Which Leica Rangefinder Should I Buy? CP Answers

Which Leica Rangefinder Should I Buy? CP Answers

2200 1237 James Tocchio

Every day, someone asks me which Leica rangefinder they should buy, and I think they expect me to come back with an easy answer; “Get an M-whatever.” But it’s not that simple. Instead, I ask them a series of big questions, and usually after just three minutes of answers we’ve figured out which Leica is their ideal Leica.

If you’re in the market for a new film-burning camera from the land of the Bauhaus, but not sure which one you should shoot for, this article should help. Let’s get to it.


Do you want automatic exposure?

Auto and semi-auto exposure modes allow a camera to control the parameters that make a properly exposed photo; aperture, shutter speed, or a combination of the two. This allows the photographer to focus on the aspects of a photo that are most important to him or her; composition, speed, depth-of-field, etc.

Since Leica made only one film rangefinder that includes an automatic exposure mode, this first question quickly eliminates the broadest swathe of potential camera models. If you want some automation in your Leica, you’re buying an M7.

Originally released in 2002, the M7 allows aperture-priority semi-automatic exposure control. What this means is that the photographer sets the lens aperture manually and the M7 uses its light metering system to determine which shutter speed is required based on a combination of available light, film sensitivity (ISO), and the lens’ aperture setting. The exposure meter in the M7 works great, and there’s nothing wrong with using aperture-priority; it’s often a faster way of shooting, and it allows creative control of depth-of-field (it’s also my preferred shooting style). The M7 allows full manual control as well.

If being the only auto-exposure Leica around isn’t enough, there’s a lot more to like about the M7. It mirrors the style and functionality of earlier M rangefinders (specifically the M4 and M6 on account of its angled rewind knob), and offers enough various magnification viewfinders (0.58x, 0.72x, and 0.85x) and frame-lines (28 and 90mm, 35 and 135mm and 50 and 75mm) to match any shooters’ preferred focal lengths.

Downsides? Some people can’t get over the fact that the M7 is an electronically-controlled camera. It requires batteries to shoot, so carry some spares. They’re about the size of a couple of coins and weigh nothing. You could carry sixteen extra batteries in your bag and never notice the weight. Other commentators also say the M7 is more prone to breaking compared with other Ms, and more costly to repair. My advice, buy a copy in great condition and ignore the naysayers. And don’t drop it.

Do you want a meter?

If you don’t need auto-exposure, your options loosen up. But if you want your Leica to have a light meter we’re still a bit limited. There are five classic Leica rangefinders that offer in-body metering, and they range in price from sell-a-kidney to downright affordable.

Leica M5

In 1971, Leica released the M5. This camera was (and remains) a radical departure from the Bauhaus-inspired aesthetic of earlier Leica rangefinders. It’s larger and more industrial than its predecessors, true, but it’s also a wonderful and under-appreciated camera.

The last camera to be hand-built in Wetzlar, Germany using Leica’s old-fashioned “adjust-and-fit” assembly methods, it’s as solid as any camera ever made. It was also the first Leica to feature through-the-lens exposure metering. Using this technology, the camera meters the available light in conjunction with aperture and shutter speed settings, and informs via a match-needle display in the viewfinder as to whether or not the shot will be properly exposed.

Other tiny details that set the M5 above some other Ms? Its shutter dial is massive, like the one found on the incredible Leicaflex SL2 SLR; its viewfinder is multi-coated to reduce flare and displays the selected shutter speed (a rarity in Ms); and it’s one of the quietest cameras with a focal plane shutter. More importantly, the M5’s shutter is a mechanical construct, which means that it’ll fire without battery power.

Downsides? Well, some people truly hate the way the M5 looks. Personal preference – I can’t help you decide this point. And the M5 has just one viewfinder frame-line combination (0.72x with frame-lines for 35mm, 50mm, 90mm, and 135mm), so this VF might annoy certain shooters. But other than these qualms, the M5 is a fantastic machine that deserves a bit more love.

Leica M6 and M6 TTL

If you like the idea of the M5 but hate its styling, the M6 is likely a good fit. Made from 1984 to 1998, it’s possibly the most popular Leica M these days. It offers good build quality, a capable metering system, and fully manual, fully mechanical shutter operation (still fires without battery power).

Its viewfinder is one of the more versatile of all Ms. With optional magnifications of 0.58x, 0.72x, and 0.85x, and frame-lines to suit each VF (0.58x displays 28-90mm, 35mm, and 50-75mm; 0.72x  displays 28-90mm, 35-135mm, 50-75mm; and 0.85x displays 35-135mm, 50-75mm, 90mm), the M6 has a viewfinder to suit every shooter.

All of this is packed into a body that’s a darling among traditionalists. Unlike the previous M5, the M6 returns to Leica’s M roots, most closely resembling the M4 with its angled rewind knob.

The later TTL version most notably features a larger shutter speed dial, and this shutter speed dial turns intuitively in the same direction as indicated by the exposure LEDs in the viewfinder, a tiny but critical improvement over the original M6. The TTL also offers improved flash capability with dedicated flash units, and an optional lower magnification viewfinder (0.58x) for improved ease-of-use with 28mm lenses.

Detractors bemoan the fact that the M6 is a “cheaper” camera compared to earlier Leicas. It uses magnesium alloy for its top and bottom plates, a departure from the previously-used (and heavier) brass. But to say the M6 or M6 TTL feel tawdry is just silly. It’s a solid machine.

Leica CL

Looking for a metered Leica that’s smaller and less expensive than the others I’ve listed? Then the CL is probably a good fit. Originally released in 1973 as the product of a multi-faceted collaboration between Leitz and Minolta, the CL was designed to be a compact M (or “Compact Leica”). In this, it succeeded. It was (and remains) the smallest M mount camera in the world.

Manufactured by Minolta in Japan, the camera gets less respect compared with its German cousins. Whether this slight is deserved or not is a different conversation. My opinion is that, yes, the CL doesn’t feel as dense as earlier Leica Ms. But it might be a more usable camera, especially for travelers or those who want to shoot without worrying about damaging their daughters’ inheritance (I’d rather drop a CL than any Leica M).

The CL is incredibly compact, with intuitive controls influencing an all-mechanical shutter. Its CdS exposure meter is positioned on a swing-arm behind the lens, and this meter displays a reading in the viewfinder along with the currently-selected shutter speed. This is all good stuff. But the viewfinder also brings some woes.

With magnification of just 0.60x, the VF can feel a bit constricted. This fault, coupled with an effective rangefinder base length that’s quite short, means that the CL can be difficult to accurately focus with fast primes and longer focal length lenses. And with frame-lines displaying the somewhat unusual focal lengths of 40mm, 50mm, and 90mm, the CL is regarded by many traditional Leica users as sort of an odd-duck.

But if you’re looking for the smallest all-mechanical, manual-exposure M mount rangefinder, or just an inexpensive, high-quality rangefinder, the CL is it.

Leica MP

Leica’s newer MP can be considered the best metered/manual Leica ever made, and it’s also the one that they’re currently manufacturing. That’s right. You can walk into a Leica store today and buy a film camera.

The MP is something of an ideal Leica rangefinder, in that it blends much of the best parts of the older mechanical Leicas with some of the more modern technologies used in newer Leicas. That said, it’s still a fairly basic machine, spec-wise.

It’s a fully manual and mechanically actuated camera with a responsive through-the-lens silicon photodiode light meter. It will fire without battery power, can be mounted with power winders, and looks damn pretty. That’s because it mimics much of the original M3’s aesthetic, right down to the bezel that surrounds the lens release.

Do you want an all-mechanical classic?

If you couldn’t care less about auto-exposure and in-body metering, you’ve got plenty of choice. And now we’re getting to the real classics, cameras made in the 1950s and 1960s. They’re Leicas M3, M2, and M4, and they’re pretty damn incredible.

I’ll keep this as simple as possible. Functionally, these cameras are pretty samey; all-mechanical, no electronics, simple and intuitive. Where they mostly differ is in minor methodologies and, more importantly, their viewfinders. Let’s dive in.

The M3 is the oldest of the bunch, the original M, and a legend in the camera world. Originally released in 1954, it revolutionized the photography world with its speed and effectiveness, and its incredible Leitz lenses. Its big, bright viewfinder shows an incredible magnification of 0.92x and frame lines for 50mm, 90mm, and 135mm lenses. This is perfect for shooters who want to shoot a fifty, but not ideal for those who prefer a wider focal length. If you want a wider focal length in a non-metered Leica, think about the M2 and M4.

In 1957, Leica released the M2. This was, ostensibly, a less expensive version of the M3, though today prices are fairly even. Its chief improvement (though some shooters regard it as a weakness) is its lower magnification VF (0.72x) that allows for shooting 35mm lenses without the use of external attachments (required with the M3). The VF of the M2 shows frame-lines for 35mm, 50mm, and 90mm lenses. The other significant difference compared with the M3 is the M2’s large, exposed film frame counter. These differences noted, the M2 could rightly be considered to be an M3 for photographers who want to shoot a wider lens.

In 1966, Leica released the M4. This camera was an update to the M3 and M2, and to that point in time signified the most drastic change to the M formula. It retained all the same styling of earlier Ms, but improved usability in a number of ways. Most obviously, the rewind lever of the M4 is a faster, easier construct compared with that of the M3 and M2. Additionally, film loading became easier via the use of a new non-removable take up spool. It uses a similar viewfinder to the M2, but adds an additional frame-line for 135mm lenses. This makes it a good choice for those who shoot a wide range of focal lengths (from wide to tele).

There was also an M1, but let’s not talk about that too much. It’s a pretty hamstrung machine in the modern era (no built-in rangefinder), and was intended more for reproduction work and operation with a Visoflex attachment (a device that essentially turns the camera into an SLR).

If you’d like a classic non-metered Leica but want something more modern, there’s the M-A. Like an MP without a light meter, it’s quite possibly the best all-mechanical camera you can buy anywhere in the world right now. Just walk into a Leica dealer or head over to B&H and place your order ($4,450).

Are you on a tighter budget?

Leicas are expensive cameras. There’s no escaping that. But there are less painful ways to get into a Leica system. You just need to know what to look for.

To start, Leica rangefinders made prior to the debut of the M mount in 1954 are far more affordable than their M descendants. These cameras used a lens mount known as M39, LTM, or Leica Thread Mount. Look for models like the IIIf and IIIc. These older cameras are slower and clumsier than the Ms in use, but they still retain a relatively modern methodology that most of us can figure out. And Leica glass from this era has its own distinctive magic that shouldn’t be overlooked.

If only an M will do, try hunting out the M4-2 and M4-P. These are lower cost M4s produced after the commercial failure of the M5. They were produced in Leitz’ Midland, Ontario, Canada factory and designed to be less costly to produce. They may not be as robust or beautiful as their earlier ancestors, and they may not have been made in Germany, but buy a good copy and you’ll have a fantastic camera for the foreseeable future.


At this point the question should be pretty well settled and any further discussion brings us into the realm of diminishing returns. Do you want your film rewind control to be a knob or a button? Do you prefer Buddha’s Ear strap lugs? Double stroke or single?

But let’s be honest; these questions are reserved for my customers who aspire to mastery of the age-old art of nit-pickery. These tiny variations will not be the make-or-break of your relationship with a Leica. If you can answer the few simple questions above and choose a camera based on those answers, there’s no reason to think you won’t love your new Leica.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is the founder of CP. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic cameras and the most advanced digital machines. In addition to his work on CP, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio
30 comments
  • Merlin Marquardt April 3, 2018 at 11:24 pm

    Very nice review. Thanks.

  • Nice overview! I went through a similar discussion with myself. And have owned two Leicas. A IIIa and an M4. Both were really nice to use–especially after having had them serviced.

    Ultimately, however, my particular answers to some of the questions you raise in your overview and to some other considerations of my own–primarily the fact that, for me, LTM lenses are the main thing–I ended up deciding on another way. Because I own a dozen or so LTM lenses from several eras and brands and because I want an in-camera meter and I wanted a big, bright viewfinder, I ended up with the Bessa R. And, for me, that has worked out well.

    I will not disparage anyone else who sorts through their own questions/requirements or wants and comes up with a different answer, frankly there is no legitimate reason to do so anyway.
    I will, however, be happy for them in that they have found a camera they like and like to use. So, if your post here helps somebody decide what works for them that can only be a good thing. Well done!

    • Robert- I wound up getting a Canon P for much the same reason. I like the variety and lower cost of LTM lenses compared to their M-mount counterparts. An internal meter wasn’t a big consideration for me, but if it was I probably would have made exactly the same choice as you.

      I wear glasses, so the P’s 1:1 viewfinder might not have been the best choice for me. It works fine for 50mm and longer lenses, but 35mm lenses, glasses and the P are not a great match!

      • Chris,
        Yep. The P was a camera that I very much wanted to like but, like you, I also wear glasses and the vf on the P just didn’t work well for me. Too bad because other wise the P really fits what I like in a rangefinder–well made, reliable, full range of speeds, strap lugs, and pretty.

        This is an example of a downside to buying on line. If I’d been able to handle a P before I bought it, I would very quickly been able to find out that as nice as they are, it just didn’t suit me and my eyesight. Oddly enough, I found the Vt a much better fit for me. An older vf and I wasn’t sure about the trigger winder but after getting one of them and running a couple rolls through it, I found it worked well for me.

        I also did consider a Bessa R3 at one point but that 1:1 vf wasn’t going to be any advantage. Plus I’m a left eye shooter so the ability to use both eyes wasn’t applicable. The R and R2a worked out best for me. I ended up selling the R2a and keeping the R because of two things: the R2a is a tiny bit larger than the R and I mostly do not use a camera bag but just carry a camera, a couple rolls of film and, occasionally a second lens. Which means I don’t usually have spare batteries on me. Not a huge deal but the R eliminates that concern–even if the battery craps out, I can still make photos.

        • Robert, I just bought a Bessa R with the 35mm 1.7 Ultron. I am not upset about this in the least, but I would just like you to know that I am holding you personally responsible!

          • Chris,
            🙂
            The Ultron is a lens I have wanted to try for a while. Don’t have much “play” money now and have been seduced by 4 x 5 but it is one I will get.
            The Skopar is my primary 35 these days. I also quite like the Jupiter-12 but that one won’t work with the Bessa. So mine lives on a Zorki 3m.

  • The M7 is not 100% reliant on batteries – it has two mechanical speeds at 1/60 and 1/125 – which makes it useful even w/o power. It is, I’m pretty sure, the only M mount AE camera that offers mechanical speeds. CLE doesn’t, the Zeiss Ikon ZM doesn’t, nor do the AE Bessas like the r2/3/4a.

    A big deal about the M5 is the meter is a spot meter. And the rewind mechanism is in the bottom of the camera, stronger and quicker than on any other Leica M.

    Why no mention of the M-A? That is the most recent film Leica. Originally I did not think there was much point to it given we already have the M-P, but you only need to look through the VF to see why it is so good. Every other film Leica with a built in meter has an incomplete lower horizontal frame line, to make room for the meter read out. With the M-A, it is unbroken and just so much nicer to use because of it.

    • You know, the M-A is the only camera on this list that I haven’t held in my hands, and I wasn’t so sure about making a recommendation on it. I’ve updated the article to mention it so that others can do some more research. Now I’ll try to get a loaner and write a post on that one. Thanks again.

  • The first point I would make is on the M6. Sadly I think these have to be consigned to the dustbin of history. If you have a working one, never take it out in rain and make sure it is kept in a dry environment, preferably a box with fresh silica gel bags. Why – because the circuit cards are prone to corrosion, maybe due to not being well enough cleaned of flux after manufacture. This is accelerated by any damp. There are NO new spares available for these, which I feel is very poor service by Leica. There are any number of small factories in China who given a good original to reverse engineer, a circuit diagram and specs, could turn out clones within a couple of weeks, at a cost of pennies each.

    Until last year I would have recommended an M4 with a Leicameter MR-4 (using a Small Battery Co PX625 battery converter). I have had mine since new in 1967 and it has never let me down. It had its first major service by Peter Grisaffi (CRR-Luton) a couple of years ago and now both works like and looks like new. The CL is a good alternative but it has a somewhat less accurate rangefinder (shorter base) and the electronics are now elderly. It is very common for the metering to be erratic, due to dying soldered joints in the circuitry. With the tiny 40mm Summicron-C, it is the smallest of all M mount cameras by some margin. It is said that the Minolta Rokkor 40mm lens which is multi coated, is marginally better than the Summicron. I tend to use mine with a 35 ASPH Summicron, which is only a little larger than the 40mm and noticeably crisper when used wide open.

    My most recent acquisition on M cameras is an M7 with a Motor-M. This has been upgraded with the later circuit card and the optical DX reader. This is the Swiss Army knife of M cameras and does everything you could want of a rangefinder. The rangefinder is less flare prone than the M6 and as they are still made, albeit in tiny numbers, all spares are available. Service at Wetzlar is painfully slow for film cameras and expensive. Leica only now has a single technician working on film cameras. A standard service on an M7/M-P or M-A is €800. Now that I have the M7, my various other M cameras tend to sit gathering dust.

    If you are not as dyed in the wool Leica enthusiast as me, A Konica Hexar RF would be an excellent alternative to an M camera. Ignore any nonsense about a different flange focal distance from the 27.80mm of the M, this is not true. You could think of this as a manual focus Contax G, as they have a lot of parts in common. The only problem is if they go wrong, they have to go back to Japan, whereas there are a lot of good Leica repairers dotted round the world.

    Wilson

  • I am impressed you made it through the whole article without mentioning the CLE!

  • Really pleasant read. And I learned something. You state the M5 is the last hand-fitted Leica, made in Germany.

    As an owner of an M4-P, I’ve always heard disparaging comments aimed at “my” Leica, for utilizing precision gears and other internal parts that did not require hand-fitting.

    I take it from your comment that when production return to the Motherland, this “cost-cutting” continued with the M6 and later. Yet the M6 Classic is so revered!

    • Thanks John. My understanding is that Leica has never returned to their “adjust and fit” method.

    • I am with John on this. the M4-2 and the M4p get a bad vibe. I own a m4-2 and a m3 I like them both pretty equally. the m6 does not feel any different to me aside from the light meter. also one bonus is the m4-2 has brass top and bottom plates. something i don’t think came back until maybe the mp? the m6, m7, m4p i believe have a type of zinc material. I have seen used m7’s that this material has started to corrode and bubble. not knocking any of the cameras, I would love an M7. In my opinion even though the leica m4-2 was made in Canada its a real bang for your dollar. plus in reality you should be more worried about good M optics.

    • I cannot say I’ve come across any disparaging remarks about the M4-P, or the MD2 for that matter. When I set up my business in 1998, writing articles for newspapers and magazines in English speaking countries throughout the world, I bought two M4-P bodies and an MD2. I use the VC 25/4, the Leica 40/2 and the Leica 90/4 compact version. Everything’s still in use. I like the Gossen Lunalites as they are solid state LED readouts. Important for travel as no delicate meter needles to come adrift. The 9v PP3 battery is easily carried as a spare. The MD2 was fitted with the Leica 21mm F3.4 (second 21 1964-1980) and the 21mm viewfinder. A brilliant combination in cities especially London, Oxford, Cambridge, York etc. Prices on these Canadian Leicas are much the same as M2/3 nowadays.

  • Great review! Of all my cameras, the one I plan on keeping for life is my M2. The build quality is unbelievable, people out in the world think its a new digital not a mechanical camera that’s 60 years young.

  • Nice write up James. I concur about the M5, I love mine and it is whisper quiet after Sherry serviced it. Hard to imagine a sweeter camera to use.

    • Glad you’re enjoying it. We’re trying to source one for a writeup. It’s just wacky that we haven’t talked about that one yet!

  • William Sommerwerck April 4, 2018 at 2:49 pm

    Over 50 years ago, Leitz ran an ad stating “We won’t put a meter in our cameras, until creativity can be automated.” I don’t remember the date when cameras began automating creativity. Anyone know?

    Mounting a photocell inside a rangefinder body draws attention to an unpleasant truth — rangefinder cameras aren’t SLRs. Not only does an SLR viewfinder show the area being metered, but it shows the full field of the lens.

    Ignoring the reasonable questions of build and lens quality, an Olympus [O]M camera tramples any Leica M. Maitani did what Leica was never able to do — make a 35mm SLR (roughly) as compact and elegant as a Leica M camera.

  • Your knowledge continues to impress, James. Great read. Now off to shoot my CLE…

    • Thanks Ethan. The day after this published I was out shooting my CLE all day. But that’s a different article…

  • Delightful read, James. Now I want to go spend a few thousand bucks I don’t have.

    • Resist!! Maybe you should read our post about avoiding gear acquisition syndrome!! In all seriousness, thanks for the kind words and for reading. Happy shooting pal.

  • The Leica M1 (1959-1964) had a viewfinder but not a rangefinder. It can be readily identified by the M1 badge on the front where the rangefinder window would be. It had two fixed frames in the finder for 35 and 50mm. The camera that followed it, MD (1964-67) was devoid of viewfinder and rangefinder. It was said to be an M2 minus rangefinder and viewfinder. It was followed by the MDa (1967-77) that was an M4 minus VF/RF and has the frame counter under a glass window the same as M3/4. Many opine (as is often the case) that the MDa was the best of these ‘documentation ‘ cameras. When Leica returned to the M in 1977 with the Canadian made M4-2, it was accompanied by the MD2 and this had a hotshoe plus could be used with winder and motor M and was made long into the M6 era. Nowadays these documentation cameras (also for use with Visoflex) are in demand for use with wide lenses for street photography as the absence of a VF/RF makes them very rugged. I have a small collection of these, MD, 2 x MDa and a black MD2. Very good for travel and the lenses are well marked for hyperfocal distance method. A simple viewfinder goes into the accessory shoes. A handheld meter, bag, rolls of film, all you need.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is the founder of CP. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic cameras and the most advanced digital machines. In addition to his work on CP, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio