We Review the M-A, Leica’s Newest 35mm Film Camera

We Review the M-A, Leica’s Newest 35mm Film Camera

2198 1236 Chris Cushing

In 1968 Mercedes-Benz introduced the world to the pinnacle of the luxury sedan. Up to that time, the 300SEL 6.3’s combination of engineering, ambition, and sheer bloody mindedness had never been matched. While others had attempted to combine luxury and serious performance, the 6.3 was the first to do so in a reliable, usable way. It was also a car built to last generations, not just to the end of the financing period. With the 300SEL, Mercedes had instantly re-calibrated the luxury zeitgeist.

Since its inception, Leica has operated under a similar ideology of quality at any price, and to enthusiasts of the brand and casual photographers alike Leica’s cameras have always embodied this ethos. Notably, Leica has rarely deviated from this philosophy, as the analogous Mercedes did during the 1990s when quality waned to compete on price with the newly-introduced Lexus LS400. While the adjust and fit days of Leica manufacture are long gone, the brand is still emphatically committed to quality.

This despite the fact that, as with all cameras, the Leica is nothing more than a complicated, light-tight box designed to suspend a lens a certain distance from a light-sensitive capture media. Sure, it’s a rangefinder, so it’s an extra complicated box, but Minolta, Canon, Voigtlander and others proved long ago that rangefinders can be made inexpensively and that people will buy the box without the exceptional build. Still, Leica never stopped making M cameras to their own unusually high standard.

Today, it’s rare to find a brand selling film cameras side by side with their digital bodies. Canon recently discontinued the EOS-1v, or more accurately announced that they ran out (production ended several years ago). Nikon recently stopped selling the Cosina-produced FM10 (they still offer one pro film camera, the F6) and Leica just discontinued their most technologically advanced rangefinder film camera, the M7. This makes the number of professional film cameras being produced today countable on one hand, and Leica, unusually, makes two of these – the MP (unveiled in 2003) and the Leica M-A (released more than a decade later in 2014).

This makes the M-A interesting all on its own; it’s the newest Leica film camera and one of the last series production professional film cameras in the world. And it’s still being made with traditional Leica care. It’s also a stunningly primitive machine. Unlike the M7 and MP, the M-A doesn’t offer any electronics whatsoever. With its mechanical shutter and lack of meter, all the Leica M-A has is a dense collection of tiny actuator arms, springs, levers and mechanical components. This camera will survive an EMP. No need to harden the hardware, there’s nothing to fry. 

With all this metal it’s no surprise that the M-A feels so heavy. I’ve complained about the weight of my Canon F-1 when fitted with the 24-35mm. Attaching a heavy lens to the M-A reminds me of those complaints. But the weight is also reassuring. All that mass is working with you, all the time. There are no wasted parts, there is no free space in that elegant chrome-finished chassis. No features you don’t need, no clumsy buttons or controls beyond the bare essentials of aperture and shutter speed.

Of course, that’s because the Leica M-A can’t do anything beyond the bare essentials. There’s no auto-focus (of course), no exposure compensation or burst control buttons or depth of field preview. The M-A is the classic manual-focus rangefinder, and the epitome of simplicity. To anyone who’s shot an M3 or M2 or M4, this will all feel deeply familiar in a hurry (the M-A combines many of the best elements of these classic Leicas, large and small, into one body).

I have not shot any of these cameras. James thought it would be fun if the newest film camera Leica’s yet made was my first Leica.

I started with the owner’s manual. Coming from the automotive world, I fully expected the manual to drip with pretense. “Thank you for choosing the Leica M-A, certainly the most exceptional camera ever known. All of the metals were mined by mute Peruvian monks and delivered by schooner to the Leica works.” And similar nonsense that plagues press releases for uber-luxury cars.

What I found was, well, an owner’s manual. It told me how to use the camera. How to clean it without damaging the finish, how to set my exposure, how to mount a lens, how to remove a lens; normal things. It even told me how to do those things in English, presuming not that I had learned German just to buy a Leica. 

The box it came in was also just a box. Opening it was an experience devoid of sounding trumpets and cherubic choirs, contrary to what some commentators might have us believe. It’s made of heavy card stock with some nice printing, and the camera itself was held in a crinkly plastic bag for protection. A necessary evil, I suppose, but one which sort of fouled the sensation of pulling the lid off the box to reveal the camera inside.

Given Leica’s online marketing presence, I was a bit surprised by this lack of fanfare in print and presentation. Leica’s marketing department is very much in the business of overselling. The tagline on Leica’s website for this camera is “Pure Mechanical Excellence,” and the first header text reads “A Masterpiece of Precision Engineered Perfection.” It takes guts to put such lofty tag-lines on a product, and reading this self-aggrandizing sales pitch made me really want to hate the M-A. 

But holding the camera in my barren office (I’d just finished packing for a move the day before I received the Leica M-A), I was ecstatic. Pretentious marketing aside, I knew that I was holding something special in my hands. The camera and included reference materials being devoid of hyperbole, I started to warm to the Leica. 

So I did the only thing I knew to do – I stuck a Canon lens on it and went outside.

In use, the M-A is pretty splendid, and the viewfinder is especially noteworthy. Until now my Voigtlander Bessa R had the best viewfinder I’d ever used in a rangefinder. The Leica edges out the Voigtlander in terms of brightness and clarity. The rangefinder patch is also bright and easy to use, and the .72x magnification makes it easy to see the 35mm frame-lines while wearing glasses, as I do. The 28mm frame-lines are slightly too far out for me, but for those with better vision this shouldn’t be an issue.

In what I’m told is typical Leica fashion, turning the camera to portrait orientation is the easiest way to nullify the rangefinder patch, as the natural position of your fingers will obscure either the rangefinder window or the illumination window. My Bessa doesn’t suffer that problem, but that’s because it’s not nearly this pretty. 

Yes, where the Voigtlander has a hump containing its viewfinder apparatus, the Leica M-A retains the sleek form of the M2, placing the fingers quite a bit closer to the rangefinder optics. The edges are beautifully rounded and not fouled by a hinged film door. Of course, as is tradition, the M-A is a bottom-loader. Not my favorite system, but after the first roll things feel more natural.

As expected, the shutter release and film advance are perfect. They don’t do anything new or unique. They each do one simple job to absolute perfection. The shutter speed dial on the other hand, well, it would benefit from a rethink. Though nicely knurled, it’s too small and heavily damped to adjust easily with one finger. It can be done, but it’s easier to use two fingers. A shutter speed dial more like the one used on the much-maligned M5 or the nearly perfect M6 TTL would help, though purists will argue.

Shots in the samples gallery were made with Ilford HP5 and Kodak Portra

As an object to use and to hold, the M-A is pretty exceptional. As a new camera, the conversation is more complicated, and the chief complication comes when we talk about price. It is substantial. 

New in box, an M-A costs nearly $4,700. This is the body-only price, and since we’re considering a new Leica, let’s assume we’re buying a new Leica lens as well. A new 50mm Summicron costs about $2,400, and the 35mm Summicron is even worse at just under $3,500. All in, this has the cost of purchasing a new Leica film camera and a pair of fairly standard Leitz lenses crossing the $10,000 mark. That’s a big number. 

But in the new camera market the M-A has no competitors (aside from the meter-equipped MP). Its staunchest competition comes therefore in the shape of old Leicas. Even budgeting for a thorough service by Leica themselves, an M2 can be had for less than half the price of the M-A, and functionally it will do nearly everything the M-A does. The M2 even offers the same viewfinder magnification as the M-A, though it does not include a 28mm frame-line. 

But no matter how well a vintage Leica has been kept, buying a twenty-, thirty-, fifty-year-old camera will always bring compromise. A few scuffs here, a minuscule scratch there, some bright marks. There’s nothing quite like a brand new camera.

For the person who must have a perfect unused Leica, the newest and purest Leica M camera, there is no substitute for the M-A. It’s the ultimate old school Leica, a greatest-hits of past Ms packaged and bound for serious shooters who want a classic Leica and also a warranty.

For the rest of us, Ebay is full of M2s and M3s in need of owners, and M5s in search of loving caretakers who’ll accept its quirks. Which of these cameras fits for each shooter is up to the shooter (and his or her budget). Money-aside, the Leica M-A is one of the best film cameras in the world and a really special product in today’s age of replaceable digital tech.

Get your own Leica M-A from B&H Photo

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Chris Cushing

Chris Cushing is a freelance writer, pedant and photographer who still plays with cars. Based in Albany, New York, he can often be seen aimlessly wandering the Northeast with a camera twice his age slung around his neck.

All stories by:Chris Cushing
17 comments
  • Of course, as an alternative to the M-A, you can do like I just did a couple of weeks ago and bought a second hand but nice condition M4-P, which is functionally identical to the M-A. I paid €800 for the M4-P, M4-2 Winder, an MR-4 lightmeter and a 90mm “Thin” Elmarit-M lens in excellent optical condition. So even taking into account that I will get a CLA done on the M4-P and have bought a Leicagoodies “Shade” to update the viewfinder and stop it flaring, I will be around €3000 in pocket. I bought the M4-P as a back-up to my M7 with Motor-M, in case at some point, now the M7 is out of production, the spares for the electronic parts and the solenoid controlled shutter dry up. The M4-P being a wholly mechanical camera, should be almost indefinitely repairable.

    • Wilson- good points all around. Leica has made cameras following the same formula for so long that there are several ways to get fundamentally the same package(and the M4-P gets the 28mm frameline, while the M2 does not). The cost issue was my biggest hurdle with the M-A, and while older Leicas are a bit spendy, they’re not on the level of a new one. Driving around with a $4,700 Leica on the seat* of an $8,000 Porsche was giving me some serious heartburn. Any damage to the camera would likely do me more harm than damage to the car!

      *The camera in a bag, of course. I’m not a total heathen.

      This adventure in the world of Leica has me trawling ebay for nice M2s and M5s, while I need a new camera system like I need a hole in the head. I just bought a Voigtlander Bessa R and a 35mm Ultron for crying out loud…

  • Another alternative, as you say, would be an M3 or M2. One can still get one in close-to-new condition WITH a lens for less than the MA. I settled for a clean M3 with a brand new 50mm Zeiss F2 sonnar for less than half the cost. And I have the pleasure of knowing that my viewfinder is larger than the brand new Leica to help me focus more accurately, because, well, that’s what is important. A new Leica would be nice I guess, but I would be devastated with the first scratch.

    • Stephen – As a person who wears glasses I’d have to take the M2 over the M3, but I agree. Even if you wanted to send your M2/M3 out for a thorough service, you’d still come out ahead by a pretty good margin.

  • I’ll stick with my M2 for now, it’s 60 years old and still looks and works like new. Someday I’d love to get a metered body, maybe an MP is in the future. Especially with the crazy prices M6’s are commanding nowadays, a used MP isn’t that far off.

    • You could always get a Bessa for those days when you feel like you need a meter!

      Of course, there is always the M5 if you want to stay in the Leica family.

  • Very cool. One point (that you wouldn’t know unless you also tried a Leica M-P, M7 or M6) is because the M-A does not have a meter, it has unbroken frame lines in the VF which makes it nicer to compose with. The cameras with the meter have a big break in the bottom horizontal frame line to should the exposure info.
    I had the 75mm framing marks removed from mine (as I have done with all my Ms) as I never use that focal length, and so they just cluttered the view. I don’t really see the point of a 75mm lens – I jump from 50 to 90.
    Of course you can buy a used M2/M3/M4 for much less, but used stuff is always cheaper! If Leica never made these new, we would not have that option..
    😉

    FYI Leica’s most technically advanced film camera was not the M7, but the R9. The R8 is almost the same thing and can be had for Nikon FM3A money, but arguably has better specs – a greater shutter speed range, different metering modes, HSS flash, multi exposure modes etc. The one thing the FM3A has is lighter weight and the shutter that does not need batteries (but the meter does). R lenses are cheaper than M lenses so it’s a solid Leica option. But I digress.

    • You’re right about the wording on the “most technologically advanced” note. We were speaking only of their rangefinders, but I’ll update the article for clarity. Thanks for the tip.

  • While there will always be people who wish to buy new, I agree with the earlier comment of being afraid of the first scratch. I had a legacy 11 years ago and bought a Leica M3, made in 1960, this body has been in regular use and still in perfect working order. I bought from Ffordes of Inverness and got 6 months warranty.
    I teamed the body with the 35mm F2.8 “spectacles” Summaron together with a 50mm F2.8’Elmar, 90mm F2.8 Elmarit and 135mm F4.5 Hector that has a tripod/monopod mount. I bought a Mulberry Rockley leather bag and made my own insert using stiff card, wood strip and spare upholstery fabric from a sofa recover. Metering is by Weston Master V and I use Ilford XP2. I tracked down the coloured filters for monochrome work and have achieved consistent results. Yes, there’s a few rubs, scratches, marks on my gear but nothing to mar the use. It’s a very great pleasure using this old stuff. However, if my partner wins the lottery, I will ask for a new Leica M-A (as well as a little Manor House and a Derby Bentley).

  • You know, I think I’d probably still buy an M2 or M5 if I won the lottery, and just get an incredibly thorough service. That first scratch would freak me out.

    I think I’d spring for a mid century modern house and a Porsche 356, however!

    • Chris,

      But think of the service problems on your 356 and the gearchange with second and third gears in different zip codes. The speedometer for my 1977 3.3L 911 RSR Group 5 rally car has been in Stuttgart since February for repair and I want to do a rally in July. I waited 18 months recently for new gearbox synchro hubs. Using old stuff does have its problems.

      I had to send my Leicameter MR-4 all the way from France to L.A. Hollywood (Quality Light Metrics – George Milton) for repair two weeks ago. Nobody in Europe could do it. I have to complement George on a super rapid job and I suspect it was not easy, with a corroded circuit board. He has also re-calibrated the meter to modern 1.55V alkaline 625 batteries in place of the original PX625 1.35V Mercury cells. If you don’t get the meter re-calibrated you are limited to the hopeless Wein hearing aid zinc-air cells, which run down even when not being used or the expensive and not very reliable PX625 regulated voltage battery replacers (usually called an MR-9).

      • Agree the Weins are useless but I’ve had good luck with the CRIS MR-9 adapter ($38) on the Leicameter MR-4. Makes possible the use of a 386 button battery. Lasts for over a year. The few times i got erratic readings is because the MR-9 got a little loose in the leicameter. Took it out and re-inserted it and all was well. There’s also a clip on Voightlander VC II option ($225 but hey we’re talking Leicas) or you could buy a hand held light meter and really impress you friends. 🙂

  • Nice review. I too will have to add a vote for the M4-P. I bought mine in like new condition and just had it serviced, which I was reluctant to do, since I was concerned it’s pristine exterior would be marred in the process.

    To your point about the shutter speed dial, I would have to agree. This tiny dial was designed to mate with their meter. Surprised no one ever came up with a way to adapt the larger M6TTL style dial (yes, yes I know the rotation would be backwards).

    Purists…SMH

  • As a former photofinisher. I did 1000 to 3000 rolls a day. Fox ignored digital and I got fired in 1985 for mentioning it. I adopted the first good Digital a Olympus E-10 then the E-20. My love now is in the Micro 4/3 Panasonic. I owned all of the film cameras out there in some form as a professional. At 71 the quality of the D9 and the GH5 will hold me for a while. I carry many contaminants in my system from Kodak’s nasty chemicals. I had a set of M2 and M3 Leica, I had to sell them when my wife needed an operation. I appreciate the love of fine equipment. I just like making images and printing them on high end printers. I can make images with any system that makes sharp images. I donated all of my older stuff to schools and Art teaching schools. Better than on a shelf.

  • Like that review. Like the sensual product shots. Like the Leica M-A.

    Thank you!

    But – please – add a Leica lens.

  • I’m glad Leica is making this exceptional piece of machinery in 2018. Makes me smile. If i didn’t already have a full CLA’d 1964 M3 in beautiful condition I would be tempted to buy one, even at its steep price.

    My advice would be to get a refurbished M3. I did and added a 1958 Summicron 50mm f2 DR, a 1972 Tele-Elmarit 90mm 2.8 and a 1965 Tele-Elmar 135mm f4. And a clip on Leicameter. Got em all on ebay. All in fantastic shape. Total cost – $3600. Not cheap but a nice system for less than an M/A. The camera handles like butter. A joy to shoot.

    But if you got the coin by all means buy the M/A! Kudos to Leica for coming out with this model !

  • I’m a recent convert to the Leica system, having purchased an M3 some 6 months ago. For many years I’ve eschewed Leicas, having a Canon 7 system handed down from my father, but never really using or enjoying it. It’s viewfinder was just too dim, and the rangefinder patch miniscule. For me film really started withSLR’s such as Pentax’s and later Canons and into the digital age with first Canon and now finally Nikon.. I’ve owned and used many different cameras. No hyperbole here though.. the Leica M3 is simply wonderful mechanical perfection, and if the M-A is as good, then hats off to Leica for still making it. My Leica has not become my primary camera, and not having a meter slows photography down quite a bit, and that hampers my style and output. But the joy of using a fully mecchanical brick of a camera that has a certain presence (weight) and gravitas (HCB used one!) means that when I do take it out I DO enjoy it. What Leica is saying with the M-A is that in 100 years from now, when M3’s start failing, an oher electronic film cameras have failed and been consigned to the dustbin of history, future generations will still be able to make pictures with a Leica film camera. Bravo Leica! Will I ever buy one? That depends on the lottery.. And for a lot less money and equal quality, an M3 is a perfectly good stand-in.

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Chris Cushing

Chris Cushing is a freelance writer, pedant and photographer who still plays with cars. Based in Albany, New York, he can often be seen aimlessly wandering the Northeast with a camera twice his age slung around his neck.

All stories by:Chris Cushing