Leica rangefinder, but different…
If you’re not interested in camera talk [or bad puns], look away now – you have been warned [although it’s too late for the pun…].
As it’s nearly my birthday I decided to buy a new camera, to join the other 14 that I own. It’s not a replacement for my Pentax K5, which is the current workhorse, but rather something to bring one of my old systems back to life. By the end of the days when I shot on film I had three systems that I had built up over the years: a Bronica 645RF ; Pentax MZ-5n and MX [35mm SLRs and xx lenses] and a Voigtlander Bessa R2 and T [35mm rangefinders and five lenses]. The Bronica, which was a flawed masterpiece sits sadly in its bag, where at least it doesn’t gather dust. The Pentax system converted to digital although nothing of the original system remains in use. And then there was the 35mm rangefinder system with five Leica M mount lenses – 4 Voigtlanders from 15 to 75mm and a Leica 135mm f4 Tele-Elmar bought off eBay for about half its market value. So it is the latter system I’ve brought back to life.Sadly, digital rangefinders are out of my league as there are basically Leica or nothing. If I still had my old job in London I could probably stretch to a reasonable second-hand M8, but not now. So I’ve bought a Ricoh GXR with an A12 -M module as they are going cheap at the moment [which probably means they’ve been discontinued]. The original GXR was an interesting, if flawed concept, in that the ‘camera’ body isn’t really a camera at all: it just houses the controls, LCD screen and most of the electronics. The lenses came in sealed modules with the sensors onboard. The idea was that you could keep the small camera form by putting small sensors behind long zooms, and lager sensors on short zooms or standard lenses, and the sealed units would be impervious to dust. In practice you ended up paying over the odds for the lenses – what really needs to be changeable in digital cameras is the sensors and the electronics to run them as the turnover on camera models in any given market position other than very high-end is around 18 months, if that, driven largely by an increasingly meaningless pixel count.
But the M Module is different – it mounts M bayonet [the Leica rangefinder mount] lenses. The M module is interesting in that unlike using adaptors on [mainly] micro 4/3 cameras, the sensor is optimised for M mount lenses, which having been designed with a short registration distance can cause problems on digital sensors. The sensor isn’t ‘full frame’* so the angle of view is reduced to what it would have been on 35mm – it crops the useable image circle. This does mean, however, that the edges of the lenses which have less resolution aren’t used, and there is no light loss at the corners (vignetting) which is common on very wide-angle lenses, especially for rangefinders. If you want vignetting it’s very easy to add when processing an image. There is also no AA** [anti-aliasing] filter on the sensor, which increases sharpness.
So what’s it like? Well, it’s not a rangefinder, but…. The lens module glides smoothly and solidly onto the magnesium alloy body, and the whole thing has a reassuring solidity about it – it’s not a budget product. It fits nicely in the hand with all the controls easily reached. Many of the controls can have specific functions assigned to them which is especially useful as the zoom switch is otherwise redundant on a manual focus, prime lens mount. The control menus are logically laid out and easy to scroll through. In fact the whole control interface is quite exemplary and was very easy to get started and to explore the deeper depths of the possibilities offered.
The accessory viewfinder is expensive, but very necessary as the rear screen is all but impossible to see in bright sunlight. It can be tilted through 90 degrees as well, so is good for low angle shooting. As focusing is manual there are various software focusing aids. The one I’ve been using increases contrast, particularly at the edges of objects – with a shallow depth of field you can ‘walk’ the line of focus across the image, and with the wide-angles I usually zone-focus anyway as per rangefinder days.
As you may have worked out, I like this camera a lot. Whether this continues will, of course, depends on how it performs optically when I start trying to make commercial quality prints from its output. It’s not meant to replace my K5, rather offer a more portable system for when I don’t want, or need, to carry a heavy camera bag [much as my old Bessa] but it still needs to be able to sing for its supper, as it were. I’ll post a second report when I’ve done some serious shooting.
*’Full frame’ in digital terms is a sensor the same size as a single frame of 35mm film [24 x 36mm]. It’s an irritating term as all sensors and film are ‘full frame’ – the sensor covers the frame. Most digital SLRs are APS -C [23x15mm], which is Advanced Photo System (Classic), another film format. ‘Full frame’ is much smaller than my Bronica rangefinder [60x45mm] and my old 617 panoramic camera [60x170mm], so what’s ‘full’ about it?
Currently listening to: Shining Brother Shining Sister – Jackie Leven