What a Difference a Year Makes: Working With the Leica M 240

August 4th, 2014  |  Published in Behind the Scenes, Equipment, Front Page, Noteworthy, Technique  |  4 Comments

I’m in love. There is, quite frankly, no other way to say it. Normally, my philosophy about getting emotional about camera equipment mirrors that of Gordon Gekko’s on getting emotional about stocks: don’t do it. As I’ve often said when it comes to talking to students or people seeking advice who ask for my opinion on this brand or that: Cameras are tools, plain and simple. But then again, how does the old saying go? When the only tool you have is a hammer, eventually everything is going to start looking like a nail.

Now, I’m not usually a gear-head; if you’ve seen me toting my, um, well-worn, 17-year old 400 around a golf course or football field you know I’m not one who has to have the latest and greatest anything so long as there’s no real competitive advantage to it, and who likes to, as Darrell Royal once put it, “dance with who brung ya.” I don’t use this blog (on the infrequent occasion that I use it at all) to hawk equipment, to sell ads, or to curry favor from manufacturers, and I’m not easily given to hyperbole. So with that in mind, I’m hoping you’ll allow me one not-too-slight digression from all of that for a minute, on the occasion of the one-year anniversary of the arrival (on my doorstep, at least) of a particular tool that has been, for me as a photographer, a game-changer, a creative kick-starter, and possibly a career, if not certainly a sanity saver: The Leica M 240.

I’ve been shooting professionally for a long time–20 years now (holy crap, that makes me feel old). Mostly sports and portraits, and I’ve earned a nice living doing it. I like to think that in the circles of magazine sports and portrait photographers, I’ve made a little bit of a name for myself–to the point that in February 2013, I was asked to join the judging panel of the sports division at the University of Missouri’s Pictures of The Year International (POYi) contest. Looking back on it, it was one of the best things that’s happened to me, career-wise, in a long time. Lugging a 400 around a golf course, dragging a case full of lights all over the place, it’s all good and don’t get me wrong, I really really enjoy what I do. But seeing some of the exceptional entries in that contest–and, more importantly, seeing many unsuccessful, one-dimensional portfolios comprising only straight action work–made me realize that I’d been falling into a rut of late–that I’d been carrying a bunch of proverbial hammers around for too long. Was my work that one-dimensional as well? Was there something missing from my repertoire, something I could add to my “practice” that would broaden my horizons, perhaps make myself more marketable but certainly give me a greater degree of satisfaction about what I was doing? To put it another way, upon introspection, everything out there in my photographic field of vision was starting to look like a nail. It was almost like, after all this time, I was detecting the onset of a photographic mid-life crisis. And so you might say that I did the photographic equivalent of what every guy in his early 40′s does when that happens: I went out and bought a sports car.

Sort of. What I really bought myself was what I hoped would be a swift kick in the ass; a financial and technique-altering shove that I thought might push me beyond the limits of what I’d been doing day in and day out for years and give me a reason, a justification (if only to myself) to get out, to look at things, and do things, a little differently from how I’d been doing them all this time.

My generational circle of Leicas: My grandfather's IIIc (bottom right), my M6 (top) and finally the game-changer (left), the M 240.

My first exposure to Leicas coincided with the very beginnings of my interest in photography, when I was a teenager and proudly showing my grandfather the used Canon AE-1 I’d saved up a little bit of money for during my junior year of high school. The next time he came by, he brought with him a worn leather case with this thing, the likes of which I’d never seen before, that he proudly insisted was a not only a camera, but in his thick Bavarian accent, also contended represented the best camera system ever devised, made by the best company ever to manufacture a camera. He had to unscrew the lens and telescope it it out of the body, and then he showed me how the base plate slid off to load a roll of film. It was a IIIc, late-1940s vintage, but it still worked like a charm (still does, in fact), and when he showed me how to use the rangefinder (again, something I’d never seen before) I knew there was something special about not just the camera, but the whole process. A decade later, a few years into my professional career, I allowed myself the extravagance of an M6, but since I was concentrating so heavily on shooting sports at the time it never saw a whole lot of use, and when it did, I marveled at the way the process of using the rangefinder made me think, and slow down, and compose, and see differently. To then complete the generational circle, my M 240 arrived a year ago last week (after a prolonged, but not unexpected, wait). Going back over what I’ve done with it in that time, I can’t help but give a nod of gratitude to this little inanimate object, and to the people who created it, for helping take my work, and my approach to the craft, outside of my comfort zone and to challenge me to work differently.

Yes, it was an expensive purchase (although in reality, not much more expensive than the Canon 1DX bodies I rely on for my sports work and had been relying on for my portraits), and yes, using it–particularly in the context of what I normally do, but also of what I’ve been doing differently now– takes some getting used to, but once I dedicated myself to making the leap, this piece of machinery is simply a joy to behold and use.

Using this camera forces me to take stock of what I’m doing. It doesn’t just make me look AT things differently, it makes me look FOR things differently. Having it with me on a sports assignment (usually it’s my 3rd camera, used for everything up to where my DSLR and 70-200mm would take over) makes me look around more, frame things in my head, and keep an eye out for compositions and subjects I’d normally overlook. I find myself looking more for light, for shadow, for lines rather than for motion or action. Off the course, pitch, or field, Its size gives it a portability I’d previously not had with my DSLR bodies–I can (and do) take it everywhere. The lenses I use–all fast primes, from a 21 mm f2.8 Elmarit to 35, 50, and 75 f1.4 Summiluxes–allow me to shoot with it anywhere, no matter the lighting conditions. And the design–black out the logo and model designator with a little black tape and it looks like a little point and-shoot, or at the very least it doesn’t look like the all-too familiar DSLR–allows for a good deal of underestimation and anonymity when wandering around looking for pictures.

The rangefinder focus provides not only a familiar mechanical feel, feedback, and format, but it also pins the complete responsibility for the image on you, the photographer. Unlike other mirrorless systems out there, there’s no electronic viewfinder to provide you with real-time exposure feedback, no autofocus to both help when you need help and blame when it screws up. There is no whiz-bang to this camera. It’s a brick with a now-de rigeur screen on the back, solid and uncomplicated. There’s a shutter speed dial on the top, and an aperture ring on the lens. Focus is achieved by a mechanical coupling of lens ring and rangefinder cams. Compared to film Leicas, it feels a little different , but it still feels good in your hands–sized a little bigger (more like an M5 than an M3 or M6), weighty without being heavy. And the full-frame, 24 megapixel sensor is the best I’ve ever seen or worked with in a camera of this size or class.

Sure, I still work with my DSLRs a lot, too–in some respects, working with a rangefinder is just as different, process-wise, as say, working with a view camera when compared to a DSLR. When it comes to certain applications-particularly in the world of action photography, there are just some things a DSLR can do that a rangefinder can’t. But the reverse is also true. Like I said, any camera is, in the end, just a tool. But there are some tools that can make you better at what you do, that can expand your horizons and push you in a different direction with your work. The M is one of them.

Below you’ll find a portfolio of images made exclusively with this one camera in the past year. To say it’s been a year of experimentation, growth and maturity when it comes to my work and my approach to it would be an understatement.

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One of the first things I began working on with the M was reportage and street photography work. I’d never done much of it before, and one of the reasons I bought it was because I thought (rightly) it might inspire me to try my hand at more of it. As I hoped, the camera’s size and unobtrusiveness gave me a confidence I’d never really had before to just go out and look for pictures.

Downtown 6 train, somewhere between 51st Street and Grand Central. One thing I love about Leitz lenses is that the distance scales on the focusing rings are actually accurate, readable...and useable. New York, August 2013. (Summilux 35mm Aspheric)

Out working on a book project for a corporate client, I was driving around looking for Texas bluebonnet photos one evening. I came across a bride, her mother, and a photographer working off the roadside on Highway 71 in Bastrop County, Texas. April 2014 (Summilux 35mm Aspheric)

Smoke break on 2nd Avenue from the Starbucks between 75th and 76th Streets. New York, July 2013. (Summilux 35mm Aspheric)

Ferry ride, New York Harbor, August 2013. (Summilux 50mm)

Honestly, I'm not exactly sure what the hell is going on here. My best guess is that I stumbled on an ill-conceived wedding shoot in the middle of Grand Central one afternoon. New York City, August 2013 (Summilux 35mm Aspheric)

Drummer Tom Van Schaik warms up backstage at the Austin City Limits Theater. Austin, Texas, December 2013. (Summilux 35mm Aspheric)

Carolyn Nicholls at her desk inside the giant scoreboard at the 18th hole at the British Open. For over two decades, she's been relaying instructions to workers inside the board who in turn change the names and scores by hand. Hoylake, England, July 2014. (Summilux 35mm Aspheric)

I haven’t given up on sports, either. Rather, I will bring the camera along to augment my DSLR kit, and while it can and does work for general action in that range (think sideline “chest cam” in football or the wide-angle for when a golfer shanks it into the gallery), it also still has the desired effect of pushing me to look outside the box of a long zoom or telephoto.

On deck. Little league baseball in Hays County, Texas. April 2014. (Summilux 35mm Aspheric)

Golfer Ryann O'Toole puts her spikes on in the parking lot, the first competitor to arrive at the 2014 U.S. Women's Open Sectional Qualifying tournament at the Honors Course in Dallas, Texas. May, 2014. (Summilux 35mm Aspheric)

Young fans in the gallery lining the second fairway at TPC Boston as Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson play through. Norton Massachusetts, August 2013. (Summilux 50mm)

Photographers work in the 'tunnel,' a small spot at the south end of Arthur Ashe Stadium at the 2013 U.S. Open tennis championships. Flushing, New York, September 2013. (Elmarit 21mm)

Batting instructional clinic, Bastrop, Texas. February 2014. (Summilux 35mm Aspheric)

Members of the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets cheer during singing of the 'Aggie War Hymn' during a game against Alabama at Kyle Field. College Station, Texas, September 2013. (Elmarit 21mm Aspheric)

Webb Simpson during a practice round at the 2014 Open Championship at Royal Liverpool Golf Club (the combination of the cloud formations along with this particular lens' tendency to vignette at small-ish apertures created the effect around the edges). Hoylake, England, July 2014. (Elmarit 21mm Aspheric)

For portraits, I love the versatility that the camera’s incredibly good high ISO capability, coupled with the maximum aperture of the Summiluxes provides whether in the studio or on location. Just about the only drawback of the 240 for portrait work is its 1/180th sync speed, meaning it generally has to stay in the bag for outdoor, strobed portrait shoots. But for just about everything else, that unique look of the almost-but-not-quite-vintage 50 and 75 (mine are 37 and 32 years old, respectively) is something that draws me to using them for portraits whenever I can.

Singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen, photographed at his ranch near Medina, Texas. July 2014. (Elmarit 21mm Aspheric)

Model Hayley Seminera, photographed in-studio in Austin, Texas. May 2014. Using the camera along with a 1.4 lens lets me piggy-back on my studio strobes, using the M with the continuous light source of the modeling lamps to give the images a little bit of a different feel from strobed portraits. (Summilux 75mm)

Artist McKay Otto, photographed in Wimberley, Texas. He had this gorgeous, available-light studio in his home; the fast Summiluxes let me take advantage of the beautiful ambient lighting conditions. June 2014. (Summilux 50mm (left) and 75mm)

Charro, Cedar Creek, Texas. April 2014. (Summilux 75mm)

And finally, the size, quietness, and versatility of the camera, along with the absolutely beautiful files it generates, has been a boon to my documentary work. First, a few images from a Sports Illustrated assignment on a road trip with a couple of rodeo cowboys (which, if you’re so inclined, you can read here: http://www.si.com/longform/rodeo/)…

Jacobs Crawley guides a van full of rodeo cowboys down Interstate 25 somewhere in New Mexico. July 2014. (Summilux 35mm Aspheric)

A father and son watch the bareback riding at the Greeley Stampede. Greeley, Colorado, July 2014. (Summilux 35mm Aspheric)

On the way from Prescott, Arizona to Molalla, Oregon, the cowboys nap in shifts in the back of their '97 Dodge Explorer conversion van. Near Bakersfield, California, July 2014. (Elmarit 21mm Aspheric)

Children try to get a up-close view of the rodeo in Prescott, Arizona. July 2014. (Summilux 35mm Aspheric)

Dinner on the run: Jacobs Crawley serves up fajitas from the passenger seat as the van rolls on. Near Eugene, Oregon, July 2014. (Voigtlander 15mm Heliar)

And second, a self-assigned project on Charreada, a Mexican form of rodeo. I began work on this in February of this year, having waited until the arrival of the M to get to work on it. In fact, part of my rationale for purchasing a digital rangefinder was to push myself to do more long-form projects inspired by my time judging last year’s POYi contest–that “kick in the ass” thing I talked about above. It worked. I’m continuing to shoot the project when I have time, and am hoping to get it completed by early next year. Again, the low-light capabilities of the M240′s sensor and the ability to use a bunch of beautifully-crafted f1.4 lenses makes it a no-brainer for work like this.

Getting ready for the bull ride. Von Ormy, Texas, February 2014. (Elmarit 21mm Aspheric)

7-year old Antonio Flores waits to ride during a charreada at Lienzo Charro San Miguel in Atascosa, Texas. April 2014. (Summilux 35mm Aspheric)

Roping practice at Lienzo Tres Potrancas outside of Austin, Texas. March 2014. (Summilux 50mm)

Don Roberto Chavira, owner of Austin's El Herradero team, gets his horse ready for a contest at his ranch. Austin, Texas, April 2014. (Summilux 35mm Aspheric)

Taking issue with a judge's decision. Von Ormy, Texas, February 2014 (Elmarit 21mm Aspheric)

Roping at the Texas State Championships, San Antonio, Texas. A key difference in rangefinder operation is the ability to see 'outside' the frame; here, the 75 mm frame lines take up about 50% of the M 240's viewfinder, allowing me to see what's coming and time the horse's entry into the image area from the right. May 2014 (Summilux 75mm)

Coleadero, a form of steer wrestling in which the rider stays on his mount while bringing down the steer. Atascosa, Texas, April 2014. (Summilux 35mm Aspheric)

And it even serves me well as a point-and-shoot when I travel and just wander about, sightseeing. I love the size and inconspicuousness of camera; I spent a week in Paris last November walking around with it tucked underneath a leather jacket, two lenses in my pockets, and never worried about a thing. It’s light enough and small enough so as not to be a burden or get in the way, and I take it with me everywhere. I am absolutely convinced that none of these images would have been recorded were it not for the M. I promise you, I would not have trundled around Paris (or London) with a 1DX and a (by comparison) giant 24-70 dangling around my neck.

Runners cross the Passerelle Léopold-Sédar-Senghor. No, I had no idea they were going to do that. I had pre-focused, pre-set the exposure for a silhouette, and was just waiting for a couple of people to make their way into the frame. Louis Pasteur once said that 'Fortune favors the prepared mind.' He was right. Paris, November 2013. (Summilux 50mm)

St. Paul's Cathedral, photographed from Millennium Bridge. London, July 2014. (Summilux 35mm)

Portraitist, Montmartre. Paris, November 2013. (Summilux 50mm)

Farmer's market, Beaune, France. November 2013. (Elmarit 21mm Aspheric)

Looking out over Paris from the Musee d'Orsay. Paris, November, 2013. (Summilux 50mm)

I know this might not make sense, but in an age when everything is automated–from focus to exposure to even the viewfinders we use when we look through a camera, there is a certain simplicity, a purity (okay, there’s that hyperbole I normally don’t engage in) to working with this camera, and that, for me at least, adds a sense of gravity to everything I do with it. I’ve had point and shoots before, I’ve tried the new “mirrorless” boxes that are all the rage nowadays, but I just couldn’t take the work as seriously when I did. I was using a point-and-shoot. Why bother? Yes, a camera is just a tool. I still believe that. And at one level your 400mm on a box with a sensor in it and my 400mm on a box with a sensor in it is going to be differentiated by our abilities to wield it competently. But take it up to another level–a level above sensors and bells and whistles and AF motors and pixel pitch and all that. There is a joy and exuberance to my work now that I feel had been unfortunately missing for a while, and I’d like to think it’s reflected in the work I do for my clients. Yes, it took a new, different camera to get me headed down that road. So sue me. But I can feel myself getting there. And it feels good. At that level, some tools really can help make you better at what you do.

And what’s more, it turns out my grandfather was right (but I’ve known that all along).

Responses

  1. What a Difference a Year Makes: Working With the Leica M 240 – by Darren Carroll | The Photo Brigade says:

    August 10th, 2014at 9:29 am(#)

    [...] reading and see more photos on Darren’s blog. Memebrs of the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets cheer during singing of the ‘Aggie War [...]

  2. Rob Heyman says:

    August 11th, 2014at 1:11 am(#)

    Excuse the blogspot website, but it is updated more than the official website.

    I agree totally with just about everything you said and am hoping that my recent purchase of an M will nudge me into a different direction. I, too, felt that I was getting into a rut and it was mainly the fact that the Nikons are just too damn easy! I have become complacent. I’ll let you know in a few months if my re-introduction into the world of Leica has had an effect.

  3. Fred van der Ende says:

    August 12th, 2014at 3:28 pm(#)

    Great article and very nice pictures! Real Leica shots. Love your b&w technique. How do you process the files?

  4. Paul Morse says:

    August 13th, 2014at 5:41 am(#)

    Great images and story Darren. I’m going to look into the M240. I used to shoot with the M6 and M7 when I worked at the White House.

    Best,

    Paul


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