At the beginning of The M Files, I described the series of articles about the “not-quite-M-Leica” world as a kind of journey. Now, we have reached the end of the undertaking. We moved in a big circle around the M-cameras and all the M-Summicrons, M-Summiluxes and M-Elmarits. What did we see, and what is the territory around the M-Kingdom like? The answer comes in four answers to four questions.
1. Is it a good idea to buy a “like-a-Leica-M” camera today?
Even if you are seriously into photography, an M-Leica is something almost unattainable. As I mentioned in my first article, the prices for used Leica products continue to rise. And brand-new, the current film models MP or M-A (after all, Leica is the only manufacturer in the world still producing high-quality analogue cameras) are affordable for very few. That’s where the “not-quite-M-Leica” cameras come into view quite automatically. We have seen in The M Files that they have proven practical value. And some of them are really fun to boot.
If you opt for any of these Voigtländer, Minolta, Konica or Zeiss products, be aware of one basic truth. You will always buy an old camera without any manufacturer’s warranty. At some point, it will need repairing, and repair possibilities are already limited and will become even more so. Spare parts for a Konica Hexar RF or experts for a Leica CL will certainly become rarer over time. This means: Either you buy relatively expensively from a reputable dealer who gives a 6 or 12-month warranty. Or you wait for a real bargain and consciously take a calculable risk.
What chance do you want to take?
For most of the cameras presented here, such a “high-risk-price” would be well below 1000 Euro. For the Leica CL and the Bessa T it would rather be not more than a few hundred Euro. For me, these sums would be the benchmark for a “not-quite-Leica-M” camera. Of course, somebody might be ready to pay more if it comes to collecting. By the way, if I had a free choice, I would personally go for the Zeiss Ikon or the Hexar RF or the Minolta CLE. This does not surprise you after my reviews, does it?.
Finally, you can also ask yourself if you absolutely need a camera with a built-in light meter. Smartphone apps for this purpose are better than you might expect. And for comparatively little money, handheld exposure meters (my suggestion: the super-small Sekonic L-208 Twinmate) are also available. If you are ready to spend a bit more, consider the stylish attachable exposure meter by Voigtländer, the VC Meter II.
With a little practice and on forgiving colour negative film, experienced photographers can also dare to estimate the exposure. Think, for example, of the “sunny sixteen” rule. Then the (not yet so overpriced as of writing this) Leica M4 models move into the realm of possibility. They are excellently manufactured, extremely versatile and will still be repairable for many years to come.
2. Is it a good idea to buy a “like-a-Leica” lens today?
The longer you deal with the lenses covered here in The M Files, the more you realise how expensive the genuine Leica lenses are. In absolute terms, this has always been clear, of course, but the relative difference has now become even more visible. So, are third party M mount lenses the smarter option?
Between, just to name two examples, the current Summilux 35/1.4 from Leica and the Nokton II 35/1.4 from Voigtländer is about a factor of 7. The Planar 50/2 from Zeiss costs only a third of the Summicron 50/2 (non-APO) from Leica. This is quite enormous. And it raises the question of whether it really always has to be an original Leica M lens. Especially since the entry-level line, the Summarits, was unfortunately discontinued by Wetzlar (I wrote this obituary on these wonderful lenses).
No coding, to algorithms: The M Files show the sheer quality of a lens
Naturally, all the lenses you read about in The M Files do not have 6-bit coding. In a digital workflow, this blocks camera internal correction algorithms, and no lens data is entered into the Exif file. The latter can be fixed with a plugin for Lightroom. The former represents no less than a moment of truth for the optical quality of the products. No electronic improvement (or call it cheating if you like) is possible. If you shoot on film, all this does not matter anyway.
There are many sources on the internet as to which Leica correction profiles best match various lenses from third-party manufacturers. Since my main focus in The M Files was on analogue photography, I only touched on the subject superficially when it came to individual lenses.
Ask yourself three questions
When considering if, instead of a Leica lens, a Minolta, Konica, Voigtländer or Zeiss lens might also serve its purpose, three questions should be considered (besides clarifying the budget):
- Should the lens be used for analogue or digital photography?
- What are my expectations for the chosen focal length?
- Does value retention play any role?
After all my research for The M Files, I would answer these questions in brief as follows:
- If you only take analogue photographs and do not even remotely consider digital photography, you will generally be happy with a third party lens.
- For longer focal lengths (35 mm upwards), newer Zeiss or Voigtländer lenses in particular are a very practical alternative, also on a digital camera.
- Whoever buys third party lenses should do so in order to keep and use them, because their loss of value is high compared to their Leica counterparts.
As I said, that was the short form. A detailed explanation can now be read below.
Analogue photography is less demanding for lenses
My research has once again confirmed that film as a recording medium is more forgiving than a digital sensor. Due to the physical layer thickness of the emulsion and due to the structure of the grain, the mere impression of sharpness is more important than technical sharpness in the sense of a 1:1 pixel view in Lightroom or another software.
Even with a 24 MP sensor, the demands on sharpness are higher than with the Kodak Ektar 100. A film which according, to the manufacturer, is the sharpest colour negative film in the world. I used it in part for the reviews. Tests with modern slide films like Ektachrome 100 also confirm this. In other words: older lens designs, which were good enough for the legendary Kodachrome 64 or high-resolution black-and-white films, will remain good enough for analogue photography in the future because a further revolution in film technology is not what I would expect.
In digital technology, on the other hand – Leica’s SL2 and M10-R send their regards -, sensor resolutions will increase. And with them the demands on the lenses used. This is the strategy of an industry that must constantly trigger new customer demands. Because it has no other response to the shrinking market. Not all “not-quite-Leica-M” lenses can keep up with these ever-increasing performance requirements. Neither can some older Leica lenses, I guess.
The shorter the focal length, the trickier is the lenses’ use one digital bodies
I am not an optics expert with a scientific background. However, my research and the sample images show a correlation. The more extreme the focal length, the more difficult it is to achieve a very high image quality with a lens regardless of the medium. This series of articles is about rangefinder cameras. So, I have only considered the short focal lengths here, but the correlation is also valid for long telephoto lenses.
In the range of 35 and 50 millimetres, I saw more convincing results with non-Leica lenses than in the 15 or 21-millimetre class. Generally, my advice would be this. If you consider an extreme wide-angle lens and do not wish to rule out digital, do thoroughly test third party products before buying. Leica’s phenomenal Super-Elmar 21/3.4, for example, might be a better choice. On the other hand – for the standard 50, a Zeiss Planar, for example, is an excellent alternative.
Voigtländer and Zeiss lenses are for using and not for collecting
Most of the “not-quite-Leica-M” products, be it lenses or cameras, have no distinct prestige or collector’s value. They normally bear no impressive “Made in Germany” mark, and they are no collectors’ items, strictly speaking. In the best case, they are bought for working with them, and they will see intensive use. At some point, they will show their marks.
Nobody should speculate that “not quite Leica” lenses can be resold at spectacular prices after a few years or decades. Even mint Zeiss or Voigtländer lenses are available second-hand, often well below their original price. But one man’s grief is another man’s joy: If you enter the world of rangefinders and want to build a family of lenses on a limited budget (e.g. the wonderful combo 21, 35, 75), you may be able to get all three on the second-hand market for the price of a single Summicron or -lux.
3. What should I consider if I want to (re)enter analogue photography?
Anyone who shot film a long time ago (or perhaps never stopped doing so) knows this: for analogue photography, you have to rely on a few things. You need film — after a few years of anxious doubts, I now believe that the industry will continue to offer something for a long time to come, albeit at prices that continue to rise.
You need to have access to processing services, which might become increasingly rare in your own surroundings, but you can do that by mail if necessary. You need technology to share your pictures – used slide projectors are available in large numbers, and you can make your own photo album. Or you work with scans.
Not to forget your own photo lab – an option well worth considering for black and white. Chemistry and paper are available at still reasonable prices; used lab equipment is easy to find. If you only want to develop films and then perhaps scan them, you don’t even need a darkroom.
Don’t rule out film-based photography too fast
At first (and second) look, analogue photography, whether with a Leica or any other camera, has its price. Digital technology has broken down the linear relationship between the number of pictures taken and costs. This spoiled many of us, and we became snapshot-takers.
Getting to know the value of each shot anew can be both painful and healing. In the best case, we return to taking fewer pictures; we think before pressing the shutter release; we feel when it is good. And as a bonus, we also have much less work to select the really best pictures. In this respect, I believe that working on film at times also has an educational function.
But one last, unorthodox thought. If you buy an M10 Monochrome today (April 2021), this will set you back 8.35 grand (in Euro). A new MP costs you 4.6k (and months of patient waiting). With the difference of 3.75k, you can shoot at least 150 rolls of black-and-white film and have them processed and scanned professionally (at today’s prices). That’s ten rolls a year from today until 2036. And the MP will have a far higher value after these 15 years than the M10 Monochrome.
Arguably, film photography is not more expensive than digital photography, even with a high-end rangefinder camera (not to mention all the cheap second-hand film SLR cameras from the 1990s and the no-longer-so-cheap but still very affordable immortal classics such as Canon AE1, Nikon FM, Olympus OM-1).
4. Is there any other affordable way to get into rangefinder photography?
All my texts in The M Files were, by definition, about cameras and lenses fitted with M mount. Of course, the world of rangefinder photography is much bigger. There are numerous other cameras from the 30s to the 50s, made by both known and unknown manufacturers – from the ground-breaking Zeiss Contax with its pioneering bayonet mount to poor Russian Leica copies with screw mount. Many of the above-mentioned restrictions to old or very old equipment also apply to them, of course, but the financial risk is usually much lower than with the cameras in The M Files.
Another option is the modern Contax G system. Its market introduction in 1994 was a brave attempt by Yashica-Kyocera to compete with the Leica-M system with modern alternative sporting autofocus, TTL flash exposure and all other contemporary features. The quality is reportedly very good; the lens setup (Zeiss) was comprehensive.
Nevertheless, the Contax G line was only moderately successful, and Yashica-Kyocera discontinued it in 2005, partly under the impression of the digital change. In the following years, cameras and lenses, mostly from the hands of enthusiasts, were available at low prices. In the meantime, prices are rising, but this system is still an interesting option. I have never photographed with it. But maybe one of the Macfilos readers has a Contax G kit and wants to write about it?
The M Files: A conclusion that became preliminary
As I said, the journey around the Leica-M system is finished for the time being. I’ve enjoyed bringing everything together, but now I’m looking forward to doing something even nicer than writing about photography: having more time for actually taking photographs! And I want to express my deep gratitude to all who have helped produce this content, first and foremost our ever considerate Macfilos editor, Mike Evans.
At the end of this series, I would like to emphasise one last time that my work for Macfilos is independent of commercial interests. I receive no benefits from it from the companies or stores mentioned. Nevertheless, I am grateful to Lichtblick and Leica Store Konstanz for their support in providing some accessories used for this review. Both are very recommendable; they are happy to take phone or mail orders (staff are English speaking) and offer to ship outside the EU. However, if there still is one, please do not forget to support your local photo equipment dealer in these challenging times. For filter issues, I can recommend Fotologisch, a great online store and knowledge base. You can also buy very nice made-in-England bags there.
The M Files: My sources
All information on the practical use of cameras and lenses is drawn from my own experience. I personally worked over a certain period of time with all the gear I write about. The most important sources that I used for the technical and historical facts provided in The M Files project are the manufacturers’ manuals and further information published by them in brochures and online.
Other very helpful sources were: Stephen Gandy (you might already know his fantastic site www.cameraquest.com), Peter Lausch (www.lausch.com, a great resource in German) and Hamish Gill as well as some of his contributors (www.35mmc.com, an excellent site which many of us will know). During my research, I also discovered the work of KJ Vogelius from Sweden, who generously shares lots of practical experience with Leica C, Zeiss ZM and Voigtländer M-mount lenses (http://gear.vogelius.se). And even if Leica M lenses have only been touched upon very marginally in The M Files so far, I did, of course, read the late Erwin Puts’s extensive work both online and in his books. For those who want to delve deeper, I can only recommend Sean Reid (www.reidreviews.com). His site is worth every cent of its moderate membership fee!
The M Files: Get in-depth knowledge of M-Mount lenses, cameras and suitable accessories
The M Files is an ongoing project on Macfilos that focuses on photographic equipment with or for Leica M-Mount, made by companies other than Leica or which are otherwise not part of Leica’s M system. It follows a more or less encyclopaedic approach without being scientific. The focus is always on the real-life use and useability of cameras, lenses and other items. Products covered by The M Files include cameras, lenses, viewfinders, light meters and more. Some of the brands in the growing list are Contax, Konica, Minolta, Rollei, Voigtländer and Zeiss.
Die M-Files: M-Mount-Objektive, -Kameras und passendes Zubehör jenseits von Leica M
Die M-Files sind ein Langzeit-Projekt, das sich auf Foto-Ausrüstungsteile mit oder für Leica M-Bajonett konzentriert, die von anderen Firmen als Leica hergestellt wurden oder die nicht zum M-System von Leica gehören. Es verfolgt einen mehr oder weniger enzyklopädischen Ansatz, ohne wissenschaftlich zu sein. Der Schwerpunkt liegt immer auf der praktischen Nutzung von Kameras, Objektiven und anderen Produkten. Zu den in den M-Files besprochenen Produkten gehören Kameras, Objektive, Sucher, Belichtungsmesser und mehr. Einige der Marken auf der wachsenden Liste sind Contax, Konica, Minolta, Rollei, Voigtländer und Zeiss. In deutscher Sprache erscheinen die Inhalte auf www.messsucherwelt.com.
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