Thomas Brichta: 20 Years at Leica Camera, Part Two

Thomas Brichta was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. After studying marketing and having a brief stint in the retail furniture business, he discovered his passion for photography in the late ‘70s. Having relocated to California, Tom worked as a rep for Argraph Photo Distributors and Tokina Optical before joining Leica Camera in 1992. This year Tom celebrates 20 years of working with Leica Camera. Tom serves as a Leica Camera Representative for Northern California and instructor for several Leica Akademie workshops, which he describes as his dream job. Here is the concluding part of our interview with Tom about his photography, his teaching methods and his favorite Leica equipment.

Q: Your portfolio shows that you are very adept at using brilliant color as a graphic element in your images, but you’ve also included some masterful black-and-white images that have a classic photojournalistic feel. Can you say something about the bifurcated nature of your creative process, and what kind of subject you feel suits each medium?

A: This is where elements and principles of design come into play. In my landscape photography, I like to use color to take the viewer through the photograph, or to what I would call points of interest. I also feel that we see landscapes in color, unless they have strong shapes and lines, then I would convert it to black and white. When I’m on the streets photographing people, I like to convert those images into black and white. Most of the time when I’m photographing people I want the viewer to feel the emotion of the relationship the subject has with their surroundings or of other people. Here I believe color becomes distracting.

Q: Your portrait of a woman reading a newspaper in a café has a timeless quality reminiscent of the street photography of decades past, but the tonal range and shadow detail are impressive. How did you capture this image and was the performance of the camera a factor?

A: Teaching street photography, there are two points I emphasize: be patient and get to know your locations. This picture is a great example of this. This cafe has great lighting and attracts great characters. The M9 is so small that I can sit here taking pictures all day and not be noticed.

This image was taken with the M9 and 75mm Summilux. I shoot the M9 mostly in manual mode. With the 75, I was able to meter the highlight area and shadows, and come up with my exposure. I have the camera in DNG and JPEG. I set the JPEGs to vintage black and white, which helps me to see the image and then make any adjustments to the exposure to get the look I want.

Q: You mention that you are a big fan of the Leica S2, but also shoot with a Leica M9 and other Leicas. Do you find that you prefer the S2 for landscapes and the M9 for street photography or is it more complicated than that?

A: I look at cameras as tools. What I’m shooting determines which camera I’ll use. The S2 is a great camera if I need large images or I’m using studio lighting. When shooting landscapes, it performs like a SLR with a 50% larger sensor in basically the same footprint. The M9 works great out on the streets. It’s small, discrete and I can get close to the action and be part of it. People also act more natural around it because of its size. I use the X1 when I can’t carry the M9 with me. I call it my mini-9. The CMOS sensor is the same size used in many of the current DSLRs and because of this, I can get images almost as good as the M9 and control DOF. The shutter speed and aperture dial on the top cover make it easy to use.

I like having a camera with me at all times. This is where the D-Lux 5 comes in handy. It’s small and has a medium telephoto lens, making it the perfect pocket camera and my go to travel camera. Another important point is that all the cameras pretty much have the same menus, which makes it easy to go from camera to camera.

Q: Which lenses do you favor when shooting with the Leica S2? Which lenses do you tend to use when you’re shooting with the M9?

A: I like to travel light, but be prepared for what I’m photographing. When I’m shooting landscapes with the S2, I carry the 70mm and the 180mm lenses. These lenses pretty much cover everything for me. However, I can’t wait to use the 30mm lens. Most of my M9 work is done with the 35mm f/2 and the 75mm f/1.4. I’ll keep the 35 on the camera and use the 75 for longer shots.

Q: Do you believe, as many have asserted, that Leica lenses capture a definable “Leica look” in the way they render the subject, and their bokeh? If so, can you say something about it?

A: Ahhh…”The Leica Look” Yes there is a difference. Looking at an image taken with a Leica lens will have a more three-dimensional look. There’s more contrast, neutral colors and sharp corners. The bokeh of these lenses is just in a class of their own. They way I describe it is that it’s just “creamy.” When you use a Leica lens wide open, the subject is just separated from the background so beautifully.

Q: Your dynamic image of an old prop plane has a decidedly nostalgic quality and makes a strong graphic statement reminiscent of classic travel ads and industrial images of the ‘30s & ‘40s. Was this retro feel a conscious decision on your part and what are your thoughts on this image?

A: This photo started out as a test shot for the S2ʼs resolving power. I wanted to show the rivets on the skin of the plane. After I downloaded it, I had the same thought you mentioned here. I was thinking Casablanca for some reason. I converted it to black and white and started playing with it. I just felt the power of this plane, from the angle I photographed it from.

Q: The sheer technical quality of some of your color images is very impressive. Is this attributable to the performance of the cameras you used? Do you use a tripod? Can you give us some of the tech data?

A: All my landscape photographs are taken with the camera on a tripod. When trying to get as much depth of field as possible, I’m usually shooting at slow shutter speeds and need to be on a tripod. This is another example where Leica shines. I don’t have to dig deep into any menus to change my settings. Everything is either on the top plate or in one of the quick menus. I see a lot of people with other cameras digging through their menus for changes that they sometimes can’t even find.

Q: There is a lovely monochromatic quality to your picture of a pair of old spectacles perched on what looks like an old library book. How and why did you take this shot, and what does it mean to you?

A: This is from one of my Bodie Ghost Town W.S. Bodie is located in the Eastern Sierra of California at an elevation of about 8500 feet. In its heydays, around 1850, the population was around 10,000. Most people left Bodie around the 1930s. The last few left in the ‘60s. When the last people left, they went without taking anything with them. Today, most things are left where they were as the town emptied. The glasses have been sitting on that ledger for years. I’ve been one of a few people that have been able to enter these buildings. When I photograph inside them or around the town, I want people to feel the spirit of those that were there.

Q: Aside from landscape, seascape, travel and street photography are there any other genres you plan to explore in the future such as sports, wildlife, architectural photography, etc.?

A: The photography that I do now is my passion, and I feel I’m the luckiest person in the world to do it. I love being on the water. A couple of years ago I was able to photograph a schooner that had been rebuilt over the past twenty years. I enjoyed that and I am trying to get more involved with the sailing world. I also enjoy photographing families. The pleasure there for me is the happiness it brings to all its members.

Q: How has your work teaching workshops at the Leica Akademie influenced your own photography and helped you to grow as a photographer. As an instructor what are some of the most meaningful concepts and methods that you have been able to impart to your students?

A: It doesn’t let you get complacent. I’m always thinking of what I’ll say in the next class or workshop. I like to keep the classes fresh, so I’m out shooting or looking for new ideas for the participants. Also, I learn some new ideas from some of them. What I try to instill in the people that attend these classes is to slow down and enjoy photography. So many times, I’ll see someone show up in an area and within seconds have 20 images. I tell everyone to get a black 8 X 10 matt board with a 5 X 7 cut out. Just walk around with it everywhere you go and keep looking through it. This is how I trained my eye. Also, I’ll say it again, “learn the principles and elements of design” and watch the light.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving over the next 3-5 years and do you have any personal projects or venues planned for the immediate future?

Q: I’m really looking forward to working with the Leica Akademie. I enjoy putting workshops together. I don’t want them to feel like all work or like you have to be an experienced photographer. I want people to experience the locations we visit and enjoy being with other photographers. My mission statement for these workshops is, “Great Locations, Great Accommodations, Fine Food and Fun”.

-Leica Internet Team

You can see more of Tom’s work on Flickr and on his website, thomasbrichta.com. If you’d like to learn more about the upcoming workshops that Tom is leading, visit leicaakademie.com.