“I’m not interested in cameras and I avoid talking about them when speaking of photography…I don’t neglect this important tool, but for me it is only at the service of sharing the human story”.
– Henri Cartier-Bresson –
Nowadays the monitor screen of a point-and-shoot is the most popular way of looking at the world around us. This causes alienation from the subject and lack of empathy, as it is its artificial image that we look at, not the subject itself. In my case, things are very different: I use a rangefinder. This system captures the natural vitality of a situation. It lets me be part of the action and shoot without losing view of what’s happening outside the frame, making it easier to release the shutter at exactly the right time. As a purely mechanical alternative to all other photographic equipment, my camera leaves all decisions and settings to me: Automation is, by definition, the average; which is equivalent to mediocrity. Therefore, even the missing built-in light meter becomes an advantage, for it allows me to really concentrate on the subject without constantly second-guessing myself looking at a small LCD screen after each shot. “Did I blow out my highlights”? “Were the shadows OK”?… Exposure should be, and in my case is, an intimate artistic choice, for I am convinced that what we call “correct exposure” is not a universal value but the result of a personal analysis of the events, according to one’s creative desires.
I look at the images taken with my gear and I keep on being amazed by how much I like them… Film has a look that I absolutely love, and not necessarily because of quality (although that can be debated endlessly). On film, an image becomes matter and it can be viewed without having to use an electronic interface. Every frame is already an object, created from what I’ve seen and photographed. To me that’s more satisfying. It materializes what I perceived instead of transforming it into a load of mathematics which I don’t grasp… I’m also convinced that analog imagery is ineffably nearer to the way the brain perceives a scene, rather than the way the eye sees it. Digital pictures may be (arguably) sharper, more accurate, but the film ones render a more harmonious “whole” that evokes the way the scene “felt” or how it was mentally discerned. Besides, silver halide photography has a unique appeal: The act of exposing the medium and the chemical processing of the same piece of material add another layer to the perception of reality and create an emotional relationship between the photographer and the camera itself. The concentration when taking pictures, the anticipation of the tangible images and the outstanding results are the key to my love for my Film M. So I proudly use an M4-P, which to me it’s the logical camera, the very essence of precision mechanics and a masterpiece that opened my eyes to a world of memorable experiences from the very moment I owned it.
But why insisting on a mechanical film camera in such a “digital age”? The question is easily answered. Today the main reason for obsolescence is that supporting technologies may no longer be available to produce or repair a product. Digital imaging devices are extremely susceptible to this. Integrated circuits, including sensors and even relatively simple chips may no longer be produced because the technology has been superseded, their original developer gone out of business or another company has bought them out and effectively killed off their products to remove competition. Moreover, manufacturers now deliberately introduce obsolescence as a product strategy, with the objective of generating long-term sales volume by reducing the time between repeat purchases. Still, in our time, a mechanical camera might seem an anachronism; but reality, in a very profound sense, is the opposite. The best analog cameras can be considered the ultimate refinement of a simplified technology, never to be obsolete. In fact, absent those subjected to destructive forces (dropped into water, penetrated by a bullet etc), they either still function or they can be made to function again with a Clean, Lubricate and Adjust; or with a simple replacement of parts. If the part is no longer available it may be fabricated. All mechanical devices can be considered obsolete, but it is usually an obsolescence of style and not of function: When a product has gone out of the popular fashion, its style is obsolete. It may still be perfectly functional, but it is no longer desirable because style trends have moved on. However, this sort of obsolescence is subject to human whims and can be undone. Based on the fashion cycle, stylistically obsolete products eventually regain popularity. Perhaps someday we will acknowledge that a blind faith in technology can itself be regressive. There is tactile pleasure in the use of a mechanical instrument that is missing in something computerized. At the risk of devolving into the metaphysical, maybe it’s a fuller experience of the real rooted in sense of physical solidity and cause and effect. There is also an elegance to simple things that complicated things lack. It’s the pleasure of riding a bicycle on a Spring day instead of taking the car.
I decided to limit my photographic equipment to one camera body and one lens only, not to be thinking about gear and possibly be impaired by indecision; ironically giving up choice gave me actual more freedom! For a long time I used a 50mm Summicron and I still consider that lens to be among the world’s finest ones. However, recently I chose a 28mm Elmarit version IV, which I believe better suits my style and vision because of how its rich contrast and lack of visible distortion render on Film. For weight and size, the lens fits the camera ideally, making it for a stunningly ergonomic whole which is pure bliss to handle. The hood is extremely good in its desired effect of protecting from flare and fingerprints but it causes some viewfinder blockage… Yet, it is vented and after a while it’s easy to getting used to. Without the hood the lens is small enough to be practically non intrusive, but the lack of protection is a trade-off that I would never undertake in the field. Although “only” f/2.8, the Elmarit behaves very well in low light and outperforms even the faster 50mm Summicron, because it has a bigger depth of field (so it’s easier to focus in adverse conditions) and it is more resistant to camera shake. Therefore, the picture clarity obtained by a 50mm at 1/60sec. f/2, is achievable at 1/15sec. f/2.8 on a 28mm. That’s a full extra stop of light: It’s huge! Moreover, the wide-angle draws me right into to the action and captures an image which is closer to what the eye sees, making it a much versatile lens; very descriptive, a lot less interpretative and pictorial than the 50mm. The only drawback is that the 28mm is difficult to use when seeking precise composition: There are many elements in the frame and something may often risk to fall in the wrong place, but one can’t win it all!… As for even wider lenses, I will say that they are often used by people who want to shout; people whose images are short of arguments and rely solely on the effects of distortion and blurred figures in the foreground
I’m not a big fan of the post processing art. If an image needs too much editing, I feel it loses its value and I just discard it: I think that taking a mediocre shot and then turning it into something totally different is utterly pointless. I believe that everyone should strive to work with light, subject and composition to get a good image to begin with, and then do the necessary and creative work to make it their masterpiece (whatever that means to them). As always, to each their own: People find beauty in something I see as rubbish and vice-versa… I consider myself a minimalist and, as such, I not only scarcely edit my photos, but I also prefer to work in black and white only: I think that keeping my images monochromatic makes them majestically heavy and paradoxically closer to reality.
I’m sure that the biggest problem with photography, today, is mediocrity. Digital cameras have made it easy to take thousands of thoughtless pictures, hoping that maybe one will be decent, with no care whatsoever for the process of what makes a good photo. Real talent is being diluted by an overwhelming amount of garbage loaded with post-processing gimmicks and little or no substance. I believe, instead, that simpler will always be better, so I use a Leica film camera not to be bothered by the countless features of an alphanumeric monster. Once I set the shutter speed and aperture based on light and the look I want to achieve, my mind is free to concentrate on painting a scene, composing… There are no distractions and I will not miss the moment. Besides, taking fewer photos makes me remember the situations and thoughts behind each shot and my images become encapsulated in stories… I have, therefore, fully given up on digital as it just doesn’t fit in my plans. My analog instrument is all I need. Small, great, quick, and most of all simple! There are no settings to forget and I just take the picture. Priceless.
But gear isn’t a top priority. It is simply a choice: I like the Leica M system and I believe that Leica glass is unmatched, although with no thought into all other important aspects of photography, equipment is close to meaningless. I am lucky that I was able to afford a Leica set, however, I’m not a collector: These are just my tools, maybe not perfect, but perfect for me. Yes, they are very expensive; however, a film Leica is a bit like a special watch that not only tells the right time but also makes you feel good about yourself when you wear it.
Last but not least, I have fun! I don’t worry much about Photoshop, collector’s items, DSLR VS. rangefinder, and all those things people love to argue about. I believe in what I see and what I like, shoot with my heart and have a good time.