Object of Desire: The Psychology Behind Wanting Leica

Mortgage the house? Make that trip around the world? Or instead buy a single (!) camera body with a single (!) lens?! To buy a Leica or not… There’s hardly a photographer who has never fought with this question.

Leica M9 Titanium special edition

The issue has been beaten to death. There’s no common ground between the yeasayers and naysayers, each pointing to the other side’s deficiencies, such as “Leicas are cameras built to outlast the sensor,” “grossly overpriced emotional products”, “yesterday’s hipster hardware for futuristic prices,” “moody gear,” etc., as opposed to “top-notch quality with the bare essentials a photographer ever needs,” “unsurpassed glass without peer,” “three-dimensional images,” and so forth.

I’m a total Leicaholic, even though I’m still patiently waiting for the grand slam Leica. Let’s be honest. The almighty S2 is an even less affordable niche product and the sensor of the M9 only doesn’t suck at base ISO and slightly above. ISO 1,600 is not only a little noisy. Well it’s trivial to eliminate noise these days, but why in the first place pay so much for so little; so much for such outdated sensor technology as even Olympus that never enjoyed good high ISO performance, even Olympus demonstrates with the OM-D EM-5 what today’s sensor can do.

Nah, this is no Leica bashing. On the contrary. The M9’s base ISO is hard to beat. Add the overall Zen feel. It’s not like driving a Toyota instead of a Porsche because it gets you from A to B. Boring.

A friend who since years is struggling with the idea of buying a Leica told me this after visiting his favorite photo shop where he picked up the Fujifilm X-Pro1, the “affordable Leica”:

Yes, the Leica. When I picked it up it really had a different feel about it. I can see how photographers get all excited about the “feel” of it as a photographer’s “tool,” etc. etc. When I was driving my wife’s BMW X5 the other day it occurred to me that the X-Pro1 is to the X5 what the Leica is to my X5 M. Ignoring the 350 horsepower difference between what is under the bonnet — which is a material different in and of itself) the X5 M just feels so much tighter and better engineered — and given it’s the luxury version of the X5-line the finish (leather, dash, sound system, etc.) and the overall build quality are just at a different level than the finish in my wife’s X5 which feels more plastic with an overall lower level of finish. So even though both are almost identical on the outside and are perfectly competent in getting you from A to B it’s the X5 M that does it with more aplomb and leaves you with a smile on your face every time you get behind the wheel. It’s just more satisfying. If you had never been in an X5 M you would be thinking how nice her X5 is — which is the way I felt about Fujifilm and Leica up until about the other day. So whilst the Leica and the Fuji will both create some great images (I can begin to understand the point repeated over and over again in every blog I read by anyone who has ever used a Leica) that it’s about the “feel” of the Leica and your connection to it. Which is exactly the way I feel whenever i get behind the wheel of a BMW M car. Definitely a different beast and will still get you from A to B — but just better at doing it.

Well that last point is at least debatable. You pay Leica huge money for superb construction rendered pointless when your average P&S can get the IQ eventually. My little Finepix even creates a soft, dreamy focus for background. Add the Velvia setting and you got what a Leica might do… Seriously not. That works for small prints and Web publishing. Reality is that most photographers don’t print large anymore. Most photographers can’t even tell the difference between a small resolution image shot with a $10,000 gear and an image shot with a cheap P&S.

So if you don’t really make use your gear, why buy it. Or you buy gear based on looks and emotion?

The red spot I have to have.

The anachronistic Leica still exists because less can be more.

The straightforward Leica reduces the gap between photographer and object. It’s a more honest photography, unvarnished. Or so they say.

Because a camera with few features doesn’t make a lesser camera.

You’re not after face detection, panorama function, not to mention AF, and at its absolute top speed it can churn 2 fps… big deal.

Reason and comparisons say, “No, no!”

Gut feeling knows you only live once.

There we have it. The Leica myth.

And people driven by myth can become almost religious about it.

That myth though is partly related to all the great photos from the past. And all the famous photos who promoted Leica for reasons which may, or may not be result related.

Good friend and photographer Ronn Aldaman says this about having a Leica in his hand:

It makes me feel confident I have the very best in my hands and will not worry about “failure” due to gear. Having the very best forces me to give the best, and gear can no longer be an excuse, real or imagined.

When he looks at his own photos, the ones I personally like the most, many are with the Leica. But that also depends on what he was after. Sometimes the Holga or pinhole shine and allow imbuing a photo with something the Leica could have have done.

I think people also hanker after the Leicas because they believe that will give their photographs something extra. Some of the time maybe, but not as often as they think.

Leicas are solid. Beautiful. An investment. A piece of history. Almost unbreakable. A dying breed because more and more rare as people hang onto them or collect.

A symbol.

Or is it a generation thing?

Well I’m not that old, but we have to remember the photos we grew up with seeing. Leicas were often used. And since Leicas rendered those images, somehow we identify good photographs via those images and therefore indirectly, with Leicas.

A Leica, many fancy, could expand a photo. Leica instilled in us an idea about what good photography is, and so therefore we relate and associate according to some sort of partly pre-established vision and perspective.

The same could be said for the use of the classic 50mm lens. Most back then learned on a 50mm lens and feel most comfortable with it and that, in part is due to seeing so many 50mm photographs from before. The recognition might be partly intuitive and subconscious by now but old habits die hard. And why should they not live on?

Having said that, there is an anecdotal experience to tell. When Leica contacted Ronn to arrange an exhibit he handed them a couple hundred of photos he liked. They selected down to 50 or 60. He had the job of cutting that down to 30. However, of those Leica had chosen there were about eight or nine not taken with a Leica.

Thus, even Leica representatives responsible for an exclusive Leica exhibition for their marketing were unable to always perfectly separate the wheat from the chaff.

A Leica is a nostalgic blast from the past. But Solms looks determined as ever. Key to tomorrow’s Leica is strategic investor Blackstone giving the Germans a well-needed war chest for the “boutique war.”

That may change a thing or too. Remember, Leica’s former capital situation was very interesting. Ever tried to buy some of their stock? It was never traded so you couldn’t really buy it.

It looked like some stub equity that was still listed for historical reasons.

From memory it was pref shares, not common, so they were definitely not relying on the public equity markets for capital. But with the Blackstone check book open it will be interesting to see whether they expand production to meet demand.

However, they are in a similar situation to other low volume luxury manufacturers like Ferrari where that low volume just creates more demand that enables them to sell their products at nose bleed prices — and obviously very attractive profit margins.

That’s what much of the red dot’s psychology is really all about.

Besides there’s the beauty of simplicity in such an automatic world where every new camera removes one more layer of control from the photographer.

A many a photographer’s personal favorite photographs have come from a Leica.

Well the Leica costs. But so does ever(y) new gear.

In the end, with a lower refresh rate, and that’s the beauty of it, a Leica can save you money.