If you are ever fortunate enough to hold one of the first 1925 Leica I(A)s in your hands, you'll quickly understand why it became the first commercially successful 35mm camera. (Just don't drop it. Each is worth $30,000 or more today!) It's oh-so-light, compact, and comfortable, and its few controls fall right where your fingers want them.
Its creator, Oskar Barnack, didn't throw the I(A) together as I suspect a lesser designer might have, nor did he follow the advice of a committee. Twenty years prior, while working at the famous Carl Zeiss optics plant in Jena, Germany, Barnack, an enthusiastic amateur photographer, spent much of his spare time hiking. Lugging around a plate camera and tripod proved slow and cumbersome.
Why not a pocket-sized camera that would use 35mm movie film? Barnack was confident that despite the format's small size, careful exposure and processing of the film might yield surprising results, particularly if he increased the picture area to 24x36mm, twice that of a movie frame.
|MY, HOW YOU'VE GROWN: A replica of Barnack's 1913 simple 35mm prototype Leica poses warily next to the mighty, modern Canon EOS-1D Mark IIn with, as they say, all the bells and whistles.|
Mechanically, film offered multiple advantages. Rolls of it could provide many consecutive pictures just like a movie camera, and its sprocket holes could be used to both advance the film and wind a focal plane shutter at the same time. Shutter speed, aperture, focus distance, and film wind were the only needed controls. Barnack showed a rough device to a manager at Zeiss Jena, which had made other cameras, but his concepts were rejected.
In 1911, Barnack quit Zeiss Jena, and went to work for E. Leitz in Wetzlar, a far smaller optical company that produced primarily microscopes. Leitz had no experience with cameras, but this didn't bother the company's head, Ernst Leitz II, who named Barnack a development engineer and instructed him to work on his camera.
Barnack did just that, and soon had two metal prototypes that he used to take many memorable scenics around Wetzlar, which even today have astonishing quality. (Max Berek, Leitz's chief optical engineer, created the 50mm f/3.5 lens that Barnack used on the prototypes.)
World War I interrupted the camera's development, but in 1924, Ernst Leitz gave the go-ahead for mass producing what was to be called the Leica. Shown at the Leipzig Trade Fair in 1925, it created a sensation and a worldwide market for the camera and its successors. From then on, virtually all mechanical 35mm cameras have used Barnack's film-advance/shutter-winding mechanism.
What didn't survive, unfortunately, are the qualities that made Barnack's camera such a success: compact size and simplicity of controls. Leica I(A) users had only to set shutter speed, aperture, and focus distance, and then squeeze the shutter release. Given 15 minutes of instruction, practically anyone could go out and start shooting pictures.
Today's cameras have been loaded like well-decorated Christmas trees with as much glitter and doodads as camera makers and copywriters can devise. Are more coming? Of course!
But what to do with the gimmicks built into your camera? Use what you need and turn off the rest. Many pros I know ignore a large percentage of top-level camera capabilities. One leaves his camera on Program mode, period!
Are any contemporary features worth your while? Shake reduction is a keeper. Pop Photo Lab tests have found that camera sensor-based stabilization systems average about 2 extra stops of handheld sharpness, but I've heard the next batch of cameras with built-in image stabilization will claim 4 stops.
Multiple autofocus points? Turn 'em all on only when shooting action. For portraits, aim one central AF point at a key feature such as an eye, hold focus, and recompose. For metering, aim a center spot on a gray object in the scene. Unless you're a rank beginner, turn off scene-specific picture modes such as Portrait, Landscape, and Close-up, and set your camera yourself.
Automatic ISO setting is great if you have a DSLR that can handle high ISOs without increasing noise, but beware of trusting it on point-and-shoots that rarely can go higher than ISO 400 successfully.
Face detection is nifty to experiment with on a rainy day. It can provide proper exposure and focus for up to 10 or more faces in the same picture. Try it singly, doubly, and with multiple faces. Draw your own conclusions by examining magnified results on your LCD screen. (For more, see Mike McNamara's column.)
With so many competing dust protection (and elimination) kits on the market, it was predictable that camera makers would build them into their cameras. How well do the systems work? Who's the brave soul willing to find out by placing dust on his own DSLR sensor and trying to remove or eliminate it?
What's on the horizon? Bigger, brighter, swing-around, and live LCDs, for sure. And 20-megapixel sensors (and maybe higher) on DSLRs equally at home shooting full-frame and APS formats -- and able to use both lens types. (As for DSLRs equally at home shooting film, don't hold your breath.)
What do I truly hate about DSLRs? Menus. Particularly menus I need to consult for ISO settings and/or white balance. Buttons marked ISO and WB with direct access do me fine.
But what do I really want? A comfy, rugged, gem-like, compact, four-control, digital Leica 1(A). You can leave off all the ornamental stuff. That's not too much to ask, is it?
Ask Herbert Keppler
Q. When buying a new camera, do I need to purchase an extended warranty, as well?
A. If cameras used by amateurs go wrong, it's usually during the one-year manufacturer's warranty period. Still, I like to play it safe with a two-year extension, if the camera costs more than $300. How much should you pay? Ask one of our CheckRated stores.