For Sale on Ebay for 2300 euros. 6500 activations.
If you’ve been raised on modern autofocus DSLR’s, when you finally take home the Leica M you’ve so long lusted after, you’ll probably experience an initial twinge of buyer’s remorse, wondering what you might have been thinking when you spent $8000 for this simple little camera body and lens you’re now holding in your hands. Heretofore, you’ve learned your craft with big, impressive looking cameras bristling with technology, cameras crammed with buttons and menus and functions; cameras that instantly snapped into focus and set exposure for you. You’ll likely spend a few hours with your new M, familiarizing yourself with its simple controls, reminding yourself on an intellectual level why you chose to sell your Canikon and buy the M, maybe reassuring yourself a bit by reading Leicaphilia and what others have said about their experiences transitioning to an M. But, deep down, that first day, emotionally you’ll entertain a seed of doubt, suspecting you might have bought into marketing hype and wishful thinking.
If you give it a few days you’ll start noticing things. You’ll begin to see that the ergonomics of the M are beginning to suite you better than your Canikon. Prefocusing your M without having to figure out what focus mode you need to use or having to hold down special focus lock buttons with your pinky finger will begin to seem immensely liberating in its simplicity. The depth of field scale on the lenses will encourage you to play with hyperfocal distance focusing and to think more about the pictorial effects of depth of field without having to outthink your camera.
The image that you see through the viewfinder will further the process that convinces you your Leica M is special. What you’ll see through your viewfinder will be sharp and bright and uncluttered with extraneous information. There may be one simple exposure indicator in the bottom of the finder but no other confusing letters, numbers, lights or arrows. If you’re working with an unmetered film Leica and using a separate incident meter (as I encourage you to do) you don’t even need to worry about batteries and all the attendant stuff that goes along with powering a camera. You won’t see any meter indications in your viewfinder; nothing flashing, blinking, lighting up red or green or yellow or warning you of some arcane issue your camera thinks you might need to attend to. Nothing. Just the scene in front of you, unmediated by a mirror box or a live view screen. Simple, just like it should be.
You’ll begin take your M to lunch with friends, or on a date or out on the street, all without attracting much attention or interest, (unless of course you’re pretentious enough to be carrying it around in some $800 calfskin bag marketed by Leica in conjunction with Magnum). You couldn’t do that with your F5 or D4; too big, too noisy, too ‘in-your-face’ for anything but staged ‘this is me smiling because I’m being photographed’ photos. And you’ll notice that you get more keepers with your M, because people tend to ignore you when you’re using it, in a way they don’t when you’re using your Canikon. Not taking the camera seriously, your subjects relax. Precisely what you need when shooting candid photos.
Your conversion will be complete when you travel with your M. Before, you’d have to tote two DSLR’s (or F5’s if you’re shooting film), an 80-200 2.8 zoom, a 20-35 2.8mm zoom, a 50mm 1.4 AF, 85mm 1.4 AF, and extra batteries. Twenty pounds of stuff, not counting flashes, accessories and connecting cords. Your largest Domke bag, stuffed to overflowing. Because of the bazooka sized optics and DSLR mirror slap, you’d also need a tripod and a flash for most everything to compensate for your inability to handhold your DSLR. Now, your two M bodies and four lenses take as much space in your bag as one Nikon D4 and a lens without all the ancillary supporting items. You’ve discovered that smaller and lighter is always better when travelling, either around the block or around the world.
Industrial designer Alberto Alessi has said that the Leica M camera body is one of only a few 20th century designs he thought so perfect that he wouldn’t ever attempt to change it. According to Alessi, the iconic M design is perfect because it’s both aesthetically beautiful and practically functional. In other words, it’s beautiful, yes – but it also works.
And what it still works best for is unobtrusive documentation. Your Leica M is a great camera for when you can’t stop and set things up, especially indoors when you’re forced to use available light. Almost silent, it allows you to shoot quietly and wait for the photo to appear. The image you’ll see through the finder will always be bright and in focus; frame lines will show the current cropping while what’s going on outside the frame lines will remain visible. Exposure will be simple too – set it and forget it.
I usually work with two M bodies, one with a 28 or 35 and another with a 50. I’ll set default exposure by metering the back of my own hand with a handheld meter. Unless I’m shooting at sunrise or sunset, the light usually won’t change much during the shoot. I set the cameras and forget the meter. Correct exposure indoors is fairly simple – there are usually only two or three meter differences in any given room, al;most inconsequential if you’re shooting film with its forgiving latitude. In most situations I’ll shoot at f2 or f2.8, varying the shutter speed a stop only if necessary (usually only when using a digital M). When I shoot with an M I leave the exposure alone; since there is no auto-exposure I’m not tempted to use it. When I use my F5 I’ll often lazily chose auto exposure, which is theoretically “smart” but practically stupid when I’m shooting lightly toned subjects or are shooting in very dim light and want to faithfully reproduce the dimness. Point my F5 at a white coat or dark sweater and the automation will struggle. Point my M at the same subjects and my working knowledge tells me to open up a stop for the white coat or close down a stop for the dark sweater. Easy and simple. I get more consistent exposures using an M than I got from a Nikon F5 in the same situation, with the added benefit that, unlike the F5, my M’s are small and quiet and don’t intimidate my subjects, leaving me with a much better ratio of keepers – and I can shoot down to 1/15th of a second, something I can’t do with the larger, heavier F5.
The above is promotional copy issued by Leica after the introduction of their first digital M, the M8. In retrospect, I’m sure Leica would love to take it back. Now a $6000 M8, introduced only 8 years ago, is considered a technological dinosaur and is worth a fraction of what it cost new. This really isn’t Leica’s fault. In 2008, like everyone else, they suffered from a certain opacity of vision with respect to how the future of digital imaging was going to unfold. I’m sure their intent was good. Rather, what’s happened to the longevity of digital cameras is the consequence of the shortening of product lives and consumer cycles of constant cosmetic updating. This constant fetish for the new, the upgraded, is claimed as progress, but in reality it is simply the result of a producer strategy on the part of the large players in the camera business – Nikon, Sony, Canon – designed to maximize manufacturer profits. The reality, even today, is that the M8 is a very capable camera that produces excellent results basically indistinguishable from the images of the current M which is sold as an exponential advance on previous models. It just isn’t new, and that’s the problem, because there exists no practical incentive for Leica to maintain and service it for any extended period given current realities. The M8, is, in effect, an orphan, through no fault of Leica.
As Erwin Puts has noted, buying a film M was an act of trust built on the assumption of stability. You knew that the camera would be around for decades and repair parts would be available for generations. And you knew that any new Leica M camera would be, at best, an incremental change from the current model. A used M kept its value because it was a camera locked into an evolutionary cycle of Leica cameras. It was based on a culture and tradition of stability.
The new generation of Leica digital cameras has inevitably succumbed to the mass produced consumer cycle, though, given Leica’s relatively limited resources visavis Japanese manufacturers, at a pace in the rear of the digital pack. This creates a double dilemma for Leica – having forsworn stability they are now locked into a consumer cycle game that, given their modest technological means, they can’t have a hope of winning.
Leica can still draw on their experience, but the increase in both innovation and production volume required by new digital realities creates profound problems for traditional handmade Leica culture. In the past Leitz increased production by hiring more people and giving them extensive training. Now the production of digital Leicas requires faster production lines with extensive computer support. But the adjustment of the traditional components of the M series, for example the rangefinder mechanism, still requires a level of precision impossible to achieve, unless, as in the past, a very experienced worker does the job and is given the time needed to do it correctly.
The technology of traditional handmade production relied heavily on the manufacture of components in the Leitz factory itself or on the outsourcing of components to factories that made the parts to Leica specifications based on decades of experience. For any part needed, the responsible manager knew how to assess what was necessary and could anticipate potential problems. This intimate knowledge of the camera’s components is no longer possible in the digital age. Leica has to rely on the experience of external suppliers that deliver the electronic and computerized components that are needed to build a digital Leica M.
So, the conundrum facing Leica now is this: Is it possible to make a ‘Digital Leica’, a digitized camera that embodies the traditional ethos of the Leica – something small, simple, built to last, enduring? I would argue that the term is an oxymoron, and its been borne out in Leica’s history of digital offerings. Those of us who’ve used both knew immediately that Leica in the digital age, even with the best intentions, is selling us a bill of goods.
Other than a similarity of form, the differences between a film and digital M are profound. The 35mm Leitz Camera was small. Oskar Barnack, who invented the Leica, was so concerned about maintaining the original diminutive size of the Leica I he insisted that the rangefinder, added later, be kept as small as possible. The M3 was large compared to the Ur-Leica, but it was still compact by most standards. Digital Ms have incrementally increased in size and weight over the years, bloated in relation to a traditional film M. Its not something we talk about though; the example of the M5 too close at hand. As for simplicity, the current digital M’s are as simple as digital requirements allow them to be, but that doesn’t mean they are simple in the sense of the old Leitz made film cameras. With their nested menus, electronic shutters dependent on Lithium Ion batteries, computerized circuits and digital sensors, they are computers with all the attendant complexities. Enduring? No. Enduring design is not in the nature of digital technology, with the exponential technological increase built into computerized technology by Moore’s Law, which makes it impossible to remain technologically competent over time and thus hold value over the long run.
Leica started out as maker of small, simple cameras. If you needed a small, exceptionally well designed and made 35mm film camera, they offered you the tool. Any elitism that accompanied the Leica camera was a result of its status as the best built, most robust, and simplest photographic solution. You paid for the quality Leica embodied.
Over time, as technology trends accelerated and Japanese manufacturers like Nikon and Canon grabbed the professional market, Leica shifted gears, no longer competing on whether or not their rangefinder cameras were the most useful or most efficient tools for a given purpose, although, for certain limited purposes – simplicity, quietness, discreteness, build quality – they remained exceptional as tools. Starting with the digital age, Leica now competed primarily on luxury, which is a fundamentally different promise than the optimal design of a tool.
Leica is now a luxury tools company. The cameras they sell cost more, but some photographers still choose them, some for the identity that comes along with the use of a luxury good and some for the placebo effect of thinking one’s photographs will improve by virtue of some special quality it is assumed Leica possess. But there remain some of us who still use Leicas because a Leica rangefinder is still the most functional tool for us in the limited ways they always were. We still identify with Leica not a a luxury good but primarily as a maker of exceptional tools, and this creates the ambivalence many of use feel towards the brand as currently incarnated. The ambivalence is a result of the tension of a Leica as a tool versus a luxury item.
Its a tension that Leica is having a difficult time navigating too. As a luxury item producer, Leica probably doesn’t care that its cameras aren’t cutting edge. On the other hand, Leica knows it will not survive if its product is not seen as a preferred choice of the status conscious. At some point in the evolution of every luxury branded tool, users who care more about tools than about luxury shift away to more functional options. You see this today in Leica purchasers’ demographics; the brand is perpetuated largely by those who identify a Leica as a status marker, whether that Leica be a used M purchased on Ebay by someone come of age in the digital era who wants to The Leica Experience, or a new digital M purchased largely by an affluent amateur. Professionals and serious amateurs who need the services of a small, discreet camera system have largely migrated to more sophisticated, less expensive options like the cameras Fuji is currently offering.
I suspect that the era of Leica as a working tool is gone, but the silver lining is that there remains a small but dedicated following who values mechanical Leica film cameras still as a functioning tool, and hopefully there will remain those who cater to them and service them. It would be a shame if that portion of Leica’s heritage were to be lost.