Six Months with the M2 and My Struggles with the Myth of Leica

Six Months with the M2 and My Struggles with the Myth of Leica

1999 1124 Josh Solomon

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.

There was none. Why did I spend so much money on this camera? Why didn’t I just keep shooting my Nikons, my Minoltas?

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.

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Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

All stories by:Josh Solomon
59 comments
  • given my (limited) camera repair experience, I wouldn’t call Leicas durable or indestructible after seeing ones guts. What they are, however, is infinitely repairable. It is VERY hard to a Leica to be so far gone it isn’t repairable. The thing that always puts me off early M-mount Leicas is when I compare them to another very well known camera, the Pentax K1000. Here is a camera that will run you about $100 at more, is fully mechanical, is very durable/indestructible and is actually EASIER to repair than the M3/M2/M4 while having the advantage of their being literally millions of copies to use for spare parts. Oh, and it has a rather good light meter and is exactly as good at firing the camera from B-1000 as a Leica. It lacks a self timer but I don’t know anyone who uses the self timer on their Leicas since they are notorious for breaking. When it comes to film, many of Pentax’s primes from the K, M and A series can stand up to Leica lenses of a similar vintage. On film it is as near as makes no difference, honestly.

    Am I recommending people buy K1000s instead of the meterless Leicas? Well, not exactly. Some peoples gear lust can ONLY be sated by a Leica. I know I was hurting for a Leica really badly thinking I needed that ultimate mechanical camera experience. My main camera at the time had broken and all I had on hand that worked as a K1000 I had from when I first started shooting film. 3 frames in I no longer lusted after the Leica. My mechanical camera cravings had been met. The pictures from that roll came out BEAUTIFULLY despite the fact that the entire combo in my hands could be picked up for around $150. In all situations it could perform the same job as the Leica I had craved.

    What I am recommending, then, is that people TRY other older mechanical cameras FIRST to see if they still want the Leica afterwards. Besides, by the time you buy a Leica body and lens you could have purchased a much cooler rangefinder, an Xpan + 45mm lens. My daily shooters now consist of an Xpan or a Spotmatic F (same as a K1000 but M42 mount).

    I know it is easy to catch Leica fever, lord knows I used to have it and I came about 5 seconds away from swiping my card on an M5+Summicron. Thank goodness I didn’t

    • Thanks for your insight! Funny you mention the K1000; I toyed around with the idea of doing a K1000 vs M2 comparison article. Like you said, B-1000, fully mechanical. Not much to separate the two. You could probably frame more accurately with a K1000 as well!

    • Yes, interesting you mention the K1000 (and I would love to see that K1000/M2 comparison review :)). Out of all the 35mm cameras I own/owned, the two I prefer are the M2 and K1000. As different as they are, they are also remarkably similar to hold and use, both being all-mechanical, solid, minimalist no-nonsense cameras. The M2 is whisper-quiet, the K1000 has a solid satisfying mirror-clunk that I totally agree with. The M2 is a range-finder, the K1000 an SLR that can easily be used for close-ups. I love to use both of them but sometimes the M2 is just right, sometimes the K1000. A lot of people seem to struggle with the re-winding/loading of the early M-cameras, but as a lot of other things much of it comes down to personal preferences and attitude. I actually find it calming and enjoyable, a little ritual to focus my mind, part of the experience of shooting film with a 60-year old camera.

    • the xpan are more expensive than an m3 by about x3 but i see your point re k100 i dont know what their glass is like but i have seen seom lieca images that look like a 4×5 neg

  • Great review Josh! Plenty of laughs along the way too. You could insert almost any overhyped camera into your review – which takes nothing away from your exceptional writing and powers of observation. I felt your pain on those hot, smelly streets. We’ve all held a disappointing camera from time to time but don’t often admit that we don’t like them. Honesty, like a well executed photograph, is a good thing.

  • I seem to be travelling in a reverse time machine. I do use digital for business, for the airline magazine travel articles I write from time to time but for enjoyment, I have reverted to using film. Initially it was easy, I had owned an M4 from new in 1967. I sent it to Peter at CRR in Luton, who returned its VF/RF to as new, stopped the rear door sounding like a frenetic flamenco dancer’s castanets and made sure the shutter speed I dialled in was the speed I got. I have an MR-4 semi-coupled Leicameter which sits on top. It all seemed a bit easy, along with my CL for when a pocket sized camera was needed.

    So I then resurrected a couple of my LTM cameras and added some to the pool, a beautiful Reid & Sigrist Model III Mk.2, the best made of all LTM’s. I was then offered an immaculate IIIg which looked like it had never been used and at a very reasonable cost. I have also expanded my LTM lens pool from far too many 50mm/5cm lenses from f3.5 to f1.5 and have added a 21mm Voigtlander, a 3.5cm/2.8 Leica Summaron and an 8.5cm/f1.5 Leica Summarex. I get more satisfaction from using the tiny LTM cameras than the M type cameras. They just exude quality. They are not totally easy to use, with an interesting rangefinder. The RF is much improved by using the coloured filters ORAKO for my pre-war Barnacks, OKARO for the post war. Is the time machine going to stop there or in another five years, am I going to boiling up mercury to make Daguerrotypes?

    • I agree with you on the LTM cameras! I reviewed the IIIc last year, and its quality is on a completely different level to the M2.

      • Ryan O’Connell July 30, 2017 at 8:07 pm

        “quality is on a completely different level to the M2”

        That’s ridiculous.

      • Josh I’ve owned clean copies of the M2 and IIIc and to claim the LTM quality is on a completely different level is just bullshit, plain and simple…

  • A very entertaining assessment. I’ve never used a Leica while all the while being aware of its reputation and the mystique. Sometimes I wonder if I should. But, as you point out, it’s only a camera and I have plenty of those already.

  • I like this Leica negativity, both article & comments! In the same way that I’d like to sit down the world’s oenophiles and demand that they correctly identify a selection of wines by grape, country of origin and vintage whilst blindfolded, I’d also like to seat a bunch of the most vocal camera connoisseurs down and demand that they identify a selection of photos by the lens used, by what capture-box the lens was attached to, and by what stock it was shot on. Failure means indefinite disqualification from the entire photographic community, unless they pin a hugely grovelling account of how it’s all much of a muchness to their website home page. Even so, I’ll still probably buy an M6 some day when the urge overtakes me. Oh well.

    • I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought about this. I, too, would love to sit some people down and ask them to compare physical prints made by a variety of different cameras and lenses. Make it even more interesting – throw some prints made from digital files in there as well. The fact of the matter is this – with a little bit of adjustment in Lightroom or Photoshop, you can make an iPhone photo look like it was taken on Tri-X or Portra. Heck, you could even tell people it was taken with a Leica – would they really have any reason not to believe you? We live in a world now where you can make the end result of a digital file look identical, not similar, but practically identical, to film. Couple this with the fact that most people are scanning their negatives in and working on them digitally before sharing them (again, digitally), it really makes you wonder… What’s the point? Well, I’d argue that there is a point, because there is something to be said of the process, which is a rewarding, fulfilling experience. I won’t knock that. But let’s not kid ourselves. Load up a point and shoot and a Leica with the same film stock and compare the results. Chances are, the point and shoot will nail focus better and (gasp) be better able to capture that “decisive moment” because the user is not fiddling with focus, shutter speed and aperture. What we tend to forget, and I tend to forget this is as well, is that the important thing here is the final image. Isn’t that what this is all about anyway? The final image? It’s so easy to get sidetracked by the gear that we often forget the important thing, the whole point of it all…

      • I think photography is kinda comprised of two main strands – the interest in photos and taking them, and the interest in the things used to take them. Somewhere, we all strike our own balance between the two, and the level of our obsessiveness.

      • Ryan O’Connell July 30, 2017 at 8:08 pm

        The quality of a point an shoot camera’s lens is very easily determined compared to a rangefinder lens. Point and shoot lenses typically suck. However, if you took the same photo on an SLR and then a Leica, I don’t think I would be able to tell the difference.

  • “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.”

    Awesome Josh!
    The only issue I have is saying the CLE is better than any Leica. I have two CLEs, and they are fantastic. But the Leica M7 (the AE Leica M) is better by quite a bit for two main reasons – it holds exposure in auto mode with a half press of the shutter – the CLE has no exposure lock – and it has a metered manual mode. The CLE turns off the meter in manual mode. It also gives you two mechanical speeds if the batteries die, while the CLE goes belly up.

    As for the rest, I love Leicas. But I also love my Nikons, Minoltas, Fujis, Mamiyas -even my Zenits and Lubitel! They are just cameras…

    Best regards
    Huss

    • p.s. forgot to mention, the CLE also has a much shorter rangefinder base length than any M camera, so it cannot focus as accurately as them…

    • This is sort of beside the point, but I recently chatted with a long-lost official Minolta repair guru and the CLE came up. We talked about how much I love it and I mentioned that most people cite as a weakness the fact that the camera doesn’t have an exposure lock feature (this doesn’t bother me personally because it has exposure comp and I’ve never had a problem with the camera metering incorrectly). Anyway, the man told me that Minolta intentionally passed over the exposure lock because the CLE uses the off-the-film stepless metering system where it reads the light as the photo is being exposed and closes the shutter when proper exposure has been reached. Essentially, if the camera opens the first shutter determining that a speed of 1/211th of a second is necessary for a spot-on exposure, and then light conditions change while the shutter is open, it will automatically compensate for whatever change is needed mid-shot.

      I think most die-hards already knew this, I knew this myself, but I had failed to realize that this system effectively eliminates the need for exposure lock, as the camera essentially handles everything on its own in aperture-priority mode.

      I thought this was interesting, and it reinforces the fact that the camera has literally never made a bad exposure in the four years I’ve been shooting CLEs.

      As for the metered manual mode issue, that’s true, and it’s a bummer. I suppose it may have been a design choice to assume that if a photographer is shooting the CLE in manual mode he or she may not want anything bothering or distracting happening in the viewfinder. Wild guess. Probably incorrect. But it’s a theory.

      • w/ re. to your manual metering comments, that may well be correct. After all, Minolta knew/knows how to make it work if they wanted to. So skipping metering in the manual mode was an intentional choice.

  • Having been a photojournalist shooting for national and international news publications starting in 1969–largely with M-4s–I really think you miss the point in your review. When people refer to shooting with a Leica…they don’t mean a Leica body with a different (much lower quality) lens. The implication of shooting with a Leica is that you always shoot with a Leica lens.

    And, yes, the M-2 has an awkward rewind…it was made over 50 years ago. From the M-4 forward that problem was eliminated.

    While I appreciate that you did a report on shooting with a Leica M-2…I really think it shows you did not have any interest in the real subject…as you implied in the start of your story.

    • This. The article is about someone reviewing part of a Leica. The body is nice, the feel of it, the ergonomics, the build — but that’s a very small part of it. The glass has a character to it, and that’s what you get a Leica for.

    • Cringed when I saw the lens on that M-2. It’s always been about the Leica glass. Wasn’t a big Leica shooter, just an M-4 with a 35 f/2 Summicron back in the early 80’s. I marveled at the contrast and razor blade sharpness. I also liked the little focus ring tab for zone focus. I sold my Leica gear in 1990 to help pay for a cross country move. Contax G series came close as a replacement with autofocus, but it lacked a decent viewfinder. Wasn’t until I picked up a Fuji X series rangefinder body that I felt like I had my Leica back in digital form. The glass is amazing and it’s a heckuva lot lighter and less intrusive than the EOS gear issued by my newspaper.

    • Yup, the lenses make the magic, the camera is just a box. People put up with the unreliable contarex bodies to use the amazing lenses

    • David Douglas Duncan sold his Leica lenses and bought Nikkor lenses for his Leica IIIc.

    • Chris that is a perfect reply based on experience. Look at every Vietnam War photojournalist and they have two cameras hanging off their neck at the same time, a Leica M3/M2 and a Nikon F. They needed the right tool for the right job. Wide lens on the Leica, long lens on the Nikon. I feel the M2 has already proven itself and this article makes me feel no different.

  • For 35mm, I shot with an OM 1 for many years. Fantastic camera with fairly small lenses. Then I traded a Leitz enlarger (plus a little money) for an well used M2. It isn’t the easiest camera to use. Sometimes I do wish for a light meter. And, who came up with the crazy film loading scheme? Now that I’ve used it for several years, I love it. The viewfinder is great to use. The rangefinder is fantastic for those of us with less than perfect vision. It is so pleasant to use….the shutter is so quiet. I liked it so much I got a Konica RF to compliment it. Sometimes, it is just nice to have a lightmeter. It is a nice camera for those who can’t deal with the basic nature of the M2. That said, if I am doing out, I grab the M2 over the Konica every time. It is funny, though, I had an M6 for awhile and I never bonded with it and sold it. The M2 is a better camera for me…..and a lot less money if you get a nicely used one.

  • I don’t want to nit pick but… the photos you have shown in your other reviews have had great composition AND were sharp. The ones in this review have great composition, but seem to be lacking sharpness. They seem a touch hazy and out of focus, to which I blame a lack of calibration of the Nikon lens to the camera.
    It is a Leica after all, perhaps a Leica lens could be used? Or an excellent Voigtlander? Maybe a Zeiss?
    I’d be happy to lend you one for a day.. (I’m in LA)

    • Thanks for your offer Huss! Shoot me an email and perhaps we can meet up! My scanning technique leaves a bit to be desired, so that may explain it. I doubt the lack of sharpness is any fault of the Nikkor honestly; it’s one of the best Japanese LTM lenses out there! I am planning on getting my M2 spiffied up a little bit after roughing it up for review. It definitely deserves it, considering everything it’s been through!

  • You perfectly captured both Leica snobbery and reverse Leica snobbery in this article! Well done!

  • A Leica isn’t magic, but it is a beautifully made great camera. If you like rangefinders (like I do) then impracticality​ isn’t an issue, and if you like rangefinders a Leica is the best of the bunch. Plus, how can you not admire the quality of it? It’s like a Rolex that you can shoot pictures with, the body is perfectly machined and the mechanicals are smooth and very Germanly (yes) perfect. Even the rewind know on the M2, while slower then a crank, is gorgeous. The closest in charm I’ve found was my Kodak Retina iiiC (also a German camera), which despite being made the same year as my M2 is infinitely more odd and old fashioned. It’s as smooth as the Leica and as beautifully made but the Leica is superior in every way from controls to viewfinder.

  • I have owned, shot with and then later sold most of the Leica M film cameras: M2, M3, M4, M6TTL, MP. Of these five, the M2 has been my favorite and the one I owned the longest and shot with the most. Not sure all the reasons other than it is just a fabulously simple, well built machine. Over time though, I tired of carrying an external light meter with me or guessing exposures. I have just recently picked up a nice black M7. I know what the Leica purists are saying…”What? A Leica with aperture-priority auto exposure!” But honestly, I am enjoying this Leica the most of any of them and the one I might ultimately keep.

    One thing I will say about Leica…be patient when you shop and buy smartly. If you do, when you want to sell, you’ll be able to get all your money back and in some cases, make money. Of the five Leicas I have owned, I broke even on one (after shooting it a year) and made money on the others. Not bad for a camera.

    • Interesting–I also own an M2 and an M7. I love the M2, but decided to buy the M7 last month for the same reason that you cite: I just wanted an internal light meter. I like both cameras and see them serving different purposes. I’ve been using the M7 for color negative/slide films. I’m curious: I always thought the MP would be a great combination of M2-like ergonomics with the M6/7 metering. I have not used one, and I would be interested to hear your perspective. Thanks.

      • The MP was a fine camera. I sold it to finance my M9-P. I like the M7 better than my MP simply because it allows aperture-priority automation, which is really convenient for some shooting situations. I also think that the M7 has a quieter shutter and nicer film advance action, but I am probably just imaging that in a haze of Leica love.

  • Great write up!

  • Outstanding review, it truly catches an opinion o those who don’t find Leica their cup of tea (including myself). Yes, it is good, yes it does its job well, but it’s overpriced. It’s like Apple of photoindustry. I’m pretty happy with my Oly OM-1 which cost me less than 60$

  • As a long time Leica M user who still has the M4-2 I bought in 1981, here are my thoughts. I think the M camera is fantastic with a 35mm or 50mm lens. The shutter is quiet and the camera is small. If you use it daily (like I did for many years until digital hit the scene), it will be come an extension of you. I am on my second shutter and the body has been recovered. I have used it so much that the black chrome is shiny on many of the edges. Yes one gets used to loading it and unloading it. The camera when adjusted well will produce spot on focused images. Nothing about the camera is cheap. It is like owning a Mercedes or a Porsche. Complicated and expensive.

  • With all this said, I also have a fondness for the Mamiya Sekor 1000 DTL cameras I own. Many screw mount lenses will fit it including some Pentax lenses, but later Pentax screw mount lenses may not mount due to a lug on the back of the lens. The Mamiya, although inexpensive at the time, has a good solid feel, a reasonably accurate metering system and availability at low cost. Drawback is that almost no one wants to work on one, but there are fantastic youtube videos that detail how to take them apart to refurbish them. I have two of these, one of them I have owned since new in 1975.

  • ” I’ve found only one thing to be true; the Leica M2 is a camera.”

    I think you nailed it there.

  • I can relate I own a M2 with a Canon 35 1.8 LTM. I really like the smoothness of the camera and the 35 frame lines. I do believe my M2 does need service due to uneven exposure at 1/1000. The big thing I love is how clear the rangefinder is. I will admit when I got the camera I didn’t feel a connection with it like I have with other cameras, but I still force myself to use it and it is slowly growing on me. I think a lot of it has to do with seeing the images that I capture through that Canon Lens. The camera that I got to see what this rangefinder stuff was about was the Zorki 4. I had fun shooting that camera and was surprised by the performance and images from that camera, but then again my expectations were rather low and I only paid $50 for the camera complete with a case and a 50mm f2 lens. I may use it again while my M2 is away being serviced.

  • The M2 is not the only M with an external frame counter, the M1 & MD also have this feature. For street and travel I use a pair of MDa bodies, a 3.5 Summaron lens and the SBLOO 3.5 cm viewfinder plugged in on top. This finder gives a far brighter view than M1/2/3/4/6 and aids composition as there is no distracting frame. To focus, you can use the distance scale or the Hyperfocal Distance method. This is what I do.
    The viewfinder less, rangefinder less bodies (MD, MDa & MD2) were made for use clipped to a microscope or with long lenses on a visoflex reflex housing. The great advantage of these bodies is that not only are they far cheaper than M2-6 but are in far better condition. My pair are in superb condition and cost me £200 each from Peter Loy. I use a Gossen Sixtomat Digital meter and keep my kit in a small Billingham Combination bag M. These bags are only available at Leica dealerships.
    It is unusual to carry two bodies and one lens, rather than the other way round, however, it suits my way of working. Both bodies have neck straps, when film is used up in the body I’m using, I just exchange lens and finder with the body cap on the spare body and carry on shooting.
    Film is exclusively Ilford XP2 Chromogenic 400 iso. The MD is an M2, the MDa is an M4 and the MD2 is an M4-2 and made in Canada like the M4-2 and M4-P.

    • Sounds really interesting, and I’d love to give this setup a shot, maybe write a little something about it. I guess I’ll see if I can find one. Thanks for the tip.

  • My Leica, like yours, was a thing of beauty to behold and to operate. The build quality was surreal, and I can’t tell you how many times people commented on what a beautiful camera it was (w/ the deep purple lens coating of my Summicron Dual Range adding to the allure). Part of owning such a camera comes from the unique signature of a Leica’s lens, so I hope by now you have replaced your perfectly acceptable Nikkor lens w/ a real Leica optic. The difference in image quality is pretty in your face. The cameras are also quite large and heavy, especially w/ a DR lens attached, and finally I couldn’t justify owning mine because, as you said, many other cameras are smaller, lighter, and deliver 80% to 90% of the same image quality at a fraction of the price. Now I shoot a Nikon SLR w/ a Leica R 90 Summicron mounted w/ an adapter. The lens cost me roughly 8 times what the camera cost, and the photos from that lens are incredible. So I’m pretty happy.

    Hardly a day goes by that I don’t regret selling that Leica setup though.

  • I’m a contrarian by nature and and passionately believe that anything that’s been put up on a pedestal should be rigorously and mercilessly critiqued. Likewise, Leica fanboyism is worse than most… So in that sense thank you for attempting to dissect the myth.

    Having said that I just can’t agree on the M2. I bought mine in 2013 and it’s been my main body since. I’ve used others, among them an LX, Spotmatic, 35RD, IIIc, medium format with an Autocord, and a beautiful black-paint MX (my other great love). But it’s always the M2 I come back to. I’ve shot a few thousand frames, enough I think for the mystical Leica fairy dust to wear off, but nonetheless it remains my desert island camera – no more or less than perfect (for me anyway).

  • Anyone with half a brain is not into Leica because of an exclusive club, or the myth of the camera. As mentioned they are not necessarily better built than any other camera (someone mentioned the tank Pentax K-1000), nor will the photos from a Leica or a Leica lens be of better quality. Those who truly love shooting with a Leica (and not merely collecting them) do so because its a very unique means of shooting. Its not inherently better, but its different. I loved my Pentaxes (including the K1000) but for me, there’s nothing that compares to shooting through a rangefinder. This is what true Leica-philes are into. To hell with better quality photos and/or more durable cameras. The rangefinder system is unique, and if that’s your cup of tea, an SLR will not do, and vice-versa.

  • Who needs a meter? 1/250 @f/5.6 in open shade, 1/500 @f/8 in bright sun with Tri-X or other similar film.

  • Josh, just seeing your M2 post. Looks like you were shooting a Nikon lens on the M2? No wonder you didn’t feel the tingle or hear the voice. You’re lucky you weren’t struck by a lightning bolt. 😉

  • Hans-Peter Linz June 13, 2018 at 9:09 am

    Dear Josh, i agree with Your text a hundred percent. I myself owned a Leica M6 with 50 and 28 mm lenses. The Leica and i did not fall in love. So i sold it. Nowadays i shoot with a Nikon FM2 and a Fuji GW 690 III (sometimes Hasselblad too) So – as far as Nikon is concerned – i went back to my roots. In 1980 a Nikon FM was my first camera. If someone likes to shoot Leica – that is fine. But there is definitely no reason to put the Leica on a pedestal.
    best wishes,
    Hans-Peter

  • Brandon Hopkins June 21, 2018 at 8:23 pm

    I think this is one of those things where you either like the process of shooting with a rangefinder, or you like the process of shooting with an SLR (or other type of camera). If you don’t care about the process and just want the image, then go with whatever’s easier for you. There’s not a huuuge difference in the final product if you know what you’re doing IMO.

    I began my rangefinder addiction with a Canonet, then got a Yashica Electro. After that, I knew I was hooked on using rangefinders and wanted something with an interchangeable lens system. I almost went with a Bessa, but found an M6 for a decent price and pulled the trigger on that instead because I wanted something I could keep forever. I’ve had it since 2009 and i’m finalizing a deal to get an M2 to go along with it. I have some Nikons (F through F4 and F100) that can take photos that look just as good and I really enjoy using them as well, they just have a different purpose. It also depends on my mood.. 😛

    In the end, I know that Leica is just a tool, only a light tight box, but the act of taking the photos is just as big a part of photography, and what makes it relaxing, as the final photo itself and that’s what keeps me interested in them.

  • JM (@jmphotogatx) July 26, 2018 at 4:19 pm

    did you add extra film grain to your photos?
    thanks for the review.

  • it’s late, but i can;t refrain. i owned an m6 ttl for about ten years. but it gave way to my nikon f3 which i owned for over 20years. i very recently sold the f3 and have thought about buying another. of the vintage lot, only rolleiflex is really seriously thought about. over the years, i’ve owned three rolleiflex and would prefer one over any leica. i have only seen one rollei locally in the past 5 years.

  • Dear Josh, Forget the Leica M2 pal. Forget the manual focusing. Forget the awful reloading. Forget worrying about your exposure on the now extremely expensive film. Forget the manual wind on with the lever as when you wind on with a manual lever you disturb the viewfinder space you are looking through.

    It’s time has past 50/ 60 years ago.

    Here’s what to do pal.

    Sell that M2. It’s a 60s camera born of a myth. Now the Leica M3 may have ruled the world when that was all that there was way back 60 years ago. But even then only the rich could afford them.

    Get yourself a Nikon F6 or a Nikon F100 with a 50mm f/1.8 or a Canon EOS 1V with a 50mm f/1.8 and watch your photography take off.

    Exposures right every time. Blisteringly fast autofocus – never miss a shot. Automatic film wind on means you can keep your eye steady in the viewfinder with your finger hovering over the shutter button till the moment is right – constantly reframing your shot if necessary. No problems with parallax – you get the shot you want framed right every time. When it comes time to reload – it’s a cinch – done in a few seconds.

    All that is what you can do with a modern camera if you still want to shoot film.

    The Leica M2 cannot under any circumstances compete with an autofocus SLR, but the aura and myth that Leica holds – holds sway and they have a good grip over many, many a photographer. This means that people still continue to spend thousands and thousands on bodies and lenses when there is just no need to.

    It’s the Emperor’s new clothes pal.

    If you’re shooting a project with 50 rolls of film. I know which camera I would have in my bag.

    All best wishes

    Stuart

    • Thanks for your comment Stuart! Thought i’d reply here to your comment to clarify a couple things since it’s been a while since this article was published.

      Completely agree with your assessment. Functionally, the Leica M2 gets smoked by most of the SLR’s that followed it. I’d take an F6 over an M2 any day if it came to paid work or a project. But the thing is, Leica hasn’t catered to the professional for years; they’ve switched to moneyed enthusiasts looking for a particular shooting experience, what I would call the “Leica myth”. This article was a personal test of that particular myth.

      Do I think the myth is justified? I don’t think so, but that doesn’t stop people from thinking it is. And I get it. Leica cameras are pretty, well-built cameras with lots of history and truly outstanding optics. What’s not fine is the alarmingly common assertion that people who buy into Leica truly “get” photography or “get” being a camera enthusiast in ways other people don’t. That’s when things start to go awry, and that’s what prompted the writing of this article.

  • A point worth emphatically stressing is that if one prefers a rangefinder over an SLR, then comparisons to SLRs are immutably irrelevant. A Nikon F6 or F100 cannot remotely compete with a Leica, or Bessa Voigtlander for that matter, in terms of being a rangefinder, just like a rangefinder cannot compete with any TLR in terms of being a TLR. As mentioned above, different processes are involved, and yes, these differences are important for some photographers.

    I use a Leica M2-R, and if it is outdated, well, that can be said about any film camera, including a Nikon F6 or F100. Just to note, I also own a Nikon FM2n, an excellent camera. But of course, when talking about artistic mediums, especially for hobbyists like myself, matters of obsolescence or archaicness are largely beside the point, lest we, for the arbitrary sake of modernity, marginalize acoustic instruments, paints, charcoal, pen & paper, sculpting tools (including the human hand), and the human voice, among other creative facilitators.

    And as for as expense, I don’t spend ‘thousands and thousands’; and the camera and lens set that I use will last me the rest of my life; a far more cheaper option than if I were shooting digital full frame cameras. There’s no “emperor’s new clothing” taking effect here, particularly as the photos I produce are certainly as real and legitimate as any photos taken from any other camera. Again, I’m a hobbyists, and I understand that professionals have far different demands and needs, whereby this could easily digress into a digital versus film debate.

    To be sure, I could spend less on a Bessa, and in fact my first rangefinder was a Bessa R2M, another great camera by all means. But out of curiosity, I picked up a Leica iiif, and it was simply the tactile quality (as mentioned in the review) that drew me over to Leica. That simple, no mythological persuasion, no exalted expectations, and really, no large concern for magical image quality, especially when using a 1934 Summar. Just an experiment that turned out good.

    I subsequently ended up with an M2, and I now have absolutely no desire for any other camera, film or digital. How many photographers can honestly say this about their current camera? I love the way the M2 feels and functions, yes functions. And even putting ergonomics aside for a second, for my admittedly derivative style of photography, the rangefinder is, in a pragmatic sense, the most suitable tool. Altogether, at least for me personally, no SLR can compete in this regard, and this is not debatable because it’s personal. Really, too many absolutist assertions going on in this thread.

    As far as a rangefinder’s limitations, there are a few things to consider. Some people prefer their simplicity; they enjoy the manual aspect of it, whereby one person’s impracticality is another’s pleasure…hence, I’ll stick with my FM2n over any auto-this-or-that F model. Iif I ever actually use any SLR again is another issue, but I ain’t selling the Nikon just yet. And by the way, there’s something to be said about not being codependent on batteries.

    Moreover, the limitations of a rangefinder didn’t seem to hinder Robert Frank, Henri-Cartier Bresson, William Eggleston, Gary Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Ralph Gibson, Robert Capa, Joel Meyerowitz, or Josef Koudelka, just to name a few. These photographers were not great because they, at some point, used a Leica, but nor were they impeded. If we include all manual cameras, this list will grow to include a generous number of other superb photographers whose work may have since been matched, but not surpassed, at least not in my eyes.

    And this leads to the other point; choice. If someone wants to use a pinhole camera, then yapping about automatic features becomes nothing more than an aloof exercise in extraneous proselytization. And in the arts in particular, having a broad range of mediums from which to choose is something that should be encouraged, not discouraged, at least as far as I reckon.

    Yes, the rangefinder system, Leica or not, is a niche, and it is absolutely not for everyone. Large format cameras are likewise a niche, but god bless their continued availability, and hey, film is now a niche pursuit as well…after all, this is about photography, not vying for high school prom queen. But yes, Leica as a brand has attained a “mythic” status that needs to be tempered before going in, per se. Inflated expectations of anything of any nature typically stir disillusionment and disappointment. And no, I can’t tell what camera or lens took any particular photo, and I knew this before getting a Leica (again, not a stickler for image quality anyway).

    In any event, I actually encounter far more Leica bashing these days than absurd glorification, which is equally ludicrous. The Leica is a camera; if someone wants to use it like a piece of jewelry, it’s not the damn camera’s fault (although one might blame Leica marketing). Besides, I’m quite sure that the number of folks buying huge white conspicuous telephoto lenses to erect in front of Suburban Neighbor Johnny far outnumber the Leica show-off, particularly since most humans have no idea about Leica, but they damn well know a big-ass lens when they unavoidably see it.

    The issues with Leica film rangefinders are largely the issues with film rangefinders in general, and these need to be factored in when reviewing or considering a Leica. Again, the very vast majority of photographers have no use for rangefinders, and that’s fine. A lot of SLR/DSLR lovers, who slammed rangefinders as antiquated, are now finding their favorite medium under intense fire from mirrorless cameras…click-bait ‘DSLRs are obsolete’ articles are already circulating, as though the diminution of choice is something worthy of celebration. It’s not.

    Use what you need, use what you want.

  • I have the same Nikkor 50mm f/2 that you used and it is by far not the best lens in Leica mount. It’s a Sonnar formula so it has the Sonnar Bokeh and can be pretty sharp when stopped down a bit. But it has a “glow” (light diffusing in the glass) that reduce contrast.

  • As a professional, under assignment constraints and time pressures if any, in this time and age, a practical digital is an obvious choice, with anticipated upgrade cycles. Apart from that, photography typically happens because one likes to take pictures. Not just look at them (there are plenty of pictures online to look at), but actually take them, including the whole process. Whichever tool makes that experience more enjoyable, is worthwhile. Leica M cameras do have the tactile feel that make many of the claims about them true. The level of negativity in this review is asinine. Having said that, I must admit that Nikon’s (F3, FM2n, etc.) Also always make me excite when I start using them, winding the film. However the does is always kind of broken when I hear the this of the mirror. This is not merely about rangefinder vs SLR… An R9, much maligned as it is, has much more muted mirror slap, compared to film Nikon’s (haven’t used an F6 though). Bottom line, using film Leica does make sense if you stoo looking at purely practical terms like “just a tool” stuff, etc., and start considering why people enjoy taking photos on a whole, including the process of doing so.

  • This article is a master class in egotistical self-indulgence. I don’t know whether Solomon should give up taking snaps or not – they’re extremely mediocre -but he could do serious camera enthusiastis a big favour by giving up “writing”. .

    • You’re rude, and the only reason I approved your self-indulgent and egotistical comment is so that I can tell you you’re rude.

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Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

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