Tag Archives: LTM

The Leica IIIg: Pleasure of Use As An Aesthetic Experience

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Above is the camera I probably use more than any other camera I own, and I own a bunch of them. It’s a Leica IIIg 35mm film camera with a Leicavit trigger winder and an external viewfinder to allow the use of the 3.5cm Nikkor lens mounted on it (the native viewfinder only accommodates a 50mm perspective). It needs no batteries because it has no electronics. It is purely mechanical; not even a light meter to suggest proper exposure. Of course, being completely mechanical, it has no automation. You set shutter speed and f-stop, you wind and rewind the film by hand with a knurled knob. To focus you look through one window (the rangefinder) to gain focus and then move your eye to a second window (the viewfinder) to frame your shot.

The question I often ask myself is why? Why do I use this camera so often to the exclusion of newer, “better” cameras (leaving aside the whole issue of why film in a digital age)? Sitting next to it on my shelf is a Nikon F5, the best and most technologically advanced 35mm film camera ever made, or, if it’s a question of preference for a rangefinder camera, a Hexar RF, a metered rangefinder built by Konica in 1999 with auto exposure, auto film wind on and the ability to mount Leica bayonet mount lenses. Yet I rarely use either when I have the choice of picking up the IIIg. And you’ll never find me staring lovingly at the F5 or the Hexar as you will when the IIIg is within my view.

The answer, I presume, is simple, and speaks a lot to part of why I suspect all photographers are drawn to our craft: it is the aesthetic beauty of the photographic instrument itself, and its tactile pleasure in use that I’m drawn to. As a documentary photographer of 40+ years, my mantra has always been that the equipment is irrelevant, simply the means to the end of good photographs. Any camera in the right hands can produce stunning images; the best, most expensive, most technologically advanced camera in the hands of someone without a vision to see will produce inferior photos. But, if I’m honest with myself, that’s really not the full truth. Some cameras CAN make us better at seeing things, and it has nothing to do with what technology they offer. It has to do with how they inspire us to be mindful of what we’re looking at and what we’re trying to do. The IIIg, primitive as it is, is a camera whose very use gives pleasure and is itself aesthetic in nature.

Leonardo Da Vinci called simplicity “the ultimate sophistication.” Certain environments, modes of life, rules of conduct and designs are more conducive to harmony than others. Simplicity of a tool’s design and function, not to be confused with its automation, fosters creativity by allowing a flow to the creative process. And its non-automated operation encourages engagement, thoughtfulness, mindfulness. An automated camera encourages a lazy eye. And, of course, there is the pure aesthetic pleasure of using a thing well built. The old Barnack screw mount Leicas are mechanical jewels, built to last for generations. The IIIg is, in my opinion, the pinnacle of Leica screw mount design, and hence the best Leica ever built.

My IIIg was made in 1956. I’m sure I’ll be using it till the day I draw my last breath. By contrast, in 2011 I threw away as junk my first DSLR, a Nikon D100 I bought new in 2003. The D100, like almost all cameras produced today, is a consumer item, used and ultimately used up. The IIIg remains a mechanical jewel, a serious tool built for serious use. Even today.

 

 

Nikon’s W-Nikkor 3.5cm 1.8 – Is This The Best 35mm Wide Angle Ever Made For A Leica?

W Nikkor 3.5cm 1.8

 

In 1956, two years after the introduction of the Nikon S2, Nikon delivered a stunning new 35mm (3.5cm) lens of 7 element 5 group design with a maximum aperture of 1:1.8.  It employed rare earth Lanthanum glass to improve spherical aberration and curvature of field, enhancing both sharpness and image flatness. This Nikon mount lens used a convex shaped rear lens element larger than the front, which minimized the spherical aberration and coma problems usually associated with fast wide angle optics. It was one in a series of excellent fast optics produced by Nikon for their rangefinders, following the 8.5cm 1;1.5 in 1953 and the 5.0cm 1:1.1 in 1956. The 3.5cm 1.8 was Nikon’s shot across Leica’s bow, given Leitz’s preeminence in wide angle design, incorporating the highest technology of the period to produce optics as good, or better than, the Leitz offerings.

The W Nikkor 3.5cm 1.8 was met with rapturous reviews by Nikon photographers; almost all rated it superior to the Leitz offerings at the time, and most claimed it better than the f2 Summicron and the 2.8 Summaron both introduced by Leitz 2 years later in 1958.

Given the reception of the Nikon Mount 3.5cm, in 1957 Nikon briefly decided to offer the lens in thread mount for Leica rangefinders. While optically the same as the Nikon mount, the design of the Leica mount model is slightly different. The front element is flat, and the focusing ring is also flat without the scalloped-design on the Nikon S-Mount version. While all LTM copies are coated, Nikon omitted the “C” designation on a few hundred of the latter produced lenses. These non-designated C lenses command premium prices.

W Nikkor35mmf18 LTM

 

While Nikon produced 6500 of the Nikon S mount 3.5cm lens, it produced a very limited run of approximately 1500 of the Leica mount. The LTM W-Nikkor 3.5cm 1.8 exhibits extremely high resolution and high contrast in a lens faster than ƒ2. The actual resolution of this 60 year old lens is nothing short of astonishing. Even more astonishing is, that in contrast to other lenses from that era the W-Nikkor retains this kind of performance over the whole frame.The Nikon lens is so impressively good it took Leica 40 years to match its optical excellence with the $5000 Aspherical Summilux.

The W-Nikkor3.5cm 1.8 Leica mount lens was then, and remains, a rare and much sought after lens, and comes up for sale rather infrequently. If you want to try one on your Leica, if you can find one, you can expect to pay $1600-$2000 for a BGN grade copy, with prices escalating significantly for exceptional copies.

W Nikkor 35

Ironic, then, that maybe the best 35mm focal length lens ever produced for the venerable Leica was made by Nikon.