Alternative views on the Leica world by Erwin Puts

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.