Stuck In Calgary With the Rangerfinder Blues Again

The Gang of Four Roam the Streets

I try not to write too much about cameras and technology in this blog. Brand A vs Brand B, film vs digital and all the other raging debates on the various fora on the intertubes don’t really occupy a lot of cycles for me. Over the past few months however, I’ve had an interesting time making images due to the fact that my Leica M-E had to be sent in for some warranty work and a CLA “while you’re at it.”

I’d been shooting with my M-E for almost two years and in late in January I started noticing bizarre patterns when I applied my “dust bunnies” curve in LightRoom to the images I made with the M-E. I recalled seeing something on a Leica feed about this and did some rummaging and found that yes: I had the dreaded sensor corrosion problem. To Leica’s credit, they’ll replace your sensor for free, regardless of how old your M-E/M-9 is.

Early in February I took the camera into The Camera Store in Calgary. My camera guy Stephan confirmed what I was seeing, bundled up the M-E and sent it away to the Leica Maintenance facility.

Now I was faced with a problem: what to photograph with? I did use my E-P2 for a while, but it was not as immediate and I fought continually with its “I’ll focus here, regardless of where you think I’ll focus” mindset. Don’t get me wrong, I love the camera dearly: small, light, great image quality, especially with the 45mm f1.8 lens. It just felt, well, fiddly. It’s still part of my day to day kit and shares the bag with the M-E.

I really liked the immediacy and total control I had experienced with the Leica and looking over my storage cabinet I pulled out my father’s Ricoh 500. This camera is as old as I am (pushing 60) and I’ve used it in the past and works like it’s new. I bought a couple of rolls of XP-2 figuring that it would be “easy” to get C-41 processed. I decided to pull it one stop because on a sunny day, you’re shooting at 1/500 (maximum shutter speed) at f/16. -1 stop gave me 1/250 at f/11. This decision would return to haunt me.

Working with the Ricoh was as delightful as working with the Leica. It was so stealthy, so quiet: just a slight “snick” as the leaf shutter did its magic. The rangefinder, despite it's 60 years was still clear, a bit dark, but clear and worked like a charm.

Getting into a real groove, I pulled out my OM-2n to work with as well. Batteries were a bit of a dilemma, but even though all the pundits say that the 3v lithium cells are not recommended (without providing a reason) they work fine. The Ricoh had a 45mm lens so I mounted my favourite lens of all time, the Zuiko 100 f/2.8. This is a dreamboat piece of glass: sharp, great contrast and in the words of Digital Review’s Kai: “bokehlicious”.

It was also looking like a long wait for the Leica, so I decided to run Ilford Pan-F 50 in the Ricoh as that gave me lots of room to play aperture wise on reasonably bright days. I selected Ilford Delta 100 to use in the OM-2: a yellow K2 filter that would give me the same exposure values as the Ricoh. I really am not enamored with fast films like HP-5, Tri-X and such, especially here in the high foothills where the light is overwhelming and harsh. The “Sunny 16” rule is more like a “Sunny Something much more than 16” rule the light is so god damn hard. With cameras that are limited to 1/1000s (1/500s on the Ricoh) shutter speeds you really run out of aperture fast.

Working with my old friend the OM-2n (and later my OM-4T) showed me just how far digital camera manufacturers still have to go to make a useable viewfinder. These are bright and huge! Even the Leica seems cramped in comparison! The split-image rangefinder and the micro-prism focusing ring were a delight discover all over again. Why DSLR manufacturers can’t put this in their optical viewfinders is beyond me. I’ve yet to find a cogent argument for not including these features.

I loved working with these three cameras. This is how it’s supposed to be: immediate, with no barrier between you and your subject and excellent ergonomics that don’t get in the way.

Brother of an Other Mother

I got the M-E back last week and I’ve been working with it as well as the Ricoh. If I had to choose one over the other I couldn’t: both are so easy to use, so well designed, so well-built that you feel confident with them.

I also spent a day working the Leica next to the OMs: again, brothers of different mothers. I really can’t favour one over the other. Both just work and don`t get in the way.

What was it about these cameras that make them such a pleasure to use, what lets them fade out of the way between you and your subject?
  • Ergonomics – Everything is where you expect it to be. In fact on all three brands, all the major controls turn the same way, feel the same and are easy for your finger to find by touch. Surprisingly, they are all in similar places. No fiddly buttons that can be bumped by accident or that are undifferentiated in size or by texture. The viewfinders show only what is required: nothing more, nothing less. 
  • Lens construction – I love the well damped focus rings on the lenses that I use with these cameras: just the perfect amount of friction, just the right feel to the rubber. It just hammered home how much I despise the focus by wire nonsense that seems to be all the rage these days.
  • Build quality – these are robust bits of kit. There’s nothing flimsy, nothing fragile about them. All 4 cameras were designed for use by working photographers and you don’t feel as if you might break them if you look at them cross-eyed.
Put all this together and your imagination can soar because you leave the technology behind.

Developing Stories (Film at 11)

I’d run 4 rolls of XP-2 through the Ricoh and when I took them to “The Last MiniLab In Town” I was told that they no longer do C-41 pull or push processing. It’s not that they can’t do it, it’s just a setting after all, but they can’t be arsed, so they won’t.

Of course the selection of silver halide film opened up another can of worms: where to get them processed as well. I don’t like working with chemicals: never have. To top it off I really don’t have anywhere to mix and work with them. The thought of pouring spent chemicals down the sink and on to the water treatment plant with no silver recovery in place seems wrong to me. I’d rather find a third party that’s set up to work with this stuff.

I ended up sending my first batch of C-41 and silver halide film to Ilford in the US. It’s not cheap. If they don’t work out, there’s a custom lab in Vancouver I’m going to try. When I get the results back I’ll share them here. There is a pro here in town that will do silver but I used him once in the past and got the negatives back scratched with water spots: Ugh!

And In the End

Will I continue to shoot film? Yes, of course. Will I drop digital? No way. Both have their place and I’ll shoot them side by side in the same shoot if needed. It’s not either/or for me.

I’ve got as near to perfect digital cameras as you can get; I’ve got the perfect film cameras. I’m a happy man.


  1. You've made me all nostalgic for my film days. I still have my grandfather's Braun Paxette, but it's not in working condition any more. A project for when I can get some spare time.

  2. I have an old Praktika and an Olympus M that used ot belong to my dad, each with just the 50mm lenses that came with them. I'd have to invest some in order to get them running, but I'm not really eager to go back to film... and I am really happy with my Sammy.