Continuing with my camera review series, here’s the third installment (I previously reviewed the Nikon D850 and Fujifilm X-H1), as promised. This time we’ll be looking at when and why I use the Leica M-P, a full-frame rangefinder of extraordinary character, rich history and unparalleled glass.
I find this kind of review better than a rundown of features, or even a single test shoot. In real life, a camera must earn a spot in a photographer’s arsenal by having specific kinds of shoots that it performs best at. By showing you how I shoot throughout the year with any given camera, and comparing it to the shoots I do with my other cameras, I feel you can truly get a sense of what a camera is all about.
On to the review…
January: New Year, New Themes
Every new year, I try to rededicate myself to my true love of fine art photography with a new idea of some kind. Despite doing it as a career, I find it important to maintain a love and passion for the medium by also working on personal themes and submitting my work to gallery shows, magazines and award shows.
In 2018, I was happy to stumble onto an idea that I would continue to push and work on throughout the entire year and even incorporate into my professional work. I called the concept, Conversation With Walls.
The idea was a reflection of a culture that had become so entrenched in views as to become impervious to others’ opinions. Having actors and dancers interact with a wall as if they were trying to explain themselves to it became the ongoing theme I worked on throughout the year, and even had a show of the works in both a gallery and fine art magazine.
This, to me, is the absolute sweet spot of the Leica, and why it will always be one of my main cameras. The Leica camera system is designed with methodical, concept-driven image creation in its bones. The manual focus-only lenses require a different approach to shooting — one that, for me, forces more attention on composition and precise framing. And this works hand-in-hand with the kinds of images that I like to have hang in galleries or people’s homes. For an image to feel incredibly purposeful, I believe one must put that kind of purposeful effort into making it. The Leica is built for it and has never failed me in the many years I’ve shot with it.
February: Running Into Heroes
I was walking around West Hollywood when I happened upon Scott Oster, working on a tubular skateboard ramp for an event. Scott skated professionally when I was a teenager and I watched him and his buddies rip it up in Venice and wanted nothing more than to hang in that crowd — now I live in Venice Beach and probably owe a lot of that to this guy. So, running into him and then talking him into letting me take this portrait was a kind-of surreal moment for me and I really appreciated that he trusted me to do the shot without knowing me or whether I had the skills to pull it off at all.
And this is another place where the Leica comes in handy. While it’s a small and unassuming camera, the quality that comes with the brand tends to signal that you’re serious about shooting and that can help in the world of street portraits. But the bigger advantage is that it can be your everyday camera that comes with you everywhere and still manages to handle difficult lighting situations like this one, and deliver stunning results. Cuz you never know who you’re going to run into.
March: Editorial Celebrity Shoot
I don’t always pull out the Leica at a professional shoot — but there’s a certain type of setting where it works very well. I don’t like to use off-camera lighting with the Leica, but when natural light is dynamic or especially romantic, I will often get a whole different look than the main shots by grabbing the Leica and putting on my 50mm, wide open for a very shallow depth-of-field. The best lens for this is the Noctilux, which has a mind-bending f/0.95 widest aperture and combines surreally wonderful out-of-focus rendering with very sharp and accurate in-focus areas. The combination creates images that don’t look like any others and has the ability to bring some real diversity to a set of final deliverables.
This shot above also points out one of the flaws that you have to live with — purple fringing, common when using this lens wide open and shooting into the sun. It’s fixable in post, but it’s a pain.
April: Air Cooled
Probably my most enjoyable shoot of the year is the annual Porsche lovefest known as Luftgekuhlt. The world’s best Porsches, their owners and thousands of rabid fans gather in a different location each time to pay tribute to the best-designed car (perhaps object) of all time. We journalists are invited in early, before the crowds, to run around like kids in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, taking photos and marveling at it all.
I bring my (also German-engineered) Leica for this because these are basically still lives I’m shooting and the well-constructed lenses are built to offer detail and true lines, worthy of the design-oriented subject matter and well-art directed displays. A shoot like this, for me, is akin to a fine art shoot, so the Leica is the perfect tool to frame and capture appropriately. It’s also an all-day event and I’m glad to be able to carry only a rangefinder with me, while everyone else lugs around big SLRs, which are entirely too much equipment for an event like this.
May: The Art of Dance
In May, a special door opened as I was introduced to the Los Angeles dance community and invited to come shoot at one of their “cameras and dancers” events. This set of shots I did of David seemed to capture the raw beauty of dance in a way that caught the attention of the right people and embarked me on a journey of shooting movement for a whole number of different people and organizations throughout the year.
In retrospect, this seems like a shoot that I should have brought one of my faster cameras for, and I probably took a lot longer to get this series right than most people would have. But my understanding of dance vocabulary is (or was) limited and I think I brought the Leica as a kind of security blanket. In a situation like this, I can actually turn off my “camera brain” by focusing once and forgetting about it, putting all my attention on composition and the routine itself.
My absolute favorite focal length is 21mm and the Leica 21mm Super Elmar is, in my opinion, the best in the world at this width. It renders incredibly sharp from corner to corner for a wide angle and offers all the same character and detail as their famed 35mm Summicron. So, it ended up being a fortuitous decision, for as simple as these shots appear, most people (including myself) wouldn’t be carrying the gear to pull it off as elegantly with other systems. I’ve done any number of dance/movement-oriented shoots since this one, and I still bring my Leica to nearly all of them.
June: Wandering Minstrel
When I want it to look real and timeless, I put the Leica 35mm Summicron (f/2) on and I just don’t worry about anything. What I love about the 35mm, especially on the Leica, is that (once you master manual focus) you can use it like a paint brush, easily and fluidly in any situation. At f/2, you can go for beauty shots, but it’s equally amazing at smaller apertures and slower shutter speeds, like this traveling shot with Colbie Caillat, for a brand campaign for Ember, shot at f/6.8 and 1/180th of a second. I love the versatility and beautiful rendering of this iconic lens that comes in the teeniest of packages and makes you feel like you’re just there in the situation, both as a photographer and viewer.
July: On Assignment, San Diego Border
I was fortunate to land a dream summer assignment, documenting workers across the country. I used a variety of cameras, but when I had the opportunity to do an all-day ride-along with agents along the San Diego border, the Leica with the 35mm Summicron was an easy choice. This rangefinder/lens combo has been the set-up of choice from before I was born, for assignments just like this one — no need to mess with it.
This shot above is a prime example of where a manual focus camera with a good viewfinder really comes in handy. You don’t do yourself any favors shooting through a fence with auto focus. And a big SLR would stick out like a sore thumb around these parts anyway.
But there are plenty of shot types that are just easier to handle with a nimble rangefinder when you’re out running around all day and it tends to open up the creative mind, while on the road.
August: Portrait Session, Donald Byrd
Portrait work, for me, is an intimate affair. I tend to work in a more editorial way most of the time and when I do portraits I like to step in closer to the subject and work with them on a very personal level. Not all portraits demand a very high level of creativity — sometimes the subject wants something more technical — but when I get an opportunity to work with an artist, like legendary choreographer Donald Byrd, I want very little between me and him. The Leica, being both my smallest camera and the format I’m most comfortable with, is my top choice for a portrait of this nature, where we’re experimenting and being creative together. It allows the entire session to feel less like a portrait session and more like a creative collaboration.
September: In the Sun, with Beau and Monica
More in my comfort zone, this editorial style lifestyle shoot is probably the kind of work I do most. In this shot, I put on the 50mm Noctilux which brings a very distinct opinion to an image. It’s not, by any means, perfect — but that’s sort of the point of it. Sensitive and experimental, this lens offers as much character as your subjects and so sometimes I like to just let it loose, usually at the highest energy point of a shoot, just to see what it will produce.
Letting the sun leak into the lens is one of those things that becomes a challenge to a sensor, and yields only sporadically good results, but when it does work, it’s often a thing of beauty that cannot be created in any other way. But to give you a sense of what a more traditionally crisp and clear image looks like from the same set-up, here’s another image taken just seconds later.
Personally, I love the softness of this image/portrait. Even at f/2.8, it’s not going to look nearly as sharp as it would with any of my other cameras or lenses. But this gives me a true 35mm film camera look that has its own style to it and I like to have in my shoots.
October: Up in the Air
Getting to shoot Benjamin Millepied’s dancers was a special moment for me in 2018. We spent the day up at Griffith Park, it was hot, I broke my own rule about never hiking and I think it took four days for my back to recover. But I knew we had some incredible shots coming out of it — perhaps some of the best shots I’ve ever taken.
Because this was more of an art project, I spent most of the shoot behind my Leica. Framing was essential on these shots, as I wanted the dancers interacting with the city behind them, so I had to be extra conscientious of my horizon line and composition. And because all the dancers were on the same plane, I could set my focus once and then not have to think about it for the rest of the shoot. And these were wide shots that I needed to not have any distortion on, so my favorite artistic combination for dancers — the Leica and the 21mm Super Elmar — was a natural.
In December, I got to spend the day with Yoshiki, one of the world’s biggest rock stars, to document a trip he took to California’s wine country (he has his own wine). I wasn’t given much information about it, other than to show up at Burbank airport and bring equipment — so, I had my full set with me, including light. And while I took some great shots with the Nikon and the Profoto, it was the fun stuff with the Leica that revealed Yoshiki’s character the best. There’s just something about it — without the big footprint, the camera itself seems to give clients leeway to be themselves. And because it’s second nature for me to hold it, my own relaxation with it offers a looser kind of shooting. I find that always comes through in photos. They say the best camera is the one you have with you — I guess that’s why you’ll rarely see me without my Leica.