Custom designed Leica cameras from the Japan Camera Hunter.
It’s a question I’m increasingly asking myself. It seems rather predictable these days: prospective first time Leica film camera owners fixate upon the M3 as their entree into Leica film camera ownership. Granted, find one in decent condition and it’s a wonderful camera, exemplifying all the characteristics associated with the hand-built fully mechanical M’s. And, of course, it’s iconic, the original Leica M, with a quarter million production run between its introduction in 1954 and its replacement with the M4 in 1966. But, if you’re considering buying an iconic mechanical M film camera, and assuming you’re going to want to use it to produce photographs as opposed to propping it up on a shelf somewhere, is it really the best choice?
If you want an “iconic” all mechanical film Leica M, you have 3 choices: the M3, the M2, or the M4. (I’m not going to even debate the relative merits of the LTM Leica IIIg, introduced by Leitz in 1957 as the culmination of the venerable Barnack screw-mount line. That’s a discussion for another day.) Starting with the M5, Leica incorporated metering into the M line, necessitating a battery but, more importantly, setting in motion the incremental increases in ergonomic complexity that led to the anti-iconic electronic M7. The M5 and M6, both metered, both excellent cameras, in my mind don’t qualify as “iconic” – just try to picture Henri Cartier-Bresson using an M5 or M6 to take the picture of that guy jumping over the puddle behind the Gare du Nord. Enough said.
As for the M4-2 and M4-P, both non-metered all mechanical M’s, purists argue they ‘really’ weren’t legitimate M’s but rather stop-gap cost-cutting throwbacks used by Leitz to buy time while they figured out what to do about the M line post-M5 debacle. At the very least, it’s a truism that neither camera was aimed at, or appealed to, the working photographer. If your goal is to own the camera that best embodies the M’s evolution from professional working tool to sentimental throwback, then the M4-2 is the camera for you. Plus, both it and the M4-P just look cheap, the M4-2 with a tacky “Leitz” logo stamped onto the top-plate; the M4-P with the same stamped logo and also a hideous red dot on the front vulcanite. Yuck. And they both continued the unfortunate trend, started with the M5 and brought down through the M lineage to this day, of stamping the “Leica” and the M designation on the front of the faceplate, an unnecessary cluttering up of the camera’s simple lines, with the result being the start of the now well-established practice of showing your hard-core Leicaphile cred by taping these over with black tape. Finally, there’s the recent all mechanical MP, an admirable attempt by Leica to maintain the iconic M profile in the digital age, but alas, too expensive and without any vintage cred.
So, we’re left with the M2 and M4 as alternatives to the M3. The M2, prospective owners might think, would have come before the M3, but they’d be wrong. The M2 was first offered for sale in 1958, four years after the introduction of the M3, intended to be a simpler and less expensive alternative to the M3. There were some cost-cutting features vis a vis the M3: the exposure counter was an exposed dial you reset by hand as opposed to the M3’s auto-reset windowed counter, and Leitz found a way to cut production costs of its viewfinder in relation to the costs of the M3 viewfinder; but, the M2 viewfinder is main reason many working photographers opted for the M2 over the M3, and I would argue it’s also the reason the M2 remains the preferable alternative if you’re a first time Leica Film camera owner.
The results of long experience with M’s by serious photographers seems to have confirmed the belief that the true “native” focal length for the 35mm rangefinder camera is a 35mm lens, itself a perfect combination of focal width with “normal” perspective. The 50mm focal length, especially when used on a rangefinder, seems just a bit too narrow, a bit too restricted in venues like enclosed low-light spaces where M’s have traditionally been most effective. The downside of the M3 is its .91 viewfinder magnification, a life-size magnification perfect for using a 50mm Noctilux, Summicron or Elmar and longer 90 and 135mm lenses but too narrow to use with a 35mm focal length without auxiliary finder. Hence the M2 with .72 magnification viewfinder allowing native framelines for 35/50/90 focal lengths – offered by Leitz a few years after the introduction of the M3 – as much a response to the limitations of the M3 as it was a “reduced-cost” alternative. It’s no coincidence that the M2 became the M of choice for working photographers using Leicas in the 1960s. It was, and remains, the more practical alternative if your interest is using the camera.
Which brings us to the M4, produced by Leitz from 1967 to 1970 (marginal production as well from 71-75 when the M5 was also being offered as the first metered M). It retains the native .72 magnification viewfinder of the M2 with a bunch of incremental improvements: a 135mm brightline frame in addition to the 35/50/90 M2 trio, a really cool-looking angled cranked film rewind in place of the M2/M3’s fiddly lift-up knob that took forever to rewind a film roll, a faster 3 prong “rapid loading” (!) take up spool, and it was offered in black chrome, a much more durable finish than the black paint M2’s and M3’s that looked like crap after a few months of intense use.
Now THIS is a Real M4: Not bunged up with tacky logos or Red Dots, and not dumbed down to a price point
What I really love about the M4 is its solidity and refinement. To me it feels even more solid yet refined than does the M3. It’s a non-metered M with all the kinks worked out. It is the last iconic M (The M5 being ignored for the moment because of its unique form factor) that truly embodies all the virtues of the Leitz hand-assembled bodies. It is to the non-metered M line what the IIIg is to the Barnack line – the model line’s most refined and sophisticated representation. Were I to choose one Leica M body that most closely met the criteria of a useable iconic M, it would be the M4. Give me mine in black chrome please.
This, as Best I Can Tell, is a “Real” Black Paint Leica M2
I think I’ve made it clear I’m not a big fan of the “Black Paint” Leica craze. There was a reason Leica started producing their black cameras in black chrome starting with the M5 in 1971 – traditional black paint Leicas looked like crap after a few years of use. Black paint finishes quickly wore away or bubbled up, to the consternation of owners who expected their Leicas to be durable. Black chrome was much hardier, not wearing away, flaking or bubbling. A definite improvement.
Somewhere along the way – I date it to the late 90’s – a guy named Shintaro in Japan started painting M cameras black for about $500 a camera. He had learned to do so by painting a few of his own cameras black, experimenting with various techniques until he could produce a black paint M almost indistinguishable from an original. He did so not for any nefarious reason but because he liked the look of a black Leica M2/M3, and the originals were scarce and, when found, usually beat up looking. He had started by simply posting his results on the net, and soon other M owners were contacting him asking that he paint their Leicas. A cottage industry was born.
A few years thereafter, I started seeing other people get into the game, offering to paint your chrome Leica black for a fee. The results ranged from the really bad – chrome cameras simply sprayed black with enamel – to those dechromed and refinished almost to Shintaro standard. By the mid-aughts, everybody seemed to either have, or want to have, a black repaint, the point being to have a black Leica M2/3/4, not a collectable.
An effect of all this was that the original Black Paint Leicas – M2’s, M3’s and early M4’s painted black by Leitz – came into vogue as collectables. And then, of course, the scammers got into the game, with varying levels of cleverness, offering to sell you an “Original” Black Paint Leica at collectable prices. It was easy enough to do. While Leitz produced black M’s in official batches, allowing a potential buyer to cross-check Leitz records to determine if a given Black Paint Leica was legit or not, the fact is that, back in the day, Leitz itself would paint your M2 or M3 black by request, giving you an “Original” Black Paint Leica even though the serial number of the camera didn’t place it in a run of official black models. On such exceptions to the general rule, a lot of repaints were pawned off on unsuspecting buyers, usually on Ebay, as originals, some even with fake paperwork claiming to prove their provenance.
The end result of all of this is it’s now difficult to know for certain if the Black Paint Leica you’re looking at is original, and thus exponentially more valuable as a collector’s item, or a “fake” repaint. Not that a good repaint isn’t nice for what it is; I’ve had Shintaro paint both an M2 and an M3 for me back in the day, and they were beautiful, but they were what they were – Shintaro repaints, and I eventually sold both as such. God only knows where they are now, and who might be claiming what about their legitimacy. And this is the problem. There’s so many repaints floating around, the distinction between real and fake is now extremely problematic.
Which leads us to the larger issue – with all of these Black Paint Leicas floating around, most with varying degrees of questionable provenance, what’s the value of the real thing? The real thing, of course, is just a Leica painted black. Whatever value it might possess over and above its practical value as a Leica camera is artificial, a function of its perceived desirability, which is itself a function of its rarity, and Black Paint Leicas are now seemingly everywhere. Insofar as you can prove the legitimacy of your particular camera as an “original” Black Paint, the current market dictates that it possesses an extra value as a collectible. This in turn is predicated upon the requirement that there be clear means to authenticate its legitimacy – serial numbers certainly are a first step – but, in the era of the ubiquitous repaint, one never knows. It might be claimed to have been painted on special order from Leitz, or it might be a legit Black Paint that’s been repainted along the way, or, to muddy the waters further, it may be a repaint whose provenance has been purposefully faked with supporting documents and gains legitimacy after changing hands a time or two. Who knows? The point is this: no matter how much due diligence you do, there’s a chance your $10,000 “Original Black Paint M3” is a fake. And, given that reality, even if you own a real one, astute collectors are going to be skeptical.
As an example, I recently received an email from someone inquiring where he might get a reasonable valuation of a black M2 he had come into possession of. It’s the camera you see above, and at the beginning of the post. It sure looks nice, which, prior to the repainting craze, would have made it highly desirable. Unfortunately, now, you could argue it makes it highly suspect. This is what he told me about the camera:
I have a button rewind m2 (from the first batch of 500) that was used for a year and then stored away in a closet and never touched again. It is in such amazing condition that no one believes the top isn’t a repaint (even though the serial 948896) puts it right in that group. The man I purchased it from at an estate sale was probably in his late 70s/early 80s said he had purchased it and then bought a nikon SLR and never used it again. It does look a little too good to be true although there is minor brassing on the advance lever and the back edge of the top plate as well as on the front edge of the matching summicron lens. Anyway I was wondering about avenues for appraisal/info on the camera etc. I am not eager to sell but may if the price was right.
I have every reason to believe his story. The serial number certainly puts it in a batch of original black M2’s. The explanation sounds reasonable, but then again, it’s an explanation we’ve all heard before, and you can see from his description that he’s already encountered a healthy skepticism when in fact all obvious signs point to its legitimacy. And that’s the dilemma increasingly encountered by folks trying to monetize their collectible Black Paint Leica. It’s also the dilemma facing a prospective buyer. Are you willing to take a $10,000 chance it’s real, or that it hasn’t been repainted, or that it isn’t an elaborate fake concocted in a basement in Stuart Florida? Not me, and my bet is that fewer and fewer future buyers will be as well, which doesn’t bode well for the market.
******UPDATED BELOW: AFTER FURTHER INVESTIGATION, IT’S CLEAR THIS IS A 100% FAKE. SEE BELOW FOR DETAILS******
Another “Original Black Paint” Leica, this one an M2, for sale by “Third Man Cameras” on ebay (Ebay http://www.ebay.com/itm/332015997511?rmvSB=true). Is it “real”? Who knows. If by “real” you mean an actual Leitz made M2, yes, it’s real. If you mean an actual Leitz M2 painted black by the factory, debatable. The serial number, 929348 puts it in a 1958 lot of 2000 chrome M2’s. The first known factory BP M2 starts with serial number 948601. However, it could be a camera done in black by Leica on a client request, which wasn’t unusual back in the day.
According to the seller,
This camera was ordered through Leica New York in 1958 and then the camera was produced at the Leitz Leica factory in Wetzlar, Germany. The original owner said that he had to contact Leica via postal service to order the camera. This is why it still has an original L-seal. It was produced by Leica / Leitz Wetzlar in 1958 at the factory in Wetzlar, Germany. The original owner had some position in photography while in the military because he has many camera items in his Air Force trunk. This website shows the camera to be an original black M2 ( http://www.l-camera-forum.com/leica-…n/index.php/M2 )
First of all, that explanation looks awful suspicious. It claims both that “the original owner said,” implying that he had spoken to the owner….and that the original owner “had some position in photography because he had many items in his Air Force trunk” – implying he doesn’t have first hand knowledge of the owner (it’s called a “tell.”) Erik van Straten, who generally knows such things, thinks it’s fake, and posted the following two photos below of a legit early BP M2 on a popular Leica forum to illustrate the difference. (Editor’s note: I think any reasonable person not completely blinded by Leica insanity would say most BP Leicas look like shit– if you want to see a black Wetzlar made Leica film M that doesn’t look like its been beat to death the way black paint M’s invariably do, find yourself a black chrome M4. I’ve got a BC M4, made in 1974, that looks like it just came out of the box).
The wear on the camera looks contrived to me, less a product of long usage than someone’s idea of what that usage might produce ( google “Lenny Kravitz Leica” for further edification). For me, the ‘tell’ that it’s not legit is the documentation. Real Black Paint Leicas, sold through reputable sources i.e. not Ebay, almost never come with original purchase documents…because almost nobody would have saved these documents for 60+ years. It was just a camera, a working camera for someone. Nobody buys a a BP M2 back in 1958 and then fastidiously files away the paperwork for 60 years with the idea they’d someday need it to prove its authenticity. I could be wrong, however, but, like most things Leica, I’m probably not.
OK, so this one is a stone-cold fake, sold by Third Man Cameras in Stuart, Florida (whose motto is “Measuring Integrity.” True). I ‘thought’ it looked suspiciously like a previous “Original Black Paint M3” I had written about some time ago. I went back and compared the two auctions. In the first auction, for the M3, is a certificate of ownership said to be from Leitz Wetzlar to the original purchaser, a “Busby Cattenach” from “Wauwatosa, Wisconsin.“. In this new M2 auction is included a certificate of ownership from Leitz to the original purchaser who is listed as “Archie Baldwin” at the exact same address as Mr. Cattenach in “Wauwatosa, Wisconsin.” So, either Busby Cattenach and Archie Baldwin lived together back in the 50’s and shared a fondness for one off Black Paint Leicas; and both kept all the supporting documentation; both made sure to leave it all with the camera once they died; and then this seller just happened to find both cameras at different estate sales at different times, both in Florida…or these are fakes.
I contacted a genealogist friend and asked her to track down any “Archie Baldwin” who had served time in the Air Force and lived in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin in the 50’s. Nothing. No Archie Baldwin showing on any census records or public directories in Wisconsin, now or ever. No “Busby Cattenach” showing on any census records or public directories in Wisconsin, now or ever. Clearly, the provenance of these cameras – Leica M2 #929348 and Leica M3 # 756902 – have been extensively faked.
The larger question is whether Third Man Cameras is an unwilling dupe or a scammer. It just so happens that Third Man Cameras happens upon a lot of extremely rare Black Paint Leica items with extensive provenance. Third Man Cameras eventually sold the fake Black Paint M3 mentioned previously, Mr. “Busby Cattenach’s,” for over $10,000 to someone through Ebay, even after they, the seller, had been alerted that the camera was a fake and had responded to the person alerting him of that fact as follows:
“My God your [sic] right. Thank You so much for pointing this out. I acquired this item at an estate sale. Before I purchased the camera I checked to see if this company called Leica ever made cameras in black during that time and I found that they did. So I proceeded with the purchase. I checked your information and you are 100% correct. I am going to contact the estate sales lady in the morning. I guess I will also remove the auction. This is terrible news for me. I wonder if there is any way that this could still be authentic? Any more information you have would be appreciated greatly. Thank you so much for pointing this out. I have a lot of work to do to cancel this auction. I’m going to start now. Thanks again and please let me know if you have anymore info regarding this camera. Regards”.
Which, of course, is such incredible bullshit it defies logic that anyone with any critical reasoning ability would not see through it – He sees this camera at an estate sale, knows nothing about Leicas (“this company called Leica”) yet holds off buying it until he confirms that the company made cameras in black at that time? Right.
They’ve since sold a Black Paint screw mount Summicron (with sketchy looking certificate) for $15,000, and another for $4500. The interesting thing about this seller is that seemingly every vintage Leica item he sells is accompanied by suspicious amounts of “original paperwork” claiming to authenticate the item for what it claims to be. Invariably, the Black Paint items are accompanied by a surfeit of certificates, invoices, letters, sales tags, boxes etc. How this guy in Stuart, Florida keeps finding these incredibly rare collector’s gems, while reputable auction houses almost never turn up the same amount of stuff, and certainly nothing with the extensive purported documentation this guy seems to produce for every item he sells, I’ll leave to the reader’s better judgment.
And clearly, this seller knows a lot more about “this company called Leica” than he cares to admit. From trolling through his feedback, it looks like he came into possession of a bunch of spare parts from Leitz – “Leica Camera Parts – Massive Inventory – New Stock – M2 M3 M4 M5 M6 M7 SL” – a few years ago and probably found the means there to fake various invoices, tags, certificates etc that might establish fake provenances for repainted cameras. It was after this inventory sale that the “Official Black Paint” items start appearing for sale on his site at fairly regular intervals.
Further investigation reveals that Third Man Cameras is operated by a Henry Obert of Jensen Beach, Fl, (a mere 5 mile jaunt down the road from Stuart) in Martin County, Florida, and the “Office Manager” of Third Man Cameras is an Erica Obert. Some auspicious googling turned up the following on photo.net in 2012:
|Leica Airbrush paint
Henry Obert , Jan 29, 2012; 07:47 p.m.
and then these pictures of a “Henry Obert” and “Erica Obert” from the Martin County Sheriff’s office:
Can’t make this stuff up.
He’s been contacted and the fake Black Paint M2 auction has been taken down without explanation. In contacting him, I offered him the chance to explain the various discrepancies as noted here. I’ve not yet received a response of any sort. If I do, I’ll be happy to publish it. Suffice it to say, his explanation better be good. Really good.
By Tadeas Plachy. Mr. Plachy lives and works in Prague in the Czech Republic
[Editor’s Note: I love stories like this. It’s easy enough to be jaded about modern Leicaphiles – those who simply buy the camera for the name and the cache that supposedly comes along with the name- and easy enough to forget that there are still people like Mr. Plachy, dedicated to learning the craft of traditional photography and wanting to do so with a camera that has meaning for them as something other than an upgradable widget. He’s right – there is something profound about the use of a precision mechanical camera like a Leica M2, 60 years old but still remarkably relevant.]
My photographic journey had already begun when my grandfather gave me his well used Leica on his deathbed. I had started in the 90’s with a cheap film camera, a Minolta point and shoot, shooting Kodak color negative film. I was a curious kid so I shot everything. My mother, who paid for the processing and prints, was quite unhappy that I shot random things. Sadly, while moving I lost all my negatives from those years.
In 2002 I received my first digital camera. I went to London for school and took my new 1.3mpx fixed focus digital camera. I could take about 20 shots with a set of 2 AA batteries. I carried full pockets of batteries. A 128 mb compact flash memory card cost the same as the camera, so I only had one. It was full within a day. I soon put that digital abomination into a drawer and never looked at it again. Unfortunately, my digital experience killed any further interest I might have had in photography.
In 2014, my wife and I visited her parents in Herefordshire, England, for Christmas. While perusing a book store I spotted a box marked “Lomography Konstruktor.” My wife noticed my curiosity and a few days later I found it under the Christmas tree. My love affair with photography had begun again. I did some research and decided that I wanted a rangefinder. But I was still finishing my university while married, and I couldn’t possibly afford a Leica, so I went for next best thing within my budget – a Zorki 4K with Jupiter 8 50/2 lens, my ‘Russian Leica.’
My university is close to the Castle District, one of the nicest parts of Prague. I shot with my Zorki there almost every day. Along the way I discovered I was doing something called “street photography.” Apparently I was on the cutting edge and didn’t even know it. In May, 2015 I attended a darkroom workshop and learned to process my BW negatives and print with an enlarger. I have been doing it ever since. Sadly, I suck at it, but, of course, that’s no reason to quit.
In 2015 I visited Paris with my wife and my Zorki 4K. And, as so many before me (Bresson, Kertesz etc…) I fell in love with photography even deeper there. I noticed that my 50mm lens, which seemed perfect for me in Prague, wasn’t allowing me to get more context of the street into my Paris shots. This is how we learn. After I returned I bought a Jupiter 12 35/2.8 lens and Russian auxiliary viewfinder. But the memories of Paris brought me back to the fact that someday, somehow, I’d need a Leica.
With my wife I often travel around Europe. London, Rome, Edinburgh, Vienna, always with my Zorki. It was Summer in Vienna when I totally fell in love with Leica. There is a big Leica store in Vienna, just across the Stadthalle. In it everything I dreamed of. I asked if I could take a look at an M2 with a 50/3.5 collapsible lens they had on display for a bargain price. Even though it had some scuffs, scratches and few pieces of Vulcanite were missing, it was a Leica M2, and it worked. I could feel the precision when cocking the shutter. The viewfinder was so much better than my Zorki. But I still hadn’t the money to buy it, even though it was a lovely price for both M2 and the lens. But the seed had been planted.
I love the beauty of precise mechanical machines. I spent 5 years as editor-in- chief of a blog about mechanical watches. I saw how they were manufactured and how much labour goes into these intricate devices. Classic film Leicas are the same for me in this respect. That was another reason I started placing every spare penny I could into an envelope marked simply “Leica”.
Six months after my visit to Vienna I bought my first M2 in a Prague camera store, with guarantee. Unfortunately, its shutter was riddled with holes, which wasn’t apparent when I tested the camera in store. I returned the camera, got my money back, but my heart was sort of broken. But shortly thereafter I found another M2, a bit less nice, with some vulcanite missing, but it worked. I bought it, got it overhauled and shot the heck out of it, using my Jupiter 12 and Jupiter 8 Russian lenses and a cheap Chinese adapter. The, for Christmas that year I received a Zeiss Biogon 35/2.8, the modern one made by Cosina. It’s a good lens, probably too good for me. I added a Voigtlander VC-2 meter and now I’m all set.
I’ve recently found a job near my university. I’m 5 minutes walking from Prague Castle and the Castle District, where I love to shoot. Mostly every day, after 8 hours of mind shredding crazy stupid boring and pointless work for my government I find it most relaxing to go shoot photos with my M2. Sometimes I shoot 2 rolls in 2 hours, sometimes it takes me 2 weeks to get through a roll of HP5, which I load from 100 ft rolls into old East German canisters I got in a flea market. I’m slowly starting to blend into the city life in the quarters where I shoot. People who live there are starting to recognize me. I’m still on a steep learning curve. My photos are far from perfect, although the technical side is pretty easy these days, I can make proper exposures, I can process and scan, but the content is what I’m struggling with.
I don’t want to make excuses, but Prague is a really hard place to shoot. In the historical center, you can’t find any locals who live there. We no longer have those small shops or cafés where locals would get together and have a chat – just tourist traps and people selling rides on Segway. In any event, I can see that through my photography I’m becoming a different person then I was before. More curious, more involved. I continue to shoot my trusty M2, mostly everyday out in the streets of Prague or wherever I find myself (soon I go to Budapest, Barcelona and London again…), documenting the world and life around me. I know the Leica is just a tool, that great vision is what makes a great photograph, but I must say, my Leica M2 is one of the best tools I could wished for. As for my grandfather’s Leica…that’s a story for another day.
By Christopher Moss. Dr. Moss is a family physician in Canada. He has been using film cameras for over forty years as an amateur and still enjoys doing it.
Using a camera in a fluent and efficient fashion is vital if you’re going to get the photograph that suddenly presents itself to you. Camera manufacturers can either help or hinder this, by designing a camera’s controls to be as intuitive and accessible as possible. It would seem to be in their interest to help in this way, but the fact is that it isn’t. How can that be? Well, sadly, only a small subset of photographers are interested in a camera that works with them in this way; most want a camera that will do it all for them, and technology has not yet advanced to a state where this is compatible with taking the best possible photograph in any given situation.
Manufacturers follow the money and make cameras that help the average buyer achieve something most of the time. No camera maker wants a disappointed buyer, so they turn out designs that automate and simplify everything so that an inexperienced user can get something worth posting to their Facebook page. That is as it should be in a capitalist world, and the rest of us really can’t complain if we want camera manufacturers to stay in business and continue to feed our needs. It is true, however, that the automation and simplification has got to the point that a photographer who wants more than a minimal degree of control over a picture has to work against the ergonomics of many modern cameras. This isn’t a new problem, as a few examples will show!
The Pre-Electronic Era
Lots of old cameras tried to make life simpler for not just the amateur, but for the completely ignorant photographer. In the days before any kind of autofocus (beyond the depth of field of a small aperture) or auto-exposure (beyond the latitude inherent in negative films) this didn’t always work so well, but expectations were different too. Remember when a photograph was said have ‘come out well’? And if it didn’t satisfy it was said that ‘it didn’t come out’? There was a kind of black box that an exposed film entered, and it might come out or it might fail to come out, but the workings of the black box were inscrutable. Well, a very little thought tells us that this was a way of excusing a multitude of sins, from inept exposure, failing to hold the camera steady, getting the focus horribly wrong, not taking off the lens cap, all the way through the chain to some error in development and the film ‘being lost’. All happily under the umbrella of ‘it didn’t come out’ which answered any query and was never questioned. My first camera was a Univex AF-4 from the 1930’s that had only one control – the shutter could be set to instant or time. Nothing else at all, which was very convenient for the user, but likely to lead to disappointment when the film came back. Later a Number 2 Kodak Autographic Brownie came along from the mid-1920’s, and it allowed shutter speeds of 1/25 (“Clear”) and 1/50 (“Brilliant”) along with “B” and “T” for those who had confidence in what we now call risk- taking behaviour. Focusing was limited to Portrait, Near View, Average View, Distant View and Clouds/Marine. If you couldn’t quite figure out which to use, you had the ready fall back that the photo didn’t come out, which was probably just as well, all things considered.
But not all was so obscure and not every photograph required all fingers and toes be crossed. Miniature photography in the form of the Leica and the Contax cameras during the same era as the models mentioned above had multiple exact shutter speeds, apertures and distances that could be set. The addition of a rangefinder allowed the focusing to be precise, but exposure values were still generally estimated, or at best measured with an extinction meter (my father had a dandy little device that had a wedge of opaque material inside, and he looked through it and tried to read off a scale of numbers. The last number that could be read was entered on a handy slide rule on the outside of the casing and apertures and times could be read off. All this allowed great precision, but wasn’t for the masses of people who wanted to take a snap without being expert in the dark arts of photography. The next stage of affairs for those folk was the invention of the C-22 colour negative film process, which had enough latitude to allow the widespread sale of Instamatic cameras using 126 film. Fifty million cameras were sold between 1963 and 1970, many with no controls beyond a shutter release and a wind-on thumb wheel, and the more sophisticated having two shutter speeds (sunny and cloudy), and two focusing distances (a head and shoulders outline and a mountain). Many of us will remember the dull grainy quality of the prints that came back from these mostly under-exposed films that we took on our holidays. Most of my memories of my early teens have taken on that veiled look as a result – I’m remembering photos of those times! Better latitude came with the C-41 process in 1972, but this was offset by the marketing decision to push 110 size film as a replacement for 126 film. Kodak must take some blame for selling us less film at higher prices and requiring new cameras to be bought. This was probably the lowest point of unskilled consumer photography in history.
In the meantime the descendants of the Leicas and the Contaxes had continued to evolve, and the development of the single lens reflex from early Exacta and Kowa models had proceeded to the point where very good SLRs were challenging the dominance of the rangefinders. The addition of electronics was the catalyst that almost destroyed the rangefinders, as Japanese SLR manufacturers adopted these improvements and Leica did not. From the mid-1960’s onwards we saw closed-aperture metering, then open-aperture metering, then auto-exposure quickly develop. Powered film wind on came quickly as a development of motor-drives, until it was available in consumer point and shoot cameras. Despite Leica’s early interest in auto-focus, they let others introduce it into the market and from the late 1970’s to the early 1980’s it became the norm in SLRs and compact cameras. Notice how the term ‘point and shoot’ has crept in there? This was the first time a camera could be used the way my Univex AF-4 was used in the 1930’s, but with auto-focus and auto-exposure to save the day from the ‘it didn’t come out’ problem. Briefly, cameras of this era became easy, simple and reasonably reliable to use. There weren’t a dozen different exposure modes, and while auto-focus quickly diverged into single and continuous forms, there weren’t dozens of AF points to choose between or activate in groups etc. All that nonsense came along soon enough, but it was still mostly manageable until the next big thing.
Once cameras produced digital images there was a huge change in the way cameras were used and controlled. Manufacturers seemed to feel that endless complexity could be introduced and hid it all in so very many menus that could be accessed through arcane combinations of button pushes that required one of those mythical teenagers who could program your VHS recorder in the days when no one else could. Most buyers of digital cameras don’t explore all the menu options and the thick small print manuals that used to be offered before it was decided that all this was more cheaply put on an optical disk or, better yet, available for download online, were hardly welcoming models of simplicity and clarity. The most byzantine set of menus and controls I have met with so far belong to the Olympus OM-D series. Nice, small, light cameras with decent picture quality – but those menus! Having set it up I shall hope I never have to do so again. In use, I have to try out various wheels and buttons to see what they do, or have been user-programmed to do. That’s neither quick nor efficient.
What Would Be Ideal?
There’s not much point in talking about mechanical only cameras here, as the only ones in production are the Leica M-A and large format cameras, which were probably designed in a world where ergonomics had never been invented. But a modern camera with a light-meter and autofocus? Lots of things that can help or hinder there! I believe the ideal camera could be set to allow all the usual controls to be easily accessed with physical dials and buttons if desired, with each allowing for an ‘Auto’ position if the user wanted the camera to take care of it for him. At a minimum, this means an aperture control, preferably as a ring on the lens, but at the very least as a thumb or finger wheel on the camera body. The same applies to shutter settings, but since more users prefer aperture priority over shutter priority, the setting for this can be a traditional dial on the top plate or a thumb or finger wheel as available.
ISO must also be able to be set outside any menu system, and can even be a dial in an awkward place or a menu setting for a film camera where it is set just once per film, or a wheel, dial on a digital camera that is reasonably easy to access, even if this means taking the camera from the eye. At the very least, a dedicated button and instant access menu on the LCD of a digital camera is needed. Things like the parameters used in setting up auto-ISO on digital cameras can be buried in menus, but switching from the lowest native ISO of a sensor (best quality) to the highest necessary for this particular photograph via Auto-ISO have to be available quickly and easily. Finally, exposure modes ought to be easily changed between spot, centre-weighted and matrix with a physical control.
When we consider focusing, a physical control to change between manual focus, single autofocus and continuous autofocus is by far the fastest way of changing between them. Niceties like how to choose which autofocus point to use, which group of autofocus sensors to use and so on can be relegated to the menus, as far as I’m concerned as I tend to set them once and stick with that setting. I suspect I am not alone in using autofocus in a way that would disappoint the clever engineers who made these devices. I want single autofocus on the centre of the viewfinder. I want to focus on the important part of the scene with a button press, hold that focus and recompose and fire.
Anything else at all is rarely used by me. If I were a sports photographer with fast-moving subjects I would have to get into all sorts of continuous tracking autofocus between various groups of focus sensors, but for goodness sake, keep that stuff out of the way of the majority of us who don’t need it! Talking of focus lock with a button press, it is pretty obvious that a half-press of the shutter button is the easiest way to do this. A separate button for exposure lock would be nice, as focusing on the part of the image desired isn’t always the same thing as getting the exposure right after you recompose.
Some Examples of What We Can Do if We Try
I’m not sure how many cameras I have owned or used over the years, and come to that, I’m not even sure how many I own right now. Some things are best left unsaid. But some stand out more than others and I’m going to describe in detail the cameras that I have found to be the easiest to use from the point of view of ergonomic efficiency. Firstly a purely mechanical camera without no electronics at all. All it needs is an aperture ring, a shutter speed dial, a shutter release and means of winding on the film. It doesn’t get much simpler than this, but even here design considerations can make all the difference. Compare my 1963 Leica M2 with my 1971 Hasselblad 500c. Apart from the slightly awkward film loading system (which I actually like more than that in modern Leicas as the take up spool grips the leader so tightly it is easy to rewind the film and leave the leader out), the Leica just works.
My left hand controls the aperture ring and focusing tab on the lens, while my right index finger turns the shutter dial, presses the shutter release at which point my right thumb can wind on the next frame. The only pause comes when I have to meter the light and reset the aperture and shutter controls. When I had an M7 and an MP even this obstacle was removed. The Hasselblad is also far easier to use than a present day compact if you want to do anything other than auto-everything. But, it has to be said, it’s not as simple as the Leica. While the controls are different, focusing, shooting and winding on are just as simple. It’s the lenses with their coupled aperture and shutter speed controls that complicate things.
Hasselblads are not designed for those who want to estimate an exposure, the use of the EV ring on the lens pretty much requires the use of a meter, and once it’s set, the coupled aperture/shutter rings can be turned together to allow some decisions about a suitable combination. Hasselblads have their quirks, and everyone sooner or later makes the mistake of changing the lens with the shutter uncocked (you cannot reattach that lens until the shutter has been cocked by careful use of a strong screwdriver), and who doesn’t forget to remove the darkslide at least once per session? Generally, though, they work pretty smoothly, and are simple enough, like the M2, that it’s hard to mess up from a control point of view.
Next, let’s look at something far more complex—a camera from that brief era when auto-exposure and autofocus had yet to be combined with the menus of a digital camera. I’m going to spend more time on this as there is far more to describe, and far more to get right or wrong! The Pentax 645n was a medium format film camera made between 1997 and 2001. It has no rear LCD and thus no menus, so everything that can be changed must be changed with a physical control. It is a large, rather heavy, boxy camera as might be expected from trying to have a medium format camera with a powered wind on and all the batteries needed to drive it (especially as this was made before lithium ion batteries were in common usage). Despite it’s weight and size, it stands out from the crowd in ease and speed of use, simply because the designers thought carefully, and also, I have to say, because they didn’t have the option of hiding settings deep in nested menus!) Let’s go through the available controls:
1. Focusing. The camera can be used with autofocus or manual focus. In a moment of inspiration, all the lenses for this camera (except for the small standard 75mm/f2.8) had their focusing rings made so they could be pushed forwards, revealing the words “Auto Focus” on the lens barrel, or pulled back, covering those words and switching into manual focus mode. So by simply grabbing the focusing ring, pulling back and twisting you have manual focus. Push forwards and a half-press of the shutter button gives you autofocus again. Very nice indeed! On the back of the camera body are two sliding switches, one that selects either ‘Servo’ (which you might call Continuous these days) or ‘Single’ autofocus, and the other which selects either a single or three AF sensors. Autofocusing is triggered with a half-press of the shutter release, and holding the shutter button in this position locks the focus. Easy!
2. Exposure. There are traditional aperture and shutter controls with a ring on the lens barrel for aperture and a dial on the top plate for shutter speed. Both have an ‘A’ position in which the setting becomes dependent on the setting of the other control. So if the Shutter speed dial is set to ‘A’ you can manually set the aperture and the shutter speed will be automatically set ie aperture priority exposure. Alternatively, the aperture ring can be set to ‘A’ and the shutter speed dial can be manually set, resulting in an automatic aperture selection ie shutter priority exposure. If both controls are set to ‘A’ the camera enters a Program mode, and uses combinations of aperture and shutter speed that it’s designers think best. This cannot be shifted to other combinations, but to be honest if you want to do that you ought to be using one of the priority auto-exposure modes anyway. There is a ‘Memory Lock’ button under the right thumb which can lock exposure for twenty seconds after a single press, or if the shutter button is half-pressed during those twenty seconds the locked exposure will remain in effect until the shutter is finally released. I simply hold it down as long as I want the exposure locked, and release it if I want to re-measure exposure as this is simpler and easier. Three metering modes are available, and a dial under the shutter dial has three positions for Spot, Centre-
weighted and Six-segment (these days: matrix) metering. The other control related to exposure is a dial on the top plate at the left which controls exposure compensation in 1/3 stops from -3 to +3 stops.
3. ISO. There is a small LCD on the top plate, and this is used in combination with a switch under the exposure compensation dial to set ISO. If the switch is held in the position marked ISO (it is spring loaded and will return to normal as soon as you release it), then ISO may be changed with the up and down buttons on the top plate, the ISO showing in the LCD as you do so. This is the least convenient of the controls, but for a film camera it doesn’t matter as this is set when a film is loaded and not changed until the next film, if a different speed.
4. Drive mode. Around the shutter release is a collar with settings for single, multiple and timer. Pretty obvious.
5. Other controls. Only three more – a power switch which has three positions: Off, On (with sound confirmation of focus) and On with no sound. Secondly there is a multiple exposure switch which lets the shutter cock without the film winding on, and finally a depth of field preview lever to close down the aperture. The only remaining button is the lens release.
For all the fact that this is a large and heavy camera, it is easier to use than most as the controls are easily visible and accessible. It’s a shame that it’s descendants, the Pentax 645D and 645Z have many of these functions accessible only via menus, as there really isn’t any reason other than expense not to have dedicated controls for the important and frequently changed items in addition to a menu system for selecting just whose face gets recognised and sepia toned to what degree! The digital Leica M cameras pretty much get this right, with physical controls for the important stuff, or at least a dedicated button to take you straight to the right menu (eg for ISO). And so far, it has only been Leica that has been eccentric enough to make a digital M with no menus, the M-D, which will appeal strongly to users of film cameras, given that it allows all the same controls that a film M has, and a lot fewer options that would normally be set on a digital camera. There will probably be little opportunity for other manufacturers to show their skills in designing cameras that can be used easily without relying on automatic functions, as the marketplace dictates cameras that can do more than their competitors, not less, and at the same time they have to be idiot-proof. Of the three modern cameras I have (Nikon D810, Nikon F6 and Olympus OM-D E-M5), all have been set up the way I like them and I never touch the menus any more as it took a very long time to get everything just so. It means I can use them as I want to, changing apertures and shutter speeds as I go (though I really don’t like control wheels over traditional controls) and not worrying about stuff I won’t miss. I guess I am trying to use them with the same basic controls that I can use on the M2 and the 500c, and even on the 645n I rarely change the autofocus or metering settings. So it’s possible to use a modern camera the way you used a film camera, but the lack of standardisation across brands still means that when you go back and forth between them there can be confusion about which control wheel does what. I think it’s worthwhile to try to do this, as it saves the confusion of too many choices, speeds up the use of the camera so that you can concentrate on getting the shot, and allows the satisfaction that comes from feeling that you made the photograph, not the camera.
The year is 2066.
We’re teleporting to different parts of the earth, holding meetings on virtual beaches while sitting at home, and having robots do all the chores.
And we’re using the latest camera technology, which means no camera at all–just look at something and it’s captured.
We’re lamenting not having any photos from the first quarter of the century, since we didn’t bother to print any of our pictures, and they all got lost in dead computers and outdated phones and hard drives that last booted up decades ago. And some old program, Facehead, or something, that was supposed to save them all. Yeah right!
Plus, we don’t have any computers that use USB anymore! How ancient that technology!
As we sit looking out the window, our Leica M2s and M3s and Rolleiflexes still just as functional as they ever were, we load a roll of film and take a walk to go capture some street photos of the day.
The sky is full of PTDs–personal travel devices. Everywhere, our brains connect with each other through telepathic waves. Cars have long ago ceased to exist.
And we find ourselves thinking about the good old days. Like 50 years ago, when things were simpler. Sure there was that terrible fiasco with President Trump, but thankfully he was quickly arrested and tried for his crimes. And then President Sanders’ brought all nations together. War ended and America prospered, which is why we have such a great economy, plentiful jobs and USA-made robots and devices today.
But still, taking photos of the present day just doesn’t seem as cool as the old days. Back then, there were those cool Nissan Rogues, BMW sedans and those crazy Mini Coopers. God, haven’t seen one of those in years!
What I wouldn’t do to be able to go back in time to 2016 and photograph them. What a treat that would be. But that’s crazy talk.
That’s just what we did in 2016, fifty years ago, when we were enamored by photos of old cars from the 1960s and 1970s. So busy looking at the old cars, we missed the shots of those cool 2016 cars then, we didn’t even care that One Sure Insurance had great deals, and that you were actually able to get one of them for an affordable price.
All I know is I’m glad my Leicas lasted. And my Rolleiflex. Because when film made its resurgence in 2022, we were the only ones who knew how to make real photographs. The rest make memory records, but we make photographs.
Which is why we’re the wealthiest photographers because of our forethought. Way to go!
Time traveling. That’s what people will be doing 50 years from today in 2116–looking back on life in 2066 (“Ah, the good old days,” they’ll say.).
That photo of the PTD fuel station that looks like nothing now, just a bunch of hovering vehicles powering up? Add 50 years. It needs time to become valuable. Once time passes, familiar elements fade away. Buildings change. The cars, the shops, the cities. Then the photos take on meaning.
I’m no math whiz, but here’s the equation: [P+T-GP!] (Photograph + Time = Great Photograph!) The photo needs to be good, too. Let’s not forget that.
If I were back in 2016, I’d go out and shoot ordinary things, with an eye to the future. Because maybe I’m not shooting them for me. Maybe they’re historical photos for the Shorpy galleries of tomorrow. (So glad that company is still going strong, with galleries around the world.)
But alas, I can’t time travel. They say that technology will be ready in another twenty years but they’ve been saying that forever.
I better get shooting!
Kenneth Wajda is a photographer who loves old cameras, film photography, and storytelling with images. Shoots with a Leica IIIf, M3, M6, Rolleiflex 3.5F, Hasselblad 500c/m, Nikon F3, among others. Sometimes digital too, with a Leica M8 and a Fuji X100. You can find him at http://KennethWajda.com
Street Photography: http://ColoradoFaces.com
The Wise Photo Project: http://TheWisePhotoProject.com
Above are two pictures I shot in the autumn of 2014 in Glasgow. Both with a 28mm Summicron ASPH and a B+W red filter. The top picture was shot on my M Monochrom mk1, the lower picture on my M2, loaded with Kodak Tri-X film.
The M Monochrom is an incredible camera, and it’s as close to shooting black and white film as I’ve yet come across. It’s also versatile since the ISO can be altered from frame to frame, and convenient, because the images are instantly available.
The M Monochrom is also very sharp. In the M Mono shot attached here, you can zoom in and count the ridges and veins on some of the leaves. With the film image from my M2, there is less detail, but a more beautiful veiling grain, especially in the sky.
Crucially that’s the difference. I’ve made both of these images into prints, and everyone who has seen them, including me, instantly prefers the image shot on film. It just looks nicer. In the M Monochrom shot, the tree trunk has a kind of plastic look to it.
Film requires more dedication than digital. But when you get a shot that you’re happy with, you’re always glad you shot it on film. It looks nicer, and you have a negative, a permanent record of the event, whereas with digital, you’re always worrying that the file will become unreadable one day.
Colin Templeton is a newspaper photographer for the Herald/Times/Sunday Herald/The National in Glasgow, Scotland. You can see his personal work here
Found this picture of two well-used Leicas floating around the net and know nothing about their provenance except the obvious: two black paint M2’s, one with an MP Leicavit and what looks to be a collapsible mount uncoated Summar 5cm f2, (although the serial number indicates a production date of 1933, which is claimed to be the last year Leitz made the Summar in a rigid mount prior to introducing the new type collapsible).
The Summar was Leitz’s “fast” 50mm, produced between 1933 and 1939. It was generally considered inferior to the Zeiss 5cm 1.5 produced in Jena for the Contax and for a limited run in LTM during WW2.