Leica Camera

Voigtlander Kontur Finder

I have a terrific friend, Zoran, who from time-to-time lends me bits and pieces, some rare, some expensive, some commonplace, so I can try them out and see if I like whatever it is.  This time around he has loaned me a remarkable bit of kit – a viewfinder that has no view – the strange but effective Voigtlander Kontur finder. I have borrowed it in my seemingly never-ending current quest for an accessory finder for my Leica IIIf with a 50mm lens.

I believe that the Kontur was made for the Voigtlander Vitessa fitted with an accessory shoe as an alternate finder to optical finders for quick snapshot use (although my version doesn’t sport one). Here it is fitted to my favourite Canonet (a QL19 that took me a month of lunchtimes to repair, hence the red leather skin, but that’s another story for another post):

It is a chunky black plastic cube, with an eyepiece at the rear, and no obvious viewing window on the front, just a black nameplate in a metal frame that notes it is for 24×36 and 35mm – yes, a viewfinder without a view. Check that again – a viewfinder with no view. When you pick it up and look through it with the customary one eye open, one eye closed viewing arrangement most of us use, all you you see a black field, outlined with a solid white frame line and a dotted parallax frame. Oh yes, and a white dot in the center. A very strange unit, this, for a finder. If you switch eyes, you see the same thing:

Not very promising, eh? But now if you open both eyes, all of a sudden the design reveals it brilliance, a breathtakingly simple and blindingly clever finder for fast work. This is an approximation of what you see (I hope that it is an internet first):

Clever, eh? All you do is set the lens to a suitable hyper-focal distance, and shoot away. It is fast, just perfect for street shooting.  I believe that the viewing lens allows you to focus on the back illuminated frame lines – the central dot is to give your eye something to look at to make it all work in focus (but there is no straining to see the image at all). The other open eye sees the scene, and the brain superimposes the images, “seeing through” the blackness to give you a pretty damn fine rendering of the scene in front of you. Photo-journalist’s heaven. The finder works very well in dim conditions too. Confusingly, the numbers on the finder’s front screen mean that it is for a 35mm camera with a frame of 24 x 36mm, however this model gives a view of a standard lens – a 50mm unit on a 35mm camera, and not that of a 35mm lens.

Zoran might have a hard time getting this loaner back off me – I love it.

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Olympus 35 SP

Olympus 35 SP

This is another great find, but this time I paid $10 for it instead of my customary five dollars. “Why so expensive?” you might be thinking. Because it is a very special Olympus rangefinder, possibly the best fixed lens 35mm rangefinder camera that was ever made. This one dates from between 1969 and 1974.

The Olympus 35 SP  has two unique features, raising it head and shoulders above the common herd – switchable light metering that provides a spot meter facility as well as three more common center-weighted averaging method, and a seven element G Zuiko 42 mm f1.7 lens with unit focusing. This combination – of an exquisitely sharp and contrasty distortion-free prime lens combined with very precise metering – has made it a very sought-after little camera. I say little, but it has grown a fair bit beyond the 35 RC’s svelte form. It is perhaps a quarter-inch longer than the mighty Canon QL17 GIII recently featured here, but it has a better lens making the slightly bigger size well worth putting up with. Here it is:

Left to right, here’s the relative sizes of the SP – DC – RC:

The 35 RC on the right is absolutely tiny. The comparative sizes displayed  in this image makes the 35 SP appear as a behemoth, but trust me, its not. It’s still small in comparison with a Leica M. Talking of Leicas, the spot meter on the 35 SP appeared in 1969, years ahead of the spot meter in the Leica M5, which doesn’t have a center-weighted alternative mode. Score 1 to the SP. The purists will cry, but the G-Zuiko is every bit as good as glass of the same era from Wetzlar. The G designates seven elements, as it is the seventh letter… The camera that came after the 35 SP, the again lusted-after 35 RD (yes, I want one too) was a great camera, but it only was given an F Zuiko – yes, a 6 element lens. The SP has a 7th correcting element, making this one absolutely outstanding and just about unique. (The middle camera above – the 35 DC – is the same size as the RC version.)

The viewfinder is pure Olympus rangefinder. However, instead of displaying aperture and/or shutter speeds, the viewfinder top line shows – exposure values. Arcane in this digital day, but to anyone who grew up with an exposure meter this is pure gold. All you do is set the EV reading from the viewfinder onto the scale on the lens barrel. The pairing of exposure against shutter speed is fast and accurate – open the lens one stop, reduce the exposure by half – the same EV results. My first SLR, my dad’s Zeiss Icon Contaflex Super had the same system, and it worked very, very well.

Footnote – The background to these images is the cover of the vinyl version of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”. I thought it appropriate as it is from the same era as the 35 SP. It’s a classic, too.

They’re both worth more than ten bucks. I love them.

Postscript – See a later blog entry – 25 August 2011 –  about the rehabilitation of this beautiful camera, covering many, many issues – wobbly lens, light seals, rangefinder alignment, removing the top, light meter, and batteries.  If you have one of these cameras in less than perfect condition, don’t despair – either consider getting it fixed, doing it yourself (but be very careful), or contact me and I might take it off your hands.

Leica IIIf RD DA

Naked beauty
I can’t stop admiring this incredible camera. It is working just about perfectly now, having had its view- and range-finders cleaned following its invasive surgery a couple of weeks ago. It is fitted with one of my absolute favorite lenses – the Canon 50mm f1.2 screw mount. This wonder appeared in 1956, so it is of the right age to fit onto the Leica IIIf, although my copy was made in 1961. An accessory viewfinder is essential as this lens shuts out over half of the viewfinder.
The astute reader will have by now realised that I have a thing for 50mm “standard” lenses. I am ashamed to say I have and use (oh dear) a 1949 Canon Serenar f1.9 collapsible; a 1953 Leitz Summicron collapsible; this wonderful Canon f1.2; a Leica Summicron M from about 1990 (4th version); 3 Super Takumar f1.4’s, as well as a couple of older sibling 1950s Takumar zebra 50mm f2 and f2.2 from well before automatic iris mechanisms appeared; a Tessar from Carl Zeiss Jena (another particular favorite of mine); a box of about twenty other various 50mm M42 mount versions yet awaiting their time; a Nikkor 50mm f1.4 AI from 1981; a Tomioka 55mm f1.2 (the fastest M42 ever produced); several FD 50mm f1.8’s; not to mention my trusty Canon EF 50 f1.4. God help me. Perhaps it’s because my first SLR was a Zeiss Contaflex Super (thanks Dad) that was fitted with a Tessar that could not be easily swapped for anything else, so it became my go-to (read only) lens for a very long while. And that list doesn’t even have regard for the ones I don’t own anymore.
This picture was shot with my five dollar Nikkor 50mm f1.4 lens that was originally fitted to the Nikon FM2n I showed a little earlier. It’s a fabulous lens, now fitted to my Olympus E-P2 (my rangefinder for the digital age) through a cheap and cheerful Chinese made N-to-M43 adapter. That combination shot this image (f5.6, hand held, 400ASA at about 1/30 sec).
If you haven’t yet got into using beautiful legacy glass on a digital camera body, you really do owe it to yourself to trawl the Goodwill shops until you find one, and get an adapter for your particular SLR of choice. They can open up the old fashioned world of think first, shoot second that I believe must only improve one’s image making that is denied to us in the auto-everything non-thinking digital age of cameras.
I am renovating its leather half case now, so a bit more camera pron should appear soon when that little task is sorted out, so stay tuned.

Barnack IIIf (almost) sorted

Back together again

A couple of days ago I posted a shot of a Leica IIIf red dial, with a bit of commentary about what it needed to get it properly sorted. The last thing needed was to fix the shutter timing. Well, I bit the bullet and tore it down. Here is a picture of it in bits on my desk:

Pretty straightforwards, following many of the excellent directions available on the net. I got into a bit of difficultly reassembling the slow speed governor, but thanks to the wonderful Rick Oleson (google him), a brilliant and helpful camera fix-it whiz, I had foolproof instructions on getting it back together. The ripped film (above the knife) was hidden inside, all ready to jam things up as soon as I loaded it if I hadn’t found it by then.

The two images following are sound recordings I made to try and assess the before and after shutter speed situation. They were recorded using a freeware program called “Audacity”, using a microphone poking into the body cavity. Both recordings are of 1/2 second:

The first image shows that the first curtain traveled OK, and the second curtain started to try and close at 0.75 secs. but took another 0.25 seconds to actually close. It was also pretty noisy.

Adjusting the first and second curtain settings has altered this poor situation – the second image reveal a few things after my tear-down, clean and lube – it is much quieter; the timing is just a bit off at 0.55 secs (only a +10% variation); and the second curtain now properly closes the shutter and caps the film. The situation seems to me to be similar across all of the speeds.

It seems to work pretty well now. I will soon get around to properly timing the shutter speeds – they have gone from abysmally slooow to just a tiny a bit fast now, I feel. To get closer, I need access to an old fashioned TV with a CRT to act as a timing device.

Hopefully I will soon have that sorted, and then in with a film. Now all I have to do is find my collection of antique Weston meters. Or should I just guess through the “Sunny 16” rule?

Whatever, I can’t wait.

Barnack heaven

Leica IIIf Red Dial

Oh my God. I am lucky, lucky, lucky. In the past few days I have unearthed three beautiful finds. A Canonet QL17 GIII with its original instruction book, a Nikon FM2n with an unmarked 50mm f1.4 AI Nikkor (both for $5 each), and – a Leica IIIf RD ST fitted with a Summicron collapsible 5cm f2 lens. I will spill about the Nikon and Canon shortly in a subsequent post, but for now, I want to share the Leica with you.

Oscar Barnack designed the very first in Leica in 1914. The first World War intervened and stopped the first ones being sold until 1925, and Barnack, as head of Leitz’s construction office, continued designing improved variants until he passed away in early 1936. His legacy lived on in all of the screw-mount Leica cameras that were produced until their line was first eclipsed and ended by the bayonet mount M3, released in 1954. I say his legacy has lived on, as all of the screw mount Leicas were simple, graceful and above all small jewels of ingenuity and incredible quality.

Let me introduce my new best buddy – my beautiful Leica IIIf RD ST – meaning the red dial, self timer variant as shown here, fitted with its Summicron:

Some call it a IIf RD DA. More correctly, Erwin Puts (a Leica fanatic and generally regarded as an oracle) describes this as a “Leica IIIf Vorlauf ELC (RD)” and from its serial number it was actually made in Canada – making it rare and very, very collectable. There were only 4,000 Canadian units made out of a total of 184, 100 that were produced between 1950 and 1957. (Thanks, Leica Wiki:  http://www.l-camera-forum.com/leica-wiki.en/index.php/Leica_IIIf  )

The RD or “red dial” means the version introduced late in the production run with some red filled figures on the speed and flash synchronization dials. The ST means a factory-fitted self-timer is present. (The DA in some names refers to the presence of a delayed action – or a self timer…) Only one other version of screw mount Leicas was made after this one, and, yes, it was called the IIIg. It is very rare – I have never seen one. Mine dates from 1954, when the IIIf was marketed in parallel with the first M3s. The screw mount collapsible Summicron started life in 1953, the first year that this brilliant lens series was born, and is one of the very first batch of 6000 ever produced – I wonder if they have been mated all their lives?

My one was practically given to me by an old fellow who knowingly said it “has some issues”. I got it home, and checked it out. The list of issues: filthy, dirty chrome; scratched front element and dull glass; jammed aperture ring; missing vulcanite under the lens mount; and slow speeds issues.

Well here’s the health report after a couple of days:

  • chrome – sorted. Cleaned up nicely and shines like new with only a couple of minor rub marks, and a bit of brassing on the winder and rewind knobs;
  • scratched front element and dull glass – sorted. The lens had a very marked filter jammed on. I eventually got it off, and guess what – clean, clear, unmarked almost pristine glass elements all through the lens. This is almost unheard of as the front elements are notoriously soft, and most have been ruined by cleaning. It seems this one’s jammed filter saved it from this fate.
  • jammed aperture ring – sorted. I unscrewed the front section, and cleaned out the old hardened grease jamming it up with lighter fluid. It is now a very easy one finger adjustment.
  • missing vulcanite under the lens mount – sorted.  “Star brite” brand black liquid electrical tape mixed with talcum powder makes new rubber the same colour as the old vulcanite. This then is applied with a skewer to fill the missing area, and when nearly set is pressed with a sealing wax block that I melted and pressed onto a good area of the body to make an impression of the existing pattern. Looks pretty convincing.
  • slow speed issues – nearly sorted. Both curtains now open and close nicely. One half second times electronically as 0.55 secs so its only 10% out now. I have to check the fast speeds.

I have unearthed an old finder from my collection of bits and pieces which serves well as the 50mm bright line viewfinder this camera really needs. The camera’s rangefinder works perfectly, and even has a built-in diopter-adjust mechanism. It just keeps getting better. I am definitely going to get back into film with this incredible camera. I have promised this before and never followed through for long, but this camera has sparked something special in me again. My reading has informed me that Henri Cartier Bresson used exactly this combination to make some of his most famous images. What’s good enough for him surpasses my modest needs.

Dare I say it – I like it a whole lot better than my M6. It’s much quieter, too..

Heresy – The Olympus E-P2 IS better than the Leica M8

The Olympus E-P2 is better than the Leica M8 … at least for me.

A good friend of mine loaned me a Leica M8 body recently (many thanks, Zoran!) with an eye to a sale, as I had a hunger to go Leica digital as I have a few nice old rangefinder lenses hanging about.  This hunger arose and then intensified as I have been having more success with my Olympus E-P2 than I usually enjoy with my Canon 5D outfit for more candid and intimate shots, and I guess I thought that the M8 body might confer a bit more of the old Leica magick on me if I had one.

To get ready for it, I sold off a wad of kit that I owned but never used, and now it has gone I know I didn’t actually want (let alone need) either. This included a FujiFilm S3 Pro DSLR, a Canon G10, and some other digital paperweights. Don’t get me wrong – in the right hands, these are serious tools capable of great work, it’s just that my hands were not the right ones. This was a Good Thing. No-one wanted to buy my old Tamron Adaptall zooms and Pentax Takumar primes either, so I still have them. This outcome was also a Good Thing.

I used  the Leica for a couple of weeks in parallel with my E-P2 “Pen” that I also have been using as a mount for old glass. Before I confer my decision, I must confess that I own and occasionally use a beautiful chrome M6, so I know what a camera fitted with the famous red dot can do in the right circumstances. Notwithstanding my love of my film M6 (note that I have also owned and used an M5 and loved it too), I just couldn’t get the M8 to feel right and work with me as I have done with it’s film-based brethren.

The M8 is a beautiful tool – hand made and handsome in a most purposeful way – that can excel as only a rangefinder can with the right eyes and brain behind it. It seems that I am not one of those appropriately equipped to delight in the M8 experience. Here’s why:

  • It’s too heavy.
  • I hate the viewfinder – the framelines are worthless, and the 0.68 magnification factor – optimised for longer lenses, just what you don’t need on a crop sensor body –  is not nice when you have been used to a classic M6 with the standard finder magnification of 0.72.
  • I had issues with the rangefinder leading to consistently out-of-focus images with a properly calibrated modern Summicron 50mm, if you can believe it.
  • I was worried about its worth and felt as though every eye was on me – this is the opposite experience most people report about using a discrete black dumb-looking rangefinder.
  • Now I have discovered the value of family video, the M8 can’t actually shoot any.
  • The in-camera JPEGs are horrible, although the DNG RAW files are as industry-standard as you can get.
  • Because of the excessive inbuilt IR sensitivity, you really do need to invest in IR cut filters for each lens you use, and they are expensive.

There are some good M8 things as well:

  • It’s so cool.
  • You can use any of the fantastic glass made for a Leica over the past 80 years by Zeiss, Canon, Voigtlander, and yes, even by Leica. It’s all fabulous, and you can pick and choose the rendering intent you are seeking.
  • It’s low-light noise performance, although not as good as the Canon 5D, is pretty darn good, and better than the Pen’s. The sensor is nearly APS-H size (but not quite), which is more than double the area of the micro 4/3 standard sensor real estate.
  • Did I already say it’s cool?

On the other hand, my creativity with old glass has been recently unmatched by my use of the Pen. I believe that I have recently taken some of the best shots of my 47 years of having access to and using a camera (I started when I was 7 with a Box Brownie) on the Pen. Here’s why:

  • It’s so cool.
  • It’s small and relatively lightweight.
  • I have a huge choice of glass – with just 2 adapters that cost $25 each, I can use any screw or bayonet mount lens  ever designed for the Leica rangefinder family, or any of the almost limitless array of glass built on the M42 / Pentax screw mount. Oh, and don’t forget the modern M4/3 glass from Olympus, Leica, Panasonic, Voigtlander or some of the boutique glass factory products designed to fit M4/3 cameras too. And just like with the M8, you can pick and choose the rendering intent you are seeking by your choice of lens.
  • When I use old glass, because of the M4/2 two-times crop factor the sensor sees only the prime middle section of the chosen lens’s image circle – goodbye soft corners, farewell vignettes.
  • The Pen’s optional electronic viewfinder (VF-2) is amazing, in that with its 1.15 times magnification you can actually see and compose the picture even in low light with the camera pressed up against your face, just like we all used to do until optical viewfinders were cruelly snatched away from us at the dawn of the digital age, and not replaced in order just to save a few bucks in build costs. You can also examine the effects of your chosen aperture on the depth of field. A side benefit of the VF-2 finder is that at least with some lenses, keeping both eyes open results in a most unusual 3D view of the scene you are shooting.
  • This face-stabilised mode allows for sharp images as the camera wobbles about far less than when held at arm’s length like every other digital P&S wonder on the planet does without a viewfinder.
  • It has sensor-stabilisation available for every lens that you can fit, making otherwise shaky images possible in low light.
  • The JPEGs it makes automatically are far and away better than the Leica’s by a country mile. The RAW images are of course every bit as good for raw material as the DNG varieties that the M8 creates.
  • The colour performance and white balance is better than the M8.
  • The low-light performance, although not as good as the M8, is pretty darn good, and vastly better than any point-and-shoot can do, because  although not offering any more resolution, the sensor is 9 times bigger (225 mm2 vs 25 mm2) than the 1 /2.5 “ sensor in the typical 12 mpix auto-everything Canon/Nikon/Samsung/Pentax and, yes, Olympus offering.
  • It’s a fantastic video camera, especially when fitted with old glass.

It’s not all rosy, however – now for the bad Pen issues that have impacted me

  • The autofocus with a modern M4/3 lens is slow compared to a DSLR (however it kills the M8’s, which has none at all anyway).
  • The crop factor is 2 times, making your old 50mm a short telephoto, and thereby automatically making very wide angle lenses very expensive. The M8’s crop is only 1.3 times, which is far more useful (to me at least).
  • It’s so cool especially fitted with an old lens, that people stop you to ask “what camera is it”?

I find that my creativity, especially with people, portraits and candids, soars with the Pen (compared to using but primarily worrying about protecting the M8 because of its cost) especially when it is fitted with a quality old fashioned manual-everything lens. My current favourites are the 50 year old Canon 50mm f1.2 LTM light bucket, and the fabulous Voigtlander Ultron 28mm f2 M mount lens, my new “standard”.

My percentage of keepers is massively higher from the Pen than from the M8. On this basis alone, I am prepared to accept the two compromise areas I don’t really like about the Pen – the crop ratio, and the low light noise performance. Simply put, a successful keeper is infinitely better than and preferable to an out-of-focus or missed shot to me…

If I want really wide or super low light quality, well I just use the Canon 5D instead. It’s horses for courses, I guess. So, I’m staying with the Pen as my choice for a small, super-high-quality unit to use when the Canon 5D is just too big.

Oh, and I have just saved wasting $2500 on a dream that would not deliver for me, too. Just don’t hate me for being a heretic