The Slippery Magic of Photography, Nikon and Leica IIIF

Magic stuff

For me as a creative person, my imagination is still what separates me from everyone else. After that, it's a way of seeing the world that maybe involves the stories that I want to tell. Maybe not, I'm still kind of trying to figure out the creative process, even after all these years. I think that's what makes it fun, is that once you think you've got it all figured out, something new happens that makes you rethink everything. Reality checks are good.

If one could reduce some of this to it's essence, I suspect that the creative process has to do with your own personality, the stories you've experienced, the things you've seen along the way, and maybe your own style of making images. Everyone's brain is hardwired in a specific manner, and your photography is a visual manifestation of that, which is what I find to be very slippery, mysterious, and sometimes even kind of magical. I just call this "the sometimes-magic of photography."

Cameras (including cell phone versions)

I'm asked by a lot of people about cameras and advice about which ones to buy, which brands stand out from the crowd. Usually it's a person who wants something that can get better results than the usual bland and generic look from a cell phone camera. Don't get me wrong, in my opinion, the most convenient cameras being made are in cell phones, but they do have their limitations, especially when you want a photograph that involves your imagination.

This seems kind of like name-dropping, but what the heck, some brands are definitely better than others. I'm reminded that musicians have their favorite instruments, and some of them are likely quite pricey because they can do things that others can't. It's cool to play keyboards on an iPhone app, but I'll bet you my best camera that artists don't use the iPhone app for recording their best material. Same with photographers; the cell phone cameras are fun, but it's not what we use for our real stuff. As for myself, I use a very powerful and easy to use Nikon D800 for everyday use. It's lightning fast, has a large, beautiful image sensor and a cool array of professional lenses. It allows me to imagine a scene and make it a reality, something that cell phone cameras still lack; the ability to make a visual manifestation of what you imagine. Sorry, but that one is an epic fail, as my son would say.

McNeil learning Photography back in the day...

When I was attending Brooks Institue back in the late 1970's, it quickly became clear that the flagship Nikon F2 was the 35mm camera for us aspiring pros to be using. They were rugged, fast and had the best lenses, a killer combination that was hard to beat. I couldn't afford one yet, but got one the next class session. I wanted to learn photography with a classic camera, so I got a 1953 Leica IIIF rangefinder camera with a Summitar 50mm F/2 lens specifically for the intro creative class at Brooks. To me it was like getting a 1953 Fender Stratocaster to learn the guitar. Hey, I wanted the classic mojo man, to learn how the photographers back in the day made their photographs.

The first thing you notice about the Leica rangefinders from the 1950's are that they feel like what cameras should feel like. Small, precise and made with the best craftsmanship of the times. Many of the gears were machined brass, not cheap stamped metal, and it had a heft to it that felt good and natural. It exuded a low-key authority and classiness, and the shutter was a quiet near silent click. It was a stealth camera. Ironically enough, what I liked best about it was that it forced you to slow down and take more time to compose your photographs. I used a different camera for speed, this little baby was for contemplative work where I took extra time to carefully compose the photographs.

Lets not kid ourselves, using a Leica was also like wearing a tailor made designer suit, not some off the rack thing from a department store. Does anyone really care about this when looking at photographs? Probably not, but the point was, I did.

This Leica IIIF was designed at the dawn of 35mm photography when cameras were set to evolve into something dramatically better, and I wanted to learn a critical part of what photography was about with this camera. It was a fun journey of exploration; one that hasn't stopped yet, regardless of whatever gear you're happening to be using.


As mentioned above, I've gone digital and love what the media can do these days. This photograph was made with a Nikon D800 DSLR with the beautiful 85mm Nikkor F/1.4 prime lens. This lens has a depth of field, or bokeh that is very appealing, because it renders the background to various degrees of softness, something that you can't do with generic cell phone cameras by the way. Shot in my little makeshift studio with north light and fine coffee. Bottom's up, buddies, and here's to making more cool photographs.

Story and Photograph Copyright Larry McNeil 2014, All Rights Reserved.

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