Wednesday, July 29, 2020

The Long View

The Hektor 135/4.5 lens that came with my Leica IIIc looks new and is very smooth in operation.  It has a fifteen-blade aperture which ensures velvety backgrounds.  The lens has a reputation for good central sharpness with less sharp outer margins.  I shot a roll of Kentmere 400 with the lens on the IIIc to get an idea of how it would perform for me.  The shots that were properly focused and framed looked ok to me, but that represented only about a quarter of the pictures on the roll.

The problem that was immediately obvious when I took the camera and lens out into the real world was that the not-very-bright rangefinder was not up to the job of achieving the degree of precision focus which the 135mm lens demands.  The other issue which only became clear after scanning my images was that a lot more care needs to be given to adjusting the parallax correction on the accessory viewfinder than I had imagined.  I managed to cut the legs off quite a few of my subjects.  Also complicating the process of using the camera and lens was the fact that the diopter adjustment for the rangefinder magnified window has to adjusted for nearly every shot to provide a clear view of the subject.

A technique which is sometimes useful with any long lens is to prefocus on a spot and then wait for the subject to move into position.  I stationed myself at an intersection in the Old Town Plaza and focused on a spot on the road in anticipation of catching a motorcycle I saw circling the Plaza.  As it turned out, the driver turned right instead of left, so I waited for the next opportunity at that location which turned out to be this dismounted couple of Harley enthusiasts.

The beam splitter mirror on the IIIc is actually ok for using with my normal and wide-angle lenses, but it will have to be replaced to make using the Hektor with the IIIc worthwhile.  I may try the lens on my Leica IIIa or my two Barnack-style Soviet cameras which all have rangefinders with better contrast.

Getting the proper performance from the Tewe accessory viewfinder needed for the Hektor will require some concentrated, disciplined practice.  The focal distance selected in each instance has to be replicated very precisely in adjusting the parallax setting of the viewfinder.  That challenge is further complicated by the facts that the scale on the lens is in feet, while that of the accessory finder is in meters, and the scale on the finder is not finely graduated.

Given the unblemished condition of my Hector lens I think it likely the original owner did not spend a lot of time mastering the juggling act required to get well-focused and well-framed images from the Hektor on the IIIc.  I also don't see a lot of images on line with Hektor tags.

Leica did offer alternatives to the challenge of using long lenses on the screw-mount rangefinder cameras.  The PLOOT system of the 1930s and the Visoflex of the 1950s were accessory reflex housings which provided a through-the-lens view when matched with special lenses. In the mid-1950s the Leica M rangefinder cameras. along with bayonet style lens mounts, offered auto-parallax compensation and framelines in the viewfinder for 28-135mm focal lengths.


Jim Grey said...

What I like most about this post is that it's not the usual fanboy gushing over Leica equipment but rather a balanced report about using this gear, including the challenges.

Mike said...

Jim, thanks for considering my approach with an open mind. It seems important to me to evaluate past technologies and arts in the context in which they were developed and used. One consideration which guides my efforts in that direction is the thought that wonderful images were produced by even the earliest photographers using equipment, processes and techniques that often seem utterly primitive by today's standards.
What I see very often in reviews of past photographic technologies is that people are focusing on comparisons with modern technologies which incorporate vast assemblages of knowledge and skills which absolve current day users of nearly any responsibility for decision making. That approach, unsurprisingly, results in negative judgments about the capabilities of past technologies and traditions. As a result, assumptions about imagined limitations become self-fulfilling prophecies. I hesitate to count the number of times I have seen blurry, poorly composed images from someone wielding an old folder or box camera accompanied by the implied assertion that such inadequate performance is the best that can be expected.
If the images I have made so far with my two Leicas do not live up to my hopes, I think it is not the equipment that is at fault, but rather a lack of skill on my part in realizing the potential of the technology.

JR Smith said...

I really tried to warm to my Leica IIIc. I certainly admired its build quality and what a magnificent machine it was. In use, I found it far too fiddly...and, as you mention above, I am sure I was comparing it to more modern cameras and not giving it a fair shake in that context.

Mike said...

Fiddly is not an unfair judgment in regard to the Barnack cameras. Some of that goes away with sufficient familiarity with the system's quirks, but there are going to be some situations where other tools are going to seem better suited to a job at hand. My intention right now is to try to stay focused on using the Leica for a good while, but I'm also happy I have some other choices I can make when I feel the need.

Kodachromeguy said...

Mike, the rangefinder on the IIIC should be just about accurate enough for the 135mm lens, but as you noted, your unit probably needs an overhaul. Also, the parallax is an issue with the auxiliary finder. I even have vertical parallax issues with a Canon 50mm finder when I use it with my 50mm ƒ/1.4 Canon lens. For long lenses, the SLR concept definitely made sense, although the Leica Ms did pretty well with 90mm and, to a lesser degree, 135mm. It is a pity that the IIIC kit you bought did not have any wide-angle lenses. Leica thread-mount wides have become really pricey in the last few years.

As for fiddly, yes I agree. But it is a fun sort of fiddly. It is pretty amazing that these fiddly 70-year-old cameras still can do such great work.

Mike said...

I like all my Barack cameras and clones, but I don't expect they will be the right thing for every occassion.
I'm thinking in regard to the Hektor 135mm that I might be better off just using the Leica's viewfinder on the IIIa as it has little parallax error and I can correct for that by estimation. I have the Soviet Jupiter 12 35mm and it worked just fine on my IIIa. I especially like the accessory viewfinder for the 35mm as it gives a very bright view and parallax does not seem much of a problem.

Anonymous said...

To Kodachromeguy's point, that's what you used to see a lot of photojournalists back in "the day", with a few Nikon's around their neck with 50's or 85's, or 105's on them, and always one Leica with a 35mm or 28mm....

Mike said...

Yes, I have nearly all those combinations, but my neck will no long support all of them simultaneously.