Home Cameras/Lenses Leica Leica M: The rising popularity of the film camera

Leica M: The rising popularity of the film camera

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Over the holiday weekend, there was a flurry of comments on an old Macfilos article from three years ago in which I discussed the Leica M7. At the time, it wasn’t the hottest seller among used film cameras, with more demand being seen for the M6 and the older, non-metered M3, M2 and M4 models.

Reader Des McSweeney had been re-reading the old article because he had been scratching an itch to buy an M7. He regretted bitterly selling his M7 in the past, a dose of sellers’ remorse which we’ve all experienced from time to time.

Demand for used Leica film cameras is higher than it has been since the arrival of the M8 and M9 took the gloss of sales of the M7. As Leica’s head of production, Stefan Daniel, told us last week, “the level of interest in film cameras is something that we haven’t seen since the arrival of the digital Ms over ten years ago.”

This is what I wrote back in January 2017:

Lone Ranger meets his Tonto

Last weekend I spent an hour or so discussing the Leica M7 in Red Dot Cameras’ new showroom in Goswell Road, City of London. The customer had his eye on a nice silver-finish M7 starter set — the one with the matching silver 50mm Summicron. It was a good boxed example with original receipt from 2004 and priced at an attractive £2,200.

What struck me most about the encounter was that the potential buyer, a very experienced photographer, had never used a rangefinder. He fancied moving over after a lifetime with other systems, presumably mainly SLRs. How could I describe the rangefinder and how to use it?

Fact is, however often I tarry with the latest technology — be it the buxom Leica SL or a package of svelte micro four-thirds niftiness — I always return to the rangefinder with a keen sense of homecoming. Equally, I do feel a bit homesick when slumming it with autofocus. There’s great satisfaction in adjusting the focus using that split central image. The concept of focus and then recompose is, to me, the quickest way of singling out a subject and making sure that the focus is accurately placed. That bright viewfinder, with space around the 35mm and longer lens framelines, shows you what’s happening outside the frame. All these things may constitute a pretty antiquated concept but, nonetheless, they are inspiring.

Addiction

Manual focus comes part and parcel with rangefinder use. It is clearly an addiction. Call me old fashioned, but I just love this level of manual precision. Leica M lenses, for the most part, offer a quicker, more direct manual focus than you will find on any auto-focus lens that also offers a manual option. Most of these modern lenses are focus-by-wire and there is none of the involvement that you feel when twiddling a Summicron or Summilux.

It’s all just, well, so satisfying and involving. I suppose it’s a bit like coming back to a slick manual Porsche gearbox after a decade or two behind the wheel of an automatic car. You and only you are back in control.

So back to the M7. It’s Leica’s only semi-automatic film camera, offering the same aperture-priority operation as all the M digitals from the M8 up to the latest M10. It is, in fact, a film version of the M10 both in operation and in terms of size. The M10 feels like the M7 and vice versa.

Too electronic

Many analogue camera aficionados decry the M7 as being too complicated, too “electronic”. From the current film camera range they mainly set their sights on the MP — or, if in a particularly spartan mood, the M-A which is totally manual, not a battery in sight. No exposure meter either; it’s for real men and women who know a camera when they see one. If they are hankering after something a bit more “pre-owned” they’ll opt for an M3, M2, M4 or M6. A simpler tool from a simpler age. But all have one thing in common, that delicious and compelling rangefinder. Some say that the original M3 viewfinder has never been bettered, and who am I to disagree?

Yet the M7 has its undoubted talents and attractions (not to mention followers), particularly for anyone now used to a digital M. I like the M7; it’s the film camera to buy if you want exactly the same experience as you have with your digital M. I own a clean à la carte example called Neil (so-called because its first owner rashly had his name engraved on the back, thus reducing the camera’s value considerably) to which I am inordinately attached. At the foot of this article, I’ve linked to some of my adventures with Neil. When I get my hands on the new M10 I plan to take it out for a back to back with good old Neil, obliging chap that he is.  Set both camera shutter speed dials to A and will I be able to tell the difference? The feel, I know already, will be identical.

I just love my rangefinders, despite the undoubted allure of the SL and all its smart-arsed brethren. Give me simplicity any time.

Fast forward to 2020

Here we are three years later and old Leica film cameras have gone from strength to strength. Prices in many cases have doubled. It doesn’t seem long ago since we could go to the Biévres photo fair in June and buy M6 classics for seven or eight hundred euros.

The later M6 TTLs were slightly more expensive, but just five years ago, at Biévres, I bought a mint M6TTL in its original box and with the receipt from a German Leica dealer for just 1,000 euros, which was then little more than £700.

M6 classic and M6TTL models took off in price shortly afterwards but, even two years ago it was possible to lay hands on a good M6 classic for under £1,000 at a British dealer. Now, M6 classics sell for around £1,600 – more for versions with non-standard viewfinder magnifications, of which more later.

As for the M7, Leica’s most sophisticated film camera with auto-exposure, it went through a period in the doldrums for no good reason. It is the M film camera that looks and feels just like an M10 and works in the same way. By rights, it ought to be the most desirable of its ilk. But for a long time, prices seemed stuck at £1,200, even though a new version would set you back nearly three times that figure. This is no longer the case. Used M7s have now settled at £2,000 for a clean version and, as with the M6, there is a premium for non-standard (x0.58 and x0.85) magnification viewfinders.

Current prices

I had a word with Ivor Cooper of Red Dot Cameras this morning and he confirmed that prices have firmed up on all rangefinders and that demand is outstripping supply. “An M6 classic with the standard viewfinder will now sell for £1,600 while the version with the x0.85 viewfinder could fetch £1,800. An M6TTL now starts at £2,000, with the x0.85 at £2,300 and the rarer x0.58 at £2,500.” He went on to say that M7 prices closely mirror those of the M6 TTL.

The most valuable of the production models made in the past 35 years is the black-paint MP. This model is based on the M6 classic but is more solidly built, with a brass top plate and sturdier gearing. It is still in production and sells here in the UK for £3,900, including VAT. But because of the supply situation, used examples have rocketed in price, with £2,900 seen regularly for good examples. According to Ivor, “not a day goes by without someone calling to see if we have an MP in stock”.

Would you be mad to consider paying between £1,600 and £2,500 for a film camera that could be well over 30 years old? Not really, because Leica film cameras are classics. They can always be repaired and Leica maintains parts for almost all cameras made in the past 90 years, and certainly for those made since the introduction of the M3 in 1954.

A further incentive is that the range of lenses available for the rangefinder is mind-boggling. There are more lenses available for M mount than for any other camera system, and you can pick your entry point at almost any price level.

It is quite possible to buy one of these cameras and enjoy a lifetime of photography with nil depreciation. On the contrary, if the experience of the past few years is anything to go by, you could even turn a profit.

Good investment

The manufacture of film cameras remains a highly skilled process, as Stefan Daniel confirmed. “They don’t grow on trees and a film camera is far more complex than a digital camera.” As he said, a film camera contains between 1,100 and 1,200 parts. These constraints on production mean that the two current models, the metered MP and the un-metered M-A, are constantly on backorder and dealers are desperate to get their hands on them.

Fashions can change and prices will fluctuate without a doubt. But film is on the up at the moment. As Leica’s Andreas Kaufmann said last week, current demand is fuelled by younger photographers who are taking up film for the first time. While older users, by and large, are happy with their digitals, film cameras are being snapped up by the under 35s.

All this could change and some prices could soften. But I suspect there won’t be much softening going on. An old M6 or M7 is an investment that you can use every day; it’s not just a collectors’ item to sit in a display cabinet. And you might find that it is a better bet than putting the money in the bank.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. As a collector, I have a very large number of film cameras with multiple examples (with different variations) of various models. I am twice the upper age limit given above and I do know some people who use film all the time and who are in my age bracket. A film M would be very expensive for most people under the age of 35 and it would be interesting to hear who is buying them and driving the prices upwards. The collector market is different to the market for second hand cameras, but the prices from the second hand market can feed in at certain points eg for usable Ms such as M3s and M6s. My collecting interest largely relates to the pre-war and immediate post-war LTM models and the prices for cameras there are relatively stable or show slight rises apart from rare items such as certain variants of the I Model A, the IIId and half frame models. Lenses on the other hand show far more growth in prices obtained and there is an old adage about never selling a Leica lens (unless you have to, of course). Many of the lenses which I have would fetch far more than I paid for them and there is appreciation in value rather than any depreciation at all. This effect is seen to an even greater degree in the case of rare accessories. At an auction last week I saw a rare Leica lens hood (the FISON for the 50 Elmar with the square front that needs to be adjusted every time you focus) sell for £380 whereas I paid less than half that for a lot of 4 or 5 hoods which included that rare one some years ago. I also saw a viewfinder for the 7.3cm f1.9 Hektor sell for £580 with a box, whereas I got mine for less than half that some years ago with an even more rare little leather case for the finder.

    The whole appreciation, depreciation and staying flat situation in relation to photographic equipment prices needs to be studied in order to be understood. I can understand the collector market fully with the sentiment and collectability aspects. The second hand market for film cameras is different. Some older people might just want to have one film camera in their collection for nostalgia use. With younger people there are masses of old film cameras out there which they can use and places like Camera Rescue (check their website) make a nice living restoring cameras for that end of the market. Why do young people shoot film? It is not really about being a ‘hipster’ (a cliche, of course), but something deeper about challenges and being creative. For ‘digital natives’ (another cliche, but it at least is descriptive) making digital images is not a big deal, but showing an image taken on film, perhaps developed by themselves, gives a much greater sense of achievement.

    As for the M7, I have one, but it is not my favourite film M, which would either be an M3 (without meter) or an M6 (with meter). I have most of the other ones and I would also give a shout out for the button rewind version of the M2. My least favourite is the M5, which while it is a lovely collector’s item, is large and clunky to use and less nice as a user item than the large Nikon F models.

    Finally, hold onto those Leica lenses and if you see a rare Leica accessory going cheap buy it immediately.

    William

  2. I always wanted a Leica. I purchased a iiia in 2009. It came with a 50mm Summar lens. I can’t remember what I paid for it, it was in somewhat rough condition. I still use it. As luck would have it I found a nice M2 on Ebay in 2010. Not sure what I paid for it, but I also purchased a new Voigtlander 50mm Nokton lens. I also have an adapter so I could use the LTM lens on this camera. Since purchasing these old cameras I have pretty much ignored my digital Nikons. Oh, I still use them, but nearly as much as before. I won’t part with either of these cameras, though my son keeps eying the M2. I will hang onto these gems.

    Michael

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