Category Archives: Leica Camera

Which Leica Goes Best With My Filson Bag?

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Bag aficionados are a sorry bunch, even in the netherworld of gear heads. They demark the low-water mark of gear mania, about as far low as you can go in the world of photo dilettantism. Even I, incorrigible gearhead that I am, a guy who writes a blog dedicated to a brand of camera, which is itself a fairly acute form of gear mania, finds the luxury camera bag fetish unseemly. Admittedly, there’s no harm in it, just as there’s no accounting for the passions of otherwise reasonable men. As a passion, It certainly is less dangerous that racing motorcycles or jumping out of planes or cave diving or any of the other irrational enthusiasms grown men possess.

That being said – listen up, you guys rocking your M240 with the Noctilux and a pocket full of ND filters so you can shoot everything at full aperture for the amazing, creamy bokeh – Filson has the bag for you. Created, no less, by Magnum Pj’s, you know, the guys who patented the “Decisive Moment” (how cool is that ?!?). From the Filson website:

“Award-winning photojournalists David Alan Harvey and Steve McCurry know that photography is about taking risks, getting close and being ready for anything. That’s why we worked with them to design photography bags for those who refuse to stay indoors. We combined the craftsmanship used to develop our rugged luggage with the decades-deep expertise of Harvey and McCurry to create durable camera bags built for use in the field.”

As for me, if I’m going to be “taking risks, getting close, refusing to stay indoors,” give me the oldest, most beat up, shittiest looking bag I can find. If it looks like I’ve got a 40 ounce in there, or if I’m using it to carry motor oil for my motorcycle, all the better. Or, better yet one of those beauties from China for $8, free shipping. The last thing I need is a designer bag with a designer label while i’m rocking $18,000 worth of Leica swag, getting close and taking risks.

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The Duality of Leicaphilia

Valbray-Leica-watch-cameraWhen I speak of “leicaphilia” in what follows I’m referring to the love of all things Leica that animates many of us partisans of the iconic Leica brand. If you don’t suffer from it you probably won’t understand it. If you just read about it, without having suffered from it yourself, with all the semi-mystical attributes often ascribed to Leicas by folks who should know better, you’d be within your rights to dismiss the whole phenomenon as simply another irrational mania that afflicts humans in a myriad of ways, whether it be in the form of the religious or political, psychological or philosophical. Even for us long-time Leicaphiles, suffering the most from the malady, it’s difficult to justify many of our enthusiasms in our more rational moments.

I understand, and I’ve often used this blog to try and deflate some of the more pernicious claims seriously addled Leicaphiles sometimes make – you know, your Leica makes you a better photographer, or you’re not really serious about photography unless you use a Leica, or there’s an identifiable ‘Leica Glow’ one gets when using Leitz optics, or one can easily identify negatives and files produced by Leica cameras and Leitz lenses, or your M8, with its obsolete sensor and abysmal DXO score, somehow still produces files rivaling what you can get with a Nikon D5.

And then there’s all the ancillary crap attempting to hitch its wagon to the exclusivity that association with Leica can provide – bags, grips, leather cases, thumbs-up contraptions, lens hoods, soft release shutters, red dots, black dots to cover up the red dots, replacement leather skins of various textures and hues, and my personal favorite for ridicule, Frankensteinian dual hot-shoe brackets that allow you to mount both an external finder and meter on the top of your diminutive little IIIf, akin to putting a lowering kit and spinning neon wheels on your beautiful vintage BMW 2002.

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I don’t pretend to be a ‘fine-art photographer’. Photography for me is a process of documenting things, of keeping records. As a documentarian, I try not to romanticize the tools I use. And, while, emotionally, I’m still stuck in the film era, from a practical perspective the ease of digital wins out when I need something with a minimum of fuss or on a deadline. (When I need something absolutely permanent, however, film always wins out). My philosophy, when it comes to choosing a camera to use for a given need, is this: grab whatever works best. Lately, that usually means a Nikon D3s or, if quick and easy, a digital Ricoh, or, for what’s really dear to me, a film camera, preferably a rangefinder – an M4 or M5, a Hexar RF, a Voigtlander Bessa R2S or a Contax G, all great cameras –  or a Nikon F5 loaded with HP5.

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Amsterdam, 2015, Hexar RF and 28mm M-Hexanon, HP5 @ 800 in D76

It’s really only peripherally about the camera you use. It’s ultimately about the photographs you create, and the photos you create are a function of your technical mastery of your tools coupled with your aesthetic and reportorial sense. It’s about understanding shutter speed, aperture and depth of field, mastery of exposure; using the correct lens for a given task; understanding how perspective changes with distance and focal length; understanding the physics of the color of light; and last, and most importantly, knowing what’s important to point your camera at.

Having said all that, I’m just as susceptible to all the nonsense than are the unapologetic fanboys who give Leica a bad name in more serious circles. I obsess over the particulars of thoughtfully made photographic tools — the tiny details done just right, the haptics of a knurled knob or the aesthetic balance of chrome and vulcanite, the muffled ‘thlunk’ of a mechanical shutter.

Damn if I don’t spend a lot of my time fondling my film Leicas, ‘exercising’ the shutter while waiting for the decisive moment, or just simply carrying them around with me, admiring them for their mechanical beauty. Right now my enthusiasms seem to be centered on a Leica IIIg with cool vintage 5 cm lenses attached. Of course, tomorrow it might be different; I could very well pick up an M2 and switch emotional gears, now proclaiming it the coolest camera ever, or a black M4 mounting a Summicron that feels sublime in use. It need not even be a Leica. It could be a Nikon S2 or SP or F or even an F5, a Hexar RF or my current obsession, a Bessa R2S. Consistency, I must admit, is not my strong suite when it comes to my irrational attachment to film cameras. In this I am in agreement with Salvador Dali, who advised that it’s best to frequently contradict oneself so as not to be predictable, because the worst, the most boring one can be is predictable, consistency being, as Oscar Wilde once noted, the last refuge of the unimaginative.

The sorts of fondler’s interactions many of us enjoy speak to a need that is embedded in our relationships with traditional film photography, a tactile enjoyment of the process of photography and the pleasures given by the finely crafted tools we’ve used in that process. A fascination with, and admiration of, the tools themselves is part of what drew us to photography in the first place, and us fondlers have no need to apologize for this.

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Our often irrational attachment to our old cameras, I think, is ultimately about a desire for permanence in an endeavor whose technologies now evolve at warp speed. The charms of really nice film camera are many: the look and feel of tools well-crafted for long use, the familiarity created by using them for decades. It feels nice to use a camera for a long time. Do you remember the digital camera you were using 15 years ago? Mine was a Nikon d100. And there were those funky experiments that wrote their files to 3.5-inch floppies. Remember those? See where this is going? In 15 years, at our current pace, you won’t even recognize your ‘capture device’. In any event, I have no interest in having to learn the nuances of a new technical device every other year.

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Its why I love my iiif and iiig, my M4 and M5, my Nikon F and S3. Mechanical cameras, and the technology they embody, can be passed down from fathers to sons and daughters without the need of technical manuals. Learn the traditional skills of photographic capture: aperture, shutter speed, film speeds, and you’re able to figure out the marginal differences of any mechanical camera in a matter of a minute or two. In learning to master it, it becomes an habitual extension of your way of seeing, rather than a device that stands between you and what you see. I can pick up an M4 after not having touched one for years, and can still immediately operate it almost unconsciously. If I let my digital camera sit for too long, invariably I’m scrolling through menus and submenus trying to figure out some basic operation, usually standing flat-footed while what I grabbed the camera for plays itself out unphotographed.

The advance in digital technologies is stunning, but it has vitiated quaint notions of any practical longevity for a camera, even those, like Leica’s, that still pay lip-service to the idea that you might purchase a camera with longevity in mind. Camera product cycles now track the cycles for computers, because your digital camera is a computer. Manufacturers fight to see who can cram the most buttons on the back of their latest image capture device, and ‘camera nuts’ dutifully hand over their money for the latest best new thing.  Hard-core consumers, longing for the next thing even as we’ve just laid hands on the current version, are where the money is, so as we queue to buy the latest ‘must have’ camera we reinforce and reward manufacturers and help perpetuate the very process by which we remain dissatisfied, perpetually craving the next update. I suppose, given the realities of consumerist capitalism,  these cycles are inevitable and will remain with us as Nikon and Canon, and to a lesser extent Leica, cram more “new and improved” digital cameras down our throats well into the immediate future.

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When it was new, a Leica M4 camera cost a lot of money.  Fast forward to 2016, and a simple online calculator using the Consumer Price Index (CPI) indicates that the relative purchase price of an M4 today would be $7,080.00. This answer is obtained by multiplying $1500 (approximately what a black M4 would cost new in 1974) by the percentage increase in the CPI from 1974 to 2015. So, a new Leica M4 in 1974 cost about the same, in real dollars, as a new Leica MM costs today. But the difference is this: when you bought the M4 you expected to use it for decades.  I have an M4 made in 1974. It still works exactly as intended and I use it often. It’s not just a collector’s piece that sits on my shelf. I will eat my hat, however, if that MM you buy today will still be in your bag in 15 years, let alone working.  And forget 40 year-old Monochroms. In a relatively short time you’ll have to sell it at a loss, or its electronics will fail and you’ll be out-of-pocket for its replacement with something else.  This is the current reality now that cameras have gone from being something like a durable good, as was the M4, to a consumer electronic commodity that you replace every two years or so.

Maybe, leicaphilia isn’t simply about fondling and exclusivity; maybe it’s also the most prominent manifestation of a fading photo-cultural memory that many of us value highly and don’t want to see disappear. I’m convinced there remains a market for modern cameras (even with electronics) that are intuitively simple and built, cameras that eschew the technological dead end in favor of efficiency and directness of function, yet we often sneer when someone like Leica gives them to us.  Some of us still like the notion of over-built even if there is less intent to keep something forever. It speaks to a psychologic longing for some sense of permanence in a temporary world.

Part of what makes us leicaphiles, more than just the fetishization of a particular camera, is the appreciation of the tools we’ve traditionally employed as photographers, when a Leica or a Nikon, Canon or Hasselblad film camera was the simplest, best means to do what was important. Our camera was our tool, and we built a relationship with it that lasted for decades. It’s this that’s been lost in photography’s evolution, a sense of rootedness and tradition that spanned product cycles. A simplicity and directness, a tactile pleasure in the use of our photographic tools, seen in the continued appeal of slow-boat analogue techniques and of old Leicas.

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“If Only I Had a Leica”

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For Leicaphilia by Dax H.*

Leica is a camera to last your lifetime and perhaps your heir’s lifetime. Buy one or two and you will never need another unless you’re a combat cameraman, (they get broken, flooded and wore out) or you’re into long telephoto or extreme wide or fisheye or microscopy. In this case you probably need an SLR.

Leica M bodies and lenses are superb, virtually flawless. If you shoot slides/transparencies you will perhaps see the quality difference depending on what camera/optical system you’re comparing it to.  If you get your exposures spot on, If your chosen processor gets the processing spot on.  As for prints, the old saying is “exposed through a Leica, printed through a Coke bottle bottom”.  If you’re printing through a generic enlarger lens, perhaps dirty, at a less than optimum f stop, film plane not parallel with the easel, you will not see any of the Leica magic in your prints. If you have the skill and knowledge for complete control over everything from the moment of exposure until you hold and view that dry print, then you can say you are holding a Leica image. Few people can say this truthfully.

There’s the old saying “If you can’t make them good, then make them big”. If you want a big print, use a bigger piece of film. To understand why, try this simple experiment: take a 35mm camera, with a normal 5cm lens, (a Leica with a Summicron will do). Load it with your favorite B&W film. Then beg or borrow a 2 1/4 camera such as a Yashica Mat 124. Keep it cheap, no need for a Rollei or Hasse. Load your cheap Yashica with the same emulsion you’re using in the Leica. Take them both out on a tripod with a cable release and shoot. Process both rolls together in the same chemicals and then print the 35mm negs and the 6 by 6 negs to 11 by 14 inches. Print them with the same enlarger. You will be amazed at how much better the 6 by 6 print looks compared to the 35mm enlargement, even when exposed on a relatively cheap 6 by 6 camera. Square inches of film always wins, no matter how “perfect” the 35mm lens is.  If you wish to make prints no bigger than a 5 by 7 or 6 by 9 inch print then 35 mm is brilliant! A properly controlled print from a full frame 35mm negative can rival (I didn’t say beat) a contact print from a 5 by 7 negative. If you only make 4 by 6 prints produced by commercial photo finishers, it makes no difference if you expose that film through a Leitz lens, a Argus C-3, a NIkon lens, as long as that camera and lens are working up to specification, the film is fresh and your exposures are correct. At 4 by 6 inches you will have to do close side by side comparisons to see a difference and on the same roll on the same day, due to chemical and equipment changes at the printers. I see no advantage image wise in using a M series Leica system for commercial, machine made prints for less than 5 or 6 times enlargement.

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Dear Lord what a slave I’ve been to my Leicas. In the past 40 years I’ve been a caretaker and bodyguard for my Leicas, worrying about knocking them into solid objects, having them stolen, tying the camera bag to a table leg when out to dinner, slinging it under my arm in a suit coat while trying to dance with a lady, not going in areas where it will be recognized by punks that will mug me for it, trying to keep it dry in the rain, cool in the summer, warm in the winter, locked up when not at home.

I am now a retired combat cameraman/ photojournalist/ picture maker. My Leicas – a IIIF, three M3’s, one M2 and a M6 –  are still locked up. So are my Nikon F and F2AS and the Hasse and the Rollei TLR. I still use them on the odd occasion; they are brilliant cameras for the working man, I’d say the best a photographer can get. Most of my shooting now is either printed by myself, (yes, on a Leitz enlarger), to either 4 by 6 or 5 by 7 inches, (not big but very good). If I want bigger prints, I grab a 2 1/4 camera or a 4 by 5 or a 5 by 7 camera. I can only display so many 16 by 20 prints on the walls of my house. If I’m not doing my own B&W prints, then I shoot color and have it printed by a semi-custom commercial printer.

When I shoot 35mm I now use a Voigtlander Bessa R with either a 61LD Industar or a Industar 50 or a Jupiter 8 or a Jupiter 3. My other casual-use cameras are a Zorki 4 or a FED 1 or a Kiev 4. All with FSU lenses. They are great fun. For a 4 by 6 inch print it doesn’t matter what camera or lens you use as long as it meets specification. Even at 5 by 7 these “cheap” cameras will compete in image quality with virtually anything using the same size film. They’ll never be treasured by my heirs, have virtually no resale value and as one fellow said “He who steals my cameras, steals junk”, but they are fun to shoot, produce wonderful images and I don’t worry about them. I can go out and enjoy myself. Of the cameras mentioned the Voigtlander is my go-to camera. It’s superb. [Editor’s Note: Yes, the Bessa R’s are superb. I have a Bessa R2S that I use for my collection of Nikkor S lenses; it’s a simple, well-made film camera with a big, bright viewfinder, easily one of my favorites.]

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My advice: stop worrying about the camera you use and have fun! The key is using the correct camera for the job. Don’t get hung up on myth and mystique. The camera is only a tool, and what a fun tool it is. Any camera and film of today will produce images that Sudek, Stieglitz, Atget, or Bresson would be proud to record. You will see more difference and character in your images by just changing a film and or developer combination than you will by changing camera brand or lens brand.

You have now heard the results of my lifetime of experience with Leica cameras reduced to a few paragraphs. Make what you like of it. Now go out and make some worthwhile and memorable images and stop losing sleep about what your images will look like if “You just had a Leica”.

Dax H. is a retired combat photographer. Now 66, he has supported himself 100% from photography since he was 16 years old. He started with a Speed Graphic and flash bulbs and a IIIf Red Dial with a Summarit 1.5. 

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Why I (Still) Love Leica

leica m-a 2In a world where most manufacturers have abandoned all-metal construction and favor automated assembly, Leica M bodies and lenses continue to push the envelope of supremely compact, superbly constructed, photographic tools. Their newest optical offerings, the 24/1.4 and 28/1.4, continue the tradition of cost-is-no-object over-the-top excellence for which Leica is known.

You have to pay through the nose for it, yes, but a Leica product is always going to be as good as it gets; certainly its never going to be just average, or worse, mediocre. Leica’s philosophy of cost-is-no-object excellence may not be compatible with your wallet, but it’s consistent with its history, where no compromise excellence has always been the guiding principle.

Leica doesn’t release a product and immediately orphan it. Witness the sensor kerfuffle with the M9, a camera which is now 8 years long in the tooth. Your 2008 M9 sensor having problems in 2016? No problem – send it to Leica for a free replacement. That’s commitment to one’s product. Of course, critics will point out that, given Leica’s price points, that should be expected. Both perspectives are correct, but give Leica credit for meeting its end of the bargain, which, in this age of rapacious capitalism and corporations whose main object is not to serve their client base but rather screw them as quickly and efficiently as possible, seems an increasingly a quaint anomaly.

Leica doesn’t release marginal lenses for high prices to protect their higher-end products. Leica doesn’t release marginal anything (with the obvious exception of some of the more ridiculous collector’s editions, which seem to me almost an ironic inside corporate joke). Leica’s design and philosophy is simple and well-known. Create the best, cost be damned. Make people pay for it, and be proud of it. If you don’t like it, feel free to go elsewhere.

No other camera company is doing that. Canon, Nikon, Sony, Olympus, Panasonic, all of them, in addition to some stellar top of the line stuff, release marginal lenses, cheap cameras, incoherent products; and when the do offer a good product, they usually abandon them in short order, moving on to the next gimmick to sell to what they clearly consider a gullible and easily fleeced client base. Fuji is the only other company that even comes close to Leica’s design philosophy, and you can see the attraction Fuji’s products have for aspiring digital Leicaphiles; a Fuji has become the standard entry level Leica alternative for those looking for what Leica offers but unwilling or unable to afford the price premium.

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155c4d30148bc15c46dec2db8fe1fff0As an example of differing design philosophies, let’s talk about how digital camera companies design well-corrected lenses.  Digital technology has opened new opportunities for camera companies to make “better” optics via software correction. In camera, previously destructive things such as aberration, distortion, vignetting, and flare can be reduced or eliminated via software tuned to the characteristics of a particular lens. Olympus and Panasonic have taken this philosophy and run with it.

The result is a natively poor lens optically that can be made to perform like a better lens due to  the software running behind it. Go to a website that measures raw distortion and look up the specs of some of the lenses offered with current digital cameras. The native distortion is off the charts. I’m talking 6%. Back in the days before software correction, a 6% distortion would be considered a broken lens.

There are two 12mm prime lenses for the Micro 4/3 system: the SLR Magic f/1.6 and the Olympus f/2.0. The SLR Magic has distortion of 1.26% and costs $500. The Olympus has distortion of 5.4% and costs $800. Moreover, the SLR Magic is nearly a full stop brighter. In fairness, the Olympus is sharper and does correct aberrations in-lens, but in the battle of optical quality, the SLR Magic wins. And it’s less expensive. The moral of the story: Olympus thinks its client base are gullible idiots who’ll buy shoddy goods at inflated prices because of the label attached to it. Ironic, because that’s what Leica haters have been accusing Leica of doing for years. Leica does not do this. It may offer you something expensive, but it won’t ever be cheaply made. If someone at Leica ever even floated that idea as a viable business strategy, I suspect he would be forced to commit a Teutonic variation of seppuku.

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leica_m-a_black_frontLeica is not offering you a photographic tool designed as a cheap commodity, replaceable every few years. They’re not asking you to buy into a system thats going to be orphaned in short order. They’re not offering you average optics at inflated prices; they’re offering you exceptional optics at a price point that justifies the venture. And yet, a lot of irrational anger seems directed at Leica, usually by people with only a passing knowledge of its history.

It’s cheap optics at inflated prices that should make you angry. Plastic cameras that fall apart in a year should make you angry (yes, you Sony, with your NEX cameras. My wife has had two; they’re both computerized pieces-of-shit that became non-functional in short order). Abandoned systems should make you angry because the value of a lens is at least partially dependent on how much you can sell it for in the future, and if that lens is for a system that’s obsolete, you’ve now got an expensive paperweight.

So, after all is said and done, I would never buy brand a new Leica digital camera or one of their lenses, mainly because I can’t afford it, or even if I could, other less expensive digital offerings meet whatever needs I require of a digital capture device. When I want to take photographs, I’m happy to totter around with my film Leicas and my vintage lenses. However, don’t get me wrong: I respect Leica and their history, and respect their uncompromising design philosophy, even if it means that I’m priced out if it. They may be expensive, but they are also unique and necessary at a time when cameras have become commodities with a limited shelf life. I applaud Leica for attempting to keep alive whatever vestiges of the old paradigm – where a camera and its lenses were viewed as working tools designed and manufactured with quality and longevity in mind.

How do you put a price on that?

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Paris Photo 1976

SALON-PHOTO-1976-photo-jacques-REVON00001.jpegJacques Revon, 1976, Paris Photo

The first time I ever went to the Paris Salon de la Photo was in 1976. At the time I worked as a technician and photographer for the Société Lumière / Ilford in St Priest where I’d been employed for five years.

This was the golden age of the beautiful black-and-white silver gelatin print, the kind your eye lingers over, although the power of color photography was already on the rise, most notably attracting professional photographers with the famous Cibachrome process. – Jacques Revon

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An Astronomer Falls in Love with a Film Leica

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By Henry Joy McCracken for Leicaphilia.

“Show me a great photograph taken outdoors in the daytime that couldn’t have been taken with a roll of Tri-X at any point since the 1950s”

I’m an astronomer, and have been interested in astronomy for as long as I remember. I wonder if there is a connection between this and my interest in images and photographic images. Astronomers of course can only take the pictures or spectra, they can never interact with their subjects. Some people say, half-jokingly, that it isn’t really experimental science in the strict sense of the word because we can never actually do any experiments. For a photographic analogy, in our work we are more Cartier-Bresson than William Klein or Garry Winogrand, the latter of which was always cracking jokes and interacting with his subjects.

Nevertheless, I was always interested in taking photographs of terrestrial objects too. I grew up in Ireland in the 1970s, and I remember pleading with my mother to let me take one picture, just one picture with the only camera we had at the time, a polaroid instant camera, and finally she gave in, and I took a picture of our garden. I must have been six or seven. I waited, and anxiously peeled apart the backing layers. My blurred thumb was in the middle of the frame: nobody had told me how to take photographs! I’m trying hard here not to fall in the classic Irish trap of writing an autobiographical text, because that’s not what I want to do, but it’s amusing to note that there reason we had these cameras at all was simply to take pictures of headstones. My father made tombstones, and there was no catalogue or internet web site of course, so my mother and I were sent out to take pictures of the ‘greatest hits’ of the local cemeteries, and for that you needed a camera. We soon upgraded to a Pentax K1000, and I was allowed to pictures of tombstones with it. I still have that camera today, almost thirty years later, and it still works, although the meter is broken.

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Time passed. In the early 2000s, I switched to a small digital camera and shortly afterwards I moved to Paris. For me at the time it seemed one of the most important attributes of a camera is that it should be small and light, as I wanted to always have it with me when I was traveling; no, I didn’t know about Leica back then. To be honest, I never really thought much about photography since this switch to digital, even though I continued to take snapshots. Finally, I bought a better electronic camera and got rid of all the zoom lenses. I learned the latest software tools and stalked around the streets of Paris taking random images with my fixed focal length lens, as you are supposed to do. I looked at books of all the great photographers once again, and went more often to the museums. It is easy to be educated about photography here in Paris. Then a strange thing happened. I realised that I was spending a lot of time on the computer manipulating the colour and tonality of my images. Directly out of the camera they looked very flat and neutral, as they are supposed to. These digital images are supposed to be a literal representation of reality, but something was always lacking. Should I increase the contrast? Reduce the contrast? Convert to black and white? I couldn’t decide. The images were perfect, but just not right. Well, I said to myself, if you are spending all your time converting your images to black and white, why not just shoot directly in black and white with a film camera?

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I like to be in control, so this proposition seemed crazy at first. I couldn’t give my negatives to someone else to develop. It would mean mixing up chemicals and developing in our small Parisian apartment and scanning the negatives afterwards: no space for a darkroom. But I thought I would give it a try. I bought a roll of HP5+ for the old K1000 and took 36 photographs, getting it developed at a shop in town to start with. My first reaction when I saw the first scan from one of these images on my computer screen was, “yuk, this is out of focus”. But it was not out of focus. It was simply because I was displaying the scan of a 35mm negative full-screen on a high-resolution 27” monitor, something which was never meant to be done. You have to understand my background: I’ve spent many years working with the largest digital images from the largest astronomical cameras. They are some of the most technically perfect electronic detectors ever constructed by humans. These cameras have revolutionised astronomy and made possible enormous advances in our knowledge of the Universe in the last few decades. But, despite this, there were one or two images in that first roll which were interesting, and I decided to continue.

Six months later: I have now developed and scanned more than fifty rolls of film. In one of the few film shops left in Paris, somewhere around roll number 6, I bought a second-hand Leica. I remember the first thought I had when I lifted it up: this thing is damn heavy (being used to light electronic cameras). But after advancing the film and pressing the shutter a few times I thought, hmm, now I understand…

The whole experience is paradoxical. Yes, the images are what we would call today “low resolution” but pictures of people on film look real in an indefinable way which is never matched by digital capture. After a few months of staring at scans of my negatives, I realised walking around Paris I was surrounded by these plastic digital images everywhere. I had never seen them before, really. In astronomy, photographic images were always a major pain to deal with because of the roll-over in the bright part of the density/intensity curve. But this effect, combined with grain, makes the images much more appealing to look at. No, you would never want to measure anything on this, but it certainly looks better. And no, it cannot be replicated in software.

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I’m also partisan to the idea, expressed here and elsewhere, that the steady increase in resolution and sensitivity is completely pointless in terrestrial photography. In astronomy, of course, that is not the case, and we have been very grateful for our highly sensitive wide-format CCD detectors. These detectors have now trickled down from military to science to consumer. But how has this increase in creative and artistic possibilities been translated into better art? Show me a great photograph taken outdoors in the daytime that couldn’t have been taken with a roll of Tri-X at any point since the 1950s. Instead of making the image, we are assailed by an enormous range of technical choices. We are now spending an enormous amount of effort adding more and more transistors into smaller and smaller components, and a lot of the smart people who were working on ambitious projects (like the Apollo moon program) are now writing apps for mobile phones. Unfortunately, image-making seems to be the “collateral damage” of this trend.

All of this seems me to be why it is so important to take pictures on film. The process of taking the photograph is separated from the act of taking the photograph. I am not able to say if it has made me a better photographer (though being human of course I would like to think that it has). But it has certainly made taking pictures more enjoyable. There is no computer involved, and today computers are involved in almost everything. For the first time in my life, I had my photographs printed and framed by a certain Parisian agency that still employs two people to make photographic enlargements. I put them on the wall in my office and at home. I look at those photographs and I know that no computer touched any part of the image, which is strangely reassuring. I was motivated to make a physical object from the images I had made, something which never occurred to me with digital images.

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The Leica is also a unique tool to take photographs with. Again, I was skeptical: during my first tour around Paris with it, I couldn’t even figure out at first how to hold it without blocking the weirdly-positioned viewfinder. The ergonomics of a bar of soap, as I have heard on the interwebs. But what is great is this: you press the shutter button and after the dry click nothing happens. Nothing changes in the viewfinder, nothing changes in the camera, other than the fact there is now a latent image of the thing you have just seen through the viewfinder recorded on a small square of film. To take another image, just advance the film, that’s all. The other wonderful thing is that one is conscious of light in a way one is never with a digital camera. After a few weeks I could estimate the illumination just by looking. The other paradoxical thing: despite being completely manual, the camera is actually easier to operate than any digital camera I have ever used. You look at the sky, you look at the object you want to photograph, and you set the aperture, shutter, and focus distance. Once they are set, they never change. Nothing changes them for you. For sure there are inconveniences. We are used to the amazing
performance of digital detectors at night. But now what I find it is that when I take pictures at night on film, they actually look like they are taken at night! And it is really true what they say: these cameras motivate you to take pictures.

I plan to spend 2016 explaining to my astronomer friends just why film is so great – and reassuring them that no, I don’t think it is a good idea to replace that CCD by a photographic plate. And, of course, taking photographs on film: http://52rolls.net/2016/01/01/im-h-j-mccracken-52-rolls-in-2016/.

H. J. McCracken is an astronomer at the Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris.

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Meeting Mary Ellen

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By Philip Wright for Leicaphilia. All photos by Mr. Wright.

The first time I met Mary Ellen Mark we were in Oaxaca, Mexico and she asked me if she could see the back of my camera. “Excuse me?” I mumbled, somewhat overawed, a tad bemused and probably more than a little jet-lagged, having arrived from Melbourne, Australia just the day before. “Would you mind turning your Leica around so I can see the back?” Her first ever words to me. Repeated patiently, as if to a slightly dull child. I’d worn the camera as it was day one of a ten-day workshop with this master photographer that I’d been gifted as a very generous Christmas present from my wife and family.

I finally comprehended, turned around my M6TTL and saw a big smile make its way across Mary Ellen Mark’s face. No LCD screen. “Oh that’s really good, you’re using film. I don’t mind if people use digital but I do like to see that there’s still a few people using film in these workshops.”

It was March, 2011, and the digital maelstrom really did seem to be sweeping all before it. Dangling around the necks of fellow workshoppers was a swag of shiny new (and big!) full-frame Canons and Nikons, plus the odd M9. Yet maybe half of us had film cameras – Leicas of all ages, Nikons, Mamiyas, a Contax, a Bronica, a Holga.

We were gathered in the beautiful ancient hall of what had become an arts centre in St. Augustine on the outskirts of Oaxaca for item one on the workshop agenda: portfolio reviews. It was fascinating to see each participant nervously place her or his work on the large table. I’m not really sure what I expected to see, but the variety of approaches and styles was flabbergasting. Mary Ellen had an innate ability to instantaneously grasp what level the student was at, and what his or her strengths and weaknesses were. Often this wasn’t at first obvious to the casual observer, but she was always spot on. Realizing that people were generally baring their very souls with the work, she’d couch her response to that person’s work with affirmative, guiding observations and advice, often asking questions about why they’d chosen a particular approach or what their overriding interest and intent was. This encouragement became somewhat contagious, as gradually more and more of the group joined in with expressing positive remarks about the work.

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My own turn eventually came and my portfolio was met with some encouraging remarks – words that will stay with me forever. Her advice to me for the duration of the workshop was to find one thing, apart from the set excursions that were pre-organized, and stick with it. “Preferably find a family” she casually added, as if it would be the most natural thing in the world to somehow find some willing family in a country I’d never been to before, who spoke a language I didn’t understand, and convince them I needed to revisit them multiple times in order to take photographs. Yeah, right.

A couple of days of organized photo shoots followed. In and around Oaxaca at that time of year there are many festivals and parades, and the local people adopt a festive mood and are completely welcoming of a bunch of loco gringos with cameras. What wonderful sights and sounds we were witness to! Brass bands marching in the streets, insane grease-covered semi-naked men taking over town jangling bells and wearing cow horns, transvestites parading at dusk – click, click click! Crazy!

Each day we were allotted a time when we’d have a ten-minute one-on-one review of the previous day’s shoot with Mary Ellen. So each night the deal would be: drop the film and pick up work prints at the appointed lab; then each morning pick up the developed film and contact sheets ready for the review.

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My review time was allocated at 12:10, so whatever I was doing that morning I had to ensure I’d be back in time. Mary Ellen liked you to have up to five contact sheets to look over, though sometimes I had six or seven and she didn’t mind. She’d quickly zap over each frame with a large Mamiya loupe, occasionally hovering over one picture or maybe comparing two similar ones. Anything she liked would get a yellow paper dot stuck next to it. It was a matter of pride how many dots you got each day, and people would often compare dot scores, even though talking about your pictures or showing them to others was considered strictly out-of-bounds. As if that was ever going to float! Anyway if you were lucky enough to get a yellow dot or two you were then encouraged to get 5” X 7” work prints made of those frames, so you dropped off those negatives to the lab along with your undeveloped film from the day’s shooting.

Mary Ellen didn’t say too much during those one-on-ones, but her words were chosen carefully. If you were erring into the realm of touristy shots she’d steer you off that course. One day I’d taken a small series of pictures of a lady making tortillas and she advised not to do “how to” shots. She wasn’t crazy about vertical shots and she strongly encouraged uncluttered frames. On the other hand if you had latched onto a subject that was looking interesting she’d point that out, too, often asking whether it was possible to go back for more. “Go back – you should always go back” was one of her mantras. So, following these sessions, freshly armed with her advice and observations, you’d eagerly face the afternoon’s assignment with renewed enthusiasm and vigor. After all, one of the truly great photographers of all time had just encouraged you on your way – how could you not respond?

One day I’d spent the morning photographing at the town dump with one of the other attendees, Ariadna, who’d attended a couple of previous workshops. Many, if not most, attendees were there for the second or more time – one girl was on her tenth workshop! Following my portfolio review that afternoon Mary Ellen suggested I again hitch a ride out of town with Ari, who was going to revisit a family she’d photographed a number of times previously. “OK” I said, before prompting “er, what will I do?” “Oh, you should try to find a family and make some pictures with them.” Uh-huh. Delusional, I thought. Mary Ellen then added “And take some oranges – just to have something you can give in return.”

Ari’s subject family lived in a dusty remote place some way out of town. Once she got out I said to our driver, who was part of Mary Ellen’s organizational crew, “Right. Now where will we go to find a family to take pictures of?” He looked at me with something between pity and petulance in his eyes. “Not we. You. I’m going to have lunch.” “But… what am I going to do?” I asked, wondering, indeed, what I was going to do. “Don’t worry,” he said assuringly, slipping the car back into gear. “Something will turn up. I’ll see you back here in two hours.”

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Did I mention it was hot? Hot, dusty and, for all intents and purposes, slap bang in the middle of nowhere. Ari had of course by now vanished from sight, so I started walking down the road, observing the distinct lack of houses, shops or any building for that matter that might conceivably contain a family. Still, I thought, I have my trusty camera with me! So I started taking a picture of a cactus, a tumbleweed, or a buzzard tearing into some previous photographer’s bones or something. When I turned back to the road two young boys were approaching. “Hola” I said, demonstrating in one fell swoop most of my Spanish vocabulary. They replied “Hola. Una fotografía?” Thinking “Here’s a stroke of luck, I might get one picture after all!” I went to get my camera out of the bag but they said “No” and indicated I should follow them.

Now back in Australia – this stuff just doesn’t happen anymore. Camera, middle-aged guy, children – that’s pretty much enough to get you into some very precarious territory with the hysteria crowd. But, hey, what the heck! Mexico had already demonstrated to me that it didn’t share the hang-ups of certain advanced Western democracies. So I followed. A couple of hundred meters later we were at their casa and, much to my relief, Mama was home and I was welcomed inside. There were five children altogether and Papa came home for lunch, too. The two boys I’d met explained that I was going to take some pictures and suddenly, everywhere I looked, I had the most incredible subjects vying to be in a picture, and a delicious lunch was set for me. I fumbled out my miserable offering of oranges and it turned out to be the most wonderful couple of hours. Before I left, remembering what Mary Ellen had said, I asked in my best attempt at Spanish, if I could return. They said yes and I was over the moon.

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All told I went back there three times, once taking with me Leslie, an American workshopper who was at loose ends one day. It was so nice to get to know this wonderful family a little bit, and I made sure I took gifts and work prints each time. I’ve kept in contact with them via Leslie and am pleased that she has subsequently visited the family numerous times and has even exhibited her pictures of them in New York City!

So, at the end of the workshop, two of the three pictures Mary Ellen chose of mine to go on the final day’s “honour board” were of that family. Later that year, my wife Sue and I, along with Morganna who was another workshopper from Melbourne, went up to Sydney and spent a lovely evening with Mary Ellen and her assistant Chae, who yet again was an attendee at the same workshop. They were there to photograph on the set of Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” and had shipped the big 20” X 24” Polaroid camera over to Australia for portraits of the actors, although Chae indicated that Mary Ellen was generally a lot happier snapping with her film Leica.

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In May 2015 we heard the unexpected and terrible news that Mary Ellen had passed away. It is hard to put into words the sense of this loss. She was one of few whose work I venerated. In meeting her I came to understand a little about what a genuinely lovely and compassionate person she was, and her passing will affect many people deeply. Yet she leaves such a wonderful legacy – not just of photographs, but also of her wisdom, her teaching and her refusal to accept anything other than the very best you can do.

And if there’s one thing I will never ever forget, it is her advice to “Go back. You should always go back.”

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The Leitz Elmarit-C 40mm 2.8. A Leica Lens Not Good Enough For Minolta

imageThe Leitz Elmarit-C 40mm f2.8 is a peculiar lens in the history of Leica optics.  Leitz intended the Elmarit-C to be paired with the Leica CL, itself a joint venture with Minolta that was to produce the compact “Baby M” Leica CL and Leitz Minolta CL, the same camera offered by both companies with differing engravings, between 1973 and 1976. The bodies themselves, be they labelled Leica or Minolta, were to be designed by Leitz and built by Minolta in Japan. Leitz, pulling rank with their reputation as the premium optical manufacturer, were tasked with designing the optics for both the German and Japanese iterations of the camera.

Designed by Leitz, the lenses themselves were to be built by each company to identical spec, either in Germany for the Leica or in Japan for the Leitz Minolta. Leitz designed and proposed the Elmarit-C 40mm 2.8 as the standard lens. Minolta, upon receiving the prototype, came to the awkward conclusion that the lens was a dog, not up to Minolta standards, and requested Leitz to submit a redesign. Leitz reconsidered, recalibrated, and submitted the Summicron-C 40mm f2, a wonderful lens that holds its own to this day.

The barrel design of the Elmarit-C is similar to the Summicron-C 40mm f2 but is shorter in length, making focus and aperture setting even more difficult than it is on the Summicron. To fix this the Elmarit-C 40mm f2.8 featured a tab for both the focusing and aperture ring. The lens also stopped down to f22, unusual for a Leitz designed lens. Aside from that it was pretty much the same lens as the Summicron-C except for its optical quality. The lens is soft close up at any aperture but becomes less noticeable at further distances when stopped down to f5.6 or slower. Contrast is also very low wide open.

The change from the Elmarit to the Summicron happened so late in production that about 400 examples of the slower Elmarit-C f2.8 lens had already been manufactured by Leitz; stuck with them,  Leitz gave them to their employees. Infrequently one will appear on the collectors’ market, a rare and unusual piece of Leica history. That doesn’t mean you should buy one. It is, by all accounts, a terrible lens optically. If you are looking for a compact 40mm M mount lens to use, the standard CL Summicron-C 40mm f2 lens is just fine, as is the faster Voigtlander Nokton 40mm f1.4 for about the same price. The only reason to get the Elmarit-C 40mm f2.8 lens is if you are a collector. It was never offered commercially, making it catnip for Leica collectors as it is obscure, hard to find and no one knows precisely how many exist. Other than wanting it to sit nicely on your display case there is no reason to put it on a camera. Even Minolta agrees.

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Three Tough Leicas

imageThree Leicas on display at the Ginza Leica store in Tokyo. From right to left: a Leica II that deflected a bullet and saved the photographer’s life. The middle camera is a Leica II with lenses found in the Hindenburg wreckage. To the left is an SL2 MOT with Motor and 35 mm Summicron that fell 25,000 foot (7600 m) from a Phantom II fighter jet. Battered but in one piece, and deemed repairable by Leica.

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Is The Leica M8 Still Worth It? It Depends.

leica_m8I love Leica film cameras. And as much as I love Leica film cameras, I remain profoundly ambivalent about Leica digital cameras. God knows I’ve tried to like them. I own an M8, my second, bought shortly after I sold my first and regretted it. It’s an interesting digital camera, unlike the bloated plastic and magnesium monsters offered by Nikon and Canon (full disclosure: I own and use a Nikon D3s for much if my low-light work, and yes, it produces stunning files). But the traditional M’s restrained simplicity seems to have crossed over in the digital models to an ostentatious austerity, attention to necessary details having evolved into the excessively fussy.

The digital M’s even look inauthentic in some undefined way, maybe in the way a self-consciously “retro” edition looks in relation to the real thing. If it were just the aesthetics of the cameras themselves, I could overlook it, but it’s the experience the digital versions provide that’s unsettling for me. Every time I use my M8  it feels odd in some way, like a simulation of the “real” experience I enjoy when using a film M. The cameras themselves might share a similarity of form, but that’s where the similarities end.

However, although the respective experiences themselves are dissimilar, the view from the viewfinder is similar, the simplicity of aperture and shutter operation is identical, the rounded form in my hand feels familiar from a lifetime of film M usage. The economy of means possessed by the film cameras is still there in the M8. And isn’t that traditionally why photographers have loved and used Leicas; why they’ve always paid a premium for them, the simplified elegance of the photographic act they allow?

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So, I own, and happily use, an M8. It’s not an M4, but its close enough that it feels familiar. Which then leads to the question: is it digital M’s I dislike, or it it digital photography?

Frankly, I’m not interested in a camera’s DXO score. It either produces decent digital files, or it doesn’t, and that’s not the function of some number cooked up via an arcane technical formula but rather what your prints look like. The M8 produces really nice prints, period. Even in 2015. Does it produce the stunning low light files my Nikon D3s does? No, but I don’t expect it to, just like in the film era I never expected my M5 to do the same things as my Hasselblad. Different tools for different needs. When I need a digital equivalent of my Film M, the M8 still fits the bill nicely – discreet and unobtrusive – and insofar as a digital device can replicate the Leica film experience, the M8 does it.

A classic film M is a masterpiece of mechanical engineering. Admittedly, the digital M is a mechanical-electronic mongrel, subject to issues that traditional M film cameras are not. That being said, like film M’s, the M8 is stripped of all pretense and electronic hoopla inasmuch as a digital camera can be. It’s an all-manual camera except that it allows aperture priority exposure if you desire. It takes your M-mount lenses and gives you all the controls – aperture, shutter speed – in exactly the same way as your 50 year old M4 does. It’s basically a digital M7. The camera is unobtrusive (no loud motordrive or mirror housing, although the “thwaack” of the shutter is loud and sounds like the breach of a long gun), and the rangefinder focusing is the same as the traditional M’s, making it maybe the best digital option for precise focusing, especially in low light.

As for its capabilities, for people like me who shoot b&w exclusively, it still produces outstanding digital files capable of a tonality the equal of any other digital camera I know, including the Monochrom. It’s a function of the M8’s extra sensitivity to the IR spectrum, something that’s a handicap to folks wanting to use the M8 for color photography but, stripped of its color, produces really nice B&W files that appeal to me as a film shooter. Its 10 megapixels resolution is, to my mind, a good compromise between files large enough for practical needs and the bloated overkill of current high resolution models. Frankly, who cares if you can read the tattoo on the arm of some dude three streets over. If that’s your idea of the technology you need to advance your creative pursuits, then we don’t have much further to discuss.

Yes, it’s a 9 year old camera now, but, as the kids say, it is what it is. interestingly enough, however, it’s still as good a camera as it was the day it was introduced, in spite of the fact that technology has moved on. Much of current digital technology – impressive as it is – seems to me to be in the category of ‘solutions in search of a problem’, capabilities and features you never knew you needed until camera companies told you you did. If you’re a Leicaphile – If you want a digital camera with the charms of a traditional film M – technological issues are low on your scale of priorities. You’re looking for 50’s era simplicity – rangefinder focusing, manual focus optics, manual exposure – in a digital platform. In that respect, the M8 still delivers. It allows you to use your M-mount optics, and the CCD sensor, while ancient by today’s standards, still delivers unique black and white files that give printed results as good as anything you’ll produce with a film M. And the tactile experience is about as similar to the classic mechanical film camera experience as you’ll find in a digital platform, including a generous portion of the frustrating little anomalies us Leica users have always accepted as a necessary price of admission to the Leica Experience.

 

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Love, Hate, and How I Ended Up With a Zorki

shoot-66I love the work of the older shooters who used Leicas. Capa, Cartier-Bresson, giants who used what has always been a top of the line camera to make their images. And yet, I really do not like modern photography taken with Leica cameras. I dislike it as passionately as I love the older work. Perhaps more so.

My problem was twofold. First, the look totally changed. For me, the newer images look more sterile, less human, and less desirable. One of the reasons I don’t actually like using digital is it makes the world look like a car commercial. You know the ones: shiny new car rolls down pristine clean streets with perfect green verges on them. Kind of a “City of Tomorrow” vibe to it. There’s nothing wrong with that, except it doesn’t reflect the world as I see it.  I thought I was alone in this issue until I read this article on Leicaphilia and realized I was not the only one who had noticed.

The other problem was the outright wankery of Leica users. I’ve never seen a more arrogant and condescending group in my entire life, and I spend a fair amount of time around lawyers. While I could afford a Leica rig, I didn’t want to be associated with that sort of behavior. There may be nice guys using Leicas out there. I just have never met them in person nor dealt with them online.shoot-67

I still wanted to try a rangefinder other than my tiny Olympus XAs. I love those cameras, but something with interchangeable lenses was desirable. What I really wanted was to be able to create work  similar to what I fell in love with. I explored my options and decided to get a Soviet rangefinder. All of the Soviet era range finders are copies of Leicas to some degree or other. I settled on a Zorki-4K. Bright viewfinder, nice and classic looking. It has the standard oddities of Soviet design. You must cock the shutter before changing the speeds or it will seize up. The film advance is a bit peculiar and sounds like a coffee grinder. However, the build quality is actually quite good. I don’t know if it is just my example or not, but it’s nice. The Zorki uses the Leica Thread Mount (M39) which has some very nice lenses available. The Soviet ones are cheaper than the Leica ones, but they give the look I was wanting.

shoot-68Of course, since it’s my first real range finder, I’m still getting used to the focus and framing, but it gets easier on a daily basis. Other Zorki users have been helpful and forthcoming about problems and how to fix them.

This is the solution I was hoping for, and the beginning of a nice, long relationship.

 

Andrew MacGregor. Reprinted with permission of Mr. MacGregor. You can find the original post at shootfilmridesteel.com

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The Myth of the Necessary Leica CLA

imageVisit any photo forum that discusses Leica film cameras and you’ll hear it time and time again: the first thing you need to do when you buy a used Leica is to send it to someone for a “CLA” (clean, lubricate and adjust). In the religion that is Leica, this notion has reached the status of revealed truth, questioned rarely, if at all. Like many faith based claims, its built on received certainties and little else, certainly not the facts as they present themselves in practice.

The bottom line is this: given the operating tolerances of finely tuned mechanical Leicas, its better not to open up a sophisticated device like a Leica film camera without a legitimate reason to do so. “Legitimate reasons” might include hanging slow speeds, or stuck shutter, or a dim viewfinder. But, absent these, you’re throwing away your money while subjecting your camera to potential harm. Ham fisted attempts to clean and adjust are legion, and unless you’re sending it to Leica (read: extremely expensive) or a reputable third party tech like DAG, Sheri Krauter (read: slow and expensive) or Youxin Ye, you’re just as likely to receive your Leica in worse condition than before you sent it away.

I like to buy used Leicas on Ebay. If you know what you’re looking at, you can still score some serious deals, but invariably it will involve the old Leica with matching lens and case that has been sitting unused in a box in the closet since grandpa died in the late 70’s. The worse the accompanying pictures of the item, the better the potential deal. If most of the description involves the camera case and how beat up it is, or ignores the collapsible Summicron while spending inordinate time describing the accompanying dead Leicameter, you’re potentially in for good luck, because you’re clearly dealing with a seller who can’t discriminate between what’s valuable and whats not. You’d be surprised by how nicely an old beater with cracking vulcanite, covered in decades of accumulated dirt and brown gunk in the body crevices will clean up with some lemon juice and a griptic covering from cameraleather.com (assuming cameraleather.com sends it to you within the next 18 months, but that’s another story you can learn more about with a quick google).

Conventional wisdom holds that such a camera will need to be CLA’d immediately otherwise your new Leica will be worthless. In my experience that’s rarely the case. Even for cameras that have sat unused for decades a CLA is unnecessary, even if the slow shutter speeds may initially be a little funky ( and usually they’re not). Most cameras just need use; the shutter mechanism needs to be exercised regularly to loosen up the stiffened lubrication. Usually a few days and a couple of hundred cycles of the shutter and,voila!, the slow speeds are working fine, or at least close enough to be within the margin of error. For that matter, who really cares if the 1/2 sec is a wee bit off sometimes? When was the last time you shot under 1/15th of a second anyway? Probably never.

As for accompanying optics, a good careful cleaning with a Lens Pen ( my favorite photo accessory of all time) and your front and real elements should be clean and smudge free. Of course, the lens itself may need disassembly and cleaning if its fogged or has fungus, or if the heliocoils are bound up, but usually you can get a good enough eyeball view of the lens when listed by the seller to get a decent sense of whether the optics are good. As for scratches and internal dust, well, ya takes your chances, but almost all optics older than 20 years are going to look pretty bad when you shine a flashlight into them. Yet, remarkably, most of them still look fine to the naked eye (how we used to judge them back in the day) and take good photos undifferentiated from a like model in “mint” condition. Lenses are to be used, not to shine flashlights through. If the lens is to be used with film and wet printed, stop worrying. A little internal dust (commonplace on vintage lenses) or some cleaning marks or scratches on a front element won’t make a bit of difference except in your head. If you’re a 100% magnification pixel peeper type, well, move along. I suspect you’re not going to be interested in vintage optics anyway, and if you are, well, that comes along with the territory.

 

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Honoring Evan: Welcoming a Leica M3 Into My Home

By Chuck Miller, reprinted from the Albany Times Union

Five years ago, blogger and good friend Teri Conroy gifted me a camera that was in her family’s possession – it was a vintage Rolleiflex Automat MX.  I’ve used it for many photographic excursions, and I still use it off and on today.

And last Friday… someone else gifted me a camera that had been in their family for generations.  They hoped that I would find a new use for the camera, that I would appreciate it as much as they did.

I met the family – Polly and Pat and their daughter Claire – at the Gateway Diner in Albany.  We shared a meal, and then Polly showed me the Quantaray camera bag.  And inside – along with two speedlights and an ever-ready camera case… was this:

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My heart nearly stopped.  This is a Leica M3 rangefinder 35mm camera.  It’s one of the early models; the serial number identified it as manufactured in 1955.

Whether you shoot with a Nikon, a Kodak, or even a Canon, there’s one camera brand that simply exudes class and precision and delight.  To hold this camera is to hold a precision instrument.  This camera will make you fall in love with photography.  And that camera is a Leica M3.

You know how people will look for a modern digital camera like the Fuji X100 and say, “That’s the next Leica M3″?

Well, there’s a reason for that.  To own a Leica is to own a true piece of art.

The family and I talked for a while.  I wanted to find out more about the camera’s previous owner – Polly’s father.  His name was Evan Leighton Richards, and he was a reporter and columnist (and photographer) with the Times Union‘s sister afternoon publication, the Albany Knickerbocker News, during the 1950′s and 1960′s.  He later worked in public and private service, and passed away last January at the age of 86.

“He was always using that camera,” Polly told me, with a smile on her face.  “He went everywhere with it.”

And there it was, in my hands.  A sixty-year-old camera with all the gleam and wear of sixty years of photos taken – everything from news stories to family get-togethers.  This is cool.  Way cool.

When I got back to my place, I examined the camera again.  Then I called my friend Catherine, who’s been my trusted friend and confidante for many, many years.  When I told her that I received a Leica M3, her first words were, “My father had a Leica M3, it was the most amazing camera and he took the greatest pictures with it.”

Why do I get this feeling that this little camera is going to change my life – and, for that matter, for the better? :)

And now it’s my turn.  My turn to work with this stunning camera.  My turn to discover if using a Leica M3 is everything everyone says it can be.

First test roll – a pack of Kodak BW400CN, a black-and-white film that can be developed in contemporary C-41 chemicals (i.e., drop it off at Walgreens).  And on what was essentially the first truly warm day of the season… I took a short trip through the Adirondacks.  First stop – Stillwater.

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Then I cut across Route 9P to Saratoga Lake.  Found this beachfront scene at Dock Brown’s Restaurant.

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And although the Malta Drive-In hasn’t opened for business yet, at least the sign has let people know that there will be an upcoming movie season…

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And just for the heck of it… a new (for me) angle of the Hadley Bow Bridge.

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Let’s start out with the positives.  Look at the freakin’ detail in these shots.  I’ve only used one other rangefinder in my arsenal (my Kodak Medalist II), but this little beauty is just ten levels of impressive.  The mechanics on this camera are amazing, the shutter is whisper-quiet, this camera is just totally cool and awesome and stellar, all at the same time.

Okay, the negatives.  Give me a second.

Hmm…

Honestly?

There are no drawbacks.  This camera is swank.

My utmost thanks to Polly and her family for allowing me to bring new life to Evan’s camera, and to give it a new run through the world.  If I can get shots like with a pack of Kodak B&W drugstore-developable film in this chassis … imagine what I could get if I packed a roll of efke in here.  Or a roll of Fuji Velvia.  Or maybe even some Kodak Ektar.  Or some Revolog boutique film.

Yeah, Chuck is going to have fun with this camera.

Lots and lots of fun.

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Black Paint Leica MP 39* to be Auctioned in Stockholm

MP 39 1 MP 39 2 MP 39 3 MP 39 4 MP 39 5

Up for auction December 6, 2014 at LPfoto Auctions in Stockholm, a rare duplicate numbered black paint MP with Leicavit:

Leitz Wetzlar, 1957, Black paint, Double stroke, a duplicate from an original series MP13-MP150, with matching black Leicavit MP. A extremely rare camera, in original condition except body housing with small strap lugs and self timer, with matching chassis number P-39* inside the camera. This is the only MP we have ever seen with a duplicate number, not two Leica cameras have the same serial number. If Leica ever almost duplicated a number, the second item had a star added after its otherwise identical serial number. In good working order, with dark brassy patina after hard professional use.

Starting auction price is 350,000 Swedish Krona (approx $47,500 US dollars). Clearly, this MP has seen more than its share of “hard professional use.” Frankly, it looks like something your heirs would find in a box in your attic and throw in the trash. I suggest whoever ends up with this thing should at least spend the extra $25 for a new vulcanite cover at http://aki-asahi.com/. Hell, while you’re at it, why not have Shintaro repaint it for you?

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Probably the nicest M being auctioned is a black paint 1960,  Single stroke M3 with L service seal, from original black paint series 993501-993750.  It’s been beautiful restored to new condition by the Leitz factory in the 1980’s with new and vintage parts and then never used. Starting auction price is $6750 US Dollars. Now THIS is a beautiful M3.

29564_1 29564_5 29564_7

In addition to the MP and M3 noted above,   LPfoto is auctioning a number of other interesting collectible Leicas, including:

Leica IIIg LPfoto 1Leica IIIg LPfoto 2

Leitz Wetzlar, 1960, Black paint, from an original series 987901-988025, with Leitz Summaron 2.8/35mm No.1678210 (BC) and front cap, rear top plate and lens with “Triple crown” engraving. A great rarity, only 125 ex in black paint made for the Swedish army 1960, and this beautiful camera is in a very clean 100% original condition and never restored, and even rarer with Summaron 35mm lens (approx. 30 lenses made). Provenance: Bought by the owner at FFV Allmaterial (=Military surplus), Ursvik 1977. 

Starting auction price 390,000 Swedish Krona (approx $52,750 US Dollars)

Leica IIIg LPfoto 10 Leica IIIg LPfoto 11

Leitz Wetzlar, 1960, Black paint, from an original series 987901-988025, with Leitz Elmar 2.8/50mm No.1636136 (B, Filter rim with one minor dent), rear top plate and lens with “Triple crown” engraving. A great rarity, only 125 ex in black paint made for the Swedish army 1960, and this camera is in 100% original condition with dark brassy patina and never restored. Provenance: Bought by the owner at FFV Allmaterial (=Military surplus), Ursvik 1977. Slow shutter speeds irregular.

Starting auction price is 350,000 Swedish Krona (approx $47,500 US dollars).

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Ode to a Legend – The Leica M4

By Tom Grill. This originally appeared on his blog About Photography

For me, the M4 is the camera that reached the pinnacle of analog design. It was the natural sequel to the M2 and M3 designs into one body with a few more bells and whistles added. The one time Leica attempted to diverge from this basic M design with the M5 model in 1971 led to such an uproar that the M4 was reinstated only a few years later and has continued to be the basis for flagship camera design of the company even up to the newest M 240 digital model.

My 1968 black painted M4. I sent it back to Leica for a factory replacement of the viewfinder so it now has six lens frame lines of the M6 instead of the original four. I did this because I use a 28mm lens a lot and usually have the Leica meter on top of the camera taking up the slot where I would normally put an auxiliary optical finder. And look at the beautiful engraving on top. Don’t see that much anymore. 

There were several iterations of the M4. The M4-2 was introduced in 1977, followed by the M4-P in 1981. Each new version added a couple of new features — a hot shoe, motor-drive capability, extra finder frames — but modernized the production line and replaced the black enamel with a more durable black chrome.  I always had a penchant for cameras with black paint over brass. After a little use some of the paint wears through to the brass and the camera takes on an individual patina that identifies it as yours. Excessive brassing becomes a battle-worn badge of honor, something to be worn proudly, as if to say, “I served”.

The Leica M4 with MR-4 meter mounted on top.

The M4 was introduced in 1967 and produced until 1975 with a little break while the M5 ran its short-lived, orphened course. The M4 had framelines for 35mm, 50mm, 90mm and 135mm lenses in a 0.72 magnification viewfinder. Mine was made in 1968, and had a later, standard factory addition of the M6 viewfinder adding 28mm and 75mm frame lines.

I always liked the look of the Leica meter. Not that it worked all that well — I still carried around a hand held auxiliary meter for more accurate readings — but it slipped conveniently into the accessory shoe, had a high/low range, and synchronized with the shutter speed dial, all pretty advanced stuff for 1968.

The handle-crank rewind knob was one of the late-to-the-party innovations Leitz added to the M. The one on the M4 was angled so it could be operated quickly without constantly scraping your fingers on the side of the camera — something of an anachronism in today’s digital world, but much appreciated at the time by photographers needing to get the spent roll out of the camera quickly and reload it for the next breaking shot. 

Adding the angled rapid rewind crank was considered a big deal at the time. I can still recall discussions with veteran photographers who were convinced that Leitz maintained the slow turning rewind knob on the M2 and M3 to avoid rewinding the film too fast and causing static light discharge that might damage a film frame.

The M4 did away with the removable film take up spool, and introduced a faster film loading system that gripped the end of the film automatically to load it onto the spool. 

 

 

The self-timer lever was an M4 luxury — some say frivolous addition — eliminated from later versions of the M series. After all, pros don’t need self-timers. 

 

 

The M4 was the last of a breed. It reminds me of souped-up, propeller-driven fighter aircraft at the end of WWII. Each had reached the apex of analog, hand-crafted design on the cusp of fading into oblivion in the face of a newer technology. The planes were replaced by jets, the rangefinder by the SLR. Fortunately, the M-series camera hit a very responsive chord in the human psyche that has made it last even into the digital era. For many, Leica M is the icon of professional camera, and retro styling based on the Leica M design is undergoing a renaissance in cameras like the popular Fuji X-Pro1.  And let’s not forget that in keeping with the M analog tradition Leica continues to make the M7 and MP film cameras today.

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Buying a Black Paint M3 on Ebay. Caveat Emptor.

fake BP1

Black paint Leica M3’s are rare, as in really rare. And, like all Leica rarities, they’re expensive. One recently sold at  auction in Hong Kong for $472,00.00.  So, imagine my surprise when a “Leica M3 100% Original Black Paint Finish – With Original Documents,” above, showed up on Ebay with a No Reserve starting price of $.99, complete with ample paperwork  from Leitz, NY proving its provenance. The seller (he of two feedback) apparently bought the camera from an estate sale:

  • Leica M3 in original black lacquer finish – Early Double Stroke
  • I recently found this entire set an estate sale. I have been a member of eBay since 1999. I recently started this new account. There is no reason for concern because any potential buyers will be protected under the buyer protection plan established by eBay and Paypal
  • M3 comes with original receipt, guarantee, and gold tag
  • All serial numbers match and you can verify that Leica made Black M3’s during this Serial Range by going to this website (L-camera-forum)
  • L Seal is intact on Camera
  • Camera come with its original brass body cap – made by Leica for their black cameras
  • Auction has plenty of original brochures and manuals (see photo)
  • Camera has glass film Plate
  • Camera is operating perfectly and firing at all speeds
  • Timer is working correctly
  • Viewfinder is clean and clear
  • Camera has been tested recently and takes wonderful photos
  • This camera has to be the rarest camera on eBay currently, a very early run of Leica’s Black finished M3’s
  • Kind Regards

fake BP3

fake BP2

Is the camera a “real” black paint M3? Who knows. Suffice it to say that there are numerous red flags that suggest its a fake: according to Leica’s records, before the original black paint MP’s, from no. 13 to no. 150 (1957), just after batch M3 882001-886700, no black M’s were made; the vulcanite looks suspiciously new; and the wear looks just a bit contrived. The amount of supporting paperwork also seems contrived, too comprehensive for a camera that was used as much as this one purports to have been (in my mind, somebody who would hold onto all that original paperwork and sales brochures, i.e. with an eye to posterity, probably would have treated the camera a little better).

Fake

But….Leica’s records, unfortunately, are incomplete, because the verified black paint M3 sold at Hong Kong auction this past May is serial number 746572. And this guy seems to think his, serial number 779019, is legit too. It is known that Leica would produce black paint M’s on order – even before the first “official” black paint M3s were produced in 1957/58.  Keep in mind: in 1955 black Leica’s were not “collectible”; maybe the original owner, a Busby Cattenach from Wisconsin, simply wanted a black camera, ponied up his $324 and had Leitz, NY send him one special, and 45 years later some guy with a new Ebay account and two feedbacks grabbed it for a few hundred bucks at an estate sale in New Jersey. It could happen.

Whatever’s up with this camera, it’s no longer for sale on Ebay, having been pulled down after a day or so on site, which is a shame, since I’d already configured my Bidnip account to bid it up to $2100 at the last moment. So much for scoring an under-the-radar deal on Ebay.

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A Metered Leica M2?

M2-6

I ran across this camera on photo.net. Apparently it’s a metered M2 (note the battery cover on the front of the chassis) coupled with a Leicavit. My best guess is that it’s an M6 chassis with an M2 top plate. Whatever, its beautiful. I have no idea of the story behind it, although I’m certain Leica never officially built one.

M2-6 2

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