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  • Writer's picturePeter Renn

Free -photographing

Updated: Aug 16, 2021

Making photography more difficult on purpose...

American car meet, Hayling Island, 2019

I never really 'got' the whole Leica mythology. I understood the beautifully-engineered cameras and the invisible, silent street-photographer thing. The snob value (sorry -'exclusivity') of expensive equipment and being part of a tradition encompassing the likes of Winogrand, Kertesz and, of course Cartier-Bresson have an appeal but it wasn't really for me. An early convert to large format I had my own equipment fetish, and another set of heroes to emulate.

As a printer, 35mm negatives seemed like little scraps of images (oh, for a nice juicy 10x8"!) and the whole hand-held camera thing felt like something I left behind when I made the transition from Pentax-wielding amateur to 'serious' Wista 5x4" Photographer - with a capital P.

However, having nursed a very sick Leica III back to life I find myself enjoying using it - and in an unexpected way. I've not become a full-on Leicaphile, collecting mint Summicrons and knowing the bizarre catalogue codes (can you use a VIDOM with a PLOOT?) by heart but I love and appreciate this 85-year old chunk of metal and glass and it makes me see and work in a new way.

The camera:

I acquired the camera as part of a job lot of bits and pieces from someone in my village. I've got a bit of a reputation here as the 'camera chap' and people know I'm enthusiastic and will help find a good home for things. It's a Leica IIIa from 1936 with a good (rather than spectacular) Summar 5cm lens.

The shutter curtains were in tatters -as often happens as the rubberised silk material perishes or even gets burned by the lens (always use a case or lens cap!). Professional repair is possible but the cost would outweigh the value, particularly as this one is quite heavily used.

I managed to replace them with a pair robbed from an old Zenit SLR. - Sacrilege ! - but logical since many post-war camera designs copied the German models very closely. It's NOT an easy job! The shutter tension and spacing has to be spot-on but it is possible and the camera has worked beautifully ever since.

Photography should be difficult!

I agree with the person who originally cited the iPhone as one of the most significant technological changes in photography. Kodak's "you push the button and we do the rest" has reached its ultimate expression as smartphones make the process effortless and (almost) foolproof. The conventional wisdom is that this is a good thing, freeing up vision and creativity as photographers no longer need to 'worry' over technicalities like focus, exposure and so on. However, not having to think of this stuff has a tendency to stop people from thinking about their pictures at all. If you have to concentrate, even just a little on ensuring your camera is going to give you what you want, it helps you consider your pictures.

(This is one of my pet subjects - I'll write a fuller blog post on it at some point!)

The Leica isn't difficult to use, but it requires an operator who knows what they are doing. Anyone raised in the pre-digital, pre- automated age understands that the focus needs to be set manually, as do the aperture and shutter speed. There's a nice rangefinder arrangement but no exposure meter. you need to measure the light level with a separate meter and transfer the settings to the camera. or guess...

Guessing is good

As a devotee of the Zone System, the idea of guessing my exposure settings should be anathema. To go from precisely measured spot meter measurements ensuring perfect control of negative scale to a 'suck it and see' approach feels a bit like driving blindfolded, but it can be rewarding. I use this camera on its own, with no meter or other accessories. Judging the exposure isn't too difficult if you know the 'sunny 16' rule. Set shutter speed to the same number as the film ISO and then use f/16 in sunny weather, open up a stop for hazy sun, another for overcast conditions and so on. Adjusting for different shutter speeds or particular apertures is then a matter of counting stops and remembering to move the right direction: over-expose one value, under expose the other. I don't always get it right, but it's part of the fun - and the ethos of the work I make with this camera.

Raindrops in puddle, 2020


I've called this approach 'free-photographing' as it's ideologically similar to things like free-climbing, where ropes and other aids are eschewed in favour of a simple, direct experience. As well as leaving the meter at home I take no other baggage in the form of preconceived ideas on subject matter or approach. Just carry the camera and LOOK.

Someone once commented that my SLR viewfinder made everything "look like a photograph". - The Leica's doesn't do that. It's not even very accurate so I'm also guessing my framing! - again, working with these limitations and embracing them is part of the experience.

Kitchen chair shadow, 2021

Working this way has freed up a part of my photographic 'eye'. After so many years of carefully considered, precisely framed tripod-based pictures I'm returning to my earliest forays into photography, when I'd just go out with a camera looking for pictures. This 'amateur' approach isn't very productive and we usually (and rightly) move away from it in art school education as it does nothing to develop the eye or artistic vision. However, when you have developed those things, or just as a holiday from being a Professional, a Concerned Photographer, Documentary Artist or whatever part of the artistic universe you inhabit it's good for the soul.

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