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J'Accuse Leica Graphic

The Leica rangefinder is surrounded by an aura of mechanical precision and optical perfection - qualities reflected in its high price. Confirmed Leica user Paul Ross questions the myths and concludes that you can't believe all you hear...

You get used to this if you work in the press pack long enough. There you are standing in a crowd of other pros, each of them draped with the latest in auto-everything. Suddenly one grizzled veteran peers suspiciously at the thing around your neck. Gradually a far away look comes into his eyes, "Ah, Leica" he breathes "A real camera... Capa... Bresson... Magnum..."

Everyone agrees that the only proper Leicas are the rangefinders but there are more myths about these than you can shake a stick at. A lot of Leica lore is put around by people who have little or no experience of using one and if hardened pros have misty eyed views of the thing why not everyone else?

So what is the truth behind the beast?

Myth 1: Leica started the 35mm format

Well no. Actually the first 35mm camera was the "Homeos" (1913) a year before Oskar Barnack's "UR" prototype. And it was 1925 before the first production Leica hit the market. However Leica must take credit for being the first to develop a camera where you could change the lens without resorting to a screwdriver and a set of spanners.

Myth 2: Well all right then the modern Leica is superbly developed

Hardly. The present day M6 is roughly a M3 of 40 years ago with the addition of a simple light meter. If any Leica bore tries to claim an unbroken chain of development excellence then just lean over and whisper the phrase "M5" in their ear. There can be few camera manufacturers who have been forced to resuscitate an obsolete model (the M4) to save their reputation.

Myth 3: OK, so anyone can make a mistake. But rangefinder focusing knocks any SLR into a cocked hat

Firstly the rangefinder is a complicated mechanical system of levers, pivots, prisms and mirrors which can go out of adjustment far more easily than the simpler SLRs.

Secondly the rangefinder has a fixed sensitivity regardless of the lens. This simple compromise means that it is far too sensitive for wide lenses and not sensitive enough for telephotos.

And accuracy? Try this; mount a M6 on a tripod and focus precisely on a mark on a wall about 2 metres away. Now move the tripod 60mm* away from the wall (this is the depth of field of a 75mm lens at f1.4). See any difference in the viewfinder image? I'm dammed if I can. It is a bit hit and miss getting the focusing right with longer lenses wide open.

Myth 4: The viewfinder is wonderfully clear compared to all the flashing lights in a modern SLR

As the view is the same whichever lens you put on the M6 viewfinder needs a profusion of intrusive frame marks half of which are irrelevant. A great chunk of the bottom right corner of the viewfinder is blocked by the lenshood. Once someone asked me how I visualised a particular photograph. "Like this" I replied covering the appropriate part of the print with my hand.

Myth 5: They are the best camera for photojournalism

Thirty years ago there was little or no competition in the professional camera market and the Leica was rightly King. Nowadays new technology and stiffer competition between manufacturers mean that there is a far wider choice of good equipment.

The problem is that when you buy a Leica you are not just buying a camera you are buying a culture, and a collectible one at that. Design, quality and price are not set by professionals who have to earn their living with them but by the collectors - the glass case brigade. In recent years Leica seems to have abandoned technical development instead playing shamelessly to the collectors market with limited edition versions made of exotic materials.

Myth 6: Leica lenses are best

Well £1000 or more will buy you a good lens from anyone. There really seems little practical difference between Leitz optics and good Canon or Nikon ones. This is particularly true if you are working fast and wide open when the smallest focusing error squanders any optical excellence.

Myth 7: Leicas are really rugged

In the years that I have been using M6s I have had a crop of failures and a few horror stories. They appear no better or worse than most expensive equipment. The M6 electrics are poorly sealed and particularly prone to dirt contaminating the electrical contacts. This can cause the metering to be wildly out.

A couple of years ago I was the proud owner of a brand new M6 which failed after about 20 rolls when a minor shutter spring broke. Later on a rush job I found that the rewind lever had fallen off unnoticed - try extracting the film without one when the despatch rider is nervously tapping the throttle beside you. One famous photographer recently told me that she had to send her M6 back seven times before light leaks were fixed. She ended up calling them 'Leitz leaks'.

So why use Leicas? Because in some ways they are unbeatable. If you want to be discreet a little cunning allows you to sling the body under your armpit and hide the lens in your hand. "What me a photographer? Not me guv." The shutter is so quiet you can photograph people without disturbing their concentration. Or being noticed.

Poor light is no restriction. As there is no mirror to flap up and down the only camera shake you have is all your own. With a 35mm lens you have a camera that can shoot discreetly at 1/4 sec at f1.4. Put TMAX 3200 in there and if you can see it, you can photograph it.

Rangefinder focusing is slow compared with a SLR but this can introduce a different, more thoughtful pace to the proceedings. Leicas are not to be hurried, nor are their pictures.

Perhaps it is because they are so cranky that once you get used to the Leica they do cast an powerful spell. Whenever I pick one up I find the sound and feel a welcome change from the zip-zip of the modern motor drive. The M6 always seduces me with the shy click of its shutter and a film advance that has the timbre of tearing silk.

I suppose that if all my equipment was lost, stolen or had fallen apart then the last piece of gear that I would want to hang on to would be my battered M6, 35mm f1.4 and a pocket full of film. Call it my desert island luxury.

It's a good camera. Good. But great? No.

[First published in Professional Photographer (UK) December 1995.]


Further Information

You can read a critique of this article at: www.geocities.com/SoHo/Workshop/4472/

You can see an interesting article by Bill Pierce on Dirck Halstead's site about the pros and cons of using the Leica/Canon EOS combination.

Quality! Quality?

A comparison of Leica prime lenses and Camon EOS zoom lenses.

Service! Service?

Any professional camera needs regular servicing and repair. How do Leica (UK) perform? Here are some horror stories that happened to me.

Leica-relevant web sites

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