On Light Leaks, Leicas and SLRs

Last month, I started noticing strange light leaks on my Leica M2 negatives. At first, they appeared two or three times per roll, but they quickly took over half of each roll. Two bursts of light: one in the middle and the other to the right. I checked the M2's first set of cloth curtains, saw no leak, and continued shooting. However, after developing the next batch of film two weeks later, the leaks continued to appear. I checked the second set of curtains (after the shutter is cocked) and I quickly saw the pinholes.

Terrible shot, worse light leaks

I can't figure out how the holes formed. Granted, I'm using a 56-year-old camera, but I thought I was careful. Leicas (and other cloth shutter rangefinders) have a BIG weakness: if you point them at the sun, the lens acts as a magnifying glass and burns holes into the cloth underneath. Unlike SLRs, rangefinders don't have a mirror between the cloth shutter and the lens, losing that level of shutter protection

Repairing Leicas is expensive; I needed a DIY solution. After poking around the Internet, I discovered that Liquid Tape can be used to seal the pinholes, creating a lightproof layer. Two coats  of Liquid Tape and 24 hours later, my camera was back to normal.

Liquid Tape drying on the shutter curtain

I switched to my Nikon FM3a while waiting for the Liquid Tape to arrive. I had no idea I would be so uncomfortable on that camera. I'm not new to Nikon SLRs. My first camera was a Nikon FE, used for years before my M2.

Nikon FM3a

The Nikon is loud and clunky, yet practical due to its cushy features (detailed viewfinder, ISO dial, exposure comp. automatic setting). The M2 is discreet, agile, and annoyingly utilitarian.

Walking through Little Italy during the Feast of San Gennaro, I was shocked at how unproductive I was. My eyes constantly scanned the edges of the viewfinder, checking to see what was in frame, something I never do on my M2. This slowed me down considerably.

Whenever I managed to take a photograph, the shutter was so loud that my subjects were instantly alerted to my presence, spoiling the moment and any further chance of capturing it. If I didn't get the photo that first time, the camera killed any chance of a second or third shot. Last, none of my Nikon lens had useful DOF scales, making zone focusing impossible.

I couldn't wait to get my M2 back. The FM3a isn't a bad camera. Feature-wise, it blows any Leica out of the water. The viewfinder lets you see exactly what's in the shot, you can sample the depth-of-field beforehand, it can function 100% electrically or mechanically, and more.

The key is to utilize the SLR in a way that makes use of its strengths. For street, I need a quick, quiet setup that lets me view the photo undistracted. The M2 fills that gap. For macro photos, shots that require a zoom lens, and for night photography, hand me the FM3a any day.

Year of the Darkroom

Last week, I conducted my first test of a darkroom I built at the Arab American Association of New York. This is the first step towards creating a film photography community in Bay Ridge. The idea originated through a meeting with artist Anna Lise Jensen. With generous equipment donations by Brazilian photographer Ig Mata (thank you, Ig!) and paper donations by Rona Merrill (in association with CatLABS of JP), it's one step closer to fruition.

Ultimately, we're trying to grow this community by running photography classes, printing classes and renting darkroom time. After a few hours of cleaning and preparing, I found a place for three enlargers, a tray system, the enlarging timer, filters and a healthy collection of books. With all that taken care of, it was time to print. I photographed the AAANY's staff in April and decided to print and gift the shot as a thank you for their huge role in this project.

The test was a success, despite multiple annoying moments. Since 2011, I've been in a darkroom once. I forgot how calm one must be when printing. Waiting for the test strips, minutes at a time, in a cramped, dark space, only to find out your exposure is nowhere near close is an exercise in patience. Being years out of practice did not help to curb my frustrations.

This is a drawn-out, sophisticated process that demands your full concentration and an otherworldly attention to detail for a successful session. Yet, holding the final print and closely examining its subtle gradation between white, black and gray is an experience like no other.

If you're interested, please follow me on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter for updates as the darkroom evolves.

Darkroom: Chemicals mixed, room ready

Today's negative: frame 32
Darkroom: Loaded in the negative holder
Darkoom: In the Light
Darkoom: In the Light
Darkroom: Here's the projected photo
Darkroom: Focus checked with the grain enlarger

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The first print! 10s of light at f/8 through the enlarger

Darkroom: 3, 6, 9, and 12 seconds. I am way off
Darkroom: More test prints and strips
Darkroom: Getting closer. The girl on the far left needs to be burned in. Her shirt is pure white, making the photo very unbalanced
Darkroom: Far left girl refuses to blend in. May I present my half-assed solution: A dodge and burn template, cut to size, made out of restaurant menus
Darkroom: DONE. Far left girl needed NINE ADDITIONAL SECONDS of dodging and burning, compared to 11 seconds for the entire photo
Darkroom: Start to finish washing in the sink
Darkroom: Start to finish washing in the sink
Darkroom: The four finished prints drying
Darkroom: This is what happens when you don't use fixer
Darkroom: This is also what happens when you don't use fixer
Darkroom: Seeing double. Panoramic aftermath.