Shooting medium format alongside 35mm format is what I did during my latest trip to Sri Lanka and it turned out really well for me. I enjoyed it a lot and it made sense to me before I left, during shooting and afterwards when I looked at the results. The only ‘regret’ I got is that I didn’t go bigger in film size. Still though, the Leica M is my main travel and documentary camera. Let me tell you why;
Photographing with a Leica M is special. I don’t have to explain that to someone who handled a Leica M before, but to the photographer who didn’t. It’s a camera with a magic feel, handling and character to it. It gives you the best of 35mm in a small and intuitive package. You don’t feel like you are getting blocked off to what is happening around you as soon as you bring the camera to your eye. The design of the Leica M, being a rangefinder camera (i.e. with a separate optical viewfinder), allows you to stay in contact with what is happening around you. You never loose focus on your subject. You see everything. Notice the light, meter, reframe, focus, anticipate and shoot your image. Its a fast process that always allows you to stay in control. Rangefinder focussing is imo also the most accurate way of focussing, since you don’t have to rely on an auto focus system that might fail. You are in control, you decide where you put the focus. This means that you know exactly where your focus point is. Is this off, then you failed and not the camera.
Because of its construction, the fact that it is a rangefinder and thus not have a mirror like a DSLR, the Leica M is compact and elegant. Its it a beautiful camera, period. The first time I tried one myself I noticed by its reassuring weight that this thing is build to last. Furthermore, it does not scream for attention and gives most people the impression that you are carrying an ‘old-timer’ around. Yes, sometimes thats true, but its a very competent ‘old-timer’. But then again even the 2013 Leica M (type 240) still looks like the camera Leica build 30,40 years ago. That is partly the beauty of it and gives its user the freedom to walk around without drawing too much attention to themselves. Even the small time street criminal would more often go for a larger looking plastic DSLR from e.g. one of the Japanese brands, because they think you are holding a worthless old camera that is not worth stealing. If I however go on a trip where I suspect to end up in more dodgy areas I would maybe tape off the ‘Leica’ sign and put some more tape on it to make it look broken, just to make sure. I don’t care what it looks like when I am photographing (I do when its on the shelf). The purpose of having this camera is to be able to get the shots I wouldn’t get with another camera. It is inconspicuous and enables the photographer to get really close without getting noticed. Even the shutter won’t give away your presence when you are photographing with an analog M, since it a cloth shutter and therefor near silent. I have found the digital Leica M (e.g. M8.2) in ‘discreet’ mode also very silent until you take your finger of the shutter button and the shutter re-cocks.
It is my opinion that photographing with a Leica M stimulates you as a photographer to take pictures in a more intelligent way. This has partly to do with the way you frame your images through the viewfinder, but also because of the typical rangefinder character and lenses (prime lenses, mostly ‘wide angle’ to ‘normal’ focal length) force you to come close or be more creative. These are all reasons why the leica M is my main choice for shooting travel and documentary photography.
So what made me bring along a medium format camera and why did I think it was a great combination? Let me say this first. Before I left for Sri Lanka I figured out that too many options is no good! I limited myself to two lenses for the Leica M, the Summicron 28mm F2 for landscape and environmental portraits and the Summilux 50mm F1.4 ASPH for shots/subjects that are better suited with a normal focal length or less depth of field. But then I threw in a Voigtländer 15mm heliar! I forgive myself since I got some good shots with it.
Then I had the choice of leaving it the way it was, which is a really light travel setup, or fill the bag (i.e. a Billingham Hadley Pro) up with a medium format camera + one standard lens for portrait and landscape. Reasoning behind this was my intention to take close-up portraits and high resolution landscapes. A larger negative means you can capture more information and you gain quite a bit of dynamic range (thats even more so when its digital). This and the larger control in depth of field all add to the look of medium format. Nevertheless, the obvious images quality gain was not the surprising part. It was mostly the ease and the way of handling both cameras alongside which I found to be great.
A standard part of my day would be that I would ask my driver to drop me at the beginning of a town/village/city on the way and pick me up a few hours later on the other side. I walked, explored, observed and talked a lot to people. When I saw something interesting I would normally have my Leica M7 in my hand, approach my subject and photograph my subject from the angle I intended in the most natural way. This often required me to get pretty close without disturbing them with what they are doing at that particular moment. Would they notice me and stop what they are doing then the image is lost. This is definitely important in countries like Sri Lanka where people don’t mind to be photographed and gladly pose with a smile when they notice you. You don’t want that. At least not when its not intended as a portrait. You can image from what I have written already that the Leica M is the perfect tool for the job, preferably by me with a wider angle since i like to record my subject with some content around it. You could consider this ‘phase one’ in the approach to my subject.
‘Phase two’ would be approaching my subject for a short chat, making him or her feel comfortable and then ask them if I can take their portrait. If you photograph people in this way you set yourself apart from the average tourist that just snaps away at them and then walks away without saying anything. It really is more or a social and respectable thing to do and you will notice that you will gain a bit of their trust. Just enough to get close enough for an imitate and well composed portrait.
If you use digital you show the image to them, which could lead to more conversation, or you give them a chance to hand over an email address (if they have that) where you can send them the picture you took upon arrival at home. For these kind of shots I would grab for the medium format camera. I have introduced myself and my intentions to them and I can now take the tool that gives me the largest IQ. Handling the cameras together was great since I could easily put away my Leica M and take out the medium format SLR (I used a Contax 645 + 80mm F2). They fitted comfortably in my Billingham Hadley Pro bag, which is not a gigantic bag and with its flat shape fits perfectly to your body. Another great advantage was that I didn’t have to fumble around and switch lenses on my Leica M the whole time. Switching lenses is a process I find annoying and a little tricky when traveling to dusty and humid places.
So, to sum up what I found great about this setup is;
-Inconspicuous and intuitive handling with the Leica M
-Advantage of IQ from a larger negative (6×4,5 or sensor a like) when needed.
-It is still a fairly compact setup (Leica M, two lenses and a MF camera) and packs well in an medium sized camera bag (most Medium Format cameras are actually not so big if you think about it).
-It avoids that you have to change lenses when you want to take a portrait or landscape (if you are comfortable using one lens on the medium format camera)
Some more medium format examples from the Contax 645
I have found there to only be one downside and one ‘regret’ to this all. Downside was that you will have to bring two different formats of film and load two different cameras. The regret was that I didn’t bring a MF camera with a larger negative. That would have been even better. If you read my last post then you know that I sold my Contax 645 for reasons not mentioned here. Thus, in the future the MF camera alongside my Leica M will be either a Mamiya 7 or a Digital MF SLR (Phase One or Hasselblad) depending on the destination, subject or project.
sidenote: All images are taken in Sri Lanka and the whole series can be viewed on my portfolio (www.pascalvossen.com): <a href=”http://pascalvossen.com/documentary/album/ceylon?p=1″ rel=”nofollow”>pascalvossen.com/documentary/album/ceylon?p=1</a>
If you are interested in any of these pictures for on your wall at home then don’t hesitate to contact me for the purchase of a print!