Equipment

IMG_0216arI’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.

13 responses to “Equipment”

  1. The Lazy Photographer says :

    Great post, Mauro. Here are my thoughts, for what their worth. Of course, your mileage may vary. 😉

    Whether you view your subject through the LCD display of a iPhone or a OVF of an expensive rangefinder, the purpose and results remain the same. The first part of capturing any image is to first recognize its potential and make a judgment call as to its photo worthiness. This happens not through your camera’s display but while your camera is hanging from your neck or carried in hand. I think it is this process that separates the artist from the amateur. The purpose of the display, in my view, is simple to assist you in framing your subject — to eliminate the world outside of what will inevitably become the finished photo.

    Can’t argue with your view on your Leica. It’s a remarkable and lovely camera indeed. However, I know that whether it be Leica or Holga, you’d still end up with fantastic photos. As Ansel Adams once said (I paraphrase), the most important tool in photography is 12″ behind the viewfinder.

    Oh I disagree with your take on the simplicity of film and how being able to review your photos digitally while in the field only complicates matters. Reviewing on the fly does raise questions, but not the ones you suggest. It’s not: Did I blow my highlights or Did I properly expose the shadows. It’s more like, WHY did I do those things and what adjustments do I have to make to correct them? Being able to review photos on the fly gives those interested in learning photography a way to analyze their shots instantly and make the necessary corrections and such until they successfully capture what they “saw.” An analogy would be reading books on the new digital devices, such as the Kindle and Sony Reader. When you come across a word you don’t know or only half know, you can simply double-click the word to learn its meaning. It’s rare anyone gets up from reading to fetch a dictionary when they come across an unknown word in a paperback, right? You sort of skim over it and try to guess its meaning and move on. Reading on a digital device, for those interested in learning, makes it easy to look up words on the fly. Reviewing photos on the fly also makes it easy to learn from your mistakes.

    Can’t really argue with you on your take on post-processing images. It’s a useful tool indeed, but it is misused when used to try to turn crap into art. You can put lipstick on a pig, but… On the other hand, I personally enjoy dialling up some of my photos in Lightroom or Photoshop. I find that I often will photograph something knowing what sort of processing I’m going to apply later to make the shot more interesting to my eye.

    You’re right about digital cameras making it easy to simply snap hundreds of shots in an outing, therefore eliminating the need to think about the shot in advance. If I were teaching photography, I’d force all my students to go buy a Holga film camera and spend a day out shooting with just a roll or two. I’m planning on doing just that myself. I’ll still have my digital with me, but will use the film camera sparingly and with much consideration. As you know, I like to over shoot a subject. Why, because I can, so why not. I’ve often found that the shot I thought would be the one I’d end up using is replaced by another shot I didn’t really think would work as well. If I’d only taken one shot, I wouldn’t have the better one to work with. As for not second guessing yourself by not having to look at your screen or menu setting, hmmm… how often have you asked me to give you a light reading? 😉

    I think your last paragraph hits the nail on the head. Don’t get all caught up in the latest and greatest. Just shoot and have fun. Make do with what you’ve got. Focus on learning about photography. You don’t need a fancy camera to become a good photographer.

    • Rolf Schmolling says :

      well, personally and in my practice I find it invaluable to be able to get – and use – what I consider the latest and greatest ANALOG professional gear, something I could never afford with digital stuff. That said, I take pictures with a Nikon F2 Photomic and a small couple of primes and a Zenza Bronica ETRSi (645) with 2.8/75 PE. After a while one gets the (film-)processing and scanning pat and can focus on (how to) create images. For me the darkroom of old (I donated mine to a local school, not having time and space any more) has transformed into the computer – discipline is needed to stay within limits of what I might have done in the wet darkroom.

      Enjoying looking at your imagery!

      Rolf

  2. 47whitebuffalo says :

    “…I shoot with my heart…” that’s the bottom line.

  3. David Williamson says :

    That last two lines says it all Mauro. I have enjoyed reading your point of view on this subject we have many common areas as regards our thought process and our views on photography (especially on PS and the like). The way people can “machine gun” a subject today makes me wonder.

  4. pixieslvjason gold says :

    I very much enjoyed finding your blog. I love simplicity. A state very hard to achieve! You have a most distinctive style and viewpoint. Your words are mostly difficult to bear but all part of your very own credo. There is no equal to the use of a Leica-M and a 50mm lens. It is something I discussed with a friend a few days ago. I said that with my usage of the viewfinder i aimed for the center. Not where one places the RFDR square but that which is the center of one’s interest. HCB, Elliot Erwitt and many others have this focus. The frames are placed around the areas which one finds are of major importance.Even a SLR/DSLR set on infinity will make some areas not that sharp and lacking both actual focus and sharpness. Once taken those areas could lead to problems..The RFDR frames are always clear. I prefer my Leica M3 with the 50mm. I find the M6 a very poor equal.
    The fun thing is we are both shooting in the same city. It’s hard to spot a Leica user with no huge lenses, the new norm. I use digital because I cannot afford to do film only. Strangely with sometimes a fraction of shots, done on film, I have captured better moments and better exposure.Thinking about exposure,the light, the reflections, position of the subject, distances all somehow so complicated are most easily solved.
    As I said to Larry,” The more you have to do, the better one’s result.”

  5. carlo says :

    I fully agree with what you say about mediocrity in today’s photography. I think there a few people who know how to take the best out of their digtial gadgets and software. The secret is using such tools sparingly. Every technological achievement has always stirred a sudden boom of acritical adopters and we are living a moment of frenzy on this regard. I like your point of view and I wish more people would be as considerate as you are.

    Carlo

  6. josephknow says :

    Began in 1991 with a M6 Wetzlar. Then I realized that the two red triangles disturbed my attention to them that I wanted instead exclusively on the subject that is the goal of photography. Then I went to M “old”. I never went back. I continue with my hand-held meter, and then I focus on the essentials that are the subjects to photograph. I can sometimes make good photos. If I can not fault is always mine. The concentration must be high and not always “see” situations or interesting subjects worthy of photos. But I do not see does not mean that there are. Great photographers have always seen things that others did not see. The difference is the sensitivity, talent, and the habit of seeing things as well, the shadows, the lights, the draw. The white and black where the color prevails instead. It ‘s all hard, but someone’s gotta do it!

    ברכה חמה

    Giuseppe

  7. Sandrixx says :

    Dear Sir,, your writings are superb and with pure heart and honesty. I admire your work very much. We also now have another thing in common…. We both shoot with an M4-P…
    Take care and Stay-A-Shooter!!

  8. Jos Runarko says :

    I like your point of view. Apart of that, I believe it is the vision of the photographer that is most important – doesn’t matter what gear she or he uses. The photographer should know how to use the tool used in and out -only the basics, without the full fledged features she or he will never use. The ability to see content, pattern, light, space, contrast are those which I personaly see as most important. Judging highlights or whatever on the screen, shows only unsureness of her or his abilty.

  9. pixieslv says :

    Your basic means, the usual lack of a lightmeter, the belief in self, not some screen, not a histogram(nobody really looks at?). Flying on perception, intuition, luck, prayer and much thought gets good photos.Your camera merely an instrument with some film to grab, capture, encapsulate into a worthy image. Seeing an actual PRINT, last week a revelation.

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