Friday, 19 September 2014

The day Leica left me

My M2, dated 1962 - just like me.  It's the last Leica I shall own. Funny how they have just brought it out again at Photokina 2014 in the form of the M-A...

Hello.  It's been a while.  It's about time I wrote again.

Those of you who have followed my meanderings over the years will know that I have used Leica rangefinder cameras for quite a while; their use was indeed the inspiration for the naming of this blog.  I bought my first - a secondhand M6, in the Summer of 1992; I recall the date because just a couple of months later we crashed out of the ERM and I remember the worry of having made such a large purchase at a time of economic uncertainty, and with a baby on the way.  The following Spring my Son was born and my M6 was there to record the event, loaded with Fuji 1600 colour print film.  That first foray into Leicadom was done on a budget; I managed to accumulate a Dual Range 50mm Summicron, a Collapsible Elmar 90mm f4 and a "bokeh king" 35mm Summicron IV.

Those were happy and carefree days.  My only companion in Leica ownership was Gunther Osterloh's book on the M system - the first one out of which the pages fell if you looked at it sideways.  I had no idea what Photokina was, much less anything of Leica's corporate structure or the parlous state of it's finances at the time.  This was just pre-internet, remember, pre-social media, pre-forums, pre-smartphones, pre-digital photography, in fact pre-just about most of the things that make the modern world spin at the speed it does.

It was not a smooth path for Leica, back in those early days; other systems competed for my affections.  My M6 co-existed alongside Contax SLRs, in particular the RX which came out in 1993, and was an adjunct to my Zeiss-lensed SLR system, rather than my main camera.  I was in my thirties, and thought nothing of lugging a big LowePro or Domke bag over my shoulder for hours on end. When Contax brought out the G1 in 1994 I acquired one and then when the G2 arrived in '96 my M6 and all the lenses went to finance a G2 with the 35mm and 90mm Sonnar to sit alongside the G1 with it's 45mm Planar.

I was happy with the swop; I even wrote an article about the G2 and just how good it was compared to the M6...


All was not right.  I yearned for the purity of the Leica M, the certainty that if I got it wrong it was my fault, and not a problem with the autofocus or the autoexposure, or the auto... This dissatisfaction grew, until I flipped back the other way - losing hundreds of pounds in the process - and re-acquired another M6 with a late model 50mm Summicron.  Over the years, the Contax SLR system faded away, replaced in my bag by Nikon, but the Leica Ms remained a constant.

More lenses were purchased, including a 50mm Elmar M - possibly my favourite lens of all time - and others from 28 to 135mm, not to mention various Voigtlander lenses including the delightful 40mm 1.4.  The M6 was joined, then replaced by, an M7 .85 -  I had one of the first half dozen into the country. Over time, I diversified, with forays into LTM - a beautiful black paint IID - and even into the R system, with a silky-smooth R7, both with lenses to match.  My investment in Leica, albeit in some cases, pre-owned, stretched into thousands of pounds.

In the world of the internet, single-brand forums had started to appear.  I found one - the Leica User Forum, and was one of the earliest to join.  Fair to say it formed a backbone to my photo-social life for the next dozen years, during which I started the One Challenge (one city, one camera, one lens, 36 exposures in one hour, one entry - one winner) that has just celebrated it's first decade.  Also the "D-Lux Challenge" and the "Barnack Challenge", both still going strong.  I also kicked off the Leica Forum Book, which is now in it's third edition and has raised thousands of pounds for cancer research.  I made many friends there, but also saw all too often the darker side of Leica ownership - or obsession; the single-minded snobbery and arrogance that is ridiculed by non-Leica owners is real, believe me.  Part of the problem is the "entry fee" - Leica ownership today is a rich man's pastime and seems to attract more than its' fair share of big, "I'm never wrong" egos with keyboards.

But I digress.  Leica was king of the hill, in the world of 35mm film cameras - and then digital happened.  It took many, not least Leica themselves, by surprise. In the space of a few short years the bottom dropped out of the film market as digital cameras improved exponentially in a short space of time and film simply had no answer once output quality reached the point of acceptability - not even parity, but "good enough".  Leica faffed and floundered, at first appearing to be in denial, then partnering initially with Fuji then with Panasonic to make it's first serious forays into the world of consumer pixels.  Their first big success was the Digilux 2 (or the LC-1 in Panasonic-speak).  Typically, they knew best, and only produced it in "silver chrome" (painted plastic) and left black to Panasonic.  Although inwardly and optically identical, they were outwardly two different cameras in handling and I went for the Panasonic version.

It is interesting to cast the mind back to those early digital days.  Film was still very much the "serious" choice; file sizes were tiny, as were sensors.  Digital was an "as well as" choice, rather than the primary.

In Leica-world that changed with the arrival of the M8 in 2006.  A true "marmite camera", it would be fair to say that the M8 saved Leica by the skin of it's teeth, but not without consequences.  It was just barely good enough, taking M lenses with a crop factor.  It was not the first digital camera to do so, of course - that well-known and hugely respected(!) camera manufacturer Epson beat them to it by two years with the R-D1, a generally better thought-out product, but without the heritage - or the will - to truly capitalise upon their first-mover advantage.

The M8 was a cludge - an M-body with middle-age spread, still made in "the old way" with a mass of circuitry and soldering shoehorned in between the mount and the screen.  M8s were bedeviled with problems from the outset - the infamous magenta colour cast, the coffee-stain, the fragile baseplate lugs - the list goes on.  It didn't help that Steven K. Lee was Leica's CEO at the time - a man so semi-detached from technical reality that he introduced the "perpetual upgrade program" to general derision - albeit sadly there were some who believed him and still harbour resentment towards Leica to this day as a direct result. The M8.2 was a better camera all around, but by then the M9 was on the way.

The M9 was the camera that the M8 should have been, if technology had allowed at the time. Full frame, with a more logical layout and more processor capacity, it announced Leica's re-entry into the front rank of photo manufacturers.  It was not without it's problems - most notably sensor cracking and flaky firmware - but it was an all-around better camera.

So where do I fit in to all this?  The M8 was simply not for me.  It offered no advantages and a number of disadvantages over my M7.  I tried one, more than once, in both original and M8.2 form, but that thick body and the "there's a space, stick it there" approach to button placement left me cold.  I had high hopes for the M9, but with the honourable exception of the full-frame sensor it was still that tubby old M8 in handling terms.  One of the things that had attracted me to Leica in the first place was the elegant compactness of the body and lenses.  At one point I had my M7 and a Nikon F100.  Both could take pictures, but one took up a lot less space and gave my chiropractor a lot less income. With the advent of the digital Leicas much of that advantage evaporated.

I soldiered on with my film Leicas for a few more years.  My film consumption actually increased with the acquisition of the aforementioned IID; while the rest of the Leica world was getting excited about the M8.2, I was getting excited about the results I was getting from a camera that first saw the light of day in the 1920s as a Leica I, and was still going strong more than 80 years later.  I should have known then.

The final estrangement took a while longer; it resulted from two triggers, one technology and the other people-related.  The there-is-a-viable-alternative rot set in for me when Ricoh introduced the M-Module for their innovative GXR digital body in 2009.  To this day this combination outperforms pretty well every other crop-sensor Leica-mounted body.  The Module was made for the rangefinder lenses in a way unexpected from a manufacturer other than Leica - in fact the execution was better than Leica have yet to manage.

Then Leica, in 2012, introduced the inexplicably and confusingly named M9 successor, the M.  Yes, just the M.  You can tell the marketing people have taken over can't you?  I thought that this time, this time, they might give me something I want - the power of digital in a film-M sized body.  Others were doing it, so why not Leica?  C'mon, Leica, this time... Slim down the body, make the lens mount stand proud, if necessary, but give us back that classic shape...


Another chubster.  Another body with the ergonomics of a soap dish.  Another disappointment.

So there I was.  About a dozen Leica lenses, three M bodies (proper M, that is, the M2 and M7, and an a la carte MP4), an R7 and a brace and a half of  of R lenses and of course the IID with a handful of LTM lenses from Leica and Voigtlander. I had already started to deviate, with a GXR, although the handling left a lot to be desired compared to the simple purity of a film M.

When I started to use Fuji X series cameras two years ago, the estrangement took on a new impetus.  Now I not only had a camera system that could take Leica lenses, I had a system that had lenses that were capable of producing results every bit as good.

And it was lighter.

And it was cheaper.

And it was more reliable.

And it was regularly updated.

Let me just focus on that last point for a moment.  One of the joys of film was that you could "upgrade" your camera and lens by dropping in a more advanced roll of film.  Today with digital, it is what it is - except that it isn't.  Ten years ago the average photographer thought firmware was a shirt with a starched collar; today it is the route to owning a better camera two years after you bought it than the day you did.  One of the things that Leica have yet to get right is the understanding that firmware upgrades are not a luxury, they are a necessity.  Companies like Fuji and Ricoh get this. They do not release a camera and let it die on the shelf without "adding value" in the months to come with one or more upgrades.

Now I am a patient man, but my patience was by now exhausted.  What has happened over the past two years is that the composition of my camera shelf has shifted from 90% Leica and Leica compatible, to 90% Fuji.  I have wearied of waiting for Leica to bring out a digital camera that actually appealed to me; a digital M with the svelte dimensions of the film bodies.  Don't let anyone tell you it is not possible - of course it is. Other manufacturers manage bodies of that thickness and less; they have not shrugged their shoulders and tried to make a virtue of middle-age-spread as Leica has.  "Oh but we cannot fit it all in" - then shrink, miniaturise and gain the necessary distance from lens flange to sensor by making the mount protrude... It's not rocket science.

Instead, Leica has brought out a range of bodies of dubious value to try to increase the number of niches in which they play.  As the M has reached stratospheric asking prices new, so the vacuum below has been not-quite filled by the X and more recently the T series.  These are disappointing attempts at digitising the Leica mythos and bottling the M essence in something smaller and cheaper.  This reached it's nadir in the monumentally ill-conceived "Mini M" advertising campaign that heralded the lamentable X-Vario.  The faithful were whipped into a fever of anticipation - could this finally be the "Digital CL" that had been anticipated and requested for so long? No.  What eventually came out was a disappointment, with functionality and performance that would have been average three years ago - and a clip on EVF...  Now, even though the Vario finally received a firmware upgrade at this year's Photokina, it is being very heavily discounted, and appears not long for this world.

The T was the most recent mis-step.  In my younger days, "polisher" was a slang term for a young man who self-abused himself to the extent of going cross-eyed.  What then to make of a video of the new T being hand-polished to within an inch of it's life for 45 minutes...?

...back to the plot.  To summarise, Leica has lost it's lustre for me.  I'm not the first, and I won't be the last.  It's not the end of the world, nor will it be the end of Leica, but I fear it is the beginning of the end.  I was loyal to Leica for a couple of decades; not long in the lifetime either of the company or indeed myself, but long enough to form a physical and emotional attachment.  I care about the company, and I lament when I see the products it is releasing.  I'm not going to turn this into a long "armchair CEO" diatribe - that is not my style - but my disappointment and frustration is palpable.

I mentioned incidentally that there were two triggers to my estrangement.  The first I have now explained, but the second requires a word or two more.  The premier non-Leica funded presence on the web is the Leica User Forum.  As an early member I have seen it grow and change to what it is today - and I do not like it.  A forum is the sum of it's membership and as one who until quite recently did not frequent other forums it has been an eye-opener to me that sarcasm, snobbishness and vicious back-biting is neither the norm nor a necessity.  Oh make no mistake - there are some very good people on there - people I am proud to call friends - but they are out-numbered by a grand guignol cast of trolls, nay-sayers, egocentrics and mediocre snappers longing for some of the Leica magic to rub off on them through the kit they can afford but don't understand.

So, today, I am content.  I have two Leicas still in my possession, my IID and M2, both wearing 50mm collapsible lenses.  They get regular outings, but I no longer share the images I take with them - I just don't need the validation anymore.  Today, I mainly use Fuji.  In the past two years I have built up a collection of three bodies (X-M1, X-Pro1 and X-T1) and nine X-Mount lenses.  I also have a Ricoh GR, which accompanies me everywhere when I am travelling "without a camera".  All of the above have Leica "equivalents" (-ish).  None of the Leica equivalents match the Fujis in any department, but all are more expensive.

Why Fuji? In the X-series they have managed to produce pretty well my ideal range of cameras.  Compact quality (X-M1) Rangefinder-form (X-Pro1) Weatherproof SLR-form (X-T1) all of which take the same lenses.  I'll just say that again, because it is important - all of which take the same lenses.  Thus if I am having a rangefinder day, I take the X-Pro, or an SLR day I take the X-T and I only need one set of lenses.  They take all my other lenses too - LTM and M, plus a scattering of Nikon and Olympus OM primes (great value and compact, and highly usable as a long-lens solution for the X bodies).

The bodies are robust and well-made, designed by photographers for photographers.  Some refer to the rangefinder-form as "retro" but I prefer to think of it as ergonomic; I do not have an eye in the centre of my forehead, after all. although perhaps after 20-odd years of using "true" rangefinders, I am myself retro...

Support is good - on the odd occasion I have had to deal with Fuji UK everything has gone smoothly and reasonably.  Firmware upgrades are frequent, and prove that as a company, Fuji actually listens to it's users. As a result, their cameras get better as the months wear on from the day of their first release. A new X-Pro1 is a great buy these days, less than half the price when new, but twice the camera -  I will vouch for that because I have just bought one.

They have a cohesive product strategy, and a published roadmap - a far cry from the smoke and mirrors employed by Leica, and coming from a film background, Fuji is capitalising upon 70 years of experience and provides profiles that resemble our favourite films.  What's not to like?

Bear in mind that the money I have spent in the past two years or so on Fuji cameras would in the past have been spent on more Leica - if Leica had not left me and my needs largely unmet ever since they moved into digital.  Loyalty is one thing, but it is not blind.  I am content with my choices, and don't regret for an instant the time I spent as a "Leica Ambassador" but they are now on a path that I choose not to tread - Leica and my loss, and Fuji's gain.

The funny - or maybe not so funny - thing is what I mentioned earlier.  Leica's first foray into digital came in partnership with Fuji.  I don't know why that relationship ended, but I'm sorry it did...

1 comment:

  1. Hey Bill. Good to read from you. Lets try to post another comment - the last one went up in smoke.

    Early last year given the choice between a Sony Nex and Fuji XPro, i made the wrong choice basd on size and sensor. The Nex is a good camera, lousy interface below average support for lenses.

    It is good to read about your view of Fuji, maybe I will have another look when a new model comes out.