokton 35mm f/1.2 lens, I would be set up for life. With my Minolta XD-7, I never experienced a moment of camera lust because I had what I considered to be the best camera for my photographic needs. I think the same would hold true for the Leica M9.

The only problem with using Zeiss ZM lenses is that they are not 6-bit coded. I am not sure how much of a disadvantage that would be, especially since I would shoot RAW rather than JPEG. And by not using Leica lenses, I probably wouldn’t achieve that 100 per cent Leica look but I think I would get close enough for my tastes.

Canon 40D and Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro. ©Calvin Palmer 2012. All Rights Reserved.

All that remains is to find the several thousand dollars it will take to make a photographic dream come true. I have already checked out a couple of secondhand Leica M9s to reduce the potential outlay, one of them being the M9-P, which appeals because of its understated appearance – it doesn’t carry the red dot or M9 motif – but, more importantly, because of the virtually unbreakable sapphire crystal covering on the LCD screen. This camera would be the last one that I would ever buy, so I would want it to last in good condition for as long as possible.

With that all settled, I am off to buy a lottery ticket or two. Wish me luck!

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Jul 122011

At the weekend, every time I brought out my Canon 40D it rained or so it seemed.

On Saturday I planned to take a photograph of a roadside sign that I saw last week when driving back from Camp Milton.

The day started off sunny but the forecast was for rain later, so I faced a balancing act of not going too early in the harsh light but not leaving it too late until the rain came.

At 3:30 pm, the sun was still shining and the fleecy clouds look far from menacing. However that was the view from the back of the house. When I came to set out, the view from the front of the house was a lot different. The sky was slate grey but the clouds were still fairly high. I reckoned the rain could well hold off for half-an hour.

I drove to the location, a journey of 15 minutes, and parked up about 50 yards away. I got out and had only taken two steps when I felt the first spot of rain. I pressed on thinking that if I was quick I could get the shot before the heavens truly opened. I was right but the light was dreadful. I bumped up the ISO on the Canon 40D to ISO 400 and got a shutter speed of 1/6 sec at f/5.6. It was pointless taking a shot. I didn’t want a high ISO or a narrow depth of field.

I could have tried a shot with the Ricoh GRD III but those raindrops were getting more frequent.

On Sunday afternoon, I planned to set off to a different location to reprise a shot I took last Monday. I locked the front door, turned to walk to the car and noticed raindrops hitting the front path. Thwarted again.

The rain eventually eased off and a couple of hours later I was able to get out and take the shot I had in mind but ended up shooting it with the Ricoh GRD III.

Ricoh GRD III. ©Calvin Palmer 2011. All Rights Reserved.

I did use the Canon for a second take on this shot. Last week, it was taken in bright sunshine.

Canon 40D and Zeiss Planar T* ZE 1,4/50. ©Calvin Palmer 2011. All Rights Reserved.

On Sunday, the light was flatter and I lost the heavy shadows.

Canon 40D and Zeiss Planar T* ZE 1,4/50. ©Calvin Palmer 2011. All Rights Reserved.

The B&W conversions were made with Silver Efex Pro in Photoshop CS3.

The trouble with digital cameras is that they are not as robust as the film cameras of old, with the exception of the top end DSLRs, which are weather-sealed.

When I worked on newspapers in Britain, I recall photographing a football match at Gigg Lane, the home of Bury FC, one winter’s evening when the rain poured down for several hours. I was situated behind the goal for shots of the goalmouth action, if not a goal. When play was down the other end of the field, I cradled my Minolta XD7 and 70 – 210mm zoom inside my Barbour waxed-cotton jacket. A lens hood fitted permanently to the zoom kept raindrops off the lens.

I got well and truly drenched that night. Unloading the film at home, I noticed water in the back of the camera, enough water that it actually poured out. I left the camera, with the back open, in a warm room. By next morning, it was dry and functioned like it had done before.

In similar circumstances, I fear my Canon 40D, like a great many DSLRs, would have simply packed in and probably been damaged beyond repair.

Let’s face it, cameras these days are really computers with lenses attached and no one would set up their PC outdoors, exposed to the elements.

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