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.
“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)