San Francisco with the Leica M-E

in Gear Review, Travel by on September 9th, 2013

If you read my post from earlier in the year, you’ll see I made the decision to try out a Leica M6 in an effort to find a system camera that was more suitable for taking along with me when I travelled. After putting a bunch of films through the camera, I was quickly convinced that the Leica rangefinder was an ideal travel companion – legendary lenses, and a no nonsense camera body, which, whilst fully manual, offered enough flexibility to be able to shoot quickly and reliably. The size of the kit meant that I could slip the body and a couple of lenses into a bag, along with my laptop, in a fraction of the space that I would have required should I have chosen to travel with my Nikon gear. There was only one problem with the M6 – despite the fun of waiting for the films to be returned from the processor, and scanning the images in – it wasn’t satisfying the immediate need to see my images that I have become accustomed to whilst shooting digitally over the past 15 or so years.

 

Drummer on Market Street

Drummer on Market Street

So, as my interest in the Leica camera system ‘developed’, I heard that a local Leica dealer, Henny Hoogeveen in Lisse, had a Leica M-E ex-demo body in stock at a very attractive price. To cut a long story short, I was able to purchase the body in time to take with me on a trip to San Francisco for the RSA conference.

Spelling Mistake

With a huge marketing budget, you would have thought RSA would have employed a proof reader. Or at least someone who knows how to spell February……

I had timed my travel so that I would have the weekend before the conference to recover from any jet lag, and spend a bit of time walking around the city. An ideal opportunity to see what the digital rangefinder would be able to do for me. The learning curve from the M6 was very slight – although the M-E is a digital body, feature wise it is very similar to the M6 in that it is very feature light – the only addition in terms of taking photos is the addition of aperture priority on the M-E in addition to the fully manual exposure mode that the M6 offers. Needless to say, both cameras are manual focus, which is quick and easy with the rangefinder.

Sleeping Rough

Sleeping Rough – if you look closely (click for a larger image) you’ll see a guy climbing out of the car’s trunk. He appeared to have spent the night inside….

Many street photographers choose to shoot with Leica, or other similar rangefinder cameras, as they are able to approach and photograph their subjects without getting in the way, and even if they are noticed the subject’s attention is hardly captured as the camera is very unobtrusive. Shooting with the M-E gives me a confidence that I never have with the Nikon in terms of the opportunities on the street where I will press the shutter release, rather than walking away when with a Nikon to avoid any unpleasant confrontations. With a bit of practice it’s possible to visualise what you will be seeing through the rangefinder, and prefocus and shoot from the hip if necessary. In the situations where you are noticed, a smile and a whispered thank you is normally enough to appease most people.

Taking a Break

Taking a Break

I took my 35mm Summarit and a 50mm Summicron with me, and wandered through the streets of San Francisco looking for opportunities. In Chinatown the local community was celebrating the start of the Chinese New Year, providing a very photo rich environment, and as always a walk along Market Street offered a number of opportunities.

Phone Call

Phone Call

San Francisco is a beautiful city, and the mixture of cultures means there is something new to discover around every corner. I walked a fair distance during my days there, and carrying the Leica over my shoulder was no strain at all due to the lightweight construction. Since acquiring the M-E I have started to take my camera with me a lot more frequently, and ultimately taken many more photographs compared to previous years.

Take My Picture

Take My Picture

Of course, the Leica comes at a price, and there is a lot of discussion in online forums as to whether or not the Leica is worth the money. After all, technology wise the camera is miles behind competition from the dSLR vendors such as Canon or Nikon. My Nikon D800 for example has excellent AF, and great low light capabilities – the Leica is manual focus, and starts to lose definition above around 1000 ISO. So ultimately, no, the Leica isn’t worth the price you pay if you are simply adding up features, but the Leica provides a different sort of emotion to the photographer, and a different way of shooting – after all Leica is celebrating 100 years of rangefinder cameras this year, and wouldn’t have been around for so long if they weren’t doing something right……

Stars and Stripes

Stars and Stripes

 

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Back to Analogue – Leica M6

in Gear Review, General, Travel by on February 4th, 2013

I began ‘serious’ photography back at university, when digital was only just getting going. At the time I didn’t have much money, so scrimped and saved to buy myself a semi decent analogue camera kit based around the Nikon F601. I was the picture editor/photographer for the college paper, so ended up spending a fair amount in the darkroom, mostly against a deadline, getting my black and white films developed and printed for inclusion in the following issue. As time went by and I got a reasonably paying job, I was able to upgrade the film gear to a Nikon D70, one of the earlier Nikon digital cameras, and I haven’t looked back since, progressing through the various models in the Nikon family up to the D800 that I have today.

Whilst the Nikon gives truly excellent image quality, there is one thing that frequently frustrates me – carrying a D800 with one or other of the pro lenses I own is just not a compact solution. Especially when walking around on a trip with my family, the camera stays in the bag to avoid getting in the way whilst pushing the pushchair or carrying my daughter. So at the end of last year, and with an upcoming trip to Japan being planned, I decided to take a step back in terms of technological progression, and bought myself a film camera. But not just any film camera – my intention was that the chosen platform would be compact, simple, expandable, a pleasure to use, and above all something that I could slip under my jacket or into my laptop case when I want to travel light.

 

Leica M6 with 35mm Summarit lens

Leica M6 with 35mm Summarit lens

 

 

Of course, I could have found myself any number of digital (compact) cameras that would have fulfilled some or all of those criteria, but I wanted something a bit different. Something that would make me stop and think before pressing the shutter button, to avoid returning home with hundreds of shots and having to sort through 10 of the same shot, looking for the one with the perfect smile or ultimate sharpness in the subject’s eye. My thought was that if I only had 24 or 36 shots per roll, this wouldn’t be an issue.

Researching beforehand on the internet I realised that there was still quite a following for various film models, even though the selection of films and the number of locations to get the films developed is reducing year over year. I’d previously toyed with the idea of buying myself a Leica digital rangefinder, so, with this in mind as a potential future upgrade path, I decided to look at the Leica film rangefinder cameras as a possible solution. One of the main advantages of the Leica rangefinder platform (the M system) is that all of the lenses that have been produced for the range of Ms, from the M1 to the latest M9 or MM cameras, are backwards compatible. There’s no problem about lenses not working with the latest AF system or not being able to stop down automatically – everything in the Leica world is manual, including focus and aperture control.

 

Taken with the Summarit 35mm at f/4 (at least I think so, since I don't have any EXIF to rely on ;))

Taken with the Summarit 35mm at f/2.5 (at least I think so, since I don’t have any EXIF data to rely on ;))

 

Japan is a haven for secondhand Leica, at least in terms of second hand selection – one of the the store salesmen told me that many elderly Japanese had invested in Leica years ago, and were now offloading their gear to second hand camera stores on a consignment basis to get some money for retirement. My plan was to pick up both a camera and lens whilst we were in Tokyo for 5 days over Christmas, preferably on the first day, so that I could then spend the rest of the two week holiday using the camera and getting to know it. However, as luck would have it, I got a good deal on a Leica 35mm Summarit lens that I was bidding on on eBay, and picked that up a couple of days before I was due to depart from a seller in Belgium. The Summarit range of lenses are newer to the Leica range, introduced as a low cost (in Leica terms) alternative to the more expensive Summicron and Summilux lenses. It boasts a maximum aperture of f/2.5, and various Leica aficionados on the net rate them very highly, so it seemed like a sensible option. Ultimately, if I didn’t get on with the lens I would be able to sell it on to someone else for pretty much the same as I had paid, so it felt like a safe bet.

So I set off to Japan with just a lens and no camera, and a list of addresses to visit. (Actually, that’s a slight lie as I did have my Panasonic Lumix with me as a backup, but ended up not using it).

Film 2 Image 16

We were staying in the Shinjuku area, which is well known for it’s abundance of second hand camera shops, and, along with Ginza, is one of the better locations to head to if you are looking for something new or not so new. The evening of the day we arrived, I went for a walk around and started to look at my options.

As I mentioned earlier, Tokyo has a fine selection of (preowned) gear from all of the main camera manufacturers. Whilst the prices aren’t necessarily the lowest in the world due to the current exchange rate, this is made up for by the choice that a prospective buyer has. I had researched the various stores before hand and had an idea of where I would be going, based upon the great buyer’s guide by Bellamy at Japan Camera Hunter. I started wandering round the stores looking at row upon row of well cared for, and, in most cases, mint condition, M bodies. I already knew that I would be looking for a Leica M6 0.72x body, so that was my main target. After looking round various stores, I stumbled across Lemon Camera, and found what I was looking for – a boxed, as new condition M6, complete with the original box, strap, and paperwork. Even had the warranty card included, although this had long expired since the camera dates back to 1993. Luckily the guy in the shop spoke pretty good English, so we had a nice conversation whilst he let me test all the usual stuff when buying a second hand camera (if you’re in the market, check CameraQuest’s checklist before you buy), and I had made my decision.

 

Shot with the 35mm Summarit at f/2.5

Shot with the 35mm Summarit at f/2.5

 

Lemon Camera seems to be a really good shop and well worth a visit if you are in Tokyo. Most of the gear they sell is done so on consignment – meaning that the price is set by the owner, and then the shop adds 10-20% to the price and takes on the responsibility of selling the gear. This means that you typically receive the product with no right of return, and no warranty, although I was lucky that this particular camera was not being sold on consignment, but instead by the shop themselves. They had fully tested it and were even prepared to offer a 6 month warranty against failure (not that the older mechanical Leica’s ever seem to have problems, according to what I have read). I would never be able to use the warranty as I would be taking the camera back to the Netherlands, however it was a good piece of mind to have that the shop was prepared to stand by the condition of the camera. Lemon’s shop in Shinjuku is fairly small, but they have a much larger store in Ginza. I stopped in there later in the week, and as luck would have it was approached by the same guy who had dealt with me in Shinjuku when I purchased the M6, and he helped me choose a very nice Artisan and Artist leather half case for the camera. The Ginza store had over 20 M6 to choose from, as well as a similar number of M4, M5, and M7 bodies. Also a number of rarer lenses, such as not one but two copies of the revered Noctilux 50mm f/1.0 lens, although that is way out of my budget for now…..

Usain Bolt's Nissan

Usain Bolt’s Nissan

My first impressions with the camera are very positive. Every aspect of the camera is a joy to use, from loading the film, to winding on in between exposures, to the flexibility that shooting with a fully manual camera provides. I found that people generally ignore me with the camera due to the discrete form factor, which is a welcome change compared to the angry stares you get if you hold a D3 with a 24-70mm in someone’s face to take their photo. I’ll certainly be writing more about my experiences with the camera in a future blog post, so, for now, stay tuned!

 

Self Portrait - taken with the M6 and Summarit 35mm at f/2.5

Self Portrait – taken with the M6 and Summarit 35mm at f/2.5

 

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Camera Stores in Tokyo

in General, Travel by on June 18th, 2010

I am currently on vacation in Japan, and we started our trip by spending a couple of days in Tokyo. One thing that always impresses me when I am in Tokyo is the abundance of photography equipment that can be bought in the shops.

There are a couple of large camera stores in Japan, and all have multiple branches in Tokyo. Our hotel was in Shinjuku, primarily in a business district, but within a couple of minutes from the hotel I had access to a large BIC Camera store, and a Yodobashi Camera. Out of the two, I think Yodobashi is my favorite – this particular branch had 5 or 6 floors, and each floor had a different ‘theme’ – the ground floor covered ‘consumer’ cameras, the first floor was for Digital SLRs, the next for Medium Format and Studio, the next for Tripods and Darkroom, and so on….

The nice thing about these stores is that they always carry a wide range of photo gear – this particular Yodobashi had stock of all the exotic Nikon telephotos, as well as the small accessories that always seem to be impossible to get in Europe.

There are also a number of photo stores, and further Yodobashi and BIC branches, in the Ikebukuro region.

Tokyo also has a thriving second hand market for Nikon gear, and there are a couple of stores worth visiting. Probably the best known is Nikon House in Ginza, but you can also find good second hand selections at a small shop in Ikebukuro (just keep walking from the Metro down the road with all the electronics stores, and you will find it on a corner on the right) and a very complete store in Shinjuku (kind of inbetween the park and the New South Entrance to the Metro).

(I realise the above descriptions without shop names and addresses are pretty useless, for which I apologise, but looking at kanji on a roadsign or shop front doesn’t work for me)

One thing that hasn’t helped in my quest for Nikon gear is the exchange rate. Whereas when I was here a couple of years ago I was able to pick up a 24-70/2.8 for a couple of hundred Euros less than it cost in the Netherlands, it now is much more expensive to buy lenses in Tokyo. Probably the most outrageous example I saw of this was a 200/2VR for around 5000 Euros (3500 in NL), but even the cheaper lenses cost a lot more (for example a 14-24 was around 1800 in Tokyo, compared to 1350 in NL). I realise that shopping on the high street is never the best place to get the cheapest prices, and I am unaware of what they would cost via mail order, but it is certainly in stark contrast to the prices I experienced a couple of years ago.

The good news though is that accessories are still significantly cheaper.

So what did I buy? Two 77mm neutral color filters. Just couldn’t find anything else I needed :D

The photo accompanying this blog is a HDR image of a rice field before the storm in Chino City, Nagano Prefecture, where we are spending the rest of our vacation (obviously not literally in the rice field). Taken with the 24/1.4 and D3 at f/5.6

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Safari Photography: Supporting a big lens

in Shooting reports, Technique, Travel, Wildlife Trip Reports by on May 30th, 2010

I’ve been lucky enough to visit South Africa a couple of times now, and knowing what gear to take is always the big question before I leave. In discussing this with other photographers, through my blog, and on forums, one question that people often ask me is what sort of camera support system they should be using whilst on the safari vehicles.

Often the initial thought is something along the lines of, ‘I’m taking a big camera lens, therefore I need to take the heaviest tripod that I own in order to support that lens.’ A logical way of thinking if you are intending to sit in the bushes for a day to wait for your prey to approach. Problem with that in Africa is if you sit in the bushes for any length of time, you’re likely to get eaten by a lion :)

You might also think that the safari vehicles will have enough space to mount a tripod. However, even if you are lucky enough to have a whole row to yourself, mounting a tripod is not going to be practical. Asides from the fact that there isn’t enough space in the footwells to put the tripod up, the rough ground you may be traveling across will quite likely throw the tripod outside of the vehicle, lens and body along with it.

So what is the solution? Well, you will probably be either shooting from the window of a 4×4, or traveling along in a typical safari vehicle such as the one in the following image (passenger normally not included….)

As you can see from the construction, it is a very open setup, designed to give the most flexible vision in any direction. You may be sharing your row with one or two other people, or you may have it to yourself. The way I work, when shooting with one of my big guns, such as the 200-400mm or the 600mm, is to take along a couple of bean bags with me. The most useful one I have is around 20cm (8″) square, and has a velcro fastening on it. The first day I arrive in Africa I go to the local supermarket, and buy around 2.5kg of maize or dried beans, and fill the bean bag up with this. They only cost around 2€/3$, so it’s not worth taking up 2kg of my luggage allowance to bring them with me from home. I then have a very flexible solution that I can use to support the lens, either on one of the chair supports, or on top of a fellow passenger body part. It is very easy to quickly change from one side of the vehicle to the other, without having the hassle of moving a tripod, monopod, or other support system, and easily gives enough support to get sharp images.

The bean bag solution also works well if you are shooting out of a car/4×4 as it will rest on the opened window, or, if you do have the chance to shoot from outside the vehicle, on top of the car roof. (Edit: the following image was not taken standing outside of a vehicle, as I value my limbs too much….)

All animal shots in this article taken with the D3/600mm, using a bean bag support, at the Krugersdorp game reserve, Johannesburg, South Africa.

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Nikonians Amsterdam Get Together

in Travel by on May 7th, 2010

Some time ago we put a call out on the Dutch Cafe at Nikonians for a get together in Amsterdam. This is something we have organised a couple of times in the past, although the previous trips were more based around out of town vendors. This time we decided upon a city meet, so planned to start off at Centraal Station in Amsterdam at 10am on the Sunday morning.

Unfortunately we chose the worst day of the year in terms of weather, and it rained torrentially the whole day. This had an effect on the turn out, and the group was rather small – Albert, Jeroen, and myself.

Red - Waterlooplein

Our plan for the day was to spend the first couple of hours walking around the Jordaan, and then get to the city archive for 1200pm, to allow us to join in with the Foam Museum Foam Lab Safari, a photo walk through Amsterdam. The theme for the Safari was ‘Structures’, and photographers were open to interpret that as they wished. Foam had organised a ‘refuel point’ in Amsterdam Noord, so we walked up from the archives to behind Central Station to catch the boat to North. Along the way we were able to take a few shots, using umbrellas as protection, as the rain really wasn’t planning to stop any time soon.

ARCAM - Amsterdam Center for Architecture

Wet - Bridge near Nemo

One interesting solution that Amsterdam has to the student housing problem is to make temporary accommodation by stacking up shipping containers, cutting a window in the side, and painting them funky colors. Not sure it would be my first choice of living quarters, but they seem very popular. There is such a ‘commune’ in the north of Amsterdam, at the NDSM Wharf.

Light at the end of the tunnel aka A student's life

I said No

There are also a number of old warehouses in North, and these have been handed over to artists who use them for their creative purposes. We wandered inside one, but upset one of the residents, who didn’t want ‘professionals’ taking photos….. :)

D is for...

Blue

Saint in training

It’s always nice to wander round a city that you know very well looking for some different photos, and it was a good day’s walk……

All the photos in this blog post were taken using the D3 and the 24-70mm f/2.8G lens. The waterproofing of both the lens and the camera certainly proved to be valuable…..

Albert demonstrating how to take a photo whilst holding an umbrella.....

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