The Leica M6 TTL
& Contemporary Leica Lenses
This article is more a reminiscence than a review. Though the equipment discussed are the latest models, my photographs on this page span from the beginning of my career in the mid-60s to the present day — more than 35 years.
For anyone interested in M series Leicas it may prove of interest and provoke some thought and possibly some smiles. Also, at the end of the page there are links to some of the more comprehensive pages and sites on the web concerning Leicas.
For those of you who know my work as a landscape and nature photographer some images on this page may come as a bit of a surprise. But, remember that my training and initial background were as a photojournalist. Old habits die hard.
Back to the Future
Taken with a Leica M3 and 50mm f/2 Summicron lens (see note for provenance)
There have now been M series Leicas in my life on three separate occasions. The first was in the mid-60s when I worked as a photojournalist using an M2 and an M3 extensively to make a living. During a 10 year period I likely shot 8-10,000 rolls of film with these two bodies. Then, again from the late 80s into the mid-90s an M6 was my constant companion as I traveled internationally on business. Tucked away with a couple of lenses in a corner of my briefcase it allowed me to wander the streets of cities around the world as I grabbed what little time I could from a career in business to pursue my true passion, photography.
Taken with a Leica M6 and 90mm Elmarit f/2.8 lens
For some reason, which frankly now escapes me, and which in retrospect must have been caused by a serious case of brain-fade, I sold the M6 and 3 lenses that I then owned in late 1997. Life lesson # 43: Never, ever sell a Leica. You'll just end up buying another one at some time in the future.
So in mid-2001 I once again bought an M Leica, this time the .58x viewfinder version of the latest M6 TTL in chrome finish. The first lens I bought with it to start off was the relatively new Tri-Elmar, which I'll have more to say about shortly.
Why an M Leica, particularly when I already have a Hasselblad XPan and a Mamiya 7, both very usable rangefinder-based cameras? I wish that I could give you a rational answer. Maybe it's because it was my birthday, or maybe because I was inspired by John Brownlow's street photography in Mike Johnston's Auteur article which I had recently published. Regardless, I determined that this time I am going to hang onto my M Leica — forever.
Photographed with a Leica M6 and 35mm Summilux f/1.4 lens on Provia 100 and then converted to a Duotone in PhotoShop.
What's New About the M6 TTL?
As I wrote at the head of this article, there are many fine web sites and books devoted to M Leica photography and I certainly won't try to recreate what's already out there. But though the M series is now almost 50 years old, and the M6 has remained largely unchanged since it was introduced in 1984, during the past couple of years there have been some modest updates.
The most obvious of these is TTL flash metering. My feeling is that this is a feature that very few people asked for. M Leicas are stealth cameras. For many they're the camera that one uses when one doesn't want to be seen using a camera. The fact that even a 2001 model M6 Leica has an antediluvian sync speed of 1/50th second makes this feature less than useful to most people.
The big news is that M Leicas now come with three different magnification viewfinders: .58, .72 and .85. The latest is the .58 and this is ideal for use with wide angle lenses, which of course is where an M Leica excels. This is the model that I bought, and it matches the Tri-Elmar with its 28-35-50mm coverage perfectly. The 28mm frame can now be seen even when wearing glasses, and the 35mm frame sits alone without distracting additional long-lens frame lines cluttering the viewfinder. What more could one want?
Reactionaries will balk at the next one. The shutter speed dial now rotates "properly", so that the direction of motion matches the settings of the exposure LEDs in the viewfinder. About time, I say. And the dial itself is larger than before, just reaching the front edge of the body. This makes it possible to change shutter speeds by running one's forefinger along the top-front edge of the body. Very nice.
One recently added feature that I appreciate over that of my M6 from about 10 years ago is that there is now a center LED in the viewfinder for correct exposure. This supplants the previous method of balancing the brightness of the underexposure and overexposure arrows.
One strictly cosmetic change on recent M6 bodies has been a switch to a chromed wind lever, tipped with a plastic end. Much nicer in my opinion than the black lever that was previously affixed to all models, even chrome ones.
Lastly, there is now an OFF position on the shutter speed dial. This turns off the meter and prevents accidental pressure on the shutter release button from depleting the battery, such as when the camera is in a bag.
Photographed with a Leica M6 and 90mm f/2.8 Elmarit
Of Leicas & Collectors
Let me share an anecdote with you. Back in the early 90s I traveled frequently to Asia on business. I used an M6 extensively because it was small, light, fitting in a briefcase, thus enabling some casual street shooting during time off on my foreign travels.
On one trip I was wandering the streets of Tokyo on a Sunday afternoon and came across a camera store with the most amazing display of Leica gear in the window. I knew that the Japanese were keen collectors of Leica gear, but I didn't realize quite how keen.
The next day, between meetings, I took a cab over to the shop in the company of my Japanese translator. I spent a wondrous 20 minutes browsing what had the be one of the world's great collections of Leica bodies and lenses, of all vintages.
Much of the top quality equipment was shrink wrapped. I spied a particularly attractive looking Leica IIIg and I asked my translator to inquire of the shop owner if I could have it unwrapped so that I could test and look closely at it. The shopkeeper's response was to laugh out loud.
Puzzled, I asked for an explanation. I was told that no one ever opened the shrink wrap, usually not even the new owner after the purchase. Such cameras were left protected and then placed in a safe or locked cabinet as part of one's collection. The idea of actually using a IIIg to take pictures was an alien concept. Needless to say, I left the store empty handed and somewhat depressed. Just imagine the thousands of lovely old Leicas that currently sit as some sort of trophy in bank vaults around the world. What a waste!
Poppy Field, England 1996
Photographed with a Leica M6 and 35mm Summilux f/1.4 lens on Provia 100
Special Limited Editions
Worse than that, in my opinion, are the special limited editions that Leica brings out each year. This is a marketing phenomena which I find to be quite objectionable — though commercially understandable. Once every year or so Leica makes a version of the M6 with special engraving commemorating (for example) the birth of some second-rate composer of the 19th century, along with a green alligator skin covering and pink gold plating. Sold at 2, 3 or more times the normal price, these cameras are built in limited numbered editions and sold to collectors. Of course no one would ever dream of taking a photograph with one of these cameras, or for that matter removing one from its sealed presentation case. (I've always thought that Leica could increase their profits by leaving out the shutter mechanism and other working parts on these collector models, since no one will ever actually use one of these cameras).
I was recently told a sad but amusing story that one such camera sold at auction recently and the buyer insisted that the box be X-rayed to confirm that there really was a camera inside. Opening the case would, I suppose, have sullied the value of the purchase. How sad.
Without doubt Leica cameras are the most collectable of any brand, notwithstanding the so-called "collector editions". There have been so many models, variations and lenses over the past 75 years that the market is huge. But, as mentioned above I take umbrage with collectors (particularly those in the Japanese market where this is most prevalent) that collect Leica gear as almost fetish objects. I see this as a shame because these are beautiful instruments meant to be used. One doesn't need to be a great photographer to take pleasure from using a precision instrument or a great lens.
Just be aware that, because Leicas are so collectable top quality used equipment goes for premium prices and is also hard to find. One way to become a Leica collector though, (assuming that you have the time and money) is to buy the most interesting and useful current gear, use it, treat it well, and wait about 30-50 years. At that point you'll have a valuable collection, will likely have taken some wonderful photographs, and will have had a lot of fun in the process :-)
Understanding the Leica Mystique
None of the above makes sense unless you appreciate that the Leica is a product from another age. Firstly it's from Germany, and carries both the DNA and cachet of pre-WW2 German quality and craftsmanship. With the exception of a few specialty mechanical wrist watches there are few products other than Leica cameras and lenses that still command universal recognition and admiration as exemplars of Germany's manufacturing heritage.
And, speaking of mechanical wrist watches, a Leica camera is one of the few consumer devices that one can still buy that is built with the same precision. This in large measure is why this manufacturer's optical equipment, including microscopes and binoculars, is so highly regarded. As for electronics, yes M6's have through-the-lens metering and require a couple of button batteries to power this feature, but that's it. Otherwise an M Leica is a totally mechanical device, something that many people (myself among them) greatly appreciate.
Then there's the grand history of Leica lens design. Names like Elmar and Summicron resonate with photographers. Along with that other great pre-war camera brand Contax, and their Zeiss optics, Leica lenses are regarded as among the best ever made. And rightly so. While not every Leica optic is superior to those of other marques, certainly there is a "character" to Leica glass that sets it apart. And while contemporary computer design tools have somewhat leveled the playing field, Leica has continued to produce innovative designs that push the optical engineering art to its limits, and has manufacturing standards and practices second to none. This if anything is Leica's main strength, and why many photographers buy Leica R series SLR cameras in addition to Ms. To steal a phrase, "it's the lenses, stupid", (certainly not the R bodies in my opinion).
Of course there's the difficult to quantify issue of "feel". A camera is a tool, and as any craftsman will tell you the feel of a tool makes a huge difference in the way it performs its task. A Leica comes to hand like no other camera. It just feels right, and after a time (to use a cliché) becomes an extension of ones eyes and hands. One critic of industrial design has called it "the most perfect tool of the 20th century". Possibly hyperbole, but handle one for a time, if possible shoot a few hundred rolls of film, and you'll see what I mean.
Finally, of course, there's the pantheon of famous photographers who have used Leicas to take some of the 20th century's great photographs. Cartier-Bresson, Duncan, Eisenstaedt, Capa, et al. I could write whole books on this subject — and others have.
Photographed with a Leica M6 TTL and Tri-Elmar lens (50mm) on Ilford XP2. Quadtone conversion in Photoshop.
Chrome Vs. Black — and Other Matters to Ponder
Only in the world of Leicaphiles could one have a discussion of the relative merits of chrome Vs. black finish bodies and lenses. To make too light of it though is to miss one of the key points of wanting to own an M Leica. Leicas are more than just cameras, because they are the progenitor as well as the archetype for modern 35mm equipment. Look and feel do count.
Historically Leicas, like all 35mm cameras, had a chrome finish. Today most other pro cameras are black, as per the current fashion. Uniquely though, one can buy a new M6 in either chrome or black and in either finish in any of the three viewfinder magnifications. This makes for 6 different models of the same camera, something that no other manufacturer would dare, and a source of some frustration to dealers. (There are also titanium and "painted" black finishes, but let's not get carried away). As well, many Leica lenses are also available in both black and chrome finishes.
In case you're interested, this time round I chose a chrome body and a black lens — both purely for cosmetic reasons. I simply like the retro-look of a chrome Leica while black lenses seem to have more legible DOF scales and F stop markings. I find white on black to be easier to read, as you may have noticed from the design of this web site.
Leica is a small company, manufacturing their cameras and lens largely by hand. Compared to manufacturers like Canon or Nikon their sales are tiny and their R&D budgets smaller still. Yet, every few years Leica manages to bring out improved versions of their already fabulous lens line, and occasionally, as they did in 1998, a completely novel lens — the Tri-Elmar ASPH.
This lens is small, light and versatile. Not a zoom, it nevertheless almost functions as one. It has three focal lengths, 28mm, 35mm and 50mm, selected by rotating a ring just outward of the focusing lever. Of course the appropriate frame lines are automatically selected in the viewfinder as the focal length is changed.
As mentioned above, the Tri-Elmar (or E3 as most Leicaphiles now call it), forms an almost ideal combination with an M6, especially the latest low magnification .58 viewfinder version. In my opinion this is the perfect contemporary combination. Though I don't do formal lens tests myself, the shots I've taken so far display an image quality level fully the equal of previous Leica M series glass. In fact, one well known Leica lens aficionado and tester claims that the E3 is fully the equal of Leica's other contemporary lenses of similar focal lengths, and actually superior to earlier generation fixed focal length lenses.
What's the catch? Speed. This is only an f/4 lens. The slow maximum aperture is what allows the lens to be so small. While it's completely usable wide open, and only improves modestly by f/8, f4 is f4, and for available light shooting one of the Summilux f/1.4 lenses will be a much better choice. But to my eye, this is the street shooting and travel lens to have.
Prospective purchasers should note that this lens is now on its second version, the new version having been introduced at Photokina in the Fall of 2000. The way to tell them apart (since they have the same part number) is that the latest version has a number of practical as well as functional improvements. These include a finger notch for focusing, better defined click stops for the focal length changing ring and depth of field scales engraved for all three focal lengths. In the summer of 2001 some dealers still have Version 1 at a discount of a few hundred dollars over the latest model.
I am extremely happy with the Tri-Elmar. It exactly meets my needs for a walk-about lens for street and travel shooting under normal light conditions, even with ISO 100 colour transparency film. But, Leicas excel at low light work and so I've added a 35mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH as well. Though it duplicates a focal length I already have in the Tri-Elmar, at 3 stops faster maximum aperture (and really usable wide open) it's a whole other ballgame. Also, 35mm is my most used focal length when shooting with rangefinders. With ISO 400 films like XP2 or TMax 400 this is a dynamite low light combo. I used the previous generation 35mm Summilux in years past and it was a favourite. Apparently the new ASPH is a significant improvement.
The next lens added was the APO-Summicron-M 90mm f/2.0 ASPH. This is the most recent version of this renown lens, introduced in 1998. The 100mm APO Macro for the R series has long carried a reputation as one of the world's great lenses, and Leica claims that the APO 90mm is an even better optic. It's a largish lens for an M Leica, right up there with the 50mm f/1.0 Noctilux and the 75mm f/1.4 Summilux in terms of weight and bulk. But, it appears to be worth its weight as well as price. More as results present themselves.
The other lens that I've added is unique. It is the just-released (2001) Voigtlander Heliar 12mm f/4.5 Aspherical. Yes, that's right, 12mm — the widest rectilinear coverage lens ever made. My initial results from this lens can be seen on the review page and they're quite something.
Since the gap between 12mm and 28mm is huge, I also have the 21mm Elmarit-M ASPH. As I develop experience with this lens I'll publish a separate review.
Similarly, I eventually rounded out my system with a lens that I've been fascinated by for years, the Leica Noctilux f/1.0.
Wide Angle Viewfinder
The use of a lens wider than 28mm on an M Leica requires the use of an accessory viewfinder. In early 2001 Leica started shipping a zoom finder covering the 21mm, 24mm and 28mm focal lengths. It is reviewed here.
Leica M6 TTL, M-Motor, .56 Viewfinder, and 35mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH
Ever since the M4-2 series was introduced in 1977 rangefinder Leicas have been capable of taking motor drives, both third party and ones made by Leica. In my opinion they were a bit like the rocket motors that Wiley Coyote strapped on his back so as to better be able to catch Road Runner. They worked, after a fashion, but were ungainly and inappropriately large for the M series gestalt.
Leica has finally brought out a motor winder for the M series that is in my opinion worthy of the M6, and appropriately sized. It hardly adds any depth — less than half an inch, and the grip, which contains the batteries, actually improves the camera's handling.
The unit uses two 123A sized batteries able to power approximately 100 rolls of film at normal temperatures. There is a three position switch on the rear: Off / 1.5 FPS / 3 FPS. Because the M6 is a purely mechanical camera there is no electrical shutter release and no auto-rewind. You use the release on the body, just as you normally would.
This leads to both a good news, and a bad news situation. The bad news is that as the motor winds the film the shutter release button rides up and down under your forefinger. It took me about a roll of film to become used to this. Some people say that it continues to annoy them. Not me. The good news is that you can keep finger pressure on the release and thereby control when the motor winds the film on. This allows you to decide when to permit the noise of winding — imperative in quiet situations. In its 1.5 frames / second setting the motor is extremely quiet though, so under most circumstances this isn't even a consideration. It's only because I have been used to shooting on film and TV sound stages that I'm sensitive to this issue.
The bottom line? The new M Motor is going to live permanently on my M 6 from now on.
An innocuous looking device. But, what is it? I find the Leica Lens Carrier M to be one of the niftiest Leica gadgets available, and yet it's hardly known even by many Leica aficionados, and even disliked by some.
What the M Carrier does is allow you to attached a second lens to the bottom of the camera. It has an M-Leica locking bayonet mount that faces downward beneath the camera, and a knurled knob that attaches the device to the tripod thread on the base plate.
Why would one want to do this? Objectors say that it destroys the smallness and unobtrusiveness of the M6. I find that it allows me to do street shooting with two lenses and change them almost instantaneously, even while walking.
In previous years when I traveled internationally a great deal and needed to keep my kit as light and small as possible this would be all I'd take, an M6 with a 35mm f/1.4 Summilux and 90mm f/2.8 Tele-Elmarit. A few rolls of film in my pocket and I would be set for a day's street shooting. No camera bag needed, but a flexible system readily at hand.
Now that the M6 has a decent motor winder there's a quandary. Which to use, the M Winder or the Carrier M, since they won't both fit at the same time. Answer? Buy a second body so that you can use them both.
Two Anecdotes About Reliability
Leica owners' stories of the camera's legendary reliability are legion. Here are two of mine from my early career.
From the mid-'60s through the mid-'70s I worked as a photojournalist, and for a number of those years for Canada's national TV network, the CBC. This was before the days of ENG video cameras (colour TV cameras weighed about 150 lbs back then) and so a lot of on-location news work was done with stills. I also did publicity photography for programs and movies under production.
During that period I shot extensively with a Leica M3 and M2. Leicas were de rigueur when shooting on a film or TV set because of their almost silent shutter and winding. Short of putting a blimp (a bulky sound shield) on a Nikon F this was the preferred tool for movie stills photographers, and may still be today.
There are many legends about M Leicas. Here are two of mine.
Pan-American Games, Winnipeg 1967
While I subsequently shot the 1967 Pan-American games with my Nikon F and an arsenal of long lenses, during the opening ceremonies I found myself just a few feet from the dignitaries on the podium, so I used the Leicas and 35mm, 50mm and 90mm lenses.
As Prince Philip gave his welcoming speech opening the games a huge thunderstorm broke and proceeded to drench everyone in the open-air arena, me included. Some large umbrellas were quickly erected for the Prince and he continued with his remarks, but along with about 30,000 other people I got soaked.
So did my camera equipment. I couldn't even attempt to protect my cameras, I just kept shooting throughout the torrential downpour. I changed lenses and film numerous times and just did the best I could.
As soon as the ceremonies were over I handed the film to a courier to race it to the lab and then headed back to my hotel to dry off. When I took the Leicas out of the bag they were dripping wet. Totally soaked, inside and out. I opened everything up and left the bodies and lenses on a table near an open window to dry out. I spent the rest of the day shooting with my Nikons, figuring I'd pack up the Leicas in the evening to send back to Toronto for replacement and repair.
But the next day I tried everything out and was surprised to see that they worked, and worked smoothly. I never did send send it in for repair, then or afterward. I probably put several thousand rolls of film through both Leica bodies over the next few years and never saw a hint of trouble.
Canadian Downhill Ski Championships, Collingwood 1968
My assignment was to shoot skiers during this important race. The organizers provided me with a small wooden platform on the inside of a steep downhill curve and said, "Have a nice day".
I had brought my Nikon F gear consisting of 2 bodies and several medium-tele and long lenses. At the last minute I decided to also bring the Leica M3 and 90 and 135mm lenses as well, (just in case).
The early morning went well, with the temperature at about the freezing point and with a moderate overcast. But by late morning the wind picked up and the temperature started to drop. A light snow started and with the increasing wind created blowing snow conditions that were just this side of being strong enough to stop the race.
I wish they had stopped it, because my equipment and I started to freeze up. The first Nikon froze after about 45 minutes of these deteriorating conditions and the second one some 20 minutes later. Both were caked in frozen snow. I figured that my day was done but I pulled the M3 out from the bottom of the bag and started shooting as best I could with the 135mm lens.
I spent 3 more hours on that frozen ski slope shooting hundreds of frames with the Leica and it never missed a beat. By mid-afternoon when I called it quits I was half frozen, and my Nikons certainly were, but the Leica was like the Timex watch in the ads of the time, they just kept on ticking.
There's no getting away from it. Leica cameras and lenses are expensive. Typically a Leica M lens costs at least a thousand dollars more than a Canon or Nikon lens of comparable aperture and focal length. Is it worth it? Frankly, on big prints made with good technique one can usually see a modest difference, but contemporary fixed focal length lenses for about $300 are excellent indeed. Is it worth $1,000 more for a Leica optic? Only someone who can afford to make the choice and who has a really discerning eye can say. For the perfectionist there's also the question of "bokeh" (the Japanese word for the quality of the out-of-focus part of the image), which on most Leica lenses is superb.
As for bodies, a current M6 TTL costs about the same as the top-of-the-line Nikon F5 or a Canon EOS 1V — between USD $1,500 and $2,000, depending where in the world you shop. On the one hand you're getting a hand-made, all metal, totally manual camera and on the other a battery-dependant, motorized, highly automated photography machine. Which is better or more worth the investment? There's no answer. My 1V and array of specialized lenses such as Image Stabilized zooms and perspective control lenses can do things that no Leica can. I count on this system for much of my nature and all of my wildlife photography. Similarly I would not likely consider using the Canon for unobtrusive street shooting. As the British saying goes; horses for courses.
But, if you've never held or used a Leica M6, as a photography aficionado you owe it to yourself to visit a dealer and have a look at one. Just make sure, though, that you leave your Visa card at home. Who knows? Otherwise it might change your style of photography.
If you are interested in Leica lenses you should read my review of the new book Leica Lens Compendium by Erwin Puts. This is a must have boom for Leica aficionados.
This photograph, which I call "Angel Boy", is one of the only images still in my possession taken before 1980. Almost all of my negative and prints, from my teen years through my entire career as a photojournalist, were lost in a flood in the early 80s. The version you see here is reproduced from a scanned print, (explaining the reduced image quality) which survived because it was framed and hanging in my living room all these years. I had framed it because it was the first of my photographs to be purchased by the National Film Board of Canada. It is now part of the National Gallery's permanent print collection in Ottawa.
This subject will be featured in a forthcoming issue of The Luminous Landscape Video Journal.