“If Only I Had a Leica”

picture yourself

For Leicaphilia by Dax H.*

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

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

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

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

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

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

bessa r

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

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

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