On the phenomenon of Leica bashing

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A little while back I read the article “Life With A Rangefinder, Plus Street Photography Tips” by Michael Toye and I was a little surprised by all the negative reactions to it.

Granted, where it comes to street photography the article remains a rather general account and stays somewhat on the surface of the topic. With regards to rangefinder cameras it also mostly talks about the Leica, probably because the Leica M8 and M9 remain the only digital rangefinder cameras available. Since the article was published on a site geared towards digital photography of course Leica has to feature prominently when the author talks about rangefinder cameras. However, despite these shortcomings I still enjoyed reading the article, probably because I’m a street photographer and a rangefinder enthusiast myself. I own two analog rangefinder cameras – a Zorki 3C and a Zorki 4K – and I’m saving for a Leica M6 as well. Personally I didn’t learn anything new from the article, but I would think that someone just starting out in street photography might gain some insights from it. Why did the article get such a bad response?

The strange thing is that people didn’t really comment on the article itself so much, but instead the Leica bashing immediately took over the comments. To me this was surprising, because there are good points in the article as well. Just like Toye I have had better luck with zone focussing than with autofocus in street photography, so that’s a great tip even for DSLR users. You need a lens with focussing scales though, which means that it doesn’t apply to Micro Four Thirds users so much. Maybe that’s one of the problems. However, also the MFT people aren’t left out, since he speaks of looking like a tourist as a plus. This also fits my experience. People feel much less threatened by a person with a small camera, because that’s what tourists carry. And if you know the quirks of your specific camera then the autofocus isn’t too much of a problem either. So, isn’t there stuff in there for everyone? Why reduce it to an article about Leica?

Maybe the words “serious street photographer” in combination with a specific type of camera tripped people up here. Careful reading of the article would have revealed though that all arguments in favour of the Leica do point to size, image quality and the shutter sound, not that Leica is the one and only option.

Yes, of course Leica is expensive if you buy new and go digital, so some people think it’s overpriced. However, when we’re talking about quality it’s not even that much more expensive. I can get a used Leica 50mm lens for 1600€-1800€, a new professional Canon L 50mm for 1400€. The Canon lens will probably need servicing in 10 years, the Leica lens in 20-30, even used. That’s the kind of quality we’re talking about. Let’s face it, professional lenses cost a lot of money, not only with the Leica tag. Compare a 300€ lens with a 3000€ lens from any manufacturer and you will see a difference! That’s what the Leica prices are all about. And you won’t be able to appreciate the difference in quality with the size of the pictures in this article either. I can’t really understand how one comment can say that these pictures could just as well have been taken with a camera phone. I can only conclude that the author of that specific comment was utterly inexperienced. One wouldn’t be able to tell quality differences with this small picture size at all.

So, maybe the negative comments just stem from confusion about the argument. Do they read the article as if Toye assumes that only professional glass works for street photography? Well, agreed then, you don’t need to spend that kind of money just to get into the genre of street photography. You can use a little MFT like I do often, a DSLR if you can handle angry people, and if you only shoot for the screen then by all means, use your camera phones! And also the Fuji x100s, which is referred to in the comments, is a great choice if you don’t mind the fixed lens. It all depends on what you want to do with it and where you want to go, what kind of options you want to have and so on.

The problem with street photography is that it still limits gear choices indirectly. You can get into it with just about any camera, but if you want to have the best image quality without getting angry reactions suddenly it’s slim pickings!

Camera phones and MFTs, not even the x100s (which is a very decent camera in my opinion), compare to Leica (or any professional glass for that matter) when it comes to image quality. Professional DSLR glass might compare to some extent, but it is an entirely different animal also. Believe me, street photography with a DSLR is hard! People are just very hostile towards big cameras and lenses. Since I stopped using my DSLR for street photography I stopped getting into trouble for taking pictures. Professional DSLR cameras are also geared towards shooting a gazillion pictures per second rather than the decisive one, they don’t always have the best autofocus for the job and they still work best with a tripod, because they’re huge and heavy. Even entry level DSLRs seem to weigh a ton when you’re roaming the streets for a few hours. In the end DSLRs are not meant for the street unless you like shooting paparazzi style from a distance that would make even a lion seem non-threatening. And street photography with long lenses doesn’t even work, so what are we even talking about here? I must conclude, if you want professional glass in street photography, the Leica M system is really the only way to go, as annoying as that might be for some haters to admit.

© Lilly Schwartz 2012

Early Leica and its copies | © Lilly Schwartz 2012

It’s also worth considering that the Leica has been a hugely successful and popular camera system. The old M39 screw mount Leica was not only famous for its quality, but also copied many times in its design and function. Apart from the Japanese copies the Leica production machines were also disassembled by Russian troops after WW2 and shipped to the Soviet Union as reparations. Because of this the soviet copies Fed and Zorki look very much like old Leicas from the 1940s. Although the lenses are not comparable to the original Leica ones, the Zorki is a nice rangefinder camera in its own right. My Zorki 3C is from 1956 and still works perfectly after more than 50 years. Leicas from the same era and even older ones are still in use as well. A camera phone will be obsolete in less than 2 years, while an old Leica from the 1940s will keep working at least another 20, 30 or even 40 years if it’s serviced properly! Imagine what kind of build quality has to go into such a piece of equipment so that it keeps working for 100 years! Even nowadays Leica still builds their lenses for eternity, which is the reason why used Leica lenses go for a high price.

And then there is of course the fact that many famous photographers used Leica cameras. Historically Leica was the camera system for documentary style photography already during the second world war. A lot of street photographers earned a living with documentary photography, so of course Leica has a special place in the history of street photography. Whether you want to admit it or not, Leica and street photography go well together, especially when image quality is a major factor in the choice of camera system.

Someone also implied that Leica users are like cult worshippers. That might be true to some extent, but I think it’s a bit like that Canon vs Nikon discussion, only on a camera design level. People start out with a system and they usually stick with it, because they are already invested in it. Changing systems is expensive and I doubt that anyone ever switches from Canon to Nikon or vice versa. Most people don’t start with Leica either, because it’s just too expensive. Leica is also a different kind of camera design, so people are less prone to have a friend who has something similar. If you’re into Leica, it’s likely that you’re the only one in your immediate surroundings who has one. It’s something special in itself. And think about it, if you want to buy a Leica, you’re going to have to defend that investment in front of yourself as well. It’s a bit like buying that professional full frame DSLR when you’re not a professional photographer. Most of us can’t afford that kind of commitment. In the end, if you buy a Leica, then you better become a worshipper, because you just spent a big hunk of money on it!

I see Leica bashing as an expression of the same justification sentiment. We all would like to have that kind of money lying around to buy our dream gear. And even if we do, we might not have the guts to spend this much on gear if we’re not professional photographers. If you can’t afford it and feel the need to bash it, then maybe Leica just represents what you would buy for that kind of money if you could. Maybe it’s just time for you to start saving to fulfil your own gear dreams. And if you can afford it, maybe it’s also an expression of guilt? Guilt over not being more committed to what we love? Guilt over not picking up the camera often enough to warrant the investment in that professional / expensive camera / lens we secretly dream about? Or guilt that we rather bought a new smartphone, a tablet PC or a bigger TV instead of investing the money into something creative?

Whatever lies behind it, I personally don’t see any reason to bash Leica. Yes, it’s expensive and no, that kind of image quality is not essential, but it’s still a fine piece of equipment! And whatever the haters say, I can’t help thinking that they are secretly green with envy. Just like me.

Comments

  • Johnny Collewijn

    Well said and in the end its all about the Image…!!

  • George

    Never is late.
    San Sebastian! Such an impossible place for a street photographer.
    That’s because in a few runs you get literally stuck to people.
    Yes, they care their image. So much that it belongs just to themselves.
    Leica. Do you want to dance with me? That’s how this thing starts. No bash.
    Leica makes good cameras but know nothing about dancing.
    Have a coffee with me

    • Lilly Schwartz

      Are you from San Sebastian then, George? Indeed, it’s a difficult place to shoot street, especially in summer. I won’t give up trying though.
      Leica don’t need to be Comme il faut, it’s enough that they make good cameras that last forever 😉

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