Saturday, April 11, 2015


Over the years I have heard many accounts of how tough Leicas are.  The most memorable one that sticks in my mind is of a photographer who took his Leicaflex SL2 along on a ride in an Air Force fighter jet.  As it turned out, the jet developed problems and he and the pilot had to bail out.  When the parachute opened, the sudden deceleration caused the camera slip out of the photographer’s hands.  It fell several thousand feet to the Mojave Desert.  It wasn’t until a year later that a hiker found the camera.  The camera back had remained closed which allowed for the film to be removed and developed.  With the help of the pictures the original owner of the camera could be found.  He in turn sent the camera to Leitz (Leica).  They determined that it actually could be repaired but decided to keep it in its battered condition and offered the photographer a new one in exchange.  The camera had apparently fallen in an angle onto the lens with the result that the lens mount of the camera had been pushed far into the camera housing on one side.  I saw the camera in the Leica museum at Leica Camera.  It definitely looked sick.

But not all accounts of Leica toughness are this extreme.  Here is an account by Bob Nandell, a former staff photographer for the Des Moines Register.  He wrote:

“It was what every photographer dreads.

One minute I was driving along looking for harvest pictures with my Leica R3, an R3-Mot, a 250mm f/4 and a 400mm f/6.8 Telyt nestled on the seat beside me, ready for color or black and white.

An instant later, after taking the ditch to avoid collision with a truck, my car was upside down.


After getting out of the seatbelt and hastily exiting the car, to my astonishment I was not badly hurt.  But what about the cameras?

The gadgets bag with 35, 50, 135 and 19mm R lenses nestled in its pockets was fine.  It had been in the foot-well.

The R3 with the 250mm attached was in a sea of mud and glass that had been the windshield.  The R3-Mot and the 400mm were next to the roof, also in mud.

Disaster? Not so.

A quick inspection showed that the bodies were functional.  In fact, I took photos for insurance purposes at the scene with the R3-Mot.

Back home again, I found that the all equipment was useable.  The meters worked, the lenses worked, the motor worked.  The thick plastic lens covers, which Leitz supplies, had saved the glass in both lenses.  Both lenses were shipped off for tightening and cosmetic repair, and a few pieces, such as a replacement for a bent rewind knob, were ordered.

   Tough Camera                                                    Tough Photographer

The cameras, although battered like their owner, had survived.  In fact, on the way home from the accident scene, the badly scratched R3 produced a nice color harvest picture, which had been the original goal of the day.

I had purchased Leicas for their value and durability.

I know the list can now include indestructability.”

To this I can add a personal account.  I was shooting an architecture assignment for a client.  As with most of this type of photography, especially indoors with available light, I used a tripod.  This tripod is a rather compact Gitzo model for easier transport, about 3 feet tall without any of the legs extended.  I have no idea how this happened, but trying to attach the camera, a Leica Digilux 2, it slipped out of my hand and fell at least three feet down onto a concrete floor.  That makes a rather ugly sound.  I picked the camera up, quickly checked its functions and proceeded to shoot the assignment.  All worked well and the camera has continued to work without any flaws to this day.

Even though the era of the space shuttle has come to an end, there still is a certain fascination with the achievement of the shuttle program.  Below is an account of one of the launches where the only useable photographs were made with Leica equipment.

From Leica Quarterly October 1982

Several hundred press photographers were present at Cape Canaveral for the fourth flight of the space shuttle Columbia.  At the cape NASA will not permit photographers any nearer than three miles from the launch pad, because of the enormous power generated during the launch.  When the space shuttle takes off, it generates seven million horsepower, a noise level 1,000 times louder than a 747 and a temperature of 6000ᵒF.  However, remotely controlled cameras are allowed within 1,000 yards of the pad.  The area in which the cameras are located is a swampy one.

It was there that David M. Tenenbaum, Photographer for the Associated Press, placed his Leica R4 with APO Telyt-R 180mm lens, along with two other 35mm SLRs.  In the company of all the other press photographers, Tenenbaum set up his cameras the day before the launch.  About an hour after everybody had arranged their remote camera installations, Cape Canaveral was hit by a ferocious thunderstorm with 50 mph winds, hail and torrential rain.

When the storm was over Tenenbaum and his fellow photographers went out to check their cameras.  He recalls, “The water level was about eight inches higher than just three hours before.  And my tripod with the remote control box and three cameras all wrapped up in plastic was blown over and lying in the swamp water.”  After drying off the cameras, only one of them, the Leica R4, still worked and showed no evidence of water in the lens.  Tenenbaum replaced the other two cameras with a Leicaflex SL MOT and another 35mm camera.

It rained again briefly before the launch but all else went well.  When Tenenbaum recovered his cameras all had triggered properly.  Both Leicas were fine; the other camera had condensation in the lens.  The Leica photos were excellent and were widely published.  As Tenenbaum reports, “Of all the cameras AP had access to, my Leicas made the only useable negatives.”  Thirteen of the other camera makes were damaged, some beyond repair.

“Total damage to the press corps cameras had to be beyond $100,000.  And my R4 and Leicaflex had no problems and no lens condensation.”  Every non-Leitz lens he examined experienced condensation between the lens elements.

Tenenbaum sums up his experience: “It was nice to have the occasion to clearly see the advantage of Leitz gear and the edge it gave me over everyone else…

  Photo: David Tenenbaum

The US armed forces apparently are familiar with the toughness of Leica cameras as well.  The US Air Force, for their top 35mm camera, used the Leicaflex for many years, and that a special production run of Leica M4s, dubbed the KE-7A, was made for the US Army?

  Leica KE-7A

The KE-7A was accompanied by a special instruction book which even included a special section on how to destroy the camera in case of capture by the enemy.  It was an intriguing process.  The first suggestion was simply to try to break it with a hammer, shovel, or other blunt instrument.  Apparently they realized how well built the cameras were, because the instructions continued, saying that if none of the first methods succeeded, to use explosives like dynamite.

I know Leicas are quite tough, but dynamite?




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  1. What is the lens on the KE7-A?

    1. It is a special f/2 version of the Leitz 50mm Elmar, made at the ELCAN (Ernst Leitz Canada) plant in Midland, Ontario.