Category Archives: Leica

Talking Leicas with Astrophysicists

20160701-R1100511-EditParis Observatory telescope. This 60-centimetre telescope, installed in 1890, was designed by French astronomer Maurice Loewy (1833-1907). Loewy was Director of the Paris Observatory from 1896 until his death.

In spite of my obvious critical stance toward many of the fruits of the digital age, it certainly has its benefits, one of which is the ability to connect people of like mind across distances. Prior to the internet, if you wanted to share your interests with others, you did so on a local basis. Now the world is open to you. Through this blog I’ve been lucky to meet interesting, intelligent people from around the world – the Far East, Africa, South America, Europe – and also around the corner where I live in Raleigh, North Carolina.

So I was pleasantly surprised, while travelling recently, to receive an invitation to visit from Dr. Henry Joy McCracken, an Astrophysicist at the Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris and a dedicated Leica film shooter. Dr. McCracken works in a contemporary building located on the campus of the Observatoire de Paristhe foremost astronomical observatory of France, and one of the largest astronomical centers in the world. Its historic building is located on Boulevard Arago in the 13th Arrondissement in Paris.  Louis XIV started its construction in 1667, completed it in 1671. It thus predates the Royal Greenwich Observatory in England, founded in 1675.

While the Observatory is open to the public on a very limited basis, nobody gets up on the roof and in the cupola where the telescope is found. Dr. McCracken brought me up on the roof and into the cupola. The telescope there is very old, very big and very impressive.

20160701-R1100506-EditOn the Observatory Roof with Dr. McCracken. Behind him is the cupola where the Observatory telescope is housed. And yes, that’s a film Leica Dr. McCracken is sporting.20160701-R1100518-EditInside the Cupola20160701-R1100525-EditGraffiti Scratched into the Stone Wall in a Space Under the Cupola

The irony of our meeting is that, while we connected through Leicaphilia, a site dedicated to the enjoyment of Leica film cameras and film photography as a viable ongoing means of photographic practice, only one of us was sporting a film camera – and it wasn’t me, which, I’m sure, gave Dr. McCracken pause even though he was a gracious enough host not to note the obvious to me. I had with me an M8 with a Amedeo adaptor and vintage Nikkor attached; he had with him a beautiful M6 with 50mm Summicron that someone had given him, loaded with Tri-X. Of course, there was a reason I wasn’t toting a film camera, as I claim I usually do, and it was because I just didn’t feel like dealing with the hassles of film on an international trip – the X-ray scanning and rescanning, the repeated explanations at security about what exactly the bag full of home-rolled film cassettes actually contained, the time spent developing and scanning the developed film once home etc; all of the reasons normal people embrace digital and see the continued use of film as quixotic in the extreme. If you were to accuse me of being a hypocrite, you’d be right. Consistency is not my strong point, although, in my defense, I am in agreement with Ralph Waldo Emerson that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, requiring one to be as ignorant today as one was yesterday.

20160701-L1003744-Edit-2These markers are found throughout the Observatory grounds. Something to do with the Meridian Line

So, did this trip help soften my antagonism toward digital Leicaphiles? Yes, it did, actually. I enjoyed the time spent with my M8 immensely. It’s a wonderful camera, offering the simplified Leica experience digitally. I borrowed a 35mm Summicron from a Parisian photographer friend and shot exclusively with the M8, the Ricoh GXR and the D3s staying in the bag. Along the way I lent it to a photographer who for years used both an M4 and M6 but never saw the use for a digital Leica – always saying “I just don’t see the point” when I’d enquire as to why he no longer used Leicas but now used professional Nikon DSLRs. Sitting on his Paris balcony, a few drinks in us both, I handed him my M8 with his Summicron attached. He picked it up, fired off the photo below and said “feels pretty much like a film Leica.” Yup. Pretty much.20160706-L1004281-Edit

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So, back to my thoroughly enjoyable day at the Paris Observatory, courtesy of Dr. McCracken, who, I should add, is an excellent photographer in addition to being a fine human being and a very intelligent guy dealing daily with issues that most of us simply aren’t smart enough to understand, let alone discuss. He publishes 52 Rolls: One Roll of Film for Fifty Two Weeks, where he shoots a roll a week and posts the photos on his blog.

As part of my tour, Dr. McCracken brought me into the bowels of a building on the Observatory campus where is located the darkroom that was once used to develop the Observatory’s photographs. Down a few flights of steps and behind a locked door stood a perfectly functional darkroom, still stocked with papers and chemicals with expiration dates from the 1990’s. Apparently, it had been locked away and forgotten, a sad commentary on the state of analogue photography. Fortunately, he has rescued it from disuse and it is now, again, being used for its intended purpose, although certainly now not in any official Observatory capacity. At the very least, it made me feel good that it has been resurrected and that maybe, just maybe, this blog might have had some little thing to do with it.

20160701-R1100578-EditThe Paris Observatory Darkroom

After my tour we settled in for a cup of coffee on the terrace of Dr. McCracken’s building, where we were joined by fellow Astrophysicists. We discussed, among other things, Dark Matter, String Theory, whether the Universe is expanding or contracting (its “bouncing” apparently), and, parenthetically, why we still all loved film cameras. We talked about the incredible vistas digitalization has opened to science, but we also discussed the problems that come along with our move from analogue to digital. Someone noted to me that there still existed, somewhere deep in the bowels of the Institute, negatives from more than a hundred years ago that charted the positions and conditions of the cosmos at that time, and that these offered a contemporary scientist the ability to go back and recreate those conditions in light of new theories or data, necessary work if you subscribe to Thomas Kuhn’s theory of how science changes. With digital data, so susceptible to degradation and loss, he noted, scientists 100 years from now might not have access to the same sort of data from our era, so eager are we to embrace new technology without thinking through the full consequences for the ongoing transmission of scientific culture. Who, I asked, is thinking about these issues? No one, he replied.

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20160701-R1100486-Edit-2The Observatory Stairwell

Having thoroughly enjoyed my visit with Dr. McCracken, off I went. Somewhere in the Marais, I lifted my M8 to take a photo of something, and as I did a gentleman walked past me with a curious look on his face, turned around and tapped me on the shoulder. “Are you the Leicaphilia guy?” he asked, to which I replied, yes. That’s me.  A nice enough guy, we spoke some time, him being a reader of the blog. He, of course, had a beautiful Pentax MX film camera with him, although he assured me there was an M2 at home. I, of course, had my digital M8, another slightly uncomfortable situation which he was gracious enough to ignore.

And so now I’m home, having gone through my DNG files and processed the keepers. You’ll notice that they’ve all been processed to emulate the film look. I’m not sure what I should think about this. Is this “cheating,” inauthentic in some way? Even if it is, who cares? Isn’t it the end result that matters? In any event, I feel vaguely like a poseur, someone who advocates one position while acting in accordance with another. Regardless, I think I really like my M8. Will it become my tool of choice? Probably not, and probably for those same archival issues articulated by the Astrophysicist. But who knows.

A Considered Reply to a Leicaphobe

By Peter Becker

This is in response to the recent Leicaphila article “Who Are You Trying to Fool?

This blog definitely causes a Leica owner to pause, at least for a moment. Am I a poseur? A hapless dilettante trying to be like one of the great photographers of history by using the out-dated equipment that was the best in their day but certainly not what they would choose today? “Salt of the Earth” definitely shows the Salgado of our time using the longest Canon lenses I’ve ever seen, on multiple late-model Canon bodies strapped across his chest as he treks across the farthest reaches of our planet. No thought, apparently, to using a somewhat lightweight “M” to ease the burden.

Is it wise to rely on manual focus when autofocus has been perfected to the point of offering so many weighted alternatives? Every time I aim my Leica M at something on the move or try to capture one magical but fleeting moment, I wonder. Am I sacrificing convenience or perhaps modern necessity in a subconscious (or maybe conscious) attempt to come across as a shirtless Brad Pitt?

camera spy game

Do I fondle the flawless German design and workmanship and swoon over the heft of an object that will last several lifetimes, even though Leica itself will probably try to make it seem obsolete in a year or so.

I’m not sure.

But I wouldn’t trade a modern, less expensive building for my historic office, built in 1913 as dressing rooms for an early movie studio, where all the rooms are en filade and there’s no reception area. The unusual configuration of rooms causes everyone to interact a lot more, encouraging the collaboration that I, at least, believe is an essential part of an architectural practice. And everyone wants to come to my studio and revel in its history and its beauty. Not a bad way to attract and keep clients and associates alike. And its spaces are taller and quieter than the new ones, with exceptionally stout walls that keep the elements out very nicely and grow into parapets that hide more solar collectors than the greenest of new buildings generally receive.

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Newer conference tables are bigger and stronger and cheaper, with chairs that provide individual lumbar support and glide around effortlessly, but I wouldn’t exchange these for my Biedermeier set from circa 1820, whose table is a lovely ellipse, the perfect shape for getting everyone involved, and made of inlaid fruitwood veneers that surely tend to make people think a little more seriously before they speak. And the beautiful but slightly fragile chairs tend to keep people’s feet on the ground, holding their attention and providing comfort for only as long as any meeting should last.

I have a Tesla, the latest thing on four wheels by far, just as I have a Nikon 800, huge and heavy, weighed down by countless electronic shortcuts that no one can remember but at least it balances out its oversized lenses with their motors that act like gyros on a spaceship and can autofocus at the speed of light and will, like the Tesla, stop on a dime. But, parked right next to the most innovative automobile on earth is my 1960 TR-3, which seemed to me like a Tesla or a Maserati when I got it in high school and still gives my goosebumps like nothing else, with its top down, its side doors hardly a foot above the pavement and its under-sized engine filling up an entire city block with its signature roar as I double-clutch through the gears with a whine that reverberates through the history of every race course ever made. That is exactly what it was meant to do and it now does it even better than ever, for there is hardly anything like it left on the road. Not every journey in life should be taken in a straight line, as quietly, comfortably and efficiently as possible. And my Leica, though elegantly quiet, is similar to the TR, light and small and nimble – and nothing is automatic. It won’t focus instantly, but it WILL, like nothing else, stop on the date that dime was made.

tr6A Nice TR3, with some guy who isn’t the author. [Editor’s Note: Has it really come to this? Are Leicaphiles now just a bunch of old bald guys who drive vintage cars?]

The Tesla and the Nikon are phenomenally well-designed and well-built pieces of equipment, perfect for a great many of our needs in life. But the TR-3 and the Leica were made to satisfy those other necessities, which are often a lot more important. And the latter two will also turn heads as if a movie star had just passed by, a byproduct that can’t be denied of a time-honored aura that goes beyond their function. But the function remains, irrefutably. The Leica M surely won’t come in first in every category, sports in particular, but in its own very wide niche, in the right hands, it still takes some of the best pictures in the world.

The Leica M will not allow the slightest bit of complacency, something so easy to fall into with today’s automatic wonders, usually set on aperture-priority, turning them into massive point-and-shoots. The Leica forces you, on every shot, to consider all the technical elements that have made up great photos from the beginning of photography and to calculate, from the myriad combinations of f-stops, shutter speeds and ISOs, the best setting for this particular situation; and then you must decide exactly where the focus should be. It absolutely requires that you think, deeply, and the resulting image is very often a reflection of that extra effort.

Also, there is something magical that often only comes from taking a portrait with a Leica. It takes so long to get all the settings right that the subject can no longer hold their made-for-pictures smile and they become more like their real selves. This is especially true when you are shooting wide and going for maximum bokeh and focusing, as only a rangefinder can, on the eyelids, and, because the depth of field is so ridiculously narrow you have to say, “Don’t move!”  The person in the photo not only comes to life, you occasionally get the chance to look into their soul.

And Brad Pitt, himself, has published a great many stunning photographs with this sexy little camera.

Peter Becker is an Architect (and photographer) from Santa Barbara, California.

Leica: Please Make a Decent High Speed Film Scanner

1976AA001-Edit-2Muhammad Ali on my TV, 1974. This is the stuff you find when you scan your old negatives

Patek Philippe, maker of exquisite hand-made mechanical watches for the one-percenters, justifies their stratospherically priced goods with following advertising slogan -” You never actually own a Patek Philippe, you merely take care of it for the next generation.”

I think of this when I think of my film Leicas, which, to my mind, embody the same mechanical timelessness as does a vintage Patek, albeit at a much more forgiving price point. A Leica M3, or a Iiif, one dad bought 60 years ago, still works just fine, no obvious end in sight. Your grandkids, were they of a mind (seriously doubtful, though, in an age of instant digital communication), might easily be loading it with Tri-X (probably now manufactured by some niche film concern) and photographing their grandkids with it come 2056.

There’s something comforting about that thought, a certain continuity of tradition that’s been almost wholly swallowed up by digital technologies. Traditional silver halide photography – film photography and wet printing – has become a niche within a niche, having been, within the last 15 years, completely bludgeoned on two major fronts: Communication is now digital,  and the immediacy of the internet, WiFi and iPhones have caused a complete consumer embrace of digital.

Call me completely clueless, but I’m happy to chug along enjoying the pleasures of what I think of as “photography,” loading film into cameras, controlling what my camera does (as opposed to my camera controlling what I do) via shutter speed, aperture, metering and choice of film. And choice of development. It seems to me that I’m practicing a wholly different craft than the one most “photographers” practice today.

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I’ve recently embarked on an epic quest to digitize every negative I’ve ever shot since 1970. It’s my one concession to the digital age; like many of us otherwise tried and true film photographers, I’ve succumbed to the inevitability and ease of digital printing as an acceptable hybrid solution to the continued use of film.

To do so, however, requires serious dedication, because the process of scanning negatives with a consumer grade scanner is incredibly time-consuming and monotonous. My Plustek scanner, a nice little piece of equipment, takes about 3 minutes to scan a 35mm negative to approximately 30 mpx. Given I’ve accumulated over 300,000 negatives since 1970, all nicely sleeved and sitting in orderly binders, I figure that if I dedicate 8 hours a day, every day of the week going forward, I should be finished when I’m past 120 (not theoretically impossible as I’m a remarkably youthful 57 as we speak).

1971_1976AA024-Edit-4Me, a very long time ago

Of course, such unfortunate realities push many of us over to digital capture, where we can shoot to our heart’s content and fill hard drives full of 36 mpx RAW files at the mere push of a button. What’s not to like, right?

I’m sorry, but the whole digital process simply doesn’t do it for me. Somewhere, deep in the recesses of my being, probably encoded in some archaic section of my lizard brain, is the idea of photography as a craft that produces tangible things via tangible processes. Photography needs to smell like fixer. It needs to afford you the opportunity of choosing a film and developer, of hanging a roll of film to dry, of contact sheets.

But it’s not just the process, but the result as well. Currently working now with reams of negatives from the 70’s, I’m constantly struck by the difference in the aesthetic quality of my  film photos when viewed with an eye now acclimated by the digital aesthetic. Film looks different. It has an unmistakable fullness and perfect imperfection that’s been swallowed whole by the sterile perfections of digital. Run your Monochrom files all you want through Silver Efex 2, tweak those sliders all you want, add an overlay of faux Tri-X grain, and it still looks, well…like digital. It will never look like a well-exposed film negative, no matter how many S curves and grain emulations you apply. Might it be a sufficient substitute for an unsophisticated digiphile? Probably, but anyone who has spent any time shooting and developing film can notice the difference immediately, and it’s not a marginal difference, but a subtle yet profound aesthetic difference that really matters to how your photos transcribe a subject.

So, some of us, the hard-core holdouts, have been experimenting with ways to make scanning faster and more efficient so that we can continue to use film cameras as viable working instruments and not merely objects to fondle. To that end, I’ve employed an unusual scanning solution that’s completely transformed my ability to shoot lots of film without becoming back-logged and overrun with undeveloped, unprinted film photos.

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A year or so ago I purchased a Pakon scanner on Ebay. In the early 2000’s Pakon made film scanners for retailers who developed film. The scanners themselves were professional grade, able to quickly analyze, correctly expose and scan uncut rolls of film in 2-3 minutes and give you 6mpx tiffs.  In the last few years they’ve been showing up on Ebay in good numbers, the result, as I understand it, of a national chain that got out of the film processing business and sold off their scanners. I grabbed one before they became well-known, really cheaply.

1971_1976AA026-Edit-2Somewhere in New Jersey, 1976

The Pakon F135 Plus is a really well put together machine. It gives better scans out of the box than any other non-drum scanner I’ve used. It’s fast, efficient and makes scanning almost effortless. I say almost, because, as always, the devil is in the details. These Pakons are orphaned, no longer supported or serviced. They operate with proprietary software that runs on Windows XP computers, XP being outdated now by at least a decade. In order to run one, then, you’ve got to find an old computer with XP on it and use it as a dedicated scanning computer, and then you’ve got to jimmy-rig the software to run on a PC; either that, or figure out some way to run XP as a virtual machine on a current computer, which, I’m told, is a complete pain-in-the-ass.

So I’ve bought the best XP laptop I could find and use it to power my Pakon. The next problem is constantly transferring the reams of resulting tiff files from the laptop to my editing computer for editing and storage. To deal with that issue, I had a software guy design a ‘push’ program that automatically pushes the resulting tiffs from my laptop to my editing computer via a network cable. Now scanning in bulk is super-easy: develop rolls of film in batches of eight in a large Patterson tank, let dry, run the uncut rolls through the Pakon, load em into Lightroom, and voila, you now have 8 36 exposure rolls of film, fully scanned and loaded into your editing software, 30 minutes max. As for archived negatives that are cut and sleeved, remove em from their sleeves, hand feed them into the Pakon in strips of 5 or 6 and the Pakon processes them quick and easy and sends them over to Lightroom, no fuss.

Needless to say, this has re-invigorated the use of my film cameras, not just as objects to fondle, but as photographic tools. Unless it’s something quick and easy – and throwaway – I almost never reach for a digital camera anymore.

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Which is really cool, because it allows me to actually get my film photography out there, in people’s hands, or more usually, in front of people’s eyeballs via digital media. Usually these ‘people’ are born and bred digiphiles, having known nothing else, who consider my attachment to film cameras as evidence of incipient senility. You know, the old clueless guy who thinks he’s hip but is really just embarrassing himself. (It doesn’t help that I’m still rocking a ponytail, wearing camouflage shorts and expounding the brilliance of Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited to kids in their 20’s). Tsk. Tsk. But, the problem in convincing them otherwise is this: they rarely get to see my film photos, given the labor intensive means of producing them. There’s been a running joke in my circle of friends for years: don’t worry about him and his ever-present camera taking pictures of you at the most inopportune times; you’ll never see em – “he’s shooting film!” Laughter all around.

Not anymore.

paris_2016AA024-EditChristina in Paris

I recently had the honor of transporting my niece Christina, a fine young lady who lives in the nether regions of USA flyover country, to the UK for a semester abroad. Being 20 y/o, and never having been out of the States, a chaperone was needed, at least to get her there in one piece. I was nominated. We first went to Paris to visit friends. I took only a film camera – a Hexar RF and a bag of HP5 – which I used to chronicle her trip for posterity. [As an aside, this put to bed any notion that x-ray machines will fog your film. Between a connecting flight in the States, then to Iceland, Iceland to Paris, Eurostar from Paris to London, then everything back again, my bag full of HP5 must have gone through at least 8 full scans during the trip. No fog.] Upon return home, I developed about 20 rolls, scanned them quick and sent out some shots via an extended email to update family and friends about her trip. The responses were interesting. Almost to a person, they noted how ‘cool’ these simple b&w photos looked. Nothing like what they got with their iPhones. “How do you do that?” was a typical reply. Easy. Learn how to be a real photographer and shoot film.

20160125-20160125-R1099396-EditSomewhere in the UK, 2016. HP5@800 in Diafine.

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Film is not dead. It doesn’t need to die unless we let it, and that, to my mind, would be tragic in a very real sense. An entire expressive medium and unique aesthetic gone the way of the mechanical watch in the interests of the quick and easy. It’s our choice as people dedicated to the craft – Leica M6 or iPhone, Patek Philippe or Apple watch?

The problem going forward,as I see it, is the failure of the market to offer us film users a viable means of efficiently digitizing our negatives. Progress on this front was never paid attention to as all R&D efforts went to the emerging competitive digital camera market. Film technology available to the consumer simply stopped developing around 2004. No one solved the film to image, or film to digital post processing issue. Granted, some revel in the old post-processing ways as a “slow boat to China” method of enjoying photography … which makes it a shrinking market unsupportive of any manufacturing advancements that would attract new users in great enough numbers.

What we film users need is a good scanner, a scanner that can efficiently scan negatives in bulk, and quickly. Something like the Pakon (see, it can be done), but updated with software and features to run it on today’s computers and to couple it quickly and easily to post-processing software. It seems to me that this is right in Leica’s wheelhouse. It would offer us film users a practical solution for using our film cameras as viable tools instead of as sentimental throwbacks. It would compliment the sale of new Leica film cameras. It would be incredibly seductive to the hipster crowd in Austin and Brooklyn, Paris and Beijing, not to mention us old dudes. It might just save film photography as a viable photographic option going forward. If Leica can find the time to build something as funky as an M262 digital camera without LCD, surely they can build us film Leicaphiles a decent bulk scanner. Are you listening, Leica?

The Duality of Leicaphilia

Valbray-Leica-watch-cameraWhen I speak of “leicaphilia” in what follows I’m referring to the love of all things Leica that animates many of us partisans of the iconic Leica brand. If you don’t suffer from it you probably won’t understand it. If you just read about it, without having suffered from it yourself, with all the semi-mystical attributes often ascribed to Leicas by folks who should know better, you’d be within your rights to dismiss the whole phenomenon as simply another irrational mania that afflicts humans in a myriad of ways, whether it be in the form of the religious or political, psychological or philosophical. Even for us long-time Leicaphiles, suffering the most from the malady, it’s difficult to justify many of our enthusiasms in our more rational moments.

I understand, and I’ve often used this blog to try and deflate some of the more pernicious claims seriously addled Leicaphiles sometimes make – you know, your Leica makes you a better photographer, or you’re not really serious about photography unless you use a Leica, or there’s an identifiable ‘Leica Glow’ one gets when using Leitz optics, or one can easily identify negatives and files produced by Leica cameras and Leitz lenses, or your M8, with its obsolete sensor and abysmal DXO score, somehow still produces files rivaling what you can get with a Nikon D5.

And then there’s all the ancillary crap attempting to hitch its wagon to the exclusivity that association with Leica can provide – bags, grips, leather cases, thumbs-up contraptions, lens hoods, soft release shutters, red dots, black dots to cover up the red dots, replacement leather skins of various textures and hues, and my personal favorite for ridicule, Frankensteinian dual hot-shoe brackets that allow you to mount both an external finder and meter on the top of your diminutive little IIIf, akin to putting a lowering kit and spinning neon wheels on your beautiful vintage BMW 2002.

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I don’t pretend to be a ‘fine-art photographer’. Photography for me is a process of documenting things, of keeping records. As a documentarian, I try not to romanticize the tools I use. And, while, emotionally, I’m still stuck in the film era, from a practical perspective the ease of digital wins out when I need something with a minimum of fuss or on a deadline. (When I need something absolutely permanent, however, film always wins out). My philosophy, when it comes to choosing a camera to use for a given need, is this: grab whatever works best. Lately, that usually means a Nikon D3s or, if quick and easy, a digital Ricoh, or, for what’s really dear to me, a film camera, preferably a rangefinder – an M4 or M5, a Hexar RF, a Voigtlander Bessa R2S or a Contax G, all great cameras –  or a Nikon F5 loaded with HP5.

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Amsterdam, 2015, Hexar RF and 28mm M-Hexanon, HP5 @ 800 in D76

It’s really only peripherally about the camera you use. It’s ultimately about the photographs you create, and the photos you create are a function of your technical mastery of your tools coupled with your aesthetic and reportorial sense. It’s about understanding shutter speed, aperture and depth of field, mastery of exposure; using the correct lens for a given task; understanding how perspective changes with distance and focal length; understanding the physics of the color of light; and last, and most importantly, knowing what’s important to point your camera at.

Having said all that, I’m just as susceptible to all the nonsense than are the unapologetic fanboys who give Leica a bad name in more serious circles. I obsess over the particulars of thoughtfully made photographic tools — the tiny details done just right, the haptics of a knurled knob or the aesthetic balance of chrome and vulcanite, the muffled ‘thlunk’ of a mechanical shutter.

Damn if I don’t spend a lot of my time fondling my film Leicas, ‘exercising’ the shutter while waiting for the decisive moment, or just simply carrying them around with me, admiring them for their mechanical beauty. Right now my enthusiasms seem to be centered on a Leica IIIg with cool vintage 5 cm lenses attached. Of course, tomorrow it might be different; I could very well pick up an M2 and switch emotional gears, now proclaiming it the coolest camera ever, or a black M4 mounting a Summicron that feels sublime in use. It need not even be a Leica. It could be a Nikon S2 or SP or F or even an F5, a Hexar RF or my current obsession, a Bessa R2S. Consistency, I must admit, is not my strong suite when it comes to my irrational attachment to film cameras. In this I am in agreement with Salvador Dali, who advised that it’s best to frequently contradict oneself so as not to be predictable, because the worst, the most boring one can be is predictable, consistency being, as Oscar Wilde once noted, the last refuge of the unimaginative.

The sorts of fondler’s interactions many of us enjoy speak to a need that is embedded in our relationships with traditional film photography, a tactile enjoyment of the process of photography and the pleasures given by the finely crafted tools we’ve used in that process. A fascination with, and admiration of, the tools themselves is part of what drew us to photography in the first place, and us fondlers have no need to apologize for this.

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Our often irrational attachment to our old cameras, I think, is ultimately about a desire for permanence in an endeavor whose technologies now evolve at warp speed. The charms of really nice film camera are many: the look and feel of tools well-crafted for long use, the familiarity created by using them for decades. It feels nice to use a camera for a long time. Do you remember the digital camera you were using 15 years ago? Mine was a Nikon d100. And there were those funky experiments that wrote their files to 3.5-inch floppies. Remember those? See where this is going? In 15 years, at our current pace, you won’t even recognize your ‘capture device’. In any event, I have no interest in having to learn the nuances of a new technical device every other year.

toughest Leica

Its why I love my iiif and iiig, my M4 and M5, my Nikon F and S3. Mechanical cameras, and the technology they embody, can be passed down from fathers to sons and daughters without the need of technical manuals. Learn the traditional skills of photographic capture: aperture, shutter speed, film speeds, and you’re able to figure out the marginal differences of any mechanical camera in a matter of a minute or two. In learning to master it, it becomes an habitual extension of your way of seeing, rather than a device that stands between you and what you see. I can pick up an M4 after not having touched one for years, and can still immediately operate it almost unconsciously. If I let my digital camera sit for too long, invariably I’m scrolling through menus and submenus trying to figure out some basic operation, usually standing flat-footed while what I grabbed the camera for plays itself out unphotographed.

The advance in digital technologies is stunning, but it has vitiated quaint notions of any practical longevity for a camera, even those, like Leica’s, that still pay lip-service to the idea that you might purchase a camera with longevity in mind. Camera product cycles now track the cycles for computers, because your digital camera is a computer. Manufacturers fight to see who can cram the most buttons on the back of their latest image capture device, and ‘camera nuts’ dutifully hand over their money for the latest best new thing.  Hard-core consumers, longing for the next thing even as we’ve just laid hands on the current version, are where the money is, so as we queue to buy the latest ‘must have’ camera we reinforce and reward manufacturers and help perpetuate the very process by which we remain dissatisfied, perpetually craving the next update. I suppose, given the realities of consumerist capitalism,  these cycles are inevitable and will remain with us as Nikon and Canon, and to a lesser extent Leica, cram more “new and improved” digital cameras down our throats well into the immediate future.

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When it was new, a Leica M4 camera cost a lot of money.  Fast forward to 2016, and a simple online calculator using the Consumer Price Index (CPI) indicates that the relative purchase price of an M4 today would be $7,080.00. This answer is obtained by multiplying $1500 (approximately what a black M4 would cost new in 1974) by the percentage increase in the CPI from 1974 to 2015. So, a new Leica M4 in 1974 cost about the same, in real dollars, as a new Leica MM costs today. But the difference is this: when you bought the M4 you expected to use it for decades.  I have an M4 made in 1974. It still works exactly as intended and I use it often. It’s not just a collector’s piece that sits on my shelf. I will eat my hat, however, if that MM you buy today will still be in your bag in 15 years, let alone working.  And forget 40 year-old Monochroms. In a relatively short time you’ll have to sell it at a loss, or its electronics will fail and you’ll be out-of-pocket for its replacement with something else.  This is the current reality now that cameras have gone from being something like a durable good, as was the M4, to a consumer electronic commodity that you replace every two years or so.

Maybe, leicaphilia isn’t simply about fondling and exclusivity; maybe it’s also the most prominent manifestation of a fading photo-cultural memory that many of us value highly and don’t want to see disappear. I’m convinced there remains a market for modern cameras (even with electronics) that are intuitively simple and built, cameras that eschew the technological dead end in favor of efficiency and directness of function, yet we often sneer when someone like Leica gives them to us.  Some of us still like the notion of over-built even if there is less intent to keep something forever. It speaks to a psychologic longing for some sense of permanence in a temporary world.

Part of what makes us leicaphiles, more than just the fetishization of a particular camera, is the appreciation of the tools we’ve traditionally employed as photographers, when a Leica or a Nikon, Canon or Hasselblad film camera was the simplest, best means to do what was important. Our camera was our tool, and we built a relationship with it that lasted for decades. It’s this that’s been lost in photography’s evolution, a sense of rootedness and tradition that spanned product cycles. A simplicity and directness, a tactile pleasure in the use of our photographic tools, seen in the continued appeal of slow-boat analogue techniques and of old Leicas.

“If Only I Had a Leica”

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For Leicaphilia by Dax H.*

Leica is a camera to last your lifetime and perhaps your heir’s lifetime. Buy one or two and you will never need another unless you’re a combat cameraman, (they get broken, flooded and wore out) or you’re into long telephoto or extreme wide or fisheye or microscopy. In this case you probably need an SLR.

Leica M bodies and lenses are superb, virtually flawless. If you shoot slides/transparencies you will perhaps see the quality difference depending on what camera/optical system you’re comparing it to.  If you get your exposures spot on, If your chosen processor gets the processing spot on.  As for prints, the old saying is “exposed through a Leica, printed through a Coke bottle bottom”.  If you’re printing through a generic enlarger lens, perhaps dirty, at a less than optimum f stop, film plane not parallel with the easel, you will not see any of the Leica magic in your prints. If you have the skill and knowledge for complete control over everything from the moment of exposure until you hold and view that dry print, then you can say you are holding a Leica image. Few people can say this truthfully.

There’s the old saying “If you can’t make them good, then make them big”. If you want a big print, use a bigger piece of film. To understand why, try this simple experiment: take a 35mm camera, with a normal 5cm lens, (a Leica with a Summicron will do). Load it with your favorite B&W film. Then beg or borrow a 2 1/4 camera such as a Yashica Mat 124. Keep it cheap, no need for a Rollei or Hasse. Load your cheap Yashica with the same emulsion you’re using in the Leica. Take them both out on a tripod with a cable release and shoot. Process both rolls together in the same chemicals and then print the 35mm negs and the 6 by 6 negs to 11 by 14 inches. Print them with the same enlarger. You will be amazed at how much better the 6 by 6 print looks compared to the 35mm enlargement, even when exposed on a relatively cheap 6 by 6 camera. Square inches of film always wins, no matter how “perfect” the 35mm lens is.  If you wish to make prints no bigger than a 5 by 7 or 6 by 9 inch print then 35 mm is brilliant! A properly controlled print from a full frame 35mm negative can rival (I didn’t say beat) a contact print from a 5 by 7 negative. If you only make 4 by 6 prints produced by commercial photo finishers, it makes no difference if you expose that film through a Leitz lens, a Argus C-3, a NIkon lens, as long as that camera and lens are working up to specification, the film is fresh and your exposures are correct. At 4 by 6 inches you will have to do close side by side comparisons to see a difference and on the same roll on the same day, due to chemical and equipment changes at the printers. I see no advantage image wise in using a M series Leica system for commercial, machine made prints for less than 5 or 6 times enlargement.

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Dear Lord what a slave I’ve been to my Leicas. In the past 40 years I’ve been a caretaker and bodyguard for my Leicas, worrying about knocking them into solid objects, having them stolen, tying the camera bag to a table leg when out to dinner, slinging it under my arm in a suit coat while trying to dance with a lady, not going in areas where it will be recognized by punks that will mug me for it, trying to keep it dry in the rain, cool in the summer, warm in the winter, locked up when not at home.

I am now a retired combat cameraman/ photojournalist/ picture maker. My Leicas – a IIIF, three M3’s, one M2 and a M6 –  are still locked up. So are my Nikon F and F2AS and the Hasse and the Rollei TLR. I still use them on the odd occasion; they are brilliant cameras for the working man, I’d say the best a photographer can get. Most of my shooting now is either printed by myself, (yes, on a Leitz enlarger), to either 4 by 6 or 5 by 7 inches, (not big but very good). If I want bigger prints, I grab a 2 1/4 camera or a 4 by 5 or a 5 by 7 camera. I can only display so many 16 by 20 prints on the walls of my house. If I’m not doing my own B&W prints, then I shoot color and have it printed by a semi-custom commercial printer.

When I shoot 35mm I now use a Voigtlander Bessa R with either a 61LD Industar or a Industar 50 or a Jupiter 8 or a Jupiter 3. My other casual-use cameras are a Zorki 4 or a FED 1 or a Kiev 4. All with FSU lenses. They are great fun. For a 4 by 6 inch print it doesn’t matter what camera or lens you use as long as it meets specification. Even at 5 by 7 these “cheap” cameras will compete in image quality with virtually anything using the same size film. They’ll never be treasured by my heirs, have virtually no resale value and as one fellow said “He who steals my cameras, steals junk”, but they are fun to shoot, produce wonderful images and I don’t worry about them. I can go out and enjoy myself. Of the cameras mentioned the Voigtlander is my go-to camera. It’s superb. [Editor’s Note: Yes, the Bessa R’s are superb. I have a Bessa R2S that I use for my collection of Nikkor S lenses; it’s a simple, well-made film camera with a big, bright viewfinder, easily one of my favorites.]

bessa r

My advice: stop worrying about the camera you use and have fun! The key is using the correct camera for the job. Don’t get hung up on myth and mystique. The camera is only a tool, and what a fun tool it is. Any camera and film of today will produce images that Sudek, Stieglitz, Atget, or Bresson would be proud to record. You will see more difference and character in your images by just changing a film and or developer combination than you will by changing camera brand or lens brand.

You have now heard the results of my lifetime of experience with Leica cameras reduced to a few paragraphs. Make what you like of it. Now go out and make some worthwhile and memorable images and stop losing sleep about what your images will look like if “You just had a Leica”.

Dax H. is a retired combat photographer. Now 66, he has supported himself 100% from photography since he was 16 years old. He started with a Speed Graphic and flash bulbs and a IIIf Red Dial with a Summarit 1.5. 

Why I (Still) Love Leica

leica m-a 2In a world where most manufacturers have abandoned all-metal construction and favor automated assembly, Leica M bodies and lenses continue to push the envelope of supremely compact, superbly constructed, photographic tools. Their newest optical offerings, the 24/1.4 and 28/1.4, continue the tradition of cost-is-no-object over-the-top excellence for which Leica is known.

You have to pay through the nose for it, yes, but a Leica product is always going to be as good as it gets; certainly its never going to be just average, or worse, mediocre. Leica’s philosophy of cost-is-no-object excellence may not be compatible with your wallet, but it’s consistent with its history, where no compromise excellence has always been the guiding principle.

Leica doesn’t release a product and immediately orphan it. Witness the sensor kerfuffle with the M9, a camera which is now 8 years long in the tooth. Your 2008 M9 sensor having problems in 2016? No problem – send it to Leica for a free replacement. That’s commitment to one’s product. Of course, critics will point out that, given Leica’s price points, that should be expected. Both perspectives are correct, but give Leica credit for meeting its end of the bargain, which, in this age of rapacious capitalism and corporations whose main object is not to serve their client base but rather screw them as quickly and efficiently as possible, seems an increasingly a quaint anomaly.

Leica doesn’t release marginal lenses for high prices to protect their higher-end products. Leica doesn’t release marginal anything (with the obvious exception of some of the more ridiculous collector’s editions, which seem to me almost an ironic inside corporate joke). Leica’s design and philosophy is simple and well-known. Create the best, cost be damned. Make people pay for it, and be proud of it. If you don’t like it, feel free to go elsewhere.

No other camera company is doing that. Canon, Nikon, Sony, Olympus, Panasonic, all of them, in addition to some stellar top of the line stuff, release marginal lenses, cheap cameras, incoherent products; and when the do offer a good product, they usually abandon them in short order, moving on to the next gimmick to sell to what they clearly consider a gullible and easily fleeced client base. Fuji is the only other company that even comes close to Leica’s design philosophy, and you can see the attraction Fuji’s products have for aspiring digital Leicaphiles; a Fuji has become the standard entry level Leica alternative for those looking for what Leica offers but unwilling or unable to afford the price premium.

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155c4d30148bc15c46dec2db8fe1fff0As an example of differing design philosophies, let’s talk about how digital camera companies design well-corrected lenses.  Digital technology has opened new opportunities for camera companies to make “better” optics via software correction. In camera, previously destructive things such as aberration, distortion, vignetting, and flare can be reduced or eliminated via software tuned to the characteristics of a particular lens. Olympus and Panasonic have taken this philosophy and run with it.

The result is a natively poor lens optically that can be made to perform like a better lens due to  the software running behind it. Go to a website that measures raw distortion and look up the specs of some of the lenses offered with current digital cameras. The native distortion is off the charts. I’m talking 6%. Back in the days before software correction, a 6% distortion would be considered a broken lens.

There are two 12mm prime lenses for the Micro 4/3 system: the SLR Magic f/1.6 and the Olympus f/2.0. The SLR Magic has distortion of 1.26% and costs $500. The Olympus has distortion of 5.4% and costs $800. Moreover, the SLR Magic is nearly a full stop brighter. In fairness, the Olympus is sharper and does correct aberrations in-lens, but in the battle of optical quality, the SLR Magic wins. And it’s less expensive. The moral of the story: Olympus thinks its client base are gullible idiots who’ll buy shoddy goods at inflated prices because of the label attached to it. Ironic, because that’s what Leica haters have been accusing Leica of doing for years. Leica does not do this. It may offer you something expensive, but it won’t ever be cheaply made. If someone at Leica ever even floated that idea as a viable business strategy, I suspect he would be forced to commit a Teutonic variation of seppuku.

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leica_m-a_black_frontLeica is not offering you a photographic tool designed as a cheap commodity, replaceable every few years. They’re not asking you to buy into a system thats going to be orphaned in short order. They’re not offering you average optics at inflated prices; they’re offering you exceptional optics at a price point that justifies the venture. And yet, a lot of irrational anger seems directed at Leica, usually by people with only a passing knowledge of its history.

It’s cheap optics at inflated prices that should make you angry. Plastic cameras that fall apart in a year should make you angry (yes, you Sony, with your NEX cameras. My wife has had two; they’re both computerized pieces-of-shit that became non-functional in short order). Abandoned systems should make you angry because the value of a lens is at least partially dependent on how much you can sell it for in the future, and if that lens is for a system that’s obsolete, you’ve now got an expensive paperweight.

So, after all is said and done, I would never buy brand a new Leica digital camera or one of their lenses, mainly because I can’t afford it, or even if I could, other less expensive digital offerings meet whatever needs I require of a digital capture device. When I want to take photographs, I’m happy to totter around with my film Leicas and my vintage lenses. However, don’t get me wrong: I respect Leica and their history, and respect their uncompromising design philosophy, even if it means that I’m priced out if it. They may be expensive, but they are also unique and necessary at a time when cameras have become commodities with a limited shelf life. I applaud Leica for attempting to keep alive whatever vestiges of the old paradigm – where a camera and its lenses were viewed as working tools designed and manufactured with quality and longevity in mind.

How do you put a price on that?

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That Lens Has Character. Really?

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Peruse any photography forum these days and you’ll find any number of multi-page discussions about the relative qualities of various lenses. Lens quality seems to an overriding obsession of most hobbyists, much more so than with working photographers who, in my experience, will buy something for their particular needs and get on with it.  Most folks discussing lenses on websites want to know if a given lens is “sharp” or does it “resolve” well? Such discussions often devolve into popularity contests about lenses forum denizens either own, have owned or want to own, usually with detailed a discussion of Leica optics, either on their own or in contrast to other manufacturer’s optics, accompanied by the de rigueur claim that Leica’s are the “finest optics in the world,” with unique “signatures”.

As someone serious about defining terms, I’m never quite sure what that all means. I suspect, like most things claimed on the internet, it’s a confused mental stew of truths, half truths, ignorance, groupthink, and incoherence, and you can either mindlessly agree and not rock the boat, or you can question it at the peril of being labelled an argumentative troll and risk being exiled forever from the docile, cud-chewing forum herd.

Or you can simply stake a claim for the truth, that is, that the entire discussion about sharpness and resolution is completely irrelevant if your interest is images as opposed to gadgetry. Who cares if a lens is sharp? Whatever photographic excellence is, it isn’t achieved by making “sharp” or resolute images.  For all of the hobbyists needing nothing less than the latest aspherical offering from Leica to do proper justice to your vision, go check out a book by Robert Klein or Antoine D’Agata or Trent Parke or Robert Frank or Eugene Atget and get back to me; and if the identity of the equipment you’ve used to make an image is the most important thing about it, chances are you need to re-evaluate the role of the image itself in your photographic calculus.

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So let’s talk for a second about sharpness and definition. Here’s what we should mean when we talk about these things:

Sharpness  –  the overall impression of a print or projected image, measured scientifically as “acutance “, seen from normal viewing distance.

Definition  –  the extent to which fine detail is recognizably rendered in a print, etc. When acutance of fine detail is good, then definition is good.

Acutance  –  the contrast at the edge of significant detail, a scientific measurement of the density gradient at that point.

Resolving Power  –  the scientific measurement of the actual fineness of detail recordable by a lens, film, or developer, or any combination of these three.

Signature  –  If it does exist then, the “signature” of a lens is the balance chosen by its manufacturer of the above characteristics and how they interact with one another.

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image

I use Leica lenses.  Leica makes excellent optics, no doubt, capable of stunning visual reproductions. However, the quality of a lens is just the beginning of a larger process by which a photographic image is produced. A small variance in any of the steps in the process – exposure, processing, printing – whether analogue or digital, usually makes a bigger difference in the final image than any lens’ “signature” does.  You’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between a print made from a negative created with a Summicron-M and another with a similar year Nikkor rangefinder lens, notwithstanding the breathless claims of some self-appointed experts about the obvious prowess of this or that lens and its superiority to another.

A good case in point is to compare a $3000 Summicron ASPH to a Jupiter-8  Sonnar you can find used on Ebay for $30. Both lenses will easily resolve more detail than Kodak T-Max or your M240 is capable of recording, so, if your goal is “sharpness”, feel free to save your money. Me, I prefer the Jupiter – if I drop it or scratch it or it gets stolen, no big deal. If I drop or scratch my Leica ASPH, I’m screwed.

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And don’t get me started about the Leica Glow. The “glow” supposedly inherent in a lens is just as much or more a function of many non-optical variables – light, subject, aperture, and exposure. If you’re shooting film factor in the look of the film and whether its developed in D76 or, say, Rodinal.

The point is this: Lens designers do make critical decisions when they choose the characteristics of their lenses, and they try to keep those characteristics similar across a range. And, as such, different lenses can cause different looks, what some people refer to as “signatures.” Some lenses under certain circumstances might exhibit something in its signature we might characterize as a “glow”. But a lens’ signature is an ephemeral thing, as much the product of its own individual idiosyncrasies and other non-optical factors as it is the result of the design’s inherent character.

And yes, certain lenses are “sharper” than other lenses, but, as I’ve noted here and elsewhere, sharpness is a false criterion when judging the merits of an image. As Leica writer and photographer Bill Pierce says “never ever confuse sharp with good, or you will end up shaving with an ice cream cone and licking a razor blade.”

Paris Photo 1976

SALON-PHOTO-1976-photo-jacques-REVON00001.jpegJacques Revon, 1976, Paris Photo

The first time I ever went to the Paris Salon de la Photo was in 1976. At the time I worked as a technician and photographer for the Société Lumière / Ilford in St Priest where I’d been employed for five years.

This was the golden age of the beautiful black-and-white silver gelatin print, the kind your eye lingers over, although the power of color photography was already on the rise, most notably attracting professional photographers with the famous Cibachrome process. – Jacques Revon