On the town

Christine and I had spent a pleasant day wandering around Oxford, and were just heading home to our hotel (the excellent ‘Old Bank Hotel’ – a great place to stay if you want to be central and feel like pushing the boat out on somewhere upmarket for once) when we passed these two magnificent ladies out, I must presume, for an evening of revelry. There was just time for one grabbed shot, and although it is far from perfect this is certainly one of my favourites from around 500 images I took that day. I converted it to black and white to put the emphasis on the patterns of the dresses rather than their bold colours.

This was a special day for me as it was the first time I had made serious use of my new (well, second hand but new to me) Leica M8. I had been wondering about a Leica for quite some time, and had eventually succumbed to its lure with a spur of the moment purchase while passing through London. So, armed with a 35mm Summarit I was keen to see if any of the fabled Leica magic would manifest itself with a relative novice like me behind the lens.

I’ll have to leave it to others to decide if that happened, but what I do know if that I really fell in love with the Leica. It’s small and inconspicuous, and the lenses (even the cheapest of the range, which is where I started) are fast and sharp. Of course the camera really puts the responsibility back on you to be in control of your image making – with no auto focus and with prime lenses requiring you to position yourself for the shot, it is all too easy to miss a great image. But the upsides are many… and in my case, quite convincing.

First if all, the compact nature of the camera has several advantages. You don’t attract so much attention to yourself, so your subjects are less aware of the camera. Street photography is easier and the resultant images more natural and faithful to the moment. Secondly, you can get the camera and a full set of lenses in a small bag, so spending a day in the city is no longer the ordeal it is with most DSLRs.

The lenses also are a revelation – not only those from Leica (which though fantastic are also are heartbreakingly expensive) but also the cheaper (yet still expensive) models from Zeiss. I am about to try a fast 35mm from Voigtlander and will let you know how I get on with that, but I am sure the results will be good, even with a lens around 5 to 10 times cheaper than the Leica equivalents. And on the M8, which lacks some of the filtering used in most DSLRs, you really do get most of that resolution into the final image. Since almost all of the lenses available are fast, sometimes extremely so, you can also catch images effectively in twighlight or even near darkness, so this really is a camera you can use pretty much anywhere for city and landscape photography. I wouldn’t want to use it much for macro of sports/wildlife shots – but most of my photography isn’t of that nature, so the rangefinder approach is pretty much my ideal.

I started photography long ago, as a teenager in Leeds, with  lots of time and almost no money. My days were spent wandering around Yorkshire with a second-hand Zenit B with a Russian 50mm lens, looking for interesting images and dashing home to develop them and see the results (in black and white, as the chemicals were cheaper). Much of that old magic seemed to come straight back with the Leica, and somehow the images that result give me just a bit more pleasure than anything I have achieved with my (admittedly excellent) Canon DSLRs. Perhaps it is the special allure of the images, and perhaps it is the fervent hope that they look good because of my skill as a photographer rather than the technical wizardry of the camera… who knows?

All I can say is the Leica certainly is special, and it seems to have only one serious downside. I strongly suspect that there is no going back, and my photography in the future is going to get a lot more expensive as I upgrade to the M9, and then M10, M11 or whatever is to come!

Image taken on 27 August 2010, Leica M8 with 35mm Summarit, 1/3000th at F 2.8 and ISO 320. Converted to B&W in Lightroom.

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