How older Leica digitals can still be a good buy
Digital rot is an overused expression, often suggesting that the buying a new digital camera is a waste of money, and sometimes to persuade you that you’re better off with film. If you check out the facts, though, you find that almost all new products, digital or otherwise, begin to rot the minute you walk out of the shop. Film cameras are certainly not immune as I will show later.
One thing is for sure: Depreciation of some digital cameras is lower than others, just as a Porsche will retain a much larger percentage of its purchase price after three years than, say, a Fiat 500. You may lose more actual cash, granted, but it’s the percentage you should be looking at.
In practice, Leica digital cameras have depreciated far less than others during the past ten years. There is still a healthy demand for two superseded cameras, the M8 and M9 and, to some extent, the M9 is going through a period of canonisation as a cult camera. Buy a used M9 today and it will cost you approximately 45% of the original market value — and bear in mind the M9 was introduced in 2009 and pensioned off (in the main) in 2012. Even the earlier M8 still fetches 25% of its original value after ten years. [But read the comments below in connection with the problem of screen replacements].
Capable then, capable now
Fact is, these older Leicas were pretty damned good in their day and were capable of producing wonderful results. They are no less capable just because the shiny new M offers a bit more in various directions. They don’t stop being good cameras. Looked at in this way, you can begin to understand that whatever rot is there, it is not specifically digital rot.
On the other hand, take film cameras. Does a Leica film camera depreciate at a greater rate than a Leica digital? The surprising answer is that it can do. Buy an M7 for £3,620 today and you could have a shock when you come to sell it. This camera, which has been around for 14 years without update, is easy to find used for around £1,200. Actual age doesn’t much matter with film cameras of a particular series (unlike with cars) so if you want to sell your new M7 you are competing with owners who might have had their cameras for five or ten years and have got used to a bit of depreciation.
You will fare better with the MP, a camera which has been around for 12 years in its current form, because secondhand values range between £2,000 and £2,200, a less bitter pill to swallow when compared with the £3,620 purchase price (same as the M7; which is the better buy, mirrorless, mirrorless on the wall?). The M-A, the modern version of the M3, is likely to be an equally good performer in the depreciation stakes although there is no data to support this theory. It starts off £200 cheaper at £3,450. But with any of these film cameras, initial depreciation will be high if you buy new.
Film v Digital
So back to the M7. In three years you will lose a larger percentage of your original outlay than you would with a digital M. It’s something to think about.
Buying secondhand is a completely different matter. Bag an MP for £2,000 or even an M7 for £1,200 and you have a camera that is likely to hold its value. It might even go up, who knows. Similarly, a used M9 for £2,000-£2,500 is now a good buy with limited downside. As I said earlier, it is currently going through a period of resurrection and is in high demand.
With film cameras the situation is even more attractive. Depending on the lens, a film camera from 1956 will produce the same results as one from 2016. So why buy a new film camera? With M3s from the 1950s and 1960s still selling for upwards of £750, you can easily work out that depreciation isn’t going to be a factor if you buy one now. M3s, M2s, M4s and even the later M6s will go up in value rather than down.
While film cameras of a certain age will cost you little in depreciation, they still suffer from “film rot”, an ailment I just invented. Unlike digital rot, which refers specifically to depreciation, the danger of film rot lies in the running costs. Film is no longer cheap and processing is pretty exorbitant unless you can do it yourself. After shelling out, say, £6 for a 36-exposure black and white film you could spent upwards of £18 on getting it developed and scanned to disk — even without prints. Colour is a few pounds cheaper, but you get the message.
In this respect, depreciation aside, digital cameras have virtually zero running costs. This as good and bad, of course. Because digital is free we tend to squirt off hundreds of a shots in a day, hoping for the best. With film, as I know, a roll of 36 shots can take an age to complete. Every shot is considered, nothing is wasted.
If you do your sums and buy wisely, a used Leica can be an investment.