My first camera took 110 film. It was a narrow brick with a lens, a flash, shutter, and film advance. My mom bought it for me at the Dollar General store, and I’ve no idea where the likely-awful photos that young Jim captured have gone to, but it was something. Cheap cameras like that one are what a lot of us associate with 110 film, but they’re not the only cameras made for the film format.
The Leica brand has become synonymous with excessively priced camera gear in recent years. Aside from absurdly priced special editions—like a $50,000 special edition M9-P with four lenses and Hermés leather—a run of the mill M9 will set you back around $7,000, and the least expensive new lens you can buy from the company is the $1,500 50mm Summarit f/2.5.
But you don’t have to buy the latest and greatest camera and lenses. There are bargains to be found in older glass, and if you can mount Leica glass to all kinds of cameras these days—including the $700 Sony Alpha NEX-5N. The Summitar is one of the great bargains of the Leica world. My copy, manufactured in 1951 based on its serial number, set me back a whopping $225 when I bought it in 2010. The lens is actually in a Leica Thread Mount, so you’ll need to use an adapter to mount it on an M-mount camera.
Rangefinder cameras have many advantages over their much more popular SLR cousins. They are generally smaller and lighter — with optics to match. Because there’ s no mirror box, lenses can sit closer to the film plane — which results in excellent edge-to-edge sharpness and the ability to design compact wide-angle lenses.
But there are drawbacks. You’ll never be able to preview depth of field, zoom lenses aren’t practical, external finders are often required, and learning the terminology associated with them (Leica naming conventions in particular) can be a daunting task unto itself.
Oh, and focusing close? In the words of Tony Soprano — “Fugedaboudit.” Classic Leica lenses are limited to focusing to about 3.3′ (1 meter) — while most newer designs can only get as close as 2.3′ (0.7 meters). In looking to overcome this obstacle, Leica engineers devised the Summicron DR in the 1950s. It can focus as close as 20″ (0.5 meters), but requires some handling to do so.
A while back I wrote about a lens that I had a hard time selling — the Pentax FA Limited 31mm f/1.8. What led me to part ways with that is what I consider to be a nearly perfect optic — one that is fast, sharp, and compact — without sacrificing character.
I’m talking the Leica Summilux 35mm f/1.4 ASPH. A lens that, I’ll be the first to admit, I spent entirely too much money on. A few years back, a coworker brought his Leica M6 into the office. I picked it up and looked through the finder. I felt the weight and admired its relatively compact form factor. I said to myself “I need one of these.”
I sold a lens tonight. It wasn’t very hard — I was never a huge fan of the lens, and I hadn’t really used it to shoot any photos that I was in love with. Plus I had already used the money to buy yet another camera… but that’s another post.
But it reminded me of another lens that I once owned and no longer do. One that was very, very difficult for me to sell — even though it had spent more than a year sitting fallow in a camera bag. It took a long time for me to make the decision to sell my FA Limited 31mm lens — in the rarer silver finish, no less.