Category Archives: Cameras

The Leica MP2

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This is a Leica MP2 with Wetzler Electric Motor Winder. In December, 2010 this MP2 sold at auction for €402,000.

The MP2 is a modified M2 and not a revised MP. It was produced by Leica in 2 batches – 12 in 1958 and 15 in 1959. These differed from the M2 in that it came equipped with electronics for the Wetzler Electric Motor Winder shown in the picture above. The winder coupled to the intermediate gear of the shutter. The motor grip contained the batteries that powered the motor and screwed into the base of the motor.

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The MP2 shown here is one of two black MP2’s known to have been produced. The remainder were chrome.

The MP: What’s Old Is New Again

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In 1956, Leica produced the MP, a “Professional” version of the M3 with long winding shaft and fitted Leicavit. Original MPs were two-stroke, and like unlike the M3, had no self-timer. The film counter was, like the M2, external and needed to be manually set. Essentially, the MP was a dual stroke M2 with 50mm viewfinder and Leicavit attached, produced a year before the introduction of the M2 in 1957. Sale of the camera was restricted to “bonafide working press photographers.” In order to purchase an MP, dealers had to specify the name, address and professional credentials of the purchasing customer. In all, Leica produced 449 cameras, 311 chrome and 138 black paint, although some existing M3’s were converted to MP’s by Leitz in the early 60’s. These conversions did not carry the MP numbering.

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The MP was discontinued in 1957 after the introduction of the M2, which also used the Leicavit winder and had the advantage of a .72 viewfinder that accommodated the more popular 35mm focal length.  In 2012, MP #126, shown above, sold at auction for $158,000.

In 2003, Leica introduced a “New” version of the MP with TTL exposure metering. A new Leicavit-M was offered as an accessory. The single stroke winding lever was the metal one-piece type found on the M3/MP.  The viewfinder was the same version as found on the M7, and was available in 0.58, 0.72 and 0.85 magnifications, although the new black paint version was only offered with the 0.72 magnification viewfinder. Like the original MP, the top-plate was made of brass and carried the engraved Leica logo.

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Leica also produced 500 “Hermes Edition” MP’s in 2003. These were chrome and covered in “Hermes Barenia calfskin.” I doubt many found their way into the hands of “bonafide working press photographers.”

Hermes MP

The Leicaflex SL: The Camera That Almost Bankrupted Leitz (No, It Wasn’t the M5!)

I love the Leicaflex SL, but I understand its not for everybody…or even most people. It’s big, and clunky and is brick heavy. In its day it cost half as much again as its competition – The Nikon F – without offering nearly as much system versatility; no interchangeable prisms or even focusing screens, no alternative backs or motors, extremely expensive but limited optics.

Its not surprising, then, that the Leicaflex system never really caught on with professional photographers as an SLR system camera. Leitz had only reluctantly accepted the public’s move from rangefinder to SLR and was slow to market a Leica SLR camera. Nikon had beaten Leica to the punch by 5 years with its comprehensive and affordable F system, and it didn’t help that Leica’s initial ‘standard’ Leicaflex (1964-68) was hopelessly outdated upon introduction, using non-TTL metering from an opening on the face of its reflex pentaprism. Ungainly and inaccurate. By the time the SL was introduced in July of 1968, the Leicaflex system was an afterthought for most photographers.

Given the late start, It also didn’t help that with the introduction of the SL Leitz chose a commercial policy of selling the SL and SL2 bodies at a cost below the cost of manufacture i.e. for every one they sold they lost money. The hope was that the money lost on bodies would be made back on the sale of Leitz lenses. The fact that Leica lost money on every Leicaflex sold should tell you something about the camera itself: while the Nikon F with metered prism sold, presumably for a profit,  for $400, the SL sold, at a loss, for over $600. Pick one up and use it, even today, and you’ll understand why it cost Leitz so much to produce the SL.

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As a teenage boy coming of age photographically in the early 1970’s, what I desired was a Nikon F, only because the Leica M5 was simply too expensive to contemplate. I never much thought of the Leicaflex SL. Seeing it in the store advertisements in the backpages of Modern Photography and Popular Photography, It seemed a brutalist Teutonic oddity that even Leica never totally embraced, it and its lenses priced in the stratosphere. Leica ceased production of the Leicaflex in 1976 and thereafter concentrated most of its efforts on the M system, a decision that at the time seemed suspect but now appears inspired.

In 1976, as an 18 year old, I purchased my first Leica, an M5 bought new at a discount (but still expensive) price from Cambridge Photo in NYC. In 1984 I purchased one of the first production M6’s. Since then I’ve owned and operated almost ever M model made, and currently own an M2, M4 and two M5’s. But I never much thought of the Leicaflex;  it was only recently, almost as an afterthought, that I discovered the classic simplicity of a Leicaflex SL. I met a nice woman who was selling her father’s camera collection. Her father had owned 3 camera stores in the Boston area in the 60’s and 70’s, and he had been a Leica enthusiast. He had set aside a boxed SL with 50mm Summicron R and Leitz leather camera case and used it infrequently, if at all. It looked unused. I paid less for the entire boxed affair than most people pay for a smartphone they’ll throw away in 2 years.

The SL just may be the high water mark of Leitz’s traditional hand-built manufacturing prowess. What it lacks in aesthetics it more than makes up for in feel and workmanship. As with the M’s, nothing superfluous has been added for commercial appeal. The Leicaflex SL is mechanical simplicity defined, with a heft and feel that makes the F seem cheap and flimsy by comparison. Close you eyes and wind on the film and you’ll swear you have an M in your hands. Look through the viewfinder and find a size and brightness that puts the F to shame with its low light focusing capabilities. Plus you get to use the wonderful, albeit expensive, Leitz lenses.

Ultimately, I had to decide: was my perfect SL to be a collector’s shelf queen, or would I use it? It was easy enough decision after I’d handled the SL – you use it and you marvel at your fortune in owning such a wonderful precision instrument.

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Garry Winogrand’s M4

Born in 1928 and died in 1984, Winogrand is considered by many to be one of the most influential American photographers of the 20th century. By the early 1970’s when he purchased this M4, he was shooting roughly 1000 rolls of film a year, a pace he accelerated until his death from cancer in 1984.

While Winogrand is known for his wide angle vision (many of his iconic photos were taken with a 28mm Elmarit) he typically carried two camera bodies with him, one with a 28 and one with a moderate telephoto. This particular M4 was produced in Wetzler in November, 1970, which means it probably saw 12 years and approximately 15,000 rolls of concentrated use by Winogrand.

According to Stephen Gandy, this M4 passed to one of Winogrand’s friends, who still uses the camera. I’m pretty certain Winogrand would have wanted it that way.

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The M5. Leica’s Misunderstood Masterpiece: A Revisionist History

In 1971, Leica introduced its successor to the M4, the Leica M5. In development since 1966, the M5 represented a tour de force of then current rangefinder technology – it was the first metered M camera and the first 35mm rangefinder to combine interchangeable lenses with a through the lens (“TTL”) metering system. Among its other design innovations,  its viewfinder incorporated a coupled light meter and shutter speed data in the viewfinder itself, it relocated the ungainly rewind crank of the M4 to the left end of the base-plate, its shutter speed dial overhung the front of the camera so you could set shutter speed while keeping you eye to the viewfinder, and it located the carry-strap lugs both at the left end of the camera so that the camera would hang vertically rather than horizontally when worn.  It was also the first M camera to use black chromium for the finish of its black versions (much more durable than the black enamel previously used).

It’s semi-spot meter utilized a 8mm diameter double cadmium sulfide resistor located on a carrier arm centered 8mm in front of the film plane. When pressing the shutter release, the carrier arm swung down parallel to the shutter curtain and hid in a recess below the shutter itself. It remains, to this day, the most accurate meter ever put into a Leica M film camera. The M5 viewfinder used the same 68.5 base length and .72 magnification as the M4 with the added feature of viewing the shutter speed and match needle metering.

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 So, why is the M5 commonly considered a “failure,” the camera that almost bankrupted Leica? Anecdotal testimonies claim that M5’s sat on dealers’ shelves for years after production stopped in 1974 after only 4 years. I purchased my first Leica, an M5, new in 1976, 2 years after its date of manufacture. I remember a steep discount to the official retail price.

The answer, I would claim, is not so much its aesthetics or its size (the two most common explanations for its demise) but rather a confluence of factors, both internal and external to Leica, a confluence that would have doomed the M5 in whatever guise Leica chose to go forward with its M series. 

The first reason is simply the tenor of the times photographically. By 1971, rangefinder technology was seen by both professional and amateur as an antiquated throw-back with numerous disadvantages. Professionals had increasingly embraced the Nikon F system and its excellent but affordable optics, and amateurs had followed the lead and made SLR’s dominant in the 35mm market. Even Leica had bowed to the future, although reluctantly. At the beginning of the 1960s, Leitz continued to believe in the inherent advantages of the rangefinder over the SLR, but found it necessary for their continued relevance to produce and market their own SLR system, the Leicaflex.

The second reason, and I think the most apt, is Leica’s decision to produce the bargain priced Leica CL system in conjunction with the M5. Leica sold 65,000 CL’s between 1971 and 1974, mostly to the amateur market, at the same time it was marketing the M5 to professionals. As such, the CL cannibalized a large portion of the market the previously addressed solely by the M series. The production numbers point to this conclusion: Leitz sold approximately 57,000 rangefinder cameras in the initial 4.5 years of the M4’s production (1966-1971) and 92,000 rangefinder cameras in the 4 years of the M5’s production. The CL accounted for more than 2/3rds of those sales, driven mainly by a price 1/5th of the M5. The truth of the ex post facto justifications for the modest sales of the M5 (i.e. it didn’t look like a traditional M) is belied by the obvious fact that the CL didn’t look like the previous M’s either and yet it sold briskly.

It was only with the appearance of Japanese Leica collectors in the 1990’s that demand and prices for the M5 rose to levels of other M’s. Unfortunately, the M5 has continued to labor under the stigma be being a “failure.” If you’ve ever used an M5, you’ll know its a wonderful camera, the last of the true Wetzler M’s built without compromise. I even think its a beautiful camera, especially the chrome version. Whatever you think of its aesthetics, it certainly doesn’t deserve the lingering stigma attached to it.

Arguably “Tasteless” Leica Luxury Editions Go Way Back

As Leica has increasingly moved away from its historic origins as a working camera and been transformed into a luxury commodity, it has been criticized by purists for what many think a craven pandering to excess – witness the “Sultan of Brunei” Special Edition Leica of 1995.

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The reality is somewhat different. As early as 1929, only 4 years removed from the introduction of the original Leica A, Leitz was offering “for a small extra fee” a dyed calf leather covering in place of the standard vulcanite. The discriminating Leicaphile had the choice of 4 different colors: green, blue, red or brown.  In the same year, Leitz also introduced the “Luxus Leica,” a standard Leica A plated in matte gold and covered with red lizard skin.

A rare calf-leather covered Leica A from 1930 – one of only three examples known to exist – sold for 120,000 Euros in 2011. Unlike the gold-plated Luxus, the calf-leather Leica A is understated, and in my opinion very beautiful.

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In 1957, Leitz offered a gold plated M3 complete with gold meter and collapsible Summicron; in 1979, a 1000 unit run of gold M4-2’s were produced with gold accented Summilux; and in 1984 a 1000 unit run of gold R4’s.  All proof that tastelessness and wretched excess have co-existed since the beginning with leicaphilia.

Nikon’s W-Nikkor 3.5cm 1.8 – Is This The Best 35mm Wide Angle Ever Made For A Leica?

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In 1956, two years after the introduction of the Nikon S2, Nikon delivered a stunning new 35mm (3.5cm) lens of 7 element 5 group design with a maximum aperture of 1:1.8.  It employed rare earth Lanthanum glass to improve spherical aberration and curvature of field, enhancing both sharpness and image flatness. This Nikon mount lens used a convex shaped rear lens element larger than the front, which minimized the spherical aberration and coma problems usually associated with fast wide angle optics. It was one in a series of excellent fast optics produced by Nikon for their rangefinders, following the 8.5cm 1;1.5 in 1953 and the 5.0cm 1:1.1 in 1956. The 3.5cm 1.8 was Nikon’s shot across Leica’s bow, given Leitz’s preeminence in wide angle design, incorporating the highest technology of the period to produce optics as good, or better than, the Leitz offerings.

The W Nikkor 3.5cm 1.8 was met with rapturous reviews by Nikon photographers; almost all rated it superior to the Leitz offerings at the time, and most claimed it better than the f2 Summicron and the 2.8 Summaron both introduced by Leitz 2 years later in 1958.

Given the reception of the Nikon Mount 3.5cm, in 1957 Nikon briefly decided to offer the lens in thread mount for Leica rangefinders. While optically the same as the Nikon mount, the design of the Leica mount model is slightly different. The front element is flat, and the focusing ring is also flat without the scalloped-design on the Nikon S-Mount version. While all LTM copies are coated, Nikon omitted the “C” designation on a few hundred of the latter produced lenses. These non-designated C lenses command premium prices.

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While Nikon produced 6500 of the Nikon S mount 3.5cm lens, it produced a very limited run of approximately 1500 of the Leica mount. The LTM W-Nikkor 3.5cm 1.8 exhibits extremely high resolution and high contrast in a lens faster than ƒ2. The actual resolution of this 60 year old lens is nothing short of astonishing. Even more astonishing is, that in contrast to other lenses from that era the W-Nikkor retains this kind of performance over the whole frame.The Nikon lens is so impressively good it took Leica 40 years to match its optical excellence with the $5000 Aspherical Summilux.

The W-Nikkor3.5cm 1.8 Leica mount lens was then, and remains, a rare and much sought after lens, and comes up for sale rather infrequently. If you want to try one on your Leica, if you can find one, you can expect to pay $1600-$2000 for a BGN grade copy, with prices escalating significantly for exceptional copies.

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Ironic, then, that maybe the best 35mm focal length lens ever produced for the venerable Leica was made by Nikon.