I had been planning to upgrade from my Leica IIIf for a while; it’s a great camera but it makes taking photos a complicated process. First, cut the film so that it fits the camera, place it on the spool, insert it, wind it, only then select the shutter speed and realise a few shots in that you forgot to set the frame counter; great for learning, but it does get old after a while.
Enter the Leica M4.
Don’t get me wrong, I bought the Leica IIIf knowing about these issues. I was new to the world of photography, and I wanted to learn the very basics the old-fashioned way. Also, like many others, Cartier-Bresson’s photography greatly inspired me, and going deeper into his biography I read that he used a Barnack Leica to take so many of my favourite photographs. A mixture of admiration of using such a basic camera to create such powerful photographs, and the attraction of such a compact, beautiful camera, led me to purchase one in mid-2017. Since then, it traveled with me to Buenos Aires, Baku, Kathmandu, Salalah, Amman, and Dubai; from the deserts of the Empty Quarter to the mountains of the Caucasus. And after almost three years, I was ready to move on.
I was looking for something similar to the Leica IIIf but with easier controls; a better loading system, a better winding system (the knobs on the IIIf eat at your fingers like a cheese grater), just as compact, and well-built. No light meter, no batteries, nada. I wanted a barebones mechanical camera that did what I needed it to do, and do it well.
My search led me to the no-frills Leica M4-2. A stripped-down M4, it ticked all the boxes for me, and I hunkered down waiting for a reasonable price to show up. However, my IIIf began to fail me as the shutter curtain began to drag, and there appeared to be some strange light leaks whose origin I could not find.
I wanted a barebones mechanical camera that did what I needed it to do, and do it well.
As my hopes dwindled I was surprised by finding, upon returning home one day, a plain white bag containing a camera. It turns out that a close family friend, one who pushed me into film photography back in 2017, heard my parents talk about my search for a new camera. He happened to have a Leica M4, which he had shelved for a few years, and he generously decided to let me give it a whirl.
As of writing this article, I’ve had it for exactly two years. Photography is a process of continuous learning so this is by no means a definitive review, but since I have not seen too much written about this camera, and thanks to a little push from EM himself, I decided to divulge what I have learned so far, and maybe help some people that are on the fence with regards to buying it.
The Leica M4 on paper
The Leica M4, released in 1966, was the upgrade to the so-called ‘unbeatable’ Leicas: the M3 and M2 (and the curious Leica M1, of which I know practically nothing about). While they are classics, they came with their faults (many of which are shared with the IIIf): the cumbersome loading/unloading (all three cameras for the most part), the high-magnification (M3), and the manual frame counter (M2) are the most notable issues.
The M4 solved all these issues, providing the three-prong “rapid load” system, an angled rewind crank, incorporating an improved 0.72 magnification finder, and bringing back the M3’s frame counter.
The best of both worlds brought into one tightly-fitted brass body.
In the field
First thing’s first: the build quality.
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Enough people have sung their praise of Leica’s solid, meticulous camera construction, but I can’t talk about the Leica M4 without at least mentioning it. It’s solid, built like a tank, with a nicely-balanced heft to it. Each lever, dial, and knob has the perfect weight and construction that makes shooting the camera an absolute joy. I find myself enjoying the moments between rolls, where I can just wind and shoot without care, enjoying the mechanical feel.
It sounds weird, but there’s something to it.
Coming from the IIIf’s squinty viewfinder, the M4’s 0.72 magnification finder is a breath of fresh air. When using a 50mm lens, the framelines give ample room to all sides so you can see what’s moving into the frame (side note: while this is a commonly praised aspect, I just find it to be pretty neat; I’ve yet to have a real need for it). With a 35mm, most of the viewfinder is within the frame, and it always surprises me how much you can fit in there.
It feels just as wrong not to bring it on a walk to the supermarket as it does not bringing it on a hike.
The rangefinder patch is bright and well defined, although I do miss having an individual viewfinder for framing, free of the patch, as with the IIIf. Whenever I want that sweet, clear viewfinder (to check the center of the frame, for example) I just cover the little window on the front with my index, which does a pretty good job. I’m looking into buying an external finder, but prices for the 50mm and 35mm finders are fairly up there; I might try for one of the Soviet turret finders when I get the chance.
I find it to be the perfect weight in my hands; then again, I am happy lugging my RB67 around with no straps for hours at a time. There’s no reaching around for the shutter button as it’s placed perfectly where my index falls, and the winding lever moves with just the right pressure against my thumb. This doesn’t particularly affect the photographic abilities of the camera, but it’s something worth considering.
My personal experiences
This camera has followed me everywhere, dogging my trail since I got it. It feels just as wrong not to bring it on a walk to the supermarket as it does not bringing it on a hike. It has followed me on camping trips in the dunes of the Rub’ Al Khali, multi-day hikes in the Arctic Circle, and to the beaches of the Mediterranean. It has weathered temperatures from -5 to 50 Celsius, rain and sea spray, sandstorms and snow, and whatever residue you can find at the bottom of my backpack. And it has yet to fail me.
It’s almost too perfect. I’m used to cameras like the Zenit 11 (and even the IIIf), having to work around small quirks to get the frame you want. The M4 gives way to you, and the only (technical) concern is how fast you can reload film and change settings.
Regardless, whether I’m going out for groceries, cycling through the city, or going camping in the desert, you will always find the M4 on my shoulder with some HP5 PLUS in the chamber.
I’ve had the chance to put the M4 to the test in ways I hadn’t been able to do so before over the past few months. A combination of two years of meticulous planning and finally getting vaccinated allowed me to embark on my first solo-hiking trip to the north of Sweden, and the Leica came along for the ride. While not taking it to extreme sub-zero temperatures (at least for extended periods of time), it was fairly cold weather for over a week, which it endured like a champ. It bumped around in my bag, hung off my neck, was accidentally left on a swamp, and got thoroughly rained on; in short, I did not baby it as I had in the past, and as many Leica owners tend to.
So far, the only real problem I have encountered are light leaks. These are likely not faults with the M4 model itself, since I only noticed them in rolls from the past six months; but I always wonder if putting pressure on the ‘back door’ can cause any leakage – further testing is required. Sadly, they only came up after having shot over a dozen rolls on a recent trip; thankfully, they are not too prominent or at least not in every frame.
What more is there to say? All I was looking for was a camera that did what I needed it to do, and well. The Leica M4 does just that. Would I buy it knowing what I do now? Probably not; at least not at the price it’s going for. The M4-2 still feels more appealing in that regard, although the prices have almost doubled in the time it took to me to write this article. I would probably consider giving SLRs another chance (maybe the Nikon F2?). Regardless, whether I’m going out for groceries, cycling through the city, or going camping in the desert, you will always find the M4 on my shoulder with some HP5 PLUS in the chamber.
I find myself enjoying the moments between rolls, where I can just wind and shoot without care, enjoying the mechanical feel.
I hope you enjoyed this part-review, part-rambling account of (currently) my favourite camera. If you have, stay tuned! I’ll be uploading articles on my recent hike in the Arctic Circle and the ensuing trip through Europe, both on here and on my blog, and potentially on my Instagram. Thanks for reading!
Leica M4 specifications
|Camera name||Leica M4|
|Camera type||Interchangeable lens 35mm rangefinder camera|
|Manufacturer||Ernst Leitz GmbH.|
|Manufacture dates||November 1966-1986|
|Lens mount||M39 / Leica compatible thread mount
Accepts the Canon 50/0.95 "Dream lens" with optional bayonet mount 'M' adapter
59mm base length
47mm effective base length
|Viewfinder||Reverse Galilean (magnification ×0.72) with automatic and manually selected framelines with automatic parallax correction.
|Shutter||Mechanical horizontal focal plane (cloth)
1 sec - 1/1000th sec
|Flash||X-Sync at 1/50th second but no accessory shoe (7s model has a cold shoe)
PC socket and flash bracket compatible
|Wind / Rewind||Lever advance
Counter resets after black is opened
Folding crank rewind
|Loading||Swing open back load - dual locking mechanism|
|Finish||Silver Chrome, Black Chrome, Black Paint, Olive Paint (only 31 copies made).|
|Weight||560 grams (no lens)|
|138 x 77 x 33.5 mm (WxHxD)|
|Accessories||Optional Leica LEICAMETER M, MC, MR or MR-4|
Funny, I’m going the other way. After shooting Leica since 1974 with an M3, I’ve worked my way through an M4 and now an M6. But I’ve recently discovered the joys of shooting a IIIF, so much so that I’m thinking of selling the M6. The Barnack camera, now that it’s been made to run like new, may soon be my only Leica.
The Barnack Leica definitely has an appeal that the Ms don’t, with the smaller and lighter bodies or slower-paced controls, but right now I can embrace the simplicity that comes with the M4. Still, you won’t find me selling my IIIf any time soon 🙂 Thanks for reading, Arthur!
Wonderful piece on a great camera. Light leaks probably shutter! Check camera lugs are not loose, not even a little. Forget add-on viewfinders! Yes! HCB used them on Barnack. Amazing photos! I carry my M same way. Best is backpack when I am tired.
Oh! If shopping veggies go in 1st! Leica on top,
So glad to hear you say that! I’ve had a iiif for about 4 years and occasionally have an “M-moment of weakness” when I contemplate switching to an M4. I knew I was taking a risk even reading this review (nicely written btw) but I might be able to keep going now!