Saturday, January 21, 2017

Believe in Film: The Leica M-A with 35mm Summilux in Hong Kong

Cinestill 800T
Film photography. Is it dead? Not dead. Dormant? No, it's actually growing. Will it ever be what it was? Probably not. Digital photography is here to stay, but so is film photography. There will always be a niche market for any sub-section of any hobby, but film photography wasn't a hobby. It was the primary way we captured images for over 100 years, so film isn't disappearing any time soon. One reason is because of the hardware. How many film cameras exist today? In the hundreds of millions for sure. Lenses, the same. Since the 1930s, film cameras and lenses were produced for the mass market, as well as for the technical and professional markets. Many of these cameras were built like tanks, meant to last for generations. Yes, film photography and film cameras are here to stay... for a while still. It will never be a mainstream product, but it's more mainstream than people think. Many think of iconic European manufacturers of high quality film cameras who have either disappeared or moved on to making digital products exclusively. There is one major exception. Yes, Leica Camera AG of Wetzler Germany.

Fujifilm Neopan ACROS 100
Leica has been the go-to film camera for working professionals for over 60 years, specifically their M-mount rangefinder cameras. Unlike the majority of cameras produced in the 1930s that were using 120 film and were big and bulky, Leica started building smaller, lighter and quick shooting rangefinders. This rugged and industrial design camera has stood the test of time, not only in build quality but aesthetic longevity. Looking at the original Leica M-3 of 1953 and a current Leica MP or M-A, the average person couldn't tell you which is 60 years newer. Yes the Nikon and Canon SLRs of the 1960s and 70s really took over the professional market in many fields (sports, wildlife); but the Leica M system was still the go-to system for many other genres of photography, such as photojournalism, documentary/editorial, and fine art photography.

As many of you know, I worked at Phototrader-Kodak for over 10 years in the in the paper, chemistry and pro film wholesale division. I had access to lots of film, and most of my clients would develop and process my film for free, or at a heavy discount. Even when many of my peers switched to digital in the 2000s, I stuck with film. I did buy a little Canon IXY-Elph camera for snap shots, but for my professional work and serious photography, I kept shooting film. However, in 2008 I bought my first digital SLR, the Konica-Minolta 7D. The transition was very quick to a digital workflow, since many film labs were shutting down, and those that did survive the decimating shift in the market had to increase their prices two-fold. That was the last time I shot my all-film wedding, and I've never looked back. Yes I still shot film from time to time for personal projects and for my YouTube channel, but never for work, and never for any serious projects... until now.

Cinestill 800T
I was invited by Monogram Asia to interview landscape photographer Micheal Kenna in Hong Kong this summer. He is known as a film photographer and he also makes all his own prints in the darkroom. There are very few working photographers like him these days. In homage of interviewing Michael, I decided I would challenge myself by shooting as much film as I could while in Hong Kong. I asked Leica North America to send me a film camera, and I asked Fujifilm Canada if they could send me some film. With both camera and film in hand, I was ready to start shooting. Because I announced on all my social media platforms that I was going to shoot film while in Hong Kong, I knew I was committing myself to this project. People would expect me to produce images, so there was a bit of anxiety and stress, but I was up for the challenge. Little did I realize how much shooting film would change the way I felt towards cameras and towards photography.

Hong Kong is an amazing city-state. It's technically part of China, but because it was a British colony for so long (cars are right-hand drive), and because of the special administration region status it has with China, Hong Kong (like Singapore) is very unique. One thing I an say about Hong Kong is that they not only love photography, but they love film photography. I don't know of any other place in the world that can rival Tokyo for the shear amount of film camera stores and film photographers. Walking around in Hong Kong with a film Leica feels as normal as walking around any major North American city with a DSLR. In fact, the city of Hong Kong has 4 official Leica Stores (not boutiques), the entire USA only has 8, and my home country of Canada has none.

FujiColor Pro 400H
Moreover, with the Leica M-A and the classic 35mm Summilux Aspherical in hand, I was ready to shoot Hong Kong. The first challenge shooting with the M-A is that it is the natural child of the Leica classics: M3, M2, M4, M6. This camera has no meter, no need for battery, it's 100% mechanical goodness. There are many M2 and M3 shooters around the world, and like them, I had to learn to meter either by eye, by hand held meter, or a little of both. I used the Light Meter Wheel app on my iPhone 6S in conjunction with my eye. Once you learn to shoot only one or two film speeds, you get pretty good at guessing the exposure. I shot with the Fujifilm ACROS and Pro 400H during the day, and the Cinestill 800T at night. I find three areas to meter: the highlight areas, the shadow areas, and the mixed light areas. Once I get an idea of where the shutter speeds land, I'm good to go.

There's something very special about shooting with a Leica film rangefinder camera. There are other rangefinders out there, but most don't have the same build quality or feel. The lens and body work together very nicely, and the entire shooting process is simple. You cock the shutter, which advances the film at the same time, you set your exposure by adjusting the aperture in half stops and the shutter speed in full stops, you focus, you shoot. Then you repeat. That's it. The viewfinder is very clear, and the screen doesn't blank out at the magic moment of capturing the image, the greatest weakness of any digital camera or SLR. Yes there's parallax error, but I'm not into macro photography or shoot with telephoto lenses, so the error is very minimal. Some wonder if they can get use to manually focusing, after depending on AF for most of their photo career. Like anything else, once you learn not to depend on some sort of device or technology, you adapt and become proficient. Remember that autofocus has only been around as a mainstream feature since 1985. Every picture taken before then was manually focused, including all those sports and action shots.

Fujifilm Neopan ACROS 100
There are other film cameras that use the same Leica M-mount and they are decent cameras. The Bessa R series (recently discontinued), the Minolta CLE (discontinued), and the unusual Konica RF (discontinued). Many of these can be had for a decent price, but the build quality (especially the viewfinder), reliability and simplicity of use is not at the same level. As well, you can get older Leica M bodies. What makes the M-A and MP unique is that it's brand new current models. If you're missing or break any part, any spring, screw or pin, Leica has stock. Buy an old Leica M2 and something goes wrong, you'll have to source out your own parts, or have a decent CLA shop with lots of spare parts. I've had guys who have really nice condition M3s and M2s who played with the M-A and they agree that it feels tighter, smoother than the older M's. Personally I like the larger view through the M3 over the M-A (0.91x vs 0.72x magnification), but the M-A is clearer. Like the M3 and M2, the M-A does have the older, smaller clockwise shutter speed dial, as well as the smaller vertical rewind knob. Unlike the M3 and M2, the film loading on the M-A (and MP) is much easier using the built-in spool with sprockets, although some of the hard core guys like the older style. I also like the speed of the single piece film advance lever, although I did find it less ergonomic (the Canon 7S feels much nicer). The M-A also auto resets the frame counter, while the M2 does not. If I had the money I would own both the M3 and M-A; but if I had to choose just one, I would pick the newer M-A... and then keep it for life. In fact, I may even do an M-A a la Carte and make sure it's exactly the way I want it, from the factory.

FujiColor PRO 400H
Some may wonder, why choose the meterless M-A over the built in meter of the MP? There's small differences, like the black paint of the MP versus the black chrome on the M-A (I prefer the matte finish of the black chrome), and the plasticky ISO dial on the MP versus the metal one on the M-A. Even the markings are different, with the M-P having the white paint text on the top plate, and the M-A being all black with body colour markings (flash shoe and back of top plate). However, for many, it's about the purity of the M-A. No battery means less things to go wrong, nothing to break down in terms of electronics. Yes you can shoot the M-P without a battery, but it still have the battery compartment that loads from the front, unlike the clean aesthetic of the M-A body. For me, if I'm going mechanical, I might as well go all the way.

This is not to say that there aren't things I wish the M-A had or could improve upon. These are the things I want to see improved upon in the future:
  • shutter button lock. I've misfired many times. 
  • 1/2000th top shutter speed and 1/125th flash sync (currently 1/1000th and 1/50th sync)
  • slightly more comfortable and ergonomic film advance lever
  • built in diopter (or at least cheaper screw-on type)
  • centered tripod mount on bottom plate (I don't know if it's possible with design of bottom plate)
  • optional grip (I used my CLE grip that just happened to fit on the M-A prefectly)
That's about it. I don't think you want to mess with mechanical perfection. I don't want a self-timer, a film window, spot metering, motor drive.... actually, there is one thing: titanium. Ok, hear me out. I played with someone's Leica M9 Titanium, and it was super light and comfortable to hold. If the M-A were to be made out of titanium (perhaps the top and bottom plate still made out of brass), the 578g body can probably drop at least 150g of weight. That would be great to lose a bit of weight because this thing is heavy, although compact. In terms of lenses, I couldn't have asked for a better lens than the 35mm f/1.4 Summilux Aspherical. This lens is so good at night wide open. I'm typically a Summicron shooter during the day, since I usually have the lens stopped down to f/5.6-11. However, at night, that extra stop saved me a few times. I found that you get vignetting wide open during the day (mostly noticeable on the digital M bodies), but at night, all you see is beautiful rendering.

CineStill 800T
CineStill 800T
The Leica lenses are sharp but also have really nice rendering; something I don't see on many of the Voigtlander lenses. It's very cinematic, and it really showed when I shot with the CineStill 800T film, which is Kodak Vison 3 500T 5219 movie film with the rem-jet layer removed. What a great combination. For an all purpose lens while travelling, you can't beat the 35mm Summilux lens. It's compact and reasonably light for such a fast lens. To get both the Leica M-A and 35 Lux, it will set you back just under $10,000 USD with taxes. Yikes, that's a lot of money for a camera. However, since it's film and it won't ever become technologically obsolete (unlike a digital body), you can keep shooting this camera for life. If you keep it longer than 20 years, you've probably saved money over buying top of the line digital cameras every 5 years.

In conclusion, I had a great time with this film project in Hong Kong. Thank-you Leica North America (thanks Tom and Eric) for the camera loan, and thanks to Fujifilm Canada for the film. I also want to give a special thanks to Joseph of Meteor HK for introducing me to CineStill film, and Monogram Asia for inviting me to Hong Kong to interview landscape photographer Michael Kenna. If you started shooting film years ago but eventually migrated over to digital (like most of us), why not try to shoot just a single roll of film and see what you get. I was surprised that my photography improved when shooting all mechanical and only film. For those of you who never grew up shooting film, why not borrow someone's film camera, or rent a decent one from a rental shop and give it a try. If you have a chance to borrow someone's Leica, that's even better. There's nothing quite like shooting with a rangefinder camera with beautiful prime lenses. I enjoyed my time with the Leica M-A and the 35mm Lux and I look forward to using it again on an upcoming projects. Thanks for visiting and happy shooting.

Fujifilm Neopan ACROS 100

Check out my latest YouTube videos from Hong Kong that highlight film photography and photographers. Spoiler alert: Hong Kong collectors, shop owners and photographers are all passionate about film photography:



















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