Leica SLR Camera Buyer’s Guide – Which Should You Buy?

Leica SLR Camera Buyer’s Guide – Which Should You Buy?

2800 1575 James Tocchio

Last year I wrote a buyer’s guide exploring the many models of Leica rangefinder cameras and explaining which would be best suited to various types of photographer. It’s a buyer’s guide that has helped at least a few people pick their perfect Leica rangefinder. But what if you want a Leica that’s not a rangefinder?

Though less popular than their rangefinder counterparts, Leica has made quite a number of excellent SLR cameras. From the original Leicaflex to the cameras co-designed by Minolta and beyond, there’s a Leica SLR for everyone. Here’s our buyer’s guide for would-be Leica photographers who prefer the single lens reflex way of shooting.


General Rules of Leica SLRs

First, and this is a through line spanning four decades of Leica SLR cameras – Japanese competition was almost always producing objectively “better” cameras. But this is only true if your definition of better reads as “more stuff for less money.” It’s true that Leica SLRs are generally less-equipped and more expensive cameras compared to their contemporary (and more popular) Japanese SLRs, but like Leica’s rangefinder cameras, it can be argued that Leica SLRs provide everything a photographer truly needs and nothing the photographer does not.

What’s the most obvious proof of this theory of specification inferiority that I can point to? How about the fact that no Leica SLR offers autofocus. Even the R9, the final model in the series and a camera that debuted in the year 2002, was a manual focus only camera. That’s downright archaic compared to the industry-dominating Canons and Nikons of the world.

Was this a blunder or a strategic move? Remember that Leica invented a unique autofocus technology and then promptly sold the patents to Minolta under the auspices that Leica’s customers “know how to focus.” This information noted, shrewd observers might begin to suspect that there was some level of mismanagement happening at one of the most storied brands in the camera industry. This evidence becomes especially damning when we recall that Minolta then developed and sold (lots and lots of) the first successful autofocus SLR, the Maxxum 7000.

Then again, none of this really matters today. Despite their lack of bells and whistles, many of Leica’s classic SLRs are among my favorite SLRs ever made. Each model iterated on its predecessors in subtle but important ways, and at times these steps were more like leaps. This is most evident in the changes that occurred when Leica partnered with Minolta between the release of the Leica-developed Leicaflex series and the Minolta-developed R series, and later when that partnership dissolved and Leica developed their final two SLRs.

Lastly, and this may not be obvious, Leica SLRs don’t use the same lenses as their rangefinder cameras. The SLR cameras use R mount lenses. Generally speaking they are exceptional, like their M mount counterparts in the rangefinder world. They render with the same famous “Leica look” (or whatever you want to call it) as do the lenses in the brand’s legendary M range.

All of that mentioned, let’s get to the specifics. Just as we did with our rangefinder buyer’s guide, we’ll list the common core functionality that photographers are often looking for, and then tell which of the many Leica SLRs offer this functionality. Choose what you need in a camera and we’ll tell you which to buy.

Do You Need Auto-Exposure?

If auto-exposure is the thing you most need in a camera, and there are plenty of shooters for whom this is the most important feature, Leica’s got you covered. They have a surprisingly vast number of SLR models with auto-exposure modes of varying sophistication, all within the R series of machines co-developed by Minolta and later solely developed by Leica in the instance of the R8 and R9. The company’s embrace of AE in their SLRs runs in stark contrast to the company’s rangefinder lineup, which didn’t offer an auto-exposure camera until 2002’s Leica M7 (we’re not counting the Minolta-developed and produced Minolta CLE of 1980).

The earliest auto-exposure capable Leica SLR is the Leica R3 of 1976. This camera was developed by Minolta and was heavily-based on Minolta’s XE (that Minolta was my first film camera, coincidentally). It offers aperture-priority auto-exposure, plus full manual mode. It is essentially a Minolta XE with a Leica-developed shutter and modifications to the metering system to allow user-selection between center-weighted metering and spot-metering. It also shares the Minolta XE’s somewhat earned reputation for electronic failure in the metering and exposure systems – and since this camera’s electronic shutter will not work without battery power, these electronic failures can end the camera’s career.

The Leica R4 is the successor to the R3, and is a more advanced (yet troubled) camera than its immediate predecessor. It offers shutter-priority, aperture-priority, full program, and full manual modes, with selective spot metering available in aperture-priority and manual modes. It’s a great camera, but is also plagued by electronic reliability issues, especially prevalent in models with serial numbers below 1,600,000. Search for one newer than these and it will work fine. A more reliable R4s was released a few years later, but this camera removes the shutter-priority and full program modes, making it less appealing. The R4 also only works when batteries are installed.

The Leica R5 continues to iterate on the R4 (they’re very nearly the same camera) but adds a greater shutter speed range (15s to 1/2000th compared with the earlier camera’s 1s to 1/1000th of a second). It’s an excellent camera that has had many of the earlier R4’s electronic faults sorted and fixed. Thus, it’s a more reliable machine and one that I’m personally happy to reach for anytime I want a Leica SLR that can shoot in aperture-priority, shutter-priority, full manual, or full program modes (proven when I reviewed it last year). There also exists an “economy” version of the R5 called the Leica R-E, which loses the R5’s shutter-priority and full program modes. Therefore the R-E is an R5 with only aperture-priority and full manual modes. Pricing is fairly identical today for either camera.

Skipping over the Leica R6, which dropped any and all auto-exposure modes, the next Leica SLR to offer AE is (predictably)1997’s Leica R7. This camera’s great selling point is that it was the first Leica SLR to offer fully automated through-the-lens flash control. If you’re a photographer who lives and dies by the flash, the R7 is the cheapest way to shoot a Leica SLR. It offers mirror lockup, which is good for eliminating camera shake during long exposures. The camera also features backlit information displays in the viewfinder for the first time in a Leica SLR. All of these additional gizmos demanded that the camera be larger and heavier than the R-series cameras that came before it, a minor liability.

The final two Leica SLRs are the Leica R8 and R9, and predictably each of these are the most advanced Leica SLRs ever produced. They both offer everything the modern SLR shooter would expect (except autofocus), incurring some features that even the best SLRs couldn’t match, such as the blisteringly fast maximum shutter speed of 1/8000th of a second. They’re included in this segment of the buyer’s guide for all these reasons, and because they naturally offer full PASM shooting modes. The big detraction (though in use it’s actually an asset) is their unusual shape and size. They are bulbous cameras with strange, seemingly non-ergonomic shapes. In actuality they are the easiest Leica SLRs to hold comfortably – you’ll just need to get over the reprehensible styling. Oh, and they can be had for around $400 today, which is amazing.

My recommendation for which Leica SLR to buy if you’re looking for auto-exposure modes is simple – buy the Leica R5. It’s the smallest and lightest Leica SLR to offer every shooting mode, and its classic shape and clean styling make it look and feel phenomenal. It can mate to the largest assortment of Leica R lenses (one cam, two cam, three cam, R only, and ROM lenses), and the electronic issues of earlier Leica R series cameras had, by the time of the R5’s release, been sorted.

Do You Need a Light Meter but Not Auto-Exposure?

Do you want a light meter but only ever shoot in full manual mode? Do you think auto-exposure modes are cheating? Leica’s got some cameras for you, and some of them are true classics. We’ll start with the oldest and work our way forward in time.

Before the partnership with Minolta that birthed the R series cameras, Leica had developed their own range of SLR cameras. These were called the Leicaflex cameras, and they are stunning (if decidedly more primitive) cameras.

The original Leicaflex camera was a masterpiece of mechanical design, though when it was released in 1964 it was already outmoded by many existing Japanese SLRs. Its viewfinder offered only a patch for focusing, rather than a fully-focusing screen. Its light meter was mounted on the prism, incapable of reading light through the lens. And it was more expensive than any of the more advanced competitors’ cameras. However, there are few other SLR cameras that I’ve used that provide a more satisfying shooting experience. The mirror assembly is a nearly shakeless, balanced mechanism that makes the most delightful noises at all shutter speeds. The ground-glass focusing screen, while limiting in the ways already mentioned, is bright and beautiful. The body is solid and all controls click with mechanical certainty. It is, in short, a stunning machine, and it’ll fire without batteries (these are used only to power the meter).

1968’s Leicaflex SL added through-the-lens metering to a Leica SLR for the first time, and added a true full-view focusing screen. These changes offered a big improvement over the earlier Leicaflex, while retaining the battery-less operability and the high quality mechanisms previously mentioned when discussing the original Leicaflex.

The Leicaflex SL2 was released in 1974. It was the third Leicaflex camera and offered minor but important improvements to the earlier Leicaflex SL. Chiefly these included a split-image focusing patch in the viewfinder, illumination of the viewfinder light meter readout, and an aperture window in the viewfinder to show the selected aperture. Importantly the light meter was more responsive than the one found in the original SL, and the mirror assembly was reformulated to allow fitment of three new wide-angle lenses. It is the rarest of the three Leicaflex cameras, and for this reason prices are slightly higher than the others. Watch out for de-silvering of the viewfinder. If possible, look through it before buying and watch for rainbow patterns or a dimmed VF. If the camera exhibits either of these symptoms, move along.

The Leica R6 and R6.2 were released in 1988 and 1992 respectively, and these cameras bucked the trend of incorporating auto-exposure into Leica’s R series cameras. The R6 and R6.2 (the R6.2 increased the original R6’s maximum shutter speed from 1/1000th of a second to 1/2000th) are fully manual cameras with a combination of average or spot light meter connected to an LED display in the viewfinder. In many ways it’s correct to call the R6 and R6.2 the Leica M6 of the SLR world, since they are so similar in methodology.

A major selling point for the R6 and R6.2, today, is their ability to shoot without battery power. The mechanical shutter does not require electricity to fire, only the light meter requires battery power. For this reason it is likely the best Leica SLR for people who detest batteries but want a relatively modern SLR. These two cameras are also the newest, smallest, and lightest cameras in the Leica SLR range that offer metering and can be operated without batteries.

My recommendation for which meter-equipped, all-mechanical, all-manual Leica SLR to buy is complicated – I have a recommendation if you’re a shooter, and one if you’re a collector. If you’re a shooter, the R6 is the best practical choice. It’s the smallest and lightest of the available machines in this segment. It can mate to the largest assortment of R mount lenses, and it’s lack of 1/2000th top shutter speed isn’t much of a liability compared to the Leicaflex series and the R6.2.

But if you’re a collector, or even a shooter who also recognizes that classic cameras are also rare objects to be collected, the Leicaflex SL2 50 Jahre Edition is the camera to buy. Released in 1975 to mark the 50th anniversary of Leica, this machine is simply gorgeous, capable, and rare enough to set it above less collectible models. Silly, but that’s the way it is.

Are you on a Tight Budget?

Obviously there will be plenty of buyers looking for the best deal on a Leica SLR. Happily these cameras are much more affordable than their Leica rangefinder counterparts, but they’re still not cheap.

The earlier Leicaflex cameras, the Leicaflex, SL, and SL2, command a premium due to their vintage and collectibility. The cheapest of these is often the original Leicaflex, but it’s also the least capable. Expect to pay anywhere from $200 to $300 for either the Leicaflex or the Leicaflex SL, depending on condition and your personal luck. The SL2 is slightly more money, around $400, typically.

Cheaper options exist in the R series cameras, and though it’s not always the case in the classic camera world, the pricing of these actually makes sense! The earliest Leica R series camera, the R3, is often the cheapest. As we look at newer and newer models with improved functionality and reliability, prices tend to increase. But it’s possible to find an R3 or R4 for under $150 if you’re a patient and shrewd shopper. Any R series camera scored for under $200 is a great deal, just make sure it’s working properly (buying from a reputable camera shop can help).

Unfortunately there’s no easy answer when it comes to “the cheapest Leica SLR” question. Do some searching, be patient, and you’ll find one in your budget. Just remember that Leitz Leica R mount lenses are expensive (but also remember that you don’t necessarily need a Leitz lens to make good photos, as shown in my R5 review, where I paired the R5 with a Tamron Adapt-All lens).

My Own Personal Choice

I’d know exactly what to say were you to stop me on the street and say, “James, tell me which Leica R mount camera I should buy.” First, I’d humbly thank you for reading my site. Next, I’d tell you that the best Leica SLR (as I said in my review) is the Leicaflex SL2, in black chrome, with a 21mm Super-Angulon attached. We’d chat a bit longer, you’d thank me for my time, internally comment on what a weirdo I am in real life, and move on with your day. But a few weeks later when shooting your own SL2, you’d possibly remember me and think, “Wow. That idiot sort of knows what he’s talking about.”

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio
15 comments
  • oregontrailbakery July 26, 2019 at 6:32 pm

    The R 3/4s/p/5/E have limp home non battery dependent speeds of B and x Sync

    The SL2 has gone through the roof price wise (as well it should have)

    I am surprised at how affordable the R6 is. OM-3s, a lovely camera, sell for 3x as much

    Older two cam lenses can be upgraded by DAG for, I believe $125 ish US..

  • I have a few Leica SLRs and while the early ones may be based in part on Minolta designs, they sure do not feel or handle like they do. They feel like they are carved out of an ingot, and it really is something to behold!
    Of note, the excessively long shutter release action which makes it feel like there is a shutter delay (at least on my R-Es and R7) is eliminated by using a $5 screw in soft release! This is the single best addition you can make. The R8 and R9 have a much better release and don’t need it.

    Hey James, you want a handful? Try an R8/9 with the motor-drive! It’s actually all sorts of sweetness and fantastically designed with the excellent hand grip. But boy is it heavy..
    The rechargeable battery cells can be rebuilt (and most probably would need to by now) at battery specialty shops.

    • I used to really detest the long shutter delay of the mid-model R series cameras, but it doesn’t bother me anymore. They really are lovely cameras, and you’re correct when you say they feel better than the Minolta counterparts. I talked about this in my R5 writeup. They benefit greatly from their top plates being made of a contiguous piece, where the Minolta’s use multiple parts for prism and left and right top plates.

  • I own two Leicaflex SL2s (one chrome, one black), two Leicaflex SL2 MOTs, one Leicaflex SL, and one R8. They are all splendid!

  • Another great guide. A few thoughts came to mind as I read it:

    I’ve been quietly humming the praises of Leica rangefinder cameras for some time (nobody likes a fanboy, especially a Leica one). More recently, however, I’ve been frustrated by a few of the limitations associated with the rangefinder camera (close-up framing accuracy, macro capability, telephoto, etc). There are “solutions” (visoflex, goggled lenses, VF magnifiers, etc), but to me these are clunky workarounds.

    The SLR is the obvious and typically inexpensive solution to these limitations. As much as I would like to say that a Leica SLR is the natural companion to the Leica rangefinder, really they are about as similar as cats and dogs. As one might expect, both are constructed to a high standard. However, there’s very little in terms of “feel” or familiarity that translates from one system to the other. The ergonomics, the shutter release, the wind-lever, the buttons… all different (particularly the R3 onwards). The SL and SL2 do feel a bit more like a classic M, however they are noticeably larger and louder.

    I’ll play devil’s advocate, James. If you find a lot to love about a Leica rangefinder, try an Olympus OM-1.

  • leicalibrararian July 27, 2019 at 3:08 am

    A little bit of additional information. A couple of years ago, Leica sold off their entire inventory of reflex spare parts. Leicaflex up to R7 went to Paepke in Germany, who also offer service for these cameras. Sadly the R8/9 spares were sold to Photo-Arsenal, who will not sell them on nor provide service. This second action of Leica did a grave disservice to R8/9 owners and makes me very annoyed. If Leica wanted to sell their inventory of unsold R8/9 lenses and bodies, that would have been fine but they should have sold the R8/9 spares to somebody, who would have provided a service like Don Goldberg or maybe the LHSA.

    The R9 has a better reputation for reliability than the R8 but neither are as reliable as the earlier Minolta based cameras. I have an R9 and an R4-MOT both with Motor-Winders. The R4 I have mended twice myself (corroded switch contacts) but I would not touch the innards of the far more complicated R9. I have 24/2.8 series 2 ROM, 28-70 ROM, 50/2 ROM, 80-200 ROM, MR500 Telyt-R (late type) and a Hartblei Super-Rotator TS 80mm in R mount lenses plus an APO 2X Extender. If anyone is considering the Hartblei lens, I would think very carefully. The optical cell is based on an elderly East German Pentacon MF design and is both low resolution and contrast, although the tilt-shift mechanism is very clever and deserves better optics. The 28-70 lens is fine at the wide end but suffers badly from pincushion distortion at the tele end which, is difficult to correct as it is worse at the LHS of the image. I have built a template in Capture One to correct my RAW film scans. The update for the final ROM version of this lens concentrated on reduction of vignetting at the wide end.

    Wilson

    • Hi Wilson

      First off, thanks for the heads up to not use the M winder on my M7; it now is attached to my M4-2.
      Why would Photo Arsenal buy the parts for the R8/9 if they won’t resell them or provide service? My R8 and R9 have that slow DOF preview return, but work fine/stop down the aperture just fine in actual picture taking. You wouldn’t happen to know of a solution?

      Best regards
      Huss

  • I have a Leica R4s MOD-P, Leica R5 (which I bought from you) and a Leica R6. I enjoy shooting all three with the probably the R5 being my favorite of the three. I have a 50 Summicron, a 35-70 Vario Elmar and my favorite R series lens; the 60mm f/2.8 Macro Elmarit. I have been searching for a nice SL2, but they are very hard to find in decent shape. Nice write up here and a wonderful Saturday morning read!

    • Hey,

      Great writeup! I’ve seen too many dead autoexposure R series SLRs online and in camera stores to feel comfortable dropping a lot of money on one…

      Could you please quickly explain the 1-2-3 cam, MOT, and ROM categories? What are the differences, and what are the gotchas that buyers need to watch out for? Or if there’s a succinct decoder ring out there on the internet somewhere drop a link to it please lol.

      Thanks!

  • I was very near to enter in the Leica SLR system after have been entered in the Leica M world. After I have used Olympus, Contax SLR, I was near to buy Leica SLR, unitl I have found the excellence of Nikon. Frankly speaking : a Nikon FE2 with some Nokkor prime lenses such Ais 28/2’8, pancake Ais 50/1’8, Micro Nikkor Ais 55/2’8 and Ais 105/2’5, you have a cheaper and better system : mechanic is better, lenses are better, body is stronger and better !!! I keep my M3 for rangefinder and for SLR Nikon the perfect matches, and NIkkor lenses work perfectly with Nikon digital cameras and from other brands !!!

    • I happen to be a Nikon shooter and occasional collector, so you won’t get any argument from me. Best of both worlds.

    • Nope, not true.

    • I used to have an FE-2 (until the shutter started to miss-time and occasionally opened much longer than it should) and it does not compare to the in hand feel of a Leica R5/R-E (which I think is the equivalent). The FE2 also has only one metering pattern, while the Leica offers spot or center weighted. And the Leica has a much better way of setting exposure compensation. The FE-2 also has an awkward way to hold the exposure lock by pushing the self timer lever, while the Leica holds exposure on a half press of the shutter button.
      I still have my FM2n with the MD12 winder which is very nice, and very cheap. it makes for a cool 1980s Duran Duran Girls on Film soundtrack! The Micro Nikkor you mention is superb, but I use the 105 1.8 instead of the 2.5, the 50 1.2 AIS (still made new!!) and the 24 2.8.
      I wanted to dismiss the Leica R series, but was tempted by the rock bottom prices (my R-Es were both under $200 and are like new, and my like new R7 was under $300!). Handling them convinced me to give then a try. Yeah the lenses are pricier than Nikon stuff but I am not sure why you think Nikon’s glass is better. Not in my experience with both. In actual use both will allow you to do whatever you want and be very happy with the resutls. Either way the R glass is waaaay cheaper than M glass.
      Which if you think about it suggests that M glass is overpriced. Because both the R and M lenses are made by Leica (mostly in Germany) and the R glass has to have stuff like auto aperture step down levers etc. So would be more expensive to make.
      I guess Leica prices their stuff by what the market will bear.

      • I have compared Leica R, Contax, Nikon : the results on films show me that the Zeiss Cotax are brighter, sonmetimes too much, and the best Nikkor lenses have an exceptional great rendering where I have found the Leica R lense given nothing better, just cold. The body : for general use I prefer simple cameras with good simple meter, for higher metering I prefer an external meter, a hand meter or spot meter. The Leica M lenses are simply better due their prices : compactness, and design for Leica M which provides closer distance to plan film which makes lenses more efficient, and RF system permit lower speed. 😉 All Leica R I have tried only give me the Leica name which now I do not care.

        • I’m not a Leica SLR shooter, but I am willing to admit that my absolute favorite 28mm lens is the 28/2.8 Elmarit-R V1. Simply superlative image character. Equally impressive is the size: 40mm in length and 275 grams! Not expensive (compared to M) and then easily adapted to M and scale focused. Trust me Eric, there are some gems in the Leica R system. (see also: 180/2 APO, 70-180 Vario-APO, and 35/1.4 Summilux.. the Nikkor counterparts are not in the same league (optically))

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio