Tag Archives: Leica M

Are Leicas Still Relevant? Two Gearheads Debate

Sothebys

 

 I see the merit in both positions. Of course, any debate about the continued relevance of Leica M must start with the introduction of the Nikon F…...

A…Then came Nikons, and they took over quickly because they were the first camera system in a long time that was significantly better than or equal to Leicas in almost every way that counted to working photographers.

B. It’s a point. The Nikon F was indeed a better system solution than even the world’s best rangefinder, well matched to the requirements of most journalists of the time.  However, for the more deliberate shooter who prefers a quiet, small, stable, unobtrusive photographic instrument with superb optics, excelling in low light, the M continued to have an important place to play. Many documentary, newspaper and magazine photographers used Leica M’s until recent times. I doubt that their subjects even knew what a Leica was. They used those cameras for good business reasons, IMO, not for status, and especially not so if status would have gotten in the way of their work.

A. All that was left for Leica was the legendary status, and, less so, the fact that, although outmatched in almost every way, they were still well-made cameras. When your product is not even close to being able to take on the competition (i.e. Nikon in this case), you can no longer rely on the product itself to keep you in business.

B. Well, they have had their troubles, haven’t they? Somehow they persist. An old photographer told me back in the sixties “Cameras come, and cameras go, but the Leica remains.” I laughed at him. I’m not laughing anymore. With all due respect, one limitation in your logic, IMO, is the notion that a camera wins by doing more things better, even if in the process it does a few important things worse.

A. The Leica mystique was always perpetuated to some degree by the company, and when the cameras gradually phased out in the wake of Nikons, I think Leitz came to rely on their legendary status to keep themselves in business.

B. They were phased out? The M is the only 35mm camera I know of that has persisted from 1953 to the present day with a single common mount and unbroken product continuity. If I am not mistaken, its latest iteration is one of the smallest full-frame digitals in the market space, and is selling well. I wonder if any of the photographers who once used the film M’s will be using digital Ms for their work. I would bet that there will be some who do. SLRs cannot do everything best. It’s a fact. My 1950’s M3 and Summicron can still be serviced by numerous skilled technicians. My Nikon F has poorer support. Thankfully, it does not need much of it. The Nikon just keeps on going, like that Energizer Bunny. But the Leica M3 is definitely superior in fit, finish, and operation.

M3 black

A. The sentimentality of those who had grown up with and made their livings on the legendary Leicas of yore was stoked by the company and passed down from generation to generation.

B. Probably so. One sells however he can. As we all know, many of the most memorable images in history were recorded by great photographers using Leica rangefinders. And those images did not cease in 1959, with the appearance of the F.

A. Now we have exorbitantly priced Leica cameras that are no better than what the company made when Nikon first blew them out of the water. Think about it.

B. Yes, the early M’s really were that good. May they always be as well made. Rock solid, heavy and stable, smooth as butter, quiet as a mouse, unobtrusive, wonderful in available darkness, terrific for candid imaging. A tool that in some few ways cannot be matched by an SLR or a dSLR.

A. How the heck else is a company supposed to stay in business with a product that was handily outmatched fifty years ago?

B. It wasn’t categorically outmatched, and it hasn’t been. It became a less suitable match than an SLR for a majority of users. It remained popular for some others for a few very good reasons. How do you compare a wrench to pliers? These are completely different tools. As to how Leica survives, they will have to figure that out for themselves. The M9 and S2 seem to have some promise. I wish them luck, as that is all I have to offer them.

A. When your product is no longer competitive, you don’t sell the product. You sell something more than the product. The product simply becomes a vehicle for the purchase of status.

B. As I said, one must pitch it however it will sell, always putting it in its best light. Thankfully, the fact that some people buy it for status is wholly unknown to the Leica. It just does what it does. And that’s what matters for those who actually use Leica M’s regularly. Anytime I don’t need the special capabilities of an SLR, I shoot with the Leica. I just like it. And as for the status, most folks seeing an old guy like me with an obviously ancient metal camera are more likely to have pity than envy. They don’t even know what it is, nor do they take it seriously. That’s a good thing in candid imaging, actually. Quite easy to mix in with folks.

soths

A. Make no mistake. Leicas are primarily luxury/leisure items, and have been for decades.

B. Matters not to me. Mine has no red dot. I paid $600 for the camera in the 90s and another $250 to clean, lubricate and adjust. I have no doubt that if I sold it today, I could recover about that. Now think about this: The cost of ownership would be nearly ZERO. What other camera matches that? The cost of ownership is so attractively low that its hard to say no. And if you don’t like the Leica, someone else will. Hardly any other camera has so little risk to the owner as an M. Maybe Hasselblad 500c or a classic Rollei.

A. The way I see it, the trick to getting around this overpriced idiocy, and to simply get your hands on an excellent rangefinder camera, is to realize that the company has made no significant upgrades for 90% of truly serious shooters since the M2. If you want a quality rangefinder that simply gets the job done in an old-fashioned manner, don’t buy anything past the M2, and do not fall for any of the collector garbage.

B. On this we agree mostly. If somebody is dumb enough to buy a gold plated Leica with ostrich skin for a million dollars, then good for them and Leica. It’s nothing to me. If it helps Leica survive, then maybe parts for the M’s will continue in manufacture longer.

A. Realize that no matter how good everyone proclaims Leica optics and mechanics of the cameras to be, they are over all an outdated and inferior tool to SLRs.

C. Apples vs Bananas I say. Each tool to its own user and purpose. “Outdated” is an irrelevant term if a tool is judged by the photographer to be best for any particular application.

A. Ultimately, if there’s a justification for still shooting a Leica M, it’s the same reason you drive a ’61 Cadillac: because they’re cool, and fun, not because they are the best in the world in a technical sense (though they may have been at the time they were made).

B. The public knows what a ’61 Cadillac is. They don’t know a Leica M from Adam’s house cat. For the few areas where a rangefinder (Leica or otherwise) has an advantage, no SLR is its equal. Did anyone ever replace a well appointed tool box with an all-knives.org Knife? The purpose made tools are always better for some specific applications. So it is with the rangefinder.

Sothbys

A. Everyone is so convinced that having a Leica makes them a serious photographer. Everyone is convinced that they are vastly superior in quality to any other camera. Balls to that.

B. Not me, and not everyone. Some say my people pictures are better when I use the M3 instead of my F or F2. Maybe so. However, I agree with you that the machine does not make the image. That’s the photographer’s job! Anyone who thinks a camera makes them a photographer probably believes that cookware would make them a chef, or that a Ferrari would make them a world class driver at Le Mans.

A. The proof in pictures says otherwise. People shoot the same crap with Leicas that they do with any camera, and often it is even crappier because rangefinders are such a pain in the ass to use compared to SLRs.

B. You are right in that technology does not make one a photographer. I goof just as often with an F, an F2, an M3, or with any of my other cameras. Anyone who feels that an M is a pain to use should just get something else. It is no pain for me. Most folks don’t like rangefinders. Okay by me, as long as I can enjoy mine.

Lou Reed M6

A. Leicas are cool because they are fun and old fashioned. Embrace that, and don’t take them so damned seriously. You’ll get out cheap, and have a million times more fun and get a million times better pictures than all the bozos paying big bucks for them so that they can think of themselves as serious photographers. Get an old thread mount camera or an early M and you’ve got everything that was ever good about using a Leica in the first place. You usually escape for well under a thousand bucks too.

B.They are good for more reasons than that. As for the bozos, they can simmer in their own mental stew. I like the M because I like using the M and I like the images. That’s all that matters to me.

A. The Leica mystique is due to the fact that people do not know how to objectively judge something, take it for what it is, and just enjoy it for the hell of it. They’ve always got to attach some sort of twisted value to it beyond what it actually is: a cool old camera that used to rule the world.

B.You are off the mark in your assessment about objectivity of judgment. I hope for your sake you do not own a Leica M. Fortunately, most folks who dislike them don’t, and some who own them actually do love using them.

 

 

Leica M5 Selfie

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I love the M5. I have two of them, black and chrome. It’s the camera I cut my teeth on, photographically, all those years ago. Most leicaphiles dismiss it as a stylistic wrong turn. I disagree. The M5 has a beauty all its own. Personally, I prefer the look of the chrome M5, as the chrome compliments the “boxy” styling.

I also love this photo because of its unmistakable film aesthetic: the grain, the tonality, the character. (Tri-X and HC110 and a Nikkor HC 50mm). Film responds differently to light than does a digital sensor. Sensors have a flat linear response to light.  Film has a curved response, typically in a S curve, whereby both ends of the curve, the shadows and highlights, tend to be richer in tonal value than digital. Its these differences that give the unique look to both.

With the maturation of digital capture, the question of film vs digital resolution really doesn’t make sense anymore. Film and digital are two completely different media. Each has it’s strengths and limitations. Digital files can’t be made to look like this, even with extensive tweaking in Silver Efex or other programs that attempt to replicate the film look.

And certainly, no digital camera has the feel of a mechanical Leica. There’s a tactile quality to mechanical film cameras that simply has not, and cannot, be duplicated with digital.

Call me a Luddite.

 

“Leica Photography” Is Dead. Leica Killed It.

josef-koudelka-france-1987

PORTFOLIO ITALIA - ITALY PORTFOLIO

Above are two of my favorite photographs from two of the twentieth century’s most skilled and creative photographers. Both are powerfully evocative while being deceptively banal, commonplace. A dog in a park; a couple with their child at the beach. Both were taken with simple Leica 35mm film cameras and epitomize the traditional Leica aesthetic: quick glimpses of lived life taken with a small, discrete camera, what’s come to be known rather tritely as the “Decisive Moment.”

Looking at them I’m reminded that a definition of photographic “quality” is meaningless unless we can define what make photographs evocative.  In the digital age, with an enormous emphasis on detail and precision, most people use resolution as their only standard. Bewitched by technology, digital photographers have fetishized sharpness and detail.

Before digital, a photographer would choose a film format and film that fit the constraints of necessity.  Photographers used Leica rangefinders because they were small, and light and offered a full system of lenses and accessories.  Leitz optics were no better than its competitor Zeiss, and often not as good as the upstart Nikkor optics discovered by photojournalists during the Korean War. The old 50/2 Leitz Summars and Summitars were markedly inferior to the Zeiss Jena 50/1.5 or the 50/2 Nikkor. The 85/2 and 105/2.5 Nikkors were much better than the 90/2 first version Summicron; the Leitz 50/1.5 Summarit, a coated version of the prewar Xenon, was less sharp than the Nikkor 50/1.4 and the Nikkor’s design predecessor the Zeiss 50/1.5. The W-Nikkor 3.5cm 1.8 blew the 35mm Leitz offerings out of the water, and the LTM version remains, 60 years later, one of the best 35mm lenses ever made for a Leica.

But the point is this: back when HCB and Robert Frank carried a Leica rangefinder, nobody much cared if a 35mm negative was grainy or tack sharp. If it was good enough it made the cover of Life or Look Magazine. The average newspaper photo, rarely larger than 4×5, was printed by letterpress using a relatively coarse halftone screen on pulp paper, certainly not a situation requiring a super sharp lens. As for prints, HCB left the developing and printing to others, masters like my friend and mentor Georges Fèvre of PICTO/Paris, who could magically turn a mediocre negative into a stunning print in the darkroom.

50’s era films were grainy, another reason not to shoot a small negative. Enthusiasts used a 6×6 TLR  if they needed 11×14 or larger prints.  For a commercial product shot for a magazine spread the choice might be 6×6, 6×7, or 6×9. Many didn’t shoot less than 4×5.  If you wanted as much detail as possible, then you would shoot sheet film: 4×5, 5×7 or 8×10.

What made the ‘Leica mystique’, the reason why people like Jacques Lartigue, Robert Capa, HCB, Josef Koudelka, Robert Frank and Andre Kertesz used a Leica, was because it was the smallest, lightest, best built and most functional 35mm camera system then available. It wasn’t about the lenses. Many, including Robert Frank, used Zeiss, Nikkor or Canon lenses on their Leicas. It was only in the 1990’s, with the ownership change from the Leitz family to Leica GmbH, that Leica reinvented itself as a premier optical manufacturer. The traditional rangefinder business came along for the ride, but Leica technology became focused on optical design. Today, by all accounts, Leica makes the finest photographic optics in the world, with prices to match.

Which leads me to note the confused and contradictory soap boxes current digital Leicaphiles too often find themselves standing on. Invariably, they drone on about the uncompromising standards of the optics, while simultaneously dumbing down their files post-production to give the look of a vintage Summarit and Tri-X pushed to 1600 iso. Leica themselves seem to have fallen for the confusion as well. They’ve marketed the MM (Monochrom) as an unsurpassed tool to produce the subtle tonal gradations of the best B&W, but then bundle it with Silver Efex Pro software to encourage users to recreate the grainy, contrasty look of 35mm Tri-X. The current Leica – Leica GmbH – seems content to trade on Leica’s heritage while having turned its back on what made Leica famous: simplicity and ease of use. Instead, they now cynically produce and market status.

For the greats who made Leica’s name – HCB, Robert Frank, Josef Koudelka – it had nothing to do with status. It was all about an eye, and a camera discreet enough to service it. They were there, with a camera that allowed them access, and they had the vision to take that shot, at that time, and to subsequently find it in a contact sheet. That was “Leica Photography.” It wasn’t about sharpness or resolution, or aspherical elements, or creamy bokeh or chromatic aberation or back focus or all the other nonsense we feel necessary to value when we fail to acknowledge the poverty of our vision.

The Leica M3D

Leica M3D black paint, November 2012 (1955, serial number M3D-2)

david Duncan Camera 2
Only 4 M3D’s (M3D-1 to M3D-4) were produced by Leitz. All were custom made for LIFE magazine photojournalist David Douglas Duncan. Each was mated to a black Leicavit without the standard MP engraving. (Note the auxiliary rewind crank, presumably added by Duncan after the fact.)

If you see one on Ebay at a decent “Buy It Now” price, snap it up quick (don’t expect it to be described as “Minty” however). This M3D, with Leicavit and Summilux, was sold at auction on November 24, 2012 for 1,680,000 Euros.

The MP: What’s Old Is New Again

leica-MP-black-paint-1958

In 1956, Leica produced the MP, a “Professional” version of the M3 with long winding shaft and fitted Leicavit. Original MPs were two-stroke, and like unlike the M3, had no self-timer. The film counter was, like the M2, external and needed to be manually set. Essentially, the MP was a dual stroke M2 with 50mm viewfinder and Leicavit attached, produced a year before the introduction of the M2 in 1957. Sale of the camera was restricted to “bonafide working press photographers.” In order to purchase an MP, dealers had to specify the name, address and professional credentials of the purchasing customer. In all, Leica produced 449 cameras, 311 chrome and 138 black paint, although some existing M3’s were converted to MP’s by Leitz in the early 60’s. These conversions did not carry the MP numbering.

leica_mp_126 3

The MP was discontinued in 1957 after the introduction of the M2, which also used the Leicavit winder and had the advantage of a .72 viewfinder that accommodated the more popular 35mm focal length.  In 2012, MP #126, shown above, sold at auction for $158,000.

In 2003, Leica introduced a “New” version of the MP with TTL exposure metering. A new Leicavit-M was offered as an accessory. The single stroke winding lever was the metal one-piece type found on the M3/MP.  The viewfinder was the same version as found on the M7, and was available in 0.58, 0.72 and 0.85 magnifications, although the new black paint version was only offered with the 0.72 magnification viewfinder. Like the original MP, the top-plate was made of brass and carried the engraved Leica logo.

1585

Leica also produced 500 “Hermes Edition” MP’s in 2003. These were chrome and covered in “Hermes Barenia calfskin.” I doubt many found their way into the hands of “bonafide working press photographers.”

Hermes MP

The Leicaflex SL: The Camera That Almost Bankrupted Leitz (No, It Wasn’t the M5!)

I love the Leicaflex SL, but I understand its not for everybody…or even most people. It’s big, and clunky and is brick heavy. In its day it cost half as much again as its competition – The Nikon F – without offering nearly as much system versatility; no interchangeable prisms or even focusing screens, no alternative backs or motors, extremely expensive but limited optics.

Its not surprising, then, that the Leicaflex system never really caught on with professional photographers as an SLR system camera. Leitz had only reluctantly accepted the public’s move from rangefinder to SLR and was slow to market a Leica SLR camera. Nikon had beaten Leica to the punch by 5 years with its comprehensive and affordable F system, and it didn’t help that Leica’s initial ‘standard’ Leicaflex (1964-68) was hopelessly outdated upon introduction, using non-TTL metering from an opening on the face of its reflex pentaprism. Ungainly and inaccurate. By the time the SL was introduced in July of 1968, the Leicaflex system was an afterthought for most photographers.

Given the late start, It also didn’t help that with the introduction of the SL Leitz chose a commercial policy of selling the SL and SL2 bodies at a cost below the cost of manufacture i.e. for every one they sold they lost money. The hope was that the money lost on bodies would be made back on the sale of Leitz lenses. The fact that Leica lost money on every Leicaflex sold should tell you something about the camera itself: while the Nikon F with metered prism sold, presumably for a profit,  for $400, the SL sold, at a loss, for over $600. Pick one up and use it, even today, and you’ll understand why it cost Leitz so much to produce the SL.

SL 1

As a teenage boy coming of age photographically in the early 1970’s, what I desired was a Nikon F, only because the Leica M5 was simply too expensive to contemplate. I never much thought of the Leicaflex SL. Seeing it in the store advertisements in the backpages of Modern Photography and Popular Photography, It seemed a brutalist Teutonic oddity that even Leica never totally embraced, it and its lenses priced in the stratosphere. Leica ceased production of the Leicaflex in 1976 and thereafter concentrated most of its efforts on the M system, a decision that at the time seemed suspect but now appears inspired.

In 1976, as an 18 year old, I purchased my first Leica, an M5 bought new at a discount (but still expensive) price from Cambridge Photo in NYC. In 1984 I purchased one of the first production M6’s. Since then I’ve owned and operated almost ever M model made, and currently own an M2, M4 and two M5’s. But I never much thought of the Leicaflex;  it was only recently, almost as an afterthought, that I discovered the classic simplicity of a Leicaflex SL. I met a nice woman who was selling her father’s camera collection. Her father had owned 3 camera stores in the Boston area in the 60’s and 70’s, and he had been a Leica enthusiast. He had set aside a boxed SL with 50mm Summicron R and Leitz leather camera case and used it infrequently, if at all. It looked unused. I paid less for the entire boxed affair than most people pay for a smartphone they’ll throw away in 2 years.

The SL just may be the high water mark of Leitz’s traditional hand-built manufacturing prowess. What it lacks in aesthetics it more than makes up for in feel and workmanship. As with the M’s, nothing superfluous has been added for commercial appeal. The Leicaflex SL is mechanical simplicity defined, with a heft and feel that makes the F seem cheap and flimsy by comparison. Close you eyes and wind on the film and you’ll swear you have an M in your hands. Look through the viewfinder and find a size and brightness that puts the F to shame with its low light focusing capabilities. Plus you get to use the wonderful, albeit expensive, Leitz lenses.

Ultimately, I had to decide: was my perfect SL to be a collector’s shelf queen, or would I use it? It was easy enough decision after I’d handled the SL – you use it and you marvel at your fortune in owning such a wonderful precision instrument.

400px-LeicaflexSL-mot