Tuesday, July 24, 2012


Over the years, many accounts of the legendary survivability of Leica equipment under very adverse conditions have been published, yet it is always very interesting to read more about it.  Here are two accounts form The Luminous Landscape:

Pan-American Games, Winnipeg 1967

While I subsequently shot the 1967 Pan-American games with my Nikon F and an arsenal of long lenses, during the opening ceremonies I found myself just a few feet from the dignitaries on the podium, so I used the Leicas and 35mm, 50mm and 90mm lenses.

As Prince Philip gave his welcoming speech opening the games a huge thunderstorm broke and proceeded to drench everyone in the open-air arena, me included. Some large umbrellas were quickly erected for the Prince and he continued with his remarks, but along with about 30,000 other people I got soaked.

So did my camera equipment. I couldn't even attempt to protect my cameras, I just kept shooting throughout the torrential downpour. I changed lenses and film numerous times and just did the best I could.

As soon as the ceremonies were over I handed the film to a courier to race it to the lab and then headed back to my hotel to dry off. When I took the Leicas out of the bag they were dripping wet. Totally soaked, inside and out. I opened everything up and left the bodies and lenses on a table near an open window to dry out. I spent the rest of the day shooting with my Nikons, figuring I'd pack up the Leicas in the evening to send back to Toronto for replacement and repair.

But the next day I tried everything out and was surprised to see that they worked, and worked smoothly. I never did send it in for repair, then or afterward. I probably put several thousand rolls of film through both Leica bodies over the next few years and never saw a hint of trouble.

Canadian Downhill Ski Championships, Collingwood 1968

My assignment was to shoot skiers during this important race.  The organizers provided me with a small wooden platform on the inside of a steep downhill curve and said, "Have a nice day".

I had brought my Nikon F gear consisting of 2 bodies and several medium-tele and long lenses. At the last minute I decided to also bring the Leica M3 and 90 and 135mm lenses as well, (just in case).

The early morning went well, with the temperature at about the freezing point and with a moderate overcast. But by late morning the wind picked up and the temperature started to drop. A light snow started and with the increasing wind created blowing snow conditions that were just this side of being strong enough to stop the race.

I wish they had stopped it, because my equipment and I started to freeze up. The first Nikon froze after about 45 minutes of these deteriorating conditions and the second one some 20 minutes later. Both were caked in frozen snow. I figured that my day was done but I pulled the M3 out from the bottom of the bag and started shooting as best I could with the 135mm lens.

I spent 3 more hours on that frozen ski slope shooting hundreds of frames with the Leica and it never missed a beat. By mid-afternoon when I called it quits I was half frozen, and my Nikons certainly were, but the Leica was like the Timex watch in the ads of the time, they just kept on ticking.

And finally one of my own

I had just added a new Leica M5 to my camera equipment.  That once again reminded me of all the claims of the legendary reliability and survivability of Leicas in general.  One thing that had always intrigued me was the claimed ability of Leicas to function in very low temperatures.  Being that we were in the middle of a Minnesota winter, I decided to put the camera to a test.  The weather report forecast temperatures of -30F for the next morning.  That seemed to be a good temperature to see how well the camera would perform in the cold.

To give it a head start, I put the camera in the freezer overnight.  Then, the next morning, dressed for the occasion, I went to Minnehaha Park and down to the Minnehaha creek.  It follows a relatively deep ravine which is known to keep cold temperatures quite well.  I purposely carried the camera on a neck strap on the outside of my clothing to make sure it would cool down to the surrounding temperature.

I was out in the cold for about two hours during which I finished a whole roll of 36 exposure film.  The camera worked without problems, but I did notice that the focusing for the lens was noticeably stiffer than usual.  But that was about it.

After I finished the roll of film it was time to go home.  Contrary to my advice to others, I forgot to put the camera into a zip lock plastic bag.  I walked straight from the outside into my living room.  To my horror, the moment the camera came into contact with the warm, moist air inside, it instantly froze over with about a 1/8 inch layer of ice.  The camera was so cold that the moisture condensation on the camera instantly froze.  I watched it thaw out slowly, and as soon as any liquid formed on the surface, I wiped if off. 

No harm came to the camera and it served me well for many years to come.


  1. Interesting. I don't think I would have the guts to put any of my cameras into a freezer.

  2. Actually, that sounds worse than it is. At the -30F temperature I used the camera, a freezer actually would have appeared quite warm in comparison.

  3. That is insane. How can anyone live in a climate like that?

  4. To avoid any misconceptions, such low temperatures are actually quite rare here. The average temperature in Minneapolis in January is 24F, that is 24F above zero.

  5. Have you tested any other camera in the same manner?

  6. Yes, I have. At the time I got the M5 I also owned a Zeiss Contarex, the so-called Cyclops. The Contarex by the way was one of the only other cameras that was made to the same super tight tolerances as the Leicas. The only other one was the Alpa. Anyway, shortly after my Leica M5 experience, I decided to do the same test with the Contarex. It too went in the freezer and then had to perform for about two hours the next day. I experienced the same stiffened focusing mount of the lens and a considerable slow down of the camera or the mirror drive to be specific. Unlike most other SLR cameras which use a spring loaded mirror movement, the one in the Contarex was geared. A small gear train would wind the mirror up into the shooting position before shutter was released. After that the gears reversed and wound the mirror down again. That system avoided virtually all vibrations from the mirror. As it turned out, the lubrication of those gears became very stiff in the the -30F temperatures. Upon pressing the shutter release, I could hear the gears slowly moving the mirror up. Then the shutter operated normally after which the mirror slowly came down again. The system slowed down but otherwise functioned well.
    By the way, a later model of the Contarex, the Contarex Electronic, was the first ever 35mm camera that made it into outer space during the Gemini program.

    1. To clarify, the first camera that went up into orbit was an Ansco Memo, an inexpensive 35mm, during the Mercury Program. At that time it was thought that better cameras were useless because of interference of the atmospheric layer. We soon found out that wasn't the case after Al Shepard smuggeld a Hasselblad on board, a camera he bought at a cmera shop in Houston.
      The Contarex was the first camera to be actually used in outer space. This happened during the first American space walk with Ed White. He used an experimental, hand-held manouvering unit that consisted of a pistol grip with a crossbar on top which had a jet nozzle at each end. In the center of that crossbar the Contarex was mounted and thus became the first camera ever to be used in outer space.
      The manouvering unit, by the way, proved to be useless, but the camera worked fine.

  7. This reminds me of a funny story. I was working at a camera store in Minneapolis in 1971 when we received an announcement from Zeiss that the Contarex Electronic was introduced and that it would be shown in Minneapolis at the Radisson Hotel downtown. We received an invitation to attend. On that day pretty much the who is who of the Minneapolis/St. Paul photo scene was assembled. Zeiss was very generous, serving a meal for everyone and drinks afterward. All was fine, except there was no camera to be seen. Initially we were told that the camera had been delayed, but that it was on the way and would arrive shortly. Quite some time and several drinks later, the camera still had not arrived. Finally, the announcement was made that someone in New York had air freighted the camera mistakenly to Indianapolis instead of Minneapolis. This was followed with an invitation to stick around and enjoy the free offerings.
    The joke was that some people at Zeiss in New York apparently had insufficient knowledge of the US west of the Hudson River.