There are questions you would rather avoid. And there are those you are only too eager to answer. In connection with the M-Files, I was asked such a welcome question quite a few times: “Now the time has come, I also want to buy a Leica like this, which can take pictures like in the past. But what should I choose?” Here is my answer.
Of course, I know that most Macfilos readers actually need no advice on how to enter the rangefinder world. Because they are inside already, or because they made a deliberate decision that they don’t want to be inside. But even they might fancy a bit of gearhead talk if only as a distraction. We all had fun with the “which is the one lens you would take to the desert island?” question game, didn’t we?
Yes, there are people who have rangefinder cameras, lenses and other accessories by the cabinetful. They have long since passed through the gates of photographic paradise (or what they consider them to be). Others, however, are still standing in front of these gates, thinking about whether and how they can make it to enter the rangefinder world.
To be able to make it — that means here: firstly, to be able to afford it financially, secondly, to manage it technically, thirdly, to master it creatively. Point three is something that everyone has to work out for themselves. Point two can be solved with lessons, advice and practice. For point one, I have some thoughts and suggestions here. So here are five pieces of advice for (re)entering the world of rangefinders.
1. The body: Think about film photography
Film photography is less expensive than many people think, and it is by far the cheapest way into the rangefinder world. Seriously. Yes, Kodak has had a massive price rise. But even if you shoot two rolls a month and have them professionally processed and scanned, your investment is manageable. If you decide to go black and white (and there are good reasons to do so) and if you take the trouble to develop your films (read here why this is a good idea), it is still cheaper. Much cheaper in any case than even a worn digital monochrome M camera, as I showed towards the end of this article.
Sure, the times of very affordable film-loading Leicas seem to be over. But if you can live without a built-in light meter, you can still find a rangefinder body at a reasonable price. I especially recommend the M 4-2. This is not only a camera of historic interest (the first Leica model that was built completely in Canada, and the Leica model that saved the beloved M system from extinction) but also a highly usable body. It is easier to load than the earlier and more famous M3 and M2, it has a beautiful 0.72 viewfinder for 35, 50, 90 and 135 mm lenses. And it is less sought after as a collector’s item (good news for everybody who looks for a camera to shoot with).
If you fancy the Made in Germany appeal on your Leica, you can think of an M4 which is as versatile as the M 4-2. If you, as a newcomer, expect to use a 28 mm wide-angle at one point, the M4-P with its six frame lines, including 28 and 75 mm, might be right for you. The M4-P is basically an M6 without built-in exposure metering. There are decent apps for your smartphone that will do the job for you. Or you buy the affordable and yet precise and user-friendly Sekonic Twinmate L-208.
And what about the much-hyped M6s? Well, I am afraid they have become too expensive now. Prices have roughly doubled in the last three years or so. You might have to fork out €3000 for an M6 in excellent shape and you still have a camera that is 20 years old (M6 TTL) at its best or even up to 38 years (M6 “classic”). If not now, it will need a thorough CLA (clean, lubricate, adjust) job for a couple of hundred euros; in the end, you are financially not too far away from a factory-new film Leica MP. The eventual CLA cost also applies to an M4-2, of course, but your camera investment is much lower (if you are lucky, it will not exceed € 1000 by too much).
Of course, there are other options. If you do not want to go shorter than 50 millimetres lens-wise, an M3 is great. A well-kept M2, with the additional 35mm frame line, is always a stunner. The M7 is a wonderful camera but certainly not an entry-level offering. And there are all the other interesting rangefinder cameras I presented to you in The M Files, from the Zeiss Ikon and the Voigtländer Bessas to the Konica Hexar RF and the Minolta CLE. They all can be a great ticket into the rangefinder world, but with respect to service/repair facilities and other support, I would recommend going for a Leica M to start with.
So, the body question is solved — we have settled for some kind of Leica M4 perhaps. If you really want to go digital, read on to learn what I suggest in chapter three below.
2. The lens: Talk yourself into frugality
I understand if you are fed up with all the “Das Wesentliche” (“the essential”) Leica marketing parlance. But you will notice that less is more in the rangefinder world. If you’re a newcomer, confine yourself to just one lens in the beginning. I would even go so far to say that you should use this one lens for a full year and eventually buy a second one only after such considerable training. You will truly appreciate that it is easier to travel light. Especially if you are coming from a fully-featured SLR outfit, you will ask yourself if you can really get along with just one focal length. A bit of auto-suggestion (“Das Wesentliche”…ummm… “Das Wesentliche”…ummm… “Das Wesentliche”…) might be helpful.
If you want to start real rangefinder photography (as opposed to buying a hipster’s lifestyle accessory), you almost certainly have a photographic background. You know if you are more the 50 m, or more the 35 mm kind of shooter. There are many Leica lenses in both focal lengths, but even older second-hand Summicrons have become very expensive. Used Summarits (they are very recommendable) fetch prices by now that are similar to what these lenses had once cost new.
As to 35s, my recommendation for the analogue start is the Voigtländer Skopar 35/2.5 which is not terribly fast but very small and light-weight, easy to use and, best of all, available new for around €450 (learn more about this lens here). If you want to go digital right away or later, the Voigtländer Ultron 35/2 has an excellent reputation, despite being quite a bit more expensive at about €700 new. Sean Reid put it through its paces and comes to a very favourable assessment (subscription required, highly recommended). You can choose either version I or version II, the main difference is the nice focusing tab on the newer edition. Other interesting options are the Zeiss Biogon 35/2.8 (a somewhat controversial lens, read here what you have to know if you want to use it on a digital camera) or the rather inexpensive Voigtländer Nokton 35/1.4 (get the details here).
In the 50s field, my clear advice is to buy the Zeiss Planar 50/2. Read here why it is a truly excellent lens in both digital and film use, offers plenty of sharpness, contrast, flare resistance and very good build quality. It might well be the only fifty you ever need if you get along with the somewhat harsh bokeh. For just over €600, the Planar is one of the most affordable new rangefinder 50s at the time of writing. Other and even faster options are the Voigtländer 50/1.5 lenses of which I have tested none so far. Voigtländer’s Apo-Lanthar 50/2 is excellent for sure but, at €1100 it is not an entry lens in my eyes.
As I wrote, even older and, very often, very old Leica lenses tend to be more expensive than a new Zeiss or Voigtländer lens. If you insist on owning one, go for the current Summicron 50 (version 5 or the optically identical version 4) or a Summarit 35. Both are great lenses but any of them will set you back by a four-digit sum.
As to the more exotic Konica M-Hexanon lenses (there is a 50 and a 35), my advice is to think twice. That’s more for the experienced buyer. A Minolta 40/2 — you can find good copies at affordable prices — seems to be a nice compromise, but if you are not used to guesstimating your framing you will struggle. So, nothing for the newcomer again.
And what about one of the Chinese rangefinder lenses that are offered at quite low prices from brands with the word artisan in it? I have no experience with them, and I am a bit reluctant to change that at the moment. Working in a creative business myself, I do have some reservations in respect to their handling of intellectual property.
By now, we have a body and a lens, the light metering will be done with your smartphone. Now get yourself some films and set off.
3. The digital way: Make others pay the depreciation
Oh, you rather wanted a digital rangefinder camera? That’s fine, but you will have to spend much more money. The good news (in this case) is that digital cameras do suffer from significant depreciation, although Leica products do retain their value better than most.
So go for an older second-hand body and be happy that someone else has already paid the initial 1,000 or 2,000 euros of value loss. Even if it is a bit more expensive, I would recommend buying a used digital M from a reputed professional seller if you are not really experienced. You should get a limited warranty and ongoing support and advice.
With the new M11 slowly percolating into the market, we can expect used M10s to be offered in greater quantities. But they will not be cheap. Neither are other rangefinder bodies. Sensible choices are the different variations of the Leica M (Typ 240, 262, M-E second edition). These are still very capable cameras albeit not with the super attractive form factor of the M10 (in fact, they are a bit thicker).
My suggestion is the M Typ 262 if you don’t need to use an additional electronic viewfinder (read here when this makes sense and when not). The M 262 is a really nice and easy to handle camera (Mike Evans wrote a great article about the M262) — and, appropriate to this article’s subject — it’s probably the most affordable and least risky way to get a full-frame digital rangefinder camera.
The M9 has its fanbase and rightly so. But please be aware that used copies are quite expensive if they are proven to have a replaced sensor. If they don’t (or if the seller can’t prove the replacement) be careful. You can find some details concerning the sensor issues of the M9 in this article.
The even older M8 is offered at low prices sometimes but it has no full-frame sensor and poor low light performance. Add to it the problems with black textiles rendered in purple tones, and you might agree that it is not really recommendable for a rangefinder entry in 2022. But perhaps the biggest reason to avoid the M8 is that replacement rear screens are no longer available. The screen is prone to staining and there is no solution if yours goes wrong.
Should the decision for a digital M affect your choice of a lens? And how important is it to have a lens with 6-bit-coding for a digital M? I would say that it is not necessary. It’s nice to have your lens info in your Exif files but there are workarounds. Furthermore, a 50 will hardly need in-camera correction of colour drift or vignetting so never mind. With a 35 or a 28, things can be different. The Zeiss 35/2.8 for instance is tricky, especially on older digital M models. In critical situations, the low-cost Voigtländer 35/2.5 hits its limits on a modern sensor. A suitable 6-bit-code can generally be applied to non-Leica-lenses with some DIY work. I would not go this way, but I wanted to mention the option.
4. The kit: Take the long-term view
If you are new to the rangefinder world, you will know about the legacy of this way to take photographs, but you are, at the same time, likely to have come from a system where fast innovation cycles (or what is sold as such) are the norm. Many camera manufacturers replace their latest model after a year or even less. Also in this respect, rangefinder photography slows you down. There will be no “the latest and the greatest” new gadget every few months. Once you have done your investment, you will be settled for quite some time.
Thinking in the long term is also a good principle when it comes to extending your kit. Above, I recommended starting with one lens. After a year or so, you will know what you need next: Either a longer lens for portraits and details in nature. Or a shorter lens for reportage style, architecture or landscapes. Maybe a faster lens if you master the art of playing with super-shallow depth of field and/or if you really, really need the extra stop in very low light conditions. If you spare a few thoughts on what you really need, you will make an informed investment.
There are many articles online about “how to build a lens family for your Leica”. Only you know what makes sense for you. One suggestion from me: Do continue to think outside the red dot box. A brand-new Leica lens is something wonderful for sure, and I would never blame anyone for taking pride in possessing and affording a Summilux or one of those excellent newer Apo-Summicrons. But remember that there are many other fish in the sea. Just as an example, if you go for a 21-35-90 kit (a great set up by the way), you will get the Voigtländer Color Skopar 21/3.5 (much praised by Sean Reid) and the new Apo Skopar 90/2.8 together for less than almost any modern second-hand Leica lens would cost. Another very affordable yet capable kit is suggested in the photo above.
Again, take your time. Rangefinder photography is not about running around with a huge bag full of lenses. It’s a game of limited options and a challenge to see the subjects you can take with the equipment you have. The reward is a unique experience and — if you worked with passion and precision — great image quality. You don’t achieve all this overnight.
Finally, a few words about buying a new Leica. If you are already sure that you will use your camera for many years, it is worth thinking about buying a new one. You will have a warranty and the peace of mind of not having unexpected repair costs as long as no accident happens to your camera. I mentioned in the context of the M6 prices that it might be an idea to go for a new MP instead. A new M11 can be a sensible choice, too. If you use it for, say, ten years (and this is realistic), the annual cost is no longer so daunting.
5. The purchase: Be prudent and patient
Back to your entry kit. My final bit of advice is not to hurry your purchase. You will most likely buy second-hand. I have been observing the market for many years now and I can assure you that it will be worth the wait. Every now and then an item turns up that is in good condition and has a sensible price. This is especially true for Leica M bodies. Just keep an eye on a few trustworthy web pages, ask your dealer to inform you if he gets in something suitable, speak to fellow photographers. Maybe one of them has long thought of parting with (one of) his rangefinder camera(s) and is happy to sell it to someone who seriously wants to use it.
And, please, don’t fall for what seems to be a bargain. You take a high risk if you make a once-in-a-lifetime purchase from some obscure source. I advise buying from professional dealers. Some use eBay as their outlet, well, why not? Still better, in my eyes, is to buy in a store such as my favourite Leica Store Konstanz where you can take the camera in your hands, check its mechanics, carefully look at the shutter curtains and (if present) battery contacts. It might cost you a bit more but can probably save you from throwing away a lot of money.
One last word about the alleged widows who claim to have found such a strange old camera of their deceased husband, still in the maker’s box, and are now giving it away cheaply. Maybe this really exists. But I never came across it. Relatives of people who have owned a Leica know its value — or they at least know enough people who do. More often, they even expect a higher selling price than is realistic and be it only for sentimental reasons. In other words, even if you have fallen in love with the idea of owning a rangefinder camera (welcome to the club), do use your common sense.
Conclusion: The gates to heaven may be a bit hard to reach, but they are not locked
We have seen that it is not impossible to become a Leica M photographer (actually, it is more difficult to be a decent rangefinder photographer) if you confine yourself to a small kit. In fact, it might cost you less than another professional camera and it is likely to last much longer.
Furthermore, we have seen that the risk is manageable. Chances are that you can sell a film-loading rangefinder camera and lenses one day without a financial loss (the emotional loss might be considerable though). It is more probable however that you will feel very much at home in the new world and that you want to extend your possibilities. All lessons you have learnt so far will help you with your next steps.
So go ahead, get a rangefinder camera if it really matters to you and by all means use it. Every day, if you can. That’s what cameras are made for. Even, believe it or not, Leicas. They are even more lovely to use than to look at. I can testify.
What do you think? Which rangefinder camera would you recommend to a newcomer to the rangefinder world? Do you have a personal recommendation for a first lens and why? Any secret tips concerning value for money? Any stealthy sources for affordable M6s? Any warnings for mistakes newcomers should not make? And – did you ever make a newcomer really happy by selling him or her a rangefinder camera and do you know if they stuck with it? Or have you experienced a disappointment in this regard?