The Leica Files


Handbag camera has morphed into something pretty special. About three years ago I traded in a DSLR and my compact cameras for a Leica M9 – yes, a second-hand, six-year-old, slightly tarnished box with a maximum ISO of 2500 and a poky screen whose resolution isn’t worth mentioning.

As with all momentous changes, there’s a story attached. My mother and I had just boarded a bus from Torquay to Dartmouth, anticipating a beautiful journey through Devon laneways and rolling green hills – picturesque England at its best. I took out handbag camera to photograph from the top deck, and someone tapped me on the shoulder. “At least it’s black,” a man’s voice said from behind.

“Excuse me?”

“Your camera!” he laughed. “Here, try mine, it’s better.”

He passed across a small, solid, camera with a dainty lens attached … and something happened. You could call it falling in love. The camera felt right in the hand. It was so simple and elegant. Not a piece of plastic anywhere. Beautiful, analogue dials... I peered through the viewfinder.

“Don’t worry,” my new friend chipped in. “You’ll get the hang of manual focus.”

Just 30 minutes later, we had arrived in Totnes, my fellow photographer’s destination. We didn’t exchange any personal information … just talked Leica and handed the camera back and forth until the last possible moment when he leapt off the bus.

“Buy one,” were his parting, fatal words.

I agonised for several months. Would I be able to focus manually whenever required? Was it madness to spend so much money on a manual-everything camera in this fast-changing digital world? Would I be able to justify the Leica for work? How would I survive without a longer focal length, as Leica lenses only go up to 135mm? Oh, and talking of lenses… I would need to buy a lens, too.

But I could not stop thinking about that camera. After looking at hundreds of pictures taken with Leica rangefinders, the process confirmed what I already knew: I had to have one. I couldn’t afford the new model (then the M240). Instead, I looked out for a second-hand M9 and splashed out on a new Leica Summicron 50mm F2 lens. It was my only Leica lens for a year and I’ve just added the “budget” Leica Summarit 35mm F2.5.

Are my photographs better for it? They are certainly different: not always super sharp (blame my vision) and more in the street photography style, perhaps (you have to get in close with just 50mm or 35mm at your disposal). It’s a subjective thing, in the end: I love the feel of the camera, the depth and contrast of the superb lenses, and the “filmic” rendering of the CCD sensor. Above all, it’s a camera that slows me down and gives me time to look around me

Leica, schmeica. The camera doesn't make a bit of difference. All of them can record what you are seeing. But you have to see. 

Ernst Haas (1921-1986)

Canadian visual artist Eve Leader, photographed with the Leica M9.

Small is beautiful

The love of small cameras is another legacy of Brownie, the camera that triggered my photography obsession as a six-year-old. I am fortunate to own “state-of-the-art” (= heavy!) DSLR cameras and lenses for my professional work; but for the sheer joy of walking around and making pictures, especially on holidays or otherwise for leisure, it is Brownie’s descendants that I turn to – compact cameras.

There is a saying that “the best camera is the one you have with you at the time”.  

These days, for many people, it is their smart-phone that serves as their go-to camera. They are fantastic devices and I use mine too. As yet, my iPhone is not my “Handbag Camera” of choice though because, well, it’s a phone, really.

bridget elliot photographer sydney

It’s time to introduce “Handbag Camera”, the instrument(s) that have taken all the Travel photographs on this website and those in the Environment section, too. To qualify as a Handbag Camera, the instrument has to be small, beautifully crafted, look like a camera, include manual functions, be able to shoot in RAW (uncompressed) format and have excellent IQ – image quality.

There are many such small cameras on the market today (although not all of them are gorgeous!) and I have had a few since 2006, when I first started to travel with them. They are light and so less intrusive when photographing people. For those who are interested, most of the images in Travel and Environment are taken with the Fujifilm X10 or Fuji X100 cameras – both small and beautiful, and I chose between either depending on the size of my handbag!

I have just added a new, and bigger Handbag Camera to my collection, for larger handbags – the luscious Leica X Vario.

I’m using Handbag Camera to document trees in our area of Sydney – not as trees per se but as a living presence that adds something sculptural and exquisite to our built environment, quite apart from the shade that they yield and the haven and food source that they provide for wildlife. I’ve chosen to do so in black and white – to express their form, first and foremost. It’s a personal project, in response to the increasing loss of trees in our neighbourhood to “lifestyle” backyards, garages and ocean glimpses.

Here is an interesting story about a small camera that changed the world:

If a photographer cares about the people before the lens and is compassionate, much is given. It is the photographer, not the camera, that is the instrument.

 Eve Arnold (1912-2012).

In the beginning

My six-year-old self with the Kodak Brownie Vecta camera

My six-year-old self with the Kodak Brownie Vecta camera

My grandmother started it all. She gave me, what at the time, was a rather surprising birthday present for a six-year-old: her much-travelled, slightly battered Kodak Brownie Vecta camera! I had obviously coveted it and I can remember to this day, how excited I was to receive that parcel … it did look suspiciously like “Brownie” even before I’d unpicked the wrapping paper.

So began a love of photography that continues to this day. No family member, no pet nor neighbour was safe from my advances with Brownie – every school- teacher, friend and holiday was documented too. I’m thankful for that early obsession, as I have a carefully catalogued record of family life, now a little faded, a little worn at the edges, but still there, resonant in black and white.

Brownie taught me a thing or two and for that I am thankful too.

The really big lesson was the result of there being only 12 exposures per roll of film. Very occasionally you would be surprised with a lucky 13th, but rarely. So this meant that a three-week family holiday had to be captured in just 12 frames. In fact, pocket money and the household budget being limited, sometimes just 36 frames a year would have to suffice for my photography habit.

I can remember agonising over every shot, during our wonderful, seemingly endless school holidays when we’d jump into the car and drive 2500km to Cape Town and back from Harare, Zimbabwe. It was all very well to capture the family rigging up the tent on night one – but that meant that only 11 exposures (always hoping for 12) remained for the rest of the holiday! So careful decisions had to be made before pressing the shutter.

It’s a discipline that’s almost unthinkable in the digital age, when currently, 350 millions images are uploaded daily to Facebook, alone.

I’m thankful for that discipline. I can snap away if required with my blisteringly fast DSLR, but for the most part, I still like to “make” rather than “take” photographs: to consider, compose, craft manually, and then capture. I can do it a lot more quickly today, thanks to my professional equipment – but it does mean that I still have time to “see” and interact with who or what I am making a photograph of.

Thank you, Gran – and Brownie.

You don’t take a photograph, you make it.

 Ansel Adams (1902-1984)