Teaching the Less Important Lesson

Today over at The Online Photographer Mike Johnston wrote a post suggesting that spending a year using nothing but a Leica and shooting nothing but black and white film could teach you a lot. I think he’s right about one thing. It would teach you a lot, but about what? I think Johnston’s claim was that the exercise would teach you a lot about photography. I think it would teach you a lot about shooting black and white film with a Leica. Which is all well and good, but a different thing than learning about photography.

My initial point of attack on this subject was to be dismissive. I wrote a comment that started:

I am firmly in the camp that the spirit of the exercise matters more than the tool.

I went through a phase with rangefinder cameras starting with the Konica Hexar (better than a Leica in many ways) and the Hexar RF and even the fabulous Mamiya 6. While none of these is the Leica itself, the last two are fairly close in terms of how they handle. One just has a tiny motor drive and the other shoots big pieces of film instead of small ones.

What I learned from that whole experience is that I was better off with my Nikon and a single lens.

And so on. The problem with this kind of argument is that you can’t really accuse someone of irrational nostalgia and expect him to either listen to your point or be grateful that you said anything. Irrational nostalgia does that to people.

As I was about to hit the post button, I was called away to perform some kind of household task, and while this was going on I realized that my real objection to this whole exercise was not about using the Leica. What’s really wrong here is that the whole task is about learning technique rather than photography.

Take his points one by one. The Leica is quiet, so … so what? So you can point the thing at someone’s face and they don’t hear the shutter? They still see you pointing it at their face. The Leica is simple. You set three things and shoot. Meh. You can use my Nikon that way too. You should know how to use your camera anyway. Shooting black and white film will “force” you to think about light and form. This is in fact true, but it’s still about technique rather than photography. The darkroom work will teach you about exposure, development and printing. Technique, technique, technique.

Don’t think that I don’t think these things are important. I took three years of black and white photography classes because I think they are important. Everyone should know how to do these things. But I think that the whole exercise misses the point because it’s only concentrating on the easy part of photography. Everything he talks about is easily mastered if you spend enough time practicing and learning the right lessons from your practicing.

Here is what the year with the Leica will not teach you:

1. What do I like to take pictures of?

2. What’s the right tool for the sorts of pictures I want to take?

3. How do I take pictures that communicate the emotional attachment I have with the subject to the viewer?

Here is what the year with the Leica will teach you:

4. Having answered questions 1, 2, and 3 above, how do I use black and white film to capture the picture I want in the Leica and then print it in my chemical darkroom while breathing fumes that will kill me?

and maybe

5. Just what is it that makes people so nuts for Leicas? Is it that you have to load the film from the bottom of the fucking camera?

So, if answers to the last two questions are what you yearn for, by all means go pick up that M6 on Ebay and come to my house and buy my darkroom. Mike’s exercise will serve you well.

But, if what you really want to learn is how to be a photographer, then I think what you should do is learn to use your camera very well and then figure out what kinds of pictures you like to take and how to capture them in the most effective way possible. The Leica will be no better at teaching you that than a cheap Canon point and shoot. More importantly, the Leica won’t really take pictures that are any better than any other camera. It’s the guy holding the camera that does that, not the machine.

One of the things that I tried to do a lot in my rangefinder phase was to get better at people pictures. I do this every time I have a new toy to play with. After years of trying without much success I finally realized that I am no good at taking people pictures, and no camera or lighting technique or other magic equipment will fix this. I am not good at taking pictures of people because it’s not in my nature to connect with them in the way you need to to take good pictures. I’m just not that interested. I am an antisocial bastard. This is why I’ll never be a wedding photographer, unlike this guy.

Anyway, what I would do is this:

Pick any camera you want and any single lens. Shoot in black and white for a year. Take all kinds of pictures of all kinds of things. Edit fiercely. Show your best pictures to someone who will tear them apart ruthlessly. Learn what you like to look at and what looks good when you shoot it. The answers here are different for everyone. The goal is to find the ones that work for you.

If it were me, I’d do it with either an old Nikon or maybe the Panasonic LX-3 point and shoot, but with the lens stuck on wide. That thing is great.