Zen and the Art of Photography

Sometimes people see me taking photographs out and about, and ask, ‘why are you using that?’. I always answer by saying ‘it’s a Zen thing.’

And it is. Fortunately for me, Zen is something that is said to be undefinable and indescribable. Like religion, it’s something that can only be fully understood by doing, by engaging in the practise until you come to understand.

Nevertheless, I’ll try to explain.

I’ve been playing with cameras from a very early age, largely thanks to my older brother who used to hand me down his cast-offs. First it was a Brownie Cresta 3, then an Olympus 35RC, then more than I care to remember. So I clicked away for most of my life trying to create and almost never produced anything I ever wanted to keep, nothing I was really pleased with. There was the odd one here and there, but generally, a pitifully low ratio of success.

Then came the breakthrough. I discovered the Leica III.

Zen Photography Leica IIIf

Now I’m the very first person to tell you that content is king; that it’s not the camera, it’s who’s behind it. That is absolutely true. So I’m not going to pretend that, what is now my favourite picture-making device, creates fabulous images by magic. I am however going to suggest that this camera has a significant effect on the person behind it. It forces you to stop and listen.

My Leica IIIf was made in 1952. It has no light metering and no auto focus. It has two shutter speed dials, one for slow speeds and one for fast. It has two viewfinders, one for the rangefinder to help you focus, and another which gives you a view for a 50mm lens cropped for slides. It has interchangeable lenses that use a 39mm screw thread, and any lens other than 50mm needs an accessory viewfinder. You load film with enormous difficulty into a slit in the bottom and wind on using a small knurled knob. If you can remember to zero the manual film counter you’ll know when to rewind and then have to spend ages twiddling with an even smaller knurled knob. Finally it’s a trip to Asda to get your film developed and scanned onto a CD – at £3, that’s about the best financial value you will be getting so far.

Zen Photography Leica IIIf

Aesthetically, it’s a jewel. Mechanical craftsmanship to the very highest standard, chromium plated brass with more enamel-filled engraving than is strictly necessary and no battery to worry about. It’s not so heavy that it will tear a hole in your pocket, but not so light that every shot is plagued with camera shake. It’s very compact, too; place it next to a Canon 5D and you’ll wonder why on earth anybody would want to lug one of those around. Beware: once you experienced pride of ownership like this, you ‘ll find it very hard to part with your hard-earned cash in return for an anonymous lump of plastic and electronics.

This is not a device for the faint-hearted. This is not something that is best used for posting endless pictures of lunch, cups of coffee and selfies on Facebook. This is next to useless for snapshots in dark corners. This, my friends, is a camera. It’s simply not about digital versus film, pixel counting or razor sharpness. It’s about a whole new approach to life.

Paris on film 2014-78 (Medium)

No exposure meter means you have to use an external meter or just guess. I have the excellent iPhone light meter app for when I’m totally confused, but for the vast majority of the time I judge it mentally. It’s a skill you learn surprisingly well using a camera like this. Combined with the fact that modern film is very forgiving you’ll be impressed at your success rate when you try it. My favourite film is Kodak Ektar colour negative, a remarkably good stock with almost imperceptible grain. Using it will give you pictures that look more like medium-format than full-frame 35mm.

My favourite lenses, the ones I use most from the far too many I have at my disposal, are the 50mm collapsible Summicron, and a modern 21mm Voigtlander. The Summicron is an absolute treasure. I have two; an early one with yellowing Thorium glass and ‘cleaning marks’ (also known as ‘scratched’) and a later one which is near perfect. Both make great images that are painted in a masterfully satisfying way with great sharpness and saturation; no surprise that this is said to have been the favourite lens of the incomparable Cartier-Bresson. The Voigtlander, made about ten years ago when Cosina were still making lenses in 39mm, is light, compact and interesting. It’s perfect when you need to capture that huge sky, that grand vista, or just want a different take on the street. I think it looks right in place on the old Leica.

DSCF7531 (Medium)

It’s just such a hard camera to use. It demands thought, concentration and effort. It needs love and attention – all the time. But the rewards are immense, and that is where the Zen factor comes in. Because with all that effort you put in, all that sheer dedication that gradually turns into second nature, comes some kind of connection with the divine. A state of mind where you cease to exist and the vision takes over. A quiet place where, at last, you can be still, be close, and be in touch.

At this point I’ll have to apologise to those who just don’t get it. After all, this is a camera that was very widely used in days of yore: why did people feel the need to move on? I would argue that it is human nature to always take the easy way out, the route of least resistance. If you have to go to so much mental effort, why bother? I wonder that myself sometimes. Then I realise that the reason it’s good to bother is because the old adage about getting out what you put in is less of a cliché and more of a profundity.

CNV00019 (Medium)

So, I’d encourage you to try the Zen approach. You don’t have to use a Leica III. You could get yourself a Zorki 4 for next to nothing, load it with Poundland Agfa and have a blast. You could even just try using film or plates in any very old camera and rediscover the discipline of using what’s between your ears rather than on a screen. Whatever – I can only say it worked for me.

And I highly recommend it.

Comments 6

  1. Mike DeFrancesco

    Great photos, great camera. I miss the old days of using small 35mm cameras loaded usually with Tri-X or one of the “chromes”. I started with a Konica C35, but I especially liked the Rollei 35 cameras even though I also have a Leica IIIC, M3 and CL. I recently began to take a more high tech approach toward a similiar end, that is a more simple straight way of photography, like the old days of 35mm. While it may sound like a contradiction I began using a Leica X1 which actually looks a bit like a high tech version of an old Leica I. I began to experiment with the external viewfinder, sensor usually set to B&W and the screen monitor set to OFF. It’s very difficult not to go back and look at the photos right away, AKA “chimping”. The first time I did something similiar to this was with a Minox DSC with the detachable monitor left at home. It was like using an old 110 camera.

    1. Post
      Tracy Williams

      Amazing – I’ve been doing exactly the same thing with an X1 too – I use an old Leitz 35mm viewfinder I just happened to have. Great picture quality – but not quite the same thing…

  2. Coline

    Breaking my heart… I used one in the 70’s and it functioned like new, focus at closest distances were still spot on and I actually liked to use the tiny built in viewfinder which being so close to the lens axis did not make me worry about parallax which my later M6 did with every shot.

    Sadly I returned home one day to find that my partner of seven years had left and decided to take the Leica and the new Nikon F2, I only missed the Leica.

    Bulky lumps of plastic! quite.

  3. Raj

    Bought a Leica III this week, i bought an M4 few months ago and a TLR camera has been enjoying film photography again . I found the whole process like doing yoga meditation , you focus , compose, inhale and click then relax and wait patiently for the print /scan images . The pleasure you get even with one keeper is a very syblime experience.

Leave a Reply to Raj Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *