Vintage cameras are worth their weight in gold – hardly anyone knows this better than Douglas So. The author and passionate camera collector is not only an expert in the field of Leica rarities, but has also opened the F11 Foto Museum and the gallery f22 foto space in Hong Kong. In the interview, he talks about his favourite collectibles, the enduring popularity of vintage cameras and how to preserve his valuable Leica gems.
Mr. So, you created the F11 Foto Museum and established the f22 foto space. What were the ideas behind them?
I love photography and cameras – and I wanted to create a place that camera and photo lovers could visit throughout the year. If you look at international cities like New York, Paris or London, they all have dedicated places for photography. So the main idea behind F11 is to promote photography – and at the same time I encourage heritage conservation and the establishment of private museums. f22 foto space is basically a gallery and camera shop. It offers younger artists a chance to exhibit their work and, at the same time, it offers cameras for camera lovers.
Where does your passion for photography come from?
Photography speaks very directly to me. I like photography because it offers so much. It represents a lot of concepts. It’s able to speak a thousand words – and sometimes even very loudly.
Do you shoot pictures yourself?
Yes, I like to take photographs myself; it gives me a lot of pleasure! I like street photography; and since I like heritage buildings, I’ve also learnt to shoot architecture and heritage sites.
What’s your favourite camera and why?
I normally use an M10, and right now an M Monochrom as well. I’m thinking about moving to medium format, but currently I’m very used to the M system since its very comfortable. I think that’s the system I will continue to use.
What makes Leica cameras and lenses so special for you?
Apart from the outstanding quality of the images that Leica systems deliver, I appreciate the designs and innovations. They are very, very user-friendly. So once you are used to the rangefinder system, once you enjoy the M experience, you will get hooked very easily.
When did you first get into collecting?
I started collecting when I bought an M3 on Ebay after using an M6. That was the beginning of the journey, around 20 years ago. After that, it just grew: I continued to discover new things about Leica, and then I just kept buying lenses, cameras and accessories.
Do you have a favourite collector’s item?
There are too many! But among them all, I like the M cameras, especially the MP cameras made in 1956 and 1957. They were made especially for professionals, and were not considered commercially successful. At the time only 402 cameras were made; but in the end they became collectibles because of the very special features that do not exist in other Leica M cameras. So, right now, in auctions, the MP cameras are often the most sought-after items. They also hold a high value, because many of them were used by very famous photo journalists.
If you could only keep one of your collector items, which one would it be?
That’s a very hard question! It’s a little bit like asking parents which child is their favourite. If I could only keep one, it would most likely be a black painted camera – but I can’t decide which one.
Some of these cameras are surely connected to great stories. What’s your favourite one?
Lots of cameras belonged to famous photographers, which is what attracts my attention. For example, there is one camera that was in possession of the famous photographer Ian Berry. It’s an M3 camera, made in 1967 and one of the last ten black painted M3 cameras ever produced. And what makes it even more special is that Leica managed to convert this M3 camera to use it with the Leicavit rapid winder; normally they were not compatible. So, for Ian Berry, Leica managed to adapt the two systems to work together; this camera has been very well used. All the patinas show that the camera was used by the photographer frequently, in order to produce beautiful images throughout his career. The photographer even put his name on a dymo tape on the back of the top plate!
Do you use the collectable cameras every once in a while?
I think you have to exercise them. When you let them sit idle for ten or fifteen years, I think there will be problems, even though they are mechanical cameras. So it’s good to use them from time to time for half a day, to let them run and fire them at different speeds, so they will remain in a healthy state.
Why do you think vintage cameras became so popular?
For me, they always offer a sense of time. A vintage camera takes you back in time and gives you a sense of how it interacts with history and former owners. It also shows the technologies that existed at the time. So if you look at a vintage camera in the context of the development of photography, it makes the camera so much more interesting. Furthermore, they are analogue cameras. You have to understand how they work. I think, nowadays, young people in particular like to use these kinds of cameras. They want to return to this experience. The fact that everything is mechanical offers a completely different experience for younger generations.
What advice would you give somebody who is new to collecting?
I would say: do your homework properly, and look very carefully so you can understand what you have in front of you. And don’t believe everything you see! There has been a lot of literature on Leica cameras, lenses and accessories over the years, which is very important to know. Beginners should study this material carefully. After studying you will be able to differentiate between what is genuine and what is not. So I think it’s important to get a good understanding of vintage cameras and appreciate the special features. The joy in the end comes from sharing what you know.
Is there anything specific to look out for to make sure a camera keeps its value or, even better, goes up?
You should try to get something that is in beautiful and original condition, because this is something that holds value. Mint or near mint vintage cameras are more and more difficult to find. Everyone is hoping to get one in the best condition. If you find something in 95% condition – congratulations, keep it! When you find something in 99% condition, then trade and keep the better one.
What makes the Leitz Photographica Auction special for you?
For me it’s the largest and most international camera auction in the world. Every half year you get to see the catalogue with hundreds of items – Leica cameras and other brands as well. It’s just amazing that an auction like that is put together with so much work and research. I always enjoy browsing the catalogue and learning about new articles.
Sometimes, if I am lucky enough, I actually go to the auction site itself – like in 2019. It was a wonderful experience. The fact that Leica is actually organising the auction gives a lot of credibility and confidence to the bidders.
Which camera did you buy through one of the Leitz Photographica auctions?
I was very lucky to acquire an MP camera, previously owned by Magnum photographer Stuart Franklin. It was the first MP camera delivered to Stuart in 2003. He travelled frequently around the world, capturing very important images. This camera is not just famous because of its former owner, but also because it’s the first MP camera ever produced.