Category Archives: Leica Rangefinder

Ode to a Barnack Leica

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The following is prose, so it really isn’t an ode. But if it could be, it would be …an ode to a Barnack Leica.

To paraphrase something I read in the Forward to the Oxford Book of English Prose: Science moves forward, but stays in constant flux. What is established as true in fact today will be proved wrong tomorrow. (The great brains of Science disagree whether we, or anything at all, really exist……throw that one into the next photo technology dispute you encounter.) What remains constant is the condition of man.

Read any great classical work by Victor Hugo and you will see the truth of it: the same behavior, thoughts, emotions, responses and interpersonal problems that plague the characters in a Hugo story apply to us as we go through our lives even today. As I enter middle, middle age, I sense the bigger payoff, for me, as I head into the last chapters of my life, will reside in Hugo…..and paying attention to the constants of being human.

I do not know, but I suspect that this attitude is, at least in part, responsible for my recent interest in using Barnack Leicas and LTM lenses. The pull is strong; I believe it has more to do with me than the cameras. The cameras have always been there, but I have only recently evolved to the point where I appreciate what they represent. I wish this had happened sooner in my life. I’ve wasted a lot of time and effort being distracted by things that, in the final analysis, matter very little for what is true in life, let alone what’s true in my photography.

It says something that, only hours after receiving my Barnack Leica (that’s it below), I already had loaded it and had taken a number of photos.

Given the fact that optics are always advancing, its an 80 year old camera that will age with me.

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This was sent to me by Wayne Pinney of Indiana, who describes himself as a “perennial novice.” He’s written here before. I love how and what Mr. Pinney writes: spare, well-written, to the point, no artifice, and best of all, thoughtful and literate. In other words, everything I’m usually not. If most of what’s been written by me on this blog is a Sony A7, Wayne’s writing would be a simple, elegant Leica M2.

How a Rangefinder Works

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A rangefinder camera has a viewfinder window built into its front and a second rangefinder window off to its side.  This optical system, separate from the imaging lens, is what you use to focus the camera. This is what differentiates a rangefinder camera from a ‘single lens reflex’ camera, which uses the imaging lens itself as the optical system for viewing the scene to be photographed.

The rangefinder camera’s viewfinder window generates the view you see when looking through the viewfinder itself. To the right of the viewfinder window (when using the camera) is located a second smaller window, the rangefinder window, which itself sits in front of a moveable mirror that reflects a second image to the viewfinder. This mirror moves as the lens focus ring is adjusted.The reflection from the mirror passes to a small lens before reaching a half-silvered, beam splitter mirror located in the main viewfinder.

This reflected second image is referred to as the rangefinder patch. It is projected into the center portion of the viewfinder image. The twin images of the subject in the viewfinder are superimposed via the focus ring of the lens. On a coupled-rangefinder the focus ring moves a small sensor arm in the camera body that pivots the movable mirror as the focus is set.  When you adjust the focus ring on the lens the small image projected from the the rangefinder window will appear to shift sideways in relation to main viewfinder image. Once you see these two images coincide to form a single clear image, your lens is properly focused.

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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.

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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.

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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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.”

The Difference Between a Rangefinder and an SLR

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“With an SLR, you are looking at your subject through the optic; you are literally seeing what the picture is going to look like. You have a device that will show you your depth of field, the area that will or will not be in critical focus. This is particularly true for me, because I’m often shooting at the maximum aperture of the lens, the aperture you actually view through. This helps you see how areas of color are affected. It can tell you if that blue has a hard edge, or if it’s somewhat soft and blended into something else.

When you look through a rangefinder, though, everything is sharp. The rangefinder window is by and large a focusing and framing device that lets you pick a part of the subject you want to be in critical focus. The only real way you can tell how the rest of the picture is going to look is by experience, or maybe a quick look at the depth-of-field scale on the lens itself. I think the rangefinder frees you up in a certain way. You are probably going to work a little looser in a structural sense, because everything is clean, clear and sharp. When I look through an SLR, I think I’m a little bit more aware of compositional elements, of the structure of the image. With a rangefinder camera, I’m seeing certain spatial relationships.”

National Geographic photographer William Alard from “The Photographic Essay.”

The Myth of the Necessary Leica CLA

imageVisit any photo forum that discusses Leica film cameras and you’ll hear it time and time again: the first thing you need to do when you buy a used Leica is to send it to someone for a “CLA” (clean, lubricate and adjust). In the religion that is Leica, this notion has reached the status of revealed truth, questioned rarely, if at all. Like many faith based claims, its built on received certainties and little else, certainly not the facts as they present themselves in practice.

The bottom line is this: given the operating tolerances of finely tuned mechanical Leicas, its better not to open up a sophisticated device like a Leica film camera without a legitimate reason to do so. “Legitimate reasons” might include hanging slow speeds, or stuck shutter, or a dim viewfinder. But, absent these, you’re throwing away your money while subjecting your camera to potential harm. Ham fisted attempts to clean and adjust are legion, and unless you’re sending it to Leica (read: extremely expensive) or a reputable third party tech like DAG, Sheri Krauter (read: slow and expensive) or Youxin Ye, you’re just as likely to receive your Leica in worse condition than before you sent it away.

I like to buy used Leicas on Ebay. If you know what you’re looking at, you can still score some serious deals, but invariably it will involve the old Leica with matching lens and case that has been sitting unused in a box in the closet since grandpa died in the late 70’s. The worse the accompanying pictures of the item, the better the potential deal. If most of the description involves the camera case and how beat up it is, or ignores the collapsible Summicron while spending inordinate time describing the accompanying dead Leicameter, you’re potentially in for good luck, because you’re clearly dealing with a seller who can’t discriminate between what’s valuable and whats not. You’d be surprised by how nicely an old beater with cracking vulcanite, covered in decades of accumulated dirt and brown gunk in the body crevices will clean up with some lemon juice and a griptic covering from cameraleather.com (assuming cameraleather.com sends it to you within the next 18 months, but that’s another story you can learn more about with a quick google).

Conventional wisdom holds that such a camera will need to be CLA’d immediately otherwise your new Leica will be worthless. In my experience that’s rarely the case. Even for cameras that have sat unused for decades a CLA is unnecessary, even if the slow shutter speeds may initially be a little funky ( and usually they’re not). Most cameras just need use; the shutter mechanism needs to be exercised regularly to loosen up the stiffened lubrication. Usually a few days and a couple of hundred cycles of the shutter and,voila!, the slow speeds are working fine, or at least close enough to be within the margin of error. For that matter, who really cares if the 1/2 sec is a wee bit off sometimes? When was the last time you shot under 1/15th of a second anyway? Probably never.

As for accompanying optics, a good careful cleaning with a Lens Pen ( my favorite photo accessory of all time) and your front and real elements should be clean and smudge free. Of course, the lens itself may need disassembly and cleaning if its fogged or has fungus, or if the heliocoils are bound up, but usually you can get a good enough eyeball view of the lens when listed by the seller to get a decent sense of whether the optics are good. As for scratches and internal dust, well, ya takes your chances, but almost all optics older than 20 years are going to look pretty bad when you shine a flashlight into them. Yet, remarkably, most of them still look fine to the naked eye (how we used to judge them back in the day) and take good photos undifferentiated from a like model in “mint” condition. Lenses are to be used, not to shine flashlights through. If the lens is to be used with film and wet printed, stop worrying. A little internal dust (commonplace on vintage lenses) or some cleaning marks or scratches on a front element won’t make a bit of difference except in your head. If you’re a 100% magnification pixel peeper type, well, move along. I suspect you’re not going to be interested in vintage optics anyway, and if you are, well, that comes along with the territory.