Wednesday, February 5, 2020

I Like Leica

Praying woman at a secret church meeting somewhere in Moscow, March, 1990

In fact, I love Leicas. I think they are the ultimate and perfect expressions of the camera-makers art. When I wrote in a previous post about "those miniature mechanical. . . marvels with their enticing clicks and whirs," I had Leicas especially in mind.

But do I use them? No. I like Leicas, but Leicas don't like me.

In the late 1960s I was living in Miami and working as a teacher. For some time I had been looking longingly at the cameras in Brown's Camera Shop in North Miami, where I could have bought a mint Leica M3 with a 50mm Summicron for $275. But when I got a $300 windfall, I instead used the money to buy a Nikon F and a pair of Tamron lenses, mainly because with the 135mm f2.8 telephoto lens I could photograph my school's football games.

I did later buy a Leica, a IIIC with a 50mm f2 Summitar lens for $40 at the Bird Road Drive-In flea market, but found it inconvenient to operate. However, I didn't want to give up on the idea of rangefinder photography. In fact, I tried for 40 years (no kidding!) to make myself into a rangefinder shooter because I believed all the many, magazine articles written in praise of the rangefinder approach to photography and because many of the photographers that I most admired shot with rangefinders. 

Along the way, I owned a number of fine cameras: several Leica M3s, a lovely Canon P, and numerous non-interchangeable lens rangefinders.

But I sold my last Leica, a treasured M3 with 50mm Summicron in 2010. The Retina IIc and the Olympus SPn went two years later. They were part of a world in which I do not belong and which I left with some sadness. I still believe all the things I read, but I also came to believe that there is such a thing as a rangefinder temperament, and that I do not have it. I reluctantly faced the reality that I am not and never will be a rangefinder shooter.

In my heart I’m a globe-trotting, Leica-toting, black & white documentarian of the human condition. 

Well, I have indeed done the globe-trotting documentation thing, and some (but not much) of it was with Leicas. But mostly it was done with a bag of Olympus OMs. Because in reality I am an SLR-shooting, zoom lens, color photographer whose style (I flatter myself) probably most resembles that of Sam Abell.

But I have wondered many, many times how my life and career would have been different if I had learned serious photography with a rangefinder system instead of an SLR.

Note: Commenting on my previous post about Leicas, reader and fellow photo-blogger Dennis Mook gently called me to account for not mentioning other fine rangefinder cameras such as Nikon, Contax, and Canon. My only defense is that the majority of rangefinder shooters used Leica, so I used Leica to stand for the whole category in my post. 

About the photo: In March of 1990 the Berlin wall had fallen just four months previously. But in Russia, persecuted evangelical Christians were still meeting secretly for fear of the government. The photograph was made with a Leica M3 and 50mm f2 Summicron lens on fast but grainy 3M 640T film pushed one stop to E.I. 1280.


  1. Because I've collected cameras for 44 years now and have tried all kinds of gear (though never a Leica) I have discovered that I'm an SLR shooter through and through, and that's just all there is to it. There's a part of me as well that thinks I should be shooting something finer. But I just keep coming back to my SLRs as my go-to tools. At some point I just realized that I should just accept it and move on!

  2. Yeah, same here. Although I do have a very big soft spot for TLRs and enjoy using them. For the past several years the only film I've shot has been Fuji's Astia or Provia in my Minolta Autocord.