Every day, someone asks me which Leica rangefinder they should buy, and I think they expect me to come back with an easy answer; “Get an M-whatever.” But it’s not that simple. Instead, I ask them a series of big questions, and usually after just three minutes of answers we’ve figured out which Leica is their ideal Leica.
If you’re in the market for a new film-burning camera from the land of the Bauhaus, but not sure which one you should shoot for, this article should help. Let’s get to it.
Do you want automatic exposure?
Auto and semi-auto exposure modes allow a camera to control the parameters that make a properly exposed photo; aperture, shutter speed, or a combination of the two. This allows the photographer to focus on the aspects of a photo that are most important to him or her; composition, speed, depth-of-field, etc.
Since Leica made only one film rangefinder that includes an automatic exposure mode, this first question quickly eliminates the broadest swathe of potential camera models. If you want some automation in your Leica, you’re buying an M7.
Originally released in 2002, the M7 allows aperture-priority semi-automatic exposure control. What this means is that the photographer sets the lens aperture manually and the M7 uses its light metering system to determine which shutter speed is required based on a combination of available light, film sensitivity (ISO), and the lens’ aperture setting. The exposure meter in the M7 works great, and there’s nothing wrong with using aperture-priority; it’s often a faster way of shooting, and it allows creative control of depth-of-field (it’s also my preferred shooting style). The M7 allows full manual control as well.
If being the only auto-exposure Leica around isn’t enough, there’s a lot more to like about the M7. It mirrors the style and functionality of earlier M rangefinders (specifically the M4 and M6 on account of its angled rewind knob), and offers enough various magnification viewfinders (0.58x, 0.72x, and 0.85x) and frame-lines (28 and 90mm, 35 and 135mm and 50 and 75mm) to match any shooters’ preferred focal lengths.
Downsides? Some people can’t get over the fact that the M7 is an electronically-controlled camera. It requires batteries to shoot, so carry some spares. They’re about the size of a couple of coins and weigh nothing. You could carry sixteen extra batteries in your bag and never notice the weight. Other commentators also say the M7 is more prone to breaking compared with other Ms, and more costly to repair. My advice, buy a copy in great condition and ignore the naysayers. And don’t drop it.
Do you want a meter?
If you don’t need auto-exposure, your options loosen up. But if you want your Leica to have a light meter we’re still a bit limited. There are five classic Leica rangefinders that offer in-body metering, and they range in price from sell-a-kidney to downright affordable.
In 1971, Leica released the M5. This camera was (and remains) a radical departure from the Bauhaus-inspired aesthetic of earlier Leica rangefinders. It’s larger and more industrial than its predecessors, true, but it’s also a wonderful and under-appreciated camera.
The last camera to be hand-built in Wetzlar, Germany using Leica’s old-fashioned “adjust-and-fit” assembly methods, it’s as solid as any camera ever made. It was also the first Leica to feature through-the-lens exposure metering. Using this technology, the camera meters the available light in conjunction with aperture and shutter speed settings, and informs via a match-needle display in the viewfinder as to whether or not the shot will be properly exposed.
Other tiny details that set the M5 above some other Ms? Its shutter dial is massive, like the one found on the incredible Leicaflex SL2 SLR; its viewfinder is multi-coated to reduce flare and displays the selected shutter speed (a rarity in Ms); and it’s one of the quietest cameras with a focal plane shutter. More importantly, the M5’s shutter is a mechanical construct, which means that it’ll fire without battery power.
Downsides? Well, some people truly hate the way the M5 looks. Personal preference – I can’t help you decide this point. And the M5 has just one viewfinder frame-line combination (0.72x with frame-lines for 35mm, 50mm, 90mm, and 135mm), so this VF might annoy certain shooters. But other than these qualms, the M5 is a fantastic machine that deserves a bit more love.
Leica M6 and M6 TTL
If you like the idea of the M5 but hate its styling, the M6 is likely a good fit. Made from 1984 to 1998, it’s possibly the most popular Leica M these days. It offers good build quality, a capable metering system, and fully manual, fully mechanical shutter operation (still fires without battery power).
Its viewfinder is one of the more versatile of all Ms. With optional magnifications of 0.58x, 0.72x, and 0.85x, and frame-lines to suit each VF (0.58x displays 28-90mm, 35mm, and 50-75mm; 0.72x displays 28-90mm, 35-135mm, 50-75mm; and 0.85x displays 35-135mm, 50-75mm, 90mm), the M6 has a viewfinder to suit every shooter.
All of this is packed into a body that’s a darling among traditionalists. Unlike the previous M5, the M6 returns to Leica’s M roots, most closely resembling the M4 with its angled rewind knob.
Leica M6 TTL Leica M6 TTL Top Plate
The later TTL version most notably features a larger shutter speed dial, and this shutter speed dial turns intuitively in the same direction as indicated by the exposure LEDs in the viewfinder, a tiny but critical improvement over the original M6. The TTL also offers improved flash capability with dedicated flash units, and an optional lower magnification viewfinder (0.58x) for improved ease-of-use with 28mm lenses.
Detractors bemoan the fact that the M6 is a “cheaper” camera compared to earlier Leicas. It uses magnesium alloy for its top and bottom plates, a departure from the previously-used (and heavier) brass. But to say the M6 or M6 TTL feel tawdry is just silly. It’s a solid machine.
Looking for a metered Leica that’s smaller and less expensive than the others I’ve listed? Then the CL is probably a good fit. Originally released in 1973 as the product of a multi-faceted collaboration between Leitz and Minolta, the CL was designed to be a compact M (or “Compact Leica”). In this, it succeeded. It was (and remains) the smallest M mount camera in the world.
Manufactured by Minolta in Japan, the camera gets less respect compared with its German cousins. Whether this slight is deserved or not is a different conversation. My opinion is that, yes, the CL doesn’t feel as dense as earlier Leica Ms. But it might be a more usable camera, especially for travelers or those who want to shoot without worrying about damaging their daughters’ inheritance (I’d rather drop a CL than any Leica M).
The CL is incredibly compact, with intuitive controls influencing an all-mechanical shutter. Its CdS exposure meter is positioned on a swing-arm behind the lens, and this meter displays a reading in the viewfinder along with the currently-selected shutter speed. This is all good stuff. But the viewfinder also brings some woes.
With magnification of just 0.60x, the VF can feel a bit constricted. This fault, coupled with an effective rangefinder base length that’s quite short, means that the CL can be difficult to accurately focus with fast primes and longer focal length lenses. And with frame-lines displaying the somewhat unusual focal lengths of 40mm, 50mm, and 90mm, the CL is regarded by many traditional Leica users as sort of an odd-duck.
But if you’re looking for the smallest all-mechanical, manual-exposure M mount rangefinder, or just an inexpensive, high-quality rangefinder, the CL is it.
Leica’s newer MP can be considered the best metered/manual Leica ever made, and it’s also the one that they’re currently manufacturing. That’s right. You can walk into a Leica store today and buy a film camera.
The MP is something of an ideal Leica rangefinder, in that it blends much of the best parts of the older mechanical Leicas with some of the more modern technologies used in newer Leicas. That said, it’s still a fairly basic machine, spec-wise.
It’s a fully manual and mechanically actuated camera with a responsive through-the-lens silicon photodiode light meter. It will fire without battery power, can be mounted with power winders, and looks damn pretty. That’s because it mimics much of the original M3’s aesthetic, right down to the bezel that surrounds the lens release.
Do you want an all-mechanical classic?
If you couldn’t care less about auto-exposure and in-body metering, you’ve got plenty of choice. And now we’re getting to the real classics, cameras made in the 1950s and 1960s. They’re Leicas M3, M2, and M4, and they’re pretty damn incredible.
I’ll keep this as simple as possible. Functionally, these cameras are pretty samey; all-mechanical, no electronics, simple and intuitive. Where they mostly differ is in minor methodologies and, more importantly, their viewfinders. Let’s dive in.
The M3 is the oldest of the bunch, the original M, and a legend in the camera world. Originally released in 1954, it revolutionized the photography world with its speed and effectiveness, and its incredible Leitz lenses. Its big, bright viewfinder shows an incredible magnification of 0.92x and frame lines for 50mm, 90mm, and 135mm lenses. This is perfect for shooters who want to shoot a fifty, but not ideal for those who prefer a wider focal length. If you want a wider focal length in a non-metered Leica, think about the M2 and M4.
In 1957, Leica released the M2. This was, ostensibly, a less expensive version of the M3, though today prices are fairly even. Its chief improvement (though some shooters regard it as a weakness) is its lower magnification VF (0.72x) that allows for shooting 35mm lenses without the use of external attachments (required with the M3). The VF of the M2 shows frame-lines for 35mm, 50mm, and 90mm lenses. The other significant difference compared with the M3 is the M2’s large, exposed film frame counter. These differences noted, the M2 could rightly be considered to be an M3 for photographers who want to shoot a wider lens.
In 1966, Leica released the M4. This camera was an update to the M3 and M2, and to that point in time signified the most drastic change to the M formula. It retained all the same styling of earlier Ms, but improved usability in a number of ways. Most obviously, the rewind lever of the M4 is a faster, easier construct compared with that of the M3 and M2. Additionally, film loading became easier via the use of a new non-removable take up spool. It uses a similar viewfinder to the M2, but adds an additional frame-line for 135mm lenses. This makes it a good choice for those who shoot a wide range of focal lengths (from wide to tele).
Leica M3 Leica M2 Leica M4
There was also an M1, but let’s not talk about that too much. It’s a pretty hamstrung machine in the modern era (no built-in rangefinder), and was intended more for reproduction work and operation with a Visoflex attachment (a device that essentially turns the camera into an SLR).
If you’d like a classic non-metered Leica but want something more modern, there’s the M-A. Like an MP without a light meter, it’s quite possibly the best all-mechanical camera you can buy anywhere in the world right now. Just walk into a Leica dealer or head over to B&H and place your order ($4,450).
Are you on a tighter budget?
Leicas are expensive cameras. There’s no escaping that. But there are less painful ways to get into a Leica system. You just need to know what to look for.
To start, Leica rangefinders made prior to the debut of the M mount in 1954 are far more affordable than their M descendants. These cameras used a lens mount known as M39, LTM, or Leica Thread Mount. Look for models like the IIIf and IIIc. These older cameras are slower and clumsier than the Ms in use, but they still retain a relatively modern methodology that most of us can figure out. And Leica glass from this era has its own distinctive magic that shouldn’t be overlooked.
If only an M will do, try hunting out the M4-2 and M4-P. These are lower cost M4s produced after the commercial failure of the M5. They were produced in Leitz’ Midland, Ontario, Canada factory and designed to be less costly to produce. They may not be as robust or beautiful as their earlier ancestors, and they may not have been made in Germany, but buy a good copy and you’ll have a fantastic camera for the foreseeable future.
At this point the question should be pretty well settled and any further discussion brings us into the realm of diminishing returns. Do you want your film rewind control to be a knob or a button? Do you prefer Buddha’s Ear strap lugs? Double stroke or single?
But let’s be honest; these questions are reserved for my customers who aspire to mastery of the age-old art of nit-pickery. These tiny variations will not be the make-or-break of your relationship with a Leica. If you can answer the few simple questions above and choose a camera based on those answers, there’s no reason to think you won’t love your new Leica.