Friday Film: Leicas in the Attic
By Keith Lewis
What a treasure trove of film cameras! My son and I were astounded and excited by what we were being shown. Through a casual conversation about cameras with a neighbor friend, I had learned that his wife’s deceased father had been a passionate amateur photographer and that they had been left as part of his estate quite a collection of “old film cameras”. These cameras had been stored in an attic for several years. I was invited to look at them along with my son who was visiting with us that weekend from Holland and is a very keen and talented “retro” street photographer i.e., he much prefers shooting film over digital.
The collection of cameras included high-end Nikon, Minolta and Canon analog SLRs, a Pentax 6×7 medium format camera with many attachments, many lenses, flashes, tripods etc. The collection also included two field cameras and the “jewels in the crown” for us were a Leica M6 and Leica iiig complete with a wide selection of lenses, filters, viewfinders, cases and attachments all in seemingly excellent or very good condition.
The Ebony RW45 field camera was probably the most unusual and rarest camera in the collection. What a piece of hand built workmanship! A beautiful assembly of mahogany wood, machined titanium and leather and in almost unused condition. I quickly went online and discovered that this “old” camera is still desired and used by many serious landscape photographers around the world. Ebony cameras have only just gone out of production when the last master-craftsman in a small shop in Japan decided to retire (July 2016). I quickly realized that this would be a great camera for the right buyer but it was not for me; way too much skill and patience required!
My son was immediately drawn to the Leica M6 since a high-quality rangefinder has been on his wish list for a very long time. We soon agreed he would have an option to purchase the M6 pending some test shots. I spent the next few weeks with this camera on loan and thoroughly enjoyed the experience of using a rangefinder for the first time. Here are a few sample shots showing the vibrancy and clarity of the outstanding Leica M lenses. Note that these results are from a standard high street 1-hour processing, Fuji ISO 200 film and low resolution scan. The camera was found to be in great condition except for some paint bubbling on the top where it must have been stored in a damp case? The two Summicron lenses (35mm & 50mm) and the 90mm Elmarit lenses were found to be in excellent condition despite being almost 20 years old (the Elmarit is older).
White Horse of Kilburn, North York Moors National Park, Leica M6 w/Summicron 35
Roseberry Topping, North York Moors National Park, Leica M6 w/Summicron 35
To cut a very long story short my friends gave me free-rein to assess and experiment with all the cameras and to help them find buyers. Their goal was to try to find photographers who would use, love and appreciate the cameras as a continuation of her father’s legacy. Very generously, selling price was a secondary consideration. Fortunately, I have a golf friend who is a passionate photographer and I garnered his interest and enlisted his help in this project. We found talented and motivated buyers for the medium format and large format field cameras, plus some of the better condition 35mm lenses. There was little interest in the 35mm SLRs and we sold those through a dealer.
The one camera unspoken for was the Leica iiig. I was hooked from the first moment I got hold of this wonderful camera, complete with the vintage compact and collapsible Leica LTM (Leica Thread Mount) lenses. The experience with the Leica M6 inspired me to try film again so I asked to borrow the iiig and see whether it would work for me both as a collectable and as a working camera. I spent several enjoyable hours researching the history and functionality of the Leica “Barnack” cameras and I became more excited about the iiig when I realized it’s long pedigree and the fact that this was the last model produced. It is notable that production of the iiig continued for a couple of years even after the “revolutionary and modern” Leica M3 was released.
I decided that before loading film in the iiig I should test the LTM lenses for clarity by hooking them up to my digital Lumix GX7 via a very inexpensive E39 to m4/3 adapter ring purchased on Amazon. As soon as I took the first digital test shots with a vintage 3.5cm Summaron F3.5 lens I knew I was on to something special. The pictures had great colour and a different feel to them i.e., a rich combination of pop and subtlety. Next I decided to take a few direct comparison shots between the Summaron lens and the Panasonic 20mm F1.7 lens which is renowned for its sharpness. In these comparisons, I used aperture priority mode and tried to shoot the pictures with approximately the same frame view, aperture and a fixed ISO 200 setting. As you can see in the example below the Summaron lens often resulted in a much more pleasing picture.
Land Rover GX7 w/Summaron 3.5cm
Panasonic GX7 and 20mm
In another example, you can see the fine detail and bokah produced by the Summaron lens fully open at F3.5.
Flowers with GX/7 w/Summaron 3.5cm>
I did a series of checks, using the Lumix GX7, on all the other vintage Leica LTM lenses which included a 3.5 cm Elmar (F3.5), a 5cm collapsible Elmar (F2.8) and two 9cm Elmar (F4) lenses. In addition to the Leica lenses there was a 24mm Voightlander (F4) LTM lens complete with view finder. All the lenses were found to be in great condition except for the 5cm Elmar which showed signs of haze and fogging, particularly when wide-open. I have recently had this lens evaluated by a Leica specialist and it is probably beyond economic cleaning which is a disappointment because it is an excellent standard lens for the Leica iiig which features 5cm and 9cm guide lines in the view finder.
Once I was satisfied that the lenses were good to use, I set about loading my first film into the iiig body. As noted in a recent post, this didn’t go well and I was very disappointed to lose some good test shots of Rievaulx Abbey. Prior to my second film I practiced loading the film several times and made sure that the wind-on was properly engaged. For this trial, I used B&W Ilford XP2 film. My camera handling was much better, I got used to metering using an iPhone app and I was confident of some good results. Unfortunately, the high-street processer over developed this film and the photographs were ruined because they were very grainy. However, there was enough in the grainy pictures to make me want to persevere with the iiig so I loaded a third film, trying again with a Fuji colour print film (ISO 200). This time success! I got a few prints and scans I was happy with and decided to go ahead and purchase the iiig plus the collection of lenses and attachments. Here are a few examples of the test shots taken in beautiful North Yorkshire. Note that the Fountains Abbey pictures were taken on a rather cold, dreary and damp November afternoon.
Fountains Abbey 1
I feel extremely fortunate to have the experience of using the Leica M6 and Leica iiig both of which are fantastic examples of Leica design and workmanship. Some may be wondering which do I prefer? Frankly I do not feel qualified or experienced enough to critically compare two great camera systems that many others have reviewed and extensively commented on. I can say what I love about both cameras:
Leica M6 & Summicron lenses
· Fantastic build quality and feel
· Sharpness second to none
· Test pictures had great “feel” with vibrant colours
· Having an integrated view finder and rangefinder that works with 35mm to 90mm lenses
· Very easy to use metering
Leica iiig & assorted LTM lenses
· Jewel-like mechanics and finish; no batteries required
· Fantastic design in a compact package (smaller than the M6)
· Separate viewfinder and rangefinder with high magnification; it takes a bit of getting used to but I like this feature since the magnification on the rangefinder makes precise focusing easier!
· Small beautiful compact LTM lenses that can be used on almost any digital camera via inexpensive adapter to produce great pictures.
The Leica iiig has a few challenges and quirks which can take a bit of getting used to, not least being the film loading which is from the bottom of the camera and required a pre-step of shaping and trimming the film leader using a template to ensure a proper engagement with the winding mechanism. You need to be very patient when using the camera because the knob winding for film advance is slow and must be completed before the shutter speed can be changed etc. Slower shutter speeds need to be set with a second dial. You need to focus and frame your photos in two steps using the separate rangefinder and viewfinder. You do have to remember to take the lens cap off because there is no metering or through the lens view to remind you that this rather important step has been completed; I speak from experience LOL! These rather precise steps slow your photography down but the results can be very rewarding.
In the UK there was a very popular TV show called “Cash in the Attic”. In my limited experience, there are many “old” cameras stashed away in attics, some of which have real value, others have less material value but nevertheless are interesting and exciting collector’s items. Since finding the Leicas, I have discovered via a different friend an Original (1929) Rollieflex camera tucked away with a bunch of later model cameras in her late father’s attic. Prior to finding the Leicas, another neighbor sold me a Purma Special complete with original box, close-up attachment and manual. This camera was given to his father as a retirement present in 1937 and at that time this camera was a state-of-the-art innovative design and possibly the first to be mass-produced in a sleek bakelite material. He was so happy to pass this legacy on to someone that is interested in it’s history and contribution to photography. For those of you that are interested in classic cameras and photography I suggest you start asking friends, neighbors and relatives what they have stashed away in the attic. You never know what you might find…….
Note that in the above picture the iiig has the optional Leica Viooh universal viewfinder mounted on it. This viewfinder covers 3.5cm to 13.5cm focal lengths with parallax adjustments. It is a little quirky to use but quite necessary with the 3.5cm lens on the camera, plus it is a great talking point since it looks like a mini ray-gun!