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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Point N' Shoots Revisted

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

When I weighed in a few weeks ago saying that the finest point-and-shoot camera on the market was the Contax Tvs III, I got a rash of e-mails from all over asking, in effect: "What about the Leica Minilux Zoom?"

It's a fair question. I had compared the Tvs III with the Leica C1, and found the C1 woefully inadequate against the Contax. And I confess: I used the C1 for comparison because it was Leica's newest point and shoot, and one that Leica had touted as a fine camera.

In fact the older Leica Minilux – it comes in both a zoom and fixed focal length model – is a closer fit to the Tvs III than the C1, and fairness dictated that I weigh the Tvs III against these two cameras.

I have done that and happily, for me anyway, I can stick by my guns. These are two great machines. Yet pound for pound, shot for shot and feature by feature, the Contax Tvs III remains in my opinion the finest point-and-shoot camera going.

But I'll tell you something funny. The Contax may be the best all-around P&S, but it's the Leica Minilux [not, as you might expect, the Minilux Zoom) that is going to wind up in my camera bag.

First some background.

It wasn't just idle curiosity that got me to compare high-end point and shoots. I had been casting about for a good P&S for years, after my venerable Nikon Lite-Touch gave up the ghost after years of great service. The Lite-Touch had a terrific fixed focal length wide-angle lens that was sharp as a tack and reasonably fast. I may not have been thrilled with its lightweight plastic body, but that was made up for by the fact that it was incredibly compact – at the time the smallest P&S on the market.

But Nikon, in its dubious wisdom, shanghaied the Lite-Touch body for its sub-35mm Advanced Photo System line, and I was out of luck for a first-rate 35mm P&S that was not overloaded with gizmos I'd never use.

Enter Contax.

The elegant Tvs III (list: $1,550; street $999 appx.) is a titanium-clad, multi-function, zoom-lens little tank of a camera that features, among other things, a funky fold-down front that protects its Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar 30-60mm f/3.7-6.7 lens. One of the best things about this camera is the fact that I can manually set aperture, as well as focusing distance, if desired. Its features are almost intuitive to use and clearly are geared for the photographer who is used to doing things for him or herself.

I found the features on Leica's Minilux Zoom (List $849.50; street $750 appx.) to be slightly more awkward to use than those on the Tvs III. One obvious annoyance is a separate and small plastic lens cap for the Leica zoom – something else to lose – that points up the ingenuity of the Contax drop-down front.

Like the Contax, both the Minilux and Minilux Zoom boast a titanium body. The Minilux zoom features a Vario-Elmar 35-70mm f/3.5-6.5 that is all but identical in performance to the Contax zoom. But where the Contax relies solely on its built-in flash for low-light pictures, the Minilux Zoom has, in addition to a built-in flash, a hot shoe that can accommodate an auxiliary flash. Now in theory this may sound like a nice feature, but frankly I find it to be one that is lost on a point-and-shoot camera. After all, these cameras are made for (all together now) "Pointing and Shooting" not for "Pointing and Shooting After Attaching the Auxiliary Flash That I Know is Around Here Somewhere."

In fact, the main complaint I hear about point and shoots these days is that they are so damned complicated. I am sure that is one reason the big camera and film makers joined together to come up with the much more user-friendly APS. (The other reason being, of course, to prevent digital cameras from weaning amateurs away from film cameras altogether.)

Thus, it is rare these days to find a good point-and-shoot camera that doesn't come thick with features like a zoom lens, and God knows how many different shooting modes – including the ever-dubious "Panorama" mode that does nothing more than cut off the top and bottom third of your picture.

Is it any wonder an amateur can be intimidated by his or her new camera?

When I think back to some of the great snapshots my mother made when I was a kid, I realize that she did them all with what amounted to a point-and-shoot camera. Only her P&S didn't have autofocus, didn't have a zoom lens and certainly didn't have "modes." Her Brownie Hawkeye, or Ansco Cadet took fine pictures, as long as she kept the sun to her back and didn't get too close to her subjects for her fixed focal length nonadjustable lens.

But the most important thing was that Mom's camera was so easy to use that she used it a lot: the whole idea behind point and shoot.

Which brings me to the delightful Leica Minilux (List: $749.50; street $650). I had forgotten how much spontaneous fun a P&S could provide when you don't have to wait for a pokey zoom lens to go in and out. You zoom with your feet and make the shot. And with the Minilux, you often can make the shot without the need of flash because this baby has one heck of a lens – a fixed 40mm f/2.4 Leica Summarit – probably the best P&S lens I've ever used, and certainly the fastest.

With reasonably fast film, this lens can see in the dark – at least compared to other such cameras – and it's so sharp it can slice tomatoes. The accompanying photo of a young mom and her baby, made as a test during a friend's birthday party, proves the point. Frankly, I was expecting the camera's auto-flash to go off, but an overhead lamp provided plenty of light for the Summarit. Thus, what would have been a harshly lit flash snapshot with another camera becomes instead a pleasant available light portrait with the Leica Minilux.

And that's why this amazing little P&S is going into my camera bag.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

Mother and child photo was made by available light on ISO 400 film with Leica Minilux, thanks to its very fast and sharp f/2.4 Summarit lens.


Catering to its legion of collectors, especially those with a lot of disposable income, Leica is offering next month a replica version of the original Leica Camera – the legendary "O" series model – that helped revolutionize photography in the 1920s.

The vintage replica, with a 50mm f/3.5 fixed lens, has a suggested list price of $2,795.

And it doesn't even have autofocus. (But then, neither does my brand new Leica M6.)

The camera has been modified slightly to accept modern 35mm film (its lens also is coated to minimize flare – another concession to today).

In every other aspect, however, the camera is identical to its history-making predecessor. I played with the "O" replica briefly last month at the Photo Expo trade show in New York. There's no doubt: It's a gorgeous relic.

There's no coupled rangefinder – that would come much later in Leica's technology. You compose your picture through a separate fold-down lens and circular metal sight. There's a separate leather lens cap that is attached to the front of the body. Only in the case of this camera, the cap has to be put in place after each picture is made to keep the film from being fogged as it is advanced to the next exposure.

Said Leica President Roger Horn: "We're offering consumers an opportunity to own a piece of history." Of the 31 original "O" series Leicas made, only a handful exist. Some have sold for well over $100,000 according to the company.

 Van Riper on Van Riper

Frank Van Riper Archive:

Holiday Gift Books

Photographing Castro's Cuba-Fascination and Frustration

'Magical' Pix With Hassy's SWC/M

The Perfect Camera System

The Odd Genius Who Froze Motion

The Day I Shot Aaron and DiMaggio

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