Why should we want to use a Leica CRF? (2008)This question can only be answered in an intelligent fashion when we first dispense with some of the hype and myth that surrounds the marque in general and rangefinder cameras in particular.
In the period 1950 to 1970 Leica could arguably claim to offer the best engineered, best built CRF models, accompanied by the best mounted lenses with excellent performance. The cameras had a most accurate rangefinder system that accompanied the quality of the lenses. This system was vastly superior in accuracy and speed of handling compared to the then available slr models. The Leica CRF camera also had the best design and layout for fast handling and picture taking, compared to the slow operation of the slr type, with a slow moving mirror and a time lag between pressing the release and the firing of the shutter. The finder was a revelation in brightness and clarity compared to the dimmer and coarse slr finders and could be used in low light situations with confidence. Above all, the camera was compact, handled superbly and the lenses were compact and potent too.
The M3, M2 and M4 models were great cameras and could be used by anyone who knew the basics of photographic technique. Their durable and simple construction implied that you could use the camera for decades and could become fully integrated in the photographic habits and styles of the photographer. In fact it was the best tool for a rage of jobs. Its modular design with relatively easy to attach system components added to its flexibility. It you wished or needed to stray outside of the habitat of the 35mm CRF, you had the Rolleiflex for fashion and illustration and the 35mm SLR for scientific, architecture, wildlife and landscape pictures among others.
The three-pronged attack by Asahi, Nikon and Canon during the sixties decade of the previous century eliminated all but a few advantages of the Leica. Nikon and Canon offered engineering, durability, reliability and flexibility that matched and sometimes surpassed the Leica CRF concept. Asahi added simple handling and an aesthetic appearance. The market diversified into many segments and Leica engineering and quality, once standing with head and shoulders above all others, was challenged and eventually equalled. In fifteen years time sales dropped from 50.000/year to 5.000/year.
The Leica CRF could hold on in that tiny niche where fast and accurate focusing was needed with an unobtrusive camera with high performance optics. The photographic habitat was the street and the photographic style was defined by the elegant formally composed snapshot.
The manufacturing technology of the Leica was based on assembly by inspired and master craftsmen and on the complex manufacture of machined parts. With dwindling sales and trying to survive on the quality engineering edge, only one option was left: sky high prices that could no longer be justified by purely photographic arguments. The collector and the convicted user, both with different arguments, but the same goal became the prime market groups for the Leica CRF. And has been as of today, and this holds for the Agx and the digital line of models.
Are there good solid arguments for using the Leica CRF (AgX and solid state) today?
The answer is solidly positive. One argument might be considered as a contrary statement, out of a defensive position. That is not the case, however. Current camera models are very complex tools with an overdose of technology and options. The modern consumer starts to rebel and wants a reduction of the high-tech phalanx. One approach by the industry is to add smarttech to the products: in fact this is a shielding technique where smart filters are used to guess the needs of the user and suppress all options that are not required. This is a kind of smart default choices. The more fundamental approach is a new technique called calmtech: which brings relaxation in an choice-overloaded environment. Calmtech is an industrial approach to create comforting tools and instruments, that only have a limited range of options that are really needed.
It has been said (not without substance) that you can learn photography in one hour. The only challenging topic is finding the correct exposure. A simple incident meter will do everything you need. Some experience in assessing the tonal distribution of the scene and the overall contrast is vital for exposure adjustments. Even the most sophisticated and automated metering system will shift exposure values from the normal (average) to plus or minus one stop, one and a half at most. This range can be covered by experience too. And a mental tonal analysis will also assist in selecting the right composition. I am not advocating the Zone System here, but simple time honored exposure rules. Master these and you will no longer need a 50+ matrix computer assisted exposure metering system. And as an additional bonus: doing in yourself is fun and places you where you belong: in the driver seat. Become a photographer again!
We got entangled in a stupid paradox: exposure metering is basically simple, but after the introduction of exposure automation, we noted that the AE systems failed because of crude assumptions and then we built ever more sophistication into the system and now we are reasonably foolproof, but not more so than when we started without all this automation. The original M3 had that cumbersome clip-on exposure meter, but it worked very good when used with some expertise.
A simple camera then will help you focus on the real challenges in photography and in mastering these, you will be more satisfied than when simply employing a computer in the camera.
It is presumably a truism to state that the performance advantages of the CRF have become very slender compared to modern professional AA (auto all) systems, but performance per se is not all there is. There is an inherent sense of esthetics and purity in creating quality imagery with simple means based on cutting-edge materials and the best optics in existence, and above all, the photographer can be proud of what he is doing for a living or for fun and pleasure.
If an analogy is helpful, we may refer to MTB bikes, where all energy and sophistication is focused on full suspension designs with the best possible engineering. There is however one small company, Independent Fabrication, that still uses steel and no suspension at all. The bikes of that company are expensive, but present extreme fun in riding and great satisfaction in experiencing the classical ride with the most modern and advanced technology available.
Leica will never become a mass market supplier, but for the purists can deliver the right camera, the CRF that allows the photographer to experience the thrills of taking pictures by making the basic decisions yourself. There may be more purists in the world than are now being targeted by Leica, when the correct profile is in shape: the CRF-Leica style may not be inherently superior to the modern AA-SLR (digital or AgX) as far as final results are concerned (too many influencing variables in the imaging chain), but Leica could offer the thrill of experiencing the basics of photography with the best engineered camera and lenses in the world. (some work has to be done here, but it is not impossible: the M8 is the beginning of a pedigree, not the poor side of a family. The results possible with the Leica CRF have one advantage above the other competitors: the user is to blame or praise, not the computer. As is the case in mountain biking: if you fall, you are to blame, not the bike.
Porsche has developed their cars into some of the most desirable products in the world. This status is significantly influenced by their racing successes, but Porsche has been very keen to differentiate between the performance of the aces on the road and the profile of the car as seen by the normal buyer and user. The Leica CRF has been too closely identified with the great Leica masters and this relation is now a bit pathetic and not suitable for the future of the product. The old masters honed the CRF style of photography and this is a valuable asset, but one should not fall into the trap in assuming that only the kind of pictures that they produced is Leica-like. Style and substance are not identical. Leica’s advertising department tried all venues: stressing the tool, then stressing the performance, then focusing on emotion. The true message is more complicated. To be continued