It is quite remarkable how much noise the notification about the Leica M7 makes in the photographic world. The aperture priority exposure automation of the M7 was a first for the Leica M. Till 2002 everybody had to cope with the M6 method: balancing two LEDs by shifting manually aperture and/or shutter speed. In those days it was referred to as pure photography: learning the basics of exposure metering was a must for any novice in the craft. The method pioneered in the Leica M7 is still the exposure method of the M8 to M10. There is no other option if we accept that the lenses have to be handled manuaally and the camera has no electric or mechanical connection to inform the internal microprocessor of the selected aperture and adjust the shutter speed accordingly or the other wy around. What Leica accomplished was standard procedure for all Japanese manufacturers of that time. But Leica was limited in its options because of the manufacturing process and the choice of the mechanically governed horizontally running cloth focal plane shutter.
The fact that silver-halide afficionados within the Leica world select the MP and M-A as their primary tool speaks volumes for the trends: the film community wants a basic camera without any automation (one cannot seriously call the M6 metering system an advanced version of camera automation). The digital community (a much larger segment of the Leica camera buyers) wants as much automation as possible: even the M10 is not enough and there is a tendency for Leica CRF owners to buy a CL or SL to make life easier, but also adds to the weight and volume of the camera they have to handle.
Many comments claim that the instantaneous exposure mechamism of the M7 allows them to take pictures that are impossible to take when one has to measure the expusure with the M6 or even the clip-on exposure meter of the M3 to M4-P (excepting the M5 of course). This is nonsense because a scene illumination does not change that fast. You can take one incident light measurement and use this as a reference. The rest is simple guess work based on experience.
The functionality of the M7 is transferred to the functionality of the M10. With the exception of smooth changes of ISO settings, direct control of the picture on the back screen, selective spot metering and focus control on screen, the photographic experience is the same. What is embraced in the digital M cameras is rejected in the cartridge loading bodies.
There are discussions about the question how and why to buy a cartridge loading Leica camera. Mike Johnston on his blog remarks that the M7 is not a purist camera (evading the definiion of what 'purist' is) but that the M7 with the aperture priority AE enables the photographer (him) to take pictures (presumably in a successful way). Then he follows on his traditional mantra (and one joined by many Leica second hand sellers) that the best Leica film camera is the M4 (the one that should be the best mechanical Leica camera with the most elaborate manufacturing processes. (You can read in my new book that this is not the fact!). There are many hyperboles in his blog about the M7 and film Leicas and lenses (the reference to HCB and his Summicron lens is not supported by any factual research). The long list of comments shows an intense interest in the Leica things,but I have to say that not one comment breaks away from the standard and not very illuminating way of discussing the Leica, the rangefinder concept and the conventional film-digital diichotomy. I really miss Susan Sontag and her comments about photography. At least she elevated the discussion to a higher level.
It might be time to break out of the myth culture surrounding the Leica cameras and to discuss the virtues of the Leica CRF in a more sober way.
My view of the cartridge loading cameras: buy a new M-A (a good original M3 is difficult to find and the modern manufacturing processes, including material choices are now much improved). OR buy a second hand M4-P (the 75 mm frame is very useful) or any one the many M6 bodies on the market. If you are new to Leica and want to experience the digital path buy an M8.2. It hs its problems but coping with them is a very rewarding experience. It makes sense to limit yourself to ISO 640.
This may be true or not. But what does this statement say in reality? Many Leica afficionados have wondered in the past that a product officially discontinued was in the official Leitz/Leica catalogues for many years after the announcement of discontinuance. The basic facts are these:
Leica as a manufacturer of products has spare parts for the repair of that specific product. The parts that are manufactured are primarily used for the production process to manufacture a specific product, say the M7.
The usual process is as follows:
There is a certain sales of a product, say the M7. The number of M7s is set into a graph for the last ten years and a prognosis is made on the sales for the next few years. This prognosis is compared with the number of outstanding orders. The more or less intelligent numerical projection is the number of M7s allocated to be produced over a certain period of time and a new range of production numbers (if the previous one is fully booked) is allocated. The fact is that the number of cartridge loading M cameras is only a fraction of the amount of sensor-equipped M cameras. And within the film-loading M cameras (primarily meant for the East-Asian market) the most popular is the MP and a dwindling fraction is dedicated to the M7. A small production level has some problematic issues: the company can produce a batch of cameras in a short time, assuming that this volume will suffice for several years. The company can also produce the required amount of cameras continuously at a very low level/day and adjust this level depending on the current demand. It is well-known that manual assembly has its problems: a high volume is nice because every worker has the routine and expertise to to the job.
A low, but continuous volume implies that the assembly workers have to get into the flow of assembling the product. And a batch volume once in a period has the problem to find the workers who know how to assemble the product. It depends on the availability of experienced workers and the amount of manufactured parts, The main point is that many parts of the M7 are made by companies outside the Leica factory and they want (obviously!) a certain amount of orders to start their own production cycle. If Leica would say: I want only 100 pieces of a specific component to be delivered at moment X, the third-party manufacturer might say: no way.
There is a complex logistic and manufacturing situation.
Assume for the sake of the argument that the level of sold and ordered M7s falls below a sensible category of production. Then the company may decide to halt production. This does not mean that new M7s are not in the pipeline: the distributor may have a handful of boxes, the dealer may have some.And Leica may have a pile of boxes. It is logical to assume that the company stops the production when sales volumes are below a certain level and the demand can be met with the stock level for the foreseeable future.
The difference between the MP, M-A and M7 are not substantial: the only difference is the addition of solenoid parts for the governing of the shutter. There are no more differences: all other body parts and spare parts are identical.
So stopping the production of the M7 does indicate that only the solenoids are no longer produced presumably because the sales volume of the M7 is too low and Leica has not ordered a new production batch.
We should look at the modern production processes with a fresh eye. My premature announcement of the discontinuance of the AT-135 and the immediate response from Leica that this lens is still available and is being produced does not imply that this lens is actually being manufactured. There may be a number of lenses on stock and the flexible manufacturing that is now standard does a new production run (however small) quite feasible. No one knows what the production managers have planned to do!
There is a clear difference between
being actually produced (on an assembly line)
being in stock and in the catalogue
being out of the catalogue but still in the supply chain
being totally unavailable
Photography is a process. A technical process(to be more exact, with a suit of technical artefacts. Any artefact has a function and a goal. The function of the camera is to produce a photograph, itself also an artefact. The question why we want to photograph has at least three answers: one focusing on the process, the act of using the tool, one focusing on the goal: the finished photograph, the physical print or the virtual image on the screen and one related to viewing the photograph. Most theoretical, philosophical, artistic and social studies take the product and viewing the photograph as their objects of analysis. Studies of the practical use of photography as a physical tool and a physical product are hardly conducted. Still the experience of viewing a photograph and of the act of taking a photograph might be part of the answer.
A good analogy might be the bicycle or the pencil. The bicycle as a tool has a close association with craftsmanship and material quality that at the same time enhances the riding experience. The pencil is a simple and flexible tool that can be used for drawing a machine and writing a novel.
The most important reason for taking photographs is the complex relationship between human vision and the reality around us that is composed of physical things that very dynamically change shape and position. Human perception is not static and passive like the camera light-sensitive surface. Vision studies indicate that only a fraction of the stimuli from the environment reach the retina of the eye and the brain processes only a small part of the impulses that are fired from the retina. There is a biological cause for this behaviour. It takes the brain some time to construct an image from the many random stimuli that are recorded on the retina. The faster this construction occurs the higher the chance that the human interprets the dangers in his environment and can respond accordingly. The urban space is particularly troublesome for the brain to interpret because of the fast appearance and disappearance of dynamically moving objects that change location and shape continuously. This is the reason why we only see a small part of what is really happening in the world around us. Garry Winogrand is famous for the quote that he wants to photograph something because he wants to see how things look like when photographed (“I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed,”). The result however is less important than taking the picture: Winogrand at the end of his life exposed 2500 rolls of film but left them undeveloped, because he preferred the process of getting there: being on the streets, viewing through the viewfinder and releasing the shutter (he used among others a Leica M4-P).
The fact that human perception processes only a part of the visual stimuli can explain why artists and artistically inclined photographers insist on the creative intent of painters and photographers. The photograph is not a mechanical copy of reality as claimed, but the result of an intentional act to reproduce the world as it is experienced and seen.
One can understand the actual reason to take photographs by considering the technical and physical process of photography. There is a strong element of chance involved when taking a photograph. The physical reality around us, the human observers, is dynamically and constantly changing and human vision can only capture a small selection of the scene within the field of observation. It takes the brain about 0.3 second to construct an image from the visual stimuli, processed by the brain. What exactly happens in a narrower time slot (when the shutter speed is 1/50 or 1/1000 sec.) cannot be observed. (It was Muybridge who used time lapse techniques to show the real movement of a galloping horse or a jumping person). Here the element of chance plays its part. A photograph records automatically and indiscriminately everything that reflects or emits light within the field of vision of the lens at every instant however small. That is why a portrait session so often goes wrong and why a snapshot of a gathering of people may disclose a less than flattering posture or gesture. This phenomenon has been referred to as the “optical unconscious”. Every photograph shows details of which the photographer was not aware when the photograph was made. Some photographers have even proposed that the detective approach of a Sherlock Holmes may be required to study a photograph. The important and probably main question when one looks at a photograph is: what happened here?
Why do we like to look at photographs?
The most often cited reason why we like to look at photographs, is the so-called “Kodak Moment”: the moment we all ant to remember as it was at the time of taking the picture. These pictures belong to the dreaded category of the family snapshot, the boring highly ritualised photographs of the socially and psychologically important moments in life. This is the popular version of the visual notebook, which is the idea that inspired Barnack to design his Lilliput camera in the first place. Photographs allow us to study the scene without eye movements and without disturbances because the objects in the photograph do not move and can be looked at as long as we want.
Why do we want to take photographs with a Leica?
One obvious response is based on the fact that the Leica is different. This drive to be different might be one of the main reasons why people buy a Leica camera. In the current world of photography where photographs are calculated images, the visual differences between brands is vanishing and image quality is now so high that performance is converging to a common denominator. Even the subject matter of the average photograph is standardised. The choice of camera model and type is one of the few elements one has to distance oneself from the others.
The attraction of a Leica camera is partly based on the design and partly on the haptonomics of the material. The Dutch photographer has referred to the admiration of the Leica as techno-erotics. This sentiment has also been expressed by Bruce Weber when he remarked that his Leica is like a beautiful woman.
Several others have chosen the Leica camera because so many iconic pictures have been made with the rangefinder camera (ironically most are made with the silver-halide capture technique and only a handful are recorded on solid-state media). The assumption is that using the same camera will inspire the photographer to be as creative as the masters. Leica of course stimulates this kind of reasoning because it allows the company to sell more products. While artists and engineers insist on simple tools (brushes and pencils) to create and design the most complex products, amateur photographers (the professional photographers not excluded!) insist that the tool they need to use must be ‘serious kit’. During the 1950s it became fashionable to describe and promote cameras as precision instruments. The ownership and use of a precision engineered camera became an important element:
“There is something about a group of fine mechanical parts assembled into pleasing shapes with skilful craftsmanship that creates a desire for ownership and a pride of possession, whether it be an automobile, a mobile sculpture, or a camera.” (Lahue)
The Leica camera introduced in the photographic world a new concept: the accurately-engineered miniature camera. The large variety of 35 mm cameras in the 1950s is an example of technological exuberance, the tendency in technology to produce many variations on the basic theme of an invention. Finally the industry settles on a few basic designs, as is the case nowadays in the landscape of digital cameras: there are only three types left with almost identical functions and performance, but different sensor sizes: SLR, mirrorless ILC and HQ compacts with fixed lens. Such is the power of marketing that any serious photographer (casual, hobby and professional) wanted and still wants to be seen with a high quality high performce camera. There were, in that glorious period of silver-halide film domination, several valid reasons to purchase and use the Leica camera. A precision mechanism was required to get the most out of the tiny negatives when big enlargements was the goal. Without high performing lenses and accurately aligned mechanisms this goal is impossible to attain. It is a rather strange freak of technology that software algorithms, inside and outside the camera body are able to enhance the image quality of lower quality source pictures. Still the accuracy of the manufacture and assembly have been increased substantially by using CNC machinery and computer assisted assembly.
Leica purchasers still fancy the idea of careful manual assembly by highly trained craftsmen and meticulously applied quality control by experts. It is about time to shelf this myth. A modern digital Leica camera is more like an assembled computer with printed circuit boards, flexible electronic circuits and lots of software, ASICs and other computer and memory chips,, sealed between two magnesium shells and a metal top and bottom cover. Many components, such as the back display, the main circuit board and the shutter mechanism of the M camera is manufactured outside the company (and additionally in other types; components such as the AF stepper motor and the electronic finder). The Leica company is slowly evolving into a design company where the specifications are developed and the components are made by other parties.
The design and manufacture of the lenses belongs to a different chapter. In the past one had to buy a Leica body to be able to enjoy the characteristics of the Leica optics, but since the introduction of the Konica Hexar RF and the Zeiss Ikon ZM one can attach Leica-M lenses to several camera bodies. The possibilities have been enlarged with the introduction of mirrorless digital system cameras. Leica itself has made the compatibility of their lenses between their different camera models a strategic asset.
There were sound reasons to select a Leica camera. The mechanical quality of the camera matched the optical performance of the lenses, the camera and its lenses were compact, picture taking was fast and intuitive and the rangefinder offered accurate, fast focus and a large clear viewing system, perfectly suitable for the modern snapshot style of the documentary photographers. The 1967 exhibition in the MoMa (New Documents) was a remarkable tribute to this, then new, photographic fashion. Some characteristics of the Leica CRF have been overtaken by current technology: shutters are silent, durability and accuracy have been increased and the automation of most important features (focus, exposure, rapid transport) have stripped the Leica CRF of its prominent role.There are however three characteristics that are still unique, even within the current Leica product portfolio: the compact size of the lenses, the manual operation of the focus setting of the lenses and the rangefinder mechanism. The Leica M in its digital and film-loading versions is the best choice if one wants a camera that connects to the long heritage of the precision miniature camera and at the same time connects seamlessly to the vintage style of photography (in every sense). The characteristics of the camera body (metal parts, efficient layout of the controls and a clean, uncluttered design) are functionally important and add to the feeling of handling a technological artefact of outstanding qualities. One often hears the remark that all Leica cameras have a solid feel and a substantial weight that are an indication of its superior mechanical qualities and high precision of its component. This remark is in itself not convincing: there is no direct connection between weight and solidity on the one hand and the accuracy of manufacture on the other.
What and how do we photograph (with a Leica)
Taking pictures happens in a social space, but we can only take pictures of things in physical space. This is a crucial difference. The camera can only record the materiality of the surfaces of the things in physical space. We can overlay this pattern with a social layer and add meaning to the photograph. This function however is something that the observer adds to the basically neutral photograph. The picture shows a technically fabricated world without any meaning. The early photographers looked with amazement and curiosity at the photographic process that reproduced automatically and without human intervention a part of reality. It is a technical image and has no relation with the visual image that is constructed in the brain. Many observers have tried to compensate this shortcoming by approaching and interpreting a photograph as a counterfeit painting, giving it the status of art. The boundary between art and non-art exists only in museums and academic circles. Photographs are informational (“this is what happened”) and automatically produced. Photographers go to considerable lengths to claim that choice of moment, of position and of technical details (focal length, ISO value, aperture, shutter speed) to determine what is captured and how and what the observer may see. All these arguments are used to insist that photography is not a mechanical/technical but an operator mediated/influenced process.
The physical objects that can be photographed because their surfaces reflect or emit light, determine what will be visible in a photograph. Photography has many characteristics of a signal processing technology: there is a source, a transmitter/decoder and a receiver. It is almost inevitable to discuss some properties of the physical reality to understand what this source is.
Some very critical thinkers claim that our world is a social world and no longer a physical world. In a sense this may be the correct way of approaching the world in which we live.
Reality may have changed, photography has changed as it is following the digital path, but one thing has not changed: the photographer. When one looks at the pictures made between 1840 and now, there is remarkably little change in the style and content of the average and even the artistic photograph. It is common knowledge that photographs can be made for reasons of communication or documentation. The real difference between both processes has still to be explained by the experts.
Recording everyday events, especially those that are happening in urban environments and in family scenes, is the goal of modern culture. Baudelaire started this trend when he wrote about the painter of modernism. Eastman saw a big commercial opportunity in promoting the camera to document leisure and travel activities and targeted the female part of the population to pick up the Kodak Box and start taking photographs. Barnack was at least inspired by these developments and designed the Lilliput camera as an easy-to-use visual notebook.
Most casual and personal photographs show positive events and happy moments. Because these photographs fix some moments in life and the human memory forgets about all other moments, the photographer and the viewers of these photographs have a very selective view of the past. On holiday, the picturesque alleys and the sunset at the horizon are being photographed, but not the beautiful girl behind the ice-cream vendor’s cart. The point of these examples is the extent of the emotional attachment. The alley and the sunset are photographed because of the so-called photogenic content and possibly composition, but there can hardly be any emotional or personal involvement. The pictures are simply too conventional to have emotional value. An illuminating example of this propensity to conventionalism are the many signs by Kodak on locations that offer opportunities for pleasant photographs.
The broad spectrum of everyday events, individual relationships and casual contacts offer many chances to take pictures with an emotional and personal relation to what has been recorded. Sherlock Holmes noted that
“there is nothing as unnatural as the commonplace”.
The Welsh (also Magnum) photographer David Hurn remarked:
“Life as it unfolds in front of the camera is full of so much complexity, wonder and surprise that I find it unnecessary to create new realities. There is more pleasure, for me, in things as-they-are. ”
This combination of things as they are, a personal emotional involvement with these things (and people) and the detective approach (the camera records the unseen things) is the primary answer to the question what and how to photograph with a Leica in this 21st C. The ‘how’ is still a bit underdeveloped (pun not intended). The Leica camera has become famous because of the image quality of its lenses. Today one would almost automatically select one of the digital models of the Leica M CRF. The performance of the lens is in this case clearly connected to the software inside and outside the camera. The quality edge is eroded however, partly because many other manufacturers of photographic optics employ the same division of labour. Optical design has evidently reached a platform. There is a limit to what one can accomplish optically and mechanically within a rigorous financial straightjacket. The current optical designs for the Leica (digital) cameras emphasise the high performance at the wider apertures and the (emotional) quality of the out-of-focus areas (the so-called boke(h) effects). The result is indeed impressive, but the cost is high (the selling prices are sky-high, regrettably matching the physical volume of the lenses).
The silver-halide technology has a simple and clean-cut physical process. The lens has been designed to be a self-sufficient and separate link in the imaging chain that also includes the silver-halide emulsions and their specific characteristics. Both elements are separately optimised based on their specific qualities, but in tandem. The famous increase of micro contrast of the Leica lenses during the 1960s has been inspired by the introduction of high acutance films and developers.
For the style of imagery, defined by a radically personal, and emotional photography of everyday happenings (instantaneous photography) where chance plays an important role (the unexpected always happens!), the Leica CRF with its small volume, compact lenses and fast intuitive handling is a very good choice. The film-loading models have several advantages besides being part of the long and famous pedigree. They connect acutely with the essence and experience of the photographic process (the materiality that is), the handling is convenient and with a time lag of less than 20 milliseconds the shutter release is for all intents and purposes instantaneous. The blink of an eye takes on average 1/3 of a second (300 to 400 milliseconds). The average digital reflex or mirrorless AF camera has a shutter time lag of 0.15 to 0.05 seconds between pressing the release button and the actual release of the shutter.
There are of course many Leica users who do not want or are unable to process their own black and white films and make prints in the (wet) darkroom. It is possible to simulate the silver-halide photographic process with a digital M camera. These versions have the same rangefinder mechanism and the same compact high performance lenses of their film-loading siblings, but use the semi-automatic aperture priority exposure measurement of the M7. A handheld external exposure meter is always a smart option and pre-setting the shutter and aperture increases the speed of operation. The capability of the sensor and software to compensate for the underexposure (equals a higher ISO setting) is a very positive argument for choosing a digital CRF version. A disciplined photographer, who is committed to follow the analogue path, should select one ISO value that mimics the film speed values (ISO160, ISO320, ISO1250) and stick to this selection for about 35 pictures (the amount of negatives on the usual film roll). The RAW image files are to be ‘developed’ in the computer by a simple program that only decodes the data and converts them to a TIFF file (one such program is DCRaw). Then a number of these images should be printed on real physical paper, preferably A4 size, the standard for wet darkroom printing. This printing stage is very important because it signals the final step in the imaging chain and produces a really interesting comparison with the negative/positive chemical process.
It is quite easy to argue that these restrictions on the functionality of the digital camera and its role in the current imaging chain (where the final result is distributed over a network as a virtual file to be seen on a computer or smartphone screen) are reducing the digital camera to an old-fashioned analogue one.
I would like to argue that this approach might restore the feeling of excitement and wonder that the photographers in the olden times must have experienced.
If this is true, then we can say that the current Leica M imagers are capable of resolving just 40 lp/mm. The current Leica lenses are capable of resolving 80 lp/mm with sufficient contrast and are clearly overkill for the actual imagers (but they reduce the moire effects).
A possible future increase of the amount of pixels to let us say 36 million pixels would give 5000 pixels per image height of 24mm and a resolution of 1/24/5000/4) or 50 lp/mm. A hardly impressive increase in performance.
The disappearance of this special world of photography can be traced very easily to the emergence and rapid adoption of the digital image technology since 2000. When the Leica company introduced the Leica M9 in 2009 the classical style of the 35 mm miniature camera vanished from the scene. Many Leica users switched from a silver-halide-based photography to a silicon-based technology and tried at the same time to preserve the old world by continuing to take pictures as if nothing had changed. This is a kind of nostalgia that is firmly rooted in the picture style of the 1950s.
There is another kind of nostalgia that can be described with the title of a book, published in 2016: The Revenge of Analog. Superficially considered one may conclude that this movement falls into the category of the old crafts school: some (quite successful) photographers return to the early photographic techniques of collodion wet plate processes. It is rather intriguing that some of the most popular contemporary filters on social-picture media belong to this category of this retro-style.
Old crafts have a few characteristics that are lacking in modern technology, dominated by the computer and its algorithms. Using tools, thinking about materiality and the development of skills are all part of that mythical practice that defines artists and craftsmen. Photography in general and Leica photography in particular have since the announcement of the technical process in the early 1840s and the introduction of the Leica I in 1925 heavily relied on the crafts and arts to evolve into what has become known as the ‘witness of our time’.
The vernacular (popular) discussion about the difference between analog and digital focuses on the coding technique for signals in communication systems. This difference is often described as continuous versus discrete. This approach is certainly correct, but does not cover all aspects. The analog mentality, the tendency to see and interpret the world with associations, models, and analogies is different from the digital mentality that interprets the world as a virtual space that can be computed with numbers and can be mastered with calculations. When you know that this beautiful figure can be corrected and changed at will, there is no reason to want to preserve it exactly as it is. The image file is a matrix of calculated numbers and every cell stands for a single pixel that can be addressed and programmed.
A more interesting analysis of the concept of analog refers to the the related idea of proportion. A certain level of light energy reflecting from some material surface area sends a number of photons to a light sensitive device. In the silver-halide technique this stream of photons produces a chemical reaction that is proportional to the level of energy.
In the digital technique the semiconductor architecture transfers this light energy into a voltage level that can be measured and given a discrete numerical value.
The digital technology is without doubt more efficient, easier to use and produces improved imagery. It is also completely integrated in the techniques of signal processing and the current information/communication technologies (ICT). The modern digital camera (the digital Leica M not excluded!) is only one of the many artefacts that together constitute the contemporary infosphere.
Photography as a distinct social and technical process has changed fundamentally since the period when the amateur photographer had a special status and followed an identifiable cultural ritual, aptly described by Calvino in his short story titled “Adventures of a Photographer”. One could even assert that photography as a separate craft with its special techniques, materials, tools and expertise has vanished and has been absorbed into the general information and communication procedures of today. Theorists have given this whole process of technical and cultural change the name of a ‘digital turn’. In addition to this digital turn we can also observe a ‘visual turn’: the fact that our culture has been transformed into a visual environment where the image plays an important part. Most products and events we see are drawn or photographed or computer generated and most knowledge we have is derived from such images. We live in a vision culture and social media are primarily visual media: obvious examples are YouTube and Instagram. Photography as a process has been incorporated into the general ICT environment. Photographs as products of this process are integrated into the visual culture and even cameras as technical artefacts are increasingly incorporated into other devices and are combined with other devices: even the Leica M10 has a WiFi module and the Huawei smart phone presents itself as a camera.
The photographic camera has vanished as a special tool for producing pictures and the photographic process is also in danger of disappearing from the list of visual crafts. As an art form however photography has never been more important. The postmodernist movement in the arts has secured a place for photography as one of many tools that artist have at their disposal. Photography is part of the practices of artists who use performance installations and other activities to produce the message and the format. Most photographers are not and do not aspire to be artists and stay firmly on the amateur path, initiated by Eastman around 1900 and described by Baudelaire already around 1860.
The Leica camera was the first precision manufactured camera, designed for the amateur (the wealthy amateur to be more accurate). The draft of the original Leica I was conceived by Barnack and his team as a compact camera that could be handled almost intuitively. It was called by Leitz an automatic camera. The whole construction was made of metal, the only material at that time that could be manufactured with the required accuracy that was needed for the enlargement of the tiny negatives. Leitz had, as microscope and instrument manufacturer, enough experience with this material.
For a long period, from 1930 to 1990, the Leica rangefinder camera represented the species of the precision miniature camera and became the reference for this type of mechanical camera. In his book “The Nikon System” of 1965, Crawley could note that the Leica camera stood head and shoulders above all others in its engineering. In the 1969 edition this remark has been deleted, probably because by then the Japanese camera manufacturers had closed the gap in engineering quality. With the introduction of the Canon F-1 in 1970, they forged ahead.
Today, this assessment would hardly be different. The modern camera has evolved from a (mechanical) opto-mechanical instrument into a (digital) opto-mechatronic instrument. Many important components are no longer manufactured by the Leica Company itself and are outsourced to other companies or purchased from other companies. There is a change from vertical manufacture to design specifications, as can be seen in the construction of the Leica SL. The rather romantic idea that highly experienced workers manually adjust and assemble the camera with great care is no longer appropriate if it ever was. It is evident that the manufacturing technology, based on CNC machinery has increased the accuracy of components. Computer assisted assembly has replaced the manual adjustments. When Leica discusses the superiority of their manufacturing quality, they most often refer to the optical design and manufacture of optical elements. Optical quality is now influenced by the power of the signal processing algorithms inside the camera and on the computer and no longer the isolated part in the classical imaging chain.
The Leica user in the 21st C is confronted with a number of choices that was absent in the period of silver-halide films and mechanical cameras. Confronted with the dual tendencies that photography has been integrated into the visual culture and absorbed by the IC technologies and is therefore disappearing as a distinct social and technological process, the main question would be: “why do we photograph?” This question is even more relevant because of the billions of images that are being made every day of everything. The next question would be to ask if we do take pictures why use a Leica camera? And the final question, after having answered both previous questions in the affirmative, would be: “What and how do we photograph?” These questions are not new, but need a new answer.
Change of link 30/04/18 16:14 In order to comply with the new EU regulations for privacy I have updated my site with a SSL connection. A change of link is necessary: from www.imx.nl/photo to photo.imx.nl. You will be automatically redirected to the new site if you use the old address. It is however nice if you switch to the new address. Thank you.
This is the title of a song by the Beach Boys and the subtitle of The Hobbit. It is also a reminder of the trend to the revenge of the analog (the recent book by the journalist Sax). As soon as the dichotomy "analog(ue) - digital” is mentioned you seem to touch a sore point in contemporary photographic community. The person who does not bow to the digital superiority and efficiency is a Luddite, a dinosaur and a nostalgic old fashioned idiot who does not understand the signs of the times. There is no doubt that the digital transformation of many parts of the modern technological spectre and the current society and culture has and will have unforeseen consequences. Never say that something is not possible. Sax in his book refers to a post digital era. It seems not possible, given the rapid and successful pace of the digital transformation. And do not mention this possibility to the Leica management: they will swoon and deny it, because they have set all their cards on the digital photography. There is still a small corner (not visible for visitors) in the factory in Portugal, where the old machinery is working and producing old-fashioned M-cameras (M7,MP, M-A). This is all that is left from the proud Wetzlar days when cartridge loading cameras where the ne plus ultra, the alpha and omega of the goal and raison d’être of the company.
There is currently a feeble new spring of chemical photography (often but erroneously referred to as analogue photography). The advocates of the film photography are enthusiastic, but it should be mentioned that Kodak now produces 1% of what it did in its heyday. The prediction of the disappearance of the film is also a bit overhyped. A new technology may disrupt a previous one, but is hardly ever the cause of its extinction. One point should be made at the start: the digital technology (computer based image and signal processing) is more efficient and more productive than its film cousin and the performance of the calculated image is in most cases better than the chemically processed version. At least it is much easier to produce a good image (defined as a sharp picture with full tonality). The content of the image however has not changed since the days of the Daguerreotype.
I use both technologies and select the one that is best for my purpose. It is as with classical cars: for normal traffic and holidays you are well advised to select a modern car with an efficient engine and lost of electronic assistants that make life on the road when driving much easier and safer (presumably!). When you wish to experience the road and the enthusiasm of driving nothing is better than a classic British two-seat tourer. Motorcyclists would prefer a two-cylinder Norton or BSA.
To experience the ‘good old days’ and the immerse myself in the golden age of the precision engineered mechanical camera I am going to use a 50 year old Leica M3, a 50 year old Weston Master exposure meter, a 50 year old film (the ‘new’ Ferrania P30) and a modern Apo-Summicron-M 50 ASPH FLE and the APO-Summicron-M 90 mm ASPH. The P30 will be developed in Kodak D96 (Also an age old chemical). Remember that the Kodak D76 was announced in 1926 and the Agfa Rodinal was mixed around 1900. It is indeed astonishing that such old technology can challenge, but not surpass the current digital imagery. Speed wise there is no competition. The P30 can be exposed as EI 50 and the same quality is easily attained with an SL at EI 5000.
The picture below shows my nostalgic set: included is a Lamy fountain pen and a Moleskin notebook. There is no EXIF to be assigned to the negatives and a notebook is the inevitable choice. The advantage is that I can also note all things I thought and experienced when taking the picture. The EXIF data do not show the mental musings.
The image files in the camera are processed by unknown algorithms. It teas a long study to explore what is happening and this study extends to the computer programs to. Here we have a real black box when using Photoshop. You know the input and the output, but what exactly is happening inside the program is a guess. There are many receipts in books and on the internet in the style of "Do A and B and C and you get D.” But no-one explains to you: the layer you are applying or the slider you are moving functions as follows: it adds a value of +10 to every pixel with original value below 100, unless there is a neighbouring pixel with a value of 36. Only specialised programs show you the exact values of every pixel in the image file.
Compare this to the negative where every small area can be measured with a microdensitometer and its value determined. Chemical developers are explained in detail in the composition of the chemical elements and the working of every element is described. Analogue is in effect proportional and where the calculations are exact (it is 125 and not 126), the chemical process is proportional (the density increases by 20% when the development time is lengthened by 50%.)
This is the nice thing about the chemical process: with experience you get better and you can predict the effects with confidence. The digital photographer would counter: I am not interested: everything can be changed in a later stage.
The difference is emotional and not technical: the classic car has a manual gear box and you shift up and down while paying attention to the amount of revolutions, the vibrations and the sound. The modern car driver sees a blinking number on his dashboard and shifts because the programmer thinks this is the best way. Experiencing the real thing is no longer possible with a digital camera: the whole process is virtual, efficient but not very inspiring. That may be the reason why users of digital cameras are so focused on technical details and technical functions: this is the only way to experience some reality. The digital process is rather fluid: take a picture or a series of pictures, upload a selected few via wifi to the cloud, apply a handful of filters and distribute the file to a range of social media where it will be commented.
Compare this process with the chemical trajectory: Take a picture, wait a week to develop and study the 36 negatives. To develop you have to put the film in a developing tank, prepare the chemicals and proceed, looking at time, temperature and movement. Then do the same in the darkroom: select a negative, project it in an enlarger, determine time and gradation and so on. What a waste of time would exclaim the digital photographer and see the grain and the dust specks. Nice to experience the real thing, says the film adept. Why not do both when you have the choice. That is why I go for the 50year old procedure.