Home Features Wayne’s Gospel: Just what is the allure of the Leica

Wayne’s Gospel: Just what is the allure of the Leica

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  Sometimes a new camera gets released and it seems to look like this. David Babsky recently suggested that some of Leica’s offerings over the years could fit well with this metaphor (photo from an exhibition some years ago at Orange Regional Art Gallery, NSW Australia. Artist unknown)
Sometimes a new camera gets released and it seems to look like this. David Babsky recently suggested that some of Leica’s offerings over the years could fit well with this metaphor (photo from an exhibition some years ago at Orange Regional Art Gallery, NSW Australia. Artist unknown)

David Babsky is a regular reader of Macfilos and occasional contributor. A few weeks ago, in a seriously thought-through comment to a Macfilos article covering an appreciative letter from Jose Manuel Serrano Esparza, he posed the question of why on earth Leica has such a strong following? It resulted in a flurry of well-intentioned activity in that comments section, with much well informed, intelligent discourse on the topic. And it set me thinking further about what David said, and examining motives.

Tangibles and Intangibles

Now I reckon David would be a good fisherman. Just cast the fly out there and wait for the trout to rise to the surface. Well, unlike a wily trout, I just can’t help myself…… 

But I must start with a disclaimer. I would never suggest that I have even one tenth the technical knowledge of David or Jose Manuel or, probably, the majority of Macfilos aficionados, nor even one hundredth of their historical knowledge.

Above: Friends Tony and Gerald are good fishermen, just like David B, I suspect. Tony just loves his boat and always has success when fishing. Gerald is a land-based fisherman. Here he is on a foul weather rainy day cleaning a bag limit of legal size sand whiting, one of Australia’s best eating fish (iPhone photos both — I never risk carrying a good camera near sea water nor on wet days). Both photos show the importance of smiling when fishing. Smiling is similarly important with photography. (Click on the images to see them full size)

David’s comments were well made. Carefully considered and constructed for sure. Cool, calm, calculating, clinical. He wondered what on earth it is about people who like Leica cameras. He posed possibilities such as the exclusivity that Leica pricing engenders, even maybe a snob value. He did acknowledge that Leica cameras have always been excellent snap shooters. But he was strong in his indications that any rational thinker sometimes wouldn’t choose Leica based on their late pickup of newest camera features. I cannot disagree with any of these propositions – my Leica X2 would have been truly wonderful in 2012 if it just had a viewfinder in the space occupied by the flash unit that I never use.

  Leica X2 and Fuji X20. Both cameras from circa 2012. If only the X2 had that wonderful retro optical viewfinder from the X20, or an EVF in the space taken up by the inbuilt folding flash unit. Instead, the X2 has an optional electronic viewfinder. It is a “lump” that I never ever use – it throws the camera right out of visual balance. Whatever were they thinking?
Leica X2 and Fuji X20. Both cameras from circa 2012. If only the X2 had that wonderful retro optical viewfinder from the X20, or an EVF in the space taken up by the inbuilt folding flash unit. Instead, the X2 has an optional electronic viewfinder. It is a “lump” that I never ever use – it throws the camera right out of visual balance. Whatever were they thinking?

David finally concluded that it must be the exclusivity factor of the cost that is the key appeal to Leicaphiles. His commentary resulted in some further well-aimed responses from Macfilos readers, and especially from Jose Manuel, the main author in the article that drew David’s original comment. However, I’d venture a further proposition. I’d suggest that there can be other reasons why Leicaphiles like Leica. And they aren’t all tangible and measurable.

An accumulation of indefinable qualities

There might be tangible technical reasons why people like Leica. Any one of those technical factors by itself might not be enough to compel one towards Leica, but they could reinforce into a one-plus-one-equals-three situation.

Or it might be as simple as the great glass. Certainly Leica lenses and their coatings can produce a crisp image and do provide a great “look”. Not always measurable. Now, I know that everyone raves about the Fuji jpeg colours, and I do have some Fuji kit and do like their lively output images. But when considering Leica in the digital photo world, I do wonder whether it isn’t so much the subdued colours in a Leica image, but the whites, through silver, through intensities of grey to final blacks that are rendered beautifully by Leica glass amongst those colours. 

But once again, here I am trying to think logically about why many photographers like Leica. Maybe it is simply the overall vibe of the image. Leica cameras are capable of great image quality. Then again, so are many other cameras , so it can’t be that alone.

Above: Daughter-in-law Rachelle travels the world photographing wildlife, for both fun and contract work. She uses top-end Canon gear and gets great images. You can see Canon shots at her website Faunographic.com or @faunographic on Instagram. But she took these three from Kenya, Zanzibar and the Maldives using an old-school Leica V Lux 4. Maybe it’s the photographer that’s important, not the camera. Click on images to see full screen.

Maybe it’s the photographer, not the camera

Let’s get even more abstract. Perhaps Leicaphiles like Leica simply because they have a confidence in their Leica camera. Building on this, they might strive just that bit more to get a good image. And it’s that red dot on the camera that makes them try harder.

Maybe, shock horror, it could be that costly red dot just by itself. My wife knows art far more than I do. She tells me that often the old masters deliberately put a little splash of red in their paintings. Perhaps that red dot makes you like your camera even more – Leica black dot types can ignore that point, I guess. Or, differently, there could be a dose of grudging admiration and affinity for the smaller company who swims with the big fishes, and is still alive and well despite the big bad corporate world that it competes in.

So maybe it is even as intangible as the loyalty that all of these characteristics build in the photographer, rather than the camera alone. Indefinable loyalty, maybe that’s what it is about.

But, finally, perhaps it is totally illogical. It is about “feeling”. Simply feeling good when you pick up the camera. Don’t try to overanalyse it. Feelings are feelings are often subconscious and sometimes quite irrational.

A test for us all

So here’s a test for us all to consider. If you were stranded on a desert island for a year, and were only allowed to have one camera (or camera kit), then what would you choose. What would you feel happiest with? It might be Leica, it could be Sony or Fuji or Olympus or Canon or Nikon. It doesn’t really matter what you choose, so long as you simply choose it on the basis of it making you feel good. No further rationalisation necessary.

For me, I do own both Leica and Fujifilm kit. And I like them both. What would I choose for the desert island? Leica. Why? I don’t really know, not logical, they just make me smile. Actually, specifically, It would be a Leica Q with a 35mm lens, or even better a classic 40mm lens just like the old days of compact film cameras. But that’s a camera that hasn’t even been assembled as yet – will it ever be?

What might our colleague David Babsky choose? I’d guess it would be a Leica. That answer lies in the last sentence of his fisherman’s comment where he admits , “I find it incredible that anyone, in 2018, buys a ‘new’ camera which was designed 66 years ago. Though I did…I couldn’t resist.” I suspect that when he holds it he smiles inwardly. 

What camera or system would you choose? No justification necessary. It just has to make you feel good. And smile.

  Friend Conway at an art exhibition hanging. He’s a Nikon guy. That’s fine. It makes him smile
Friend Conway at an art exhibition hanging. He’s a Nikon guy. That’s fine. It makes him smile

15 COMMENTS

  1. "..What might our colleague David Babsky choose? I’d guess it would be a Leica.." ..er, no. If I had a solar charger, so that I could top up digital camera batteries, I’d probably choose an Olympus PEN-F (..the digital one..) with the Panasonic 7-14mm zoom lens, similar to a "full frame" 14-28mm lens.

    Why? Lightweight, inbuilt stabilisation for hand-held shots in low light, lightweight lenses, a built-in blue filter (if wanted) to simulate the results of the old, original, turn-of-the-previous-century photographers who could use only blue-sensitive black-&-white film ..giving those pale, washed-out distant details, while keeping anything close-to-the-camera looking really solid and dense. I like that.

    “I find it incredible that anyone, in 2018, buys a ‘new’ camera which was designed 66 years ago. Though I did…I couldn’t resist.” ..But I added the reason why: I have a pile of Leica and Leica-fit lenses. Although I sometimes use them – via adaptors – on other cameras, I’ve been really frustrated by using them on the M9 ..a camera which has less sensitivity (max ISO) than, say, Fuji ISO 3200 film; a camera which has a terribly ..unforgivably!.. noisy shutter; which would lose in a contest with a snail the prize for showing the photo you just took, and which positively shouts "Leica!" (so I replaced its red dot with and M8.2’s black dot – which seems to have annoyed William. It’s generally just pathetically slow.

    So when the M10-P appeared: fast, with high ISO for dim light, stealthy, and with a QUIET SHUTTER, I took the bait!

    • David B
  2. I often suspect that it is just for masochism of dealing with misaligned rangefinders, impossible to focus fast lenses, and absurdly expensive and slow service times…

    Personally, I shoot Leica because of film. Most of my more serious attempts at photography seem to end up being shot on film, and the size, handling and relative silence (compared to the alternative SLRs) make the system perfect for my needs.

    I also own a digital M, bought primarily because having a digital body that could share lenses with the film cameras was simpler and more cost effective than maintaining two incompatible full-frame systems. The images that I can make with it are nice, but its cost, fragility and painful service times mean that there are simply too many situations in which I would never consider shooting with it – to the detriment of the photography.

  3. Hi Wayne… A full frame Leica with inbuilt evf instead of range finder, coupled with my lovely sonnar 50/1.5. I’m waiting for that day! It would be also nice to see Leica getting a (inbuilt) grip rather than having to attach something.
    Until then I’m romancing with an XT3.

  4. Wayne, I need to think about your arguments, but I wish to say that I think the animal portraits by your daughter in law are fabulous. V Lux 4 eh?

  5. I thought for a moment of the waterproof X – but then I realized I would need to see inoncoming ships from a distance – so perhaps the new C with its long zoom. But I would be frustrated by the vignetting at full zoom: so a compromise — the soon to be announced D-Lux 109 mark 2: but then I realized that the Panasonic LX100 mark two- already in my hands and showing its real qualities would do the trick – even star pics with this tiny X-Vario. Also light if I have to run from wild beasts and with the best battery life. If only desert islands had good coffee shops for street photos….

  6. It’s really good you raise this question, Wayne, It has made me ponder my reasons. And, for what they’re worth, the answers go somethng like this:
    1. The first digital camera I bought was the D-Lux 4 on a friendly salesman’s word that it would give me the best images in the compact class (and compact it had to be, or I was afrais I’d leave it ar home). It went round Syria with me and amazed me.
    2. When I then discovered there was a limit to how much I could crop a DL4 picture to get a close-up of a bird (!), DL IQ convinced me to buy a V-Lux 1 with its marvellous internal focussing 400mm zoom (and its for those days decent-sized sensor – !/1,8 !).
    3. Having thus been infected by the Leica virus, I began reading all I could about Leica present and past, which led to seeing Torsten Overgaard’s article on the Digilux 2 and the inevitable consequence and pleasure.
    4. By this time I was beginning to feel that Leica gave me access to the history of photography, so I was a sitting target, which led to the Digilux 1 – the camera with the best built-on LCD shield I’ve ever come across and a nice painterly quality to its images.
    5. The same historical feel led to that jewel of a film Leica, the IIIf red dial, which is just a joy to hold.
    6. Not flying financially high enough to go for an M, I read all the ill-judged "mini-M" teasers for the X-Vario and was duly disappointed. But I was lucky enough to see Peter Karbe’s artiicle on the lens in Leica’s magazine and roughly at the same time to come across a disillusioned deal selling much reduced-price XV bundles, so I took the plunge and found myself with a camera that has actually taught me more about the basics of taking pictures than any other.
    7. I even bought a second, mint-condition Digilux 2 as an insurance against the dreaded sensor breakdown…..
    So, there are my Confessions of a Leica Opium-eater, and I’m not going to be de-toxed (even though I also get a lot of pleasure out of my Sony NEX bodies, especially with Zeiss glass.)

  7. Okay – My reasons for owning the Leica X are set out in the article I wrote (cheap plug). It was a risk purchase, but two years on I am glad I did. The images it produces are amazing, provided the conditions suit the camera. I agree with you that I just wish Leica had been brave enough to ditch the pointless flash and put something else there.

    In terms of which camera would I want if I was stranded on a desert island. Hmmm.. had to think a bit on this one. I considered the X would be fine, but lowlight or firelight shots just wouldn’t cut it for me. So I would go with my Nikon Df, although I would prefer it to have the 35mm lens. The one camera I decided against was the M10, and 35mm cron – only because I’d worry it would break, and the Df is built pretty solidly so might survive the experience.

    Cracking article tho, and your daughter in law has some stunning image on her site, as well as the ones provided here.

    Dave S

  8. That is a question that gives food for thought. I own a Leica X2 and a ricoh GR. the Leica is an amazing camera and the images it produces are just wonderful but I use it exclusively down here in old Europe but it came to travelling to far away places I always ended up picking up my ricoh GR so if I were to go on a desert island (despite the images lacking the Leica look) I’d go for the ricoh GR. the size is just perfect and the ability to crop and have a macro (just like the Leica Q) are what would decide in favour of the Ricoh. A lovely article and I love the photos of your daughter in law on her site.
    Jean

  9. If I was stuck an a island – strangely I am stuck on Vancouver Island so this is easy to visualize – I would go with the Leica SL and the adapted M 50 Summilux.

    The allure of Leica is easily understood by those that appreciate quality tools and amazing image rendition. The craftsmanship and beauty of design has no real competition except for Hasselblad. The only reason I do not use the M anymore is I could not focus fast glass accurately any more with my 65 year old eyes. If Leica would make an M sized and M mount camera with EVF I would have been all over it. Handling the M glass is like handling precious small jewels instead of the big AF glass. MF forces you to think more and in general take better images. Gone is the pray and spray approach encouraged by automation. A Leica feels like a investment in joy of photography. Most people that bash Leica have not used one extensively or never even seen one. A Leica, if you are not a collector, is all about making images – pure and simple. If you do not get Leica, that is ok, enjoy whatever but do not bash what does not suit you. Artists in particular need to avoid negative people to have creative energy to create. A Leica inspires me to be a better photographer and to enjoy making images. So do certain other cameras. I am now looking forward to the arrival of the Leica Q-P in about 2 weeks and feel like a little kid at Christmas so what more can I say about the siren call of Leica.

    • This, I think, gets at the core of it. Some, perhaps even many, might appreciate the heritage of Leica, and this is fine, but I think heritage alone would mean little if they did not still produce in Europe a well-made camera (a quality tool, as you say) (and lenses, of course) with manual and mechanical controls. This simply does not exist from any other maker, and it is something special to work in this pure way to make photographs. I particularly appreciate the continued availability of the M optical rangefinder cameras, especially the film models.

  10. After such a learned thesis by Wayne I feel that I should reply with gravitas. For me the choice of a desert island camera is a no-brainer. It has to be a Leica-a Leica Sofort -with a good supply of instant film. All the cameras proposed by others would not produce physical pictures and once their batteries had gone flat they would only be good for cracking open coconuts.
    Armed with my Sofort I could take selfies to check on the progress of my beard, take photos for the monthly island “sunset” photo competition with the sure knowledge that I would be a winner. I could even hold a one man photo exhibition- complete with a gala “A list”opening night . And for the first time I would make the A list.
    The possibilities are almost endless and when after five years I am rescued by a Chinese Navy ship coming to claim the island so that they can turn it into a massive military base-purely for defensive purposes you understand-I will leave with a priceless collection of instant photos. I will be able to use these for my sure to be a best seller book “My Island Paradise-five years in a Donald free zone” as well as my “Miracle Coconut Diet “book.
    It has to be a Sofort . It’s a no brainer.
    John Shingleton.

    • Excellent idea – I didn’t think beyond the boundaries of my power source. Just hope I get stranded with a decent portable generator and a few thousand litres of diesel to run it. Oh and my MacBook still running

      Dave S

  11. Interesting question Wayne. On a desert island, or anywhere else for that matter, camera brands would be irrelevant. I would tend towards the suggestion by John S about an instant camera of some kind as the important thing about photographs is viewing them, preferably on a future proofed medium. I don’t follow David’s point about dots. I don’t see them as being relevant to photography. I am just bemused that some people consider them or their absence to be important.

    William

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