Report from the trenches – #1

March 14th, 2014  |  Published in Blog

I thought it’s time to share stuff more frequently here, so starting today you will find a selection of interesting finds and reads from all over the Internet. Rather than just resorting to re-tweeting or re-posting stuff on Twitter or Tumblr, it’s more fun to post them on this blog where I have the room and freedom to comment with more than just a handful of words. Why “Report from the trenches”? The Internet is a passionate place where opinions and ideas are challenged in passionate ways, sometimes resulting in flame wars and battles of the trolls. From that insane amount of information that is raining down on us each week, I try to edit it down to what I think is worth sharing and discussing, hopefully on a weekly basis. Feel free to join in with comments or back-traced blog posts of yourself.

On Leica Photography

What defines a Leica, its heritage and what is coined as “Leica Photography”? David Kim shared an interesting article on Twitter from the Leicaphilia blog.

My personal view on Leica and the merits of their current generation products in terms of value proposition is very close to that of the author of the Leicaphilia blog post. I’d even go a step further. While Leica now produces some of the finest optics money can buy at a premium price and some more, and while they’re offering possibly one of the best digital medium format SLRs in the photography industry, the sad fact is that for the majority of working photographers and enthusiasts, Leica has become irrelevant in the execution of their daily job routines. Furthermore, Leica is not driven by innovation and in fact, it hasn’t been driven by innovation for decades. Being a premium quality maker of tools is great, but it’s not innovative by itself to produce outstanding quality in itself. Leica knows how to design excellent lenses but guess what, so do others too! And at a fraction of the asking price for a Leica lens with no perceivable loss of image quality.

Take Cosina’s Voigtländer branded M lenses for example. Some of them are better than equivalent focal length Leica lenses and most are close enough in terms of image quality that it doesn’t matter in real life if you use a Leica or Voigtländer lens. But ironically, enthusiast review sites the likes of Steve Huff pretend Leica lenses sprinkle magic fairy dust on images. It’s irrational and it’s solely based on effective marketing around myths and legends where the reality is that lenses the fraction of the cost either produce equal or close enough results, often without the inconveniences of using a rangefinder camera. Current day Leica caters to an image that doesn’t have any basis anymore and targets a specific kind of customer that doesn’t care about relevant usability first but exclusivity and being part of the brand for the sake of it.

Speaking of myths and legends, Leica still maintains their image around offering a small and stealthy camera that is ideal for unobtrusive documentary and street  photography. That was true 40 years ago when most alternatives to Leica’s 35mm format rangefinders where either large, bulky cameras based on bigger formats or noisy SLRs. Today, there are high quality alternatives that are more convenient to use, quieter and faster and considerably smaller than a Leica that produce equally good results for documentary or street photography purposes where print sizes are usually defined by magazines, newspapers and books and perhaps some exhibitions. Leica was innovative once in their existence when they invented the 35mm still photography format. Since then, they lost connection to the industry and the photographic world. You want a digital, high quality, quiet, small and unobtrusive camera for reportage? Buy a high end Micro Four Thirds camera, a Fuji X100S or any of the Fuji X series cameras or a Sony mirrorless camera. When Panasonic and Olympus created the Micro Four Thirds standard, Leica has lost its self-claimed raison d’être in the digital age. Modern mirrorless cameras are so much closer to Oskar Barnack’s vision of a small, usable camera that produces high quality output than anything Leica produces themselves these days. Leica is officially a member of the Micro Four Thirds standard and they borrow their brand name to Panasonic for select Leica approved Panasonic products. However, Leica expressed explicitly that it has no interest in producing a system camera based on a Micro Four Thirds sized sensor, preferring an APS-C sized sensor, possibly because Micro Four Thirds being too small to render meaningful output. If Leica was still true to their original legacy and vision, sensor size would not be a concern. When Oskar Barnack invented the first mass marketed, portable 35mm still photography camera, the 35mm format was pretty small compared to the established bigger still photography formats. But guess what, it didn’t matter because the results out of 35mm negatives even at that time were good enough and the advantages of a smaller, more quiet camera outweighed the disadvantages to heavy cameras with bigger formats. And today, the results from a Micro Four Thirds sized sensor are more than good enough as well while Micro Four Thirds cameras are smaller, faster, cheaper and easier to use than anything Leica offers.

The reality is that Panasonic and Olympus are actually the rightful heirs to the original, true Leica legacy based on Oskar Barnack’s vision. It’s a sad irony that Panasonic is actually the innovator behind Panasonic products that get resold by Leica in a different shape for a premium price with the red dot and no added value. Leica today, while stealing their legacy from the rightful heirs the likes of Olympus and Panasonic, cares only about high end of the market, luxury products for a small number of customers who buy into the brand for the sake of that and the exclusivity. Leica just opened their new Burlington store in London. The location for their second store in the UK – yes, their first store is in prestigious London Mayfair already – is no coincidence either and Leica Camera Ltd’s Managing Director David Bell makes no secret out of who Leica is targeting with their products:

“Q: What made you choose Burlington Arcade as a location for Leica’s second store in the UK?

A: Burlington Arcade is an iconic retail destination that welcomes four million visitors a year. Leica has found a welcome home among exceptional objects that are showcased in a historical setting, a setting that is often heralded as an architectural masterpiece. I’m delighted we’re here.

Q: For our readers who are not familiar with Burlington Arcade, what else can they look forward to discovering?

A: Lush and quirky specialist stores. I always love looking at the Fabergé eggs, First World War Rolex watches, David Linley designs and browsing the pen shop.”

Source: The Leica Camera Blog – David Bell: Leica Store Burlington

Essentially, Leica readily admits that their cameras turned into something equivalent to Fabergé eggs, aiming their products at the same customers who buy these ridiculous things. If there is anything in this world that symbolizes a useless but expensive object that is bought for the sake of possession and exclusivity only, it’s Fabergé eggs. Yes, Mr. Bell has made the right association in this interview and Leica has picked the right neighborhood indeed.

For the record, I own and use a Leica M3 with a dual range Summicron 50mm f/2 as well as a collapsible Elmar 50mm f/2.8 that I like to use frequently. I wouldn’t say I’m an evangelist for rangefinder photography or old school Leica photography, but I can appreciate the joy of using a well built rangefinder without denying the merits of alternative systems, while calling the marketing bullshit of a company that is abusing its past legacy like Leica.

The crisis of street photography?

Last week saw more street photography controversy online through a piece run on the Guardian’s website about enthusiast street photographer Tony Cole. The piece provoked a negative comment by seasoned street photographer Nick Turpin of in-public fame. While the discussion is somewhat civil on the Guardian’s webpage, notorious HCSP on Flickr started their own discussion on this issue with more heat.

Well, what can you say about this? Regarding Nick Turpin’s concerns I think he misread the context of the Guardian’s article. His mistook what is essentially an advertisement piece for the Guardian’s Camera Club, a curated community of enthusiast photographers from the UK as an honest and serious critique of serious street photography work. The Guardian is to blame for that partially because the presentation, the title and the placement of the content on the Guardian’s page are initially misleading, but reading the Guardian article in its whole with full attention leaves no doubts this article is not meant to be serious but aims at building their camera club by buttering up enthusiasts’ work. Turpin probably saw the title, browsed through the selected images – all of them rather dull I have to admit – and came to the conclusion that the Guardian is partially to blame for what is a crisis in street photography according to Turpin. Putting the Guardian’s article in context however, the street photography crisis vanishes and turns into a more journalism related crisis.

The HCSP discussion on the other hand adds real crisis to street photography – but only if you think HCSP has any relevance for street photography. I certainly don’t think so. HCSP is a place of haters. And haters hate. That colloquial wisdom is one of the foundations of the Internet. I will never understand how HCSP became relevant other than through search engine rankings for the term “street photography”. Their image pool is curated based on a narrow, one-sided view on the genre, their curators and members are impolite, rude individuals – as witnessed in this discussion and many more – and their contribution to the genre is based on bad manners, curse words and the idea of exclusion rather than inclusion. Art cannot thrive on these terms. So, in true HCSP language: “Screw you.”.

Modern electronic products and “quality control by consumer”

There have been a lot of new exciting product announcements and releases lately in the photography industry. The choice of versatile, high quality (on paper) camera systems becomes ever greater with release cycles of new products shortening as companies are fighting for market share in an increasingly competitive space with camera sales being challenged by the smartphone industry and subject to a general decline in sales. Unfortunately, more and more product releases are affected by grave quality issues due to faulty product design and an apparent lack of quality assurance before the product hits the market. Examples to this development are the sensor dust issues of Nikon’s D600 which Nikon denied for a long time and further slapped their D600 costumers in the face by releasing a newer, almost similar D610 (probably to mitigate the issue). Sony’s new “full frame” mirrorless A7/A7r is affected by light leak issues caused by tolerances in the lens mount and lens release mechanism. Fuji’s new mirrorless flagship product X-T1 is also affected by light leak issues.

I don’t think these are unrelated cases of things gone wrong in product design, manufacturing and quality testing by individual manufacturers. I believe this is a trend establishing itself and we’ll see a lot more like this with new, expensive electronics products from industries where release cycles get shorter due to the pressure for higher market shares. Early adopters are becoming the quality assurance testers of these products. Buying a new product release essentially means that you cannot rely on buying a tested, proven product that actually performs as advertised and beyond. The obvious consequence of this trend is that if you want to buy a proven, tested product that works as advertised, then you have to pass a “waiting period” of the product being available long enough for early adopters to uncover the most apparent shortcomings, so the manufacturer can fix the product. Or you identify a manufacturer that found a niche outside the game for the shortest release cycle. Unfortunately, that usually equates to manufacturers with less product innovation and probably a much higher price for a less competitive product on paper – like buying a Leica camera that’s actually manufactured in Germany. Even then, you cannot be sure you get the real deal. Even a Leica M9 suffered from issues with certain SD cards. My personal recommendation is to not buy products when they come to market initially. This has other advantages too, the most obvious being that a general law of retail is that street price will come down the longer a product has been on market, even though sales people try to tell you differently.

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