Craigslist is an alchemy machine, pure and simple. Shovel your old undesirable objects into one end, and out the other comes a shiny new object of desire. Most recently, I dumped an unwanted MIDI keyboard and a pair of unneeded amplified stage monitors into the Craigslist gozinta, and from its gozouta emerged a beautiful hand-made time machine.
I’m aware that Stephen Hawking claims it’s possible to travel only forward in time, not backward. But just because the guy has a computer for a voice doesn’t mean he’s always right. The time machine that emerged from my Craigslist Alchemizer does, indeed, allow me to travel back in time. It’s a Leica M6 TTL — a manual focus rangefinder camera that captures images on film through a fully mechanical shutter. When you take a photo with this camera, you take a trip 50 years into the historical glory days of photography — when men were men, women were women, and both could actually take photographs without aid of a computer.
Since I already own and use a digital Leica M, purchasing the M6 was a “no brainer.” Many will likely agree that anyone who purchases a film camera has “no brain,” but that’s not what I mean by “no brainer.” I knew, as long as I stayed away from the collectible Leicas, that my 13 cu ft of Craigslist gozintas would transform themselves into one fabulous little camera body. Assuming I stay alive, there’s no reason to believe I won’t be using this same camera 30 years from now — and it will be every bit as good then as it is now. You can’t keep a straight face and say that about your latest digital camera. But the fact that this camera’s functional life will exceed my own is of no relevance if film, itself, is of no relevance. And, thus, we reach the crux of this discussion.
I doubt anyone would deny that the Leica M6 TTL is a beautiful camera. Hand-built in Germany, and featuring a precision mechanical shutter and coupled rangefinder focusing, the all-metal Leica M6 is designed to “get the shot” no matter the impediments. It’s the very antithesis of most modern cameras, with their designed-in obsolescence and build quality to match. To many, a Leica is the equivalent of a fully-mechanical Swiss watch — a desirable object of quality and craftsmanship that, ultimately, is outperformed by inexpensive modern replacements. It’s a popular analogy, and one I’ve read many times. It’s also fundamentally flawed.
The flaw in the theory that equates Leica film cameras with mechanical watches is one of function. Specifically, watches tell time, and cameras take pictures. Time is not open to interpretation. Time is objective. Hence, a device designed to monitor time is either right or it’s wrong. There may be varying amounts of wrong — for example, one watch might be wrong by 1 second, and another by 3 minutes — but there is a single, absolute function that a watch must perform, and its quality can be measured and discussed in absolute terms.
Photographs, on the other hand, are open to interpretation. They’re subjective. Two people can look at the exact same scene, but perceive it differently. The eyes, brain, and psychological makeup of each individual all influence how they interpret the scene. There is no such thing as a right or wrong photograph, and every camera — even digital cameras — will record a scene with subtle visual differences. If there was only one correct way to render a 2-dimensional image of a 3-dimensional scene, digital cameras wouldn’t feature “picture styles,” like vivid, landscape, or portrait. There would be no Photoshop! Nor, in the days before digital, would there be different types of film, developing chemicals, or paper. Thus, the common wisdom that digital is “better” than film is a purely subjective opinion. The fact is, digital is not “better” — and neither is film. They’re just different, and each has inherent strengths and weaknesses.
So, obviously, the popular analogy that equates a mechanical Leica M-series film body with a mechanical Swiss watch is incorrect. It assumes there is such a thing as a “correct” photo, and that digital achieves this mythical result better than film. Even the Mythbusters guys (after first incinerating a few cameras for effect) would ultimately concur.
But just because we can’t dismiss film’s interpretation of an image as “worse” than digital, we still haven’t answered the original question: Is film relevant?
If you’re a working photographer (a breed that, one could argue, is becoming increasingly irrelevant itself), the answer is likely “no.” Time is money. Today’s highly competitive online media sites publish images within seconds of their capture. The days of waiting a week for a newsmagazine — or even a day for a newspaper — have passed. The demand for information is instantaneous, so photography must also be instantaneous. Today’s news photographers shoot an image and, in an instant, wirelessly upload it to a news organization’s server, where it’s published immediately on a website. This all happens in less time that it takes to rewind a roll of film back into a 35mm cartridge.
So is film irrelevant?
Absolutely not. Not every photographic endeavor demands “instant gratification.” If your photography isn’t time-sensitive — meaning your images aren’t out of date within minutes of capturing them — then the “look” of film may, in some cases, be more pleasing than that offered by your digital sensors. For my own purposes, I usually choose to load fast black & white negative film into my M6. I like its extended dynamic range, its forgiving nature with challenging exposures, the logarithmic (rather than linear) way it responds to light and, most importantly, its grain. I like the way I can process the film in my kitchen sink, and hand-select my chemicals and methods to insure I get the exact look I want. I like using a mechanical film camera because it requires no battery — meaning it’ll function in the rain, in the snow, and in frigid temperatures. I like the fact its negatives are real, tangible objects that will be fully viewable in 100 years (assuming, of course, I ever take a photo someone wants to see in 100 years). And I like the fact that, unlike digital captures, I can take advantage of future technological advances — re-scanning and re-processing old negatives to extract additional quality from them.
It’s this last consideration that provided the tipping point in my M6 purchase decision. I recently revisited some black & white photos I shot in the early 1990’s — many of which I scanned 18 years ago with an early version of the Nikon Coolscan, and processed with an equally early version of Photoshop. I dug out the original negatives, rescanned them with a modern scanner, and reprocessed them with the latest versions of Lightroom and Photoshop. The result? As expected the good shots looked much better. But what surprised me was that many of the shots I had previously deemed “unusable,” had now became very usable — and even good! I was able, in 2010, to extract details and tones from the negatives using technology that simply didn’t exist in 1993. For a laugh, I also revisited a few of my digital captures from the late 1990’s. Unlike the analog negatives, modern technology could do little to improve these images — blown highlights were still blown. Blocked shadows were still blocked. And excessive noise was still excessive noise. To see my old negatives gain new life — a full 18 years after their exposure — was the final purchase impetus.
And thus we return, yet again, to the original question: Is film relevant?
Yes — as a niche product to photographers who appreciate its unique look and character, and who don’t mind the extra time, care, and consideration that it necessitates.
The important consideration is that the issue is not — and should never have been — a film vs. digital debate. They both have merit. The instant gratification of digital is wonderful. So, too, is the amazing resolution provided by full frame sensors. I would never wish to relinquish digital for a 100% film-based workflow. But the tonal renderings of film, its character, and its non-linear response to light all insure it a rightful place amongst my photographic paraphernalia. For me, the choice to sometimes shoot film is no different than choosing a particular lens. Each lens gives a unique look or perspective, and it is precisely for this reason that photographers choose one lens for one subject, and another for a different subject. There’s absolutely no reason — other than fashion — why such a choice isn’t extended to body type. These days, you can often purchase quality film bodies for less than the cost of a mediocre lens, yet film choice is just as effective as lens choice at providing your photos with a different look.
Obviously, this has been less of a review of the Leica M6 TTL than a review of the rationale for owning one. But with that bit of unpleasantness out of the way, Part 2 will dive, head first, into the nuts and bolts of that mechanical marvel.
©2010 grEGORy simpson
ABOUT THESE PHOTOS: All photos that accompany this article were shot on a Leica M6 TTL, with Tri-X film rated and ISO 400 and developed in Ilfotec DD-X.
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