Author Archives: Leicaphila

Leica Reflex Cameras: Leitz’s Red-Headed Step-Children

The Leica R9. The end of the line of Leica Film SLRs

I’ve written elsewhere of my admiration of Leica’s Reflex film cameras – the Leicaflex SL in particular. It’s ridiculously overbuilt, solid as a brick, pretty much bomb proof. Plus, you get to use arguably the best 35mm SLR optics ever made; the easily obtainable Summicron-R 50mm f2 is about as good as it gets for a standard focal length SLR lens, if that’s your thing.

I currently own 2 SL’s, one black chrome and one chrome. The chrome version is essentially new. I bought it from a nice woman whose dad owned a camera store in Boston. He apparently had put it away new in the box with a Summicron-R 50mm f2. She found it on his shelves after his death, still unused [yup, the box serial number matches the body]. I bought it, and the body sits in the box, while I’ve attached the ridiculously pristine Summicron to a user black chrome SL body. Nice rig; really nice rig.

A few months ago I initiated a fresh round of gear purge, including the sale of my black chrome SL. I had intended to sell the body only, but somewhere along the way a reader (let’s call him Mr. X) asked about it and I ended up selling him the body with the pristine Summicron. I sent it off reluctantly, with a slight regret. Now I’d have one SL body (the new chrome SL) but no lens to use with it, and chances are I’d never find a new Summicron-R the likes of what I’d just sold. Oh well.  As fortune would have it, Mr. X didn’t find my SL the amazing Leica he’d been expecting (when I asked him what he didn’t like about the camera he said the viewfinder was no brighter than his Olympus OM2 and he had expected something more. Sigh.) so of course I told him to send it back. Given the SL he had in his hands had, without a doubt, the nicest vintage Summicron-R he’d ever find, and given as well my lingering regret after having sold it, I figured this was kizmet at work, the universe giving me a mulligan.

So, having been given a second chance with my Leicaflex, I did what most Leicaphiles do when they get a new Leica  – I took a lot of pictures of my cats while admiring the cool camera I was using. Not any cat pictures, mind you, but gritty black and white “Decisive Moments”, animal reportage at its finest, photos possessing that most elusive of Barthian ontological realities – the “punctum” – no doubt a function of having been produced with a legendary hand-assembled Leitz camera with a second generation “Cron-R.”

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The Leicaflex SL. If you like the M3, You’ll Love This Camera

When I was 12, newly initiated into a subsequent lifetime of camera gear enthusiasm, presently lusting after a Nikon F (I couldn’t even conceive of owning a Leicaflex; it and the Alpa SLR were unobtainable objects for simple folks like me, to be dreamed of only), I ended up confronting the sad reality that my gear ownership, at least while under my parent’s roof, would be compromised. While I had my eyes set on “professional” cameras like the F, I’d never be able to afford one on my own, and I also wouldn’t be able to convince my parents – good, solid lower-middle class burghers –   to buy one for me, their reasoning being that nothing could justify buying the Nikon for $350 when I could buy a perfectly good camera for $125, something like a Minolta.  Certainly, my parents pointed out, the Minolta was more than adequate for the needs of a 12 y/o. And so, thrift and practicality having triumphed, I ended up with a brand new chrome Minolta SRT-101 with 50mm Rokker, a perfectly functional camera that I despised from the day I got it because it had no soul. How do you, as a 12 y/o, articulate to your folks that, for someone besotted with the idea of photography, your camera, in addition to meeting minimal practical concerns, needed to speak to you emotionally?

Thus began my aversion to Minolta cameras, and by extension, to Leica reflex cameras, or more particularly, the Minolta Leica R’s, tainted as they were by association with a garden variety Japanese camera producer. The original Leitz SLR’s – the Leicaflex, SL and SL2 – were designed and built by Leitz in Wetzlar, built to the same standards as the mechanical M’s. They were, and are, beautiful mechanical devices; solid, overbuilt no-nonsense teutonic instruments. But they made a marginal impact in the market because they arrived too late, the first Leicaflex appearing in 1964 5 years after the introduction of the iconic Nikon F. And, in spite of the fact that Leitz sold the bodies at a loss, intending to make up the difference through the sale of the R optics, they were expensive, maybe double the price of an F body, while the price of the system lenses made the whole notion of a Leicaflex cost-prohibitive for most professional photographers. Faced with these market realities, beginning in 1976 Leitz partnered with Minolta to produce the R3, their first auto-exposure camera, accessing Minolta’s technology and expertise and assembling the resulting SLR’s in Portugal to reduce costs. The R4 and R5 were subsequent variations on the same auto-exposure theme.

The Electronic Leica R7. Some People Love Em

In 1988, Leitz returned the R series to its roots with the introduction of the all-mechanical TTL metered R6, now manufactured again in Germany at their new factory in Solms. It was, essentially, a companion piece to the M6, a reach back to Leitz’s all-mechanical history. Given the state of 80’s era technology, it was also the first signs of Leica’s hedging of any pretense that the R system might function as a reasonable professional alternative to the Nikon and Canon professional SLR systems, although the 90’s era R7 did offer an auto-exposure alternative through 1997. Leica replaced the R7 with the R8, shortly to be followed by the R9, a completely new technical and aesthetic all-auto design, soon to referred to as “the Hunchback of Solms.” You either love it or hate it. Personally, I think they’re incredibly cool, having aged wonderfully from an aesthetic standpoint, soon to be a classic, but they’re still expensive even today and the latest R optics remain absurdly expensive. And, if your über-electronic R8 craps out, well, you’ve now got a very expensive door stop.

The Hunchback of Solms

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Which leads us back to the original Leicaflex and the SL’s. If you’re looking for an SLR with the minimalist sexiness of the M5, you can’t do better than a Leicaflex, although I’d steer clear of the original Leicaflex – no TTL metering, with an ugly rectangular metering window on the front of the pentaprism – in favor of the TTL metered SL or SL2. Leicaphiles who know better than me claim the SL2 to be a marked improvement on the SL, but I’ve owned both and can’t tell much difference between the two. As best I can tell, the “improvements” of the SL2 consist of a more sensitive meter and a mirror redesigned to accommodate the newly introduced 16 and 19mm R lenses.

As for my black chrome SL with ‘minty’ 50mm Summicron, it’s back for sale, me having exhausted its creative potential in a few months of marathon cat reportage, and also because my wife won’t let me buy a Colnago C60 unless I unload a few of my photographic toys.

A Colnago C60. I Want One.

That’s it, below. Great camera. No surprises, everything works. Meter works perfectly. the Summicron looks new and comes with the Leitz 12564 hood, also in like new condition. For $550, shipped to your door, it’s yours. If you don’t like it, send it back. Don’t make me put it on Ebay.  SOLD

Why Do “New” Leica Film Camera Owners Always Seem to Want the M3?

A Leica M3. A Beautiful Camera, No Doubt

It’s a question I’m increasingly asking myself. It seems rather predictable these days: prospective first time Leica film camera owners fixate upon the M3 as their entree into Leica film camera ownership. Granted, find one in decent condition and it’s a wonderful camera, exemplifying all the characteristics associated with the hand-built fully mechanical M’s. And, of course, it’s iconic, the original Leica M, with a quarter million production run between its introduction in 1954 and its replacement with the M4 in 1966. But, if you’re considering buying an iconic mechanical M film camera, and assuming you’re going to want to use it to produce photographs as opposed to propping it up on a shelf somewhere, is it really the best choice?

If you want an “iconic” all mechanical film Leica M, you have 3 choices: the M3, the M2, or the M4. (I’m not going to even debate the relative merits of the LTM Leica IIIg, introduced by Leitz in 1957 as the culmination of the venerable Barnack screw-mount line. That’s a discussion for another day.) Starting with the M5, Leica incorporated metering into the M line, necessitating a battery but, more importantly, setting in motion the incremental increases in ergonomic complexity that led to the anti-iconic electronic M7. The M5 and M6, both metered, both excellent cameras, in my mind don’t qualify as “iconic” – just try to picture Henri Cartier-Bresson using an M5 or M6 to take the picture of that guy jumping over the puddle behind the Gare du Nord.  Enough said.

As for the M4-2 and M4-P, both non-metered all mechanical M’s, purists argue they ‘really’ weren’t legitimate M’s but rather stop-gap cost-cutting throwbacks used by Leitz to buy time while they figured out what to do about the M line post-M5 debacle. At the very least, it’s a truism that neither camera was aimed at, or appealed to, the working photographer. If your goal is to own the camera that best embodies the M’s evolution from professional working tool to sentimental throwback, then the M4-2 is the camera for you. Plus, both it and the M4-P just look cheap, the M4-2 with a tacky “Leitz” logo stamped onto the top-plate; the M4-P with the same stamped logo and also a hideous red dot on the front vulcanite. Yuck. And they both continued the unfortunate trend, started with the M5 and brought down through the M lineage to this day, of stamping the “Leica” and the M designation on the front of the faceplate, an unnecessary cluttering up of the camera’s simple lines, with the result being the start of the now well-established practice of showing your hard-core Leicaphile cred by taping these over with black tape. Finally, there’s the recent all mechanical MP, an admirable attempt by Leica to maintain the iconic M profile in the digital age, but alas, too expensive and without any vintage cred.

Neither of these are “iconic” Leica Film Cameras

So, we’re left with the M2 and M4 as alternatives to the M3. The M2, prospective owners might think, would have come before the M3, but they’d be wrong. The M2 was first offered for sale in 1958, four years after the introduction of the M3, intended to be a simpler and less expensive alternative to the M3. There were some cost-cutting features vis a vis the M3: the exposure counter was an exposed dial you reset by hand as opposed to the M3’s auto-reset windowed counter, and Leitz found a way to cut production costs of its viewfinder in relation to the costs of the M3 viewfinder; but, the M2 viewfinder is main reason many working photographers opted for the M2 over the M3, and I would argue it’s also the reason the M2 remains the preferable alternative if you’re a first time Leica Film camera owner.

This One Certainly Is

The results of long experience with M’s by serious photographers seems to have confirmed the belief that the true “native” focal length for the 35mm rangefinder camera is a 35mm lens, itself a perfect combination of focal width with “normal” perspective. The 50mm focal length, especially when used on a rangefinder, seems just a bit too narrow, a bit too restricted in venues like enclosed low-light spaces where M’s have traditionally been most effective. The downside of the M3 is its .91 viewfinder magnification, a life-size magnification perfect for using a 50mm Noctilux, Summicron or Elmar and longer 90 and 135mm lenses but too narrow to use with a 35mm focal length without auxiliary finder. Hence the M2 with .72 magnification viewfinder allowing native framelines for 35/50/90 focal lengths – offered by Leitz a few years after the introduction of the M3 – as much a response to the limitations of the M3 as it was a “reduced-cost” alternative.  It’s no coincidence that the M2 became the M of choice for working photographers using Leicas in the 1960s. It was, and remains, the more practical alternative if your interest is using the camera.

Which brings us to the M4, produced by Leitz from 1967 to 1970 (marginal production as well from 71-75 when the M5 was also being offered as the first metered M). It retains the native .72 magnification viewfinder of the M2 with a bunch of incremental improvements: a 135mm brightline frame in addition to the 35/50/90 M2 trio, a really cool-looking angled cranked film rewind in place of the M2/M3’s fiddly lift-up knob that took forever to rewind a film roll, a faster 3 prong “rapid loading” (!) take up spool, and it was offered in black chrome, a much more durable finish than the black paint M2’s and M3’s that looked like crap after a few months of intense use.

Now THIS is a Real M4: Not bunged up with tacky logos or Red Dots, and not dumbed down to a price point

What I really love about the M4 is its solidity and refinement. To me it feels even more solid yet refined than does the M3. It’s a non-metered M with all the kinks worked out. It is the last iconic M (The M5 being ignored for the moment because of its unique form factor) that truly embodies all the virtues of the Leitz hand-assembled bodies. It is to the non-metered M line what the IIIg is to the Barnack line – the model line’s most refined and sophisticated representation. Were I to choose one Leica M body that most closely met the criteria of a useable iconic M, it would be the M4. Give me mine in black chrome please.

Further Proof That a Sucker IS Born Every Minute

Eagle-eyed Leicaphilia reader Bob Dyl sent me the following link from Leica Rumors:

Apparently,  Bashert Jewelry has designed “a new set of sterling silver soft release buttons” for Leicas.  They are offering  6 different designs  available for pre-order for $199. These are “hand-made, unique pieces that will be available in limited quantities.” After the pre-order period is over, the price will go up to $249.

Get em while you can.

On Making Pictures

by Rob Campbell

I don’t think there’s anything new to be said about the relative merits of film and digital capture, and apart from pointing out the differences in highlight roll-off and stuff like that, I do believe most of us would experience difficulty telling the results apart, equally competent photographers a given.

Instead, I think I’d like to talk about making pictures, and the differences that mental approach will inevitably bring to the exercise.

The greatest question regarding approach starts, obviously, right at the beginning, with the word why? Why make a particular photograph?

I suppose the answer to that will vary from person to person, but in my own case, photography has lived two distinct periods: the professional one which really began before I owned a reasonable camera or even had a business, because for the life of me I can hardly recall a time I didn’t want to do it every day. I just had this thing about it in my head. The other part, the later manifestation of the bug, happened post-retirement when I became an amateur. And the two experiences are totally different. If anything, the amateur status was infinitely more difficult to handle because, for the first time, I was faced with the complex character of motivation which, when left to be subjective and divorced from economic survival, has a really tough time forcing through enough energy to get up and do. Some of you familiar with the work of the famous Black Trinity of Bailey, Donovan and Duffy may remember the difficult Donovan quotation which I paraphrase as best I can: “The problem for the amateur is finding a reason to make a photograph.” Think about that for a moment and you’ll see what he meant.

However, once one gets over that initial hurdle (for me it happened after the death of my wife when photography really came back into my life as a form of instinctive therapy that allowed me to escape from the endless, destructive-because-useless churning of emotions built around loss), new departures become possible.

Instead of the easy route of the assignment which brought with it not only the motivation, direction and pleasure of the shoot itself, but also the added sense of validation by virtue of the assignment coming one’s way, I now discovered another buzz: the kick found in taking what life offers in the most mundane situations, looking at it, and seeking out ways of making snippets of it distinct and, with luck, interesting.

One can do it anywhere: walk down a city or village street and look into shop windows. Immediately you see two worlds. Put them together, wait until people move into places where you’d like them and make the exposure; wait until there are no people. Go out in the rain and gaze at the puddles. They become mirrors, and show you a different topsy-turvy world of reality. Photograph it; you always knew it was there, but shooting it and working on it makes it something quite else. Give it a title and you add yet another layer of meaning – or just fun, that maybe only you understands. But that’s cool too.

Some folks, with more nerve than I, go out and photograph people they don’t know and manage to make great images that carry massive doses of ambiguity, humour or even sadness. Street’s a wonderfully broad canvas: think Saul Leiter, Ernst Haas, Robert Frank, HC-B and so on and on, and they are all quite differently doing the same thing: catching the magic of the real world without having to create new bits for it. Now that’s a talent of both vision and reflexes!

I have no doubt that the exercise is much easier to pull off in cities like NY or Paris than in a small town somewhere in the sticks, if only because in the city you do become pretty invisible and people are already tuned in to studiously ignoring everybody around them and avoiding any eye contact whilst, at the same time, being on guard. Where every tourist has some recording device in front of his face, only your own conscience makes you stand out as something else. The rural town or village is a different thing: everybody knows everybody else, and whatever you do, you get noticed, even if you’re doing absolutely nothing more than breathing. And you can be sure you’d also be noticed if you’d stopped breathing. You can’t bet on that in a city.

Maybe the best one can do is play with reality just a little bit. If you don`t play with it, then I hardly see a reason to make the photograph at all: you contributed nothing and life would have existed in exactly the same way with or without you. Make the difference. But most of all, make it for yourself, and not for anybody else. Everybody else already wants too much from you. And hey, don’t waste money on crazy equipment: it can be done just as well on a shoestring, and if you really, really need that exotic lens, get it second-hand, because after the first flush of pleasure it brings, you’ll find yourself right back where you began, wondering about what to shoot and confusing that thought with what you need to buy in order to shoot the next variation of the same old things.

For anyone seeking inspiration, I’d suggest simply looking at a lot of photographer websites and finding something that really appeals, and then going out and shooting your own version of it. It’s not plagiarism, because you won’t ever find the same circumstances, your vision will be quite different, but you will still be able to make use of the sense of genre. Grasp the genre for you, and you are already on your way.

© Rob Campbell, 2017

Could This be the Worst Leica Youtube Video Ever?

As this blog proves, any idiot can claim to be an expert on about anything. It never ceases to amaze me the folks who contact me, expecting me to know some arcane matter about Leica cameras. It’s flattering, no doubt, but I’m just a guy with some free time who decided to fill it up by writing about something I love – Leica film cameras. That doesn’t mean I know much of anything about them. It just means I’ve got a dial-up connection, a WordPress account and too much time on my hands.

Apparently this guy does too.

Anna Baldazzi’s M3 Up For Auction

Anna Baldazzi is an Italian free-lance photographer who worked both in Italy and New York. She’s photographed everything from Julie Christie on the set of Dr. Zhivago to Federico Fellini and Salvadore Dali, all with the M3 above.

Bonham’s London is auctioning off her M3 #1078602, factory black paint, mated with a 50mm f2 Summicron #2031524, purchased new by her in the sixties. Expected final hammer price is $4900-$7300 USD.