Martyr’s Leica’s vs. Eckman’s Copies: Introduction

It’s totally unnecessary to write yet another article extolling the historical relevance of the early Barnack Leica cameras to photography.  After a century of influence, everyone knows the story of how Oskar Barnack, Ernst Leitz and Max Beret revolutionized photography with their tiny, intuitive 35mm cameras and lenses during the 1920’s and ’30’s.

Perhaps a lesser told tale is that of the numerous, more affordable copies of the expensive early Leica cameras that were not only built by other manufacturers but, in fact, simply built manufacturers!  Canon is one of, if not the top-selling camera manufacturers in the world today and yet they owe their existence, en total, to copying Leica.  The same could be said for Zorki and various other lesser-known or now-defunct camera-makers who attempted to stand on the shoulders of giants and leap to their own success.

Probably since the copying began, there’s been a rivalry between the original and the copies.  Goro Yoshida, founder of Canon Cameras is famously quoted:

“I just disassembled the camera [Leica] without any specific plan, but simply to take a look at each part. I found there were no special items like diamonds inside the camera. The parts were made from brass, aluminum, iron and rubber. I was surprised that when these inexpensive materials were put together into a camera, it demanded an exorbitant price. This made me angry.”

And that anger often rages today, between Leica adherents and LTM shooters who swear that Leica’s are not worth the cost.

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Knowing how avid a fan of knob-wind Leica rangefinders that I am, fellow blogger/photographer Mike Echman reached out to me with a friendly recommendation.  Perhaps a challenge.

See, Mike heard that I have never handled what I would consider a GOOD Leica copy.  So he wanted to provide examples that might shake up my love for Leitz!  Mike kindly offered to send me his three top, personal favorite Leica copies to see what I thought. And I happily obliged.

The day came when his package arrived.  Excitedly, I began placing all of Mike’s little cameras, as well as mine, on my dining room table for comparison.  My wife walked in on the scene, stopped dead in her tracks and very diplomatically asked “why are there like 50 Leica’s on the table?”  Her sigh of relief was audible when I explained that I had not purchased them and that they were not real Leica’s.

Unlike many it seems, my wife is unusually and very thankfully supportive of my camera collecting but in this instance, I do think that divorce may have crossed her mind!

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The first thing on everyone’s mind is, is a Leica copy as good as the real thing?

Well, admittedly, Mike’s kind loan shook my faith a little.  While there are some instances in which, even a ham-handed newb photog should find construction quality and usability of the copy far inferior to the original, I must confess that in other instances, the choice between Leica and a copy probably only comes down to personal preference.

It was clear very quickly that Leica’s sterling reputation for umatched quality was a bit of a myth, because here were several good contenders who’d largely done just that, matched Leica.  And one, perhaps two examples where the kids one-up’d the fathers of 35mm with advanced features.

Because I already own two authentic knob-wind Leica’s that I am very happy with and have been at my side for numerous important occasions, I don’t have any need or desire to replace them with the copies that Mike introduced me to, or others.  But this experience has certainly helped me see why some shooters prefer cheaper, arguably less historically relevant, well-featured Leica copies to the originals.

Stay tuned to see my thoughts on each of Mike’s Leica contenders.  I’ll be reviewing the Zorki-1, Zorki-3 and Canon IVSB.

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21 thoughts on “Martyr’s Leica’s vs. Eckman’s Copies: Introduction

  1. Woohoo! I’m famous! What a great article! I look forward to your continued thoughts on each individual model.

    For those who might be curious, my reasoning for spending these three specific cameras, is I chose the Canon IVSb as it’s my all time favorite “Leica copy” and an example that works flawlessly. I am unsure if this camera has had a previous CLA, but there is nothing about it’s condition that would detract from the experience of a LTM Canon that wouldn’t have been there when the camera was new.

    As for the two Zorkis, Johnny was especially suspicious that any Soviet Leica copy could come anywhere close to the real thing, and admittedly, they don’t. Anyone who thinks any FSU camera is on part with the original is fooling themselves, but on the other hand, they also aren’t as bad as some people think.

    I chose the Zorki 1, because like the IVSb I sent, this one works perfectly. This style Zorki 1 was the basis for many of those horribly egregious “Nazi Leica” copies that are out there, and I thought that this true clone might, in some way show Johnny (and his readers) that in use, they actually work well and are not deserving of the bottom of the barrel reputation that often befall them.

    Finally, the Zorki 3 was included because it offers some upgrades to the original “Barnack” design such as a significantly larger and easier to use coincident image rangefinder. Even Canon never made a viewfinder this large in a LTM camera. It’s inclusion of slow speeds and the wonderful Jupiter 8 lens give the best glimpse as to what the Soviet Union was capable of, when they wanted to.

    Although I have other LTM copies I could have sent, I purposely avoided ones like the Canon 7 that strayed far away from Oskar Barnack’s original formula as in my opinion, comparing those to the original Leica II and III are apples to oranges.

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    1. As someone who has never used a real Leica I can’t comment on their quality, but as for my Canon 7 it’s a very solid and robust machine on par with other mechanical cameras of the era like my Spotmatics and recently-acquired F2A. I’m sure I’d be just as pleased with the build quality of the Canon IV as I’m sure non-Leica users would be too.

      Johnny I know you probably think the rangefinder on the 7 is inaccurate, maybe it is compared to the M3, I wouldn’t know. The 7 has all the modern updates I’d want from the old Barnack design, some stuff Leica has stubbornly refused to incorporate. Anyway thanks for trying out some Barnack copies and not hating them!

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      1. Joe, I hocked a 7 and have a VI-L and agree that the “full size” Canon LTM bodies are nicely made. I can’t see the F2 comparison but certainly agree with the Spotmatic comparison. The earlier Canon bodies which more closely copy Barnack Leica’s are smaller, more dense and finely detailed than their newer LTM’s. Without giving too much away, the IVsb is easily the most well-crafted Canon product that I’ve ever handled. At least as nice as the F2 😉 lol

        Canon P and 7 fans, I think, tend to ignore the Barnack-type bodies, I think because you’re looking for the larger viewfinder and perhaps closer fit to the hands. But I’d certainly encourage you to keep going back in time if you’re interested in exploring a finer construction.

        The thing is about the 7 is that they compromise EBL for viewfinder features. Everything’s about balance. You want a big viewfinder and more frameline selection? You can’t have high magnification and a long base-length then without things getting complicated/expensive. These little Barnack-type cameras can factually focus longer/faster lenses more accurately than the P and the 7. But they don’t have the built-in frame-lines. And that’s one of the many reasons that Leica was stubborn not to “improve” their design despite evolutionary features from other brands happening around them. Leica is about well-executed simplicity, not piling on features. Canon is all about piling on the features. You probably hear disdain my words but intellectually, these traits aren’t a good or a bad thing, they’re just two different ways of doing things.

        If your style of shooting calls for wider/slower lenses and fast metering, then yeah, the Canon 7 is better for you than a 1930’s Barnack. But if you use faster/longer lenses and don’t mind guessing exposure or using a non-built-in meter, the Barnack might be a better choice. But to that point, the 7 is pretty close to the same EBL as most Leica M’s, so even a Leica shooter has to admit, the 7 made some smart compromises!

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      2. I’d agree with what you said about Canon as a company, definitely by the late ’70s they were definitely more about features. The Canon 7’s features though, are ones that all cameras should have if I’m going to use one. As far as my history with the Canon LTM bodies, I found my 1.5 Summarit for a great price at my local camera store, and after putting it on layaway, went on a hunt to find a body for it. If memory serves, the 7 has an EBL of 47mm which is more than that of the L-1, VI-L, or P. I saw a table with all that info compiled once, I forget where though. I might try a Canon IV if one fell into my lap but besides that I think it would be too slow and cumbersome for what I shoot.

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      3. I think very early on, Canon was trying to out-feature competition. This seems to have begun with Leica rivals like the IVSB, which I’ll get to! And by “features,” I am talking about things as simple as incorporating numerous framelines or building in a meter. I know what you mean though. The Canonet QL17 is a tiny block of selling points! Yes, the 7 has a constant EBL of 47mm. I’ve never used something this low to focus my 50/1.5’s at minimal distance but it may just eek by. The P’s EBL is a fairly laughable 41mm but I like the VI-L because it has a variable magnification finder. The EBL changes as is appropriate for the framelines. This way, you get the framelines you want AND the focus accuracy you need. It’s maximum EBL is 61.5 which beats the shit out of the average M and is even slightly greater than my M6 TTL .85. The IVSB should have about the same EBL as any Leica II or III variant at a strong 58.5mm, thanks to the 1.5x mag setting. To be honest though, I have never been able find objective information about what EBL is actually necessary for such and such length and speed lenses. I have always just aimed high and I think that’s been a good strategy because I’m often told by folks that they are amazed at the accuracy of my focus in low light. (not bragging, just touting the equipment) The chart you’re describing might have been mine.

        Anyway, yeah, the 7 is a good choice for you for sure. Have you calibrated the body and lens for each other? What are your results like? I’d love to see!

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      4. No, because the camera took a few knocks and the rangefinder is out of alignment. I’ve done research and evidently it’s super easy to fix with just a few eyeglass mini screwdrivers, but I never saw that the Leitz lenses were sharper than my Takumars (I think we’ve had this argument before, but in Leitz’s defense those lenses are 20+ years older. I think the last time I used the camera was a good 2 years ago now, and since I just got an F2 and an F I’m more likely to use them over the 7. I don’t know if you’ve seen them or not but here are all my posts tagged with the 1.5 Summarit if you’re interested in looking: https://resurrectedcamera.wordpress.com/tag/canon-7/

        I didn’t shoot it wide open very often because I was so unused to rangefinders and the lenses focus the opposite way than I’m used to, don’t know if there’s anything in there that really gets sharp focus or not. However Canon must have thought 47mm enough of an EBL because they designed the 50mm f/0.95 dream lens for the Canon 7. I wouldn’t be too concerned with a 50mm 1.5’s focus ability…

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      5. I wouldn’t consider adjusting the rangefinder as a “fix” so much as routine maintenance! But yes, it’s easy enough to adjust the horizontal alignment oneself, but vertical alignment requires top plate removal. And the two adjustments affect one another so eventually, the top plate has to be removed to get them both right. RF shooters used to adjust calibration in active war zones, it’s pretty crazy!

        I think we have had this discussion before about Leitz vs Tak. I don’t know that it makes any sense to keep addressing it if you don’t have a working camera to use your single Leitz lens on! There simply isn’t anything objective in the comparison that I can see. Compare a Takumar 50/1.4 to a Leitz 50/1.4, both in similar condition and age and I think you have something you can draw some conclusions from, at least about those two particular lenses only. Taking a Summarit 50/1.5 that was designed in the 40’s and not even by Leica, using it on a camera that isn’t set up for it and lens hasn’t been set up for the camera and comparing it to “Takukmar lenses” on SLR bodies in good working condition and drawing a conclusion about Leitz vs Takumar seems to be an extreme reach! But I guess we’ve gone over this before. I will definitely have a look at your Summarit posts though. Thank you for the link!

        It sounds like you are just more of an SLR shooter than RF. Which is fine. The F series are fantastic and of course put Leica in the ground for photojournalism in the late 50’s. I would just warn against making general comparisons to differing systems with differing capabilities and needs.

        As far as the .95, it’s very commonly accepted that this lens cannot be focused at wider apertures/closer distances on that body. The .95 was a marketing stunt to prove they could build the fastest 50 on the market. It’s a terrible lens too, the optics are rubbish. People like it for the same reason we enjoy swirlios, for character. I am pretty sure this is the consensus of most, if not all reviews of the lens. Even .72 Leica’s struggle to focus the Noctilux even when both camera and lens are calibrated for one another. Which is necessary with all fast RF lenses. I don’t claim to know the math of each lens with each EBL but 47mm is really on the low side. I would definitely be concerned with focusing a 50/1.5 at closer distances. RF lenses and bodies are really not nearly as swap-able as SLR’s but people treat them this way, don’t get good results and then think the lenses suck. It’s all about having EBL’s that match the lenses. Anything less is a totally inaccurate test.

        I have written about my experiences shooting the Voigt Bessa R2 with a 50/1.5 Nokton and how I was convinced the lens was soft until I put the same lens on my Leica with twice as long an EBL. I think it’s very common that people draw conclusions about old rangefinder gear without testing it correctly, perhaps because most of us start on SLR’s and just throw any old lens on any old body and they more or less work fine. This just isn’t how rangefinders work at all.

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      6. Sorry I thought I’d address your other comments too. For sure I don’t want to make a blanket statement about Leitz as a lens manufacturer and it’s possible that I have exceptionally good copies of my Takumars and so-so copies of the Leitzes. And again the Taks do show at least 20 years of lens evolution plus post-war the benefit of using German patents at no cost. But you do bring up a good point about getting my camera refurbished and my lenses collimated, I believe Yoxhun Ye is the man that most recommend? I could still use at least the 35mm Summaron, as I’ve gotten ok at zone focusing. And according to my reading both the vertical and horizontal adjustments are accessible without removing the entire top plate, just two separate screws. If only I had weeks to myself with nothing at all to do! 😉 I remember your post on EBL and think of it every now and then. So maybe I was a bit unfair and too quick to judge my rangefinder camera and lenses without putting into it the work it needs. I think you’ve given me the kick in the pants I need to give it another go.

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      7. Joe, I have to say, I really like you man. Like personally. You handle criticism much more maturely than I!

        Thing is, I don’t totally disagree with you about the sharpness of LTM Leitz’s. Any sub $1k LTM Leitz’s are unlikely to topple sharpness performance of newer Japanese lenses and some contemporary ones. But once you get into something like 50 Summicron DR or V5 35 Summilux, you are getting into something special. The earlier lenses, when in absolutely perfect condition, often outperform contemporary lenses but not always. And getting copies with front elements in good enough condition to be considered to compete with other lenses is difficult/costly. My experience is that the pre-50’s Leitz optics excel in some situations and fail miserably (in terms of resolution) in others. The slower optics perform much more strongly such as the legendary 5cm 3.5 Elmar. But modern shooters are often unwilling to use slower lenses, or to take the time to learn how to use the faster ones. I have had to learn these lessons myself, of course.

        Anyway, yes, Ye is good and he’ll work on the Canon whereas I don’t think most Leica specialists will. It’s good you read about calibrating the RF yourself and you are probably correct about the procedure. I do not appear to have vertical adjustment on the VI-L but then I haven’t read alot about it. I think that a good professional service is a better start and then to make minor adjustments after pro service. For example, My M6 TTL and 90 Cron were not playing nice when I first got the 90, which was a $1500ish purchase. So as you can imagine, I was frustrated. Turned out that not only did my camera need a little adjustment, the lens was set for a camera with a lower EBL and was totally out of wack on mine. That’s something I would have spent months of dedicated research trying to figure out. Each time I get my Leica gear serviced properly, I’m astounded by how good the results are and see why the Leica is so hyped. Focusing is suddenly easy and accurate and images actually look sharper bc focus isn’t falling in front of or behind my subject (though this is easily mistaken for poor sharpness of the lens.)

        I enjoyed looking through your Summarit photos; it’s clear you went in with that rig, demanding it perform as smoothly as any newer SLR set-up. Some of the shots really work and others of course, the focus is far out or soft. The Summarit 1.5 was regarded so badly, as you sort of mention, that Leica’s current budget line of lenses took the name. We can’t expect Nikkor or later Takumar sharpness from this very early faster than f2 lens but I believe the Summarit and probably the Summaron and other earlier Leitz designs have fun and compelling character that redeems them. If you came to these lenses expecting revolutionary Leica sharpness, they’re just too early/cheap for that. I wonder if you’ve tried any of the LTM Cosina Voigtlander lenses. They are often under $500 and have modern performance characteristics in most cases. They aren’t built anywhere near as well or are as small but if you’re after sharpness specifically, something like a Voigt 50/1.5 Nokton or 75/2.5 Heliar will blow the Taks out of the water. Provided that 7 is calibrated for them!

        Thanks again for taking my comments constructively. I hope that you don’t get discouraged by the work/cost a good RF rig requires. Not only in calibration but also in learning to shoot differently! I had all the same growing pains too so I get it. Thanks again.

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      8. Thanks for your comments and looking at some of my old stuff! I’ll admit that I didn’t expect it to be such a high-maintenance approach to photography and I’m not sure how thrilled I am about that aspect. But I haven’t given up on it yet, though I could probably make money on everything I bought. I originally bought the Summarit because it had tons of character in the photos I’d seen. And considering what I’ve been shooting in the last year I think the rangefinder fits in better now than it did before. Now as far as when the Canon 7/Summarit setup will actually get an overhaul, that’s a good question…too many hobbies and not enough job. I seem to rotate things like this and for the immediate future is a 4-channel interface and a copy of Logic. Then I’ll be buying a bunch of super 8 film. Then I probably need to get a 28mm Nikkor. It’s a daunting to-do list.

        Thanks for looking at my stuff, I look at some of the older pics and there are some focus errors that haunt me still. I blame myself, not the lens. But you’ve made me think about things in a different way and I value your opinion! So thanks for taking the time. I really like your photos and your insights into the world of professional photography. And of course I love that you care as much about film photography as I do!

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      9. You’re right, I think that rangefinder maintenance needs to be discussed more openly so that folks coming from SLR’s are aware of it before making inaccurate judgments of systems or adding an unknown expense/labor to it. I certainly was not versed in this prior to getting into Leica. That being said, I believe it’s not talked about as frequently because so many bloggers who review these cameras/lenses are merely borrowing them or shooting with them fairly infrequently as they are more collectors than photographers. I also think bloggers tend to just rave about whatever equipment they’ve touched because positive reviews seem to garner more hits than negative ones which creates a false impression. The only bloggers off the top of my head who I’ve heard talk seriously about rangefinder maintenance are Matt Day and Steve Huff. The old school internet diet of Stephan Gandy and Ken Rockwell that I was raised on didn’t really delve into this topic much (unless I missed it.) There’s also the fact that unless you’re shooting wider, faster lenses at full aperture and close distances, you might just be blissfully unaware that your lens and camera are out of whack.

        As far as too many hobbies and not enough job, that is often the struggle for creative folks! I have made a conscious effort to stop going down costly rabbit holes and focus on just a few hobbies within which, I’ve also narrowed my focus. The solution with my love of photography, of course, was to charge so it pays for itself! I’d be unable to pay for my gear, maintenance and film supplies if I wasn’t!

        Have a great rest of the weekend.

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      10. Do you have links to Summarit photos specifically? It seems like these posts mix different lenses and the photos don’t contain notation as to which is which. I see you have a Summaron too. That should focus much better even with the RF out of whack. I like the quality of your film choice and processing in any case!

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    2. Thanks for providing your thoughts and reasons for sharing each of these examples, Mike! In talking with you, it seems like you always have the perfect way to articulate my thoughts on the Soviet copies.

      You’re definitely famous 😉

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  2. I have used and like all of these cameras. The FSU cameras have a tendency to break down at inconvenient times in my experience although I love the lenses. Canon rangefinders are pretty close but I find them a little pointy and less comfortable to use. In 2020, it is a lot easier to find parts and service for Leica s. If you look around user Leica cameras can be had for about the same price as a Canon or Zorki.

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