Before we get too far in, and to ensure that we feel the full impact of my idiotic failings of the past weekend, it’s important to really make clear all the things at which I am terrible.
I’m bad at black-and-white photography. This could be because I need more practice at seeing in monochrome, or more likely it’s because the quivering lump of useless gray matter squatting in the tepid pool of my cerebrospinal fluid jus’ dudd’nt work too good. Whatever the specific failing, my attempts at black-and-white photography always seem to come off as color photos that happened to be shot on black-and-white film. They’re flat and dull and pointless.
I’m bad at using a rangefinder, too. I’m always focusing in the wrong direction, searching stupidly for vertical lines, and accidentally covering my rangefinder patch with an errantly placed finger. By the time I’ve finally focused, the sun has set and my subject’s left the frame, gone home, eaten dinner and retired to bed. It’s again possible that with a few decades of practice I’d not be so wretchedly inept. Unlikely, but possible.
I’m also bad at reacting quickly. My best photos are the ones that are planned and methodical. I work best when I can focus on the work, smooth the variables of my environment, calculate light and composition, and take my time. Distractions are hell, and spontaneity is hard. I’d be much better at the famous decisive moment if Bresson had called it the decisive several minutes.
I’ve said this before – I’m not a very good photographer. The rare moments in which I manage to find some success in photography come only when I stack the deck. I plan ahead, pack the gear that will be most useful in a given situation, and accept that I won’t make more than one or two decent photos in any full day of shooting.
So I cheat. I use SLRs for their scientifically accurate framing and direct focus. I like cameras with exposure compensation control. I shoot in aperture-priority mode and auto-focus is always helpful. When I’m shooting for myself, I fall back on cameras and lenses and film with which I’m comfortable, and thus my hit rate climbs to a less abysmal three or four per thirty-six.
But not last weekend. No. Last weekend I tried to be someone else (someone good at making photos). Big mistake.
I’d recently stumbled my way into a stunningly mint condition Leica M2 (Japanese eBay sellers might describe it as “minty” and be sure to mention that there’s “not a tiny dust”). It arrived with the famous Dual Range 50mm Summicron attached, along with its goggles, all of which looked essentially unused. It was and is an incredible kit, and I had a hankering to shoot it (even if I’ve never actually said the word “hankering”).
The weekend promised a number of rare and special circumstances – a birthday party for my oldest daughter, a trip to the zoo, family visiting from out-of-state, a Mother’s Day lunch date with my wife in Boston’s North End. Special days should be shot with a special camera. It was time to test the new Leica. And hell, I thought, why not pair it with some film that I’ve no experience using! I chose the recently discontinued Fujifilm Acros 100.
Great plan, James. You’re a smart guy.
I spent the next three days shooting one of the best cameras in the history of cameras, with one of the best lenses ever made for that camera, and it was wonderful. The cold heft of chromed brass on a crisp, spring day; the subtle thwick of one of the quietest focal plane shutters ever made as each release of the shutter made another masterpiece; the clock-work mechanisms of a fully-mechanical, meter-less machine. I was shooting a masterful camera like a master photographer. I was the best photographer ever, and it felt great.
The zoo happened. The birthday party happened. The North End happened. And all the while I was exposing incredible photos that would surely warrant a trip to the framer.
Sure, I was having some trouble remembering which way to turn the focus dial at times when my mind was preoccupied with maintaining an ongoing appraisal of the spacial relationship between my over-active child and the fence that separated her from the wet-side of the harbor seal enclosure. And sometimes I’d snap the suddenly-apparent decisive moment only to remember (after the fact) that I hadn’t even thought about changing the shutter speed to a more appropriate number. And occasionally, when distracted by conversations with family members I’d not seen in six months, I’d forget to stop down my aperture for greater depth-of-field. And it may be true that I was unaware of the incredibly shallow DOF rendered by the DR Summicron when shot wide open and in close-focus mode.
But still. Master photographer with a Leica. Pretty sure I was nailing it.
Sunday came, the weekend was over, kids were in bed and it was time to dev. Four rolls of Acros were quickly souped, hung, and dried. Scans were started, and at just around midnight I had a file folder full of the weekend’s shots. And as may be guessed, they were mostly terrible.
Bad framing, missed focus, depth-of-field too shallow or deep, motion blur; the entire band of classic photographic missteps had shown up to play a full set. Even the most common of errors paid a visit – our old friends, under- and over-exposure.
What happened? Where were all my wonderful photos of giraffes’ tongues? Why was this 100 ISO film so blown out? And why was the very next frame totally under-exposed? Where were all those lovely portraits I made in close-focus mode? Where was the shot of the birthday cake with candles lit?
Some of the least bad photos of the weekend are shown below. Shots in the samples gallery were made with Fuji Acros 100.
Oh, wait. They’re all there. They’re just not that good; bland and boring and flat and lifeless. How did I fail so badly?
For one, I expected that the gear would do the work for me. Looking back, I realize I spent little time finding angles or interesting perspectives. I just stood there like a totem and snapped shot after shot. That was lazy. Even with a legendary Leica camera and one of the best classic lenses ever made, you’ve got to crouch, or climb a fence, or find the eye-line, or play with perspective. You can’t just point and shoot and expect to make something interesting.
I was lazy in other ways, too. I set the camera to 1/60th of a second and mentally whispered, “That’ll probably work.” I was too busy to pay attention to light, couldn’t be bothered to spin the shutter speed dial as I adjusted aperture. I figured the wide exposure latitude of film would cover the discrepancy, and the mottled and variable light of the day would give me a strip of film in which some frames were perfect, and others pretty close. Turns out that most were nowhere near close, and others were only somewhat close.
Lastly, I didn’t plan or create redundancy the way I typically do. When shooting important events, it’s best to use gear you’re extremely familiar with. I’ve shot every Leica rangefinder the company’s ever made, but I don’t shoot rangefinders regularly. I’d have been much better served to bring a camera with which I’m deeply accustomed – ideally an SLR with metered manual or aperture-priority AE.
There’s no great epiphany here. To be honest, I’m being a bit hard on myself. But that’s because I really want to be an excellent photographer. I want to make photos that people frame and put on their shelves. But this past weekend reminded me that even though I know a hell of a lot about cameras and lenses and can talk endlessly about photo gear, photography isn’t easy, and making a really good image is even harder. But I’m also motivated.
I’ll be out next weekend with the M2 and the DR Summicron. I’ll be shooting my last few rolls of Acros and taking notes. With renewed concentration and determination, we’ll see what I can do. And for better or worse, we’ll all see together (the upcoming Acros film profile and DR Summicron review will need sample shots, after all). Wish me luck.
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I shot with a Leica for years, rarely got a decent photo. And it was an M6, with a meter. You’ll wait a long time for the M2 to figure exposure for you. Now I shoot with a Nikon F3T, still don’t get many good photos, but at least it’s cheaper.