Quite recently, Hamish published an article about Barnack Leica’s giving 7 reasons to own one. Well, he mentioned all the advantages of these cameras, but he didn’t mention their disadvantages. And I found a few of them.
Some introduction: I own a Leica IIIf. I haven’t spent any money on it. Yes, you read that correctly. I got a Mamiya C220f with two sets of lenses as a gift from a friend (cheers Adi, thank you again!). After some time, I’ve decided to trade it for a Leica (well, not directly. I’ve traded the Mamiya for money and then the money for a Leica). So, I’ve got it for free. Hence my views aren’t affected by money spent on it.
Before I’ve got a IIIf, I always (read: for last 6 years) dreamed about a Leica, and an M5 was (and still is) my favourite. I’ve tried a lot of cameras: both film and digital, compacts, instax, rangefinders, SLRs, TLRs, mirrorless etc., but none of them made me stop thinking that a Leica would be better. So, when there was a possibility to get one, I’ve had no doubts.
I had got a Leica, I’ve paired it with a Jupiter-8 (I’m a poor Polish student, mind you), loaded it with a Fuji C200 and started shooting. At first, I was in awe. Such a beautifully engineered machine. So small. So quiet. So solid and delicate at the same time. So clean lines. So simple. So complicated mechanisms. Beautifully designed. Looks fantastic with my old leather strap (taken from a Fed-5B case) (sorry no money for artisan straps here ;)).
I felt so good. It felt so good on me. I’ve been taking it everywhere, to my university, to my fiancée, to a library, even when I was doing some groceries, the Leica was with me. Because you never know when you’ll need it.
So I had plenty of time to get to know her and I started to see her flaws. As it always happens with love…
It is silent. But bloody hell, don’t say it’s super silent. Did you shoot with a leaf-shutter camera? Sure, a leaf-shutter has its limitations, but a IIIf shutter has them too! I understand that a Leica shutter is quieter than an SLR one, but hey, even cheapo Olympus Trip 35 is more silent. Not to mention all of these Japanese fixed-lens rangefinders!
It is SO slow. I started shooting because I wanted to preserve my memories, some beautiful and everyday moments. I’ve wanted to have them ‘saved’, stored, captured. Some people call it “personal photography”, but I believe it’s something more. It’s like a stream of memories. You live something and you capture it, here, now, instantly. Good luck with doing that with a Barnack Leica and 50mm lens. Firstly, you have to set your exposure (meter, set the aperture, set the shutter speed). Secondly, you have to focus (and it’s not easy with my IIIf, I haven’t CLA’d her, because $$$, so the RF isn’t perfectly contrasty). Then, you compose. And after that, you press the shutter button. And you cannot be always prepared, because you have to live – hold a hand of your beloved ones, pet your pet, use your hands to eat, you get the point. I found that for this type of photography, even a cheap 35mm compact is better – because it ‘frees’ you from thinking about a lot of things – and let’s you both live the moment and capture it (I’ve bought an Olympus AF-10 Super and it’s perfect for this).
It may be (and probably is) my fault, but for me, it’s easier to shoot my life (memories) with an autofocus film SLR/compact. It’s so faster. I’m more confident of my results. And when shooting with a Leica, I’m never sure if I nailed the exposure (I don’t have an external meter, I cannot be bothered to get and use one), composition, focus etc. There are so many things that I can screw up when shooting with a Leica – and I don’t want them to happen when I’m shooting my life and memories.
1 meter minimum focus
Also, you cannot focus closer than 1 meter (3 ft). Yes, it matters unless you don’t pay attention to the details (but you do, don’t you? You want/bought a Leica because of its small details).
With the closer focusing comes the parallax error. I hate it. I’m trying to remember about it, I’m trying to compensate when I’m framing and then I end up with my subject in the center (and not in the one of the “strong points”) or some elements cut out of the frame (when I saw them in a viewfinder). Really, it drives me nuts.
What can slow you down even more, is the trimming of the film leader. I highly recommend doing it at home, when you have some free time. It takes a while. And after 3rd roll you starting to ask yourself “is this really necessary?”.
No built-in meter. I know, it’s an unfair one, this design is hundred years old. But we have meters now, and I’m using this camera now, in 2016. In Poland. Where in the winter it’s dark from 15:30 (3:30PM) to 8:00 (8AM). When the light varies from a street to a street (they are quite narrow and dark here). I’m rather good at using Sunny 16 rule, but still, from time to time I’m getting some terribly over- or underexposed frames (and I’m crying when I’m scanning them).
Problems with FSU lenses
Little problems with FSU lenses. They have a different focal register or something like this (google it, it’s fairly simple to find and quite difficult to put into words here). I’ve been trying and doing my best, but still, I haven’t got a single perfectly focused photo, when shooting at 1 – 1,5m distance (read: a portrait).
A Barnack Leica is expensive. I know Hamish wrote something opposite, but for me, €200 isn’t the same as for you. In Poland, 80% of people earn less than €400/month and me myself, I’ve been working for €1/hour previous summer (that gives €8/day or €160/mo.; don’t let me even started on economics and politics). But I get that people in the West earn a lot more and paying €200 for a camera isn’t a lot (using some simple calculations, it’s like 200PLN or €50 for me). I get that. You pay €200 for a camera that will serve you for next 30 or 40 years, maybe even 60. Ok.
But then, look into my eyes and promise me you won’t use another camera. You won’t buy another one. If you cannot promise it, the argument about the long lifespan is simply invalid, because after buying a Leica, you’re still buying other cameras (and adding the cost).
Me personally, I’ve bought a Canon 50e with a battery pack and a kit lens (35-70) for a €20 last month (cheers Urban!). Ten times less than my IIIf cost. TEN TIMES. And it uses cheap AAA-batteries (I’m using accu’s, it’s even cheaper). It has an autofocus, a big viewfinder, A METER, semi-autoexposure modes, it is compatible with a lot of lenses (hello m42, of course you lose AF but then you have these adapters with AF confirmation, it’s still easier to be sure about your focus than it is with a IIIf).
Okay, I know, it may break and I won’t get it repaired so easily. But then, it was 10 times cheaper. I can buy another one. And another one. And another one. I can buy 10 of them at the price of one IIIf. Crazy.
And you say you love mechanical cameras and hate electronics? Cool. Take a look at Pentaxes (Spotmatics, K1000), Prakticas (I’ve been buying these for €5/piece). You can mount some fantastic Zeiss and Pentax glass to them (which is cheaper than a Leica glass, too). If you want a rangefinder, get a Kiev. It’s a Contax in a Soviet body. And same, if they break, you just buy another one. Or just buy 10 at once and store them in your closet.
As you can see, a Leica is expensive in comparison to these cameras. And it isn’t any better. It just has “Leica” engraved on top.
It’s just a camera
Concluding, I don’t think that everyone should have a Barnack Leica. It’s definitely nor the best camera, nor the camera for everyone and nor for every purpose. It has a lot of flaws, disadvantages, comparing to other cameras. It’s not the perfect camera. BUT! If you’re serious about your photography, especially when you’re shooting street photography, you should try to get one and shoot a few rolls of it. Then, either you’ll love it or… poof, magic is gone. It’s just a camera.