We are in 2013, a digital age that we are all very familiar with and have taken for granted. 2013 is also a big year for Leica when they released their revolutionary digital M (Type 240) rangefinder camera. If people has been following my photography blogs, you will know that I am experimenting the viability of using a rangefinder system to replace my very well established DSLR set. As I don’t want to splash out on an expensive digital M body and some lenses (I know it’s worth the quality but if I can’t make money from it, it will be a wasted investment) and I have been using a film Leica camera since 2011.
Let alone my trial of using a Leica M, it has been almost 9 years since I photograph a wedding with films. I have proudly embraced the digital age since the Canon’s original 5D release in 2005. Despite my intention to shoot film during my leisure time, indeed it does feel odd to take a film camera out again for a paid job.
Not until a couple of weeks ago, i never had better opportunity to try using my Leica for a wedding. Yes, a family member was getting married and I wasn’t the man in charge on the day because of my own family duty. It was my sister-in-law’s big day. Ok it did sound bad? No No, I wouldn’t want to risk anything but I knew there was another professional who would take brilliant pictures so my pressure was released. Now I could enjoy the wedding as ‘normal’ guest so it would be a great chance to try my M-wedding! I took my M6 together with a couple of vintage Leica lenses (35mm Summilux Classic and 90 Summicron II) and a few rolls of mixed films (Kodak Tri-X 400, Rollei 400, Ilford 3200 and a colour Fujifilm 800), but I did take my Canon 5D just to take some family photos, as requested by my wife so she can see the pictures!
I do mainly Chinese and English weddings so they are very different in nature. Chinese weddings are usually very ambitious and packed while English wedding is rather relaxed by comparison. So now I am used to the ‘auto’ everything and by stepping back using a full manual Leica is somewhat refreshing.
This is probably my main concern of using Leica. None of the Leica M has auto focus which I, and probably 99% of the population, got very accustomed to. I very much relying on the speed and accuracy of modern day DSLRs. I hate chimping every photos but when it comes to some static shots, I do check for sharpness before moving on. This was something that I had to rely on my instinct and trust on the accuracy of the rangefinder. I guess digital has made me reliant on the back screen instead of my instinct.
I started the day with Kodak Tri-X and I almost used the entire roll of getting ready and the groom’s arrival. Even though now I have a fair amount of experience in shooting a Leica M, trying it as it was a wedding job was somehow exciting yet worrying, especially it was my first time and with film. Documenting a wedding day is just as fast pace as recording in a war zone in Afganistan! Sorry it may be a wrong metaphore but you get the idea. It’s tougher than anyone might think.
Another big challenge was the lack of film speed flexibility. We are so spoiled with all kinds of automation and technology advancements. I shoot high ISO (1600 and above) almost most of the time indoor without worry about quality with my 5D. During the morning, I was stuck with ISO 400 film. I know I could push it for another two stops to make it 1600 but for a different look and if I do push it, I have to push the entire roll and not selected frames. Buggar… So that went back to the basic which I learnt 10 years ago, I had to find the light where I could use 400 speed. Indoor was tricky but there were always windows! I used natural light where possible and I filled light with my Canon 580 EX II in manual mode too when it got too dark! All in all, it was an experience for me and a valuable one too!
It was obviously a pleasure to shoot with film but in a demanding and fast-moving environment like a wedding, it could be nerve-wrecking. I have photographed lots of weddings and I know it’s an very stressful job already but using film was like adding another dimension to my way of thinking and work flow. I used almost exclusively with the Leica 35mm Lux with the occasional close up with the 90mm Cron. The 35mm Lux was brilliant in this situation. First, it was 1.4 so it’s fast enough to compensate slower film. This 35mm Lux was a magic to use, first it’s a little soft wide open which suits wedding in my opinion (my review is HERE). In monochrome, the images just looked superb! There was enough detail to make it sharp in the middle but a little glow really gave the ‘wedding look’ to it. Finally doesn’t anyone just love the special Leica rendering?
The 90mm Cron was similarly cool. Glow was present but I didn’t find it intrusive nor obvious. But this lens was sharp!!! Even when shot wide open. I love the bokeh too which was not too dissimilar to my Canon 85mm 1.2L, but obvious not as good as the Japanese’s offering in my opinion. My Canon 85mm 1.2 is still my favourite portrait lens. My only nag about the Leica M was that, it’s great for 50mm and wider but anything longer would be a joke. Not that the lenses were rubbish and I truly believe that its latest 90mm Cron APO and 135 Tele are the best lenses in that focal length in the world. However, when it comes to application and practicality, it’s a true nightmare. First, the accuracy was the main issue. I believe that’s reason why Leica isn’t designing anything faster than f2.0. Despite I got 90% of my shots in focus with my 90mm cron at f2.0 but my eye was hurting a little for trying so hard to get the focusing patch to line up, even with my 1.25x eye piece. Second, I love using fast glass so I could use lower ISO or faster shutter to minimise noise and camera/lens shake in low light. f2.0 is by no mean slow but I did struggle during the ceremony at the wedding, especially that focal length with no stablisation, I had to keep the shutter at 1/125 at least.
I used Fuji 800 during ceremony and it was fine but the lighting condition was challenging. I knew I could still get sharp shots at 1/60 second with the 35mm Lux and I did stick with this speed. But there were times when I just wished I had a faster film with me. This was perhaps the advantage of using a digital camera. A few shots was a push and I still under exposed a good stop so I had to push the scanner to get some decent details but the result was a grainy shot with shifted colours.
At night after wedding breakfast, I continued with my Fuji 800 and then the Iford 3200 (which I haven’t developed yet as there’s still half roll in my camera by the end of the day). I was struggling big time as the light started to dim and even with my 35mm Lux, I just couldn’t maintain a good exposure.
PRACTICAL ADVICE ON SHOOTING WEDDINGS WITH FILM LEICA (OR ANY FILM CAMERAS)
Because it was a wedding, everything was unexpected and that proposed a challenge to a photographer. Modern technologies do help in this regard and really shows the limitation with traditional film and camera. The glass was fine but it was let down by the slow films. I could of course change film but I would have wasted many unexposed frames. Just like the old days, I probably need at least 3 bodies with three different film speeds to compensate the lack of digital flexibility.
Also, SLRs have image stablised lenses so they could compensate lens movements but rangefinder cameras, none of the lenses irrespect of makes or models have any kind of stabilisation. So when you shooting anything longer than 50mm, be sure you have a very fast glass so you could use a minimum 1//125 shutter. But then the accuracy will be your main enemy.
Finally, choose your film types and speed sensibly. Remember they are films so apart from the slowest film like Ilford 50 or any colour 100, they will show grains when enlarged. We are talking about physical and visible stuff. Digital is pixels but they are definitely ‘cleaner’ at high ISO. A 400 or 800 films look more like 3200 or even 6400 in the newer cameras. Be sure your clients understand and appreciate the characters of film before they start suing you for refund.
Each film has different light spectrum sensitivity so they react different or characters if you want to say it that way. Colour films are the same too, with Fuji being cooler and Kodak warmer etc.
Using my Leica M at a wedding really took me back in time, in a very very good way indeed. I loved the fact that I could ‘think’ about photography and went back to basics. But this was Leica, to its root. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of shooting a rangefinder and I did find it quite suitable for my style of photography. Though I may still need a DSLR for some special portraits but for documenting a wedding, there’s nothing better than an M.
Films had downsides but the experience was valuable and the lack of flexibility made you thought and worked harder to find ‘light’ for your subject. Nowadays we rely on digital softwares and advance sensors to ‘help’ us in difficult situations but the fact is that many great photographers shot stunning photos in very tricky situations in the past without any help from artificial lights or digital sensors. It’s all old school stuff by carefully selecting the time and place. If you are good with film, you are more likely to be ten steps ahead of any digital photographer! I guarantee!
Thanks for listening from me and I just want to share my thoughts on using films on a wedding, or films in general.
Have a good day!