A few weeks with a Fed

Posted on Sep 16, 2009

After reading Mike Johnston’s piece on The Leica as Teacher, I wondered what I could do to try out the ideas contained within the article (and it’s followup and their comments). Buying a Leica was something of a stretch - a used M6 is something over £800 without a lens (a reasonable one is a few hundred pounds from Cosina Voightlander). For a while I used my EOS 30 and EOS 40D in manual mode with manual focusing and the EF 50mm/f1.8. Manual mode works well, but manual focusing is challenging, to say the least.

One option was to buy a Voightlander Bessa R, which can be found on Ebay for between two and four hundred pounds, again without lens. It’s still quite a chunk of money to layout for an experiment (though, as Mike says, the film, processing and printing will end up costing more).

Whilst searching around I came across various sites describing the Russian Leica copies that were made over the last fifty years. After reading up on the relative merits and disadvantages I bought a Fed 3 with Industar 61 (52mm/f2.8). It cost less than a takeaway dinner, arrived within a few days and is in excellent condition.

The Fed is a mixture of solid reliability and quirky fragility. The body and switches are all metal and the camera has a very solid feel. The most notable fragility is that one should never change the shutter speed dial without having first primed the shutter (wound on), else the shutter mechanism can be broken. It’s potentially disastrous, but easily remembered.

The camera is pleasant and simple to use. The lens has a notched ring for the available apertures and a smooth ring for focus. The rangefinder works well, at least in my copy, though it is not always easy to get perfect focus.

Being completely manual has some drawbacks, the only one of particular significant being a lack of metering. After a couple of rolls of film I bought the cheapest Sekonic meter - itself costing more than the camera. Even then, a separate meter is a pain to use.

After five or six rolls of film (Fuji Superia 400, Ilford HP5+, FP4+) I’ve decided to give Ilford XP2 a try. The price for “true” black and white processing adds up quickly when my local Tesco will process, print and scan for around six pounds.

At this point I’m not sure if I will stick with the experiment or whether it’s been a success. Buying a cheap rangefinder was a good idea - it taught me something about how that style of camera works and how I might use it. I don’t know that I could use the Fed (or any camera!) exclusively for a year, especially if combined with a single lens and choice of film. With the Fed I miss:

  • in-camera metering,
  • the ability to choose to shoot in black and white or colour on a shot-by-shot basis,
  • the ability to change ISO on the fly,
  • the immediacy of examining my images at the end of the day rather than waiting both for the roll of film to end and that roll to be processed.

The first of these would be solved by a more expensive variant of the same camera (Bessa, Zeiss Ikon, Leica). The rest are disadvantages of using film.

I’m hard pressed to make a useful list of the things that are good about using the Fed. I can admit that the oddity of the camera is appealing and it’s a pleasant device to hold and use. It’s smaller than carrying around my 40D, though it is about the same weight. The availability of good lenses with wide aperture and that those lenses are relatively small (see a comparison of EF 35mm/f1.4 vs. M 35mm/f1.4 in this article) is a big draw. My Panasonic LX2 sits almost unused due to it’s poor ability in anything other than bright light.

The perfect solution would appear to be the new Leica M9. Perfect until you examine the price :-) Other options might be:

  • Continue shooting with film and trade up:
    • Voightlander Bessa R2/3/4 (£200-£500),
    • Zeiss Ikon ZI (~£1000 new (has anyone ever seen one of these for sale second hand?)),
    • Leica M6 (~£800)
  • Switch to a digital rangefinder:
    • Epson R-D1 (Aperture have one for ~£800),
    • Leica M8 (something around ~£1600).

In all cases a new M mount lens is likely (£200-£500).

Using non-chromagenic black and white film is costing ~30p per frame. Chromogenic drops that down to ~20p per frame. At two films per month (and it could easily be more) that runs to around £250 a year. After two years I might break even on cost with the Epson (presuming that it doesn’t break down - a big presumption).

Ah, difficult decisions…