What is the best Leica for you?
So you have decided to take the plunge and get yourself into the world of Leica. But there are so many variants and different versions. What one is the best one for you. Well, with this little guide I hope to give you a clearer picture.
Leica cameras inspire a range of emotions in their users and non users alike. For users there is joy, desire, comfort and often pride. The non users there can be also be desire, often respect and sometimes envy, and in some cases much more negative feelings. But for the group that would like to own a Leica the overriding feeling seems to be one of confusion. What do you choose? There are so many options out there for you, but what is the right one? Which camera suits you? This is a difficult question to answer properly, as there are so many factors involved. You could be really clinical about it, and make the decision based on the parameters in which you shoot, but that is emotionless, and I really feel that a camera should talk to you. But be careful, buying cameras based only on emotional responses can be very expensive. I think that buying the best Leica for you can be broken down into a few simple questions that can make your decision easier.
1. Do you want to shoot film or digital?
Simple question really but one that needs to be answered. This is not a dig at digital users, but if you don’t try a film Leica at least once then I feel you are really missing out on the Leica experience. If you are shooting digital then your choices are pretty simple. You could spend as little as possible by getting an M8, but they are getting long in the tooth now and some of them will definitely be reaching the upper limits of the sensor lifetime. You can pick up used M9’s for less than you imagine now, and it is still a full frame digital camera that is very capable, despite having a rubbish screen. The M-E is basically the same camera, for a little bit less money. But they are so new you are not really going to see any used ones on the market yet. Or, if money is not really a concern then the M and the Monochrom are all there waiting for you. Going into the differences between these cameras would be an essay unto itself, and seeing as I rarely shoot with them I will leave it to people who are far more qualified to do so *cough*ThorstenOvergaard*cough* Shooting film? Well, that is where things get a bit more interesting. Different cameras, different budgets.
2. How much do you want to spend?
Because it isn’t enough. No matter what, you are pretty much guaranteed to spend more than you think on one of these cameras. And if you think you can get one for cheap, think again, as that is exceptional. The general rule is that you will have to spend at the bare minimum $1000 on a body (this depends on the model. The M4 is usually a lot more), then more on a lens. But we are talking about bodies. If you are talking about rare cameras or collectors items, then the sky is the limit. But we are talking about users, cameras that can be used every day and without fear of marking them or spoiling them.
3. Do you need a meter in the camera?
This is a simple yes or no question, but an important one. Some people do, some don’t. I use both metered and non metered M cameras, but I am lucky to have the choice. For some there is only one choice, so choose wisely. If you do need one, then you basically have 4 options. (And before you lot shout about the CL and the CLE, I am not counting them. As whilst they are Leica’s they are not an M, which is what we are talking about.)
Often called the ‘Lost Leica’ this was the first true metered Leica camera. Quirky and a different it never really gained traction, despite being a great camera. The main failing on this cameras part was the huge leap from the classic design standard of the previous and later models. You can see how Leica felt about this as the M6 went back to the classic styling. The main flaws with the camera are that it is difficult to repair, requires that you use replacement Zinc-air batteries or an adapter and it is heavy. It is not the best designed Leica, but it is fun to use and sets you apart. They are not terribly expensive, but it is better to spend a good amount on one as you really don’t want to have one of these break on you, as some repair places will not handle them any more. Get the two lug version, which you can hang like an incredibly heavy and oversized necklace. A good point about this camera is that all of them were produced at Wetzlar, to very high standards, so if you get a good one you will really have something special. Get one of these if you like to be different.
I have written a lot about this camera. It was my first true Leica and I still consider it to be the best Leica M camera, for a number of reasons, but the main one being accessibility. It is easy to find, not overly expensive, simple, mechanical and sturdy. The only thing is, there are tons of different models. Again, you could write and essay about this. What I will say is that I am not a big fan of the TTL version. The meter is more fragile than in the non TTL models and it is more prone to breakdowns. If I had a personal choice for an M6 I would take the Leitz Wetzlar version, the original M6. This was what some consider to be the last true Leica. It was built in the Wetzlar facility and had a build quality that is far beyond what it should be. The M6 is a great entry choice for a Leica camera, as despite having a meter, it is still a mechanical camera, so it can be run without the meter without any issues. But just because I say entry Leica it does not mean it is a beginners camera. It is fully manual and you have to test yourself. Bruce Gilden still uses an M6, and for good reason, it is very capable and does not make things overly complicated. I know several people who own or have owned a number of different and great Leica cameras, but almost all of them consider the M6 to be the camera that they will grab if they are going out. Get one of these if you want an all rounder and don’t want to destroy your bank account.
This is a camera that I am not overly impressed by. It could have been so much more, but it is not that much different from the M6. The meter is supposed to be better. It has aperture priority mode and DX encoding, but that is about it. This is not a mechanical camera and if your battery goes you only have 1/60th or 1/125th of a second. Which is a big fail for me. Don’t get me wrong, it is a good camera, but not the camera I would be using. I almost never see anyone shooting them, and that could be because buying one new is almost the same price as buying an MP, which is a far superior camera. Early models suffered with problems in the DX encoding system and temperamental meters. In all honesty if I had a choice I would pick an M6 over one of these any day of the week. The only advantage I can see is that they still make these and you would be able to go out and buy a brand new film Leica. Get one of these if you want the aperture priority mode or the experience of buying a brand new film Leica.
Ahhh, the MP. This is a bit of a different beast. This truly is the best of the best. But you get that at a price and that is why I think the M6 is a better camera. The build, the quality and the styling of the camera is better than the M6, but the price puts it out of range of only the most dedicated of users. The original MP is an absurdly expensive camera and quite different from the new version which is still in production. This is a stunning camera. Mechanical, metered and simple, it ticks all of the boxes. If you have plenty of cash to burn and you really want to get the perfect M, then this is it. Get one of these if you like to light your cigars with $20 bills (or country equivalent currency).
Don’t need a meter? Then your options are wide and wonderful.
There are many different versions of the standard Leica M cameras. But I am going to stick with the basics and tell you the differences between them. It all started with the M3 in 1954, a revolutionary camera that changed the photographic world. I am not going to wax lyrical about this camera, plenty of people have done that before me, and probably better than me.
The M3 is the standard bearer. Simple, pure and tough. This camera was built to extremely exacting standards. The viewfinder is still so bright that it puts the M9 to shame, with a factor of 0.92, which is perfect for long lenses. The only drawback for this camera in my eye is that it only has frame lines for 50, 90 and 135mm lenses. At the time this was enough, but I shoot mainly 35mm and this makes the camera hard for me to use (although I do own one). If you shoot 50mm and are looking for a non metered Leica then this should probably be your first consideration. Early models had a double stroke film advance, as there was fear that film could be torn by a single advance. But after development the M3 became a single stroke. Early models of the camera also had a glass film pressure plate, and later models a metal one. If you are a collector these things matter a great deal. But if you are a user then the single stroke, metal plate camera should be enough. They are plentiful and you can find them for good prices if you are not looking for something too pretty. It is not about the looks with a camera like this, just make sure the movement is nice and tight and you will be laughing. Get one of these if you want to shoot 50mm lenses.
Confusingly for the Leica beginner, the M2 was actually released after the M3, in 1957. It was intended to be a cheaper and more affordable M camera, though now you would be hard pushed to see the difference in the prices. The build quality was essentially the same, but there were noticeable differences to the camera. The big one being the disc plate film counter, which has to be manually reset. The rangefinder is also more simple than the M3, with a 0.72 finder. This finder is more prone to flare than the M3. But it does have framelines for 35mm lenses, which makes it a popular choice for street photographers (and in the past photojournalists). The M2 is an outstanding camera, and often more popular than the M3 simply for the framelines. There were several factory mods available for the camera and later in production the M2-R was released, which incorporated the quick loading system. You can pay a ton of money for one of these with a desirable number, but you don’t have to. Get a beater which has been serviced and you will have a good time. Get one of these if you want to shoot 35mm lenses.
The M4 was a huge evolutionary jump for the M series. Some consider it to be the best of the classic film Leica cameras and the prices certainly seem to share that notion. These cameras hold their value well and are still expensive. The M4 had a new set of framelines for the 35/50/90/135mm lenses, a lovely high speed rewind ‘sidewinder’ knob and a much faster film loading system. This was a revelation at the time. Whilst some love the old type of film rewind, I still find the M4 (and later M6/7) rewind to be much faster. This was the last of the unmetered Leicas, and some say the end of an era for Leica. They certainly are beautiful and extremely capable cameras. Many different versions were released, but the most common are chrome and black chrome. Get one of these if you want a golden era Leica and have a bit of spare cash.
The M4-P / M4-2
Many people discount these two cameras as ‘cheapo’ Leicas, but they have a lot to give. These cameras saved Leica and it would not be here now if it wasn’t for them. True, they are bare bones and they were not manufactured to the same standards as previous models, but they are both great unmetered cameras. The M4-2 came first and was noticably cheaper than the older cameras. Cheaper finish and construction. A good viewfinder though, with a nice range of framelines. The M4-P came later, with the P supposedly standing from professional. It added another frameline to the finder to make a finder for 28/35/50/75/90/135 lenses. This left the finder full and some find it to be overly busy. You can pick these cameras up for a lot less than the other Leica cameras now. If you get one on the cheap, have it serviced and you will have a Porsche that looks like a Skoda. Buy one of these if you don’t care what people think and just want to shoot.
So there it is, a little bit of info and some advice. I hope you find this useful in making your decision. Just a word of warning, it is a slippery slope. Once you have owned one you will want to own all of the others. And don’t go half measures, get the one that you want because chances are you are going to be using it for a good long time. Would you cheap out on a pair of shoes for a hike across the mountains? Of course not, so don’t cheap out on a Leica, it will pay for itself tenfold in the long run. Get the camera that you deserve. And of course, none of this advice matters if the camera does not speak to you. If you can go and hold one of the cameras that you want. If it calls your name and tells you that you can make sweet images together then that is the one for you.
If you want me to find one for you I can do that. I am rather good at it and many of my customers will say that I have found them their dream camera. So if you want to get yourself a Leica, drop me a line and I can make sure you have the camera that you have always wanted. Thanks Japancamerahunter