In late 2015 I was hit by a taxi making an illegal turn and received three fractured vertebrae for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. When the mist cleared a second or two after I hit the tarmac, I found myself with my right arm aloft, still holding a new to me Leica M6 TTL 0.85.
As fate would have it, I snapped a photo while tumbling through the air. It may seem a little morbid but that photograph has gone on to become one of my favourites. A reminder that the day could have had a little more finality to it had I landed differently.
In the years that have followed the accident, I still joke about being more worried about the camera than I was about myself. There’s a vein of truth there: it took only three or four days before I dropped the M6 off for a check-up but another two weeks before I went in for an MRI of my spine — I spent several months wearing a fitted back brace before getting back to normality.
At the time of the accident, I had owned the M6 TTL for just six short weeks. In fact, had only returned to using rangefinder cameras four weeks prior to that. Going from someone who had sworn off rangefinders for life and by his own admission “would never own a Leica”, to buying two M-mount cameras and several lenses over the space of ten weeks is part of the story I’m telling today.
The story — and I promise you, it’s a long story — should really start with a phone call and subsequent meeting but instead, I’m going to rewind to 2014 and start with why I decided rangefinders — and by extension, Leicas — weren’t for me…
For those of you who want to skip ahead:
I appreciate this is a strange way to start an article about a film camera — love letter is a tropey but better label, perhaps — but that’s where we are and I’ll need some time to rewind the clock a little more until I’m able to swing back to today.
I hate rangefinder cameras
I’ve never truly gotten on with cameras that don’t let me see what my lens does. You might say that my visualisation skills need exercise but trust me, I’ve had a fair bit of practice over the years.
I have a complicated relationship with subject isolation and very shallow depth of field. Judge me if you will because the results aren’t always everyone’s cup of tea but that’s not important, they’re MY cup of tea and since I only shoot for myself, that’s what counts.
Because of this, over the years I’ve naturally preferred using SLR cameras or cameras which employ a ground glass. They allow me to see my final image in perfect clarity and (I think) waste less film because of that. When it comes to simple fixed-focus viewfinder cameras, zone focus Holgas/Dianas, AF point and shoots and yes, rangefinders, I’ve used more than a few but when it comes to being able to only choose one camera for the day, my pre-Leica self would always go for the SLR.
The photos below, which I dug through my archive for, show the type of photography I’m trying to describe. As fate would have it, they were all taken with a rangefinder. This may lead you to believe that everything else in the article is utter tosh — justification of GAS if you will — in reality, these and a few other successes were not the norm and for me at least, relatively hard to capture with consistent success.
By early 2014, I’d used or owned a few rangefinders, the highlights of which were a pair of Olympi (Olympus-es?), an Olympus 35SP and a 35DC. The latter, with its tiny footprint and sharp F.Zukio 40mm f/1.7 lens should have been the perfect pocket camera.
It was until it wasn’t.
Many, many missed frames (close up at f/1.7) began to irk me and the 35DC found itself being left for longer and longer periods in my dehumidifying cabinets. In the end, I sold it and replaced it with a Ricoh GR1v, one of my all-time favourite cameras. The 35SP was left in the cabinets until late 2015 when I gave it as a gift to one of my past interviewees.
I was completely done with rangefinders and with few exceptions, anything that wasn’t an SLR. I was 100% confident that I would never own another rangefinder camera in my life. They just weren’t for me. As far as Leicas went, why even bother buying a super (overly?) expensive version of a type of camera that didn’t do it for me in any way shape or form?
Sure, they look nice but that little red dot didn’t magically imbue the camera with special powers and a rangefinder is a rangefinder no matter how much lipstick you put on it.
It’s fair to say I was a bit of a Leica hater.
The Leica CL and my descent into rangefinder “hell”
I blame Leica and Minolta equally.
I have a “gear pusher” who knows I like a good deal and happens to come across some truly fantastic pieces of kit. In early August 2015, he let me know he had a mint condition Leica CL and would be willing to let it go for US$180. I had no interest in buying another rangefinder but for that kind of money, I figured I could have a play and still sell it on without losing money.
We arranged to meet up the following evening and I’ll give him credit, he wasn’t overplaying his hand. The Leica CL was near as damn perfect. The only problem was my complete lack of lenses for it. The cheapest lens he had for sale was nearly US$1000, so I went on eBay and 30 minutes later I had purchased two moderately well-reviewed Industar lenses that would be with me within about a week.
While at a friend’s camera store (buying LTM to M-mount adapters), he mentioned that he had an old Leica Elmar 9cm f/4 lens he wasn’t using and would be happy to lend it to me until my lenses arrived.
My past experience with longer lenses on rangefinders had been frankly terrible but I wanted to use the camera ASAP and happily took it off his hands. This is where my problems started.
So… I like rangefinder cameras now?
The 9cm (90mm) focal length on that diminutive Leica CL was a shockingly potent combination. Not because the lens was anything spectacular, it was all about the focal length and how it was presented in the viewfinder. My previous rangefinders all had fixed 40mm or 50mm lenses with framelines that nearly completely filled the viewfinder.
For me, this causes a little visual confusion. First of all, I wear specs, so those framelines weren’t always easy to see edge-to-edge. Second, the view doesn’t change. There’s no depth of field or change in focus cues aside from the tiny rangefinder patch.
These things that really bugged the SLR user in me but with the 90mm Elmar on the CL, it wasn’t a big deal. All I had to worry about was the rangefinder patch for focus, the meter reading in the viewfinder and that 90mm frameline, which filled about ⅓ of the viewfinder.
Being able to see around the frame was a revelation!
Unlike an SLR, the Leica CL + the 9cm Elmar allowed me to see people and objects before they came into frame and it was, for want of a better word, liberating. That said, as you can see from some of the photos above, I was still tripping hard over my SLR habits. It would take some time before that changed.
Even with its slow maximum aperture of f/4, that 9cm Leica Elmar did an admirable job. Close focus at f/4 was tricky due to the Leica CL rangefinder’s short Effective Base Length (more on that below) but a couple of misfocused frames were the least of my troubles when I was having so much fun with it.
The Russian 50mm lenses arrived during the second week of August but after having used that 90mm constantly for a fortnight, I didn’t really want to use anything wider. I think I used each Russian 50 twice, preferring to stick to the 90 whenever I could. They were ok. Nothing great, so I kept one and sold the other some time ago. I still wanted to give the 50mm focal length a decent crack at the whip and ended up speaking to a second “gear pusher” about finding a fast 50.
That left me — just two weeks into owning the CL — searching for a third 50mm lens and my own 90 so I could return my friend’s Elmar. I was in deep but that was just the start of it.
My nifty fifty: the Canon Serenar 50mm f/1.5
I dealt with my 50mm needs/GAS first, spending some time pouring over 35mmc and Japan Camera Hunter to research the different options from Leica, Zeiss, Voigtlander and Canon. I finally had it down to two vintage lenses, the Canon Serenar 50mm f/1.5 and Leica Summarit 50mm f/1.5.
The feel of the photographs each could produce was roughly similar but I preferred the rendition of the Canon. Based on the condition I was looking to buy, prices were surprisingly similar, so it was pretty much a no-brainer. This was late-August, three weeks after getting the CL and about seven weeks before the accident.
The Canon Serenar 50mm f/1.5 is a Sonnar-based LTM lens made for Canon rangefinders. Mine was made in 1953 and while many would rather a more up-to-date lens, it is hands down one of the most enjoyable 50mm lenses I’ve used bar none.
Given its age and construction, it’ll give significant glow wide open but stop it down to f/2.8 or beyond and it sings — in my opinion at least. Digital users complain of coma, spherical aberration and a bunch of other annoying little things that only those obsessed with sharpness give a damn about. Here are some samples so you can make up your own mind.
This lens weighs a ton, in part due to its brass construction and the fact its elements were hewn from neutron stars, which makes them much denser than if they had been constructed from mere Earth-bound material.
With my 50mm lens taken care of, next up was getting my own 90 but I had to deal with another “problem” first.
…the Leica CL was no longer enough
I had my CL and lenses and was loving it. My 35mm SLRs were growing restless in their dry cabinets. My friend’s Elmar 9cm was getting far more use than the Canon 50 and that’s because there was something wrong with it, or at least, the way the camera was dealing with it.
With the Canon Serenar, the CL’s metering was dead on 90% of the time but for some reason, when the aperture was set at f/1.5 or f/2, the meter would wildly underexpose by two or more stops, especially in brightly lit and high contrast scenes. My solution was to meter at f/8 and then open it up/adjust the shutter speed accordingly.
I did some research and found a couple of stalled online conversations stating that the CL’s meter was easily confused by certain lenses at wider apertures. As with most rumours on the internet, I couldn’t find any concrete examples and could only fall back on my direct experience.
I was also having missed/backfocus issues on a few frames shot (again) at f/2 and below. I checked out the lens on a friend’s Leica M and even went as far as setting out a tape measure with objects at regular intervals, shooting a roll at different apertures and distances to see if there was a back/front focus issue at play.
It turns out that the lens was spot on in a controlled environment. What I really needed was a rangefinder camera with better accuracy for when I was shooting on the street. Essentially, I needed a rangefinder with a longer Effective Base Length (EBL).
Yes, needed. You can probably guess where this is going but first, a quick detour on Effective Base Length.
Tangent: what is Effective Base Length (EBL) and why should I care?
I won’t bore you by repeating the content of Hamish Gill’s excellent article on the subject. You should check it out when you have a moment. I will borrow from it, however.
“Rangefinder base length is the space between the camera’s rangefinder window and the viewfinder. It is the difference between two corners of a triangle, the third corner being the subject the camera is focusing on. The longer the base length, the longer the space between two corners of the triangle, the more accurate the rangefinder is.”
It’s the last bit that’s important: the longer the base length, the more accurate the rangefinder is.
The Leica CL’s EBL — which you arrive at by multiplying the rangefinder’s base length (RB) and the viewfinder magnification (VM): RB x VM = EBL — is 18.9mm. That’s the 31.5mm rangefinder base length multiplied by the 0.6x viewfinder magnification.
The number is meaningless until we add context.
Comparing the CL’s 18.9mm EBL to that of the Leica M3’s 62.33mm and the numbers begin to tell us that on paper, the M3 should provide just over three times the focusing accuracy of the CL.
It was settled then, I needed a “full size” rangefinder camera and as such, why bother with a Voigtlander Bessa or Zeiss IKON? I’d need to sell a few bits of less frequently used gear but I’d just start at the top and get a Leica.
Remember I mentioned that I was a bit of a Leica hater? The CL, while a Minolta-constructed camera, had started to make me rethink my position on Leicas. My friend’s Elmar, which was made some time in the early 1960s helped massively with that.
Finding my perfect Leica: the M6 TTL 0.85
And that’s how I finally arrived at the M6 TTL — specifically the M6 TTL 0.85 — as my Leica. As someone who had apparently promised themselves that they would never own one, I was in uncharted territory and needed to bone up pretty quickly.
There was no external pressure for me to take the leap, let alone take it so quickly. I’m just impatient. I had decided I needed a Leica so had to get one ASAP. That meant a fair bit of research.
I should state for the record that everything below this point is a documentation of my needs/requirements and decision-making process. I’m not telling you that my choice is the perfect one for you but I am telling you it’s the perfect one for me 😉
I toyed with the idea of an M3 for its 0.91x viewfinder magnification. The M3 has 50mm, 90mm and 135mm framelines and I had no desire to shoot any lenses wider than 50mm at the time. As someone who wears spectacles, the high magnification should be perfect and there’s still be plenty of space around the 90mm frameline. I put a graphic together to describe this better:
As nice as it would have been to own a classic — the classic M-mount Leica, perhaps — was out. The single feature that would determine which camera I ended up with was a built-in light meter.
The second must-have for me was a quick/rapid film loading system. I absolutely did not want to fiddle with loading film. To me, the Leica M3 and standard Leica M2’s utterly abysmal film loading system is not “part of the process”, it’s an evolutionary step that was thankfully bettered. I don’t have the time for it but I appreciate some people love it.
These two requirements left only five options:
You might be interested in...
- Leica M5
- Leica M6 (Classic)
- Leica M6 TTL
- Leica M7
- Leica MP
As a quick aside, pulling together and making sense of a lot of information — as well as stripping out false or misleading data — is a big part of what I’ve done in my day job for the past decade or so. There’s so much conflicting information out there about the Leica M-system and I’ve decided to collate and publish the information I gathered to make my choice in a companion article.
It’ll contain all the top-level information you need to make an informed choice, as well as some flowcharts to guide your decision and will be published on May 23rd 2020.
EDIT: The companion article is now published and contains an interactive Leica M / other brand M-mount camera selection tool (very cool, even if I say so myself). In addition, I’ve provided viewfinder data as well a some QRG-type information. Expect more to come.
Speaking of decision making, here’s a quick insight into mine: the M5 was out purely because I knew the meter system employed would negate the use of certain lenses that protruded too far into the camera body. I love the totally un-Leica design but I’m more for greater flexibility. Of the other film Leicas equipped with built-in light meters, the M6 Classic, M7 and MP were out of the running for different reasons:
- M6 Classic: strange (to me) twin-LED meter that works in the opposite direction of the dial.
- M7: too reliant on electronics only two mechanical speeds with a dead/no battery (1/60 and 1/125).
- MP: the dream but sadly too expensive for my blood.
The M6 TTL ticked the following boxes:
- The entire shutter range works without a battery, so if the electronics died, I would not be left with a paperweight.
- Three-LED meter (in ½ stop increments) and a shutter dial that moves in the “correct” direction in relation to the meter.
- That huge shutter speed dial – sliding a finger across the front of the camera to change shutter speeds (less fiddly).
- Available with a high magnification viewfinder option.
Next to the light meter and quick loading, a high magnification viewfinder option was most important to me at this point. Of the 16 rolls I’d shot on the Leica CL at that time, 10 of them had been taken with a 9cm or 90mm lens. Considering that 90mm was going to remain my go-to lens for the foreseeable future, I wanted to make sure that I had a viewfinder that would make it easier to frame and focus on that lens = one with high magnification.
Here’s how the M6 TTL’s 90mm framelines compare to the M3 on each of the M6 TTL’s three viewfinder magnification options:
It’s an obvious statement but I’ll make it nonetheless the TTL 0.85’s viewfinder was the next best thing to the M3’s 0.91.
It was for these three reasons that I ended up choosing the M6 TTL 0.85 and as luck would have it, I managed to find one locally in excellent condition for $1,300. Timeline update: this was the very end of August/beginning of September 2015, only four short weeks after buying the Leica CL.
Finally, my own 90: the Leica Tele-Elmarit-M 90mm f/2.8
With the M6 TTL in my possession, all I had left to do was to give my friend back his Elmar. To replace it, I decided on the Leica Tele-Elmarit-M 90mm f/2.8 — “skinny” version — which arrived in very early September a few days after the camera.
There’s not much to say about it, really. The lens was made in Canada (something that irks Leica purists), it’s incredibly compact and performs as well as you’d expect. The choice came down to the 90mm Tele-Elmarit-M, a “normal” 90mm Elmarit-M between that and the Summicron-M 90mm f/2 but larger size, greater weight and additional cost of the Elmarit-M and Summicron-M put me off. I wanted something I could hang off my shoulder or fingers (see the finger grip in the gear shot above) without being too worried about the weight.
Post-accident: an unexpected experience with Leica service
We’re finally back to the beginning of this article; six weeks into my ownership of the M6 TTL 0.85 and getting hit by a taxi. Although nothing stood out as feeling “wrong” with the M6 following the accident, I was concerned that something might have been knocked out of place by both impacts (car -> me, me -> tarmac).
I had the same paranoia with my Speedmaster Professional (3570.50/861 for the watch nerds) which I’d already dropped off at Omega. I had no idea of what kind of out of warranty check-up service Leica offered but thought I’d better go and find out.
It turns out there was a pretty comprehensive one and it was as unpretentious as you can imagine. At the store, I explained to the clerk what had happened and she called out one of their engineers to have a chat with me. He took my details down, as well as those of the camera body and the Canon Serenar that was still mounted to it. I was given a docket and was told someone would be in touch with the inspection results within a few days. The entire process took about 15 minutes over a cup of green tea. I left to grab a late lunch and my watch (which was fine by the way!)
Less than 24 hours later I received a call: my camera was ready to pick up. I was greeted by the same engineer, who took me through the tests he had performed — light meter, shutter speed, rangefinder alignment, distance-to-film-plane of the mount, etc. Everything with exception of the top shutter speed — which was about ⅓ slower than it should be — came back 100%. He’d also given it a clean and double-checked the lens was ok. I hadn’t expected that.
Total out of pocket cost: taking the subway there and back.
To say I was thrilled was an understatement. Through a simple act of excellent, unexpected service, Leica secured a customer for life.
Humble pie time: I was wrong about Leica
Up until buying the Leica M6 TTL, I’d held just one M series Leica, an M3. Holding a camera and aping the actions of taking a photograph are no substitute for using it in real life and my new M6 TTL 0.85 lived up to nearly every single piece of hype I’d heard about Leica over the years.
Was I turning into a fanboy?
It’s no secret there are some utterly sycophantic, cringeworthy Leica fanboys/snobs out there. When I say some, I mean LOTS. You know the type, waxing lyrical about the merging of engineering and design, blah, blah, slit my throat with a blunt spoon and stuff my ears with soiled underpants.
I’m the first to express admiration for something done well but Leica fanboys are enough to turn anyone against them and by extension, the brand. Little known fact: Gandhi was only a pacifist because he never met a Leica fanboy in real life…probably.
Have I become a Leica fanboy? Do you need to break out the underpants? No, I’m ok for now but I will tell you my thoughts as someone who (initially at least) begrudgingly became the proud owner of a Leica:
The Leica “haze”: Using a Leica film camera will not magically make your photographs better. They’re well-engineered cameras that will last for many lifetimes if treated with respect – that’s decent servicing, not babying.
That said, and just like any similar camera which inspires confidence and “gets out of your way”, owing one may encourage you to use it more and by extension, your photography should improve simply because you’re out there taking more photographs. Naturally, you have to be open to learning from your experiences. It’s not a silver bullet and instead, requires time and effort from you.
Perhaps I should say that a Leica could help make you a better photographer as long as you’re out there using it and learning from the lessons it provides.
Leica produce the best lenses: No. Spending ~US$1000 with almost any manufacturer will get you an excellent lens and there’s little practical difference between optics from Nikon, Canon, Zeiss and Leica these days. Yes, some of them are pretty damned good but it’s worth keeping in mind that you can slap an objectively crap lens on a good camera and still take a fantastic photograph – it’s down to the photographer more than the gear.
Also, when you see a great photograph on the wall, the last thing you do is ask which lens was used to capture it. If you do, then perhaps you’re more of a gearhead than a photographer (which is perfectly ok by the way…)
Leica cameras should only be used with Leica lenses: I’ve heard this wonderfully elitist sentiment many, many times before. No, Leica cameras should use whatever lens you feel gets the job done…for you.
Leicas become “invisible”: Yep, there’s truth to this but it’s not limited to Leica. You can apply the statement to any well-engineered, well-designed piece of equipment. What a Leica — along with the right lens — can do, is get out of the way and let you take photographs without really having to think about the gear. Lift the camera to your eye lightly focus and adjust other settings without thinking twice. Leicas are not the exclusive recipient of this accolade.
Leica’s have excellent build quality: Generally speaking, yes. Leica build quality really helps the camera get out of your way. Like a Hasselblad, Rollei or another premium-built camera, you feel a confidence in the camera. Everything feels as it should.
It’s difficult to describe without a potentially pointless analogy, so here goes: consider good build the difference between the feel of shutting the door on a 1990s Ford vs a modern German car. When you get down to it, the one thing a Leica does effortlessly — like other truly premium cameras — is to remove any worry that the camera will stop working.
That’s not to say that there have not been problems with them and for the M6 specifically, there have been notable build issues and issues with the chrome paint (both black and silver) bubbling over their zinc top plates. Touchwood, I’ve not had any myself.
Using a Leica makes you feel special: Not really or at all, in fact. Personally speaking, that is. Using a Leica makes me feel like I don’t really have to worry about the gear. It doesn’t make me feel special. I can be a touch more discrete with my M6 TTL than with an SLR. It’s smaller, lighter and less in your face.
Rangefinder focusing is the best for street photography: No but it has its merits. If you’re using a 35mm or wider lens, you’re able to better hack DoF (hyperfocal distances on the lens) to get what you want but I shoot longer lenses and prefer subject separation rather than broad street scenes. This doesn’t really apply to the vast majority of my photography, although I’ll admit to trying.
Five years with my Leica M6 TTL 0.85
I still use my SLRs more than my rangefinders. I prefer the experience but — and this is a big but — when I feel like freeing myself, my Leicas are nearly always the first cameras to come out of the cabinets.
Yes, plural. In 2018 I took the plunge and picked up a lovely Leica M2 and Elmar-M 50mm f/2.8. The camera came with an upgraded aftermarket film take-up system from the M4/M6 etc., effectively making it an M2R. A classic Leica without that terrible loading system!
Why go for an M2 when I already had the best Leica “for me”? It’s simple, really: I liked it and wanted it. I initially felt the slightly less magnified viewfinder (0.72x vs the M6 TTL’s 0.85x) might make it easier to shoot my 35mm 7artisans lens but truth be told, it didn’t.
Over the years, I’ve supplemented the 50mm f/1.5 Canon Serenar and 90mm f/2.8 Tele-Elmarit-M with a 21mm f/4 Voigtlander Color-Skopar, and four 7artisans lenses: the 28mm f/1.4, 35mm f/2, 50mm f/1.1 and 75mm f/1.25. These days, I keep the M2 for mostly shooting the 35mm 28mm and 21mm lenses and employ a Leica MR Meter to take care of metering “in-camera” vs using a handheld device.
I still use the M6 TTL more though, and when I use it with wider lenses, I have a lovely Voigtlander Zoom Finder that covers 15-35mm lenses. Arriving at that is a story in itself, which I won’t bore you with today.
Of the two cameras, the M2 feels more like a “classic” Leica. It’s a difficult feeling to convey but if you’ve shot a few mechanical cameras, you’ll know what I mean when I say that under my hands, the camera moves differently; the click of the shutter, winding on film, the click, click, click of levers and dials. I have the same feeling when using, let’s say a Nikon FT3 or F2 vs an FA or F3.
Under the skin, the M2 feels like everything meshes and moved together just a little differently to the M6. Not better, just different. That’s not to say the M6 feels like junk. My copy is solid and has given me no cause to doubt its ability to go on and on and on.
Using these Leicas and a couple of other rangefinders over the years has also led me to a surprising personal discovery. I have to become a different photographer when I use them. For me, using a rangefinder as if it’s an SLR simply doesn’t work. My results are boring, tired and uninspired.
This “revelation” may seem obvious to you but the point is it wasn’t to me. The 90mm framelines (taking up ⅓ – ½ of the viewfinder) let me see so much of the world coming into the frame and anticipate the shot better than with an SLR.
The kinds of subject I shoot with rangefinders is also broadly different from SLRs. Perhaps not enough for you to see but it’s apparent to me. This is also why on the whole, it takes me longer to shoot a roll of film in my M6 vs say, my Nikon F2 or F6.
I’m ok with that.
Is the Leica M6 TTL 0.85 the best M film camera Leica has ever made?
Your mileage may vary but for me, yes. At least until I manage to scrape together the cash and justify an MP.
Right now, the M6 TTL has everything I need: a high magnification viewfinder option, quick film load, easy film rewind, an excellent light meter and shutter speed that moves in the correct direction, all the frame lines you could ever need and TTL flash (if that’s your thing, that is).
It beats every single Leica M out there unless you’re a brass-body purist. It took everything Leica learned about what not to do following the M5 and wrapped it all into a compact package that only has one minor quibble: you can’t use some goggle options at some focus distances because it’s a tiny bit taller than its predecessors. Jesus wept.
The M6 is just un-Leica enough for photographers today to actually consider and use it as a disposable photographic tool — not literally, obviously. Black chrome over zinc “doesn’t age well” according to some, so why bother keeping it clean? Forget about taping up the white paint, I’ll just gouge it out with chopsticks (I did). Treat it as a tool and don’t baby it.
Today the M6 has the least fanfare of any Leica — beaten only perhaps, by the Canadian M4-2 and M4-P — and to a degree, that shows in the second-hand market. That’s not to say these cameras are cheap or easily accessible by everyone but the standard 0.72x M6 TTL is among the most accessible of all metered Leica Ms. The 0.58x and 0.85x, not so much. In the few short years since I purchased mine prices for the 0.85x have gone through the roof, doubling in some parts of the world. I have a small desire to get the 0.58x version but I’d have to sell my 0.85 to get it and since that’s the best Leica M ever made — for me — that would be plain stupid.
The M6 TTL is the best camera Leica ever made because it does everything that every Leica M before it either as well or just that little bit better — for me. One could argue that the improved flare reduction of later models negates my point but honestly, I’ve suffered from that particular issue only once or twice since I’ve owned the camera and dealing with it meant slightly changing where and how I was standing. It’s not a big deal but as I already mentioned, if I had the spare cash, I’d probably jump for an upgrade to the MP 😉
Should you buy a Leica M?
If you want to, why not? I know maybe one or two disappointed Leica owners, so if you like rangefinder cameras and are in the market for another, you should be fine. If you don’t like fiddling with loading film, grab and M2R or later model.
Worst case, you don’t like it and unlike many things in the world today, you’ll still make your money back when you sell it.
What’s the point of all this?
Just my experiences on paper, nothing more. After nearly five years with my M6 TTL, I finally felt I knew the camera enough to start writing about it, so you can expect a few more articles covering that and my other rangefinders in the future.
This article sits in the netherworld between camera review and thought piece, I hope you found it useful to some extent and if you’ve got any questions, please ask them in the comments below. At the very least, I hope this article helps those of you sitting on the fence about rangefinders, or even those of you wondering what on earth the lure of such an expensive camera system is.
The Leica M6 TTL 0.85 was a camera I didn’t want, let alone feel like I needed back in 2015. I had to learn to take photographs in the way the camera wanted them to be taken, not the other way round. When finally I bent my will to that hunk of plastic, metal and glass, I was rewarded with some of my favourite photographs of the last half-decade.
A Leica M is not a camera (or system) for everyone. If you haven’t used one before and have the chance, I’d highly recommend you try and borrow one for a couple of weeks to see if it works for you. Like me, it might teach you a little something about yourself. Perhaps it’ll cause you to question a belief or two. It might even — as absurd as it might sound to some people — do absolutely nothing for you, and that’s ok.
After all, it’s not about them, it’s all about you.
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A lovely thought piece, as you call it, that brings together some of your life story elements with your growing adaptation to the Leica M6 TTL. I am on to your article late but I hope your back recovered well from your accident.
A wonderful essay about your relationship with M6 TTL. Being an owner of two M6 TTLs myself (2003 model bought new in 2004 and 1999 model bought “new” in 2019), I can easily identify with you.
By the way, judging from the photographs you included, you seem to be based in Hong Kong or some place where traditional Chinese characters are used, except that one shot, the last one, shows somewhere in Japan. Is that an image reflected on a mirror? The characters on the billboard are horizontally inverted. Just curious.
Yes, 100%! The entire roll is, in fact. I decided to live with it, after belatedly realising some time after publishing the piece!
Thank you for your kind words! It’s getting harder to live with the knowledge the meter has no hope for being repaired if ever damaged but I can’t get enough of that huge shutter speed dial.
If you ever feel like writing about your two, please do let me know. I’ll gladly feature your thoughts on these pages 🙏
to M or not to M.
it’s plain simple.
any precise film camera is a precise film camera, so is a well maintained M.
any precise and maintained leica lens is excellent, so is Minolta, Nikon, Canon, … for its intended purpose.
looking for a Rangefinder that can do all? think again, RFs can’t do all, that’s the same with all other cameras.
Ever tried a super compact and robust Barnack Leica?
All that’s really great about the M is that it’s still serviced at the front-desk of Leica Stores and that Leica still produces a reliable and robust (for a RF) film camera. Tell me who does that for “affordable” (once you have the right priority for this kind of investment) money.
I own 2 M6 and love them, still I’d love to have a few more – not for need, just #havehave’s 😉
With this article I realized that the 0.85 I was longing for a 50mm combination only makes sense for 90mm lenses and more, 75 and 50mm have a barely noticeable effect (on the pictures presented here, need to reality-check that of course).
Film models I love: M6ttl (all done the right way, update to newer RF if you want/can), M7 silent and precise (con: too many batteries that aren’t available everywhere), MP (black paint is nice), M-A (my ideal, no battery, best design, new, silver, everyone has black stuff).
Film models I don’t like: M2 (don’t like the count wheel in addition to the legacy film loading process), M5 (for the wrong battery types and the overall bigger size, only, otherwise I like the design). M3 is the best, but the oldest, too, love my 21 and 35, too, so no M3.
Film model for robinson island: barnack model III + summicron 50
Digital Ms are not worth it – just plain not worth it, unless you love Leica Film RF and have a lot of lenses for M-mount and want to keep in the family, than, M262, M10 or best M10-P. For M10-R/M think about the most recent lenses as the faults of cheap alternative or very old M lenses will become negatively visible on that hefty resolution. If you like “character” that way, think again why you spend so much money for it. these are computers, like any other. there’s no high residual value in a computer context after a few years, a few more years on leica, but not too many more than others.
I own a M240 and love it, too, but would I buy it again – today, or a M10-P with the M240 experience? No. I had to repair (fully rebuild) it 2 times, paid one, other buy big modern fully featured cameras for that money). I don’t care anymore, I use it until it breaks and gets unrepairable. If you want the best digital red dot camera, get the best lens first, that’s the L-mount apo lenses, then choose your camera that fits those. M will always be modern-technically inferior to the L-mount unless Leica’s strategy changes. If you want character, stay with 24MP and your beloved character lenses or rank it all up to the newest ever recalculated heritage or l-mount compacted derivates gear lens and camera from the Leica M-System.
“Leica” Film-shooters have to shoot with Leica glass, otherwise they’re Zeis, Voigtländer, whatsoever shooters while using the other lens, or HP5 shooters or whatever film. 😉 Who cares, shoot what you leica. 🙂 I use f-mount Petzval, MS-Optics, Leitz lenses.
a silly dream: get rid of all, and keep M-A + SLX50ASPHsilver
I´m a new fan of this site. Were else I can find something like this story? EM, thank you for sharing it and make me seek for a rangefinder adventure of my own!
Thanks for reading it, Julio! I’m glad you found it useful. I’d recommend checking out Simon King’s author page here: https://emulsive.org/author/simon-king. I’d also recommend checking out mine, too 😉
Honestly though, your best bet is checking out the related reading on each page, the post tags (at the bottom of the articles), or the categories. Go check it out and welcome to EMULSIVE!
The best article I read over a long time…the impact of a highly severe form of GAS is so immanent in my life…and meet the authors so well; you, I am afraid…we are beyond of any reason..and yet, in this world, we are still harmless…take this as a compliment please..keep going as I do..with Leica and M mount cameras…I have almost 30 of them…I know…not even one of the high tech shots we have at present would heal me..so just honor the ashes of my remains…I will not change..giving my two children the chance to once had the most eccentric of all as their father…
I will celebrate you, this, me and our future with a glass of Gruener Veltliner further on..
Thank you again
My Google feed just pointed me to this article and I’m glad they did. These are the time when it’s ok that they pry in my life.
Really good article and I appreciate the detail and backstory. I completely agree with all that you said. I shoot manual lens on a Sony mirrorless and I’ve been wondering when and how should I reenter the film world. I wanted something old, but still new enough. Medium format seems too good. When the quality get’s close to my Sony FF, then what’s the point for me?
I wanted a camera that could capture a really old look with globs of character. I already have two lens formats for the Sony and I didn’t want another one. I wanted to use my existing glass. So it would either be a Contax SLR or Leica. I looked at a Bessa and others, but they didn’t feel right. Too often I go for second best and regret the decision later.
So I am now the owner of a very clean M2. A cold shoe meter just came in and I’m like, now what? So many DLSR questions are running through my mind. I’ve never used a rangefinder before so I’m expecting to adjust to this differently. I just ran a roll of film through it with my very clean Summar. It’s looking like what I want. I guess I’ll get more familiar with it over time. This is a very strange new environment. I was expecting this to be my new everything camera, but as you pointed out, this camera needs to be used for it’s thing and get an SLR for the other stuff. I’m just trying to figure this all out.
Thanks for your words and insight. It helps a lot.
Great read, thank you for the article and sharing your experiences. I came to like Leica because I wanted to help a friend financially and was curious as I always liked many of the fotos taken with Leicas and the stories behind them and the photographers… Anyway, he needed money and I offered him a fair price so I got a Leica M6 TTL in 2017 with the summicron 50 and the close-up goggles. I never liked the feel of this lens, but I liked what I saw after developing the films in the darkroom. So I got me a voigtlaender 35 1.4 and a minolta 28 2.8 later on, as well as a M5 for which I was bidding for on Ebay and got it for a few pennies actually – compared to the current prices. These cameras have given me a different approach to photography as I use them in an other way than my other cameras. I shoot a lot on medium format TLR and SLR, as well as during the last years I collected quite a range of different viewfinder cameras which are mostly – especially the canonet or minolta – wonderful, amazing cameras with very good and sharp lenses.
But still, this year I got me a Canon 50 1.4 with Leica Mount and used the combination on a cargo ship cruise to Norway. The results are outstanding to my eyes. These days I purchased an 50 2.0 Summicron in black, a 21 and 28 2.8 Summarit… not to forget the tele-Elmarit 90 2.8. All . are wonderful lenses and their quality is only comparable to older Nikon lenses builtwise.
So I am a user of different systems as well – depending on the occasion and my mood: mediumformat TLR, Rolleiflex, Flexaret or Mamiya, Nikon and Canon Fd SLR – the Nikon F3 and different lenses, especially the 28 2.0 and the 50 1.8 – are my favorites, followed by the Canon FE with an older 50 1.4 SSc, the look with colour film is just great. As for digital I use a Nikon D3 and D3x with a wide range of lenses and a Fuji x-Pro1 with an Leica-M adapter for monochrome; sometimes even with an old Canon 58 1.2 FL lens and the metabones adapter.
So, I admit: I “suffer” from GAS as well as I am a collector of cameras that I still use, all of them … on the other hand I think these “things” have a right to live on and not to be stored away. They are made to be used and they still can be used – luckily there is a camera repair shop run by friends of mine in our town.
This year I wanted to challenge myself: for private photography I wanted to use one lens a month with the Leica(s), but the COVID has boycotted my plans a bit as many other things were/ are on the agenda.
Always good light and stay safe!
Nice article for a short read and great looking photos! I have always been intrigued by the hype surrounding Leica cameras. I have numerous film cameras, mostly SLRs. I have a few rangefinders that I love to use because it’s part of the challenge! I always balk at Leica because of the price. For the cost of 1 Leica, I can pick up a few other cameras or accessories for the cameras I already own. I hope you’re mended from your mishap! Regards, Jordy
Pete, I honestly didn’t intend to get a Leica…promise 😉 It was a classic example of GAS meeting self-realisation, meeting logic, meeting a bit more GAS, HEH! I considered My M6 TTL a camera that will always be with me. Worst case, something happens and I need to sell it, well, I can get my money back. Best case, I pass it onto the next generation, to the next, etc.
My back is MUCH better, thanks for asking. I still get twinges when the weather’s changing but not much I can do about that I’m afraid.
Had an M6TTL and then bought a contemporary MP. The MP is much better and better made and, of course does everything that the M6 does but with a refreshing mechanical certainty. But the best I have ever experienced for B&W street photography are the series of digital Monocroms. The current model with the 41MP sensor is amazing.
Thanks for your interesting article, but you seem intent not to be grouped with so called Leica fanboys, and that is more than a little bit irritating.
An interesting read, thank you.
Your comment regarding holding the camera aloft when you were knocked to the ground struck a chord. I fell from a fell path in Cumbria many years ago with my downward playmate broken, painfully, by a gorse bush six feet down. When my wife came to help she found me holding my SLR aloft shouting “don’t worry about me, I’ve almost finished this roll, take the bl@@dy camera!”
For playmate read plummet! Predictive text 😀
Great article to read, and I am glad that you took the time to write in as much detail as you did. Like you said these are just tools and learning how to use your tools and see light and moments/composition is far more important than the specific tool that you are working with.
Also thank you for those that added in the comment section as those too were insightful.
Sometimes articles about Leica cameras are a bit of an echo chamber, but I your approach was much more honest and thankfully avoided the ego that I have seen with some owners who write about their cameras and how great they are. You photography also feels more genuine than much of the street photography out there.
Over the past decade I have invested into a Nikon (F, F2, FM2, FM3) system and then while rounding that out also started a Leica (M3, 4, and 6) system. They are both great and both, like you said, have their purposes/benefits. I find that there are some areas where the Leica is really the only choice for the matter and that the Nikon SLR is just clearly the wrong tool for the job. I have used my M6 to photograph the local church’s Christmas place and services where the light meter was such a help due to poor and changing lighting conditions. Be it photographing a parade, a protest, or people playing chess at a park, the rangefinder design just is more friendly and suits people photography in a way that is quite different that say an F or F2 (I have tried both).
Quite photography is more in how you act and move before you take a photo, but I find that the mirror slap of an SLR draws attention and only tends to allow me one candid shot without candid follow ups as the scene unfolds.
My favorite is the M3, M4, M6 in that order. My M6 went to Sherry Krauter to get the MP finder update when the rangefinder framelines started to stick. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to test that camera before I took it on a trip to Taiwan and Hong Kong, and somehow it resulted in light leaks that ruined a few frames that otherwise would have been quite nice. The camera went back and the problem was kind of fixed when she put felt strips on the back door, but it just changed the feel of the camera and I don’t really have the same connection to it as I did before.
I agree with what you said about the older cameras having a different feeling than the M6 line. It is kind of hard to describe, but you are right, it is just different. I really like the M3 with a 35/50/85 Zeiss ZM set-up and a Voigtlander 35mm external finder for my travel camera.
At the start of the year, before this whole lockdown kicked off, I was lucky enough to travel to S.E. Asia for a month, and decided to bring my FM3a with a 28mm and 58mm Voigtlander lenses. The idea was that they are less expensive and with tape over the “Nikon” nameplate looked a little bit cheaper than the more recognizable Leica body. The two-lens kit worked really quite well, and paired with my Rollei 35T was an awesome travel kit. However, there were times where I really wished I have the Leica. I was able to photograph a rural school in Cambodia and the shutter of the FM3a was a little bit more disruptive than any Leica would have been. Another scenario where the rangefinder really would have been a better tool was at an engagement ceremony that I attended in rural Laos. I also felt that with the road conditions what they are in rural S.E. Asian countries, my FM3a would be more robust without the risk for rangefinder calibration drift.
Lastly, I would like to end this with, an SLR isn’t necessarily easier to focus than a rangefinder. I find that in low light a rangefinder gives me a better hit-rate, and that I can’t necessarily focus my Voigtlander 58mm f/1.4 as well or fast in low light. I had a few frames I was sure that had successful focus, but come time to scan my film, I found that I was either back or front-focused by a bit.
P.S. Anyone who is just starting out with their M Mount lens kit, I can highly recommend Zeiss ZM lenses, I have chosen to go with that line over Leica lenses (of with I have a 135mm and a 50 Summicron) as they are much more affordable and have topnotch image quality. Plus if you ever are traveling to Japan, they sell for about 2/3 of their U.S. retail price. ZM lenses don’t always mesh with a Leica lens system with the 35/2.8, 35/2, 50/2, 85/4 all having a 43mm filter. But these weren’t designed to be used interchangeably with Leica lenses, but to exist as a system on their own.
Enjoyed reading that. Your journey (not anyone else’s) makes for an interesting reflection on the process of how we get to where we are as a photographer. Mine started with an RF camera – an Agfa Super Silette that my old dad bought from the Under A Fiver section in the Manchester Evening News in the early 70s. Although I made the inevitable move to SLR/ Digital and back to film I’ve always had that hankering for that RF format and style. A purchase of a Fuji X100T ( camera I love) feels like what I imagine an M series might be – don’t laugh at the back there. Using my Dad’s Barnack Leicas is a joy a connects me with him now he’s gone. At some point I will get an M series and your article gave a great insight into the process of working out which one (price permitting). I suspect I’d be very happy with an M2 or M4
No sniggering here, the Fuji X100t has become my default digital camera and I feel the same as you do about the feel of it. I don’t get on with rangefinders as a rule (the X-Pro 1 lasted a matter of weeks) but there’s something about the X100t.
Yes – I always say I respect the Sony A6000 I have but I love the Fuji. The Sony is all about technical excellence and if I need the fastest AF for the occasion I will use it. But I love using the Fuji and generally think I take better photos with it. And usually don’t do any PP either.
Minolta created great photography tools, even Leica realized the higher excellence of Minolta in camera and standard lenses portfolio.
Sony is a consumer electronics business. Nough said.
Fuji has landed great cameras and lenses in professional segments for decades.
I love my original x100 and feel no itch to upgrade, even if I’d had to part with my M240.
I have a M4-P and a M2 (with the quick-load adapter as well) and they feel really different, just as you describe. Re the “Rangefinder vs SLR” thing: Being a shallow DOF man like you, I honestly can say that the type of camera used (RF or SLR) has never stood in the way of taking the exact picture I wanted to take. I’ve taken pics with razor-thin DOF with my Olympus 35SP or the LC or the Canonet at f1.7 simply because they had well-calibrated rangefinders. If you ‘ve learned what a pic shot at f1.4 looks like, you can still get there either using a Summilux or a Nikkor f1.2/50. The only thing RFs may be a better tool for is candid street photography due to size, but even then, using zone focusing an Oly OM-1 will deliver. For me the difference lies only on preferred ergonomics, not the camera’s “ability” to deliver the expected result.
I started reading your post this morning over coffee. Your story was eerily familiar (about the accident.) You see, in 2013, I tripped coming out of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. As I fell, I grabbed my Leica M7 with my left arm to shield it…the right arm broke my fall. Sort of. At the hospital (my home for the next seven days) I was told my right elbow literally exploded upon impact. Surgeries followed, many months of rehab to regain use of the arm. When the primary ortho surgeon asked why I shielded the camera, I told him, jeez, it’s a Leica. He told me he could fix the arm to use my cell phone OR I could play golf, but not both. I told him I wanted to be able to bring the camera to my eye and shoot. He just said “I’ll be damned…” This is NOT a pity story…the arm is almost good and others have suffered & lost more; especially during this horrible pandemic.
I sold the M7. I tried to make it work, but it was never a comfortable fit. The same with a classic M6 I had. Not for me. For others, sure, why not.
I have three Leicas and rotate them on a regular basis: a (film) CL, a M4-P and my beloved M2. I’m a minimalist – just a 35mm Summarit and a Rokkor 40mm M. I have been keeping an eye on an 50mm Elmar (v.2) but haven’t committed. My lens choices are tightly clustered around what I see with my eye.
You bring up excellent, thoughtful points about RF photography.
I know I will never push the Leica to the extremes it was designed for. But, any failure is my fault, not the equipment.
I’m constantly amazed that I can literally point the camera at someone, snap the pic and they are unaware a photo was taken. These cameras are almost invisible. The cost of a Leica or Leica lens on eBay is out of control. The equipment is simply not worth the prices that they are going for. It’s like a feeding frenzy. Cost of new equipment? That’s even more outlandish. Where do people get the money? And the obnoxious sub-culture that has sprung up around the camera. These are the same ‘posers’ that insist on knowing the source of their coffee, and the more obscure the the craft beer the better, etc.
Now, the intangibles. Nothing else feels like a Leica M in your hands; it’s just the right weight, the shutter advance just feels correct. The lenses have a certain ‘feel’ as they are focused. Looking thru the viewfinder, you not only frame the scene, you see what’s happening outside of the frame; you can anticipate what might happen.. Can’t do that with a SLR/DSLR. After 50 years of working with Leicas, I can make a statement like that (old guy rules!)
My older brother was a fly fisherman. He used composite poles and a couple of old bamboo poles. The bamboo poles just handled differently he would say. Not better, not worse, just different. You caught fish with the composite pole, you fished with the bamboo pole.
But, if you’re not a RF type of person, then all of this means nothing. If you prefer the studied, deliberate approach of a view camera, then we who use Leicas are just a funny bunch. If you use a SLR/DSLR and shoot nature (and a 200mm lens is your STANDARD lens) then again, we’re just a funny bunch. But the world needs more clowns right about now, and there is room in the car for all of us!
I get it. I have an M6 TTL, an M3, a Contax iia, a Canon P, and a Minolta Himatic 7s and the M6 is the go-to camera every time.
The only disagreement I might have is about the M6 TTL being most “un-Leica” of camera models. The exact opposite is true – it’s actually the camera that they got it all right on. Before that is was less useful and after the TTL, they succumbed once again to the absurdities of the loud-mouthed critics that couldn’t accept change. The idea that only paint and brass should be on a real leica being one of the most obvious examples.
I’ve had my M6 for about 20years and it the slightly worn edges have turned a lovely understated silver-grey. And it looks 1000 times more respectful than any of the fake-aged brass cameras that are worn like jewelry.
Wonderful short story! I hope you’ve recovered from that dreadful accident. I have a Leica Classic 0.85 and have to concur about the focus accuracy. On my M10, the 75 is a mixed bag on focus accuracy and the frame for the 90 still too small for my comfort.
I’ve also been taken by the 90mm FL but have one on my R8 instead.
Great write up, really appreciate you going though the whole process; also glad you ok after the accident, i had no idea. I wanted to come back to a point you make about the Leica MP as the dream camera; but it has the same feature you highlight as a deal breaker for you as the Leica M6 Classic no? Diodes that point in opposite direction to small shutter speed dial… In that case, just wanted to say that you cannot do better than your M6TTL.
Have a good weekend