The Leica CL – A Viable M-Series Replacement?
A guest piece written by Daniel King. An interesting comparison of the Leica cameras.
I recently purchased a Leica CL as a second camera to my Leica M2. It made sense really, a cheaper M-fitting rangefinder I could rely on if my M2 should fail (yet to happen), or if I need to shoot both B&W and colour films. Could it be more than that though? Could this cheaper rangefinder system be a fair match to its M-Series older brothers? After all, it was discontinued with very impressive sales figures, which led to rumours of it affecting the sales of Leica’s higher end rangefinders.
This small comparison is from limited experiences with my Leica CL, I’ve put it through its paces to see that everything is working correctly. I will mainly look at the main reasons why people are attracted to the M-Series cameras, and see how the CL stacks up against my M2. I will not be commenting on the lenses available with the CL as I bought the body only.
Size and Ergonomics
A Leica’s size and simplicity of use is one of the main attractions to photographers who don’t want to be lugging around beefy SLR cameras. On size alone, the CL does pip the M2, slightly smaller in terms of width. Height and thickness however, are very similar. Because of this the M2 is also slightly heavier.
In terms of ergonomics, after shooting a few rolls with the CL I did have a couple of little gripes. Now these are very small annoyances, but I’m comparing this to my beloved M2, which I always have on me and can find almost no fault with in the hand.
The shutter release is just that little bit further away. You have to reach over the film advance lever to press it, it feels a little less natural compared to the M2 where it’s on top of the lever.
The advance lever also has a very long winding action, much more than the M2, beyond the front of the camera which makes it a lot slower to shoot when you are tying to rattle off a few shots in quick succession. The lever can also rest flush with the back of the camera making it difficult for your thumb to grab it without lowering the camera from your eye.
I do however like the placement of the shutter speed dial on the front of the camera, which is in exactly the right place to make adjustments without lowering the camera. Coupled with the shutter speed view in the rangefinder (more on that below) easy changes can be made without lowering from your eye.
These are very minor points, all-in-all the build quality of both cameras is very solid, exactly as you would expect a Leica to feel like. The CL is not quite as ‘Leica-ish’ as the M2 with plastics used in some areas, but for the price, it is to be expected.
Let’s face it, most people by the Leica Rangefinder System because it is the best 35mm rangefinder money can buy. Some people love to use a rangefinder, others don’t, and there are many pages that detail the advantages and disadvantages that they bring. For me, the viewfinder and rangefinder itself is the CL’s biggest shortfall to the M2.
The viewfinder of the M2 is big, bright and simple, just one set of frame lines (35, 50 or 90) and the rangefinder square in the centre. The CL viewfinder is a lot smaller, not as bright and very busy. This is mostly due to the camera’s built-in meter which did not work at all on my model (seems to be a common fault). The 40mm frame lines are there permanently, the 50mm and 90mm frame lines appear when the corresponding lenses are attached. Accompanied with the shutter speed bar and meter needle bar, the already smaller viewfinder becomes very crowded. For me, the main advantage of a rangefinder is the ability to see outside of the frame at what is coming in, this is hampered with the CL due to the amount of information outside of the frame lines.
The rangefinder square itself is also larger and brighter on the M2 making focusing much easier. It may just be my model but the CL rangefinder square is quite faint and difficult to use in darker or low contrast conditions. I was also getting flare issues when shooting in direct sunlight. I have also found that the lens hood for my Zeiss 50mm partially blocks the rangefinder making it even fainter. This is because the rangefinder window is above the lens, unlike the M2. I’m not sure whether Leica made the camera smaller, or the position of the shutter speed dial. Just a warning if you have glass that requires a hood to prevent flare.
I’m not talking low light performance here. Another advantage to the rangefinder system is that it’s mirror less, no mirror slap here! The CL and M2 both have cloth shutters making for a quiet shutter release, allowing stealthy shooting. Comparatively, they are very smaller, the M2 is a little quitter but it is hardly noticeable in comparison.
Overall, these are quite small differences and if you are new to the Leica System then I’m sure you will find the CL to be a great camera. It is a step down from the M-Series cameras but I will be keeping it in my bag for emergencies if, heaven forbid, my M2 fails me. If size and weight is a big issue for you, then the CL is definitely worth considering, but for that Leica Rangefinder experience I would recommend an M-Series camera.
An M-Series replacement? Not for me, but still a very strong camera and the lower price makes it a very attractive proposition. If I bought another M-Series camera as a backup it would probably be wasted and wouldn’t see much use. For this reason, the CL is perfect as a backup.
• Smaller and Lighter than M2
• Faster flash sync of 1/60 (1/50 on M2)
• A vertical strap system that I do really like
• Meter, if you can find one working, increasingly rare
• Shutter speed view through viewfinder (for me, only useful with working meter)
• Better film rewind lever than the M2’s older ‘wheel system’
• Hot shoe (M2 only a cold shoe)
• Ergonomically not as natural than the M2, for me anyway
• Busy viewfinder and faint rangefinder square
• Not all M-Series lenses compatible (dual range etc.)
• No PC-Sync connection
• Larger lens hoods block rangefinder window
• Reports that slower shutter speeds can be unreliable