Leica MP: Mechanical Perfection

Leica MP: Mechanical Perfection

The Leica MP represents distilled purity in the form of a photographic instrument. It sports no frills, no gimmicks, no illusions. The images it renders become a mirror into the very soul of the photographer. You cannot seek refuge in automatic exposure nor automatic focus. To successfully capture an image with this epitome of mechanical perfection you must know your craft, be confident in your judgment, and be one with the tool. All pretenses fall away when you wield the Leica MP.

Backyard Planter

There are many things to admire about the Leica MP, like its compact size, unpretentious aire, and quiet operation. Its rangefinder viewfinder is large, clear, and bright and works well in dim light. It has a built-in exposure meter, but, strangely enough, the one in my camera worked reliably on only one or two settings (i.e., f-stop/shutter speed combinations) and so I removed the battery and went totally mechanical.


But the camera is only part of the story. It exists solely as a host for the finest lenses rendered by man.  And perhaps the most lusted-after lens in the history of photography is the Leica Noctilux. But putting a Noctilux on a Leica MP is like fitting a perfectly formed face with a gigantic nose.


Yes, there is a certain snob appeal associated with the Leica name. It’s like owning a Ferrari – there’s no need to drive fast because you look fabulous sitting still. Unfortunately, and also like a Ferrari, the Leica brand has been priced out of reach of ordinary humans. To purchase one new will set you back dearly. I’m sure many newer Leica cameras sit safely in a drawer, their owners too afraid to take them out for fear of scratching the paint. But that’s the rub! The more you use the Leica MP, the smoother it gets. And there’s something magically attractive about a well-used Leica MP black paint model when the warm, mellow glow of its underlying brass frame starts to show through.


What I don’t like about the Leica MP is its film loading scheme. You must remove the bottom plate to load film. This bottom plate becomes an extra part you must juggle during the film loading process.

Darren and Kai

Contax T: The Quintessential Compact 35mm Rangefinder

Contax T: The Quintessential Compact 35mm Rangefinder

Compact, discrete, reliable, precise, quiet, control. These are but a few of the words I have come to associate with the venerable Contax T. From its Porsche design to its Carl Zeiss lens, this camera is pure joy to both look at and to use.

Acrobat Man

By far, the Contax T is my favorite street photography camera. Rarely do I look through the view finder. Neither do I bother too much with focus. I set the aperture to f8 and the hyper-focal distance to midpoint. Most everything I aim the camera at is well within the focusing zone, and I use the word “aim’ quite loosely.

Central Station, Amsterdam

I like to shoot from below the hip with this camera in the vertical or portrait orientation.  It fits perfectly in the palm of my hand, with the strap securely around my wrist, and my index finger comfortably on the shutter release button. It’s so small and quiet that most people never notice it in my hand. And because it’s a manual focus camera, there’s no shutter delay when I take the photograph. The only delay I experience with this camera is that between by brain and my finger.

Kyle Silhouette

I also like to hold this camera over my head and shoot above the crowd. I also get interesting results when I shoot while moving with, and against, the flow, especially when the light begins to fade and shutter speed approaches  1/30th of a second and below.

Pigeons Eye View

I use nothing but 400 speed black and white film in this camera, most likely Ilford Delta 400 Professional, Ilford HP5, Kodak T-Max 400, or Kodak Tri-X. (But I’m thinking of running some color film through it here soon. Rick  – 24 May 2014)

Train Queue

The Contax T is easy to load, but you must first fold the lens out to avoid stripping the film advance gears. I learned this the hard way.

Soloman’s Boys

In addition to manual focus and film speed settings, the Contax T allows you to tweek exposure via an exposure compensation button with a set +1.5 stop, but rarely do I need to take this measure as I find its meter to be quite accurate in most lighting situations. When I do take a backlit photograph I’m usually pleasantly surprised by the results and have never seen any lens flare, although I would most likely consider any such lens flare an extra bonus.

Rain Walkers

Rolleiflex 3.5F

Rolleiflex 3.5F

It all happened in slow motion. The aged leather strap broke unexpectedly in two places. I watched helplessly as the camera fell from my hip to the concrete. “Oh shit!” I heard myself saying, as it bounced, and then bounced again, stopping finally to rest on its side.
In disbelief, I looked at my once flawless camera resting peacefully on the concrete. Each bounce felt like a punch in the gut! “Will it ever be the same?” I wondered.

Still Life

The fall crushed the side meter housing, and the focusing knob now hesitated about midway going and coming. I carried my poor camera home carefully in my arms as if it were a wounded puppy.

Back home, I searched the internet for a good Rolleiflex repairman and found Harry Fleenor of Oceanside Camera Repair. I sent him my camera for a complete overhaul. Harry told me he didn’t have replacement parts for the camera meter readout so I asked him to remove the meter altogether, sensor and everything. Who needs a meter anyway, right? Well, I suppose I do, since I use a nice little hand-held job called the Gossen Digisix. Eight weeks later he returned it looking brand spanking new. Now, I’m not in the habit of dropping cameras, but if you ever drop your Rolleiflex, send it to Harry. You won’t be disappointed.

WCC Chair

Taking photographs with the Rolleiflex 3.5F is pure pleasure. First, it’s a mechanically precise instrument. The focus is smooth as silk and the film advance feels like creamy butter. I’d say the Rolleiflex 3.5F represents German camera engineering at its finest.
(By comparison, the Yashica Mat 124G, a great camera in its own right, sounds a little tinny, feels a little clunky, and its film advance lever ratchets like the crank on a Jack-in-the-Box.)

Nikon F3T

Nikon F3T

If ever a camera has achieved iconic status it is the Nikon F3T. Coveted by collectors, used heavily by photojournalists in the 1980s and 90s, the Nikon F3T was easily voted “Camera most likely to be working after having been beat to hell.”

Dog Toys

The first thing you’ll notice if you find a nice one for sale is that they’ve managed to hold their value fairly well. In average condition they sell on EBay for around $600. This price has held fairly consistent for the past several years. A mint F3T in its box can easily fetch $1,600.00 or more. What will your digital camera be worth in 25 years?

Elephant Ears

The most impressive feature associated with the F3T is the cool factor. Yes, it’s made with titanium. Yes, it’s virtually indestructible. Yes, it looks like a million bucks slung around your neck. But it’s that “T” that follows the “F3 that really pumps your ego. I mean, who the hell really needs a camera made out of titanium? Yes, it’s lighter than the ordinary (pronounced in the fashion of a sleepy southern belle: orrrdinnnarrry) F3, but unless you’re a finely tuned balance scale, you won’t be able to tell the difference. At least I can’t tell the difference. If you add a lens and the MD4 motor winder then what’s really the difference between 1 brick and 1.1 bricks?


I like my digital cameras for their convenience but digital cameras leave me cold. It’s the difference between drinking tea and enjoying a tea ceremony. The digital camera revitalized the photography market and changed society forever. But didn’t photography do the same thing to the world of art when it was first invented? Yes, but I digress. I enjoy the process continuum employed to coax a fine image from a film negative. I own every Ansel Adams book and have read each several times. I enjoy the feeling of opening the developing tank after the fixer stage, slowly unwinding the film from its reel, and seeing the images scroll past one at a time. I just don’t get that same feeling when I upload a thousand digital pictures to iPhoto. If you feel the same way, please send me an email and I’ll be happy to post your thoughts on this site.

Flower Bed

What I’ve come to believe as a personal philosophy is that film and digital photography will coexist and in fact engage in a symbiotic relationship for many decades to come, if not forever. Here’s why: They each serve unique purposes. For the same reasons the 35mm camera did not kill large format, digital will not kill film. (Well, digital killed Kodachrome, sadly.) The 35mm camera invented by Leica introduced convenience. (Sound familiar?) Yet many photographers, including myself, still reach for their large format cameras simply because the unique images they are capable of producing cannot be reproduced with a fixed-image-plane camera be it film or digital. It’s a matter of aesthetics.


Actually, the most impressive thing about the Nikon F3T is that it will still be around and working 25 years from now. And your digital camera? Where will it be?

American Flag Truck

Toyo 45AII 4 x 5 Field Camera

Toyo 45AII 4 x 5 Field Camera

The Toyo 45AII is a 4 x 5 inch format field camera made by Toyo. http://www.toyoview.com It’s a nice, heavy duty, precision engineered camera. The first impression that strikes me when I pick up this camera is how robust it feels.  When folded up it reminds me of a turtle withdrawn into its armored shell.

Dusty Miller

Unfolding the 45AII reveals a finely-crafted instrument capable of a wide range of easily-controlled motion and adjustments. In addition to the usual tilt and swings, it has a rotating back that makes it a breeze to switch between portrait and landscape view.  It supports front rise and fall and the back extends to accommodate long focal length lenses.

Planter In Snow

If you’ve never used a view camera you’re probably wondering what they’re good for. Good question. They’re good for taking photographs that require precise lens positioning to achieve your desired photographic vision. Many of the adjustments offered by the Toyo45AII or similar camera are simply impossible with fixed film plane cameras.

The use of a field camera lends itself to a different mindset from that of a digital SLR. The former requires time and contemplation while the later offers convenience and speed.  I tote my Toyo 45AII around in a backpack along with lenses, filters, focusing cloth, ground glass magnifier, and film holders.  If it has been a while since I last used the camera, I give it a thorough inspection and practice loading and unloading the film holders with a sheet of ruined film before committing to a live run. I also review my system for keeping track of exposed and unexposed film.