September 11, 2011

Lusting after Leica

The legendary Leica M3 The legendary Leica M3
As a street photographer, I have often felt descriptions of Leica cameras compelling. It’s impossible to study the history of street photography without coming across numerous mentions of Leica cameras as the camera of choice for street and documentary photographers. Recently I was able to use an operate a Leica M camera for the first time. While my time handling the camera was brief, it was an even more pleasant experience than I had imagined it would be.

I have seen many pictures and videos of Leicas in use, and I have always been fascinated by them. Their described advantages for street photography made clear concerns that had existed in the back of my mind that I was never able to fully articulate. Their discreet size and quiet operation is a big plus. But also using a rangefinder to compose and focus has always seemed like a fantastic alternative to the DSLR that I use.

It first might seem like a disadvantage of a camera not to show you exactly what your lens is seeing like an SLR does, but there are some distinct advantages. First is that you can see everything in focus. When looking through the viewfinder of an SLR, you’re only seeing what the lens is currently focusing on, and with a fast lens, everything else in the image can be quite blurred. Having a viewfinder that shows the whole scene in focus makes clear everything that is going on within the frame. This makes it simple to see events unfolding that are currently outside the plane of focus.

Another advantage of the rangefinder is being able to see more of the scene than what is being captured by the film. When you attach a different lens to a Leica, you still see the same field of view, you just get frame lines to tell you approximately what you’ll get when you take the picture. This can be problematic if you’re using a telephoto lens or a very wide-angle lens, but most street photography is done with the 35mm to 50mm focal length, so this is not a problem. This can be useful to anticipate the timing of a composition, waiting for just the right moment for every element to come into place.

This type of rangefinder is not unique to Leica cameras, but Leica has the advantage of their reputation for excellent build quality. Most of the cameras is made out of solid brass, and each camera and lens is hand-assembled by an engineer in Germany. I had always suspected that the various descriptions I had heard of the solid build quality of Leica cameras might have been a tad hyperbolic. Perhaps as a way for photographers who had recently been parted with several thousand dollars to justify their purchase to themselves. That is, until recently.

Fortunately, earlier this week a fellow member of the Lawrence Photo Alliance, Bill, brought part of his camera collection to our monthly meeting. One of these cameras was his Leica M3 with collapsible 50mm lens. The M3 was the first M-mount Leica camera model originally produced in 1954. I noticed the quality of the camera from the moment I picked it up. Noticing my interest, Bill suggested I try the film advance lever. It was fantastic. Smooth, slient and solid. Far better than any Nikon F or Pentax SLR I have tried. This camera is nearly 60 years old and I can imagine that this is exactly how it felt when it was brand new. The view through the viewfinder was amazing and the feel of the film advance lever was addictive.

Even though the camera wasn’t loaded with film, I went through the actions of winding the lever, composing and focusing through the viewfinder and clicking the shutter. This particular M3 was one of the earlier model M3s with a double-stroke advance lever. It was a little odd at first but I quickly got used to it. When originally designing the cameras, the Leica engineers were concerned that the mechanism might be too fragile if it were designed to advance the film and cock the shutter with a single stroke. After they realized there was little concern of mechanical failure, they released a later M3 model with a single-stroke advance.

The tactile experience of using that camera is still embedded in my memory nearly a week later. I was interested in getting my own rangefinder at some point, but thought I might settle for a Voigtlander. Not now. After this experience, it’s Leica or bust.

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