Posts Tagged ‘zeiss’

Cheap Tools

26 June 2008

Dear J-

I never fully stated the implied second part of yesterday’s topic, as to the value proposition of Leica gear.  Now that Leica-branded lenses are affixed to nearly every product coming out of Panasonic/Matsushita, the brand name has gotten significantly more awareness, and as a result, there’s ever more scrutiny as to the true nature of Leica’s involvement with the Panasonic joint venture.

You have to remember that Leica had a long-standing relationship with Minolta dating back to the 1970s, when several Minolta lens designs were sold with Leica R mounts (stories I’ve read say that the lenses were shipped to Germany for final inspection and testing, resulting in a high rejection rate and products sold worthy of the Leica banner).  Leica also have had several on-going relationships with the other German titans of optics, Zeiss (who supplied the design and expertise on the original 15mm reflex lens) and Schneider (ditto for several retrofocus wides, including the two perspective-control lenses and several 21mm wides for both M and R).  Personally, I believe that the Leica brandng on Panasonic (and rebadged Panasonics) is useful, but not necessarily to the same standards as Leicas of the past — I doubt that each optical assembly is shipped to Germany for final testing, but similarly, I believe Leica must send some engineers to Japan to oversee design and quality control.

There’s simply not enough of a market to support a massive automated assembly line.  And conversely, such an assembly line would be out of place for the quality associated with Leica.  So they’re stuck with the reputation of high prices, because they don’t have the market to spread costs over, and high quality, because they can lavish time into optical design, tight tolerances, and quality control.  The point is that as a complete lens line, you can generally choose from any and not have to worry too much about casting an inconsistent fingerprint on your photographic work, which is where Leica is unique.  The other ethos I find fascinating is how Leica optimize many of their lenses for use wide-open, where other brands may equal the performance stopped down a bit.  This jives nicely with how my brain tends to picture things — although that may be a consequence of wearing glasses for the last twenty-five years, the idea of selective focus.  If photography is about sharing the way we perceive the world, we tend to gravitate to tools that facilitate that conversion. The pieces are clicking into place.  Ironically, I wonder if the availability of Nikkor glass hasn’t facilitated a laziness in my approach to photography:  hey, get another lens for that, they’re pretty cheap; instead of:  let’s find a way to frame this right — get closer, or find a different angle.

Mike

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German Glass

25 June 2008

Dear J-

Several electrons have been spilled here regarding the use of German lenses and whether or not the premium they demand is justified or not.  You have to realize, of course, that no nationality has a corner on optical design; certain lenses will perform better than others at different stops (apertures) and focus distances, and not every lens is a consistent performer.  But I’ll stand by my original assertion that for 90% of the world’s photographers, it’s technique and not equipment that hold back wonderful images.

Still, there are those (and I begin to count myself amongst those, even though I know the current equipment is perfectly adequate) who’ll willingly pay a premium when the lens bears that Zeiss or Leica name.  Part of the reason I bought into the 4/3rds system was the ability to play with German lenses — the original intent, after spending multiple luminous moments with the Zeiss gem that comes on the Sony DSC-V1 and -V3 (and, reputedly, on the Casio EX-P600 and -P700) was to get a Contax/Yashica mount adapter as a supplement to a Nikon adapter, but a good deal came up on a Leica R adapter.  I know, rationally, that my photographs aren’t incredibly better just because of the brand of lens I put in front of the camera — and the results seem to bear it out, there’s nothing extraordinary about the Nikon/E-1 combo in relation to the Leica/E-1, at least to my untrained eye.  But there is something else at play here, whether it’s the tactile rock-solid feel of the Leica R lenses, or the way they balance, or the fact that, since most of my photos all year were taken with the Panasonic DMC-LC1 prior to shifting over to the E-1, I’ve become accustomed to the Leica direction of operation.

Funny thing is that I was that same guy who sneered at folks overpaying for that red dot — why, if the Leica R lenses were so much more expensive and slower than the Nikon exotica, would anyone pay the difference?  I can’t say that I’ve found some magic justification, either.  All I really know is that I’ve been shooting a lot more frames lately; whether that’s the camera or the lens, it’s having a decided effect on the proportion of keepers, or rather, displayers.  You can’t approach photography as an investment hobby, which is unfortunately the direction that rangefinder photography has drifted into; that’s like telling an auto mechanic to take good care of their wrenches as they’ll have collector’s value in the future.  Undeniably, there will be historical value; unfortunately, they make such good tools that you’re compelled to use them, wrenches or lenses.

The two Leica R lenses I do own were cheap because of their cosmetic condition; they duplicate focal lengths and abilities I’ve already got in Nikon mount so truthfully, I have no business owning them.  It’s strange that they already feel far more natural — reproducing the scene as-I-saw-it and not interfering with the process — than anything I’ve used before.  I may be compelled to make it a trio or more, especially as several of those lovely Telyt 400 f/6.8’s have materialized at reasonable prices … I could always use a bit more hand-held reach.

Mike