In the previous post, I compared the experience of capturing images using professional-level 35mm single lens reflexes both with film and digitally. I’d like to move on to other cameras with historically large roles in art photography. Next up is the 35mm rangefinder camera. In the film world, if we restrict ourselves to cameras currently available new, the Leica M7 is a good exemplar. In the digital domain, the closest equivalent is the Leica M9. Both use the same lenses, have similar controls – including the rangefinder, which is the defining feature of this camera genre– and similarly quiet shutters. They are virtually the same size and weight. The film plane in the M7 is typically not flat, so precise focus is chancy. But precise focus is chancy with both cameras anyway, thanks to the rangefinder focusing, with cams not perfectly matched to the lenses and inadequate rangefinder parallax for precise focusing with long lenses. In either camera, you can only use the rangefinder on something in the center of the frame, and if you recompose after focusing, a lens with a flat focus plane will render the object out of precise focus. Usually, you don’t know how flat your focus plane is, so it’s impossible to correct for this systematic error. The effect is worse with shorter lenses, but their depth of field is often enough to keep it from affecting the final image quality.
Here are the material differences:
- You don’t have to open up the M9 and put in a new SD card every 36 exposures.
- There is no preview function on the M7. Using another body for previewing would negate the small size and low travel weight that is one of the reasons to use this class of camera.
- There is no histogram function on the M7. See above.
- You have to add an accessory winder to get automatic film advance in the M7.
- You have to be ready for visible aliasing errors with the M9. They don’t happen very often, though.
- Notwithstanding the above, the higher quality of M9 images makes focus errors more obvious.
- You can’t change the film speed in the M7 without loading a new roll of film. Using another body loaded with different film would work against one of the main advantages of this genre.
- You can’t develop one part of a roll of film to N-1 and another part to N+1. See above.
- You can capture images digitally that you’d ignore with a film camera, knowing that you can remove things (contrails, graffiti, telephone wires, etc.) later.
I have an M9. I have not used the M7, but I have put several thousand rolls of film through a Nikon S2, and I can tell you that the singular fluidity of operation that characterizes the 35mm rangefinder camera translates almost perfectly from the S2 to the M9, except for the necessity of using a separate light meter and setting the shutter speed manually with the S2 and the fact that you focus the Leica with your left hand and the Nikon with your right index finger. The experience of using an M9 is very close to the experience of using the S2, just as the experience of making images with the M9 is vastly different from using a D3. The distinction between RF and SLR is what counts, not film vs digital.