Sunday, December 7, 2014

Jones Crusher

Two recent camera releases have me scratching my head. The first is the M-A, the latest model from Leica, now available for pre-order. The primary selling point seems to be that this is a completely mechanical camera. No battery, no meter, no LCD, no autofocus, no frills. What the camera lacks in modern features it makes up for in mechanic precision and simplicity. Instead of busy screens you "read the shutter speed and aperture directly from the camera and lens and so fully concentrate on the subject."  

OK, fine. Great. But how is the M-A any improvement on the long line of Leica predecessors? To me this looks like an M3. The key difference is the price. The M-A's suggest retail is $5,100. In comparison a used Leica M3 in good condition —basically the exact same camera— will set you back $800 tops.
Left: M-A; Right: M3

Given those specs, why would someone buy the M-A? Or for that matter the MP which came out just before it? Is it something to do with new products and having the latest thing? That's the only reason I can think of, but unfortunately that world makes very little sense to me. So this one has me stumped. 

To add one more layer of absurdity, the camera comes packaged with a roll of Tri-X! I guess it's meant as a complete starter kit, ready to use out of the box. The new owner needn't waste time and hassle finding film. 
I'm not sure if the film is preloaded but that would be yet another time saver. Or maybe the idea is that using any film aside from Tri-X will cause the body to implode? Not that any of it matters, because I bet 6 months from now that same roll of Tri-X is going to be stuck in this camera as it sits on a shelf collecting dust.

If I was more cynical I would attribute the M-A to a cruel joke by Leica: Strip features, throw in a $3,000 roll of film, and see how many suckers bite. At this rate their next offering will be a simple block of wood with Leica stickers and a roll of Tri-X drilled into the side. The sad part is, someone out there would probably buy that block of wood. And in 6 months the roll would still be inside..

But seriously, Leica, WTF?

The other new release I can't figure out is by Fuji. They've been on a roll lately, and have come to dominate the instant film market abdicated by Polaroid. Forget Impossible Project. Fuji is king. They make a good product for a reasonable price, and it's more addictive than crack cocaine. Every time I shoot people with my 210 the question is the same: Where can I get one? Fuji should be riding this horse for all it's worth, pioneering new Instax products left and right. Instead they're asleep at the wheeeeeeeeel. 

I'm talking about the Instax 300, the long awaited update of the Instax 210. It's due next Spring. When I first heard the rumors I was ecstatic. I love my 210 to death but it's fully automated. It does what it wants. Sometimes that's the same as what I want but just as often it's not. That can be a problem. Wouldn't it be wonderful to manufacture a camera in the same format but with more features, one that the user could control? Most cameras have those controls nowadays. Surely the Instax 300 could incorporate some of them?
Left: Instax 300; Right: Instax 210

Most of us Instax users have been waiting for that camera for years. Now finally, here it is's pretty much the same feature set. The 300 does exactly what the 210 does, no more, no less. It has two focus settings, a dumb flash, no aperture or shutter controls. There are a few differences. The new model is slightly lighter, twice as expensive, and three times as ugly —and the 210 set a pretty high bar for ugly, so that's saying something. Looking at the 300 body, you wonder if Fuji hired away some of the design talent from 1980s Detroit.

At the same time they've developed this new camera, which offers no meaningful improvement, Fuji has discontinued the cool border designs which lent beautiful chaos to their Instax film line. So now your photos don't have to work as hard to be boring. 

Two steps sideways. No progress. Hey Fuji, WTF?

Oh well. I guess it makes sense. Most of the creative energy for camera companies goes into digital products. Film products get the design dregs. So it's not very surprising to see film products hit the eddy rather than flow downstream. If you can sell a 1950s camera for 2014 prices, why not? And if you don't understand the underlying market dynamic for your camera, you won't push its envelope. I may not like it, but I get it. 

It's probably just as well. The last thing I need this holiday season is to be tempted to buy more shit. My cameras work fine. I'm good. But I'm scratching my head. 


BH said...

I'm sure the M-A is a lovely piece of machinery, but you're going to have to wait for it to trickle down through the normal channels like the previous M-P did. Those channels meaning some crazy rich dude buys one and leaves it on his shelf for two years, then sells it off at a huge loss to a camera dealer, who then resells it to someone who actually takes photos but still has a lot of cash, who uses it for a while and then sells it on ebay or a message board and takes a bath on it. It's at that point that you can pick one up for like $2,000. Just give it five years.

I can see why one would want a mechanical camera besides the M3, say if you really liked shooting 28 or 35mm and wanted the viewfinder in the more modern bodies, or didn't want the hassle of the M3's odd film loading process. But even an M6 is fully mechanical if you take the batteries out, so the M-P and M-A really are just marketing. You can definitely accomplish the same thing for under a grand, as you stated. But if you're seriously considering buying a $5,000 film body in 2014 you probably don't give a shit.

Blake Andrews said...

I've been using an M6 with dead batteries for the past 6 years. No complaints.

Anonymous said...

Blake, I think it's time to take those batteries out.

That aside, it seems that you fail to understand the concept of "luxury goods". This may imply that you regard your fellow humans as rational. They're not, or anyway they're not when they have large quantities of surplus cash.

Knowing that silly, rich people will anyway continue to throw their money around, I'm delighted to learn of products such as this. Unlike Hummers or Ferraris, grotesquely overpriced cameras don't pollute much, aren't noisy, and don't kill innocent pedestrians and cyclists.

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Christian Augustin said...

Hi Blake,

I think you are right with the M-A, but the M-P is different. Yes, it is not that different from an M6, but it has an advantage: You can order it buildt to your own liking. Especially with the 0.85 finder (and it has the old-style film advance lever, but the finder is more important). Yes, you might find an M6 with the 0.85 finder on eBay, but the rest of the camera might not be to your liking.

I actually thought about ordering an M-P with the 0.85 finder to replace an M6 and an M3, to have the best of both in one body. On the other hand I really like the M3's finder, and 0.85 would not be the same anyway …

(The M-A is not for me – I like having TTL exposure metering ;))