On Using The Leica Monochrom On A Safari

  TF Lion Portrait

 

Leica Monochrom, 90mm Summicron, all images w/ ND Filter, @f/2

A few days ago, we published in Tulip Frenzy a field report on using a Leica M-240 as our main camera while on safari in Botswana.  We took the M-240 as our main camera because it is, in fact, our main camera.  Some people have responded as if we did this out of some need to prove a point, or as a bizarre experiment, given that of course one would more naturally shoot with a Canon or Nikon — DSLRs made for this kind of photography.  In fact we used the M because Leica M’s are the only camera system we own.  

However, in addition to taking along our M-240, which at least has the benefit of being able to use telephoto lenses via an adaptor, we also took along our Monochrom, the Leica M that only takes black and white images.  We took it along because frankly we were determined to escape the bounds of cliche, to take photographs that aren’t typically what one returns from Africa with.  Moreover, we thought that taking along the Monochrom, and shooting either the 90mm APO-Summicron-Asph or the 50mm APO-Summicron-Asph (and quite rarely, the 28mm Summicron Asph), and as much as possible shooting wide open (using an ND filter), we might be able to come up with memorable images.  

TF Lion Tongue

Leica Monochrom, 50mm APO-Summicron-Asph

We have to declare that taking the Monochrom along as our second camera was a complete delight.  Thinking in terms of light, not color, in an environment with, at times, a hyper-abundance of both, was a conceptual joy.  And the images we took, in our own subjective view, are likely the ones we will print and put up on our walls, because they’re in many ways more compelling images than the color shots.

TF Leopard Portrait

Leica Monochrom, 90mm APO-Summicron-Asph

There was something about isolating the animal against its background — taking advantage of the bokeh inherent in shooting fast Leica lenses wide open — that appeals to our eye.  Admittedly influenced by the brilliant photography of Nick Brandt, whose shots of animals in Kenya and Tanzania are so unbelievably naturalistic — as if lions came to his plein air portrait studio — we knew what we wanted to achieve visually.  Taking along the Monochrom and using it as an alternative to the Leica M was like shooting in black and white film, with all that entails both in limitations and the liberation of simplicity.

TF Lion Teeth

Leica Monochrom, 50mm APO-Summicron-Asph

Those who read our post on using the Leica M-240 last week in Botswana will remember that I complained I had some trouble focusing with the EVF.  But after a dozen years using a rangefinder, focusing with the Monochrom was second nature, and I felt in some ways that if I really needed to focus quickly, this was the camera I wanted to use.

TF Leopard Grass

Leica Monochrom, 90mm APO-Summicron-Asph

But it wasn’t just ease of use that made the Monochrom such a delight to work with.  It was the conceptual possibility of what one could do shooting within the confines of black and white, and the simplicity of knowing I was only going to shoot wide open.  That if I nailed the focus, the contrast between, say, the leopard’s fur and the grass behind it would be pleasing.

TF Giraffe

Leica Monochrom, 90mm APO-Summicron-Asph

As always with the Monochrom, you go into taking the picture visualizing it in terms of light and form, not color.  Because I had both cameras within reach, I would make a conscious choice about which to use.  Yes, sometimes the matter was solved by the expedient of needing a telephoto lens, which meant using the M.  Sometimes I used both cameras and took multiple images in color and black and white, leaving it to later to sort out which was better.  But sometimes the matter was solved by seeing something and saying, That will simply look better as a black and white image.

TF Elephant Trunk

Leica Monochrom, 90mm APO-Summicron-Asph

We said that Africa is filled with light and color, but perhaps it should be noted that where we were, many of the colors were muted — the grasses dry and the same tone as lions fur, surrounded by many dead trees.  But of course these conditions lend themselves to monochrome photography.

TF Lion Male Female

Leica Monochrom, 28mm Summicron Asph

Finally, there was one other reason we loved taking the Monochrom along: it limited us to shorter lenses.  This meant both that there was background in the picture — not just the lion’s nostril, but the fields behind it — and that ours was a more intimate view than is often the case when using tellys.  The picture above was taken with a 28mm lens, which we often use for street photography.  Being this close to a lion is a thrill.  We hope this comes through in the pictures.

Please note: if you like these photographs, in the days ahead, several of the ones above will be available for purchase through The Stephen Bartels Gallery.  

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