The minimalist Leica R6: Budget Leica or an overpriced SLR?

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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…

Eurotrip - M7 Legendary Cloth Shutter (Dreamworks Pictures)
Eurotrip 2004 (Dreamworks Pictures)

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).

Leica R6 and 35mm f/2.8 Elmarit-R
Leica R6 and 35mm f/2.8 Elmarit-R

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.

Leica R6 and 50mm f/2 Summicron-R
Leica R6 and 50mm f/2 Summicron-R

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.

Above: click to view fullscreen.

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.

Above: click to view fullscreen.

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.

Above: click to view fullscreen.

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.


Leica R6 and 50mm f/2 Summicron-R 03
Leica R6 and 50mm f/2 Summicron-R 03

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.

~ Phil

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Phil Cifone is a photographer and digital asset manager currently residing in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In 2015 he received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in photography from the New Hampshire Institute of Art, now known as the New England College Institute of Art and Design. He pursues photography projects and exhibitions in and around the Philadelphia area.

17 thoughts on “The minimalist Leica R6: Budget Leica or an overpriced SLR?”

  1. Natürlich ist die R6 eine tolle Kamera. Vor allem sind die Linsen grossartig. Die R – Summicrons und Elmars sind genauso grossartig wie die M – Linsen.
    Ich kenne z.B. das 35-70/3.5 Vario. Alleine das lohnt sich schon.
    Wenn man also gerne mit Spiegelreflex arbeitet, und wenn man einen großen Geldbetrag über hat, dann muss man sie nehmen.
    Ich persönlich sehe keinen Vorteil bei einer Canon F1 oder bei einer Nikon F3, wenn man den Preis einmal missachtet.

    Reply
  2. The R6 is indeed a very fine camera. It, and it’s update, the R6.2 continue to attract high prices on the used market. The R3 & R4 are not as common as they used to be, at least on ebayuk listings. The R5 and R7 appear in droves. The R-E, a variant of the R5 is less common. When looking for a Leica R camera body, my researches pointed me in the direction of these and I now have two. Many comment how reliable they are and one chap mentioned that he had seen Salgado using them in Kosovo. Unlike the R4/5/7, the R-E has aperture priority and manual exposure control. Unlike the later R8 & R9, the R-E has a 100 manually tripped shutter speed in case of battery depletion or electronic failure. Not as reliable as the R6/6.2 but usable. Only made in black, the R-E is good for street photography using the 28/2.8 first version.

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  3. Well Phil. I’m pleased you like the R6. I bought a chrome body last year as I was curious having used a pair of Leicaflex SL bodies for the past four years. Meters did not work, which is why I got them very cheap. Fortunately, most of the lenses I’d acquired were 3 cam so worked ok on the R6.
    What luxury, TTL metering. Before I had used handheld meters, Gossen Lunalite and Multisix with 9v batteries. Good, though bulky. Now the R6 is smaller and lighter that the ‘flex trio and takes readily available batteries. Even if my SL meters worked, the batteries are unavailable and alkaline 1.5v cells just don’t give correct readings like the mercury ones did. I’ve found the readout for metering easy to see and use. I don’t like AE as it means battery dependence. I’m on the lookout for a second body but the R6 attracts a premium compared to R4/5/E. It seems the chrome ones aren’t as expensive as the black ones. I’m not the sort of chap who does ‘full stealth mode’ I leave that to the idiots. All the best. DM.

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  4. I enjoyed your article. It’s nice to see others who prefer usung SLRs after trying Leica Rangefinders, while still acknowledging the excellent quality of Leica rangefinder cameras.

    My opinon (for what It’s worth):

    Anything made by Leica is excellent and of course that includes your R6. However, you are constrained to a very limited lens mount. If you are happy with your camera and don’t see yourself changing your kit in the near future, then it’s an excellent investment.
    On the other hand, Minolta made a similar SLR during their short union with Leica; I happen to have owned an XE-7 for 10 years and it’s fantastic! Many great lenses are available for cheap. I finally found myself opting for a Minolta SR-2, because a shutter speed of 1/1000 is rarely needed and I don’t use metering anymore, just sunny 16. This is a truely minimalistic camera and it’s a really nice experience to cut out a meter and just shoot.

    Investing in a solid camera is adviseable. But, it’s also good to have some flexability in the lens mount you decide on, in case you end up prefering another body later on after investing in lenses.

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  5. You should try a Canon new F-1. I have an A-1, too, and I love it. Bought it used in 1987; got a ton of use out of it since, but the new F-1 is a completely different feel.

    Still a beautiful camera that feels great in the hand, but where the A-1 seems like a clever device showing off the state of the art of late 1970s microprocessor tech with too much plastic, the new F-1 feels like a precision machine: metal, solid, and very confident. Like the R6, the new F-1 has mechanical timing, and can shoot just fine with a dead battery. Also like the R6, with its default finder, and no winder, it is a manual exposure only camera. You do have the option, though, of changing the finder for an AE one (aperture priority), or adding a winder for shutter priority. Metering is very accurate, with classic match needle display.

    The A-1 was Canon’s top enthusiast camera of its time. The new F-1 was its contemporary at the top of the pro lineup. The difference is very noticeable. If you still have some good FD glass, a new F-1 may surprise you in how different those lenses are to use on that body.

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  6. You should try a Canon new F-1. I have an A-1 too, and much as I love it (bought it used in 1987 and have gotten plenty of use out of it since) it’s a completely different feel from the new F-1. Like the Leica, the F-1 has plenty of ability to shoot even with dead batteries. Where the A-1 feels like a clever device, showing off the state of the art late 70s microprocessor technology and too much plastic, the F-1 feels like a precision machine: metal, solid, and confident. With the default finder and no winder, the F-1 does manual exposure only, with an excellent meter, and classic match needle exposure setting. If you still have some good FD glass, a new F-1 would be a good way to find out what it can really do.

    Reply
  7. The issue of robustness for these devices (now 40+ years old) goes beyond durability in marginal environments and to their intrinsic viability where either parts or repair experts are not easily found. Nikons like the F and FM series were indeed tops but as diverse a selection of lenses for them that still exist, it’s the Leica R glass videographers have cannibalized for their uses. The best R’s remain in a league of their own and justify the few extra $€£¥ for a compatible body.

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  8. I’m so tired of the trite statement (or some variation of the statement) that seems to appear in lots of replies. It goes something like this:

    “The camera is just a tool, a good photographer could make great photos from any brand/camera/etc.”

    BS. Let me apply this statement to another profession: carpentry. If you’re framing a house, any framing nailer will do the job. How about auto repair? a mechanic is replacing your water pump. Any replacement part will work.

    Would you want to use a no-name nail gun with poor manufacturing tolerances and scarce repair parts? A water pump from a source that has a 50% fail rate? You’d gain a reputation as a poor tradesperson and people would take their business elsewhere.

    People who earn a living at a chosen profession will use the best equipment they can afford. If the equipment doesn’t matter, then why are they using Nikon, Leica, Hasselblad when a breakfast oatmeal container with a pinhole punched in the end will also work.

    The Miranda is a beautifully designed classic SLR. The Nikon FTn is a brute, with a square, flat-faced boxy light meter. The Miranda was like a compact car, the Nikon was a semi. But, during the era they were both current, the Miranda fell short when used in the extreme conditions of conflict photojournalism. There was the build quality, the extensive lens offerings, the mere fact that many photographers carried Nikons. You could borrow gear if something happened to your camera.

    The Nikon F/FTn was build for a working professional in mind. The Miranda was for the amateur, the person who wanted to elevate their work to another level, but far short of the day in/day out rigors of professional work.

    There are brands with a reputation that will deliver the goods. You can rely on them and that gives you confidence to carry your work to another level. You don’t worry about equipment shortcomings at a critical moment.

    Just saying…

    Reply
    • BOOM!

      There are brands with a reputation that will deliver the goods. You can rely on them and that gives you confidence to carry your work to another level. You don’t worry about equipment shortcomings at a critical moment.

      Well said, as ever!

      Reply
  9. The price of entry to R lenses is indeed steeper. You ought to know that there are Angenieux lenses from France in R-mount that are an option; several interesting zooms and fast fixed focal length teles that are faster than their Leica counterparts.

    I beg to differ re: R8/9. They have a certain look (continued in the S medium format cameras). While they look unwieldy, they are in fact extraordinarily comfortable in-hand. Superb, bright viewfinder and advance metering.

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    • 100% with you on the comfort of using the later bodies. They are much better balanced for larger lenses IMHO, too. That said, it’s a close call to find the most monstrous when put in a basket with the Contax AX 😉

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  10. Yes, somebody beat me to the punch. Robert Capa used Contax IIs. Along with the Exakta, it was the most advanced camera of its day. I couldn’t imagine trying to use the small and squinty double Leica viewfinder while being shot at. Also the lenses were superior to the Leica and you could focus with the same hand that you set the shutter speed and cock and trip the shutter.

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    • Oh, I’m not the first one to note Robert Capa famously used Contax cameras. For those – that includes me – who can’t afford one, there is always the possibility of getting a Kiev.
      This said, there aref pictures of Gerda taro – who shared the Robert Capa name – with Leicas. You’ll easily find pictures of pretty much every professional photographer of the time with a Leica at some point or other anyways. And with a bunch of other brands as well. For some reason, people seem to imagine all good pictures were taken with Leicas. Ernst Haas, Sebastiao Salgado, you name it, I’ve seen them all called Leica photographers. Now, if you read their interviews, they generall don’t seem to care much about brands.

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  11. The Leica R6.2 is my all time favorite Leica SLR. It has everything you need — great lenses, a versatile meter and is built like a tank. If anyone is interested in the Leica quality with a mechanical camera that will do anything you ask of it I recommend the R6 series. Combined with the Summicron-R 50/2 lens it’s my one camera stranded on a desert island choice.

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  12. Some people have RF vision, some have SLR vision. Nothing to do with brand. You found out that the RF viewfinder made you uncomfortable. I find the SLR (i.e. Nikon) difficult to use. The RF viewfinder is comfortable for me to use.
    The R6 is a great camera and the lenses are second to none. No scrimping on workmanship with the body or the lenses. Continue to use the camera with success.
    The famous photographer Sebastiao Salgato used R6 bodies and lenses for most of his work.
    -Dan

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