LLFNP is having first world problems. If you are a normal person who is even remotely interested in owning a rangefinder camera but uninterested in walking round with unreasonably expensive lenses, my problems are your problems. The pandemic is winding down (hopefully) but we are still trapped in the rangefinder camera/lens bubble and the whole situation is becoming a nuisance.
Problem 1: LLFNP recommendations are starting not to make sense. I am getting some negative feedback about them and I agree with the complaints.
When I started my trip down the Leica rabbit hole, I could routinely buy Leica and other rangefinder lenses for less than~ $1500. For example, when I purchased the Summicron 50mm V4 lens, it cost about $1000. $1500 was also the upper limit for the cost of a lens my assistant could drop and I wouldn’t have convulsions thinking about the replacement expense. Things were good in the before years.
So, when I started LLFNP, I set what I thought was a reasonable upper limit of about $1500. That limit really only excluded luxy things like lenses with the word Noctilux and Summilux written on them. It also excluded newer lenses in the Leica lineup. Below my LLFNP price point, there were loads of options to choose from which included nearly everything from most 3rd party vendors and most used Leica equipment with a little bit of age on it. Jump forward a few years and the Summmicron 50mm V4 has gone up 50% in price and is often advertised for more than $1500.00. Even old, not so excellent condition lenses, are selling for more than my arbitrary normal person upper price limit of ~$1500.
What all of this means is that while I wasn’t monitoring the prices on the used market, some of my recommendations left the LLFNP normal person price range. I am getting complaints and I agree.
Another complaint I am hearing is that even if someone wanted to follow my recommendations, inventory is scarce and the pain of trying to locate good condition copies of some of the LLFNP recommended lenses outweighs the effort of doing so.
This rangefinder lens bubble is also directly affecting my continued work on LLFNP. It is not random that reviews have been few and far between lately. That is because I am in the process of doing my 28mm roundup and there are essentially no, good condition, later model Leica 28mm lenses to be found in the LLFNP price range. Heck, there aren’t even that many interesting 28mm options that are suitable for normal people (1). I am sad to say that I might not be able to include any 28mm Leica lenses in my 28mm roundup.
I am currently sorting out what to do about this situation. Do I change my recommendations? Do I change my price limit to reflect the current market? Do I wait for the bubble to burst? Do I just pack up and go home because there are no Leica (branded) lenses for normal people anymore?
Problem 2: Shopping for used rangefinder lenses is an annoyance
A few years ago, one could find used rangefinder lenses, in mint condition, for reasonable prices, and it didn’t take a month (or more) to find what you were looking for. These days, with the exception of a few sellers in Japan or Hong Kong who always seem to have what you want but only at exorbitant prices, the inventory is just not there and locating what you want, at any sort of reasonable price, can be a wretched affair. Covid seems to have convinced everyone that camera lenses are good investments and there is likely at least some degree of lens hoarding going on in 2021.
I personally don’t find shopping for camera equipment to be a sport I want to play. I have had enough bad shopping experiences on eBay me to sour me on that platform, monitoring the Leica Classifieds and other used forums every day is an inefficient method of shopping, and the good online resellers like KEH, Popflash, or Camera West never have enough Leica inventory for normal people.
As much as anyone, I am into the “character” and charm of old lenses. Unfortunately, buying old lenses is also a nuisance simply because they are old. Vintage lenses are showing their age, some are starting to wobble, and others that are available on the used market are often just kind of gross. This is an acute issue for me with my 28mm roundup given that the Minolta M-Rokkor 28mm f/2.8 lens (which I was planning on buying) is almost invariably infected with white dots and haze. Moreover as stated previously, many of the legacy wide-angle options have red disease when used on a digital sensor. Buying used stuff, as a general rule (2) carries at least some degree of risk and headache.
This all creates a situation where buying used rangefinder lenses is a time sink of a nuisance unless you are into sport shopping and playing cameras. This is a sport I would rather not play. Moreover, I would happily pay a little more for a new lens than save a few bucks on something used. I will get back to why this is important later. Keep reading.
Problem 3: The alternatives are hit and miss (but there are signs of hope)
Unless you are a retired cardiologist, buying rangefinder lenses is a nuisance. This is an important contrast to the SLR or mirrorless lens shopping experience. If I were advising someone about buying Canon lenses, I could very easily say “Bob – just go get a set of L lenses and you will be good to go. I promise.” and I could be sure that Bob will be happy and my friendship with Bob will remain intact. I could do the same with Nikkor, Sony G master, Zuiko, and of course Leica lenses (assuming Bob could afford them) (3). This type of simple, across the board, recommendation doesn’t quite work with our third party, rangefinder, options. In my experience, they can be hit and miss.
After being at this for a few years now, I have issues with each of the major 3rd party vendors that makes it difficult for me to tell my friends and family like “just go and get a set of [enter name of third party vendor] lenses and you will be happy.”
Voigtlander: I have been a cheerleader and a critic of Voigtlander over the years. My criticisms have little (actually almost nothing) to do with image quality. My experience with Voigtlander m-mount lenses is that they are always only almost great. Useable across the board but always just…only…almost…great. As an analogy, Voigtlander lenses are like the good-looking, fit, intelligent, successful, guy or girl that appears great on paper but are invariably single. Perhaps he drools when he eats, she throws dishes behind closed doors, he has a weird relationship with his mother and she calls the cops on him if he doesn’t respond back to a text within an hour, or she incessantly picks the skin on the side of her big toe while she watches The Handmaids Tale with her significant other.
Many of the Voigtlander rangefinder lens options are either too big, too small, too retro, have a weird lens diagram or Chuck-e-cheese racing stripes painted on the side, too plasticky, have a screw mount, or have a post sticking out of the bottom rather than a lens tab. I also find their lens marketing descriptions like “vintage” or “classic” difficult to decipher as to what they mean and there is no decoder ring on their website (4). What this all means is that there are solid Voigtlander options but you need to do your research and know what you are shopping for or you might get something unexpected or quirky.
Before you get all bent on Voigtlander, the new round of releases is one of the bright spots on my radar. I have a pre-order on the new Voigtlander Ultron Vintage 28mm f/2 Aspherical VM Type II lens. The recent 50mm and 35mm releases suggest that Voigtlander has gotten a handle on the over the top retro gimmicky stuff and are servicing the people who want small but not too small rangefinder lenses. This is very encouraging.
The Artisans: I don’t understand lenses that are sold with screwdrivers. Full stop. I don’t understand lenses that are all fuzzy or flarey wide open. Full stop. Although there are encouraging signs from some of the artisans, and I may revisit my position in the future, I also can’t get past the statement from Johnny Sisson about these types of lenses toward the end of this podcast. Everything breaks but I need to see some more evidence of quality before I can commit. I also avoid lenses known for “copy to copy” variation and too many reviews of artisanal lenses I see online have those very words in them. “Copy to copy variation” seems to be a euphemism for “someone gave me this lens to review and I need to find something to say so I can say it is good but still say I wouldn’t buy it if it wasn’t given to me.” I also see too many artisanal products on the forums with the phrase “Selling to upgrade to [enter name of lens they are upgrading to].” If they were that good, people wouldn’t be upgrading. In my view, normal people don’t want to trot around the Ghats in Varanasi with a $9000 summicron but they also understand the maxim “buy cheap buy twice.”
Zeiss: Zeiss comes closest to my thesis that normal people should be able to pick a brand, buy a set of lenses, and get on with their life without putting too much thought into the decision. An argument can be made that you could or should just get the line of ZM lenses and stop with all of this shopping nonsense. I was, however, spoiled by a lens tab on my first Leica lens so I (possibly irrationally) object to the nubbin. And there is the wobble issue. If only the Zeiss ZM lenses had a tab and didn’t wobble it is very possible I would shut down this site and put up a sign that says, “Hey normal people, just buy a set of Zeiss ZM lenses. You will be happy.” Unfortunately, that is not the world we live in because they do wobble and they do have a nubbin. Moreover, neither of those seem to be changing any time soon. Zeiss never responded back to my inquiry about the wobble issue.
Signs of hope: as I mentioned, Voigtlander is looking to be a post-pandemic bright spot with their new set of releases. I am actually excited about the 28mm ASPH I have on pre-order. I am also looking forward to Omnar lenses and whatever Funleader is doing with their Contax re-housing (5). These are bright spots in the rangefinder ecosystem for sure but for the purposes of normal people, they might be next-tier options. Even as good as they are or might turn out to be, piecing a kit together from MS-OPTIC, Omnar, and Funleader is a different game than knowing you can go and buy a full set of Nikkor, Zuiko, or Contax Zeiss lenses and be happy even though you know nothing about lenses.
I wrote a letter to Leica
Undeterred by my frustration with the rangefinder bubble of 2020-2021, I sent a letter to Leica about this situation because what else would a fanboy do – right? I brought up two main points in my letter.
- Leica is a premium brand but all premium brands are not created equal. Perhaps Leica should consider following the model of other premium brands like Supreme, Gucci, Mercedes, BMW, and Loius Vuitton. Those premium brands maintain their premium cachet but also have items that appeal to the general public. If you go to a skate park in San Diego you will find Gucci right along with Vans. If you go to a Loius Vuitton store, people are shopping and not all of them are driving away in a Bentley. Mercedes isn’t Mclaren but it is still premium. Premium doesn’t necessarily mean insane. Premium doesn’t mean all runaway all the time. There is room for a 35mm rangefinder lens that costs $9000 but more practical offerings won’t kill the Leica brand.
- Revisit the Summarit line of lenses released in the 00’s. I theorize that those lenses were ahead of their time. Back in the 2000’s, the skate and hipster crowd (6) hadn’t quite taken an interest in the Leica ecosystem, the film renaissance was years away, and the Leica-Man ruled the roost. In the 00’s, it is likely that either 1) there was no market for them or 2) people just didn’t know how they fit into the ecosystem (7). Times have changed. My “big idea” is that perhaps there is room to bifurcate the Leica offering with a premium classic line using older lens formulas designed for film and 24mp cameras with a parallel, premium modern line for people who lose sleep over MTF charts and have high-resolution sensors in their cameras. Dual premium lines would be one way to serve both markets, there would be no confusion or competition between the lens lines, and salespeople can still call everything premium. Back in the 2000’s there was no dividing line of film/24mp sensors to allow marketing two different product lines without confusion.
Leica responded to my letter and, to my surprise, the response was favorable. I don’t have any rumors or tidbits to offer the rumor mill but after my conversation with Leica, there is absolutely no question that Leica is aware of the run on the M6; Leica understands that there is a market other than retired radiologists and cardiologists and that market is composed of skaters, hipsters, and other normal people who, for whatever reason, want to shoot a rangefinder. In general, there is a least some impetus to address markets composed of people other than senior citizens who wear tan photo vests and go on photo tours. I am fully confident that the Leica story doesn’t end with $9000 summicron rangefinder lens. Time, however, till tell how and when this story plays out.
It bums me out that people are complaining that a website that was designed for normal people isn’t entirely making sense anymore because we are in a rangefinder lens bubble where prices are high, inventory is low, and shopping for rangefinder lenses is such a raging pain in the ass. I am, however, encouraged that there are bright spots on the horizon and Leica is aware that things are not all rosy in the rangefinder camera world.
For now, I am going to adapt LLNP and rework the LLFNP recommendations where needed. I am going to up my upper limit to $2000 to meet the 2021 market and include budget and not-so-budget recommendations where appropriate in The Recommended List. That minor change doesn’t affect too terribly much but it might just allow me to get a 28mm APSH Elmarit and will position LLFNP for the day that Leica adopts my dual premium line of lenses concept. One can only hope.
- …and will also work on a digital camera. What I am finding is that a lot of the legacy film lenses just don’t perform well on a digital rangefinder or mirrorless camera. In general, they are plagued by red disease.
- Don’t be cheap when shopping for used lenses. Check out the Leica stores, JCH, KEH, and other outlets. They are a little more expensive but it is worth it. If you question this recommendation, you don’t value your time. Where you buy your used gear is a time/risk/benefit analysis. Eventually, you will come around. The question is do you want to get there now or after you sustain a painful lens buying experience?
- …and they are relatively new and don’t have the word thambar on the lens and/or the box.
- Please don’t confuse the Cameraquest website with the Voigtlander website. In this post, I am talking about Voigtlander marketing. That is different than Cameraquest. Long-time readers know I am a Cameraquest fanboy. The Cameraquest website looks older than Joey from Friends in that godforsaken reunion show, but when I order stuff, the service is excellent, and the proprietor always responds to inquiries in a few hours. The main problem with Cameraquest is that every time I go on the website I lose hours of my life reading about old cameras which is another, unfortunate, first-world problem.
- Call me superficial if you want but I am not sure I want to own anything made by a company named Funleader. Maybe something is getting lost in the translation. It just seems so Barney the Purple Dinosaur. There has to be a better name. Note: Artisans is taken. We don’t need any more artisans.
- I don’t skate and I am not hip but I align myself with the skaters and hipsters for the purpose of this discussion. It might be of interest to note that Chris Gampat was an early proponent. Years ago when I was starting down the rabbit hole he had the only (or one of the only) youtube videos about using a rangefinder camera. Chris is not a retired cardiologist. The subculture of the niche was there all along.
- I am told the story that the Summarit line was so successful it had to be killed because it was impacting Summicron sales is bogus. Summarit lenses just didn’t sell as well as they had planned.