15 Vintage Tips From Leica Photography Magazine
Classic camera enthusiast Daniel Neal has uploaded his whole collection of vintage Leica Photography magazines—published by the German optics company—making issues dating back to 1949 available to the public online. The archive (here) provides a look into the world of mid-century photography nerds, back in the days before one-hour photo labs or point-and-shoot cameras, when you couldn't find out your picture was blurry or underexposed until days later, after you had gotten it processed. Here are 15 pieces of analog advice we learned from digging through back issues of Leica Photography from the 1940s and '50s:
1. How to take color portraits:
For the Christmas 1949 issue, G. E. Herbert of New York gave readers some tips on color portraits. Color photography was still the domain of specialists and it was expensive. It didn’t become the norm among the general public until the 1970s.
For color portraits I would suggest that a child be used as your first sitter. The naturalness of the youngster will avoid the forced pose of the usually self-conscious adult. The background should be of a very light blue or gray—either of these tints are good complementaries of flesh tones. A colored blanket or wall paint of a dead matte finish may also be used. Use a room where all daylight can be eliminated, and place the subject as close to the background as possible. The child's clothes should be a pastel shade, preferably a pink or beige.
2. How to be a photographer in the Arctic, where cameras freeze solid:
Photographer Richard Harrington of Toronto described the challenges of shooting Eskimo culture in the spring 1950 issue:
Now I carry two Leica cameras (IIIa and Illb models). One is meant for emergency, and stays in my packsack where it freezes solid. The other I carry in a tanned moose hide bag, sewn to measure, under my artiggi (caribou fur parka). It rests there next to my long underwear and keeps warm. At night in the igloo or tent, the camera is pushed into my caribou sleeping bag, and I sleep with it.
He also slept with his film:
By morning, the film has reached body temperature, and is no longer so brittle. Sitting in the igloo, I could then transfer it into the camera.
3. How to be a photographer in the jungle, where your camera might get moldy:
Rae Gilman Engebretson describes taking her camera to New Guinea while working for the Red Cross in the fall 1950 issue:
Having been exposed to extensive advice on the effect of jungle living on clothes and cameras, as well as oneself, I worked out a health routine for the Leica. This involved keeping it in a waterproof bag and giving the 50mm Summar and 90 mm Elmar [lenses] judicious sun baths, on the principle that if sun killed other fungi, why not those fond of lenses? Something did help, for my lenses developed only the slightest ‘jungle rot.’ Fortunately, too, they were never overheated enough to affect the cement of the lens elements, but the practice is not recommended without qualification.
4. How to arrange an abstract image:
Louise Haz of Skokie, Illinois advised readers on mixing colors in the Christmas 1950 issue:
In order to get snap and vigor in your pictures you must know what colors to put together. Warm colors (yellow and orange) put side by side or too near one another are deadened, and make flat images. The same is true of the cold colors (blue and purple). Complimentary colors (red and green, blue and orange, yellow and purple) used side by side give extraordinary vitality.
5. How to photograph from an airplane:
C. Elvin Butterfield, a public information officer with the Illinois wing of the Civil Air Patrol, advises picking ideal lighting conditions in the Christmas 1951 issue:
I usually pick the hour between 11 and 12 A.M. to have the shadows as short as possible. If necessary to shoot into the sun, the high wing monoplane, which I usually use, affords a very good shade for the camera lens.
But even in perfect light, it’s hard to capture a clear image from a plane hurtling through the air without a high-speed camera. Here’s how Butterfield compensated for in-flight motion and engine vibration:
We travel downwind, in this case, with a wind of 30 miles per hour. The plane is pulled into a right chandelle, and as the ship is rolled out of this maneuver, just above stalling speed, the motor is cut, giving us a ground speed into the wind of about eight miles per hour. In this manner, the airplane is barely hovering and settling opposite the subject. In the space of time before it is necessary to clear the motor, and with the ease in which the Leica will operate, three to four shots can be obtained.
6. How to find a subject:
Sophie L. Siegel of Philadelphia trumpeted her husband’s love artists in Woodstock, New York as photography subjects in the spring 1952 issue.
Painters at work and play offer a wonderful opportunity to the candid camera. And they love to be photographed. Working hard and playing with equal intensity, the chances for exciting shots are numerous.
7. How to keep photos looking sharp and in-focus:
Manuel Komroff, a journalist and author, railed against blurry images in the spring 1952 issue. His advice? Among other things (like cleaning dust off your lens), use a sunshade:
Does the sun shade help sharpness? It certainly does. On bright, sparkling days, while all the light comes from the sun, not all of it comes directly from this source. Some may be reflected by clouds or light colored objects. Some may, also, be reflected, in the form of sharp pencil rays, from shiny metal such as the chrome trimming of a nearby car. Reflected light may come from a hundred different sources and act like a fine spray on your lens.
While your sunshade will not cut out all reflected light, it will help to cut out the worst light, that which is reflected from the sides.
8. How to photograph the big game:
Dexter Dawes, a photographer who followed high school sports teams in Englewood, New Jersey, recommended snapping photos at just the right moment in the fall 1952 issue:
I always try to take my sport pictures at the peak of action where there is almost no motion of the player. This is a moment of high strain which comes, for example, when a player is leaping for rebound in basketball or when he is ‘heading’ or kicking the ball in soccer. To take the picture at such a moment is difficult. Even when I' succeed in timing a shot perfectly, I sometimes find that the referee has stepped in the way or that I have jarred or focused my Leica incorrectly. Though I must expect disappointments such as these, I find that certain preliminary precautions give me a higher average of printable pictures.
By using about the same position relation to the play on the field for every exposure, I usually get a better picture. For variety, I try for a shot of the star player, a man scoring, or a kick-off.
9. How to avoid barracudas while shooting underwater:
Jerry Greenberg, a Los Angeles photographer, encouraged photographers to take to the sea in the winter 1952 issue, with one caveat:
My underwater camera case had a chrome finish when I received it. As a precaution against barracudas and sharks, who are attracted by anything shiny or flashy in the water, I covered the case with ordinary adhesive tape. Barracudas, dubbed the ‘tigers of the sea,’ prey on smaller fish and have been known to attack men. They rarely ever give you any trouble if not molested. Occasionally, a curious black tip or hammer head shark would swim by, but would leave if left alone.
10. How to photograph the desert:
In the spring 1953 issue, Louis G. Kirk, a park ranger at Arizon’s Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, counsels would-be landscape photographers shooting in the southwest to go out after it rains:
The most dramatic shots arc usually right after a storm when the atmosphere is washed clean and the clouds are particularly striking. Late afternoon and early morning are the best times of day because then the low angle of the sun's rays emphasizes the rough character of the land, showing up its relief.
11. How to photograph a fossil:
George P. Spelvin of Sleepy Eye, Minnesota discussed the intricacies of photographing subjects that have been dead for millions of years in the fall 1954 issue:
I find it most convenient to photograph small objects of this type with a near-vertical camera position. Actually, I tilt the camera up just enough so that the tripod legs won't interfere with the lighting by casting an unwanted shadow across the specimen…
In general, the basic lighting principles which apply to character portraiture can also be used for fossil specimens. One small spot is the main or key light. This light is usually placed at a low angle to the surface. Thus, its illumination skids off the specimen and reveals the texture of the surface as sharply as possible. Notice that I did not say that the light 'bounces' off the surface; skids is the right term. In other words, you direct the main light at the subject much as you would skip a stone off the surface of a lake.
12. How to protect your camera from industrial hazards:
When shooting on construction sites, Cleveland-based photographer Denny C. Harris learned the hard way that industrial work and delicate equipment don’t always mix, as he wrote in the spring 1955 issue:
Along with all the advantages of portability, speed, flexibility, etc., there are certain precautions you need to take when photographing heavy industry with a 35mm. For instance, watch out for dirt and chemicals. Sprayed paint, for instance, may carry several hundred feet in open areas and speckle uncovered lenses. When you must shoot near such places, keep the camera covered as long as possible. Wipe off any stray paint immediately before re-covering the camera. Normally, when the camera is sealed and in its case, it is safe. But when changing lenses or reloading—watch out! After getting used to such an atmosphere there is a tendency to absent-mindedly reload wherever you are. Carelessness on this point sent my own cameras in for repairs several times in the first few months.
13. How to make an impact with an image:
In art and photography, simple is often better. Bruce H. Burnham of Massachusetts advocated for more minimalist images in the spring 1955 issue:
Whether you are shooting a harbor, a group of sailboats—or a collection of dead fish—select one center of interest and then make a ‘portrait’ of it. Eliminate all confusing elements, either in composing or in enlarging.
14. How to photograph birds:
The key to great wildlife photos is the patience to wait for the exact right moment, Arkansas bird enthusiast Thase Daniel wrote in the summer 1955 issue:
Sometimes I wait all day to get one picture. Some days I don't get even one. If this happens, don't give up. Try again. Believe me, the reward you get from bringing home a perfect shot is worth every bit of the tiresome waiting.
15. And of course, what kind of camera you should buy:
In the Christmas 1949 issue, photographer Chris Butler wrote:
If I, as a professional news and magazine photographer, were asked to advise young people aiming at this field, I would confine it to three words—‘Get a Leica’!
Leica Photography magazine was, after all, in the business of selling cameras.
All images from iStock.