Can a 300 Euro Chinese lens beat a ten thousand Euro Leica lens?



The original Leica Noctilux 1.2/50 had a weight of 450 grams (officially 515 grams), a length of 53.5 mm from the bayonet and a diameter of 60.5 mm. Compare these dimensions with the current NX 0.95/50 mm: weight: 700 grams; length: 75.1 mm; diameter: 73 mm and you see the ‘progress’. The Canadian built version, the NX 1/50 mm had dimensions: weight: 630 grams; length: 62 mm; diameter: 69 mm. The growth in footprint and volume is clearly visible. For most people this price tag and volume are prohibitive, not to mention the visible departure from the Leica M philosophy: compact, high speed and excellent performance. Perhaps this is the reason why the original NX 1.2/50 mm is in such high demand. The price however is sky high and not worth the purchase. The current SX 1.4/50 mm ASPH is a much better choice. And the small drop in brightness transmission is not important in this digital age when the lens will be most probably attached to a digital M body. Even in the glorious silver-halide era a half stop loss of brightness was not a problem: you could change the toe of the characteristic curve of the film, probably Tri-X or HP5, when selecting the dedicated developer. Only when the faintest shadows, emitting a handful of photons, had to be captured with all the shades of dark grey, the additional speed advantage made sense.

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Now we have the 7Artisans 50 mm f1.1 lens, produced in China. With a weight of almost 400 grams, a length of 48 mm and a diameter of 62.1 mm the lens falls within the parameters of the original NX 1.2/50 mm.
The aperture of 1:1.1 was a popular one In Japan when their rangefinder cameras became trendsetting. Nikon and Zunow to mention only two manufacturers offered such lens with a design that was based on the Zeiss Sonnar. The current Voigtlander Nokton 1.1/50 mm follows the Planar design.
The 7Artisans lens that I bought is a very special edition with a gold paint (only ten will be made). It has high refractive glass elements (above 1.9) and this property it shares with the NX 1.0/50. There are a few initial impressions. The focus movement is very smooth. The aperture ting is a classical one with non-equidistant distances between apertures (large at 1.1 and narrow after 5.6. The box includes a tool for self adjustment of the optical cell. Place the camera and lens on a tripod, focus on the (included) test chart and the location of the sharpness plane can be read off from the chart. When the focus is too near or too far, you can loosen two tiny screws at the back of the copper optical cell and turn the unit clockwise or counterclockwise according to instructions. It sounds complicated and you need to be very careful and repeat the operation several times before the focus is spot on. I used my M8.2 and MM2 and both required different settings. The smart choice was to settle for a position between both cameras.
A full test report will be published in the next part. For now a few quick observations. The lens follows a very classical pattern that is definitely 1950. At 1.1 the lens exhibits a low to medium contrast, and medium to high definition of small detail. Vignetting is clearly visible as is chromatic aberration. Bright spots show a blue and red colored fringe on both sides, but coma is remarkably absent. The performance is quite good in the centre covering a disc of about 30% of the total area. Test charts show very fine definition when sharpened a bit in Photoshop or any other post processing software. Handheld shooting shows commendable performance with fine detail crisply rendered in the centre and quickly becomes blurred when moving outwards to the edges. At this aperture it is clearly a lens for the rangefinder camera with the focus at the centre of the image. At 1:5.6 the performance becomes impeccable over the full area of the sensor and the lens can be used as a universal tool.

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I compared the 7Artisans 50mmF1.1 with the Leica SX 1.4/50, both set to 1.4. Then the difference really becomes evident. The SX has a high contrast high definition image covering the full frame where the 7Artisans has a medium contrast medium definition image covering 40% of the area. The 7Artisans performance compared to the SX indicates the great progress made in the last decades. The Canon lens FD 1.2/55 mm for the F-1 in the early 1970s exhibits the same performance pattern. The wide open image has been called sharpish and not sharp to describe the overall impression of the lens. The 7Artisans lens improves on the optical quality of the Canon lens (also without aspherics), but the balance between contrast and resolution is shifted to the resolution edge, presumably because of the use of the lens on digital bodies, where contrast can be enhanced in post processing.
The price tag of the lens is extremely low (the Nokton is three times more expensive). One of the reasons is the low price of Chinese optical glass that is not as constant in quality as the Schott glass. Using a simple design (no floating, no aspherics) with only seven elements also helps to reduce the price.
At this price level the 7Artisans is highly commendable. The overall performance is good, but not superior, but to get the fingerprint of the classical lenses of the 1950s and 1960s there is o better choice.
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Quo Vadis Leica?

Recent introductions by the Leica Company beg the question what the goal might be. As always there will be of course two groups of reviewers: the Leica-friendly cheerleaders who will argue that the new lenses and cameras are the best ever, fill an important gap in the Leica portfolio, are a must-have product and epitomise the Leica spirit. The second group will find focus errors, colour fringes (somewhere in the background at pixel-peeping monitor scale), bokeh problems in lenses and ergonomic flaws and lacking must-have features in camera bodies.
The important topic of what advantages the products have in the modern post-photographic era are hardly considered.
The new Noctilux-M 1.25/75 mm ASPH will be framed as the ultimate portrait and reportage lens. But this is a very conservative approach. Any lens can be used for any purpose. The usual approach for a portrait is to focus on the eyes and have the rest of the face in the unsharp zones. Many portraits require a merger depth of field and the photographer needs to stop down to 5.6 or smaller to get the required result. The NX-75 is very heavy (more than one kilogram) and big (a volume of 391376 mm^3). The current NX-50 has a weight of 700 grams and a volume of 322563 mm^3. The original SX 75 has a weight of 560 grams and a volume of 307876 mm^3. Compare this to a really compact lens, the Apo-Summicron 50 mm: weight of 300 grams and a volume of 107640 mm^3. Modern Leica-M lenses have a very steep gradient between sharp and unsharp. This is a fine characteristic because it draws the eye to the exact sharpness plane when you are using the lens wide open or stopped down a few stops. Opto-mechanical however it is a problem. The focusing mechanism of the M camera will work at its limits and expect a fair amount of out-of-focus photos. The NX 75 will be used most often handheld if you wish to exploit the really excellent wide open properties. The high contrast and very good definition of fine details wide open are a big improvement compared to the old SX75. At f/1.4 it was difficult to take spot-on sharp pictures. The weight of the lens, the slim depth of field (at two meters ±3 cm!)and the movement of the head all add to the risk of focus. With the SX75 you had a slight advantage because the sharp-unsharp gradient was a bit smoother and this property helps to mask small focus errors. This luxury you do not have when using the NX75. Add the increased size and weight and the bodily movement and the off-focus limit is often reached and surpassed. One could select a high shutter speed in combination with a high ISO value (a simple choice in modern digital M cameras) to reduce the risk. There is much room for experiment and training. As is the case with the NX50, the new NX75 is a lens that needs to be learned in order to use it effectively. It is no universal lens like the Apo-Scron 50, 75 and 90. One may wonder why Leica has produced this lens, especially with such a high price tag of more than ten thousand Euro and limited use.
The same question may be asked when considering the re-edition of the Thambar, again a lens with very limited appeal and a price tag of around 6000 Euro.
The high optical and mechanical qualities of modern Leica lenses are beyond dispute. The volume of the lenses for the L-mount may be defended with the argument that one needs room for the many sophisticated mechatronic functions. The M-lenses however are traditional opt-mechanical constructions. The thick and heavy lens elements in the NX75 require stable (and heavy mounts) and this may explain the weight and size. When a lens design grows above its natural size (the fate of the famous Contarex lenses) one needs to reflect on its purpose. The SX75 made sense in its day. A high speed reportage lens was needed to get all available light onto the toe of the emulsion curve and a 1.4/90 mm was really a bridge to far in size and optical construction. A focal length of 75 mm was a good compromise.
The NX75 may be compared to the Canon 1.2/85 which has comparable vital statistics but incorporates an AF unit. The optical prescription is more adventurous and risky, but the price tag is a fraction of what Leica asks.
The main topic however is the need for a very high speed lens. The classical argument is the aesthetic one for a composition of selective focus. Fashion and indoor sports photographers demand the high speed because it allows them to direct the attention of the viewer to the main object. This was the case when film was the preferred medium. The NX75 will presumably be used mainly on digital bodies, where the post processing capabilities allow for every imaginable image manipulation. Then high speed must be balanced against ergonomic characteristics. Manual focusing with a rangefinder and a big lens is not everybody’s cup of tea. A very high speed lens that allows precise and selective focusing follows an outmoded concept, especially in the current digital era. Leica was once famous for its optical designs with universal appeal and scope of application. The f/2 lenses were and are excellent examples of compact designs with high performance and wide usability. The f/1.4 lenses in the 50 and 35 mm focal lengths are in the same league. With the f/1.4 designs in the 28-21 mm focal lengths, and with the NX designs of 50 and 75 mm the barrier of sensible weight and size (and price!!) has been pushed into dimensions that no longer fit the concept of the compact manually focusing CRF camera.

Bare bones

(Reading time 15 minutes)
Photography passed the hundred years anniversary at the same time that the first Leica camera was announced: 1925. The Leica I was the first miniature camera, completely made of metal, that looked like a modern machine and operated like one. It was not perfect, but its compact size, smooth working buttons, knobs and dials and high optical quality enabled an alternative style of photography. This style had no name, but was related to the snapshot method adopted by most amateur photographers since introducing the Kodak box by Eastman around 1900. Using a Leica camera, the photographer had to know about the technical aspects of the photographic process to correlate the camera mechanism and engineering with the photographic results. The Leica camera (and all other manually operating 35 mm cameras) was an integral part of the photographic process.

Photography covers more ground than producing a picture by an orderly and transparent chemical analogue process or a concealed digital signal processing method. Photography is about an effort to capture the elusive moment. This effort inspired Cartier-Bresson to search for the decisive moment. Before him, the Impressionists already made an art of the instantaneous. Baudelaire said “modernity is the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent”. For modernity, light is the vehicle and the resource. Talbot referred to his process as photogenic drawing, but was insecure about the word ‘drawing’ and sometimes replaced it with ‘writing’. Lady Eastlake noted that photography was a new form of communication “neither letter, message, nor picture.”

The Impressionists are well versed in contemporary visual theory. They knew what you see is not what there is. Photography was an excellent means to show the difference between what the camera captures (and what could be out there) and what the brain constructs based on the visual impulses on the retina. These painters tried to capture the impression of the image of nature on the retina before the brain reconstructs the neural impulses. The photographic snapshot accomplishes this feat in exactly a fraction of a second. The snapshot represents the quintessential process of photography.

From the beginning, photography has been approached as a technique and as an art form. The rigid physical process and the limited influence that the photographer had on the final result turned over the balance to the technical side. Many theorists would claim that the means that the photographer has to influence the final picture (standpoint, moment of exposure, choice of focal length and aperture and so on) shrink into insignificance in comparison with the physical fact that the photograph only captures light reflecting surfaces with the one-eyed perspective of the optics of the camera. Even when the aspirations to an art status may be accepted by the art community, it is a hollow victory for photography. Nobody knows what art is. Instead of being caught up with a hopeless theoretical discussion, the discourse should be focused on the character of photography to ‘fix the shadows’. This implies looking at the commonplace and recording it the ultimate snapshot! Sherlock Holmes remarked that “there is nothing as unnatural as the commonplace”. David Hurn, the well-known Magnum photographer of Welsh origin, has remarked that 80% of of all good photography is based on the snapshot. He added that good photographs originate in the act of recording, simply and directly, a subject which is emotionally or intellectually engaging.
Such an approach is far removed from the art aspiration that seems to be a necessary ingredient of amateur photography in order to be allowed in the Hall of Fame of the Leica Gallery of Art Photography.

Surrounded by digital gadgets, the modern photographer has hardly any analogue experience. Such experience is intimately related to the practice of the craftsman. The Leica M camera has a metal body that feels like a machine and connects to the material world.
The use of the handheld exposure meter also adds to this feeling of work and craftsmanship. Handling a film cartridge and exposing and developing the film strip produces a feeling of manual competence that is lost when taking pictures with a digital camera, even a digital Leica M (the DRF). The sensor-equipped Leica M tries, with some success, to combine the analogue experience of the metal body with the ease and effectiveness of the digitalization of the photographic process. When using an SL , TL or CL, one gets a good sign of how far removed the Leica products are from their own core philosophy.

Talbot called the process of photogenic drawing a ‘pencil of nature’, implying that nature uses the photographic process as a draughtsman would use a pencil. The pencil is the emblematic tool of the engineer and as ubiquitous and as indispensable as photography is.

Photography can record everyday things mechanically and automatically. In this sense it is far removed from the use of the pencil that does nothing without being handled by a person. Still, there are many similarities: the pencil is a pleasure to use, it is simple, it can be used for artistic and scientific purposes, it generates an analogue feeling. The discussion around photography has become wrong-footed by the insistence of theorists that a faithful record of reality should be the same as saying that a picture is true. Like the topic of photography as art, the topic of photography as truth neglects the actual physical process of photography.
When photography is used for personal goals and with the intention to derive a pleasurable analogue experience, like using a pencil and paper for writing, these topics of art and truth are becoming irrelevant. The physical photo (the paper print) vanishes behind the content, which appears as a collection of facts. The skill and insight of the photographer are always significant, but the content comes first. Whatever the view of the photographer, there have to be some real life facts to record. Looking at facts requires adopting the attitude of the detective and asking the question what is happening here. The brain is conditioned, for reasons of efficiency and speed, to process primarily the changes in a scene, not the whole scene. It would be a waste of time and brain power to process the same information continuously. Users of the JPEG file format are familiar with this idea.

What is happening here can be answered when looking critically at photographs. Any photograph has been subject to the element of chance. The contact sheet is proof of this aspect of photography. In this digital age the method of asset management is the computer-based analogy of the physical contact sheet. If chance were not involved in the production of a photograph, the whole idea of the selection of the best image out of a series would not exist. Waiting for the exact moment has been superseded in modern times by the technique of taking pictures at a speed of a movie camera (24 images per second). Even this method cannot guarantee that the decisive moment has been captured. The photograph taken in a snap moment can be approached from two different perspectives. The photographer cannot influence the dynamism and contingency of the event, the continuum of experience, itself. This contemplation is the cause of the veridical core of photography as the truth-telling medium. Without this veridical core the reportage and the photo document would loose its importance. The second perspective on the snap moment that cannot be influenced by the photographer points to the classical art-question: how can the photographer claim that the resulting picture is a work of art when the photograph was accidentally taken. A common defence of the photographer that choice of equipment and choice of the photographic parameters are the result of skill, effort and conscious thinking about subject, framing and moment of exposure., seems to be quite hollow and forced.
The physical base of the imaging chain (silver and silicon!) and its visual context needs to be understood to get a clear view on the core of photography, independent of the debate about photography in the art world and in the community of photographers themselves who seem to copy many ideas and arguments of the art world.
Starting point is the physical reality of our everyday life and our perception of it. This is a macroscopic view, not the microscopic view of the scientist. Only a fraction of the continually changing macroscopic reality that is projected on the retina is processed by the brain.

The photograph of a section of this reality captures only the light reflecting surfaces with a eye-eyed perspective and during a fraction of second. It is a singular event. The camera records everything in its angle of view that reflects or radiates light, indiscriminately and automatically. There is a one-to-one correspondence between the object points and the image points, only regulated by physical laws. It is an automatic process for which the snapshot photograph is the best example.
Because human beings are not aware of what is happening exactly at this instant in time, the photograph presents an image we may not recognize in detail, but with which we are familiar (it is, part of the everyday life we are accustomed to). As soon as we look at photographs of events that we do not know or recognise, the alienating effect sets in. The earliest example are the photographs by Muybridge that show a running horse or a walking human in slow motion. The urge to photograph springs from the desire to record the very event which we are intimate with and which we want to remember. It is often said with some derision that the holiday maker really enjoys his vacation only after viewing the ordinary holiday pictures that were made. The Italian writer Italo Calvino, in the mid 1950s, has written a short story (“The Adventure of a Photographer”) , that is hardly ever mentioned in the discussions about photography, but contains many real gems of insight. The story starts with this description:

“When spring comes, the city's inhabitants, by the hundreds of thousands, go out on Sundays with leather cases over their shoulders. And they photograph one another. They come back as happy as hunters with bulging game bags; they spend days waiting, with sweet anxiety, to see the developed pictures (anxiety to which some add the subtle pleasure of alchemistic manipulations in the darkroom, forbidding any intrusion by members of the family, relishing the acid smell that is harsh to the nostrils). It is only when they have the photos before their eyes that they seem to take tangible possession of the day they spent, only then that the mountain stream, the movement of the child with his pail, the glint of the sun on the wife's legs take on the irrevocability of what has been and can no longer be doubted. Everything else can drown in the unreliable shadow of memory.”
The photographic technique that is described may seem dated( it is all silver halide), but the observations are to the point and actual. Events and things that are not recorded on film, are vanishing in memory and do no longer exist in a personal history. There are two reasons why the snapshot is important: (1) to preserve a slice of reality before it vanishes from memory and (2) to study what the brain missed or did not deem important enough to process. Winogrand is confirming the second argument when he said that “Photography is not about the thing photographed. It is about how that thing looks when photographed”. The casual snapshot, made by the putative amateur photographer, lacks one essential ingredient that Calvino refers to in this paragraph.

“Now he felt that something in the essence of photographic man was eluding him, the secret appeal that made new adepts continue to join the ranks of the amateurs of the lens, some boasting of the progress of their technical and artistic skill, others, on the contrary, giving all the credit to the efficiency of the camera they had purchased, which was capable (according to them) of producing masterpieces even when operated by inept hands (as they declared their own to be, because wherever pride aimed at magnifying the virtues of mechanical devices, subjective talent accepted a proportionate humiliation).”
This ingredient is the role of craftsmanship in taking photographs. Two different positions are found in the literature: it takes ten thousand hours of hard work to learn photography and photography can be learnt in less than one hour. Both positions are true. When you just want to take a picture of something that interests you, the procedure of operating the original Leica I is a good example. Just set the aperture to f/8, the shutter speed to 1/50 sec, the distance to four meters, frame the ‘something’ at eye level position and press the shutter. This is the same technique that many street photographers use with any Leica CRF or DRF. When you wish to learn all details of Photoshop or the classical Zone System, ten thousand hours may not be enough. Craftsmanship is more than knowledge and skill at performing a task. As a first approximation craftsmanship (or its humble sibling workmanship) means using any technique or apparatus in which the quality of the work is not predetermined and depends on the judgment, care and dexterity which the maker exercises when he works. Such a description is applicable to the photographer and to the carpenter or painter or machine operator. The idea is that the final quality of the result is continually at risk during the process of making. One core idea is that the workman or craftsman works without division of labour. When division of labour is applied to the production of a good, the workman is one element in the mechanisation of the process. Here we may find the reason why silver-halide photography is still popular: the photographer works without division of labour from pressing the shutter to developing the final print. Digital photography has a workflow where major portions of the process are outsourced to computer software and social media distribution.

One of the reasons to select the Leica CRF is the optical performance of its lenses that can produce high fidelity photographs. Such photographs support the idea that photography ’s truth is disclosure rather than evidentiary. The fidelity of the recorded scene invites the observer to become a detective, to study the details and then asking what is happening here and why are these details juxtaposed or why do they converge. Cartier-Bresson developed the theory of the decisive moment. The photographer should wait until all elements of the observed scene cohere formally and some would say aesthetically. The flaw of this approach is the working of chance when during that tiny moment of 1/00 of a second the position of the elements changes or new elements pop up. High-fidelity is a concept borrowed from the sound industry and points to an additional, largely ignored view of the photograph. Modern thinkers about photography interpret the relation between the recorded brightness pattern on the surface (luminous trace) of the photography and the corresponding visual brightness pattern of a segment of reality as a representation or an index. This approach is obviously derived from art theory and shares the fate of all concepts in art theory: endless discussions about meaning and use. It might be more productive to approach photography with the vocabulary of model and analogy. There is a curious coincidence that silver-halide based photography is described as analogue photography. An analogy is composed of correspondence and difference. Some aspects of the photograph correspond with the real object and some aspects are different. That is why no one would confuse the photograph with the depicted object. They are similar, but not the same. In science the concept of model and analogy is used to explain new and unfamiliar results from experiments with a reference to known models and analogies. Using an analogy is the basis of thinking. The early supporters of the new process of photography used analogies to describe the working. Lady Eastlake (1857) describes the photographic image as the disclosure of the world rather than its creation. Oliver Wendell Holmes (1859) characterizes the world as a picture whose essence lies in its photographic reproducibility, turning the argument on its head. Talbot (1839) compared photography to nature imprinting itself on the picture, to reproduce herself. Some commentators linked photography to a specific picture, the self portrait and remarked that all nature shall be its own painter. An important observation was made by Lady Eastlake when she compared the appearance of the photographic image to the creation of the world. It is well-known that humans see the world with their eyes. One might say, when following the realist interpretation, that the world is revealed to the observer through the process of observing or seeing. Realists assume that the world exists, independent of the human observer. The photographic print when immersed in the developing agent, slowly reveals what has been captured on the negative by the camera. This phenomenon implies an analogy between the development of the print with its image of a scene and the human observation of that same scene. There is a major difference which may be referred to as optical unconscious: there are details in the physical world that are too small or occur too quickly for us to see, but the camera captures them.

The classic dichotomy between photography as evidence or an automatic copy of reality or as a constructed image, made by or strongly influenced by the operator has only a diminishing value. It leads to a debate that is useless, at least for the practicing and thinking photographer. The proposal to interpret photography as an analogy for something else (in this case the idea that the world presents itself differently to the camera than to the human eye) is quite interesting. It changes the standard account that the observer views the world objectively or constructively to the account that the world reveals itself to the innocent observer. Cézanne who described himself as a ‘recording machine’ reverberated the same sentiment. This account corresponds to the approach of a detective when looking at photographs. Photographic images are associated with the disclosure of the world. This is different from the usual accent that the photographer constructs an image to have a meaning. Basically a photograph is a document that informs about the world. Amateur photographers who take their snapshots for personal use effectively accept the idea that a photograph captures only what the world reveals to the observer, camera-lens or brain.These ideas are not new. Perceptive writers, like Proust and Kierkegaard, have pondered the ‘pure eye’, ‘fleeting moment’, ‘moment of vision’ as elements of the human condition.

The decisive moment ( “the image on the run”), captured with a Leica camera combines the seemingly simple personal photograph with a thorough reflection on the nature of craftsmanship, inspired by the handling of the Leica CRF and the technique of silver-halide photography. The Leica CRF is much more than an instrument with a number of features and a long history. It is time to stop with the fixation on the camera as a legend (which it is not) and appreciate its role as a machine within the tradition of craftsmanship, that is the mastering of material skills.

This text is not an argument against the current digital technology and its undeniable advantages (simplicity, performance and efficiency) in producing what has been called computational images. It is an argument to reconsider the values of photography as a “miracle of analogy” (pace Proust). As soon as we shake off the yoke of art and technology and start taking pictures as accurate records of everyday life (the good, bad and ugly aspects!) we may recover the joy of using a camera that was Barnack’s concern when he constructed the Lilliput camera.

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why the Leica CRF is attractive

The discussion about the personality and the technical (or engineering) design of the Leica CRF is in this section. A reference to the Leica M3 is logical, because it is the original design from which all Leica CRF’s derive. The range from M2 to M-A is obvious, but the digital cameras from M8 to M10 are included too, because their outstanding characteristic is the coupled rangefinder and the manual focusing. A first aspect to analyze is the personality of the camera. It is strange to approach an instrument that is a tool for a technical process (produce photographs) as having a personality. I will look at the Leica camera from several perspectives: function, use and personality. These perspectives relate to a certain type and style of design. Any mechanical product results from a series of design steps. At first there is an idea for a new product or to improve an existing product. Then sketches and discussions focus on what materials to use and how to manufacture the parts. The final result depends on the materials that are available and on the quality of the manufacturing processes. Product design, as a process, is the synthesis of technical and industrial design. The creation of successful products that have a strong personality is the goal. This goal encompasses more than the classical rule that ‘form follows function’.
The technical (or engineering) design relates to the proper technical functioning of the product; the industrial design relates to the satisfaction afforded by the product: visual and tactile attributes, associations and historical pedigree. Engineering and design are equivalent terms. In Italian design and engineering is the same word: “la progettazione”; “il progetto” is the plan. The discussion of the engineering design of the Leica CRF focuses on terms of craftsmanship and handmade products. There is more to meet the eye in this respect. A special section explains what the manufacturing processes and the choice of materials mean for the quality and usability of the Leica CRF.
In this section the focus is on the elements of personality, all those aspects that separate the myth and facts of the Leica CRF, starting with the M3. The previous models, the L39 types, are left alone to become the objects of interest for collectors and historians. They are also objects for nostalgic persons who would say “they do not make them like this anymore”. In reality the L39 types, except the IIIf and IIIg, are manufactured with procedures fitting a cottage industry that would not count as precision manufacturing.

The personality of a product depends on aesthetic attributes, attributes of association, perceived attributes and emotional attributes. It is expression through manufacturing. A product is effective and pleasant to use when the way it works derives from its design: size, proportion, configuration to identify controls and what they do: a simple, easy-to-understand interface. The Leica M3 is a masterful example of this human-centered-interface. On the left side where the rewind knob is located, we find the film cassette. The transport lever is on the right side. Film transport is from left to right. Next to the transport lever is the shutter speed selection dial and the shutter release button. There is only one ocular to look through and the frame lines are clear. Under the finder window we find the frame selector lever. When handling the camera, the right hand touches all important functions, while the other hand provides the stability of the camera. Focusing and shutter release are a coordinated action with both hands. Every button or lever relates to one clear function. Framing, focusing and exposure are the all-important basic functions to make a successful photograph.

Products have a design life: a time span after which replacement is expected. The designer team of the Leica M3 never thought about a life span of more that twenty years for their product. Its design life now survives well into the 21C: the Leica M10 is very close in design and personality to the Leica M3. Without the menu controls on the back side of the camera body, every control and feature (shutter, rangefinder, aperture and distance setting) is identical and in the same location on the body.
The choice of materials is part of the personality of the Leica CRF. Surface treatment is another valued attribute that suggests impeccable perfection.Chrome plated or black painted steel alloy of the top and bottom covers suggests quality and attention to detail. Choice of metal emphasizes the engineered quality. The outer shell is covered with fine grained leather-like material. A coarse-grained vulcanized rubber compound is used for the M3.
Machined metal looks strong, its nature suggests it is being engineered. The designer can emphasize this property too much: compare the Leica SL or the Leica TL to the Leica M10 or M-A. The manufacturing technique of die-casting of aluminum alloys for soem body parts reinforces engineering quality.
These are all examples of the so-called ‘experience design’: the practice of designing products with a focus placed on the quality and enjoyment of the total (photographic) experience.
The Leica M3 is an industrial design: it assumes that photographers work as the design suggests. The Leica M10 is a human-centered-design: the design matches the capabilities and needs of the photographers.
Machines used to follow rather simple and rigid rules of operation. Look at the Leica III or M3. Distance setting is a one-way operation. Exposure setting combines shutter speed and aperture. When selected effectively, the negative is exposed as it should. The exposure method depends on the flexibility of the separate handheld exposure meter. Experience proposes small changes, based on experience. The rigidity of the machine may be a hindrance for effective use. Persons are imaginative and creative. The digital camera is in this sense a different instrument. The range of exposure methods of the Leica M10 can be adjusted to everybody’s satisfaction.

When we interact with a product, we need to discover how it works and what operations are possible. In this respect the M3 is the best: it is intuitive to understand, only one thing is possible (press the shutter, advance the film, rewind the roll). Without studying the manual the M10 is a mystery if you wish to know what is possible. After pressing the shutter release of the M3 or M-A most users can tell what happens inside the camera. When doing the same with the M10 no one (not even the reviewers of the product) can explain what happens inside.

Our brain interpretes the design of a camera on three different levels: visceral, behavioral and reflective.
Visceral responses are fast and subconscious. This is the level where style matters: appearances and touch drive the visceral response. On this level the shape and layout of the Leica CRF are important. Attraction is the main ingredient (I want this!). The behavioral level is where learned skills matter. For the designer this level has to do with the fact that every action expects a result: control is important. Handle the Leica CRF and the photographer feels in control of the instrument. On the reflective level responses are conscious. POsitine or negative feedback is possible when reflecting on the product, and combine it with its personality: you like the camera or you wish to avoid it. Well-designed products work well on all three levels and when everything is successfully combined, we feel pride and enjoyment. The extreme attitude is the frequently heard statement that some person loves his Leica.

One emotion, typical for the Leica CRF is the view through the finder: this induces a state of flow that is one with the task the photographer performs: it relates to the decisive moment of Cartier-Bresson. Actions and emotion are in synch. The actions of perform and perceive are on the visceral level. The actions of specify and interpret are on the behavioral level. Plan and compare (goal in relation to result) are actions on the reflective level. Expectations play an important part: when buying a Leica camera one expects excellent results. The user blames it onhimself when these results are not as expected.

The discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of the Leica CRF is not restricted to historians and collectors. They discuss the historical progress of features or the value of a camera because of its scarceness or unique features. The focus of the practical user and photographer is on utility and usability (function and form), but also on emotion and aesthetics. This element is always present, and expressed. It is the aspect that the Leica marketing department alwyas exploits. Most human behavior is subconscious, it relates to the visceral level of design. The visceral level of the brain relates to the automatic, pre-wired layer: all responses on this level are automatic and subconscious. The behavioral layer relates to processes that control the everyday behavior. It is important because it is the layer in the brain where the pleasure of using a fine tool and accomplish a task, originates. The reflective layer of the brain is where contemplation takes place. Many users of the Leica CRF will ignore the minor defects because it is so much fun to use the camera. Why does the use of this instrument gives so much pleasure? The visceral level reacts to the initial impact of the camera: appearance, touch and feel. The reflective layer evokes memories and relates to the personality of the camera. Both levels interact to produce a positive emotion and pride in the mastering of the tool and in its accomplishments. Some would argue that this style of analysis applies to products made by Canon, Nikon, Fuji and Zeiss too. This is true. But the personality of the Leica CRF differs from the one of the Canon or Nikon.

Physical feel and texture of the materials define the personality. When a reviewer remarks that the Leica has a solid feel and is made with engineering precision he is responding to the visceral level. The Leica CRF camera has the feel of smooth, polished metal and the knobs move precisely from position to position without backlash or dead zones. The Canon and Nikon have a body shell made of polymer and with knobs that shift positions without a distinct feeling. Digital Leica cameras have a release button and a speed setting dial that connects electro-mechanically to the interior mechanisms and lack the solid feeling of the film-loading cameras. Physical objects have weight, texture and surface. In design terms this is ‘tangibility’. The persons who designed the Leica M3 took photographers themselves or were immersed in the photographic culture of the day. They knew what a photographer demanded of the instrument. The shape of the Leica CRF camera results from required size, material selection and manufacturing process. Choosing a metal alloy reflects the mechanical heritage. The smoothness of operation reflects the required surface treatment which reflects the craftsmanship needed to finish the material to exact specifications. Aluminum and its alloys are often used for precision devices. Metals and alloys are clean and precise. Machined metal looks strong, its nature suggests it has been engineered, which is the activity of craftsmen. Polymers associate with cheap plastics, a wrong reputation, but one popular among camera owners.
The original Leica I was designed around the size and diameter of the film roll and with the materials that were then current for the machines in the Leitz factory. These materials were pressed and extruded alloys of steel and brass. The design of the shapes and dimensions of all parts had to match with the engineering and manufacturing capabilities. When the Leica M3 was on the drawing board, more new materials and new machine tools were available than before. The choice of material is not independent of the choice of the process by which the material is shaped or formed and also not independent of the aesthetic aspect. Industrial design theory in Germany around 1950 was influenced by the clean aesthetic of the Bauhaus, a kind of technical aesthetics that can be described as ‘form follows function’. This style is more complex: it is a balance of simplicity and aesthetics. Good design makes a product understandable. Any product has a personality, the Leica camera as well as the Nikon F or the Canon EOS range.
Materials have two overlapping roles: providing technical functionality and creating product personality. The Leica M3 had a chassis and an outer shell that were both made by die casting a metal alloy (aluminum) into the required shape. Top and bottom covers were made from zinc or brass with a chrome or painted layer. The choice for this method of manufacturing of these materials gives the designer more flexibility to create complex shapes with higher accuracy and to propose thinner walls where no stress is expected. In addition, this choice implies a simple manufacturing process: the first element of cost cutting so to speak!

Why pay $7000 for an instrument when $1000 will bring almost the same result. Leica users will point to the fact that optical performance and precision mechanics together produce photographs with a special quality and character.
The chain of reasoning is: the Leica CRF has a specific function: to make photographs. What associations does that function carry in this case? Creativity, refinement, sophisticated taste, a long production heritage, a long list of important photographers! This argumentation was valid when the Leica M6 was the preferred tool for many photographers. This is the mythical side of the personality. The instrument is as good and effective as the user. Winogrand used the Leica CRF and produced impressive photographs. The only photo-technical argument is the instantaneous response of the camera: there is no time lag between seeing something at some instant of time and recording it on film at that same moment. The quality of the lens is no issue: working with the style of most iconic street photographers accurate focusing and handheld stability is impossible. There is a large amount of chance involved.
This reasoning is part of the reflective layer and cannot provide the arguments that operate on the visceral and behavioral level. Design theory shows that on this level emotional and psychological processes are the most important. What these processes are or contribute to the final decision to admire, buy or use a specific camera type or model, is still a mystery. It is a mystery that Leitz and Leica have always used to promote their products. Design theory says we should look at the visceral level to understand why we like the Leica CRF camera.
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manufacturing quality, part 1

The topic this time is the manufacturing quality of the film loading Leica CRF cameras from M3 to M-A. A totally different story has to be told about the modern so-called ‘digital’ Leica CRF cameras.
There is a persistent story among Leica collectors and users that the M4-2 is a watershed camera between the classical Wetzlar production and assembly procedures and the ‘cost-cutting’ techniques employed since the M4-2 and continuing to the M6 in all its variants and including the current MP and M7 models. There is no discussion yet about the M-A.
The differences observed in the two series (M3 to M4 and M4-2 to MP) are of two sorts: the change of material for some components and the infamous flare patch in the viewfinder due to a change in the construction of the view finder mechanism. The gears of the M3 were made of brass and the gears in later models were made of metal. There is a persistent story, specifically among collectors and historians that brass is the better choice. There is no explanation for this argument. There is also the story, partly true in this case, that the classical Wetzlar method employed much manual labour that gave the finishing touch during the final assembly because of their expertise with the soft hammer and the file to fit the components to extremely close tolerances and the the lavish amount of adjustment screws. The, let us call it, the Canada and Portugal methods follow a more modern method of selective assembly with a minimum of final adjustments.
What is the real story? Every small batch manufacturing process starts with the machining of parts and the assembly of these parts by human labour to a finished product.
Machining of parts to the required dimensions and accuracy depends on the combination of tools and material, on the experience of the operator and on the use of measurement tools to ensure that the machined products are made within specified tolerance ranges. The operator has to fix the metal part in the machine, adjust the tool, select the speed and cooling fluid and inspect the tool to see if it it still fit to work as required. Machining is expensive and time consuming. When labour is cheap, as was the case with the classical Wetzlar method, it makes sense to delegate the responsibility for the final quality to the assembly process. Here it is possible and even necessary to adjust and fine tune the components to a level that satisfies the demands for a precision engineered product.
When leitz shifted production to Midland, all original Wetzlar machines were moved to the Canada location. But most of the original workforce in Germany did not move to the new location. So new personnel had to be trained and some components were treated differently. So some blackening of gears was dropped as not necessary for the durability of the product. Here we see the same process as in the car industry. At first the parts were over dimensioned to make sure they do not break under load, and later it was established that too much metal was used. If we define accuracy as the ability to produce parts within specified dimensions, the blackening of some surfaces is not part of the quality requirement.
In the course of the evolution of machine processing, more accurate parts could be produced, even when using the same equipment. The original brass components had one problem: machining produces heat and the cooling of the parts distorts the dimensions that had to be rectified during final assembly. So new materials that do not deform during cooling were selected. With more accurately shaped parts the assembly process becomes easier and only selective assembly is required. This is more efficient and produces the same or even a better result. The M6 was made and assembled following this process: better machining and less work during assembly. Indeed the M6 has more non-metal parts (some would say ‘plastics’) and some changes of parts (the film counter is stamped and not engraved), but this does not contribute to the ultimate functioning of the camera as a photographic tool. It is an element of nostalgia to lament the disappearance of the classical production method. The functional view is to appreciate the tool as a precision instrument. There are many roads to perfection in manufacturing methods and collectors and historians would be well advised to stay in their field of expertise (finding exclusive models with unknown specs as example) and should not recounting myths about manufacturing methods they do not really understand.



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