Bolinao, Pangasinan, 2014

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Never say never should be a motto of every photographer out there.

When the new M came out, a lot of so-called purists were up in arms when Leica offered this iteration with, gasp, Live View!  Pitchforks were out on the heresy that was video.  If we wanted all that, then we’d be getting DSLRs so the purists claimed.

Higher ISO capability wasn’t that important, as expressed by many M9 holdouts.

Sadly, I myself held on to one of those pitchforks and clamored for a digital equivalent of the MP.  No muss, no fuss.  Just the usual buttons needed to take a photograph with TTL thrown in as a slight nod to, well, forward thinking.

But time and again, intellectual idiots (an oxymoron, I know) like myself get to be proven wrong.

I spent 4 days doing slow shutter type landscapes 90% of the time with the M240.  It all started when my friend offered to lend me his filters for the trip.  I scratched my head and looked at him like he was a mad man.  Seriously? I thought we were going to photograph tired men on salt beds toiling away under the afternoon sun?  He had this evil glint on his Matsuda-veiled eyes and I knew that it was going to be a totally different experience this time around. Well, we did photograph toiling men, but that was pretty shortlived.  After a short 10 minute lecture on how to use the damn things, I was off!

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What I learned:

1) If you know how to work your ISO, aperture and shutter speed, adding a filter to the equation is manageable.  For example, if you have a Lee Big Stopper that puts you down 10 stops, all you have to do is use that factor of 10 as a starting point to do slow shutter work.  There’s a bit of tweaking here and there to get to a desired setting but it won’t take very long.  What you’re essentially just adjusting here is the shutter speed on bulb mode.  Occassionally, you may find yourself adjusting aperture to stop things down further depending on the light.  Adjusting ISO would be the last resort.  As a general rule, it’s recommended to work off the M’s base ISO of 200.  But if it’s not possible, well, adjust we shall!

2) There’s a rhythm required to working on an M for landscape slow shutter work.  And it can get confusing or frustrating at times especially since I like to use the optical viewfinder to focus.  You need to be in flow with those series of steps so that when you need to adjust, you don’t fumble and heaven forbid drop that filter on to them raging waves.

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3)  In a nutshell, it goes something like this and your style may vary.  This is in no way a bible on how to do it..

  • Compose first.  Find your spot.  This is really the most difficult part just like any other area of photography.  Just because there’s a wave or rock somewhere doesn’t mean that it lends itself automatically to slow shutter work.  Be very aware of this first step because you’ll be spending a lot of time setting up that shot.  Don’t waste that good light is what it really is.
  • Determine what you need to put on your lens. You don’t always need to use a graduated filter (aka Neutral Density Graduated Filter or “ND Grad” if you want to sound like a seasoned pro) with something like a Lee Big Stopper that can slow things down by 10 stops.  If the light is relatively flat all around, there’s no need to slap on a graduated filter (ok, it’s those things that have half the glass dark, and the other half light).  Just use the 10 stops one to slow down your shutter speed.  There is a Lee Little Stopper at 6 stops that is supposed to be ideal for low light at beginning or end of day.  But it really depends on what you want to achieve and how.  If you’re starting out, it might be a good idea to go with the Big Stopper just because it’s a bit more flexible. The Lee Filters website has all the recommended steps spelled out complete with a corresponding exposure table.
  • Focus first before putting on things in front of your lens.  Obvious right? Not so obvious when you’re on the field. It shaves off a few seconds and just like in Formula One, every second counts when you’re talking about the light and how long it’s going to stay that way for any period of time especially when you’re starting early morning or late in the day when the window of opportunity for a particular kind of light is very slim.  You can focus optically which is my preferred method.  Seeing my subject pop into focus gives me that reassuring feeling that I nailed it. Or you can switch on Live View, move the focusing ring until those red things come out on your preferred focus point.  The latter has saved me a couple of times especially when time is of the essence and you’re having a hard time determining if you’re already in focus or not.  Folks with AF have it easy.  It’s crazy, I know but my mileage for enjoying the process will vary with yours.
  • If you need to put on those half light/half dark filters in front of your lens, try to see if you need a .3, a .6, or a .9 depending on the contrast.  If the light all around tends to be soft, a .3.  If really intense such that you’ll either lose shadows or blow highlights, a .9.  If you’re not sure, .6 is the ISO400 of film. You can go use that as a starting point and see if you need to go up or down.  In most cases, a .6 will probably suffice.  But that all depends on preference.  I personally found this one to be ever present on my lens.
  • Set your shutter speed to Bulb and rotate the power switch to timer mode.  I usually have mine set to something like 12 seconds, to give me some last-minute creative latitude to adjust the shutter speed.  The M240 cuts off at 60 seconds so it’s not as flexible as other systems.  I found myself wanting a bit more sheen or wisp on my water surfaces at times but you work with what you have.  It works pretty well during the golden hours of the day with tradeoffs when the sun is really out and beating that SPF 50 into crying submission.

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4)  It can eat up a lot of juice so make your shots count, now more than ever.  I usually lock in on a location and bracket the hell out of it averaging maybe 4-6 shots of the same image.  Not exactly efficient nor elegant but waves are unpredictable and so is the light.  You just don’t know what you’ll get even if you have the exposure locked on especially if you’re limited to 60 seconds and you don’t have the ability to just cream the waves regardless.  I find the battery life to be a pro rather than a con.  It forces me to look harder and be really critical about all the elements in a composition.  I am OC enough as it is where composition is concerned but this minor disadvantage makes it even more apparent.

5)  I love how it slows me down.  People who know me already think I can zen the hell out of street or travel photography.  Nope, landscape is the sh*t.  Mother nature will slow you down.  You need to make sure that she doesn’t take your stuff away in the next oncoming tide.  Or that you don’t miscalculate a step and slip on some mossy rock. Every step taken, measured.

6)  Don’t tempt the fates especially if your filters are loaners :-p

7)  Don’t let your mind wander.  Missing a second or two will spell the difference between a nice shot and a really nice shot. I don’t have those auto timers so I either look at my chronograph (never realized they would be useful) or peep through the viewfinder to check on the time elapsed.

8)  Unless you’re a freak with three hands, you’ll need a bag of sorts to stage them filters when you’re trying to figure out your setup.  Those that zip up or open at the top are the best.  I was able to survive with my Artisan and Artist but something with a bit more room would’ve eased tensions a bit.  Also, don’t forget to have a microfiber cloth and an optical cleaner handy just in case you find yourself getting your fingerprints on the glass. I used to laugh at those man bags but a few minutes in trying to figure which hand will hold what gave me a better appreciation for the potential of those fruity things. My friend probably has the best staging set up of all.  He hired an extra pair of hands so he can operate like a surgeon.  He just shouts, “Big Stopper!” and voila, a dark wafer-thin sheet of glass materializes on his palm.  When I shout “Big Stopper!” it probably only means that the waves took it off mine.

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9)  Be sure about your grip on things.  Doesn’t apply to surgeons or young folks.  But it certainly applies to clumsy mid-lifers like myself.  I am very conscious about the pressure that all my fingers are able to apply simultaneously holding glass while adjusting camera levels simultaneously.  Yeah, I know, the bag, the bag, the bag.

10)  That with my kind of shooting, Sandisk shares can plummet overnight.  I usually average 16gb a day which translates to something like 5 cards for a week of shooting.  This trip, a 32gb card was very excessive. I could’ve survived on a single card if I didn’t photograph those tired men toiling away on salt beds.  Of course, a lot of factors played into it one of which was my learning curve.  If I really get into it, I can probably crank out a whole lot more.  I shot 20gb this trip.  It’s usually double or triple that.  Yunnan China was probably 60.  And oh, I shoot RAW+Full res Jpeg 😉

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The token enviro-portrait of the trip.

So the M isn’t about to do star trails and such but it does offer excellent possibilities to the hard core rangefinder user.  As others have said, if you don’t like the new features, you don’t have to use them.  In addition, it’s not as complicated as it looks.  Again, people who know me will be quite surprised that I actually have a tripod.  Just keep an open mind and you can learn the basics in under 15 minutes.  Of course, beginners to photography in general will take a lifetime to learn it.  Hahaha!!!  Just kidding folks.  All this hobby needs is an open mind.

By the way, a starter set up for doing this sort of thing will set you back a 1000USD give or take a few dollars and pesos depending on the prevailing exchange rate.  That doesn’t include the camera and the tripod 😉

What was lent to me and what I might actually order if and when my Leica M9-P is able to find a new home:

  1. 3 sets of filters – .3, .6, .9
  2. 1 Lee Big Stopper
  3. Heliopan adapter/lens holder (if you guys have a 21 and a 50, you’re in luck as you’d only need one adapter.  It screws in on both focal lengths). Lee has its own adapter/holder but Heliopan seems to be the preferred setup for some M users.

While Leica might not yet be there in terms of electronics tech compared to the likes of Canon or Nikon, I think it will only be a matter of time when it’s able to catch up in the areas that really matter (ISO/sensor performance, for example, although even this one is already pretty decent). And when that time comes, the M might prove to be of better value than what the market will be able to offer.  Imagine a rangefinder that can also double as a serious landscape camera!  For the travel photographer who wants a light setup that can deliver serious results on all aspects of travel photography, the M is getting ever so close to being the perfect all-arounder.

Thanks for reading.