The Return of the Leica M240 | Photography Article by David Babaian

The Return of the Leica M240

When I first started taking photography seriously, I made the decision to go down the rangefinder route and so naturally began my journey into Leica cameras. Starting off with a couple of M8’s I became hooked but also restricted by their shortcomings - Leica’s entry into digital rangefinders was plagued with quite a few issues, not least being for me that both of mine had to be returned to Wetzlar due to sensor problems, which, despite a full service on each, were not cured. After a short time, I traded them in, and along with the money from selling my car, I upgraded to the original M Monochrom (my favourite digital camera of all time) which never left my side. Again, however, there were problems: first of all, after a London based Leica dealer inspected my sensor, I was informed that it was delaminating and the solution was a new sensor which came in at around half the cost of the camera. The second problem, and perhaps the bigger of the two, was that my commercial work had become almost non-existent. Whilst I cannot argue that the black and white tones that this camera produces are simply exquisite (and in my opinion better even than the model’s successors), the cold hard fact was that most of my clients wanted colour work. It was a gut-wrenching decision, but it was time to follow my head and not my heart, and so I sold my beloved Monochrom to fund the purchase of the M240.

The Return of the Leica M240 - by David Babaian

The photograph above was shot on the original Leica M Monochrom.

A few years ago, I was chatting with a friend of mine who was reminiscing over a crazy life of sex, drugs and rock ’n roll, growing up as a child in the ‘60s. He had been married twice but he told me that whilst he loved his second wife, he loved his first in a way that he could never show to anyone else. A very strange analogy I realise, however this was pretty much my experience when switching over to the M240: it wasn’t a Monochrom. It wasn’t my Monochrom. It did everything I needed it to do, but in a very odd way it almost acted as a physical reminder that things weren’t going the way I wanted. I didn’t have the 240 because I wanted it; I had it so that I could attempt to earn a living through photography, and going down this route meant that I had to give up on certain dreams.

Commercial work (just about) kept a roof over my head, whilst my passion for true photojournalism usually ended up costing money rather than making any. I looked at my peers on social media and saw some incredible work being produced, and whilst I was happy that they were out there doing it and recording history in a beautiful way, I began to lose love for what I was doing. Photography had become shelf-stacking for me: I was literally chasing paycheques to try and force a career in photography, rather than creatively applying myself to what was truly important - this actually never even crossed my mind.

So I went about my business as usual, and for perhaps a year or 2 I photographed what others wanted me to, continued getting disheartened and losing love for photography, and not applying myself to what was important to me. And then came that fateful day. A few days before Christmas in 2017 I noticed that my M240’s sensor was getting a bit mucky, so I went down to Maplin, purchased a can of “Digital Camera Sensor Cleaner”, opened the shutter and…to my horror…the can vomited all over the sensor, and that ice cold vomit stuck fast. The next morning I rushed to my closest camera repair shop. They gave it 3 deep cleans and shifted a fair amount of whatever was stuck to the sensor, but the damage was done: the contents of the can had etched themselves into the surface of the sensor. I didn’t have reserve funds to replace the sensor, nor did I have insurance to cover against acts of stupidity. My days of being a Leica shooter were over.

The Return of the Leica M240 - by David Babaian

A destroyed Leica M240 sensor.

I took the camera into a shop in London, explained what had happened and they offered to swap my 240 for a pair of second hand Fujifilm X-T2’s. I took the deal, got myself a 9-5 job and pretty much hung up my cameras except for the odd day out or bit of weekend commercial work that happened to come my way. I came to the decision that photography was for wealthy people that didn’t have to worry about where their next meal was coming from or if they broke a bit of equipment. If I’m totally honest, I actually began to resent photography, and spent less and less time pursuing it.

A good friend of mine, Simon King, is not only one of the true great modern day photojournalists, but also an incredibly kind-hearted and encouraging person with a deep love for the industry and the people within it. Following this negative spiral that he saw me fall into, he encouraged me week-in-week-out to come and join him in London, and even if I didn’t want to shoot, to just hang out. He lent and gifted me bits of equipment, put up with listening to me ranting, and continually encouraged me to shoot for myself. As I watched him work, I realised that ego had gotten the better of me: I wanted the accolades and prizes. I wanted the Insta followers. I wanted recognition and a nice ego massage. Well, at least I thought I wanted all those things. I quickly realised that I had turned something that I loved into something it isn’t. I was more interested in likes on social media than in the content of my actual work. I was very much playing the game, whilst also simultaneously whining about the game. So, during one of our no-bullshit chats, Simon put it to me bluntly: “do you want this [photography]? As in really want this??”. I didn’t have to think about this question. The answer has always been “yes” but I had been thinking like a businessman rather than a creative. I had entirely lost sight of why I love photography and had become far more interested in turning it into a financially viable job. That way of thinking was massively unhealthy and simply had to end, and so I stripped everything right back, started shooting again on a 35mm film camera and began to challenge myself. I started shooting purely for myself. I completely stopped posting anything onto social media. I began studying. I began taking the art of photography seriously, rather than taking it seriously as a business venture. I fell in love again.

Since going back to 35mm film, I found that I almost never pick up a digital camera. During the summer of 2020 I worked exclusively on black and white film and became involved in a project as part of New Exit Group. I saved hard, sold some stuff and eventually managed to upgrade my setup from a Nikon F2 and F3 to a Leica M3 and M4-P…and I must admit, it felt like home. Everything changed right back to how it was during the period of owning the M Monochrom. I was enjoying photographing, without a care in the world about what other people might think or even when I might be able to see the photographs that I’d made. None of this matters. The act of being present, experiencing life and doing that through a lens has been wonderful and set me back on the correct path: creating photographs because I love to create photographs.

The Return of the Leica M240 - by David Babaian

I have, however, noticed something strange recently. Shooting on a digital camera now, feels almost alien. In reality, it is simply doing the same thing but on a different form of recording medium, so I really wanted to explore this aversion to digital photography and I think I have come to an honest conclusion: I have conflated digital photography with the part of my life where I feel I completely failed as a photographer and put my love for photography in jeopardy. This really became evident when I had to order a digital camera for a long line of commercial projects that had been sent to me. I ordered a brand new Sony A7iii which was not only the first brand new camera I had ever owned, but also what many would consider to be their “dream camera”. I literally opened the box, put some black tape over the logos, checked that it worked and popped it on the shelf before grabbing my M4-P to go out shooting. It stayed on that shelf for over 6 weeks without even being picked up. I realise just how fluffy this sounds, but it is nothing more than a camera to me - I have no connection with it. And then a friend of mine told me he was selling a Leica M240. In every single way measurable, the Leica is considerably worse than the Sony. From it’s (relatively) old sensor technology, to the lack of any in-built stabilisation, 1 single SD card slot and expensive lens line up with minimum focus distances usually of 0.7-1m, the Sony outclasses the Leica in every round of the game of Camera Top Trumps. And as soon as I knew my friend was selling his M240 I knew I had to have it. I needed to slay this demon. So again, I sold some stuff, saved up and took a trip to London to collect the camera, and now, despite the fact that I have the pretty top-spec Sony, I still never pick it up. The 240 on the other hand, comes out with me as regularly as my film cameras. I’m finding ideas for projects and the same sort of inspiration and critical eye that film provides me with. It is simply a different way of shooting - a different approach and a different mentality.

When I got my hands on the 240 it wasn’t in the best state of repair. After giving it a bit of a clean I noticed that the vertical alignment of the rangefinder was fairly far off, and despite my history of camera repairs, I thought I’d have a go at fixing this. Firstly, I had to gently prise off the red dot on the front of the camera which unveils a void into the electronics and a hex screw that is used to vertically align the rangefinder. I very gently turned this, and with a bit of trial and error, got it pretty much spot on. I then blew the dust off the sensor - this time with a rocket blower - replaced the depleted battery with a new one from Leica, and the camera was good to go!

The Return of the Leica M240 - by David Babaian

The photograph above shows some of the dust that was on the M240's sensor.

After a fairly intense summer, I wanted a little hiatus from the chaos and decided to take the camera out with me to photograph more peaceful subject matter. It has accompanied me on some walks along the beach as well as to my home town’s 2020 Remembrance Sunday gathering, and it has been really wholesome to just photograph.

The Return of the Leica M240 - by David Babaian

Having said all this, I have a feeling that this camera won’t be staying with me all that long. It is wonderful…it really is, but for me it has almost served its purpose already: it reminded me that photography is entirely about the approach and the mindset. I have a lot more fun with my old, meterless film cameras and feel significantly more engaged with the process when there is no auto option, and when certain limitations are put in place, like a fixed ISO and fastest shutter speed of 1/1000. I also enjoy the post process of shooting film way more than the digital equivalent: mixing chemicals and seeing images on tangible negatives is a lot more satisfying to me than simply sticking an SD card into my computer and looking at files on a screen. I expect that this camera will end up being used to fund an M-A in the not too distant future.

Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts on this camera! If you enjoyed my photographs here please consider following me on Instagram! I buy all of my film from Analogue Wonderland. You can find the debut zine from my collective, New Exit Group, at this link here.