Alternative views on the Leica world by Erwin Puts

The cult of repairing things

The famous book by Lipinski “Miniature and precision cameras” discusses in depth the mechanism and construction details of the Leica III. The book was published in 1955 and the M3 was just on the market. He noted with some admiration that the Leica camera was constructed with so few parts and that there is really nothing inside the body. What is not there cannot become defect. The legendary longevity and reliability of the Leica camera is surely connected to this mechanical frugality. Over the years more and more features were introduced into the body and the M6TTL may be considered the final step before the M7 reduced the number of components. The trick was electronics, then a major step, now a rather primitive technology.
My M3 is now more than 50 years old, can be repaired by any competent service engineer and will continue to function as originally specified by another 50 years.
The other side of the medal is the modern M: an opto-mechanical-electronic construction that inside shows no resemblance to the gears and springs that populate the M3. The digital M cameras can hardly be repaired and one has to cross one’s fingers that the durability matches the price and the functionality. (The SL’s mechatronic construction is even less repair friendly). The disaster of the M8 does not bode well for the digital M products. One has to make a clear distinction between durability and longevity on the one hand and reliability and precision on the other hand.
The older (pre-digital) Leica’s are without doubt very durable and the reliability and precision is the result of careful choice of materials, assembly and adjustments.
The digital M’s durability is a big question mark, but the short product cycles and necessary (?) replacements every four years mask the problem. The precision on the other hand is now greater than it was because of the tight integration of software with the electronics and mechanical components inside the camera and much better manufacturing and assembly methods. The computer as example now does the rangefinder adjustments, that had to done by hand by experienced and trained workers.
The modern consumer electronics economy thrives on regular improvements and regular replacements of products. This strategy is very much ingrained in the mind of the consumer. As soon as a new product has been announced the discussion starts already about the successor model. There are only a few companies that resist this attitude. Rolex advertises with the fact that you buy a Rolex for your grandchildren. An M3 was also bought with the intention that it would serve a lifetime of photographic activities and might be a good component in an inheritance. The current digital M will not be part of the photographic heritage in 25 years.
I still own an M8.2 and it suits me well. What it does and how it does it, is very satisfying and the performance is almost as good as what an M (240) does. Pixelpeepers would claim otherwise, and bottom line they are correct. The important question is not what the camera can do, but what you expect from the camera and what you need from a camera. There is however always that nagging doubt that I do not want to become too much attached to the M8 in case f a fatal failure. This approach also applies to the Monochrom 2. A fabulous camera with outstanding performance, but again: what happens when the electronics die? Buying a new or improved model and throwing lots of money away?
The new M-A I use with confidence because it can be repaired by the same person who services my M3 and M7.
The possibility of repair creates a bond that goes beyond the stark functionality and performance of a product. Appreciation of value is closely connected to repairability and longevity.
Let us be sane again: the A4 print made from a negative exposed in the M3 is identical in visual and technical quality to the same sized inkjet print made with the Epson 3000 and a RAW image file extracted from the pixel array bombarded with photons in the M-240. This is a sobering conclusion. Of course it is nice to be able to shoot 500 pictures in one hour without replacing rolls of film, rely on exposure bracketing to get the correct exposure and have LV with a smart electronic horizon to hold the camera level. This line could be projected in the rangefinder too I suppose.
I once asked the engineers of the digital Leica camera why it was not possible to create a modular camera that could be upgraded component by component when the modules themselves could not be repaired. The answer was quite simple: to change the sensor would imply to change the whole printed circuit with all electronics and connections. This is almost like assembling a new camera. It ca be done however and LG has demonstrated a start with its new G5. The ill-fated LUP (Leica Upgrade Program) for the M8 was a marketing failure. but is was the expression of the engineers of Leica to hold on to the traditional values of the company. If an M9 fails the response of the company is simply: buy a new M.
Instead of more features I would plead for less functionality and more modularity.