The Leica M Connection: Relying on the M9, M8, and Leica lenses to deliver outstanding performance under pressure

Bruno Stevens embarked upon a career the high-stress world of professional photojournalism in 1998 at the age of 39, but he was a committed Leica M fan long before that. He still treasures his 45-year-old M2 as “the camera I’d pick if I were to be stranded on a desert island,” and he shoots with vintage Leica glass as well as the latest Leica optics. The superb durability and ruggedness of the M system are crucial for anyone who shoots most of his pictures in war zones and in the aftermath of natural disasters, but his reasons for choosing it go far deeper than that. The M9 in particular accords perfectly with his creative vision and his working methods, providing the ideal tool to create the stark, compelling images that reveal the truth of cataclysmic human events. Herewith the second part of our Q and A interview, and Steven’s incisive comments:

Q: You covered the tragic events in Haiti on two separate trips using your Leica M9 and M8. How did this work out for you, which lenses did you select, and what is your impression of their performance in the field?

A: On the Leica M9 the two main lenses I used were already in my optical arsenal—the 28mm f/2.0 Summicron ASPH and the 35mm f/2.0 Summicron f/2.0 ASPH. My second body was a Leica M8. I mounted a 50mm on it to shoot a series of aerial photos from helicopters and I also used a 24mm f/2.8 Elmarit. On my follow-up trip to Haiti in April, 3 months after the earthquake, I had a chance to use the latest version of the 35mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH, and found it to be very sharp but with a smoother bokeh—it seems to have a ‘velvet touch’ while the 35mm Summicron has a ‘harder’ color contrast. These are all beautiful lenses to be sure, but on the M9 the 28mm Summicron gives me the finest detail, a punchier image along with amazing color. I think the M9 and the 28mm f/2 Summicron is a magic combination—it’s unbelievable!

Q: I know you have a very high regard for the M9, but also love your M8 and think that it’s been unduly criticized. Do you have any other Leica Ms in your stable?

A: In addition to the M9 and M8 I also have an M7 that I like very much. But my favorite Leica of all time is—would you believe it—my ancient M2 of 1965. I think it has the best viewfinder configuration they’ve ever done—brilliant, and it’s almost 45 years old! I used it to shoot the pictures shown at a major exhibition on Cambodia. I shot them on Tri-X with a 35mm f/2 Summicron and blew them up into incredible wall-sized posters. It’s perfect. A major disadvantage of pictures taken in the virtual world is that they may be inaccessible in 50 years time. With digital you need to have active management of your archive.

Q: Do you find shooting with a Leica M film camera different from shooting with with, say, a Leica M9?

A: When you shoot with film you really have to think about what you’re doing because you have a limited number of frames. That brings with it a certain discipline that can be a good thing. For example, I’ve been shooting in Palestine for 10 years now and I recall the huge crowds that descended upon Ramallah to attend the funeral of Yasser Arafat—there were 25,000 people in a place that could accommodate maybe 5,000. Only one photographer took a shot of him actually going into the ground—and it was me. To get it I had to pass quickly through this sea of humanity, stand next to the coffin and shoot only the pictures I needed. With digital cameras you just shoot, shoot, shoot, and if some miss it’s unimportant. But the one shot you get on film is likely to be better, because your approach to the whole story is focused on capturing a single crucial frame.

Today I shoot with my M9 in almost the same way I shoot with film. I shoot with one Leica body and with one lens at a time. Because of the buffer size and other considerations you can’t just fire off 10 frames a second as you can with some DSLRs, and you have to focus manually, so the experience of shooting with an M9 is almost the same as shooting film. I do shoot somewhat differently, but it is completely consistent with what I had been doing and saying with film. In short, shooting with an M9 or an M8 is much closer to the film experience.

Q: Can you give another example of why shooting with a Leica M9 has practical advantages for your kind of work?

A: Sure. I was in Gaza last week and there was a big demonstration. All the other photographers were there, covering the same scene with their DSLRs, and you could hear the ‘brrrrrrr’ of their cameras shooting high-speed bursts. However, if you take a look at this week’s Newsweek, the picture of the event is mine—not because it’s so much better but because it’s different. I somehow captured the right moment. I really believe it’s because the M9, like its predecessors, is a camera for photographers that think. That’s really why the M system has been the system of choice for the great thinking photojournalists—people who shoot with their brains more than just their eyes. Ironically, the very limitations of the system become an asset. They say that the Leica M is an extension of your eye and I couldn’t agree more—it’s actually more than that because it lets you see beyond the frame. You see the moment occurring in front of your camera when you hit the shutter release—you see what’s happening at that very instant. You don’t even have to chimp. And of course M9 images are a sharp as hell. I was amazed by the sheer amount of information within each file, and the depth and detail of what the image shows is even more impressive. Heroism is defined as grace under pressure, and I guess that’s what the Leica M provides for me and for all photojournalists who bear witness to the human struggle.

-Jason Schneider

To see more photos by Bruno Stevens visit his website