A film camera collection is almost like a car collection. Those who are fortunate enough to have the means to collect cars will gather special vehicles that either have sentimental or historic value. Some people collect cars of a certain brands while others go crazy gathering anything they can get their hands on. Collectors may buy junk vehicles and restore them while others buy them fixed to their originally glory. Some car aficionados may have an ear for recognizing ignitions while camera buffs can recognize shutter flaps. It’s a strange analogy but I think it holds true; each vehicle is designed a certain way with a host of accoutrements but essentially they are made to do one thing, to be driven.
Cameras are no different. I sometimes find myself wondering what the equivalent brand would be for the cameras in my collection. The Nikon F3 would be a Ferrari, The Canon A-1 and AE-1 might be a Toyota, Hasselblad could be a Cadillac, but Leica is something much more unique. Maybe a Rolls Royce, Bentley, Mercedes? A luxury item not built for speed but for precision; a quality German made camera assembled by hand and functions using only mechanical parts.
For those who are unfamiliar with what a Leica M series camera is, it’s regarded as a rangefinder style camera. Compared to a Single-Lens-Reflex (SLR) camera, a rangefinder does not use the camera lens to focus and compose the photograph. Instead, it uses focusing patch in the viewfinder which helps the photographer focus the lens. The viewfinder on a rangefinder camera is nothing more than a piece of glass with frame lines, indicating the camera view, and the focus patch. One of the main reasons why some photographer prefer rangefinder style cameras is the unobstructed view through the viewfinder and the ability to see outside the frame lines to anticipate subjects coming in and out of view. Whereas with an SLR, photographers do not have the ability to see outside the view of the lens without moving their eye from the camera and the camera view is obstructed when the shutter is released as the mirror moves up and down. Another huge advantage the rangefinder cameras have is the lack of a mirror which provides a much quieter sound and smaller body.
After much research and internet searches, I purchased my Leica M4 from Tamarkin Camera in Chicago Illinois. I would like to share my first impressions on the M4 and share some of the reasons why I chose this camera over the other Leica options.
One of the first things I noticed was it’s build quality. Much like the Hasselblad 500CM in my collection, there is no wiggle or any signs of design flaws to this camera. Every piece of machinery is built with quality materials and feels comfortable in the hands.
My M4 has a lot of mileage. I personally don’t mind it and like to see the battle scars, if only this camera could talk. 50 years of picture taking history, how many times has it changed hands to be sold, bought and resold to finally end up here where it will continue its photographic endeavor. When it came to choosing which Leica M model I wanted, there were a few things I had in mind: I wanted the classic Leica look, and a camera suitable for 35mm lenses.
When I was considering a Leica M, I had three models in mind, the M3, M2, M4 and M6. My first choice was the M3. The M3 is the original Leica which introduced the M mount system in 1954; however it does not have framelines for 35mm lenses. In order to use a 35mm lens on the M3, the camera requires special goggles which I didn’t want to begin to fuss with and the goggles look awkward to use. So the M3 was not an option.
The M2 was another choice however I didn’t like that the frame counter was a manual selector. It doesn’t seem like a huge flaw but I felt like this was one thing that may end up bugging me in the long run. I like to record notes about my shots sometimes and with the manual frame counter I know this would be a small issue, so the M2 was not a practical choice.
I considered the M6 but I didn’t like the plastic look of it and I wasn’t so sure it was a great idea to have a light meter built in. I feel that one of the best experiences that a Leica can bring, and other analogue cameras have, is the inability to shoot without a light meter. I have found that guessing the light and experimenting with a scene has made me more aware as a photographer. In my opinion the light meter could lessen that experience or be distracting in the overall picture taking moment. Besides the meter, the frame selectors in the viewfinder were a bit distracting as well. The less distractions the better.
Ultimately I decided on the M4, which some purist refer to as the last classic Leica made. With its 35mm frame lines, automatic film counter and no light meter, this camera felt like the right choice. I also left confident purchasing from Tamarkin Camera since all their film cameras come with 6 month warrantees. This was a huge bonus considering the risk involved when purchasing on eBay and other sites.
For my lens I chose the Voigtlander 35mm f/1.4 MC. I have put several rolls of Ilford HP5 through it and the images have been nothing but CRISP. Even at f/1.4, focus is razor sharp and is nothing compared to my Nikkor 35mm at f/2 on the Nikon F3.
Compared to the Nikon F3, which was my main camera, the M4 is much lighter, smaller, and quiet. Leica cameras have such a unique, “acoustic signature” according to the manufacturer’s website and the shutter click is so addicting I find myself wanting to take more pictures. It is much easier to carry in my hands without feeling like it’s holding me down. My biggest disadvantage is my lack of experience with rangefinders and focusing with them. There is a slight learning curve involved but with some practice it’s easy to get used to. With all that being said, the rangefinder is a joy to use, it’s an odd experience to get use to if you’re an SLR or DSLR user. Even though the SLR has the advantage of providing the what you see is what you get view, I enjoy its simplicity.