A comparison of Leica RF bodies By Geoff Chaplin

Geoff Chaplin has written for us at JCH before. This time he gives us his thoughts on the Leica RF system cameras and his experiences with them.

Introduction

First a little about myself so you know where I’m coming from. My initial interest and then real photographic work was scientific using specialist cameras and systems. My general photography is largely non-commercial although I have done paid magazine illustration work (using Leicas) and I also produce and sell photographic artwork printed using archaic processes whenever I have an exhibition. Other than the scientific aspect, my photographic training was from my father, an artist and employee at a printing company, and latterly by interaction with other artists (photo and otherwise).

Over the years I have used most types and makes of cameras from 35mm to ultra-large format plus pinhole (and digital). More than 30 years ago when I was doing 8×10 photography a friend introduced me to the Leica M6, saying most LF photographers seemed to use a Leica rangefinder in addition to their main camera. But I was warned at the time to be careful with the rewind lever which could break if handled too roughly. I think I owned and used about five M6s over a period of perhaps 20 years and never had a problem.

I have titled this a ‘comparison’ rather than ‘review’ because I am telling you about my experiences with these cameras and my preferences. For in-depth reviews of individual models there are many excellent sources, together with Wikipedia and others for information on camera functions. The cameras I shall compare are the Leica II, iiic, iiif, if, M3, M2, M6 and MP. One of the main operational differences is the way film is loaded, so I’ll describe this first.

Film loading

The M3/M2 are a little more labour intensive than the M6/MP. Rather than just dropping the canister and correct length of leader into the body and between the spines of the take up spindle, the leader has to be firmly inserted into a removable take-up spool and the two are then put into the camera body. The back door allows you to check the film is being carried by the sprockets as you wind on.

The Barnacks are a different story since there is no back door and film has to be trimmed before inserting the leader into the take-up spool. Ken Rockwell’s review of the iiif has an excellent description of film trimming. To his description I’ll add the following points.

  1. Aim for a smooth curve without kinks or tiny side cuts – these can get caught in the film gate and cause the film to tear, possibly depositing bits in the mechanism (bad), although it’s never happened to me, yet.
  2. Make sure the take up spool is perpendicular to the film edge. If not the film can come off the sprockets and you can get to frame 40 and realise the film hasn’t been winding on (yes, that’s happened to me).
  3. To make sure the film is properly loaded, once inside the camera body and with the lens cap on, wind the film on and fire the shutter for several frames making sure the rewind knob is rotating fully each time you wind on. If all is good you can rewind the film until you feel tension and then you are good to start shooting. It’s always a good idea occasionally to check the rewind knob is rotating when you wind on.

It sounds worse than it is – well, OK, it is a lot to think about the first time you do it but it quickly becomes routine. Incidentally, no film is wasted in this process – the film that is trimmed off would be heavily over-exposed in the loading process for the Ms anyway. Typically I get 37-40 frames per film (depending on make) irrespective of camera used.

The cameras

Let’s start with the early Leicas and progress through the screw and M models I have used.

The oldest Leica I used was around body number 100,000, a Leica II I think, bought primarily for historical reasons. The built-in rangefinder worked but was faint, so range focussing was a useful check and sometimes the only way to focus.

Some years later I used iiic and iiif models. These differ from each other in that there is a flash synch on the iiif. I never use flash so this difference is immaterial to me. Compared to the Leica II these models offer shutter speeds down to a second and long exposure, and a focussing lever for the rangefinder next to the rewind knob. As someone of a certain age this lever allows me to use the rangefinder, focussing whether I am wearing my reading glasses, my distance glasses or no glasses at all, and is a function I find very helpful. The viewfinder on all the Barnacks apart from the iiig is small and fiddly, in particular I had problems getting horizontal and verticals straight but with care this can be mastered.

The ‘if’ has no viewfinder or rangefinder (so no focus adjusting lever!) and only has the fast speeds. It is potentially useful with an external viewfinder for wide angle lenses such as the 21mm Color Skopar or the 15mm Super-Wide Heliar where scale focussing can be used. The lack of a slow speed dial is a disadvantage if photographing indoors for example.

Then comes the iiig. These are cameras I still use and in addition to the benefits of the iiif the composition viewfinder is much larger and easier to use at the cost of a slight increase in size and, some would say, a less attractive camera to look at. (See also “condition” below.)

Released before the iiig was the M3 (with the M2 coming later than the iiig but in the same year). The Ms brought a new slightly larger and heavier body, bayonet mount, single shutter speed dial, rangefinder which is clearer in use than the Barnack rangefinder and is integrated with the viewfinder, lever film wind rather than a knob, no longer any need to trim film to load into the body, and easier film loading. What was given up is the focussing lever and a stop in brightness of the viewfinder (in order to integrate the rangefinder into the same view): the Barnack viewfinders are about a stop brighter than the Ms. The M3 viewfinder is often incorrectly described as Leica’s brightest – true out of the Ms but the Barnacks have no half coated mirror required to incorporate the split screen rangefinder. Like the Barnacks the M3 viewfinder is designed for 50mm lenses while the M2 is designed for 35mm.

Early M3s have old-sequence shutter speeds, this isn’t a significant issue if you understand exposure. There are double and single stroke versions, and there are many other minor changes in construction. One minor change which may be of significance to spectacle wearers is the viewfinder aperture on the single stroke M3s is larger possibly giving an easier view of the frame-lines. It’s some years since I had a single stroke M3 but I don’t remember it being materially any easier to use with spectacles. The black surround of the viewfinder window is larger (as on later Ms).

It is often said the M3 post 1m body number are the best because the workers had more experience. Bearing in mind Leitz had been a precision scientific instrument maker for about 80 years, and had been making Barnack bodies for over two decades, prior to the introduction of the M3 I do not subscribe to this theory. Others have a different view (see “the best of the best” by Setadel Studios) – that after body number 858000 quality declined. I have owned both early and late M3 bodies – as long as they are in good condition they all work! Putting all this together my preference is the double stroke – one stroke after taking a shot and the shutter is locked, then one short wind-on before firing the next shot. And it just feels better.

The M6 was the first Leica I bought. This brought an angled rewind lever instead of a knob (see comments above), multiple frame-lines in the viewfinder, faster film loading without a separate take-up spool (all introduced with the M4) and like the MP a coated viewfinder window. The M6 brought in-camera metering in the same body shell as the M4. The natural lens to use was the 35mm and this fitted in better with my LF lenses which tended to be semi-wide to wide. I used M6s exclusively for approaching 20 years, never having a mechanical problem with any (although I always had at least two cameras just in case). The coated viewfinder window is actually less useable than the uncoated window as on the M3 – fingermarks dim and degrade the image whereas this is not the case with the M3

The final model I bought about 18 years ago was the MP. The MP reverted to the rewind knob and (compared to the original M6) had improved mechanics and exterior construction, though not matching that of the M3.  Apart from an accident when the camera dropped from the car onto concrete (which required a repair to the electronic meter) the camera has been completely reliable mechanically.

Condition

All of the Leica rangefinders are capable of producing superb results in the appropriate circumstances, some bodies might be more of a hassle – or more rewarding to operate – than others but results won’t necessarily differ. Bear in mind little modern glass is made in a screw mount, whereas LTM and bayonet mount lenses can both be used on the Ms. When buying, condition is most important not age or model. I have looked at and used many M3s and iiifs – external appearance of top and bottom plates is often a good guide, crumbling vulcanite less important. These models have often been used heavily. Of course it is possible to have a body refurbished but few are capable of rangefinder rebuilds to the standards of a new camera, so condition and operation of the rangefinder is particularly important. The iiig has a unique position having been launched after the M3. My suspicion is it tended to be bought by older photographers used to the Barnack system and so probably did not get heavy use. Most of the iiigs I have seen have had an excellent external appearance and at most have needed a simple service.

Buy from a trusted source (like JCH). It’s always better if you can see and handle the camera before buying. If you go to eBay only buy from 100% positive feedback sellers and only do so if you are confident in checking the camera thoroughly yourself. Even if you go to some of the large camera shops be aware that they are not operating on your behalf, check carefully.

My preferences

In my M6 days I saw myself as a 35mm focal length photographer, almost entirely in colour, primarily of urban scenes and architecture. As time went on I became interested in the M3 and overcame my prejudice against 50mm focal length. I quickly realised it changed my photography from (generally) a wider scene to detail specific; I also realised I had become lazy in not getting closer to my intended subject – the 50mm prompted me to change this. Now I shoot almost exclusively 50mm and for the past couple of years almost entirely B&W, concentrating on light and shade rather than specific subjects.

Comparing my M3, MP, M6 and iiig the M3 rangefinder is marginally easier to focus with than the MP or M6, and all the Ms are easier to focus than the iiig particularly in poor light. And of course, for 50mm lenses, the M3 viewfinder is spectacular if a little hard to see in its entirety when wearing glasses. Tight composition is harder to achieve with a 50mm lens on the MP or M6 because of the smaller viewfinder image area.

I trust incident light metering rather than reflected light metering, so it would seem natural that I should prefer the M3 to other cameras, and in many ways I do. But while my M3 is flawless (apart from wear marks I have added over the last 10+ years) having been expertly refurbished just before I bought it, and is by far the quietest Leica I have ever heard, the MP has a couple of slight advantages. The MP is much newer and when I’m lazy the smaller 50mm frame-lines allow me to wear glasses and see the full frame easily.

The surprise perhaps is that my preferred camera is often the iiig. Why? It’s just that bit more compact and lighter. The screw lenses have a quality and charm the more modern lenses cannot match, and are collapsible leading to a much smaller camera. (Of course you can use screw lenses with an adapter on the Ms). The key point though is the focussing lever for the rangefinder. A dioptre lens in the Ms will work for one pair of glasses but not the other or no glasses, it doesn’t correct for astigmatism, and it is less convenient (glasses on to see the world, off to use the camera) plus eyesight changes over time.

What do I actually use? Of course the iiig but also the MP and the M3 especially when I want to use modern glass or if I know lighting is going to be difficult. I guess I’m fickle and emotional not just logical. In any event if I’m going on a photography trip I always take a spare camera so typically an M and a iiig.

And I guess there is one other final thing I should mention, utterly silly though it is. The iiig and the M3 have the proper inscription on the top plate and are the products of the original factory and the scientific equipment company that created 35mm photography under Oskar Barnack. Oddly that matters to me.

Thanks to Geoff Chaplin for this thoughtful comparison of some of my favourite cameras. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

JCH