Imitation… Flattery… and all that

Leica Ad – 1925

Toronto. Cameras basically offer a light-tight means to hold a sensitive media the correct distance from the lens, plus offering a means to allow a calculated  brief bit of light through the lens to properly illuminate the light sensitive media – film, glass, or sensor.

I have always been fascinated by the Leica. In high school a more senior student once showed me his new IIIf – the first time I ever saw a Leica. In Labrador, another person showed me a IIIf but the squinty viewfinder just didn’t compare with the bright viewer of the Exakta.

For some time I believed the adage that Leica was the first commercially successful small camera. In May of 1991 (see Photographic Canadiana 17-2) we hosted Jack Naylor from the Photographic Historical Society of New England (PHS of NE). Known world-wide for his knowledge of cameras and photography, Jack talked at length about his collection. At the end of his talk, Jack handed out one of the documents periodically produced by the PHS of NE for its members. This particular pamphlet listed a number of pre-Leica cameras which were commercial successes, including the tiny Ansco Memo which used 35mm cine film in a slightly different aspect ration than the Leica’s 24 x 36 mm (double cine frame). There is some controversy that the Memo is post-Leica but it first sold in the same period as the first Leica – mid 1920s.

If you chose to collect 35mm cameras from the early to late 20th century you noticed that they had something in common – they all used cine film and they all looked similar! Looks were deceiving. Some of the cameras were better constructed – much better than others. In his book “Miniature and Precision Cameras” Lipinski noted that the Leica did everything the easy way – and patented it.

Other makers were forced to use more complex ways to achieve the same results. In the Zeiss Contax, a vertically running metal shutter – like the miniature slats of a roll-up security door – was used instead of the miniature horizontally running rubberized cloth shutter of the Leica. This gave a shorter shutter speed for flash, and on the surface metal seemed far more robust and durable than rubberized cloth.

Old Leicas usually still work but old Contaxes rarely do. The metal shutter slats were made of sturdy brass but the slats clipped around two delicate silk ribbons to keep the slats  running true. The silk wore out and frayed, causing one side of the shutter to droop. The brass crystallized and broke when the clips were carefully bent out to release the worn ribbons.

But all cameras were similar in shutter speed steps, lens focal lengths, aperture settings, etc. The tiny Leicas were both simple, utilitarian, and ergonomic, a testament to the designer more than anything. Like its microscopes, Leitz made sure the cameras were rigorously tested in the factory.  Shims were used to make the distances precise from  lens mount to film plane, focusing mechanisms were matched with lens focal lengths to ensure the focus correctly tracked from a metre to infinity, gears were chosen to keep the overall gear train within specifications, etc.   In comparison, other cameras seemed bulky or ill made.

My Exakta was disappointing in that it traded off the Leica’s heavy gutta percha finish for a thin leather covering and a far greater number of shutter speeds (12 seconds to 1/000th); a beautifully large through-the-lens viewer and rangefinder for (in those days) very deficient retro-focus design wide angle to normal focal length lenses.

But, post war, Leica messed up its opportunity to create a definitive small SLR to compete with the other makes, staying far too long with its rangefinder M series cameras. Leitz rightly claimed that most photos were taken with normal to wide angle lenses where the rangefinder excelled. Consumers didn’t care! They wanted SLRs – not the rangefinder even if it was more precise.

Me? I switched from the SLR (Exakta) to the rangefinder (Leica M4) in 1972 because my eyes were aging and I could not reliably focus my Exakta in dim light with the sub-telephoto lenses I favoured. I discovered years late that about 80% of the time I shot photos using a 35mm focal length. Only with close-ups did I use longer focal lengths. Today I use a so-called mirrorless digital SLR – a Sony NEX-6.

This entry was posted in camera, people and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.