The Scarabaeus Holster for Leica

I’m not a big fan of 3rd party Leica “accessories.” I can only think of a few that were worth the expense – the Abrahamsson Rapid Winder, and the Amedeo Nikkor Rf to Leica M lens adaptor both come to mind. After that, not much else.  The Rapid Winder fills a niche left ignored by Leitz – a decent trigger winder for your M2/3. The Amedeo adaptor offers you the ability to use some awesome 50mm Nikkor RF lenses on your M with rangefinder coupling. Both are exceptionally well-engineered and constructed items, as good, or maybe even better, than what Leica could have done had they the desire.

So, recently, when I received an email from someone in Germany offering me a free “Scarabaeus” holster for carrying around my Leica, free of course with the hope that I’d pimp it on Leicaphilia, I said, sure, why not? Free is good. Send it my way. Just don’t expect a glowing review, or any review at all, for that matter.

What I didn’t tell him was that I’d seen the Scarabaeus holster before and thought it was potentially a great idea, great if done properly. I’ve always disliked camera straps and rarely use them, which leaves me using a camera bag, which brings with it its own set of problems. So I’ve often ended up using a pouch, sized to fit a body with lens, attached via a clip to my belt. It works but has its own drawbacks – it looks unwieldy (certainly not “elegant and stylish”), and constantly getting the camera in and out of the pouch can be annoying.There should be a better way.

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So, after having used my absolutely free Scarabaeus holster for a few days now, I can confidently say that it’s a great idea executed simply and elegantly. It works. It works really well, actually. The holster itself consists of a mounting plate attached via a hinge to a belt clip. Your camera connects to the mounting plate via an inconspicuous bottom plate you attach to your camera’s tripod socket. Clip the holster on your belt, swing the mounting plate open, attach the camera to the plate and, voila!, your M is now firmly attached to your waist, sitting snug at your side, ready to use. And the beauty of the holster is that it’s super easy to attach and remove the camera from the holster – clearly someone with some engineering experience thought this one through. It’s all very intuitive: grab the camera with your dominant hand, reach over with your other hand and pull up an easily accessed lock/unlock mechanism and your camera is free of the holster and ready to use. When you want to reattach it, simply unlock the holster and slide the camera bottom back onto the holster and lock. You can pretty much do it without looking.

As for the build quality of the holster, it’s robust and heavy, solid and over-engineered, exactly what you’d expect of something you’re trusting your expensive Leica to. Is it “elegant and stylish”? That’s a subjective valuation, of course. It certainly is elegant to the extent that it’s functional and is so in an obviously simple way.

You can take a further look at the Scarabaeus Holster system at http://www.photoscarab.de/. They start at $149. which is serious money for a belt clip. However, overbuilt and engineered as it is, all metal, no plastic, my sense is it’ll last forever.

 

There’s a Lenny Kravitz Joke Here Somewhere

A week ago, Leica released a new special-edition M Monochrom rangefinder named after late rock ‘n’ roll photographer Jim Marshall. Jim Marshall photographed The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Johnny Cash and Miles Davis, among others, presumably with a Leica. Marshall died in 2010.

Jimmy Page and Bob Dylan, photos by Jim Marshall

The Leica M 246 Jim Marshall Edition Leica M Monochrom shoots only black-and-white. It comes with a 50mm f1.4 ASPH lens. Both the camera and lens are finished in brass with Jim Marshall’s signature on the camera’s top plate. There will only be 50 models of the Marshall Edition available, each at the cost of $12,950 (about £10,050 and AU$17,400).

Here’s what you’ll get for your measly $12,950 (excluding tax) when you purchase your Jim Marshall Edition Leica:

  • Leica M Monochrom (Type 246) in brass
  • Summilux-M 50mm f1.4 ASPH brass lens
  • Brass lens hood
  • Brown leather strap
  • Jim Marshall Limited Edition Estate print of “Thelonious Monk at Monterey Jazz Festival 1964′
  • “Jim Marshall: Jazz Festival” book with a special dust jacket
Jim Marshall

Being a Photographer in the Digital Age

Does Using One of These Make You a ‘Photographer?’

What does it mean to be a “photographer?” Is it the knowledge of necessary concepts like luminance and illuminance, ‘camera exposure’ versus ‘photographic exposure’, lens transmission variables and exposure latitude; understanding meter scales, light ratios, tone reproduction curves etc, and knowing how to use this knowledge to produce better, more consistent photographs? Or can it simply be someone who owns a camera and uses it with intent, without a firm grasp of the physical realities involved and the underlying processes by which one’s photographs are produced?

I suppose this is a debate which occurs whenever technological advances transform the manner in which a given task is accomplished – what is it that constitutes that task and defines those who practice it? What is essential, what is peripheral?  100 years ago ‘traditionalist’ practitioners could define photography skills as those involving the creation and development of wet plates and an understanding of the mechanics and use of view cameras; they would have looked suspiciously on Oskar Barnack and his toy “camera.”

…or Must You Use One of These?

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All of this was brought home to me recently when I went to visit my brother. I hadn’t seen him for a number of years; we had lost touch the way grown family members sometimes do. This was a trip to reconnect, to catch up on what each of us had been doing with our lives. What I learned is this: he’s now an avid photography buff, having developed a passion for photography in its digital manifestation. He’s the proud owner of some serious kit – a Nikon D810, D5100, a number of huge bazooka-sized pro Nikkors, all the associated computer programs with which to ‘develop and print’ the end results. And, truth be told, he’s got a good eye, and if there’s any area he lacks technical knowledge the camera will usually take care of that.

With digital tools he has the capability of producing technically excellent photos I couldn’t be capable of, even today, 45 years of experience behind me, with my Leica film camera, my 21/35/50 mm focal length manual focus rangefinder lenses, and my roll of HP5. As for matching his Photoshop skills, I’m not even going to try. I’m clueless. Which left me with a certain depressing realization: the skills I’ve spent a lifetime cultivating, the arcane knowledge acquired through decades of dedicated interest in traditional silver halide photography, is essentially now worthless as a badge of expertise. I’m now just an old guy toting around an outdated camera using an obsolete exposure medium, head filled with useless arcane information. Meanwhile he’s effortlessly pumping out 30×40 color prints, tack sharp corner to corner.

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Stroebel’s “Basic Photographic Materials and Processes”

Growing up, I had been the one fascinated by photography – the cameras, the darkroom, the smells of the films and chemicals, the various skills you needed to correctly expose a film negative, to develop it and print it. While my brother was out being a normal kid with normal interests, I was voraciously reading books about photography – The Time/Life multi-volume photography series, the 15th Edition Leica Manual (still a great book), John Schaefer’s Basic Techniques of Photography Volumes 1 and 2, and, finally, as a student,  slogging through Leslie Strobel’s Basic Photographic Materials and Processes, a dauntingly obtuse textbook that’s formed the backbone of most serious American collegiate photography programs – building and maintaining darkrooms, immersing myself in the minutia required of being a dedicated film photographer as opposed to a generic happy-snapper with a Kodak.

What came along with such dedication and mastery was a certain condescension towards the happy-snappers. We were ‘real’ photographers, with a seriousness of purpose and a body of knowledge and practical skills we used in pursuit of meaningful photographs. They pressed a button and dropped their film off at the corner pharmacy, willfully ignorant of the processes by which the pushed button resulted in the 4×5 photo held in the hand. Trying to explain to them how that happened was like trying to explain to your Golden Retriever how his dog food got into the can.

Today, that sort of differentiation – the ‘serious’ photographer with his earned body of knowledge, versus the enthusiastic hobbyist – means little in actual practice. More than ever, the cameras we’re offered allow us to do amazing things, almost effortlessly, things even the most accomplished practitioners of film photography would have found difficult if not impossible back in the day. This is wonderful for the average guy, a levelling of the playing field by removing technical mastery from potential results. Now, anyone with a “good eye’ can be an exceptional photographer.

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However, I still stubbornly subscribe to the notion that it’s a mistake to assume technological advances resulting in easier use of technologies will always be a net positive. Every new technology contains within it both a blessing and a burden. Unfortunately, in the digital age the debate is largely to those who see the incredible power of new technology but are mostly blind to its significant downside. And then there are the few of us in opposition, seeing mainly the burdens and blindly ignoring or discounting the blessings.

The entire philosophical premise of my blog, if it has one, is that there needs to be a dissenting voice to counteract the headlong embrace of digital technologies, even in light of their obvious benefits. It’s larger than the facile dismissal of the consequences of an inevitable generational shift, you know, bleeding edge hipsters versus us edgeless oldsters. There are very important issues involved, and photographic culture ignores them at its peril.

If I put aside my bruised ego for a bit, my resentment in having my skill set made obsolete, I can isolate my discomfort with digital technology by pointing to its ‘virtuality.’ Peel back both the experience and the results, and there’s very little “there” there. It all seems rather thin and formulaic, devoid of a robust sense of mastery. You end the day with nothing of substance except more files on your computer and at best a vague sense of agency; you’ve pointed your camera at things, pressed the button, viewed the virtual results on a screen of some sort, maybe shuttled the file over to a printer that spits out a print. What mastery might be involved usually seems to be in the service of manipulating results to fit an idealized Hyper-reality, a sort of Madison Avenue transcription of the real into the simulated realities of advertising and entertainment. Unfortunately, the world I live in little resembles the world I see depicted in car commercials. What’s the point in technologies that assist us in pretending it does?

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So, I will continue to use my mechanical cameras and continue to believe in the power of agency – making a thing happen through my intention and action. I will continue to delight in the “kurr-thlunk” of a mechanical shutter which physically opens a window through which light passes and impregnates a strip of cellular material with the evidence of its presence. I can then process this material – itself an embodied physical experience – and I’ll end up with a negative, a physical thing I can physically manipulate to produce one more physical thing, a photograph. The entire process will embodied from beginning to end (by embodied I mean the exact opposite of virtual; in embodied processes I’ll get my hands dirty by interacting with brute, physical things, things like mechanical shutters that respond to the exertion of pressure , rolls of film, acetic acid, squeegees, D76 at 1:1 dilution, varying weights, sizes and grades of paper etc).

Digiphiles often have what they consider a reasonable retort to a traditionalist like me – They’ll reply that, in photography,  you don’t get points for difficulty. Correct, as far as that goes. But we’re talking here of photography as a practice, as a thing that’s done and gives value in its doing. And I think it gets back to a certain level of agency – I did that; I made the decisions that produced that photo as an end result, and I made those decisions from a history of embodied experience, a history of failed and successful photographs that taught and refined my skills in so doing. Or… I pointed the camera, after first selecting an appropriate mode offered me by my camera manufacturer, and created that jpg I’m sending you as an attachment to my email; you’re welcome to print it out should you want a hard copy.

A Leica M5 Made in 1992

You learn something new every day. Above is a beautiful chrome Leica M5 , serial number 1918015, which puts its manufacture date in 1992, 17 years after the last full run of the M5 in 1975. I had no idea any M5’s were produced after 1975. Apparently, Leitz made a further run of 20 M5’s in 1992:

1918001 1918020 Leica M5 1992 20

The one above is currently for sale on Ebay, ***from a dealer in Tokyo, which leads me to believe Leitz probably made a specially requested run of 20 cameras for someone in Japan. The seller wants $1888 for it, which is a damn good price for a Leica that eventually should become very desirable as a collectible.

I ran across this while perusing a popular camera forum I usually try to stay away from. Of course, the mere mention of a Leica M5 has brought out a number of thoughtful folks espousing their M5 opinions (some good, some bad, all considered), and then of course the resident forum “Mentor” (!) putting an imperious kabosch on the proceedings by categorically declaring all M5 users lumpen proletariat idiots, apparently based on the fact that he used an M5 once and didn’t like it, it being too big for his delicate fingers, (or was it that the viewfinder window scratched his monocle?), all further discussion met with compulsive browbeating.

*** It appears the same camera is being offered by two different Tokyo based Ebay sellers, one the auction on Ebay’s American site, listed above; and also, on Ebay UK for a price in UK pounds equal to approximately $2900. Confusing, and slightly concerning, although there may very well be an innocent explanation. In any event, it’s a great deal at $1888 as sold on Ebay’s US site if in fact its legit.

Leica M3 #1097779 and the Principle of Falsification

Having had published this blog for a few years, I’ve had the privilege of meeting a lot of interesting, knowledgeable folks who know a lot about Leica film cameras. Happy to say that I’ve been the beneficiary of more than a few person’s knowledge and expertise, in the form of advice given, life experiences recounted, expertise freely and gladly shared. I’ve taken advantage of the blog to sell cameras and lenses to readers, never an unpleasant experience among the many transactions. Suffice it to say that Leicaphilia readers seem to be good, decent people sharing a love of Leica film cameras and happy to do the right thing when dealing with others similarly situated.

One of the benefits of the blog is that I’ll frequently receive inquiries from people I don’t know, asking me about a camera or lens they’ve inherited or been given, and it’s always fun to help them identify what they have and often tell them they might have a few thousand dollars worth of equipment in hand, especially when they’ve previously been pitched a ridiculously low-ball offer by a friend, family member or local camera dealer. Invariably, they go away happy, armed with a fair assessment of the worth of what they have and grateful for the help.

A few weeks ago I received the following email inquiry from a guy in Alabama, name and exact location not really relevant at this time:

Sir, I came into possession of a Leica M3 a few years ago after my father in law passed. It appears never used, has multiple lenses, and some paperwork. The camera serial number is 1097779. From what I have been able to research online, there appears to be a wide valuation range, especially with the lenses. Can you provide an estimate or recommend a reputable appraiser for these items? I am happy to provide pictures of the camera and lenses. Any suggestions will be appreciated.

Interesting: a late-run M3, apparently “never used,” with a bunch of lenses. Could be worth something. So,  I did what I’d usually do; I went to the appropriate source and ran the serial number given as a preliminary matter, and ….Holy Shit! did I read that right?….M3 #1097779 falls within one of the last 150 camera runs of factory produced Black Paint M3’s. If it’s genuine, this could be a very valuable camera. And it comes with “multiple lenses and some paperwork.” Yup…send me pictures. Send me a bunch of pictures.

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Above are a a few of the pictures sent back to me in response, pictures of what is obviously a Black Paint M3 with serial number appropriate for the claim. At first glance, and taking into consideration the relatively poor quality of the pictures, yes, it looks in damn good condition, possibly “never used”; as for the lenses, they all have their own boxes, apparently with matching serial numbers, at least one of them is black paint (the Tele-Elmarit 135 f4) and there’s some documentation about the provenance of the camera.

Back to the appropriate sources for reliable information on recent auction sales of legit Black Paint M3’s – and my research indicates that there is ample reason to assume the M3 body itself, without any of the lenses, might fetch in the neighborhood of +/- $40,000. I’ve found evidence of sales of legit Black Paint M3’s into the +$60,000 range.

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I’ve spoken with the owner at length, told him what I’ve repeated here, and am assisting him in proceeding in a manner that protects his ability to sell the camera and lenses for a legitimate price, without being screwed by unscrupulous “friends,” dealers or scammers. Luckily his wife, the daughter of the guy who purchased the camera back in the 60’s, recently turned down an offer of $3000 for the lot, rightfully deciding to make further inquiry about the value of the lot prior to making any decisions. She has numerous student loans to repay. Hence, the email to me.

I suppose the whole thing could be an elaborate scam – I’m not above being naturally suspicious in such instances; it could be an elaborate ruse cooked up by the likes of Third Man Cameras which I’ve documented recently. But everything about my interactions with the owner indicates legitimacy. The serial number matches a recognized run of Black Paint M3’s. The story behind the camera has the ring of truth. So: I’d like help from the collective wisdom of my readership: anything that looks out of place or doesn’t add up? I’d love your input.

People make decisions about what they’ll believe in two different ways. Most folks, uncritical thinkers, make an assumption and then go looking for facts that admit the assumption true. It’s a thought process that attempts to rationalize a flimsily supported belief by cherry-picking data that support the belief while willfully ignoring contradictory evidence, and it’s what scam artists rely on to hook you. You want a black paint M3, you see one with all the documentation being sold on Ebay – ‘Certificates of Authenticity’, Bills of Sale to a guy named Busby Catanach in Wisconsin, appropriate boxes and pamphlets, some cock-and-bull story about buying it from a guy at a garage sale – it all looks good because you want to believe, so you buy it for $21,000 on Ebay, which is a steal!…and you invariably find out later, if at all, that you’ve gotten screwed. Of course the seller knows nothing. This is the Third Man Camera business model. A sucker truly is born every few minutes.

Critical thinkers only make provisional assumptions until those assumptions have been tested by a process of skepticism.  In dealing with a question like this, they’ll adopt a provisional assumption provisionally supported by the known facts – it’s legit, let’s say – and then look for reasons that might falsify the assumption. Find reasons that don’t fit. If you look and look and look, and everything still fits, it’s a good bet your provisional assumption is correct. This is how good science operates – via the principle of “falsification.” If you can’t falsify a proposition no matter how hard you try, the proposition is probably true,

I’ve been unable to find anything in all this that leads me to believe this M3 is anything but a legit, pristine Black Paint M3, part of a batch of 150 produced by Leitz in 4/64. Anybody see anything I’m missing?

 

Leica Reflex Cameras: Leitz’s Red-Headed Step-Children

The Leica R9. The end of the line of Leica Film SLRs

I’ve written elsewhere of my admiration of Leica’s Reflex film cameras – the Leicaflex SL in particular. It’s ridiculously overbuilt, solid as a brick, pretty much bomb proof. Plus, you get to use arguably the best 35mm SLR optics ever made; the easily obtainable Summicron-R 50mm f2 is about as good as it gets for a standard focal length SLR lens, if that’s your thing.

I currently own 2 SL’s, one black chrome and one chrome. The chrome version is essentially new. I bought it from a nice woman whose dad owned a camera store in Boston. He apparently had put it away new in the box with a Summicron-R 50mm f2. She found it on his shelves after his death, still unused [yup, the box serial number matches the body]. I bought it, and the body sits in the box, while I’ve attached the ridiculously pristine Summicron to a user black chrome SL body. Nice rig; really nice rig.

A few months ago I initiated a fresh round of gear purge, including the sale of my black chrome SL. I had intended to sell the body only, but somewhere along the way a reader (let’s call him Mr. X) asked about it and I ended up selling him the body with the pristine Summicron. I sent it off reluctantly, with a slight regret. Now I’d have one SL body (the new chrome SL) but no lens to use with it, and chances are I’d never find a new Summicron-R the likes of what I’d just sold. Oh well.  As fortune would have it, Mr. X didn’t find my SL the amazing Leica he’d been expecting (when I asked him what he didn’t like about the camera he said the viewfinder was no brighter than his Olympus OM2 and he had expected something more. Sigh.) so of course I told him to send it back. Given the SL he had in his hands had, without a doubt, the nicest vintage Summicron-R he’d ever find, and given as well my lingering regret after having sold it, I figured this was kizmet at work, the universe giving me a mulligan.

So, having been given a second chance with my Leicaflex, I did what most Leicaphiles do when they get a new Leica  – I took a lot of pictures of my cats while admiring the cool camera I was using. Not any cat pictures, mind you, but gritty black and white “Decisive Moments”, animal reportage at its finest, photos possessing that most elusive of Barthian ontological realities – the “punctum” – no doubt a function of having been produced with a legendary hand-assembled Leitz camera with a second generation “Cron-R.”

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The Leicaflex SL. If you like the M3, You’ll Love This Camera

When I was 12, newly initiated into a subsequent lifetime of camera gear enthusiasm, presently lusting after a Nikon F (I couldn’t even conceive of owning a Leicaflex; it and the Alpa SLR were unobtainable objects for simple folks like me, to be dreamed of only), I ended up confronting the sad reality that my gear ownership, at least while under my parent’s roof, would be compromised. While I had my eyes set on “professional” cameras like the F, I’d never be able to afford one on my own, and I also wouldn’t be able to convince my parents – good, solid lower-middle class burghers –   to buy one for me, their reasoning being that nothing could justify buying the Nikon for $350 when I could buy a perfectly good camera for $125, something like a Minolta.  Certainly, my parents pointed out, the Minolta was more than adequate for the needs of a 12 y/o. And so, thrift and practicality having triumphed, I ended up with a brand new chrome Minolta SRT-101 with 50mm Rokker, a perfectly functional camera that I despised from the day I got it because it had no soul. How do you, as a 12 y/o, articulate to your folks that, for someone besotted with the idea of photography, your camera, in addition to meeting minimal practical concerns, needed to speak to you emotionally?

Thus began my aversion to Minolta cameras, and by extension, to Leica reflex cameras, or more particularly, the Minolta Leica R’s, tainted as they were by association with a garden variety Japanese camera producer. The original Leitz SLR’s – the Leicaflex, SL and SL2 – were designed and built by Leitz in Wetzlar, built to the same standards as the mechanical M’s. They were, and are, beautiful mechanical devices; solid, overbuilt no-nonsense teutonic instruments. But they made a marginal impact in the market because they arrived too late, the first Leicaflex appearing in 1964 5 years after the introduction of the iconic Nikon F. And, in spite of the fact that Leitz sold the bodies at a loss, intending to make up the difference through the sale of the R optics, they were expensive, maybe double the price of an F body, while the price of the system lenses made the whole notion of a Leicaflex cost-prohibitive for most professional photographers. Faced with these market realities, beginning in 1976 Leitz partnered with Minolta to produce the R3, their first auto-exposure camera, accessing Minolta’s technology and expertise and assembling the resulting SLR’s in Portugal to reduce costs. The R4 and R5 were subsequent variations on the same auto-exposure theme.

The Electronic Leica R7. Some People Love Em

In 1988, Leitz returned the R series to its roots with the introduction of the all-mechanical TTL metered R6, now manufactured again in Germany at their new factory in Solms. It was, essentially, a companion piece to the M6, a reach back to Leitz’s all-mechanical history. Given the state of 80’s era technology, it was also the first signs of Leica’s hedging of any pretense that the R system might function as a reasonable professional alternative to the Nikon and Canon professional SLR systems, although the 90’s era R7 did offer an auto-exposure alternative through 1997. Leica replaced the R7 with the R8, shortly to be followed by the R9, a completely new technical and aesthetic all-auto design, soon to referred to as “the Hunchback of Solms.” You either love it or hate it. Personally, I think they’re incredibly cool, having aged wonderfully from an aesthetic standpoint, soon to be a classic, but they’re still expensive even today and the latest R optics remain absurdly expensive. And, if your über-electronic R8 craps out, well, you’ve now got a very expensive door stop.

The Hunchback of Solms

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Which leads us back to the original Leicaflex and the SL’s. If you’re looking for an SLR with the minimalist sexiness of the M5, you can’t do better than a Leicaflex, although I’d steer clear of the original Leicaflex – no TTL metering, with an ugly rectangular metering window on the front of the pentaprism – in favor of the TTL metered SL or SL2. Leicaphiles who know better than me claim the SL2 to be a marked improvement on the SL, but I’ve owned both and can’t tell much difference between the two. As best I can tell, the “improvements” of the SL2 consist of a more sensitive meter and a mirror redesigned to accommodate the newly introduced 16 and 19mm R lenses.

As for my black chrome SL with ‘minty’ 50mm Summicron, it’s back for sale, me having exhausted its creative potential in a few months of marathon cat reportage, and also because my wife won’t let me buy a Colnago C60 unless I unload a few of my photographic toys.

A Colnago C60. I Want One.

That’s it, below. Great camera. No surprises, everything works. Meter works perfectly. the Summicron looks new and comes with the Leitz 12564 hood, also in like new condition. For $550, shipped to your door, it’s yours. If you don’t like it, send it back. Don’t make me put it on Ebay.  SOLD

Why Do “New” Leica Film Camera Owners Always Seem to Want the M3?

A Leica M3. A Beautiful Camera, No Doubt

It’s a question I’m increasingly asking myself. It seems rather predictable these days: prospective first time Leica film camera owners fixate upon the M3 as their entree into Leica film camera ownership. Granted, find one in decent condition and it’s a wonderful camera, exemplifying all the characteristics associated with the hand-built fully mechanical M’s. And, of course, it’s iconic, the original Leica M, with a quarter million production run between its introduction in 1954 and its replacement with the M4 in 1966. But, if you’re considering buying an iconic mechanical M film camera, and assuming you’re going to want to use it to produce photographs as opposed to propping it up on a shelf somewhere, is it really the best choice?

If you want an “iconic” all mechanical film Leica M, you have 3 choices: the M3, the M2, or the M4. (I’m not going to even debate the relative merits of the LTM Leica IIIg, introduced by Leitz in 1957 as the culmination of the venerable Barnack screw-mount line. That’s a discussion for another day.) Starting with the M5, Leica incorporated metering into the M line, necessitating a battery but, more importantly, setting in motion the incremental increases in ergonomic complexity that led to the anti-iconic electronic M7. The M5 and M6, both metered, both excellent cameras, in my mind don’t qualify as “iconic” – just try to picture Henri Cartier-Bresson using an M5 or M6 to take the picture of that guy jumping over the puddle behind the Gare du Nord.  Enough said.

As for the M4-2 and M4-P, both non-metered all mechanical M’s, purists argue they ‘really’ weren’t legitimate M’s but rather stop-gap cost-cutting throwbacks used by Leitz to buy time while they figured out what to do about the M line post-M5 debacle. At the very least, it’s a truism that neither camera was aimed at, or appealed to, the working photographer. If your goal is to own the camera that best embodies the M’s evolution from professional working tool to sentimental throwback, then the M4-2 is the camera for you. Plus, both it and the M4-P just look cheap, the M4-2 with a tacky “Leitz” logo stamped onto the top-plate; the M4-P with the same stamped logo and also a hideous red dot on the front vulcanite. Yuck. And they both continued the unfortunate trend, started with the M5 and brought down through the M lineage to this day, of stamping the “Leica” and the M designation on the front of the faceplate, an unnecessary cluttering up of the camera’s simple lines, with the result being the start of the now well-established practice of showing your hard-core Leicaphile cred by taping these over with black tape. Finally, there’s the recent all mechanical MP, an admirable attempt by Leica to maintain the iconic M profile in the digital age, but alas, too expensive and without any vintage cred.

Neither of these are “iconic” Leica Film Cameras

So, we’re left with the M2 and M4 as alternatives to the M3. The M2, prospective owners might think, would have come before the M3, but they’d be wrong. The M2 was first offered for sale in 1958, four years after the introduction of the M3, intended to be a simpler and less expensive alternative to the M3. There were some cost-cutting features vis a vis the M3: the exposure counter was an exposed dial you reset by hand as opposed to the M3’s auto-reset windowed counter, and Leitz found a way to cut production costs of its viewfinder in relation to the costs of the M3 viewfinder; but, the M2 viewfinder is main reason many working photographers opted for the M2 over the M3, and I would argue it’s also the reason the M2 remains the preferable alternative if you’re a first time Leica Film camera owner.

This One Certainly Is

The results of long experience with M’s by serious photographers seems to have confirmed the belief that the true “native” focal length for the 35mm rangefinder camera is a 35mm lens, itself a perfect combination of focal width with “normal” perspective. The 50mm focal length, especially when used on a rangefinder, seems just a bit too narrow, a bit too restricted in venues like enclosed low-light spaces where M’s have traditionally been most effective. The downside of the M3 is its .91 viewfinder magnification, a life-size magnification perfect for using a 50mm Noctilux, Summicron or Elmar and longer 90 and 135mm lenses but too narrow to use with a 35mm focal length without auxiliary finder. Hence the M2 with .72 magnification viewfinder allowing native framelines for 35/50/90 focal lengths – offered by Leitz a few years after the introduction of the M3 – as much a response to the limitations of the M3 as it was a “reduced-cost” alternative.  It’s no coincidence that the M2 became the M of choice for working photographers using Leicas in the 1960s. It was, and remains, the more practical alternative if your interest is using the camera.

Which brings us to the M4, produced by Leitz from 1967 to 1970 (marginal production as well from 71-75 when the M5 was also being offered as the first metered M). It retains the native .72 magnification viewfinder of the M2 with a bunch of incremental improvements: a 135mm brightline frame in addition to the 35/50/90 M2 trio, a really cool-looking angled cranked film rewind in place of the M2/M3’s fiddly lift-up knob that took forever to rewind a film roll, a faster 3 prong “rapid loading” (!) take up spool, and it was offered in black chrome, a much more durable finish than the black paint M2’s and M3’s that looked like crap after a few months of intense use.

Now THIS is a Real M4: Not bunged up with tacky logos or Red Dots, and not dumbed down to a price point

What I really love about the M4 is its solidity and refinement. To me it feels even more solid yet refined than does the M3. It’s a non-metered M with all the kinks worked out. It is the last iconic M (The M5 being ignored for the moment because of its unique form factor) that truly embodies all the virtues of the Leitz hand-assembled bodies. It is to the non-metered M line what the IIIg is to the Barnack line – the model line’s most refined and sophisticated representation. Were I to choose one Leica M body that most closely met the criteria of a useable iconic M, it would be the M4. Give me mine in black chrome please.