Cambodia – Me & my Leica M9


Note: This is not a technical review of the Leica M9 in any way shape or form, its purely my own view of the experience of using one in the field with the images I shot to support my views, I also comment here about some AMAZING Zeiss lenses that I have been using that should definately be considered if looking for alternative glass for Leica cameras.

(Children live along the disused railway line in Phnom Penh, one of the poorest parts of the city – this shot taken with the Zeiss 25mm 2.8 lens, which surpassed my expectations, delivering amazing sharpness and 3D look every time)

So its been 6 months since I travelled to Cambodia and almost as long that I’ve owned and used a Leica M9 for my street photography in Hong Kong.  On my previous travels I have always taken too much gear, 5D Mk IIs, lights, video kit….the list goes on…

One of the reasons I acquired a Leica M9 was to enable me to travel light and still maintain a full frame camera with high quality as well I guess as taking a step back into retro-land and simplifying the process by using a rangefinder with minimal external functions, other than aperture and shutter…

The purpose of this particular trip was a mini-workshop, teaching a few previous students some ‘environmental portraiture’ in a photographically rich environement, which was to be the city of Phnom Penh in Cambodia and its surrounding villages and islands in the Mekong river (blog post on their work to follow).

As I was teaching as well as shooting my own work, the Leica gear was a perfect compromise as it enabled me to move around quickly with just one small bag (the thinktank retrospective 5) with all my gear inside instead of the usual large heavy backpacks that I carry full of DSLR kits.

My packing list for this trip was:

Leica M9.
Leica lenses: 35 f2, 40 f2, 50 1.4, 90 f2.
Zeiss lenses: 21 2.8, 25 2.8 (quite possibly my new favourite lens).
external viewfinder for the 21/25 lenses.
2 x batteries.
Macbook Pro and external firewire 800 ‘Lacie rugged’ hard drive

(I always use external firewire or thunderbolt drives to store and manage my Lightroom catalogues – it runs just as fast if not faster from an external drive (as long as not USB, and worse case scenario if my laptop were to be stolen I would still have my external drive with all my images (that stays in the hotel safe when I’m not there).

Enough of the technical jargon….below you will find images from the trip that I shot (we were there 4 full days).  All I can say at this point is the M9 far exceeded my expectations, delivering everything and more than my Canon can deliver, and to be honest I think the star bit of kit on this trip was the Zeiss 25mm 2.8 lens….it nailed every shot with some of the best 3D rendering I have been able to produce.

(More kids living in shacks along the disused railway line)(old lady, shot with the Zeiss 25mm lens…amazingly sharp)

One of the most prevalent features of Cambodia for me are the children, there seems to be just masses of kids everywhere, a lot of them living in extreme poverty yet in general they seem quite content, I guess they don’t know anything else, so they just cope with what little they have.  Whilst in this run-down part of town, I noticed one child that stuck out more than others, because he was pure white….you can see him in the photograph below right.  I spoke to his mother and father through our translator (both parents were very dark – his mother can be seen in the image looking down on him).  I was slightly confused as to his origins, however they assured us that his dark skinned father was indeed his natural parent, and that the mother had watched some western TV shows and prayed for her child to look that way, and lo and behold – he was born white with light almost ginger coloured hair!

(Children of the railway village, including the ‘western’ looking child we found pictured here on the right)

We also found some local older girls who spoke perfect english and were happy to admit they worked as ‘bar girls’ in the red light area of the Phnom Penh, they were also happy to be photographed.  It is an unfortunate fact that in this city for young women living in these areas, this lifestyle is probably by far the most lucrative for them – an unfortunate situation that is probably emulated in many other cities around Asia and the rest of the world.

(working girls that live in the railroad slums)(in the doghouse…)

Although this part of town is extremely poor, it is photographically rich, every doorway and person I saw was a potential photograph, one of our workshop participants felt a little uncomfortable to shoot in this neighbourhood, feeling it was slightly voyeuristic and intrusive.  I can totally see his point and why he felt that way, but I personally have shot in many areas like this all around Asia, and my general feeling is that if you approach your subjects the right way, talking to them first, asking permission, and I also take a small Canon CP800 printer with me and supply them with prints right there and then (the battery on this thing lasts almost a week whilst churning out 40-50 prints a day!!!), then generally its a very positive experience for everyone, probably a novelty for them for some western people to visit, show an interest, give them gifts and exchange lots of smiles along the way.

(giving back a print and some candy to the kids was certainly the best way to gain access for us)

Of course a visit to Cambodia wouldn’t be complete without involving some monks or temples…we didn’t want to travel to the famous temples in the North around Siem Reap, instead we opted to find some working monks in pagodas around and outside the city on the outlying islands in the Mekong river, so our next day was spent in the heart of mosquito land around the rivers.  We found plenty of friendly working monks who were more than happy to be photographed, we took them a 20kg bag of rice as a gift and that opened up all the doors we needed to get some nice environmental portraits, as well as them enjoying practicing their english language skills with us.  In my experience this has been always the kind of reception I get, other people I have spoken to tell me Monks usually don’t like being photographed…I personally have no experience to support that theory.

We also found a muslim area in Phnom Penh, something I had noticed on previous visits, unfortunately people were very reserved and not willing at all to be photographed, everyone I approached either ran away or waved me away, so I respected their wishes and left them alone, I only managed to grab one shot in that part of town which was a young girl who I guess was out shopping for her family, she giggled and covered her face when I spotted her, but didn’t seem to mind being photographed so I took the chance and grabbed the shot from across the street.

(young muslim girl in Phom Penh)

On our last day we were finishing up and driving back to get our gear to head to the airport when we noticed a massive gathering of women and children at the roadside.  Our Tuk Tuk driver informed us that this area had a free childrens hospital so everyone was waiting for that…I couldn’t resist jumping off and grabbing a few shots from across the street to create a panoramic look then getting up close with the Zeiss 21mm lens as they all seemed happy enough for me to be there…

(the Zeiss 21mm 2.8 performed amazingly on the M9)

So that was it, 5 days travelling around Phnom Penh and the surrounding villages, only the Leica with me this time, and I hope the images above can speak for themselves…with a few different focal lengths this kit was much more efficient for me than my bulky gear I normally take…I will be testing the Fuji XPro1 shortly which may indeed give the Leica a run for its money, especially given the incredible price difference and the amazing high ISO performance of the Fuji…(I tried one last night back in Hong Kong so I have seen the results already)…So until next time, I hope you enjoy the images from our travels and they can inspire you to get out and shoot…and if you haven’t been to Cambodia already….you are really missing a gem of a place to visit…not to mention Angkor beer is amongst the finest ale I have ever sampled :-)

My assistant photographer RJ has also written a blog post about his experience, that can be seen by clicking here

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F8 Photography provides commercial photography and training across Asia, with workshops on Street Photography and other photography and video training courses, more details can be found via the ‘courses and workshops’ link and upcoming events via the front page of our website.

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Written by Gary Tyson


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