Relying on the search algorithms of Google to turn up some clues to the praise that many photographers have for the ancestor of most 35mm cameras of the 20th century, and now also a non-Asian manufacturer among top digital cameras, I typed into the searchbox “leica-look” and found a handful of articles in the first screenful of results. One writer summed things up nicely and even identified particular legacy and currently produced lenses which express these attributes: sometimes using a very shallow depth of field (setting the aperture wide-open for lenses built with f-stops bigger than average), higher than average micro-contrast that heightens the separation of subject to background, and glow produced in highlights due to the lens glass, polishing, and arrangements of the elements in the lens. Photos that have these hallmarks usually are what people’s emotional response comes from in certain photos, whether made on film or digital sensor.
In the spirit of this blog that blurs literal vision by camera and more philosophical vision by thinking, this “leica-look” seems to lend itself to the wider arena of lived experience. The times in one’s life when the above three factors come into play seem to create a sort of magical perspective or look, too. For example, a shallow depth of field in a photo boosts the visual experience of the subject, since the context fades from focus, making the central subject feel hyper-sharply focused. The figure-ground relationship rises in prominence. By contrast, the same frame and subject portrayed with deeper or even total depth-of-field from foreground to background may present the central subject with the identical sharpness as before. However, because everything in the frame now is clearly in focus, the central subject no longer stands out, relatively speaking. And so of one’s lived experience, too, when an event is unfolding or when one revisits it in hindsight (or looks forward to some future event imaginatively), then it will become relatively more intense when one’s mind’s eye perceives with shallow depth of field.
Similarly of the next attribute of the “leica-look,” micro contrast, it can be said that small degrees of contrast around the edges of lived experience produce larger feelings of significance, purpose, or value by comparison to the same lived experience in which no extra emphasis is added to define the edges of the subject. I can’t understand the optical calculation or mathematical narrative for what happens to light as it enters a certain lens having this high micro contrast, but the eye can see relative differences between such lenses.
Finally of the “leica-look” there is a hint of diffuse brightness in the highlight areas of certain pictures, especially for contrasty or point-source lighting conditions, and especially for shallow depth of field (wide apertures). In lived experience, too, the times when something is glowing (light, emotion, ambient praises or auspicious circumstances) does contribute to the resulting memory and mental image of the subject. In combination with the other factors found in the “leica-look,” the total effect of these three factors is to make the subject recorded in 2-dimensions somehow gain volume or mass and feel almost 3-dimensional. And also of lived experience, when these factors are present alone, or in combination, then the result is to make ordinary experience somehow richer, or somehow to gain volume and mass, standing out from the surrounding conditions.