Magazine Article


Tenacious Tendencies Tentatively Tendered

Give and Take, Double-Take

The new crop of cameras turn a few corners on other blocks in the neighborhood. Take the principle of the old-fashioned camera. The type with shutter-speed dials and lens-aperture rings, all out in the open where you can see them. That’s where they had to be, more or less, back in the old days, when there were mechanical linkages between the camera’s mechanism and its controls. It no longer need be, in a day of switches.

Operationally speaking, is there an advantage to a shutter-speed dial on the top deck of the camera (per the Panasonic and Leica Four/Thirds SLRs), versus one visible just in the viewfinder (per, say, the Olympus counterpart)? We’re just looking into it, but we’d presume some people think so.

In addition to practical value, however, there’s definitely an issue of atmosphere. Traditional controls on modern cameras may be no more necessary than manual transmissions in cars, but some people like them. Time will tell how the market responds.

Interesting, though, that it’s the big electronics companies that are trying it out. Pentax, Canon, and Olympus, have backgrounds in cameras with dials—springs and film-transport mechanisms too—cameras with switches having been more the Panasonic style. But then again, there’s their alliance with Leica.

An assumption has been voiced in a few quarters pertaining to the huge CE business taking over the tiny camera business, and maybe that’s so. But what an interesting way to do it. Would Panasonic be buying their way into heaven with a camera for the saints all covered in dials? Or is that a Leica influence in the first place, because that’s the Leica way? The tail and the dog are not clearly defined.

The Leica M8 raises another question, that of the place of the rangefinder camera in the digital age. Leica is proud to point out that their M-mount lenses, aging back to the 1950s originals, will work on the new model. M-mount lenses made last July, have additional contacts for information exchange with the body. Leica’s announcement included retrofitting, at reasonable cost, older lenses for the new tricks.

But the lenses are all fixed-focal length. No zooms. Is that important in photography today? It wasn’t always. For 150 years, people took great pictures with non-zooms. They probably still can. Nonetheless, like autoexposure and autofocus, which were unavailable 150 years ago, zoom lenses have caught-on. You might call them standards. If you buy a DSLR with a “kit” lens, it’s always a zoom.

One of the things manufacturers found, way back in the beginning, is that people feel a relationship with their cameras, consciously or not. The nature of that relationship, how pleasing it feels, has no direct bearing on the technicalities of photography, though it could have quite an effect on taking pictures. How much you like raising the camera, putting it to your eye, and working the controls, has something to do with the provocation manipulating the technology entails. In other words, people who like their cameras are likely to take more pictures. It was true in the day of the copper plate, it’s true in the day of silicon.

At its price, the Leica M8 will probably not be a mass item. However, its presence in the market, like the dials on the Lumix L1 and the Digilux 3, give everyone a chance to think about it, see how it works, and decide where to go from there.