Category Archives: Leica Rangefinder

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.

 

You’ll Be a Better Photographer if You Use a Leica

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“The essence of communication is intention.” Werner Erhard

Let’s face it: Leica cameras are ridiculously expensive and technologically crude. They lack common features found on cameras a fraction of their cost. They can be finicky and incredibly expensive to maintain and repair. Their digital offerings, when not plagued by manufacturing defects, have been years behind the curve in an industry where technical obsolescence is measured in months, not years.

I’ve owned a few digital M’s along the way, but exercising the rational part of my brain, sold them and have since settled on a Nikon D800E for exacting work and a couple of Ricoh GXRs for easy digital capture. Both the Nikon and the Ricoh produce stunning files, and, if there exists in the digital era certain cameras that approach the minimalist perfection exemplified by the Leica M in the film era, the Ricoh GXR is surely one of them. The folks at Ricoh hit it out of the park with the GXR and it’s A12 M mount, but also its 28mm and 50mm AF modules mating a dedicated sensor to impeccable optics. I remain completely blown away by how good my photos are from the GXR. As for the D800E, well, we’re easily talking resolution and dynamic range found in medium format 6×9 cameras. That’s crazy.

And along the way I’ve followed, admittedly with a certain amount of schadenfreude, the debacle that is the delaminating CCD sensor of the M9, ME and MM. As I understand it, Leica still sells the MM and ME with a sensor they know, at some point, is going to need replacing, for no other reason than its defective by design. Yet, people are still queueing up to buy them, knowing all of the above. And, I must admit, in moments of weakness, I’m tempted to plunk down five grand and pony up for a Monochrom, outdated, delaminating CCD sensor be damned. When all is said and done, I must admit, that’s one cool camera.

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It used to be that a ‘serious’ photographer had to do things and master techniques that required specialized knowledge and training. Any art school graduate who’s been made to read Leslie Stroebel’s Basic Photographic Materials and Processes as a foundation of their studies in photography learned that a serious interest in photography required an understanding of its technical aspects, aspects that required considerations of mathematics, physics, chemistry, psychology and physiology. Armed with the skills such knowledge provided, we could easily differentiate ourselves from the dilettantes who took snapshots and dropped their rolls off to be developed at the corner drugstore. We were serious about the craft of photography, and we versed ourselves in its chemical and physical underpinnings and the means to manipulate its variables to produce something unique, a product of our specific vision. And it was this knowledge that was a prerequisite of our photographs being qualitatively better than the snapshots of the dilettante, even if, in practice, there was little about the photographs themselves that might have distinguished one from the other. Our photographs had intentionality.

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Digital photography is radically democratized. Everybody can do it, and do it well without any real understanding of the mechanisms involved.  My niece, who knows nothing about photography as a craft, routinely produces stunningly beautiful photographs with her iphone, photos with more power and aesthetic character than 99% of those uploaded in endless procession by “serious” photographers on enthusiast sites like Rangerfinder Forum or Photo.net.  She has an “eye.” Digital image-making (I hesitate to refer to it as photography) is essentially idiot-proof; point the device, press the button, send out the result for other’s perusal. If you’ve got an “eye,” chances are your results will be good, often better than the best creations made during the film era by serious photographers with advanced knowledge and painstakingly acquired technical expertise.

If we profess to value the dissemination of visual reality, this is good, an advance, because we as photographers are freed from the encumbrances of the technological constraints that stand between us and the creation of our vision. Now all of us can document our lives and the lives of others around us without first hurdling the technical bar existent in analogue days. Photography need no longer be a craft, a practice that requires something other than a common aptitude. Anyone can do it, and do it well.

But there’s a catch. The tools we use, and the manner in which they allow us to use them for our creative purposes, have an authority in the process, because they function to structure our attention in a certain way. The design of the tool conditions the nature of our involvement in our creative practices, an “ecology of attention,’ in the words of philosopher and social theorist Matthew Crawford, that may be more, or less, adapted to the skills needed to meaningfully involve the craftsman in his creative actions. Tools do matter. I would suggest that, in spite of the tired cliche that “it’s not the camera,”, your skills are dependent, in a real sense, on the camera.

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Maybe this helps lead us to an explanation of why some of us consciously reject the ease of modern photography, preferring instead to treat our photography as a craft that requires a certain intentionality. Many of us believe that the values that Leica has heretofore embodied – simplicity grounded in the assumption that the photographer understands the process and is best able to choose the appropriate variables, aesthetics driven by functional concerns, a need for the transparency of the camera in the process because it is ultimately only a tool in service of our particular vision – are necessary aspects in what we define as “photography.” We’ve learned and practiced a craft we define as “photography” that requires knowledge, skill, intentionality, and we see these aspects eroded to the point of irrelevancy with the remarkable inovations of the digital age.

So, we chose to “do it the hard way,” even though its now no longer necessary as a technological necessity. Granted, an evocative photograph is an evocative photograph irrespective of the means of its capture, but many of us still find a great satisfaction in the process of photography, a process that requires specialized knowledge and tools that allow us to translate that knowledge into a photograph that embodies our intention. And for these purposes, there exists no better camera than a Leica M. It’s minimalism of design and function creates the perfect tool with which to exercise intentionality in the practice of our craft. We get to do the thinking and make the appropriate choices. To do so it requires of us a sophisticated knowledge of basic photographic principles. We ‘take’ the photographs, not the camera.

Do we get ‘extra points’ for difficulty? No. A good photo is a good photo, whether I take it with my unmetered M4 and chose a film and developer to enhance the effects I’m looking for, or whether my niece pushes a button a her iphone. We both may create beautiful photos, but I’ll do so as a ‘photographer’ who understands and values the process, while her motivations, concerns and interests in what she’s doing may never have reached the level of mindfulness. To my mind there’s a huge difference between us, not merely a difference of degree but a qualitative difference in who we are and how what we do defines us. “Snobbish” ? Possibly. True? Most definitely.

And that’s why I’m intrigued by the Monochrom. It looks, feels, and operates like a traditional analogue camera. No ‘modes,” no image stabilization, no wifi, no mindless automation. You get to choose. Is it hopelessly crude from a technological standpoint? Yes. But if you’re looking at it with those technological parameters as decisive factors, you simply don’t understand how the function of photography is a guiding interest for a remaining few. Insofar as a digital camera is capable of recreating the minimalist design and function of a traditional analogue camera, its the best current option for carrying forward the practice of mindfulness in the photographic process, a practice many of still desire in an age of the mindless ubiquity of iphones and social media.155c4d30148bc15c46dec2db8fe1fff0

 

 

Leitz, Zeiss, Nikon and The Genesis of High-Speed 35mm Photography

8476219959_7d57c359e5_bWhen Oskar Barnack built the first 35mm film camera, the “Ur-Leica” in 1923, he fitted it with a 5cm f/3.5 Elmax Anastigmat. When the Leica I went into full production a two years later, Leitz fitted it with the same lens but modified it with two as opposed to three cemented elements, and renamed it the “Elmar.”  The f/3.5 Elmar is a very sharp lens, even opened up, and helped establish Leica’s reputation for fine optics. There are claims that Leitz had the capabilities to produce an f/2 50mm at this time, but chose not to to insure they offered the finest quality optics for their fledgling 35mm camera system.

For years Leica trailed Zeiss, the acknowledged leader in optical design, in producing high-speed lenses. Already in 1928,  Zeiss had released the 50/1.5 Sonnar, a 7-element modified triple with only 6 air-glass surfaces (in an era of uncoated lenses, each uncoated surface reduced light transmission by about 15%, which was why fast lenses were so difficult to produce before the advent of lens coating). In the late 30’s Zeiss introduced vacuum fluoro-coating to the Sonnar, creating the Sonnar T. Starting in 1930, Leitz offered as an alternative to the Elmar it’s first “high-speed” 50, a 5cm f/2.5 Hektor. Shortly thereafter, in 1933, Leitz introduced a 5cm f/2 Summar, a modified Zeiss Planar design which they subsequently improved upon and reintroduced in 1939 as the Summitar. Max Berek, who designed most of the lenses for Leica in the 1930’s, explained that the reason Leitz had not used their own design for their original high-speed 50 was they had wanted to be certain their original offerings met a high standard so as to insure the success of the Leica 35mm camera, and they did not then have the optical expertise to design a clean sheet high speed lens and so chose to borrow Zeiss’s proven Planar design.

Leica produced their first high-speed 50mm in 1936 with the introduction of the Leitz Xenon, an uncoated seven element double Gauss type with ten surfaces  (the rear element was split in two). While there is some evidence to support Leica’s claim that the Xenon was a Leitz creation, for patent reasons Leitz sublicensed the design from Schneider, who had themselves licensed the patent design from Taylor, Taylor Hobson (TTH) in Great Britain, agreeing to use Zeiss’s “Xenon” designation for the lens. In the 1949, Leitz began fluoro-coating the Xenon and renamed it the Summarit (however the US Patent still had a few years to run, so you’ll find some early Summarits still carrying the US Patent number). Lens coating, developed in Germany during the war, made a tremendous improvement on the uncoated Xenon, increasing contrast and reducing flare.  After the war, Leitz also offered a service to coat existing pre-war lenses, but would not coat the front element because their coating was not sufficiently robust to resist damage with normal cleaning.

While some claim that it was the introduction of fluoro-coating that revolutionized Leitz optics, in reality it was Leitz’s post-war decision to open their own glass research facility in order to reduce their dependence on third parties. But Zeiss remained the leader in high-speed lens design and production into the 60s. While Leitz was busy playing catch-up to Zeiss’s recognized high-speed technical dominance, Japanese camera makers – Nikon and Canon – each started offering versions of the 50/1.5 Sonnar, the 50/1.5 Nikkor, and the 50/1.5 Canon. In 1951 Nikon recomputed the 50/1.5 into the 50/1.4 and set in motion the beginnings of a tectonic shift in public perception and professional acceptance of Japanese optics, a design and manufacturing contest between the German and Japanese producers that continues to this day.

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David Douglas Duncan introduced the world to high quality Japanese lenses. Duncan used a Nikkor-SC 5cm F1.5 and Nikkor-QC 13.5cm F4 on his Leica IIIc for most of his photographs taken in Korea. Other photographers took note of the quality of Duncan’s images and word spread about the quality of the Nikkor lenses.

In their December 10, 1950 edition, the New York Times noted the emergence of Nikkor optics amongst professional photographers: “The first postwar camera to attract serious attention in America has caused a sensation among magazine and press photographers following the report by Life magazine photographers in Korea that a Japanese 35mm camera and its lenses had proven superior to the German cameras they had been using. The lenses, which include a full range of focal lengths, give a higher accuracy rating than lenses available for German miniatures.” The article quoted “camera expert” Mitch Bogdanovitch  that the Nikkor lenses “are of excellent color correction and perform better at full apertures than do Zeiss lenses.” The President of Carl Zeiss, Inc. USA, subsequently threatened to stop advertising in The Times. The Times ultimately allowed Zeiss to run a statement that the “Zeiss lenses being tested were not true Zeiss lenses.”  This was most likely accurate. After World War II, much of the Zeiss machinery that was used to produce precision optics was shipped back to Russia as war reparations. Wholesale lots of optics, optical glass, lens parts, and fixtures were shipped to Russia where they were completed at the KMZ factory. ZK used Zeiss parts for their 5cm F1.5 Sonnars and 5cm F1.5 Jupiter-3’s through the early 1950s.

The iconic Nikkor-SC 5cm F1.5 remains one of the most obscure of the vintage Nikkors. Nikon originally developed the 5cm F1.5 for use on the Hansa Canon. Two batches of lenses were produced, the “905” batch in May 1949 and the “907” batch in July 1949. After the war, when Nikon needed a super-speed lens to compete with Zeiss and Leitz, Nikon used the 5cm F1.5 as the basis for their now venerable 50mm f1,4. Fewer than 800 1.5 Nikkors were made, about 300 in Leica mount and 500 in S-Mount, before Nikon replaced the F1.5 with the Nikkor-SC 5cm F1.4 the following year.

5cm 1.5

The Nikkor-SC 5cm F1.5 is a Sonnar with seven elements in three groups, although a unique formulation. The Nikkor is made to the Leica 51.6mm focal length standard, and is constructed using different optical glass than the Zeiss optic. The focus mount is an all-brass rigid mount, finished in chrome, and has a close-focus of 18”. It is the first Nikkor lens to feature the close-focus capability, followed by the 5cm F1.4 and rigid-mount 5cm F2. The optical surfaces are all hard-coated. The aperture mechanism does not employ click-stops, while the subsequent F1.4  and rigid F2 lenses of 1950 feature click-stops.

“True” Zeiss lenses in Leica mount were manufactured during the war in small numbers. The 5cm F1.5 Sonnar “T” made during the war used a “recomputed” optical formula that improved performance compared with the pre-war lenses. The wartime Leica mount Zeiss lenses are not as well made as the Nikkor lenses used by Duncan in Korea. The choice of available materials for the fixtures and focus mount was poor, with lighter, less robust metal alloys used. The design of the Zeiss focus mount for the Leica camera was not well thought out; as an example a set screw through the focus ring serves as the focus stop. Zeiss lenses of the period that saw heavy use often fell out of RF calibration, with the sleeves and helical loosening-up,  making the lens unusable.

In post WW2 Germany, Zeiss produced their lenses with what remained behind. Post-war Leica mount “Carl Zeiss Jena” Sonnars can be found that are not in the “official records”, and often have a “one-off” quality about them. These lenses were probably machined using mostly hand-made tools, sometimes were missing parts, and had sub-standard finish on the optics and mechanical fixtures. These lenses were used with many post-war Leica cameras, many bought by serviceman in Occupied Germany. A post-war era Zeiss lens in perfect condition would probably not have withstood the combat conditions faced by Korean era war photographers.

Nikon optimized their post-war rangefinder optics for wide-open use, and the 5cm F1.5 is no exception. Zeiss optimized their lenses for stopped down use and perform best at F2.8. Leitz optimized their lenses for mid-aperture usage, as does Leica even today. Zeiss did not start optimizing their Sonnars for wide-open use until recently.

 

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nikon_nikkor_f1.4_50mm_2

The 50 f1.4 Nikkor S is the lens most responsible for making Nikon’s reputation in the early 1950s. It was a leap ahead of Zeiss, and certainly, Leitz, in high-speed lens quality. Nikon introduced the Nikkor S-C 5cm f/1.4 in 1951 at a List price of approximately  $1,700 in today’s money. First versions were marked “NIKKOR-S C” to denote that the lens was coated. The “C” was dropped in 1957.  In 1962, Nikon introduced a longer version with different optics, engraved “50mm” instead of “5cm”, referred to as the Olympic version. Nikon again re-made the larger 50mm lens in 2000 as part of the S3 Millennial set.

Ive always been impressed by the old Nikkor LTM lenses. The 50 f2 and the 35 f1.8 are particularly good vintage users. The 50 has a beautiful classic look, sharp and contrary even wide open. They are plentiful today because so many of them were made for use with amateur cameras (Tower, Nicca). And they are inexpensive – excellent examples can be found for between 200-300$. The 35mm 1.8 LTM is another story, carrying prices of 1700-2500$ depending on the condition. Both of these vintage Nikkors have aged better than similar offerings from Leitz given their harder front coatings.

aaaaaa-5029

There also exist a number of Nikkors in Nikon S mount, that heretofore were limited in use to the Nikon S rangefinder series. A beautiful camera, no doubt, but it has its limitations – specifically a rangefinder patch that’s very hard to read except with high contrast edges. The Nikkor S lenses themselves are uniformly excellent.

In 2000, Nikon made the decision to reproduce the S3 with an updated version of the Nikkor 50 1.4 (the “Millennial”).  In 2005, they reproduced the SP coupled with an updated Nikkor 35 1.8. Almost all were snapped up by collectors assuming that the prices would appreciate with time. For whatever reason, prices of new, unused kits have currently depreciated by 75%, with early speculators selling S3 kits they bought for $6000 for less than $2000. I recently bought a brand new chrome S3 kit from Japan for $1550.

Throw into the mix the 50 Millennial and the 35 SP remakes with modern multi-coating and the rangefinder Nikkors make an excellent alternative to the uber-expensive Leica offerings.

The irony of the S3 Millenial is that its starting to become popular again because of the lens, not the camera. You can chalk that up to the Amedeo Adaptor. Now, thanks to an enterprising gentleman in Argentina who produces a Nikon S to Leica M adaptor as a labor of love, you can use your S mount lenses on your Leica M, rangefinder coupled, with his Amedeo adaptor. And the adaptor is nothing like the plethora of cheap Chinese adaptors recently appeared on the market allowing use of various lens mounts on mirrorless cameras. The first thing you notice about the Amedeo adaptor is how well-made and tightly toleranced it is. It looks and feels like something that should have the Leica name attached to it. Its focus throw is smooth and firm, and it locks into the M mount with a pronounced click. Extremely nice.

amedeo adaptor 2

Which leaves us Leicaphiles with wonderful new options for the use of Nikkor S lenses on our M’s. For less than 2k you can buy an unused S3 body with 50 1.4 attached, buy an Amedeo adaptor for $275 and have a 50 1.4 prime lens for your M every bit as sharp and well built as the $5000 Summilux Aspherical. You’ll also have a new Nikon S3 body you can slap a new VC 50 2.5 S on (approx $250-300) and use as a second rig. The S3, itself a worthy competitor to the M3, is, in my opinion, worth the $2000 price alone, as you’re getting the functional equivalent of a brand new M3 throw in “free of charge” when you buy the set for the Millennial Nikkor 50 1.4. And, having not had to spread for the $5000 Summilux, you’ll have almost $3000 in change left over.

amedeoAmedeo Adaptor

 

 

The ‘Leica Experience’ Without the Leica

s3-year-2000-limited-50-f1-4

If Leica announced they were going to offer an brand new M3, built to the original specs, coupled with an updated non- aspherical Summilux 50mm f1.4 and original lens hood- and offer it as a kit for $1600, I suspect you’d stand in line to get a chance to buy as many as possible. The lens alone would be worth the price. Why then can’t people give away the brand new in box Nikon S3 2000 editions stowed away fifteen years ago when Nikon released the S3 Millennial edition? Think of this. A New Leica M-A, the current iteration of Leica’s mechanical film M, sells new for $4750, with free shipping ( for the 50mm Summilux add an extra $3750). Yet today you can find an unused, never taken out of the box S3 Millennial, with 50mm f/1.4 Nikkor that is every bit the equal of the Summilux, for $1600 or thereabout on EBay. That’s crazy.

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S3 2

In 1957 a LEICA M3 and 50mm f/1.4 lens sold for about $4,000 in today’s money, while the pro Nikon, the Nikon SP went for $3,000 with a 50mm Nikkor f/1.4. Released in 1958, Nikon designed the S3 as the lower-cost alternative to the SP, sort of the equivalent of the Leica M2 in relation to the M3. The only real difference between the SP and the S3 was the viewfinder. While the SP employed two separate viewfinders that covered the 28/35/50/85/105 and 135 fields of view, the S3 employed a single viewfinder with fixed 35mm, 50mm, and 105mm framelines and no parallax correction or frame switching. Frankly, if you confined your needs to a 50 or 35, the S3 was as good as the SP, certainly as robust and well- built. In 1958, the S3 with 50mm f/1.4 cost ¥86,000 (about $2600 in today’s money) compared to the SP which was ¥98,000.

S3 and SP
Nikon SP, above, with S3 Millennial below

In 2000 Nikon reproduced the original S3 and offered it as the S3 2000 (“S3 Millennial”), an exact duplicate of their classic 1958 S3 in chrome finish.   In 2002 Nikon released the black paint S3 2000 with a production of 2000 units. The initial retail price for both the chrome and black paint the kit was around $6000, and most were bought up by collectors and put on the shelf with an eye to appreciation. The rise of digital photography, however, knocked the legs out from under the S3 as an investment, and many collectors are selling their new, unused, still in the box Millennial S3’s for pennies on the dollar. Today you can find an unused, never taken out of the box S3 with f/1.4 Nikkor for $1600 on eBay.

With the M3 in 1955,  Leica came up with an enduring design that made the camera a natural extension of the photographer’s hand. The M3 embodied minimalist functionality at its best, radically simple, both in design and function, everything accessible with minimum fuss.  Of course, the M3 was the inspiration for Nikon’s first pro rangefinder, but the SP included some of its own innovations. For example, with its forward focusing wheel and shutter release to the rear of the top plate, it was designed to allow your index finger at the shutter trigger while using your middle finger to focus with the focusing wheel.  One hand operation. (This is how the Nikon F, built on the rangefinder platform, inherited its unwieldy shutter position  – the recessed shutter position had been designed to accommodate the focus wheel of the rangefinder series, but, of course, made no sense on the F which didn’t have a focusing wheel. Nikon moved the shutter trigger forward on the bottom up designed F2).

S3 M2Paris 2004-74

Nikon S3 Millennial with 50mm Nikkor f/1.4 and Leica M2-R with DR Summicron

The S3 has the same minimalist ethos as the Leica, simple to use and very reliable. It’s also made to the same incredible high manufacturing standards, hand built in the same manner as the M. And the Millennial Nikkor 50 is an exceptional lens, every bit the equal of the current Leica optics. While Nikon claims it’s a faithful recreation of the 50 era Nikkor 50, it does use modern coatings  and tighter tolerances, and its output is markedly superior to the original Nikkor of which it is a recreation. Its a testament to Nikon’s optical expertise that a 50 year old optical design can match the best modern Leica optics.

So, if you want a new fully mechanical precision film rangefinder built by one of history’s iconic manufacturers, you can spend $8500 on a Leica M-A with ASPH Summilux 50 – or you can buy a chrome S3 Millennial kit on eBay for $1600-$1800 (or if you want the black paint version, $2400). If you choose the S3 Millennial, you can have the “Leica Experience” without the price premium, the snobbery and buffoonery, the condescending elitism, the ignorant comments from the hoi polloi, the envious looks from the guy with the x100; just the simple joy of using a superbly made mechanical rangefinder with a wide choice of excellent optics. And the camera is new-nobody else’s problems to deal with.

What’s not to like about that?