Distractions are like catnip to photographers. We can't resist them, and they often make us act silly. The Leica didn't allow us the option of very many distractions. What follows is a short list of the major and minor secrets of the Leica's success. Many cameras can have many of these same advantages, the only problem being that they make some distractions optional, hence requiring restraint on the part of the photographers. Who seldom resist them. See above point re catnip.
This article is mainly about film Leicas. I'm not so familiar with the digital kind. For a brief account of the ways in which current digital cameras seldom limit distractions in quite the same way, see here.
The secrets of the Leica:
1. No zooms. You're forced to use primes. (Also a virtue of view cameras.) You learn how to see like the lens sees.
2. Quiet, small, unobtrusive. You can be sneaky and non-confrontational. People sometimes don't even notice when you've taken a picture. Doesn't always help; sometimes, helps.
3. Always ready to go.
4. No long teles, no macros, and it used to be, no absurd WA's, either, although that's changed now. (Read: distraction, optional.)
1. Lasts a long time and not many model changes, so you're encouraged to get to know it well; tends not to break, ditto; and it's usually fixable when it does break.
2. Through the viewfinder, you see the picture with all parts sharp, more like what the lens will record when stopped down to normal shooting apertures. People are very fond of telling you how an SLR viewfinder is "more accurate" to the scene. It is, spatially, but not in terms of depth of field, unless you're shooting wide open. It's not more accurate if you're looking through the lens at ƒ/1.4 but shooting at ƒ/11.
3. Imprecise framing and a touch of parallax, rendering it pointless to fret and be fussy about framing and perspective. If you want to be that way, buy a view camera. (Seriously. They're fun, and they will loosen up your small-camera shooting by providing a better outlet for your urge for perfectionism.)
4. Lenses are expensive, so chances are better you'll only own one or two.Three at most. If you are lucky enough to acquire a Leica but you also acquire too many lenses for it—too bad! You lose. Lenses are like women: one main one and maybe one on the side are enough for any real man, as long as they're the right ones for you. Too many and you're either just playing around or busy making yourself and everyone around you unhappy.
That's pretty much it. You can get 95% of the advantages of the Leica with most other rangefinders and 90% of the advantages with a small, simple SLR like an Olympus OM-1n, a Pentax ME Super or MX, or a Nikon FE2 or FM3A, as long as you're disciplined about the lenses.
All of Leica's Franklin Mint horsesh*t (endless special editions, collector come-ons, special materials and coverings, etc.) is, well, horsesh*t, and all the shrill, whiny "I'm better than other photographers because I have a Leica" snob appeal that's been getting worse as the years go by is more than counter-productive—it's obnoxious.
Leicatistas will howl, but the business about how special the lenses are is pretty much horsesh*t too. Most lenses today are plenty good enough and are not going to hold anybody back. If you're not getting enough quality out of a good Pentax or Nikon prime, the solution is not to spend the price of a used car on magical Deutsche-dust, the solution is to get a camera that shoots a bigger neg. Again, I'm still on film here. The digitals are another can o' worms.
Best Leica: plain-jane black M6, with a little damage or wear to make the collectors go away, bought used, and put on in the morning and taken off at night, like your shirt*. Put a little electrical tape over the name and the red dot. Buy one or two lenses between 28mm and 90mm that fit the camera and the framelines, ragardless of the brand.
Good to go.
(Thanks to sneye)
*I got this from David Vestal.
Note: This piece is based on one written in the 1990s. I added the first two paragraphs and changed a few bits in the rest of it. You might discern it's a trifle snarkier than I would write it today; few people use cameras like these any more, so why get all emphatic about it? —MJ
Send this post to a friend
Note: Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site. More...
Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by ronin: "I don't think Leicas are so small, quiet, and unobtrusive. True, they may have been in the 1920s and '30s, compared to what else was available then. In those days Cartier-Bresson could indeed give Leicas those three labels.
"Even into the '40s and beyond, 35mm cameras were called 'miniature cameras.' By the 1970s several vendors had SLRs similarly sized to Leica bodies, with more features (lenses are another story, but this article is about Leicas).
"Somehow in the literature the myth persisted that Leicas were somehow more small quiet and unobtrusive than any other 35mm camera.
"As far as the advantages listed for the Leica, the market says these are rather disadvantages, hence the disappearance of almost all rangefinder products by the '60s and '70s...almost as fast as the fading of film cameras when digital serious cameras showed up.
"Leica survived by charging very high prices for rather nice stuff, with a good fan base and probably most of all somehow surviving the '70s just in time for the Asian fad for Leicas.
"I shot exclusively with M6s for a period of 5 years in the '90s. I ended up selling them. Most pix could have been taken with any other camera; a few could not. But I learned a lot from them about forced technique. I found this technique largely transferable to cameras with other viewing techniques that also offered other advantages. I sort of feel I got the better of the bargain over keeping the Leicas."