Leica Snapshots, some thoughts about . . .



Snapshots and Leicas

John Austin with IIIc

I see my work in two parts, the formal/ist big work made with big cameras, and the snapshots, made with screw mount Leicas. Ending up with Leicas for the current snapshots has been a long process from a Leica IIIb in 1970, sold in 1972, through too many rejected cameras, finally a Leica M2 in the late 2000s. There is something special to me about the screw Leicas, ‘Though when they were cheap in Germany in the very early 1960s I rejected them as old and awkward. They are old and awkward, but give me an immediacy I was not expecting to find. The last of the rejected snapshot cameras I tried was a FED 2 with a 35mm Canon lens I have had for years. On a tactile and mechanical level the FED is a disaster, but it was cheap and did point the way

35mm lenses

My first 35mm lens on 35mm film was a Schneider Alpa Curtagon on a Alpa Reflex 6c, a camera and lens I sold in 1975 and still miss. 35mm became an instant extension of my normal “walking” field of vision. 35mm is also close to the normal 43mm focal length for 35mm format. The logic of this is that the square root of 36 squared plus 24 squared is 43.2 millimetres, not the awkward 50mm too long length wrongly called standard. The standard focal length for a camera format is its diagonal. When I start to work I walk to the correct framing distance for 35mm, with a 50mm lens I feel the need to walk backward, but have the feeling I am pushing myself too far away from the subject. I have come to see my fjords of vision in three angles, 21mm approaches the panic awake full peripheral vision angle, and for this reason was used in my 1990s Western Australian Forest Protest work. 85-105mm is the conversational angle of vision where only a face is concentrated on. To me odd focal lengths like 24, 28 and 50mm don’t fit into these three seeing fields and I am ending up with just 35mm. However, using a 50mm from 35mm distance can be used as it cuts off bits of subject at the edges which gives an awkward tension in some images

I am currently using an old Canon 35mm f2.8 and am looking for the f1.8 version. I have been given an in-bits 35mm f1.7 Cosina Ultron lens which is in Adelaide waiting to be put back together, but I expect that to happen with the second coming. However, as I have already stated, I like the Korean War vintage roughness of the early Canon lenses, so will try to find a wider aperture one contemporary with the one I have. Canon lenses reached their pinnacle at the end of the Canon Leica copy cameras . . . The Ultron will be too sharp for the snapshot work, but may find use for other 35mm projects

(EDIT 30th Sept’ 2014
35mm Canon replaced with a 35mm f2.8 Cosina/Voigtlander Color Skopar, sharp in the middle and with a very smooth quality to the out of focus regions on both sides of the plane of focus)

Snapshot material

As well as documenting the process of the 10×8″ Naked Portraits I use snaps to record daily events, like Rae in the garden or walking on a beach. I now feel that there is a validity to snaps that I did not hold years ago when I took everything too seriously. I know the “use digital point and shoot” argument, but I don’t like them on a tactile level and the compu-electrical complexity causes me to jump up and down on them, something I enjoy doing


Leica Snapshot Time

In concert with my new series of 10×8″ Portraits I am using a Leica IIIc, and soon a second Leica IIIf, for a series of snapshots of the process of making the big pix with the big camera

Leica IIIc

Leica IIIc with 35mm Canon lens. This lens is suitably bad for the work I want from it

The choice of screw mount Leica for this work is odd at the very best. The first commercial Leica design had some odd quirks that could and should have been changed with the very next model. These are separate view and range finder eyepieces, tiny view finder, the dreadful up-the-arse film loading with the need to re-cut the leader to 4″ to enable it to be loaded, separate shutter speed dials for slow and fast speed ranges, cloth shutter curtains that love to be burnt by the Sun . . . These were all corrected in the Zeiss Ikon Contax which was a vast improvement on the Leica and most of these oddities were eventually changed in the M3, apart from the cloth shutter curtain

However, I really like the old screw Leicas due to the old look to the negs, helped by using a Canon 35mm f2.8 as the standard lens. I have owned and borrowed several M series Leicas, but these are too big and I vastly prefer using the Nikon F to the M series Leica for multi lens 35mm work. For this kit I will stick to 35 and sometimes 50mm only

On the positive side the camera is small, lighter than many currently popular cameras, will carry a great range of old lenses, many of them so bad they are really interesting to use. I do not ask “quality” quality from 35mm. For “quality” I use 10×8″ and 5×4″. To me 35mm is a snapshot format and I celebrate the immediacy and engagement of a 35mm snapshot. It will be sensibly argued that a modern point and shoot digital camera will be better than an old Leica, but in reality the shutter lag annoys me and users of these cameras view a dis-engaged world via a screen, like viewing their world on television. I like the slip in bright line viewfinders and with the 5cm Leitz view finder, with its 1:1 image ratio, it is easy to keep both eyes open with a bright frame showing the field of view hanging in space. However, in practice I almost only use 35mm focal length on Leicaand occasionally 5cm, so I am generally limited to the 35mm finder which requires one eye to be closed, it is up the the worker to chose which, which can be fun in terms of image framing. (For other focal lengths I have the residue of my commercial Nikon kit with lenses from 20mm to 105mm. I have no intention of turning the Leica into a multiple lens camera outfit

There is another helpful thing to know with early Leica and some other lenses, which is that the focusing lock button has four useful positions. At the locked position it is focused at infinity, at the bottom the lens is focused at 12 feet, at the mirror position to infinity gives 6′ and sitting horizontally it is focused at 4.5′. Knowing this can help remove the need to use the rangefinder and speed things up. Also learning the depth of field at working distances and apertures will help


Rae on Parry Beach, Denmark just before Christmas 2013

Bronwyn in cafe in Denmark just before Christmas 2013

Bronwyn in cafe in Denmark just before Christmas 2013


Rae at Waychinicup, November 2013. This image on 50mm Summitar, 1946, the rest are 35mm Canon

After the up-the-arse film loading the next worst thing is the plethora of NEXists who buy second hand film camera lenses from every available manufacturer, mount them on their cameras via apaptor rings and think they are clever