Are Leicas Still Relevant? Two Gearheads Debate

Sothebys

 

 I see the merit in both positions. Of course, any debate about the continued relevance of Leica M must start with the introduction of the Nikon F…...

A…Then came Nikons, and they took over quickly because they were the first camera system in a long time that was significantly better than or equal to Leicas in almost every way that counted to working photographers.

B. It’s a point. The Nikon F was indeed a better system solution than even the world’s best rangefinder, well matched to the requirements of most journalists of the time.  However, for the more deliberate shooter who prefers a quiet, small, stable, unobtrusive photographic instrument with superb optics, excelling in low light, the M continued to have an important place to play. Many documentary, newspaper and magazine photographers used Leica M’s until recent times. I doubt that their subjects even knew what a Leica was. They used those cameras for good business reasons, IMO, not for status, and especially not so if status would have gotten in the way of their work.

A. All that was left for Leica was the legendary status, and, less so, the fact that, although outmatched in almost every way, they were still well-made cameras. When your product is not even close to being able to take on the competition (i.e. Nikon in this case), you can no longer rely on the product itself to keep you in business.

B. Well, they have had their troubles, haven’t they? Somehow they persist. An old photographer told me back in the sixties “Cameras come, and cameras go, but the Leica remains.” I laughed at him. I’m not laughing anymore. With all due respect, one limitation in your logic, IMO, is the notion that a camera wins by doing more things better, even if in the process it does a few important things worse.

A. The Leica mystique was always perpetuated to some degree by the company, and when the cameras gradually phased out in the wake of Nikons, I think Leitz came to rely on their legendary status to keep themselves in business.

B. They were phased out? The M is the only 35mm camera I know of that has persisted from 1953 to the present day with a single common mount and unbroken product continuity. If I am not mistaken, its latest iteration is one of the smallest full-frame digitals in the market space, and is selling well. I wonder if any of the photographers who once used the film M’s will be using digital Ms for their work. I would bet that there will be some who do. SLRs cannot do everything best. It’s a fact. My 1950’s M3 and Summicron can still be serviced by numerous skilled technicians. My Nikon F has poorer support. Thankfully, it does not need much of it. The Nikon just keeps on going, like that Energizer Bunny. But the Leica M3 is definitely superior in fit, finish, and operation.

M3 black

A. The sentimentality of those who had grown up with and made their livings on the legendary Leicas of yore was stoked by the company and passed down from generation to generation.

B. Probably so. One sells however he can. As we all know, many of the most memorable images in history were recorded by great photographers using Leica rangefinders. And those images did not cease in 1959, with the appearance of the F.

A. Now we have exorbitantly priced Leica cameras that are no better than what the company made when Nikon first blew them out of the water. Think about it.

B. Yes, the early M’s really were that good. May they always be as well made. Rock solid, heavy and stable, smooth as butter, quiet as a mouse, unobtrusive, wonderful in available darkness, terrific for candid imaging. A tool that in some few ways cannot be matched by an SLR or a dSLR.

A. How the heck else is a company supposed to stay in business with a product that was handily outmatched fifty years ago?

B. It wasn’t categorically outmatched, and it hasn’t been. It became a less suitable match than an SLR for a majority of users. It remained popular for some others for a few very good reasons. How do you compare a wrench to pliers? These are completely different tools. As to how Leica survives, they will have to figure that out for themselves. The M9 and S2 seem to have some promise. I wish them luck, as that is all I have to offer them.

A. When your product is no longer competitive, you don’t sell the product. You sell something more than the product. The product simply becomes a vehicle for the purchase of status.

B. As I said, one must pitch it however it will sell, always putting it in its best light. Thankfully, the fact that some people buy it for status is wholly unknown to the Leica. It just does what it does. And that’s what matters for those who actually use Leica M’s regularly. Anytime I don’t need the special capabilities of an SLR, I shoot with the Leica. I just like it. And as for the status, most folks seeing an old guy like me with an obviously ancient metal camera are more likely to have pity than envy. They don’t even know what it is, nor do they take it seriously. That’s a good thing in candid imaging, actually. Quite easy to mix in with folks.

soths

A. Make no mistake. Leicas are primarily luxury/leisure items, and have been for decades.

B. Matters not to me. Mine has no red dot. I paid $600 for the camera in the 90s and another $250 to clean, lubricate and adjust. I have no doubt that if I sold it today, I could recover about that. Now think about this: The cost of ownership would be nearly ZERO. What other camera matches that? The cost of ownership is so attractively low that its hard to say no. And if you don’t like the Leica, someone else will. Hardly any other camera has so little risk to the owner as an M. Maybe Hasselblad 500c or a classic Rollei.

A. The way I see it, the trick to getting around this overpriced idiocy, and to simply get your hands on an excellent rangefinder camera, is to realize that the company has made no significant upgrades for 90% of truly serious shooters since the M2. If you want a quality rangefinder that simply gets the job done in an old-fashioned manner, don’t buy anything past the M2, and do not fall for any of the collector garbage.

B. On this we agree mostly. If somebody is dumb enough to buy a gold plated Leica with ostrich skin for a million dollars, then good for them and Leica. It’s nothing to me. If it helps Leica survive, then maybe parts for the M’s will continue in manufacture longer.

A. Realize that no matter how good everyone proclaims Leica optics and mechanics of the cameras to be, they are over all an outdated and inferior tool to SLRs.

C. Apples vs Bananas I say. Each tool to its own user and purpose. “Outdated” is an irrelevant term if a tool is judged by the photographer to be best for any particular application.

A. Ultimately, if there’s a justification for still shooting a Leica M, it’s the same reason you drive a ’61 Cadillac: because they’re cool, and fun, not because they are the best in the world in a technical sense (though they may have been at the time they were made).

B. The public knows what a ’61 Cadillac is. They don’t know a Leica M from Adam’s house cat. For the few areas where a rangefinder (Leica or otherwise) has an advantage, no SLR is its equal. Did anyone ever replace a well appointed tool box with a Swiss Army Knife? The purpose made tools are always better for some specific applications. So it is with the rangefinder.

Sothbys

A. Everyone is so convinced that having a Leica makes them a serious photographer. Everyone is convinced that they are vastly superior in quality to any other camera. Balls to that.

B. Not me, and not everyone. Some say my people pictures are better when I use the M3 instead of my F or F2. Maybe so. However, I agree with you that the machine does not make the image. That’s the photographer’s job! Anyone who thinks a camera makes them a photographer probably believes that cookware would make them a chef, or that a Ferrari would make them a world class driver at Le Mans.

A. The proof in pictures says otherwise. People shoot the same crap with Leicas that they do with any camera, and often it is even crappier because rangefinders are such a pain in the ass to use compared to SLRs.

B. You are right in that technology does not make one a photographer. I goof just as often with an F, an F2, an M3, or with any of my other cameras. Anyone who feels that an M is a pain to use should just get something else. It is no pain for me. Most folks don’t like rangefinders. Okay by me, as long as I can enjoy mine.

Lou Reed M6

A. Leicas are cool because they are fun and old fashioned. Embrace that, and don’t take them so damned seriously. You’ll get out cheap, and have a million times more fun and get a million times better pictures than all the bozos paying big bucks for them so that they can think of themselves as serious photographers. Get an old thread mount camera or an early M and you’ve got everything that was ever good about using a Leica in the first place. You usually escape for well under a thousand bucks too.

B.They are good for more reasons than that. As for the bozos, they can simmer in their own mental stew. I like the M because I like using the M and I like the images. That’s all that matters to me.

A. The Leica mystique is due to the fact that people do not know how to objectively judge something, take it for what it is, and just enjoy it for the hell of it. They’ve always got to attach some sort of twisted value to it beyond what it actually is: a cool old camera that used to rule the world.

B.You are off the mark in your assessment about objectivity of judgment. I hope for your sake you do not own a Leica M. Fortunately, most folks who dislike them don’t, and some who own them actually do love using them.