Pimp My Ride!!!

First, let me make a little confession... I'm probably a bigger photography fan than I am race fan. Don't get me wrong... I love the cars, the noise, the racing, the sights and sounds and all of that... but with photography it's a whole other thing. There's something about a great photograph, regardless of the subject matter, style or genre that just pulls me in.

If you've followed along with my off-season ramblings this winter, you already know all about my new found love-affair with the Leica Digilux 2 and how it has served as a catalyst for getting me out shooting more while leaving my Canon gear in the travel roller. (If not, you can read more here: (/journal/2008/11/18/the-leica-digilux-2.html) I'm shooting more subjects, more often... and, to my mind, broadening my photographic view of things. In turn, I think much of what I've learned through it all will spill over to my motorsports work. At least, that is my hope.

One of things I've discovered is the relationship you have with a camera can have a huge bearing on the pictures you take. There's a definite connection. If you're comfortable and in control of the camera, and enjoying yourself with the camera, the pictures will show it. I can tell you, I've never been happier with what I'm doing photographically than I am today. My shooting this winter has been an absolute ball. I'm lovin' it!

So... since the Leica Digilux 2 is no longer in production, I set about trying to find pristine copies. Ultimately, I settled on three of them. Two of them are, for all intent and purposes, new. The third is immaculate. In addition, I tracked down a Panasonic DMC LC1, the "sister" version of the Digilux 2. It's the identical camera to the Leica. However unlike the "chrome" finish of the Leica, the DMC LC-1 is all black.

Keeping in mind, these are what I call my "personal" cameras, I like to think I'm in a good place as far as truly knowing what I want from a "personal" camera. I have no need to chase technology. For this type of shooting, and for what I need, the technology somewhat peaked a couple of years ago. I want comfort, quality glass, solid build, good clean files... and, did I mention comfort? You can read more of how I got to this point here: (http://www.johnthawley.com/journal/2008/10/31/tools-toys-and-treasures.html)

With my search for the perfect personal camera put to rest, I now wanted to embark on the project of personalizing the cameras. I wanted to make them "mine." I don't believe I will ever part with them except to pass them on to my son, but even at that, he will have to promise to keep them... even if just for display.

So, after nearly 10 weeks of waiting, here they are. My personalized Leica Digilux 2s.

Each camera was custom covered by Morgan Sparks at S.P. Designs in Vermont. (http://www.cameraleather.com) While Morgan offers many leather "kits" for older film cameras, Morgan had never done a Digilux 2. He was kind enough to take the project on, painstakingly stripping the old grip of rubber-type material and re fitting the body and access doors with genuine leather. He was even able to improve on the grip by making one continuous piece as opposed to the original two-piece grip.

The first camera was finished in mahogany kid skin (Goat). This leather begs to be handled. It just the perfect balance of luxury, purpose, and attitude. Purpose, as in you really do have a better grip. And, for me, the color adds to the Digilux 2's vintage Leica look. I couldn't be happier with the brown.

In addition, Luigi Crescenzi of Leicatime (http://www.leicatime.com) provided me with a matching tan leather strap with Leica embossed in the padded shoulder piece. Luigi's neck straps are out of this world. They're soft with just the right amount of give and are the prefect compliment to the Leica style. The workmanship is head and shoulders above anything else out there. But, most importantly, at least to me, is they are comfortable and are the perfect strap for this style camera.

The next step was finding the right bag for transporting the camera. At home, my cameras are stored in a glass case in my office. When shooting, I'll walk around with the camera just over one shoulder. The Leicas carry nicely that way since they aren't bulky or heavy. However, I still needed to have something for going in the car and for carrying the additional accessories you need when your out shooting. I needed a "day bag."

What I've found works best for this type of shooting is a messenger bag. But, I'm sure you've guessed by now, not just any messenger bag will do.

Enter Seth Levine from M-Classics. (http://www.mclassics.com) Seth's company offers one style of bag... and it's the right style. It's called the M-Classic and it is patterned after a somewhat famous Leica bag designed for users of the M style bodied Leica. Though no longer produced by Leica, Seth took it upon himself to push the M-Classic's design, quality, and functionality into the new millennium. Everything about M-Classic screams quality. The material is Cabriolet cloth used by Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Porsche in the convertible tops. The leathers, all hand picked for their quality and finish, are the same high-quality "chrome" skins used by high-end bag makers, as are the brass fittings and buckles. The minute you handle an M-Classic bag, you know you're holding something special.

Because M-Classics understands their unique position in the market place, Seth knows how to step up to a challenge. While the M-Classic is traditionally constructed of black canvas with black leather trim, I needed something in brown. Seth had the perfect solution. Calling on the talents of his skilled craftsmen, Seth put together a special bag incorporating khaki Cabriolet cloth and tan saddle colored leather. This bag was the standard size and cut on pattern of the company's signature mode, the M-Classic.

This is the perfect messenger bag. From top to bottom, the bag is designed for fast, photo journalistic, Leica-style photography. It's sturdy, luxurious and DAMN good looking. The bottom is fitted with reinforced leather blacks to avoid wear and tear. Three outer pockets (protected by the front flap) are large enough for lenses, accessories and film; even a small camera. At the rear of the bag is a convenient map and document pocket. Another unique feature of the M Classics bag is that the straps attach at the rear of the bag instead of the sides. This allows the bag to hang at a perfect angle off the shoulder or across the chest. Because there is no side strap to reach around, it is easier to access the gear inside. The shoulder strap has slides on both ends so it can be adjusted into a high carry under the arm.

What I also like about this bag is the large velcro closures. While the bag incorporates beautiful straps with a brass buckle and snaps for securing the flap closed, it also features a full length, 2" wide strip of velcro running the full width of the flap. This allows you to quickly close the bag while you're working. The flap grabs onto the two outer velcro patches and your gear isn't exposed or at risk of falling out of the top. This can often be a bit of "hitch" with messenger style bags. M-Classics got it right.

Inside the finish is as luxurious as the outside. A finely woven acrylic canvas is backed by embossed long staple cotton cloth. Between the two is a membrane of butyl rubber for waterproofing. There is one compartment that is fixed and an extended flap that can be "wrapped" to create an adjustable second compartment. It's just right for the Digilux 2 in one side and a flash or back-up camera in the other. The front pouches are perfect for extra batteries, memory cards, cell phone, sun glasses, keys... etc. I also carry a hand held light meter and a remote cable, so these outer pockets are perfect.

For the second Leica, I had Morgan Sparks apply a black lizard skin. Wow... what a great looking finish. The black is subtle with a nice classic appeal, while the lizard skin tips you off to the fact you are holding something special. It really looks good.

For a the neck strap, Luigi Crescenzi of Leicatime supplied me with a braided black leather strap, again featuring the Leica embossed leather shoulder pad. The braid is a nice touch and gives the strap a little more elasticity as it sits on your shoulder. Each strap also includes small protectors that reside between the metal attaching rings and the camera body's "lugs." This stops the rings from scratching the camera. What you can tell from the pictures is, Leicatime straps are already soft and comfortable. There are no hard edges or stiffness to the leather. In fact, Luigi is able to ship them from Italy in an envelope. They're that soft.

For the black camera, I decided to go with a slightly different bag. Once again, Seth Levine came up with the perfect solution. He has a pattern based on the M-Classic he calls the Compact bag. While it is similar in design, the bag is not as wide as the M-Classic and not as tall. It is, however slightly deeper... or thicker and has just one closure for the flap. The closure strap as two release methods. Meanwhile, the velcro passive closure is done the same as is on the M-Classic and the shoulder strap and grab handle are located on the backside allowing for greater comfort, balance and fit. The Compact bag features two outer pockets and only one inside divider taking up about 2/3 of the interior. There is also a little handy battery pouch on the inside.

As if the Compact bag wasn't enough, Seth raised the bar on me again... this time constructing the Compact bag in full black leather. The leather and the look is what you'd have found years ago in the original Coach bags. Honestly, I'm at a loss for describing the luxury and quality of this bag. And better yet, it works. It's absolutely beautiful.

I won't mention prices... as I'm sure you can get the information from each company's website. But, I will tell you this, each company provides a fantastic value and well worth every penny. Recovering my camera's in leather was not that much more than sending them to Leica for standard replacement. Luigi's neck strap might cost your three-times that of a nylon kit strap... but will look 10 times better and last 10 times longer. Regarding M-Classic bags.... let me just say, dollar for dollar they are the finest bags and the best value on the market.

So, why did I do this? I enjoy the cameras. I enjoy using the cameras and I enjoy things that look good. In short, it makes me happy. And if you're not happy when you're taking pictures, why bother?

I want to thank Seth, Morgan and Luigi for their participation. This was my little off-season treat to myself. I know for some it may seem like an unnecessary extravagance, but I don't see it that way. To me, there's nothing like holding quality products and knowing they were made by people who take pride in their work and their reputation.