Leica’s Continuing Appeal

Lars Netopil is vice president of the Leica Historical Society and the owner of the Leica Store Wetzlar Old-town). He is also an advisor for Leica Camera AG’s Historical Archive and Museum Department. The following is his take on the continued popularity of the Leica M line and the difference between a digital and film Leica:

Q: 60 Years of M-System – a history of highs and lows, but more than anything a history of a continuity, compatibility and charisma that is unprecedented in the camera industry. And that applies to both analogue and digital. With the M Edition 60, Leica have now released a digital model that seems the very embodiment of the M concept. How would you as a historian describe the secret behind the sheer timelessness of the rangefinder concept?

A: There have been, and still are, a number of great camera systems. However, the Leica, and in particular the Leica M, are in a different league: socially, emotionally and in terms of prestige. David Douglas Duncan voiced this when I spoke to him just recently. At an age of nearly 99, he looks back over 60 years of the M as an experienced photographer. You have already named one important factor – the system’s uncompromising compatibility. An M3from 1954 can still receive the full Leica service, and can be used with all contemporary M lenses without restrictions. This is globally unique in several ways. If you consider every M lens produced over the past sixty years to always have been the best in the world, this compatibility is certainly far from insignificant. Along with all of its technological merits, the prestige, according to Duncan, certainly also plays a part in the secret. To draw a parallel to the automobile market: A customer who buys a Ferrari, even just for the purpose of driving through Frankfurt, still has the winner’s podium of Formula One somewhere in his mind. Also, the Leica always was and still is a fashion item. This is something we currently notice most strongly with our customers in China. There, you “wear” a Leica – regardless of whether each and every customer necessarily utilises the true image capabilities of the lenses, or not. There is another factor I would like to address, and that’s the system’s permanence. A photographer who buys an analogue M does so for a lifetime. The same goes for M lenses.

It is very interesting to see the Leica M Edition 60. In essence, it is a digital M7 that has been stripped back to ISO control, TTL exposure meter and optional aperture priority mode. For the purpose of pure, truly concentrated photography it is probably the most attractive digital camera currently on the market. But it is digital nevertheless, meaning: an electronic product in the widest sense, whose validity is subject to a finite time period. To use an analogy: The tires on your car will one day have to be discarded, regardless of their superior quality, and even regardless of whether you wore them out on the road or kept them in perfect condition on your cherished collector’s car – even then, they will crack with the strain of time at some point. In the same vein, no matter how high-end the digital M’s opto-mechanical rangefinder may be, the rest of the camera is more or less a computer. This is why Leica made an excellent decision in creating the Leica M-A, illustrating a very clear commitment to analogue photography. In sixty years time, a contemporary M-A will still work just as remarkably as an M3 from 1954 does today. And the same goes for the M lenses, some of which will be 120 years old by then.

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4 thoughts on “Leica’s Continuing Appeal

  1. Malcolm Farrar

    “..a finite time period” and “at some point”. But how finite?

    My 1958 M2 still works fine but my digital M-D is, I can’t bear the thought, one day going to die. The thing is I like it a lot, and it’s the only digital camera I’ve ever really liked.

    Has anyone owned a Leica M-D that reached that finite point? I’m about to get my M2 serviced by a highly respected third party Leica engineer in the UK but it’s interesting that many (all?) of them don’t work on digital bodies.

    At least I have a fridge full of film, just in case!

  2. danielteolijr

    “…the Leica M, are in a different league: socially, emotionally and in terms of prestige.”

    Sure, that appeals to many Leica devotees. Leica has perfected eons ago what is needed in a reporters camera. The fit and finish is superb. The only issue with me is the price. I’ve always had to buy outdated used Leicas. Could never afford the current models brand new. But that does not matter to me. I could be just as happy with a cheap Fuji…if they made a Leica like rangefinder like they did with their old film cams. But in the end is your goal to bloat your ego and be a camera collector or to get the shot?

    For me the appeal of Leica is the manual controls as well as compact footprint. The digital cameras they make nowadays are too complex to adjust easily for on the fly shots. I can adjust the Leica just by feel and counting clicks without even looking at it.

    Autofocus is great in good light, but if the light is tough, the autofocus may have problems. The type of photography I do cannot accept any lag time and is often times in poor light. The rangefinder is slower to focus than autofocus…if the light is good. But when the light is bad, rangefinder is best for me.

  3. Nico

    Funny to read that Leica is making reference to DDD even if he is one of the photographer who introduced Nikkor lenses to the professional world…

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