A Return to Film from the Leica Monochrom by James Suojanen

A Return to Film from the Leica Monochrom

by James Suojanen

Hey Steve!

I began making photographs in the 1960’s using a 35mm rangefinder and developing my own black and white film. I also made contact prints and did some enlargements. But I fell away from photography through college, professional training, career and early family life; no time, no money. And color photography eluded me. But when digital became affordable with the Nikon D70, I began again. Initially I went the SLR route, but as I got older I disliked the size and weight so I ended up back with rangefinders, eventually acquiring a Leica Monochrom to complete the return to my roots; or so I thought.

Using the Monochrom with just about any decent lens produced unbelievably sharp images.

This image was made using a 60+ year old 50mm Summarit during the Memorial Day Parade in my town (Summarit yellow filter, handheld) – Leica Monochrom

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I made this image I made at the Military Cemetery in Bourne, Massachusetts. Normally the graves can have NO decoration. But the father of a posthumous Medal of Honor soldier buried there won the right to have flags placed at every grave site for the Veterans Day and Memorial Day weekends. An amazing event in which hundreds of volunteers appear, place the flags and then remove them. (Monochrom with a 21mm SEM on a tripod with a yellow filter) – Leica Monochrom

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On a trip to my old stomping grounds in the South, I made this pic with the Monochrom and a 35mm Summilux FLE (UV filter).

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I like all of these images. The prints have a medium-format acuity to them. But I just found/find them a bit sterile; they lack(ed) a certain “je ne sais pas” for me. So when I saw an announcement of a Leica Akademie workshop on film photography coincident with a trip to LA, I decided I’d take a second look at film. What I like about workshops is not only the focused time devoted to learning and practicing, but also the people the people I meet. I wasn’t disappointed by the cast of characters who assembled. And I was given 2 36-exposure rolls of Ilford XP2 for a sojourn through Chinatown and environs. Great fun, great instructor and a real adventure! Film DOES make you slow down and think about the images you’re making.

XP2 is a Black & White ISO 400 negative film developed using the C-41 process for color films. The images shown here were commercially scanned at the time of development with a 3,000 x 2,000 pixel resolution. All images were made with my Leica M7 and Voigtlander 35mm Color Skopar, except for Bruce Lee – 90mm macro elmar. I used a yellow filter for about half of them. I post-processed in Lightroom and Nik. I think the color processing gives the files a good bit of latitude for digital post-procesing. The grain is very fine and uniform. For those do-it-yourselfers, I imagine that Kodak TMax would give similar results.

Peculiar – an open but very hostile gate.

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Church in Hispanic neighborhood next to Chinatown

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Building next to the Church. As I unloaded the second roll at the end of the day, I realized I had not rewound before I opened the camera. Steve can’t publish what I said at that moment, but I quickly closed the camera back up and hoped for the best. This bit of serendipity occurs with film and can make for some interesting images. The light from the sprocket holes provides celestial framing for this otherwise boring composition.

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My favorite image of the day. Simple story within a complex image – maybe a metaphor for most of us seeking to find a path through the complicated thing we call life.

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Statue of Bruce Lee. The sprocket light made a spotlight for his face. I had a very difficult time framing since I wanted to get his hand in-between the lanterns, like he was balancing them. I had to account for the lens/viewfinder parallax while I held the camera upside down.

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A bench. The Voigtlander lens renders very nicely on film. It’s as sharp as a 35mm Summicron (had one a while back) with very nice bokeh. Small and light, I find it’s short focus throw terrific for street photography. I spent about $350 for the screw mount lens and adapter. It also looks great on both my M7 and my Leica IIIf.

For me, I saw these images and knew I was home again – at least for B&W. They just breath more that the Monochrom pictures. I don’t really know what it is. Certainly a lens will interact with a 20µ thick film emulsion differently than a 1µ micro prism at the top of a photocell in a digital sensor. It may also reflect an analog vs digital tonal range. Perhaps some/most of you reading this (thank you for taking the time to read this piece and look at the photographs), will think me deluded. That’s okay. Art is art, and a wise man once said, “There are as many paths to God as there are people on the Earth”. I’ll paraphrase him by saying that each of us has our own path (i.e. camera, lenses, etc.) to making THE PICTURE which we all seek.

Cheers and blessings,
JNSuojanen

P.S. Given the rapid depreciation of digital cameras, I don’t think there is any significant cost between film and digital for most of us amateurs (except if you shoot action stuff). My Leica IIIf is 60+ years old and works perfectly (I can’t say the same about myself).

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33 thoughts on “A Return to Film from the Leica Monochrom by James Suojanen”

  1. I’m using now an humble Zorki 1 camera (CLAd) with a tiny Industar 22 collapsible lens and I have a lot of fun. Digital is without soul!

  2. Agree 100%/shooting now on my Pentax K1000 on Ilford Xp2 and am really enjoying the process- what’s the hurry anyway?
    I have nothing against digital but film in mono is magic. I also like my M8 for Mono and Kodak Portra colour is beautiful from the K1000- moral of the story enjoy both !

  3. Well you also can think of a film leica M(3,2,4,-2,-P,6,7) as a monochrome with modular sensor. Depending on your mood you choose a tri-x or a pan-f, a delta 3200 or a t-max 100. They all have a different personality. But just like leica lens there are family within films. For lens if i simplify a bit you have Mandler (pre-asps) and karbs (asph). For film you have the classical (Tri-x HP5, Pan-F etc…) and the modern tabular grain (T-Max and ilford Delta).
    If you want to do real B-W get a M4-2 or M4-P instead of MP or M-A, they are a lot cheaper and put the difference on lens. Then you can try many films and process them at home. And why not walk the extra mile and keep it wet, get a focomat and print in the bathroom on real paper the result will throw you down your chair. Thats what i do and nothing digital can compare. it’s the journey that matters not the destination.
    Film is the new Black……

  4. I shoot digital, but digital is video stills. More and more they are conflating in the same device. MM images are crisp, clear, but they are dentist images, clinical, digital. Paper is paper, and is an imperfect partner, but a real trip.

  5. Thanks for this post. I also went back to film photography in the last year. When I travel now, I take my Leica film camera and usually more B&W film than color film. I leave the digital camera behind. More accurately, I leave my X100s behind, because I always have my iPhone with me, and it’s good enough in most situations if I need a digital shot. It’s not just about the quality of the film images for me. It’s also about the experience of photography with a film camera that is so different. Like most people, I find that film forces me to slow down. I recently bought an old Barnack Leitz camera and a 50 mm Summitar f/2, both pre-WW2 vintage. My first roll with that camera (Tri-X) is currently at the lab, and I can hardly wait to see how it turned out! Film is fun, and B&W photography is a great hobby. I plan to begin developing my own film again next month.

  6. Excellent post and I dig the results James!

    It is so easy and cheap to get into film nowadays. Yeah Leica is cool (and I use them) but you don’t have to spring that kind of cash to get a fantastic camera/lens system. I just bought a perfect shape Nikkormat FT2 with the incredible 55 micro nikkor lens for $60! It is a fully mechanical camera that uses just one tiny 1.5v silver oxide cell to power the built in meter. It works with/meters with any Nikon F mount lens that has the sprong/rabbit ear thingy..
    All I had to do was replace the light seals with an $8 kit, and good to go.

    There are lots of other options out there similar to this.

    Anyway, shoot film! Nothing like using a brand new full frame sensor for each shot!

    Peace
    Huss

  7. I started flirting with film last year, and it’s become a full scale love affair. Digital images will never again hold the same appeal for me. xp2 is a versatile, convenient film that gives nice results. I like all the b&w films i’ve tried, but find ilford hp5+ to be the best overall.

    Good film cameras abound at reasonable prices – everything from do-it-all automatics like the konica hexar af, to leica Ms, to olympus OMs and rangefinders to legions of medium format choices. There is a film camera for every budget, style and capability. I encourage all fellow photographers to try it, or try it again.

  8. I agree. This is always a bit confusing or misleading. We know that Ansel Adams made some 90 prints (all different, I presume) of one of his favorite negatives and said that he never thought he got it quite right. So, which film print is the real film print? Meanwhile, we know that the raw image out of the Leica M M is flat by design. The advantage is that it has a huge capacity for “developing” many different ways of finishing the final digital image, even without using a third party program like Nik, which offers a large variety of finished images that emulate classic film looks. So, how does this make for a good comparison from “film” and “digital MM” images in monochrome. By the way, I have a nice 1962 rigid summicron lens that by itself produces quite different digital images on the MM than does the new 50mm summilux asph. I kept the old cron lens and sold the lux to buy a 75mm cron. Life is good no matter which way you turn. Even the turning is good.

  9. Well said, James. And I completely agree with regards to cost over the long run when comparing digital and film…IMO, film wins.

    I currently use a Bessa (which I do love) and saving for either the Leica M-A, MP or the M7 (with the M7 being ahead with it’s step-less shutter advantage)…always wanted a Leica camera. And I like knowing that, like the M3s and other before it, it’ll last a lifetime.

    Thanks for sharing!

  10. Great post and images. I find that when I develop and scan there is always a certain level of let down based on the technical quality of the product compared to digital but then on reflection, those textured film images are often among my favorites.

    1. (..on a side note, and not really related to this film item: thank you Chad for your long description and features on updating the Techart Contax/Zeiss-film-lenses-to-Sony-FE-mount adaptor. Really useful..)

    2. Completely agree Chad. With film you have an idea of what you have taken, then you see the developed result (maybe a few weeks later) which is not quite what you were expecting, but then you look again at a picture in isolation with the baggage cast adrift, and realize how much you like it….

  11. The monochrom is what it is. Film is film. Why does everyone keep insisting they should be the same?

    Great photos, especially the film ones

    1. Nobody’s insisting that film and digital should look the same. If you bought a Monochrom and every picture was pink, would you shrug and say “it is what it is?” Anything can be improved. Perfection can often be improved by adding imperfection. The imperfect can often do with a little polishing. Don’t say “It is what it is” unless you have never corrected exposure, adjusted your white balance, increased contrast, or cropped an image.

      Monochrom images come out of the camera a little flat. Shucks. It is what it is.

      1. I think the perfection of M Monichrom images is why so many of us use imperfect vintage lenses on it. My favorite is a Zeiss 50mm f/1.5 Sonnar made in 1936.

        1. Images from Kodachrome and Velvia are spectacular in their clarity. That has never been a concern. I have read often enough where people comment that images from their digital cameras are sharper than reality. How is that right? Do we hike a mountain, get to the top, look out on a beautiful day and decide that it all looks too perfect?

  12. That’s the “problem” with the Monochrom. The pictures are so crisp, clean and detailed that they far surpass the clarity of 35mm film, and begin to look clinical rather than impressionistic. I like both looks, but do sometimes think that the Monochrom’s images could be improved through softening and adding grain.

    1. I think that is the reason for Leica including Nik silver fx… Start with a technically perfect image, then input artistic effect post capture.

      It’s ironic that during the film era, some people constantly pushed for technical perfection (no grain, high sharpness, optimum metering, sufficient dynamic range). Now, when such a camera arrives, we view it as too sterile and clinical.

      That’s just the way it is I guess… At least we have choice, which is where you have to commend Leica: they have been brave enough to produce what most would view on paper as a commercially unsuccessful product.

    2. That could be said for pretty much any high end camera these days. But starting your process with a clean and crisp image means you have latitude for creativity in PP

    3. Is there more clarity with digital or is it because there is information missing? My experience is that the perceived “sterile and clinical” is an illusion. This has long been the observation when comparing digitally recorded music to analog. For example, two recordings of a Saxophone. The digital version sounds “clearly” like a horn. The analog version, because of the harmonics, is identifiable as a Saxophone. If you look carefully at the pictures above this you may began to see this. While I have very good digital cameras and shoot film with Rolleiflex and Mamiya 7, etc., black&white images from my Olympus Stylus film camera are breathtaking compared to any digital conversions. If the digital images were so perfect, there wouldn’t be a need for Nik Silver fx. The obsession with sharpness and clarity is distracting. It took the audiophile crowd to figure this all out, meanwhile tossing their analog front end for even the decidedly awful first generation CD players. Only to replace their analog equipment years later. They heard a difference going to digital and it was decided that because it sounded different that it was better. I keep reading, even on this site, photographers that take a similar path with photography going from film to digital and then back to film. Digital’s greatest asset is convenience. For most of the work that we do, including myself, digital is good enough. Shooting film is a reality check.

    4. I don’t find 6×6 or large format clinical. Resolution is not an issue. It’s DR, the smooth roll off from shadow to highlight.

      1. Assuming that I understand you, images that appear too critical may be missing the smooth roll off from shadows to highlights. For me, the analogy is with music where I am hearing the fundamentals and not the harmonics. Or, we pass by a scene that we’ve been by many times before, but this one time the light is just right and we wish we had our camera…

  13. I enjoyed the reflection about slowing down in a film state of mind. We have traveled similar paths through the darkroom and scanned negatives. Now, with feet in both worlds I am using a Fujifilm x100s to view the world

  14. I think you are right James, I recently gave my digital compacts (GRII and X100S) to my two daughters to try and encourage them to keep their iPhones’ in the handbags… (some hope!)… Of course this largess, meant that I could justify a new purchase to the wife… :)

    I have been reading everything I can about the current crop of digital M’s and the SL, and I am really having a hard time justifying (to myself) the heavy losses involved with such a purchase.

    This evening, I developed my latest roll of Tri-X, not in old Rodinal (as I have been doing), but in some new XTOL, that I mixed this morning, and the results are staggering… Camera is M2 with 50 DR Summicron.

    I am now thinking/debating that I might just go for an MP, in order to get a built in lightmeter, and get another compact, like a Q or an RXIIR for travel snaps.

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