Tag Archives: Leica Mystique

The Leica Camera: A Tool, or a Luxury Item?

Feiniger 1952

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.

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 a Swiss Army 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.

 

 

Deconstructing the ‘Leica Mystique’

Guys with Leicas

You’ve all seen him: the guy with the Leica M with the serious expression on his face, taking pictures of people drinking coffee downtown. The M9 with the Summilux Aspherical and the black gaffer tape…..suburban drone by day, on weekends a dogged photojournalist out on the prowl, looking for a scoop, or at least a “Decisive Moment” of some sort. You’ll find the same guy on camera forums, buying and selling and trading and debating Leicas with a seriousness usually reserved for theological debates. Central to his mythos is The Leica Glow, an undefined yet undeniable characteristic of Leica “glass.” This photographer, almost never a working pro (except for self-proclaimed Leica “expert” Thorsteen Overgaard), often as not a dentist in the throes of mid-life mania, is suffering  a communal photographic delusion referred to as The Leica Mystique.

I suppose that some of the so-called Leica Mystique rests on Leica being the grand-daddy of 35mm photography (somebody had to be first), and a leader in the quality end of the market for several decades. And, while Leicas aren’t possessed of magical qualities, they are, at least to the extent we’re talking about Leica Film cameras, very finely made cameras. After using a Nikon F to cut my photographic teeth, I purchased a new M5 in the late 70’s, specifically because I wanted my photographic experience to be “better.” Alas, there were no heavenly choirs, and my photographs didn’t suddenly become any more compelling by virtue of the Leica Glow.  What it did offer me was a rather nuanced experience- a bit quirky and different to modern equipment, but an excellent tactile experience due to the fit, finish, and superb build quality. It was the Nikon F without the rough edges and the “clunk.” It pleased me that something so simple could feel so good in the hand and could be so smooth and unobtrusive. It didn’t hurt that I felt  like I was using something rare and valuable that had its place in photographic history. Over the next 30 years I kept the M5 and added an M2, M4, M6 and M7, my experience each time matching that of the M5.

So, it was in looking for that same experience that I bought a Nikon S3 Millennial a while back. Its a beautiful camera, reputed to have cost Nikon much more to produce than the $6000 price tag. Nikon as a corporation is to be commended for taking the time and effort to resurrect such a beautiful piece of 35mm history. But its no Leica. The S3 finder is cluttered, the rangefinder patch is dull and fuzzy, the restriction to a 50mm field of view is inconvenient, lens changes are slow. It does, however, come with a killer lens, the Nikkor 50 1.4 which is every bit as good as the $5000 Summilux 50 (ironic, huh?).

nikons3

It’s hard not to compare the S3 Millennial to a garden variety Leica M2 of the same vintage (both being manufactured in the late 50s). The M2 sports a great finder with 35 FOV capability, and a rangefinder patch you don’t have to go searching for. Build quality every bit the match to the S3 Millennial, rebuilt just 14 years ago. Classic, supremely functional design, and much easier to use given the bright viewfinder/rangefinder, the  rounded corners and perfectly placed shutter release. Aside from being easier to use, what I like about the M2 is it still feels relevant, new almost, in spite of the fact that its pushing 50 years old. Unlike the S3, the M2 doesn’t have that feel of using a piece of history. Of the dozen or so cameras that I own (film and digital), I use the M2 probably as much or more than any other. It lives with a Voigtlander 35 2.5 attached to it, which to me is the ultimate expression of a simplified 35mm film camera.

L2000-4406

So, if there is any validity to The Leica Mystique, it’s a simple fact born of use, not some abstract concept derived from magical thinking and wish fulfillment . Between the S3 and the M2, it’s the Leica that puts a smile on my face – it’s the form factor and ease of use. The M2 is what I would call the more serious picture taking machine – very fast and intuitive, and more transparent as a tool. The S3 is a beautiful mechanical device, but in relation to the M2 it lacks the true ‘form follows function’ tradition embodied by the M2.

Most of the so-called Leica Mystique is a result of a certain admiration for the work of famous Leica users over the years and a not so subtle desire to justify the price tag. But some of it surely stems from its quality as an instrument – anyone who uses hand tools, of any sort, can appreciate tools that are very well made. There is also a certain pleasure in using tools that embody the simplest, most functional technology – and in knowing that there is no upgrade path. In the digital age, where manufacturers try to convince us to chase our tails in an elusive search for the newest and best, this is a wonderfully liberating feeling. In this sense, the Nikon (or the Canon or the Hexar or the Contax) is simply not in the same league as the M2. Of course, Leica’s photographic history certainly doesn’t hurt.  Somebody had to be first, somebody had to be better than anyone else, and that just happened to be Leica.