by Kirk Tuck, 2001 (updated March 2011)
Everyone seems to have an opinion about the Leica M series rangefindercameras, yet so few people have actually picked one up and used it for enoughtime to understand the unique features and benefits that make it one of thefinest tools for certain kinds of photography.
The two current models of the M6 are called the M6 .72 ttl, and the M6 .85ttland they represent the latest in the evolution of a family of cameras created in1953, starting with the M3. All M cameras are rangefinder cameras. Unlike mostpopular professional cameras today the photographer does not view the imagethrough the taking lens, rather, there is a viewfinder which displays frame linesthat correspond to the focal length of the lens that is mounted on thecamera.
In the center of the viewfinder is a rectangular patch of yellow, which is therangefinder. A rangefinder works by triangulation. The user focuses the camera byoverlaying two images within the small rectangular patch on top of each other inthe viewfinder as he or she focuses the lens. When the images are coincident(when they match up) the image is now in focus. This system, when well designedand produced, is very superior in accuracy when focusing lenses of 50mm and widercompared to slr cameras. While accurate focusing a manual SLR relies on theability of your eye to distinguish sharp from unsharp, the rangefinder is muchmore "binary". The image is either in or out, there is no amount of gray area asthere is in an SLR. As light levels drop the ability of the human eye to discernsharpness drops as well, making SLRs "iffy" for available light photography. Therangefinder only depends on matching up two identical images so that theyoverlap. Focus is much easier to discern in low light or when using optics thathave slow maximum apertures. Additionally, the manual focusing puts the user incharge. Often, even the best autofocus cameras lock onto elements that thephotographer did not intend and the focus is not what it could be. This"mis-focus" is hard to see in viewfinders that were not intended to be used forcritical focusing as in the case of autofocus cameras, which are optimized tocreate the brightest images in the viewfinders.
While 35mm SLRs have dominated the market, and the camera bags ofprofessional and amateur photographers alike, the M series Leica cameras havebeen steadily growing in popularity and are often the "personal" camera of choicefor top working pros who also shoot Canon and Nikon autofocus SLRs. They findthat their favorite photographs are often taken with the camera that puts theleast complexity between the user and the image.
While Leica is no longer making the M6, you still can find usedcameras available. Search Photo.nets Classified AdsSection. You could also consider going digital with theLeica M9, (buy from Amazon) (review).
The Ms are a great camera for situations where you cant stop and set thingsup. You are capturing moments or documenting events. I often recommend Leicas toother photographers as the perfect wedding cameras. A typical assignment would bethe one I did recently for a pro bono client, a Peoples Clinic. They neededimages of the doctors, nurses, pharmacists and administrators providing servicesto their clients. They wanted the photography to be non intrusive and unposed andyet they needed high quality color images for reproduction on posters and inbrochures.
I went with three cameras and three lenses. The cameras were two M6s and anearlier model, the M5. All have excellent through the lens almost spot meters.Each was loaded with Kodaks Supra 400 color negative film. (this is a fine grainfilm that is easily correctable when shot under fluorescent lighting). The lenseswere the 35mm Summicron ASPH, the 50mm Summilux 1.4 and the 90mm APOSummicron.
The two M6s, one with the 50 and the other with the 35 are worn around myneck on straps set to different lengths, allowing one to hang above the other.The 90 on the M5 over my shoulder.
I shoot quietly and wait patiently for the moment I want. The Leicas arealmost silent. The image through the finder is always bright and in focus makingevaluation of the scene easier. The frame lines show the current cropping whilethe area outside the framelines is visible and available. I start by quicklymetering the room with the 50mm camera. I commit certain readings to memory.There are usually only two or three meter differences in each room. I set allthree cameras and lenses to the same settings. While the people know Im in theroom I try not to have any eye contact with them. I become boring and try tovisually recede so that the health practioner becomes the center of attention. Iscan the room through the finder looking for the right composition. I move thecamera a little from side to side to see if I can improve the framing. I may usethe preview lever to see how the scene would look through one of the otherlenses. I focus on the eyes and try to find something to lean against whilereleasing the shutter. I try to ignore all conversation so that I shoot for thedesign and composition and not emotionally.
If you hear that a person is a heroin addict, or that a person is dying, itchanges your emotional response to the shooting but it doesnt change the scene.It doesnt come across on film. Better to leave the emotion out of it. I shootquietly and work the scene with several of the lenses. The cameras are so quietthat the patient and doctor often forget Im in the room. Its the same way I tryto shoot corporate meetings and events. I work hard not to become part of theexperience, not part of the entertainment. A motor drive in a 12 by 12 footexamination room is like a gun going off.
In most situations I like to shoot at f2 or f2.8, varying the shutter speedwhen necessary. With my Reflex cameras Im lucky to be able to handhold thecamera and produce sharp photos with any speed lower than a 125th of a second.With the M cameras I routinely produce images that are sharp at 1/15th of asecond.
I mentioned that I meter the room and most times I do that by metering thetanned back of my own hand (poor mans incident meter). I then set the camerasand try not to look at the meter again. Funny thing is that Im getting far moreconsistent exposure results with the M cameras than I got from my far moreadvanced Nikon F5 cameras in the same situations.
Heres why. When I meter my hand it meters the light falling on it and thatlight doesnt change during the shoot. When I shoot with the Leica I leave theexposure alone and since there is no option for auto-exposure I dont have thetemptation to use it. When I used the F5 I was always lured by the siren call ofadvertising onto the rocks of "multi-matrix super integrated" automation. When Ipointed the camera at the doctors white coat the camera tried to compensate,kinda. When the camera pointed at the dark sweater of a patient the camera triedto compensate, kinda. According to my lab, this "kinda" automatic compensationmeans that most rolls of pro film are all over the map compared with filmreceived ten years ago.
In fact, now my film rarely is more than 1/2 of a stop off and that makes aquality difference even with color negative film. At the end of a shoot like thisthe biggest compliment I can get is usually, "Gosh, you were so quiet I forgotyou were here!"
Turns out there are many:
I have lived with both versions of the M6 camera for a little over two yearsnow. Both are nearly identical but have viewfinders with different magnificationsand a different assortment of framelines for different lenses. The M6 .72 has animage magnification in the viewfinder of .72 x life size. It will accommodate andshow framelines for lenses from 28mm thru 135mm. The M6 .85 has an imagemagnifications of .85 x life size and will accommodate and show framelines forlenses from 35 to 135. Of the two, I prefer the .85 as I shoot at least half ofthe time with the 50mm lens and this version shows the 50mm framelines withoutany other framelines visible in the finder. The slightly enlarged viewfinderimage also makes framing and composing a bit easier.
For the rest of the review Ill just refer to the M6 unless there is acompelling reason to mention one model.
If youve been using automatic SLRs and autofocus SLRs for a good while, thefirst few sessions with a non-automated rangefinder will leave you shaking yourhead and wondering what the heck you were thinking when you parted with upwardsof $2,500 for a primitive camera body and one optic. Once youve had maidservice, its hard to go back. Most of us have gotten used to a camera thatinstantly sets exposure and snaps into focus the minute we bring it to oureye.
But then it starts to grow on you. The ergonomics are so much better than whatweve settled for previously and the tight, well defined metering pattern makesmetering less guess work and more science. The ability to prefocus withoutholding down special focus lock buttons seems so streamlined and easy. The depthof field scale on the lenses encourages us to play with hyperfocal distancefocusing and to think more about the pictorial effect of depth of field. Its acamera you can take to lunch, a camera you can take on a date or even to a boardmeeting without attracting much attention or interest.
But its really the image that you see through the viewfinder that willconvince you that this camera is special. Very sharp and very bright. And one ofthe most delightful things for most serious shooters is the fact that there isone simple exposure indicator in the bottom of the finder and no other confusingletters, numbers, lights or arrows. If you are working with a separate, incidentmeter (as many pros do) you can remove the batteries from the camera altogetherand it will still function. You just wont see any meter indications.
The best feature for me, when I am shooting in the street or in the boardrooms of major corporations, is the fact that when I look through the finder ofmy camera, with a 50mm lens attached, the frame lines float in the finder and Ican see on the other side of the framelines. This allows me to see new ways tocompose or crop as well as seeing what may be coming into the frame. The SLRseems to impose a composition on its user while a rangefinder camera shows you,the artist, what is available just a few feet to the left or the right (or thetop or the bottom) of the framelines.
When I started to shoot with a manually focused camera again, the first thingI noticed about my style of shooting was that I began playing more with the edgesof the frame. Unconstrained by centering the camera and locking focus and thenrecomposing, I would focus once and then shoot without bothering to focus againuntil I or my subject changed position or distance. Images started to come alivefor me as compositions became more relaxed and I was able to take full charge ofwhat I saw in the viewfinder.
Moving a step further, to a Leica rangefinder, I found the freedom of theviewfinder, with its "window" to areas outside those shown within theframelines, pushed me to actively consider my compositions. Images are lesscentered and less formal. While a little lever on the front of the camera allowsme to preview the framelines of any other lens whenever I please, without havingto actually mount the lens on the camera.
Finally, I became permanently attached to the camera when I began to use it ontravel assignments. Two bodies and four lenses took up about as much space in acamera bag as one Nikon F5 and one of its companion lenses. Smaller and lighteris always better on overseas trips (or trips around the block, for that matter).I used to travel with the following in my bag for assignments:
Two Nikon F 5s, extra batteries, an 80-200 2.8 zoom lens, extra batteries, a20-35 2.8mm zoom lens, extra batteries, a Noct-Nikkor 58 1.2 mm lens, extrabatteries, and an 85mm 1.4 af lens. Almost twenty pounds of stuff, not countingflashes, film, accessories and connecting cords. Usually an extra, smaller bodysuch as an N90 or the F100 went along so I could go out street shooting duringthe gaps in my working agenda. Lets call it twenty something pounds. The largestDomke bag, stuffed to the gills. Walking a block with this stuff was an exercisein, well, exercise. And back aches. Because of the heavy lenses and the mirrorslap, a tripod was always required for available light photography, and you mayhave noticed that most professional users of autofocus cameras seem to use flashfor everything, mostly to compensate for the inability to handhold these monsterssecurely.
Now I travel with the following: Two Leica M6 bodies. The 21mm ASPH, theTri-Elmar 28-35-50 lens (Leicas answer to the zoom lens. One small, compact lenswith three focal lengths. Very high imaging performance, even at full aperture).A separate brightline finder for the 28mm focal length, the 50mm Summilux 1.4lens and the 90mm APO Summicron. A small Leica tabletop tripod and one smallLeica SF20 flash unit. This kit tips the scale at only six pounds and change, andit fits in a medium sized Domke bag, giving me more room for film. This is apackage that, with the exception of long focal lengths, gives me the same imagerange as the Nikon with results that are much superior.
Consider the case of the 21mm lenses. The Nikon zoom was very sharp, except inthe corners, but it does have some pronounced distortion. To make the image assharp in the corners as it is in the center requires stopping down to f5.6 or f8.This precludes handheld exposures in most interior locations. Out comes thetripod or the flash. With the 21mm ASPH for the Leica the distortion wide open isnon-existent while sharpness and resolution wide open in the corners rivals theNikon images center at 5.6. Point and game to the M6 and the 21mm. Quick andpainless. At the other end of the focal length choices one would assume that the80-200 Nikkor would have it all over the 90APO Summicron but that isnt reallyso. Most of my use for long lenses is either for portraiture or the documentationof keynote speakers at corporate events. Im usually positioned in the first rowfor the keynote speakers and am expected to get a good range of expressionsduring the speakers performance while calling the least attention to myself. Ialso cant distract the speaker. Flash is strictly forbidden!
I generally use Kodak Supra 800 film with an 80C filter over the lens. Thisgets me halfway to the proper correction for daylight film with tungsten lightingand the lab can handle the rest of the correction. It also eats up a stop oflight. Heres the choice: The huge, heavy Nikkor wide open at 2.8 with a shutterspeed of 1/60th or the Leica 90 with an f stop of 2.0 and a shutter speed of1/125. Guess which one is easier to handhold. Guess which one has less shake?Guess which lens is much sharper wide open? Yes, its the Leica.
Additional Leica M benefits which are paramount under these conditions areits much, much quieter shutter, quieter manual wind and a silent rewind.
The one area that the Nikon would seem to be superior is in the reach of its80-200mm zoom lens. But, the longer the focal length used, the greater themagnification of vibration from the mirror slap and the shake induced by humanfrailty. Surprising to me was the fact that a blow up from a partial area of theM6/ 90mm images was sharper than a full frame shot with the Nikon. Thecombination of the single focal length lens higher sharpness wide open, thefaster shutter speed and the ease with which the package could be hand held allwere visible advantages.
While the M6 is the camera I choose for a lot of my work, it does have someweaknesses. To wit:
While the famous industrial designer, Alessi, stated that the Leica M camerabody is one of the few designs of the 20th century which he thought was soperfect he would never try to change, it is the Leica M series lenses that arethe real lure of the M system for most available light shooters. In the nextsection Im going to talk about a number of the lenses and compare them withsimilar lenses that Ive owned and used extensively in the Canon, Nikon andContax G systems. As a corporate photographer I run a lot of film through mycameras and often log 100 to 200 rolls in a week. I get to know my cameras andlenses with an intense intimacy, in a short amount of time, that would take anamateur user years to match. Also, working with tools under pressure brings outthe best and worst points in each piece of equipment. The following evaluationsare subjective but are based on 20 years of looking and learning.
The Leica 21mm ASPH Elmarit. This lens is absolutely superb. It has a bitingsharpness wide open that seems to be a shared family trait of all the newestLeica optics. I own the same focal length in the Leica R lens and find that Imust stop down to at least f8 to even get near the ballpark of performance thatthe M lens gives me wide open. Both the Canon and the Nikon optics lack thecorner sharpness of the Leica at any aperture and only come near to matching theperformance of the Leica in the center of their images at f5.6 or f8. Also, mostof the slides seem somewhat equal in sharpness until you put them in an enlargerand crank them up to a large size (16x20+). Then the differences really becomeapparent as the ultra fine detail just keeps coming in the Leica optic, the otherlenses have no more detail to offer.
My experience with the Contax G series 21mm was relatively limited because thesupplied finder exhibited high levels of distortion while the lens lackedcontrast and bite. It was quickly returned to the dealer. In addition, the widestfocal lengths really cry out to be manually focused and the manual focus of the Gsystem is barely usable.
The Leica Tri-Elmar 28-35-50. This is a wonderful lens. Small and light, yetsolid. I use it mostly in exterior locations as the f stop of f4 is limiting foruse in low available light. At 50mm it is, to my eye, as good as the current 50mmM Summicron, thought by reviewers to be "the lens to beat" in 35mm normal focallengths. At the middle apertures, most manufacturers lenses are very good. Mostof the difference is in the way they design for contrast rendition. The Tri-Elmaris a bit "snappier" or more contrasty than the samples from Nikon and Canon, andthat is the main visible difference.
I do like the look of the Contax G series 45. It is not quite as snappy as theLeica product, but the colors and tones have a very pleasing, rich quality tothem and the sharpness is equal to both the Leica products.
At 35mm the Tri-Elmar has high sharpness but there is a slight decline incontrast when compared to the 50mm focal length. The 35mm ASPH Summicron lensfrom Leica is the lens to beat in this focal length. The Tri-Elmar comes fairlyclose. Both are very far ahead of the single focal length lenses from the twoJapanese SLR Manufacturers. The Contax G series 35mm lens has a flatter renditionand while the colors are rich, as in the 45mm, the sharpness is not as high.
Finally, at 28mm the lens is on par with the competitions lenses for the mostpart. The Leica has a bit more distortion but it also has a higher level ofcontrast. The images, on film, have their own characteristics, but, the ease withwhich the Tri-Elmar can be accurately focused on the rangefinder cameras becomesa clear advantage at this focal length as this is the point at which the SLRslimited wide angle focus/autofocus abilities start to fail. This is evidenced inthe higher number of improperly focused images in both my samples and the samplesand anecdotal evidence given by other professional shooters. Contrary to popularmythology, the depth of field of a 28mm lens wide open is not limitless! And itis certainly not enough to mask all focusing errors.
Since imaging quality is at least equal to all the single focal lengthscompared, the real benefit is the tiny package this lens presents. The ability tocarry three separate, high performance focal lengths in a space no bigger than asmall SLR lens is a clear advantage. The ability to focus it accurately under allconditions is crucial to my success with this lens.
At this juncture I must confess that I love high speed, normal focal lengthlenses. I once bought an EOS-1 just to be able to use Canons 50mm 1.0 L lens andtheir 85mm 1.2 L lens. Both of these optics were spectacular. Its unfortunatethat they were rendered nearly unusable for quick reportage by USM motors thatwere as slow as molasses. Indeed, if these lenses had autofocus to match theiron-film performance, or had a way of being used manually that would give you realtime focusing, I would still be using them. They are superb and easily the equalof the Leica glass. That being said, the 50mm 1.4s from Nikon and Canon arenothing to write home about. Not very sharp wide open and not very contrastystopped down. The 50mm Summilux blows them away at every stop. And its half thesize! The only high speed lens that is better wide open is Leicas latest 50mmSummilux for the R (reflex cameras) with eight elements and glass so cool that itmust have been invented for NASA. This lens, the 80 Summilux and the 180 aposare what keep me with Leicas SLR system for some assignments.
Both the Contax SLR 50s are decent normal lenses but, again, both are not assharp wide open and both lack the contrast and super fine detail of the Leicaproducts wide open. The only real contender is the G series 45 which, whiledifferent in its rendition from the Leica products, is very, very good.
I use the 50 Summilux wide open for most of my "available darkness" shots. Itis resistant to flare and nice and contrasty. The look of an image with a highdegree of sharpness in a limited plane is a look that I think emulates the waythe human eye actually sees and we are intrigued by all the stuff in thebackground that just blurs away. I believe that this lens and the M6 are theultimate synergistic imaging system for me.
I have owned four different 90mm Summicrons. The original with the tripodmount on the bottom. The next generation. The Summicron for the R series, and thecurrent 90 APO. This lens cannot be compared to any competitors lens or evenother lenses within the Leica system. It is brutally sharp wide open, and retainsthat sharpness right on out to f16. If you must use this lens for flatteringportraiture, be sure to filter it or shoot in low light so that the subjectsbreathing and slight movement take some of the sharpness out. I have kept thefirst version around for portraiture just for this reason. The first version isquite a bit softer wide open and has just a little flare in backlit situations.Using the latest APO version I have been able, using Kodachrome 25 and FujiVelvia, to have 40 by 60 inch LightJet enlargements made that rival the sharpnessI get with Hassleblad lenses and with most 4x5 lenses.
The above four lenses that I use most with my Leica M6s. Many Leica fans willbe incredulous that I did not include either of the Aspherical 35mms (the f2 andthe f1.4) as they are widely considered to be among the best of the best ofLeicas lenses. The truth is that I own the 35mm ASPH and have used it to goodeffect, but its just not my favorite focal length. Its an impressive performerbut one I use only when the 50 has my back up to the wall. I dont own the new135mm APO-Telyt but I have used one. Its performance is wonderful, but I justcant seem to get comfortable with such a long lens on a rangefinder camera. Theviewing frame in the finder is just too small. More experienced Leica users havetold me that the almost life sized viewfinder of the M3 makes this lens a delightto use, but the M3 has no metering and no facility to use the modern lensesshorter than 50mm so I pass.
At first use the G2 seems to be a compelling choice. As the weeks drag onthough, so does the camera. The G2 has a squirrely little finder that is not atall fun for users of eyeglasses. The autofocus doesnt always autofocus where Iwould like it to and the use of a focus hold button just bores/frustrates thehell out of me. There averaging meter pattern is less useful than the clearlydefined pattern of the Leica meter. The rewind is motorized and much too loud tobe used in a theater, a board room, a conference, a classroom or anywhere elsewhen discretion is critical.
The limited selection of lenses doesnt include any high speed optics and,while the 28 and the 45 are superb the other choices are less so. The 90 is anice lens but requires much skill to achieve consistent autofocus.
The manual focus makes the camera chancy for street shooting as many streetshooters prefer to keep their lenses prefocused on a fixed distance and then finetune the actual shooting distance the moment they bring the camera to their eye.The G2s manual focus isnt up to this challenge.
Finally, and this may just be a personal thing, but the G2 doesnt seem tohave the right "feel". It seems just a bit off.
While I think it would be foolish to buy a Leica body and not buy some oftheir best lenses to go along with it. Ive run into shooters at the Democraticconvention in Los Angeles and fashionistas on South Beach in Miami who added morewide angle capability to their Leica kits with the Heliar 15mm lens and the 25mmSkopar lens and were very happy to have them. I must confess that I bought one ofthe 15mms and used it extensively for an annual report job in December of 2000.It made wonderful images. Even the vignetting worked for the dusk images wecaptured. As to some of the other focal lengths, I would test them thoroughlybefore choosing. The Leica lenses that Ive detailed are head and shoulders abovemost out there and are a great value/performance proposition.
While Leica is no longer making the M6, you still can find usedcameras available. Search Photo.nets Classified AdsSection. You could also consider going digital with theLeica M9, (buy from Amazon) (review).
Im based in Austin, Texas, been shooting professionally for 20 years and haveworked recently in venues around the U.S. and Europe for IBM, Motorola, Dell, TheLeo Burnett Agency, GSD&M, Cellular One, USAA, Time Warner Cablevision,Business Week, Elle Magazine and many more. When I started my businessphotographers were expected to shoot every format and for years we shot mostthings on 4x5. The 90s was the decade when we shed our 4x5 equipment. We aregetting ready to let go of the medium format stuff. 35mm is starting to lookincredibly good next to all the digital sfuff. But we shoot that too. The future.Im shooting with film and Leicas and scanning with a Nikon LS-4000 until thenext big thing.
My business philosophy is, Photography is a physical sport. Stay inshape!
To see more of my work, go to www.kirktuck.com
Article revised March 2011.