Leica. The Unreasonable Choice

peterf1Shhhhh. Just look at it.

Why do I want a Leica M film camera? Honestly, I’m asking you, because I can’t figure it out. I’m basically a digital native photographer: although I grew up in the last years of film’s supremacy, I didn’t get seriously into picture making until I bought a Canon digital point-and-shoot in 2004. From there, I followed the familiar camera-DSLR-mirrorless trajectory. At each step, the image quality got better, the cameras got more responsive. Now, with an Olympus OMD E-M10 as my daily driver, I’m far more likely to not see a shot than blow it because the camera couldn’t.

And yet. A mechanical Leica. Apparently, now I want a camera that costs money every time I release the shutter, that requires me to focus manually with the camera mashed against my face, not to mention set aperture AND shutter speed on my own (and since I’m looking at fully mechanical bodies, doesn’t even suggest what those settings should be), that needs to be disassembled after taking 36 frames (and forces me, right then, to decide what the ISO will be for the next 36). Also, it’s heavier than my current kit. And it costs more. What the hell am I thinking?

Whatever it is, I think it’s been percolating for awhile. From time to time over the last several years, I’ve started looking at metal-bodied SLRs on eBay before deciding I was just being silly. I had a lot of fun researching obscure lenses that might work on my NEX 5N (I once blew a whole night learning about Exacta-mount lenses) and I enjoyed using the old Olympus 38mm Pen half-frame lens that I bought from someone in Japan. Sure, it was a great performer above f2, but I really liked the mechanical solidity of it, a dense metal knuckle with a focus ring that felt good against the fingers compared to the plasticy stuff I was used to. I’ve long been interested in what I refer to in my head (though not, generally, out loud) as “knob feel” – the tactility of control surfaces. One of the main reasons I bought the E-M10 over the contemporaneous Panasonic GX7 was knob feel: the Panasonic’s control wheels had an unsatisfying clicky movement that I couldn’t abide. But a fine mechanical camera has knob feel all its own. The knobs and wheels and rings actually do something – they aren’t the disconnected surface of a virtual machine but physically linked to their purpose. This changes the way they feel, both in the fingers and in the mind.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOlympus F. Zuiko Auto-S 38mm f1.8 Pen system lens. So metal. At first it was just for fun. Then just when I needed it. Then I needed it every day.

And speaking of mind, I took a pleasure in that old half-frame lens that was entirely apart from its functional qualities, something more poetic than practical. What light had already passed through its glass? Whose fingers had focused it? Imagining the answers to these questions somehow enriched my experience of using the lens. And what stirs imaginings more than a Leica?

Then there’s the harder-to-admit part. The credence in legend. The illusory connection to a tradition that encompasses some of the greatest practitioners of photography we have known. The ridiculous but irresistible sense of aligning one’s self with genius through the tools used by geniuses. Is there a pathos in this, an admission that I have not produced immortal greatness with the best tools of my day, and so I retreat to tools proven in another age? Well, let’s look out rather than in.

SPAIN. Valencia. 1933. Inside the sliding doors of the bullfight arena.© Henri Cartier-Bresson | Magnum Photos I have never seen like this. I will never see like this. I fill this sadness with objects.

Then there’s the soft Neo-Luddism that permeates our moment, with our reactionary gaze towards the vintage and authentic. Do I entertain ideas about how digital abundance erodes the thought I put into each frame? Do I harbor fantasies that shooting film will force me to contemplate, slow down, consider, and perhaps see more clearly? Do I imagine that each image will be more precious, will be imbued with some quality that is otherwise sacrificed to digital disposability? I confess, this does seem to be the case.

Now, you might reasonably suggest that there are less torturous ways of dabbling in film and old cameras than joining a cult whose demands are as onerous as Leicaism. And I would retort that, first off, I’ve tried other mechanical cameras and they didn’t do it for me, knob-feel-wise. And second, la la la, I can’t hear you. I don’t want a reasonable camera. I want one that satisfies my unreasonable hungers, that sings silently over the sadnesses of the everyday.

Peter M. Ferenczi writes, teaches and photographs in Paris. This piece is reprinted from his blog, partialsight.com. You can see his work at dotfield.tumblr.com.

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9 thoughts on “Leica. The Unreasonable Choice

  1. Eric

    Hello, I am old enough, 57, to have been deeply immersed into film photography. Digital cheatened the experience. The skill the feel tge imsperation for me degraded due to digital. But I’m a Photoshop wannabe so I get’er done. The feel of film is palpable. And if a film camera purchase is the goal. My opinion is bypass 35mm. Go with the gold. Medium format. Rolleiflex cameras are lovely. And $1500 will get you the “white face” model most wonks froth over. The few exposures to complete a roll will stop you in your tracks. Cause you to think and study the subject. And appreciate photography like a baby seeing it’s first sunsire. Holy shit!. 35mm is passe. Look at the negative size and judge for yourself. Are you a boy or a man

  2. Rob Campbell

    I don’t think that lust for an old M film Leica is something of which to feel ashamed. They were great cameras within the somewhat limited parameters that they presented. Many successful people used them in their daily work, perhaps not exclusively, of course, but for where they were good tools.

    I never bought one, but now, long retired from pro photography, I would like to have one not so much for making images on film (for which I’d rather go 6×6) but simply to fill the blank in my photographic life that not having owned a rangefinder Leica represents (to me). Ironically, I still have some unprocessable Kodachrome in the freezer…

    There is an even more important (today) detail: rangefinder film Leicas are just beautiful works of engineering and visual design. That’s good enough reason to buy, if you have the spare loot. I don’t think that we shall ever see such a perfect match of several art forms again.


    1. semi-ambivalent

      That blank that needs filling with a Leica is the same blank that keeps the Kodachrome, un-processible or not, in your freezer.

  3. Kodachromeguy

    Go for it! It’s really not unreasonable to want a film Leica because you will probably do good work with it. On the grand scheme of hobbies or avocations on which people spend money, a Leica M with a couple of lenses is cheap. $1500 or so and you are in business. Consider, one of the higher end brand XYZ super digital cameras over which DPReview fan boys go berserk will cost $1500, and it is a computerized imaging device that will be superseded with better technology in 3 or 4 years. In the meantime, your Leica M will be working as well as ever. Cheers.

    1. Andrew

      True, but the obsolete super digital will still work and still create the same images it did when new, even after a few generations of tech have superseded it. Just look at all of the M8 and M9 users who happily skipped the M240 generation, many of whom will likely skip the NEXT digital M generation as well.

      The same is true in Canon and Nikon land. The original 10-year-old Canon 5D still creates gorgeous files, and the recently replaced 4-year-old 5D mk III still tracks fast-moving stuff as well as it did last year, and almost as well as the latest and greatest.

  4. Andrew

    The M2 and M5, for different reasons, are what I consider the most beautiful cameras ever made. That they accept any lens with an M or LTM mount and actually hold film flat and allow shutter speed control makes them PERFORMANCE art, instead of just art.

  5. Wayne

    “More,” and “better” are terms frequently associated with the advance of technology…..at times seeming almost synonymous. A choice to not buy an old Leica rangefinder would have to be based in deference to more technology. It is hard to imagine better film camera technology……….durability in intended function being a testimony to great design and build.

  6. Frederk

    For more than 40 years working with film, I’ve experienced why a Leica has ‘it’. After a long time SLR photography I obtained a Contax based Kiev 4 in Budapest. This camera convinced me of the qualities of a rangefinder camera. The major part of photos are documentary, working with a rangefinder is less gaining attention, beter blending in the background. Ten years ago I was lucky to obtain a new MP. This camera changed my way of working and brought me closer to the pictures I had in mind. Why a Leica M, you can use 80 years of lens history on the camera, the range from genuine early Leitz lenses to obscure third party lenses, which are often very affordable. Personally I would recommend the MP with his build in light meter.

    Good luck and thank you for your article

  7. Joseph Oxandale

    “Aligning oneself with genius through tools used by geniuses” is a pretty interesting experience. I enjoy the idea that I’m using the exact same tools as this or that genius, and that the difference between our work is the purely the difference between the two of us as people -nothing more and nothing less. Everything else has been leveled to zero.

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