Tag Archives: Leica M4

I Love Leica. I Hate Leica. I Love Leica….

In It Might Get Loud, a 2008 Davis Guggenheim documentary about rock guitar and the creative process, White Stripes front man Jack White builds himself an electric guitar in his barn. A piece of wood, a Coke bottle, a guitar string, an electric pickup, a hammer and a few nails, and pretty soon White is belting out an eerily hypnotic riff that might be right at home on one of his albums.  It’s there right at the beginning of the film, to make the obvious point: it’s not about the guitar, it’s all about the guy playing it. Cut to the next scene – White driving a late 50’s era Mercury down a Tennessee dirt road, declaiming on the debilitating drain of technology on the creative process, in White’s words “the disease you have to fight in any creative field.”

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I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Leica ever since the onset of the digital era. I love Leica film cameras. To my mind, the best, most functional, least ostentatious cameras ever made are the M2, M3, M4 and M5. Nothing superfluous, no bells, no whistles, everything you need and nothing more. Perfection via simplicity and design. No wonder people still pay premium prices for Leica film cameras long into the digital age. You will pry my black chrome M4 from my fingers when I die. Not a second before.

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     My Black Chrome Leica M4

It wasn’t always that way. When the Leica I debuted in 1925, most photographers dismissed it as a “toy designed for a lady’s handbag,” too small and imprecise, beneath the requirements of a ‘serious photographer.’ And shortly thereafter, Leitz offered the first in a continuing line of questionable collector’s editions, starting in 1929 with the gold plated, lizard skinned Luxus Leica I, over the top limited editions that have caused some to question the commitment of Leitz to the needs of serious photographers.

But, after the initial skepticism, and the discovery of the liberating effects of being able to slip a camera in one’s pocket, the Leica was greeted with fierce devotion by a generation of the twentieth century’s greatest photographers. Henri Cartier-Bresson, maybe the greatest documentarian of his time, called shooting with the Leica like “a big warm kiss, a shot from a revolver, like the psychoanalyst’s couch:” 

I have never abandoned the Leica, anything different that I have tried has always brought me back to it. I am not saying this is the case for others. But as far as I am concerned it is the camera. It literally constitutes the optical extension of my eye.

In 1932 the Leica II arrived, along with a coupled rangefinder for precise focusing, and shortly thereafter the Leica III with subtle improvements and slower shutter speeds up to 1 second. Production of the “Barnack” Leicas continued until 1960.

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      My 1957 Leica IIIg

I still use a IIIg Barnack, simplicity defined, with knurled knobs to wind and rewind the film, no meter, a shutter speed dial to set the mechanical cloth shutter, and a simple aperture ring on the lens itself. Even today, it feels right in use, comfortable in hand, the photographic equivalent of a well-worn pair of leather shoes built to last, certainly an infinitely more pleasing ergonomic experience than that offered by today’s crop of professional digital cameras, which in reality are more computer than camera, with voluminous instruction manuals and nested menus to match. With the IIIg no instruction manual is needed – well, in fairness, some might need one to figure out how to load the film – and one needs only some fundamental knowledge about how apertures and shutter speeds control light and how light interacts with film. Load your film and go out and shoot. No chimping. This is why I love my Leicas – IIIg, m2, m4, m5, and (to a lesser extent) my M7.

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And yet, I’ve often claimed to hate their digital cameras, in spite of the fact that I’ve owned two (an M8 and an X1) and loved them both. When I think about it objectively, the current Monochrom seems to me the closest thing to a traditional Leica film camera in the digital age, embodying the same ethos, but transformed somehow to meet the digital reality. And the fact that I’ve loved the M8 and X1, both much maligned by digiphiles, while philosophically “hating” Leica digital offerings, should tell you something about my ultimate sympathies. In reality, I’ve realized, I don’t hate Leica digital cameras; what I hate is digital photography. Of course, as an ‘amateur’ (not because I work in a different field, but because I do what I do for love), though one who has studied documentary photography in some fairly august institutions and with some incredibly fascinating people, I have the option of choosing a medium without reference to cost, efficiency or technological expectations. Some of us just prefer our photographic tools to be simple, much like Jack White prefers his Montgomery Ward electric guitar to a Fender Limited Rosewood Telecaster.  

The strengths of Leica’s digital cameras are the very thing they’re criticized for by the digital generation, and its because Leica’s philosophy has been to give their customer base a digital camera that mimics, as far as is feasible, the feel and function of a traditional mechanical film camera. They are, to the extent that a digital camera can be, simple, stripped to the essentials much like their film equivalents. The technology is kept in the background as far as that is possible, the experience meant to be a viable digital simulacron of the analogue experience.

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 If there’s one thing I do wish, its that Leica would move past the stale arguments about “IQ.” That battle was fought a long time ago, and unless you want to print 50 inches on the long side (which is itself absurd for a traditional photographer), the debate in the digital era now should be about functionality, ergonomics, the feel in the hand, the tactile experience, the “haptics” of the photographic act. The 12 mp Leica X1 is uncluttered and simple, as close to a traditional mechanical film camera in the digital age as you’ll find. The criticisms of the camera are perceived “faults” only if you buy into the misguided priorities of advanced digital cameras. They become irrelevant when you look at the X1 as Leica’s attempt to duplicate, as much as possible, the tactile and ergonomic experience of a traditional analogue camera. Slow AF? Scale focus. Actually, I’d prefer manual focus. Slow lens? You don’t need fast lenses in the digital age. Just crank up the ISO. A 2.8 fixed lens allows Leica to build a small pocketable camera. Low res LCD? Big deal. I’m of the opinion LCD screens have been the worst thing to ever happen to photography: instant feedback is expected, at the expense of being in the moment. Of course, the X1 needs the screen because that’s how you compose; but if you put an optical viewfinder on the hotshoe, just like I do with my IIIg, you’re good.

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         Auvers sur Oise, 2013, taken with a Leica X1

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My grandfather lived to be 96. He loved to drive his car, and he drove virtually every day until the day he died in 1998. Not bad for a guy with a stiff neck who had to back out of his driveway onto a busy urban avenue in New Jersey without looking. 

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     My Grandfather, “Gramps,” 1994, Lansdale, Pennsylvania

“Gramps” was a man who loved his cars, and he loved the Nash Rambler above all else. To him, the Nash Rambler was the pinnacle of automotive engineering. He had pictures of Ramblers hanging throughout his musty old house, and he never missed an opportunity to extol the Nash’s virtues to his bemused grandchildren. By the late 60’s/early 70’s when I was coming of age, Gramps had been relegated to buying AMC cars (the successor to Nash). AMC are the folks who brought you the Pacer, which has (rightly) gone down in American automotive history as one of the most hideous cars ever built. But my grandfather swore by his AMCs, because, of course, they were the same folks who built the Nash, and nobody, especially not his snotty-nosed know-it-all grandson, was going to convince him they weren’t the world’s best vehicle. I started driving in 1974, my first car a 1962 Volkswagon Bug with holes in the floor and rust up to the windows, and every time it broke down my grandfather would come get me and invariably remind me that if I had bought an AMC he wouldn’t be needing to pick me up on the side of the road so much.

I’m reminded of my grandfather and his Nashes when I pull out my Leica film cameras at family gatherings. The next generation – sons, daughters, nieces, nephews – look at me the same way I remember looking at him when he’d launch into his Nash soliliques: bemused and half pitying for an old man clinging to a disappearing world, unable to emotionally adapt to newer, better technologies. “Why do you use that old camera?” They’ll ask, half mocking, as they take selfies and pictures of their food with their iPhone. “Don’t you have to put the film in some chemicals before you can see the pictures?” And then I patiently explain to them about grain, and latitude, and the beauty of HP5 in D76, about contact sheets and being discriminating in what one pictures and shares, and they look at me with a look that attempts to conceal the fact that they think I’m a pitiable old man. Put aside for the a moment the following: I still have a full head of hair with a luxurious ponytail, I race 175 horse power motorcycles around closed circuits at 175 mph, and I listen to The White Stripes in my spare time.

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     My niece and her boyfriend, “Buddha,” with that bemused expression reserved for interacting with the pathetically un-hip.

What I like about my old Leica film cameras, and what I find lacking in most current digital cameras, is the way the simplicity of the technology, stripped to its essential functions, allows you, paradoxically, an easier creative flow. The technology isn’t in the way. I’m not bewitched by it, lured into believing that it offers something creatively not offered by a simpler device. It’s Jack White’s point: creative acts aren’t the product of a technology, whether it be a guitar or a camera; they are the product of a unique creative human act. The guitar, or the camera, is simply the conduit, and that conduit can either refine, or coarsen, the connection to our creative vision. In the words of Anthony Lane,

The truest mechanisms run on nothing but themselves. What is required is a machine constructed with such skill that it renders every user—from the pro to the banana-fingered fumbler—more skillful as a result. We need it to refine and lubricate, rather than block or coarsen, our means of engagement with the world: we want to look not just at it, however admiringly, but through it. In that case, we need a Leica.

So, I give Leica credit. In this age of 100,000 RGB Metering Sensors, “Scene Intelligent Auto Mode with Handheld Night Scene and HDR Backlight Control Modes,” image stabilization, face recognition technology and 14 fps burst modes, I can still open up my B&H catalog and order a brand new Leica MP or M7 film camera, or, if I prefer digital, a Monchrom with manual focus and completely manual exposure capabilities, just like my M4. That’s remarkable in this day and age, and Leica deserves profound credit. Enough, I suspect, to allow one to look the other way at the occasional Hello Kitty Limited Edition.

 

 

A Leica M6 and Tri-X v. the Leica Monochrom

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An interesting comparison of 35mm Tri-X shot with an M6 versus the digital Monochrom, identical subjects, identical lenses, by French photographer Alexandre Maller (www.alexandremaller.com) posted on summilux.net. All photographs are by Mr. Maller.

3 lenses used: -. Summicron 35 asph – Summicron 50 V – Apo-Summicron 90 asph. 

Silver images: Tri-X exposed at ISO 400 and developed in Ilford LC 29-1. The negatives were then scanned at 3200 DPI original size with an Epson V700,.

Digital images: 400 ISO DNG , then post processed in Adobe Camera RAW 6.6. 

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In resolution and detail the digital files are superior, but I prefer the rendering and the particular dynamics of the film – the rendering from highlights to shadows and grain distribution over various tones looks more pleasing to the eye, fuller, warmer, less ‘plasticky’ even looking at limited web-sized pictures. After over a decade of rapid development in digital capture the best digital engineers still haven’t mastered the art of digital film emulation. The clinical digital sterility is still there with the Monochrom, especially seen on mid tones and highlights. To achieve the look of film with the Monochrom, which is what Leica purports it to do, you’d need to add digital grain to certain midtones, soften highlights (often impossible with digital files because they’re clipped), and expand the shadows.

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Tri-X (Above). Monochrom (Below)

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Tri-X (Above). Monochrom (Below)

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Tri-X (Above). Monochrom (Below)

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Tri-X (Above). Monochrom (Below)

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Which leads to the obvious question: why spend $7500 on a digital camera that emulates the “film look” when you can just buy a used Leica M film camera for $1000 and a 100′ roll of Tri-X and get the real thing? And another thing to think about: in 50 years that M4 you buy on Ebay for $950 will still be working just fine, no batteries needed, while your Monochrom will have been consigned to the junk heap decades ago.

The M4, all parts made by Leitz, is all mechanical, all parts capable of being replaced without much ado by a competent repairman or machinist. The MM (and all digital ‘cameras’) are consumer electronic commodities meant to be replaced by newer, “better” commodities every three years or so. Your Monochrom employs specialized chips and other parts, not made by Leica and therefore out of their control, which exist in finite supply: a proprietary shape and voltage battery manufactured by a third party, proprietary code to run itself, a proprietary imaging chip. Your Leica MM also depends on a host of other third-party technology (e.g. computers, image processing programs, web browsers) over which neither Leica nor you have any control. In 15 years, while your M4 loaded with Tri-X sits happily on your shelf next to book binders full of sleeved negatives you can touch and manipulate at your leisure, your Monochrom, all electronics and tiny motors, will be unrepairable because there won’t be parts. And good luck finding and/or retrieving all your MM DNG files.

 

Bruce Davidson and the Girl With the Kitten

 

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In 1960, American documentary photographer Bruce Davidson captured this image of a young woman holding a kitten.

I always had a feeling for Britain. We would listen to the BBC during the war, when I had an uncle Herb who was flying a bomber, which I believe may have been from England.

In 1960, I purchased a Hillman Minx convertible, which wasn’t a very expensive car in those days, and drove around England with the top down. It was an American-drive car, which was an advantage because I could snap people on the sidewalk more easily. I also had a sports coat made with the side pockets larger, so I could fit my Leicas in them.

I found this young woman quite by accident, as I was walking the London streets. I came upon a group of teenagers, and struck up a conversation. They took me into a cave, and then some kind of huge dancehall. I think it was on an island. It was getting late, and I needed to move on the next morning, so I didn’t stay very long.

But I isolated this girl to photograph, holding that kitten, which was probably a stray she had found on the street, and carrying that bedroll wrapped around her body. There was a great deal of mystery to her. I didn’t know where she had come from, and I didn’t get her name, but there was something about that face – the hopefulness, positivity and openness to life – it was the new face of Britain.

The picture was taken with a normal 50mm lens, with a wide aperture. I used the Ilford film, called HPS – hyper-sensitive film – which I loved, although it is probably no longer made. I loved that grainy texture; she has the feeling of a statue.

I still feel close to this picture. I wonder what that young girl is doing now. She must be lurking around London someplace, or she may not be alive, you never know.

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Bruce Davidson’s Black Paint Leica M2

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.

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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.

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Garry Winogrand’s M4

Born in 1928 and died in 1984, Winogrand is considered by many to be one of the most influential American photographers of the 20th century. By the early 1970’s when he purchased this M4, he was shooting roughly 1000 rolls of film a year, a pace he accelerated until his death from cancer in 1984.

While Winogrand is known for his wide angle vision (many of his iconic photos were taken with a 28mm Elmarit) he typically carried two camera bodies with him, one with a 28 and one with a moderate telephoto. This particular M4 was produced in Wetzler in November, 1970, which means it probably saw 12 years and approximately 15,000 rolls of concentrated use by Winogrand.

According to Stephen Gandy, this M4 passed to one of Winogrand’s friends, who still uses the camera. I’m pretty certain Winogrand would have wanted it that way.

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The M5. Leica’s Misunderstood Masterpiece: A Revisionist History

In 1971, Leica introduced its successor to the M4, the Leica M5. In development since 1966, the M5 represented a tour de force of then current rangefinder technology – it was the first metered M camera and the first 35mm rangefinder to combine interchangeable lenses with a through the lens (“TTL”) metering system. Among its other design innovations,  its viewfinder incorporated a coupled light meter and shutter speed data in the viewfinder itself, it relocated the ungainly rewind crank of the M4 to the left end of the base-plate, its shutter speed dial overhung the front of the camera so you could set shutter speed while keeping you eye to the viewfinder, and it located the carry-strap lugs both at the left end of the camera so that the camera would hang vertically rather than horizontally when worn.  It was also the first M camera to use black chromium for the finish of its black versions (much more durable than the black enamel previously used).

It’s semi-spot meter utilized a 8mm diameter double cadmium sulfide resistor located on a carrier arm centered 8mm in front of the film plane. When pressing the shutter release, the carrier arm swung down parallel to the shutter curtain and hid in a recess below the shutter itself. It remains, to this day, the most accurate meter ever put into a Leica M film camera. The M5 viewfinder used the same 68.5 base length and .72 magnification as the M4 with the added feature of viewing the shutter speed and match needle metering.

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 So, why is the M5 commonly considered a “failure,” the camera that almost bankrupted Leica? Anecdotal testimonies claim that M5’s sat on dealers’ shelves for years after production stopped in 1974 after only 4 years. I purchased my first Leica, an M5, new in 1976, 2 years after its date of manufacture. I remember a steep discount to the official retail price.

The answer, I would claim, is not so much its aesthetics or its size (the two most common explanations for its demise) but rather a confluence of factors, both internal and external to Leica, a confluence that would have doomed the M5 in whatever guise Leica chose to go forward with its M series. 

The first reason is simply the tenor of the times photographically. By 1971, rangefinder technology was seen by both professional and amateur as an antiquated throw-back with numerous disadvantages. Professionals had increasingly embraced the Nikon F system and its excellent but affordable optics, and amateurs had followed the lead and made SLR’s dominant in the 35mm market. Even Leica had bowed to the future, although reluctantly. At the beginning of the 1960s, Leitz continued to believe in the inherent advantages of the rangefinder over the SLR, but found it necessary for their continued relevance to produce and market their own SLR system, the Leicaflex.

The second reason, and I think the most apt, is Leica’s decision to produce the bargain priced Leica CL system in conjunction with the M5. Leica sold 65,000 CL’s between 1971 and 1974, mostly to the amateur market, at the same time it was marketing the M5 to professionals. As such, the CL cannibalized a large portion of the market the previously addressed solely by the M series. The production numbers point to this conclusion: Leitz sold approximately 57,000 rangefinder cameras in the initial 4.5 years of the M4’s production (1966-1971) and 92,000 rangefinder cameras in the 4 years of the M5’s production. The CL accounted for more than 2/3rds of those sales, driven mainly by a price 1/5th of the M5. The truth of the ex post facto justifications for the modest sales of the M5 (i.e. it didn’t look like a traditional M) is belied by the obvious fact that the CL didn’t look like the previous M’s either and yet it sold briskly.

It was only with the appearance of Japanese Leica collectors in the 1990’s that demand and prices for the M5 rose to levels of other M’s. Unfortunately, the M5 has continued to labor under the stigma be being a “failure.” If you’ve ever used an M5, you’ll know its a wonderful camera, the last of the true Wetzler M’s built without compromise. I even think its a beautiful camera, especially the chrome version. Whatever you think of its aesthetics, it certainly doesn’t deserve the lingering stigma attached to it.