The hype seems never-ending: used Leica M film cameras continue to post new price records on the second-hand market. A good copy of the highly sought-after Leica M6 might easily cost more than €2,000, with prices having at least doubled in the past ten years. The M6TTL fetches even more. Is now time to think about alternatives?
Recently, I began to see even more relevance for this series of articles—in the rumours of a new, less expensive film Leica M. I can imagine that Leica sees the ever-rising prices and thinks about getting deeper into the business. Second-hand-gear trade through Leica-owned shops is certainly one way they already started to follow the trend.
But it is not entirely unrealistic that the following idea might be pursued in Wetzlar’s Leitz Park, too: “If customers are ready to €2,500 or more for a 20-year-old M6, are they also willing to pay €3,300 for a new one, with factory warranty and all?”.
Well, I have no idea if it is possible at all to produce a film M at this price point or if they could make nice bundles with the made-in-Portugal lenses which are being produced for the US market now. For the moment, any camera with an M mount can only get more interesting.
The M Files project, which starts on Macfilos next Monday, endeavours to create a serious knowledge resource while at the same time providing an entertaining discourse, illustrated with many everyday photos.
I found it increasingly compelling to do some research about—and actually to work with—what I call the “not-quite-M-Leicas”. For me, it’s expressly not the “almost-M-Leicas” because this is patently misleading. I do not consider these cameras to be inferior copies but as fully-fledged cameras in their own right. This is the most important idea behind The M Files.
With the help of other enthusiasts, I gathered a beautiful group of cameras, and I am happy to share my experience with them here on Macfilos. By the way, such models are also a fascinating field of collecting, but here I am considering only the practical side. After all, that’s what cameras were built for, is it not?
Six cameras and many different films
I have tested six different cameras, with their respective lenses and/or the lenses that usually came with them. All of them have a Leica M bayonet, all of them have a built-in light meter, and of course, they use film. In modern photographic parlance, analogue (rather than film) is generally accepted as the opposite to digital so I will go with that. I realise that some more traditional photographers may object to the use of analogue.
Classic photography with silver halide film has recently experienced a small renaissance, and I am lucky that in my home town of Konstanz (Constance) there is not only a very seductive Leica Store, but also an excellent photography shop (Lichtblick) with a great supply of Kodak Portra and Ektar, and a service provider with a minilab which scans negatives in decent quality.
Do not hope for a shelf warmer at a bargain price—these days are over
None of the cameras I will be presenting is currently still being built. Just a few years ago, you could hope to find an unused and original-packed shelf warmer in a declining photo store and get a bargain with one of these “not-quite-M-Leicas”. Unfortunately, many of these shops have had to close down because of the upheavals in the trade. And eBay has also contributed to the fact that photographic equipment is now rarely sold significantly below the price in ignorance of its actual value (rather the opposite).
In the framework of The M Files, in each episode of the series, I will present one the following cameras in detail:
- Voigtländer Bessa R4A (with Voigtländer Nokton 35/1.4 II and Color Skopar 21/4)
- Konica Hexar RF (with Konica M-Hexanon 50/2)
- Zeiss Ikon (with Zeiss ZM Biogon 25/2.8, Biogon 35/2.8 and Planar 50/2)
- Rollei 35 RF (with Rollei Sonnar 40/2.8)
- Voigtländer Bessa T (with Voigtländer Color Skopar 35/2.5 and Super-Wide Heliar 15/4.5)
- Leica CL (with Leica Summicron-C 40/2 and Elmar-C 90/4)
Thus, we have five different brands on paper. However, apart from the two Voigtländers, the Zeiss Ikon and the Rollei 35 RF were also actually manufactured in the same plant. These are Cosina products with the biggest similarities between the Bessa R4M and the Rollei.
The Bessa T is a predecessor of both. It represents the beginning of the rangefinder renaissance (and the cautious first attempts by Cosina with limited risk and cheaper materials). The Hexar RF stands entirely by itself. And of course, the Leica CL is unique in my series because it is the only 1970s product in a range of cameras that were all made from 1999 onwards.
That’s six cameras altogether, and I will present each one with its essential functions, ergonomics and, of course, sample photos. Where reasonable, I will add advice on actual handling, possible mistakes and frequent problems. Everything I write comes from my own experience.
For some historical information and technical points, I used several sources. First of all, I consulted the manuals for the cameras and lenses. More than common knowledge I owe to Stephen Gandy (you might already know his fantastic site www.cameraquest.com), to Peter Lausch (www.lausch.com, a great resource, in German) and Hamish Gill and his contributors (www.35mmc.com, an excellent site which many of us will know). And even if Leica M lenses are only touched upon very marginally in The M Files so far, I do of course read Erwin Puts’s extensive work both on his site (https://photo.imx.nl) and in his books.
Cameras, lenses and example photos both on film and digital
I will also give my opinion on the lenses used in each case. Where available, I will share a few pictures showing the performance of the respective lenses on a digital M or SL (the latter being better-suited thanks to its unerring electronic viewfinder). However, in-depth reviews of these lenses or comparisons with more or less similar Leica Lenses or scholarly tests of the lenses’ technical properties are currently not planned.
The original analogue photos were commercially scanned, I added minimal post-processing if any. The digital photos are mainly out-of-camera, some underwent slight corrections. No lens profiles were applied, no sharpening was added.
From luxury Kodak Ektar to the cheapest Fujicolor
For my work, I used different types of colour negative film. First, because I wanted to have fun with photography and not conduct a scientific experiment. Second, because I am still searching for my favourite. I have worked on black and white negative professionally for years, and I have shot hundreds of rolls of slide film since 1989. Colour negative film, however, was pretty much terra incognita for me. Third, because conditions vary and, with them, the need for ISO.
And last, because the availability of analogue film was limited at times. So, you will see photos taken on cheap Kodak Gold 200 and expensive Ektar 100, on Kodak Ultramax 400 and Fuji C 200. If you compare images, please keep this in mind. I will specify the film type used in the captions but remember that results can also vary due to lab processing, ageing and storage.
No exotic imagery, rather photos from my area
Initially, I had the idea to test the material when doing a bit of travelling over summer and autumn. Well, this did not work due to Covid-19. So, I took the photos at Konstanz in South Germany, where I live, and its direct surroundings. I find it easier to take good pictures of something new to you (probably the reporters’ disease), but I decided to take up the challenge of providing decent sample shots from subjects well-known to me.
As a reader, you will at least gain an impression of what my area looks like. However, I want to mention that the photos are not selected for their beauty (whatever that is) but for their value as examples for the lenses’ characteristics. In other words: Not all my photos are so boring.
And, just to make it clear, I do not receive any benefit from any of the manufacturers whose products I write about. This is entirely my independent work. Nevertheless, I do owe a great debt of gratitude to the Lichtblick photoshop and the Leica Store Konstanz. I was able to borrow some accessories there that made the tests possible in the first place.
Therefore, I think it is fair to give a recommendation here for Lichtblick and the Leica Store Konstanz. They also offer to ship all goods, the staff members speak English and are very familiar with all customs formalities even outside the EU (greetings, UK), not least because we are at home right on the Swiss border.
If you still have a small independent photo dealer nearby, please support them. There is much at stake in these challenging times for the kind of retail we all know and appreciate.
One episode every two weeks
Our Macfilos editor, Mike Evans, will schedule the reviews in his programme every fortnight from next Monday. I am looking forward to our joint 16-week journey around the boundaries of the Leica M world. The last stop will be a comprehensive summary, in which I will also address the question of whether and when it makes sense to buy a “non-quite-Leica-M” and whether you should perhaps consider buying a genuine M Leica. I wish you good reading with The M Files.