why a Leica?

Why a Leica?
c1954 brochure

Toronto. After the second world war, Leitz found itself competing with an old outmoded design in the screw mount series of cameras. In the 1954, it began to market the bayonet mount series of M Leicas. The M series is still available to-day, over 60 years later, as high end digital cameras.

The question of why remains relevant. In the late 1950s, I was unfamiliar with the M series or mirror boxes since I had only seen screw-mount IIIf cameras. The question of purchase came down to a Leica with what I thought was a squinty little viewfinder for 5cm lenses only or a beautiful Exakta with through the lens viewing in a bright waist level finder interchangeable with a bright eye level finder. No contest. We (me and two other potential buyers) spent weeks mulling over the various lens options. I chose Steinheil and Angenieux even though the lenses of choice were Zeiss. At the time, an Exakta cost far more than a IIIf Leica.

I was a bit disappointed when the cameras and lenses arrived. My lenses were very well made, especially the Steinheil 58mm f/1.9 and the 135mm f/2.8. The Angenieux 28mm f/3.5 was nicely built but suffered severe geometric distortion and had to be used dead level or the parallel lines in the photograph careened wildly. The camera had far more features than a Leica but was not as well made. The metal body was covered with thin glued-on leather, not the robust gutta percha on the Leica.

As I grew older and wiser, I learned even the 58mm “normal” lens had to be a retro focus design (i.e. distance from film plane to back of lens was longer than the focal length of the lens) to clear the mirror. This compromise had a negative effect on resolution. You could see it in photographs of a resolution chart, but not especially in real world photographs. The 135mm lens was a typical long focus lens and by far the sharpest of the trio.

Some years later when testing camera lenses and shutter speeds in Montreal, I noticed a strange defect in the camera’s shutter action – it seemed to pause and lurch forward giving a zig zag trace of light during the test. I carefully disassembled the camera and noticed a lot of brass dust. The shutter stop was nearly worn through. Worse, the brass gears on the shutter curtains appeared to be thin stampings. I bought an older Exakta and stopped using my VXIIa! I also discovered that I had more and more difficulty focussing the camera as my eyes aged.

I bought an M4 Leica and discovered the beauty of its combined viewfinder and rangefinder. Bright lines showed the framing for 35mm to 135mm lenses as well. The accidental burning of a hole in one shutter curtain by ignoring warnings about bright sun and infinity focus, led eventually to another finding. The brass gears on the shutter curtains were thick machined brass. Every part of the body and its covering appeared to be very sturdy. Since no mirror needed  accommodation, the lenses Рeven 28mm Рcould be designed for high resolution.

And I discovered most of my photos were shot using a 35mm f/2 lens made in Canada! When I began collecting screw-mount cameras, I realized another thing. The design was ergonomically correct. It was a case of less is more. The cameras were comfortable to use and the interfaces I used fell naturally in ¬†place in my hands – no groping or shifting, just focus and shoot. An using the hyperfocal distance and f/8 with HP4 or Tri-X outdoors meant focussing was unnecessary too. I even adjusted my shutter speed based on the shifting outdoor light so I didn’t need to fuss with an exposure meter each time I took a shot.

So, Why Leica? Quality and Ergonomics in both the lenses and the bodies!


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