Get a grip: the 107-year debacle of small-camera ergonomics
er·go·nom·ics | \ ˌər-gə-ˈnä-miks: an applied science concerned with designing and arranging things people use so that the people and things interact most efficiently and safely (Merriam-Webster, 2021).
In the industrial setting, ergonomics is a matter of avoiding unnecessary fatigue, injuries, and discomfort. It is intended to promote both safety and efficiency. Ergonomics was first invented in 1949, after Barnack before the Leica M camera. There does not seem to be any suggestion that any camera made before about 1970 cared much about this science. Certainly, the Leica M camera – and most other small cameras – ignored this important principle of design.
Did you know that having an opposable thumb is not necessary to grip a camera the way Leica intended? It should not be a surprise that primates and even lower animals like raccoons have the right types of hands to grab cameras. Because small cameras are not actually designed for human hands. Let’s discuss small (6×9 and smaller) camera ergonomics in six rubrics.
1. How do you hold this?
Even before ergonomics had a name, small camera design went off the rails when small cameras were invented in 1914. Oskar Barnack – who being born in 1879 undoubtedly had shorter fingers than 21st-century camera users – designed the Ur-Leica with slippery round ends encased in a textured surface. This leicapithicus wetlzarensis was designed around a focal-plane shutter that did not cap and an arrangement that required a separate viewfinder. It was light, compact (65mm top to bottom), and for its weight and intended function, workable. Because you had to put the lens cap on between shots, it was not a speed demon; you were going to take the camera down from your eye to reset for the next shot costing a king’s ransom on rare double-frames of 35mm movie film. You could almost call it the mini 4×5 of its day.
There is a trope about the solid rocket boosters for the Space Shuttle ultimately tracking back to the width of a Roman horse’s haunches. Whether or not that is true is a much more difficult question than tracing our conception of how a “small” camera should appear. The Platonic form of a camera is, after all, a Leica M3, which for dimensional purposes is a taller and heavier Ur-Leica, matching dimensions to the single millimeters. The Leica inspired many also-rans from Europe and Japan, some of which turned out to be better, but all of them have the same formula: small squarish body, lever wind, viewfinder on the left. Most fixed-lens rangefinders were actually smaller than the Leica; once you substitute a leaf shutter in the lens for a focal-plane type, the body can be even tinier.
What’s wrong with this design? If the correct method of holding it it requires a paragraph-long written description, it is not a tool that is ergonomic. Leica’s own user manuals illustrate the poor hand-fit in pictures, but the written camera-holding instructions call into question whether it is the human who is being forced to conform to a tool.
Look at a Leica III or Leica M manual. Actually, look at a bunch of them. Needless to say, the right way to hold a Leica has evolved since the days of Barnack. The first suggested M grip, which tracked how the III was supposed to be grasped, completely disengaged your left hand from the focusing ring, meaning you would never be able to refocus and re-shoot quickly. The III series has you cupping the bottom corners of the camera in the fleshy parts of your palms. At least one version of the M3 manual says nothing about how to hold the camera; the more detailed one has the corner-to-palms technique again. If you look at other brands’ camera manuals from the 1940s to the 1980s, you will see a dizzying array of hand-cramping contortions.
The right hand position has stayed mostly the same. What you are supposed to do with your left has changed over time. Here is the end point of Leica’s evolution of descriptions with the M7 and M8/M9 (the M8 is shown; the M9 has the same description with the little Ikea Man holding the camera):
“As a practical accessory, we recommend the Mx hand grip which allows you to hold the Leica M[x] extremely steadily and to carry it with one hand/while keeping your hands free.” This begs the question – why can’t you hold an M extremely steadily without another $400 doodad? And how was it a hands-free device for the M[x]?
The record – at least as expressed in successive generations of Leica manuals – reflects a variety of “right” ways to hold a camera, then “suggested” ways (M6), then “correct” (M7/M8/M9) and with the M240 and onward, no guidance. The M240, in fact, moves the discussion of the optional M hand grip to the “accessories” section at the end. I guess given the number of Leica owners with postgraduate degrees, it’s part of the 400-level course you were supposed to take before you started at this school.
What you are even supposed to do with your right thumb seems to be a matter of interpretation, some manuals showing it, some not. The M6 manual references resting your thumb on the lever “in the standoff” position. The M240 and M10 have a nub on which to rest your thumb. The M10-D has an ersatz M2/M3 focusing lever/thumbrest whose position does not quite match an original lever kicked out. The new $300 Leica thumb-rest looks puts your thumb in the same position as the M10-D. As noted at the beginning of this article, the user of one of these cameras does not need an opposable thumb. This camera might require a totally different type of hand.
Hint: if you have long fingers, a good one-handed grip on an M240 is to put your index finger on the trigger, your middle finger on the function button, and your ring finger on the front of the camera. The camera can sit on your curled little finger (imagine a C parallel to the bottom of the camera). Your thumb rests vertically against the grip nub/control wheel. See? You can control everything, and your ring finger is still available to accidentally press the lens release.
They say if you injure your leg and then limp enough, you don’t notice it any more. This is probably the only reason that Leicas (or similarly-configured rangefinders) are thought to be “ergonomic” – it’s just the way it’s been for 100 years. Were “ever ready” cases really useful for protection – or were they makeshift “fat grips” around ill-shaped cameras?
As much as things like the Argus “Brick” are lambasted for their funny shapes and palm-poking corners, something that fills the hand is not all bad. Ask anyone who shoots Olympic pistol. But you can also ask Nikon and Canon, who figured out in the late 1980s that a fat right grip is advantageous, even if your winding motor is so small it fits inside the takeup spool. In fact, Leica uses that “fat grip” design on most of its non-M digital cameras.
3. The pocketability conceit*
“But wait, the Leica [or insert camera name here] is pocketable.”
Baloney. This might be true of a tiny minority of camera/lens combinations, or 1980s-style pleated trousers, but Leicas generally have not been “pocketable” since the advent of the long aspherical lenses if not since the M3. And grip-ability does not necessarily change the dimensions that would make something “pocketable.” Is a Hexar AF less pocketable with its front grip ridge than a Leica M3 with its flat front? Hardly. Even among other manufacturers of M-mount cameras, the ergonomics have been better, whether it is a palm swell on the back door, a grip ridge on the front of the right grip, or even something like a rubber covering. I suspect it is more Leica’s user base than the company that drives the need to keep things the same. Witness the fate of the CL and the M5.
Interestingly, what encouraged (and maybe forced) small cameras to become more ergonomic was the incorporation of batteries and motors into the right side of the camera, something that came in with cameras like the Konica FS-1, Canon T-50, and Nikon F4. Even in non-motorized SLR cameras, grip nubs began appearing on the right front of the camera (as on the Nikon FA). When you think about putting coreless motors and electronics largely on one side of the camera, and motor-driven shutters in the middle, the mechanisms in the bottom become considerably less complicated (open a manual-wind, mechanical SLR’s bottom plate to see the assemblage of shutter-cocking levers, pinions, and gears). And by a weird twist of fate, the lithium cells best-suited to powering cameras (like the 2CR5) had a chonk factor that made them better candidates for placement in a fat grip.
This brings us to a cruel irony: point-and-shoot cameras in the late 1970s and 1980s frequently had better ergonomics than what we would call “prosumer” cameras today. In fact, many of them have better ergonomics than the Leica, long-vaunted as the enthusiast’s camera. And I write that as a Leica user.
On the other end of the “small” camera spectrum are the ultracompact 35mm cameras (Rollei 35, Contax T*, Nikon 35ti, etc.). In a sense, you can cut them some slack because their major purpose is to be pocketable most of the time – at the expense of handling and durability. These were designed to fit in a sport coat at the racquets club or the horse track, to be shot for fifty or so exposures, forgotten by the owner, sold at his estate sale, rediscovered by some internet influencer, and then driven to stratospheric resale prices that hold up until someone discovers one of the following things: (1) despite often brilliant optics, they are miserable to use; (2) they are not as durable as once thought. Weight versus size is also a factor in ergonomics – and many of these cameras are lightweight and despite their shortcomings, not impossible to use.
*Ok, I only wrote this heading because the Pocketability Conceit either sounds like an old-series Star Trek episode name or a Robert Ludlum novel title.
4. O Camcorder, where art thou?
My maternal grandfather, being a doctor, retired at age 55 – assuming that like most men of his generation, he would be dead at 60. This did not come to pass (he was “retired” for 25 more years…), and after a couple of years of golf got bored and moved into TV production at his local station. Being an early adopter of almost every technology that existed, he would get the latest and greatest video equipment every year. This meant at every Christmas, he would open the trunk of his Lincoln Continental and among other gifts, pull out last year’s latest and greatest video equipment and leave it to the good offices of my parents.
One thing that was always striking about video cameras (and later camcorders) – especially by contrast to still cameras – was the amount of effort put into making them comfortable to use. This was important because the early cameras were really heavy. Pistol grips and shoulder rests for the “camera” were de rigueur when the “recorder” part was a huge heavy hard square silver purse, and even when recording decks merged with cameras in the mid-1980s, the emphasis was on one-hand control operation and anything that made it easier to hold a unit steady for a prolonged period. Zoom controls have always been able to be operated by the same hand that “presses the button.”
The “camcorder” design ethos bled over into consumer “bridge” cameras – the ones designed to bridge the gap between point-and-shoot and full-blown SLR. The Canon Photura, Ricoh Mirai, and Yashica Samurai – variously 35mm SLR and viewfinder AF cameras – acquired camcorder-like morphology, particularly pistol grips that were either parallel to the lens or adjustable. They did not experience some Chicxulub-level event; rather, they just didn’t catch on. In retrospect, it is not terribly surprising; they were expensive, didn’t look like “cameras,” and tended to be bulkier than their blocky cousins.
In an ironic twist, the replacement for camcorders was an atavism. But it was also a reversion to something else. When DSLRs, particularly Canons, became popular for video, they retained their DSLR shape – which was in turn based on a film camera shape dictated by a 35mm frame and the necessary film drive. This spawned an industry of workarounds – cages, grips, handles, and all kinds of other accessories that serve as indictments of functional design. Sony’s selection of a “quasi SLR” design for the A7 series is baffling; the a6x00 series is both more comfortable and (lacking a silly fake pentaprism bulge) true-to-function (as is the new A7C), especially when misused for video.
5. Left eye, right eye, leave me alone
About 25-30% of the human race is left-eye dominant, being made up of about 1/3 left-handers and 2/3 people who are right-handed but use their left eye for tasks involving critical focus or alignment. Eye dominance cannot be changed; this is a matter of hard-wiring from an early age. It is not a matter of visual acuity; it is a how efficiently one eye communicates with the brain.
For people who are left-eyed, cameras with left-side viewfinders automatically cause ergonomic problems with the use of top-mounted winding levers and cutesy “thumb grips.” On most such cameras, winding the camera requires you to move your eye from the viewfinder so you do not poke yourself in the right eye with a winding lever. This is disruptive. The Retina IIc and IIIc, as well as the Canon VI-T avoided this by moving the winding actuator to the bottom – and the Konica IIIA and IIIM avoided this by moving the winder to the front. Although the original Leicavit trigger winder was designed to speed up the knob-wind of the III series, the Leicavit M:
…allows experienced photographers to shoot up to two frames per second without taking the camera from their eye
The only reason you would need a bottom trigger winder to take two frames per second without taking the camera from your eye… is that you are left-eyed. This is likely the same reason that people tolerated Leica’s relatively sluggish motor winders.
Perhaps the most befuddling thing about left-viewfinder cameras is why users are in manuals are shown with both eyes open (left eye just hanging out there; right jammed against the viewfinder glass). For a right-eyed person, this means that your mind will be trying to reconcile a reduced viewfinder picture with an unaided non-dominant eye while supporting the camera against half your face. Consider also that the center point between your two eyes is now even further from the lens axis. If anything, the left eye should be closed.
If you look through the viewfinder with your left eye, conversely, you can jam the camera in a 3-point brace between your nose and eyebrows and block your other eye with the camera body. And it is here that people of Neanderthal ancestry have a secret weapon: brow ridges.
Blessed are those, I guess, who are left-eyed and have access to left-viewfinder cameras without winding levers. For they shall inherit the stable hand-hold.
SLRs are more egalitarian: with their center viewfinders, they exist to oppress everyone. And we shall know their users by the leatherette and film-minder-window patterns impressed into their noses.
6. TLR/MF/UC – WTF?
There is only one reasonably ergonomic twin-lens reflex: the Minolta Autocord, which allows you to hold the camera and focus without shifting your left-hand grip — and to fire and advance with your right hand. This is a massive improvement over the Rolleiflex’s insatiable need for constant hand-shifts (or having three hands if you use the pistol grip). Even in the Rollei’s end-state – the 2.8GX with its huge focusing knob – the operation is barely comfortable. The persistence of TLRs after the war is a strange thing. Germany always wanted to make medium-format SLRs, and a twin-lens was a way of approximating that before the mechanical engineering caught up. But the TLR, especially when used at waist-level, causes strange camera-to-subject angles for humans and is not the easiest thing to focus (at least Rolleis are not – an Autocord ground glass is slightly easier). Rollei stopped developing twin-lens cameras in the early 1960s, eliminated serial production of the F in 1976, and moved on to its own SLRs. Note that the user of the Rollei in the diagram below is not wearing a tie. This is an important safety tip. Neckties had a tendency to get ingested by the Automat’s film-detection roller, leading to asphyxiations. That is why seasoned Rollei shooters only wore ascots or bowties.
But more seriously, medium format has always struggled with how its cameras should be configured, starting with the Brownie that kicked off the 120 format. Some are boxes (like Hasselblads), some are oversized 35mm cameras (Fuji 6×9, Pentax 6×7). The earlier Pentax can be fitted with a bulky, heavy, and still somehow uncomfortable wooden grip. The 67ii finally got the message about having something of a right-side grip.
Other medium format cameras are standardized around Graflex-style film backs that were designed just after the war and make what would otherwise be slim cameras extra thicc. If a Horseman SW612 had a body with integrated film transport, it would probably be slightly wider but a lot thinner front-to-back. The Graflex-style roll back almost always requires an extended or set-back viewfinder so that you can actually put your eye to the eyepiece. Its principal virtue is that it is narrow, but it also sports a complex film path that brings you to this: if you have interchangeable backs, they are sufficiently slow to load that you probably need more than one.
There have been a few scattered ergonomic successes, like the Vivitar flash grip, the Linhof 220, and those camcorder-like SLRs and point-and-shoots from the 1980s. But those are exceptions to the apparent rules of camera-making: (1) all cameras must be boxes or cubes that don’t fit in the hand and failing that, larger versions of smaller un-ergonomic cameras; (2) all winding must require a hand off the camera or disrupted framing; (3) thou shalt never use the [left] side eye; and (4) if you don’t like what we’re offering, stuff it.
Funleader 18mm f/8 Caplens M-Mount
I’ve always thought of myself as a fun follower, not a fun leader. Well, someone had to try it, right? Two weeks and $179 later, I got a small package from China via City of Industry, California. I almost threw away the lens by mistake. The following will be a brief initial review of yet another interesting lens from China’s burgeoning camera lens industry (another example is the Venus Laowa 15mm f/4.5 shift, reviewed previously).
Funleader is a somewhat obscure company. I actually saw the lens on a targeted Facebook post, making that pervasive surveillance useful to me for the first time ever. The company makes two versions of the Caplens and a drop-in conversion mount to put the 35 Contax G Planar on Leica M bodies. Everything appears to be designed by Mr. Ding (who is the counterpart of Venus’ Mr. Li).
The Funleader 18mm f/8 cap lens / Caplens / whatever is a follow-on to the company’s original 6-element ultrawide-in-a-cap. The difference for Leica M mount is that the lens can actually focus, which is a big deal because f/8 is not quite pan focus for an 18mm lens. The focusing mechanism on the lens is a little lever with a rotating cell. The focusing scale is marked 0.45m, 0.7m, 1m (with a click), 2m, and ∞. This lens is designed for Leica M mount, though in a future installment, I will plug it into a Sony A7r II and a6300 just to see what it does with those.
My assessment of this lens is that it is shockingly not bad. It’s pretty clear that this takes a direct shot at the MS-Optical Perar series of lenses costing five to six times as much (depending on what fetishized finish the Perar features). You’re not expecting the Funleader to compete with a ZM 4/18mm Biogon (which is still five times the price and ten times the thickness…). Let’s do the quick run-through.
Construction. The lens is solid aluminum, decently finished. Mechanical action is nice. All markings are engraved, or at least etched through the anodized finish. This includes the obnoxiously large “FUNLEADER” logo, but a little Sharpie marker will make that less visible. The lens comes with a rear lens cap, but it’s somewhat puzzling that there is no front cap (it would take a 36mm push on, notched for the focus lever). There are no filter threads. The lens weighs 40g, or about 1.3 ounces. It’s not much bigger than a body cap, hence, “cap lens.”
Focus. The lens is not rangefinder-coupled, though the mount will cause the camera rangefinder to read a little over 2m. If you can validate the correct focus-lever position on the lens so that the optical focus matches the RF, you will have at least one place where you can precisely focus. To do this, you need to use LiveView or an EVF. The 1m click stop on the lens is good for moderately close objects. But if you really want to be precise, you will crank it to ∞ outdoors and use an EVF indoors. Or focus-bracket. The Leica M EVFs can easily work with lenses at t/16, so this is no challenge. What might be a challenge is that indoors, you will be on a high-ISO marathon and that focus peaking may require some judgment calls. Fortunately none of those calls are difficult.
Aperture. The iris changes quickly and easily from f/8 to f/8 to f/8 and then back to f/8.
Sharpness. As noted, focus does make a difference, and it seems from looking at prior tests that the original Funleader Caplens (fixed focus) did not have a small enough aperture to cover all distances. Although the caplens is not critically sharp on infinite subjects (like a lot of wides, you are actually best advised to shoot close-to-mid distances), it does have enough bite to work. The following two pictures are scaled down to 3000×2000, but they will go large enough to see that the lens is actually more than passable. In fact, it’s embarrassingly good in some ways (but read on). There is little or no “smearing” at the edges, but where that appears in other Leica-mount lenses, it disappears by about f/8 anyway.
Near (M typ 240):
Far (Monochrom Typ 246)
Casual tests reveal sharpness consistent with at least the 10lp/mm metric shown for the lens if not also 30lp/mm.
Distortion. There is actually vanishingly little distortion at 1m and on. No sample picture is distortion corrected, or even cropped. This is not a symmetrical lens, at least not obviously, but it does have the same straight lines. Distortion is spherical, from the looks of it.
Falloff. Ok, there is tons and tons and tons of falloff on this little guy. Corners are 1-2/3 stops darker than the center. The M typ 240 metadata generator says variously that the exposures are f/8 or f/11 overall. M cameras compare on-sensor exposure with a small photocell eye. The measurement is not perfect, but it can often be very close.
Color shifts (Leica M cameras). This one suffers from the modified bandiera italiana effect, shifting substantially purple on one side and bluish-green on the other. The exact left-right balance seems to depend a bit on the angle between the light source and the lens. The color-shift effect is an artifact of Bayer sensors, complicated sometimes by the microlenses on Leica sensors. You knew that was coming. But it’s an issue on many lenses, particularly symmetrical wide-angle lenses. The “center” can be manipulated slightly by pushing the lens hard from side to side. On some M cameras, there is just enough tolerance to shift the lens on the camera bayonet slightly (the lens flange is slightly smaller than an M body mounting flange).
The color-shift effect should be correctible using Adobe Flat Field. If you even care enough to worry about it.
The Leica Monochrom cameras could care less. They are colorblind anyway. The color shift actually helps darken skies in b/w landscape shots (the picture above was actually taken in bright overcast).
These color shifts should not be as pronounced with film cameras, but film cameras would likely yield poorer sharpness due to the inability to check focus.
Performance on Sony A7R2. Since the optical part of this lens was originally developed for mirrorless cameras, it is not much of a surprise that it performs well with them. Some notes:
- The A7R2 viewfinder is capable of displaying images from f/8 lenses with no problem.
- It is a bit easier to focus with the A7R2 focus peaking than with the M cameras.
- The image stabilization function makes up for the slow maximum aperture. Image stabilization does not fix moving subjects.
- Sharpness is good across the frame. Focus looks correct with a Novoflex ($$$) M to Sony E adapter, and infinity focus may be affected if you use cheaper adapters that are “thinner.”
- Color-shift problems are fairly neglible. Vignetting is still there. The vignetting looks symmetrical, but the color shift makes it look a little lopsided.
Room for improvement. Funleader, if you are reading this, here are a couple of things that would make this lens more fun. These are not critical, but they would improve the user experience a bit.
- A front lens cap, rubber. This lens makes a camera pocketable, so why not protect the glass from the things people carry in their pockets?
- Depth of field marks (this would just need to be two tick marks on the rotating part of the lens).
- 6-bit coding (achievable through simple engraving of the back on the black version).
- An Adobe Lightroom correction profile.
- Wider flange. The lens flange is not quite as wide as an M-camera’s bayonet mount. It would be helpful to have more of a grip surface for mounting/unmounting, since Leica M cameras have very stiff bayonet springs.
- Some way to mount filters – magnetic ring on the front?
- Optional f/16, f/22, and f/64 Waterhouse disks to drop over the lens. When shooting in bright sunlight, it makes sense to stop down. It’s probably not practical to put an iris in a lens this small.
Initial Conclusion. The Caplens is an interesting and creative democratization of the MS-Optical Perar line of lenses, not so fast but a lot cheaper. The performance is surprisingly good, especially given the number of pans of the prior version in reviews. It’s not a 4/18mm ZM Distagon, and in color, it has some Lomo-ish (or 4,5/21 ZM Biogon) characteristics, but all in all, it’s a very nice lens for the money.
The 51.6% solution
This is just a quick note on a technical problem that plagues digital Leica cameras when used with older Nikkors: back focus. It is gratifying to know that Leica has finally recognized that many of its lenses don’t work so well on digital Ms due to “focus errors” that allegedly compound over the years. The real reason is probably more that film planes are actually and unintentionally curved, and a lens that makes the grade at the center there back-focuses elsewhere.
I was struggling a bit with a 10.5cm f/2.5 Nikkor, which though absolutely lovely aesthetically is one of the worst-engineered Leica lenses ever from a mechanical standpoint. And it back-focused. It back focused more with some Leica M adapters than others, but still.
Strike one with this lens is that the aperture unit rotates along with the entire optical unit. This means that if you adjust the collimation washer (for reasons I don’t fully understand, it’s always 0.05mm needed with any lens – just about the same thickness as Scotch tape), you also then have to reset the aperture ring to read properly. Also not 100% sure that infinity optical focus was really the problem.
Strike two is that the amount of front cell movement needed to compensate for back focus is absurdly great. So here, you’re messing around with focal length, but this the same way the MS-Optical Sonnetar gets calibrated…
Strike 3 is that the RF cam is not adjustable at all, with the tab pushed by a plunger running on a wheel that fits in a spiral track in the helicoid. Guess how this tab was adjusted for infinity at the factory? With a file. It makes sense, in a way. Calibrate the fixed infinity point on the focal plane by shimming the optical unit, calibrate focus at infinity by grinding the RF tab, and fix close focus by shimming the front cell. But it utterly sucks when you find out, 60 years later, that the tolerances that looked good on film with a Leica IIIc look like holy hell on digital.
So when you are dealing with focus errors, you have to imagine that the standard is a 51.6mm lens. At that focal length, if the RF matches the film-plane focus, the focus will always be correct, even if the infinity stop of the lens is beyond “infinity” on the scale.
For a telephoto lens, the rear cam still pretends it moves like a 51.6mm lens, but the actual optical unit moves much further. Hence, in a lot of cases, you can simply use a thinner LTM adapter (I think I’ve written about this before… somewhere). Most cheapo ones are thinner than the 1.0mm they are supposed to be.
But there is a different way to hack this with the 135mm, 105mm, and 85mm Nikkors: simply apply a thin and even coat of clear nail polish to the RF tab on the lens. This is a trick that you could theoretically do with lenses that have a rotating RF coupling ring (not tab), but it works exceptionally well with the Nikkors because the camera’s RF roller simply rests on the tab and doesn’t roll along it. This means that you only need to get the coating thickness right over a very short distance. Materials needed:
- Sally Hansen clear top coat (not “nail nourishing,” just the hard kind).
- CVS Beauty360 brand Nail Polish Corrector Pen (essentially a marker full of acetone that you can use to thin or remove extra nail polish).
- LensAlign focusing target (if you own a Leica, you really want one of these anyway, just to figure out what the devil all your lenses are doing as you stop down).
- Reading glasses.
So basically all you need to do is put a very thin coat of polish on the polished surface of the tab. Let it dry for 20 minutes. Here is the goal:
- At f/2.5, your focus should be such that the 0 point is barely focused, with most of the DOF in front.
- At f/2.8, your focus should be dead-centered around 0. The lens is actually way sharper here than at f/2.5. Doesn’t seem like much of an aperture change, but it is.
- At f/4, your focus will be such that 0 will barely be in focus, with most of the DOF to the rear.
- From f/5.6 down, the DOF will grow so that 0 is always in focus.
If it works, you’re done. The focusing errors this might induce further out are subsumed by depth of field increasing. If you need another coat, add one. If you are now front-focusing too much, use the Corrector Pen to remove some of the extra (or use a very fine nail buffer to remove some).
Never file or try to grind down the tab if your lens is front-focusing. Unless you can do it totally square, your lens will behave differently on different cameras. Leave this situation to a pro.
Konica 35/2.0 L/UC Hexanons
This is an article originally written in 2001; with a lot of updates.
How did these things get started?
The former Fujisawa-Shoukai had quite a bit of pull over Konica. Recall that by 1992, Konica had made what was seen as its last serious film camera, the Hexar AF, with its legendary 35mm f/2 lens. F-S, as we will call it here, commissioned in 1996 a run of Hexar lenses in Leica thread mound (LTM). This was long before the what people in the U.S. called a “rangefinder renaissance;” in fact at the time, very little in LTM was being produced in Japan, with the exception of the Avenon/Kobalux 21mm and 28mm lenses.
The first product of this program was the 35mm f/2L Hexanon, which looked like this:
This lens is simply a clone of the Hexar AF lens, right down having the same filter size. The coatings look identical, which is not a surprise. Consistent with some other contemporaneous LTM products, it did not have a focusing tab. On close inspection, the scalloped focusing ring looks like that on a Canon 35mm f/2 rangefinder lens, or more contemporaneously, the 21mm Avenon/Kobalux lens. The chrome finishing on an alloy body is reminiscent of modern-day ZM lenses. None of this, of course, will disabuse you of the notion that the Japanese lens production industry revolves around common suppliers. This lens shipped with a black flared lens hood (no vents) and a bright sandblasted chrome “Hexanon” lens cap that fit over the hood.
F-S would then go on to commission the 50/2.4L (collapsible) and 60/1.2L Hexanon lenses. The latter is famously expensive now; I have an email from F-S where it was 178,000 yen (about $1,400). The 50/2.4 will get its own article here.
In 2000, around the time that Avenon was re-releasing its 21mm and 28mm lenses as “millennium” models, F-S had another run of the 35/2 made. These were at least superficially different from the silver ones:
- At the time, black paint was all the rage, so the lens was executed in gloss black enamel and brass. The enamel in the engravings is almost exactly the Leica color scheme.
- The filter size decreased to 43mm, the aperture ring moved back, and the focusing ring thinned out to give the impression of “compactness” and justifying the “ultra compact” – UC designation that was historic to some Konica SLR lenses.
- The focusing mechanism changed to a tab (which helped justify the thinner focusing ring and lighter action).
- The coatings changed to a purplish red to help support the notion of “ultra-coating.” As you might know, multicoating can be customized for color.
The close-focus distance (what would be the third leg of a UC designation) and focusing rate of the helicoid (0.9m to ∞ in about 1/4 turn) and overall length did not change. The new lens was priced at 144,000 yen, which in dollars would have put it at just under the cost of a clean used 35/2 Summicron v.4 (at the time, these ran from about $700-1,200) and about half of what a Leica 35mm Summicron-M ASPH would cost.
Handling versus Leica lenses
Since both of these are optically identical, it might make more sense to discuss the ways in which these are similar to, or different from, the vaunted Summicron v4 King of Bokeh License to Print Money®. They are both like the Leica version but in different ways.
The UC has the same smooth tab-based focusing as the Summicron. It is very smooth and fluid. That said, the aperture ring is very “frictiony.”
The original L has a focusing feel a lot like a Canon RF lens, owing to the similar focusing ring, which has more drag and no tab. The aperture ring, however, has the same “ball-bearing-detent” feel as the Leica.
The overall length of all three lenses is similar, though as noted above, there is something of an illusion that the Leica and UC are smaller than the L.
The Konica lens, like the Hexar lens it was based on, is a clone of the 3.5cm f/1.8 Nikkor rangefinder lens, but for all practical purposes, the Hexanon is the same lens as the Summicron 4. As you can see, there is a very smooth falloff from center-to-edge wide open and pretty much eye burning sharpness at f/5.6,
Whoah. That looks familiar! Below is the Leica 35/2 v4 as shown in Puts, Leica M-Lenses, their soul and secrets (official Leica publication). Except the Summicron’s optimum aperture is a stop slower.
On interchangeable-lens bodies, all three lenses have the same focus shift behavior, requiring a slight intentional back-focus at f/2 and front focus up to f/5.6. It’s not like on a 50 Sonnar, but it’s there.
The original chrome version is a lovely lens and a nice match for chrome Leicas, at about 1/3 the price of a chrome Summicron v4 (yes, they exist…). If you like Canon lenses, you’ll be right at home with it. On the other hand, the UC version is smooth and sexy but getting to be as expensive as a 35/2 Summicron ASPH, which is actually a better lens.
Take a stress pill: shutter actuations
What is the maximum shutter actuations for the Nikon D700 [or Leica M9 or whatever]?
There is nothing such as “maximum shutter actuations.” People act as if there were some magic number. People freak out about this. The rated number is unlikely to be reached for most amateur photographers. It’s unlikely to be reached by two amateurs using a camera back to back. Maybe even three or four, unless one used the camera at the beach or somewhere gritty.
- The rating itself is the MTBF, or Mean Time Between Failures. That means that on average, Nikon’s rated shutters last 150,000 cycles. You don’t know whether that means most last to 250,000 and relatively few go 50,000 or whether all of them are somewhere around 150k.
- There is no warranty that a shutter will get to 150,000. Your two year factory warranty will expire one day, and it could be at 18,000 exposures or 180,000. Doesn’t matter. Nikon is not fixing it for you for free.
- Inside the factory warranty, Nikon does fix it for free, shutter count notwithstanding.
- Likewise, Nikon is not fixing your used camera, even its original sale was within 2 years ago, or even if the shutter failed at 8,000.
It’s all marketing.
By the way, when Nikon was coming up with its 150,000 exposure MTBF, that was 4,166 rolls of film, which was more than most people shot in their lifetime. For a pro, a new shutter (which in those days was a $250 repair) cost nothing compared to the cost $12,000 in film you shot before you got there!
Leica M: that distinct feeling of ennui
Smithers: “They’re fighting like Iran and Iraq!”
Mr. Burns: “What?!”
Smithers: “Persia and Mesopotamia.”
[Written April 16, 2012] All over the world, there are provincial towns believed by their residents to be equal to New York City, Tokyo, or Paris. In a way, Leica M might be such a town. Leica (the company) is not so myopic in terms of technology, but for whatever reason, digital M arguably has become both a technological and a cultural backwater. As Carlo Levi would have put it, Cristo si è fermato a Solms.
The duality of Leica
As this author has observed it over a 15-year period, M culture is basically drawn from two groups (a) people who put up with Leica’s quirks and price due to a belief (often justified) that the resulting image quality is better and (b) a group of photographers cool to modern technology and suspicious of the idea that in spending tens of thousands of dollars on a system, someone might want features that make an M look more like a practical “only” camera. We can call the first group the Opportunists and the second group the True Believers.
Surmising what you can surmise about them, the Opportunists are fairly mobile between camera systems. In fact, given Leica’s cyclical appeal, this group largely abandoned Leica’s system in the early 1970s and abandoned it again when Leica was dragging on a digital body in the early 2000s (recall how lens prices fell back then). Despite claims that demand for M9 cameras and lenses outstrips the ability to produce them, production is small – and even so, the market price for used M9s has now drifted to 60% of new prices. Even new cameras are being discounted by designation as “demos” (no camera that was really used as a demo has five or fewer exposures on it). We know from this that there are definitely fair-weather fans and that they are starting to head for the doors again. When things change precipitously, we know the Opportunists are on the march. And some Opportunists march by keeping their M8s and simply supplementing their missing capabilities with D700s and X100s. The effect, however, is the same – that they stop buying brand L and begin experiencing the forbidden fruits of other manufacturers.
The True Believers – a smaller group but more influential with Leica’s management – hold that the world stopped producing useful new camera features in about 1986 (or, alternatively, in 2002 with the M7). For that reason, they believe, Leica M must be locked into a world of vestigial and functionally-useless removable baseplates, frameline preview levers, and ergonomics lazily whittled from a bar of Ivory soap. The True Believers deny that any feature a Leica M currently lacks is significant, desirable, or valid. Their faith is strong despite the fact that Leica itself has proven them wrong by introducing the very things True Believers claimed were nonessential to the M system: film backs that opened, lever winding, combined rangefinder/viewfinders, TTL metering, electronic shutters/autoexposure, TTL flash, and ultimately, digial imaging. For this group, the M9 – which emerged years behind technologically – is “enough.” In fact, it is already too much (one dares not speak of the D-Lux, the Digilux, the S1, the S2, or the DMR – all of which were actually cutting edge when released). [One would note that since this article was written, that this faction won and got the M10 into production, omitting some features that had been included in the intervening M typ 240/246.
When things run their commercial course, we can call them effectively obsolescent. Obviously, nothing actually stops taking pictures (or anything else) when it is superseded by newer, flashier products – or even products with better specs. But new products often do the same thing with more speed, better efficiency, or fewer avoidable annoyances. The world is littered with well-built, well-designed items that should have lasted forever in the market but were passed up by things that were simpler, cheaper, or more appealing to the masses. Fountain pens, for example, a durable, perfected designs that are largely ignored for cheaper, less messy Bic Biro ballpoints.
When it comes to cameras (or anything), this author would take it a step further and point out that that is not fair to judge an older product for lacking features that had not been invented when it came out (and this is being charitable where Leica did not, for whatever reason, implement technology that was available at the time). So talking about digital M, let’s leave aside things like live view and video. Let’s even forget about DSP speed, screen density, and frame rate. But it is fair to compare apples to apples: to take the core features (or selling points) of an old product and examine their uniqueness in the marketplace and whether they are necessary or desirable solutions to problems.
The five points of Leicas
Leica cameras have five big selling points: high sensor quality; high lens quality, a great synergism between the two, a superb optical viewfinder and a superlative mechanical rangefinder. Take them in turn:
1. Sensor image quality.
Image quality is really the reason why serious photographers buy Leicas. The Leica magic (at least at the body level) comes from two things: (1) lack of an antialiasing filter, which gives a perception of an additional 25% in resolving power (or the ability to up-res by a like amount) and (2) image processing algorithms that build a unique look. These huge determinants of quality do not depend on the overall build quality of the camera body; they reside entirely in a CCD sensor and a couple of hundreds dollars in electronic parts. As long as the same glass formula were put in front of this sensor, the end result would be identical, even if the body were ABS plastic and even if the lenses operated by autofocus.
A lot of things have happened in the 7 years since the basic digital M technology arrived. First, other manufacturers have caught up to the filter-free sensor (Kodak actually preceded Leica with many models in which the AA filter was absent or removable). Sigma has the Foveon sensor, which omits it. Fuji has the X-Trans CMOS sensor – which in addition to lacking an AA sensor, has a randomized color pattern that obviates the anti-moire processing that bogs down Leica’s cameras. Nikon put a weak filter in the D3 and D700, and the D800E effectively has none (as well as twice the pixel density and much better low-light performance than current Leica sensors). Ricoh is making GXR modules that take Leica lenses and have no AA filters. And the Leica “look,” while challenging to replicate, can indeed be achieved in relatively cheap software like Lightroom.
But backing up a little, the world has also moved away from CCD in favor of CMOS chips for lower power consumption, higher sensitivity, and live view capability. Sticking with CCDs constrains Leica’s sensor choices for any future digital M (unless Leica changes the imager completely) and puts Leicas at a long-running disadvantage in higher ISO performance. CCD chips do have great color, but so do a lot of CMOS chips. In the end analysis, slipping behind the sensor speed curve is a big issue; the number of megapixels, not so much.
2. Lens image quality.
Leica was an early participant in the Lens Speed Wars that started in the 1920s and 1930s. Back then, you needed superspeed lenses because film was rated at a blistering ISO 12. And let’s be clear here: from about the 1960s onward, Leica was pretty much unchallenged in terms of lenses, in the build, quality control and resolving departments (and in many ways still is). But a few funny things happened on the way to the 21st century.
When the world went digital and addressed low-light situations by upping sensor capabilities, Leica instead focused on simply making faster lenses. Although this technically gets to a correct exposure in a lot of situations without upping sensor performance, it also locks users into what could be called the “Noctilux Aesthetic,” shorthand for pictures where there is a razor-thin plane of focus and often heavy shading of the corners. Some people prefer to do things with higher ISO sensitivity (rather than wider apertures) so as to have more things in focus. And if it’s the aesthetic that appeals, there is always Instagram.
Leica’s drive to make faster lenses made lenses for a compact system heavy, large, and insanely expensive (a 24mm f/1.4 Summilux, for example, costs $7,000). An M9-P and a 24/1.4 will run you approximately $14,000. A D800E with a 24/1.4 Nikkor runs about $5,500 – and can either shoot in a quarter of the light with the same noise or the same light with four times the depth of field. Sometimes it is nice to have the luxury of choosing the method of taking low-light pictures. Although the expense is typically met with the refrain of, “it’s expensive because it’s good,” or “it’s not for everyone,” it is worth pointing out that many of the nouveau riche who buy things like Leicas did not get there by spending money just to spend money- cost/utility analyses go on all the time (albeit among much more expensive products). In units produced annually, Leica M9 production is about equal to the M6 – though the number of eligible buyers in the world has increased radically. Leica’s sales are up in China, but with flat overall volume, that means that they are diminishing in other parts of the world.
Leica M lenses have very limited options for addressing focus shift [with the exception of partial corrections like the 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M FLE]. All lenses exhibit focus shift when stopped down, and this can make rangefinder focusing more inaccurate than it should be. Digital has less tolerance for error, and the only ways to mitigate focus shift in fast lenses is to use floating elements and aspherics, both of which – when executed to Leica standards – cost a mint. Closed-loop focusing (in the guise of contrast-detection AF) allows things like the $600 35/1.4 Fuji X lens (for the X-Pro1) to perform comparably to the $3,500 35 Summilux ASPH. But even before that, the lowly Hexar AF was able to keep up with the legendary 35mm Summicron ASPH by adjusting its focus to account for the selected aperture.
Leica’s 20th-century lenses hold the digital M system back. Users often fixate on speed, but older, high-speed lenses are not world beaters (though many people pay those types of prices for them). The 75mm Summilux command prices that are more driven by rarity than its relatively humdrum performance on a flat sensor (or the somewhat provincial appeal of shooting a portrait with just the eyelashes in focus). Even some of Leica’s more innovative designs like the 28-50-35 Tri-Elmar are fairly unremarkable performers on a Leica digital. The standards required to make a good digital lens are far more exacting than what made superlative film lenses in the past. There are always third-party lenses, but sometimes it seems silly to attach a $300 lens to a $7,000 body.
None of these are show-stoppers, but they tend to paint Leica M into the corner of being a very specific solution to any given problem. And getting to the place where a Leica M optically outperforms the competition requires very expensive gear.
3. The synergy.
One thing about Leica M was that for a long time, you had to use a Leica body to get the Leica M lenses. This was due in part to patents on the lens mount. Even where other manufacturers made M-mount cameras (like the Minolta CLE, Hexar RF, Bessa R, Zeiss-Ikons, and Rolleis), Leica always had a little bit of an edge due to its huge and wide pressure plate. Today, though, the entire synergistic advantage of using a Leica lens with a Leica body lies in the microlens pattern on the Leica sensor glass. It is not a perfect solution, but it is currently the only way to get the Leica resolution all across the board – and on a 24x36mm sensor. All of that said, the synergy between Leica lenses and bodies really only matters if you assume a Leica M lens to be an essential part of the equation. Where other cameras are built as a cohesive unit (lens and sensor), the 80/20 rule kicks in (80% of the performance at 20% of the price). Only here, Leica’s pricing now pushes that toward a 90/10 proposition.
4. The optical viewfinder.
One of the big points of excitement about the Leica M is its big, clear viewfinder. Though Leica fields the brightest and least-distorted finders in the industry, those finders are expensive to produce and, given the mechanical nature of the framelines, are incapable of showing accurate framing except at one arbitrary distance. This tends to make shots frame looser than they should be, thereby wasting real estate on the sensor. Japanese manufacturers have not surpassed the Leica clarity, but they have managed to produce close equivalents for much less money. But the bigger issue came with the rise of hybrid viewfinders that use LED overlay displays to (a) show instant playback; (b) project a digital level and composition gridlines; (c) display a computation of the depth of field based on focal length, aperture, and focused distance; and (d) show field-corrected framelines appropriate to any focal length. This is to say nothing of allowing an instant TTL lens view as well. These features – which can universally be shut off – add a considerable amount of utility for people who want them. They don’t take away from the beauty of the Leica version, but one line of 8-segment LEDs provides no warning about running through an SD card or a battery, two conditions that did not really exist when the viewfinder was last redesigned, 10 years ago. In the end, the major compelling feature of that Leica view is…
5. The rangefinder
Part of what makes the Leica M is the rangefinder. Leica Ms will always have rangefinders, because the “M” actually stands for Messsucher (rangefinder). When the Leica II was developed, there were no small SLRs. Leica and Zeiss based their competing 35mm cameras on coupled prism rangefinders. This was, at the time, the only technology that allowed a compact camera to focus accurately, particularly with high-speed lenses.
Even when 35mm SLRs came into the mainstream in the 1950s and 1960s, rangefinders persisted. Rangefinders were smaller in general, and it was easier to make wide-angle lenses for them. Back then – and now – rangefinders also did a better job of focusing those wide-angle lenses. Where a rangefinder system has a constant magnification and starts running into problems with longer lenses, SLRs benefit from assuming the magnification of telephoto lenses they use.
Many competitors have made runs at matching the Leica rangefinder, and the common vendor to Fuji, Mamiya, and Konica almost managed to do it. The Leica mechanism is a wonder of precision and high-end manufacturing. Today, though, it seems like a precisely engineered, laser-engraved, CNC machined, hand-honed … typewriter. The rangefinder’s competence is in focusing wideangle-to-normal lenses – but run-of-the-mill autofocus is just as good at doing that.
Aside from struggles with relevance to Opportunists at a core technology level – i.e., creeping effective obsolescence – Leica M carries a lot of baggage. The weight (all apologies to Rick Danko and Robbie Robertson) goes beyond simulating the size and weight of a camera of 1953 (the weight is, in fact, simulated – the brass covers of a digital M account for almost 25% of ite weight). It goes beyond doing things they way they have always been done – in the name of tradition. It goes beyond being accosted in public by weirdos who recognize your M8 as “an M4.” To this author, the most perfidious part of it is the cognitive dissonance that arises when one carries $10,000 in gear around his neck but fancies himself to be a photographic Zen Buddhist.
Leica used to think outside the box – not only did it popularize 35mm film photography, it also invented things like phase-detect AF, made innovative cameras like the M3, and otherwise kept up with the world (even Leica’s current S2 is technological light-years ahead of the M). Had this progressive philosophy carried over into the M series (or an updated successor), the M8/M9 would not have slavishly copied film cameras in looks, live view would have been added to stand in for the Visoflex, and it would have been Leica to introduce hybrid viewfinders. Maybe this will change on May 10, 2012 with some huge product announcement [it did not, but the M typ 240 did introduce the use of electronic viewfinders – EVFs – to Leicas].
But in our hearts, we know it won’t. The world of Leica is somewhat frustrating. The products are high quality, the resulting images are excellent, and the general solidity of the system makes all of us keep our lenses as we repetitively upgrade digital bodies (and upgraded film bodies before that). We always want to think that some vastly improved new M is around the corner, yet ultimately, we just end up settling for something that is behind the curve, for a lot of money. One could get the sense – reinforced by the rapid pace of the rest of the photographic world – that this bubble of IR filters, color vingetting, bottom-plate loading, and black paint is going to burst.When you look at things like the Fuji X-Pro1, you begin to think that perhaps it already has. Maybe the better thing would be for Leica to declare victory in 2013 after 60 years of M – after all, it outlasted Contax, Alpa, and everyone elese’s film rangefinders (and even outlasted Polaroid, Kodak, Agfa, and Ilford…) – and reboot with something as earthshaking as the M3 was in 1953.
Disclosure: the author has been a Leica user for the better part of two decades and was an early adopter of the M8 [and M240, and M246].
No love for the Empire? Leica Multifunction Handgrip M 14495
The Multifunction Handgrip M (14495), $895, is a depressing piece of hardware. It’s not the price or the alleged GPS slowness. It’s the depressing feeling that like a lot of things, the M camera reached its highest point of elaboration and now is on the path of decontenting that hit a lot of other types of consumer electronics.
Hello and goodbye. The story of this product is wrapped up with the M typ 240 (and its cousins the M-E 262 and Monochrom 246). The 240 was a watershed moment for Leica – the first time the M had actually become functional like other people’s cameras. It signaled a few firsts:
- Video. Not the best HD video ever, but with the new EVF(!) it was passable.
- Audio input. Plus it actually had a way to get audio into the camera! But no EVF and mic adapter at the same time. In every life, some rain must fall.
- A digital horizon that operated in 3 dimensions (so it could detect pitch and roll).
- A high capacity battery.
- A function button on the front that could trigger exposure compensation adjustments or viewfinder magnification.
How many of these features made it to the M10? The front button. Now let’s see where the Multifunction Handgrip takes you:
- GPS. Every want to auto-tag your photos with the location?
- SCA flash connector. Now you can connect to a flash via a metal plugged-cord or a standard PC outlet.
- AC connector. Now you can run your camera on video for the allotted 29 minutes at a time (before the auto shut off).
- USB port for tethered operation (likely why the AC connector is so important).
But then there came the M10, thin like a 90s shoulder pad. No more video. No more need-to-keep-it-level landscape photography (apparently…). Smaller batteries, as if the thrill of living had gone.
Weight? The 14495 adds surprisingly little weight to the M. That’s because everything but the baseplate part is plastic. Naturally, the light grip does not change the balance of the camera, so you need to use brute strength (and grip) to keep big lenses level.
Grip? The ergonomics of this are something that grow on you. At first, you feel like it could be a centimeter taller to accommodate your index finger. But wait – that’s the one you need to press the shutter. It doesn’t take long to adapt to this grip, and it greatly enhances the handling of the camera with huge lenses like the 75/1.4. Every little bit counts, and an M is pretty slippery, even with the little nub grip built into its case.
GPS? It works. Just put your camera in standby, and within a few minutes, it will get a fix. Once it’s running, it seems to be pretty accurate. A lot of people seem to complain that when it loses a signal, it continues to log its last known location. That’s actually beneficial when you go indoors (since you don’t want it to revert to a location in the center of the earth, for example).
“Near-field” communication. You always wanted this on a digital camera, but you didn’t want Android. Well, here you go. To get a wifi signal out of a card (like the Toshiba Flashair, which will be treated in a future installment), you basically need to have your handheld touching the top plate of the camera (which apparently is the most porous surface for radio waves.
Flash. Flash. Flash. So you want to know how well the 14498 SCA setup (another bazillion dollars) works? It consists of a bracket and an extension shoe. The idea of this product is to allow you to move the flash off camera both to enhance balance and to free up the hot shoe for an optical or electronic viewfinder.
The disappointing thing is that there is no vertical grip piece, meaning that your flash head is much closer to the lens axis in landscape mode than you might like. So this works better out of the box with taller flashes like the SF 58 or 64.
The weird thing is the SCA plug, which is both unusual and insanely well built. It probably requires 200 different machining operations. But like the EVF connector, it’s proprietary, meaning that you have exactly one choice for off-camera work. The exit of the cord near the body of the camera body seems weird at first, but after you use it a bit, you wonder why Nikon screwed up so badly with the SC hot-shoe adapters, which have huge cords that on an M camera either end up blocking the viewfinder or getting in your face, literally.
But the good thing with the 14498 is that you can get and use your favorite old Vivitar handgrip – because the extension shoe detaches from the bracket. And can be used without the bracket.
Flash operation is unremarkable (as it should be). You do not get a flash-ready indication in the EVF if you have it attached, and shot to shot lag time is not affected.
Conclusion. The Multifunction Grip M, if you can score one used for under $400, is a pretty good item. At that price, it’s not quite as outrageously expensive as list, and it helps tremendously with heavy lenses. As to the SCA set, it’s a tougher call, unless you can get one for under $200. Where the grip gives you a standard PC connector, you can use any handle-mount auto flash you want (such as a Metz 45 series). Flash may or may not be in your personal program, but I would remind you that the higher-end Leica flashes do high-speed synch very well.
‘It’s just as well,’ said the other, ‘because I don’t suppose I could have satisfied you.’ He made an apologetic gesture with his softpalmed hand. ‘You see how it is; an empty shop, you might say. Between you and me, the antique trade’s just about finished. No demand any longer, and no stock either.
— George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
As Charrington might have said to Smith, it is kind of late in the game for film Leicas. It’s 2017; Kodak makes three varieties of black and white film; and frankly, every other manufacturer has narrowed down to that number or fewer emulsions. Is it fun to shoot a film rangefinder these days? Yes and no. The beauty is that you can afford cameras you would have never dreamed of buying when you were 12 and reading old issues of Popular Photography. The bad news is that 30 years later, the cameras all seem so mortal.
The short take
Let’s forget about doing a full-on description of the camera; you have Google for that. Perhaps it is better to start with how this camera works for people who normally use Leicas.
The CLE, like a lot of small cameras (and M cameras) is straightforward. It is small, light, and easy to handle, if a bit blocky. The rangefinder seems more capable of focusing longer lenses than people seem to think. And it is extremely quiet. But there is more.
- Size. The CLE is the size of a Canonet. A small one. It is about 80% of the size of a Leica M-series camera. Not vanishingly small, but quite a bit smaller and lighter. In fact, it might be uncomfortably small for the large-handed.
- Rangefinder construction. The rangefinder mechanism is very similar to the Hexar RF in its design, right down to the annoying gear wheel for vertical adjustment. It also has the same general affect as in the Fuji GSW690III, Mamiya 6/7, and Bessa M cameras. You will love it or hate it.
- Common parts. The CLE is built on the Minolta XG-7 platform. So it is cheap as an SLR and very expensive as a Leica-style rangefinder. A repair person has confirmed for me that many of the parts are the same but that some key ones (like the viewfinder/rangefinder) definitely are not.
- Capacitive (or not). Your finger closes the circuit that makes a half-press of the shutter. This will be fun with gloves, I suspect. That said, it may make the camera more resistant to the breakdown of a two-stage shutter switch (ahem, cough, Hexar AF…).
- OTF/WTF metering. The camera meters off the film (hence, there is no exposure lock). The metering is far more sophisticated than any Leica film M (and indeed the digital ones if they are not in the multipattern mode).
- Wide lenses. The CLE is a great platform for compact wide M lenses. Your 21, 15, or 12mm lens does not need massive rangefinder accuracy – and when it comes to getting images on film, the CLE still gives you a 24x36mm frame.
- Cheap TTL flash. A TTL flash costs $10 (Vivitar Auto Thyristor 550D for Minolta). Take that, Leica Camera AG.
- Rangefinder. The rangefinder masks are on glass plates, not metal pieces. Don’t be surprised to see some degradation.
Quirks and Annoyances
If you are used to traditional Leicas, you may be tripped up by a few things:
- Swing-open back. The Minolta dispenses with the irritating bottom-plate loading of a Leica M. And yes, it is annoying and pointless on a film Leica, and even more so on digital Leicas. The idea originally was to allow a bigger pressure plate and flatter film. While there may be a use case for this with some lenses, there is no real-world consequence to using a normal-sized plate except that your chances of successfully loading film go way up with a swing back.
- “Easy” loading takeup spool. This is one place where Leica is easier to live with – on a Leica, you just jam the film leader into a multipronged spool. The CLE has a fairly terrible spool with a white collar. It’s tough to get the film tip in there. Konica wins in the easy-loading spool race; Minolta should have sucked it up and licensed that feature.
- Rewind knob on the bottom. This is mostly harmless except that you need to lift and rotate the knob to open the back. This is definitely a “read the manual” moment.
- No manual metering. A carry-over from the XG-7 series, the meter shuts down when you switch the shutter speed dial off A. This is not the worst thing that could happen; before you switch to M you will see the recommended shutter speed – you can dial it up or down from there.
- Viewfinder blockage. The viewfinder/rangefinder window placement is terrible for big-diameter lenses. Most of these lenses are fast 50s, but even where they are not (such as the 21-35mm Dual Hexanon or the 18mm ZM Distagon), a lens with a 55-62mm front end will block the viewfinder and rangefinder.
Do we like it?
The CLE is a very solid camera; it is small, quiet, and does not get in the way. It seems to distill the things that are fun about shooting rangefinders while minimizing the things that seem to be baggage. Maybe the sunset of film photography is here, maybe it is not, but this is a good companion with which to watch the sun go down. Or come up.
Konica M-Hexanon 28mm f/2.8
The 28mm M-Hexanon, like the its focal length, occupies a strange space that is neither here nor there. I have never had good luck with 28mm lenses, if only because the angle is a little wide to be comfortable for close shots of people and a little narrow for some of the landscapes I shoot.
Only on the verge of selling mine (for lack of use since way back when I had an M8) did I shoot a bunch of tests with an M typ 240. This particular lens had been recollimated to be at exactly Leica spec (most lenses made before the M8 were not set up to hit the center of a flat sensor).
This piece will not editorialize much but instead show it like it is. Which is quite good, far better than I had remembered.
First, the obligatory “how sharp at a meter” exercise. This is f/2.8.
Next: does it shoot good pictures of children? Yes.
E poi – how is the bokeh? Strangely, it’s actually really good, especially for a wide lens. Here is the sequence f/2.8, 4, 5.6, 8.
Sunstars? Got ’em too. Here is f/2.8-8 (clockwise):
Gross resolving power (again, f/2.8-8):
And now, we laugh at your Elmarit-M!
Flare resistance, same range:
Another test; can’t remember why. Seemed like a good idea at the time.
50mm f/1.5 Zeiss Sonnar (1937): first
Above: Zeiss Jena 5cm f/1.5 Sonnar (prewar; 1937 example of the 1932 design) on a Leica M typ 240 with an Amedeo dedicated 50mm adapter. This particular lens is almost 80 years old.
1. The story
The derivation of the trade name “Sonnar”(which may have less to do with Sonne than being a portmanteau of Sontheim am Neckar) reminds one of the the way that the Mr. Sparkle is a joint venture of the Matsumura Fishworks and the Tamaribuchi Heavy Manufacturing Concern. Be this as it may, the Sonnar had but one goal in life: crush Leitz’s fast lenses in an era where ISO 12 film was the norm. And that it amply did. Even today, the performance of this uncoated lens is impressive.
When the Sonnar arrived in 1931 (f/2.0) and 1932 (f/1.5), the Tessar (or Elmar) was the gold standard in normal lenses: a well-corrected triplet that, in an era lacking anti-reflective coatings, sneaked in a little more correction by cementing two pieces of glass together. When it came time to exceed f/2.8, though, the real competition began:
- In 1889, Paul Rudolph, working for Carl Zeiss, determined that the best balance of contrast, correction, and cost was a three-element lens called an anastigmat (trade name: Protar).
- In 1895, Rudolph invented the Planar, which was a highly-corrected symmetrical lens. It was shelved soon thereafter, no doubt on account of the low contrast that occurs with many air-to-glass surfaces.
- In 1902, Zeiss released the Tessar, which provided more correction than an anastigmat (by adding a fourth element glued to the the third) without increasing the number of air-glass surfaces. The Tessar was technically inferior to the Planar, but it did not have the two extra air-glass surfaces (each robbing 10% of the light, compounded).
- In 1925, Max Berek modified the Leitz Elmax, which had a 1-1-3 (cemented) arrangement into the Elmar, which bore a heavy resemblance to the Tessar, allowing for a good 35mm-format lens with fewer elements and less assembly labor.
In parallel universe (but still orbiting around Zeiss)
- In 1916, an American (Charles Minor) started adding elements to the triplet, but just in the front. The result was the Gundlach Anastigmat, which had a blazingly fast f/1.9 aperture. The contemporary ads show that this was actually a cine lens.
image credit: Central Camera 1936: Gundlach, Ultrastigmat, Bausch & Lomb, Verito Lenses; Packard via free images (license)
- In 1922, Ludwig Berthele, working for Ernemann (of Ermanox fame) continued elaborating this into the Ernostar, which became on of the first plate lenses to hit f/1.8 (in 1924).
Scan used by permission of Peter Naylor.
- In 1926, Zeiss bought Ernemann and acquired Berthele in the deal.
- In 1931, Berthele made the first f/2 Sonnar, which was a new lens with an old name. It was for 35mm format and had a 1-3-2 arrangement, with the second and third group cemented together.
- In 1932, he made the f/1.5 version, which added an extra element to the rear group.
- In 1936, caught off-balance, Leica licensed the Xenon, a symmetrical Double-Gauss design from Schneider, licensed in turn from Taylor-Hobson in England (the Series 0), in turn had been cribbed from the 1896 Planar.
- In 1944-1945, the Zeiss plants were bombed back to the stone age.
- In 1949, the Xenon was updated with coagulation-style lens coatings and became the Summarit.
- In 1950, the Zeiss-Option Sonnars came out with a new computations.
The circle was now complete: the entire high-speed lens space was dominated by Zeiss designs and would continue to be – for pretty much all time. When you stop and think about it, until the advent of things like the 50/1.4G Nikkor, the history of high-speed lenses had been nearly nine decades decades of Sonnar and Planar clones.
Why did the Sonnar do so well? It’s not so complicated. It all boiled down to the number of air-to-glass interfaces. The classic triplet (the anastigmat) represented the best balance between correction, contrast, and cost. But adding more elements (to get more correction) meant more air-glass interfaces. And that meant less contrast and more flare. Zeiss increased the correction by cementing additional elements together to make a total of three groups. Leica could not do this because it did not have the intellectual property rights to do so. During WWII, Zeiss dabbled in coating its super-speed lenses, but it was not even really necessary given the Sonnar’s high transmission.
2. Using one today
These days, the Contax rangefinder is almost dead, 35mm film photography has gone all “Tony-Bennett-in-the-late 1990s,” and so the only place you’ll likely be using one of these is on a Leica body. Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to do. You just need the appropriate adapter. These are not particularly expensive for APS-C (although they do incorporate focusing helicoids); they are more expensive for Leica cameras because they need a mechanism to translate the movement of a 52.3mm lens to a camera whose rangefinder mechanism wants a 51.6mm normal lens (how two German companies known for their precision could get so sloppy about what constituted a “50mm” lens is baffling – but being a big-name German optical company means never having to say you’re sorry….).
By far, the best adapters for Leicas are made by Amedeo Muscelli, and of those, the best is that dedicated adapter for Contax 50mm rangefinder to Leica M. This is not the usual lens with the reproduction of a Contax helicoid and focusing scale; rather, combines with the lens to make a unit that looks a bit like an old Elmar (allowing, of course, for the streamlined – dare we say phallic) shape of a Sonnar. The dedicated adapter focuses in the same direction as a Leica, at almost the same rate of distance change per unit of turn, and it has a lever, which can be critical if you are using a collapsible Zeiss lens (since with a traditional adapter, you are grasping the lens barrel to focus – something you can’t do with a collapsible lens). When your lens is dialed in, this adapter focuses amazingly accurately right down to 0.6m – a lot closer than any Contax did.
And how do you dial one in? If your lens is front-focusing, the simple answer is to remove the lens cell from the Contax barrel and unscrew the rear group slightly. It is never more than 1/4 turn, and you can maintain the setting by wrapping the threads of the rear group in Teflon tape and screwing it back in. Back it out about a 1mm (circumferentially) at a time, and check the focus on near and far objects. Do note that where a Sonnar has a lot of focus shift, you’re going to have to choose whether to
- Have the lens front focus at f/1.5, reach focus at f/2.8-4 ,and hit focus at f/5.6 and smaller
- Have the lens focus dead-on at f/1.5, miss at f/2-4, and become usable again at f/5.6 and on.
The first observation is that finding a prewar f/1.5 Sonnar that is not totally trashed is not particularly easy. Fortunately, at least cleaning marks are not an issue on uncoated lenses unless someone used Soft Scrub as an optical cleaner. Which does happen from time to time.
The second is that in the central part of the frame, this lens is very, very sharp. It has decent performance at f/1.5 if you optimize for that aperture, loses precise focus from f/2.8-f/4, and comes roaring back at f/6.3. If you keep with the original collimation (or an approximation of it, you get really sharp pictures around f/2.4, getting better through f/8.
The third is that the coatings on postwar Sonnars are not moving the ball much in terms of performance. Because this was the last fast Sonnar I obtained, it’s easier to compare this to the 1961 Carl Zeiss version. The 1937 model performs similarly in most ways. It is very slightly softer, with contrast that is almost at the level of a 1977 Jupiter-3.
Flare is only slightly improved by coatings, and they do not resolve the “rainbow circle” flare that afflicts every Sonnars (even multicoated Sonnetars) when a point light source is just out-of-frame. The one unique failure mode is strong side lighting (from the looks of it between 75 and 90 degrees to the lens axis), which can cause a veil across the entire surface. This also happens to a lesser degree with postwar Sonnars and copies, just not quite to the same degree.
Overall performance is strikingly close to the postwar, if you allow for slightly improved spherical aberration on the older lens. The postwar version is a tiny bit sharper, but seems clear that this comes at the expense of bokeh, which goes from smooth disks to ringed disks. If you care about that stuff.
4. Roy Batty
The f/1.5 Sonnar was the proverbial candle that burned twice as bright, and by 1962 it was essentially extinct. The “twice as bright” part is doubly applicable to the 1960-1962 Car That it was so widely copied in the postwar era is puzzling. Granted, German patents were handed over to the Japanese, but in terms of sheer performance with coatings, there were already better lenses to copy (like the Xenon). Canon, Nikon, and Zunow all made their own versions. The Soviets made one too. Perhaps there was a “prestige” element to the Contax that was desirable to copy (though you would not have the all-important brand name). Or perhaps there was something about the mechanical design of a 3-group lens such that the cost of machining extra parts for 6 groups cost more than triple-cementing rwo groups. The world may never know. The fetishization of the Sonnar did not really get started until the mid-2000s and by then, it was based more on imperfection and “look” than a perception that it was actually better.
The prewar f/1.5 Sonnar is a worthy lens, though its relative scarcity does not exactly make it a value leader compared to postwar variants. As with any 50mm Sonnar, as long as you take care to control the placement of light sources, it can be another creative tool, if not a broader-use lens.