Stepping into Leica Land
Guest Blog by John Meadows
A disclaimer: I am not a Leica expert; everything below is based on my experience so far, or on the information contained in the links below.
Leica purists – if I have gotten something wrong, please comment, but let’s not get all religious about it OK? 🙂
I finally fulfilled a camera bucket list, and got a Leica rangefinder camera (a 1939 vintage IIIb), and after trading a couple of emails with fellow FPP listener and contributor Dan Domme, I thought it might be fun to write a post on the subject.
So why use a vintage Leica? It certainly isn’t for the convenience factor, especially when it comes to film loading. It should be remembered of course that many famous photojournalists of the 20th century had no problem at all using the Leica to capture many famous, iconic moments.
When I hold my 1939 vintage Leica, I somehow feel a connection to the photographers who came before us; I wonder about the previous owner(s) of my camera, and what kind of pictures they made; my example is pretty beaten up, so I’m sure it lead a busy life, and did not gathering dust as a trophy on a shelf. When I use my Leica, I feel like I am sharing in the experience of photography of 70 years ago, and there is no plug-in that can duplicate that!
So you want to buy a vintage (i.e. screw mount) Leica? It does seem like the IIIc is the sweet spot, even though I got a IIIb; from what I’ve read, IIIf’s and IIIg’s were produced in smaller numbers, and hence are of more interest to collectors, hence driving up the price. The IIIc was produced in larger numbers, so as a more common model it commands less of a price, all other things being equal. My cursory research on the big auction site would seem to bear that out. Also, the construction design was changed for the IIIc, making it a stronger camera.
When a Leica is priced, condition is everything; look for a user and leave the mint condition examples to the collectors. Time to go all blasphemous: I think mint condition Leica’s are a tragedy. They are mint condition because they have not been used for the purpose for which they were designed: creating photographs. Every virgin Leica, locked safely in a collector’s safety deposit is a camera that is not giving a real photographer joy, not to mention keeping film photography alive. Shame on people who own Leica’s and don’t use them!
Every nick, scratch, bit of brassing etc. is anathema to the kind of collector mentioned above. For the rest of us thankfully, it means that these “user” cameras are a bit more affordable; my IIIb body was affordable because half the vulcanite covering was missing, and the body had some dings and dents. None of these cosmetic defects will appear in the photographs, so who cares! Other defects may required a CLA or more, so figure that into the cost equation.
My IIIb before:
My IIIb after:
Once you have a body, of course you’ll need a lens. Lenses can often be more expensive than the body; normal lenses can be $300/400 or more. Even a basic lens like the collapsible Elmar 50mm f3.5 lenses aren’t cheap. I ended up trading a Pentax 6×7 camera/lens for 50mm f2 Summitar, and based on comparative market values it was a pretty even trade. When looking for a lens, it’s generally a good idea to go for a postwar model, which will be a coated lens, giving better contrast. Low contrast can be an issue with the prewar uncoated lens, although many people do like the look of images created with these lenses. I’ve read the coatings can be very soft/fragile on the coated lenses; cleaning marks are very common. I’ve also read that haze can be an issue with older Leica lenses. Be sure to ask! On older lenses it is common to see some dust in the elements, but normally this doesn’t have a practical impact on picture quality. Beware fungus! While some claim it can be cleaned, my personal belief is that fungus is a death sentence; lens disassembly is just a stay of execution.
If you can’t afford a genuine Leica lens right away, there are a number of Soviet lenses that fit these cameras. Many purists will sneer at them, but they can often have good optics, being copies of classic designs; their downfall is inconsistent quality control, to say the least. I got a Jupiter-8 f2, and my example is a great lens; quite sharp! Industar’s also have a good reputation, if you can find one in good shape.
One cannot talk about Soviet lenses without talking about the cameras they were built for, such as the various Fed and Zorki models. The Fed 1 is a pretty straight copy of the Leica, and many a Fed has been “upgraded” to a Leica by enterprising Eastern European craftsmen; watch out for counterfeits when buying a Leica! Some of the danger signs to watch out for are: shutter button with standard collar and threaded for cable release, rangefinder cam – wedge not round, non-separate frame around rangefinder window, etc. I have listed a few links with more information on fakes Leica’s at the end of the post.
Russian Fed’s and Zorki’s are not necessarily bad cameras; just watch out for lemons (and there are plenty!) On the other hand, they can be so cheap that the risk isn’t that high.
Once you start shooting with a Leica you’ll notice its quirks, and number one is loading the film through the bottom; it takes some care and practice, but if photojournalists could do it in under 30 seconds, often under fire covering war, can’t we do it as well? The film leader must also be trimmed a specific way for loading (a longer tongue basically), but templates are easily found online. Another quirk (which I am finding to be a plus) is that the rangefinder is non-coupled: you look through one (rather small) window to focus (on a magnified image) and another window (the viewfinder) to compose. The windows are right beside each other, and I am finding going back and forth to be quite easy.
One should also not forget the concept of hyperfocal distance; and at f11 everything from about 12 feet out will be in acceptable focus.
To sum up, shooting with a Leica is a unique experience, and I’d recommend it for all film shooters; these cameras are part of our shared photographic inheritance, and deserve to keep on shooting!
http://rick_oleson.tripod.com/index-213.html – How to spot a fake Leica
http://www.cameraquest.com/fakerusk.htm – Russian Fake Leicas
Visit John Meadows’ blog – http://johnmeadowsphotography.wordpress.com/