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Bill Pierce - Leica M photog and author


“Our autobiography is written in our contact sheets,  and our opinion of the world in our selects”  

"Never ever confuse sharp with good, or you will end up shaving with an ice cream cone and licking a razor blade."  


Bill Pierce is one of the most successful Leica photographers and authors ever. I initially "met" Bill in the wonderful 1973 15th edition Leica Manual (the one with the M5 on the cover). I kept reading and re-reading his four chapters, continually amazed at his knoweldge and ability, thinking "if I only knew a small part of what this guy knows... wow."  I looked foward to his monthly columns in Camera 35 and devoured them like a starving man.  Bill has worked as a photojournalist  for 25 years, keyword: WORK.  Many photogs dream of the professional photographer's  life that Bill has earned and enjoyed.  Probably Bill's most famous pic is Nixon departing the White House for the last time, victory signs still waving. 


Bill  has been published in many major magazines, including  Time, Life, Newsweek, U.S. News, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, New York Magazine, Stern, L'Express and Paris Match.  :His published books include  The Leica Manual,  War Torn, Survivors and Victims in the Late 20th Century, Homeless in America,  Human Rights in China,  Children of War.  Add to that numerous exhibitions at major galleries and museums.  Magazine contributions include  Popular Photography,  Camera 35, Leica Manual,  Photo District News, the Encyclopedia of Brittanica, the Digital Journalist, and now RFF.  Major awards include Leica Medal of Excellence, Overseas Press Club's Oliver Rebbot Award for Best Photojournalism from Abroad,  and the World Press Photo's Budapest Award. Perhaps an ever bigger award is Tom Abrahamsson's comment: "If you want to know Rodinal, ask Bill."


I met Bill in person through our mutual friend Tom Abrahamsson.  In person his insight and comments are every bit as interesting and engaging as his writing.  He is a great guy who really KNOWS photography.  I am happy to say he has generously agreed to host this forum at RFF  From time to time Bill will bring up topics, but you are also invited to ask questions.  Sit down and enjoy the ride!


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What happened?
Old 06-24-2019   #1
Bill Pierce
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What happened?

Rangefinder cameras have been around a long time. Leica introduced a rangefinder in 1925, but Kodak introduced one in 1916. Rangefinders existed in a variety of formats. Graflex and Linhof had very popular 4x5 rangefinders. Mamiya and Fuji had popular roll film rangefinders. The Kodak Ektra was the United States one attempt to build a top of the line 35m rangefinder, but the lower priced Argus C3 sold millions. In the 50’s the top of the line rangefinders were made by Zeiss, Leitz, Nikon and Canon, but Bell & Howell, Meopta, Perfex, Robot, Fjuica, Konica, Mamiya, Minolta, Olympus, Petri, Ricoh, Yashica also jumped in the race.

What happened? They are almost all gone. There are digital Leicas and the film M-A. I think I know what happened, but I want to know what you think happened.
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Old 06-24-2019   #2
genius and moron
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Old 06-24-2019   #3
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Yep autofocus and simpler designs.
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Old 06-24-2019   #4
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Most folks found SLR's easier to use than rangefinders.

Jim B.
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My RFF Gallery:
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Old 06-24-2019   #5
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slrs had long lenses...more accurate finders...?
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Old 06-24-2019   #6
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Originally Posted by Michael Markey View Post
Yep autofocus and simpler designs.
Yup. The great unwashed masses fell with glad cries onto cameras that, more and more, did everything for them.

Then, compact digital.

Then, cell phone cams.

Then, ……….I don't know, what's next?

Holga maybe?
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Old 06-24-2019   #7
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They didn’t sell well enough to keep a factory running.

Limited group of folks who use or desire them.
Predictions are hard, especially about the future.”
-Yogi Berra
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Old 06-24-2019   #8
Family Snaps
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Focus? We don't need no stinkin' focus!
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Old 06-24-2019   #9
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Professionals moved to SLR cameras in the 1960s with the introduction of the Nikon F due to the greater versatility and long lens options. The Nikon F wasn't the first 35mm SLR, but it was reliable, durable, and not stratospherically priced. And the lenses were good.

Amateurs followed over the next decade as more and more good SLRs and lenses appeared on the market in every price bracket. By the end of the 1970s, there were only a hand full of rangefinder cameras left being made, and the 1980s was about the beginning of the AF and exposure automation era... Manual focus rangefinder cameras, with or without built in meters and/or AE, had become a small niche market by then.

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Old 06-24-2019   #10
rangefinder user and fancier
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Owning SLRs did sell more lenses and made camera firms more money.

Now we are in the era of mirrorless digital cameras, a far cry from the age of the Leica M3 , Nikon SP and the Canon 7 and Kodak Tri- X and Kodachrome film.
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Old 06-24-2019   #11
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Manufacturing costs. When Nikon decided to re-release theirs a while ago as a special I remember reading that the rangefinder mechanism was horrendously expensive to build by modern standards in an era where electronics rule.
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Old 06-24-2019   #12
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I still like an RF for accurate focusing especially with wide angle lenses. I find I still get fooled by AF even the latest models.
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Old 06-24-2019   #13
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The conflict in Vietnam happened...

and field photographers discovered the (Nikon) SLR. The 28mm in F-mount and PJ's started to get on board... it wasn't autofocus at that time... keep your head down ; )
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Old 06-24-2019   #14
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What happened? More photographers preferred SLRs to rangefinders.
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Old 06-24-2019   #15
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And rangefinders on the used market are very affordable.

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Old 06-24-2019   #16
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The Canon AE1 caught the public's imagination, and everyone wanted an electronic SLR with winder.
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Old 06-24-2019   #17
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-TTL metering.
- Forgetting to remove lens cap no longer a problem.
- Cost of manufacturing reduced though producing bodies for multiple market segments based on same chassis.

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Old 06-24-2019   #18
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The system SLR happened at the enthusiast and pro end of the market where interchangeable lenses were essential. System SLRs were more versatile tools that had the advantage of through-the-lens viewing and metering with a huge choice of focal lengths, and provided a better solution for telephoto and macro. Buying into a system SLR meant confidence you could take on pretty much anything. If the client demanded a large transparency you could copy a 35mm slide onto something bigger - a widespread practice, according to a pro photographer I talked with in the mid-70s.

For family snapshots, compact scale focus cameras like the Trip 35 were simple to use, gave excellent results and were less expensive than rangefinders. Then autofocus arrived.

When I looked for my first "serious" camera in the 70s all the camera magazines were full of reviews and praise for Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Minolta and the new Olympus OM1. Pros were mostly using Nikon. Rangefinders were already a niche product.

The Nikon F for pros and the Spotmatic for amateurs were the turning point IMO.
just give me good light and a roll of film
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Old 06-24-2019   #19
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It didn't hurt Canon that they also heavily advertised the AE1 on prime time network television, in a time when cable TV and home video were still in their infancy.
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Old 06-24-2019   #20
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Nikon F is what happened to rangefinders. The F trounced rangefinders as a whole just like the M3 did to other rangefinders. SLRs are far more user friendly, and probably "better" for just general photography of a little bit of this, little bit of that. Ironic that now smart phones are doing to the SLR what it did to rangefinders.
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Old 06-24-2019   #21
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Thank you, Bill, to stick around.

What happened? They were produced in tens on millions (FSU) and hundreds of thousands (Japan and Leica). Many from 1930ies and 1950ies still works. My M4-2 from ... for $650 still works after GW style of shooting. With service/parts required. But it just works.
Makes sense now? They are not gone. They are in use. Some. Film ones. Which is niche market. Hundreds is thousands shrunk to small market. Why? 40$ EOS 300 AF does the same for 90%. And EF AF Canon lenses (for less) are better than Leica M lenses. Sorry, I tested. It is visible on pictures.

Digital RF? Tiny niche as well. Why? Most just aren't sissy to use something old. This Sony A7 crowd with with manual focus lenses. Costs less, works well. Same size, battery made in Japan cost much more less than Leica just China made. Several time less. And it helps many people with deteriorated vision.

And EVF/AF is dirt cheap. Like nothing to make comparing ORF.

Rights the bell?
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Old 06-24-2019   #22
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Lots of stuff happened. SLRs were more versatile--lenses from 6mm to 2000mm. Nikon F's could be used to take pictures on the weekend and you could use them to drive nails at the construction site Monday through Friday. We photographers got old. Our eyes no longer worked very well and AF came along to solve that. Then digital comes along and the price of the only digital rangefinders left standing went through the roof. Few could afford them, especially when lower priced brands worked fine and most people couldn't tell any difference in the image quality. And don't forget computers came along to level the field in optical designs so those expensive lenses were unnecessary. The the mirrorless designs made cameras smaller and performance better. Probably a few more things happened along the way....

So here we are.
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Old 06-24-2019   #23
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I’m going assume Bill did not mean what happened in the late 50s since that answer is easy. I’m going to assume he means more recently. For me, mirrorless happened. Fuji Rangefinder shaped cameras happened. AF fits my style better. Mirrorless APSC came into its own with small lenses, high quality, and relatively low prices. It made the Leica M seem crazily priced after that.
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Old 06-25-2019   #24
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For most serious photographers, the SLR was easier to use and gave better photos, making rangefinders obsolete. The same happened with the launch of decent electronic viewfinder cameras - notably the Sony A series: the last remnant of optical viewfinder cameras - the digital SLR - will become essentially extinct too in a few years.

The next major change is computational photography, where artificial intelligence manipulates the image in camera, so there will be no need to, say, focus or select the depth of field as these can be decided after taking the photo. In short, these AI-controlled cameras will stop showing truth and instead depict what we want to see rather than what we actually see.


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Old 06-25-2019   #25
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As a pro doing color work in '60's it was SLR.
I love my M3 same period but easier to use SLR.
Really accurate viewfinder with many lenses.
Pentax Spotmatic about 90% same as image in Kodachrome slide mount..
NIkon-F an exact 100%, so one had to make sure part of image not covered by mount!

NB. The Nikon-F was same price as M3 and M4 with 50mm Summicron where I lived... It was not easy to afford.
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Old 06-25-2019   #26
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Originally Posted by RichC View Post
In short, these AI-controlled cameras will stop showing truth and instead depict what we want to see rather than what we actually see.
Photography has always been a distortion of reality.
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