How to pick a camera that is right FOR YOU – a non-photographer’s guide – Part I

These days, when I go outside, I usually have my 35mm film camera on me. It’s fairly small, I carry it in an unassuming grey pouch, lately I forget it’s even on me.
It’s not as compact as my old Leica M8 with a tiny Summicron 50mm lens but it’s no DSLR either. If you had read my inaugural post then you already know it’s the Leicaflex SL. And it does have a slightly larger brother of the M Summicron 50, the Summicron-R attached to it most of the time.
The Leitz Wetzlar made Leicaflex SL, circa 1973, with a Summicron - R 50mm f/2 lens.
I used to have all kinds of different cameras as I worked my way through the gamut to try to find the ’right’ system to depend on. At one point, I counted 26, mostly old film type. Among them a few Graflex 4x5 Crown and Speed Graphics, those that turned me onto film photography in the first place. There was the Rolleiflex 2.8C with a magnificently dulled Schneider-Kreuznach Xenotar lens which I still miss but had to sell to get money for a minor surgery.
The Graflex Crown Graphic 4x5 vintage bellows press camera sporting a beautiful Schneider Kreuznach Apo Symmar 250mm f/5.6 portrait lens.
A worn Franke Heidecke Rolleiflex 2.8C TLR (Twin Lens Reflex) camera with a well hazed Schneider-Kreuznach Xenotar 80mm f/2.8 lens in a Synchro-Compur shutter. A beautiful camera and a great lens, despite, or rather, thanks to its optical flaws.

There was my collection of Pentacon Six’es East German medium format beasts with their giant East German Zeiss Jena lenses that looked like grotesque caricatures of their Western counterparts from the better Zeiss factory across the Iron Curtain border. Then there was a lot of Erconas and Beiers and other salvaged gear that I collected out of curiosity, shot a few rolls on and left on the shelf. Had me that great Fujifil X-T1 for a while with three lenses.

An East German Pentacon Six TL with Carl Zeiss Jena Flektogon 50mm wide angle lens.
A Beier Precisa 6x6 medium format film camera with a Ludwig Meritar 75mm f/3.5 lens in a rarer Tempor shutter.
A poor pro street photographer's favorite - the Fujifilm X-T1 mirrorless digital camera. Technically and cosmetically a work of art - a marvellous camera to work with.
And last, alas, was the Canon 6D with a 40mm pancake lens, which I still believe to be the most handy and versatile combination for the EOS line, though I could never get used to the STM step motor in the little f/2.8 winner. The quality of images it produced was very film-like and the focal length very natural, an almost perfect normal, and for that reason still tops my list as the best Canon EF lens for general photography.
A truly professional Canon SLR not many go for any more - the film 35mm, tough-as-nails and very sophisticated Canona EOS 1N. This is still my favorite EOS camera I ever owned and wish I haven't sold.
The now living legend prosumer DSLR - Canon Eos 5D Mark III
The smart option - Canon EOS 6D
And then came the day I sold them all.
Why?
Because having all those cameras wasn’t making me a better photographer.
In fact, it was making me downright confused and uncomfortable.
I bet it was the same, nasty feeling shared by many a beginner photographer. From what I read on various forums, it seems to be a sort of equipment obsession that is probably related to some personality trait that is prevalent in people who, coincidentally, involve themselves with photography or similar creative pursuits having to do with some degree of soul searching.
With eventually becoming a great, famous photographer in mind, I was anxious to set myself up perfectly with just the right equipment. I wanted to be able to handle most, if not all situations. Concerning myself with having a wide lens answer to a tight space situation, a tele for portraits, a medium format normal for those intimate or sensual shots, fast digital for studio or action and experimentation, old large format for those grand, classic, extreme depth of field shots – I wanted it all. I felt I needed to have it all, to experiment with it and to master it and be ready to use it from day one of my professional photography life.
I was reading pages upon pages of forums, compiling stacks of data sheets filled with specs and noting down various system combinations that would enable me to do it all should the need arise, and at the most economical scenario, since I was really on a fairly tight budget.
And so I had a ton of cameras I took very little pictures with, all the while agonizing over which one to choose for a particular outing.
Then I began to realize two things:
  1. Deep inside, I was yearning to simplify and to settle on as little equipment as possible, sticking to something I would be able to learn and grow with and eventually master, and
  2. My technique wasn’t getting any better with all those cameras and I couldn’t deliver the kind of quality I admired most when browsing my books and the web.

So, the decision to go for quality instead of quantity was made.

Knowing I leaned heavily towards medium format, the square in particular, and that cost is a factor, I chose to focus on film photography, which is also another bias I slowly developed.
I wanted to be able to do portraits like Matt Osborne, mesmerized by the cleanliness and sharpness with a simultaneous pure and nostalgic quality to them.
The obvious conclusion was to get the best camera I could afford to match what Matt shot. I figured, if my hardware leaves no doubt, then it is just technique I will need to focus on.
And in this, I was not wrong. I would say I was right, were it not for the detours I took in my selection exercises within the Hasselblad V system range, having owned three bodies and six lenses at one point, before I even set foot in the studio with one.
But my base assumption was right on the mark. The Zeiss Jena lenses of the P-six are decent glass and all, but the system doesn’t come close to the Hasselblad for image quality possibilities.
Those who tell you so are plain wrong.
Just imagine the immense satisfaction of scanning a roll of film you developed that previously always turned out frustratingly sub-par results and all of a sudden everything you wanted and expected to get pops up on your screen looking almost like the shots you previously only admired online!
The resolution of my images, the crispness and clarity and the way the glass now drew the light so warmly and lively were outstanding discoveries I was now able to make. At last, the joy of photographing with the best equipment made achieving the greatest results was just around the corner. Every time I raised that viewfinder to my eye, looking at that big, bright and beautiful, square, cinematic focusing screen I saw magic and I snapped magic.
Household utensils all of a sudden began looking artistic. Mundane light, in my Acutte Matte screen looked like a silver screen production at the golden hour. I liked the rounded magnifying glass, polished jewel look of the Pentacon Six focusing screen. I still have a soft spot for it. But I wouldn’t trade it for my private screening room type situation the PME-5 prism locked on top of my 503CW afforded. Not in a million years.
And I certainly didn’t care for going back to looking through the small, dark and real-estate deficient dinky toy screens of the full frame cameras. The medium format fascinated me so much, I only kept the 35mm option in Digital as a complete afterthought. A tool necessary for learning and doing product photography on other, more noble photo equipment I wanted to sell. And I certainly wasn’t interested in ever using 35mm film. I couldn’t fathom why anyone would with medium format available (though I realized rather quickly large format wasn’t my bag due to the slowness of it all and the bulk, which is where I found the medium format a happy and adequate compromise). I mean – where would the advantage be over already excellent digital full frame that was just so easy and convenient? All the development, scanning, software cleanup – for what? No gain in image quality like with medium format to be found anywhere with 35mm film. Just the same uncertainty and lack of control as with all other film process.
Yet here I am – the 35mm my current camera  of choice. But I am getting a little ahead of myself here.
So, I have the cool ’Blad, got may developing tanks, my chemistry, enlarger, scanner and what have you. Well, how is my photography now?
Towards the end of the summer of 2016 I realized I am missing that important piece of gear which is a digital camera. Having rid myself of the Fuji X-T1 to buy a full frame Canon 6D with some basic primes and subsequently dumping that setup with the financial priorities changing, I have since bought and sold my once coveted Canon 5D Mark III and was now left without a digital option. I had sold the 5DmkIII because it was just cost way too much for what it could deliver beyond what I could get with a 6D for 2/3s the size and weight and half the cost. Having some spare cash after that sale and being left generally dissatisfied with what the standard DSLR options had to offer, I started casually looking for a new direction in terms of a digital system and stumbled onto a low price auction for a Leica M8 on eBay that included a rare Perar 35mm lens.
In 2015, I attended a portraiture class that was a part of an advanced photography course at the Warsaw Academy of Photography. There, a well respected Polish portrait photographer Szymon Szczesniak showed us his Leica. It was an M-something, at the time I didn’t care enough to note the model because I knew it was a camera well out of my league in terms of budget and use. This was the first time I had such an expensive and advanced camera in my hands. I was befuddled by the rangefinder focusing mechanism, had no clue how to mentally translaste what I saw in the viewfinder into an image (and what was that deal with seeing the EXTERIOR of your own lens in the finder all about?) and was generally just stunned at the weight, form and build quality of the Leica.
It was tiny, heavy and extremely raw and precise and those are all things I liked about it. That, and the aura of mystique and the venerable respect accorded the instrument by all, including the highly regarded owner who brought it out to photograph one of my favorite Polish actor Maciej Stuhr for a commercial portrait session right after the class was done. ’Wow!’, I thought, I wish one of those days my job looks like that and those are the tools of the trade I’ll be using.
I did a little online research to see what is so special about the Leica, once again diving into Matt Osborne’s portfolio, since he’s got the ’Mr. Leica’ nickname.
Back then, I noticed the Leica shots looked different from my own, certainly had a quality about them that was refined and made them look good, but I didn’t have enough experience to know what really set them apart. I pixel peeped for long hours on Flickr and still couldn’t really say what made Leicas stand so far apart from other cameras. I read about the ’Leica glow’ but with my untrained eye couldn’t really see what the fuss was about.
But I, in my infinite newbie photographer ’wisdom’ decided to get one anyway. I figured ’why struggle with it, let’s just get one and see if my pictures get any better from using a top end camera’. I had a bit of a problem convincing my stats laden head to justify getting like a 10 megapixel camera where I’ve already had a few way over that count in the past. But, I thought, there was a difference in the depth in bits, no antialiasing filter, the CCD sensor and such – those ought to count for something, certainly enough to tickle my curiosity.
Fast forward a few months and I was as giddy as a little girl going to shell out a hefty excise charge on my newly arrived Leica M8 with a MS Optical Perar 35mm Super Triplet ’nipple’ lens that finally arrived from Australia ($1400 on eBay for both!).
What joy!
Oh yes, and everywhere I took it since there were the satisfying ’oohs’ and ’aahs’ and ’wows!’.
Myself? I liked it. No questions, it was a special digital camera for sure. Had that old look, but so did my X-T1. But it was a brick. And the shutter sound killed it. And it was the fabled Leica. Now I really felt the chills down my spine every time I pulled it out and snapped a trial photo. Now, I felt, I was really going to develop as a photographer. How could I not? I had a LEICA now!!!
I went snapping a bunch of nothing shots and quickly realized there was more work to be done if I really wanted to enjoy true Leica quality.
For starters, I had to read up on how to access the 14-bit raw capabilities of the M8. And it was a pain. Then, I found my M8 to have dead pixels on the sensor that only showed in raw mode. Had to read up on how to get those taken care of. That was an even bigger pain. Then, I was really growing frustrated with using the weird, dinky lens, that wasn’t a ’true’ Leica lens and was really difficult to operate, as it was tiny, too small for my fingers, and it had various ways to slip back into the body and the pop up in different configurations so that the aperture dial couldn’t be relied on to wind up in the same spot upon locking the thing up to shoot. What a pain that was.
And then, there was tge rangefinder dear. I just couldn’t get over the fact that you just can’t see what you are actually shooting. All you see in the viewfinder is the basic frame and an inaccurate one at that (you have the poorly visible lines defining your lenses field of view, which are barely ok for a wider lens, but at 50mm cut your actual photo frame to like 50% of the finder area. Hellishly wrong, wrong, wrong. The poor LCD on the M8 didn’t help matters in that the image preview was hardly usable to determine focus and quality. Pain, pain, pain. And the thing was damn slow compared to my other digitals. Pain. And the battery died pretty quickly (just as it did with my Fuji X-T1). Pain. And the weird crop factor. Pain. And the grip on that box was non-existent. Pain. And the low light shots were crap. Pain. And black fabric came out blotchy magenta. Pain. And the colors were somewhat off, sqewed towards pinky dull green. Pain. And the out of the camera JPEGs were bad. Pain.
So, as painful as the experience of shooting with my newly acquired ’Precious’ was, I resolved to struggle through it and, lo and behold, learn! Learn to be a Leica photographer, because that’s what all Leuca photographers had to do. They did it, so could I. And I really, really wanted to be a Leica photographer. You can read about how to take control of your M8 in one of my future posts (it demands a separate article).
Eventually, I did enjoy the Leica M8 a little. Not surprisingly, the 14-bit raw CCD non-anti aliased files were astoundingly sharp. Nothing like what came out of my pixel packed Canon DSLRs. The amount of detail was exquisite. No 20+ megapixel tripod Canon shot came even close to a handheld Leica shot in terms of sharpness and detail quality. The colors came out weird, but still attractive and could be worked with no problem. The black and white killed all Canon shots. And I did notice a particular, film-like quality to some pics, particularily after I got my first ’real’ Leica lens, the version three Summicron 50mm f/2, which was a beautiful lens to look at, looked and worked great on the M8 and produced real signature Leica photographs. (The Perar did well, too, it just wasn’t fun to shoot and I was biased against it from the start, not being a Leica lens). A couple of years later I realized one of my first test shots with the Leica and Perar combo was very reminiscent of my Leica hero Thorsten Overgaard’s obsessive subject matter – the fire hydrant! That somehow still makes me feel good about my potential as a budding photographer.
In the end, the awkward workflow and the heavy toll the M8 exerted on my budget-focused conscience made me sell the M8. Luckily, at a hundred percent profit. I still get nostalgic about it, but I’m glad to not have to deal with its many idiosyncracies.
But what the Leica M8 experience has taught me is that a) you don’t automatically become a great photographer by owning awesome gear you don’t really enjoy shooting, and b) there was something real about that whole Leica aura regardless of my inability to get a grasp on how to use the camera well.
And I did miss that ’something’ about the Leica quality that I decided I want to explore the possibilities a little further. I read up on Leica glass and adapters and such and found there was a way to combine the convenience of a DSLR with Leica quality glass, namely the Leica R system. To my great surprise I found that the much cheaper R lenses in Leica lineup are actually considered equal, if not superior to the outalndishly priced M variety. You could own a nice Summicron or Summilux, or buy a bunch of cheap Elmarits and Elmars for realtively inocuous prices, attach them to a Canon EOS with an adapter, and enjoy the Leica quality I missed so much with a high ISO, shoot-fast-and-see-what-you-are-doing, 20+ Mpix glory of a modern, consumer friendly DSLR. Well, almost, but I’ll get to that.
The bonus, of course, was that I could also buy a ridiculously cheap Leicaflex or Leica R film camera and use the same lenses on that, though I still didn’t see a point of shooting 35mm film and fiddling with development without getting a tangible increase in image quality and character like I did with the medium format Hasselblad.
Yes, that’s right – I did go out and bought a beautiful little marvel of old school technology anyway. The Leicaflex SL (SLR) made by Leitz Wetzlar, so even though not an M and a rangefinder it is every bit as Leica as the other line, had cost me all of $200 at the Danish Fotografica store (bought through eBay, as well). I played around with the knobs a bit afyer I got it, appreciated its solid build and vintage beauty and then promptly set it up on the shelf thinking that maybe one day, when I’m really bored I may buy a roll of 135 T-Max and take it for an experimental, nostalgic spin.
Mostly, I used the 50 Summicro-R on the Canon 6D, enjoying a sharp, Leica look to my images and a very convenient setup. It’s been a long time since I ditched the autofocus, finding that for the type of photography I do (not sports action), autofocus actually gets in the way as much as it helps, so manual focus was second nature by now. I got a couple more lenses, the 35mm and a makro Elmarit 60mm, the latyer of which proving to be quite an amazing lens of top-notch characteristics.
The 35mm I’m just not falling in love with.
And a few months later an odd thing took place. We were getting ready for a family holiday in Tuscany and, while packing my Canon (pun, yes!) I thought it would be good to grab a backup camera, just in case. The Leicaflex was relatively small and fit nicely beside the 6D in my camera bag. I went through the checks on it and something struck me when I was looking through the viewfinder to test the light meter. That window on the old 70’s camera was so much nicer to look at than its counterpart on the Canon body. It is big, bright, with clear, analog needles indicating exposure metering and the shutter speed on the bottom. And in the center is the piece de resistance of this old tech wonder: the focusing dot. It is a large circle that produces a fuzzy, crawling image when out of focus and a crisp, clean one once all is focused perfectly. It is extremely accurate, fast and easy to use. Plus, the image in that finder just looks way more soulful than in the Canon. Being a natural risk taker, I immediately thought I was willing to chance losing some shots from my holiday for a chance to see it through this viewer. I just FELT the analog magic of this camera fit the whole summer holiday concept much better. Plus, I wouldn’t have to drag with me all of the cables, chargers, lenses etc. It would be just that little heavy thing and the 50 with UV filter attached. One camera, one lens, one filter, one roll of film – done! Ok, I took a second roll of Kodak Portra 160 with me, but past experience taught me to expect to use up maybe one or one and a half rollful of exposures. Such is film photography. In digital, I would take probably close to 500 pictures, of which maybe a hundred would be good, and maybe 10-20 would be great, album worthy shots. With film, I knew every single one would be good, and about half would provide imagery that would define this trip and the lasting impression of this happy, family time to last my children a whole lifetime as mementos of their childhood. So, maybe it wasn’t such a risky proposition after all.
Sure enough, the photographs I took met those expectations through and through. As a bonus, I discovered the innocent joy of photography as it used to be – free of SD cards and image preview buttons, electronics and menus. Just a small pouch slung over the shoulder, bit of palpable dial turning and crank winding, and snap – the exquisite sound of the shutter and recoiled mirror to indicate the light streaming through the old Schott glass has reached the emulsion on a piece of cellulose spread across the focal plane in the back of that little, magical, technologically sophisticated and manufactured to exacting standards yet still conceptually the same, old camera obscura. Magic.
And it stayed. And the longer the Leicaflex SL stays with me, the more it is growing on me as the dependable camera to use in my everyday photography. I shoot it with pleasure. It’s not that tge 6D is a bad camera. I like it. It produces good, proper images, especially coupled with the R glass (I have a couple ’red’ Canon EF lenses I never use). But it just lacks the same soul the Leicaflex has. Its akin to listening to cd’s versus old vinyl. From the very gesture of putting the record onto the roundtable and setting down the needle, the whole experience is just more pure, true and analog. It’s real, and that’s what photography with the Leicaflex feels like.
I still have the Canon 6D for digital shooting (of equipment I have for sale or experimenting with flash). I still have the Hasselblad, which I love dearly and wouldn’t consider selling ever, perhaps only to downgrade to a 500CM, because the 503CW is overkill for my needs and frequency. But the Leicaflex SL turned out to be my favorite, go-to, always-on-me camera whlie the 50 Summicron is still my lens of choice and it covers most situations just fine. More than anything, it is a pleasure to own and use and that actually IS making me a better photographer, as I now shoot more thoughtfully and more often than ever. And the images are getting better and better. More on that in another article.
Cheers,
Martin