Tag Archives: Leica M2

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 you’d like to own the camera that best embodies the M’s evolution from professional working tool to sentimental throwback, the M4-2 is the camera for you. Plus, both 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. 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.

Learning the Craft with a Leica

img_20160306_0023

By Tadeas Plachy. Mr. Plachy lives and works in Prague in the Czech Republic

[Editor’s Note: I love stories like this. It’s easy enough to be jaded about modern Leicaphiles – those who simply buy the camera for the name and the cache that supposedly comes along with the name- and easy enough to forget that there are still people like Mr. Plachy, dedicated to learning the craft of traditional photography and wanting to do so with a camera that has meaning for them as something other than an upgradable widget. He’s right – there is something profound about the use of a precision mechanical camera like a Leica M2, 60 years old but still remarkably relevant.]

My photographic journey had already begun when my grandfather gave me his well used Leica on his deathbed. I had started in the 90’s with a cheap film camera, a Minolta point and shoot, shooting Kodak color negative film. I was a curious kid so I shot everything. My mother, who paid for the processing and prints,  was quite unhappy that I shot random things. Sadly, while moving I lost all my negatives from those years.

In 2002 I received my first digital camera. I went to London for school and took my new 1.3mpx fixed focus digital camera. I could take about 20 shots with a set of 2 AA batteries. I carried full pockets of batteries. A 128 mb compact flash memory card cost the same as the camera, so I only had one. It was full within a day. I soon put that digital abomination into a drawer and never looked at it again. Unfortunately, my digital experience killed any further interest I might have had in photography.

In 2014, my wife and I visited her parents in Herefordshire, England, for Christmas. While perusing a book store I spotted a box marked “Lomography Konstruktor.” My wife noticed my curiosity and a few days later I found it under the Christmas tree. My love affair with photography had begun again. I did some research and decided that I wanted a rangefinder. But I was still finishing my university while married, and I couldn’t possibly afford a Leica, so I went for next best thing within my budget – a Zorki 4K with Jupiter 8 50/2 lens, my ‘Russian Leica.’

*************

img_20160327_0007

My university is close to the Castle District, one of the nicest parts of Prague. I shot with my Zorki there almost every day. Along the way I discovered I was doing something called “street photography.” Apparently I was on the cutting edge and didn’t even know it. In May, 2015 I attended a darkroom workshop and learned to process my BW negatives and print with an enlarger. I have been doing it ever since. Sadly, I suck at it, but, of course, that’s no reason to quit.

In 2015 I visited Paris with my wife and my Zorki 4K. And, as so many before me (Bresson, Kertesz etc…) I fell in love with photography even deeper there.  I noticed that my 50mm lens, which seemed  perfect for me in Prague, wasn’t allowing me to get more context of the street into my Paris shots. This is how we learn. After I returned I bought a  Jupiter 12 35/2.8 lens and Russian auxiliary viewfinder. But the memories of Paris brought me back to the fact that someday, somehow, I’d need a Leica.

With my wife I often travel around Europe. London, Rome, Edinburgh, Vienna, always with my Zorki. It was Summer in Vienna when I totally fell in love with Leica. There is a big Leica store in Vienna, just across the Stadthalle. In it everything I dreamed of. I asked if I could take a look at an M2 with a 50/3.5 collapsible lens they had on display for a bargain price. Even though it had some scuffs, scratches and few pieces of Vulcanite were missing, it was a Leica M2, and it worked. I could feel the precision when cocking the shutter. The viewfinder was so much better than my Zorki. But I still hadn’t the money to buy it, even though it was a lovely price for both M2 and the lens. But the seed had been planted.

I love the beauty of precise mechanical machines. I spent 5 years as editor-in- chief of a blog about mechanical watches. I saw how they were manufactured and how much labour goes into these intricate devices. Classic film Leicas are the same for me in this respect. That was another reason I started placing every spare penny I could into an envelope marked simply “Leica”.

*************

img_20160306_0013

Six months after my visit to Vienna I bought my first M2 in a Prague camera store,  with guarantee. Unfortunately, its shutter was riddled with holes, which wasn’t apparent when I tested the camera in store. I returned the camera, got my money back, but my heart was sort of broken. But shortly thereafter I found another M2, a bit less nice, with some vulcanite missing, but it worked. I bought it, got it overhauled and shot the heck out of it, using my Jupiter 12 and Jupiter 8 Russian lenses and a cheap Chinese adapter. The, for Christmas that year I received a Zeiss Biogon 35/2.8, the modern one made by Cosina. It’s a good lens, probably too good for me. I added a Voigtlander VC-2 meter and now I’m all set.

I’ve recently found a job near my university. I’m 5 minutes walking from Prague Castle and the Castle District, where I love to shoot. Mostly every day, after 8 hours of mind shredding crazy stupid boring and pointless work for my government I find it most relaxing to go shoot photos with my M2. Sometimes I shoot 2 rolls in 2 hours, sometimes it takes me 2 weeks to get through a roll of HP5, which I load from 100 ft rolls into old East German canisters I got in a flea market. I’m slowly starting to blend into the city life in the quarters where I shoot. People who live there are starting to recognize me. I’m still on a steep learning curve. My photos are far from perfect, although the technical side is pretty easy these days, I can make proper exposures, I can process and scan, but the content is what I’m struggling with.

img_20160306_0010

I don’t want to make excuses, but Prague is a really hard place to shoot. In the historical center, you can’t find any locals who live there. We no longer have those small shops or cafés where locals would get together and have a chat – just tourist traps and people selling rides on Segway. In any event, I can see that through my photography I’m becoming a different person then I was before. More curious, more involved. I continue to shoot my trusty M2, mostly everyday out in the streets of Prague or wherever I find myself (soon I go to Budapest, Barcelona and London again…), documenting the world and life around me. I know the Leica is just a tool, that great vision is what makes a great photograph, but I must say, my Leica M2 is one of the best tools I could wished for.  As for my grandfather’s Leica…that’s a story for another day.

The Difference Between a Rangefinder and an SLR

classic-leica-ad

“With an SLR, you are looking at your subject through the optic; you are literally seeing what the picture is going to look like. You have a device that will show you your depth of field, the area that will or will not be in critical focus. This is particularly true for me, because I’m often shooting at the maximum aperture of the lens, the aperture you actually view through. This helps you see how areas of color are affected. It can tell you if that blue has a hard edge, or if it’s somewhat soft and blended into something else.

When you look through a rangefinder, though, everything is sharp. The rangefinder window is by and large a focusing and framing device that lets you pick a part of the subject you want to be in critical focus. The only real way you can tell how the rest of the picture is going to look is by experience, or maybe a quick look at the depth-of-field scale on the lens itself. I think the rangefinder frees you up in a certain way. You are probably going to work a little looser in a structural sense, because everything is clean, clear and sharp. When I look through an SLR, I think I’m a little bit more aware of compositional elements, of the structure of the image. With a rangefinder camera, I’m seeing certain spatial relationships.”

National Geographic photographer William Alard from “The Photographic Essay.”

The Genesis of the Black Paint Rangefinder

Nikon S2 black paint

The camera that started the trend of black finish was not the Leica MP, but the Nikon S2. The black paint Nikon S2 was introduced in October 1955. The black S2 is plated with black nickel and then painted.

The Nikon rangefinders possessed a fit and finish the equal of the Leica, although some folks mistake the inherent play in the fit of the detachable back for a lack of bodily solidity. It is not. In terms of finish, the Nikons sometimes bested the Leica. Unlike Leitz, the white markings are engraved – on the M3, M2 and M4 only the serial number is engraved – on the Nikon S2, all the white numerals, lettering and indications are engraved by hand.

The first of black M Leicas was a run of 5 black paint M3’s followed shortly by the famous black MP’s. Leitz made 150 of the black MPs.  The paint on these cameras is very dull and thin.

Black Paint M3 earliest

Black Paint MP 28

In 1958 Leitz introduced the M2 that was also made in black, the same finish and paint type that was used on the MP: dull and thin. Leitz produced 500 of the M2’s in this run of black paint production.

Black Paint M2 earliest

Towards the early seventies Leitz offered a service for those who were not happy with the flaking and bubbling paint on their early black M2’s. All the black parts were replaced by new ones and the original number was engraved, but slightly higher than the old ones from the fifties. The type of paint was the same of that of the black paint M4 and Leicaflex SL.

Black Paint M2 restored

For some reason lost to time, Leitz did not have a restoration service for the M3 as they did for the M2. However, owners could have their chrome M3’s transformed to black paint. These transformed cameras are very rare, due to the high cost. They were often made to match the Noctilux 50mm f/1.2, a black finished lens.

Black Paint M3 restored

The style of the engraved number will date the camera a bit. This one does not have any spaces in it’s number, so it can date from the M5 era when the numbers were engraved into the accessory-shoe without spaces. Note the position of the engraved serial number, just a bit lower than the M3 engraving.

*Thanks to Eric van Straten for the photos and expertise. This is essentially a verbatim reprint of a fascinating tutorial posted by Mr. van Straten elsewhere. Mr. van Straten is an amazing source of information for all things Leica film rangefinder related.

Deconstructing the ‘Leica Mystique’

Guys with Leicas

You’ve all seen him: the guy with the Leica M with the serious expression on his face, taking pictures of people drinking coffee downtown. The M9 with the Summilux Aspherical and the black gaffer tape…..suburban drone by day, on weekends a dogged photojournalist out on the prowl, looking for a scoop, or at least a “Decisive Moment” of some sort. You’ll find the same guy on camera forums, buying and selling and trading and debating Leicas with a seriousness usually reserved for theological debates. Central to his mythos is The Leica Glow, an undefined yet undeniable characteristic of Leica “glass.” This photographer, almost never a working pro (except for self-proclaimed Leica “expert” Thorsteen Overgaard), often as not a dentist in the throes of mid-life mania, is suffering  a communal photographic delusion referred to as The Leica Mystique.

I suppose that some of the so-called Leica Mystique rests on Leica being the grand-daddy of 35mm photography (somebody had to be first), and a leader in the quality end of the market for several decades. And, while Leicas aren’t possessed of magical qualities, they are, at least to the extent we’re talking about Leica Film cameras, very finely made cameras. After using a Nikon F to cut my photographic teeth, I purchased a new M5 in the late 70’s, specifically because I wanted my photographic experience to be “better.” Alas, there were no heavenly choirs, and my photographs didn’t suddenly become any more compelling by virtue of the Leica Glow.  What it did offer me was a rather nuanced experience- a bit quirky and different to modern equipment, but an excellent tactile experience due to the fit, finish, and superb build quality. It was the Nikon F without the rough edges and the “clunk.” It pleased me that something so simple could feel so good in the hand and could be so smooth and unobtrusive. It didn’t hurt that I felt  like I was using something rare and valuable that had its place in photographic history. Over the next 30 years I kept the M5 and added an M2, M4, M6 and M7, my experience each time matching that of the M5.

So, it was in looking for that same experience that I bought a Nikon S3 Millennial a while back. Its a beautiful camera, reputed to have cost Nikon much more to produce than the $6000 price tag. Nikon as a corporation is to be commended for taking the time and effort to resurrect such a beautiful piece of 35mm history. But its no Leica. The S3 finder is cluttered, the rangefinder patch is dull and fuzzy, the restriction to a 50mm field of view is inconvenient, lens changes are slow. It does, however, come with a killer lens, the Nikkor 50 1.4 which is every bit as good as the $5000 Summilux 50 (ironic, huh?).

nikons3

It’s hard not to compare the S3 Millennial to a garden variety Leica M2 of the same vintage (both being manufactured in the late 50s). The M2 sports a great finder with 35 FOV capability, and a rangefinder patch you don’t have to go searching for. Build quality every bit the match to the S3 Millennial, rebuilt just 14 years ago. Classic, supremely functional design, and much easier to use given the bright viewfinder/rangefinder, the  rounded corners and perfectly placed shutter release. Aside from being easier to use, what I like about the M2 is it still feels relevant, new almost, in spite of the fact that its pushing 50 years old. Unlike the S3, the M2 doesn’t have that feel of using a piece of history. Of the dozen or so cameras that I own (film and digital), I use the M2 probably as much or more than any other. It lives with a Voigtlander 35 2.5 attached to it, which to me is the ultimate expression of a simplified 35mm film camera.

L2000-4406

So, if there is any validity to The Leica Mystique, it’s a simple fact born of use, not some abstract concept derived from magical thinking and wish fulfillment . Between the S3 and the M2, it’s the Leica that puts a smile on my face – it’s the form factor and ease of use. The M2 is what I would call the more serious picture taking machine – very fast and intuitive, and more transparent as a tool. The S3 is a beautiful mechanical device, but in relation to the M2 it lacks the true ‘form follows function’ tradition embodied by the M2.

Most of the so-called Leica Mystique is a result of a certain admiration for the work of famous Leica users over the years and a not so subtle desire to justify the price tag. But some of it surely stems from its quality as an instrument – anyone who uses hand tools, of any sort, can appreciate tools that are very well made. There is also a certain pleasure in using tools that embody the simplest, most functional technology – and in knowing that there is no upgrade path. In the digital age, where manufacturers try to convince us to chase our tails in an elusive search for the newest and best, this is a wonderfully liberating feeling. In this sense, the Nikon (or the Canon or the Hexar or the Contax) is simply not in the same league as the M2. Of course, Leica’s photographic history certainly doesn’t hurt.  Somebody had to be first, somebody had to be better than anyone else, and that just happened to be Leica.