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The Leica M System: A case of Don't Meet Your Heroes?

In my over 12 years of photographic experience, I've had the priviledge of using all sorts of cameras from film SLR's to medium format studio equipment and shooting everything from concerts to weddings. However, there's been one particular system and experience that's eluded me, the Leica M system, until now.

First Impressions.

Like any happy boy on the morning of Christmas, my over-a-decade of anticipation of this moment had me wide-eyed and overzealous. Upon opening the carefully packed package I was bestowed upon what many consider the holy grail of photographic nirvana - a Leica M2. Now, before I go all misty eyed with how brilliant and beautiful this 55 year old machine was and is, I wasn't met without caveats. I simply don't understand who ships a vintage camera without a body cap, but rather with the body hastily shoved inside a ziplock bag - that I may never understand.

Anyways, you want to hear what I have to say about the camera, and you may not be that surprised. Premium, quality, and engineered excellence, this, as I've come to experience, is the overarching theme that accompanies anything with the Leica name inscribed on it. The way the lettering is etched just deep enough to make a statement but not too deep like too many Japanese companies of the 1960s, Leica chose just the perfect scripture and depth to finish the camera perfectly. The M cameras, of which are among the smaller spectrum of professional-level film cameras actually weighs a hefty among in your hand. This heft however, is weight of quality, not lard-by-the-pound. The rangefinder, also something rather new to me, is the easiest manual-focusing method I've used - accompanied by a viewfinder that's among the brightest among analog cameras I've come to use. The buttons and way switches and knobs work and feel are sublime, they move with purpose, and have the most positive feedback of any controls I've ever used. Precision engineering, per say.

All in all, I was quite pleased and satisfied with the M2 straight out of the box. It didn't let my rather high (and decade long) expectations down, and as cliché as it sounds, there is no match in build quality to anything Leica - even my Nikon F2's feel slightly tinny in comparison. The only cameras that come close is the Hasselblad 500cm I've had the opportunity to use extensively.


Now this is where I was in for a surprise. Although I knew a 55 year old camera won't handle anything approaching modern (or semi-modern) cameras in terms of ergonomics and handling - I still have not gotten over the fact of how difficult it is to use the bloody thing in the real world.

For starters, I'm left-eyed, which means I prefer to look through the viewfinder with my left eye. This, in hindsight, may not seem to be an issue since the viewfinder is on the left for all Leica M's. However, I'm also an eyeglass wearer, and much to my chagrin there are two large problems with shooting Leica's with glasses and being left-eyed. The film-advance lever on the Leica M2 and M3 (and select MP's/special edition film Leica's) is metal, without and plastic covering the thumb knurling. While this does look aesthetically brilliant, I found out the hard way that glasses and knurling don't mix. Both my prescription sunglasses and a pair of my glasses were deeply scratched by the plucky lever. To add insult into injury, I couldn't tell (while wearing said glasses) that they were even getting scratched to begin with, until someone pointed out they noticed large scratches on my glasses lenses! Now you may say there are workarounds, and there are - but all in all they're inconvenient and slightly discouraging. I can get (an expensive) Dioptre add-on for the eyepiece so I can shoot without glasses, I can learn and practice using my right eye with the camera, or I can just get contact lenses already - but these are either inconvenient (I'd have to keep taking off and putting on my glasses) or difficult to change (10 years using my left eye makes it difficult to change to the other, if you know what I mean).

The framelines for the M2 are 35mm, 50mm, and 90mm, that's it. This is, in my opinion for street photography, optimal. While the M3 comes with the 0.92 magnification rangefinder, the M2 pioneered the now standard 0.72 magnification. Simply put, the large the magnification, the more precise you can focus (large split-image). The means the M2 can potentially be less accurate than the M3, I don't know, I've never used one. What I do know is, with glasses, it makes it slightly difficult to see the 35mm framelines even on the 0.72 M2 - but it's just about bearable. Leica really didn't think about eyeglass users in the 1950s (sigh). If I were to shoot exclusively with wider lenses (50mm or less), I may opt for the rarer and coveted 0.58 Leica's.

Without a case, the camera is also slightly hard to hold, which makes it difficult and nerve racking - especially if you don't have a strap. Any SLR/DSLR has much improved ergonomics with regards to holding and positioning the camera. This alas, is something to get used to - but it will take some getting used to even with someone like me who's used so many platforms spanning 50 years of photographic free market.

The tripod screws on Leica M2, M3, and M4's are non-standard (with regards to photography). They use a ⅜" screw thread instead of  ¼" thread which doesn't interface with most camera tripods (I know this is still the standard for the film and cinema industry, but their equipment is an order of magnitude larger and heavier which warrants the larger thread). Again, I didn't find this out until I tried to put a BlackRapid strap to temporarily keep the camera safe, finding out too late that the threads were non-standard.

I'm using LTM screw mount lenses with the M2 currently, which means they require LTM to M-mount adapters. Easy enough, but these adapters vary wildly in quality and you can only get guaranteed fitment with OEM Leica adapters. These were made 50 years ago and are rather scarce today (and they also cost a pretty penny when you can find one). In addition, it's not a one-adapter-fits-all situation, since these are Focal-Length specific. Now let me explain, screw mount threads and the Leica M mount is standard, that's the same across the board. However, the adapters only interface with the particular framelines for that focal length (e.g. 35mm with 35mm framelines, 50mm with 50mm framelines). This means you need a Leica adapter for every focal length - this adds up quickly!

All accessories for anything Leica related is immediately put at a premium, but thats to be expected. You don't buy a Leica because it's cheap.

Shooting with it.

Wow, was I disappointed after my first shoot with the camera. The oem Leica case without removable top case makes it so difficult to handle (among other ergonomic issues discussed above). With the top case dangling underneath the camera at all times, it's difficult to keep the camera steady and nigh-on impossible to shoot under 1/30 (like at night - remember, you also can't use a tripod without the adapters..)

The lenses I have been using are a screw-mount Leica Summaron 3.5cm (35mm) f/3.5 and a rare screw-mount Tokyo Optics Inc. Simlar 5cm (50mm) f/1.5. I'll be honest, these vintage lenses paired with a similar vintage camera make it a surreal experience to use. It's so ridiculous (in this day an age) yet special to just be carrying around that I have little to add other than that it's brilliant.

The lack of any light meter means you have to be really experienced to obtain the right exposure. This isn't the cameras fault, rather a skill or tradeoff that you have to work around. The Sunny-16 set of rules are godsend here. If you don't have the ability to gauge lighting conditions, or don't want to spend/carry around a light meter (I highly recommend the Sekonic L-308s avoid the Leicameter at all cost - it scratches the top plate) I'd recommend waiting for a Leica M6 (which has a meter built-in).

Film loading on the M2 and M3 are via the older Leica method (the M4 and up has the easier fork method), where you basically need a table or a chair to properly load film. You must physically take out the take-up spool, shove with all your might the fragile film lead into a wedge then re-install it, all while hoping the camera doesn't topple over or you don't get anything jammed. With experience, it might take 2 minutes, without - it's a 5+ minute struggle (especially on-site without extra hands or a table). However this isn't a really big turn off, and it's a heck of a lot easier to load an M2 than reload a Hasselblad.

Film rewinding on the M2 and M3 is also quite a hassle. Without the improved 45 degree flip-out rewind of the M4 and up (looks like any Japanese SLR's rewind, which is superior) it comes with a heavily knurled straight knob that takes the skin off your fingers and takes approximately 100 half-turns to rewind a 36-frame roll of film. This takes quite a long time. In my experience it's also ridiculously hard to feel, since the mechanics on the camera are so smooth and precise, you can barely feel the film going back into the spool. I made this mistake, and luckily only lost 7 frames to the sun, but be warned if you're shooting something important or capturing moments that you really would rather not lose.

So, while the case is dangling, you ruin your film, you're paranoid trying to protect the camera from scratches, and have your glasses scratched to oblivion, you hope you're getting acceptable photos...

After coming back from my first couple of rolls of film, before getting it back from the developer, I was actually quite down. I felt the camera was incapable or I was incapable of using it. In hindsight, I rather disliked it and questioned whether or not I should/could keep the camera and if it was true - the Leica name is just over inflated. Happily, I can say that I was just too quick on my assumption.

Should you get one and is it worth it?

Hmm, this is difficult. Away from the prestige of owning a Leica and all of that premium-ness that is associated, you have to consider a couple of things.

The Leica M system was never meant to be easy or fast or convenient. The Leica M's were designed to obtain the best photographs possible with 35mm film. That's why to this day, they produce some of the best photographic lenses on Earth, and some of the most engineered Cameras still available. If you want an easy, quick, and surefire of getting good photos, you're much better off both ergonomically, functionally, and financially with a Nikon F3.

If however, you're interested in actually taking pictures, one at a time, where you put your skill, thought, knowledge, and think about capturing moments, then maybe Leica is for you. You need experience, technical knowhow, and an artistic eye to make the most out of the Leica M system. It's really really hard, and I can't stress that enough, to buy a film Leica without much photographic experience, and expect to get any results whatsoever. At the very least, you need to have that artistic passion, and a good understanding of how aperture, shutter speed, film ISO, manual focusing, and focal length works in conjunction with each other to even get sharp images out of the M system.

If you're up for the challenge (and find it fun and enjoyable), and can work around the inherent deficiencies of the system (& cost), by all means don't overlook what a classic Leica can do - the experience is quite special.

Final thoughts.

The Leica M is a special and unique niche in the market, where a photographer needs to make the camera an extension of his or her hand to get the most out of it. But once both the camera and photographer are in sync, the potential for photographic greatness is very high. Simply put, the camera is capable of any photo you really want to capture, but it's up to you to be able to capture it. All of the tools are there, are you capable of using them all efficiently and to the fullest extent? That's up to you to find out and decide. 

All this talk about the M2 is only half the story however, every picture is only possible with the right glass. You can't buy a Leica and skimp out on lenses. Remember, lenses are the most important aspect of any photographers arsenal. Lenses may last a lifetime, which camera bodies - those can always be replaced.

Starting from scratch, expect to set aside around $3,000 usd just to have enough equipment to really get the most out of the Leica M system. Of course, this is the low-end too. You can easily go into the 5 - figures with these tools.

Choose wisely.