Monday, June 9, 2014

Leica M6 TTL and first rangefinder experience

This is a small review on the Leica M6 TTL after 9 months of use, a general impression of a SLR user using a rangefinder intensively for the first time. Used as a personal camera, the overall impression is very positive and mechanical limitations disappear after several rolls (a ‘professional’ use hasn’t been made until now).

For non-intensive readers, the following lines resumes the whole post. 


  1. Patch flaring! Sometimes I’m seriously considering the viewfinder upgrade
  2. The meter works only when the shutter is cocked (but then it’s a cocking indicator)
  3. The sync speed intermediate step is annoying when turning the speed dial as it’s an intermediate step and “brakes the movement” (note: corrected on the M7)
  4. Fragile rangefinder mechanism compared to SLR’s? (only time will tell)


  1. Very small lenses (easily pocketable)
  2. Precise focusing mechanism (low rate of OOF pictures)
  3. Compact body
  4. Quiet, unobtrusive
  5. New friends (see further)

Framing and focusing

Being a “native”, long term SLR user as opposed to people using RF’s since their beginnings, the late transition to a rangefinder system is somewhat disturbing as it has several radically different characteristics:

a.       With a rangefinder, you look always through the same finder, disregarding the used focal length as they are materialized only with the framelines. With a SLR, what you see is what you get. So when your mind is used to frame accordingly to what you see in the viewfinder, you’ll be destabilized with your first rolls with your RF in “action situations”: On my M6 I’ve a fixed field of view of a 28 mm focal length even if I’m using a 50 mm. However, I was entirely accustomed to the framelines after several months.
b.      Focusing is only possible (and visible) within the patch area, the rest of what you see doesn’t reflect the actual focusing situation compared with a SLR where you see directly the FOV effect (when used wide open) and the focusing accuracy.
c.       Depending on the used lens, the focusing physical “interface” changes: some have a focusing tab moved with only one finger which has to be correctly placed in it to easily rotate the focusing ring whereas other lenses have a traditional “circular” focusing ring like any other SLR lens. Making small corrections with the first mechanism at certain positions (e.g. at infinity with the Voigtlander 35 mm f/1.4) is sometimes difficult as your finger gets in an uncomfortable position.
d.     From what I’ve seen on my first rolls, my overall focus accuracy was either spot on or really out of focus. Shooting at very large apertures with wide angles is much (much) easier than with a manual SLR as well as in low light situations. This is one major benefit of using a rangefinder, and especially a Leica where the base length is longer than a Voigtländer R for instance.

3      Action

Unless by working with hyperfocal settings (thus in bright situations) or in predictable situations where prefocusing is possible, action photography is quite hard with a fully manual rangefinder camera (also with manual SLR’s).Due to the limited film/money resources, you can’t “spray and pray” to get something well exposed and/or sufficiently well focused. 

4      Speed

When I’m shooting, I’ve three steps: (1) guessing the exposure and setting the speed/aperture combination, (2) correcting it if needed with the light meter, (3) focusing (and of course framing’n shootin’).The presence of a light meter is a plus when you’re not confident enough to (correctly) guess the appropriate exposure but with time and practice, the light meter becomes unnecessary except for certain situations. After a half dozen of rolls, I was able to guess the exposure in any situation with approximately half a stop difference with the meter reading. Note that it’s a spot metering so it can be fooled depending on where you aim.

5     Fragility

Compared to a SLR, the rangefinder mechanism seems prone to misalignment and is sensible to shocks and general abuse. I often tend to “live” with the camera and my SLR’s were used to getting banged on everything when kept on my shoulder or in my bag, as I’ve purchased quite recently (several months), I’m not mentally prepared to take it in places where I would only take a worn out 5D with countless actuations. My M6 came with a vertical alignment shift though it was impossible to tell whether it was due to the transporter or already present before purchase (note: buying a camera like this in a physical store, even second hand, has its advantages).

6      Compared to a manual SLR, Nikkormat FT2

The Nikkormat has a more solid, confident feeling, more than a Leica in my opinion (but you feel that the inner mechanics are much better on Leica’s). It weighs more than the M6 and feels immune to shocks. It shows the selected speed and the light meter is represented by a needle oscillating between two points, active when the rewind lever is off its neutral position. This meter representation is more intuitive as you can somewhat evaluate directly if you’re strongly under/overexposed or quite near of the ideal value, compared to the Leica’s LEDs. I wouldn’t hesitate to let it take a few shocks in my bag. I’ve used paired with a 50mm f/1.4 and it’s very comfortable to use for a fully manual SLR. And speed values are shown in the viewfinder.

7      Compared to a digital SLR, Canon 5D mark II

For me, shooting film is 50% for the grainy look and colors, and 50% for the pre-scan excitation. Each film that I processed is like a Christmas/birthday present when it comes to discover the results!

My Leica is for fun, my Canon for the rest. I am a fervent zoom supporter for professional assignments (reportages, action) but for personal I work, I can’t lug a 5DII and a zoom around my neck all day. Since I have the M6, I’m used to compactness and lightweight bodies, even a 5D with a 35 mm f/2 is nearly too heavy (but very polyvalent and compact compared to other SLR combinations).

After fighting with manual film cameras, going back to a camera like the 5D that doesn’t empty your wallet each time you press the shutter release is always nice! If I’ve bought a Leica several months ago, it’s mainly because I’ve extensively used my 5D’s before and because I’ve haven’t as much professional assignments as before. I carry my M6 quite often at parties, dinners and events as it’s discrete (both in size and operation) and analog (anyone can’t see the pictures before the film hasn’t been processed). With a 5D, it’s not the same: it’s big, loud and intimidating!

Film and digital are for me complementary: if I’m going on holiday with my Leica, I’ve always my compact Canon S110 with me for snapshots.

The 5D is another world compared to a rangefinder camera; it’s big, robust and polyvalent. Shooting with a rangefinder involves some limitations but I don’t think I would take my 5D and my Leica togesther at the same time. It allows me to think and shoot only in a film rangefinder perspective and moreover, what I can do with my Leica I could do exactly the same with my 5D. So to avoid any (hefty) redundancy, as the 5D mark II is definitely heavier and especially bulkier, I take either one or the other with me when I’m travelling light. But weight is definitely noticed when I’ve a zoom attached, like the EF 16-35 L, so I quite always opt for the 35 mm f/2.

8      Costs

As for today, a HP4 Ilford B&W 36 frames film costs 6 euros. Film processing and scan costs 14 €. So 20 € for 36 frames equals to 0,55 € per shot.

Shooting film today is more an aesthetical choice rather than a purely functional decision. Shooting a Leica, with or without Leica lenses is another one. There have been many discussions regarding costs when it comes to compare the whole (same format) system of film versus digital where it was assumed that film cameras were cheaper than their digital counterpart:


The Leica M6 TTL has many advantages compared to a film SLR: there are many fast lenses which are very small, the shutter mechanism is quiet and focussing at very large apertures is much easier since the Leica has a long rangefinder base length. It's very well built, but just as my Nikkormat FT2.

The body is quite expensive, as are Leica lenses... what you can get for a 5D mark II and several L lenses is somewhat the same as a Leica M-whathever with several Leica lenses (assuming you buy them second hand). Or you can sell one of your kidneys, it's up to you, at the end you must be able te determine whether you really need Leica quality or if you can survive with third party lenses like Voigtländer or Zeiss, but that's a subject for another post I guess.

Bottom line, if you need a small camera, with small lenses, if you like shooting wide open, if you can justify the costs of a Leica by getting pictures you like and sharing them with your friends (assuming they like them also), and taking in account all the likes/dislikes I mentionned above, then you can be ready to try the Leica experience.

Don't be a pussy, ditch your Mamiya/Contax 645 with that ridiculous AF system and get a gentlemen's camera (and keep that Pentax 67).

To be followed by: Camera Porn, Voigtländer lens reviews (35mm f/1.4 and 21mm f/4) and the truth about Kennedy's death (what the government doesn't want you to know).

London, March 2014 - Ukrainian protesters

Belgium, May 2014 - Contax stealthiness

Brussels, May 2014 - random Contax users

Leica M6 TTL + Voigtländer 35mm f/1.4 + Ilford FP4

Random Pentax 67 user, "just keep it" #randomthought

Monday, October 21, 2013

Backpacking in Sweden - Kungsleden with a film SLR

 A while ago I went to Vietnam with a DSLR with an ultra wide angle zoom and a standard 18 – 55 mm kit lens. This time, weight was an issue and I couldn’t justify the bulk of a 5D mark II plus a 16 – 35 and another prime... Moreover it’s just a pain having to be constantly careful not damaging it while dropping your rucksack on the ground, or any similar situation. 

Beautiful light scenes in the valleys

 With me

  • Minolta X-300
  • Roccor MC 58 mm f/1.4
  • Vivitar 28 mm f/2.8
  • 2 x 36 Superia 200
  • Canon S110 (+ 2 batt)
What should have taken with me?

  • a 20 mm  lens 
  • a small tripod/Gorillapod-style

Why film?

As hiking isn’t in a fast changing environment like cities and as I’m shooting still more film, I decided to take a “cheap” film SLR with one or two lenses: a Minolta X-300, a 28 mm f/2.8, a 58 mm f/1.4 and two rolls of Superia 200 (36 exp). I bought a second-hand Canon S110 (the pocketable successor of my now-sold G12) to complement the SLR for times where the SLR doesn’t come handy and for movies. Unfortunately, the parcel arrived the moment when I stepped into the plane, too bad. Luckily, two of the three other persons hiking with me had their own so it wasn’t such an issue.

In mid september, rivers are at low levels enabling easy water crossings

Our trip was a fraction of the “King’s Trail” in Sweden, Northern Läpland or Kungsleden. It goes from Abisko to Nikkaluokta, North to South (this detail will have its importanceas I had the sun constantly in front of me when hiking - ideal for walking but quite challenging when having to take pictures).

“L” hiking boots vs GoreTex lenses

Just for those who are interested in doing the same trail, be sure you have the right equipment as Abisko is located above the Arctic circle and temperatures can drop rapidly with overcast days and/or when the sun is blocked by the surrounding mountains. Hikers will agree, walking with wet feet and being cold is the least ideal situation so don’t hesitate to invest in adequate gear: hiking boots, wind blocking vest, adapted fleece (drop the cash on Polartec fleece, it’s worth every penny), a rucksack with a harness capable of distributing heavy loads on your hips, … Sweden has a long history of designing adapted outdoor gear (Fjallräven is the most famous brand); you can find many shops in Stockholm, like Naturkompaniet, which are gold mines for every hiker looking for appropriate gear.

This part of Sweden is so isolated that you can encounter
many mooses and get very close without scaring them

As for photography equipment, you get what you pay for; with heavy use, an L-lens will take years of abuse and still be working while a cheap kit lens will just fall apart. So don’t rely on cheap, unreliable hiking equipment (unless proven otherwise) as your comfort, and sometimes your physical integrity depends on it. If your harness or one of your shoes breaks in the middle of nowhere with a 4-day bad weather forecast in uninhabited territory, you’ll be desperate trying to fix it (granted that it’s still possible of course). 

Minolta X-300 with the described lenses,
28 mm  f/2.8, 58 mm f/1.4 and a roll of Superia 20

The experience, the lessons

As the landscapes are beautiful in these regions, I should have taken a wider lens than 28 mm; I knew it but I just couldn’t get one in due time without having to pay an amount beyond my expectations. Twenty eight millimeters is just too short for these landscapes. I didn’t felt the need for a longer lens than the 58 mm. The second item that I should have taken was a small tripod as Northern lights can show up (and they did), even in mid September. I managed to make some “handheld-on-a-branch-without-breathing-during-30-seconds” shots but it remains quite challenging though. But hikers will also know that every 100 g saved is either more food that you can take or less weight to carry throughout the trip, so I ditched the tripod to lighten my backpack.

Northern lights are in fact less bright than depicted on this picture,
but the dynamic character isn't rendered at it's best

The cool fact with this analog setup is that 1) it’s ultra cheap and robust so I didn’t care when I threw them in my dusty backpack without lens caps (I had used the lenses quite a bit for several years before so I was confident about their resistance) and 2) it gives you superb (or equivalent) image quality (and rendition) compared to digital SLR’s. And-you’re-such-an-hipster-omg-omg-omg (smiley here).


Film vs digital

Well, it’s a personal choice. You don’t “pay” for digital shots, so you can take as much “useless” photos as you want (we all agree that every trip needs some them, dozens in fact)! Taking a film SLR was more for film color and rendition as well as the pleasure of taking the time to frame, adjust and shoot accordingly. I’m on holiday, so I relax.

A comfortable and appreciated location near Nikkaluokta

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

About UV filters construction quality and their utility (to me)

I use UV filters on nearly every lens I have, mostly for protection. 

For those who think that their front element is indestructible, I want you to meet the Mohs scale (sorry, it's in French but you'll get the idea).

Mohs scale [Wikipedia]

As you can see at point 7, "Quartz, raye une vitre", even if glass is quite durable, it can still be scratched by quartz, aka sand! (and other metallic parts, like another UV filter for instance).
 When you accidentally drop your camera in mud (= water + sand, as I did once), cleaning a filter is much easier than the front element as you can take the filter off and clean it under water so that you don’t have to wipe all that mud away and risking scratching your lovely front element. Plus, the outer part of the front element is serrated and it’s not so easy to remove the mud stuck in it (I spent quite some time to have it fully cleaned, and there's still some left). Plus, some lenses require one to be fully sealed (as my 16-35mm).

Now, there are filters and expensive filters. Without going through the whole debate about the impact on image quality, I just want to say that I have now a B+W "F-Pro" filter on my 70-200 and a Sigma UV (slim) on my 16-35. Well, construction-wise, the Sigma is… not so good. The glass part moves and bends when I put some pressure on it and I can see some debris between the metallic mount and the glass (yes I know that slim constructions are ment to be small so it’s normal that they aren’t as resistant as normal ones but you have to be aware of that). So, if you’re using your lenses in sandy/dusty/hard environments, don’t try to save 20€ and spend the cash on a durable filter even if itsn't slim. There's only 1mm difference between a regular construction and the slim profile. Vignetting is easily removable in PP. So don’t buy a 6th bag. Or another stupid accessory you don’t need. Or a new camera you won’t reall use. Or anything else that follows the same idea, and get some german über-hardened steel filters (just like the B+W).

B+W 77mm UV filter [Adorama]