Custom designed Leica cameras from the Japan Camera Hunter.
Above is one of the first SLR cameras I owned as a kid, A Mamiya/Sekor 528TL. I was 12. It was an amateur’s camera, a fixed lens SLR with telephoto and wide angle attachments. I didn’t keep it long. What I wanted was a Nikon F. You could change lenses on the Nikon F. To a 12 year old, that seemed incredibly cool, the ability to change lenses. The Mamiya was decidedly not cool, so I convinced my parents that I needed a better camera and the Mamiya went wherever unused cameras went back in 1970.
A few years ago I ran across one on Ebay and bought it on a whim – it was $10. I figured, why not, I’d put it up on the shelf as a piece of nostalgia, maybe even use it occasionally when feeling in a retro mood. Once I got it in the mail I realized my initial 12 y/o’s assessment of the camera had been pretty much correct. It was a piece of junk, made in Korea, obviously thrown together without much thought to precision or longevity, a 1970’s era throw-away.
Which is unusual. Film cameras back in the day were typically built robustly, made to last, not in thrall to a consumerist ethic that required replacement with “better” technology every 18 months or so. Not that manufacturers wouldn’t have liked us to be buying a new camera every 18 months; it was just that the mechanical technology was static in a way that didn’t lend itself to constant upgrading, so cameras were typically built solidly, with longevity and robustness as a selling point. You’d buy a camera – a Nikon F or a Leica M – with the understanding that you’d keep it for a lifetime. There might be newer models to come along, something a little sexier, but basically the same technology presented in a new package.
Where it all began to change was with the introduction of electronics in cameras – meters, and then auto exposure and auto focus – and the pace of technology dictated that cameras became consumer goods, something with a limited technological shelf life that required upgrading at fixed intervals. As such, the notion of robustness, building something with longevity in mind, became an anachronism. Of course there were exceptions – the M5 and M6 come to mind, as does the Nikon F2 and Canon F1.
This all came back to me the other day as I was out riding my new (to me) Schwinn Paramount road bike. Growing up, I admired fine road racing bikes the way I admired fine cameras. And back in 1970, at least here in the States, there was nothing more desirable and exclusive than a Paramount. I remember seeing one hanging in the window of the bike shop, a beautiful jewel of a bike, ridiculously expensive and out of reach for most people, certainly for a kid like me. One day, I told myself, I’d have a Schwinn Paramount.
The Paramount has an interesting history. It was first produced by Schwinn, a large American bicycle maker, in 1938, and remained essentially the same bike up through the mid-80’s, when bike technology started a progressive trajectory much like cameras. Schwinn hired an old world master frame maker – Emil Wastyn – to build frames for Schwinn’s professional six-day racing team. Emil ran a bicycle frame shop not far from the Chicago Schwinn factory. Soon, a select number of Paramount-labeled bikes began to appear for sale to the general public.
During the next twenty years, Wastyn hand-built all Schwinn’s Paramounts at his shop. The earliest Paramounts followed his signature styling (balled-end seat stays, for example) and keyhole-styled lugs. Over the years, Paramounts gradually evolved their own specific style – particularly the famous slant trimmed seat stays which remained in effect for 50 years. Schwinn also produced a variety of machined components to complement the frame – beautifully crafted wide-flange hubs, stems, handlebars and even pedals, each marked with the Schwinn name in script. By the 60’s, Schwinn had brought hand-built production in shop and offered Paramounts with top of the line Italian Campagnolo components, with corresponding prices to match.
Think of the Schwinn Paramount as the Leica of American made racing bikes, the best, most refined version of a steel framed road racing cycle, a no-expense spared hand built machine with functionality as its premier design feature, nothing extraneous or thrown in for fashion. Like Leicas, they’ve become collectors items for guys my age, nostalgic for the things they wanted but couldn’t afford in their youth. Technologically, they’re simple, 22 lb fully mechanical lugged steel framed and shiny chromed artworks. Most collectors hang them on the wall and never ride them, which is a shame, because, as I’ve discovered, they’re still sublime to ride even 50 years old.
My 1969 Schwinn Paramount P-13
Above is my Paramount, which I’ve owned for all of two weeks. I found it on a whim on Craigslist in Richmond, VA, a 200 mile ride from my home in North Carolina. It was being sold by the original owner, and he had receipts back to his purchase of the bike in 1969. It wasn’t period correct in that he had upgraded the drive train to a 90’s era Campagnolo 8 speed with modern style shifters, but it still had the same beautiful box section wheels with high-flange Campy hubs, and the drive train upgrades were top of the line Campagnolo circa 1992. And it looked in good condition from the pics he posted. And it was cheap. I called him, paypalled him the asking price sight unseen, then rode to Richmond to pick it up. The bike was pristine, obviously cared for, almost new, and mechanically, everything worked perfectly. I drove home marveling at my good fortune.
My intent had been to strip the frame, sell the vintage Campy components and replace them with a modern groupset with modern wheels. As such, I’d have the best of both worlds – a beautiful hand built steel lugged frame mated to modern lightweight components. One ride on the bike changed my mind forever. Its 10 mile shakedown ride turned into a 6 hour, 100 mile ride – without the usual earbuds and ZZ Top blasting away over the creaking of the carbon fiber frame – cruising eastern North Carolina farm roads. Used to riding 17 lb carbon fiber bikes, I assumed my Paramount ride would feel heavy and slow and harsh, probably accompanied by the metallic twang of misaligned gears and loose nuts and bolts. Instead, the Paramount rode perfectly quiet, the 50 year old hubs rolling along with a smooth effortlessness I’d never experienced before, not a rattle anywhere on the bike, everything solid and purposeful. And it felt light. Sprinting out of the saddle or climbing hills was a revelation of what a bike should feel like. In short, the Paramount offered something close to perfection, a sublime experience of a machine perfectly matched to its function.
It made me think of my Leica M4, produced during the same year as my Paramount. From a technical perspective, hopelessly outdated, laughable almost when compared to the M10 or the D800, good only for nostalgia. In reality though, it’s just the opposite, the Paramount and the M4 two examples of machines of profound elegance, perfectly made for their intended purpose, made with an artisanal pride and built to last seemingly forever, unlike today’s “imaging devices” and 15 lb carbon fiber bikes.
Just Shoot Me If I Ever Become This Guy
I hate nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. Sometimes, old stuff is just shitty old stuff, as my Mamiya 528TL proves. I don’t ever want to become that guy with the M4 and the beret who fancies himself Josef Koudelka with all the period correct lenses etc, or the old guy with the 60’s era wool jersey and the leather helmet out for his Sunday “L’Eroica” retro ride. That attitude doesn’t befit the inherent worth of the M4 or the Paramount, two beautiful hand crafted machines that work perfectly for their intended use, and as such, are not “vintage” and will never be obsolete.
I’ve been riding the hell out of the Paramount since I’ve gotten it. It’s shined up perfectly, cleaned top to bottom, not a scratch on it, but I’m intent on riding it hard, using it for its intended purpose, much like I still use my Leica film cameras. They weren’t made to put on a shelf or hang on a wall. They were made to be used, and the pleasure of their use will prevent them from ever becoming obsolete, which is not something you can say for a camera or a bicycle you can buy new today.
The KE-7A is a specialized black chrome M4 made in 1972 by Leitz in their Midland Canada plant and offered in a limited run of 505 pieces for the U.S. Army. 460 of those units were acquired by the Army. Where the remaining 45 civilian pieces went is unclear.
KE-7As were fitted with modified shutters to operate in temperatures to -20 degrees Fahrenheit, were dust sealed for military field conditions and made to withstand explosive concussion (i.e. bomb blast). The 460 military versions were engraved to indicate that they were standard issue US Army property ( specifically, each with FSN (Federal Stock Number), Cont. (contract designation), and U.S. (United States) markings) and came supplied with a Leitz Midland made 50mm f2 “Elcan”. The Elcan 50mm f2 (“Elcan” being a contraction of “Ernst Leitz Canada”) was constructed of 4 elements for minimum size for military use. Where the “KE-7A” designation comes from is anyone’s guess.
In 1972, the M4 had been discontinued and replaced by the M5. I can only assume that the Army had placed its order during M4 production and Leitz were committed to provide a camera based on the M4 design. As with all assumptions, this may be wrong.
If you’ve been reading this blog with any regularity, you’ll know that i’ve been periodically selling off equipment in a professed attempt to de-clutter my photographic life. [More to come shortly.] I woke up one day and realized my collection of ‘must have’ cameras and lenses had grown ridiculously large. I’m not necessarily against owning a collection of cameras, it’s just that, when it comes to photography, I’m not a ‘collector’ but rather fancy myself a user. You’d think that having a lot of cameras and lenses would be beneficial for someone who intended to use them for specific purposes, but in reality it doesn’t work that way. What happens is that the multitude of choices you’ve given yourself make choosing more difficult. Faced with the decision of what to pick up and use, I find myself defaulting, usually grabbing the same camera and the same lens as always, saving myself the trouble of having to deal with the cognitive dissonance that comes along with justifying whatever choice I would have otherwise made. And then there’s the emotional component, you know, the fact that I got such and such camera at such and such time and such and such place and did such and such thing with it back in the day, all part of the myriad of irrational factors we consider when we make value judgments about the things we own. Such are the anxieties that come with affluence.
You’ll also know that I tend to lapse into abstract discussions about things as I’m doing here, a habit I’ve possessed since young (my favorite book as a teenager was Nausea by JP Sartre (!)), and have an annoying habit of citing obscure thinkers to make a point. From a psychological perspective, it’s probably overcompensation, something I learned early on as a non-conformist teen with a middle finger up to any authority; when faced with the specious claims of those who claim authority to speak, you can often shut them up by one-upping them with competing claims based upon arcane sources, given that those in positions of authority dread admitting you might know arguments and authorities they don’t. Using this method, many years ago already I had come to the realization that most of those who claim authority over a subject are usually full of shit, their claim to it easily deflated with some critical argument.
One thing I have concluded, with certainty, is that cameras, however beautiful or iconic they might be, are still just things produced and meant to be used. You can put them on a shelf and admire them, but the satisfaction that brings is fleeting because, at bottom, they’re tools to be used, and where they find their meaning is in their use.
A Carl Zeiss Jena 5cm 1.5 Sonnar, disassembled, cleaned and calibrated by Mr. Sweeney himself. Is it a rare, super-cool lens to use with your Leica? Yes. Do I “need” it? No.
But I digress. The reason for this post is to sell some stuff. In this case, really good stuff, the stuff I’ve been holding off selling in the hope I’d find a reason to keep it, because, frankly, I’m getting down to the equipment I have a real emotional attachment to insofar as one can be emotionally attached to things. It doesn’t help that the IRS is sending me letters suggesting I owe them money and hinting at extraordinary measures to collect it if it’s not immediately forthcoming. So much for emotional attachments. The IRS notwithstanding, I’d recently reached the conclusion that my photographic life would benefit from some further downsizing. Specifically, I’ve concluded I “need” the following: 1 film rangefinder camera with 21/35/50 lenses. And 1 digital camera with a lens. That’s it. The rest, nice as it might be to have, is redundant and certainly not required.
What I actually have at this point is this (even though I’ve been gradually selling off things now for the last year or two):
- -A mint black Chrome Leica M4 ;
- 2 Leica M5’s, one black, one chrome, the chrome version needing a new beam-splitter but otherwise quite nice;
- a Leica IIIg, in need of a general overhaul;
- a Leica IIIf, also in need of maintenance;
- A chrome Leicaflex SL body;
- A standard prism user black paint Nikon F with a stuck shutter;
- A standard prism black paint Nikon F with perfect 50mm f2 Nikkor-H, the nicest Nikon F I’ve ever seen and definitely a collector;
- a Nikon S2 in need of a CLA;
- A Bessa R2S with Voigtlander 25mm, 35mm and 50mm lenses and a few Nikkor RF lenses as well;
- A Nikon F5 with a slew of manual and AF Nikkor lenses;
- A Contax G2 with 45mm Planar and data back who ISO button is stuck that I’ve been using to take one picture of myself in the mirror everyday for about 6 years now;
- A very nice, seldom used Leica M8;
- A Ricoh GXR with M module;
- A Ricoh GXR with Ricoh 28mm, 50mm and zoom modules
Frankly, as my wife periodically notes to me, that’s ridiculous.
In deciding what to sell and what to keep (for now), I’ve taken into account what I’d recoup from selling a given item, as an example, the Nikon F5. It may be the most sophisticated, bulletproof film camera ever made: incredibly robust, full of all the features we now expect of DSLRs, it sells for a fraction of its true photographic worth. A quick trip to Ebay sees them selling for $200 and up. That’s nuts. Keep batteries in it and that camera will be working long after I’m dead, plus you get to use the full range of Nikkor lenses, manual focus lenses dating back to the 50’s all the way up to full frame AF Nikkors being produced today. All of that is worth more to me than $250 in my pocket, irrespective of how few times I use the camera. The F5 I keep. Likewise, the cameras that need service. Sell em now for next to nothing or have them serviced and sell them for what they’re worth. So, the Chrome M5, IIIg, IIIf, user Nikon F, the Nikon S2 and the Contax G2 all stay. Next step is to get them serviced, sometime down the road. Which leaves me with a working F5 and tons of optics for it, a Bessa R2S with 25/35/50/85/135, a black M5, a mint black M4, a mint black Nikon F with mint period correct 50mm Nikkor-H that’s apparently been on the camera since new (since it seems as unused as the body and plain prism), a little used M8 and two Ricoh GXRs.
The M5 I keep, as I’ve had it 40 years and is the one camera I’ve always said I’d never sell although it would make sense to sell the M5 and keep the Bessa with its Voigtlander Nikkor mount lenses. Given this, I’ll keep both. As for the digital bodies, I’ll keep one GXR with the 28, 50 and zoom modules. If I can’t meet my photographic needs with
- a Nikon F5 and about 20 Nikkors of various size, shape and focal lengths
- An M5 with a 21/35/50
- A Bessa R2S with a 25/35/50/85/125
- A Ricoh GXR with 28 and 50 modules
then clearly my “needs” are driven by something other than what’s necessary.
Selling this one too. Got the boxes and all the ancillary stuff. Just don’t need it.
How does someone who’s always considered himself above the petit-bourgeois consumerist mindset end up with so much pretty stuff? Good question. It sneaks up on you; while you’re busy chuckling at the lost souls on the photo forums commiserating with other lost souls about which new Fuji body they need to replace last year’s Fuji kit, which 6 months ago replaced the 2015 Fuji, you yourself are engaged in the functional equivalent, buying another camera just because, telling yourself your motives are somehow better, less suspect than the neurotic consumerists who populate the usual sites. You’re not. You’re just another American who’s bought into the idea that happiness comes from stuff, especially really nice stuff like used Leicas.
[ So…., a bunch of things – the M4, the M8, the F, the CZJ Sonnar etc – will be going up for sale on the “For Sale” page of the site. They should be up in a day or two.]
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.
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.
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.
“This “pro” doesn’t boast electronic circuitry. It doesn’t have photocells to select the area of interest. No little indicators to tell you there’s not enough light. The Leica M4 is strictly for those of you who prefer to do your own thinking, your own creating.” – Leitz Advertisement, Popular Photography, 1968
Still a valid claim today. It’s interesting to think how far camera technology has come in the last 50 years, and yet, the same claims of simplicity of design and function can be made for a 65 year old design, Leica M film cameras still being enthusiastically used by photographers around the world.
by Hector Ramos
For the last year or so I’ve visited Leicaphilia almost daily looking for interesting reads on analogue and Leica film cameras. I visit other sites, too like Eric Kim’s, Steve Huff’s and Japan Camera Hunter but I like Leicaphilia the best because it helps me discover and remember why I’ve chosen film and Leicas as my medium.
Growing up in the Philippines in the 1970s, one of my fond memories is my dad’s Kodak Instamatic camera and photo albums. Special occasions were recorded and revisited via photo albums. I grew up in a small town without electricity, TV, phone, refrigerator or cars. My dad’s camera was considered a sign of affluence. From 1992 to 2010, I lived and worked between India; the Bay Area in California; Europe; and Australia, and used photography to keep my sanity, doing it mostly as a hobby and part time to earn some money. I had a collection of Nikon bodies, an FM2 (which I still regret selling) , F801, F4s, F5, F3 and D1x, and several lenses. The F5 in particular was very impressive for its metering. But I remember one day asking myself: ‘This camera is better than me! I wonder how it gets ‘good’ pictures?’ Thus began my search for a more simplified camera that would allow me to make the pictures instead of having the camera do it for me.
I sold all my Nikon gear and ended up with a brand new black Leica MP and a pair of lenses: the 35mm and 75mm Summilux aspherical lenses, bought from B&H. A friend who delivered them to me said ‘I can’t belive how expensive these are!’…. and I thought to myself ‘Is this all I get for selling so many cameras and lenses? What was I thinking?’ Yet, as I began to use the kit the build quality, simplicity, and concentration required to use the system gave me a photographic rebirth and the greatest satisfaction to date compared to any camera I’ve ever used. I noticed a change in my photos which were hard to explain. But the most important was the taking of a responsibility that when the picture was great it was because of me. And if it was not to my liking it was also because of my skills as a photographer.
Enter the M8. It was convenient and produced film like qualities. I stopped using the MP and my back-up M6. But interestingly the ‘quality’ of my work dipped and I stopped enjoying my photography so much. For important work, like weddings, I always went back to the MP and M6. And always they gave me greater satisfaction than the M8. I eventually sold the M6 and the M8 together with a 28 summicron and a 135 telyt for an M9 a few years back. I tried hard to love digital. But something never clicked. I couldn’t relate to the digital workflow and digital files. I tried to mimic film but in the end I thought,’why not just use film then?’ The M9 gets used by two of my sons when they visit.
I have since tried an M3 and an M4 and have learned to eye exposure. But my current workhorse is the MP and a 50 summilux. They always accompany me on my work travels to different countries, usually used to record moments for myself.
I am currently going through two big suitcases full of velvia slide boxes, and Tri-x and HP5 sleeves from the last 24 years of shooting, trying to organize for printing choice images just like what my dad did. Or maybe for a website. But the images which stand out because of a certain ‘feel’ are the ones unmistakably taken with the Leicas.
So, here’s a picture of Garry Winogrand with his famous M4, you know, the one he ran about 100,000 rolls through and generally beat the hell out of, the camera itself now somewhat of an icon. Except that, as alert Leicaphile Andrew Fishkin points out to me, the shutter advance lever is most definitely not an M4 lever, but rather the old style M2/3 full metal lever. So, given the presence of a dedicated exposure numbering window next to the shutter release, this would appear to be an M3 as opposed to an M2. Whatever Winogrand was doing with an M3, well, we’ll never know.
As for the lens, the more I look at it, it looks like a 21mm Super-Angulon and not the 28mm Elmarit he “always” shot with. So much for “what everybody knows” about Winogrand.
Want Chrome? Buy an M2/3/4. Black versions are stupid expensive, plus, in spite of what Lenny Kravitz says, they usually look like shit. An iconic M should be chrome.
Want Black? Buy an M5 or M6. Ironically, chrome versions of the M5 and M6 will run you more because they are rarer. Both the M5 and M6 black versions are black chrome, unlike the M2/3/4, which are black paint (with the exception of some later black chrome M4s), and don’t suffer from “brassing”, which is the single dumbest affectation heretofor conjured up by Leica fanatics.
Want to avoid the herd? Buy an M5. It has a meter, and it’s a better camera than the metered M6. Better ergos, better meter, cheaper, shows you’re serious about your Leicas and don’t give a damn what Leica snobs think.
Want one iconic M body? Buy the M4. Best Leica M ever. It’s better than the M3 because it accommodates a 35mm lens without an external finder, and it’s better than an M2 because it’s easier to load and has a better film rewind. I might argue that the M5 is an even better camera, but, admittedly, the styling of the M5 is not “iconic.”
Want to be like every other dentist who’s got bitten by the Leica bug? Buy an M6.
Avoid the M4-2 and the M4-P. The original “Dentist Leicas.” Leitz produced them as cost-cutting versions of the M4 after the M5 failed to sell in sufficient numbers. These days, they’re as expensive as a comparable condition M4. Buy the M4. It’s a better camera, has better fit and finish, has an ingraved top plate while the M4-2 and P have a cheesy Leica logo painted on the top plate. As if the forgoing isn’t enough, the M4-P comes with a hideous red dot affixed to its front.
Avoid the M7. It really isn’t an M. Seriously. It replaced the sublime sound and feel of the traditional M shutter with the metalic clacking of its battery driven electronic shutter. How incredibly gauche. If you really think you need Aperture Priority Automation and a pocket full of battery power (you don’t), get a Hexar RF for a fourth of the price, because the Hexar is the better camera, and frankly, you’re not a real leicaphile to begin with.
Don’t worry about cosmetics. Ironically, most beat up users function much better than “Minty” collectors grade because they’ve been used and kept in spec via use. Nothing is cooler than a Leica that shows that it’s been well-used instead of sitting on a shelf somewhere.
Forget about a CLA’d camera. Just buy one that works; get it CLA’d if and when you need it. Stop worrying if your 1/8th shutter speed sounds slightly off. Only collectors and fondlers give a shit about irrelevant things like that. Just use the damn thing and enjoy it.
Look for bright viewfinders with bright rangefinder patches.
Make sure the shutter curtains aren’t whacked.
To Summarize: If you want a non-metered M, buy an M4, chrome or black chrome as you prefer. If you want a metered M, buy a black chrome M5. If you absolutely need AE (you don’t) to use with M mount optics, don’t buy an M7; buy a Hexar RF and use the money you’ve saved to buy 400 rolls of HP5. Whatever you buy, don’t buy something that looks like its been sitting on a collector’s shelf. It’s probably not going to work as well as your basic beater that’s been used, and you’re going to overpay for the privilege of doing so. In my mind, you simply can’t get any better than a beat up, well used chrome M4. In addition to the pleasure of owning and using an iconic photographic tool, you’ll get some serious street cred from real Leicaphiles as opposed to the status conscious wannabees toting their latest digital Leica swag.