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Converting to Low-Tech Leica

February 13, 1988|ROBERT LACHMAN | Times Staff Writer

Leica. It's a magical name in the camera world. Just mention it and heads turn.

For die-hard Leica buffs, there is no substitute. But in a world where high-tech reigns supreme, why would anyone spend two to 10 times the price of an ordinary camera for one that doesn't even have automatic focus?

The answer may be quality. E. Leitz Inc. of Germany has set itself apart from today's more glitzy, computerized cameras with its motto: "Simple is best." However, it is also more expensive.

The Ur-Leica--a rather ugly duckling--was born in 1914. Oskar Barrack's invention, the forerunner of today's 35-millimeter camera, soon revolutionized the camera world.

If you are looking for a reason to take the plunge, look no further. Just ask Woody Blackburn, teacher, camera salesman and Leica enthusiast.

A week at the Leica factory in Wetzlar, West Germany, turned Blackburn from a skeptic to a true believer in Leica a year ago.

His first try with a Leica at age 18 had been less than successful. "They only had range finders. It did not have a meter and was difficult to load. It really turned me off because SLR (single-lens reflex) cameras were coming in," said Blackburn, 49, of Yorba Linda.

Leica did not come out with an SLR until 1965. Blackburn found the earlier models overpriced and said he "didn't appreciate the difference in quality."

"When I arrived in Wetzlar I was really skeptical, because I had had three Canon cameras as a working professional. I've shot with Contax and Hasselblad with Zeiss lenses. I really felt that Leica was maybe an overpriced, older-model camera, not up-to-date," Blackburn said.

But after 31 years in photography, he said, he found it "a dream come true" to be trained at the Leica factory.

"They used lasers to align the glass in the metal barrels so that the glass is precisely centered," he said. "(They spent) an hour and a half to mill the railings where the film goes through, so it's exactly flat and parallel to the rear of the lens. Basically it's a handmade camera."

When he arrived for his week's training, a Leica R4S was waiting for each person in the group. After some training, they were sent to the nearby village to shoot with the camera.

The instructions surprised Blackburn: Shoot wide open ("What you're paying for is quality wide open. See if you could see the difference in stopping down.") And shoot exactly what the camera says ("Do not bracket. What you're paying for is the accuracy of the meter readings.").

Then the group was allowed to shoot with the range finder (M-6), similar to the original model. Blackburn discovered that it was all mechanical and very quiet, with extremely accurate focusing. "More so than any camera in the world," he said.

"When I used to shoot with my medium format, single-lens reflex, people would turn around to see what fell over.

"I looked at my (Leica) slide and said, 'How could it be so good?' The degree of sharpness and color separation and detail (was) to a degree I had never seen before. I fell in love with the Leica M-6--metering through the lens, extreme simplicity."

He came home, bought a Leica M-6, and has used one ever since.

"Why not design a camera you only have to buy once? It's designed for at least 50 years of service or more than 100,000 pictures. So it's a big investment initially, but in the long haul you really get your money's worth," Blackburn said. He noted that while some companies manufacture 80,000 cameras a month, E. Leitz Inc. makes 6,500 Leicas a year.

"I'm shooting with lenses that are 12 or 15 years old, like the 60-millimeter macro, yet it has the same lens formula, same grinding and same lens placement. They've come out with lenses that are faster and lighter weight. But the older lenses are a good buy because most Leica owners have a real pride of ownership.

"The person who has Leica appreciates it. . . . A person who wants everything right. They generally drive a Volvo or Mercedes. It's that type of person. The tie's got to be straight, everything's got to be parallel. A person who really appreciates quality."

Blackburn, who has about 125 customers and students who have converted to Leica, was born in Houston and moved to California as a child. He attended high school and college in Fullerton.

Because he needed a job to get through college, he went to the local camera store--Roy's Photo in Fullerton--when he was 18 and was hired as a stock boy. Later he became a salesman and worked at the store for 15 years, eventually becoming vice president and sales manager.

He became a born-again Christian and wanted to serve on the mission field. As a free-lance Christian photographer, he visited 22 nations and traveled 300,000 miles.

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