Category Archives: Leica M5

Automatic Leica M Leaf Shutter Prototype

m5a m5c

This is a “Leica M5” with Elmar 50mm f2.8 Compur shutter, designed by Leitz in the early 60’s. Calling this an “M5 prototype” is misleading. If memory serves me correctly, this was Leica’s first attempt at a metered M, dating to the early 60’s while the M4 was on the drawing board but not yet produced, and long before any plans for the actual M5. In actuality, it’s a prototype M7.

Yes it’s ugly, and Leica might have tanked in short order had they been stupid enough to produce it, but it’s still an amazing bit of Leitz history. As for the two ‘rangefinder windows’, the second window appears to be to read the shutter speed of the Compur lens.

The Five Best 35mm Rangefinder Values (That Aren’t Leicas)

Occasionally, I’ll have someone contact me to ask about what rangefinder camera I would recommend they buy. Usually it’s someone new to film and or rangefinder use, and they’re looking to dip their toes in the water without spending the kind of money a Leica is going to cost.

Having had lived through the original rangefinder renaissance in the late 80’s, early 90’s, and being an incorrigable gearhead, I’ve probably owned or tried every variation of non-Leica rangefinder along the way, other than most of the 60’s and 70’s era fixed lens rangefnders from Japan, pedestrian cameras like the Canon Canonet or the Minolta Hi-Matic, which really weren’t meant to appeal to people who might consider a Leica, but rather were that era’s glorified point and shoots. So, with the criteria that it not be a Leica but a reasonable alternative to one; and that it be “affordable” (an admittedly subjection criterion), here are my (admittedly idiosyncratic) choices if you’re looking for the rangefinder experience without all the humbug, and costs, that comes along with owning a Leica. By “rangefinder experience” I mean this: 1) its got the be a rangefinder, obviously;  2) it’s small and compact; 3) it allows manual use i.e. you control shutter speed and aperture if you prefer; 4) it allows you to change lenses.

So, moving from better to best, here’s my favorite five best non-Leica values:

hexar af

5) The Konica Hexar AF ($400 with lens): yes, I know, its got a fixed lens, which should immediately disqualify it, as it doesn’t meet the criteria I myself set. But….the 35mm f2 Hexanon that comes with it is an excellent lens, the equal of that $2000 Summicron you’re lusting over, and the camera itself such a perfect little jewel, incredibly inexpensive for what it is, that its made the list anyway. And yes, its AF, but the AF is pretty much bullet-proof, maybe even to this day the fastest, most accurate AF you’ll find. As for those who claim a camera with AF “really isn’t” a classic rangefinder because, well, it just makes things too easy – just remember, you get no points for difficulty. The point is to get the shot, and for that, the Hexar AF is brilliant, especially when working indoors. Plus, it’s got a stealth mode that’s super quiet, quieter than any Leica. Really, the only downside of the camera, other than the fixed lens, is that its highest shutter speed is 1/250th, which makes shooting pictures of fence rails at f2 in bright sunlight for the amazing bokeh problematic. Then again, you can’t always have everything.


4) The Nikon S3 Millenium w/ 50mm f1.4 Nikkor ($1500-1800 LINB on Ebay): yes, I know it’s pushing the affordability criterion, but hear me out. Imagine if in 2000, celebrating some corporate milestone, Leica had made the decision to remake the iconic M3 from the ground up, the exact same camera offered in 1954, hand made to the same exact specifications as the original – no cost-cutting- and coupled it with a new, modern coated Summilux 50mm f1.4. Imagine as well that these were eagerly snapped-up by collectors and speculators for about $6000 a kit, and were usually put aside, still in the box, to await the massive value appreciation you assumed they’d someday command. Suppose as well that now, 15 years later, for some bizarre reason, collectors and speculators, usually from Japan, would now sell you the full kit, basically new, for somewhere between $1500-$1800. Would you want one? Of course you would. You’d sell your children into slavery to get a kit like that at that price.

Well, that’s what Nippon Kogaku (Nikon) did in 2000 when they decided to re-offer a brand new Nikon S3 rangefinder coupled with a modern version of the venerable 50mm f1.4 Nikkor. And you can easily find one now, like new in box, between $1500-$1800, which is crazy, given that the lens itself is every bit the equal of the best 50 Leica is offering now. And the S3 itself is an amazing camera, possessing a solidity and quality feel equal, but different in its own way, to the best Leica M’s. Those who are familiar with the Nikon F will feel at home with the S3, given the F shares the same body architecture – essentially, Nikon created the F by taking an S3 and putting a mirror box in it – the detachable back, the wind on, the funky position of the shutter button. Like the M3, it’s unmetered, and like the M3 the viewfinder best accommodates a 50mm FOV, although there is a native frame for 35mm. At $1500 for body and lens, it’s a killer deal.


3) The Konica Hexar RF ($500 body only): The best AE M-mount camera ever made, including the M7. I prefer it to the M7 if you’re looking for an AE rangefinder because 1) it’s a 1/4th of the price of an M7; 2) it has a built in motor (an expensive add-on the M7; 3) it’s got a viewfinder magnification that allows use of a 28mm without external viewfinder, 4) it’s got a normal, swing-out back that allows trouble-free loading; and 5) it’s built like a tank. It takes any M-mount Leica lens you want to put on it. It’s the first camera I put in my bag when I’m shooting film, usually with the excellent 28mm M-Hexanon, or the equally superb 50mm M-Hexanon.

contax g1

2) The Contax G1 w/ 45mm f2 Planar ($450 body and lens): You either love this camera, or you hate it. I love it, as in love it. You can buy a G1 body for $125. It’s got a titanium outer shell (you’ll pay $25,000 for a titanium M7),  a built in motor (expensive add-on on an M7), AE, and AF. It’s the AF that seems to drive some people crazy, although the folks it drives crazy tend to be, in 2016 US presidential political terminology, “low information” photographers. Any “defects” of the AF system have more to do with the photographer than the camera; if you treat it like a point and shoot, you’ll have problems. To properly focus it, do this: point that little rectangular box in the middle the viewfinder at what you want to focus on; half cock the shutter; hold the shutter half-cocked while you recompose any which way you like. Voila, a perfectly focused photo. It really isn’t rocket science. Plus, you get to use the best trio of 35mm lenses ever made for a rangefinder system – the Zeiss 45mm Planar, the 28mm Biogon, and the 90mm Sonnar (the 35mm Planar, while the least awesome of the bunch, is no slouch either). Four incredible optics, the 45mm as good or better than anything you’ll ever find elsewhere, which you can pick up used for $300-$400, the 28mm Biogon easily procured for $300. A titanium body to support them, $125. Seriously?


1) The Leica M5 ($800-$1200 body only): Yes, I know it’s a Leica…but it really isn’t, at least if you listen to the internet hive mind, most denizens of which have never seen one, let alone used one. The M5 is, in my mind, Leitz’s great, misunderstood masterpiece, the high-water mark of Leitz’s hand-assembled, cost is no object rangefinders.  The M5 made its debut in 1971, the first M with an exposure meter – in this case, a TTL spot meter still the best meter ever put in a film Leica. Big, bright .72 viewfinder, .68 base rangefinder, well-thought through ergonomics unbeholden to the “iconic” M design.

Unfortunately, it flopped in the marketplace, no fault of its own, rather a function of broader industry trends (the move of professionals to SLR systems), boneheaded decisions by Leitz ( introducing the CL simultaneously at 1/5th the price), and, most importantly, rejection by Leicaphiles because it didn’t conform to the iconic M2/3/4 design. Which isn’t to say it wasn’t a brilliant camera – it was, and still is, even today, a better camera than the M6 that proceeded it. However, all but the most discriminating Leicaphiles continue to simply ignore the M5, as if it didn’t exist, usually because they’ve bought into the common view that it’s too big and too ugly, “not a real Leica M.” Bullshit. It’s the best metered Leica M ever made.

The Mystery of the Leica Panda

Panda M6

Leicaphiles being what they are, any variation from the standard garden variety Leica model offers a potential opportunity to claim a “rare” collectible model, and, of course, to price it accordingly in the hope that someone, somewhere, is willing to pay a premium for it. Take the Leica M6 “Panda” for example.

The “Panda” is a name given by some imaginative Leicaphile to a series of chrome M6’s produced with the trimmings – shutter advance lever, rewind crank – of a black chrome M6. According to folks in the know, there are approximately 1000 of these “Panda” versions floating around, all apparently produced by Leica between 1991 and 1994. The variation was never officially noted by Leica, and no explanation has ever been given as to why Leica produced them in this manner. Lack of parts? Drunken Octoberfest shenanigans? Just screwing with us for the hell of it? We’ll never know.

Leica Panda 2

In any event, if you’ve got one, congratulations, you’ve got a “collectible” Leica.

The Mysterious M5 Panda

Imagine my surprise, then, when I realized I actually own that most elusive of Leicas, the M5 Panda. This iteration of the M5 is seemingly so rare that no one, anywhere, seems to be able to confirm its existence. Yet, there it is, sitting in front of me, even though I’ve put out the appropriate feelers from collectors and long time Leica users and have come up with nothing. Crickets.


Its serial number, #1347010, puts it squarely in the last runs of M5’s, all silver chrome, produced by Leitz between August 1972 and May 1974. The fact that both the shutter lever and the hotshoe with serial number are black make it pretty clear that it came from the factory this way. Yet I’ve never seen another like it, and a Google search turns up no pictures and only one or two anecdotal claims that someone, somewhere, had one like it sometime in the past.

Maybe its obscurity is simply a function of the low esteem in which both collectors and users hold the M5 (see numerous of my other posts about why I think the M5 is a great camera and its unfortunate reputation is undeserved), but the fact that this camera clearly exists yet nobody has acknowledged or recognizes it, puzzles me.

In any event, if you own one like it, or know of the story behind the M5 Panda, tell me about it at Until such time as I hear differently, I will claim to possess one of the rarest of rare Leicas: the Leica M5 Panda. It might even be for sale… at the right price.

*Thanks to Marco Cavina for the M6 panda photographs

Why The Leica?


Now that’s a beautiful Leica, a silver chrome M5. From an aesthetic perspective, I think that the chrome M5 with Summilux is the most elegant M ever made, the “industrial art” design oddly pleasing to my eye, the silver chrome, as opposed to the matte black chrome offering, setting off the camera’s minimalist lines perfectly.

Ergonomically, the M5 is superior to the iconic M’s: it fits in the hands perfectly, the viewfinder gives you shutter speed information without taking your eye from the finder, and the overhanging shutter speed dial allows easy one finger adjustments. The M5 has bright line framelines for 35mm, 50mm, 90mm and 135mm with the opening of the entire viewfinder equivalent to the angle of view for a 28mm lens. And, it’s the one M that is foolproof to load- drop in the film, route the leader through the take-up spool as shown on the diagrammed bottom plate, wind once till it catches, close the back and start shooting. Unlike other Leica film cameras, no incredibally frustrating false starts, missed shots and wasted film, no fiddlng with the camera to figure out what the film is doing; Leitz finally made an easy-loading film camera with the M5.

And, it’s got the best meter, a match needle TTL spot meter by Cds cell mounted on a retractable arm in front of the shutter. The match needle operation is quicker and more intuitive than the triangular red diodes used by the TTL metering of the M6 introduced 14 years later.

Did it stumble out of the gate when Leitz introduced it in 1971? Yes, but not because it wasn’t a brilliant camera. Its relative sales failure was the unhappy result of a confluence of circumstances that had little to do with the merits of the M5 itself: the professional shift away from rangefinders to SLRS with the introduction of the Nikon F, a much more versatile system camera than a rangefinder; the really stupid  marketing decision by Leitz to offer the CL as an affordable enthuisiast alternative to the M5 at a fifth of the price, a move that canniballized what would otherwise be M5 sales; and the relative conservatism of Leitz’s rangefinder users who wouldn’t accept the updated design when measured against the iconic M2/3/4 profile.

In my experience, leicaphiles who still look down their noses at the M5 as some sort of bastard child in the iconic M heritage usually haven’t used one,

Confessions of a Leica Fondler

For sale-12

Yes, I am a camera fondler. I’ll admit it. After all of the pretentious high-brow screeds about the superiority of film to digital you’ve read me post to this site; after all the barely concealed distaste for the basement bound losers and retired consumer drones who compulsively troll internets forums with their gross inanities, when push comes to shove, when I’m completely honest with myself, the biggest reason I dislike digital is this: digital cameras are boring, inconsequential utilitarian, soulless, artificial hunks of plastic incoherence. You can’t fondle them. Or, to be more precise, they give you no reason to. Fondle a Sony A7 with one of those Zeiss Tuit monstrosities? I think not.

Right now, as I type this into my computer, an obscenely elegant Leica IIIg with attached Leicavit and Carl Zeiss Jena 5cm 1.5 Sonnar, sits within arm’s reach, for no other reason than so I can occasionally pick it up and fondle it. It doesn’t even have film in it (ever tried to load a Barnack Leica?). It’s just there for emotional support. Next to it sits a Nikon SP with a W-Nikkor 3.5cm 1.8 and a external finder, also with no film, although I did take it out this morning and ran a roll of HP5 through it [and no, I didn’t take it to the cafe to take pictures of smiling people and their pets; that’s for fondlers who are also dilettantes. I’m not one if those. I took pictures of serious stuff]. The SP is there in case I can’t reach the IIIg, I suppose.

I’ve been this way since I was 12, when my seventh grade teacher, Mr. Smith, a slightly creepy middle aged guy who for some reason took a keen interest in me, pulled me aside in a vaguely forced conspiratorial manner to show me his…..Nikon F. Holy shit. You’d have thought he showed me a stack of Playboys. I was gobsmacked. Something about that Nikon F spoke to something deep within me, something in my loins, some inchoate desire I didn’t even know I possessed, and I knew then that my future would be as a photographer.

Nikkor 50-
Yours Truly, at 13, with my  first “real” camera, but already dreaming of a Leica. 1971. I was already ahead of the curve, taking selfies in mirrors, probably before even Vivian Maier. I was always a cool kid, ideas all my own.

That chance encounter with Mr. Smith’s Nikon set me on the road for my lifetime’s journey with film photography. Cameras lusted after, many bought with hard earned money, darkrooms built,  tens of thousands of negatives sleeved and filed away. Discovering, some time in the early 70’s, an even more rarified object of desire, the Leica rangefinder – considered an esoteric, vintage throwback even then – and in particular, the new M5, a radical step forward for Leitz, and, based on how it looked in the pages of Modern Photography, now having supplanted the Nikon F as the ultimate object of my desire. I knew the hardcore Leica users didn’t accept it – too big, too boxy, too sophisticated, too expensive – but I didn’t care; this was my fantasy, not theirs.

Atlanta, GA, 1970, overexposed Tri-X, and an Argus/Cosina SLR. The first photo I’d ever taken where, when I saw it in a contact sheet I said, “Yup, that’s good – I don’t care what anybody else says.” I was 12. I entered it in a middle school photo contest. It didn’t win; it didn’t even place. A very nice shot of a horse in a field with a sunset won.

My first cameras were bought for me by my parents. Parsimonious hard working blue collar folks, they saw no need to spoil me with what I wanted; instead I got the consumer grade Mamiya/Sekor, or the Argus Cosina SLR, or a Minolta SRT. But I wanted the M5, or at the least, a Nikon F. So one day, having saved my after-school money, I walked to the local camera store and bought a beat up black Nikon F with a chrome FTN finder and a chrome bottomed back plate, everything all beat to hell. But it worked, and I loved it, and used a Vivitar 35mm 2.8 on it because I couldn’t afford the Nikkors. Had that camera for years, shot the hell out of it, used it till it was falling apart and then sold it to some naive chap on Ebay maybe 15 years ago. Bet its still working.

In 1977, one year out of high school, I finally scrimped and saved enough to buy my first Leica, a spanking new M5 from Cambridge Camera in New York City. It had been sitting in inventory for 3 years, an orphan. Nobody wanted an M5. But, it was my dream camera, and they were selling at a steep discount, and that’s what I wanted, damn it, an M5. I’ll remember that day till the day I die: the drive into NYC through the Lincoln Tunnel, walk to the camera store, the purchase from the slightly bemused salesman (finally, a sucker who wants an M5!) the walk back to the car with the M5 and 50mm Summicron in my hands, feeling like Robert Frank.

I still have that M5. It’s the one camera I will never sell. Bought an M6 as soon as they were introduced. Subsequently sold it to a guy in Paris in 2003 who neglected to tell me that it was a collectible, one of the earliest serial numbered M6’s he had ever seen. No matter; never much liked the camera anyway. It seemed emblematic of the beginnings of Leica’s shift from professional tools to collectors’ trinkets. In the meantime I was stocking my shelf with real Leicas – M2’s, M3’s, M4’s, a few more M5’s, a Barnack here and there. Along the way I also discovered the Nikon S rangefinders, late to the party no doubt, but fell equally in love with them. They are great cameras, every bit the equal of the Leica rangefinders, and a whole nother rabbit hole to jump into, but that’s a story for another day.


What my shelves look like

So the question I ask myself is this: to what end do I collect all of these cameras? Well, I use all of them, of course. Sitting on the shelf above me must be 150 undeveloped rolls of b&w film, all shot within the year, all waiting for a marathon week of developing and scanning. But it’s more than just that. There’s something that still moves me when I handle them and when I use them. It brings me back to those days when I was 12, and just discovering the joys of photography. It’s not often you can say something has given you so much satisfaction over such a long period of time. And it’s harmless, as I remind my wife when she asks why I’m spending more money on another old leica when I’ve got a ton of them already. Would you rather I be buying and racing Ducati motorcycles, as I once did, and have the broken bones, and depleted bank accounts that go along with it? No, but isn’t 20+ cameras enough, she asks? Would you rather I be spending it on hookers and cocaine, I respond? And, of course, good woman she is, she rolls her eyes, throws up her hands, and walks away, knowing how happy she’s just made me.



Buying A Leica M? A Guide for Users Not Fondlers

m2 m3

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.”

Leica MR4 2

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.

A Quick Ebay Tutorial on Leica M Cameras

Buying a Leica on Ebay can be a frustrating experience. Finding a “Minty” M can be hit or miss at best, and knowing the subtle differences between M models can be daunting. Ebay wants to make it easier on us, publishing a helpful “Product Description” for older models. Below are the actual Ebay product descriptions for Leica M film cameras:


Leica M2: Ideal for Sports Photography

“A compact rangefinder film camera, the Leica M2 (camera body only) lets you capture the beautiful moments of your life, even when you’re on the go. This Leica film camera has a manual focusing system that lets you capture sharp and bright pictures. With manual exposure control modes, this rangefinder film camera lets you take snaps just the way you want. Featuring shutter speeds from 1 sec to 1/1000th and B, this Leica film camera can click good quality images of moving subjects, making it ideal for sports photography. The Leica M2 (camera body only) also features a self-timer, to make sure you get in a few snaps of yourself!”



Summicron w m3

Leica M3: Leica’s First Camera With TTL Metering

“Compose your shots accurately with the Leica M3 camera, which combines a rangefinder and viewfinder in one. The large and bright viewfinder of this 35 mm rangefinder camera has a magnification of 0.91x, giving you a wide coverage of the scene. With shutter speeds from 1-1/1,000 seconds, this Leica film camera lets you clearly capture moving subjects. The Leica M3 35 mm rangefinder camera uses interchangeable lenses, providing the flexibility to shoot various scenes. Featuring TTL metering, which measures light using a built-in meter, this Leica film camera eliminates the need for a separate, hand-held meter.”



Leica MR4 2

Leica M4: A Chameleon of a Camera

“The Leica M4 is a classic rangefinder film camera that exhibits the excellence in craftsmanship of the Leica M series. This Leica 35 mm film camera is equipped with a rangefinder, so the images you get are sharply focused. The body of the rangefinder film camera is made of metal casting, designed to perform well even in tough conditions. The Leica M4, being a chameleon of a camera, can be used for different kinds of photography. Additional reasons that make this classic Leica 35 mm film camera a must-buy are the fast film loading, quick rewinding, and the self-resetting film counter.”




Leica M5: A Sleek Point and Shoot Autofocus Camera

“The Leica M5 is a sleek point and shoot camera that captures excellent shots with every click. This 35mm film camera boasts tough construction with precision handling. The Leica M5 has fast shutter speed of 1/2 to 1/1000 sec that ensures quick and accurate shots. This autofocus camera is a mechanical camera with innovative and new features like a TTL meter, stylish and ergonomic square body, base plate fitted with rewind crank which together make this 35mm film camera user friendly. The Leica M5 has a view finder that displays the shutter speed and meter read. It also features a shutter speed dial that is present on the front of the camera. The shutter of this autofocus camera winds smoothly and silently.”




Leica M6: A Highly User-Friendly Device for Bright Images

“Enhance your photography skills with the Leica M6 camera, offering focused photography with manual operation. The 1 – 1/1000sec shutter speed, this Leica 35mm film camera can easily capture fast moving objects. The 0.72 and 0.85 viewfinder versions of this Leica rangefinder camera complement the 35mm frame line, so that you click bright images. The battery used in the Leica M6 camera only controls the internal light meter for capturing bright pictures. This Leica 35mm film camera has the TTL light metering mode that controls the amount of light emitted by the flash, producing consistent images in all light conditions. The mechanics used in this Leica rangefinder camera makes it’s a highly user-friendly device.”




Leica M7: Finally! Built-In Flash

“The Leica M7 0.85 is a stylish and compact 35 mm rangefinder film camera, that is ideal to carry anywhere. The fast, easy manual focus system of this Leica film camera allows you to focus the lens by hand. With a Leica camera flash sync of up to 1/50th of a second, this 35 mm rangefinder film camera allows you to capture high speed images. Additionally, this Leica film camera has an on/off switch that prevents your battery from draining when not in use. What’s more, you can even shoot in low-light conditions, thanks to the built-in flash of the Leica M7 0.85.”

To Summarize: if you’re shooting sports, the M2 is the way to go. If you want that vintage feel with TTL metering, the M3 (You’ll get the added bonus of “wide coverage” with the M3 finder). Need Autofocus? The M5 is for you. Built in flash? Get the M7. Which leave us with the M4 and M6, whose “improvements,” if any, seem to be more hype than substance.


The Renaissance of Film Grain in the Digital Age


I love the picture above. It’s not so much the subject ( a throwaway portrait), it’s the aesthetic of the photo, and particularly, the grain. It has a beautiful traditional black and white 35mm look, a function of the classic optical rendering (a 50’s era Nikkor H 50 f/1.4 Leica Thread Mount), the tonality of a classic emulsion (Tri-X), and the overlay of grain inherent in the film process. Grain is the random optical texture of processed film caused by small metallic silver particles developed from silver halide.  Unlike pixelation, film grain is an optical effect, the amount of which depends on both the film stock and observational distances. For me, its the grain that sets traditional black and white film photography apart from digital black and white and why many of us prefer the labor intensive film process to digital black and white.

Which is ironic, because as a general rule, back in the film era, grain used to be a thing we tried to avoid. We chased newer emulsions that gave use a cleaner, less grainy look. C-41 films like Ilford XP2 and Kodak CN400 gave an almost grainless rendering and were popular for that reason; or we handicapped ourselves by shooting slow speed films like Kodak Panatomic-X (iso 32) or Ilford Pan-F (iso 50) as much for their lack of grain as their enhanced tonality. If we needed decent speed but unobtrusive grain for 11 by 14 prints, we shot Plus-X (iso 125). Or we avoided grain altogether by shooting medium format. When we needed low light capabilities, the quick easy shot, we opted for 35mm Tri-X or HP5, maybe even pushing it a stop to 800 iso, developing in a speed-enhancing developer like Microphen and crossing our fingers.

But a curious thing happened with the advent of digital photography: we realized the power grain had as an aesthetic characteristic in itself.  When seen in contrast to the sterility of digital capture grain revealed its inherent importance to the look of film photography. After we lost the rearguard battles of resolution, dynamic range and tonality to digital capture, we were left with the grain, and we finally recognized the particularity of film, its “look,” was the result of the organic quality of the grain and how the medium itself, with its random imperfections, was a necessary part of the image itself. And now we shoot film for the grain.


So, many of us who cut our teeth on film photography have now discovered the role grain plays in what we perceive to be a proper aesthetic of a photograph. We’ve found ways of changing film grain characteristcs in the darkroom by using certain chemicals, and we often choose film with specific grain for different occasions. In many ways, what sort of grain we want for a given look – coarse, subdued, plentiful – is as important as our choice of lens.

Melissa-4Havana, 1997, Leica M5 and Tri-X

If film grain has aesthetic value, high ISO digital noise does not. Not all sensors produce ugly noise at higher sensitivities – some produce noise almost “filmlike” (The Ricoh GXR M Mount comes to mind), but it’s usually only a matter of degree, not quality.  In digital capture, the equivalent of film grains are the individual elements of the image sensor, the pixels; just as small-grain film has better resolution than large-grain film, so too an image sensor with more numerous pixels will usually result in an image with better resolution. However, unlike pixels, film grain is not the limit of a given film stock’s resolution. While film grain is randomly distributed and varies in size, image sensor cells are the same size and are arranged in a geometric grid. In general, as the pixels from a digital image sensor are set in straight lines, they are less pleasing visually – thin, as it were –  then randomly arranged film grains. Viewers will reject an enlargement that shows pixels, when a film enlargement with ample grain and lower resolution will look normal, and ‘sharper’ at a normal viewing distance.

Various software exist to mimic the generic “look” of scanned film by converting to grayscale and adding random noise to emulate film grain. However, the results are often not convincing, because:

real film grain is not random noise
real film grain looks dramatically different across different film stocks
real film grain expresses itself differently based on exposure

A discerning eye can tell it’s not film, because real film grain, and the real film look, is a function of innumerable variables that go into the choice, exposure and development of a roll of film. To add grain to a digital image so that it would completely mimic film grain you would have to match the measured dynamic range and spectral response of a specific film stock and then correctly incorporate that film’s actual film grain into the image, duplicating how that grain expresses itself relative to exposure, stock, and development process.


Melissa-5Buddha and Melissa, 2013, Leica X1, Silver Efex Tri-X emulation

For me, film images look like images should look. Digital capture has a transparency to it that’s off-putting, even when you run them through an emulation like Silver Efex (see above). There’s a certain thinness to digital capture, because it lacks the organic texture intrinsic to the film image. The organic nature of film grain adds a layer of separation from reality, and this separation, far from adulterating the image, helps feed the viewer’s imagination. It’s this separation from strict reality that gives grain it’s power and character. Real film grain gives us something more than an indexical transposition of the “real”; it feeds the imagination. That’s why, in an age of crystal clean 3200 iso digital capture, I prefer to shoot HP5. And I always push it a stop to 800 iso, just for the enhanced grain, because its a look I simply can’t duplicate even with a dedicated black and white tool like the Monochrom and Silver Efex.