A brief affair with a Leica M6

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Earlier this winter I had the pleasure of handling a Leica M6, and actually using it for a few days. Thank you, Chris!

Like many amateur photographers, I’ve often lusted after Leicas but figure I’ll never actually spend the money to own one.  After carrying this one around a little, I can see why people are willing to spend big bucks on these.  They are simply beautifully designed and built pieces of machinery.  It feels wonderful to hold.  A Leica in your hands seems to build confidence.  The solid feel, the weight, the smooth focusing lens, the precise feel of everything, the simplicity of it, all come together to make it feel like this is what a camera is supposed to be.  I can see why — according to Canon’s own website — when Leica first released the M3, Canon gave up on making rangefinders to focus on SLRs:

It was reported that Canon’s engineers who saw the “Leica M3” for the first time were greatly shocked by the level of perfection in the camera as represented by the brightness and visibility of its viewfinder, as well as by the accuracy of its rangefinder. In spite of the fact that their improved model “IV Sb2” had received good acceptance from its users, Canon engineers realized that, with the debut of the “Leica M3,” the camera world was about to experience great change. This heralded the era of great changes in cameras, leading the company to seek new directions.

Since it was difficult to imitate the “Leica M3” introduced in 1954 in terms of its bright viewfinder and accurate rangefinder, many camera manufacturers, including Canon, were forced to shift their development goals to the camera that would lead the world’s market in the future. What Japanese camera manufacturers, including Canon, decided was to concentrate on the single lens reflex (SLR) camera with system capabilities, which could be developed using Japan’s own technology. This SLR camera was to become the new camera, which would be accepted by the world, capable of overcoming the previous limitations of the rangefinder cameras including the use of telephoto lenses.

There you have it — Canon admits that it was the superior Leica that drove them out of the rangefinder business (though up until the M3, the Canon rangefinders were keeping pace with Leica).

I think maybe what I liked best about this camera was carrying it around.  Sounds odd maybe, but the weight and size of it, combined with a really nice strap that Chris has on the camera, makes it just feel right tucked snugly against my side, with the strap slung over my opposite shoulder.

Shooting it was a little difficult for me because of the lens that was on it (35mm f/2 Summicron).  The framelines for the 35mm lens are a little wide in the rangefinder for someone wearing glasses, so I had a hard time framing up shots.  I’d have to shift my eye around to see the framelines.  With a 50mm lens, the framelines would work great for me, but anything wider is tough to view while wearing glasses — at least it was for me.

I didn’t have much time to actually use it while I had it, but I managed to take a couple of walks with it and shot some random stuff just to try it out.  The results below aren’t anything too special, partly because I was just shooting some stuff quickly to try the camera out, and partly because the film somehow got fogged.  I don’t know if something went wrong with developing (at Dwayne’s Photo, so I doubt they did anything wrong), or something happened in shipping, or what.  I’ll never know, but the negs are pretty low in contrast because of the fogging, so I had to adjust them a lot in Lightroom to make anything look decent. This resulted in some super grainy images because the contrast had to be punched up so much.

I also didn’t nail focus on all of my shots, which surprised me, because I thought I was right on.  One of the huge advantages Leicas have over other rangefinders is the bright rangefinder spot that makes focusing quick and easy, so I don’t know how I messed that up, but some of my shots were not focused properly.

Overall I really loved using it, and I felt like I could just keep carrying it around forever.  I still doubt that I’ll ever own one, but you never know.  I guess I can picture myself one day downsizing my arsenal of old cameras to a very small selection of really good useable, practical cameras, and a nice Leica could certainly fit into that small collection.

Though it was a brief affair, I will look back fondly on my days spent with her.

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all shot on Kodak Tmax 400
Developed and scanned at Dwayne’s

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7 Comments on “A brief affair with a Leica M6”

  1. jim says:

    Famed National Geographic photographer William Albert Allard explains the differences between seeing with a Single Lens Reflex and a rangefinder camera better than anything else I’ve come across:

    “With an SLR, you are looking at your subject through the optic; you are literally seeing what the picture is going to look like. You have a device that will show you your depth of field, the area that will or will not be in critical focus. This is particularly true for me, because I’m often shooting at the maximum aperture of the lens, the aperture you actually view through. This helps you see how areas of color are affected. It can tell you if that blue has a hard edge, or if it’s somewhat soft and blended into something else.”

    “When you look through a rangefinder, though, everything is sharp. The rangefinder window is by and large a focusing and framing device that lets you pick a part of the subject you want to be in critical focus. The only real way you can tell how the rest of the picture is going to look is by experience, or maybe a quick look at the depth-of-field scale on the lens itself. I think the rangefinder frees you up in a certain way. You are probably going to work a little looser in a structural sense, because everything is clean, clear and sharp. When I look through an SLR, I think I’m a little bit more aware of compositional elements, of the structure of the image. With a rangefinder camera, I’m seeing certain spatial relationships.”

    – Page 41 of “William Albert Allard The Photographic Essay.”

    It takes a good 6 months to a year of using a rangefinder to become proficient with them.

    My first experience using a rangefinder camera was in college while taking a documentary photo class. Up to that time I had only used SLR cameras. I splurged on a used Leica M2 with a 35/2 Summicron. I shot the entire project, except for a handful of images, with that one lens and the M2. Like Allard mentions, I felt the rangefinder freed me up in my seeing in a way an SLR could not.

    • Rick Schuster says:

      Thanks, Jim. I like his description of the differences. They are very different experiences. Both have advantages and disadvantages. Like you, I used SLRs for a long time before ever using a rangefinder, so it did take me a while to get used to it. I love shooting my Yashica Electro 35 rangefinder (as readers know), and now that I’m used to it I find it very intuitive. You know what, I think I like that Yashica as much as a Leica now that I think of it. Probably just because I’ve become so comfortable with it.

  2. Miranda Bryant says:

    I like some of your shots, particularly the first one, the diner shot, and the Nord’east one. Wish the vehicle wasn’t in the latter, however, but one can’t control everything.

  3. Great article! I would love to get my hands on a Leica rangefinder for even a few days, I am a sucker for build quality.

    • Rick Schuster says:

      Thanks, Richard. The danger is that if you try one you might love it so much that you’ll just have to have one. I thought that might happen to me, but surprisingly it didn’t. I’d still love to own a Leica someday, but using it didn’t make me absolutely crazy to get one. It actually made me want to get a nicer strap for my Yashica Electro 35 and carry that camera around with me more.


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