A man in Havana


From the 10th of March till the 24th of March I had the opportunity to try out a Leica M9 body for the first time. Transcontinena BV - dutch importer of Leica - provided me the camera with a summicron-M 35 mm f2.0 lens and a summarit-M 75 mm f2.5 lens, an opportunity most photographers will take right away and will feel honored to get. So I took the challenge!

I have to say when I unboxed the Leica, my expectations were high and the camera met every one of them. I had a few days before I would fly out to Cuba - when you get an opportunity like this, you might as well go all the way – to study the camera and figure out all the specifications. It felt like I had to learn how to walk all over again. Normally I work with a Nikon D3 and a Nikon D3X, fully automatic, fast auto focus, super quick cameras. With this one everything was manual again. Beside this little challenge, came the fact that the M9 is not a dSLR but a range finder. Composing your picture is a whole new experience on it’s own.

Landing in Cuba I found myself with the challenge to, at least sort of, master this beauty in 9 days (taking of the days of travel to -, from - and within Cuba). Unfortunately I didn’t take in account that most Cubans only speak Spanish and I don’t… This was a serious extra handicap for my challenge. The time I needed to get used to this new camera, all manual settings, new way of focusing and new way of composing my pictures, I couldn’t use to communicate with the people I wanted to take a picture of. I am a man. I can’t do two things at the same time when both things call upon my brain at once. Second, if I did get permission to take a photo, it took me a while to have all settings right. The fact that - as soon as they noticed that I didn’t speak their language - every photo would cost me at least $ 1 CUC (equivalent of $1 US), made my trip a little more expensive than I had expected.

The first days I decided to only go for the 35 mm lens with my aperture at 8 or up. This way I didn’t have to worry too much about the focus and I could get used to the fact that I was using a range finder and focus on composing my pictures. After a couple of days this started to work really well, but I have to say, I did miss playing with my depth of field. The pictures were good, but not very exciting. When I also started to use the 2.0 and the 2.8 of the 35 mm, I suddenly noticed how used I was, to a quick and accurate auto focus.

In the mean time I did get used to carrying the camera around. People didn’t feel to intimidated by it. Seeing other tourist carrying around their monstrous dSLR kits, often with a huge 24 – 70 mm 2.8 or even a 70 – 200 mm 2.8 attached, and made me feel king of the world. Downside, at that moment, to the M9 was that I had to really “get in close”. This was, being a dumb English-speaking tourist, quite an uncomfortable position. But I have to say, when I did get in close and took the shot, pictures came out a lot more engaged than they would have with a 200 mm from a safe distance. Still it was time to try out the 75 mm.

The depth of field with the 75mm was completely different. Of course you don’t have a lot of depth of field with a telephoto, and besides, I had passed this station with the 35 mm already and was eager to vary the options. Problem is that with a rangefinder, putting on a different lens, doesn’t do a thing when you look through your viewfinder. You see exactly the same, except for some different lines. O, right… these are the lines I needed to use. Focusing with the 75 mm was harder as well, I found out. My touch needed to be very subtle. Being 1.90 meter, 100 kg, bold and full of tattoo’s, subtle is not a word that people tend to associate me with.

Seeing my pictures on the computer I did notice the progress I made during the trip. I have to say that the M9 did meet up with my expectations. All pictures have a different feel to the photos I normally shoot with my dSLR. I don’t really know how to describe it. Maybe you can say they have an authentic feel, but maybe you should just say it’s a Leica feel. Whenever I managed to get the focus and framing spot on, the picture would actually really be spot on. The lenses are absolutely amazing (though I have to say I prefer the 35 mm way more than the 75 mm). I would definitely like to try the 50 mm 0.95 as well, when I get the chance.

Writing this as the end of my trip is nearly there, I have to say: I haven’t mastered the Leica M9 yet. Frustrating, but that’s just as it is. I am positive I will master it, but it will at least take me 2, 3 or maybe even 4 weeks more to explore this camera and get comfortable with all the possibilities it has to offer. That said I would definitely choose a different country to do this. One where it is easier for me to communicate with the people. That way, I can explain why it is necessary for me to try out different shots and be with one of my “models” for a bit longer. Coming home, one of the first things I will look into is a Spanish language course. Despite the language barrier, Cuba has filled my hart with warmth; hospitality and the best Mojito’s money can buy.

For Dutch readers, check: Leica Blog