Shooting Film, and the Leica: Striving for Imperfection In Our World of Perfection
My parents taught me responsibility in a way different to what most other families do. I often hear about how my friends grew up with pets, or had to do chores at home, or had younger siblings that they took care of when parents weren’t around. I did have pets too, but in my opinion that played a minimal role in my eventual development of a sense of responsibility. My parents had a slightly different idea — I was taught responsibility through being put in charge of the family camera on trips. That was how I became interested in photography.
8th grade was when I got my first camera, my very own camera, as a birthday gift from my parents. It was a $500 entry-level camera, and although it may seem like very little to people now, with the myriad of quality camera models available for cheap prices on the market, I wasn’t expecting anything at all, and probably wouldn’t have been able to use a machine more complex than than. I was ecstatic. The only time I was even close to having a camera of my own was when we bought disposable ones for fun. In 10th grade, I was confident enough that my photography has improved so I sold that camera, took out all my pocket money in saving, and asked my parents for just a little bit more to help me in my investment in a Canon 6D, a semi-professional full frame camera. That same week, this kid in my school who has never touched a camera before but had been following along with my camera adventures, simply asked his parents for a camera. But not any camera, he wanted the luxury version of the industry’s most professional camera model with a selection of the best lenses, which was probably altogether more than triple the price of what I spent, or more. He did that to spite me, and I knew that because he’d talk about it all the time to me.
And he shot on full automatic mode.
The only people who have the right to do that are retired grandparents with deep pockets traveling in tour groups (they’re eeeeeverywhere here in China).
I was pissed. And salty.
I wanted more than anything to trade cameras with him because I didn’t feel he deserved a camera of that caliber. But we were kids, and as time passed I gradually forgot about all this. That was until I was introduced to Leica cameras.
Somewhere along the paths of all photographers come a phase where we feel we need more gear, and we suddenly become self-proclaimed experts in camera brands and models. For me, my parents told me about Leica when we were traveling in Germany, after coming across a Leica museum. They used a simple analogy I’d never forget: Leica to professional cameras was “The Ferrari to the Mercedes and BMW with cars.” I did my research, and to my surprise, the cheapest Leica camera was probably around 8,000 USD, each lens would cost another 2,000 USD, and I almost shat myself. I was not going anywhere near this “Leica” brand they speak of.
Fast forward another few years, I told myself I needed a Leica. I need to know what the best camera in the world felt like, and I was anxious to see what I could do with it. I was still in high school, but was taking paid jobs shooting modeling portfolios, or profile pictures for random peoples’ Instagram, actually, probably their Tinder. None of my business. I was able to get in touch with a studio owner who needed cash, and was willing to sell his old Leica M9 for a super reasonable price, an offer I happily took (collectables like the M9 are valuable models, but hard to liquidate, so a cheaper price was his compromise to have found me!!).
But holy shit was the Leica M a mediocre camera in every respect, to the ignorant me back then. Produced back in 2009, the camera underperforms every modern camera I have used to date. With no autofocus, manual focus slows down my work, and is impossible to utilize in the dark. Although that didn’t matter much, because the camera was as useful in the dark as I am in a marathon. Worst of all, it buffers for a literal minute after taking 6 full size images, and that sucks because for me it’s easiest to shoot in short bursts of 2–3 shots with every click.
After a few jobs, I was ready to sell that garbage, but decided not to because I could not get a good price out of the second hand camera dealer. However today, I couldn’t be more glad that the dude gave me a crap rate because after forcing myself to shoot the Leica, I felt my photography improve, and I now understand why it’s minimalistic design and basic features with a historical yet timeless design is so sought after.
I was taught an important lesson that I hope to share with everyone (this applies not just to photographers). I learned that to have mastered an art, it is not to remove every limitation there is, but to work flexibly and boundlessly, within them, using them to your advantage.
That meant that I had to compromise to myself, and still accomplish my artistic vision of a shot without the ideal setup. Instead of taking my time to compose with the M9, for example, I put the F stop higher and zone focused. And because I was able to be flexible and adapt, I was able to capture many moments quickly, and at times without attracting too much attention.
Take this photo for example, the man had such an interesting hat flapping in the wind, and I only saw that as he was walking past. I zone focused, and shot from the hip without even looking into the viewfinder. With a DSLR I would never have taken this photo so quickly, especially without him noticing.
I also learned that deep down I somehow already knew that, because I shot 35mm film, and that is way more of a hassle than this Leica is. I approached the Leica the way I would with film: treating each shot as 1 of 36 exposures I had, instead of unlimited storage. I would only shoot each scene once, unless it was really important for me to do a retake, since I would not usually shoot the same subject twice on film, either. I didn’t care about noise or grain (to a fair extent), and didn’t care much about being slightly out of focus, or the small blemishes in the photo, because only then is the photo organic to me. And because of the effort I put into composing each shot, the results turn out well. If it doesn’t, I have a story to tell. I tell everyone I meet that with every roll of film comes a story, and I feel differently about digital because I just mindlessly spray at times — there were no consequences to doing so.
Take this photo, for example. It’s a crap photo by any standard. There was no care in composition (her head’s cut off), the colors are weird (white balance is off), focus is very soft, and there’s motion blur, not to mention the film is grainy. If I were trying to get a shot of my friend walking down the stairs using the railing as leading lines and the red background as contrast with her grey outfit, I could think of a hundred things I would have done differently. I would probably have told her to walk down the stairs again to reenact this moment, and get in position to snap around 10 shots, picking out the best to edit: boost red and orange, adjusting curves, and remove distraction from the background. That’s the mindset that digital photography puts you in. But I will always treasure this photo I took this on a crappy Holga toy camera with a plastic lens, because here’s the story behind why I messed up. I had a crush on this girl, and we eventually dated, but not at this point just yet. We both loved Lomography cameras and thought they were cute, so we went to the shop to browse. On our way back to the metro, she was convinced that I was leading us in the wrong direction. Once I proved her wrong and arrived at the metro, she was “angry” at me and took the stairs, saying it’s healthier to walk. I took the escalator anyway, because c’mon, it’s more efficient and there for a reason. In hindsight, she was my crush, I should have probably just listened to her. Anyhow, I snapped this as I raced her to the bottom, which was why it was blurry.
In our material world, each product is designed to “outperform” another. Music players boast the huge storage capacity, speakers their range of tones, cameras their shutter speed, low light performance, image resolution, so on. In actuality, ask any experienced photographer, and they can tell you that the megapixels on an entry level camera today is a massive overkill for what we usually use it for, like Instagram and Facebook. As a matter of fact you’d probably only use a 42 megapixel camera if you were shooting for a billboard-sized print. We are taught that perfection and eliminating flaws mean improvement and progress, and strive for perfect, flawless images.
That’s when I realized that you can never get the best gear, because realistically with photography, your setup can never be perfect. If you want image quality you sacrifice portability. Your landscape lenses can’t shoot portraits as well. A videography camera is slightly worse at taking stills. I was on a Leica, my dream camera, and yet I still wasn’t satisfied. I concluded it had to be a me-problem, not a camera-problem. Having spoken to many photographers, I know I’m not the only one who was obsessed with acquiring more and better gear.
Shooting analog and shooting Leica isn’t just a stylistic choice for me. It’s a lifestyle choice, for me to say no to material perfection, and adopt a mindset that can allow me to appreciate what I have, and be on the constant lookout for stories to tell and moments to capture.