When photographers talk about 35mm photography, one way or the other, soon or later, they will mention Leica in the conversation. Without Leica, there may not even be 35mm photography. They produced portable camera system with a selection of small and fantastic lenses. In fact they were so good that pictures that were shot with Leica could rival bigger formats in its era. Because they were portable, it soon became the must have for all professional photographers. Many of the greats used Leica in the past and, even today, many famous photographers who still use them for specific assignments.
I am not here to debate what types of camera is the best, SLR, rangefinder or medium or larger formats. Leica’s best is its M rangefinders. Even now in its digital form, continues to be popular among street photographers. One reason, it’s simple and basic. There may be more advanced cameras out there but all a photographer want is a camera that he/she can control, namely aperture and shutter speed. Anything else is extra. So who really cares about art filters or panoramic photos. So if one picks up a digital Leica today, it’s the same as a film Leica in 1950’s. Just that the film plate has been replaced with a digital sensor.
So why this camera?
I originally settled myself with the lovely M2, my first Leica camera. But several months later, I ‘upgraded’ to a M6 Panda just because of the convenience of a meter and the name ‘Panda’. Yes, I got the rather uncommon Panda M6. While I am not describing what the Panda M6 is, you can Google it around, it’s exactly a normal M6 with slightly different black fittings. But what made me chose the M6 classic instead of any other metered M cameras, like the M6 TTL, M7 or MP is cost, was cost. My sole income comes from my DSLR jobs like wedding and portraits and rangefinder is currently only my experiment to see if I can use it for my work. For bang per pound (or buck if you are in the US) value, nothing comes close to the M6 classic. It’s equally well made and sell for much less than any more recent M cameras that essentially the same apart from M7 which as aperture priority mode. However, if you have already advanced to use learn how to read light and do everything manually, then any M will do really. So why not M3 or M4 or 5? I already tried the M2 which I really loved but the M3 isn’t good for 35mm focal length and the M4, just like the M2 has no meter. The M5 is an odd ball that while I did consider it, I decided against it in the end because of my preference in shape. I much prefer the classic M body than the slightly spaceship looking M5. M6 is definitely value for money because you can get it for the same money as a good condition M2, M3 or M5 and the M4 is actually selling more only because it’s rarer than the M6. But if I have the money, I would love to have a MP.
Last but not least, M6 Classic and M6 TTL, are the last mechanical M cameras (well… the MP is but it’s more of a ‘current’ M6 with better built). I love mechanical camera because it doesn’t need battery so I can really take it everywhere and not have to worry about power! So long if the gear doesn’t jam by dust or sand.
Every Leica, irrespective of the models and years, is very very well made. I haven’t tried them all but I have tried a few. Speaking of experience, I still think the M3 and M2 are the best built. For some reasons, they feel heavier and more solid. Probably because they are made of brass rather than the aluminium M6. Even the newer M7 and MP or digital Ms, they only have brass top and bottom plates. Not only that, the older M3 or M2 also feels smoother and quieter in operation. I’ve been told that the M3 or M2 had metal gears and parts while the M6 has a mixture of ‘modern’ materials. I am telling you, I do miss the M2’s advance lever. It’s the smoothest thing I’ve ever tried. Like touching a lovely lady’s bare back! I am not joking, just imagine that! Even the Nikon FM-3a lever is smoother than the M6. Well… I may be a bit harsh on it and M6 advance lever isn’t all that bad, just can’t compare with the M2’s that’s all.
Even though the M6 isn’t the best built M camera but it still feels way more solid than my Canon 5D Mark II! It still feels like a brick that can kill a bull in one hit so I rate it very high in this category. And this is the primary reason that I think all M cameras are good and worth their asking price. Don’t forget that all M cameras are assembled by hand and not from machines!
Using it in practice, good and bad
First, using the M6 is pretty much using any M cameras in Leica’s lineup since 1950’s. So I will talk about using a M rangefinder in general rather than just using the M6.
Right, I guess I can write a lot in this part of the review. I am a SLR shooters for many years, since the film days in fact. So using a rangefinder camera is a cultural shock to me.
I also love Leica since I learnt about photography. So much so that I even went to a few Leica stores in different countries just to have a ‘LOOK’ but never dare to buy one. Well, cost is definitely one road block because if I am to get something equivalent in my Canon system, it will cost more than £20,000!!! My Canon system isn’t exactly cheap by any mean but Leica is definitely from another planet, perhaps.
But in 2010, I met Brett, a dedicated Leica shooter, at Leica’s London Mayfair store. He was hosting a seminar about the latest digital Leica M9. I’d got to try the M9 and asked him about how it was to use a rangefinder for work (he used it to shoot weddings too!). When he showed me his camera bag, I was a little surprised. It was a tiny Billingham with two M9’s. That was it. He told me that he’s there to document a wedding therefore two lenses were more than sufficient. I totally agreed and converted to the idea of just two cameras and two lenses after seeing his images. Like many DSLR photographers, I guess I got sucked into the flexibility and spoiled by the choices that a modern SLR system provides today. In fact, since that meeting, I have used less lens choice in a wedding and the results are much better. I could now concentrate more on what’s going on rather than using time to think about which lens suits the situation.
It was then I started to pay more attention to Leica and started to evaluate the viability of using a Leica system for my work. Using a rangefinder is indeed very different to a traditional SLR. The biggest shock wouldn’t be the lack of ‘auto’ everything but the inability to see through the lens. So everything you see through that lovely bright viewfinder on a Leica is more of a guess work of what I ‘may’ get in the end result. Also not being able to see through the lens means that it is also difficult to imagine the angle of view too. In a SLR, what you see is pretty much what you get!
Focusing is probably the next big debate point. Back in the days when everything has to be done manually, Leica’s rangefinder focus system was probably the most accurate in the world. However, with the advances of autofocusing in the SLR world, it’s hard to beat the outright speed from the computers. Depends on what you shoot, rangefinder cameras have the ability to zone focus your subject means that there’s ZERO focus time, which is faster than SLRs :D. However, this only works if you use a wider angle lens or smaller aperture setting, i.e. f/8 in daylight. But that means if you want to get that modern shallow depth of field look that everyone is craving about (my clients), you will need longer time to ‘focus’ than a traditional SLR.
So it sounds like a SLR is better in almost every way right? No. not really. Leica is definitely way more discrete when shooting in a quiet environment because there’s no mirror to flip and everything up to M6 has a cloth shutter curtain instead of the metal shutter blinds that are way louder in operation. Leica is always faster to operate, as a whole. Because there’s virtually nothing to set other than aperture and shutter speed. A photographer can fully concentrate on the subject. I think it’s key to any photographer. Now, people spend enormous amount of time fiddling around the menu and settings when they are photographing. I even saw another professional wedding photographer checking the settings and missed the key first kiss shot! How could that be???
Also, rangefinder camera allows a photographer to ‘see’ what’s coming because you can shoot with both eyes open! Well, that will require a little training and getting used to. I was a left-eye shooter before when I was using a SLR. So what’s in the viewfinder is pretty much what I see. I wouldn’t know if a person is about to enter the frame until he/she actually appeared in the frame. But rangefinder is different in that sense. You could shoot with your right eye while keeping your left eye open. That way you can ‘see’ the surrounding. Which sometimes is invaluable when it comes to capturing the ‘decisive moments’. This perhaps is the greatest strength of rangefinder cameras, in my opinion.
When shooting with a rangefinder camera, I think the best focal length is 35mm and 50mm. They cover more or less what human eyes see and a normal perspective and depth of field. Leica M isn’t a great camera for anything longer than 50mm really. The focusing patch in the viewfinder may be good for general use but for razor thin depth of field like its legendary 50mm 0.95 or longer tele like 90mm Summicron or the 75mm Summilux, it becomes a mammoth task to get a clear sharp focus. I know the new Leica M Type 240 has focus peaking and that will certainly help with these extreme lenses.
Also, there are no Leica camera or lenses that feature image stablisation so shooting long lens can be problematic in low light.
Lastly, another upside is that Leica is very compact and its lenses are amongst the best in the world, at a premium price of course. So it’s definitely good for lugging for a whole day, especially my wedding jobs seem to get longer and longer. I need a lighter system than my elephant Canon!
While I like the Leica rangefinder camera, I don’t like the way it load and unload the film. It’s cumbersome. I have to take out the baseplate before I can change film. Loading also is not as easy as other film SLRs. So while I can shoot the M6 fast, I still can’t change film fast enough.
- You can ‘see’ (what’s coming if you use both eyes)
- Full contol of the camera’s operation
- Light weight and discrete
- Rugged and superbly built
- Bright viewfinder that you can see in the dark!
- No mirror, less vibration means you can shoot at slower shutter speed
- You can use some of the best lenses in the world
- Best street tool ever!
- You can’t ‘see’ (effect from the lens like depth of field, focal length and angle)
- Cumbersome film loading and unloading
- Slow focus for specific focal length or large aperture setting in normal to tele range, not good for grabbing shallow DOF candid shots
- Difficult to get sharp focus for long lens or shallow DOF shots. Rangefinder limit.
- Difficult for macro or sport stuff
- Expensive (but who cares… it’s Leica!)
In most cases, I can justify having both systems co-exist each other. There are things that the M6 does brilliantly but my SLR is good for shooting long tele and portraits. The M6 is definitely great for grabbing the moments at close range! I love it because today’s wedding is about grabbing the moments and what’s happening during the course of the day. But SLR excels when it comes to getting that long tele shots from afar.
M6 is definitely value for money when it comes to Leica and the best entry camera for you to get to know Leica and the capability of a rangefinder camera. Of course trying out the legendary Leica glass too! Using Leica is like taking drugs. The more you use it, the more you will love and rely on it. I can’t get it out of my head and I love to use a Leica to do everything now. M6 seems to be the best way to get into the ‘Red Dot’ world, just wait until you start selling your kidney for one of the latest digital bodies!
Thank you for reading my blog and please support my work and this site by buying stuff from Amazon via the link at the bottom (only if you need to buy stuff of course).