Author’s note: The Leica M2 is an interchangeable lens rangefinder introduced in 1957 by German optical powerhouse Ernst Leitz Wetzlar GmbH. It is the successor to the famous Leica M3 used by Henri Cartier-Bresson, among others. It uses the M-mount lens system. It is very famous and expensive. None of this is new or noteworthy. Let’s get to the heart of things.
I awoke one morning to the sound of my phone vibrating. I flapped around trying to get ahold of it. It took a while, but I eventually held the glowing screen close to my bleary eyes.
“You’re finally writing the M2 review?” the text message read. It was James. He’d seen the recent update to the note I’d posted on the editorial calendar six months earlier, when we first discussed writing a piece on the Leica.
I looked around my room and spotted a too-familiar silver camera. I sighed.
“Yeah.” I replied.
“Good luck with that, dude.” James said, knowingly.
“Thanks.” I replied dismally.
A few hours later, I found myself on a train headed downtown. The forecast said it would be hot, and the sun conspired with the broken air conditioning to turn the train car into an oven. The heat started to disturb the other passengers. A distraught woman three rows down shouted something about “burning up like a motherf-er,” to which another man simply snorted in response. The rest of us held blank stares, mine squarely at the ground.
The greenish cast of the overhead lights reflected off the silver chrome finish of a Leica M2 which sat in my lap. At least I had something pretty to look at. I inspected the camera for the hundredth time. The top plate, rewind knob, and shutter dial all form a straight, flat line. The body curves in the hand; the advance lever slides to standoff position, smooth and precise. The windows on the front plate are clean-cut and free of unnecessary bezels. My eyes lazily follow the lines as they trace the M2’s understated, elegant figure. Even the timer and rewind lever look and feel like they were perfectly designed. A reminder to never underestimate the Germans.
Minutes later, the lady still sat grumbling; the man had fallen asleep. Others passed the time by gazing listlessly at open books, others at phones. Some simply rested their heads on dirty plexiglass, looking out at nothing. I started to raise the Leica to my eye to capture the scene, and decided against it. Too depressing.
A bell rang and I was swept up in a wave of humanity on its way out of the train, up a few escalators, and into the main concourse of Los Angeles’ Union Station. Travelers of all sorts raced to and fro, the roar of their collective motion echoing off the station’s cavernous, wooden ceiling. Light streamed through the giant glass windows that lined the hall on one side and illuminated a piano which was tucked into a far corner. I noticed a man emerge from the bustling crowd, sit at the piano bench and straighten his posture. He began to play Beethoven.
This would work. I raised the Leica to my eye and spun the focusing ring of the Nikkor lens until the spectral image of his head aligned with its more opaque twin in the rangefinder patch. The shutter issued an almost inaudible noise, the film advance lever slid back and forth with muted precision. Tik. Tchk, tchk.
For the hundredth time in the few months I’d been shooting the camera, I waited a few moments for the rush of physical and spiritual fanfare that one expects to feel, if we believe what we read from Ken Rockwell and Instagram repost accounts, when shooting a Leica. I waited for the sweet satisfaction that comes with capturing the decisive moment. I half-expected the spirit of Henri himself to come down from heaven and anoint me his rightful successor.
But nothing happened. The crowd kept moving, the pianist kept playing, and life kept going. Maybe this wasn’t a decisive moment. Maybe I don’t have the right lens. Maybe photography isn’t for me. After all, everyone told me the Leica is the best camera in the world. I bought it for this reason. And even if the photo isn’t very great or the subject very exceptional, I should at least feel some joy from simply taking a picture, as is the case with my other cameras. But I felt no joy using it. That was disappointing. The photographic bliss and purity promised time and time again by Leicaphiles the world over remained conspicuously absent. All that came to me were the distant intimations of an antiquated machine. It clicked quietly and cooly. The Leica seemed not to care about what I expected to feel from it. As always, it remained completely indifferent.
Which makes sense, if we’re being honest. The Leica M2 is a hunk of metal. It doesn’t know or care about the endless, excessive accolades photo geeks lay upon it. It doesn’t thank its worshipers on social media, intend the cachet it bestows on its owner, or defend its reputation as the greatest 35mm camera ever made. And it couldn’t care less about the naysayers who hold nothing but disdain for the camera and its brand, a hatred born mostly as a reactionary counterpoint to the excessive praise.
After six months of shooting and filtering out as much of the noise as possible, I’ve found only one thing to be true; the Leica M2 is a camera. How good a camera it is, is a challenging question.
I stepped out of Union Station and was met with painfully bright sunlight. A Nikon F hangover had me squinting through the viewfinder looking for a familiar light meter needle, but I found nothing. The M2 gives no quarter to those who depend on a light meter for proper exposure, making this machine inaccessible to the novice, and sometimes limiting even to the professional. I felt around for my old Sekonic light meter. No dice. I’d left it at home. The sunny 16 rule would have to do.
I walked around looking through the M2’s bright, lower magnification viewfinder (0.72x compared to the M3’s 0.91x), perfect for a bespectacled shooter like myself. I flicked around the frame line preview lever for fun, switching between its 35mm, 50mm, and 90mm frame lines. Compared to later, cluttered Leica viewfinders, which display combined frame lines, the display of the M2 is blissfully minimal. But on this day, frame lines didn’t matter. I only had a 50mm Nikkor.
One advantage of the M2’s lower magnification at 50mm stands out – I can see potential subjects come in and out of my frame. What’s more, the frame lines are parallax-corrected, meaning that for the most part, I didn’t need to worry about significant framing inaccuracies. These are nice features that aid composition, albeit features to be expected from a machine at this price point.
I soon found myself walking Grand Avenue, an opulent Downtown street which holds three concert halls, two museums, and countless financial firms within a quarter mile. In other words, it’s a place for rich folk. I found some shade on the steps of the conspicuously styled Walt Disney Concert Hall, a favorite destination for fans of classical music in Los Angeles. The hall’s modern, flowing silver lines complemented the M2’s own streamlined Bauhaus design and chrome finish. If nothing else, the M2 is a gorgeous camera.
And I suppose it’s also luxurious. Leicas are often referred to as the Rolls-Royce of cameras, and for good reason. The M2 is packed with tactile delights; the shutter speed dial moves with mechanical certainty, the shutter button depresses with perfect resistance, and the film advance lever sports one of the smoothest actions among all cameras. Throughout the entire afternoon, the Leica ticked beautifully in my hands until, inevitably, the clockwork stopped at the final frame.
Any elegance the M2 might possess evaporates once we get to unavoidable chore of rewinding and loading the camera. The rewind occurs by knob instead of crank, and loading occurs through the bottom of the camera and involves a removable spool, making reloading an annoying and time-consuming process – a signature of Leica’s early film cameras. Adding insult to injury, the M2 is the only M camera whose frame counter must be reset manually. Disappointing.
So yes, the Leica M2 is a thing of beauty and luxury but like a lot of beautiful and luxurious things, it’s impractical. And as I shoved the M2’s removable spool back inside its body and reset its frame counter, I imagined a cumbersome Rolls-Royce struggling to make a U-turn on a busy street. Impractical indeed.
I walked further down Grand Avenue and saw splendor turn quickly into squalor. The sidewalk became a scar of settled smog mixed with motor oil and spilled beer. The foul steam of the city’s asphalt billowed upwards, combined with the sweat on my hands, and seeped its way into my clothes and the Leica’s controls. Seeing this residue invade my camera was alarming, but the alarm died off quickly when I remembered that photojournalists once took these cameras to environs more hazardous than a hot, dirty L.A. street. They respected the cameras enough to put them through hell, so I decided to as well.
And this was nothing new. In my months-long adventures with the Leica, I wore it outdoors, in the extreme cold and the extreme heat, and swung it recklessly about whenever a new photo opportunity presented itself. It’s taken a spill on hard concrete, been scratched up by whatever I tossed into my bag, and I even spilled some salsa on it. You’d think it would need a CLA, considering some people get these things serviced as often as they clip their toenails. But much to my surprise, my M2 still worked perfectly.
But why should I be surprised? As an expensive and professional-spec German rangefinder, the M2 should be able to take whatever we throw at it, even if we’re told an M is a delicate instrument by people in the know. Still others say they’re indestructible. What does this discrepancy mean? Are Leicas durable or fragile? I fanned myself with the collar of my shirt, and wondered why I was spending so much time thinking about what everyone else says about Leicas. The sun really started to burn. I took refuge on a shady bus bench, annoyed.
I pointed the Leica upwards at a mildly interesting high-rise apartment. I pressed the shutter with some disdain, realizing that the money needed to buy an M2 and matching Summicron 50mm f/2 lens could pay a couple month’s rent inside that very building. Perhaps that’s the real reason for the overblown reputation – they’re expensive cameras, and we tend to expect more of expensive things. And even though the M2 is cheaper than most other M series cameras, they’re still incredibly expensive. Good copies often run near $850, and that’s just for a body.
And if you thought the bodies were expensive, the Leica M2’s M mount fits the most expensive lenses in 35mm photography. Genuine Leica lenses cost as much as their bodies do and even more still if you want to enjoy fast apertures. That being said, older, cheaper Leica Thread Mount lenses can be adapted to M-mount with full functionality, which can soften the financial blow without sacrificing image quality too much.
I sat and wondered, does the Leica M2 deserve this high price tag? It’s hard to say. Its build quality is incredible, but the Nikon F-series is just as well-built. It can reduce photography down to the essentials but then again, any old school Pentax SLR does that just as well or better. It’s renowned as an especially quiet and small camera but most fixed-lens Japanese rangefinders are quieter and smaller still. And if we wanted that entire package of attributes plus M mount compatibility, the Minolta CLE does all that with added functionality that’s superior to any Leica M camera. And yet, one genuine Leica M and a fancy lens costs more than all of these options combined.
As these thoughts passed through my brain for the hundredth time, the heat reached a fever pitch and my frustration with the Leica started to boil over. Blinding lights flashed from passing traffic. Horns blared, tires screeched, and obscenities were traded between driver and pedestrian. The foul stench of the street fused with the dry, hot air and held my throat in a death grip. I looked down at the M2, hoping for just a glimmer of excitement or happiness as a result of owning such a legendary camera.
I couldn’t take it anymore. I fumbled around with my phone and began typing a text to a friend, a text I’d nearly sent a number of times over the past six months. Any interest in taking this M2 off my hands? I had no business shooting this indifferent, entirely too expensive camera.
But midway through, I stopped and erased the text. And once more, and against my better judgement and budget, I decided to try one more time. I Ioaded my last roll into the M2 and trudged further along the boulevard.
I’m so tired of thinking about this camera. I grumbled internally. Why can’t James review this one?
I was overthinking it. The heat was getting to me. I relaxed my grip on the M2, cleared my mind of all the nonsense, and focused on taking pictures. I soon found myself walking Broadway boulevard, a lovely street filled with old movie palaces and discount clothing marts. Images started to loosely form in my head and I found myself adjusting my exposure without thinking. It looked like I was getting more comfortable with the Leica. It was a start.
I started to shoot without thinking, throwing caution to the wind and focusing solely on composition. Soon, images started to form and break apart within the confines of the M2’s frame lines. I could see people walk in and out of those illuminated borders and could place them with precision throughout the frame. Composition became fun, and I wound on shot after shot as if photography itself was an addictive video game.
While I was framing up the last shot of the day’s film, I forgot I was even shooting an M2. I wasn’t thinking about the machine I held in my hands; I was just taking pictures. And maybe that’s the secret. Maybe you have to forget that you’re shooting an M to really appreciate one? But if that’s the case, wouldn’t any camera do? And besides, it’s pretty difficult to forget you’re shooting a Leica. Let’s face it, it’s a flashy, archaic film camera that costs about a grand-and-a-half with a lens. It’s a luxury item, and everybody knows it. Sure, it’s nice to have and to shoot, but it isn’t completely necessary if what you really care about is making excellent images.
Photo culture has elevated this camera to the point of unassailable royalty. People stop you on the street to ask about it. All the Instagram camera repost accounts bait followers with a never-ending supply of Leicas as the wriggling worm on the end of their social media hook. This is a camera we’re all supposed to love, and when you don’t love or want it, it’s inferred (at least in certain circles) that your tastes are less refined, your pockets not deep enough, or you’re simply a newb.
Oh well. Forget all the bullshit that comes with it, ignore the hype, and don’t expect too much, and the M2 is a nice camera. It’s a good tool for walking around a city and capturing your daily adventures. It’s streamlined, sleek, and beautiful. It’s pretty well-made. After long debate, I’ve even decided to keep mine as one of two daily shooters, the other being my F3. But should it be put on a pedestal and proclaimed the Supreme Ruler of All Cameras, ad nauseam? I don’t think so. I’m just as happy shooting the F3, or any number of other cameras I’ve owned and tested.
Maybe if some of us were more honest with ourselves and more thoughtful about our reasons for shooting, we wouldn’t see these cameras as objects to lust after, as status symbols or membership cards into a silly, exclusive club. Because at the end of the day, the Leica M2 is just a camera. And yeah, it’s a pretty nice camera. But the only way it’ll change your life is if it takes a long fall out a third-floor window and lands on you.