The history of the Leica camera is one of revolution. Appropriately enough, the Leica M design has been with us for over 60 years and has documented revolutions in both times of peace and war throughout history as the idea of a simple, easy to carry camera enabling it to be carried anywhere. Leica cameras have captured some of the most iconic imagery of all time and launched the careers of many photographers as their go to system for fast, portable access to documenting place and time.
The rangefinder design pioneered by Leica has always appealed to me as they were smaller, lighter, quieter, allow for composition with both eyes, have no lag and historically have had an excellent assortment of superior lenses that are insanely sharp with almost no distortion. The problem was that until Fuji entered the game, you could only get a digital rangefinder design from Leica and a Leica is relatively speaking, an insanely expensive tool to capture images. The other problem is that, in terms of raw image quality and technical prowess, Leica cameras fall short of many other cameras that accomplish the same task. That said, the history of the brand is undeniable and when it is on, the images made with Leica cameras are spectacular, owing mostly to good lens design and a full frame sensor which allows for out of focus bokeh to be smooth and creamy.
My experience with Leica goes back to early college when I scraped together the money to buy a Leica M6 and a 50mm Summilux from a camera store in Brooklyn. I shot many a roll of 35mm Kodak black and white films, Kodak Ektachromes, Fujifilm Velvia and Provia with that camera and then, regrettably had to sell the camera for tuition money. I loved that experience though… the ability to bring a camera with me just about everywhere and the ease with which you could use the Leica. It was almost a stealth camera that served as an everyday camera, a professional camera, a totally stealth street photography camera and the most informal of cameras that documented moments where another camera system would have been too imposing.
Selling that Leica was like parting with some of my soul at the time. So, a little while ago, wanting to recapture some of the romance of the Leica and my early days of photography, I stepped back into the Leica world with a digital Leica M9-P and a Leica Monochrom which was initially thrilling. I’ve carried them overseas and worked hard with these cameras to produce imagery I’ve been happy with. However, my experience with Leica in the digital age has been maddening and I simply cannot justify recommending the expense and experience to anyone interested in photography.
I loved the feel in my hand of the old M6, but while the new digital M and Monochrom appear the same, they are much heftier and more bulky than those original M6 film cameras. This is a constraint placed upon design by the available technology one might argue, but other companies are making more svelte designs now and charging far less money. More importantly, the new digital Leica cameras seem more delicate. The M6 was something I felt could double as a hammer to pound nails with. I cannot say the same thing for the new Leica cameras which give me the impression that they are much more delicate machines than the older film based Leica cameras that require more service. This leads to the fundamental complaint I have with Leica as my frustration mostly derives from the level of service that Leica is providing. One might expect for a premium product with such a notable history, the service would be top notch. Unfortunately, this is not the case for reasons I explain below.
I was missing focus on many shots with the brand new M-9, moments that will never come again, particularly close in. Some of this I thought might have been my style as I prefer to shoot with wide open apertures. Shooting wide open has always been more technically difficult for a variety of reasons, but there were so many images that were out of focus. Initially I believed that perhaps my eyes entering their 4th decade were responsible for these missed shots, but it turns out these missed shots were due to a badly aligned focusing mechanism along with a lens that was also focus shifting. This was a service issue that required shipping the lens and camera back to Leica to calibrate for an additional $300 and a month away, out of my hands. From speaking to others, it is not uncommon apparently to have to regularly send Leica rangefinders in to have the focus mechanism calibrated.
Thankfully, I still had another Leica, the Monochrom which was an incredibly interesting photographic anachronism that only shoots in black and white, forcing you to think about light and shadow exclusive of color. The commitment to shooting a camera that only rendered black and white seemed ludicrous, but as a lesson in thinking about light and as alluded to in the video above, proved enormously attractive. The other advantage is that it was a second body which I’ve always maintained in all my camera systems as an important backup should one go down. The problem is, when it came time for the Monochrom to be serviced, I’ve not been able to get it back within anything close to a reasonable amount of time. The Leica Monochrom camera has been undergoing service with Leica for literally six months now. Say that with me… six months… SIX MONTHS! Imagine you acquired or invested a substantial amount of money in a product that was supposed to return either 1) satisfaction from use or 2) return on investment as a tool by not only paying for itself, but also earning you income. Crazy, right? Now imagine that someone took that capital away from you for half a year… Perhaps more. Imagine the income lost. More importantly, imagine the moments lost.
It turns out the problem is due to a defective sensor cover glass and it is not just me that is inconvenienced by this. I understand that this may be a difficulty for Leica that is not entirely their fault as they outsource production of sensors to another company. But what Leica absolutely owns about this is their relationship with the customer. This product was clearly defective and Leica’s solution is simply to keep people’s investments for half of a year or more. No offers were made to reimburse costs, or offer of a loaner camera until I raised hell 5 months into the process. Nor to my knowledge were any offers made to treat Leica’s customers with respect by offering refunds or exchanges for working models. In the European Union, there are laws that protect the consumer which require refunds or replacements after 2 months, but in the U.S., no such laws exist to protect the customer. To make this even worse, the M9 I have is also showing signs of sensor corrosion and it too will have to have its sensor replaced apparently.
The thing that makes me most angry about this is wondering what my relationship with photography would have been if this were happening to my 18 year old self with the Leica M6? I have resources now, but back then scraping together the money to purchase a Leica camera was a herculean financial commitment that was made because of the history of Leica which the company will always have, but also their reputation. While past history can be relied upon, reputations can be lost and new histories can be forged. If Leica kept that M6 camera from the 18 year old me for 6 months, a formative time in my life with respect to photography, who knows what might have happened? My relationship with photography might have been irrevocably altered leading me to wonder if it is now happening to others?
Right now, the feelings are surprisingly conflicted. The history with Leica pulls at you, yet it feels like unrequited love. Leica clearly does not feel the way I do about them and now it feels like more of a co-dependent relationship where I send Leica money and they take it to do with what they please, without regard for my well being or my feelings. As we should be taught, self-care is important and at the moment, I am not sure what Leica could do to win me back, aside from offering to swap the 50mm Summilux I sent for calibration with the Monochrom for a Noctilux lens which would probably keep a Leica in my hands. But I’m pretty angry right now with Leica. Irritated that they would think it is OK to treat their customers like this. Amazed that the customer service is this bad and that nobody at Leica seems to care enough to offer loaner cameras or exchange them, or offer a refund, or even to simply send an email from month to month to say that they know this is a problem. For Leica to say that they care about their customers and are sorry for the wait and time spent away from the machines that we use to capture moments and times that are slipping away, without being documented by Leica cameras would have gone a good way towards mollifying the sense of anger I am feeling right now.
Service is important with cameras. It is a reality. You spend time with cameras, use them for creative expression, carry them into all sorts of environments and even the most robust and reliable cameras will get bashed, dropped, broken or just have bits that wear out. I’ve shot with Canon gear for over 20 years and when cameras or lenses break, it takes Canon a week or two and sometimes a couple of tries, but they are fixed reasonably quickly, particularly through their CPS program. Sony cameras kind of disappear into a system without much in the way of customer service, but they show back up after a month or so with a reasonable shipping charges. I don’t have any experience with Nikons, however, my most amazing service experience recently has been with the only other company that is currently making a digital rangefinder design, Fuji. I had worn through the rubber coating of my Fuji camera through neglect and improper storage during a rough transit. A problem that was completely my fault. However, when I requested service, Fuji shipped out a pre-paid box and I was amazed when it was literally back within 4 days looking as good as new. This was for a camera that cost 1/5th what a Leica camera costs.
At the moment of this posting, the Monochrom is still at Leica and they cannot tell me when I might expect the camera to be returned. I check in once a month with my local (and wonderful) camera shop, Pictureline and they relay to me what their contacts at Leica say to them about the camera as Leica seems to not want to or are able to contact a customer directly.
In the meantime, I’ve been shooting with Fuji cameras, notably the X-Pro1 rangefinder and will have a Fuji X-Pro2 that should be arriving shortly. And you know what? Even the almost 5 year old Fuji X-Pro1 is a far better camera that is everything the Leica M should have evolved to be. I am stunned that Leica has not licensed or at least tried to copy what Fuji has done with the electronic display in the rangefinder and in the 5 short years that Fuji X-series cameras have been available, Fuji is well on their way to not only capturing the ethos of Leica, but are crafting their own spirit and emotion while listening to and respecting the photographers who are using their gear.
So, Leica… take this for what it is. This has been my experiment. Leica kindled my love for photography back in the late 80’s and the history of the company and camera touches my soul. I live my life through and am both insanely loyal and passionate about the every day practice of photography as a reminder of why I am a scientist. The message to Leica is this: Make an effort to reconnect with your customers or relegate yourself and your place in history to memory as there are companies that are hungry and most importantly, passionate about photography AND respect the photographers who use their products. Fuji is forging a new history for themselves, hand in hand with photographers that are able to document moments that will never come again because Fuji cameras are in their hands.
History is made by those who care enough and are able to document it…
Update: 03/02/16: After 7 months away, the Leica Monochrom came back from service. I ran down to pick it up and to my utter disbelief, the camera back-focuses terribly. Sooooo….., back to Leica it goes along with the lens to make sure it is appropriately calibrated. This just boggles the mind.
Update: 04/08/16: After 8 months away from the time I originally sent the camera off to Leica to calibrate the focus, the Leica Monochrom came back… You guessed it, still out of calibration. This just begs incredulity… The same lens tested on multiple cameras comes out absolutely in focus including on my M9 as seen above, while every lens, including the 50mm Summilux I keep sending back to Leica comes back focusing a full inch behind the proper imaging plane. To recap: 8 months ago, I sent in the Monochrom to have a focus adjustment. There was a sensor recall issue and that took 6 months to get the parts back and return the camera to me. At that point, the camera came back out of calibration and I sent it back. Now yesterday, it comes back again after a *rush* job (that took a month) to properly calibrate the Monochrom to the lens and it is *still* out of calibration. Leica’s service organization cannot really be this bad, can it? The folks at Pictureline are absolutely gobsmacked and nobody can quite believe this is taking this long to handle. Leica, what is going on there?
Update 05/11/16: After 9 months of back and forth, Leica has replaced the defective Monochrom with a new Leica Monochrom.