LEICAPHILIA

Few if any cameras attract more controversy than Leicas. At one extreme, you have the devotees who maintain that they are are the finest cameras in the world, close to perfection, and so forth. In their eyes, Leica can do no wrong: they would not consider any other camera. At the other extreme you have those who hate them and their owners. The haters dismiss the cameras as overpriced, outdated and unreliable, and their owners as mindless snobs with more money than sense, who are invariably rotten photographers. Is either party right?

 

3 leicas

M9, IIIa and MP

The IIIa was introduced in 1935; this one was made in 1936, and I bought it in 1969 when it was already 33 years old. Both of the others are from the 21st century, the all-mechanical MP (introduced in 2003) and the digital M9 (2009).

Of course, neither the uncritical Leicaphile nor the equally uncritical Leicaphobe can expect many people to agree with them. Fortunately there is a middle ground. It is this: if a Leica suits the way you work, it is a very nice camera. If it doesn't, it's a waste of money. Of course, you can say this about pretty much any other camera ever made.

This middle ground is however obscured to some extent by three factors. One is that Leicas are undeniably expensive. The second is that if you want a current-production rangefinder camera, there are very few choices. In fact, if you want a current-production digital rangefinder camera, there are no other choices. The third is that they last a very long time.

It's easiest to start with the third factor, durability, but before we do that, it's time to lay my cards on the table. In 1969 my girlfriend wanted a reliable, compact, good quality, not-too-expensive camera. For £20 she bought a Leica II, complete with 50mm f/3.5 Elmar. After a few weeks she kept asking for it back so I had to buy my own Leica, a IIIa, with the same sort of lens. That was £30.

dail

It's all Dail's fault...

Among the most important things in any young man's life are his girlfriend and his car - and this is the girl whose Leica I borrowed. If it were not for the car driving into her head, this wouldn't be a bad picture, but at the age of 19 I hadn't learned to watch the background anything like as carefully as I do nowadays. This was shot on outdated and appallingly stored Ilford FP3 - but it was free!

In those days, it was still possible (if you were lucky) to find all sort of bargains, and between 1969 and the mid-1970s I had most of the early models. After I bought my first M-series, though, my interest in screw-mount models waned, and I gave up collecting Leicas in favour of buying cameras and lenses to use. Leicas are wonderfully collectable, with endless model variations and strange accessories, and this is one of the things that gets them a bad name. It is easy to become obsessed with these beautifully made cameras and their accessories, and to concentrate on collecting rather than on photography.

On the other hand, why not? Classic car collectors are seldom castigated for not racing their vintage vehicles, or indeed for not using them every day. Why should cameras be different? It is all very well to say, "cameras are made for taking pictures," but likewise, cars are made for driving. Would-be users frequently moan that well-heeled collectors drive up prices of some Leica equipment, but equally, collectors might just as easily complain that well-heeled users drive up the prices of other cameras and lenses. Most of the really rare collectable stuff was of limited usefulness when it was introduced, which is why it didn't sell well when it was new: there never were many actual users of such delights as the tri-lens turret.

 

beside the rhone

Beside the Rhône

One of the things I like about Leicas is that I am comfortable using them in so many different ways. This is one sort of 'classic' Leica shot. You see something; you react as fast as possible; and there's an element of luck involved. It's one of my favourites among all the pictures I have taken in Arles, though I'm not exactly sure why. M8.2 + the 35/1.4 Summilux I bought in 1984 and am still using.

For more than 40 years now, I have found that Leicas suit me very well. Some kinds of photography are difficult or impossible with a Leica, it's true. In particular, they are no use with very long lenses for sports or wildlife photography, or for macro, unless (in both cases) you use the Visoflex housing which converts them to rather eccentric SLRs: see The Worst DSLR in the World.

On the other hand, there is a big difference between maximum versatility, and the best camera for the job. Anyone who thinks that an SLR (digital or film) can do everything that any other camera can do, usually better, is merely betraying their ignorance of what other cameras can do. Think of medium and large format cameras, of camera movements, of being able to see what is going on outside the immediate field of view, of small size and unobtrusiveness...

I've lost count of the number of magazine articles I've had published, shooting mainly with Leicas, and of the number of Leica pictures in the dozens of books I've had published. Probably half the pictures on this site (at least) were taken with Leicas. Camera fondler who doesn't take pictures? I think not.

Sure, a Leica won't suit everyone, but I think I'm fairly convincing proof that at least some 'real' photographers (whatever that may mean) can and do use Leicas. A friend of mine had (at last count) 24 assorted press awards. He shot 18 of his award-winning shots with Leicas. Examples can be multiplied: a surprising number of the professional photographers I know have at least one Leica for shooting for pleasure, even if they don't publish much taken with it.

tibetan freedom fighter

Tibetan freedom fighter

In 1999 we were asked to shoot some prominent Tibetans for a sort of embryonic National Portrait Gallery in Exile. We were significantly handicapped by the fact that the only lights available were electronic flash without enough modelling lights (the modelling bulbs had blown, and the nearest place to buy replacements was in Delhi, an overnight train journey away) but the M4-P and 90/2 Summicron both acquitted themselves well, despite being close to 20 years old at the time. We are still using both.

This was shot on Ilford XP2 and printed on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone. Although the vast majority of our colour photography is now digital (M8 and M9) we still prefer film and wet processing for black and white. .

Among amateurs, it strains credibility somewhat to suggest that artistic talent is inversely proportional to the ability and desire to use a Leica. There are, without doubt, countless truly rotten photographers who use Leicas. But then, there are probably even more truly rotten photographers who use Nikons or Canons, simply because there are more Nikons and Canons around. For now, let's go back to Leicas and durability.

DURABILITY

Skip the paragraphs headed 'a brief history' if you don't want chapter and verse, or if you already know all the details. The important point here is that the Leica will celebrate its 100th birthday in 2025, and that countless Leicas are still in use, though probably there are more M-series (post-1954) in frequent use than screw-mount (1925-1967).

A brief history

The Leica was introduced at the Leipzig Spring Fair in April 1925. At first, Leicas had fixed 50mm lenses, but in early 1930 they introduced the 39mm x 26 tpi (turns per inch) Leica screw mount for interchangeable lenses (35mm f/3.5 and 135mm f/3.5) and in late 1930 the flange-to-film distance was standardized so that lenses no longer had to be individually matched to bodies. Next came coupled rangefinders (the II, at the 1932 Leipzig Spring Fair), a slow speed train (III, 1933 - previous models stopped at 1/20), a higher top speed (IIIa, 1935), the two eyepieces for the rangefinder and viewfinder closer together (IIIb, 1938) and a die-cast body instead of a fabricated shutter crate (IIIc 1939). Flash synch appeared on the IIIf (1950) and the IIIg (1957) had a brightline parallax-corrected finder for 50mm and 90mm lenses.

dave and anji

 

Dave and Anji

Leicas are so small and light - indeed, screw-mount models with collapsible lenses are easily pocketable - and make ideal 'notebook' or 'diary' cameras. In other words, they are great for happy snaps and aides-memoire as well as for more serious photography. Dave died in 2006 and I don't have many pictures of him, but here he is in his prime in the early 1970s with his first wife Anji.

This was taken with my IIIa, probably shooting on Ektachrome 64. I generally preferred slides for colour because they were easier to file than negatives, and they were pretty much obligatory for photomechanical reproduction in the days when 'scanner' meant 'huge, expensive drum scanner in a reproduction house'. Sometimes I carried a separate 'happy snap' camera loaded with colour negative film, but eventually I decided that it made more sense to shoot happy snaps on slide, alongside more serious stuff.

Of course, it's even easier now, with digital Leicas: you get the same quality, and the same convenience, for happy-snaps and 'serious' pictures. But even before I started using the M8 in 2006, I had started to shoot more colour negative film and scan it at home, initially with a Nikon scanner and then with a Konica Minolta Dimage Scan Elite 5400 II.

Before the IIIg appeared, though, there was the M3 (1954) with an all-new body, bayonet lens mount, all the shutter speeds on one dial (on screw models, high speeds are on top and slow speeds on the front), and combined range/viewfinder with multiple, automatically selected frame lines (50-90-135mm). The M2 (1957) was a simplified model (less complicated viewfinder, manually reset frame counter) but it had the enormous advantage of frames for 35-50-90mm. The M4 offered a rapid rewind crank and all four frames (35-50-90-135, with 35mm and 135mm shown simultaneously), as did the M4-2 (which, unlike the M4, could take a motor drive). The M4-P (1980) added 28mm and 75mm frames, paired with 90mm (28mm) and 50mm (75mm). Some people find that this over-crowds the finder.

The M6 (1984) added through-lens metering and the M6ttl (1998) added through-lens flash metering, while the M7 (2002) was the first M-series to feature an electronically controlled shutter and an optional aperture-priority auto exposure mode, at the inevitable cost of battery dependency. All other Leicas rely on batteries for the meter only. The MP (2003) is similar to the M6 but with an improved viewfinder, knob rewind (stronger and more 'retro') along with a CNC milled brass top plate and the option of a Leicavit trigger base rapid winder.

The M5 (1971-77) was off to the side from the mainstream of development: a much bigger, heavier body with through-lens metering. It was so unpopular that it was dropped in favour of the M4-2, when only about 27,000 cameras had been made. The CL was also an off-to-the-side camera, smaller, lighter and cheaper than the M-series, produced in association with Minolta. It tends to be love-it-or-hate-it.

 

3 leicas + lenses

Mix and match

Some Leica users are purists and will allow nothing but Leica lenses and accessories near their precious cameras. We are not so fussy. The M8 has a 21/2.8 Kobalux on it, and a 25/28mm Zeiss finder (28mm because there is a 1.33x crop factor on the M8 and M8.2, with their 18x27 mm sensor - the M9 is full-frame 24x36mm). The M2 has a 'no-name' rewind adapter on the top and an Abrahamsson Rapidwinder on the bottom (the spike is the trigger you pull to wind on the film). And the M4-P has a 50/1.5 Zeiss C-Sonnar on it. All Leicas from the M4 to the M7 had the angled rewind crank instead of the knob rewind of the M1, M2, M3 and MP. It's quicker, but not as strong: I had to straighten mine once after a heavy clout when we were travelling in the Julian Alps.

In 2006 came the M8 digital, with an 18x27mm sensor: a little chubbier than film M-series, but still recognizably the same camera (unlike the M5). The very short flange-sensor distance meant that a special sensor had to be developed (by Kodak) before full-frame was possible in the M9 (9/9/2009). The M8.2 is (as its name suggests) an M8 with detail improvements and a top speed of 1/4000 instead of 1/8000 in the interests of quietness - though the M9 is quieter still, much more like a film Leica.

There are lots more variants, but these are the milestones, and the cameras likely to be of interest to users. The only other thing you might find handy to know about screw-mount Leicas is that I models have no rangefinder, II models have no slow speeds, and III models have both a rangefinder and slow speeds.

'User' Leicas

Although there are comparatively few Leicas in use that are more than 80 years old, this is mostly because the very earliest Leicas tend to appeal only to those with a strong sense of history, a great curiosity about how things used to be, or an almost manically purist approach which leads them to say that you don't need rangefinders, interchangeable lenses, lens coating or anything else that appeared after 1930 (or any other arbitrary cut-off date). There are however very many post-1932 Leicas in use, with their interchangeable lenses and rangefinders, and it is worth remembering that the M3 and even the M2 were introduced well over half a century ago.

trudie

 

Stop and think about this for a moment. How many other mechanical devices are not merely in use, but are still expected to behave flawlessly, after several decades? And yet, an astonishing number of Leicas do behave perfectly, without ever having had any sort of overhaul, despite being many decades old. The biggest enemy of old Leicas is arguably lack of use, because if they are used - or even if they are exercised occasionally, every few months, without a film in them - they are incredibly long-lasting. If they are left for long periods without use, they can however start to 'gum up'. This normally manifests itself in 'sticky' slow speeds, along with parallax compensation masks that don't move freely. Even then, a few minutes exercise may well restore them to adequate usability.

 

Trudie

Trudie was about 18 years old when this picture was taken; I was about 23; and my Leica IIIa was about 37. The lens was almost certainly the 50/3.5 Elmar, though it might concievably have been a 50/2 Summar, Leica's standard fast lens from 1933 to 1940, when it was replaced by the Summitar 50/2 (introduced 1939). Or if you were very rich there was the 50/1.5 Xenon, introduced in 1935.

 

 

 

The dangers of the 'CLA'

The main reason I said that the biggest enemy of old Leicas is arguably lack of use is that there is another candidate: the so-called 'CLA' or 'clean, lubricate and adjust'. At best, a CLA consists of a true strip, clean and overhaul: take the camera to pieces, remove all old lubricants and dirt, replace any worn parts, and reassemble. This is an understandably expensive undertaking, but if the parts are available, the camera may literally be restored to 'as new' condition.

Most people, though, are unwilling to pay a skilled repairer the kind of money that is required to do a full strip, clean and overhaul, and as a result, at the other end of the scale, a 'CLA' may consist of nothing more than pulling the works out of the body; sluicing them out with a fairly aggressive solvent, which removes most but not all of the old lubricants and dirt; squirting lots of (often unsuitable) lubricant in; then reassembling and adjusting the shutter tension to give more or less correct speeds. This may involve winding the tension up quite high in order to overcome the residual stickiness of the imperfectly swilled out old lubricants. Understandably, the camera then wears faster than before, and goes out of adjustment sooner.

It is a tribute to the build quality of old Leicas that they can withstand this sort of abuse, but the simple truth is that it is often better to send an old Leica to a reputable repairer for a straightforward repair of a known fault than to commission a so-called 'CLA' from one of the cheaper repairers. A good repairer will often do as much 'mucking out' as a low-grade CLA, but rather more skilfully, and the camera won't come back soaked with oil and smelling like a refinery.

pontiac hood ornament

Pontiac hood ornament

An oft-voiced complaint is that Leicas can't focus very close. This is perfectly true. But how close do you normally need to focus? The 50/2 DR (Dual-Range) Summicron focuses to 19 or 20 inches (50cm) with the aid of clip-on spectacles, to cover 170x260 mm, 7x10.5 inches. Or just use a 90mm lens. This was taken with a Summicron at its closest focusing distance of 1 metre, where it covers an area of 220x330 mm (call it 9x13 inches).

If you want a full overhaul, a factory Leica service is the best bet, and probably the most expensive, but there are other repairers who are very good. Before you entrust an old Leica (or any other camera) to anyone for an overhaul, get as many opinions as you can about the quality of their work. There will always be a tiny percentage of people who are unhappy about perfection itself, and a rather higher percentage of people who are unhappy about paying the price of a good overhaul, but if there are significant numbers of complaints about someone, especially if they are specific and repeated ('the camera came back soaked in oil'), you may do well to look elsewhere.

You may also do well to look very closely at any second-hand Leica that is being sold as having had a recent CLA. Ask the vendor to detail the work done (a copy of the bill would be ideal) and note the name of the person who did the work. Perform the same checks as you would if you were considering sending the same camera to the same repairer.

Digital Leicas and durability

The copious numbers of film Leicas still in use bears witness to their durability, but what about digital M-series? Will they last as long? Do they need to last as long?

 

Graffiti, Poitiers

This was taken in January 2007, a few months after the M8 was introduced. The lens was a 21/2.8 Kobalux (28mm equivalent after allowing for the crop factor). There was no UV/IR filter, and the camera was hand-held. The small crop on the left is from the extreme left of the picture above. Many films would be hard put to deliver results as good. No doubt an M12 (or whatever) in 2017 will be better, just as the M9 is better now. But this will remain a more than acceptable level of quality for most pictures for as long as the camera lasts.

When the M8 was introduced in 2006, Leica undertook to provide parts and service for at least 20 years. They have since done the same with the M9, so M9 parts and service should be available until at least 2029. There have been four responses to this.

The first is to take the assertion at face value. Given Leica's history, this seems reasonable to me, and it's what I've done.

The second is to call them liars. This is not worthy of response;

The third is to say that they will go broke before that anyway. This is of course a possibility with any company, but with Leica it is far less likely than the ill-wishers hope.

The fourth is to say that it doesn't matter what they say, because digital cameras go out of date so fast that no-one will want a 10-year-old digital Leica. This is superficially a fair argument, but it does not really bear a few moments' thought. The simple question is, why not?

The 18 megapixels of the M9 are enough for all practical purposes: comparable with 35mm film at its best, and better than most. You could install a better, sharper viewing screen, but the one they've got is pretty good. Weather sealing could be better, but it's far better than most detractors would have you believe. Those who actually own and use M9s use them in exactly the same way as a film M: you can't hose them off, but otherwise they are pretty practical.

Off-road jack

A 1972 Land Rover is not the smoothest-riding of cars, especially when you have a weakness for exploring unsurfaced tracks. Here, I'm jacking the car up in Hungary in order to put stones under the wheels to give it some traction and raise it above the hump between the two wheel-ruts. And yet, our digital Leicas have stood up to thousands of miles of this treatment every bit as well as the film cameras, just as they have survived thousands of miles on our old BMW R100RS motorcycle.

The maximum ISO speed of 2,500 is admittedly low by modern digital standards, but it's still a lot higher than most films ever managed. Imagine that an M12 offered ISO 25,000. What of it? ISO 2,500 is still enough for most people - and Leica didn't stop selling II-series cameras (no slow speeds) when they introduced the III series (with slow speeds). Indeed, in the 21st century people are still buying and using 1930s Leica Standard cameras with no rangefinder or slow speeds. It is hard to believe that they will eschew the M9 or even M8 and M8.2.

There is not much else one can change. A rangefinder is a rangefinder. A shutter is a shutter. Batteries will improve anyway. What's left? There are those who don't like the shape of the M-series, or the fact that you remove the baseplate in order to change the battery and the SD card. Well, that's fine, as long as you don't mind destroying the things that make an M an M. There may be room for another camera, maybe even one that takes M-mount lenses. But the vast majority of M users are very happy with things as they are, thank you all the same.

What is important is that existing M users have put their money where their mouth is, unlike the people who say, "Oh, I would buy an M if they changed this, and this, and this..." Yeah, right. They'd buy an M, once it stopped being an M. Or they say they would. Do you believe them? I have my doubts. So, I suspect, do the people at Leica.

LACK OF CHOICE - AND NEW CAMERAS

Working backwards through the list given above - cost, lack of choice, and durability - we now come to lack of choice. There are effectively two alternatives to the Leica: Voigtländer and Zeiss Ikon, both made by Cosina. Both are excellent cameras, but as the British Journal of Photography once memorably remarked, even if all three were made by the same manufacturer, the fit, feel and features of each would mean that their prices would be differentiated in about the same way they are now, with Leica at the top and Zeiss Ikon in second place.

Zeiss Ikon

This was most of the range of lenses at the Zeiss Ikon launch: 15, 21, 25, 28, 35, 50. Only the 85/2 is missing. It is an excellent camera, and they are superb lenses. Several others have been added since, and we use two of them frequently, the 50/1,5 C-Sonnar and 18/4 Distagon.

Frances finds it hard to choose between the ZI and the MP, though I prefer the MP. But of course if you want digital, the only alternative to Leica is the 6-megapixel crop-format Epson RD1 series, now out of production and increasingly difficult to repair.

For most people, which they buy depends on two things. First, how much they can afford, and second, what they are willing to spend on a camera. To be sure, there are some people who will prefer a Zeiss Ikon or a Voigtländer for specific technical reasons: a Bessa R4 for shooting wide-angles, perhaps, or a Zeiss Ikon because it fits in their hands better.

Likewise, there are those who will prefer a second-hand camera for a specific reason. Some have a deep aversion to meters, and would therefore prefer an M4-P (or earlier) to an M6, M7 or MP. Others like the uncluttered viewfinder of an M4 or earlier, or the bigger viewfinder of an M3, even though this means they have to use a separate finder for wider lenses than 50mm. Many like the simplicity and extraordinary quietness of the best fixed-lens rangefinders, with their leaf shutters. And so forth.

panama cigarettes

Most people, though, buy second-hand for a simple reason: it's all they can afford (or all they want to afford). As Stefan Daniel at Leica said, somewhat tongue in cheek, "After all, your first Porsche is always second-hand." My view is the same as his: that for most people, there's nothing to beat a new Leica, and you might as well miss out as many intermediate steps as possible. I used second-hand Leicas for more than a decade, but as soon as I could, I bought a new one, the M4-P, which had been out for about a year at the time.

Confectionary and Tobacco, Agra, India

Something that struck me repeatedly as I was gathering pictures for this module is how much easier life is today. This was taken in Agra in the 1980s on Kodachrome 64 with my 35/1.4 Summilux on either an M2 or M4-P.

Camera shake has taken the edge off the definition. I know it isn't the lens because I am still using it on digital today, but in the 1980s fast colour slide films were grainy and expensive and couldn't withstand heat as well as Kodachrome. Today I'd still use Ilford ISO 400 black and white film (XP2 or HP5) but I'd turn the ISO on the M9 up to 400 or more - or use an ISO 400 colour negative film..

Something I really don't agree with is that it's a good idea to buy an old, cheap, fixed-lens rangefinder first, 'to see if you like rangefinders'. To me, even a top-flight fixed-lens rangefinder such as the SIII Konica is a very different camera from a modern, interchangeable-lens rangefinder. By all means buy a Voigtländer, even a second-hand one, to save money: it's enough like a Leica to give you a taste of what it's like. For me, it would be a hard choice between a new Voigtländer or a used M2, and I'd rather have the Voigtländer than an M3. But (for example) a Yashica Lynx 14? No thanks. I've had one. Even 25 years ago it was long in the tooth, and it hasn't gotten any younger. And I gave away my SIII Konica in 2010.

Are Leicas outdated?

A common plaint from the "I'd buy a Leica if they..." brigade is that while Leicas were used by some of the greatest photojournalists of the past, they have lost a great deal of ground since the 1950s. This is true enough, and the camera which put the biggest dent in the Leica as far as photojournalism was concerned was the Nikon F in 1959. On the other hand, other RF cameras have come and gone, and the Leica M-series is still with us. There may be room on the market for all sorts of cameras as yet undreamed of. There is room on the market for the Leica, or they wouldn't keep selling - and while they are selling, they confound the nay-sayers who predict the company's imminent demise.

 

Café, Arles

You can ALWAYS ask for more film speed or sensor speed. This was at ISO 2500 with an f/1.4 35mm Summilux - and even then, it was sufficiently underexposed that the detail had to be 'dug out' in Adobe Lightroom. But what sort of results would you have had with film at EI 2,500? More sensor speed, in our view, is the likeliest and most desirable upgrade for the next M-digital.

PRICE

Well, yes, there's no avoiding it. At the time of writing, a new M9 (digital) in the UK cost just under £5000, which was roughly comparable with the cheapest new, small car on the market. An MP (film) was about £1000 cheaper, though at £10 a roll the difference is swallowed up by 100 rolls of film. Even at £5 a roll, it's only 200 rolls. To pay for the camera outright is 500-1000 rolls. Of course, if you prefer the look you get with film, this is no argument at all, but we prefer film only in black and white.

At the other extreme, a second-hand M2, in 'user' condition (i.e. not mint condition collectable) was around £450/$650/500€: again, about the least you could pay for a second-hand car with a reasonable hope of getting any life out of it. Go for a screw-mount camera and you might well get away with under £200 for one of the commoner ones, in good order. If yu can stretch to £300, you should have a fair choice. These second-hand prices don't look bad until you reckon that with the exception of a few other 'user' cameras such as the Nikon F-series or Pentax LX, most 35mm cameras from the 20th century are worth virtually nothing except to collectors (and often, nothing to them either).

So why do they cost so much? The answer is simple. They're very, very well made. They are true luxury goods, like Rolls Royce cars, Hesketh motorcycles, Rolex watches and so forth. On the other hand, they are (by the standards of luxury goods) relatively affordable. Better still, unlike Rolls Royces, Heskeths and Rolexes, they don't require regular, expensive servicing, though a very occasional, proper, expensive service is probably a good idea (see the warnings about CLAs, above).

 

market

Market, Ootacamund

Many people find that they can hold rangefinder cameras (not just Leicas) steadier than reflexes: about a stop or even two stops. Often this means that before camera shake becomes a serious problem, subject movement is a concern. This was Ferrania 1000D, with the 35/1.4 Summilux wide open on the M4-P, and a shutter speed of maybe 1/15. That was in the days before even black and white films topped ISO 400 (except Kodak Recording Films 2475 and 2485), and ISO 1000 was the fastest you could begin to hope for in slide film. Even then, it was grainy with funny colours.

If you take a look at other hobbies, Leicas are not even particularly expensive, especially second-hand. They are expensive next to cheaper cameras, but what of it? Buy even a small yacht: as Uffa Fox said in the 1950s, "it's like standing under a cold shower, tearing up £10 notes." Or restore a classic car. Or buy a motorcycle, or even a decent bicycle. For that matter, I am told that good quality golf clubs are extremely expensive. And there are more expensive cameras than Leicas: Alpa, for example, or Linhof, or Hasselblad.

Production is limited, because demand is small: it is idle fantasy to pretend that the market is big enough for Leica to spend a fortune on a new production line in order to reduce the costs of hand assembly. The Bessa series was based on an existing SLR chassis, and owes its creation to Hirofumi Kobayashi's enthusiasm for film cameras, and while the Zeiss Ikon has sold well, it has not been as popular as (say) most of Canon's SLRs.

The fact that there has only ever been one other production digital rangefinder (DRF), the Epson RD1/RD1S, and that this camera signally failed to take the world by storm, might indicate to all except the fantasists that the world is not exactly holding its breath for a competitor to the M9. I won't say it's impossible, but I will say that it's improbable, because building a DRF with a Leica-compatible mount and full-frame sensor is more than a matter of stuffing a DSLR sensor into an RF body: the short flange-to-film distance guarantees this. Besides, second-hand Leicas (now including digital) would provide stiff competition to a newer, cheaper DRF: plenty of people on quite modest incomes save money elsewhere in order to buy used, or even new, Leicas.

reservoir

 

Reservoir, Malta

An unconsidered advantage of rangefinder cameras is that because you aren't viewing through the lens, heavy filtration is no problem. The IR filter I used for this shot (with Maco IR820C) was visually all but opaque, but of course, this just wasn't a problem.

As far as I recall, the camera was an old M2; the lens, I am sure, was my 35/1.4 pre-aspheric Summilux. If you are addicted to zooms, steer clear of Leicas, because the nearest you will get is tri-focal lenses: 16-18-21 and 35-50-90. On the other hand, I'd rather shoot fast and crop than waste time zooming.

You can also slap the same filter on an M8 or M8.2 (but not M9) and shoot quite convincing IR, but it never seems as sharp to me as real film..

 

The tenth-hand Leica

People who buy used Leicas often trade up to something newer, so that it is quite possible, arguably even likely, for even a 50-year-old Leica to have had 10 owners - and there are plenty of Leicas more than 50 years old. Even though the original owner may have kept it for 20 years, it may have passed through the hands of others who bought it; decided it wasn't for them; and passed it on after a year or two (or less). This is one reason why old Leicas are sometimes held up as 'unreliable'. With a history like this - perhaps used hard for a decade, then relegated to backup and hardly used, then sold on several times, and at some point subjected to a 'CLA' (see above) which did more harm than good - even the finest machinery can develop problems.

It's also worth remarking that 'reliable' has more than one meaning. A camera that works perfectly for 20 years, and then breaks and can't be fixed, is reliable in a different way from one that needs a minor repair after a decade, and maybe major repair after 40 years, after which it's good for another few decades. Which you prefer is a matter of temperament, or engineering philosophy.

Are Leicas too expensive?

Clearly not, or the company would have gone out of business long ago. When anyone says, "Leicas are too expensive," they can mean only one of two things. One is "I can't afford it," and the other is "I don't want to spend that much on a camera."

doorknocker

 

Door and knocker, Arles

 

How do you put a price on pleasure? We like to eat well, and to have a bottle of wine with our dinner. But (for example) we do not buy 'designer' clothes, or expensive trainers, and our kitchen and bathroom are both resolutely unfitted. For us, taking pictures is a pleasure, and some cameras are more enjoyable to use than others. The very best cameras (such as the Leica M9 which I used for this picture, probably with the 50/1.5 Zeiss C-Sonnar on it) almost beg to be used: "Take me out, and take pictures!" Pictures like this one, where you see a pleasing interplay of light and shape, and shoot without thinking. I've been using Leicas so long that they have become 'transparent': I don't have to think about where the controls are.

Because photography is something we do a lot it makes sense to use the equipment which makes it most enjoyable. I did not get a new Leica between my M4P in 1982 or so and my MP in about 2004. That's 22 years of enjoyment. The M4-P cost under £1000, as far as I remember, so that's under £50 a year. In fact, given that it's probably still worth £500 today, it's under £25 a year. Admittedly I'll be 79 by the time I've had 20 years' use out of the M9, but by 2029, £250 a year probably won't look like much.

Either way, everyone's priorities are different. Until I bought my first M-series, I used Nikon Fs at least as much as screw-mount Leicas; probably more. At a camera club one evening, another member said enviously, "I wish I could afford an outfit like that." I had a couple of Fs (which had just ceased production) and four or five lenses. At the end of the evening, he drove away in a 6-month-old Ford and I drove away in a 25-year-old Rover that had cost me £70 a year or two before. He couldn't afford my Nikon outfit. I couldn't afford his car.

Are Leica owners 'snobs' who are 'showing off'?

The only explanations I can think of for this attitude are 'reverse snobbery' and sour grapes, usually from the hard of thinking.

Reverse snobbery is heard in its purest form from those who say that their Zorkiis and Kievs are 'just as good as' Leicas. If this were so, one might reasonably expect Zorkiis and Kievs to cost the same as Leicas. The fact that they do not is something of a clue. To suggest that people buy Leicas only because they cost more than Zorkiis and Kievs is to suggest that wealth and intelligence are invariably negatively correlated. This is not likely to be the case.

 

snow scene

Snowy village, Pyrenees

For some reason, many people believe that Leicas are 'wide angle cameras' and that even a 75mm lens is longer than conveniently be used. I have never found it to be so, and indeed, when I borrowed a friend's 135/2.8 to try on the M8 (where it is a 180mm equivalent) , I liked it so much that persuaded him to sell it to me. Yes, I have to focus very carefully, but I can live with that. This is actually an M9 shot, slightly desaturated and increased in contrast to capture the cold clarity of the light that I saw that day. The 135/2.8 is one of my favourite lenses for mountain landscapes...

 

A milder form of reverse snobbery is, "You won't get better pictures with a Leica. If you're a bad photographer, you'll still be a bad photographer, and if you were any good, you could get good pictures with anything." To call this a half truth is flattery; it is at best a quarter truth, and probably not even that. Anyone is likely to get better pictures with a camera they like and trust. And surely, the knife-through-butter feeling of a Leica wind-on is more enjoyable than the knife-through-ballbearings feeling of a Zorkii 4K. Also, Leica lenses are widely acknowledged as among the finest in the world. Pre-WW2 Zeiss designs do not really compete, even when they are not copies made in the Soviet Union with wobbly quality control.

Sour grapes requires little explanation, but it is worth asking Leica-haters, when they produce the 'snob' argument, exactly to whom they think the Leica users are showing off. Most non-photographers won't notice or care; most people who do notice will be completely neutral about it; a few will be envious, in a smiling sort of way; and only a very few, usually the Leica haters themselves, scream 'snob' or 'fondler'.

THE BOTTOM LINE

It is of course perfectly true that if you're a bad photographer with one camera, you are quite likely to be a bad photographer with another. Now turn this on its head. You do not, therefore, have to be the greatest photographer in the world to buy or use a Leica. At worst, you'll go on being a bad photographer with a Leica. You may even hate the camera, and find you take worse pictures. It's deeply unlikely, but not impossible. But you may very well find that it suits you perfectly, and that by trying to live up to the camera, you become a better photographer. By 'live up to', I mean that you can't blame the camera for technical or aesthetic shortcomings in your pictures: it's all down to you.

thambar portrait

Portrait

When Leica introduced the M3 in 1954 they made the flange-to-film register 1 mm thinner than the old screw-mount body so that screw-mount lenses could be used with simple adapters on the new cameras.

With a few exceptions (mostly ultra-wide lenses on the M5 and digital bodies, and the DR Summicron on digital bodies) this means that you can use any Leica lens since late 1930 on any Leica M. Reverse compatibility, M on screw, is impossible for obvious reasons.

Nor are you restricted to Leica lenses: a vast range of Leica screw-mount lenses from numerous manufacturers old and new can be used, including Canon, Nikon, Meopta, Minolta, Reid/TTH, Roth, Voigtländer, Wollensak, Yashica, Zeiss and Zunow, not to mention FSU (Former Soviet Union) lenses for Zorkii and Fed.

This was taken with a very rare lens, the Thambar 90/2.2, the only purpose-made soft focus lens for any rangefinder camera.

At this point, if you can afford one, and if the camera appeals to you, what's to stop you buying one? That you're not a good enough photographer to justify a Leica? Use that argument, and there are plenty of us who are not good enough for any decent camera made in the last 60 years. That it's outdated? We hope the arguments above will dispel that one. That it's 'too expensive'? Only you can decide. That Leica owners are incompetent snobs? If that's so, it's curious how many good pictures have been taken with Leicas. In the final analysis, it's just a camera. An expensive camera, but still just a camera. A camera that some will get along with, and some won't. Ignore the price, and it wouldn't attract the opprobrium it does - and besides, an M9 is comparable in price with a top-of-the-line Nikon, and I know which I'd rather have.

That's what it comes down to. I know which I'd rather have. Leicas aren't perfect, and if you're expecting perfection, don't buy one. Anything made by man can go wrong: one of my publishers had a seized engine in the first few hundred miles of running a new Rolls Royce. But that's what guarantees are for on new cameras (and new Rolls Royces, and on second hand cameras and cars bought from dealers). Buy an elderly camera with an uncertain history, via the internet, and what can you expect? Would you automatically expect a thirty or forty year old Rolls Royce with large gaps in its service history to be 100% reliable?

Of course, Leicas are not for everyone. Some people just don't get on with them. But others just know, the first time they handle one, that this is the camera they have been waiting for all their lives. Sometimes they are mistaken, or change their mind, but not often: Leicas are quite habit-forming.

 

instabul

Istanbul

Another popular view of Leicas, along with the idea that you can't use lenses longer than 50mm, is that they are unsuitable for use on a tripod. Wrong! In fact, if you want to see the maximum resolution of which Leica lenses are capable (and they are generally accepted as among the finest in the world) then you will need to use a tripod. For that matter, this was a 5- or 10-second exposure, which I'd not care to attempt hand-held. As far as I recall, I used an M4-P and 90/2 Summicron, shooting on Kodak Elite Chrome 100.

Yes, Leicas are expensive. If you are the kind of person who has Enthusiasms - photography this week, motorcycling next week, fishing the week after - then you would probably do well to avoid buying a Leica, at least new, unless you are very rich. Leica-haters may refuse to believe it, but Leicas are cameras for people who take their photography seriously.

If you can handle all these caveats, try one. Either you'll like it, or you won't. But be warned: if you do, you'll probably like it quite a lot, and won't be happy until you have one. Or two.

 

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© 2010 Roger W. Hicks