By John Camp
I enjoyed the Veblen-value essay; a terrific piece of writing.
My problem with Leica has never been that the cameras are expensive, or that much of their cost is in Veblen value. Hey, it's your money, do with it what you wish. I don’t even have a problem with Veblen value. I drive a Mercedes-Benz, when I know perfectly well that I could buy three Toyotas for the same price. They’d be more reliable, and, for the way I drive, they’d move me around just as efficiently. But, I like the status.
My problem with Leica is that for the overwhelming number of photographers, they're not good value—not even good Veblen value. I worry that people who are serious about photography, in the earlier stages of their interest, can be led to believe that Leicas will improve their work, to their great cost and disappointment. There's a reason few professionals use Leicas, and that's that the Leicas are not as good at producing professional-level shots as a DSLR. Almost any DSLR.
In other words, if you must try a Leica, and you can easily afford it, go ahead. But don’t be a victim of cult-think: "What an unbelievably great camera; I could never do this with a DSLR." That’s what we call serious BS.
There have been a number of people in the last few days, commenting on TOP's Leica threads, saying they'd love to buy a Leica if they could afford one. Why? Your pictures almost certainly will be worse, and have less range. You won’t be able to do true telephoto work, or macro work. You will have to deal with constraints that you don't have with DSLRs—you won't have autofocus, image-stabilization, dust removal, weather proofing, precise framing, or even decent service. You name it, you probably won't get it. It's not that Leicas are simple, it's that they are in many ways archaic.
Take framing, for instance. People seem to think that the rangefinder frames are precise. They're not. Not only are they not precise, they are different for differing focus distances with the same lens. If you are one of those people annoyed by 98% coverage with a DSLR, a rangefinder will drive you nuts.
Tina Manley, an excellent professional photographer, was singing the praises of Leicas in the Comments section of another TOP thread a couple of days ago, and she says Leicas are much quicker to focus than autofocus cameras. Well, that's something that's certainly testable. Perhaps TOP should sponsor a competition. I tried it with my Nikon D3—and the camera can focus faster than I can recompose. Swinging back and forth between one target that was eight feet away and another that was about thirty feet away, 180 degrees apart, I could get off ten focused shots in approximately 13 seconds. I bet there's not a Leica user in the world who could do that; or damn few, anyway. And I'm not a hotshot DSLR shooter; I'm just a guy.
(There is one common situation in which Leicas may focus as fast or even faster than autofocus, and that’s probably the kind of shooting that Tina was referring to. That is, if you have your hand on the focusing ring and you're shooting almost continuous pictures of a relatively static subject—a child sitting in one place, where you are continuously refocusing to keep the eyes sharp. Those continuous tiny adjustments are probably best done in manual mode, if you have lots of practice doing it. But, top end DSLRs also have a manual mode, and I find it as easy to use as a Leica’s.)
So, do I think people shouldn’t buy Leicas? Not at all. I own two, an M7 and an M8, and ten Leica lenses. I enjoy Leicas. I don’t think there’s any harm trying them, but unless you are very well-off, I’d suggest borrowing, renting or buying an older film Leica just to see if you like it. I suspect you won’t—in the end, I believe most people don’t. They like the idea of the Leica; they like the mind’s-eye image of themselves carrying a Leica; they like the Veblen-value; but, if they’re serious about images, they prefer the function of a DSLR, and will feel seriously handicapped without it.*
The people most likely to really get into Leicas, IMHO, are people who love cameras as cameras, and love the process of shooting perhaps more than the images they get. Also, I think, some fine-art photographers, especially street photographers, may really enjoy an M9. And then there’s the guy who’s sort of bored with photography after doing it a long time. Shooting a Leica is so different, and pushes you so close to your subjects, that it might revive a dying interest. A Leica perhaps can be less clinical than a DSLR.
The M9 is not a magic wand. It won’t improve your photography. If you’re not happy with what’s coming out of your DSLR, you won’t be happy with comes out of your M9, because the problem isn’t the camera.
As for high-end sound equipment, well, I listen to country music on my Mac speakers, so I have, er, little to say about that.
Bestselling author John Camp writes thrillers, mysteries, and other novels under the nom de plume John Sandford.
*Please don’t comment that “I love my Leica, so you’re wrong.” There must be a name for this logical fallacy, but I don’t know what it is—in any case, I’m generalizing. I’m talking about most people. Some people love Leicas and shoot brilliantly with them. I know that. You may name your children Barnack and Wetzlar. Fine with me. But you’re not most people. [I believe what you're talking about would be the material fallacy a dicto secundum quid ad dictum simpliciter, or the converse fallacy of accident—deriving a generality from a special case. "I like anchovies and I'm a human being, therefore all human beings like anchovies." —Mike]
Featured Comment by Tina Manley: "I would never try to convince someone who does sports, wildlife, wedding, studio, or macro photography that a Leica is the perfect camera; but for my kind of work, documentary and editorial work, it is perfect. The cameras are unobtrusive, quiet, durable, easy to carry. But it's not just about the camera. It's the lenses. Leica lenses are the best and the best way to use them is on a Leica camera. I'm hoping the M9 will be the digital camera that I've been waiting for since I switched to digital from my film Leicas.
"P.S. I can focus my Leicas faster than I can my Canon 5DII or 1D Mark II. :-)"
Featured Comment by Matt Needham: "I can't say whether a Leica will or won't influence anyone's photograph-creating ability, but I know one thing for sure: never tell the guy holding the $7,000 camera that the gear doesn't matter. ;)"
Featured Comment by David S.: "I find it interesting that there's all this focus on the M9. The far-more-important camera in Leica's line is the S2, because it represents a larger-than-'full-frame' sensor in what is essentially an SLR body. What is now a $20,000 camera for professionals and the superrich will be the standard SLR five years from now. Why is a 'full-frame' Leica important? What makes a sensor 'full-frame'? Because it roughly approximates the size of a piece of 35mm film that was itself considered small when it was introduced? Today's full-frame is tomorrow's 'small.' Sensors will keep getting larger, better, more efficient, and cheaper. High-ISO performance will continue to improve, until today's ultrafast and ultra-expensive lenses become meaningless. Today's $10,000 Noctilux will represent a very poor investment, because an ƒ/4 lens will be able to see in the dark just as easily. Something to keep in mind for those considering the M9."
Featured Comment by ronin: "Leicas are great and I've owned several Ms, but a lot of the supposed appeal is really a holdover list from years past.
"'Unobtrusive?' Probably a holdover from Cartier-Bresson in the '30s; 35mm cameras were new then, and replaced larger two-handed cameras that were held at waist-level. People did not expect to be photographed at eye-level with 35mm cameras.
"That would be like saying that 10 years ago people didn't expect to be photographed with cameras held at arm's length, but today it is the norm.
"In fact, read the literature of the '30s and '40s, and they referred to 35mm cameras generically as 'miniature cameras.' If eye-level 35mm SLRs were available in the 30s they would have been just as 'unobtrusive.'
"And Leica Ms are not particularly small or light. The Pentax ME, Nikon EM, Olympus OM1 were very near the same size and weight (give rangefinders props for small lenses,however).
"The Leica M is not particularly 'silent.' Its focal plane shutter is about the same loudness level of any 35mm focal plane shutter, although of course it benefits from the lack of a flipping mirror. But any of the hoards of lens-shutter compact 35mm rangefinders of the '60s could quietize rings around the Leica M.
"While we may romanticize the Leica, there were many makers of rangefinder 35s into the '50s, when the market collapsed. The market collapsed because people realized they could make better, easier, quicker pictures with SLRs.
"Of course, we (especially me) are superior to those simple masses, and realize they are deluded. And I am glad there is still a Leica to put out their wonderful archaic masterpieces."