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.
“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.”
Ernest Hemingway was talking about writing but I find the idea to be equally true of photography (or any form of art or craft). There are artists who seem to appear, sui generis, from nowhere, without precedent or antecedent though in the end this is a false narrative. There are, indeed, great and original talents, but everyone is influenced by something.
The Civil War photographer Mathew Brady had to travel with a mobile darkroom in a wagon. The wet plate process with which he worked produced amazing negatives and an irreplaceable record of that bloody conflict. But the process was so slow, so fragile, and the cameras so large, that actual combat pictures were impossible. It is fascinating to read about the lengths that early wildlife, documentary, and expedition photographers Martin and Osa Johnson went to in order to bring back never-before-seen images and films from the South Seas, Africa, Borneo, and elsewhere. That Frank Hurley’s sublime images of Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated 1915 Antarctic expedition were even made, let alone survived, is nearly unbelievable. John Noel ‘s footage and photographs from the 1924 Everest attempt where Mallory and Irving lost their lives took a nearly inhuman effort to shoot and then develop in a high-altitude field darkroom. Taking photos with early cameras in what are still the most unforgiving, deadly, and difficult mountains, jungles, and ice fields of the world is scarcely believable. But the images exist to prove it was done and the more you learn about these feats of bravery, endurance, technical skill, and artistic genius the more you realize that as photographers and explorers we truly rest on the shoulders of giants.
MONTERREY — Most photographers have favorite subjects and preferred themes. Some are obvious and others less so. One person shoots flowers and selfies. Another also photographs flowers and themselves but, as with any art, the subject is not always just the subject. Robert Mapplethorpe’s beautiful black and white studies of calla lilies and tulips are far from ordinary photos of pretty flowers and Graciela Iturbide’s self-portraits are far more than another reflexive selfie.
Regardless of whether you are a seasoned professional, an avid amateur, or you just got your first camera last week, an excellent way to become a better photographer is to take photo-walks. Walking, of and by itself: exploring a new city, a faraway island, a familiar old trail or a nearby neighborhood is one of life’s great pleasures with or without a camera. But this story is about photo walks and one walk in particular I took with my friend, the inimitable Sebastian John, one hot day over a year ago in Mumbai, India. It was my last long walk in that city I called home for two years and similar to the first long walk I took by myself in Mumbai during the monsoon not long after we arrived. It was not quite as long as that watery hike, because Sebastian and I took our foray into Mumbai’s mad streets in the sweltering days just before the monsoon broke. The heat in that time of year is very nearly hallucinatory. The temperature, combined with the crowds, humidity, smoke and noise, can only be completely appreciated by someone who has been there. Neither a thousand words nor a thousand photos can describe the reality of the streets of Mumbai.
Part of our mission here at Field Photographer is to help our readers become better photographers. Both in person and from readers on-line, we are regularly asked for advice on how to become better with a camera. The following are five things anyone can do to improve their picture making ability. None of them are terribly complicated or very expensive. There are no cryptic, esoteric secrets involved. I don’t doubt that investing years of study and tens of thousands of dollars going to photography school would make you better than when you started (or maybe not, judging by some of what is currently in fashion from visual academia). I am advising neither for nor against formal education. What I am saying is that there are a number of things anyone who is truly interested in the art and craft of photography can do to become much better.
The oddly and charmingly named (but what Voigtlander is not oddly and charmingly named) 35mm Color Skopar is among the smallest and lightest 35mm lenses you can get in Leica M mount. At around $500 new, it is also one of the least expensive. It is an excellent choice for your 35mm lens whether or not price is a consideration.
Go wide! Go wider!! Go as wide as you can without going too wide!!! This is how I think about the 20mm lens and, to be specific, the classic 20mm f/2.8 Nikkor in both auto and manual focus. In my long experience with this lens — I have used it in its MF and AF versions as one of my primary working optics since around 2000 — I have found it to be a special lens in particular and generally as wide an angle as one can get without entering the realm of special effects. Lenses wider than 20mm can come in handy for unique perspectives and situations, but rarely for every day use.