Feb 132012
 

 

From Leica 3A to X1 – a 51 Year Journey by John Shingleton

John’s Blog: http://therollingroad.blogspot.com/

Twelve months ago I purchased a Leica X-1.It was an impulse purchase and the latest step in a 51 year journey.

Way back in 1960 when I was just 14 my high school biology teacher started a school camera club.At the inaugural meeting he handed around his Leica-I believe it was a Leica 2–and prints from his 1930s travels in India and Burma.From the moment I handled that jewel of a camera and saw the pictures it produced I was hooked– I had to have a Leica.

It took me 7 years to achieve my ambition–a 30 year old Leica 3A –with F2.8 Elmar lens, lens hood, accesory brightline viewfinder and Leica neckstrap- purchased for $35 in1967. The thought of purchasing a 30 year old camera today other than as a collectable item seems absurd but progress was much slower then and a 3A was still regarded as a serious working /hobby camera although the Japanese SLRs ,particularly the Asahi Pentax Spotmatic ,were making rapid inroads into the market .

The 3A served me very well for about ten years before I stood it down and purchased one of the fashionable Japanese SLRs–an Olympus OM-2.I kept the 3A and still have it — complete with accesories–although I have not put a film through it for over 30 years.

In the years since I have taken tens of thousand of photos all over the world.I have won competitions and even a few useful prizes. I had a home darkroom, I have done black and white printing and even dabbled in Cibachrome ( reversal color) printing which was both difficult and expensive and even for reasons which I have long forgotten I home processed color slide film. I have owned a few Leicas and Leica lenses but my relationship with Leica was not monogomous. I owned an Olympus OM outfit and later a Canon EOS outfit .But I have never been a “photo gearhead” . In 52 years I have only owned 11 cameras. I used my M6 for 18 years .My interest has primarily been in taking photos not in collecting gear.

I particularly liked Leicas because of their precision almost watchlike feel , the fact that they were rangefinder cameras and above all for their magic lenses which had and I believe still do have a unique quality .

I was an early adopter of digital and acquired a film scanner in 1997 and I won an early Kodak digital camera in a photo competition in 2000 . My first serious digital photos were taken with a Leica Digilux 1 which I acquired in 2003 .This is an odd camera which takes surprisingly good photos even by today’s standards. I have recently revived it and the images have really surprised me .

In 2006 I purchased the then newly launched Canon G7 as a “point and shoot” camera and its capabilities and its compactness convinced me that compact was the way to go . My days of carrying around a big bag of gear were over . Besides anything else I was just getting too old for all that weight and airport security checks were becoming very difficult .

I also had a new passion -old Porsches — and I was restoring a 1971 911. I was “over”analogue photography so I sold most of my gear including my lovely Leica M6 outfit and ploughed the money into the Porsche restoration.

I kept a watching eye on the world of Leica but from a distance. I was not impressed with the M8 and that crop factor and it confirmed for me that I had made the right decision to sell my outfit when I had .

When the X-1 was announced I handled one at a Leica dealer in Sydney and came way seriously underwhelmed . I thought that it was overpriced ,very plasticky and lacked that Leica feel although I was impressed by its simple controls and what I had seen of its image quality in reviews although these same reviews were very luke warm about other aspects of the camera

I decided that I was quite happy with my little Canon but then in July 2010 I visited an old friend and serious Leica enthusiast at his home in Italy. He had an M9. It was gorgeous and I loved the feel of it and the solidity and the simplicity of the controls. It stirred old enthusiasms .

In January of last year I was in Auckland,NZ, when I saw the then newly announced black X-1 in the window of a camera dealer . My Leica M6 had been black. I could not afford an M9 and anyway “compact ” was now my mantra so I decided to set aside my misgivings and buy myself a black X-1 and to rejoin the Leica world . It was a rash, hasty decision.

My longstanding and expert Leica dealer in Adelaide, South Australia , found one for me immediately and it arrived in the post in the first week of February . It did not work out of the box . The silly pop up flash unit would not retract.To say that I was annoyed would be a major understatement. I had spent $2000 on this camera which I had major doubts about and it arrived in this ridiculous over the top packaging with a note signed by the quality control manager and it was defective. Shame on you Leica.

To cut a long story short Leica did not have the parts available to repair a black X-1 and black new cameras were on back order so I ended up with a replacement silver model after a few weeks . Not an auspicious start -particularly as I had already purchased a black Voigtlander optical viewfinder .

The first few weeks with the replacement camera were awful . I found the fixed focal length lens even more limiting than I had feared . The camera took beautiful images but it was slow and I was very nervous using it as I felt that it was fragile . I was beginning to think that maybe I had made a major mistake and then I started reading the Leica X-1 forums which were overwhelmingly negative and I was soon convinced that I had made a major mistake!

I seriously considered selling it on e-bay. In April I went for two weeks travelling in Vietnam and took it with me . I took some great photos on that trip but I was still struggling with it and undecided as to whether to keep it. Gradually I turned around . I took it on a trip to Europe in July and to the US and Canada in September and I came back with more great photos -some arguably as good as I have ever taken. It stayed. Now I love its strengths but still hate its defects. I still worry that it is fragile . But the lens/sensor combination is superb . The IQ is brilliant but it falls down in so many areas you really do have to be a mellow, understanding and committed Leica enthusiast to live with it and I do not believe that is who it was designed for .

Would I recommend the X-1? Not an academic question as I was stopped when I was using it on the street in Chicago in September by a man who said his daughter was graduating from college and wanted an X-1 as a graduation present -would I recommend it? I gave a highly qualified “yes”. I hope that he was not too confused.

So there you have my 51 year Leica journey .From Leica 3A to Leica X-1.

As for my X-1 photos I have always taken what interests me . I now put some of them up on my blog and what you see here is a small selection .The first two very neatly link the 3A and the X-1 . The first was taken in 1974 on the 3A on Kodak Tri-X film and home processed and shows my wife and daughter. The second is that daughter’s daughter taken with the X-1 in 2011. Three generations taken on two Leicas arguably three generations apart. The others are some of the output from the X-1in its first 12 months.

John Shingleton

http://therollingroad.blogspot.com/

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  35 Responses to “From Leica 3A to X1 – a 51 Year Journey by John Shingleton”

  1. Thanks for posting your story.
    I love your work and admire your printing skills.
    Glad the X1 won you over in the end and that you opted to keep it.
    All the best

  2. A lovely article and lovely pictures. Thank you for sharing John. Your experiences with the X1 pretty much mirror my experiences with my Sigma DP2. Frustration, then gradual acceptance due to the IQ.

  3. Whatever its quirks, for travel my X1 is still the camera I pick. The weight-size/IQ ratio is just unmatched. I even left my Leica M8 at home just for the convenience of the X1 in a photograpy-unfriendly place like Morocco. The silent shutter did help me to shot freely in the streets without anyone even hearing me take pictures. Thanks for your write-up. I understand people are critical when the camera is not cheap, but once it wins you, the X1 is a great tool to have with you at all times and that keeps surprising you with its rich and tack sharp files.

    [img]http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7014/6641419591_245a041c48_z.jpg[/img]

    • what do you mean by “unfriendly place like morocco” ? it’s a very conservative place and a police state. so people there are not comfortable with their pictures being taken by a total stranger, get it ??

      • So that makes it a photography-unfriendly place I’d say… unlike Asia where people are much open to cameras and having their photo taken in the street.

      • Sorry – can’t agree …. I’ve been a regular visitor to Morocco over the years – it’s often a problem keeping people out of camera shot, rather than reverse.

        Found no difference in cosmopolitan Marakech or the wilder areas up in the Atlas mountains – although I suppose there must be remoter regions that get less tourists.

        Technique is the same in any country – DON’T SNEAK ABOUT – stand in the open – and let people see you are taking photos of everything (i.e. not just them – I’d punch someone in the mouth if I thought they were tracking/targeting me exclusively)

        Last, but not least, SMILE! North Africa is a friendly place – Morocco is actually one of the most open of the Arab states, with minimal police/state intervention. Smile, chat and laugh with them – they are some of the most open, friendly, helpful people on earth.

        • Friendly and helpful, maybe. But not with a camera around. That middle-finger on one of the images of a flickr-contact basically sums up how people feel about images being taken… I myself have been chased by boys demanding money just bevause they thought they might have been in the frame of a market scene.

          http://www.flickr.com/photos/amccauley/6622524835/in/photostream/lightbox/

          • It’s 5 to 1 in that image – one guy – you get the same in ‘western’ society – but all the others are going about their daily business, too busy to care.

            I’ve travelled North Africa (pre Arab Spring- yuck, hate that phrase) and if you understand it’s a place of great contrast – with people truly fighting NOT to starve on the street, often living alongside vast wealth, I’m surprised they don’t rip cameras out of the hands of us ‘infidels’, expecting them to be willing, compliant, subjects for their lens.

            I’ve walked around the most barren, poverty stricken, backstreets in North Africa, joined in with local life and had only smiles or traditional greetings to confront. No true Muslim would dream of anything more than politeness to visitors – I often despair of the ‘christian’ values demonstrated in my own society’s values and behaviour.

            There are places in the UK – only a few miles from my home – where wandering around with an expensive camera would literally be suicide – and that’s before you even tried taking a shot with it. No amount of smiles or friendly gestures would help there …

            If the occasional ‘finger’, or cheeky kids looking for cash, is about as bad as it gets – and I repeat, it’s never happened to me – then I’d be happy!

          • Not to worry, sometimes we even see a middle digit response at home.
            Or, maybe that was the only finger he had left to waive with.

    • The cool thing is I saw this an immediately knew it came from an X1. There is a way it renders the scene and colors that make it instantly recognizable to me. GREAT IQ indeed.

  4. Nicely done! Thanks for your thoughts and honesty.

  5. Very nice article, mr. Shingleton!
    Thanks for sharing your experience, it’s quite inspiring!

  6. Great story thanks

  7. thanks for the article; i had an X1 too for a while, i thought it complemented my M8 (which by the way is a much better camera than most people think!) really nicely, and i thought it would be my perfect travel camera.
    eventually i ended up selling it; the image quality was indeed fantastic, and i did not find the build quality to be bad at all; my major issue was the lack of a viewfinder ( i did add an external one, but it does not work great if you want to focus manually, which was the second issue i had with it… you can’t.).
    i refuse to go around taking pictures zombie-like with my arms sticking out and staring into an lcd screen, so i bought a 28 mm lens for my M8 (getting a very similar FOV), and off it went.
    looking at the images i took with it, i kind of miss it, but then i think of the issues and do not regret my decision.
    after that i bought a nikon v1, as travel camera, but ended up selling that too; once you start buying lenses, it no longer becomes a compact, ‘pocket’ travel camera.
    i recently went back to a sigma; got a dp2 this time (the dp1 i had was great, but i like the longer lens better), and, with all its quirks, it is still probably the best ‘pocket’ camera on the market, IMAGE WISE. yes, i need an external viewfinder on this one too…
    they have just announced a new one, DP1M and DP2M, with an even larger sensor and better manual focus … it sounds excellent … but i am really trying to stop chasing after each and every new gizmo on the market, and focus more on taking pictures!

    • Funny, I had the X1 as well for about 18 months, it replaced a DP2. Since December of last year, however, a DP2x is in my bag, instead of the X1 and I agree with you, as long as light is reasonable, the DP is probably still the best large sensor pocket camera. If higher iso is needed, it becomes an excellent tool for B&W shots.

      • thanks, i am glad to hear i am not alone in my ‘insanity’ :-)

        the dp1 and 2 are probably among the most misunderstood and vilified cameras on the market – for no justifiable reason (but i can understand one’s frustration at times, and also that if you just use one for a few hours to write a ‘review’, you really cannot ‘get it’.
        the proof of the pudding, as with any other camera, is in the picture quality (which can also be said of course about the x1).

  8. Great story! Thanks for sharing. I’ve got a Canon 5DII and M9 with a range of lenses but the camera I always carry with me in my brief case is my X1. It’s simple to use, lightweight, and the images are better than the Canon and comparable to the M9 in many instances. Shortcoming? Yes. However, they dissolve into insignificance when when I put those wonderful images on my computer screen. How about posting a picture or two from VN?

  9. Thank you John for sharing your experience. I must say the Leica X1 was a disappointment for me in pretty much the same way. I loved the photos (great bokeh and sharpness, little distortion, pleasing tonality out-of-the-box), but the camera ended up being sent back 3 times for warranty repairs due to various mechanical failures. The Leica service eventually sent me a new one as a replacement, but I decided to sell it as I did not trust its durability anymore.

    From an enthusiast’s point of view – I still have not found a perfect compact camera yet. I find the design of most modern compacts not “serious” enough – each one seems to be underperforming in many ways compared to the original Olympus OM, Nikon FM, Leica CL and similar “vintage” designs.

    My dream digital Leica wish list would look like this:
    – compact, durable, weather-proof body (thanks to Olympus OM-D for noticing the problem)
    – M-Mount compatible (of course)
    – manual, external, marked wheels for shutter speed and ISO (with Auto positions)
    – interchangeable, 35mm-frame sensor unit (like Ricoh GXR, but no crop factor – why replace an expensive Leica body when a new sensor becomes available?)
    – DSLR-like battery life (200 shots is not acceptable)
    – built-in viewfinder (add-ons on top of the camera are a serious nuisance)
    – tiltable LCD screen for waist-level shooting (like Sony or Olympus models)
    – very good autofocus and excellent manual focus control (like Sony/Ricoh peaking)
    – fast and fluid operation (short shutter lag, no waiting times for consecutive shots and review)
    – silent shutter (great strength of the X1)

    best,
    Jeremy

  10. had an x1 for a bit- after some issues and some warranty returns, i got an x100. i still have the x100…

    i loved the x1 but i need to be able to use my camera, not wonder when im getting it back…

  11. great write up and images John…….that Leica dealer wouldn’t happen to be in the central market ? :)

  12. nice shots john , especially the 2nd pic of your daughter ….i’d love to see more pics of the leica 3a ….as im also a very proud owner of same camera …its my little jewel !
    boris

  13. excellent read

  14. I fail to to understand your logic. You decide not to buy an M8 because it has a 1.33x crop factor. But you then buy an X1 which has a 1.5x crop factor.

    • Walt:

      You’re surely aware of the price and size differences between the the X1 and the M8. I’m also sure you’re aware of the fact that the M8 is an interchangeable lens camera whereas the X1 is not.

      If you presume the writer has some intelligence and experience, its not nearly a leap to think that he factored all of these into his decision making.

      Cheers!
      Sean

  15. Hey John

    Nice read – funny how a lot of us are in the same boat – no one has yet delivered a full sized sensor in an X1 sized package with an f1.4 lens (I wouldn’t mind if it were fixed)……..they’d make a fortune.

    Cheers
    Adam

  16. Wonderful article John, a photographic journey that captures the essence of why we do it. Thanks for sharing.

  17. Great article and photos, thank you. The X1 is not too far away from being the perfect compact travel camera, if Leica only tried once more with an improved successor model with unchanged size, weight and form factor.

  18. I like the first picture.

  19. Nice article/perspective.

    As an aside, I can’t imagine the rejoicing on the streets if the magic red dot was on the Fuji X100.

  20. Nice images and interesting story.

  21. The first photo is definitely the best. IMO.
    Interesting story about the long term passion. My adventure with photography also started when I was a child but it was my father who taught me, gave first camera and his enthusiasm. Maybe some day I will tell my story if Steve would allow me.

  22. Very interesting – I do agree that the Leica X1 isn’t ‘instant coffee’ – and takes time to learn** before picture taking becomes instinctive and fast.

    Once the great pictures roll out, it’s obvious that the things that makes this camera so great are the lens and the user interface. The Leica X1 unerringly reproduces each scene’s true quality of light (in RAW).

    Lens/ light and interface makes the camera.

    ** There is an incredibly logical function layout; the flexibility in use comes from learning the practical interaction of those different functions into practical settings.

  23. Pictures are amazing – worth the pain I guess!

  24. Thanks for the well-written and informative article. I purchased an X1 in October 2010, egged on by Steves’ review. And could not be happier…love the IQ of this little gem!
    ~Tom

  25. Bought the X1 second hand from a fellow who was major into Nikon he could not get the handle of the X1 it had only 450 shots. I used it for a month and just now traded it in for the X2, a major upgrade, the autofocus speed is now adequate, the top knobs are stiffer, the flash is fixed, and I love the EVF its not coming off. the skin on the black body feels less plastic and its slightly beefier in weight. It will be now a remarkable camera like the Digilux 2 that was my first Leica. Own a Dilux 5 traded from a Dilux 3.

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