The great thing about the Leica CL, when new, was that it shed the trappings of the brand whose name it wore. It wasn’t trying to be a Leica M. It was its own thing, its own design. It was a radical departure from the M mount cameras that came before it, and a short-lived harbinger of what would later succeed. In 1973, the Leica CL was a great camera by its own definition.
In 2018, the definition may have changed. These days the youngest Leica CL is more than forty years old. The importance of durability and longevity in any conversation around classic cameras has naturally taken on more weight than at any other point in these machines’ lives, and discussing a Leica CL is now all but impossible without direct comparison to its cousins, the Leica M series.
Time withers. The war of attrition that each of us will inevitably lose has compromised the greatness of the Leica CL. Aging electronics and critical components made of less-robust-than-brass plastics have made ownership of this camera something akin to falling in love; beautiful and worthwhile, but ultimately doomed.
Woah, that got dark. What am I even talking about? Apologies. It’s cold here, and I do believe I’m fighting a bout of seasonal affective disorder. Forgive my bleakness. Let’s get back on track.
What’s a Leica CL?
Co-designed by Leitz and Minolta and manufactured by the latter in Japan, the CL was known at various times and in various places as the Leica CL, the Leitz Minolta CL, or the Minolta CL. In addition, there’s a relatively rare “50 Jahre” anniversary edition made to celebrate fifty years of Leica cameras (1925-1975) and these come with special serial numbers denoting their place in the production run.
Functionally, all of the differently-named cameras are identical. Our writer Dustin has it on good authority from Sherry Krauter, herself a famed Leica repairer and occasional grumpy Gus, that later versions (serial number 103XXXX and above) of the Leitz Minolta CL have over twenty internal modifications and improvements. If you want the best Leica CL, pinch a grain of salt and look for one of these later models.
The Leica CL began life in 1973, one of the many products birthed of the fruitful coupling of Leitz and Minolta that began in 1972. It was manufactured for just three years, and though it reportedly had enormous sales success, Leica decided to discontinue the camera in 1976.
It’s an M mount rangefinder camera, like the famous Leica M. But unlike the Leica M, it’s small and light. And though that last sentence definitely irritated a fair number of Leicaphiles, it’s true. The Leica CL has the distinction of being the smallest and lightest M mount film camera ever made. That counts for something, though that something won’t matter to some shooters.
It essentially packs into this diminutive frame most of the things that people love about Leica M cameras. It’s simple and intuitive, with only the controls that one needs to make a photo. But it also lacks some of the most important things that make M ownership the enviable goal of many of the most impassioned camera likers.
Specs and Real-World Use
The Leica CL spec sheet is really quite similar to many of the classic pre-meter Leica M cameras. It’s got an all-mechanical, cloth focal plane shutter capable of speeds from 1/1000th of a second down to 1/2 of a second, plus Bulb mode for long exposures. It’s got a coupled rangefinder that displays a focus patch in the viewfinder, and parallax-corrected automatically-selected frame lines for set focal lengths. There’s a tripod socket on the bottom, a film counter and hot-shoe for flash sync (1/60th of a second) on the top, and strap lugs on the side.
Actuation of switches and levers and dials feels the way it should feel; direct and mechanical. The shutter speed dial clicks into detents with precision, and the film advance lever swings with a beautifully smooth motion. The shutter cocks into place with clockwork precision, and pressing the shutter release button, which is firm and springy, yields a delightfully quick and near-silent Thwick!
But the comparisons to the older Ms end there. There’s plenty (good and bad) to differentiate the CL from the brassier Leicas.
Metering System and Viewfinder
Aside from the smaller size, the differences between the CL and the M most obviously show in the viewfinder. And of the many differences hinted at in this VF, the most obvious is found on the right hand side, where we see a big, vertical light meter display. This needle display is linked to a through-the-lens CdS light metering cell positioned in front of the focal plane on a swinging arm system. The 7.5mm diameter metering cell meters 7% of the film area in a spot pattern, which causes the needle to rise and fall in relation to the amount of light passing through the lens (note that this meter is swung into position only when the shutter is cocked and swings away just before shutter release).
The meter sensitivity is set via the ASA/DIN control within the shutter speed dial. It’s then activated by pulling the advance lever slightly away from the body, after which we set the lens aperture and point the camera at our subject. The needle in the viewfinder swings to its latent light reading, and we dial in toward a proper exposure by rotating the shutter speed dial in the direction that we’d like the meter needle to move (towards the “correct exposure” mark in the viewfinder).
It’s a fast and intuitive system, helped along by the vertically-mounted shutter speed dial’s correlation to the vertically-oriented meter display.
This system alone makes the CL a very unique M mount camera. At the time of its release, only the Leica M5 offered a TTL light meter. The relative enormity of that camera precludes comparison between the CL and M5. For shooters who wanted a compact M mount camera in 1973, there was only one real choice (and it remained that way until Minolta released the CLE in 1980).
Viewfinder differences continue – it shows frame lines for comparatively odd focal lengths (40mm, 50mm, and 90mm). If this revelation doesn’t make you want to argue about things then you’re probably not a die-hard Leica fan (these people will argue about rangefinder baselength, viewfinder magnification, and “the best” frame lines, ad nauseam).
The takeaway is that the viewfinder is very good. For those who want to shoot a 40mm lens, there’s no better viewfinder. For shooters who will never go wider than a 50mm, there’s probably a better M mount camera for you (try the M3 at the cost of size). For those going wider, 28mm for example, there’s also a better M mount camera (try Minolta’s CLE).
Focusing is fast and accurate with most lenses. Some of the fastest lenses available will be more difficult to focus when shooting wide open due to the shorter rangefinder base length and the viewfinder’s lower magnification, but in real-world use (and stopped down a bit) it should be easy to achieve accurate focus if the shooter’s eyesight is decent.
Bones and Batteries and Breakdowns
The Leica CL is not as durable as a Leica M. It wasn’t made to be. It was made to be a lighter, smaller, technologically advanced M mount camera that offered more camera for less money. It did all of that, yet today the only variable of this equation that most people talk about is the part about the CL not being chiseled from a block of brass, the part that leaves the CL at a disadvantage.
I get it. People want their film cameras to be made of metal. I do too. But I also accept plastic as a viable material in certain applications. The CL uses plastic in places where it definitely make sense. But it also uses plastic in places where it probably makes sense, yet leaves me feeling uneasy.
Chiefly this uneasiness stems from the use of plastic in the camera’s film take-up spool. The tines that grab the film leader are plastic, as is the spool itself. I’ve seen a few too many of these types of take-up spools break. I should clarify – I’ve not personally seen these break in any Leica CL or Minolta CLE, but I do occasionally flick the plastic fins and feel a pang of impending dread.
The battery that the Leica CL uses is the classic 625 1.35 volt mercury battery, the availability of which is now an impossible challenge. Meters can be adjusted for the new battery voltage of 1.5 volt, or adapters can be used to stifle the voltage. This battery is located under the removable camera back, which is something of a pain in the event that the battery dies mid-roll. One will need to finish the current film before removing the back to install the new battery.
Once the new battery is inserted, let’s hope the meter springs to life. Unfortunately this isn’t a given. The metering system inside the Leica CL is not the most robust in the world of classic cameras. The result is that many Leica CLs arrive with nonfunctioning meters.
The Leica CL was made to be used most often with the 40mm F/2 M Rokkor standard lens. It’s a tiny, super sharp lens that I reviewed a long time ago, and absolutely loved. It’s a typically excellent Minolta lens with all the precision we’d expect in German-made glass, but at a Japanese lens price point. For shooters who are planning to shoot their Leica CL with this 40mm attached, there’s not much to say except “Enjoy!” It’s an amazing combination.
Frame lines for 50mm allow the CL to natively shoot many of the best 50mm M mount lenses from brands like Leitz and Zeiss and Voigtlander. The 90mm focal length is handled by the corresponding Minolta-branded lens, which is actually a Leitz lens rebadged to suit the Minolta-built machine. This 90mm F/4 Elmar is also quite excellent.
But the CL isn’t made to work with every M mount lens, something that most of the Leica Ms can claim. The swinging meter arm positioned in the body precludes the use of lenses with deeply set rear elements, and collapsible lenses are also not recommended. In the Leica M5 brochure it was recommended that users fit gaffer tape to the barrel of collapsible lenses to keep them from collapsing into that camera’s similar metering arm, and I’m sure the method could be employed for the CL as well (even if I wouldn’t personally risk it).
Literature of the era claims that the lenses made for the Leica CL will not focus properly on a Leica M. I’ve shot the 40mm Rokkor on quite a few Leica Ms and haven’t noticed any focusing issues.
Shooting in the Real World
I’ve spent a fair amount of time talking about pros and cons of the Leica CL; the things that make it more or less a camera that some people call a Leica M killer. I resent doing that. As I mentioned in the first words of this article, the Leica CL should have succeeded originally on its own merits.
I learned this first hand when I packed it in a travel bag for my most recent getaway. Ten days with three different cameras meant there’d be decisions to be made at the start of every day. Bring the Fujifilm Natura, or the Nikon SP, or the Leica CL? Nothing separates the wheat from the chaff faster than continuous concurrent use (not that any of these amazing cameras could ever be considered winnowed husks).
Of the three cameras I packed, it offered the best combination of portability and versatility. Its 40mm lens, with its fast maximum aperture of F/2 and its pleasant ability to create shallow depth-of-field when desired and ultra-sharp results when stopped down, was the lens I enjoyed the most. Its tiny form factor and intuitive meter made shooting on-the-move a seamless and fluid experience. Its delightful mechanical qualities made it a tactile joy to use. And all of these things persistently mark it as one of the best M mount cameras for people who enjoy small, capable machines.
I won’t go so far as to say that the Leica CL was the best camera I used across those ten days. But I do know that it’s the camera that exposed the most rolls of film, for whatever that’s worth.
Buying a Leica CL in 2018
Henri Cartier-Bresson used a Leica CL, but that’s not a reason to buy one. His ethereal touch wasn’t elevated by the CL, and neither are my talentless mitts. The camera doesn’t make great photos, great photographers do. But a really excellent camera can help, and the Leica CL is just that, even if it’s also flawed and decidedly niche.
The decision of whether or not to buy a Leica CL is paradoxically difficult and easy. If you want an everlasting, made-of-metal, infinitely rebuildable M mount camera that will last your entire lifetime, and your kids’ lifetime, the Leica CL may not be the right camera. But if you want the smallest M mount camera that does not require a battery, this is it. If you want a tiny, full-manual M mount camera but don’t need a built-in light meter, this could also be that camera (just don’t put a battery in it). If you want a gorgeous M mount machine that’s small, capable, and a fantastic daily shooter, the CL is hard to beat.