This is a brief account of my transition from the Contax G2 to the Leica M6.
About 8 years ago, I stumbled across pictures by Cartier-Bresson. I couldn’t figure out how they had been shot. I began reading about him and the Leica name popped up. I had also seen some 16 x 20 inch prints in a gallery (I don’t remember by who) that were done with an M6. There was a sharpness and ‘pop’ that was astonishing to me. But the cost! How could a camera that hadn’t been changed in fifty years (well, nothing all that substantial), be selling for so much? I figured that it must be a camera for collectors. No one could actually still be using this old clunker. After all, there was now auto-focus, matrix metering, auto-winders, auto-everything. Surely all these advancements must be making it easier to take better pictures? I can tell you, that I had never even heard of the Leica growing up — so it wasn’t like I had some overwhelming desire to possess one — not like the desire to possess a Corvette, or a Mustang.
I bought a used M3, which must have been fifty years old, and two new lenses (35mm f2.0 and 90mm f2.8). The M3 body didn’t even have a built in lightmeter! You loaded film by taking off the bottom plate. And it was expensive. I don’t think that I ever got over the price for those lenses.
I shot with the M3 for about six months. The prints I made were sharp. There was no doubt that the lenses were very good. But I continued to be irked by the cost. I came from a working class background — and I was judging the camera based on how many features I was getting for the money. I was afraid that I would drop the camera. I felt like I was walking around with big bars of gold around my neck. I don’t think I ever quite got the hang of loading the film. And mostly, I felt like I was missing shots that surely I could have gotten if I had been using an auto-focus camera. And what if I wanted other lenses? Could I really justify the expense? No. This was a camera for wealthy people who had nothing better to spend their money on.
In retrospect, my ideas about what I wanted to capture with the camera weren’t fully evolved yet. But at any rate, I was quick to trade this piece of over-rated extravegance in, and eventually wound up with the Contax G2.
I told myself that for the price of one Leica lens, I could pick up practically the entire G2 series.
The G2 fit my idea of what a modern rangefinder should be. It was small. Lens quality was very good. True, it wasn’t exactly silent, but it wasn’t as noisy as an SLR. Sometimes, I would miss a shot because the autofocus had landed on an area behind or in front of the subject, but this wasn’t a major problem. I bought all the lenses except for the hologon 16mm. I did rent that one for a weekend, but at a fixed aperature of f8, and with the light falloff — it wasn’t practical to use.
My style with the G2, was mostly shooting from the hip without looking through the viewfinder. I knew that the Leica viewfinder was better, much better — but was that worth the price?
With the G2, I could fire off lots of shots in the time it would take to do one or two shots with the M6. And I did shoot enormous quantities of film, and then search through the contact sheets for good shots.
After a few years, I began to notice that I was in a kind of rut. I would shoot a great number of shots, trying to capture that moment — but sometimes I would be all around it and not get it. Sort of like spraying the area with a machine gun, hoping to hit something.
I began looking back over some of the pictures I had done with the M3. True, I had shot a lot less, but there were a few which had a certain look — where I had snapped at just the right moment. Where the lighting seemed to play a greater role. One example of this was ‘Steps of the Met’ where the combination of light on the man’s hat, and catching him in mid-step, gave me something that I didn’t see in my G2 shots. Another, was the Chinese Women Playing cards. I had blown this one up to 16 x 20, and it had held up well, not to mention the fact that I could remember the faces of the women as I had taken the shot and the patterns of dappled light on their clothing..
I really began to slide back towards the Leica after returning from Sedona, Arizona. I had shot many rolls of film with the G2, and I couldn’t find a single shot that made me feel the way I felt when I was taking the shot. That was over two years ago. I fought the Leica bug as best I could, but it kept coming back like a fever. I had never gotten it out of my system. Other things changed for me as well. I was thinking of myself as a professional photographer. If I sold a few large prints, they would cover the price of a lens. And the cost of Leica bodies had come down substantially.
I compared specs on the G2 vs. the Leica. On paper, the G2 had more features and was much cheaper. The only thing on paper that might be in the Leica’s favor were faster lenses. Was that additional stop really worth the money?
In order to be vaccinated against this malicious fever, I borrowed an M6 with a 75mm f1.4 from a friend, determined to get the bug out of my system. [Drink plenty of fluids and take lots of pictures hoping that they turn out poorly.]
One day, I took the camera with me to work, and asked a co-worker to sit down behind my desk. There was some window light coming in, and I did a portrait of him with the 75mm f1.4 wide open at 1/60 of a second, hand held. I remember very well, that I could see the expressions fleeting across his face, and was able to snap at just the right instant. I could also feel the light very well. But I was in for a shock when the negatives were developed. In thirty some odd years of shooting, this was probably the most beautiful portrait I had ever done. The focus on his eyes was razor sharp. The expression I had noticed was caught. And the soft light looked as if it had been done in a studio with a lightbox or something. Not what I wanted to see. I had hoped to get this out of my system, but instead I was being drawn in deeper.
I studied the 11 x 14 print — trying to figure what was going on. It seemed as if it was the way that it went from in-focus to out-of-focus that was beautiful. And also the fact that the focus was so exact, with such a limited depth of field, in poor light. A few days later, I gave him the print — and he asked for more so he could give one to his parents.
So I keep shooting. I don’t give the camera back so fast. I do as much shooting as I can ‘wide-open’. I look at the negatives on a light box with a 16x loupe.
I have a view camera with a few lenses in the closet which I haven’t used for years — and rush down to the photo store and trade them in for an M6 with three lenses — 35mm f1.4, 50mm f2.0, 90mm f2.0. The M6 I initially select has the larger magnification.
The lenses, wide-open are picking up astounding detail.
A few more rolls of film. I notice something else. I’m shooting far less film than with the G2, and getting a much higher percentage of ‘keepers’.
After a few days of shooting, I decide that the higher magnification (.85) makes it impossible to see the frame lines with the 35mm, so I return the camera for the normal magnification. Heaven.
Now I only shoot with the M6. Mostly with the 50mm lens. A pattern begins to emerge. First off, the compositions are interesting. Much more interesting than anything I had done with the G2. Also, I’m shooting a lot less, and getting a lot more. When I was shooting with the G2, I might find one shot out of 100 that was worth printing. Now I’m getting six, seven, even ten on a single roll.
I go back to some subjects that I had shot with the G2, and re-shoot them with the Leica. And I get it.
How can this be?
Here are a few theories. First off, the Contax G2 re-focused each time the shutter is snapped. It’s true that you can use the focus lock, but in practice you tend not to. So it re-focuses? Why should that matter? Say that you are taking a picture of something that isn’t moving, but has various points that might be selected to focus on. What happens is that each time you take the picture, you’ve got to remember to re-focus on that point, and than re-compose the picture. So there is actually more to think about at the moment of depressing the shutter.
If the subject is moving, then you’ve got to be concerned about the time between when you press the shutter and when the picture is taken.
Suppose that you want to use ‘hyperfocal distance’, i.e. set the aperature at F11 on the 35mm lens, and set the focus so that everything from infinity to 5 feet is in focus. The Leica lens is marked for this. Very easy. You can do the same thing on the G2, but you would need to have a copy of the depth-of-field table with you for each lens.
But there’s something else about the Leica M6 — especially when photographing people — it simply doesn’t alert people to the fact that you’re a professional. It looks like some kind of ancient curiosity. I have felt, almost invisible, shooting with the Leica, which wasn’t true shooting with the G2.
But the most glaring difference — it is also the most obvious — is the viewfinder. The G2 viewfinder is, in a way, not typical at all for a rangefinder. You don’t see what is outside the frame. It’s also difficult to see well through the viewfinder. Yes, you can see what is inside the frame, but can you make out subtle nuances of light, or expressions? After using the Leica for a few months, and then looking through the G2 viewfinder, it was like looking through thick lenses. Perhaps, Contax felt that it wasn’t important to have a crystal clear viewfinder with an autofocus camera. But the viewfinder, the thing that puts you in touch with your subject, turns out to be more important than I could have imagined.
I begin to feel emotionally connected to the subject — whether that’s a person, or a detail in a water fountain. I feel as if my emotions — sadness, joyfulness, puzzlement — were poured into the frame.
People like to debate differences in lens quality between the G2 and the M6. Here are a few observations:
The G2’s 35mm lens is the worst in the line up. You can check MTF charts if you like — but the 35mm lenses in the Contax line are just not as good as their other lenses. I have no idea why. And that’s closed down a few stops. I had also felt the same thing about the 35mm lens for the Contax SLR line.
One other generalization: wide-open, the Leica lenses that I’ve used are clearly superior to any other lenses that I’ve used. In other words, not only are you getting an extra stop with the Leica lenses — but that stop is very, very useable. I’m not afraid to use any of the M6 lenses wide-open, whereas I would always close down two stops with the Contax lenses.
In a nutshell, the difference in shooting styles between the G2 and the M6 is this: With the G2, I would shoot great quanities of film, and sometimes, get lucky. My surprise was when I found a nugget in the contact sheets that surprised me in some way. Shooting with the M6 is exactly the opposite. I pretty much know, at the instant the shutter is depressed, whether I got it or didn’t get it. Many times, I’ve had the shutter almost ready to fire, and said to myself — that’s not a shot worth taking. I could pre-visualize what the final print would look like. There are very few surprises afterwards. In fact, I also know when I’ve missed what I was going after which is also important. I believe, that this is simply because, there is no shutter lag, and I can vividly see the nuances of what I’m shooting, while I’m shooting.
Had some one handed me a Leica M6, eight years ago, and said, “Here, it’s yours for free” I would not have been comfortable with it I needed to go through the auto-focus, auto-everything phase and get past it. I also needed to grow creatively (I won’t attempt to explain what that meansl) — before I could use the Leica.
By forcing you to think about exposure, and whether you really want that shot, and getting you to try and anticipate events — my shooting style has changed. Whether it’s for the better, is beyond knowing. But whether it is more satisfying, is known by me now.