I used to carry a fairly large camera bag. I needed one for all that big, bulky SLR gear I’d lug around the streets.

But this year, after having spent the previous twenty viewing the world through the lenses on my SLR, I took a step sideways. It was a small step — only 3 or 4 centimeters in distance — but its impact was huge. No longer was I peering at my subjects through a complicated configuration of optical discs and pentaprism mirrors. Instead, I began to frame my photos through a simple little window just a little to the left of the lens. In other words, I began to use a rangefinder. Suddenly there was a lot of room in that old camera bag of mine. And, though tempted to join the ‘puppy in pack’ trend, I instead opted to downsize my bag.

Some would argue that the little sideways step that your eye takes when using a rangefinder is, in actuality, a step backward. But for candid photographs — in which responsiveness, size, vision, and intuitiveness weigh heavily on your ability to capture the shot — the switch to a rangefinder was, for me, a monumental leap forward.

My chosen rangefinder, the Leica M8, does not replace my SLR. The SLR’s adaptability — particularly with long focal lengths and tilt/shift lenses — insures it a permanent place in my professional kit bag. But the rangefinder has become my ‘go to’ camera for reportage, street, documentary, candid, travel, and just plain ‘fun’ photography. It has changed the way I approach these subjects, and made me a better photographer for it.

I took to the Leica instantly — coming to grips with its myriad quirks, methodologies, and differences quite easily. Strangely, in spite of the ease with which I was able to mentally grasp the M8, I had no such luck physically. Frankly, the Leica M8 was a hard camera to hold. Gripping it in one hand was a pain — both figuratively and literally. After several months of walking around town squeezing the heck out of the Leica, I finally caved to my internal wimp. I decided to order a “Thumbs Up” device from Match Technical.

Upon landing on the Match Technical website, I was presented with a plethora of products designed to soften many other minor, but irksome, Leica issues. Not only would the Thumbs Up solve my need to securely and comfortably grip the camera, but Match Technical also offered viewfinder magnifiers to improve the focusing of longer lenses. And they sold a lens coding kit, which would enable me to place precise little scribbles on my non-coded lenses — whether vintage Leica or modern Voigtlander — and thus unlock all the benefits of digitally coded Leica lenses. Needless to say, my order grew to include all these items and, for good measure, Match Technical even threw in a free “soft release” button.

So, the big question is this: Do Match Technical’s products belong in my camera bag? Can they really improve the handling and usability of the Leica? Let’s take a look at them, case-by-case:

Thumbs Up CS-3

This is the product that first drew me to Match Technical. Leica’s digital rangefinders, while hanging nicely from a strap, do not dangle nearly so ergonomically from one’s hand. Unlike modern SLR’s, their rectangular shape offers no curvy, organically-shaped mound around which to wrap your hand. If you walk around with your Leica gripped in-hand — finger on the shutter release and ready to capture whatever fleeting images flash before you — then you, too, will experience the same kind of wrist and forearm fatigue I did.

But that was before I purchased the Thumbs Up. Even though it’s nothing more than a curved piece of metal that slips onto your camera’s hot shoe, its effect is profound. Like its name suggests, it’s essentially just a thumb rest. If, like me, you learned your craft back in the days of film, you were probably accustom to using the film advance lever as a kind of thumb rest. With the demise of film came the demise of the film advance lever and, consequently, a key ergonomic pressure point on rangefinder cameras. The Thumbs Up gives us back our thumb rest — only now it’s more ergonomically shaped and positioned than the old film advance lever.

Thanks to the Thumbs Up, I can wrap the strap around my wrist, rest my finger on the shutter release, and carry my Leica in one-hand: ever ready to fire off a shot at a second’s notice. Cleverly, a cold shoe mount is built-in to the CS-3 — essential since the CS-3 attaches to the Leica by sliding onto the hot shoe. Without the cold shoe, us wide-angle guys wouldn’t be able to attach our external viewfinders. In those very (VERY!) rare instances when I need to mount a Pocket Wizard to trigger an external flash, I simply slide off the Thumbs Up to access the hot part of the shoe.

I’ve also discovered another unforeseen benefit of the Thumbs Up — stability. With the CS-3 mounted on my M8, I’m able to hold the camera a little steadier, meaning I can use slightly slower shutter speeds. The effect isn’t huge — maybe a half stop — but in difficult low light situations, I appreciate any advantage I can get.

Truth is, I wasn’t going to review the Thumbs Up because I assumed everyone already knew about it. But photographers (including experienced Leica shooters) who look at my Leica, all claim to have never seen nor heard of this device — so I thought I’d do my part and “spread the word.”

Bottom Line: I’d weld the Thumbs Up to my Leica if I didn’t occasionally need to mount a Pocket Wizard. It makes a great product even greater. What more could you ask for?

E-Clypse MAG 1.25x 34 Viewfinder Magnifier

I rarely use long lenses on the Leica. Repeatable focusing precision with telephoto lenses is simply not one of the rangefinder’s fortes. Fortunately, for those times when one needs the extended range of, say, a 90mm lens, Leica’s viewfinder has a thread mount for accepting optical adapters — adapters like Match Technical’s 1.25x Magnifier.

Match Technical didn’t invent the rangefinder eye magnifier, but they certainly made it affordable. I purchased their 1.25x magnifier to use with my 1991 50mm Summicron. In reality, I found little need for it. Even though the 50mm has a 67mm field of view on the M8′s 1.33x crop sensor, I was able to focus it just as accurately without the magnifier. So the magnifier saw little use. It was only recently, when I picked up a beautiful 1996 90mm Elmarit, that the magnifier’s benefits became tangible — making that lens focus quicker and more accurately. That’s how I was able to quickly and accurately focus the 90mm when I spotted this handsome pup stretching his legs after, I assume, escaping from his owner’s backpack.

The magnifier is well made. It threads onto the Leica perfectly, and does not — in spite of its wallet-friendly price — give the impression of being “lesser quality” in any way.

There is one caveat worth mentioning to anyone who has never used a viewfinder magnifier: you may need to use a different diopter with a magnifier than you do without. This is something I hadn’t actually considered but, in retrospect, makes sense. I’m a near-sighted contact lens wearer who has reached that “certain age” where I’ve also become far-sighted. Rather than spend my day fumbling for different pairs of glasses, I choose to wear monovision lenses. This means the contact lens in my right eye is optimized for viewing distant objects, while the contact lens in my left eye is optimized for seeing objects at arms’ length. I’ll spare you the gory details about the near-psychotic brain malfunctions I had to endure when first adjusting to this kind of vision. Suffice to say, once your brain finally adapts to monovision, it’s great. Since my right-eye is focussed for distance, I’m able to use the Leica without any diopter on the viewfinder. But, when I use the magnifier, I actually have to switch to my left eye. That’s because the magnification makes objects appear ‘closer’ and, as a result, I can no longer see them clearly with my infinity-focused eye. So, when I use the magnifier, I need to switch from right-eyed shooting to left-eyed shooting. Since I normally shoot left-eyed with an SLR and right-eyed with a rangefinder, this isn’t a problem for me. But, for those of you who need reading glasses and don’t wear monovision contacts (or aren’t comfortable switching viewing eyes), keep in mind that you might very well need to purchase diopter correction when you purchase a magnifier.

Unlike the Thumbs Up, which I would describe as a “must have” product for any Leica M-series digital shooter, the E-Clypse Magnifier is more of a specialty product that becomes beneficial mostly for long lenses (though I have, on occasion, also used it to improve my focussing at night).

Coder Kit

With the release of the digital M-series, Leica introduced a new lens coding system. Coded lenses identify themselves to the camera body, meaning the camera’s software can apply the proper optical corrections to the RAW file while also identifying the lens in the camera’s EXIF data. You can send your older, uncoded lenses to Leica and they’ll code them for you — for the usual astronomical Leica fee. If your lenses are all new, you’re fine. But if you have vintage Leica lenses, you’re stuck paying for an update. And, if you’re using third-party lenses from Zeiss or Voigtlander, then what?

That’s where Match Technical’s Coder Kit comes into play. Leica uses a 6-bit coding system to identify lenses. The code is simply a series of black and white dots on the flange of the lens. A sensor, built-in to the lens mount on the digital M body, scans the dot pattern on the lens and codes the RAW data appropriately. The Coder Kit is nothing more than a circular stencil, a pen, and a reference chart. The stencil has six tiny holes stamped in it. When you snap it over the lens flange, the holes line up exactly where the black and white dots would be on a Leica coded lens. Use the reference chart to look up the dot pattern for the particular lens you want to code, and then use the permanent marker to blacken the necessary holes.

Using this technique, I was able to code my Voigtlander 35mm f/1.4 Nokton as if it were a Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux and, thus, take advantage of the in-camera RAW adjustments. Similarly, I coded my Voigtlander 15mm Heliar as if it were a Leica 16-18-21 Tri-Elmar. As shown in this photo, this allows the camera to automatically fix both the color and luminosity vignetting that would normally be evident in that lens.

There are, of course, work-arounds to coding your lenses. You could use a program called Cornerfix, which produces excellent results, but significantly slows your workflow. Those fortunate enough to purchase the new M9 are less likely to need the Coder Kit, since users of that camera can manually select the mounted lens from a list; thus negating the necessity for automatic detection. But for anyone who uses an M8 or M8.2 and has non-coded lenses, the Coder Kit is a must-have purchase.

“Bip” Mini Soft Release

I didn’t actually order the soft release. In fact, I didn’t even want a soft release. But when I placed my order with Match Technical, they tossed one in for free. “Just give it a try,” said Match Technical’s Tim Isaac, “and you’ll never want to shoot without it.”

For those who aren’t familiar with this age-old concept, I’ll give a brief overview: The soft release is a little brass button that screws into the Leica’s threaded shutter release, raising the button’s height significantly. Once installed, you no longer use the tip of your finger to press down directly on the shutter button. Instead, you lay your finger over the shutter button and, because of its height increase, you can now trigger the shutter with only the slightest twitch of your finger.

So, at Tim’s suggestion, I tried it. And I disliked it for several reasons. First, I’ve been releasing shutters with my finger tip for a couple of decades. It felt very unnatural to release the shutter with the inside of my knuckle joint. Second, the shutter becomes very sensitive with a soft release. I know that’s the whole idea, but I spent two full days taking hundreds of accidental photos of people’s feet (which is not, in spite of appearances, how this blurry and edgy street photo was taken). Third, it kept running down my battery. I know this last complaint seems implausible, but there’s a logical reason: every time I put the camera in my bag, the shutter release was so sensitive that the bag itself would trigger it. I’d go out with a fresh battery, put the camera in my bag while I grabbed a cup of coffee, and by the time I’d pull the camera back out of the bag, I’d have a couple hundred photos of the inside of my lens cap, thus draining the battery. When Tim wrote to ask how I liked the products, I told him of my troubles with the soft release. “Stick with it,” he said, “and I guarantee you’ll get to like it.”

I’m no quitter, and I could easily see the theoretical advantages of this device. So I decided to give it another week. First, I got in the habit of turning off the camera whenever it went in the bag — that prevented my camera from constantly taking photos of its own lens cap. Next, I learned to relax my index finger when carrying the camera and, within a day, I’d put an end to accidental shutter releases. Finally, I got comfortable with triggering the shutter with the inside of my knuckle.

Within three days, I’d gone from annoyed to enamored. I was able to fire off shots quicker, easier, and with far less camera movement. With the soft release, I was able to hand-hold long shutter speeds that would have previously been impossible. I could no longer imagine using the Leica without it, and I lived in constant fear that it would come unscrewed, and I would lose it. On several occasions, I pulled the Leica from the bag to find it sans soft release. A wave of panic would wash over me, but I would always find the little button in the bottom of my camera bag — breathing a sigh of relief as I’d thread it back on to the shutter release.

It was then that I realized Tim Isaac wasn’t just ‘being nice’ when he gave me the free soft release — he was simply practicing the sound marketing strategies taught in any “Drug Dealing 101″ class. Specifically, “Give the first one away to get them ‘hooked,’ and they’ll forever have to buy from you.” Sadly, last week, I finally lost that little soft release and my Leica just isn’t the same without it. Curse you, Tim — now I’ll have to buy a case of ‘em.

Conclusion

The Thumbs Up, E-Clypse Magnifier, and Soft Release button add only a minimal amount of weight and volume to my camera bag. But the effect they have on my camera’s usability is profound. These products, like the Leica itself, accompany me everywhere. The Coder Kit stays home — not because it isn’t a useful product, but because I don’t need it in the field. I’ve had to code my Voigtlander lenses only once, and the blackened marks have remained on the flange. This isn’t due so much to the ‘permanent’ ink, as to the fact that Voigtlander cuts a shallow groove in its flange, and the lens markings are made inside that groove — thus preventing them from wearing off when the lens in mounted and unmounted from the camera.

Match Technical products may not visually accessorize your camera bag as well as a puppy, but they’re a darn sight more practical.

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©2009 grEGORy simpson

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