Times they are a-changing,
film cameras are cool, retro
styling is a main stay, and
people are rediscovering a
love for hand made items,
–Think Twice, Buy Once
Whether you are dusting off an M3 or combing eBay for just the right M6, the allure of Leica appears to be on the rise. Pint size rangefinders come with different set of needs than SLR owners. The delight of most Leica users lies in the ability to carry a light load and take professional-grade photos with a camera that looks like a toy.
A few months ago, a friend of mine bought a used M8 with a 50mm Summicron f 2.0 and was ready to start shooting. Since he had never shot film before, he was not interested in any film rangefinders. His goal was to step up from his D-Lux 4 which was lost when we were robbed in Costa Rica. Don’t worry, no one was hurt and now there are a few people floating around Costa Rica with some Canon and Leica gear. All in all, I tried to tell him it was good karma to spread some Solms to Central America. But buying the M8 second hand, it did not come with anything, not even a strap, so he asked me what kind of accessories he might need.
While Leica makes some good accessories, I find the secondary market sells some great products for a Leica system. Personal preferences and options are endless, unfortunately money supplies are not. So after making a few good and bad choices myself over the years, I wanted to share my experiences with him and with you. Hopefully you are able to find some that work for you on the first try and avoid the closet full of camera bags, extra straps, and tripods that keep eBay stocked with new listings.
Artisan & Artist: “Evans Walker” [ $229 ]
Since I bring my camera almost everywhere with me, I initially wanted something I would carry even if it was not a dedicated camera bag. My first bag was a black Artisan & Artist” Evans Walker bag, purchased at Photo Village here in New York.
Made of canvas, ballistic nylon, and lined with bright red felt pads, the simplicity and durability made this bag stand out. It is large enough to carry either (2) M cameras with dedicated lenses or as I usually use it, (1) body with (2) extra lenses and some filters. There is a back pocket that rests against your body when you carry it that has storage for (2) pens and can fit either a passport and tickets or a small paperback. Essentially this carries everything I would ever need.
Beyond its apparent simplicity, I find the features of this bag to be incredibly well thought out. The bottom is lined with ballistic nylon which takes a heavier beating. The bottom of my bag has now touched five continents and barely shows any sign of wear. Inside of the front pocket there are two sub pockets that divide the storage into three useful zones.
The front zone has a small zippered pocket that holds 35mm film (6-7 rolls) perfectly. The middle zone is large enough to hold a Sekonic light meter with some room to spare, while the third pocket is a great place to store either memory cards, spare batteries, or a lens cloth to wipe the fingerprints from the finder window.
This bag gets used in all seasons and all weather conditions. It has been in the snow, rain, sleet, dust, and heat with me. The zippers are not waterproof, so I would not recommend endless hours in the rain, but I have never felt any water inside the bag. The strap is reversible thanks to the swivel hardware. The hardware is brass underneath its black paint job and wears like an old M3 or MP. Eventually the brass shines through. For those who prefer things that always look new, this is not the bag for you. But for those of us who enjoy the worn in features of age and abuse, this bag shows its wear beautifully.
The hardware, aside from being cool to look at, allows the shoulder pad to be reversible. One side has a tacky rubberized fabric that is tacky even when wet while the other side has a nylon cover. I find the nylon to be the most comfortable because it slides over my jackets, but whenever you need to do a lot of bending or climbing over things, the rubber side is indispensable.
Beyond the practical features of the “Evans Walker” it has a good look to it. Requiring only a few months to break in, the black fabric fades to a duller dark gray and the corners develop a burnished shine.
If I had to find a drawback to the bag it would be the price. At $229 it’s not the least expensive thing out there, but after looking into Domke, Fogg, Tenba, Billingham, Kata, and just about any other company I could get my hands on, it felt like a good deal. Overall it is less expensive than a Fogg, less flashy than an equally priced Billingham, and more concise than a comparable Domke.
Filson: Oil Finish Field Bag [ $135 ]
It happens to the best of us, over time our preferences change. What was once a must have item is now a dust collector. My switch in bags came from a travel requirement. Wherever I go, I take two bags, both carry on. It makes life easier. No broken gear, no lost luggage, and no b/s airline charges for bags. The problem with the Artist & Artisan bag was twofold.
One, it’s so efficient for camera gear that it left little room for anything else. Its pared down size is not large enough to hold more than camera gear, maybe a small book and a passport. For a few flights I would stuff the Evans Walker inside of the Filson bag, until it dawned on me to marry the two. So I yanked the padded interior dividers out of the Evans and put it inside the Filson.
The end result was a hybrid camera bag that now could work as a full carry on. The signature oilcloth finish Filson uses for their bags has been keeping loggers in the Pacific Northwest dry since the 1800′s. It works great for keeping my gear dry. An unexpected side effect was that the Filson Bag has no zippers. When I started using an M9, it seemed impossible to put the camera back into the bag without dragging the screen across the zippers. When I was only shooting an M6 this was not ever a consideration, but hey things change, right?
Secondly, unlike a popular myth that photographers wear black, I almost never wear black. A black bag sticks out like a sore thumb on me. The faded army palate of the Filson bag works better for me based on the clothes and jackets I normally wear. Each of us will be different, the important thing that I failed to consider is that the bag is going to live on my body and should blend in. There was no forethought on my part that my jackets are grey, green, or brown. My stealthy attempts with a black bag were a visual nightmare. Depending on what I was wearing it felt like my Evans was equipped with neon lights screaming CAMERA BAG. So the Filson is a quieter solution. Since the switch I have realized that it is totally possible and perhaps more interesting to find a bag you like and then line it like a camera bag. It will fit your personal style and potentially have more features that the bag industry could be missing.
Leather, Cotton, or Nylon
As my friend found out, an M camera without some sort of strap, wrist or neck, is an accident waiting to happen. It was as if Leica designed the M camera to be a shoulder companion, because without a strap, it feels naked. Unlike the factory straps that advertise in bright white letters that someone has a NIKON D700, Leica users tend to have a more subdued approach. Just as sommeliers spend years learning how to pair wine with food, as certain care should be exercised when selecting a strap.
Luigi Crescenzi- Leica Time Straps [ $80 ]
Luigi Crescenzi is a Leica madman who has been pumping out leather accessories for Leica’s and other fine cameras since the early 80′s. Based out of Rome, his products are beautifully crafted and respect the sensibility of a Leica camera.
The adjustable length straps come with a small neck pad. This pad makes a huge difference when you are walking around all day with a camera. There is a delicate balance between a necessary pad and a combat strap, but without anything a strap will feel like its digging into your shoulder by the end of a day.
Once the strap is off your neck, the leather works well as a wrist strap. It can be wrapped around your right hand to hold the camera securely as you walk around. This may sound very strange, but I like the way the leather sweats to my arm. It lets me feel that it is there, wrapped tightly, and not going anywhere. Nylon or cotton will not lock on as well.
So why would I choose a shoulder strap that works well as a wrist strap? The reason I like the neck strap better than just a wrist strap is because sometimes I need two hands. With a wrist strap, you either put the camera down (really bad idea, see Costa Rica theft note above) or try and work with a camera in hand.
Luigi offers straps in a range of readymade colors and will custom match a color if you can’t find something you like. He has a good sense for a Leica aesthetic and his products are well built, age nicely, and have shown no signs of wearing out. For anyone using a film camera, he makes a small pad that holds two batteries for a M light meter. It’s a good way to avoid getting caught with a dead light meter.
Artistan & Artist- Cloth Straps [ $40 ]
Henri Cartier Bresson avoided being photographed his entire life. The few existing pictures of the Leica poster child show him in one of two poses: wandering with both hands behind his back in the pose favored by many older men in their seventies, or with a camera dangling by a thin strap around his neck.
Artist & Artisan straps let you have a piece of photographic history with their simple cotton straps. They are offered in basic black, brown, navy, and a vibrant Leica red. Each strap has a fixed length that leaves the camera hanging right at your chest. The logic behind the strap is to make a lot out of very little. The fabric is light weight, but will not fail easily. The fibers of the cotton fray over time making it look like it has weathered countless storms after only a few weeks of use.
There is no neck pad provided with this strap, which means it is less comfortable if you need to wear it for a long time. But what it lacks in comfort it makes up for in size. The cotton webbing folds down to almost nothing, so you will not fumble with the strap when you reach into a bag to grab your camera. Sometimes a bigger strap will be an obstacle when you are trying to fish something out of your bag without looking.
As many small camera users know, a little camera can be tucked under your arm can remain nearly invisible on the street. This can be invaluable when skirting security, sensitive locations, or camera shy subjects. The green strap was my first selection, because worn against a green shirt it goes unnoticed. And if the security guards don’t see a camera going in, that usually means that you will be able to take a few pictures before they rush over to tell you “Photos are not allowed.”
While most camera companies will provide a strap with a new purchase, I have never found them to be suited to my preference. Even the M9 strap, which is better than most, just doesn’t quite work for me. Between the two, I use the Luigi Strap more than the Artisan & Artist. They are both great designs and exhibit creative solutions to the same questions of handling.
Leica- Table Top Tripod Legs [ $109 ]
Leica- Ball Head [ $209 ]
Maybe this has happened to you too…You wake up, in a foreign country, on the crisp sheets in a hotel. You feel completely rested from traveling through (9) time zones and can’t wait to check out your new surroundings. The only problem is the alarm clock reads 4:15 AM. Have you ever found yourself in this place? The dilemma is do you force yourself back to bed or use the jet lag to your advantage by getting an early start to the day?
The pre-dawn hours bring together the stragglers from the night before with the early risers who report to work when it’s still dark. The action starts long before cafes open their doors and the first steaming coffee clinks itself down on a bar top. Between the delivery trucks, in back alleys, there is a bustling world waiting to be discovered, but like Cinderella at midnight, these pictures evaporate as soon as the sun makes it over the first rooftop.
If your camera shoots at 102,000 ISO, the following part is not for you, but if you shoot film or operate in the world of moderate ISO settings, sometimes your camera needs some added stability. There are two tripod techniques that I employ, mainly dependent on the camera I take with me. If it’s an M6 or an M9, Leica’s two piece tabletop tripod is surprisingly versatile.
Standing 9-1/2″ tall, this mini tripod gives stable footing to your camera. They can be perched on the hood of a car, park bench, or any other object that won’t mind you leaning on it long enough to use the “B” setting. Colors that faintly glow to the human eye will come alive in your images with long exposures. Cities are some of my favorite places to shoot long exposures because the mix of light sources always proves to be fascinating. There are neon signs, bare bulbs, the glow of fluorescent doorways, and the purple haze coming from a sun waiting to rise. Everything I thought I knew about color was suspended the first time jet lag inspired a trip into the morning darkness.
Leica’s Table Top Tripod and Ball Head come in two pieces which are screwed together at the center. It is easily disassembled and will fit in the tiniest of bags or even a jacket pocket. Its build quality is amazing, bordering on overkill. The ball heads have been offered in varying designs over the years. Some logos read Lietz-Wetzler, some say Lietz, while the most modern ones say Leica. Regardless of their color or finish they are solid pieces of machined aluminum. Their only drawback is that they will get your bag inspected at every airport in the world.
The folding legs swivel off a center screw allowing them to be adjusted for any circumstance. Leica shows it being used on a tabletop, a wall, and over the shoulder on their website. It’s absolutely true that it works wonders in all of these places. The one that I use was acquired from a photographer who traveled extensively in the 60′s and 70′s. I have seen pictures of him using a 16mm Bolex movie camera mounted on these little tripods. (note: A Bolex with lens weighs at least 15 lbs.) While I have never mounted anything heavier that a Hasselblad 500 c/m, I can say that a fifty year old tripod is still in perfect working order, with zero maintenance. In short, they are designed to be used and carried to places that a full size tripod is not an option. Its uses appear endless and without it, there are some pictures that would not have been possible.
–The Choices Are Endless
Selections are important, especially when it comes to photography. Film, cameras, lenses, straps, there are choices for everyone, which means everything will not work for you. Finding the best way to strap on and pack up may take some trial and error, but in the end there are some superb products to choose from when outfitting your system.
A common mishap I see all the time is carrying too much gear. Someone with two cameras, a backpack and a full size tripod could not sneak up on a dead man. Carrying a light load and better yet, not even looking like a photographer is an ideal way to capture a natural moment as it unfolds. It will make the day easier on your body and help you go unnoticed. Bresson used to say that he wished at times he was invisible. While the military is probably working on that one, chances are invisible suits will not be available through BH Photo for a while yet. Until then, carefully selected accessories can make all the difference.