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.
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.