This morning I came across some photos of mine that were published in 180 online magazine. I had made the submission back in January but I didn’t know the mag had actually posted the images. I had written some text with the submission that served as an overview of my approach to photography. I had since forgotten what I had written and when I read it this morning, one paragraph jumped out at me:
I wish I did more personal work. I’ve just never found the right tool for it. I know it’s cool to say you don’t care about cameras when you’re a photographer…they are just a tool to express a vision. But for me if I don’t have the right camera, it really affects my picture taking ability. I love my big heavy Nikons for studio use, but when I’m walking around or trying to shoot something for myself, I want something small and simple. Not one company has bothered to make a professional grade, simple camera. And for that reason, I never enjoy just walking around with a camera.
I’ve since acquired a Leica M9 and it has met my requirements for a “professional grade, simple camera”. I carry the M9 everywhere I go. I started off using a belt holster that I bought online, but after having the the camera fall off my belt and on to the floor on one occasion ($450 repair) and then having the product break into 2 pieces at the West Indian Day Parade in Brooklyn a few weeks later, I decided to just use a Domke Gripper Strap like I do on my Nikons.
Although I had never had any interest in doing street photography prior to getting the M9 I decided to give it a try since the general consensus was that the camera was well suited for this type of photography. Surprisingly, I produced some pretty good work (more of which can be viewed on 500 Pix).
Contrary to what I had read about the M9, I found the process of framing and focusing very slow and there was no question that I could nail street shots more quickly with my Nikon D3s. Still there was much I loved about the M9 and I detailed this in a You Tube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AZtj1o9oy4c. Basically it comes down to my love for the design of the camera and how the simplicity of that design allows me to focus on what I want to shoot without the camera getting in the way. Or more accurately, the camera gets in the way quite a bit but I don’t see the obstacles as something that hinders my vision. Rather, the obstacles limit what I’m able to shoot and consequently help me focus on what I can shoot.
Using my Nikon D3s for example, I can shoot pretty much anything. If I’m following an artist like Plies for the day, it’s not hard to nail a shot of him walking:
And then five minutes later, I can instantly calculate proper exposure to balance light output from my flash with the ambient light in the room:
And later still, I can dial in in a high ISO to create a portrait in a setting where I don’t have my high powered strobes:
Had I used the Leica M9 this day, I wouldn’t have nailed the focus on the walking shot and it would have taken too long to balance the flash and ambient light output on the low quality, slow rendering M9 LCD. However, the M9 would have nailed the portrait image just fine. And, more importantly because of the way the camera renders images, the final shot would have been more appealing to my eyes than the Nikon version. In other words, using the M9 would require that I create fewer types of images but I would have liked the final results better. It’s a trade off for sure, but one that I am often (but not always) willing to take. If it’s a client job, I may not have the luxury of foregoing the creation of certain types of shots. However, the M9 comes with me every single time I’m on a “real” shoot.
When I am in work mode and I really need to nail the shot, I’ll always grab my Nikon. I was shooting Cassie at BET yesterday and Stephen Hill, President of Programming joined her onstage for a few seconds. Time for the Nikon D3s that hangs on my left shoulder:
Had I used the M9, the moment would have been long gone by the time I acquired focus. However, if I’m given a few seconds to create something more artistic, my first choice is the M9 that hangs on my right. Here I posed Cassie to emphasize her nails and I grabbed the M9 because I like the way it draws the image:
I’m cognizant of the fact that this Leica file is inferior to a file produced by my Nikon. The color -particularly in the lips and eyes, is often not right on the M9 files. However, I still prefer this rendition over the more technically correct files generated by my Nikon. The full length image below is one of those technically correct Nikon images that I can’t create with my Leica:
This situation isn’t unique to BET. I shoot world jiu jitsu champion Marcelo Garcia on a regular basis. When I was using my Nikon the files were technically perfect despite the fact that I’m shooting high ISO (2000-2500) and in a mixture of fluorescent and daylight:
The Nikon image is above and a Leica image is below. Despite the inaccurate color, the increased grain and the lack of shadow detail in the blacks, in the Leica image, I love the look of the M9 image. It reminds me of the gritty NYC presented in films like “The Warriors” or “Serpico”. Shooting with the Nikon is like watching sports in the crystal clear clarity of HD TV. Shooting with the Leica M9 is like shooting with a camera phone and processing the images in an app like Instagram or Hipstamatic. While the processing robs the files of their technical accuracy it creates something that is more visually pleasing.
The Leica M9 takes me back to 10 years ago when I was a photographer and everyone else wasn’t. When I used to walk into a room and say I’m a photographer people thought it was an interesting, unique profession. Nowadays when I say I’m a photographer I’m met with, “Really? My friend is a photographer too.” So I like using a tool that many other photographers aren’t using.
I’ll use it in the studio and on location whenever I’m not rushed and I know I will be in full control of the lighting and composition.
I’ll use it when I attend an industry party that I don’t intend on shooting but I’m expecting at least one person to ask me to take a photo. In these situations I couple the M9 with a small $40 manual only Sunpack flash:
And I’ll use it without a flash backstage at a fashion show when I want to create something that just looks different from what the Wireimage shooter will create with his Canon 5DMKII:
Because the M9 is with me pretty much all the time and because it produces an image that matches my vision and aesthetic, it feels not so much like “a”camera but more like “my” camera. And in a world where we all have the same color iPhone and where our “neighborhood” coffee shop is the Starbucks franchise, it’s important to me as a photographer that I have something that feels like it’s mine and mine alone. Flaws and all…