Tag Archives: Leica M4

How I Was Won Over to My Leica

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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.

 

Ode to a Legend – The Leica M4

By Tom Grill. This originally appeared on his blog About Photography

For me, the M4 is the camera that reached the pinnacle of analog design. It was the natural sequel to the M2 and M3 designs into one body with a few more bells and whistles added. The one time Leica attempted to diverge from this basic M design with the M5 model in 1971 led to such an uproar that the M4 was reinstated only a few years later and has continued to be the basis for flagship camera design of the company even up to the newest M 240 digital model.

My 1968 black painted M4. I sent it back to Leica for a factory replacement of the viewfinder so it now has six lens frame lines of the M6 instead of the original four. I did this because I use a 28mm lens a lot and usually have the Leica meter on top of the camera taking up the slot where I would normally put an auxiliary optical finder. And look at the beautiful engraving on top. Don’t see that much anymore. 

There were several iterations of the M4. The M4-2 was introduced in 1977, followed by the M4-P in 1981. Each new version added a couple of new features — a hot shoe, motor-drive capability, extra finder frames — but modernized the production line and replaced the black enamel with a more durable black chrome.  I always had a penchant for cameras with black paint over brass. After a little use some of the paint wears through to the brass and the camera takes on an individual patina that identifies it as yours. Excessive brassing becomes a battle-worn badge of honor, something to be worn proudly, as if to say, “I served”.

The Leica M4 with MR-4 meter mounted on top.

The M4 was introduced in 1967 and produced until 1975 with a little break while the M5 ran its short-lived, orphened course. The M4 had framelines for 35mm, 50mm, 90mm and 135mm lenses in a 0.72 magnification viewfinder. Mine was made in 1968, and had a later, standard factory addition of the M6 viewfinder adding 28mm and 75mm frame lines.

I always liked the look of the Leica meter. Not that it worked all that well — I still carried around a hand held auxiliary meter for more accurate readings — but it slipped conveniently into the accessory shoe, had a high/low range, and synchronized with the shutter speed dial, all pretty advanced stuff for 1968.

The handle-crank rewind knob was one of the late-to-the-party innovations Leitz added to the M. The one on the M4 was angled so it could be operated quickly without constantly scraping your fingers on the side of the camera — something of an anachronism in today’s digital world, but much appreciated at the time by photographers needing to get the spent roll out of the camera quickly and reload it for the next breaking shot. 

Adding the angled rapid rewind crank was considered a big deal at the time. I can still recall discussions with veteran photographers who were convinced that Leitz maintained the slow turning rewind knob on the M2 and M3 to avoid rewinding the film too fast and causing static light discharge that might damage a film frame.

The M4 did away with the removable film take up spool, and introduced a faster film loading system that gripped the end of the film automatically to load it onto the spool. 

 

 

The self-timer lever was an M4 luxury — some say frivolous addition — eliminated from later versions of the M series. After all, pros don’t need self-timers. 

 

 

The M4 was the last of a breed. It reminds me of souped-up, propeller-driven fighter aircraft at the end of WWII. Each had reached the apex of analog, hand-crafted design on the cusp of fading into oblivion in the face of a newer technology. The planes were replaced by jets, the rangefinder by the SLR. Fortunately, the M-series camera hit a very responsive chord in the human psyche that has made it last even into the digital era. For many, Leica M is the icon of professional camera, and retro styling based on the Leica M design is undergoing a renaissance in cameras like the popular Fuji X-Pro1.  And let’s not forget that in keeping with the M analog tradition Leica continues to make the M7 and MP film cameras today.

Jorge Fidel Alvarez: Street Photography With a Leica M Film Camera

WHN38-30Jorge Fidel Alvarez, Wuhan, China, 2014. Leica M6 and Tri-X.

Everybody does “street photography” these days. Go to Tumblr or Flicker and you’ll find reams of it posted day after day. Most of it is not very good, nothing but throwaway looks with no internal dynamic to make you look again. Just.people.on.the.street. Really good street photography somehow rises above the pedestrian view, revealing a greater narrative within a sliver of everyday life. There is always something surprising about it, something unexpected that draws your eye and makes you want to look again. It poses a question, draws you in for a second look, gives you a glimpse of something incongruous, something you don’t expect to see in the way you’re seeing it, inviting a unique interpretation for each idiosyncratic viewer.

Take the above photograph by Jorge Fidel Alvarez: A man, presumably, with a bizarre mask stands facing the camera, something decorative hanging over where he stands; his demeanor unreadable, maybe slightly menacing.  The scene radiates something indefinably sinister. An elderly Chinese woman stands in the background, smoking, staring at either the masked man or the western photographer. I wonder: who in her mind is normal, and who is exotic?  The photo fascinates me, but I’m not quite sure what I’m looking at, so I look at it again and fashion a narrative to fit what I think I see. The photo suggests various interpretations; its up to me, the viewer, to work it out for myself. (The masked man is actually a welder using a homemade steel mask, which, after the stories we’ve told ourselves, almost seems irrelevant).

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Good street photographers shoot a lot. The father of modern street photography, Garry Winogrand, using a Leica M4 film camera, shot over 12,000 rolls of film between 1971 and his death in 1984. When he died at the age of 56 he left over 6500 undeveloped rolls of film. Winogrand’s heirs, today’s street photographers, work in a digital age where photographs are cheap and ubiquitous, easier than ever to take, store and share. With the advent of camera phones, public resistance to strangers with cameras in public places has lessened. Yet exceptional street photographs remain as rare in the digital age as in Winogrand’s day. And almost no one shoots the street with film anymore. The ease of digital capture makes street shooting with film a proposition for only the most dedicated and hardcore film fanatics.  So I’m fascinated when I see great street work done on film. Jorge Fidel Alvarez is a great street photographer, and he works with film.

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Alvarez is a French photographer living in Paris. He is a 2004 graduate of SPEOS, Paris, where he studied under Georges Fèvre (master printer for Robert Doisneau, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Josef Koudelka, among others). The Institut Culturel Français en Chine (The  French Cultural Institute in China) recently invited Alvarez to Wuhan, China to shoot that city’s streets and exhibit the resulting work at the New World International Trade Center in Wuhan. The plan was simple: fly Alvarez to Wuhan for nine days of shooting whatever caught his eye, back to Paris for two weeks to process, select and print his work, and then back to Wuhan to exhibit 20 prints,, opening reception May 29, show to run through June 12. (details)

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Jorge Fidel Alvarez, May 29, 2014, New World International Trade Center, Wuhan, China

Alvarez, who uses digital for his paying work as an architectural photographer, chose to use a Leica M4 and M6, with 25mm and 35mm lenses, while in Wuhan. (At least one Chinese reviewer found his choice of “antique cameras” memorable.) He shot 70 rolls of 36 exposure Tri-X over the course of 9 days.

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Alvarez, who has been shooting the street since the 80’s when he bought his first Leica, took up professional photography comparatively late, after a first career in IT. He has carefully studied the work of other photographers – his Paris flat’s bookshelves are lined with the work of European masters Cartier-Bresson, Boubat, Koudelka, Lartigue, Doisneau, Frank. In 2003, enrolled in the photography curriculum at SPEOS Paris, he discovered the American Garry Winogrand. Alvarez’s mature work can hint at the European formalism of Cartier-Bresson and Boubat, and one see’s as well the more spontaneous elements of Frank, Daido Moriyama and Winogrand- but his vision is unmistakably his own, a fascinating amalgamation fusing the poise and balance of a studied, mannered aesthetic with the arbitrary and instantaneous.

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Takahashi “Jewelryware” M4

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This is a Takahashi Leica M4. Takahashi was a Japanese painter and engraver well renowned in the 70′s and 80′s for his extremely highly detailed and precision repainting and engraving work. This particular M4 has been refinished with a crystalline stone fleck coating, known as ‘Jewelleryware Coating’ in Japan. According to Bellamy Hunt of Japan Camera Hunter,  this is the last camera Takahashi painted before retiring. 

It certainly is beautiful, although I’m not sure what you’d do with it other than putting it up on a shelf and admiring it, which seems to me a bit of a waste.

Using a Leica MR4 meter

Leica MR4 2

An excellent tutorial on the use of the attachable Leica MR4 meter by Michael Geschlecht,  from L Camera Forum:

The MR4 meter is a reflected light meter that couples to the shutter speeed dial of many M cameras. It has a sensitivity range of EV +2 to +18. That means with a film of ISO 100 It will give you readings from F1.4 @ 2 seconds to F16 @ 1/1,000th of a second. That covers pretty much of what most people need in many circumstances.

Once you attach it to the M3 it will read an angle of view more or less equal to the angle of view of a 90mm lens. This is the angle of view shown by the frame lines either when you insert a 90mm lens into the camera & attach it or when you push the lever under the large, clear viewfinder window in the front of the camera inward in the direction of the center of the camera. Until that lever stops moving. Regardless of the lens mounted. Unless the lens has permanently attached “goggles”. 

If the lens on the camera has permanently attached “goggles”: Push that same lever outwards until it stops & use the 135mm frame. Sounds silly but it works correctly.

Replacement Wein 1.35 volt zinc-air “button” batteries are available. Just check in any camera store or find them on the net.

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To mount the meter on the camera & properly couple it to the shutter speed dial:

First set the shutter speed on the camera to “B”.

Then pull out the film advance lever to the “stand off” position.

Then rotate the dial of the MR4 meter to “B”.

Then slightly lift up the shutter speed dial on the meter until it stops.

Then rotate that dial in the direction of longer exposures,ie: 120 seconds..

Then slide the meter into the accessory shoe.

Then rotate the shutter speed wheel on the meter back to “B”.

The wheel should now click down & the pin on the underside of the meter’s shutter speed wheel should drop into the little cutout between the “2” for 1/2 second & the either “4” for 1/4 second or “5” for 1/5 second. Depending on which model of M3 you have.

Look to see if everything engaged properly. If all is right you are ready to go.

A meter coupled to the shutter speed dial means: You only have to set the aperture after you make a reading. Unless the shutter speed set before you took the reading is not appropriate. Very fast & handy.

Alternatively, you can take a meter reading, then rotate the shutter speed dial until the aperture you want to use is aligned with the indicator arm. The shutter speed has also been correctly set for the proper exposure.

MR4

Whichever works in whatever direction is equally fine.

There is also a “battery check” slide on the front of the meter. If the meter arm goes up to or slightly passes the white dot: The battery is OK. The battery currently in the meter may still be OK even if it is years old. If these types of batteries are not used frequently they usually still last for many years.

USING THE MR4 WITHOUT SCRATCHING THE LEICA TOP PLATE

Often the meter will rub against the top of the camera and leave permanent scratches. This can be avoided by turning the appropriate leveling adjustment screws on the bottom of the meter’s mounting shoe. There are 5 screws holding the foot to the meter, 2 small ones & 3 larger ones.

If you look from the back of the camera, as you try to slide the meter into the accessory shoe, you can see if the screws need adjusting. There should be a clearance of about 1&1/2 mm.
The 2 tiny screws lift & balance the meter above the accessory shoe & the 3 larger screws lock the shoe & hold it in place. Like a tripod.

A little fiddling with the 5 screws as per above, if necessary, should set the clearance so the meter clears the top plate by about 1&1/2 mm while still allowing the pin to drop into the slot in the shutter speed dial on the camera when the shutter speed wheel is returned from somewhere in the 4 seconds thru 120 seconds range to the “B” position.

Once the pin drops down at the “B” position the shutter speed dial should be rotated to all positions to make sure that the pin continues to engage the slot & does not slip out between any of the the settings “B” thru “1000”.

I Love Leica. I Hate Leica. I Love Leica….

In It Might Get Loud, a 2008 Davis Guggenheim documentary about rock guitar and the creative process, White Stripes front man Jack White builds himself an electric guitar in his barn. A piece of wood, a Coke bottle, a guitar string, an electric pickup, a hammer and a few nails, and pretty soon White is belting out an eerily hypnotic riff that might be right at home on one of his albums.  It’s there right at the beginning of the film, to make the obvious point: it’s not about the guitar, it’s all about the guy playing it. Cut to the next scene – White driving a late 50’s era Mercury down a Tennessee dirt road, declaiming on the debilitating drain of technology on the creative process, in White’s words “the disease you have to fight in any creative field.”

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I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Leica ever since the onset of the digital era. I love Leica film cameras. To my mind, the best, most functional, least ostentatious cameras ever made are the M2, M3, M4 and M5. Nothing superfluous, no bells, no whistles, everything you need and nothing more. Perfection via simplicity and design. No wonder people still pay premium prices for Leica film cameras long into the digital age. You will pry my black chrome M4 from my fingers when I die. Not a second before.

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     My Black Chrome Leica M4

It wasn’t always that way. When the Leica I debuted in 1925, most photographers dismissed it as a “toy designed for a lady’s handbag,” too small and imprecise, beneath the requirements of a ‘serious photographer.’ And shortly thereafter, Leitz offered the first in a continuing line of questionable collector’s editions, starting in 1929 with the gold plated, lizard skinned Luxus Leica I, over the top limited editions that have caused some to question the commitment of Leitz to the needs of serious photographers.

But, after the initial skepticism, and the discovery of the liberating effects of being able to slip a camera in one’s pocket, the Leica was greeted with fierce devotion by a generation of the twentieth century’s greatest photographers. Henri Cartier-Bresson, maybe the greatest documentarian of his time, called shooting with the Leica like “a big warm kiss, a shot from a revolver, like the psychoanalyst’s couch:” 

I have never abandoned the Leica, anything different that I have tried has always brought me back to it. I am not saying this is the case for others. But as far as I am concerned it is the camera. It literally constitutes the optical extension of my eye.

In 1932 the Leica II arrived, along with a coupled rangefinder for precise focusing, and shortly thereafter the Leica III with subtle improvements and slower shutter speeds up to 1 second. Production of the “Barnack” Leicas continued until 1960.

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      My 1957 Leica IIIg

I still use a IIIg Barnack, simplicity defined, with knurled knobs to wind and rewind the film, no meter, a shutter speed dial to set the mechanical cloth shutter, and a simple aperture ring on the lens itself. Even today, it feels right in use, comfortable in hand, the photographic equivalent of a well-worn pair of leather shoes built to last, certainly an infinitely more pleasing ergonomic experience than that offered by today’s crop of professional digital cameras, which in reality are more computer than camera, with voluminous instruction manuals and nested menus to match. With the IIIg no instruction manual is needed – well, in fairness, some might need one to figure out how to load the film – and one needs only some fundamental knowledge about how apertures and shutter speeds control light and how light interacts with film. Load your film and go out and shoot. No chimping. This is why I love my Leicas – IIIg, m2, m4, m5, and (to a lesser extent) my M7.

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And yet, I’ve often claimed to hate their digital cameras, in spite of the fact that I’ve owned two (an M8 and an X1) and loved them both. When I think about it objectively, the current Monochrom seems to me the closest thing to a traditional Leica film camera in the digital age, embodying the same ethos, but transformed somehow to meet the digital reality. And the fact that I’ve loved the M8 and X1, both much maligned by digiphiles, while philosophically “hating” Leica digital offerings, should tell you something about my ultimate sympathies. In reality, I’ve realized, I don’t hate Leica digital cameras; what I hate is digital photography. Of course, as an ‘amateur’ (not because I work in a different field, but because I do what I do for love), though one who has studied documentary photography in some fairly august institutions and with some incredibly fascinating people, I have the option of choosing a medium without reference to cost, efficiency or technological expectations. Some of us just prefer our photographic tools to be simple, much like Jack White prefers his Montgomery Ward electric guitar to a Fender Limited Rosewood Telecaster.  

The strengths of Leica’s digital cameras are the very thing they’re criticized for by the digital generation, and its because Leica’s philosophy has been to give their customer base a digital camera that mimics, as far as is feasible, the feel and function of a traditional mechanical film camera. They are, to the extent that a digital camera can be, simple, stripped to the essentials much like their film equivalents. The technology is kept in the background as far as that is possible, the experience meant to be a viable digital simulacron of the analogue experience.

aaaaaa--7My Leica X1

 If there’s one thing I do wish, its that Leica would move past the stale arguments about “IQ.” That battle was fought a long time ago, and unless you want to print 50 inches on the long side (which is itself absurd for a traditional photographer), the debate in the digital era now should be about functionality, ergonomics, the feel in the hand, the tactile experience, the “haptics” of the photographic act. The 12 mp Leica X1 is uncluttered and simple, as close to a traditional mechanical film camera in the digital age as you’ll find. The criticisms of the camera are perceived “faults” only if you buy into the misguided priorities of advanced digital cameras. They become irrelevant when you look at the X1 as Leica’s attempt to duplicate, as much as possible, the tactile and ergonomic experience of a traditional analogue camera. Slow AF? Scale focus. Actually, I’d prefer manual focus. Slow lens? You don’t need fast lenses in the digital age. Just crank up the ISO. A 2.8 fixed lens allows Leica to build a small pocketable camera. Low res LCD? Big deal. I’m of the opinion LCD screens have been the worst thing to ever happen to photography: instant feedback is expected, at the expense of being in the moment. Of course, the X1 needs the screen because that’s how you compose; but if you put an optical viewfinder on the hotshoe, just like I do with my IIIg, you’re good.

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         Auvers sur Oise, 2013, taken with a Leica X1

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My grandfather lived to be 96. He loved to drive his car, and he drove virtually every day until the day he died in 1998. Not bad for a guy with a stiff neck who had to back out of his driveway onto a busy urban avenue in New Jersey without looking. 

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     My Grandfather, “Gramps,” 1994, Lansdale, Pennsylvania

“Gramps” was a man who loved his cars, and he loved the Nash Rambler above all else. To him, the Nash Rambler was the pinnacle of automotive engineering. He had pictures of Ramblers hanging throughout his musty old house, and he never missed an opportunity to extol the Nash’s virtues to his bemused grandchildren. By the late 60’s/early 70’s when I was coming of age, Gramps had been relegated to buying AMC cars (the successor to Nash). AMC are the folks who brought you the Pacer, which has (rightly) gone down in American automotive history as one of the most hideous cars ever built. But my grandfather swore by his AMCs, because, of course, they were the same folks who built the Nash, and nobody, especially not his snotty-nosed know-it-all grandson, was going to convince him they weren’t the world’s best vehicle. I started driving in 1974, my first car a 1962 Volkswagon Bug with holes in the floor and rust up to the windows, and every time it broke down my grandfather would come get me and invariably remind me that if I had bought an AMC he wouldn’t be needing to pick me up on the side of the road so much.

I’m reminded of my grandfather and his Nashes when I pull out my Leica film cameras at family gatherings. The next generation – sons, daughters, nieces, nephews – look at me the same way I remember looking at him when he’d launch into his Nash soliliques: bemused and half pitying for an old man clinging to a disappearing world, unable to emotionally adapt to newer, better technologies. “Why do you use that old camera?” They’ll ask, half mocking, as they take selfies and pictures of their food with their iPhone. “Don’t you have to put the film in some chemicals before you can see the pictures?” And then I patiently explain to them about grain, and latitude, and the beauty of HP5 in D76, about contact sheets and being discriminating in what one pictures and shares, and they look at me with a look that attempts to conceal the fact that they think I’m a pitiable old man. Put aside for the a moment the following: I still have a full head of hair with a luxurious ponytail, I race 175 horse power motorcycles around closed circuits at 175 mph, and I listen to The White Stripes in my spare time.

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     My niece and her boyfriend, “Buddha,” with that bemused expression reserved for interacting with the pathetically un-hip.

What I like about my old Leica film cameras, and what I find lacking in most current digital cameras, is the way the simplicity of the technology, stripped to its essential functions, allows you, paradoxically, an easier creative flow. The technology isn’t in the way. I’m not bewitched by it, lured into believing that it offers something creatively not offered by a simpler device. It’s Jack White’s point: creative acts aren’t the product of a technology, whether it be a guitar or a camera; they are the product of a unique creative human act. The guitar, or the camera, is simply the conduit, and that conduit can either refine, or coarsen, the connection to our creative vision. In the words of Anthony Lane,

The truest mechanisms run on nothing but themselves. What is required is a machine constructed with such skill that it renders every user—from the pro to the banana-fingered fumbler—more skillful as a result. We need it to refine and lubricate, rather than block or coarsen, our means of engagement with the world: we want to look not just at it, however admiringly, but through it. In that case, we need a Leica.

So, I give Leica credit. In this age of 100,000 RGB Metering Sensors, “Scene Intelligent Auto Mode with Handheld Night Scene and HDR Backlight Control Modes,” image stabilization, face recognition technology and 14 fps burst modes, I can still open up my B&H catalog and order a brand new Leica MP or M7 film camera, or, if I prefer digital, a Monchrom with manual focus and completely manual exposure capabilities, just like my M4. That’s remarkable in this day and age, and Leica deserves profound credit. Enough, I suspect, to allow one to look the other way at the occasional Hello Kitty Limited Edition.