Category Archives: Leica Film camera

That Lens Has Character. Really?


Peruse any photography forum these days and you’ll find any number of multi-page discussions about the relative qualities of various lenses. Lens quality seems to an overriding obsession of most hobbyists, much more so than with working photographers who, in my experience, will buy something for their particular needs and get on with it.  Most folks discussing lenses on websites want to know if a given lens is “sharp” or does it “resolve” well? Such discussions often devolve into popularity contests about lenses forum denizens either own, have owned or want to own, usually with detailed a discussion of Leica optics, either on their own or in contrast to other manufacturer’s optics, accompanied by the de rigueur claim that Leica’s are the “finest optics in the world,” with unique “signatures”.

As someone serious about defining terms, I’m never quite sure what that all means. I suspect, like most things claimed on the internet, it’s a confused mental stew of truths, half truths, ignorance, groupthink, and incoherence, and you can either mindlessly agree and not rock the boat, or you can question it at the peril of being labelled an argumentative troll and risk being exiled forever from the docile, cud-chewing forum herd.

Or you can simply stake a claim for the truth, that is, that the entire discussion about sharpness and resolution is completely irrelevant if your interest is images as opposed to gadgetry. Who cares if a lens is sharp? Whatever photographic excellence is, it isn’t achieved by making “sharp” or resolute images.  For all of the hobbyists needing nothing less than the latest aspherical offering from Leica to do proper justice to your vision, go check out a book by Robert Klein or Antoine D’Agata or Trent Parke or Robert Frank or Eugene Atget and get back to me; and if the identity of the equipment you’ve used to make an image is the most important thing about it, chances are you need to re-evaluate the role of the image itself in your photographic calculus.


So let’s talk for a second about sharpness and definition. Here’s what we should mean when we talk about these things:

Sharpness  –  the overall impression of a print or projected image, measured scientifically as “acutance “, seen from normal viewing distance.

Definition  –  the extent to which fine detail is recognizably rendered in a print, etc. When acutance of fine detail is good, then definition is good.

Acutance  –  the contrast at the edge of significant detail, a scientific measurement of the density gradient at that point.

Resolving Power  –  the scientific measurement of the actual fineness of detail recordable by a lens, film, or developer, or any combination of these three.

Signature  –  If it does exist then, the “signature” of a lens is the balance chosen by its manufacturer of the above characteristics and how they interact with one another.



I use Leica lenses.  Leica makes excellent optics, no doubt, capable of stunning visual reproductions. However, the quality of a lens is just the beginning of a larger process by which a photographic image is produced. A small variance in any of the steps in the process – exposure, processing, printing – whether analogue or digital, usually makes a bigger difference in the final image than any lens’ “signature” does.  You’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between a print made from a negative created with a Summicron-M and another with a similar year Nikkor rangefinder lens, notwithstanding the breathless claims of some self-appointed experts about the obvious prowess of this or that lens and its superiority to another.

A good case in point is to compare a $3000 Summicron ASPH to a Jupiter-8  Sonnar you can find used on Ebay for $30. Both lenses will easily resolve more detail than Kodak T-Max or your M240 is capable of recording, so, if your goal is “sharpness”, feel free to save your money. Me, I prefer the Jupiter – if I drop it or scratch it or it gets stolen, no big deal. If I drop or scratch my Leica ASPH, I’m screwed.



And don’t get me started about the Leica Glow. The “glow” supposedly inherent in a lens is just as much or more a function of many non-optical variables – light, subject, aperture, and exposure. If you’re shooting film factor in the look of the film and whether its developed in D76 or, say, Rodinal.

The point is this: Lens designers do make critical decisions when they choose the characteristics of their lenses, and they try to keep those characteristics similar across a range. And, as such, different lenses can cause different looks, what some people refer to as “signatures.” Some lenses under certain circumstances might exhibit something in its signature we might characterize as a “glow”. But a lens’ signature is an ephemeral thing, as much the product of its own individual idiosyncrasies and other non-optical factors as it is the result of the design’s inherent character.

And yes, certain lenses are “sharper” than other lenses, but, as I’ve noted here and elsewhere, sharpness is a false criterion when judging the merits of an image. As Leica writer and photographer Bill Pierce says “never ever confuse sharp with good, or you will end up shaving with an ice cream cone and licking a razor blade.”

An Astronomer Falls in Love with a Film Leica


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.

hjmsc 1

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?


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.


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.


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:

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

Bruce Davidson and His Leicas

Bruce Davidsons Leica collection collection_mini

Bruce Davidson’s Leicas

Bruce Davidson began taking photographs at the age of ten . After attending Rochester Institute of Technology and Yale University, he was drafted into the army and stationed near Paris. There he met Henri Cartier-Bresson. When he left military service in 1957, Davidson worked as a freelance photographer for LIFE magazine and in 1958 became a full member of Magnum.  He received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1962 and documented the civil rights movement in America. In 1967, he received the first grant for photography from the National Endowment for the Arts, and used it to document the social conditions on one block in East Harlem. 

Q: Why do you like the Leica so much and why is it a great tool for what you do?

A: For me, the things that define the Leica mystique are that it’s small, it’s relatively light, quiet and unobtrusive. Modern reflexes look like sneakers; they don’t look like cameras. They look like something else from another world. That’s why I’ve always had Leicas in my life. For example, right now I’m thinking about doing something where I want to walk around. I want to be very invisible and not aggressive in any way. That means quiet and that means Leica…

…most of my bodies of work from the circus photographs in 1958, the Brooklyn gangs and even the civil rights movement, the Leica worked because it’s quiet, mobile and has excellent optics. I remember during the civil rights movement, when I wasn’t sponsored, but on a fellowship, something happened to my Leica and I called Marty Forscher, the Leica repairman for all the professional photographers. He talked me through it and I fixed the camera myself on the road — which was pretty amazing.

I’d like to back up to the question “when did Leica come into your life?” It came into my life when I was a student at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). At that time, in the early 1950s, there were 140 students in the photography department, including two women. Of course, I was smitten by one of them and I was trying to court her. I met her at the women’s dorm in the living room sitting on a couch. She said, “I want to show you something.” She ran up to her room and came down with this huge book of photographs called The Decisive Moment, a collection of images by Cartier-Bresson, and we sat together looking through all of the amazing photographs. I had never seen anything like it. She said to me, “I really love this photographer.” So, I said to myself, “If I could take pictures like this guy maybe she will love me too.” So, I went out and spent all my monthly allowance on a used Leica. I actually tried to imitate the imagery of Cartier-Bresson. Of course, it didn’t work. The young female student ran off with a history professor, and I was left with Cartier-Bresson. That’s what started me off. I began to take street photographs.

Q: So how was it meeting Henri Cartier-Bresson when you were in Paris?

A: It all started when I went from RIT to working for Eastman Kodak. I had my own studio at Kodak, but I was bored so I decided to apply to Yale. I got in and took Yosef Albers’ color course. I then was drafted into the military and was sent to the Arizona desert. It was the most remote, isolated camp you could find — 7,000 feet up in the desert. I would hitchhike on weekends to Mexico to photograph bullfighters, and I made friends with Patricia McCormick, a female bullfighter. While thumbing my way from the fort to the Mexican border, I came upon an old guy in a Model T Ford and I stopped him. The town was called Patagonia — really just a post office, a grocery store, a bar and a railroad site. And this old guy took me in and I lived with him on weekends. I forgot about the bullfighting and I just photographed this old couple with my Leica. That was my first full-bodied work and if you look at it closely today, it really predicts the way I would spend my life photographing.

Brooklyn Gang  Bruce Davidson

Q: Can you share the story about how you discovered the Brooklyn gang?

A: As I remember, there was a gang war going on that was all over the Daily News. I took the subway to Brooklyn, found the group and took color photographs of their wounds and bandages for their lawyers. That started my relationship with them and the rest is history. It was slow going in the winter months, but when they went to Coney Island in the summer, that’s where I took the most pictures….I think got in with them because I had a Leica. It was small, it was quiet and discrete, and it was simple. I would take pictures of them and then I would bring the pictures back to show them. I didn’t judge them. I wasn’t a social worker. I just photographed the mood of these teenagers — a street gang.

Garry Winogrand and His Leica M4….errr, M3?

imageSo, here’s a picture of Garry Winogrand with his famous M4, you know, the one he ran about 100,000 rolls through and generally beat the hell out of, the camera itself now somewhat of an icon. Except that, as alert Leicaphile Andrew Fishkin points out to me, the shutter advance lever is most definitely not an M4 lever, but rather the old style M2/3 full metal lever. So, given the presence of a dedicated exposure numbering  window next to the shutter release, this would appear to be an M3 as opposed to an M2. Whatever Winogrand was doing with an M3, well, we’ll never know.


Winogrand’s M4

As for the lens, the more I look at it, it looks like a 21mm Super-Angulon and not the 28mm Elmarit he “always” shot with. So much for “what everybody knows” about Winogrand.

William Eggleston’s 300 Leicas

Eggleston with Leica

Born in Memphis on July 27, 1939, and raised in Sumner, Mississippi, Eggleston acquired his first camera, a Canon rangefinder, in the early 1950’s. Of course, one thing led to another, Eggleston bought a Leica, became a massive Leicaphile and has never looked back. “I have about 300 right now,” he claims.

In addition to classic chrome Leicas, he owns rare, custom-painted Leicas in shades of blue, green and dark gray. His camera case—a leather briefcase bought at a Memphis shop and retrofitted in collaboration with a woodworker friend—is similarly customized.

He still photographs every day.  He takes only one photo of any subject, never taking a second shot of the same thing. Eggleston is currently archiving his negatives, approximately 1.5 million of them. “That’s a guess,” he says. “I haven’t really counted.”

egglestons cameras

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.

The Responsibilities Of Film Photography


Me and my Dad, 1970.

Call me a contrarian, but I’ve always seen things in a slightly skewed perspective from the average guy. Having lived on both sides of the cultural divide, first blue-collar, and then the recipient of an extended education, I know puffery and outright bullshit when I see it.   I’m much more proud of my state school diploma than I am of my Ivy league degree, feeling I worked a helluva lot harder to earn the former than the latter, see no reason for a Rolex when I can wear my Seiko 5, and much prefer the indigenous culture of Mississippi to the derivative New York City culture where I was raised. Given a choice, I’ll choose a $12 Rebel Yell bourbon over the $150 bottle of Port Charlotte Islay single malt that sits untouched on my sideboard. A Modernist, I find Joyce and Pynchon unreadable when compared to the profound simplicity of Primo Levi.  In short, I’ve seen both sides of the life, and prefer the simple values of the unpretentious to the vanity and prejudices of the fashionable.

I remain a “film guy”.  Lately, I’ve been giving an inordinate amount of consideration as to why that might be. Part of the reason, certainly, is that I’m getting to that age where I’m thinking about what I’ll leave to the next generation.  For me, photography has always been about documentation, capturing life lived both small and large, recording who I am and what I want life to be, and for this, I want something tangible, something I can put in a box that’ll be found and hopefully passed on to posterity. I don’t trust digital 1’s and 0’s to be there to do that, and I suspect we are being sold a bill of goods in our headlong embrace of the virtual future, not really thinking through its ramifications for the transmission of culture across generations.

But maybe it goes a bit beyond that. I’ve come think that there might be something about the practice of film photography that makes it so important for me as well. It takes patience, and that patience is, in a small way, a commitment to the future as much as it is a connection to the past. The craft of photography. Another word we’ve lost sight of.

My Dad Being a Goofball, 1971.

Photography is and always has been a technologically driven medium. In order to stand out from the pack, photographers seek the unique, and technology usually provides the quickest perceived means to that end. The irony, of course, is that the majority of photographers attempt to differentiate themselves by pursuing the same technological advances, ending up right back where they started — creating work that’s indistinguishable from everybody else attempting to do the same. And so technology cranks the wheel again.

Unfortunately, each new advance in camera technology widens the gap between how a camera operates and how I actually need it to operate. To a modern photographer on the technological treadmill, it seems to me the simplicity of traditional film photography should be liberating: no more straddling the bleeding edge; no more learning and re-learning the latest computer techniques; no more money thrown at the next big trend, only to see it quickly fade into cliché. But it’s a tough sell, usually poo-pooed by digital technocrats as being the death rattles of a dead technology.

For some of us it’s as simple as appreciating the beauty of the mechanical works of art that create our photography. Photographic tools, like the Leica and Nikon RFs of the 50s, can be functional art in themselves.. In them, the tactile aspect is still supreme and there is something to mastering a technology without the neurotic need to constantly upgrade in an elusive search for better results. But of equal or even greater value for many of us is the deliberation required by analogue processes, a deliberation at odds with the requirements of current photographic usage, a mindedness and focus not required, and increasingly becoming lost, in the transition to digital.

Which all helps explain why my shelves are stocked mostly with mid–20th century mechanical film cameras. It’s because no other class of camera has ever satisfied my photographic tendencies, aesthetics and desires nearly as perfectly as the 35mm mechanical rangefinder.

Le Pure Cafe, rue Jean Mace, Paris

One of the benefits of living in Paris is the food. The best of it is found, not in the latest trendy Michelin-starred haunts of status seekers and haute bourgeois or in tired standbys found in guide books, but in the local cafes you’ll find on virtually every corner of the city. Almost invariably, the meals you’ll find there are inexpensive, simply presented, and incredibly good. Unlike an American meal, where we too often equate quantity of choice with quality, somebody has taken the time and effort to prepare and present one or two dishes simply and elegantly, with the means and in a manner that allows you to savor the experience of enjoying it. One of my favorites is Le Pure Cafe, in the 11th on rue Jean Mace, right around the corner from Le Belle Equipe, where medieval-minded lunatics recently slaughtered 20 people for the sin of enjoying life.

What does this have to do with photography, you ask? To paraphrase Elliott Erwitt, photography should be taken seriously and treated as an avocation, and the analogy to cooking comes to mind: Taking photos digitally and editing them on a computer is like cooking a TV diner in a microwave in your flat. Easy, efficient, fast. if so, then the film process is the simple yet elegant meal, cooked with attention to every step in the process, served to you in Le Pure Cafe. Film process  – how pleasant and elegant it is to use as a craft — is its enduring strength, much the way the Parisian cafe meal can never be compared to a “lunch” at McDonalds.


My Brother In Law Being a Goofball, 2013

Film photography is now a niche with no aspirations to popular appeal, aimed squarely at discerning users who savor the craftsmanship required of it, while the convenience of digital has made it the tool of choice for those who desire the shortcuts of quick and easy. The act of film photography is the act of tending to an increasingly moribund craft, tied to a set of values, of practices, a kind of thought process that I believe is worth preserving. For me, A traditional all mechanical camera, be it rangefinder or SLR, loaded with a roll of HP5, a 50 or 35 on it, is the most simple and most enjoyable form of photography. Just look at the light, the shapes, the evolving situations, expressions.

With that comes responsibility. Let’s hope we  film aficionados, the people who occupy that niche, are able through our efforts to keep film alive for future generations. Technological change is too often not cumulative but rather a “Faustian bargain” in which something is sacrificed in order for something new to be gained. Will we sacrifice what is of real value in the photographic experience for the new we’ve gained?


Confessions of a Leica Fondler

For sale-12

Yes, I am a camera fondler. I’ll admit it. After all of the pretentious high-brow screeds about the superiority of film to digital you’ve read me post to this site; after all the barely concealed distaste for the basement bound losers and retired consumer drones who compulsively troll internets forums with their gross inanities, when push comes to shove, when I’m completely honest with myself, the biggest reason I dislike digital is this: digital cameras are boring, inconsequential utilitarian, soulless, artificial hunks of plastic incoherence. You can’t fondle them. Or, to be more precise, they give you no reason to. Fondle a Sony A7 with one of those Zeiss Tuit monstrosities? I think not.

Right now, as I type this into my computer, an obscenely elegant Leica IIIg with attached Leicavit and Carl Zeiss Jena 5cm 1.5 Sonnar, sits within arm’s reach, for no other reason than so I can occasionally pick it up and fondle it. It doesn’t even have film in it (ever tried to load a Barnack Leica?). It’s just there for emotional support. Next to it sits a Nikon SP with a W-Nikkor 3.5cm 1.8 and a external finder, also with no film, although I did take it out this morning and ran a roll of HP5 through it [and no, I didn’t take it to the cafe to take pictures of smiling people and their pets; that’s for fondlers who are also dilettantes. I’m not one if those. I took pictures of serious stuff]. The SP is there in case I can’t reach the IIIg, I suppose.

I’ve been this way since I was 12, when my seventh grade teacher, Mr. Smith, a slightly creepy middle aged guy who for some reason took a keen interest in me, pulled me aside in a vaguely forced conspiratorial manner to show me his…..Nikon F. Holy shit. You’d have thought he showed me a stack of Playboys. I was gobsmacked. Something about that Nikon F spoke to something deep within me, something in my loins, some inchoate desire I didn’t even know I possessed, and I knew then that my future would be as a photographer.

Nikkor 50-
Yours Truly, at 13, with my  first “real” camera, but already dreaming of a Leica. 1971. I was already ahead of the curve, taking selfies in mirrors, probably before even Vivian Maier. I was always a cool kid, ideas all my own.

That chance encounter with Mr. Smith’s Nikon set me on the road for my lifetime’s journey with film photography. Cameras lusted after, many bought with hard earned money, darkrooms built,  tens of thousands of negatives sleeved and filed away. Discovering, some time in the early 70’s, an even more rarified object of desire, the Leica rangefinder – considered an esoteric, vintage throwback even then – and in particular, the new M5, a radical step forward for Leitz, and, based on how it looked in the pages of Modern Photography, now having supplanted the Nikon F as the ultimate object of my desire. I knew the hardcore Leica users didn’t accept it – too big, too boxy, too sophisticated, too expensive – but I didn’t care; this was my fantasy, not theirs.

Atlanta, GA, 1970, overexposed Tri-X, and an Argus/Cosina SLR. The first photo I’d ever taken where, when I saw it in a contact sheet I said, “Yup, that’s good – I don’t care what anybody else says.” I was 12. I entered it in a middle school photo contest. It didn’t win; it didn’t even place. A very nice shot of a horse in a field with a sunset won.

My first cameras were bought for me by my parents. Parsimonious hard working blue collar folks, they saw no need to spoil me with what I wanted; instead I got the consumer grade Mamiya/Sekor, or the Argus Cosina SLR, or a Minolta SRT. But I wanted the M5, or at the least, a Nikon F. So one day, having saved my after-school money, I walked to the local camera store and bought a beat up black Nikon F with a chrome FTN finder and a chrome bottomed back plate, everything all beat to hell. But it worked, and I loved it, and used a Vivitar 35mm 2.8 on it because I couldn’t afford the Nikkors. Had that camera for years, shot the hell out of it, used it till it was falling apart and then sold it to some naive chap on Ebay maybe 15 years ago. Bet its still working.

In 1977, one year out of high school, I finally scrimped and saved enough to buy my first Leica, a spanking new M5 from Cambridge Camera in New York City. It had been sitting in inventory for 3 years, an orphan. Nobody wanted an M5. But, it was my dream camera, and they were selling at a steep discount, and that’s what I wanted, damn it, an M5. I’ll remember that day till the day I die: the drive into NYC through the Lincoln Tunnel, walk to the camera store, the purchase from the slightly bemused salesman (finally, a sucker who wants an M5!) the walk back to the car with the M5 and 50mm Summicron in my hands, feeling like Robert Frank.

I still have that M5. It’s the one camera I will never sell. Bought an M6 as soon as they were introduced. Subsequently sold it to a guy in Paris in 2003 who neglected to tell me that it was a collectible, one of the earliest serial numbered M6’s he had ever seen. No matter; never much liked the camera anyway. It seemed emblematic of the beginnings of Leica’s shift from professional tools to collectors’ trinkets. In the meantime I was stocking my shelf with real Leicas – M2’s, M3’s, M4’s, a few more M5’s, a Barnack here and there. Along the way I also discovered the Nikon S rangefinders, late to the party no doubt, but fell equally in love with them. They are great cameras, every bit the equal of the Leica rangefinders, and a whole nother rabbit hole to jump into, but that’s a story for another day.


What my shelves look like

So the question I ask myself is this: to what end do I collect all of these cameras? Well, I use all of them, of course. Sitting on the shelf above me must be 150 undeveloped rolls of b&w film, all shot within the year, all waiting for a marathon week of developing and scanning. But it’s more than just that. There’s something that still moves me when I handle them and when I use them. It brings me back to those days when I was 12, and just discovering the joys of photography. It’s not often you can say something has given you so much satisfaction over such a long period of time. And it’s harmless, as I remind my wife when she asks why I’m spending more money on another old leica when I’ve got a ton of them already. Would you rather I be buying and racing Ducati motorcycles, as I once did, and have the broken bones, and depleted bank accounts that go along with it? No, but isn’t 20+ cameras enough, she asks? Would you rather I be spending it on hookers and cocaine, I respond? And, of course, good woman she is, she rolls her eyes, throws up her hands, and walks away, knowing how happy she’s just made me.



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.

Buying A Leica M? A Guide for Users Not Fondlers

m2 m3

Want Chrome? Buy an M2/3/4. Black versions are stupid expensive, plus, in spite of what Lenny Kravitz says, they usually look like shit. An iconic M should be chrome.

Want Black? Buy an M5 or M6. Ironically, chrome versions of the M5 and M6 will run you more because they are rarer. Both the M5 and M6 black versions are black chrome, unlike the M2/3/4, which are black paint (with the exception of some later black chrome M4s), and don’t suffer from “brassing”, which is the single dumbest affectation heretofor conjured up by Leica fanatics.

Want to avoid the herd? Buy an M5. It has a meter, and it’s a better camera than the metered M6. Better ergos, better meter, cheaper, shows you’re serious about your Leicas and don’t give a damn what Leica snobs think.


Want one iconic M body? Buy the M4. Best Leica M ever. It’s better than the M3 because it accommodates a 35mm lens without an external finder, and it’s better than an M2 because it’s easier to load and has a better film rewind. I might argue that the M5 is an even better camera, but, admittedly, the styling of the M5 is not “iconic.”

Leica MR4 2

Want to be like every other dentist who’s got bitten by the Leica bug? Buy an M6.

Avoid the M4-2 and the M4-P. The original “Dentist Leicas.” Leitz produced them as cost-cutting versions of the M4 after the M5 failed to sell in sufficient numbers. These days, they’re as expensive as a comparable condition M4. Buy the M4. It’s a better camera, has better fit and finish, has an ingraved top plate while the M4-2 and P have a cheesy Leica logo painted on the top plate. As if the forgoing isn’t enough, the M4-P comes with a hideous red dot affixed to its front.

Avoid the M7. It really isn’t an M. Seriously. It replaced the sublime sound and feel of the traditional M shutter with the metalic clacking of its battery driven electronic shutter. How incredibly gauche. If you really think you need Aperture Priority Automation and a pocket full of battery power (you don’t), get a Hexar RF for a fourth of the price, because the Hexar is the better camera, and frankly, you’re not a real leicaphile to begin with.

Don’t worry about cosmetics. Ironically, most beat up users function much better than “Minty” collectors grade because they’ve been used and kept in spec via use. Nothing is cooler than a Leica that shows that it’s been well-used instead of sitting on a shelf somewhere.

Forget about a CLA’d camera. Just buy one that works; get it CLA’d if and when you need it. Stop worrying if your 1/8th shutter speed sounds slightly off. Only collectors and fondlers give a shit about irrelevant things like that. Just use the damn thing and enjoy it.

Look for bright viewfinders with bright rangefinder patches.

Make sure the shutter curtains aren’t whacked.

To Summarize: If you want a non-metered M, buy an M4, chrome or black chrome as you prefer. If you want a metered M, buy a black chrome M5. If you absolutely need AE (you don’t) to use with M mount optics, don’t buy an M7; buy a Hexar RF and use the money you’ve saved to buy 400 rolls of HP5. Whatever you buy, don’t buy something that looks like its been sitting on a collector’s shelf. It’s probably not going to work as well as your basic beater that’s been used, and you’re going to overpay for the privilege of doing so. In my mind, you simply can’t get any better than a beat up, well used chrome M4. In addition to the pleasure of owning and using an iconic photographic tool, you’ll get some serious street cred from real Leicaphiles as opposed to the status conscious wannabees toting their latest digital Leica swag.

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 (assuming 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.


 Actually Using An Old Leica to, You Know, Take Pictures

Leica IIIg LPfoto 1A sublimely beautiful Black Paint Leica IIIg. You can actually take pictures with it

Call me a poseur, or a hipster, but old screw mount Leicas are really fun. Not just setting them on a shelf and admiring them, or walking around the house while fondling their knurled knobs and beautifully machined parts (as I’m known to do), but actually taking them out and shooting film with them, just like they were meant to do. They’re so ‘retro’ that they’re not, and for those with a philosophical bent, this sort of meta-activity (activity meant to comment on the activity itself) can be immensely satisfying, not to mention the pathetic looks you’ll get from the iphone crowd or, better yet, the conspiratorial nods you’ll sometimes receive from a fellow traveller of advanced age. For me, however, the best part is passing paths with somebody sporting a digital Leica with “Swiss Anti-Fingerprint Coating,” often wearing a beret and taking pictures of people in coffee shops in the touristy parts of town, Billingham or Ono bag conspicuous by its immaculate appearance. These folks, when they notice you – and trust me, they’ll notice you, because for all gearheads the act of being out and about with a camera is all about seeing and being seen – often wear a look of morbid fascination, fixation admixed with potential danger,  as if I was carrying a live grenade with the pin removed. I suspect they really want to inquire about it, but don’t quite know what it is or what to make of it, or, if it goes that far, how to use it.

I’m often asked, usually by the iphone crowd, “Does that thing work?” Hell yes it works, because it was built to work seemingly forever, because it’s a sublime fusion of simplicity and function, overbuilt to last for as long as you continue to service it. Keep it in use, and the most you’ll have to do is send it off to a reputable service tech like Youxin Ye every 30 years or so.  I have no doubt that my grandkid’s grandkids, if they were of a mind (and could figure out how to load the thing) could be using it in another 100 years. Try that with your M240, or is it an M260 now?


Of course, some of the earlier screw mount Leicas – the IA, for example –  are so outdated that even a hopeless romantic like me finds them impractical to use. In 2000, leica offered the an 0-Series replica, fully functional and sold through Leica dealers, to celebrate the 75th birthday of the 35mm Leica camera. The camera is virtually identical to the 1923 Ur-Leica prototype #104 resident in the Leica Museum. No thanks. I like my nostalgia authentic. In my mind, using one of these is like going to Las Vegas and claiming you’ve seen the Eiffel Tower. If I’m going to use a screw mount Leica, I’m going to use the best, most technologically advanced screw mount Leica ever built – the Leica IIIg, not some cheesy historical replica dedicated to the Sultan Of Brunei [on a side note: how is it that Leica culture could be so schizophrenic as to give us both the sublime IIIg, M2/M3 and M4 and also the “Hello Kitty” M6?].For sale-12Released in 1957, the IIIg is Leica’s last screw mount camera. Had it been released in 1950 or 1953, it would be have been far more influential in subsequent Leica lore, because it’s a superb camera that’s really fun to use.   Leitz had introduced the Leica M3 four years earlier in 1953 as a clean sheet design with a new lens mount and the now iconic M styling. The M3 set a new standard for 35mm rangefinders that lasts to this day.

The IIIg was introduced as the logical last evolutionary step of the old Barnack design series, a last tip of the hat to more conservative Leicaphiles who still preferred the familiarity of the Barnack camera. Its new features were incremental – the same basic ergonomics of the IIIf with a redesigned top cover and a larger and improved viewfinder similar to the M3, including an extra frosted window for the projection of different frame lines into the viewfinder.

Leitz produced and offered the IIIg for only 3 years, 1957-60, years when the M3 was meeting with professional  raves and impressive sales. Japanese manufacturers were also offering their updated alternatives to the M3; the IIIg not only had to compete against the better spec’d M3, Canon P and Nikon S3, but after 1958, the Leica M2, itself a runaway success much like the M3. Next to these now iconic cameras, the Leica IIIg was a technological dinosaur, lacking the combined VF/RF assemblies of the M3 and the Canon and Nikon that allowed for a single, much larger eyepiece for simultaneous focusing and composing.

aaaa-08413The author’s incredibly cool Leica IIIg

The Leica IIIg was much like the screw mount Leicas that had been produced by Leitz since the 20’s, featuring only incremental changes from the previous Barnack Leica, the IIIf ‘Red Dial:” A larger .7 mag viewfinder with two sets of illuminated, parallax corrected framelines for the 50/90 focal lengths; Shutter speeds calibrated with a modern shutter speed progression – the 2/4/8/15/30/60…. ; Separate flash synch dial replaced with two flash settings at 1/50 and 1/25th on the shutter speed dial; A film reminder dial placed on the back of the body that exceeded ASA 100.

The IIIg is not as common as earlier Barnacks.   Consequently, they sell for substantially more than a well cared for IIIc or IIIf, and most of them sit on collector’s shelves or circulate among us Leicaphiles in quixotic buy/sell attempts to finally satiate an obsessive compulsion to find The Perfect Leica.



Above is a photo I took in a Paris street with my IIIg and a first generation collapsible Summicron. The photo isn’t going to win any photojournalism awards, I’m sure, but I really like it just the same. It reminds me of what I love about the city – an eclectic mix of the profane and the sacred, where the beautiful peeks out at you in the most unexpected places.  It also seems appropriate that it was taken with an old Leica, the sort used by HCB for many if his iconic Parisian photos. What’s printed above is a simple scan of the negative with some minor fiddling in Photoshop. But I also have an 10×15 silver print of the same photo, printed by HCB’s own master printer George Fevre, one of my most treasured photographic possessions. How cool is that? My own Parisian “decisive moment,”  captured with an iconic Leica film camera and printed by one of the World’s most masterful printers, the same guy who printed HCB’s stuff. That’s what you call “living the dream.”


The Leica M-A

 leica m-a 2

“Focusing on the founding principles of photography, the Leica M-A (Typ 127) is a 35mm film rangefinder camera characterized by its simplicity and unobtrusiveness. As a completely mechanical camera, no battery is required for operation and the only exposure control offered is a choice of shutter speed, up to 1/1000 sec. A large, bright 0.72x-magnification viewfinder pairs with a precise rangefinder mechanism to enable comparative manual focusing control with M-mount lenses, along with parallax-corrected compositional framing. The body features black-colored chromed brass top and bottom covers, as well as an all-metal body design, to offer both durability as well as an aesthetic, minimal appearance. Designed for intuitiveness and efficient operability, the precision afforded by the M-A serves to complement a straight-forward working method.” – B&H Photo Website

Leica recently released a ‘new’ film camera, the Leica M-A. While it’s ‘new,’ in the sense that it’s just starting to be produced and sold by Leica,  it’s not ‘new’ in the sense that it’s offering any significant improvements on previous Leica M film cameras. From that perspective, it’s a technological step back from Leica’s last ‘new’ M, the electronic M7 introduced 13 years ago. The M-A is “retro” in the best sense of the term, sporting technology unchanged from the 1954 M3.

If Leica wants to keep film photography alive, why don’t they give us a truly ‘new’ film camera, new from the inside out, much like Nikon did with their superlative F6? Leica certainly has the technology, as the current digital M’s do, so, if you are really invested in maintaining yourself as a manufacturer of film cameras,  why not give us an update on the traditional Leica M model, something with more than the standard fully manual, manual focus body with 1/1000s horizontal cloth shutter and 1/50s sync. speed?

The pessimists among us will argue that if the M-A is Leica’s best attempt to keep alive their analogue tradition, then one might take from this that it’s ultimately nothing more than an exercise in nostalgia: the best Leica can do in offering a film camera now is to emulate the past; further progress is no longer an option.



Optimists will take note that Leica is a camera company that places a premium on tradition. They are the only camera company that attempts to consciously reference their tradition as a selling point. And the fact that Leica is even offering anything new for film photographers is in itself cause for optimism.

For that matter, why screw with a good thing? Some of us believe the mechanical M, ‘dated’ as it may be, remains the pinnacle of film camera design. The current cloth shutter is a marvel of simplicity, quiet, accurate enough, remaining accurate over time and easily repairable by most camera repair techs. It will continue to be repairable even if Leica stops servicing it (unlikely, given they’re still servicing M3’s built 60 years ago). And frankly, you don’t need any shutter speed over 1/1000th, which will effectively freeze even the fastest action. Could Leica have offered us a more technologically advanced shutter, something along the lines of the Hexar RF? Of course, but why? Just maybe they’re smart enough to leave well enough alone.

If it is important to you that your camera of choice be updated every few years, then maybe you aren’t a Leicaphile. Nothing wrong with that. Not all of us want the same thing from our photographic tools. If you want all the bells and whistles in a film body, by all means buy a used F5 on Ebay, an incredibly sophisticated camera that’s ridiculously cheap to buy. However, if you want a ‘new’ Leica, what they’ve been offering since 1954 pretty much represents the terminus of perfected mechanical camera design. When something works as well as a classic M there really is no real need to change it.


A Quick Ebay Tutorial on Leica M Cameras

Buying a Leica on Ebay can be a frustrating experience. Finding a “Minty” M can be hit or miss at best, and knowing the subtle differences between M models can be daunting. Ebay wants to make it easier on us, publishing a helpful “Product Description” for older models. Below are the actual Ebay product descriptions for Leica M film cameras:


Leica M2: Ideal for Sports Photography

“A compact rangefinder film camera, the Leica M2 (camera body only) lets you capture the beautiful moments of your life, even when you’re on the go. This Leica film camera has a manual focusing system that lets you capture sharp and bright pictures. With manual exposure control modes, this rangefinder film camera lets you take snaps just the way you want. Featuring shutter speeds from 1 sec to 1/1000th and B, this Leica film camera can click good quality images of moving subjects, making it ideal for sports photography. The Leica M2 (camera body only) also features a self-timer, to make sure you get in a few snaps of yourself!”



Summicron w m3

Leica M3: Leica’s First Camera With TTL Metering

“Compose your shots accurately with the Leica M3 camera, which combines a rangefinder and viewfinder in one. The large and bright viewfinder of this 35 mm rangefinder camera has a magnification of 0.91x, giving you a wide coverage of the scene. With shutter speeds from 1-1/1,000 seconds, this Leica film camera lets you clearly capture moving subjects. The Leica M3 35 mm rangefinder camera uses interchangeable lenses, providing the flexibility to shoot various scenes. Featuring TTL metering, which measures light using a built-in meter, this Leica film camera eliminates the need for a separate, hand-held meter.”



Leica MR4 2

Leica M4: A Chameleon of a Camera

“The Leica M4 is a classic rangefinder film camera that exhibits the excellence in craftsmanship of the Leica M series. This Leica 35 mm film camera is equipped with a rangefinder, so the images you get are sharply focused. The body of the rangefinder film camera is made of metal casting, designed to perform well even in tough conditions. The Leica M4, being a chameleon of a camera, can be used for different kinds of photography. Additional reasons that make this classic Leica 35 mm film camera a must-buy are the fast film loading, quick rewinding, and the self-resetting film counter.”




Leica M5: A Sleek Point and Shoot Autofocus Camera

“The Leica M5 is a sleek point and shoot camera that captures excellent shots with every click. This 35mm film camera boasts tough construction with precision handling. The Leica M5 has fast shutter speed of 1/2 to 1/1000 sec that ensures quick and accurate shots. This autofocus camera is a mechanical camera with innovative and new features like a TTL meter, stylish and ergonomic square body, base plate fitted with rewind crank which together make this 35mm film camera user friendly. The Leica M5 has a view finder that displays the shutter speed and meter read. It also features a shutter speed dial that is present on the front of the camera. The shutter of this autofocus camera winds smoothly and silently.”




Leica M6: A Highly User-Friendly Device for Bright Images

“Enhance your photography skills with the Leica M6 camera, offering focused photography with manual operation. The 1 – 1/1000sec shutter speed, this Leica 35mm film camera can easily capture fast moving objects. The 0.72 and 0.85 viewfinder versions of this Leica rangefinder camera complement the 35mm frame line, so that you click bright images. The battery used in the Leica M6 camera only controls the internal light meter for capturing bright pictures. This Leica 35mm film camera has the TTL light metering mode that controls the amount of light emitted by the flash, producing consistent images in all light conditions. The mechanics used in this Leica rangefinder camera makes it’s a highly user-friendly device.”




Leica M7: Finally! Built-In Flash

“The Leica M7 0.85 is a stylish and compact 35 mm rangefinder film camera, that is ideal to carry anywhere. The fast, easy manual focus system of this Leica film camera allows you to focus the lens by hand. With a Leica camera flash sync of up to 1/50th of a second, this 35 mm rangefinder film camera allows you to capture high speed images. Additionally, this Leica film camera has an on/off switch that prevents your battery from draining when not in use. What’s more, you can even shoot in low-light conditions, thanks to the built-in flash of the Leica M7 0.85.”

To Summarize: if you’re shooting sports, the M2 is the way to go. If you want that vintage feel with TTL metering, the M3 (You’ll get the added bonus of “wide coverage” with the M3 finder). Need Autofocus? The M5 is for you. Built in flash? Get the M7. Which leave us with the M4 and M6, whose “improvements,” if any, seem to be more hype than substance.


The Leica M3-P

IMG_0022Leica M3-P “20 Years Leica Shop Vienna” with Leica Noctilux-M 50mm f/0.95 ASPH

The Leica M3-P was a special edition released in 2011 to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the Leica Shop in Vienna. Only 20 were offered, so they are fetching big bucks now when they come up for auction (I’ve seen auction prices from $65,000-$85,000)

The M3-P is an analog Leica MP in silver chrome finish with vulcanite cladding and top cover in the vintage Leica M3 style. Each camera has a special edition number on the hot shoe. Leica threw in, for free, a Leica Noctilux-M 50mm f/0.95 ASPH Lens in silver anodized finish when you bought the camera.

I hate Leica “Special Editions” because, as a general rule, they’re tacky and stupid and appeal to vulgar people. I expect the usual suspects – Lenny Kravitz, Seal, a couple of members of the Saudi royal family, a chinese billionaire – all own one of these, and none of them have ever had a real roll of film run through them. But I’ll make an exception for this one; it’s simple and minimalist without the usual “Sultan of the Universe” engravings. And that Noctilux sure looks pretty on it.

IMG_0023 IMG_0024 IMG_0021 IMG_0020

Magical Thinking and the Illusion of Continuity


“With the introduction of a perpetual upgrade program, every LEICA M8 will forever be a state-of-the-art digital camera. Today’s and tomorrow’s users will always be able to incorporate the latest refinements and developments in handling ease and technology. It is our aim to secure your investment in the LEICA M8 for the future. While other digital cameras quickly become outdated and are replaced by newer models, our new concept extends the value retention and resistance to obsolescence embodied in the Leica ethos. Over time, we will gradually offer new product features and developments as upgrade options, declares Steven K. Lee, CEO of Leica Camera AG. Our customers can therefore still invest in the photographic tools they need without worrying that they will miss out on improvements and technological developments along the way.”


The above is promotional copy issued by Leica after the introduction of their first digital M, the M8. In retrospect, I’m sure Leica would love to take it back. Now a $6000 M8, introduced only 8 years ago, is considered a technological dinosaur and is worth a fraction of what it cost new. This really isn’t Leica’s fault. In 2008, like everyone else, they suffered from a certain opacity of vision with respect to how the future of digital imaging was going to unfold. I’m sure their intent was good. Rather, what’s happened to the longevity of digital cameras is the consequence of the shortening of product lives and consumer cycles of constant cosmetic updating. This constant fetish for the new, the upgraded, is claimed as progress, but in reality it is simply the result of a producer strategy on the part of the large players in the camera business – Nikon, Sony, Canon – designed to maximize manufacturer profits. The reality, even today, is that the M8 is a very capable camera that produces excellent results basically indistinguishable from the images of the current M which is sold as an exponential advance on previous models. It just isn’t new, and that’s the problem, because there exists no practical incentive for Leica to maintain and service it for any extended period given current realities. The M8, is, in effect, an orphan, through no fault of Leica.

As Erwin Puts has noted, buying a film M was an act of trust built on the assumption of stability. You knew that the camera would be around for decades and repair parts would be available for generations. And you knew that any new Leica M camera would be, at best, an incremental change from the current model. A used M kept its value  because it was a camera locked into an evolutionary cycle of Leica cameras. It was based on a culture and tradition of stability.

The new generation of Leica digital cameras has inevitably succumbed to the mass produced consumer cycle, though, given Leica’s relatively limited resources visavis Japanese manufacturers,  at a pace in the rear of the digital pack.  This creates a double dilemma for Leica – having forsworn stability they are now locked into a consumer cycle game that, given their modest technological means, they can’t have a hope of winning.

Leica can still draw on their experience, but the increase in both innovation and production volume required by new digital realities creates profound problems for traditional handmade Leica culture. In the past Leitz increased production by hiring more people and giving them extensive training. Now the production of digital Leicas requires faster production lines with extensive computer support. But the adjustment of the traditional components of the M series, for example the rangefinder mechanism, still requires a level of precision impossible to achieve, unless, as in the past, a very experienced worker does the job and is given the time needed to do it correctly.

The technology of traditional handmade production relied heavily on the manufacture of components in the Leitz factory itself or on the outsourcing of components to factories that made the parts to Leica specifications based on decades of experience. For any part needed, the responsible manager knew how to assess what was necessary and could anticipate potential problems. This intimate knowledge of the camera’s components is no longer possible in the digital age. Leica has to rely on the experience of external suppliers that deliver the electronic and computerized components that are needed to build a digital Leica M.


So, the conundrum facing Leica now is this: Is it possible to make a ‘Digital Leica’, a digitized camera that embodies the traditional ethos of the Leica – something small, simple, built to last, enduring? I would argue that the term is an oxymoron, and its been borne out in Leica’s history of digital offerings. Those of us who’ve used both knew immediately that Leica in the digital age, even with the best intentions, is selling us a bill of goods.


Other than a similarity of form, the differences between a film and digital M are profound. The 35mm Leitz Camera was small. Oskar Barnack, who invented the Leica, was so concerned about maintaining the original diminutive size of the Leica I  he insisted that the rangefinder, added later, be kept as small as possible. The M3 was large compared to the Ur-Leica, but it was still compact by most standards. Digital Ms have incrementally increased in size and weight over the years, bloated in relation to a traditional film M. Its not something we talk about though; the example of the M5 too close at hand. As for simplicity, the current digital M’s are as simple as digital requirements allow them to be, but that doesn’t mean they are simple in the sense of the old Leitz made film cameras. With their nested menus, electronic shutters dependent on Lithium Ion batteries, computerized circuits and digital sensors, they are computers with all the attendant complexities. Enduring? No. Enduring design is not in the nature of digital technology, with the exponential technological increase built into computerized technology by Moore’s Law, which makes it impossible to remain technologically competent over time and thus hold value over the long run.

The ‘Clean, Lubricate and Adjust’ as a Political Statement


“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption a way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions in consumption. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an ever growing rate.” American Marketing Consultant Victor Lebow, 1955.

Ironic that this quote coincides with the age of the iconic mechanical Leica camera, the M3. The M3, produced by Leitz between 1954 and1966,  is the product of a Leitz corporate culture at odds with the prevalent business ethos; A Leitz culture that valued quality and durability, costly as an initial consumer outlay, no doubt, but prudent when viewed in the context of the product’s productive lifespan, and for Leitz, at the expense of accelerated improvement cycles.

As the marketeer quoted above noted already in 1955, speed of product decay has become a corporate good; durability a hinderance to the cultivation of new consumer appetites. The idea of consumer progress and corporate profits depends on rejecting as valueless what has come before, corporations constantly repudiating what they had only recently proclaimed.

And thus, through advertising, the constant thought shaping of a desire for the newer, the improved, which leads to the consumer’s preoccupation with the next purchase, always chasing future happiness through the a delusive pursuit of something “better.” Of course, this is the big lie that is the necessary premise of the whole philosophy of consumerism. What you desire is always just out of reach, and you will only have what you want with the next purchase.  Anything that is “old,” outdated, last year’s model, is inferior, of no note, no value.  And, like good sheep, consumers that we have been programmed to be, we buy it. Thus, you see talk on any camera forum about 2 year old cameras as being “obsolete” and can observe the neurotic buying and selling amongst the denizens there, chasing the new and improved with the constancy of  a metronome.


As a general rule, I think that the CLA (“clean, lubricate, adjust”) culture surrounding ownership of mechanical Leicas is crazy. People having their cameras pulled apart and “cleaned and lubricated” every few years is completely unnecessary and, frankly, deeply neurotic. Most Leicas, even shelf queens without much use for long periods of time, will gradually loosen up with use – wind-on will become smoother, lower speeds will free up and become consistent with exercise. Dismantling a camera to deal with these issues invites the potential for as much harm as good. As a general rule, if its not broke, don’t fix it. Of course, if viewfinders are hazy, or rangefinders need alignment or re-silvering, by all means do so.
That being said, from a philosophical perspective, I applaud the idea of fixing a serviceable tool like a mechanical camera  as opposed to retiring it for something newer. Fixing things, as opposed to upgrading, can be an act of protest,  a thoughtful subversion of the mindless consumerism demanded by an always accelerating economy whose logic insists that the only proper response is to replace what you have with the newer and  “improved,” and, of course, to pay exorbitantly for the privilege of doing so. This, and this only, is what drives profits for camera companies. But keeping things and fixing them is both a a financial remedy and a philosophical stance. Ownership of a finely made tool can be something we see within a larger context, a trust almost.  It can take on a certain moral quality that can deepen the joys of owning something finely made, and made for long use.


While we as owners benefit from the investment in well-made, purposeful tools, it creates a financial conundrum for manufacturers of quality like Leica. It is, in reality, a corporate ethos at odds with market necessities. And thus we see the necessary gimmicks Leica employs to stay solvent, because a 50 year old M4, a tool manufactured and sold by them generations ago, properly maintained, is as functional today as the day it was produced. In almost all respects, it is the better of the cameras being produced today by Leica, even those, like the MP, which presume to maintain the leica’s mechanical heritage, given that they have been incrementally dumbed down in the course of modern updating and reduced quality components. Why buy a $4500 MP when you can buy a beautiful, fully functional M4 for a fifth of the price?