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Buying a Leica (or The Cure for GAS)
By Tony Gale
A while ago I wrote a long-winded and somewhat overly-researched article that you may or may not have seen (but I'm guessing at not). In it I discussed how the then newly-released brass La Sardina was one of the more ridiculous things you could possibly throw a huge lump of money at, and presented a range of similarly-priced alternatives which included a Pentax Spotmatic kit, 3 and a half Holgas, and 10.7 grams of top quality cocaine.
(Disclaimer: Neither I nor the global #believeinfilm empire endorses the use of nose-rotting amphetamines. Or half a Holga, for that matter.)
A few months after that, I bought a Leica.
In fact, I bought a full screwmount Leica kit. And yes, it wasn't cheap. Full disclosure:
Leica IIIf, OKARO, and case: £230
35/3.5 Summaron: £162
Collapsible 50/2 Summicron: £395
90/4 Elmar: £129
That's £916 total - which doesn't include the flash bracket and filters I ended up buying afterwards. It's probably safe to say I'm just on the wrong side of a thousand quid into this Leica arrangement. Imagine the amount of half-holgas I could have bought for that money. (91, if you're at all curious. You always seem to end up with one wasted half-holga in these calculations.)
Considering I raged about how £179 was too much for a camera, this might seem like an uncharacteristic spasm of hypocrisy at first glance. It might also seem like I have more money than sense. And it might also be ill-advised to publicly announce how much money I've thrown at camera dealerships in recent months. But I have a point to make, goddammit.
Thing is, I'm a rangefinder guy through and through. I may have a soft spot for TLRs, but ultimately, rangefinders are my true love. There's something about them - the size, the clarity of the rangefinder spot, the smoothness, the fully manual controls - that suits me perfectly. And I must have thrown an unholy amount money at trying and building a wide range of the things. But ultimately, all of these were just sticking plasters; an attempt to avoid the elephant in the room. My heart was set on a Leica from the first moment I picked one up, and I fell in love with the Summicron the first time I saw some photos taken with one.
To those who have never really experienced a Leica it's hard to explain. They have a very polarising aura about them; their users adore them, and everyone else writes them off as a mere status symbol - a rich boy's toy, much like a BMW or a Mercedes. But it's hard to argue with their finesse, the quality of their parts, the smoothness of each motion and the solid construction of the entire arrangement. And while the lenses tend to garner some very worrying praise that borders on proselytising, they truly do make some stunning images. In fact, there are many good reasons why they were the photojournalist's tool of choice for so long.
But this isn't a pro-Leica article - I'll leave those to Ken Rockwell. No, this is about money, and how such a huge investment doesn't make me feel sick every time I think about it.
See, I'm not a rich man. In fact, I graduated from university a year ago, and fell straight into an economy that wasn't particularly rich with jobs for newly-fledged writing graduates. And coming from a working class family, I don't have rich parents supporting me at every turn. I don't even take a massive amount of handouts from the state to subsidise my rangefinder addictions. Actually, I'm pretty much flat-out broke. But that's okay.
Because I also don't have a car. If I need to travel less than 3 miles, I walk. If I need to go further, I get the bus. I also don't have a recent model of TV - I inherited my father's old CRT television when he upgraded. Yes, I own a Mac, but I bought the most basic model that was available at the time. My phone is three years old and was hideously outdated even then. I don't have massive nights out every weekend. In fact, my outgoings are shockingly low, and until this point, my only major non-film expenditure was on cameras and lenses that I was buying to plug the Leica void.
It's all about priorities. I learned early on in life that if you want something badly enough, you have to be willing to sacrifice something else to make it happen; a lesson that sadly seems to be forgotten by some (yes, you racking up the credit card debt over there, I mean you). And so I put my head down, I got a crappy job, I saved my money, stopped buying crap and I got what I really wanted - and as a result, my ill-advised nightly eBay trawling sessions have disappeared.
Even so, there will be those reading this that are still thinking that one thousand Pounds/Dollars/Euros/Yen/Doubloons is a lot of money. And you're right. There's no other way of putting it. But if this is your hobby, your love, your life, or even your aspiring career, that is money well spent. And consider this: buying big, no matter what your system, format or tastes will always be an investment. Leica prices continue to hold steady (and even rise, where the lenses are concerned). The same can be said about other systems that have a similar reputation for quality, whether it be Hassleblad, Rolleiflex, Mamiya or otherwise. So while my Leica has the potential to outlast me (honestly, this stuff was built in the 1950s and looks and feels BRAND NEW), if I ever decide to sell, I'm more likely to make money than lose any. That seems like a pretty good deal. And, in photography, it's one basically left to us archaic film-users - unlike digital users, whose bodies tend to lose a massive amount of value within five years of purchase.
So why not take advantage of that? I understand that not everyone is as financially unconstrained as myself (mortgages, small children and legal settlements can all cause problems with the Hassleblad Purchasing Fund), but look at your camera shelf; how many cameras have you bought in the last year? How many of those are honestly the camera of your dreams, and how many are simply left gathering dust? What is it that you've really been lusting after for the last few years?
Maybe it's time to be honest with yourself.