What I Learned from a Weekend Doing Everything Wrong (Photographically)

What I Learned from a Weekend Doing Everything Wrong (Photographically)

2200 1237 James Tocchio

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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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio
  • 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.

  • An article I have some sympathy with. I have been taking photos for 35 years, have over 30 cameras and am still a decidedly mediocre photographer. But I don’t let it worry me too much as if I click the shutter often enough then I will eventually get something worthwhile. And friends of mine have my photos of them on their walls so I must get it right some of the time. Like you though, I prefer the contemplative moment rather than the decisive one, i.e. sit still will you!

    I’m just more of a gear nerd than an artist.

    But it does look like a lovely camera and perhaps a bit of Sunny f16 would help you out a bit.

  • Yeah, everyone has days when all they shoot is rubbish. How many shots by Cartier Bresson are currently published? About 150 or 200 photos? 200 shots from a lifetime of shooting…I’ve got a few thousand on my Instagram feed from just a couple of years…

  • Certainly a wonderful camera to continue to practice on. And that’s half the fun, isn’t it?

  • First and most important question you should ask yourself is: Why I take pictures ?

    A lot of people love their gear and focus collecting and talking about it (sometimes they even use it).
    Other folks photograph because they need the pictures and others just go for the special moment
    spotting something interesting and “collect it” pressing the button.

    Second question seems to me then: Were do I get my satisfaction from ?

    Of course also the reasons can be mixed too…..why not ?

    Photography is a lifelong journey for anyone who takes it serious including try´s and fail´s.
    The finding of our own style or the “copy” of another is a process that takes time and now how.
    Equipment isn´t the biggest factor in this calculation……

  • James, I’ve got the solution. The two of us go to Cuba for a week. You with your M2, me with my M4. You can take Acros and I’ll bring Tri-X. The goal is to walk the streets of Havana and bring back enough images to make twenty prints that define the character and warmth of the Cuban people. You’ll come home with a set of fresh eyes and using a rangefinder will now be second nature to you 🙂

  • William Sommerwerck May 16, 2018 at 4:21 pm

    Being a mediocre photographer myself, I have little room to criticize… But… the giraffe photo is poor. Giraffes are yellow with brown spots. Leaves are green. That makes for great visual contrast, which renders a B&W image uninteresting.

    Suggestions… Snapshot portraits are best when you directly “confront” the subject, and let him or her react to the camera. It’s a shame peel-apart instant materials aren’t available, because they’re a great way to consciously interact with the subject. (“That was interesting, but let’s try another…”)

    B&W movies have a different aesthetic from B&W still photography — each scene has a significant area of white, a significant area of black, with the in-between tones becoming the image’s “colors”. Here’s one way it works…


    …or this…

  • I feel your pain.

    I shoot OMs, and finding the OM 1-10 focussing screen (with a grid that chops the screen into thirds each way) seriously changed my life with regard to lining things up. Plus the OM-4 and 4t/ti has amazing auto exposure and idiot-proof spot metering.

    Also, neighbourhood cats and dogs make for great practice for moving targets!

  • James, even though you think you’re a poor photographer you can’t half write well about being one! We’ve all been there, most if not all are still there. I’m pleased it’s not just me.

  • Perhaps you are being a tad hard on yourself. I have experienced similar results sometimes. The AE cameras are very appealing to me now and most likely to go for an outing with me for this reason. My Leicas should probably be sold.

  • Thank you for writing this — super helpful to read how someone as knowledgeable as you is evaluating your own shots. Even the most talented artists judge their own work, but it’s rare to get insight into those judgments. (wouldn’t it be interesting to see an archive of Bresson’s discarded shots?)

  • Renato F Valenzuela May 25, 2018 at 8:57 pm

    The self-loathing. The imposter syndrome. The setting of personal challenges of trying to get a tune out of a trombone that’s as old if not older than you. (paraphrasing John Lennon) Love it. We have all been there while some of us think we’re permanent residents there. I’ve been shooting for two-thirds of my life. I’m one of those people who gets to play with all this cool gear because their father was an amateur photographer/camera geek during the golden age of Japanese Camera supremacy. Sometimes I wonder if it’s because I love taking pictures or if its loving what I’m making photographs with. Don’t be so hard on yourself, man! Just gotta put those 10,000 shots behind you. We’re all crap in our minds, but someone out there is bound to think we’re geniuses.

  • I wouldn’t say it’s cheating using an SLR. Whatever kind of camera you’re comfortable with. Maybe with the Leica it’s a case of trying to master too many things at once? I remember vividly secondary school science lessons where the teacher drummed into us that in any single experiment we should only change one variable. Soon as you change more than one, you can’t then determine which one gave the difference in results, for better or worse. Change three or four variables and you haven’t a clue why things work out well when they do, so can’t replicate it.

    So using an automated SLR (or something even simpler like a point and shoot compact) where you could focus purely on composition and lighting with the camera taking care of everything else, might be the most rewarding path. You can also add more complexity as you go – shooting Av not fully auto, manual ISO, manual focus and so on.

    Yeh there’s something to be said about the thrill of shooting cameras that are as beautiful in use as your Leica. But if the results are so far off your expectations, maybe don’t even put film in them next and just enjoy the sensory experience. Might seem odd to some, but I’ve done this more than once, and at the moment you press the shutter button you still see the same composition and make the same photograph in your mind and memory, whether it gets captured on film also or not.

  • That was fun. Good writting. Otoh.. some cameras great and some great photographers would not touch them. You are an slr guy. Guy Bourdin was a slr guy. So was Helmut Newton and Chris Von Waggenheim. Rangefinders require a lot of practice to work w/ you. Leicas are lovely cameras but most of the bruhaha written about Ms is just baloney. Mostly sounds like people who are replacing sex w/ camera love.

  • Dear James,

    I have an even darker secret. Whenever I take pictures other people will care about, I use my trusty digital micro four thirds gear. I know that is unforgivable. But truth be told, nobody except a few nerds like me care if a photo was taken on film or not. They appreciate that they can see themselves and their loved ones in a scene that meant something to them. Most will find even bringing a dedicated camera is an overkill when you can use a smartphone. So I swallow whatever it is that makes me think film was superior and use my mirrorless digital system that I know will deliver.

    But when I sneak out just by myself to take pictures, I reach for the shelf with all my film bodies and lenses. I have spent way too much on them and I own way too many. And that is your fault, James. Even though you may not be the greatest photographer ever, you are still better than I am. And you have a gift to describe gear with so much enthusiasm and warmth, that my GAS has become uncontrollable. The only fault I can find with you is that you did not yet sing the praise of the Leica R6.2. I know, I love the wrong Leicas.

    All that being said, I, too, wish to improve my photography skills. So what I did was to invite some friends on a sort of regular basis, once or twice a month and meet them here in the city of Hamburg, Germany. I will bring a couple of cameras for them to borrow and one roll of film for each. We then visit the „textfixer“ website to pick a random word, which will be the subject of our photographic meeting. The challenge is to have 60 minutes, one camera, one lens and one roll of film and bring back pictures on the subject.

    This is a lot of fun and gives at least a bit of a purpose to my otherwise pointless collection of gear. And, funnily enough, I get more „keepers“ than I do when I donˋt have a subject. It makes me focus on my surroundings and on the process of photography. It then does not matter much if I use a Nikon F3 or Fm2, an Om-1 or Om-4, an R6.2 or an R7. They all deliver beautifully.

    So James, please stop writing all these lovely reviews before you bankrupt me.

    All the best wishes from Germany!

    • A genuine thank you, from me to you, for all the kind words. Your idea and method for selecting a subject on a photo walk is pure genius! What an incredible idea. Forgive me for stealing it. And by the way, the Leica R6.2 is the next camera review I’m writing.

  • When I got my M3 with its Summicron-M 50mm f/2, all I heard was how intuitive it was, and how it would just “disappear” in my hands allowing me to create wonderful images.

    Total nonsense.

    So, I committed myself to shooting a roll a week with it. I’ve got a handful of what I think are pretty nice images. But, that’s from scores of rolls of film. I get it now. It makes sense to me. But, that’s just because I used it a LOT in the last year. It’s a wonderful tool. But, so is my old Canon 6D. So is my Nikon FE (with the most intuitive light meter I’ve ever used), and a handful of wonderful old F-mount glass.

    Finally, I recently had a very similar experience to yours. I hadn’t used my Pentax 645 in a while, and noticed a fair quantity of 120 film going past its expiration in my fridge. I shot roll of TMax 400 which came out a raving “meh,” and completely underexposed an entire roll of Portra160. Just garbage. I got in a hurry and made a rookie mistake. So dumb. I only recently shot a decent roll with that camera and let out a bit of a sigh, “Ok, I can actually do this!”

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio