A Skeptical Approach to Cameras or: An Ode to the Leica M4-2

If you’ve gone hunting for a decent hi-fi setup anytime over the past two decades, chances are you have come across publications such as What Hi-Fi or Stereophile and cooed over their adjective-laden reviews of high-end equipment you’ve never heard of, “must-have” accessories you’ll never have and remastered audiophile albums you don’t want to repurchase. These reviewers use the abstract and subjective as if they are measurable and quantifiable values; SI units of auditory measurement if you will. You’ve already settled for the $899 Panasonic job from JB Hi-Fi, but in the world of high-end hi-fi, dCS, Bryston, Continuum and Audioquest are the names to look out for.

“Audiophile” reviewers wax lyrical about an amplifier’s “warmth” and “depth”, or the improved “image focus” and increased “coherence” of a $750 USB cable, or a CD player’s ”righteous sense of musical flow”. In this rarified world, it is self-evident that a $1190 RCA interconnect (or audio cable to us mere mortals) will produce ”superior detail, clarity, timing precision, and image focus” and that such an exotic product – made from “tellurium-copper alloy” no less – is necessary for the best audio experience. 

With seeming full sincerity, a $200,000 turntable is rated as possessing a greater “emotional majesty” that “sings” to the reviewer’s heart: “When you hear the music [the turntable] lets escape from the grooves,” the reviewer claims, “you, too, will be astounded and swept off your feet”. 

Except for the tiny problem that the vast majority of these reviews are guff. Non-scientific, non-measurable, emotional guff. While most consumer reviews have embraced the quantifiable and objective to test the efficacy of products (Video Card A runs Game B at 64 FPS; Computer X takes 56 sec to render Video Y), audiophile hi-fi regressed to a pre-scientific world view, preferring untestable subjectivity to measurable objectivity.

In the real world, this is simply not acceptable. A rational person, for instance, wouldn’t take a drug because a doctor said it had “a more defined sense of certainty” than another. You would demand evidence of the drug’s efficacy in comparison to others before swallowing it. Now, hi-fi might not be a matter of life or death, but many otherwise rational people are all-too willing to swallow the homeopathic audiophile hi-fi pill without thinking.

It was easy for me to laugh at the absurdity of high-end hi-fi’s claims. I am a skeptic, and fiercely proud of it…but then I realised I had swallowed similar claims when purchasing my camera…

Leica Virgin

It was 2009 and I was about to purchase my first Leica. Few brands are steeped in the as much myth and legend as Leica. Born in Germany, Leicas are regarded by many as the pinnacle of 35mm photography. As with audiophiles, Leica adherents are renowned for their devotion to the brand despite the many shortcomings of the products. Leica cameras and lenses, so the story goes, possess very special qualities not seen in other cameras. This is not entirely guff; objective measures of image quality often give Leica products close to full marks, but there are other less measurable qualities ascribed to Leica products we should be skeptical of. 

When it came time to decide on which Leica M body to purchase, opinions were a dime a dozen, but the consensus from the “experts” was that the German-built Leica M4 was superior to the later Canadian-built M4-2 and M4-P models. Why? Do they hate Canadians? No, because according the experts, the Canadian models were constructed to “looser tolerances”.  What these tolerances were and how they affect one’s photography or the operation of the camera is rarely quantified, but I trusted the “expert” opinion, so I avoided the Canadian models and bought a German-built M4.

With the benefit of experience and hindsight, I can now see the whole pro-German M4 thing as little more than a smear on the good name of the Ernst Leitz Canada (ELCAN) factory and its unbelievably talented staff. The amazing inventions and innovations of the ELCAN staff sadly do not receive their due credit in the history of Leica. ELCAN was pushing the technological boundaries of optics at a time when Leitz Wetzlar was focused on merely financial survival. The ELCAN team, led by legendary optical designer Walter Mandler, designed the very first Noctilux lens, envelope-pushing military lenses, IMAX projection lenses and groundbreaking Panavision optics. This was not some second-rate factory, it was the true innovation centre for Leica in the second half of the 20th century, right up until the early 1990s. 

The ELCAN M4-2 and M4-P actually saved the Leica M as a product and possibly Leitz (now Leica) as a company. A bit of history: after the successful M4, Leica released the unloved Leica M5. Although it was the most technically advanced Leica M to date, the M5 was a sales flop that caused Leitz to discontinue the M line and focus on SLRs. That’s right, the now iconic Leica M product line was discontinued. After the discontinuation, the folks at ELCAN suggested to German management that they could produce a more economical version of the M4 in Canada. Leitz approved a limited number, but demand was greater than expected, thus the M4-2 was born.

So were there actual problems with the M4-2’s more “economical” construction? Well, kind of. Like many new products, there were problems with first batches. The viewfinder was more prone to flare than previous models owing to the removal of a condenser, and some metal and brass parts were replaced with plastic parts. In most cases this substitution made no difference, however some parts were demonstrably less robust than their metallic predecessors. Many of the other cost-saving changes were cosmetic or had little effect on the usability of the camera, such as the stamped Leitz name on the top plate (replacing the engraving of previous models) or the removal of the self-timer (I’ve used mine once). 

What of “looser tolerances”? Production methods did actually change. The time consuming “adjust and fit” method of bespoke production was substituted for a more modern and economical production line mode of manufacture. Thus the tolerance claims are true to a certain extent, although the effect on the final product was minimal. This was a new workforce building a new camera on a new production line and what mistakes they made were quickly rectified. And don’t forget that all the tooling to build the M4 was transferred from Wetzlar to Canada – that’s no small task so it would be more of a shock if there weren’t issues. These cost-cutting measures, practical though they were, add up in some minds to the Leica M4-2 being somehow a “lesser” Leica than the German-built models that preceded it, even though today, a well-kept Canadian M4-2 or M4-P operates just as reliably as any other Leica.

I asked a photographer friend of mine, Andrew Cosgriff for his thoughts on using the Leica M4-2 and the German-built Leica M6: “The truth (for me) was that it still felt like everything a Leica was meant to feel like. You could sit there and wind it all day, because it felt so good. I loved how the M4-2 had absolutely no extraneous features, compared to other cameras I owned, most of which seemed to have a few extra knobs and dials that I never found myself using.”

And of the obviously superior German-built M6? Did it feel better because Germany?

“Nope. Winding it on felt just as good, and the meter was a convenience (now, 4 years later, a crutch) rather than a necessity. Both of them are still Leicas, and for me they both exude the qualities we’ve come to expect from that name.”

And this is where we should take a moment to step back from inherited opinions that are told and retold enough for them to become fact. A photograph is not only the product of a camera, it’s the lens, the chosen medium and most importantly, the person behind the camera. It is highly-unlikely that the camera body will be the weakest link in the process that is photography. Sure, you may be affected by the “cost-cutting” roots of the Leica M4-2, that somehow it’s not a “real” Leica, but I would suggest that’s more in your head than in the product.

Similarly with hi-fi equipment, the biggest change you can make to improve your audio experience is to fix up your listening environment, not demagnitise your discs and replace all of your audio cables with unobtanium-plated interconnects. Alas, there’s no $1400 product to sell to support the moving of speakers a few feet one way or another (although I’m sure there are a few less-scrupulous companies out there willing to give it a try…have you heard of the BS Technology Pro Grip Finger Protectors FAP-1020 that discharge dangerous static before coming into contact with your precious hi-fi equipment?). 

Above the din of their scorn, many Leicaphiles forget that without the M4-2 and M4-P, Leica might not exist today. ELCAN designed and produced the finest rangefinder lenses and kept the Leica M line alive at a time when its German parent company wanted little to do with such outmoded technology. Yes, there were differences with the construction of the M4-2 compared to previous models and, yes, some of the changes were designed to cut costs, but a good M4-2 is no less usable than a good M4. Leica’s focus on SLRs would eventually falter, with their R SLR cameras never achieving the same prominence (or sales) as the Leica M lineup. Leica finally discontinued the R series in 2009; the M series continues strongly to this day. Had Leica given up entirely on the M, the company probably wouldn’t be around today.

The more economic methods of production perfected in Canada informed the creation of the Leica M6 and helped allow production to finally move back to Germany in the 1980s. Today, the Leica M forms the core of a resurgent Leica Camera AG, thanks in large part to the foresight and passion of Leitz workers at the ELCAN factory who kept the iconic rangefinder alive. 

I’ve learned my lesson. Next time, I’ll be a bit more skeptical of the received wisdom of the internets, of forum users with 10,000+ posts and of claims without assertions. Had I followed this course of action in 2009, I might have saved myself quite a bit of money. Should I need to replace my M4 for whatever reason, I’ll be more than happy to “take the risk” with a Leica M4-2 and ELCAN’s wares…just like the US Navy did, just like the US Army did, just like Panavision did, just like IMAX did and just like Leitz did.

Thanks to Andrew for his musings on the Leica M4-2 and M6 cameras. You can see more of his awesome photography on Flickr.

The inspiration for this article came, in part, from Peter Johansen’s post A Brief Guide to Audio for the Skeptical Consumer on his blog Numeral Nine Music and Audio.

For an overview on the amazing accomplishments of the ELCAN operation, take a look at Ernst Leitz Canada Limited on the LEICA Barnack Berek Blog.

Notes: It is incredibly difficult to find advertising materials for the Leica M4-2. I have a few brochures in my collection for the M4-P, but none for the Leica M4-2. The internet wasn’t much help either, I could not find a single digitised ad for the M4-2. Sad face.

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