Petteri's Pontifications
My musings about photography, mostly.
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Leica CL: The Volkskamera

Leica CL: The Volkskamera

The early 1970's were not kind to Ernst Leitz GmbH. They had missed the boat on the SLR revolution, and then they released two cameras, one of which was not good enough for what it was, and another which was too good. Together they came close to sinking the company, and Leica never were quite the same since.

The camera that was not quite good enough was the Leica M5. It was Leica's attempt at answering the SLR challenge. It added some highly advanced features for the time: a longer-baselength rangefinder and improved viewfinder, making it the most precise-to-focus Leica ever, and through-the-lens metering with a needle indicator. However, it also ditched the clean, elegant lines of previous M's in favor of a more angular "brutalist" look, and it was significantly larger than previous models. Even if it is a lot better regarded nowadays, it tanked in the marketplace, and left Leica on the ropes.

leica cl

The Leica CL I bought. It's a fairly low serial number, meaning it was manufactured around 1973. It has seen some use, but is working as well as the day it rolled off the assembly line in Japan.

The camera that was too good for its station was the Leica CL, paired with two lenses, the Summicron-C 2/40 and Summicron-C 4/90. It was designed by Leica but manufactured under contract in Japan by Minolta. Later, Minolta sold it under its own brand name, and even took the design further with the Minolta CLE -- the first M-mount body to offer aperture-priority auto-exposure until the Konica Hexar RF. Leica intended the CL as a relatively inexpensive way to get people into the M-system, but ended up cannibalizing its own market. Despite their unique strengths, rangefinders were in a shrinking niche, and a best-selling low-end body left no room for Leica's higher-margin models.

In retrospect, this isn't very surprising. The fact is that the Leica CL has most of the desirable characteristics of the M5 in a package that's smaller, better looking, arguably more comfortable to handle, and much cheaper. It has a bright, big, very sharp viewfinder with parallax-corrected framelines, a bright, crisp rangefinder spot permitting both split-image and merge focusing, a true spot meter with a needle indicator, a quiet, reliable, all-mechanical cloth shutter, simple "no battery-no problem" operation, and looks that are almost as clean as those on the M4. The shorter-baselength rangefinder and not-quite-as-armor-plated construction that differentiate it from the M5 turned out not to be enough to push enough people to the more expensive camera. It has been calculated that during its short production run, the Leica CL outsold all other M's by more than 2:1.

"Don't Say You Weren't Warned." Summicron-C 40/2.0 on Fujichrome Provia 400F.

Where does it stand?

Leicas then and now really only have one problem. Price. Just about any old used Leica M body in nice condition today will cost you a grand or so, give or take a couple of hundred. Leica-branded lenses tend to be even more crazily expensive -- a grand will buy you a basic 50, but if you want anything more exotic -- brighter, longer, wider -- figure on paying even more. This is a shame, really, since rangefinder cameras and lenses are pretty simple beasts compared to the auto-everything Wunderkameras that are the default today. By nature, a rangefinder camera ought be the compact, discreet, and low-cost alternative to an SLR for those who can live with its limitations, not something to put in a display case or go bankrupt buying.

Fortunately, other manufacturers have picked up the slack when Leica decided that it was a better business idea to sell crocodile-skin-clad, gold-plated, Oscar Barnack-signature engraved boxes to collectors than to make the best possible cameras at the best possible price point for the largest possible number of people. By now, there are a quite a few reasonably inexpensive cameras with M bayonet or M39 mounts available, both used and new. Especially ever since Cosina resuscitated the Voigtländer brand, there have been a number of pretty good ways into rangefinder shooting that don't involve five-figure price tags.

"Humanity is not for sale," on Kodak Tri-X 400. While the ever-changing nature of streets tend to keep things fresh, street photography has its clichés too. Here's my attempt at one of them...

The default low-cost M shooter today is the Voigtländer Bessa R2, R3, or upcoming R4. It's roughly the same price new as what you'd expect to pay for a good condition CL, and has the great advantage of not being 30 years old. Bessas are also available with auto-exposure, have bigger and brighter viewfinders, most have longer-baselength rangefinders, and the newest ones aren't even dog-ugly. In other words, if your main concern is cost and you're actively looking for a new rangefinder camera, the Bessa is probably a better bet than a CL of unknown provenance.

Even so, the Leica CL has some unique advantages over just about any of its competitors, which just might tip the scales in its favor even against the Bessas, especially if you happen on a good deal on one.

  • It's small. Even after thirty years, the CL is still the smallest Leica M shooting platform available. The weight and bulk do make a difference -- it's small enough to fit easily in a coat pocket, or carry around your neck all day. A Leica M is actually about the same size as a compact SLR; the cleaner lines just make it look smaller. The CL is a genuinely compact camera.
  • It looks discreet. No red dot, very discreet engraving on the front panel, flat black paint. It's quite amazing how differently people react to a little camera like this compared to a big ol' SLR. (Namely, they don't. Seriously.)
  • It's quiet. Perhaps not quite as quiet as the cloth-shutter M's (although it is close), but a good deal quieter than the metal-shutter Bessas or the new metal-shutter Leicas. The shutter sounds like someone closing a pair of scissors, "snick" rather than "clack."
  • It has excellent ergonomics. In particular, the front-positioned shutter speed dial with the indicator in the viewfinder and the analog needle meter are real advantages that few other M-mount bodies have.
  • It looks and feels good. Yeah, silly, perhaps, but it's true -- it has a clean, uncluttered appearance unbroken by hinges or latches, and build is very solid indeed. In my opinion, only the Leica M's beat it in this respect -- the Bessas look pretty cluttered and clunky by comparison.
  • Finally, it is a Leica. I know because it says so right on the front, and Leitz Wetzlar on the top plate too. Made in Japan or not, it represents a piece of the history of the most illustrious brand in 35 mm photography -- and an interesting piece too, since it embodies a direction Wetzlar could have taken, but ultimately chose not to. If that won't make you a better photographer, then nothing will.

"Fast and slow," on Kodak T400CN. One of the main attractions of a rangefinder camera is that it's quiet and discreet. People aren't bothered by it anywhere near as much as a big ol' SLR. Go figure...

Of course, the Leica M platform isn't the only choice for a compact, high-quality film camera either. There are a quite a few "poor man's Leicas" with generally very high-quality fixed lenses available too. I had a New Canonet 28 for a while -- it's a nice camera, with a very sharp lens, solid enough build, big, bright viewfinder, and auto-exposure. And I have another classic camera from around that time as well -- the Olympus XA. All of these have their drawbacks. The Canonet permits no manual control over exposure at all, for example, while the Olympus has a pretty small viewfinder with a quite a lot of distortion, a four-blade(!) iris, and an electronic shutter release with no tactile feedback, and both have rangefinder spots with fuzzy outlines that make focusing a lot more hit-and-miss than with the hard-edged one on the CL. In the end, although they certainly get the job done, I never really enjoyed shooting with either of them.

According to Cameraquest, hard-edged rangefinder spots don't grow on trees: apart from the Leica M series and CL, only the Minolta CLE, Konica Hexar RF, and Voigtländer R's have them. I figure they're not counting rebrands or variants, like the Zeiss and Rollei RF's that are basically rebranded Voigtländers.

Back to the beginning

I have always loved the idea of shooting with a Leica. Many of the photographers I most admire are or were Leica shooters, and the street/people type of photography that is closest to my heart is just the kind of photography most commonly associated with Leicas. I went as far as buying an M6 off eBay once; however, I traded it in pretty quickly for an EOS-10D because I discovered that I liked digital more than I liked shooting a Leica, the one I got was a bit tatty, and I wasn't quite comfortable with the Voigtländer Color Skopar 35/2.5 that I used it with. However, I never stopped casting covetuous glances towards them, and when the opportunity presented itself to buy a CL with the Summicron-C 40/2.0, both in excellent condition, I couldn't resist.

I have been shooting almost exclusively with all-automatic cameras for some years now. Going to a fully manual camera, albeit with a through-the-lens light meter, is an initially unsettling experience. You feel like you're suddenly juggling about two more balls than before -- you have to think of composition and focus and aperture and shutter speed and exposure value, all at the same time. Trying to shoot a Leica like you shoot a Canon EOS is an exercise in frustration -- manic fumbling followed by a missed or otherwise ruined shot.

"Girl with handbag and stickers," on Ektachrome 400.

For my first roll, I only managed to shoot subjects that stayed put for a while. Then I started to figure out how to set the exposure values as the light changes and how to keep the camera focused to a distance that'll permit an acceptable snapshot even if I have no time to focus specifically for an individual frame. The upshot was that there were hardly any frames ruined for technical reasons on my second and third rolls -- which is a better batting average than I usually manage on all-automatic gear.

After a few rolls through the CL, I find that I'm starting to develop a whole new sensitivity to light. I set the exposure value as the light changes, much as I'm used to setting the ISO on my digital SLR. I keep the camera focused to about 2-3 meters so it's ready for a quick grab shot. If I have the time, I adjust precise focus; if not, I shoot and let the chips fall where they will. And I find myself being much more sensitive to timing -- with no shutter lag and the ability to see outside the framelines, I can get the frame exactly when I want.

"Escalator Goths," on Provia 400F. This was pretty much a grab shot, wide-open in poor light, yet it didn't turn out too bad. I had adjusted exposure values as I went indoors, and focused by eyeball; it came out close enough to get the job done. Weird how slide film can make even fluorescent light look good...

My main issue with the CL is... film. I sort of love it and hate it at the same time. I love the results I get from Fujichrome Provia or just about any black-and-white neg, but I'm not crazy about the way I get them. I don't miss chimping (in fact, it's liberating not to do it). My problem is that I'm a sporadic photographer. I can go weeks or even months without shooting a single frame, then I shoot one, five, ten, or a couple of hundred. This means that I will very often end up with a half-finished roll in the camera for a quite a while, which doesn't do the film any favours, and the pictures will be somehow out of date once I get them. And, yes, I do count the cost as well -- the kind of film I like to shoot ends up costing over ten euros a roll, including processing, which does add up. I do not particularly enjoy the constraint of 36 frames -- I want to be able to shoot however many frames I like whenever I like, and get the results right away.

How does it handle?

Overall, I'm tickled pink with the CL. It's extremely straightforward to use, once your fingers have learned to find their way between the aperture ring and focus ring, and once you've learned to read the light a little bit. Unlike the much bigger EOS-5D I use as my main camera, it's absolutely no problem to use with gloved hands in the cold. Film loading is a bit on the fussy side; I haven't yet gotten completely comfortable with it and tend to waste a frame or two at the beginning of the roll. The construction requires no special light seals and as long as you make sure the latch is properly engaged, there's virtually no danger of light leaks.

viewfinder

A peek through the viewfinder. Note the slight barrel distortion. The thick brightline to the right doubles as the 40 mm frameline and meter indicator: the shadow in the hole in the center is the needle, indicating that the exposure settings match the meter reading. Rather oddly, the needle goes up to indicate underexposure and down to indicate overexposure. The meter is activated by pulling out the film wind lever a bit. It looks better in real life; viewfinders are just damn hard to photograph...

The good folks at Cameraquest list the CL's viewfinder on their "top fifteen ever" list, with the short comment "pretty good for a small camera." Well, it is. It's about the same size as the viewfinder on my EOS-5D and a good deal brighter; of course the nature of the beast is such that precise framing like on an SLR is not possible. The framelines and other markings are bright and easily visible, as is the rangefinder spot. The parallax-corrected framelines are actually surprisingly accurate -- they're well centered around the subject, and the actual frame captured only goes a tiny bit beyond them. There is a small amount of barrel distortion, but I got used to it very quickly. Nope, the viewfinder isn't as big as on M's or the new Voigtländers, and even though the camera has 90 mm framelines I don't think it'd be much fun to use with anything much longer than a 50. The longer focal lengths would cause the short-baselength rangefinder to get the sweats too, especially at wide apertures.

However, the viewfinder is excellent with a 40 or 50, and would be pretty good with a 35 too. I have no plans on expanding my Leica lens collection at this time, and if anything I'd be more likely to add something to the wide end rather than the long one -- I use the CL as a compact take-anywhere camera, not the versatile do-anything beast that an SLR is. For this purpose, a single normal-range lens is plenty.

"Runners on the first day of spring," on Provia 400F. The lens doesn't enjoy this much backlight, but the frame was still salvageable, although I did have to print through it a lot. It would not have looked very nice viewed with a slide projector. The spot meter is an excellent tool for this type of exposure situation -- I just took a reading off the grass and exposed for it, letting the bright sky get blown to hell and back again.

The CL permits extremely precise control of exposure, since the shutter speed control is "analog" -- while there are click-stops in the usual places, intermediate speeds are fully functional. The same goes for the aperture control on the lens, of course -- the absolutely gorgeous ten-blade iris can be set to whichever position you like, at or between the half-stop-interval click stops.

I do have a few minor niggles with it.

  • The plastic flanges that hook the film on the take-up spool seem a bit fragile, and I hear they have a tendency to break off if carelessly handled (later CL's had them replaced with brass ones).
  • If you do things in the wrong order when loading film, the frame counter won't engage -- the film will advance but the counter will stay stuck at five minutes to zero. I think a part of the trick is not to use the film advance lever before closing the back again, but I'm still figuring it out.
  • I generally prefer wrist straps to neck straps, but the CL can't easily be used with one -- the neck strap lugs are on the left side, and the neck strap holds the body shell when changing films.
  • The tripod bushing is in the center of the latch that locks the body shell in place, and there's a certain amount of play in the latch. This means that the camera won't sit perfectly still on a tripod when being handled -- it will wiggle a bit from side to side, e.g. when you advance the film. In other words, shooting anything that requires precise positioning on a tripod is somewhat annoying.

How are the pictures?

So far, I've used the CL with ISO400 slide film (Ektachrome and Provia) and ISO400 black and white neg (Tri-X and T400CN, with some Ilford XP2 waiting in the freezer). That means I haven't quite put the lens through its paces yet -- ISO400 film is a bit on the grainy side, and clearly the limiting factor in resolution when circumstances permit pushing it that far.

One thing that surprised me was that after the fumbles on my first roll, I get a good deal fewer technical washouts on the CL than I do with just about any camera I've used. That means that it really is a simple, straightforward camera to shoot, once you've got the basics of all-manual shooting technique down. It also means that the meter and shutter timings are good enough for consistent exposures on slide film, which is good enough for me.

"Tortoise in the lead," on Kodak Tri-X 400. I think this is the third or fourth picture I took with the CL. On my first roll, I mostly stuck to subjects that stay put...

I did a little test of the frameline accuracy at fairly close focusing distance (under 2 meters). They're more precise than I expected: they're a bit on the conservative side, but centered very accurately on the actual captured frame. The full slide frame covers an area that goes just a hair past the outer edge of the framelines.

Even with my experiments on ISO400 film, I can say a few things about the lens. It's a good one all right -- the Leica mystique isn't all talk. It's remarkably even across the frame even at open apertures -- there's none of the pretty surprising drop-off in corner sharpness I'm used to seeing on my Canon 35/2.0. Wide-open it is just a touch "hazy" -- a bit like the 135/2.8 Soft Focus with just a touch of soft-focus dialed in. Uncorrected spherical aberration, perhaps? Whatever it is, it goes away just one stop down, and between f/2.8 and its minimum aperture of f/16, the lens is dead sharp. This performance puts it firmly in the top drawer as far as I'm concerned.

"Joanna at the café," Summicron-C 40/2.0 wide-open on Fujichrome Provia 400F. The lens is not dead sharp wide-open, but it "degrades gracefully" -- that is, the diffuse glow it gives to the pictures is not altogether unattractive, especially for photographing people. The sharpness (or lack thereof) is very even from corner to corner. From f/2.8 down, it is very sharp.

Bokeh on the 40/2.0 is very good for what it is. There's a touch of bright-line on out-of-focus highlights, but the overall impression is pretty smooth with line doubling pretty rarely to be seen -- I'd subjectively rate it as clearly better than on the Canon 35/2.0 and somewhat better than the Canon 50's I use. Not as good as on a good telephoto, of course, but very respectable. The lovely ten-blade iris keeps out-of-focus highlights looking very nearly circular at any aperture, although of course you won't get very much blur once you're stopped down past f/4 or so.

The lens is moderately sensitive to veiling flare. In strongly backlit conditions, shadows tend to get noticeably washed out; usually the pictures are still usable by "printing through" them, but naturally this is not as good as getting the contrast right in the first place. Flare spots may also appear, but they're faint and not really a problem.

"Big bridge, little dog," on Ektachrome 400 around f/8. The lens is very sharp at this aperture, but flare artifacts are noticeable: with the sun in the frame, it struggles a bit with the deep shadows of the bridge here, and there is a violet, fuzzy flare spot visible near the center of the frame. Not horrible, but not as good as the best performers I've used.

What's it good for?

Just about the only remaining area not well addressed by digital gear (well, human-affordable digital gear at least) is decisive moment photograpy. There is no fully satisfying "DMD" on the market yet: we have a choice of small-sensor compacts that do not permit precise timing, and large-sensor dSLR's that are pretty bulky... and, of course, the Leica M8 for those who can afford it, and the Epson R-D1s for those who are willing to put up with its limitations. I'm pretty excited about the upcoming Sigma DP-1, even if its lens is a bit wider and a bit darker than I would ideally like. I strongly believe there would be a market for a digital camera designed to perform the same mission as the CL in its day. In the meantime, the niche for the Volksleica remains the same as it has ever been: it's an immensely satisfying camera to shoot with, and packs a truly remarkable amount of picture-taking and picture-quality punch in a very small package.

Being sharp and even across the frame, the lens lends itself very well to "landscape-style" photography as well as the street shooting most traditionally associated with this type of camera. However, once the sun goes down, you're better off switching to something else: at light levels much lower than this, it will struggle, no matter what you do.

The bottom line is this: the Leica CL is an absolute gem of a camera for the specific mission for which it was designed. If there is a Platonic ideal of a compact camera in some dimension somewhere, the CL comes as close to it as any you're likely to find. Use it as a compact, discreet street/travel camera for hand-held available-light photography in light levels down to what ISO400 film can handle at 40 mm and f/2.0, and it is pure joy. However, trying to use it for things for which it was not designed is likely to be frustrating: it won't be easy to focus f/1.4 lenses with the short-baselength rangefinder, the viewfinder is kinda small for anything longer than a 50 (even if it was kitted with a 90/4.0 when it came out), and it doesn't much enjoy sitting on a tripod.

It's really a shame that Leica chose not to pursue the path of democratizing the rangefinder back when they had a chance, and even opted out of the rangefinder revival started by Hirofumi Kobayashi of Cosina/Voigtländer. It's interesting to speculate about how things would have turned out had Leica chosen to pursue the route of aggressively expanding and modernizing the rangefinder camera range. As it is, the (relatively) low-cost digital option for rangefinder shooters is still not a Leica; it is the Epson R-D1s, which has Bessa mechanics around Epson's electronics. I guess I'm lucky that it's an APS-C camera: I really don't feel tempted to go back to shooting with lenses on formats for which they were not designed. So, I just filled my freezer with film, and will greatly enjoy exposing it.

"Only Friends Matter," on Provia 400F. In this kind of picture, corner sharpness and distortion do matter -- it would not have turned out as nice with my usual gear.

The Leica CL on the Net

There's a quite a lot of good information on the Leica CL on the Internet, right down to the original sales brochures and user manuals. (The French one has much better pictures; it actually helped me figure out how best to load film in the thing.) If you're interested in this 1970's classic, don't miss the following:

"Fuck Bush," on Ektachrome 400.

A note on digitizing film

One of the things that caused me to stop shooting film was that scanning is such a drag, and the results are often disappointing. I have a basic desktop film scanner (the Minolta Dimage Scan Dual 2). With enough work, I can get pretty good results out of negative film and (some of the time) slide with it. However, there's a quite a lot of adjusting exposure, adjusting focus, spotting, and adjusting color involved, and especially with high-speed color neg and slide it's easy to hit the hard limits of the scanner. It's just not possible to extract all of the shadow detail from a slide: beyond a certain point, all you get is scanner noise, and with high-speed film, the low(ish) resolution of the scanner and the hard light source will cause grain aliasing -- the scans will turn out a fair bit grainier than the film.

The pictures for this article were digitized with my EOS-5D, using a macro lens and hotshoe flash. I'm still working on my technique, but I'm much happier already with this approach to digitizing film. My setup is pretty simple:

  1. Put film strip in neg holder (from scanner), with a small clamp attached to the holder so it stays upright on a table.
  2. Put holder on table, with masking-tape markers to position it, and a white background with lamp shining on it so it's possible to see the film clearly.
  3. Set up camera on tripod with (TTL metering) flash on hotshoe pointing forward, at 1:1 magnification, adjust distance until in focus.
  4. Manual mode, Flash white balance, f/11, 1/125, ISO100.
  5. Take A3+ sheet of pure white paper and stand it behind the film, bending it into an arc so the flash hits the paper and illuminates it evenly.
  6. Switch off lamp you use for focusing help to prevent light pollution (an issue especially for negs, less so for slides that are denser and require more powerful flash).
  7. Shoot.
  8. Move slide holder to next frame. If you hold it to the markers, you won't need to "re-focus" between frames. Shoot. Repeat until bored or out of pictures.

Compared to scanning, this approach has a number of advantages (and a few drawbacks).

  • It's faster. Even with the fussing about with slide holders and backgrounds, it's a lot quicker to digitize them this way than with the load-pre-scan-adjust-pre-scan-scan routine on the scanner.
  • There's no dMax. If I want to extract more shadow detail, I just blast it with more flash (or bump up the ISO). I may have to do a HDR merge afterwards, of course.
  • There's no grain aliasing (to speak of). Fujichrome Provia 100F comes out virtually grainless, 400F very fine-grained, and B/W ISO400 films very fine-grained -- significantly better than on the desktop scanner.
  • Processing is much easier. I get the full benefits of the RAW converters I use, which makes white balancing and other similar corrections a breeze.
  • You can use stronger magnifications if you want to crop.
  • You can handle any film format.

I'm overall pretty happy with both the process and the results. The 5D has enough resolution to extract pretty much everything there is to extract in ISO400 color film, which is what I mostly use. Black and white neg and ISO100 color slide clearly holds more detail than I can get at with 1:1 magnification, but that's only an issue if you want to print really big. I imagine it would be possible to work around this limitation too, but it would involve a focusing rail to get higher-power magnification, followed by stitching in post-processing. If I ever want to make poster-size prints from 35 mm film, I will probably explore this -- a macro bellows with a reversed 20 mm lens followed by panorama stitching software ought to get the job done pretty well. I've gone through some of my old slides and negs as well, and in general the results have turned out better than by using the scanner.

"At the Souk," Canon FD 50/1.4 SSC on Provia 100F. I managed to get the low-key detail in the gentleman's sweater much better this way than by scanning it.