Sunday, 28 July 2013

Leica M: A Crushing Review in AP

Leica must be smarting. The review of the new Leica M Typ 240 in Amateur Photographer (6 July) must be one of the worst pannings ever seen in this magazine. Just a few snippets from the final paragraphs are sufficient to indicate the reviewer was less than impressed:
...but these features have handling snags that smack of a product that hasn’t been thought through properly......the sensor doesn’t record as much detail and sharpness as competitor something of a sideways step from the M9, rather than the step up…
All that for £5100 body only.
Then, the next week (13 July) AP had a letter from a disgruntled Leica purchaser who had bought an M8 in December 2010. After 29 months (5 months after the guarantee had expired) the camera failed but Leica were reported as saying that they could not repair it because they did not have the parts but for £2700 would supply a new camera. That correspondence is still running.

Having had a Leica M3 and an M6 with a range of lenses, I always wondered if I would regret selling them when a digital M eventually appeared. The only feature I miss (other than the optical quality of some of the lenses) is the direct vision viewfinder (only with the 28-50 mm lenses, however). Very rarely did the M3 or M6 seem the ideal camera for the type of photographs I was taking at the time.
Since I sold all my Leica equipment I have only handled two digital Ms, an M8 and an M9 both belonging to fellow travellers. Both occasions were nostalgiafests but I talked for a while to the young owner of the M9. He also carried a Canon DSLR and admitted that he was hardly using the Leica. He felt he had to take some photographs with it because he had paid so much to get it. However, he said that he found it far more tricky to use than his  DSLR, both in terms of focusing (he had not been brought up with rangefinders) and exposure.

Will damning reviews in AP and the like have any effect on Leica sales or future policy. I doubt it. There are plenty of wealthy red dot buyers in the world. However, I suspect even more strongly than I did before that Leica are now off the pace when it comes to digital technology.

Leica binoculars and telescopes, fortunately, are still world-class. All members of this family are Leica orientated for birding optics (at least 10 binoculars and scopes between us). We all prefer the handling of the Leicas compared with Swarovski.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Exakta Varex Cameras. 2: 1960s Perspective

I mentioned in a previous post (2 July) an Exakta Varex IIb I had from 1966 to 1978. I also said that in its day, the Exakta was the 35 mm SLR. By way of illustration, this is an advertisement from Amateur Photographer (25 November 1964):

In the front pages of advertisements — the main selling pages for new and high-end second-hand cameras — Exakta advertisements from retailers loom large. By contrast, I can only find one mention of a Nikon F: a single line listing one second-hand.

To some extent, this pushing of Exakta and ignoring of Nikon reflects the social trends in photography in the late 1950s and early 1960s. As Japanese cameras began to appear in Britain in the late 1950s, there was an intense snobbishness about them. How on earth could the Japanese produce cameras of a quality equal to that achieved by the Germans? However, at the same time, East Germany was dominant in the ‘good value’ market from the late 1950s. We had seen and owned the Zeiss Jena Werra and the Praktica models were now being promoted.

West German cameras led by Zeiss Ikon and Leica, of course, were far more expensive when apparently comparing like with like, than those manufactured East Germany. I suspect the dominant position East German cameras came to occupy in the British camera market was achieved not only by lower manufacturing costs but by retailers being offered higher margins by the importer. So, we had a situation where the rich bought West German and the poor bought East German. However, the Exakta was in a different position in the market. There was no real West German equivalent. The Zeiss Ikon Contaflex was not so versatile and, it seemed, was aimed at the rich amateur taking a limited range of photographs.

So we had Exakta leading the whole German pack when it came to SLRs and not yet being exposed to the competition from Japan. The competition already existed but the market was not being exploited by the agents of the Japanese companies in Britain. It would be years until the Japanese manufacturers set up their own marketing companies in U.K. and replaced their British agents.

The standard choices on offer in the Dolland & Newcombe advertisement reflect the need, then and now, in Britain at any rate, to show a low headline cost. In this case the Varex IIb was offered with the awful Domiplan lens, for example, while the f/2 Pancolar was listed with the body and reflex finder, not the pentaprism. The headline price of these kits varied from £71 to £82. The ideal combination of body, pentaprism and f/2 Pancolar is not listed. Looking at the price list that kit would have been approximately £100. That is the combination I bought in Hong Kong in 1966 but without the purchase tax then applied in Britain and the cut-throat competition, the Hong Kong Price was between £30 and £40.

So what sort of camera would you get for the same money in 2013? There are several ways to calculate what £100 represents today. In terms of the increase in the retail price index, the Varex IIb combination would cost £1663 today. Because pay has risen faster than prices since 1964 (as wealth has been created) this index provides an underestimate of the equivalent price paid. Whatever the exact figure, we can say that, roughly, that top of the range Exakta was equivalent at least to a Nikon D600 with a zoom lens in terms of 2013 prices. Photography really was expensive in the 1950s and 60s. And that 1960s camera delivered just the three controls: shutter speed, aperture and focus. There was no exposure metering, no autofocus and no instant-return mirror. We really have never had it so good — whatever the luddites who infest the letters pages of the photographic magazines may believe.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Lens Depth of Field Scales. 2. Intrapolation and the Infinity Mark

A slight complication of reading a depth-of-field scale is that the focusing scale on a lens is not linear. In other words, equal distances on the focusing scale are not equal distances between the camera and the subject. There is a greater distance between, say, the marks for 2 and 3 metres than between those for 3 and 4, and so on. The corresponding position on the focusing ring of the aperture mark on the depth of field scale has to be estimated by intrapolation because there is not room on the focusing ring for marks at, say, every metre, as the subject distance increases.

The pitch of the thread on the focusing ring, the greater circular distance the ring has to be turned to change the point of focus. With a fine thread more marks can be shown. Even with a lens with a long travel (i.e. a good depth-of-field scale), estimates have to be made between, say, 10 and 15 feet with allowance made for the fact that the distance on the focusing ring will be greater for 10-11 feet, than for each succeeding foot up to 14-15 feet. Beginners unaccustomed to non-linearity have to be made to realise that a point midway between the 10 and 15 foot marks is not 12.5 feet.

The reason that the focusing scale is non-linear is not because there is a circular dial. It is simply because of the laws of physics. The graph shows the lens-film distance as the focused subject is moved from 1 to 100 metres from the camera. In the nearest 10 metres, the lens is moved more than 2 mm but the movement is less than a further 0.5 mm in shifting the focus between 10 and 100 metres for a 50 mm lens.

Lens-film (sensor) distance at different subject distances for a 50 mm lens

At long subject distances, the change in the lens-film distance is so small that virtually anywhere within reason could be chosen as a point of maximum travel for the focusing ring. At long ranges an ∞ mark is not really necessary especially for short and medium focal lengths. The focal length (i.e. when the lens is 50 mm from the film) could be the position of the ∞ mark, since the blue line in the graph hits the focal length when the subject is at ∞. But what is infinity? With a depth-of-field scale an ∞ mark is necessary and its position can easily be set by the lens manufacturer, either at the focal length or near to it.

One way of looking at the ∞ mark is to consider it from the point of view of the depth of field scale. Depending on the circle of confusion (see previous post) the lens is focused on a subject at the at the hyperfocal distance. Then the scale can be marked at the near point of acceptable focus at a particular aperture. The measured distance on the scale between the near point and the hyperfocal distance can then be applied to the opposite side of the scale to indicate the point on the focusing scale to which the ∞ mark can be marked on the focusing ring. In other words the ∞ mark is needed for the depth-of-field scale but its position can be calculated in the first place from the calculated depth-of-field for a lens of a particular focal length at a particular aperture.

Out of interest, I measured as accurately as I could the position of the focusing marks on an old Pancolar 50 mm lens, transformed the values so that I could get a linear relationship to subject distance and then extrapolated the line to estimate what distance the ∞ mark was set at. Infinity was set at approximately 255 feet (78 metres). How far the actual setting is from the 50 mm focal length that could be set as being at infinity I do not know.