TRAVELS WITH LEICAS (AND THEIR FRIENDS THE NIKONS)

By Andrew J. Tonn

Mental Institution, Transcarpathia, Ukraine. Leica M6ttl, 50mm f/2 Summicron, Kodak 400CN.

I was 11 or 12 years old and looking for my first camera.  My father told me, “Son, whatever type of camera you chose to be with is just fine with your mother and me just as long as it’s a Nikon.”

I had been perusing the centerfolds of camera magazines, ogling the Nikon bodies and yes, even the fine looking Olympus, Canon, Pentax, and Minoltas.  When my father was once looking to buy a camera, his photographic mentor Gino Rossi told him to buy the one he really wanted, to not compromise. My dad told me the same thing and what I really did want was a Nikon.  The others were pretty but they didn’t feel right for me. There was one caveat. I had read an article about Leicas and when I asked my dad about them he didn’t turn up his nose as he did at other brands. He said something about them being very good but too expensive — and for an 11-year-old about to spend his life savings of just over $100 that was the end of that.  I ended up buying a well-used Nikon FM black body. My dad gave me a 50mm Nikon f/1.8 E Series lens, since my life savings wouldn’t cover any optics, and that camera carried me years into the future — to work at newspapers and on my first international documentary assignments in Central America. Along the way it was joined by a Nikon F3 and a few other lenses, most notably the Nikkor 20mm f/2.8.  Finally, the old FM and the newer F3 were joined by a brand new Leica M6ttl. That my introduction to the M system and this is the story of that journey.

Mental Institution, Transcarpathia, Ukraine. Leica M6ttl, 50mm f/2 Summicron, Kodak 400CN.

While working at a daily paper in north-central Ohio, I did a story on a medical relief NGO working in Central America with a number of local doctors and other health-care professionals from our coverage area.  I convinced my paper to let me take vacation to travel to Honduras. I sent back five stories and was desperate to return even before the week was up. I took the FM, which, after so many years, had developed a (thankfully minor) light leak I didn’t know about until the film came back.  Before going I also bought a lovely old Nikkormat whose light meter promptly went on the fritz and an off-brand 28mm lens made by Zykkor. I was already thinking about a Leica but all I had at the time for a rangefinder was a Ricoh 500 G. This somewhat ersatz rig mirrored what I would later carry and, all in all, not only served well but made me aware of my gear’s shortcomings — what I needed but also what worked for me in the field.

Tree at high noon, Utila, Honduras. Leica M6ttl, 15mm Voigtlander f/4.5 Super-Heliar, Kodak Kodachrome 64.

Around that time I was also reading Deborah Copaken’s (At publication Deborah Copaken-Kogan), Shutterbabe: Adventures in Love and War, her memoir of working as a photojournalist during the late 1980s and 1990s in Afghanistan, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere.  It is a book I would highly recommend, both for its story of one photographer’s life in the business as well as for its portrayal of a time just before smartphones, digital cameras, the internet changed the world forever.  The book is known for her accounts of her romances with other journalists but I was more struck by her love affair, tenderly and passionately described, with her Leica M6 (as well as descriptions of other people’s Leicas). There was something in her accounts of working with the camera, and her joy in its ownership, that made me determined not go abroad again as a photographer without one.

Indeed, at this time I was in the early stages of leaving the newspaper to work for the aforementioned NGO back in Honduras.  I had gotten a grant, much smaller than even my small newspaper salary, but one I figured could last the better part of a year in Central America.  I’d gotten a CLA done on the Nikon FM, relegated the Nikkormat and the Zykkor to the shelf, and acquired an F3 HP, a 20mm f/2.8 Nikkor, and was figuring out how to get my Leica.  I went up to Dodd Camera in Cleveland one day to buy a Domke bag (also on Shutterbabe’s suggestion) and it happened to be Leica Day at the store.  They were offering about $200 off new cameras and I figured that was a sign to make it work somehow.  I put my order in. Much like it was with the FM, I didn’t have enough for a lens, didn’t even know much about Leica lenses other than they often cost more than the cameras.  A few weeks later I picked up my new M6ttl. By then I’d bought an ancient collapsible 50mm f/2 screw-mount Summar (and M adaptor) from a camera collector friend for $200. It wasn’t what I wanted but it was something.  In uncommonly good shape for that lens, it actually took lovely photos.  In fairly short order, however, I found a well-used, optically perfect 50mm f/2 Summicron from F-Stop Camera in Akron.  These would be my only Leica lenses for a number of years.

Huaca Arco Iris, Trujillo, Peru. Leica M6ttl, 50mm f/2 Summicron, Fuji Neopan 400 with warm tone.

The M6ttl, FM and F3 served me well in Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico on what ended up being nearly 9 months in the region.  Over the next years I acquired an old 135mm f/4.5 Hektor, a 15mm f/4.5 Voigtlander Super-Wide Heliar VI (and a Leica MDa to put it on).  I used these cameras on assignments in El Salvador, Sweden, Ukraine, and elsewhere, but the world began its shift from film to digital. The transition was neither easy nor simple.  In those days of yore, not so long ago, there was no such thing as an amateur DSLR, no mirrorless-wonders, and no full frame DSLRs even for pros, let alone a digital rangefinder.

I did enter the digital world with a Leica, however: the Digilux 1.  It is essentially a large point and shoot and can take lovely photos in perfect light with its great lens but small, underpowered, 4-megapixel sensor.  It looks a bit like an Argus C3 and I still have a soft spot for it but the Digilux 1 never was going to be sufficient for most professional work. Then there was the Nikon D1x, a $5,000 beast of a DSLR with an APS-C sized 6 (ish)-megapixel sensor that did work as a professional camera but left a lot to be desired.

Author in Gangotri, Uttarakhand, India by the Ganges river with Leica M-P 240 and 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit. IPhone 6s. Bharat Pathak photo.

None of this was very satisfying from my standpoint.  I had a developed style of working and the digital offerings simply couldn’t be made to work in the manner I was accustomed to.  Digital rangefinders themselves were once said to be a physical and mechanical impossibility but the Epson RD-1 came out and then, finally, the Leica M8.  The main problem with both of these cameras was their less-than-full-frame sensors. Actually, they both had plenty of other problems, but the smaller sensor on a camera meant to be used with prime lenses, along with a high price tag, made them both complete non-starters for me.  I simply wasn’t going to put down thousands of dollars on an underperforming camera and then go buy lenses in order for those lenses to act as other lenses.  I’d buy a 35mm lens, but not so it could be a 50mm because my 50mm was a 75mm.

The whole thing made me sad.  Finally Nikon came out with the full frame D3 (and D700).  Canon may have been first to the full-frame sensor game but the first cameras, in my opinion, to finally realize the potential of digital photography were the aforementioned Nikons.  I managed to get one and my (Nikon) lenses were finally my lenses again. A 50mm was a 50mm, the way it was intended to be! Leica finally came out with a full frame camera, the M9. From the get-go, however, it was beset by technical issues and (to me) an unjustifiable price tag.  After all, I had the D3 and it more than got the job done. I became an early mirrorless camera adopter with a Panasonic GF1 system, and then bought the incredible Nikon D800. I simply could not justify spending money on a digital Leica when I had great cameras that made me money and any extra funds could go towards travel and documentary projects.  I often said that as much as I wanted a digital Leica I wanted to be back in Central America even more. Besides, if I really wanted to work with a rangefinder, I still had my M6ttl and developing a pile of film was (is) still cheaper than a problematic M9.

Home Restoration, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India. Leica M-P 240, Zeiss 50mm f/2 Planar ZM.

Somewhere along the line I acquired a beat up IIIf on which I mounted the old Summar…

And then my life changed again.  I found myself in Washington D.C. getting ready to move to India for a couple years and the time was finally right.  Just as I wasn’t going to go off to Honduras without a Leica, I wasn’t going to the Subcontinent without a digital Leica.  By this time the M (typ 240) had been released (which, for the record, should be the M10). I was already leaning that direction when they released the upgraded (and better looking) M-P (typ 240).  As before, I somehow put together the funds and got one from Leica Store D.C. I even managed to get a $400 discount. Someone had breathed on the box or looked at it askance –perhaps its mother had seen a two-headed Canon AE-1 whilst pregnant. Anyway, it wasn’t “technically untouched” despite being brand-new-in-the-box.

Sadhus near the Triyuginarayan Temple, Rudraprayag District, Uttarakahand, India. Leica M-P 240, Zeiss 50mm f/2 Planar ZM.

I ordered a new Zeiss 50mm f/2 Planar to go with it, then later in India, the vastly underrated 90mm f/4 Elmar C, and a 35mm f/2.5 Voigtlander Color-Skopar.  I took a job that actually paid some money and added a Leica M9 Monochrome and a 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit. After India, with the Monochrome and the Elmarit in for repairs (the camera with sensor glass corrosion and the lens damaged when I fell on some rocks in the Himalayas) I got a 35mm f/2 ASPH Summicron and a collapsible 50mm f/2.8 Elmar M.  The 35mm Voigtlander Color-Skopar went severely out-of-whack in Haridwar.

And right here, for now, I’m calling the game.  Sure I would like an M10 (which, for the record, should be the M11) but I am where I need to be.  I have all the Leicas I can use (and probably a few more) and while I love shiny things as much as the next person, I am not in a lifestyle conducive to being a collector.  For that I am thankful. The cameras I have, while all superseded by newer generations, are more than capable of doing professional work. The Leica M-P 240 and Nikon D800 in particular, like the M6ttl and F3 before them, form the core of my working rig.  

Maharashtrian countryside during the monsoon. Leica M9 Monochrome, 50mm f.2 Summicron.

There are many supporting characters, both film and digital.  I am catholic in my tastes as far as cameras are concerned. The Leica M-P (typ 240) is the most used of any of them, as was the M6ttl once I really learned it.  One or another Leica has been in my bag on almost every trip, every assignment, since I got my first one way back in 2001. Call it a long-term international love affair and one that is far from over.  At some point I will write more about the technical aspects of using those cameras in the field but for now I will leave you with this thought: find a way to buy the camera you really want. If you want a Leica then find one and don’t worry about the lens.  You will find one and one will find you.  If it isn’t perfect then make it perfect later.  Finally, spend far more money and time shooting and traveling than on new gear.   I do have a fair bit of gear but I have been acquiring and shooting it over many years.  The stuff you will get, but you can’t get back the time and experience of being out in the world with a camera in your hand. FP

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