If you like to make pictures, as I do, you’ve probably spent some time trying to find the best camera for your needs. I’m a major gear junkie and the internet contributes to my affliction by providing a convenient source of equipment reviews and viral advertising. Lately there has been a lot of buzz in photography forums about Leica’s entrance into the full frame sensor market with the release of the M9 digital rangefinder camera. A lot of the buzz was created by these videos, produced by someone who is clearly passionate about rangefinder photography and Leica in particular.
Rangefinders are different from your typical point and shoot or DSLR because they represent “a different way of seeing,” as the saying goes. Technologically, most are time-frozen in the 1980s, devoid of autofocus, matrix metering and the other niceties that make modern cameras so easy to use. Which is exactly why people are attracted to them. They force you to actually work the camera to make a photograph, rather than having the camera do everything for you. They also tend to be smaller, quieter and have significantly smaller (and sharper) lenses.
Completely infected by the latest rangefinder buzz, I procured a Leica M6 for testing this past week. A fil-em camera as my co-workers referred to it. First and foremost the images from 35 mm film scanned onto a CD simply kick ass compared to the files out of my DSLR. There’s more depth and tone to a properly scanned piece of film than what my Nikon D200 produces. That’s the upside. The downside: purchasing the film and having it developed and scanned set me back over $30 for 24 exposures. Not inexpensive. The camera, operationally is a pain in the gluteus. I’m used to holding the D200, so trying to manage something 1/3 size was uncomfortable. Loading film requires the disassembly of the camera. And the unit I borrowed had a finicky meter. The physical footprint was the same as my Nikon FM film camera except for the presence of the mirror prism housing on top of the camera. The lens, on the other hand, was about 1/3 of the size of a typical 35mm or DSLR lens. That was nice, since it reduced the overall bulk of the camera and rendered it a bit more stealthy than a DSLR. I haven’t had the film scanned yet but I bet it makes images of the same quality as my Nikon FM. The difference is I already own an FM and purchasing an M6 kit would be a considerable expense.
That got me thinking: what makes a camera useful to me? Obviously it’s the ability to make pictures. Portability. Quality. Ergonomics. Buying another camera won’t permit me–or anyone- to make better or more pictures. The first step in making nice pictures is to make pictures, lots of them, of things that interest you and make you smile. Chase Jarvis, a professional photographer, has a book out produced entirely with his iPhone. That’s right, a pro used a telephone camera to create a book. The point is you can’t make photos unless you have the camera with you and it doesn’t really matter what brand or type camera one uses.
These are my cameras. A Nikon FM from 1981. My very first serious camera. I still have the receipt. It works perfectly. Completely manual, you have to tell it what to do. Next, a D200 all-auto DSLR. It will make breakfast for you if you press the correct buttons. It’s at least twice the size and weight of the FM. It lets me get shots I could never get with the FM. And then there’s my Canon point and shoot. It’s goes with me almost everywhere and has allowed me to get great shots of my kids when I otherwise would not be humping a camera around. And finally my iPhone, which took this picture. I’m no Chase Jarvis with the iPhone.
Will I be purchasing a rangefinder in reaction to all the marketing buzz lately? No. I need another camera like a hole in the head (the answer might be different for a full frame D700 though) and I’m certain now that I do not want to go backwards in terms of image-making technology. But, more importantly, I’ve realized that the best camera is the one I take with me and use everyday. Go out and shoot, and explore and try to make interesting images.