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Why there are so many Leicaweenies

There's a reason why Leica has a cult following. But are the cameras really that much better at capturing the moment?

The Leica M8, the company's first digital rangefinder. Leica

Today's camera news (my own included) can be an unvarying diet of statistics, feature lists, price points and techno-blather. I am therefore happy to note that The New Yorker, a magazine that specializes in sprawling, multi-thousand-word pieces, has chosen fit to investigate the cult of Leica.

Anthony Lane, by day a snarky movie critic for the magazine, has unleashed upon the world a history of Leica cameras and the photographers who have used them. The lavish prose (and an overt admission) reveals Lane to be one of those with a Leica fetish, but that shouldn't discourage you from reading the piece. It's healthy to be reminded that the mirror-and-shutter mechanism of an SLR camera in action sounds like "a cow kicking over a milk pail" compared with the "kiss" of a Leica shutter. And Lane's always good for a clever turn of phrase. Of the 2006 announcement of Leica's first digital model, the $5,000 M8, he said, "It was like Dylan going electric."

Decades ago, Leica cameras were notable for being snappier and more compact than rivals. In Lane's view, these qualities endow them with an ability to, if not anticipate the future, at least to capture the spontaneous, surprising moments that make up day-to-day life. His finds his views confirmed with a half-day trial of an M8.

Where the details get fuzzy for me is why a Leica rangefinder camera is better suited to spontaneous shooting than a modern SLR. Lane seems to think the compact size, unobtrusive shutter and see-what's-coming-into-the-frame viewfinder provided a technical foundation that inspired a certain type of shoot-from-the-hip photographer. Certainly the unpleasant shutter lag of most compact cameras make them a poor choice for anything faster-moving than a tree or a sleeping baby. But I still need more convincing that the Leica's advantages have arrived intact in the modern age. Maybe I need to take that half-day tour with an M8, too.