. . . Yes I have a soft spot for Leica cameras, especially film M’s.
Just a cursory glance through past articles here on the Street Photography Blog will reveal a recurrent theme. Two M8’s, three CL’s (yes they are real Leica’s) and an M5. Now despite selling these and giving up film around 11 months ago for a Fuji X-E1, the siren call of 35mm simply refused to go away. So now a new ‘M’ joins the fray, the Leica M2.
There are several factors that keep bringing me back to film. A comfortably equipped darkroom (the Chicken Shed) and a faithful old screwmount 50mm Jupiter 8 Russian Lens with M adapter, are two of them. Also some bulk film loaders full of Ilford FP4 and HP5 and an almost full bottle of Rodinal (Adox Adonal). How could I let it all go to waste?
This particular M2 dates from 1966 and incredibly, still has the black Leica ‘L’ wax-plug at the top of the lens mount. These were placed there by Leica at the time of manufacture to give an indicator of whether the camera had been ‘fiddled’ with, in the event of a warranty claim. Obviously the M2 is now well passed that, but it also shows that this body has never been opened or serviced by anyone outside of Leica Germany themselves. In fact, it may never been serviced at all !
With that in mind, it’s testament to the widely appreciated quality of workmanship that despite this, the camera still operates as smoothly and accurately as the day it was made, even after nearly 50 years. Ask anyone what an early Leica M ‘feels like’ and sooner or later the words ‘buttery smooth’ will crop up, especially with regards the film advance, which is errr . . . buttery smooth. The top plate has a minor selection of dints that to me, tell of a camera that has been used. This is ultimately more desirable than one which has sat in a display cabinet, allowing the various greases and oils inside to solidify like toffee. On the underside, the base plate proudly wears a wonderful mixture of chrome and brass, though I think this has been done deliberately, rather than from natural wear over the course of time.
To complete this appraisal of the ‘body’, here’s a rear shot of the top plate. A previous owner has seen fit to scribe a couple of handy exposure settings for both flash photography and poor light.
Lens wise, the piece of glass stuck on the front is a chromed Jupiter 8, a Russian made 50mm ‘clone’ of the much revered Zeiss 50mm LTM lens. Indeed, the Russian manufacturers did such a good job that it even produces similarly contrasty images.
The keen eyed among you may have noticed that the lens in the two previous photos is a ‘black’ Jupiter 8. This is in fact a lens which came with the camera and having known it was scratched beyond use, it makes a nice paperweight.
So what is the camera like to shoot?
If you’ve never handled an M2 (or any film M) before, you might be surprised by it’s size. It is incredibly compact and reassuringly weighty for something so small. As a matter of fact it is smaller than the Fuji X-E1, though actually heavier. It’s a stealthy package, which is one of the reasons it has been so popular.
The Leica M2 is a fully-manual camera, with no internal light metering. As a result there are two methods available of measuring light. The first is a handheld meter, such as the Sekonic L308s that I use, or any one of the smartphone based light metering app’s that are now so popular.
The second ‘device’ which I try to use as much as possible, is my eye. Using the Sunny 16 rule, it is possible to achieve as-near-as-makes-no-difference, correct exposures in good light. Sunny 16 can appear daunting at first, but with practice can become almost instinctive. All of the shots presented here were taken at 500th of a second and an aperture of f/8 in the sunshine and between f/4 & f/5.6 in shadier spots.
Manual focusing is like no other system when using a rangefinder. A simple task of lining-up two separate rectangular ‘windows’ of the same scene. If the rangefinder patch is to the right, twist the focusing ring to the left to ‘drag’ it over and vice versa.
Such is the nature of the M’s viewfinder that it not only shows what will be captured via the framelines, it also shows what’s happening outside that area. Unlike with an EVF or the viewfinder of a DSLR, it’s possible to spot additional subject matter that could be included in ‘the frame’.
Focusing, composition, and taking the picture become a single operation. Without having to worry whether the camera has picked the correct AF point, or that the internal metering has exposed correctly, the act of pressing the beautifully light yet precise shutter button becomes part of the whole. An almost seamless act of lifting the camera, focusing, composing and tripping the shutter.
Every stage of using the Leica M2 feels like a reward, ending with a brief but sweet ‘swing’ of that ‘buttery smooth’ film advance lever.
When it comes to unloading and loading the film, many have said what a ‘pain’ it can be with the early M’s. Yes the M2 (and M3 & MP) has a round knob that you have to twist in order to rewind the film, rather than a small handle on later cameras. However, such is the quality and precision of the internal workings, that this is a ‘smooth’ operation.
You’re now ready to load the next roll and once again, this is often regarded as a faff. In my experience though, it’s something that’s quickly mastered. Take the unexposed roll in one hand and the removable take up spool in the other. Insert the end of the film leader (I cut mine straight across) and push it in as far as it will go, into the sprung ‘leaf’ of the spool. Then with the backdoor of the camera open, slide the joined cassette and spool into their respective cavities. Finish up with a quick check to ensure the ‘teeth’ of the guide roller are engaged in the film’s sprocket holes (gently wind the film advance lever a little if not), close the door, reattach the bottom plate and fire off a couple of frames, not forgetting to reset the manual film counter to zero (another bone of contention for some).
There’s an immense amount of snobbery surrounding Leica’s and I’ve never subscribed to it.
Even among some of the owners themselves, you can still regularly read on various internet ‘hangouts’ how (for example), the CL isn’t a real Leica because it was built by Minolta (though designed by Leica). The M5 is a ‘huge’ ugly monstrosity (it isn’t), forgetting the fact that it was the last ‘M’ made by Leica in Wetzlar to the old ‘fit & adjust’ methods of construction and is an extremely capable shooter.
It doesn’t end there either. The M4-2 is a poor substitute because it has a ‘stamped’ top plate rather than an engraved one and some of the gears are steel rather than brass. Ultimately you’d be silly to buy one because it was made in Canada of all places. 😀
And so we come to the M2. Of course the ‘daddy’ of all the M’s is the M3. The first of many. Yes the M2 (rather confusingly) came afterwards but in my opinion, it improved the breed and benefited from 3 years of improvements since the M3’s launch. Sure you have to reset the counter to zero once you’ve changed a roll, but it comes with 35mm framelines built-in. The widest the M3 could manage was 50mm, requiring an auxiliary viewfinder for anything wider. The M2 also disposed of those unsightly ‘window’ surrounds on the front for a cleaner design.
Ignoring these minor differences, the M2 is basically an M3, including the brass top and bottom plates machined from solid metal. Sure there’s some differences to the rangefinder mechanism itself, but from the outside and whilst shooting, you’d be none the wiser.
Leica originally released the M2 as a ‘budget’ model and this stigma still reverberates today. So much so that a used M2 can be bought for half of what you’d pay for an equivalent condition M3.
Because of this, I paid £399 for my M2 and I for one am delighted it’s still regarded as the ‘Poor Mans Leica’. 🙂
If you are looking to buy a Leica M2, eBay UK always has a good selection on offer here.