It’s probably evident that I quite enjoy Leica rangefinder cameras*. I like the ways they function as tools and the process of shooting them.
I find their history interesting too – how through an incredibly iterative approach the basic formula, established close to a century ago, has been continually tweaked and refined.
However decades upon decades worth of slightly different takes on the same concept means that it can be hard to know which specific camera is better suited to ones preferences. At least without some time with a few of the iterations. And as I’ve enjoyed each camera I’ve tried so much this has bred a bit of curiosity.
* I’m apprehensive about certain aspects of the brand though. I don’t really care for the luxury and collectibility angles and I wish that these aspects weren’t so prominent. I enjoy the cameras despite their price tag, not because of it.
From left to right – Leica II, M3, M4-P & M9.
My curiosity has resulted in me owning an almost silly amount of very similar cameras. It doesn’t really make much practical sense to own them simultaneously, but it’s certainly an interesting way to get to know the line of cameras. There’s also been some rationality behind each addition – here’s how I ended up with the four Leica’s.
My first Leica was the digital M9. I moved towards it over a few years and getting it was sort of a revelation. It was and still is my favorite digital camera. However over time I became interested in returning to film.
My first idea was to get one of the earliest M cameras – the M3 or perhaps an M2. Experiencing both ends of the timeline felt interesting but for several reasons I decided on the M4-P instead (I still feel this was the right choice – I dive into it a bit more in my article on the camera).
I hadn’t shaken my curiosity towards the earlier cameras though.
So quite a while later I picked up a very nice looking Leica II. Made in 1930 it predates even the earliest M-mount cameras. This so called Barnack or screw-mount Leica isn’t quite the original progenitor of Leica cameras, but pretty close to it. Its compact size and unusual shooting experience made it an interesting addition. It’s also fascinating to see how much of the family DNA originated here. Many key features are fundamentally unchanged since this camera. The design with a roller coupling cam to facilitate accurate rangefinder focusing with interchangeable lenses is just one example of a solution that’s still present in current rangefinders. The removable bottom plate and horizontally running cloth shutter are other features that can be seen in Leica’s to this day.
But while the II scratched the itch of going back to where it all began, I was still interested in the early M cameras. The M3 specifically. That it’s one of the highest regarded cameras ever didn’t really sway me much. But its unique, high magnification, viewfinder combined with a few other features exclusive to the early M cameras was enough for me to keep an eye out for an alright deal on one. It took quite a while but eventually one turned up.
Comparing the iterations it’s fascinating to see how clear of a lineage it is from the earliest to the most recent of the cameras. And as the four cameras were released a very similar time apart they’re very clear representations of the changes made to the basic concept throughout the years.
I’ll get to a bottom line on why this is neat in a bit I first want to illustrate this genealogy by highlighting the evolution of a few key features*.
* Though if you’re not too interested in the nitty gritty feel free to skip ahead.
– Leica M9 / Leica II
The viewfinder might be the clearest example of the evolution between these cameras*.
* For the sake of brevity I might state that a feature is added or changed in one of these cameras specifically but often changes have actually been made in an intermediate iteration. There are also a lot more differences between the cameras than what I’ll be able to highlight here. For a complete rundown of when a specific feature was added or tweaked the Wikipedia entry on Leica Camera is a good start.
Starting out with the Leica II this is where the viewfinder is at its most primitive. There are separate windows for focusing and composing. There aren’t any framelines to aid with composing and both finders are small. Still the rangefinder offers a large magnification allowing for accurate focus and the viewfinder in particular is bright and sharp. This set up is also very compact and keeps the size of the camera way down.
Aside from the very compact set up on the Leica II the viewfinders on the cameras use an almost identical arrangement.
The M3 introduces a combined range and viewfinder with parallax corrected framelines for three focal lengths. It allows for a much more fluid approach to shooting and more accurate compositions. It’s a less compact camera as a result however.
By the time the M4-P has launched the viewfinder magnification had been reduced. This allows the use of wider angle lenses at the expense of a slight reduction in focus accuracy as well as a smaller framing area for longer lenses. There’s now framelines for six focal lengths making the camera quite a bit more flexible. On the other hand some people find that the numerous framelines clutters up the viewfinder.
The M9 adds a light meter and shutter speed automation, additions reflected in the viewfinder with red LED read outs for exposure. This makes the camera even faster and easier to shoot under many circumstances, but it does make the viewfinder more cluttered and the read outs can be distracting at times.
Another area where both lineage and evolution is clear is with the controls for the shutter.
The shutter speed dial is in pretty much the same spot across all the cameras, but differ slightly in use.
The Leica II has a rather small dial that you need to lift to change settings. It’s directly attached to the shutter mechanism and rotates when you release the shutter. You can accidentally interfere with the shutter movement by touching the dial during exposure. This also means you can only select the shutter speed once the shutter is cocked. The dial has an older style shutter speed progression and very few speeds. Later models added a separate mechanism for slower speeds with a separate dial (and to this day the slow speeds of mechanical Leica’s are controlled by a separate mechanism).
The basic features of the top plate are very similar, though differ in the execution. Note for instance the tweaks to the shutter speed dial or shutter button over the years.
The M3 removes the direct linkage between the shutter speed dial and the shutter itself – it doesn’t rotate during exposure and you can set the speeds before or after cocking the shutter. You don’t need to lift the dial which makes changing speeds quicker (though potentially easier to do inadvertently). The slow speeds are now available on the same dial and the shutter speed progression is now using the contemporary scale. A flash sync indicator has been added to the dial as well as a notch for mechanical coupling to an add on meter. There are clicked detents for the full stops but a little known fact is that intermediate speeds can also be set without issue.
The shutter speed dial on the M4-P is identical to the one on the M3. Pretty amazing considering the cameras are separated by close to three decades.
With the M9 on the other hand comes quite a few changes. The dial is larger, making it easier to turn with the camera to your eye (though somewhat easy to change by accident). The direction for setting the speeds is also reversed compared to the earlier cameras, a change made to match the light meter readout in the viewfinder. The electronic shutter supports both faster and slower speeds as well as shutter speed automation, so the dial now has quite a few more positions to choose from, as well as added clicks at half stop speeds. In all it’s certainly more fully featured than the earlier cameras, even if it’s harder to keep track of all the speeds.
The shutter button goes through a similar, iterative evolution. The Leica II has a comfortably domed button with smooth travel and a fairly distinct trigger point. To use a cable release you need to unscrew the shutter button collar and then screw the cable release into the same external grooves.
The M3 moves over to a shutter button with internal grooves for attaching a cable release, negating the need to remove (and risk misplacing) the shutter collar. The shutter button travel is slightly smoother and trigger point a little more responsive. The M4-P is identical to the M3 for all intents and purposes.
The M9 adds a collar around the shutter button that switches the camera on and off as well as changes between drive modes. The downside is that you can set it to the wrong mode accidentally. The shutter button itself is unchanged but a half-pressed state is added for control over the light meter, making the shutter button travel slightly less smooth than on its predecessors.
The cameras use very similar base plates, allowing access to the film or battery/card compartments.
The last area of evolution I’d like to highlight is getting film (or SD cards) in to and through the camera effectively.
What’s shared across the range of cameras is the removable baseplate for accessing the internal compartment. This idiosyncratic approach is at times berated as unnecessary and needlessly complicated. Some argue that a swing open back offers easier loading without significant drawbacks. Still Leica has chosen to stick with the same approach even into the digital era, arguing that it improves structural rigidity of the cameras.
Regardless of advantages and disadvantages in construction the design results in a somewhat unusual experience in loading the cameras. The earlier cameras in particular can be a little fiddly until you get a hang of it.
The loading process goes through a very clear iteration across the film cameras.
The Leica II in particular shows its primitive nature. Back when the original Barnack Leica’s were released they were some of the first 35mm film cameras produced. In these early days nothing about this new format was standardized. Generally film was loaded into camera specific canisters and a leader cut manually to the needs of the camera. The effect this has today is that the standardized leader in contemporary film canisters is a bit shorter than what the camera would like*. The best way around this is to cut a longer leader using a pair of scissors. Once that’s done things are reasonably straight forward, if slightly involved.
* Another interesting aside is that modern canisters themselves are ever so slightly shorter than the Leica specific ones, leading to the film sometimes slipping a little lower into the camera and exposures not being perfectly centered between the sprocket holes. Later Barnack cameras fixed this by having a slightly differently shaped base plate.
To load film into the camera the bottom plate is removed and the take up spool pulled out of the camera. The leader is inserted into a small slot on the spool and then the canister and spool are pushed into the camera together, with an appropriate length of film pulled out in-between. Replacing the baseplate and advancing the film are the final steps before manually resetting the external frame counter.
The M3 uses a very similar approach, though an added rear door makes it easier to get the film into proper position regardless of leader length. The internal frame counter also resets automatically, leaving one less thing to remember. Overall loading the M3 is still a deliberate process, but a bit faster and easier to do than with the Barnack Leica.
The M4-P offers significantly streamlined loading over both earlier cameras. The removable baseplate and swing open back are identical to the ones in the M3. In the M4-P however, the removable take up spool is replaced by a three pronged fixed spool. Now all you need to do is to pull out an appropriate length of film, push the canister into the camera and slot the leader into the take up spool before replacing the bottom plate. Some argue it’s easier to load film incorrectly with this system, and having the leader not catch on to the take up spool – something that’s never a problem in the earlier cameras. In my experience that’s not an issue once you get a hang of it though, and overall it’s a great design. So while the system takes a little getting used to, once you do it’s quicker and surer to load than almost anything out there.
The M9 obviously doesn’t require you to load film into it, but the things required for its operation are found in the same fashion. Opening the base plate gives you access to both the battery and memory card compartments. There’s no frame counter on the camera except for on the rear display status screen that you need to activate with a button press (I sort of wish that they’d kept the endearing little frame counter from the Leica M8).
Note the large wind knob on the Leica II, the solid metal wind lever on the M3 that protrudes a little, how the lever on the M4-P folds flush to the camera and the lack of a lever on the M9.
To wind film and cock the shutter on the Leica II you rotate a prominent knob – a slow but straightforward process. The M3 instead uses a metal lever making it possible to wind in a single, almost instantaneous motion*.
* Earlier M3 cameras required two shorter strokes. A difference that’s a topic in and off itself for enthusiasts of the M3.
The M4-P further improves on the design with a two part film advance lever that’s a little more comfortable and folds away more neatly when not in use.
Once again the M9 differs as it’s a much more automated camera. The shutter recocks automatically making continuous shooting much quicker, though as the recock is rather noisy the camera is certainly more conspicuous than its predecessors.
Note the similarity between the rewind knobs on the II and the M3. Same basic concept, but a more refined execution on the M3. The knob on the M4-P on the other hand is noticeably quicker to use.
Once you reach the end of a roll with either of the film cameras you decouple the wind mechanism with a small lever. On the Leica II the lever’s on the top plate, on the M cameras it’s on the front. Rewinding is done with an extending knob on the II and M3, a robust but slow design (in particular rewinding modern 36 exposure rolls takes some time). The M4-P offers a totally redesigned rewind knob with a lever that folds out, allowing for much faster film rewind (though the knob is a little less robust as a result).
– Leica M3
What I find neat with diving into a few of these different iterations is that beyond a few exceptions none of the changes result in a solution that’s necessarily and undisputedly better (or worse) than the one it replaces. The strengths and weaknesses just change slightly.
And this goes for each cameras as a whole too. It’s really hard to argue that one is better than the other. In this time of clickbait and simple rhetoric that’s a harder message to convey, but that’s what makes it interesting in my opinion.
Four wonderful cameras.
Each camera has one or a few features that make it stand out among its siblings. The extreme ends are the obvious ones – the M9 is digital and offers much more automation, but the Leica II on the other hand is far more compact than any of the later cameras. The differences between the M3 and M4-P are much more subtle, but still apparent in use, leading to a different experience shooting each. The biggest difference lies in the viewfinder with the M4-P offering a higher degree of flexibility with more frame lines and lower magnification, but the M3 is offers a better experience with 50 and 90mm lenses.
So overall each camera makes a compelling case for itself.
– Leica M3 / M4-P
It’s easy to overstate these differences though. Because while the cameras each have a few strengths over one another they share much more than what sets them apart. That goes for most of their strengths but also their weaknesses. There are plenty of reasons to choose other cameras than Leica rangefinders. And if you’re not keen on the basic concept of these cameras then there’s not much likelihood of any iteration being a much better fit. None of them get around the issue of not being ideal for very short or long lenses or zooms, that they don’t offer the best framing accuracy or don’t focus very close, that there’s very little automation, and so on and so forth.
However if you do enjoy the core experience what’s nice about this rich family tree is that you’re pretty likely to find a camera that’s a good fit. Considering that there are also many more permutations than the ones highlighted here you can get quite picky and choose something with just the right combination of features for your preferences.
On the other hand there’s also a risk of overthinking it. Because while I’ve gone on for a good long while about all these different variations and tweaks the truth is that I could pick either of these cameras and very quickly get used to the small differences and not give them a second thought.
But now I instead face the silly choice of which camera to shoot and when. Choices that can feel almost impossible, unsurmountable, but in the end will have little to no impact on the images I end up with.
I’ve owned these few cameras for some time now and it’s certainly pleasant to have a clearer understanding of one of the most refined family trees in photo gear. I’m very happy to have had the chance to experience the cameras in use. But while I’ve found it interesting to try out these few cameras to satisfy my curiosity it’s probably a better idea to simply pick one, get used to it and then shoot the hell out of it.
All photos shot using the film cameras are scanned on the Plustek 8200i. Images of the cameras were made with a Sony A7 or Fuji X100T. Exif-data is intact. Open any image in a new window for a closer look.