Why do we take photographs

The urge to take photographs is a mystery that is slowly being unraveled. We have to discard all the common arguments that can be found on the internet and look a bit deeper. A sociologist will remark that taking photographs is part of a highly ritualized social protocol: we take pictures as tourists of all photogenic locations we visit and we take pictures as family members of important family and domestic affairs. We take pictures of these scenes and events because we want to remember what was the case. Memory is tricky and will fade anyway. In this age of the selfie, another motive has to be added: the photograph as tool for personal communication. Documentary photographers and photo-journalists may object and add that the idea that a photograph or a series of photographs tells a story, is an old one. A selfie does not tell a story but makes a statement.
Snapshots and selfies may be neglected by ‘serious’ photographers who see a photograph as a personal expression of sentiment or as an artistic creation. It is the age-old dichotomy between intention and documentation that has coloured the definition and appraisal of photography since the early nineteenth century.
When we ask why we take pictures, we must also look at the objects we take pictures of. Photographs are taken to be looked at at some time after the moment of recording.

When discussing the essence of photography the analogy between the eye and the lens is often used to show the similarities. This is too easy. Reality, some philosophers would say is not the physical reality we assume it to be, but there is a filter between the physical reality and our brain which transforms the physical reality into a social reality. What we see is not what there is. The brain will influence what we see, based on what is already known. Neurofysiology tells this story in a different way. The basics are indisputable. Physical objects bounce off photons and these reach the retina. The retina calculates the angle of the trajectory of the photons and a pattern of light intensities on the retina is used by the brain to construct a meaningful shape. This is the so-called top-down direction: the higher level of the brain influences the lower level processing. This is needed because the brain can process at best 1% of all visual information that is being transmitted through the eye lens. There is a good biological reason for this fact: the brain must process the visual impulses immediately to become aware of danger in the close surroundings of the human being in his environment. If it would take minutes to recognize a lion, we would never survive by running away.
Lower level processing is not influenced by the brain processes that select the information and construct an image. This lower level processing records the unfiltered visual information that the environment sends to us. Scientists do not agree on what this type of processing is and does, but it is evident that an ‘objective (unfiltered)’ scan within the field of vision provides us with an overview of what is ‘out there’ beyond our head.
The Leica viewfinder incidentally is a perfect match for this idea of visual processing. The viewfinder corresponds with the low level vision and when focusing on a specific object (the rangefinder patch) the high level processing takes over.
The lens has an easy task: it has only to transmit the photons and the emulsion records this amount and pattern of photons without interpreting the pattern. The comparison between the eye and the lens is a bit too primitive.
The accuracy and objectivity of the camera lens and emulsion has been one of the main reasons why scientists were so enthusiastically about the new medium. It could function as a welcome correction for the subjectivity of the human perception.
Here then lies one of the reasons why we take pictures. It is not the art instinct that Dutton describes in his book with the same title and not the preservation of the moment that Barthes mentions in his book ‘Camera Lucida’. It is the urge to record in an instant what we do not see and what can be preserved for eternity and for later study. It is the compensation for the scrupulous gaze of the detective who can see what others overlook.
There is more however.
Psychology adds some valuable insight: the drive to record scenes for later inspection and hoping that the recording is objective (at least immune for brain reconstruction) is one element. The other crucial element is the psychological relation to a scene. Studies have shown that persons get good feelings when looking at pictures of scenes and events that they were involved in and that produced at that time good feelings. Seeing the scene some time later, recalls the same good feelings as one had at the moment of recording. That is why parents take pictures of their smiling baby: looking at the photo relives that same good feeling of the moment.
That is also why ritualized photographs, taken because the social rules demand or prescribe it, have much less emotional value. A picture of the Eiffel Tower will not produce happy feelings, because the commercial version is much better and you were not happy when taking the picture in the first place: there is an obligation as a tourist, not a strong emotional bonding. The picture of the small bistro where you asked your girlfriend to become your wife, has strong emotional connections, but as a picture it may be boring. But it will produce happy feelings and that is why you took the picture: to relive these feelings that fade in memory.
Why then do you take pictures? Forget about art and rituals! Search and find objects you are curious about and that will give you good feelings when looking at the photograph again. Take pictures of events and persons that you were enthusiastically about when encountering. Forget about the classical rules of composition and free yourself to see and feel. Then press the shutter and process a straight print.
There is yet another motive to take pictures: this is what Winogrand did in the last stages of his life: he took thousands of rolls of film without developing or inspecting them. The idea was that taking a picture enriches the experience of being there and to feel yourself as a being. If this is your goal: a course of yoga might be cheaper and less time consuming.

selective enlargements

There is one persistent trend: the demand for more pixels. When Leica announced the M8 with its 10 Mp, there was an immediate response that this amount was too timid. The M9 had 18 Mp, but spread over a larger area. The pixels size did not change (6.8 micron in both cases). The M240 family and the new M10 has a pixel count of 24 Mp with a slightly reduced pixel size. The Leica Q uses selective cropping to emulate several focal lengths, combining a 24 Mp sensor with a basic 28 mm lens. The idea is that the definition of the lens can be used to enlarge sections of the sensor area. It is the same as using several focal lenght’s from one fixed standpoint to enlarge a small part of the scene.
The same idea can also be used with the MM2 and the Apo-Summicron-M 50 mm lens. When you take a picture of a model the result may be like this:

If you want only a part of the face, you can use a 90mm lens or enlarge a section of the picture, see below.


This picture is a non-post-processed sectional enlargement of the original file. The definition is excellent and all detail is clearly and crisply rendered.
Selective enlargements are as old as photography itself. It is one of the main arguments for using high definition, monodispersion emulsions.

Does “Leica Photography” exist?

In the early 1920s Leica photography (Leitz for a short time even used the designation: “Leicagraphy”) was synonymous with miniature format photography. The Leica camera had no competition (until the announcement of the Zeiss Contax) and its compact size and fast handling allowed many a revolutionary photographer to select standpoints and viewpoints that departed from the conventional rules. It was possible now to record so-called dynamic scenes (life as it enrolled before the eyes of the observer). Leitz promoted this style of photography (persons (often scantily clad females) jumping in a river, children playing on a swing, portraits in dimly lit rooms, family scenes. There are a few scenes in the famous movie (Heimat) where family celebrations are fixed for history with a picture taken with a Leica. Others, notably Paul Wolff, promoted the excellent quality of the Leica lens and the film emulsion with pictures of exquisite quality to challenge the large format community.
In the thirties and fifties of the twentieth century photographers roamed the streets of New York and Paris to capture life as it exhibited itself in public space. Street photography and documentary photography became closely connected with the Leica camera. The rangefinder had its advantages compared to the slow focusing of the dark screens of the typical SLR and twin reflex, although many users of this type could produce pictures that were uncannily close to classic Leica pictures. Photographers did choose the 35 mm camera because it was the cheaper option, negative for negative.
So a handful of iconic photographers and their style set the rule for what Leica photography should be. The claim to be an art form settled the matter. Now every aspiring Leica photographer had to prove that s/he could produce pictures in the mould of the masters (Winogrand. Meyerowitz and so on).
The sobering truth is that today the Leica photographer is a photographer using a Leica camera. For a long time Leica photography was a life style and an attitude for realistic photography. Now photographers with a Leica emulate whatever is prominent in the arts scene.
There is a heavy dependance on engineering technique and optical quality. It is no coincidence that many Leica buyers argue that the choice for Leica has been inspired by the quality of the lenses. In the current time frame where fast autofocus rules and fast sequences (up to ten pictures/second) are the norm, the whole idea of waiting for the moment to freeze a dynamic moment in carefully composed construction is a bit out of order.
In social media the usual discussion about the composition of a picture is rather embarrassing: comments like “slightly more to the left” or “a bit more space at the bottom” or (technically) “a bit more highlights” or “more shadow details” indicate the level of the discourse. The basic truth is that the whole idea of artistic composition is a no-brainer when engaging in street photography: the chance factor plays too much a role.

In 1933 the exhibition “Die Kamera” was very popular. It was a display of what photographers (professional and amateur) could accomplish with the tools of the day. Paul Wolff (in his “Meine Erfahrungen mit der Leica”1939) referred to this exhibition and used the standard of quality of the “better photograph” (das bessere Bild) to start a discussion about what the user of a Leica camera should strive for and even imitate. He divides the photographic community in two main groups: the professional photographer (Berufslichtbildner) and the amateur photographer. This second group is composed of amateurs who want to take his photography to a higher level and those who want to take pictures of important events for the sake of remembrance. (Erinnerungsbilder). (it is remarkable that Wolff and his companions hardly mention the woman-photographer who features prominently in the Kodak box photography of the 1890s). The main thrust of his book is the reasoning that the small format photography challenges the capabilities of amateur and professional photographer to the same extent. In this sense there is no major difference between both types of photographers. The important task for every small format photographer is to find a technical method that guarantees a perfect result. One should remember that Barnack’s ambition was the development of a new and very convenient amateur camera. The features of this compact camera allowed many artists to develop a new pictorial and surrealist style, the New Vision.
Wolff dedicated all his energy to the description of a method that combines fine grain with good sharpness and concludes that these basic ingredients have to be complemented by a fair dose of artistic craft, honed by studying masterful examples.
Most ideas and recommendations in the book are now obsolete or accepted as the desired standard. The focus on the motivated amateur as distinct from the snap-shooter (der Knipser) is even today of topical interest. There were a number of Leica users who achieved celebrity status as an artist. Many iconic pictures were made by the like of Cartier-Bresson, Klein, Lebeck, Shulthess, Eugene Smith, Eisenstaedt, Davidson, Eggleston, Winogrand, and Frank. These pictures are still the guiding light for many aspiring Leica photographers.
The art community has since the 1960s grasped photography as an art form and means of communication. There is now an abundant and diverse body of literature about photography as art and it seems that the only serious approach to photography is through one of several iconic art styles. As with the distinction between high and low art, there exists an almost impenetrable wall between art and snapshot photography , the latter looked at with disdain and hardly worth of mentioning by practitioners and theorists of high-brow art.
Even today the humble snap-shot, often out of sight in family albums, is hardly discussed. Without the Kodak innovation, around 1890, photography as we know it, would not have existed. Barnack’s amateur camera continued this tradition of easy capturing the fleeting events that surround us and we deem worthy of recording and remembering as it really was.
The theoretical distinction between artistic intention and mechanical reproduction is the dividing line
between pictorial art and the snapshot. Another distinction that conveys the same information might be the difference between photographic pictures as depictions (with all the philosophical load attached to this concept) and photographic pictures as aids for detection. The argument to use this distinction is a certain approach to photography. Photography can be interpreted as a technology, a process, a procedure and a social process and one can focus on the photograph as an art form, independent of the methods of production. In theoretical terminology it is the distinction between aesthetic value and epistemic value.

Leica photography can be looked at from many different perspectives. Before we can discuss the characteristics of taking photographs with a Leica and the special traits of a Leica photograph, it makes sense to look at the phenomenon of photography itself. There are more definitions and descriptions of what photography is or should be or might be and even has been than can be listed.
The technical definition of photography goes like this:
Photography is the science, art, application and practice of creating durable images by recording light or other electromagnetic radiation, either electronically by means of an image sensor, or chemically by means of a light-sensitive material such as photographic film.”(Focal Encyclopedia, 1973)
Such a definition is not very enlightening because it restricts itself to a bare bones description of the physical processes that are involved in taking a picture.
Bourdieu (1965) takes a more interesting view: he looks at the photographic practice as a social phenomenon and the meaning of a photographic image within this context. He describes photography as a middle-brow art, not unlike the description of the photography of Cartier-Bresson as an artless art.

Leica photography is basically the activity of taking pictures with a Leica camera and even more specific with a Leica coupled rangefinder camera. The argument that using a specific photographic tool will have impact on the style, themes and genres of the photographs will be discussed later.

The E6 process

Recently, Kodak announced that it would restart production of the slide film Ektachrome 100. This is good news for all emulsion users and lovers. Leica cameras and slide film are intimately connected since the first days of Kodachrome. The impressive Leica performance was possible with the help of the Kodachrome K14 and later Ektachrome E-6 process. Indeed it should be the main aim of Leica to convert the digital workflow into a simple E6 process. The reason why I do not evaluate the colour characteristics when discussing new Leica digital cameras is the vast range of influences on the outcome, starting with the colour space and ending with the post processing manipulations. The original E6 process was a simple one. The characteristics of the slide film were known and measured to what ever precision you want. Then it is easy to evaluate the final result.
Now that Leica has chosen to follow the road of simplicity in the digital domain ( a decision I personally applaud) the next step is to implement the E6 process: there could be an internal program or algorithm inside the camera that optimizes the potential of the sensor and produces a Raw file (a colour slide so to speak) that can be printed right away without any post processing. There is no need to do this during the capturing stage and it is possible to do this after capturing the image file on the memory card.
The beauty of the digital process is the flexibility: the user has the choice, but an internal E6 algorithm in a Leica camera would increase the joy and simplicity of the act of taking photographs. And that is what every Leica M user would strive for.

addendum to M10 review

There is some discussion about the characteristics of the sensor in the M10 and how closely it is related to the sensor in the SL and/or which manufacturer is responsible for the production of the sensor. One should first differentiate between the sensor design and the sensor manufacture. Given that the manufacturer has the required expertise and production technology it is in fact irrelevant which manufacturer does the job, as long as the results are within specifications and quality tolerances. The main characteristics of a sensor are: its sensitivity, resolution, noise, contrast ratio, dynamic range and colour gamut and accuracy.
These characteristics are determined and/or influenced by the technical layout of the imaging chain. The basic process is simple: light falls on a regular grid of detectors (a photodiode array or lattice), that produces a pattern of electric charges which are measured and then converted to numbers stored in an image file.
The main elements of the sensor architecture are the basic substrate (a p/n type silicon wafer) and the light-sensing unit (as a semiconductor Capacitor (MOS). In the substrate, pixels are defined as a grid of narrow electrode strips, known as gates. The collected electrons or charge are transferred to the output amplifier and then to the A/D converter. A full frame sensor is one in which the full sensor surface is sensitive to light and there are no dead spaces between the individual pixels. That is why I have problems with the use of ‘full frame’ as a designation for a sensor with the dimensions 24 x 36 mm. It would be better to use the term ‘full size’ for a sensor area of 24 x 36 mm.
Before the basic substrate are located a number of layers: Bayer pattern, IR filter, optionally a low pass filter and coupled to the sensor are the CMOS read out and the A/D converter that integrates with the DSP processor, the Maestro-II in case of Leica. To improve the light gathering capacity of the pixel, an array of specifically shaped microlenses is used in every case. This is not specific for the Leica designed sensors, but common practice.
In a CCD sensor the charge of every pixel is transferred through a narrow output channel to be converted to voltage. In a CMOS sensor every pixel has its own charge-to-voltage conversion and the sensor as a package may include amplifiers, noise-correction and digitization circuits.
The exact layout of the several Leica sensors in the Q, SL and M (various versions) full size sensor types is not (yet) communicated.
The complicated and often highly integrated and also the many separated elements that make up the full architecture make it quite difficult to say that one specific sensor is is or is not different from another one.
The remark that the filter layer and the shape of the microlenses of the sensor in the M10 have been (again) optimized for the use of Leica M lenses has not much information value. Such an optimization has been the case for every Leica digital M since the M8 and DMR R8- module. It would be only informative when the differences are specified in detail. These changes (in whatever extent and magnitude) do not imply that the rest of the sensor architecture is or is not identical to another one.
Depending on how one person assesses the magnitude of the differences in architecture, one may say that (to be specific) the sensor in the M10 is or is not identical with the sensor in the SL. After all, the sensor in the Q and SL have been claimed as the same or as improved, whatever this means.
The upshot is that it is the result that counts.