Were we to judge the success of a camera system on the number of new lenses it spawns every year, we would conclude that the Leica M is the world’s most common and most successful camera. True or false?
Hardly a month goes by without a new lens from one of the many third-party manufacturers, including Voigtländer, Zeiss and 7Artisans. And even Leica continues to do its bit, with expensive new creations such as the 75mm Noctilux, the f/1.5 Summilux-M ASPH and various limited editions.
It seems, though, that it is Cosina Voigtländer that takes the Cordon d’Or for optical fecundity. The Japanese company is rampant, especially in comparison with compatriot Zeiss’s wavering M libido. Maybe it’s something to do with such quintessentially German monikers being transplanted to Japan. Or maybe it’s the Umlaut wot done it.
What can we make of all this? Optical companies throughout the world are investing in a system that has been around for 70 years and is represented by just one camera manufacturer. None of the protagonists makes a camera to go with all these lenses.
The cheapest current camera on which you can bolt all these wonderful new optics is the ever-so-’umble Leica M-A at £3,600. If you fancy a digital M, it has to be the M10 at £5,750 although, it has to be said, the superseded M240 and M240 Monochrom models are still lurking on shelves for marginally fewer spondulicks. Fortunately, after a 70-year run, buying opportunities are not limited to new stock.
Toil and trouble
By any stretch of the imagination, the number of new Leica rangefinders sold in a year should not be able to support all this frenzied activity, this honing of aspherical elements and crafting of hubble-bubble mechanical focusing contrivances for such a very niche sort of snapper.
In the real world, however, we have to acknowledge the unique position of the Leica rangefinder. The M-Mount, as we learned last week, was patented in 1950 and had its naming day during Photokina in September 1954. That was arguably one of the most significant new-product announcements in the history of photography. Who could have imagined, back in those days over a glass or two of Kölsch, that the vast majority of Μ3s and ensuing rangefinder cameras would still be alive and snapping in 2020? It would have been an alcohol-fuelled joke, that’s what it would have been.
In our throwaway society, there can be few examples of products which stand the test of time so successfully. As with Rolls-Royces, Porsche 911s and other similarly fine cars, Leica’s film cameras and its mechanical lenses defy the precepts of modern consumerism.
In comparison with other camera systems and the above-mentioned motor cars, very few M-Mount products have been scrapped and most are “still on the road”.
From the M3, through the M2, M4 and M6, there’s a ready market for the cameras and, as a result, a constant demand for compatible lenses. Derivatives such as the MP are also much in demand. Only the M5 and to some extent the M7, in both cases unfairly, are not high on the list of the new generation of fans, the M-illenials. They seem to be getting younger and they are buying these latest lenses in sufficient quantities to support an entire industry.
There is no sign that this trend is reversing; quite the contrary, in fact, if Voigtländer’s latest offerings are any guide. M-Mount lenses are a unique success in the photographic world simply because they are wholly mechanical, eminently serviceable and fit for a century of use.
In these days of electronic excess, where products are out of date within a year, the good old M-Mount soldiers on. Even if Leica were suddenly to close its shutters for the last time, the system would live on, in a state of perpetual motion, for another half-century at least. I predict that the more the industry flirts with fleeting technology, the more attractive the stability of the old M system will become.
Indeed, it is inconceivable that the vast majority of electronic lenses produced to match modern cameras (and that includes Leica’s SL and TL optics) will still be usable in 70 years time, even if their circuits haven’t withered and died by then. With their autofocus mechanisms, electronic communications with transient, matching bodies and, in many cases, complex stabilisation systems, they will survive only as long as there are camera bodies to call home and someone able to repair them. New developments will render them mostly obsolete within ten or twenty years.
Buying an expensive computerised optic is certainly not the sort of investment decision that you hope for when acquiring an M lens. Because we all know the M lens will still be usable in another seventy years, its depreciation is inversely proportional to its longevity.
Could there be a time when most photographers become accustomed to throw-away equipment — a sort of super iPhone camera that can be sent to the knacker’s yard after a couple of years, lens(es) and all? And could it be that there will be an increasing band of photographers who will gravitate to the only remaining mechanical system, that invented by Leica 70 years ago? I think we are already witnessing that band of purists, judging by the increasing popularity of (in particular) the M6 among young photographers.
There is currently a wide range of M-Mount bodies available at almost every price point. Buying one of these cameras and, perhaps, adding a few mechanical lenses, is potentially one of the cheapest ways of enjoying photography. If you play your cards well, you could even end up making a profit, thus achieving that rare thing, pleasure for nothing.
M bull awakes
Even Leica digitals, such as the M9, seem to have a life well beyond normal expectations. This is because the system is immutable. Only the sensor and processor improve version by version and, let’s face it, the M9 was pretty good for its time and is still a joy to use. It may be a little insensitive in the ISO stakes, but it still produces wonderful images.
As a result, after ten or eleven years, you can still pay up to 50 per cent of the original price for a good M9-P. Where else could you see so little depreciation if you had bought that camera new?
I’m therefore bullish about the M system. However often I tarry a while with the latest SL, the CL or, indeed, the wonderful Q2, I always return to the M with a sense of peace, of having found a place that will not change dramatically while I am enjoying the next cup of tea.
There is so much pleasure to be had from working with a simple, manual camera (whether it be an M3 or an M10) that I am constantly re-enthused. It’s like owning a fine writing implement, or wearing an expensive Swiss watch: Pretenders come and go, they may offer transient benefits and advantages, but the appeal of true craftsmanship never wanes.