I spent the last few weeks assisting LLFNP members trying to offload their “starter” rangefinder lenses. The issue wasn’t that these lenses had major problems with image quality. The lenses didn’t live up to their expectations for other reasons. The members were beating themselves up about their bad decisions. I talked them off the ledge.
Part of the problem is that YouTubers and bloggers are recommending rangefinder lenses, particularly “starter” lenses, without fully understanding why people use a rangefinder in the first place.
Back in the old days when my rangefinder journey was just getting started, when Prince still walked the earth and season four of Shameless was helping us forget that we lost Phillip Seymour Hoffman, there weren’t all that many options for rangefinder lenses like there is in 2022. To some degree, I had it easy when I was starting.
Almost a decade and a pandemic later, all of the new options in “starter” rangefinder lenses is causing decision paralysis for new rangefinder enthusiasts. Many who contact me have buyer’s remorse and find themselves reconciling why their feelings about these “starter” lenses don’t match the recommendations they get online. They are also finding that these lenses are essentially unsellable on the used market.
My impression is that in much the same way that a movie soundtrack gives us 50-70% of our enjoyment of a movie, perhaps 50-70% of our enjoyment of a rangefinder camera has nothing to do with image quality. What we feel is important. Watch nerds understand this. Photography enthusiasts have a lot to learn from the watch world.
If I am correct, I think I can help you begin to help you get off the hamster wheel of buying and selling photography gear searching for your grail kit.
Table of Contents
Sound design is 50-70% of your experience and enjoyment of a movie
Movie people will tell you that what you hear is almost as important as what you see when you are watching a movie.
Sound is 50 percent of the moviegoing experience.” –George Lucas
“Sound is fifty percent of a film, at least. In some scenes it’s almost a hundred percent. It’s the thing that can add so much emotion to a film. It’s a thing that can add all the mood and create a larger world. It sets the tone and it moves things. Sound is a great “pull” into a different world. And it has to work with the picture – but without it you’ve lost half the film.” –David Lynch
As an example to prove the point that George Lucas and David Lynch make, below are two video clips from a goofy little Instagram reel I made a few weeks ago. It isn’t my best work but this is what you get if you give me a drone, 3 minutes, and say “make it goofy.”
First, watch and listen to this version.
Now, listen to this version. Please turn up the volume for full effect.
The visuals are exactly the same but in the first, I left out about 30 sound clips. To my eyes and ears, the first is OK and is kind of acceptable. The second makes more sense, has more impact, and “feels” better.
Those “feels” that you get from the stupid little sound clips are everything when it comes to the experience of that video. Without the “feels” the experience is flat and lifeless. It is that tiny extra percent that has an outsized impact on your experience of the video. That extra percent is also what you like about some camera gear. Image quality isn’t everything.
My thesis is that if you are using a rangefinder camera, to one degree or another, you are chasing “feels” as much as you are making photographs. If “feels” didn’t mean anything to you, you would shoot a Sony camera and get on with your life. I shot Sony for about 10 years. The images are great but using a Sony camera is about as enjoyable as setting the timer on a VCR from the early 90’s. No feels.
I could be wrong about this “feels” business but after years of working with rangefinder enthusiasts for so many years, I don’t think I am. I also do the same exact thing. I am right there with you.
It is no different from what is described in the book, the Revenge of Analog, or expertly and adeptly by Jason Heaton in his Substack when he waxes poetic about his Range Rover.
“….I’ve realized that the same logic applies, for me, with this Land Rover. It makes the most mundane trip into an adventure, and driving it, loaded up for a diving or camping weekend, enhances those outings into full-on expeditions. During our long, cold winters, we sometimes take a camp stove, a kettle, and a couple of tea bags and go find a snowy park in which to brew up a cup in the back of the Landy. Swaddled in our down clothes, clutching the mugs for warmth, we call it, “adventure tea,” and it’s not something we’d likely do in our newer Volvo with its heated seats and traction control. I’ve driven the Defender onto frozen lakes to ski and dive, on 4×4 trails up in Minnesota’s rocky, remote Iron Range, and on fire roads along the North Shore of Lake Superior. Sure, another vehicle might be able to do some of these things, but there’s just something about doing it in a Land Rover that stirs my soul…”
If any of how Jason feels about his Land Rover applies to your camera gear and photography, you are in good company. Using a rangefinder camera, specifically a Leica rangefinder, is different than picking up a Sony or Canon. The tactile experience of using manual focus lenses, the weight of the camera, the clicks, the smooth film advance lever, and all of the associated “feels” that go along with the process are as much the point of using a Leica rangefinder as it is making photographs.
Those “feels” don’t stop with the camera. They also apply to the lenses you use but this is something most everyone ignores. Other than correlating build quality with weight like a caveman would do, almost nobody focuses on lens feel except for 1) The Leica marketing department 2) the always angry old dudes who make fun of it (and you and me) in forums and 3) the dudes at a Beers and Cameras meet up because they all get it. Pro Tip: you should get lens recommendations from the dudes at a Beers and Cameras meet-up and skip YouTube.
When you are building out your rangefinder lens kit, don’t ignore the “feels.” Image quality is only part of the equation. Spoiler alert: inexpensive starter lenses are low on “feels.”
Enthusiast photographers have a lot to learn from the watch world: Part 2
For many photographers, the previous discussion is composed entirely of DEFCON 1 level, woo-woo, bullshit. I feel their pain. I feel the same exact way about wine, whiskey, sipping gin, expensive hotels, bespoke axes, wallets, manly flashlights, and cars. If you are keeping score, bikes, scooters, scooter jackets and helmets with those stripes, retro sunglasses, ski gear, wetsuits, and watches fall into the same category as cameras for me. You don’t get to decide what you like.
This website, however, is not necessarily for photographers. It is for rangefinder hobbyists and enthusiasts. In my experience working with you guys, I am finding that too many of you are stuck in the photographer mindset. To help you change that mindset, I offer you another analogy that might help you understand why those starter rangefinder lenses are leaving you unfulfilled.
I said previously that photographers, at least hobbyist photographers, have a lot to learn from the watch world. The watch world understands the “feels” because, largely, watch collecting is about the feels. Nobody really wears a watch to keep time. The functionality of a $20K watch you would buy in a boutique is, oftentimes, more or less the same as a watch you could buy at Wal-Mart. Although there are differences and this analogy falls short on close inspection, the difference between watches and many watch brands is almost all “feels.” It is the heritage, build quality, weight, finish, and whatever voodoo that warms the cockles of a grown man’s heart, makes him forget that he is lusting after jewelry, gets him as activated as Kiani gets for Rick after a wipeout, and impels him to start an Instagram account with the sole purpose showing off his watch collection adorned to his hairy wrist.
What is interesting is that even though watch enthusiasts understand they are chasing “feels” and not collecting watches to keep time, they make the same mistakes as many Leica and rangefinder enthusiasts. Many ignore the advice of seasoned collectors and start out building an unsatisfying collection of lower-priced, starter, watches when they should have saved their money to buy one or two nice pieces.
Rangefinder cameras and lenses are the watches of the camera world. Full stop. Nobody needs a watch to tell time and nobody needs a Leica rangefinder to make pictures. Nonetheless, if you do, to get enjoyment out of the camera, the entire package has to give you the “feels.” I am not saying you need to only use lenses adorned with red dots but if a lens isn’t giving you the “feels” you won’t be happy with it in the long run.
Before we leave our watch analogy it is important to remember that “feels” are not always correlated with price. This applies to cameras and watches. For example, I have a few expensive watches but I also wear an MKII Sea Dweller. I get just as much enjoyment out of that watch as I do any of the more expensive ones. Importantly, that watch confers me zero status unless I am standing next to a complete watch nerd. Exactly nobody knows what it is when I am wearing it. This isn’t about status. To me, it feels nice, I like the way it looks, I bought into the company origin story, and I like supporting smaller companies. Whatever is going on in my head, it has all of the “feels” of a watch 10 times the price and I encourage you to think of your lenses the same way. In my case, I get some nice “feels” from some inexpensive Voigtlander, Ricoh, and M42 lenses I own including my dad’s old Mamiya-Sekor lens that is still attached to his Mamiya 1000 which is worth about $50.00.
Gear matters when you are chasing feels and chasing feels is important to an enthusiast. Present company included. If a lens doesn’t activate you, you won’t wind up keeping it even if some guy on YouTube tells you the image quality is on par with something from Zeiss or Leica.
I said you would ignore this advice. You will.
Hobbies are a journey. My journey started with a Contax lens attached to the original Sony Alpha in a temple in Japan. Now I find myself waiting for Omnar to retrofit a vintage Jupiter lens that I was able to rescue from Ukraine before all hell broke loose. Nothing about my journey makes logical sense. This hobby isn’t logical.
That is why logic won’t help you avoid those starter lenses. It is very possible you will need to test some of them out for yourself. I did. You should too. Rick ignored Chandler and entered the surf contest and look how it worked out for him.
Logic won’t convince you otherwise. You can’t know what you don’t know until you know it and sometimes you need to figure it out on your own. That is good too. Don’t beat yourself up about it.
My goal with this post really isn’t to get you to avoid purchasing “starter” lenses. Rather. My goal is to help you understand why you might be doing what you are doing and help you understand that all of this woo woo, “feels,” nonsense is important and that might be the key to understanding why you might not get as much fulfillment out a starter lens as you would hope.
If you enjoy rangefinders it is possible that you, like me, are a flawed monkey who likes to chase the “feels.”
My challenge to you is to embrace who you are and really understand why you are doing what you are doing. You can’t ignore the “feels.” This isn’t a therapy session but my goal is to help you get off the hamster wheel of buying and selling gear you are unhappy with because you ignored the “feels.” For me, a “starter” lens is like a movie with a crummy soundtrack. It is missing something.
I say this with the full expectation that exactly nobody will follow this advice. Rangefinder cameras and lenses are a hobby and every hobbyist has to take their own journey. Buying and selling a few cheap lenses to learn what you like is an important part of the journey. I had my journey. I know some of the stupid things I did. I probably wouldn’t have listened to me either.