A film-loading Leica has it’s own Gestalt. Even Leica itself couldn’t wholly transfer this impression onto their digital M bodies. My M9 is fine, thank you, but it doesn’t feel like a Leica in my hands and in use. There are just too many haptic and procedural differences compared to the models before the M8. When I sold my MP, seller’s remorse set in as soon as I returned to using film again. My recently acquired Leica M6 0.85 brings back that Gestalt. I’d like to talk about what I mean with this in this post. Hopefully it won’t be too much of a Leicaphile’s drivel!
Grasp a Leica M film body and it is instantly recognizable. The rounded sides and the shallow depth feel comfortable in hand, the film advance lever, the shutter speed dial and the release are where they were originally placed on the M3. I fitted a soft release button that makes a lot of difference for slow shutter speeds as well as for that fast, subconscious shutter actuation on the street. With a button like this, your index finger no longer pushes into the camera, you place the joint between the distal and middle finger bone on it and a real soft downward movement suffices to take a shot. Granted, you also take more photos of the inside of your camera bag. 😉
A photographer is a visually oriented kind of person (duh!). So, it makes sense to use a camera that facilitates seeing in the situation, and the Leica M does excactly that. Especially if it has a 0.85 magnification viewfinder like my M6 has. You see, in a rangefinder camera, the viewfinder’s magnification doesn’t change with the lens mounted as it does in a SLR or an EVIL camera. Frames for the lenses are superimposed on the viewfinder image in the Leica as needed. You can see around them in the viewfinder and this helps enormously in composition. That effect is enhanced if the viewfinder magnification is high enough for you to keep both eyes open, fusing the image through the viewfinder with the unimpeded one from the left eye. A healthy human eye has a horizontal viewing angle of about 160°. In street photography, you use that to see someone stepping into your frame, to judge movement and the play of light. Just not possible with a bulky (D)SLR or through a laggy electronic viewfinder. Not really possible with Leica’s standard 0.72 magnification viewfinder (though there is a magnifying lens available that brings it up to 0.85). The 0.85 viewfinder in my M6 (also available on request for the M6TTL, the MP and the M7) is more of a 0.95 viewfinder and I have instant fusion of both images, the frames and the rangefinder patch seem to float in space before me. In essence, the camera disappears. This subjective vanishing trick is enhanced by the subtle noise the shutter and film transport in this mechanical marvel make. Very silent, but you’ve heard that, haven’t you? 😉
There you have it, this is the Leica M Gestalt: it vanishes in use, letting you feel and react with your subject. On the street and in crowds, I have often already taken a photo before I realize that I have. It is easy to get one with the flow of life around you.
But let’s not get all Zen-like, it is just a camera. What else is in there except some insanely well made mechanics? As you can see above, some electronics to take care of measuring the exposure, i.e. giving you some data you can judge yourself with two triangular LEDs in the bottom of the viewfinder. That’s all you really need, put a lens (Oh those Leica lenses!) on the front and a good film in the back (I’ll take Tri-X developed in Diafine, thank you!) and head out!