About two weeks into owning my Leica M-E I recieved an accidental gift: the camera’s light meter broke. This seems strange as a gift, but it has made my pictures better.
A broken meter is not nearly as bad as it sounds. I just shoot a picture and if the light is off I adjust to add or remove exposure and shoot again. At the start I could get a perfect exposure in less than three tries — it’s a simple binary search.
Within a week I had learned the settings well enough to often get the right exposure by the first try, and by now I’m an excellent judge of available light. At night I know when to go to ISO 500 or 1,000 or even 2,500. I know when to knock the shutter speed down to one second and hold really still. Now I almost always get a usable picture on my first shot and then adjust to get perfect exposure for the second shot.
People with SLRs might be laughing at all of this. If you want to point and shoot a camera for a nice picture the Leica M not the tool for the job. The Leica M has only four controls: focus, aperture, ISO, and shutter speed. Two of those controls, focus and aperture, are always manual. The only conrols that can be automated are shutter speed and ISO. If your meter breaks you’ll need to control both ISO and shutter speed on your own.
What I’ve found is that my choice of balance of focus, shutter speed, aperture, and ISO is almost always better than what a camera picks. Automatic cameras are like automatic transmissions: they are good for average and predictable results but not for pushing boundaries. Manual shooting gives you more control but forces you to think.
A few tips for manually metering a Leica M9:
I use the “Sunny 16” rule: on a sunny day at f/16 the right shutter speed is usually the inverse of the ISO. If you’re shooting at ISO 500 set the shutter to 1⁄500 sec. If like me you generally shoot at or below f/8 to avoid diffraction then set the shutter to 1⁄1000 sec instead.
When manually metering I like to pick the spot in a picture that I want properly exposed. You’ll probably find that this under or over exposes other parts of the picture nicely. If someone is lit from the back I can expose properly for just their face and intentionally blow out highlights to make the background white. In other situations like the two photos below I intentionally increased exposure to make the photo a bit surreal.
The Leica makes adjusting exposure values easy because both the Leica lenses and the shutter indicator have two clicks for each stop. Imagine that you are taking a picture at f/8 and 1⁄125 of a second but want to get a narrower depth of field. Just move the aperture two clicks clockwise (open) and move the shutter speed two clicks counter-clockwise (closed). Now you’ve decreased the depth of field by one stop while maintaining the same overall exposure.
One more thing: I finally got the meter fixed this week at the Leica store in Ginza, Tokyo. They have on site repair facilities and all they had to do was reattach a part. It was free and the store is beautiful. Check it out if you’re ever in Ginza.