Heirloom value or good enough?

Bike racks, Portland Community College SE, 12 Oct 2022. Olympus 35RD, Ilford HP5+. Home developed: Ilfosol 3 1:9 at 5:30 minutes in Rondinax 35U daylight tank

Since I got back into film photography almost three years ago, I follow a lot of film-related blogs. The big chatter over the last week was the introduction of a new camera by venerable manufacturer Leica. They reintroduced their M6 model, possibly their most popular camera. Now they will be making three 35mm rangefinder cameras. The fact that anyone is still making any high-quality film cameras should be applauded, and since Canon and Nikon discontinued their last film SLRs a few years ago, they are the only game in town.

But not all the chatter has been positive. For the past few years Leica had been hinting at a cheaper, more affordable camera, and people were excited because Leicas are the opposite of cheaper and affordable. But when folks learned that the “new” M6 would be about $5,000 (without lens), roughly the same price as the other film cameras they make (and about twice the price of the last film Nikon, the F6), they wondered what happened to the whole cheaper camera thing. Mind you, a “cheaper” Leica would not be cheap, but five grand is only going to appeal to folks with means.

All this talk on Leica got me thinking about them again. Even before I got back into film, I knew that they were a rarefied, aspirational brand, the Rolex of cameras. They were the types of cameras off-limits to a plebe like me. My journey started with a Minolta Hi-Matic 7s, which set me back $35 plus shipping. I’ve bought a lot of cameras, but most of them were $50 or under, and only two (Minolta XD5 and Ricohflex Dia) were over that (but not by much). I’ve always been about value, getting the most for your money and seeking out the ignored, undervalued.

Plus, there’s a certain air amongst some (but not all) Leica users, that they are somehow “special” just because they bought something that does the same thing as another camera, but spent much more money on it. It’s parallel to Pashley Guv’nor owners: They are nice bikes, and I appreciate the craftsmanship. But you can find an old three speed and build up something similar and more unique for a lot less money. But then you wouldn’t be a member of an “exclusive” club, and for some Guv’nor owners, that’s the primary point of owning the bike.

There is one big thing that separates Leica from most other cameras, however: the “heirloom value” aspect. Leicas last a long time, can still be repaired (all mechanical construction makes this easier), and generally go up in value. They can make a good “investment”. I didn’t get into film photography as an investment strategy (if anything, it’s been a way to lose money, not make it) so that argument never held much water with me. But I am getting older, and my retirement fund is pretty minimal. Maybe it could be a good idea?

Of course, this is pure conjecture. I don’t have the cash for a new Leica body, nor do I have the cash for a used one. Nor would I want to get into more debt to buy one. Five grand is a lot of money for a guy like me, and that five grand could go towards several things higher up on my list, like paying off my extant debt. Or it would get me an e-cargo bike, something I’ve been wanting for awhile.

The biggest thing holding me back is this: What would I get out of a Leica that I couldn’t get out of the other cameras I own? A Leica afficionado would point out the overall experience of operating a well-crafted German mechanical device. I’ve heard that the advance lever and knobs are buttery smooth, and the camera “purrs” under use. Or perhaps they’d point out the superior Leitz lenses, probably the best in the world. All that is fine and dandy, but is that going to be that much better than what I can do with my Minolta XD5, a camera that coincidentally was developed in tandem with the Leica R4? The Leica snob may discount that, especially since the R4 was an SLR, not a rangefinder. But will I take better photos with a Leica? The Leicaphile may say “yes” because it’s a beautiful machine that would encourage me to get out and take more photos. But would I be so self-conscious about using a $5,000 camera that I’d leave it on the shelf instead? And then I’d use my “beater” camera instead, which is the camera I already have?

At this point in my life, I’m trying to make do with what I already have. My bike stable has stabilized at four with the reintroduction of the Heavy Duti in the fleet. Every once in a while I’m tempted by thoughts of a new bike, like a “sexy” road machine. But I don’t do enough riding on the bikes I already have to justify another bike, and the notion that getting another bike is going to somehow improve my riding ability isn’t sound thinking. I’ve managed to create a three piece watch collection in as many months, and while beautiful watches tempt me around every corner, I know I can’t own them all. And I’ve got eight cameras, all of them I enjoy using. Eight is a lot of cameras, especially when for many decades people rarely owned more than one camera at a time. A Leicaphile might argue that I could get replace all or most of those cameras with a Leica. But even if I did sell each one for a decent price, I’d only have a fraction of the cash for a Leica, new or used.

Of course, there’s those “If I won the lottery” thinking games, the things you’d buy if you suddenly became flush with cash. If that happened, I’d love to buy a Rivendell bike, as I like the ethos and Grant, Will, and the gang in Walnut Creek are decent folk. Maybe I’d get an heirloom watch, and a Leica M6 to round things out. It’s fun to dream, but I need to stay rooted in reality. A Leica is off the table for now, but I can appreciate them from afar. If you have one, or want one, or are working on getting one, cool. Just remember that owning a fancy camera doesn’t make you a better photographer, just a photographer with a fancy camera.

But I will not complain if anyone gifts me a Leica! 😉

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4 thoughts on “Heirloom value or good enough?

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  1. I went down this road, having owned a 1951 IIIf (with a 1932 Summar 50), a 1937 IIIa (with matching Summar 50), and a 1959 M1 (with which I adapted the ’37 Summar). After breaking my HiMatic, I looked at what I thought I didn’t like about it, and decided I wanted something smaller. So that led me to get addicted to one the ultimate compacts – the Rollei 35 and 35S. I’ve owned six of those. Why so many? I learned their weaknesses, and how to fix them. Flipping cameras has fully paid for my film, chemicals, and other necessities. While the Rollei is fantastic, I found myself wanting to shoot indoors. Bigger aperature settings required more accurate focusing, so I convinced myself I needed a small rangefinder. Enter the thread mount Leica, and it’s many clones of varying quality. I came near to purchasing the Zorki a few times. I figured I was going to eventually wind up with a true Leica, so I bit the bullet and bought the IIIf. I took some great shots with it, but it had some holes in the shutter curtain, so I sent it back. Now I wanted light weight, as well as small size, so I got the IIIa. It was also a fine camera. The thing about screw mount Leicas is that they require time and patience to operate, be it loading film, or just getting focus with the very small rangefinder (which is a separate glass from the viewfinder). Now being completely spoiled, I lusted after an M2. Well instead I wound up putting an offer in on a misrepresented M1 (they can be upgraded to M2 spec IF you can find the parts), and now had a big heavy scale focus camera, with a ton of issues. Well I was able to get it functioning, and I can say that the M is quite the experience. I can’t deny they are truly great to use, and built like a tank. Not to mention whisper quiet. I got into shooting street at the time, and scale focus was not a negative. However, this camera also needed shutter curtains. It was so fantastic, I tell you, that I was willing to take that task on, having done three body CLAs by now. But I came to my senses: I have two young kids, and I’m intentionally putting off my “career” to experience this time of life completely. I use the excuse that I enjoy working on things, which is true. But it’s also true I can’t afford to do it any other way. And I’m not going to miss hours with my kids to futz with an old camera, regardless of how great it may be. Not to mention I still didn’t have a proper M mount lens yet. So I came to my senses and sold all the German stuff, and got another 7S, which only needed light seals. Obviously the way I do things is weird, and investing in a serviced and working M2 or M3 is not a losing proposition if you’ve been following the prices. But if you have other places to put $2-3k (like debt), I’m thinking the ol’ Minolta will serve you just fine. Another option I considered but didn’t act on would be the lovely and venerable Cannon 7 or Cannon P. They (and their Leica M39 mount lenses) have appreciated in value as all quality film gear has. But still a good value. Plus they have metal shutter curtains…

    1. Man, you’ve got an interesting way of going about things, Wilson! 😉
      But everybody’s journey is unique.

      I thought for a sec about the pre M-mount Leicas, as they are the “cheap” ones. But yeah, the Japanese really refined the rangefinder in the 1960’s and made it easier for people to use. True, you won’t get interchangeable lenses, but that’s not needed for most people. (And you are really limited to a few focal lengths with a rangefinder.) And no worries about burning holes in shutter The Canon interchangeable lens rangefinders do look cool, as do the Nikons. Minolta actually had a couple interchangeable-lens rangefinders, but they are uncommon.

      1. I appreciate your use of the adj. “interesting.” After writing that out, my process seems even more bizarre to me than I’d previously thought. Of course none of this was clear to me in the moment – I just wanted certain things out of a camera. But looking back, I am able to see how I went about it, and (hopefully) waste less time in the future.

        1. We’ve all got our own processes in order to “figure out what we want”. I’m always a bit suspicious of the folks who jump into a hobby or the like and are dead-set on getting a certain thing because either conventional wisdom tells them this is the way they should start (see everyone who picks up a Pentax K1000 to start film photography) or only get the “best of the best” because they won’t settle for second (see everyone who picks up a Leica as their first film camera). We don’t know what we really want until we start fooling around with things.

          You’re just a more interesting case because you actually had Leicas and then gave them up for a Hi-Matic! 😀

          Sometimes going with “received wisdom” can work out. Back in 2008 when I broke my Centurion Accordo and was looking for an upgrade, I went with a Long Haul Trucker. Accepted wisdom told me this was the “best of the best” for touring bikes (the era in which the Trek 520 held that spot just passed), so I went and got one. The bike did not let me down, but five years later I outgrew it and then got a custom Bantam. I don’t regret getting the LHT, and back in 2008 I was not the bike nerd I am today. But part of me wondered what I would have gotten if I was.

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