Gift Cam

A Gift From a Friend: a Leica IIIf

By Ron Himbaugh

It’s unusual to use film nowadays. With the advantages of digital technology using film can seem pointless. That is unless process is the point. And if that is so, then why not go all in, with a rangefinder, even a bottom loading “Barnack” camera? Compared to contemporary digicam-o-matics there are a few hurdles, but once you are used to viewing through a peephole finder, focusing through another, trimming the leader, setting the film counter, mastering a cumbersome loading procedure and keeping your finger off a spinning shutter dial, it all falls into place.

These nuisance factors aside, film not only has its own image characteristics but the process itself of using film holds its own reward. That process requires an investment of attention and respect for the medium that seems missing in the iPhone age. Not that something has to be difficult to be worthwhile, but can some things be just too easy? (for a great argument for the iPhone, see this). It is hard to escape the feeling, which has been noted since photography was invented, that the easier it is to take pictures the easier it is to make them bad. Of course the idea is to take more good pictures, and in this regard the older technology can encourage thoughtful engagement. I think.

Old cameras are cool, with the look of precision, the heft of substance. They feel good to use because they respond in a satisfying tactile and audible way. Does anyone fondle a Canon SureShot? I think that if you like the way something feels when you use it, then you will use it and get better at using it, and the better you get, the more you will use it, etc.

Remember the Kodak Instamatic? It was designed for folks who couldn’t be bothered going through this sort of trial just to get a film loaded. In the thirties the Barnack loading scheme must have looked pretty good to the plate camera crowd. Even the M3 was a bottom loader albeit with a hinged back for easier access to the film. Not until the Leicaflex did Leitz think a conventional side hinge provided enough rigidity for the necessary film flatness.

I am thinking these things because someone gave me a camera.

My friend Chris, visiting from out of town and, knowing my interest in film photography, asked if I had a Leica and would I like one? He had meant to bring it and would send it when he returned home. A week later it came: a lllf, and– bonus! – it was the self timer model. It is the kind of camera I like to get, showing some dirt, a little history, accumulated effects of time passed, needing love, warmth, and a rubdown.

Ta da!

How nice this, my favorite screw mount camera, the penultimate Leitz bottom loader. It is to my mind the most attractive of all Leicas and surpassed in sheer industrial beauty only by the Zeiss Contax lla, of the same time period. The Contax was more advanced, with a combined view- and rangefinder, removable back, and spectacular, as opposed to merely excellent lenses.

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My own experience with Leica could be said to have started with my first good camera, a Made-in-Occupied Japan Canon, with a very Elmar-like Serenar lens. It was 4 weeks of paper route earnings, $20 in 1961. I was 13 and my next big buy was a 13th edition Leica Manual, filled with sophisticated photo topics: document copy work, forensic and lab microscopy, sports photography, photo-journalism, medical and scientific documentation, lens formulations, and terms like Newton’s rings and circles of confusion. The manual was intimidating but churned a need for a lllf and a Summitar lens—the M3 was impossibly out of reach. Wanting to know what was inside the camera I took the Canon apart—regrettably easy to do—and had a paper bag of parts and no idea how to put them back together. Some time later the hard sought lllf and Summitar landed.

Stack o’manuals, gift -cam and Nikon F. The F came along 3 years after the 3f in this picture was built. It represented a quantum leap in capability over the Leica.

I have digressed.

The camera Chris sent to me had belonged to his Dad, who, as I understand it, used it in his work, principally to take pictures for instruction guides that he wrote. It had been long in disuse, which is death to a Leica. Chris has no real interest in photography, and—thank you, Chris–generously gave it to someone who would use and value it. I am grateful.

A beautiful 3f in need of a little make-over

Q-tips, mineral spirit, toothpicks, an hour or so and the job is done. The chrome was pitting in a few areas. It had, I believe, interacted with moisture and leather over time to build a residue of vertigris, but it came off more easily than I thought it would.

A new skin from Cameraleathers.com replaced the failing vulcanite, and while a traditionalist (or would not be using Leica in the first place), I have a fondness for gray leather covering. Or, in this case, faux leather.

Here is what it looks like:

The winding has a slight hitch, not bad but it isn’t quite right. The one second works well when limbered up, but characteristic of old timers, is stiff after sitting awhile. It will go to Youxin Ye for a tune-up. He is a short drive away and I like watching him work and he seems to enjoy the company.

One useful item for these peephole rangefinders is a bright line finder and of course Leitz makes a nice one, the SBOOI.

My Gift Leica with the Leitz  SBOOI viewfinder

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The 1/15th shutter speed works great.

The photo above was taken with my new IIIf, the one below taken with a different lllf that I  happened to have in my pocket. It was some affair where I would not ordinarily take a camera. It shows the usefulness of a small and handy camera that was the impetus for Max Barnack’s invention in the first place.

I suppose we all have a small handy camera nearby, but this one uses film. I don’t say it’s better.

Yes I do.

Better and more fun.


Ron Himbaugh is a fellow bourbon drinker who has followed photography since he was twelve – “followed” meaning an equal interest in cameras, images, and the act of taking pictures. He has a “disturbingly large collection” of photo books  rivaled by an even less healthy impulse to accumulate classic film cameras. You can find some of his work on Flickr, at Hank Carter,  an ironic reference to Elliott Erwitt’s nickname for Cartier Bresson.

 

Unfortunately There’s No Free Lunch

The cause of these ruminations

I’m currently housebound in Raleigh, North Carolina- 4:00 PM, raining like hell outside, iTunes blasting Neil Young’s Cinnamon Girl through headphones while working through my third snifter of  Woodford Reserve Bourbon, a bottle of which a friend was foolish enough to leave here the other night with the promise that it’d be here the next time he visits (the bottle most certainly will be).  I’m printing work prints on an Epson R3000 for an exhibition I’ve entitled Car Window. There’s a couple of things presently on my  mind other than the fact that I’m glad my friend was dumb enough to leave his bottle of bourbon in my possession: first, how is it possible that the music I’m currently blasting from my iTunes account sounds so god-awful compared to what I used listen to with my Marantz amp and KLH speakers, way back in the ice-age of the 70’s?

I thought technological innovation i.e. digitization was going to revolutionize my hi-fidelity listening experience? Didn’t happen, not even close; go listen to the album I’m currently listening to – Neil Young’s Everyone Knows This is Nowhere – on vinyl on any half-decent turntable, amp and speakers, and then listen to it run thru iTunes as an mp3 and you’ll be shocked at the diminunition in audio quality we now accept as a given in the interests of quick and easy. It pisses me off when I think of the vinyl collection I once had – the usual 60’s and 70’s era Rock and Roll, but also an impressive collection of 50’s and 60’s era jazz: Coltrane, Rollins, Shorter, Monk, Gordon, Adderley, Webster, Coleman, Ellington, Miles Davis, Bill Evans – all now mp3 files on my computer and phone, pushed out through earbud headphones or streamed through my Apple TV to the attached Bose sound system, where they sound like shit – thin, tinny, screechy, hollow – whenever you try to play them at a decent volume (if ever there was a song that deserved to played loud, it’s Cinnamon Girl).

Car Window prints.  All shot with a film camera. Not sharp, bad corners, harsh bokeh.

Of course, ruminating about hi-fidelity leads me logically to the next subject, the fact that the prints I’m producing, while nice enough by current digital standards, just don’t have the depth and fullness of a comparable silver print printed in a darkroom, the tonal transitions just a little too abrupt, the obvious sharpness somehow slightly unpleasant to a discerning eye. In their defense, they certainly are easier to produce. No nasty chemicals, endless repeatability as opposed to the laborious reproducibility of a fine silver print. And those born into the digital era probably won’t even understand the differences.

A few years ago, while in Los Angeles, I saw a Walker Evans exhibition of his 1930’s Cuba photos at the Getty. Gorgeous 8×10 silver contact prints, one in particular, a frontal portrait of a Cuban stevedore that just blew me away with its simple beauty. That’s it, to the left, where, reproduced digitally and viewed on a computer monitor, it’s just another picture of some guy, nothing special. Were I to post it to some forum for critique I’m sure critics would take issue with any number of things – the framing, the lighting, the sharpness, the lack of acceptable bokeh etc etc, the usual herd animal opinions. Luckily, I saw that same print again in Paris this past Summer at the Evans exhibition at the Pompidou Center. So simple, yet profoundly arresting, impossible to look at and appreciate through the facile categories of sharpness, resolution, ease of capture, repeatabilty. It was a singular work that someone had laboriously produced in a darkroom. Art of the highest order, the exquisite confluence of singular critical decisions by Walker as to both construction and production, things that took time and thought and energy, all things the digital age promised us we could do without in our mad rush for the quick and easy.

I’ve been to my share of art exhibits and museums in my 59 years, and I can think of a number of times when I was profoundly moved by a work of art – Walker’s Cuban Stevedore, the van Gogh self-portrait at the Fogg Museum At Harvard, a huge Jackson Pollack I saw in Paris, Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus in the Uffizi in Florence, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel in the Vatican – all of them the product of a slow, discriminating  process of creation, the very processes that the digital era promises to liberate us from.  Of course, I look at myself in the mirror and see, surprisingly, just another old man, my opinions considered by the current digital generation the sad ravings of a man who’s era has come and gone. Fair enough. But remember, there’s no ‘free lunch;’ everything you gain is purchased at the cost of something else. Consider that when you’re upgrading your Nikon D whatever every two years, or you’re listening to your music with those shitty earbuds or you’re running your plastic-looking digital photos through Silver Efex. Everything has its price.

Is CCD the New Film?

Are these about to become “hip?”

“A lot of interviews I read on photography sites end with a sort of adage about the best camera being the one you have with you or how film inspires you to just think and shoot rather than pixel peep. I think photography is more than just capturing an image though; it’s also about imposing your vision on it. The best camera is the one that’s right for the vision, with the right noise profile, lens distortions, etc. “


DPReview has a very interesting article about Sofi Lee, a Seattle photographer who shoots with “vintage” (read 8 years or older) CCD lower resolution digital cameras, essentially her reaction against the clinical excellence of modern digital photography:

At the time, I observed to myself that the re-emergent fascination with film was probably ephemeral, specific to the current zeitgeist and highly rooted in nostalgia. So I asked myself, ‘What will be the thing people look back to next, after film?’ I started digging through Flickr archives of photos taken on older point and shoot digital cameras, or ‘digicams’ as some people called them, and felt there was something different about them.

They stood out in a way apart from modern digital files: The dynamic range is narrower and the shadows have a character that looks different from those of modern CMOS cameras [due to the lower pixel count and simplistic noise reduction.

Apparently Ms. Lee studied at a “commercial photography trade school” in 2014 and watched many of her peers either shooting film or trying to recreate the aesthetics of film in editing. “There were definitely a lot of talks in class about photographs looking ‘too digital’ as well as instructions on how to add more of an ‘organic, analog’ feel to your images.” Her response was to embrace the technical imperfections of older CDD digital tech.

Ms. Lee is obviously of the digital generation i.e. her interest in photography dates to the digital age, which might explain her reflexive (and wrong) dismissal of film photography as “ephemeral” and rooted in “nostalgia.” She might want to read a book or two about the history of photography before she makes facile statements about the “ephemeral” nature of current film use. I suspect she’s never run a roll of film through a camera in her life and wouldn’t know what to do if she tried, which would explain her ignorance of, and antipathy to, film. One could obviously make the same criticisms about her fixation with dated CCD technology, the impulse being the same, the means simply being different. What’s interesting to me about the piece is that she articulates the same criticisms of digital capture as film partisans and does so in an articulate way.  I suspect as well that at some point in the near future someone will lend her a film camera and she’ll have her own Eric Kim moment. 

What They Think of Us Over at DPReview

This from a popular digital camera discussion forum.

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“Q: Why buy a Leica?

Considering the cost and the way that people gush over Leica and its lens I was expecting camera perfection… But when I look at the pictures posted I’m like MEH???

Looking at the specs, they aren’t impressive as other cameras seem to provide more features for much less cost and then reading reviews the reviewer tends to highlight several shortcomings and then comes to the conclusion that it’s the best camera they’ve ever used.So not owning one, what is so special about the Leica brand that makes people go gaga over them?

Coming from astronomy, I hear this all the time with handmade Apochromatic refractors but looking through them I don’t see the cost/benefit ratio. I’m not trying to bash Leica, but when one can get a Sony/Canon or Nikon for much less and that people post MUCH better photos…….”

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A1: I bought my first Leica (an M6TTL) when film was still popular.  I grew to love the lenses.  Later I bought a Leica M8.  I still use it from time to time.  It still takes great pictures.  (The new M bodies are too far out of my price range.  Oh well.)

I don’t own a Rolex but I do have a Tag Heuer Autavia that I have been wearing for many years.  It still keeps perfect time.

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A2: Nothing really special apart from the price and their past reputation.

Much Leica stuff is made for them by Panasonic as they have some sort of arrangement. Even Minolta used to make some of their lenses for them. My Panasonic LX3 has “Leica” engraved on the lens and it is a good lens for a compact but has bucket loads of barrel distortion that needs a lot of help from the in-camera or post processing correction. The same camera was sold as some Leica D-Lux product name but at twice the price. I guess it’s a lot like the Toyota-Lexus arrangement where the Lexus appears to be a better built Toyota.

The Leica camera models and lenses that have the truly astronomic prices are probably still hand-made by a bunch of German elves in the Black Forest or somewhere like that. Nice but why?

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A3: As an ex Leica film camera owner, I think that the current cameras are basically living on reputation…

Back in the day,  the lenses were very good,  and certainly my m4’s never gave me any issues…  they were reliable cameras… more so than the Nikon’s or Contaxs that I also had… but of course they were much simpler cameras as well, so bound to be. They were fairly small,  discrete, quiet,  reliable and robust cameras with excellent glass. Otoh… they also were a right PITA for loading,  and focusing was nowhere near to as accurate or fast as with an slr….    in effect they were actually deeply flawed,  and inevitably most of my work was done with the Nikon’s I had as well.

Moving forward…  I simply cannot see that the cameras are anything to go gaga about…  like all digital cameras their end output quality is restrained by the technology of the chip… so unlike the film camera,  their exquisite build quality is superfluous…  as they are life limited by external factors. The glass is very good…  but others have caught up and arguably a lot of the Zeiss glass gives a similar organic feel with a lower cost.

so,  I deeply regret selling my film leicas,   As they were jewels which would still be perfectly useable film cameras now…  but the gaga factor over these is more about narcissism than practicality… as for the digital gear….  they are toys of the rich, and have no real practical value for myself…. rangefinder manual focussing being rubbish in 1980,  never mind 2018.

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A4: On the whole there’s nothing special about a Leica unless you are in love with a mystical toy. In my case the purchase of a Leica M9 which was the Leica Representatives demo camera. It was an economically good move. It cost me about $3,000. Over the years, I have had Leica M2 M3 M4 and M5 cameras which are now being sold to collectors .

I started shooting Leica in the late 1960s when I was in university. I more than covered the cost of the Leica by shooting University Theatre and dance Productions. This was a far better choice for shooting the Performing Arts compared to the then available Nikon F1.

Over the years I have accumulated many Leica lenses from 24 to 200 mm which have been written off and have a book value of zero. Since I continued my hobby of àshooting the Performing Arts after University I made enough money to pay for the additional lenses and cameras. I now have a complete camera system that as far as I’m concerned that cost me $3,000.

The Leica is a superb Walkabout camera with old lenses that are even today pretty fine. On a regular basis I still get some excellent photographs with this manual full frame rangefinder camera. It is relatively small lightweight and convenient.

I normally shoot with a pretty large Canon DSLR system for Sports theater dance Studio and other forms of photography.

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A5: Nothing, except a 1950 German legacy of prestige that’s long gone but lives on in the minds people who want to show off that they have the money to spend on luxury and you can’t.

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A6: Leica cameras represent status and prestige because not everyone can afford them. If you can spend $40,000 for a camera and a few lenses you are in a very select group.

While there are other more sensible reasons to buy a Leica, the biggest factor might be as a status symbol. Which is why they are purchased by a lot of non-photographers who happened to find themselves wealthy and who want to show off their wealth.

This doesn’t mean their cameras aren’t wonderful. It just means their high prices put them in the same category with Rolex, Hermes, Gucci, Mont Blanc, and Ferrari as status symbols for some people.

Absolutely no one buys a Timex watch, Parker pen or Toyota Corolla to make a statement about how successful they are.

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A7: Because some people think owning a Leica would transform them overnight into a pro if they use the camera used by people like Cartier-Bresson, Koudelka, Eggleston and etc…

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 A8: Do you think that Leica owners are so bored that they hang around photographic forums? They are far too busy enjoying themselves. Leica owners tend not to be of the type that want to show off how much better the pictures from their cameras are. A lot of the Canon and Nikon stuff you see has been rinsed through Lightroom etc before a sanitized version is posted online for comments of admiration. Leica owners do far less, or zero image enhancements outside the ability of their camera.

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A9: Looking at the sample [Leica User] galleries I expected to be blown away by the quality of Leica, mostly I got was badly composed pictures of guys with beards and black and white homeless people.

Cafe de Jaren, Amsterdam. Need a good meal before walking the city looking for homeless people to photograph.

 

Is the Leica M5 Still “Too Big”?

Above is the Leica M5 with a 50mm next to a Sigma SD Quattro with 17-50 2.8 zoom. Probably a bit of an unfair comparison given the Sigma zoom, but in actuality the 30mm Sigma prime – which would be the functional equivalent on the Sigma of the 50 on a 35mm body – is about the same size.

The Sigma SD Quattro isn’t considered overly large for a high-end digital (it’s a really interesting camera too, incredible value for what is in effect medium format output) but it dwarfs the M5. The pictures really don’t give you a full sense of how much bigger it is than the M5.

I note all this because one recurring complaint about the M5, even today, is its size. I’m convinced most critics who complain of its size havent ever used one but are simply repeating what they’ve heard or read from someone else, that person typically having done the same.

My sense is that the original antipathy to the camera was borne of its look – certainly different from the iconic M profile – and most of the criticism justifying the antipathy was what logicians call special pleading (put an M5 next to a Nikon F2 for clarification).