Leica is known for its legendary craftsmanship of cameras, but I don’t need to tell you that. Why do you think we all clamour at the idea of finding one amongst our grandfather’s possessions? It’s like finding the holy grail. While pretty much any camera from the M-Series is most sought after, most people would still be satisfied finding a Leica II or III in an attic som ewhere.
The R series is a bit different, though.
I mean, what kind of person really wants a Leica SLR? They don’t have the price tag of their rangefinder counterparts, but are also not the most capable 35mm SLRs in existence. When I think of Leica, I don’t think of SLRs. When I first became enamored by their cameras, I wanted that legendary cloth shutter system…
I wanted the camera that Robert Capa photographed D-Day with, that Robert Frank photographed The Americans with, that Bresson, Winnogrand, and Eggelston shot with. The list goes on.
Although I didn’t find my Leica SLR — the R6 that is the subject of this article — in my grandfather’s closet, a family friend was selling some old gear and offered up his setup to me for $500. I don’t know about you, but I heard “Leica” and “$500” and had to inquire further. He told me it was an R6, and my excitement faded. Not what I expected. My Canon A-1 that cost me less than $150 has the same functions.
I didn’t need another SLR. No thanks, I’ll pass.
Months passed, and I acquired an M4-2, the colloquial “budget M-Series” camera. I finally had a Leica in my hands. Anyone who’s shot with a Leica knows what I’m talking about when I say that there’s nothing like it. Even the budget Leica is smoother, sturdier (shall I say sexier?) than any other camera I’ve ever used. But after shooting with it, I realized that I simply did not like rangefinders. Didn’t think of that possibility, did I? I had hoped it would grow on me, but my eBay return window was getting smaller and I ultimately returned it.
I was Leica-less once again.
That was until I remembered the R6. While Gear Acquisition Syndrome played a part, my Canon A-1 was getting a bit long in the tooth, and who doesn’t need a good backup? So, I went for it. Much to my surprise, I’m glad I did.
Let me get this out of the way right now: for an SLR shooter, there is no better Leica (besides the R6.2 – the same camera, but with a 1/2000s shutter speed setting).
The kit I purchased included a 35mm f/2.8 Elmarit-R (above), and I later got a fresh 50mm f/2 Summicron-R (below). Right off the bat, I faced a dilemma: the lens options are slim. They’re less expensive than their M-mount counterparts, but they’re still pricier than other camera systems. Of course, you are limited to the Leica R-mount and, if you want the camera to meter properly without using stop-down metering for each exposure, then you’re even more limited to the later model 3-cam lenses.
R lenses have also become popular when pairing an adapter with some of the newer, mirrorless cameras, which has increased demand and inflated prices even more.
Just as expected from Leica, the R6 is solid. It features only manual exposure settings, solid metal construction, beautiful leatherette, a commanding shutter sound, buttery smooth rewind crank, and an incredibly easy film loading method. The R6 also has a super simple to read, battery-powered Selective and Full Field Integral light meter, displaying a “–” mark to warn of underexposure, a “o” to signify correct exposure, and a “+” to alert overexposure.
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There is nothing confusing, no numbers to fiddle with and match, and no finicky mechanical pieces to get stuck. Just blissfully easy-to-use LED icons, allowing for easy exposure setting adjustments. There are also lights that illuminate your shutter and aperture speeds, but they can be turned off. But enough with the overly technical. The best part of the R6 is that it’s purely mechanical at all shutter speeds. The battery is only necessary for the light meter. How sweet is that? If you run out of juice or you just want to go bare bones and flex your light metering skills, you can. This camera doesn’t have anything it doesn’t need, and is typical of Leica’s signature, minimalist aesthetic.
There is simply no comparison to my workhorse, the Canon A-1, that I’ve used for the past 5 years. The Canon’s rewind crank is clunky and squeaky, the shutter is abrasive, and it feels a lot cheaper. On occasion, I feel that the A-1 handles metering a little better in backlit scenes and other awkward lighting scenarios, but the only real competition to the R6/R6.2 are some of the Nikon F cameras like the F2 and FM3a.
I’ve never personally had the privilege of using these camera systems, but their reputation precedes them. Many have mechanical operation as well which to me, is huge when out in the field. The Nikons are admittedly less pricey and packed with more features, have an incredibly vast lens selection, and have just as solid build quality.
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The Leica R series itself is interesting, the first R-Mount cameras were the Leicaflex, Leicaflex SL, and the SL2 manufactured from 1964-1976. The first R series cameras were the R3 and R4 manufactured between 1976-1986 as a collaboration between Minolta and Leica, with the cameras being based on the Minolta XE and XD-7 respectively. Notably, they offered different exposure modes such as manual, aperture priority, shutter priority, and a program exposure setting. Users reported failing electronics which likely permanently damaged the R series reputation.
The R5 was introduced in 1987 and featured a few upgrades such as a variable program mode and automatic TTL flash exposure measurement. It retained the design of the previous cameras but seemed to go back to the drawing board for the R6 and R6.2’s mechanics. Manufactured from 1988-1992, the R6 went down a typically Leica minimalistic route: manual exposure only, mechanical operation with a battery-powered light meter, and a new Leica-developed shutter.
As mentioned above, the R6.2 features a 1/2000s shutter speed setting as opposed to the 1/1000s on the R6. The R6 fetched a much higher price than the R5, in an attempt to aim it towards professionals.
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Leica’s next R-camera iteration, the R7, had flash improvements and was the first microprocessor-controlled camera from Leica. The viewfinder display of shutter speed was digital with a backlight. The final installments in the R-series, the R8 and R9 were a complete departure from the design of the Minolta collaboration. The body’s design was notoriously ugly, weirdly bulbous, bulky, and much heavier. The R8 was dubbed “The Hunchback of Solms”, where Leica was headquartered at the time. Notably, the featured fast shutters (up to 1/8000 second!!), and a highly sophisticated exposure system. You could also put a digital back on both, making them very cutting edge cameras at the time.
If the R6 wasn’t presented to me by a family friend I probably would have went with one of the Nikons I mentioned above, or just kept going along with my trusty Canon A-1. But at this point let’s face it, I went for the R6 because of the Leica brand. Not for nothing though, I wouldn’t call it blind company loyalty. Leica is just known for crafting solid, beautiful minimalist cameras with user enjoyment at the forefront.
The R6 and R6.2 are in that perfect middle ground in the R series, evidence of that same care and craftsmanship that goes into all their products. If you don’t want to pay the Leica premium, want more features with more compatibility and a much wider lens selection, the R6 isn’t for you. If you enjoy a minimalist shooting experience, prefer SLR systems, and you come across the R6 at a decent price I think you’ll enjoy the experience.
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