I like old film cameras. I like them a lot. But some brands and designs simply don't attract me, and my greatest heresy is probably my inability to warm to Leicas.
Leicas are ‘the’ 35mm camera, even today. Sleek rangefinders which remain at the top end of camera production, which continue to feature in films whenever a ‘classic’ film camera is required (see Vicky Christina Barcelona), which have a user list incorporating literally dozens of famous photographers (Robert Capa, Cartier Bresson, Raymond Depardon, etc etc.). They’ve been called ‘the most perfect tool of the 20th century’. They remain the ultimate fashion accessory too-a Hermes limited edition Leica M7 for example will today still set you back $12,950. Therefore nothing any individual can say will ever now reduce the Leica’s heightened ‘symbolic’ commercial value-they’re regarded as the best, hence you pay the top dollar.
But of course all this just ultimately leads me to ask-really? I mean, really? This may be reverse jealousy because I will never be able to afford one, but there seems to be a degree of over-egging the pudding here. Let’s look at some of the Leica’s legendary qualities:
(1) Quiet. Quiet as any rangefinder inevitably will be, compared to an SLR, but then any TLR will have the edge here-if you want quiet, you don’t get any quieter than the literally tiny ‘click’ on my Lubitels.
(2) Great lens quality. Yes, ok-but greater than Carl Zeiss lenses, or some of the Russian Zeiss Tessar clones like the Helios lens or Jupiter 8? Subjective of course, but then you’re being asked to pay a LOT extra for a subjective opinion.
(3) Great image quality. No doubt at all, but at the same time the image quality on any 120 medium format photo will pretty much trounce ANY 35mm photograph, and larger plate cameras represent a step up again. 35mm format is what it is, a (good) compromise between frame size and detail.
(4) Tank-like reliability. Perhaps true, but plenty of other all-mechanical cameras can claim this as well.
Of course, if you lust for a Leica but can’t afford one, you can get a great Leica copy in the form of a Fed or a Zorkii. But here’s the final twist in the tail that turns me cold to Leica as a camera design-with both an old Leica, and the Leica copies, the bottom-loading design requires you to trim the front end of the film to a precise taper in order to load film properly. Made a mistake with the scissors doing this? Then any sharp edge on the film will catch in the shutter, jam, shred your film, and reduce your camera to a pretty paperweight when you attempt to wind it on. In the end I like the LOOK of a Leica, but I’m not sold on either the massive added value of a Leica itself, or the user-friendliness of the many (top rate) Leica copies. Getting the scissors out to trim and load my film is just that extra little kink which tips the whole design for me over from interesting to potentially really annoying-and believe me, I’m used to ‘kinks’ in loading my TLRs and Pentacon Six.
For looks, image quality and reliability, I’ll go with my 1950s Praktica FX2 instead.
It’s slim and sort of rangefinder-like in appearance with a long black body, but is in fact an early (really a 1940s throwback) SLR-with top down waist level viewfinder, a great Zeiss Tessar lens, and a simple snap-open back. It has the charm of early Leicas and Leica copies, including a shutter speed dial that actually whirs and spins around when you trigger the shutter, but it requires neither the big bucks (due to it’s lack of cult status), nor the finickity loading of a Leica, Fed or Zorkii. Some of course will never be able to live without a Leica or the (really excellent) Russian Leica copies. I can take it or leave it. Vive la difference.