How to Choose a Film Leica M Rangefinder
Michael Fraser is a Toronto-based fine art and street photographer, working primarily on B&W and colour film. On one of his blog article he tries to make it easy to select the hypothetically „best“ film camera for you – thanks for letting it crosspost here.
How to Choose a Film Leica M Rangefinder
I’m often asked, „Which Leica M should I buy?“. My usual response is to run down the features of the various models and compare this to what the photographer is looking for in a camera. At this point, it generally becomes clear which M is right.
Once you’ve made the decision to purchase a Leica M, you’re confronted with a bewildering assortment of models released over the past 60 years. In order to streamline the decision making process, I’ve summarized the decision making process into a handy dandy flow chart. This chart includes all of the major Leica M models made since 1954, but excludes the Leica CL and Leitz Minolta CLE. The chart also excludes non-Leica M compatible rangefinders such as the Zeiss Ikon, Konica RF, and the Voigtlander Bessa cameras; these are fine cameras, but for the purpose of this post, I’m assuming you’re looking for a camera made by Leica. Finally, I’ve not included more specialist M cameras, like the M1 and MDa, which lack a viewfinder, rangefinder, or both.
I’ve also not considered price as a factor. For example, the Leica M6 and MP are very similar cameras with respect to their actual features, but the MP costs 2-3x what the M6 does on the used market. That difference in price is more or less due to minor usability and aesthetic differences, and this is not captured in this chart. Suffice it to say, you should decide on your budget before choosing an M camera (or any other camera, for that matter)
Finally, I should also point out that while I’ve tried to make it easy to select the hypothetically „best“ camera for you, based on your needs, you should be aware that virtually any of these cameras are suitable for almost any user, with the possible exception of those cameras that lack certain frame lines (e.g. the M3 lacks 35mm frame lines, while the models with 0.85x viewfinders lack 28mm frame lines). All of these cameras are exceptional.
The first key decision to be made is: do you need a light meter? If not, you essentially have five cameras to choose from: the M3, M2, M4, M4-2, and M4-P. Which of these cameras will best suited to you comes down to what lenses you want to use, and whether you want a classic Leica M with brass top and components, or whether zinc and steel are sufficient.
The Unmetered Leica Ms
The M3 was the first, and many say the best Leica M. It’s the M to choose if you only shoot with lenses of 50mm or longer, since it lacks frame lines for anything wider than 50mm. While this is a limitation of sorts, it’s also a great feature, since the 0.91x viewfinder is the longest of any Leica M, and thus gives you the most accurate focusing of any Leica.
The M2 was the second M to be introduced, and was intended to be a low cost M3. The major benefit of the M2 over the M3 is the addition of 35mm frame lines. The major downsides to the M2 over the M3 is the need to manually reset the frame counter every time you load a new roll of film. The M2 introduced the standard 0.72x viewfinder, and thus offers slightly less accurate focusing of fast lenses than the M3, although whether this has any effect in practice is a matter of debate.
The M4 is considered by many to be the best classic Leica M. It introduced many of the features that are standard on film Leica Ms to this day, including a rapid loading system and a crank film rewind, both of which are vast improvements on the system used in the M3 and M2. The M4 really is the classic M to choose if you want all of the modern amenities, but don’t need a meter.
The M4 spawned two follow-up models (the sordid history of Leica is beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say that these follow-up models were absolutely crucial to the long-term success of the company): the M4-2 and the M4-P.
The M4-2 is very similar to the M4, but lacks the classic M design (note the ‚Leica‘ and ‚M4-2‘ on the front), and had a few internal modifications that lowered costs.
The M4-P was the forerunner to the metered Ms, and introduced the 28mm frame lines that are standard on most Ms today. It’s a great choice if you don’t want to pay the premium for an M6, which is essentially the same camera with the addition of a meter.
The Metered Ms
Most people will tell you that the M6 (see below) was the first M body with a light meter; and they’d be wrong. In fact, the M5, which actually predates the meterless M4-2 and M4-P, was the first metered M. Unfortunately, the M5 gets a bad rap from a lot of people, owing to its unorthodox design and its quirky metering system. However, the M5 is actually a great camera, and because it gets overlooked, it can generally be had for very little money. The meter was designed to run with a battery that contains mercury, which no longer be purchased. This means that you either have to recalibrate the meter to work with modern alkaline batteries or go meterless. Alternatively, these batteries are supposed to give the appropriate voltage for these types of cameras.
Now we come to first of the truly „modern“ M cameras. The M6 offers reliable TTL metering, a good variety of frame lines from 28mm to 135mm, and its meter runs on batteries that can be purchased at any local drug store. This is the M that I recommend to most people, and it was my first M as well.
The M6 gave rise to an enormous number of special editions, which are beyond the scope of this article, as well as the later M6 TTL models. These models differ only in their inclusion of TTL flash metering (IMPORTANT: both the M6 and M6 TTL offer TTL ambient light metering), and some other cosmetic changes. The M6 TTL was also offered in three viewfinder magnifications: standard 0.72x, a 0.58x model, which is great for those who wear eyeglasses (as it provides a little more space around the outer frame lines), and a 0.85x model, which provides a little higher magnification (and thus a little more accurate focusing), at the expense of the 28mm frame lines.
With the exception of the digital M bodies (not discussed here), the M7 is the only Leica M that requires batteries to function (the M5, M6, and MP use batteries strictly to power their light meters, but the operation of these cameras is fully mechanical). Actually, that’s somewhat misleading; the M7 can operate without batteries, but you are limited to two shutter speeds: 1/60 and 1/125. This may not seem to be that much of a limitation, but if you’re stuck somewhere without a spare set of batteries, you’re in trouble. However, the benefit of this is that the M7 is the only film M that offers an auto exposure setting. In this mode, you set your f/stop and the camera selects the appropriate shutter speed (you can also use traditional manual exposure control). Whether this is a benefit is a personal choice. The M7 is a current model, and is offered in the same three viewfinder magnifications as the M6 TTL: 0.72x, 0.58x, and 0.85x.
Now we come to the big boy; the ultimate (and probably final) film M: yes, it’s the MP.
‚MP‘ stands for ‚Mechanical Perfection‘, and was Leica’s attempt to put everything they learned about making film rangefinders into a single camera. While the MP and M6 offer very similar feature sets, the MP really is a more refined camera. First, the MP returns to brass construction (which produces a noticeably smoother operation over the M6), a vastly improved viewfinder window (which lacks the tendency to ‚white out‘ due to flare when pointed toward a light source, as is common on some M6s, including the one I owned), and a return to the classic M aesthetic. As with the M6 TTL and M7, the MP is offered in three viewfinder magnifications: 0.72x, 0.58x, and 0.85x, and in black paint (I own a black paint 0.72x model) or silver chrome. The MP truly is the finest M available, but of course there is a downside: price. If you can live with the aesthetics and slightly-less-than-absolutely-silky operation, then the M6 is a better choice (it should be noted that the operation of the M6 is more refined than virtually every other camera on the market…it’s just that the MP is that much better). But if price is no object and you want the best of the best, in a camera that will last your lifetime (and probably that of your offspring), then the MP is the clear winner.
I hope this guide is useful to you. I’ll say it again: any of these cameras are a wonderful choice, and are capable of making stellar images, when coupled to a great lens and (most importantly) a great photographer. This guide is merely my attempt to help steer you in the right direction when it comes to picking a Leica M that best suits your needs.