Michael Sweet is a Canadian writer and photographer. He lives in New York City.
I recently stumbled into a Facebook conversation about Leica and how great they are. How perfect the photographs from a Leica camera are etc. You know how this goes, right? We’ve all seen these rants. Well, here is a counter rant. Leica is a good camera, perhaps even a really good camera, but certainly nothing like it’s mythologized status.
After my recent article, Street Photography Has No Clothes, I figured I might as well tackle another controversial issue in the world of photography, and street photography more particularly – “Leica liking” and the mythology that surrounds it. So here goes, for better or for worse. Mostly worse, I expect. Keep in mind that writers present a point of view, an opinion, and good writers do this unapologetically. It doesn’t, however, mean that my opinion is not open to debate.
Leica is a luxury brand (and arguably a camera company) which manufactures very good, but certainly not perfect or “best in existence” cameras. What they are truly good at, these days, is cashing in on the Leica myth – that if you own a Leica you have arrived as a photographer. This works nicely these days with everyone aspiring to be some form of “photographer”.
Leica Was The Best – In The Analog Era
Leica was the best. It was. In the analog era, Leica had it nailed because they figured out how to make a camera body (a mechanical thing in those days) that would not wear out. Try it. You can’t wear out a Leica M if you try. This was a huge plus in the era of the Nikon F, which one could easily wear out with heavy use. So Leica made a name (a history, a myth) for itself by building a great camera body and adding (let us not forget) amazing glass. Now, considering how many people, especially street photographers, shoot these analog cameras, one would be hard pressed to tell the resulting photographs apart – Nikon F versus Leica M. I mean how much definition do you really get when you zone focus and push Tri-X two stops! Besides, who’s making gallery-sized prints of street photography anyway?
Furthermore, this analog-era argument for Leica superiority doesn’t hold up anymore, despite Leica’s best efforts to keep it alive. How well-built do you really need your digital camera? Won’t it out date itself in five years (ten at the very most) anyway? But those lenses you say, don’t forget those great Leica lenses. Okay, Leica makes great lenses, pop one on a Sony and save yourself five grand. And, get using the lens in a way that you can actually tell the difference. If I made a website where you could go and look at photographs made with Leica glass and photographs made with say Sony glass, you’d be scratching your head to tell the difference. Especially given how the vast majority of users use these lenses. Okay, maybe you could tell the difference, because I don’t want to get into an argument with you, but most people could not. Someone should set up this experiment and give it a go.
I digress. Back to the story here. So in this Facebook chat someone is trying to convince me that Leica cameras represent photographic perfection. They make better photographs than a Canon or a Fuji, or an Olympus or a Sony. Hard argument at the best of times. I offered a little resistance and then the conversation changed to: Well, I can make comparable photographs with my Sony or Nikon, but ask me which camera inspires me to shoot, which camera I love to hold and use – it’s hands down Leica. Fair enough. You like the feel of a Leica. I can buy that, they are still very well made cameras which provide a luxury tactile experience. It doesn’t hurt to also know in the back of your mind that your holding onto 10K.
The “I Like A Leica Argument”
I don’t mind the “I like a Leica” argument. Everyone is entitled to like what they want and to spend their money as they see fit. But get the argument straight. Stop trying to sell Leica as the best performing camera ever made because you look silly. No one believes you, not even Leica. I know what’s going on in your mind, I’ve been there. When I began in photography I dreamed of owning a Leica. I lived and breathed Leica – all the greats had one, or so I thought at the time. Finally, after many years, I got one…then another and another. I’ve owned four or five now, both digital and analog. M6, M9, X, X2, and some re-branded Panasonic models. All have been less than impressive for me, personally. They are big, heavy, draw attention and are expensive. Do they take good photographs, likely, when used properly by a competent user. Are they the best cameras on earth? Not a chance. Most expensive, maybe. Most luxurious, likely. Once again, we see praise or hate being dished up in the photography world not based on facts and objective opinion, but rather passion, emotion, and “mob mentality”.
Leica provides an experience and a name and a legacy. This is what people are buying into. It’s like a nice watch. My Rolex is beautiful and feels nice and tells the world I have money and appreciate fine watches. Does it tell time better than my Swatch? No. In fact, well, you know the rest. If I were to go around trying to convince people that I were a better time keeper because I’m wearing a Rolex I’d be laughed out of the room. So what’s the difference? Yes, I know, just opened a door for the Leica likers to try every possible tactic they can to tear this argument to shreds. Go at it.
Before you write and tell me to “bugger off”, or that I am “jealous of better photographers than me” and a bunch of other stuff your mother raised you not to say out loud, think it over. Do you really believe, in the truest place within yourself, that you are making superior photographs because you are using a Leica… or is there just some small part of you that is longing to own a piece of that great legend that is Leica? Oh, and if you’d be so kind as to attack the argument, rather than me, as this is not, I repeat, NOT, aimed at any individual …. it’s aimed at a phenomenon… a “thing” I see out in the world of photography. Please, do not take this rant personally.
Leica Is Better Than Sony, But Not Really
So, was there a time when the “Leica is better” argument could have held water? Yes, but it doesn’t hold up well anymore. Leica runs a marketing machine to beat out the others, who make perfectly equivalent digital cameras. Often better cameras. For example, the Leica X didn’t impress me at all. Slow, fussy, and your choice of a $500 ugly hump of a viewfinder or a $300 useless brightline finder. Same or better photographs from a Sony RX100 and far superior user experience with nearly 2G in savings. How technically “perfect” does an image need to be, anyway? Where, or rather when, should I focus shift away from technical perfection and gear to content and composition?
Not convinced? Go out into the Leica wilderness and see some of these arguments for yourself. It’s great comedy. You can easily find someone with a re-branded Panasonic telling you not only that it takes better pictures than any other camera, but also not knowing that they are holding a Panasonic and not a Leica. It’s great stuff. Then there are those that have the cheapest German made Leica they could get their hands on telling us how great the camera is because it’s not a Panasonic. Seriously?
This post will get both positive and negative reactions, which helps prove my point. If I were arguing the difference between say, a Ricoh GR and a Sony RX100, this article would die a quick death. But where Leica is concerned there is fire. It’s almost taboo to critique a Leica product and this alone should raise a few eyebrows.
Leica As Religion
Leica likers cannot be reasoned with. They run on faith, an almost religious faith. It’s like trying to rationalize the non-existence of god to a Christian. And, I guess that’s okay. I just wish a few more photographers out there would fess up and admit that we buy a Leica because they are an expensive, cool, luxury status symbol that you have finally arrived in the world of photography, or that you simply have money to burn – like my Rolex (which I don’t own, for the record) – or that you are trying to get just a little closer to Winogrand’s ghost. It’s okay to buy into an idea, a culture, we all do it. But if you’re going to lay out 10 large for a camera, just know what you’re really buying, and it ain’t better photographs. What some people seem to have missed is that the great photographers were great photographers, and they happened to use a Leica. Not that the great photographers were great photographers because they used a Leica.
Here’s how the Facebook conversation ended:
Person 1: So, are you saying I should buy a Leica? That it will make me look cool?
Person 2: Yes. No.
Me: No. Yes.
Young photographer: “I had the pleasure to use a Leica M3 once. That’s a cool old camera. I can see why people still use them, the “retro” thing and all.”Older Photographer: “It is a beautiful thing, isn’t it? Weren’t you surprised at its mass? Heavy as a brick, isn’t it? Built to last a few lifetimes. They certainly don’t make em like that anymore.”
Young photographer: “Yeah, a friend had recently bought it after reading about it on the net. He’s really into film these days. Sold all his digital gear and now looks down his nose at digital photography. Says its for “chimps.” Pretty condescending, but he’s a decent guy, and he did let me use it to take a few photos, even though he seemed reluctant to let me handle it.”Older Photographer: “A true friend. I would only ever lend mine to a person who understands the value of the instrument. Sounds like your friend knew you would appreciate it.”
Young photographer: “Yeah, its build felt so solid. You can tell immediately that its a precision instrument.”Older Photographer: “Like a microscope or other lab instrument from the house of Leitz or Zeiss. That culture inspired the high quality instruments of the 50’s and 60’s, cameras that could be used for life and inherited … before plastic and silicon. Think about this: The plastic, automatic, battery-driven camera has been around since 1980 or there abouts… 35 years. How many plastic cameras from that time are collectible and working today?”
Young photographer: “Good point. Although my friend’s Leica camera seemed hopelessly simple. It confused me. I mean, in this day and age of computers and smart technology, it just seemed so low tech. Like driving a 1956 Cadillac across country when you could be driving the latest Lexus. It sounds romantic and all until the car overheats and leaves you on the side of the road in some god-forsaken hell-hole in Arkansas. For example, I put the camera to my eye and tried to half click the shutter to lock focus and exposure……”Older Photographer: “Half?! There’s nothing half about a Leica M.”
Young photographer: “….and then I realized that there was no half click option and I had already released the shutter and taken a picture!”Older Photographer: “Yeah, but did you feel how buttery smooth the shutter release was and how quiet it was? Beautiful, huh? It just feels so right, and it’s also very functional for slow shutter speed use in low light because its very easy to release the shutter without shaking the camera.”
Young photographer: “Then, of course, I reflexively turned to the back of the camera where the LCD should have been and realized there was no screen to view the image, only a blank piece of plastic. Duh! It’s a film camera!”
Young photographer: “Yeah, I get that, but man, I understand the Leica glass is amazing. Corner to corner sharpness. Great bokeh. Apparently they make it with some rare glass that costs a ton of money. Anyway, so after I realize I can’t see my exposure on an LCD, my friend came over and asked me what exposure and aperture combination I had chosen. I assumed it had been on Auto so I told him I really didn’t know. Apparently, there is no Auto setting on the camera. Honest mistake. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a camera before that didn’t have an Auto setting. Teutonic simplicity is what my friend says. He seems to think you’re “not really a photographer” if you use Auto modes. He even mentioned the Leica M7 somewhat dismissively. I think this whole business, what he calls “purity of vision,” is pretty pretentious. But the cameras do look and feel cool; there really is a beauty about them as instruments.”Older Photographer: “Speaking of automation, there actually are a number of automatic features on the Leica M, but not the ones that come to mind in the present era. For example, 1. When one removes the bottom to change film, the film counter automatically resets to zero. 2. When one advances the film the camera automatically charges the shutter and automatically increments the frame counter. 3. When the yellow image in the viewfinder is superimposed on the main image, the lens is automatically set to perfect focus an any light. 4. When one then looks at the scale on the lens, it automatically displays the depth of field for that focus setting. 5. When one changes from one lens to another, it automatically displays the correct frame lines for that lens. 6. When one sets shutter speed, aperture, or focus, the camera automatically and faithfully does exactly whatever it was commanded, no more and no less, and no guessing on its part. 7. When one overexposes or underexposes a record of the fact is automatically recorded on a piece of film for further evaluation. Learning happens, automatically. 8. When one uses this (or any) camera for an extended period of time, required actions become second nature. This is a kind of automation too, like riding a bike, swimming, or shifting gears. 9. The M7, M8, and M9 do have aperture priority AE. This was a major departure from all-manual by Leica. Purists like your friend call this “Dentist Mode.” Incidentally, one will see “AUTO” engraved on a lot of old SLR primes, confusing new image makers. The lenses automatically open wide for focusing, then automatically stop down to the selected taking aperture for exposure, then automatically re-open again for bright viewing.”
Young photographer: “Yeah, my friend explained to me that I had to manually set the shutter speed and aperture. When I asked him what the proper settings were, he said I’d need to learn to accurately judge various lighting conditions because the M3 had no exposure meter. I was like, WTF?”
Young photographer: “Yeah, and its not just exposure, its focus as well. My friend asked me if my focus was good, which also confused me. The camera sets focus, right? So I was like, yes, it certainly looked like everything was in focus in the viewfinder. …. He asked “Did you align the two images ?” And, embarrassingly enough, I was like “align what?” Not my best moment I agree.”
Young Photographer: “Well that was my first and unfortunately last experience with a Leica camera. He never did offer it to me again and I suspect its because he’s become really picky about that camera, like its too valuable to use. I go over to his house and he sits in his chair and practices using the camera without any film in it. Says he’s “exercising the shutter” to keep the low speeds from sticking.
But, you know, in spite of all that there’s just something really cool about an old Leica. It’s exclusive. It projects an image of refinement. And from everything I’ve heard, the glass is so good you can pick out Leica photos pretty easy. I’ve got half a mind to buy one to use shooting weddings. Black and white film wedding photography; expanding market for that retro look. I was thinking an M4 with a good zoom, maybe a Sigma until I can find the money for a Noctilux or Summicron; I’ve heard the M4 has the best viewfinder of all the M’s. How cool would that be, doing a wedding with something like that!?!??”Older Photographer: “Well, best of luck with your new business. Work hard, learn your craft and most importantly, pick the right tools for the job and know how to use them. And if you ever travel my way, let’s meet up. You can use one of my Leicas for the day, get to know it a little better before you jump in feet first. I’ll even thaw some film for the occasion. And, if you let me use your 5D, I’ll be happy to take your picture holding my Leica. You can use it on you website.”