A Tale of Two Leicas: Oldest of times, newest of times
The camera above is a very early Leica I Model A from 1926 with a four-digit serial number. It has the earliest version of the famous Elmar lens, which, apart from the name, looks almost identical to the previous Elmax lens. The lens has no 7 metre mark and has a slightly curved front lip just like the Elmax. In addition the camera has the ‘mushroom’ style shutter button, which has to be kept pressed down while the film is being rewound.
This camera has the serial number 1783 and the Elmar lenses started at serial number 1300. The earliest production Leica cameras had five-element Anastigmat lenses, but because of potential copyright issues, this name was soon changed to Elmax, combining Ernst Leitz with the lens designer’s name (Max Berek). Then because of cost, the lens was redesigned as a four-element model and was renamed Elmar, which was considered more euphonious.
After the Elmar was introduced, the glass supplier was changed from Goerz to Schott, apparently requiring a change in lens curvature. It would be necessary to strip down the lens in order to determine whether this was one of the models with the earlier glass. In any event, it is a very early Elmar. I also own serial number 1661, so I have one that is even earlier. The lenses on both cameras seem to be the same to my non-expert eye.
There were ten variants of the I Model A with Elmar, described by Angela von Einem in her book, which is only available in German. I have a number of other I Model As (yes, being a collector is a slippery slope situation), of various types (variants), and I have put film through only one or two of them. They are mainly collector’s items to me, of course. When I bought this one from Dan Tamarkin he said that it had been serviced and so I decided to run a film though it to see how a camera of this age would perform in 2017. The further thought occurred to me that it might be an idea to compare the output of one of Leica’s earliest cameras with one of its latest.
Last week I went out with the I Model A, loaded with Kodak Portra 160 film, and also with my M10. I made the mistake of leaving a 35mm Summicron on the M10, whereas the film camera had a fixed 50mm lens. When this occurred to me I was already taking photos and so I just noted that I would need to crop the M10 images. I used the meter in the M10, which was set on ISO 200, to calculate exposures and the distance numbers from the M10 rangefinder to produce approximate settings for the I Model A.
The following photos were given just the usual light processing in Lightroom, the same for both film and digital images. The film images are on the left
I would be interested in comments on these photos. My own feelings are that the film gives a certain ‘sparkle’ and that the digital images are very slightly duller but more detailed, partly on account of this. The colours are perhaps also more neutral, or natural if you wish, in the digital images. I slightly prefer the look of the film shots, but that is personal preference.
There is no point in pixel peeping as the film images are just normal scans from negatives done in a camera store. Have you noticed that if you show people photos saved on a phone or pad most will just look at them while many digital photographers (usually younger ones) will immediately blow up the images on the screen in order to pixel peep? A sad state of affairs since what really counts in photos is the content rather than the pixels.
For people outside of Ireland, the black and white photo is of a bust of Patrick Pearse one of the leaders of the Irish Uprising of 1916. It is in the grounds of St Endas, which was a school for boys, which he founded in 1908. The school is now a museum and its grounds have been developed as a very nice park not far from where I live.
This is not either a real-world or even a valid comparison. It does show, however, that the Leica cameras could, in the right hands, produce very acceptable images from the very beginning.
Below is a photo of the two cameras together.
It is obvious that Leicas have expanded in size over the last 90 years and they are no longer pocketable, as were the first ones. As for which one is better looking, my vote is for the one on the left.
Below is a photo of an early user of ‘das kleine Photo-wunder’ as the Leica was described in early advertisements. It is of Irish writer George Bernard Shaw with what may be a Leica I Model C, which was the same size as the I Model A, but had no ‘hockey stick’ and had the ability to use interchangeable lenses. This one has the standard 50mm Elmar lens.
Shaw was a great man for witty sayings and this one may be more appropriate to using modern digital cameras than using early Leicas where every shot had to be carefully weighed up and composed before taking:
“A photographer is like a cod, which produces a million eggs in order that one may reach maturity.”