In early October 2018 I visited Bedruthan Steps with the intention of taking some photographs. Bedruthan Steps is a relatively long stretch of Cornish coastline punctuated by imposing sea stacks. The route to down from the National Trust carpark is via several flights of stone stairs carved out of the cliffs, which is where I assume the ‘steps’ name comes from (I’m wrong about this, the ‘steps’ are acutally the sea stacks themselves thought to be stepping stones for giants…daft). It’s a rugged and windswept place, a haven for sea birds and rockclimbers although access is somewhat conditional; “DO NOT attempt to reach the beach when the stairway is closed” the National Trust warns, “DO NOT enter the sea at any time - DANGEROUS CURRENTS” and finally “BEWARE of being cut off by in-coming tides” for good measure. Aside from the constant threat of death though, the location is dog friendly and boasts an excellent gift shop.
I descended the stairs carefully, clutching the rail as I went, then walked for a whiIe, alone, appreciating the solitude and bracing wind. It started to rain heavily, but undeterred I took out my Leica M2, a 1961 model I’d partnered with a type V 50mm Summicron and loaded with a roll of Kodak Portra. My first shot was to be a largish rock formation immersed in a pool surrounding one of the taller sea stacks, it's pale alabaster segments in stark contrast to the iridescent green of the seawater, possessing an almost metallic sheen.
I held the Leica up to my eye and focussed the rangefinder patch on the rocks, the camera offered nothing, no clue as to what the exposure was, just a simple uncluttered view of my composition within an elegant square frame. Guessing the values, I twisted the aperture ring to f5.6 and the shutter speed dial to 1/125th of a second then carefully pushed the shutter release...click...that sound of the curtain opening and closing has inspired many a photographer to marvel with appreciation at the ‘M’ and I'm no exception. It is an almost perfectly designed tool, the M2 variant only lessened by its crude manual film counter dial, I suspect a cost-saving improvement (I use the term loosely). I pushed the advance leaver to wind onto the next frame, feeling a slight but reassuring resistance as the film went further onto the spool. The film counter dial clicked round a notch to read ‘12’… “still plenty left on the roll” I assured myself and carried on walking.
The rain eased slightly but the wind became more persistent, I turned to look out to sea and framed another shot, opening up the aperture to f4 and the shutter to 1/250th to get some definition in the waves. Focus, breathe out, click, wind on. Is this a good shot? I had no idea, weeks later when reviewing the images on my computer I’d mark it as a keeper but for now I was in blissful ignorance; the result never seems to be important for me in the moment, only the moment itself and has any importance to me.
The rain continued now, gently soaking my trousers and proving my assumed-from-the-label waterproof coat was in fact, not waterproof. I decided to stop for a tea break, my patience and zen-like photographic transience rapidly diminishing. As I sat down sipping my English Breakfast I thought back to the previous year. That time I’d brought a Canon 6D, 17-40 f4 L, a 135 f2 L and a 300mm f4 L, just in case I wasn’t covering every possible focal length imaginable. All extremely capable lenses and the camera itself a digital powerhouse, outdated by modern standards but eminently capable of producing stunning, clean, vivid images. Technically it was perfect and incredibly easy to use, and yet I’d fallen out with it on that trip stopped shooting digitally soon after, selling the whole rig. I remember quite clearly shoving the 6D bag into my bag and taking out the M2, feeling a sense of relief when I held it and peered through it’s viewfinder. And I can only equate the feeling to relief and a kind of focussed calmness. The purity and simplicity of the M compared to the DSLR! What purity? you ask. Well by that I mean you have little choice, only the essential elements needed for photography; shutter speed, aperture and focus. How refreshing that they’re engraved into metal dials, to have the aperture ring stop at f2 and the shutter speed dial at ‘B’? How intuitive it is to close your eyes and know how you’ve set the values of each, just by feel alone. Choice can be a hinderance, and modern cameras increasingly have more and more of it.
So the revelation was really complexity and choice don’t work for me. As good as the Canon is it’s just too good, too perfect in in the final result. I didn’t want this to turn into a film vs digital rant, it’s really about finding what works for you and your photograpy. For me, it’s an old rangefinder, a roll of film, and the process, not the result I get the most satisfaction from.