Home Cameras/Lenses Leica A Tale of Two Leicas: Oldest of times, newest of times

A Tale of Two Leicas: Oldest of times, newest of times

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The camera above is a very early Leica I Model A from 1926 with a four-digit serial number. It has the earliest version of the famous Elmar lens, which, apart from the name, looks almost identical to the previous Elmax lens. The lens has no 7 metre mark and has a slightly curved front lip just like the Elmax. In addition the camera has the ‘mushroom’ style shutter button, which has to be kept pressed down while the film is being rewound. 

This camera has the serial number 1783 and the Elmar lenses started at serial number 1300. The earliest production Leica cameras had five-element Anastigmat lenses, but because of potential copyright issues, this name was soon changed to Elmax, combining Ernst Leitz with the lens designer’s name (Max Berek). Then because of cost, the lens was redesigned as a four-element model and was renamed Elmar, which was considered more euphonious. 

New glass

After the Elmar was introduced, the glass supplier was changed from Goerz to Schott, apparently requiring a change in lens curvature. It would be necessary to strip down the lens in order to determine whether this was one of the models with the earlier glass. In any event, it is a very early Elmar. I also own serial number 1661, so I have one that is even earlier. The lenses on both cameras seem to be the same to my non-expert eye.

There were ten variants of the I Model A with Elmar, described by Angela von Einem in her book, which is only available in German. I have a number of other I Model As (yes, being a collector is a slippery slope situation), of various types (variants), and I have put film through only one or two of them. They are mainly collector’s items to me, of course. When I bought this one from Dan Tamarkin he said that it had been serviced and so I decided to run a film though it to see how a camera of this age would perform in 2017. The further thought occurred to me that it might be an idea to compare the output of one of Leica’s earliest cameras with one of its latest.

Last week I went out with the I Model A, loaded with Kodak Portra 160 film, and also with my M10. I made the mistake of leaving a 35mm Summicron on the M10, whereas the film camera had a fixed 50mm lens. When this occurred to me I was already taking photos and so I just noted that I would need to crop the M10 images. I used the meter in the M10, which was set on ISO 200, to calculate exposures and the distance numbers from the M10 rangefinder to produce approximate settings for the I Model A.

The following photos were given just the usual light processing in Lightroom, the same for both film and digital images. The film images are on the left

Pixel peeping

I would be interested in comments on these photos. My own feelings are that the film gives a certain ‘sparkle’ and that the digital images are very slightly duller but more detailed, partly on account of this. The colours are perhaps also more neutral, or natural if you wish, in the digital images. I slightly prefer the look of the film shots, but that is personal preference. 

There is no point in pixel peeping as the film images are just normal scans from negatives done in a camera store. Have you noticed that if you show people photos saved on a phone or pad most will just look at them while many digital photographers (usually younger ones) will immediately blow up the images on the screen in order to pixel peep? A sad state of affairs since what really counts in photos is the content rather than the pixels.

For people outside of Ireland, the black and white photo is of a bust of Patrick Pearse one of the leaders of the Irish Uprising of 1916. It is in the grounds of St Endas, which was a school for boys, which he founded in 1908. The school is now a museum and its grounds have been developed as a very nice park not far from where I live.

This is not either a real-world or even a valid comparison. It does show, however, that the Leica cameras could, in the right hands, produce very acceptable images from the very beginning.

Below is a photo of the two cameras together.

It is obvious that Leicas have expanded in size over the last 90 years and they are no longer pocketable, as were the first ones. As for which one is better looking, my vote is for the one on the left.

Below is a photo of an early user of ‘das kleine Photo-wunder’ as the Leica was described in early advertisements. It is of Irish writer George Bernard Shaw with what may be a Leica I Model C, which was the same size as the I Model A, but had no ‘hockey stick’ and had the ability to use interchangeable lenses. This one has the standard 50mm Elmar lens.

Shaw was a great man for witty sayings and this one may be more appropriate to using modern digital cameras than using early Leicas where every shot had to be carefully weighed up and composed before taking:

“A photographer is like a cod, which produces a million eggs in order that one may reach maturity.”

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37 COMMENTS

  1. I too prefer the film images over the digital images, it is suprising to see how good the colours are given the age of the Elmar. I made my first pictures ever with an IIIf and can see now why I was so much in love with this compact camera, the “iPhone avant la lettre”.

    • Thanks Rene. The original Leica I and the Vest Pocket Kodak (VPK) were truly made for the pocket. Yes, they had bigger pockets in those days. I also prefer the film images, but the preference today is for looking at the pixels. This was not meant to be a scientific comparison, but rather to show that a 91 year old Leica can produce very nice images which stand up well compared to today’s latest and greatest from the same company.

      William

  2. A gem of an article! Thank you. I suppose you could push the digital images in more or less whatever direction you wanted and get them closer to the film? As they are, I also think there is an enjoyable freshness to the film scans. With regard to the two cameras, I think it is apples and oranges: they both have their own kind of beauty, and I won’t sniff if anyone offers me an M10 to supplement my IIIf (also beautiful)!

    • Thanks John. Yes, you can do film effects in Nik filters. Fujifilm, however, which, of course, is also a film manufacturer, has made film settings which are available in Lightroom with a Fujifilm Raw (RAF) image. They are the best I have seen. Now, if somebody could give us some really good Kodachrome filters for digital output from a Leica, I would be very happy. Kodachrome filters are available in Nik, but they are a bit ‘overdone’.

      William

  3. Wish I had the courage to use a film Leica, I also agree the film Leica photos have more soul ! Have you ever compared your earlier leica to more current film Leicas? The more I read I think the best of both worlds is that MD 262, thank you for this article.

    • Thanks John. More recent film Leicas like the M6 and M7 have the advantage of built in metering and a rangefinder. Thus, they are easier to use, but they are nowhere near as compact as the I Model A. The film would be the same, but the more modern Summicron and Summilux lenses on the film Ms would produce somewhat ‘better’ images, but the difference would be a marginal one. Leica produced a might fine product right from the very start and the lenses were always a significant part of the success of the company.

      William

  4. Well, having owned and used a few Barnack oldies, I am pleased but not surprised by the result. Except for the somewhat cumbersome handling, this 91 years old camera would be perfectly acceptable as a user today.

    I´ve sold all Barnacks years ago, but seeing the 2-camera pic above, I couldn´t resist putting my newest favourite, the X2, beside my M9. The size difference is just about the same, but of course the X2 is far lighter. And the pocketability is there. Now, if only it had a 50 mm (eq.) lens instead of the 35 (eq)!

    • As it know, you are preaching to the converted when extolling the X2. My colleague John Shingleton and I both love our X1s and wouldn’t part with them. If only, as you say, Leica would have the courage to make an X2 with a 50mm lens. Unfortunately they seem to have lost interest in that niche market following the withdrawal of the entire X series.

    • Thanks Per. Perhaps their oldest camera might persuade Leica to have a go at producing a ‘full frame’ camera for the pocket again.

      William

  5. Sir,
    it might be this age thing again…the pictures on the left are taken with the Leica I and its historical 50mm Elmar, right?
    And the pictures on the right with your M 10 plus Summicron 35, somehow cropped as you say?
    May be my eyes are fainting fastly already…
    But the images from your wonderful old Leica and its antique lens are by far better than the once on the right.
    More crisp, more fresh, not as "mooded" as the once on the right…
    It will take me more than one glass of fine Austrian White tonight to get over this result shown here today and in front of my eyes…Feel free to correct me in case I am wrong here tonight…
    But thank you for all of your articles here; they are all very sophisticated in their choice of words and only "anglican" people are able to put something like this together..

    Best Wishes and I am crying for more…

    Harry Machold

    • If it’s any consolation, Harry, I raised the same query with William after seeing the results on the page. I thought I’d got them mixed up and the Model A results were on the right and not the left. But I was wrong. I do find the M10 pictures relatively disappointing and can’t account for this. But William assures me the pictures on the left are from the Model A. If so, give or take the odd viewfinder or sensor, perhaps we are all better off getting a Model A!!

    • Thanks Harry. With Shaw, Yeats, Wilde and Joyce etc, we mastered the Anglo tongue on this side of the pond. I would not, however, compare myself to any of those great writers. Shaw was also not a bad photographer himself, of course, and he recognised a good thing when we saw the little Leica more than 80 years ago.

      The ones on the left are, indeed, from the I Model A from 1926. There is no real comparison possible other than the subjective one of which images you like best. Objectively, if subjected to pixel peeping, the digital images would look ‘better’. One thing which I have noted is that side by side with the film images are slightly duller. This may be by design to avoid blown highlights, which are considered to be unwelcome in current photographic thinking. The digital images are, of course, capable of a lot of further development in post processing.

      William

      • I should have said that side by side with the film images, the digital images are slightly duller. I hope this makes sense.

        William

  6. Dear William,

    thank you for this excellent article. Indeed it demonstrates two things: First off, the beauty, workmanship and functionality of vintage film-cameras.
    Secondly, using film still has it’s merits. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the versatility of my digital cameras (M10, Q) very much, but I find myself increasingly using my Film-Leicas. Kodak Portra, as it happens, is my favourite color-film: Very nice and balanced colours, excellent skin tones, fine grain. Of course the bottleneck in the process is scanning, but provided you have a good scanner at hand, the results are more than satisfying.
    As a side benefit you get real negatives, without much effort storable for a long time. Something you can’t claim for digital.

    • Thanks Claus. Some people say that we should print all of the photos that really matter and that negatives should be kept in secure environments. This is because of a distrust in the long term viability of digital images. Digital images can, of course, be archived with multiple back ups. Only time will tell what survives best of all. Meanwhile, a Leica from 1926 can still produce fine images in 2017, while others worry about upgrading to the latest and greatest.

      William

  7. William, thank you for your article on film v. digital photography. Very interesting. Like others, I prefer the colours represented by your film camera, which surprised me. I offer two comments.

    Taking the scarecrow for example; the digital version appears to be at least 1/3 EV underexposed. At the same time, the white balance appears unbalanced for the digital shot. In linear terms, it appears cool in comparison with the film version whose colours ring true to me.

    I realise that judging white balance in retrospect is a dodgy business. For such a trial I would take some reference shots using my WhiBal or Pantone ColorChecker which I use to produce camera specific colour profiles. That would equalise the comparison and remove any colour contamination.

    With film photography, you choose a specific film to give a desired characteristic rendering. With digital you are spoiled for choice what rendering you pursue. In many ways that is one of the outstanding virtues of digital photography.

    • Thanks David. I did detect that the digital images were slight underexposed and I could have compensated for this, but I deliberately did not do too much processing on these, just a little crop (for the 35mm aspect) and a small amount of extra contrast- the same on both. I could have given the digital shots the full treatment to make them look more attractive, but that would have defeated the point of the exercise. If I had just produced the digital images on their own you would not have noted the dullness or underexposure. I believe that digital cameras are designed to produce images like this in order to avoid blown highlights etc which are considered undesirable in today’s photographic thinking. This was intended to be a subjective test as regards ‘which do you like?’ rather than an objective scientific test. Opinions here and on the Leica Forum are divided on the subjective aspect, but at this stage the film images seem to be getting more ‘likes’.

  8. Wonderful article William, and the images are very thought provoking. I too agree that the images form the Model I are more appealing than the M10 images. The lens on the Model I was designed almost 100 years ago and acquits itself quite well with Leica’s latest and greatest. I also agree that there is too much emphasis on pixel peeping.

    However, I don’t think the comparison is apples to apples. On a basic level, a digital sensor is different from film, but beyond that you are comparing a scanned image from film to an original digital capture. That alone would account for some of the apparent contrast difference between the two sets of images. There is no information on how the lab (scanner type, megapixels, software used, etc.) scanned your film. I used to own a professional lab and we scanned film back in the early days (turn of the century) and there is a lot of leeway on that end of things. There is also the issue of how tight the lab’s chemistry is; how good is their process control. There is also variance in film from emulsion batch to emulsion batch. I’m sure I am forgetting some other variables, too.

    Perhaps the most important issue is the fact that Lightroom introduces its own interpretation of the imported digital image file, even though the same "light settings" were applied to both images in your Lightroom workflow. I am no expert in Lightroom, but it is my understanding that Lightroom recognizes that the M10 images were taken with an M10, versus others generated with other imaging sensors and applies its own initial corrections based on its M10 profiles. What initial corrections does Lightroom apply to a scanned image? This could explain most of what we are seeing here.

    In some ways, the comparison reminds me of those of M9 image files with M240 and M10 image files. Or the old arguments of Kodachrome versus other film types. Jono Slack recently made the argument on LUF that there is no such thing as proper automatic white balance, rather what white balance is right for you. Same goes for other corrections made in Lightroom.

    There definitely is a difference between the images, but the question is, what are we really seeing here? I think there are too many variables at play that we are not accounting for.

    • Thanks Bill. All of the points you make are valid and there are probably even more variables than the ones you listed. I am an experienced user of Lightroom, Photoshop and Silver Efex etc, but I refrained from doing too much processing with these. This does not pretend to be an objective scientific comparison and I tried to make that clear in the article. It is rather a question of ‘which do you like best?’ and ‘how do you think a 91 year old camera did compared to Leica’s latest and greatest?’ Therefore, it is quite a subjective exercise. So far, the film images are getting more ‘likes’ here and on the Leica Forum, but that does not mean there is anything wrong with the M10 images. Indeed, I feel the camera is producing images exactly as it is designed and if the film images were not there, nobody would have noticed any issues. The M10 is a great camera and it is by far the best digital M produced to date. I am very pleased with mine.

      William

  9. I never realized how much I despised the concept of WB (white Balance) until I returned to film and just forgot about the whole problem. Thanks for the great article.

  10. Dear William,

    Thanks for this wonderful article. What is great about film is that ancient cameras can be "upgraded" with modern emulsions, which are certainly a match for digital sensors. Thanks !

    • Thanks Henry J. Yes, the mere change of a film can upgrade the ‘sensor’ in a film camera. Also nothing in digital download from an SD card can compare in excitement to receiving a yellow box with Kodachrome slides from the postman. I mainly shoot digital these days, but maybe once a month I venture out with a roll of film in a camera. My next film adventures will be with a Rolleiflex. I also intend to do more with a 120 or 118 (with spacers for 120) format Kodak Folder. The larger format will also be a ‘sensor upgrade’. On your professional side of things, I visited Dunsink Observatory last Friday and a few people there had heard of you. I photographed my two Grubb lenses from 1855 and 1864 beside the giant Grubb telescope from 1868 and also beside the Grubb coelostat which was used to prove Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

      Thanks Wayne for your comments on white balance. I have yet to come across a digital camera with auto white balance which gets this right every time. Fortunately it is easy to adjust white balance in Lightroom.

      William

  11. Fine article. The pocketablity ("the best camera is the camera you have") of the 1 Model A is charming. It gets right to what is essential about photography for me; being ready in the moment without fuss.

    I do have one thought on the comparison, though. Identical minimal processing for both? It is an attempt to be "fair"; it seems a to eliminate a variable. Maybe. Two things:

    1. I can’t recall a transparency film I could shoot right out of the box without testing and subsequent filtering (recalling Ektaxhromes salt-to-taste 5R 5Y). The exception was Kodachrome. Not sure if that was simply because l dared not mess with its "truth" or just liked its bias.

    2. Processing for B&W in Lightroom is elaborate (never using emulations) for the best results. It is just as with different types of film/chemistry/temperatures/times and subsequent printing methods for different B&W film types and paper stocks.

    3. The processing for the digital shot misses the mark and works for the film scan.

    Just as we might process

    • Thanks for your comments Michael. There is validity in all of your points, but, at the risk of repeating myself, this was not intended to be a scientific test. Neither was it intended to prove that one set of images was better than the other. I did want to stimulate some debate and I seem to have done that. It was intended to show that a 91 year old camera can produce good images which can stand next to the those from the latest and greatest from Leica. Which set of images one prefers is entirely a matter for subjective judgement which should always be allowed when judging photographs. I am sometime amused by competition judges who strive to find objective reasons why they prefer one photograph over another, when the real reason why they are making their choice is that they subjectively prefer one image to another. Why don’t they just say so.

      I did use filters as ‘seasoning’ when shooting transparency film, but since the digital era arrived I have stopped using filters as I no longer find them necessary. Finally, I have a full set of Lightroom and Photoshop skills and I could have tarted up the digital images a lot, but that would have been misleading for a comparison article.

      William

  12. Unusual experiment, but in my mind profoundly misleading.
    You write "the film gives a certain ‘sparkle’ and that the digital images are very slightly duller". A SOOC file from any digital camera, Leica being no exception, is likely to look dull. But to judge an unprocessed image is to deny all of the interest of digital imaging, which is to start from a ‘rich’ file and draw all it can give from the raw data through post-processing.
    That the shop scan of the film negatives is showing more sparkle is likely due to the way the scanning process is set up in the shop.
    You are attributing to the cameras properties that neither can be said to have… (the optics maybe, but those should be properly tested, this is not such a test).
    An entertaining piece but one that does disservice to your readers… sorry!

    • Thanks for your comments Giovanni. This was not intended as a scientific experiment to prove that film is better than digital or vice versa. Neither was it my intention to mislead. I have fully explained my context and approach in the article and have repeated those points several times in my various responses below. I have a full set of Lightroom and Photoshop skills and could have tarted the images up, but that would have been misleading. My comments about ‘sparkle’ and ‘duller’ are subjective comments which I am entitled to make in what is basically an opinion piece. The whole point about this was to get some reaction from photographers about which images they prefer and, at that level, the article has succeeded

      I note that you use the term ‘file’ for digital images. I never use that term because it implies something mechanical or functional rather than something artistic. Unfortunately, in the digital era we are more concerned with pixel quality rather than picture quality and a lot of people spend their time peering at pixels to convince themselves that they are getting the ultimate pixel quality, rather than simply taking photos or photographs, as we used to call them, ie drawing with light.

      I am not attributing any qualities to the cameras. Indeed, I state in the article that this is ‘not either a real-world or even a valid comparison’. I am just asking others what do they think of the images. I believe that most Leica fans will be most pleased that one of Leica’s earliest cameras can produce good images in 2017.

      William

      • William, I am far from a pixel peeper rest assured… I actually, positively dislike super-sharp images. In my quest to achieve the same emotional response to an image that good film-based photography was able to give us, I even add grain where there is none…
        I call a RAW file a file because that’s what it materially is: a file, as opposed to a negative. But just like a negative, a RAW file deserves love in the dark(light)room, and I really believe that a poorly processed negative (or poor in-camera JPEG rendition) does not render justice to what a camera can do in terms of final output. That’s why calling "dull" an M10 image hurts…
        That a Leica I can still operate today and if fed with film provide visual joy to the user, I’m totally in agreement. Mechanical equipment, if well maintained, will last forever; digital will likely not, even if my trusted M9 is now 7 years old and still going strong. (Not that I would say no to an M10 if delivered on my doorstep for free…)
        But again, I think you could have focused your piece on the "user experience" (handling etc.) and to the simple joy of using a piece of equipment that has survived world wars and countless revolutions. The comparison of the actual output is a distraction from the core of your message, and again unfair to the unprocessed M10 image. I’m sure you can pull a fantastic image from the M10 file that will match if not outshine the film one.
        On the other hand, it would have been interesting to match the same film to both the Leica I with its Elmar and to a Leica 6 or 7 with a modern 50mm lens. How differently the two lenses handle the same subject?

        Sorry if I was too opinionated in my first post, and maybe still in this second. It’s your blog, not mine!

        • Thanks Giovanni. I am glad to hear that you are not in the legion of pixel peepers. If you are really concerned that I am doing the M10 a disservice, I am happy to show fully processed versions of the above images from the M10 if Mike Evans the owner of this site agrees. I might also give the I Model A images a bit more processing at the same time, but, as you know, they will not take that much extra electronic processing. A quicker way for yourself and other readers might be to look at my recent post here about Chicago. All of the pictures in that were taken with my M10 and fully processed afterwards in Lightroom etc. I am very pleased with it as a camera and it serves my current needs admirably.

          On the handling issue, the I Model A is a simple camera and easy to handle if you know the basics of photography. It should produce good photos if it is in good mechanical condition and if it is used properly. The M10 is the best handling digital M so far, but it is still not perfect. The main issues for me are that I would prefer a marked dial for exposure compensation and also that the external EVF is very much a work in progress. I am sure that a better EVF will come along soon.

          William

          • Fully agree about the dial for exposure comp, WIlliam. I like to know that I have toggled the thing, without checking the VF. On that front, the guys at Fuji have hit the nail: handy dial right at the corner of the body. There are days when I ask myself why I am not switching to the X-Pro line. Answer (is it sufficient?): Leica glass I love. One of these days however a X-Pro3 will come along and coincidentally my M9 will feel really tired… M10 or?

            As to the external EVF, another bit that lags, but one I feel less strongly about, personally. I shoot Ms for the telemeter OVF… For an EVF, there’s the SL; or the magical Q… or the X-Pro again! 🙂

          • I agree with you about the Fuji layout. It is the best on the market and you can adjust exposure very quickly before you raise the camera to your eye. I have the X-Pro 2, but since I got the M10, it is relegated to use with lenses which I don’t have in Leica mounts. The M10 is really that much of an improvement over the M240. The SL and the Q don’t interest me. Neither does the TL, but the forthcoming model with a built in EVF might take my fancy. On the other hand it may be too modern (eg touch screens etc) for my traditionalist leanings.

            William

            William

    • Thanks Albert. You are correct, but a lot of people prefer softer images. There are qualities other than sharpness which appeal to viewers of pictures.

      William

  13. You were right about bigger pockets then than now. My M2 fits in a jacket pocket, a lens in the other side and meter in one of the poacher’s pockets. The jacket is not as old as the camera but it does go back to the late sixties. I think that the jacket and the camera may both outlive me. How is it that cameras have got bigger and jacket pockets barely big enough for a snotty tissue?

    Thanks for the blog. I enjoyed the camera comparison.

    Stuart

  14. Cameras have got bigger because we want them to do everything. The ‘rot’ started with the introduction of system cameras and cases by Leica in 1931. Digital has, of course, also led to both feature and size bloat. Perhaps, Leica will reverse the trend a bit with their announcement in the week after next. Certainly, the leaked photos seem to bode well for this possibility.

    Fashion has dictated that clothes should get tighter and pockets smaller. I am sure that GBS tried his little Model I in his large pockets, although I have seen photos of him with this camera in a nice leather ever ready case.

    William

  15. The Barnack (screw) Leicas are more pocketable than the M series. I regularly use a 1935 111 with a 3.5cm F3.5 Summaron lens for street photography. My technique, to avoid problems, has been honed to perfection: I keep the camera wound and set, in my coat pocket. Walking along, I see my shot so, camera comes out, up to my eye, button pressed and back to the pocket in on simple, fluid movement. Then I walk on. This last is very important. The reason people are approached and challenged by police, security staff or the "concerned member of the public" is that they loiter in the area of their shots. Never had any problems. Try it!

    • Thanks David. I presume that you use zone focus as I do with my cameras such as the I Model A, I Model C and Standard which have no built in rangefinder. I have plenty of old rangefinders such as the FODIS and FOFER etc, but I rarely use them. Using zone focus is a most liberating experience and sometimes I use it with models with a built in rangefinder. In shooting the photos for this article I actually used the M10 as the rough rangefinder for the I Model A.

      I note that you have used the term Barnack to refer to this group of cameras. This has come into common usage in recent years. There was actually a proposal to call the camera a Barnack in the 1920s and some early draft advertisements exist to that effect, but Ernst Leitz decided to keep it in the family. I use LTM (Leica Thread Mount) to distinguish this group of cameras from the later M mount cameras. The new mount was not the only change introduced with the M3, but it is the easiest way to distinguish the two groups. Oscar Barnack died in 1936, 17 years before the M mount was introduced.

      William

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