I might just be attuned to the theme, but I hear and read a lot about storytelling in photography. This, of course, is what photo essays are about - the narrative form perfected by Life magazine among...
Everyone seems to have an opinion about the Leica M series rangefinder
cameras, yet so few people have actually picked one up and used it for enough
time to understand the unique features and benefits that make it one of the
finest tools for certain kinds of photography.
The two current models of the M6 are called the M6 .72 ttl, and the M6 .85ttl
and they represent the latest in the evolution of a family of cameras created in
1953, starting with the M3. All M cameras are rangefinder cameras. Unlike most
popular professional cameras today the photographer does not view the image
through the taking lens, rather, there is a viewfinder which displays frame lines
that correspond to the focal length of the lens that is mounted on the
In the center of the viewfinder is a rectangular patch of yellow, which is the
rangefinder. A rangefinder works by triangulation. The user focuses the camera by
overlaying two images within the small rectangular patch on top of each other in
the viewfinder as he or she focuses the lens. When the images are coincident
(when they match up) the image is now in focus. This system, when well designed
and produced, is very superior in accuracy when focusing lenses of 50mm and wider
compared to slr cameras. While accurate focusing a manual SLR relies on the
ability of your eye to distinguish sharp from unsharp, the rangefinder is much
more "binary". The image is either in or out, there is no amount of gray area as
there is in an SLR. As light levels drop the ability of the human eye to discern
sharpness drops as well, making SLR's "iffy" for available light photography. The
rangefinder only depends on matching up two identical images so that they
overlap. Focus is much easier to discern in low light or when using optics that
have slow maximum apertures. Additionally, the manual focusing puts the user in
charge. Often, even the best autofocus cameras lock onto elements that the
photographer did not intend and the focus is not what it could be. This
"mis-focus" is hard to see in viewfinders that were not intended to be used for
critical focusing as in the case of autofocus cameras, which are optimized to
create the brightest images in the viewfinders.
While 35mm SLR's have dominated the market, and the camera bags of
professional and amateur photographers alike, the M series Leica cameras have
been steadily growing in popularity and are often the "personal" camera of choice
for top working pros who also shoot Canon and Nikon autofocus SLR's. They find
that their favorite photographs are often taken with the camera that puts the
least complexity between the user and the image.
The M's are a great camera for situations where you can't stop and set things
up. You are capturing moments or documenting events. I often recommend Leicas to
other photographers as the perfect wedding cameras. A typical assignment would be
the one I did recently for a pro bono client, a People's Clinic. They needed
images of the doctors, nurses, pharmacists and administrators providing services
to their clients. They wanted the photography to be non intrusive and unposed and
yet they needed high quality color images for reproduction on posters and in
I went with three cameras and three lenses. The cameras were two M6's and an
earlier model, the M5. All have excellent through the lens almost spot meters.
Each was loaded with Kodak's Supra 400 color negative film. (this is a fine grain
film that is easily correctable when shot under fluorescent lighting). The lenses
were the 35mm Summicron ASPH, the 50mm Summilux 1.4 and the 90mm APO
The two M6's, one with the 50 and the other with the 35 are worn around my
neck on straps set to different lengths, allowing one to hang above the other.
The 90 on the M5 over my shoulder.
I shoot quietly and wait patiently for the moment I want. The Leicas are
almost silent. The image through the finder is always bright and in focus making
evaluation of the scene easier. The frame lines show the current cropping while
the area outside the framelines is visible and available. I start by quickly
metering the room with the 50mm camera. I commit certain readings to memory.
There are usually only two or three meter differences in each room. I set all
three cameras and lenses to the same settings. While the people know I'm in the
room I try not to have any eye contact with them. I become boring and try to
visually recede so that the health practioner becomes the center of attention. I
scan the room through the finder looking for the right composition. I move the
camera a little from side to side to see if I can improve the framing. I may use
the preview lever to see how the scene would look through one of the other
lenses. I focus on the eyes and try to find something to lean against while
releasing the shutter. I try to ignore all conversation so that I shoot for the
design and composition and not emotionally.
If you hear that a person is a heroin addict, or that a person is dying, it
changes your emotional response to the shooting but it doesn't change the scene.
It doesn't come across on film. Better to leave the emotion out of it. I shoot
quietly and work the scene with several of the lenses. The cameras are so quiet
that the patient and doctor often forget I'm in the room. It's the same way I try
to shoot corporate meetings and events. I work hard not to become part of the
experience, not part of the entertainment. A motor drive in a 12 by 12 foot
examination room is like a gun going off.
In most situations I like to shoot at f2 or f2.8, varying the shutter speed
when necessary. With my Reflex cameras I'm lucky to be able to handhold the
camera and produce sharp photos with any speed lower than a 125th of a second.
With the M cameras I routinely produce images that are sharp at 1/15th of a
I mentioned that I meter the room and most times I do that by metering the
tanned back of my own hand (poor man's incident meter). I then set the cameras
and try not to look at the meter again. Funny thing is that I'm getting far more
consistent exposure results with the M cameras than I got from my far more
advanced Nikon F5 cameras in the same situations.
Here's why. When I meter my hand it meters the light falling on it and that
light doesn't change during the shoot. When I shoot with the Leica I leave the
exposure alone and since there is no option for auto-exposure I don't have the
temptation to use it. When I used the F5 I was always lured by the siren call of
advertising onto the rocks of "multi-matrix super integrated" automation. When I
pointed the camera at the doctor's white coat the camera tried to compensate,
kinda. When the camera pointed at the dark sweater of a patient the camera tried
to compensate, kinda. According to my lab, this "kinda" automatic compensation
means that most rolls of pro film are all over the map compared with film
received ten years ago.
In fact, now my film rarely is more than 1/2 of a stop off and that makes a
quality difference even with color negative film. At the end of a shoot like this
the biggest compliment I can get is usually, "Gosh, you were so quiet I forgot
you were here!"
What are some of the benefits of shooting with a simple, non-automated,
Turns out there are many:
The quietest shutter on the market. The camera is so quiet when the shutter
goes off that normal room conversations are often enough to mask the click. In
many situations, the less attention called to the photographer and the camera the
The quickest, surest focusing with wide angle lenses of any 35mm camera.
Photos taken with 35mm, 28mm 24mm and 21mm lenses can be critically sharp even at
wide open apertures as the photographer no longer need allow for the slop of
misplaced autofocus, or focus that it not critically sharp due to a legion of SLR
While on the subject of lenses, it is important to note that countless
magazines, websites, independent tests and the testimony of countless thousands
of professional photographers all concur that Leica's lenses (and especially
their wide angles) are the finest in the world of 35mm. When you start with
lenses that are sharp wide open, you have so much more flexibility in your
A major advantage of the M6 Leica is it's general appearance. It looks so
unlike the large professional camera, festooned with motors and prisms and
enormous zoom lenses that most people mistake the M6 for an antiquated point and
shoot camera. Not taking the camera seriously they relax and let their guard
down. Just what you want if you are in the business of shooting candid
The lack of mechanical and electrical complexity, coupled with German
engineering and manufacturing make for a camera that is supremely reliable. In
fact, an independent magazine report noted that whereas the professional Nikons
and Canons are engineered and produced with the target of 150,000 uses before
failure, the M6 is engineered and crafted to deliver at least 400,000 cycles
before wear makes repair or adjustment necessary.
No moving mirror makes it easier to design lenses without compromise while at
the same time assuring a smoother shutter release with less vibration to diminish
the quality of the image. It also contributes to the reliability cited
The actual review
I have lived with both versions of the M6 camera for a little over two years
now. Both are nearly identical but have viewfinders with different magnifications
and a different assortment of framelines for different lenses. The M6 .72 has an
image magnification in the viewfinder of .72 x life size. It will accommodate and
show framelines for lenses from 28mm thru 135mm. The M6 .85 has an image
magnifications of .85 x life size and will accommodate and show framelines for
lenses from 35 to 135. Of the two, I prefer the .85 as I shoot at least half of
the time with the 50mm lens and this version shows the 50mm framelines without
any other framelines visible in the finder. The slightly enlarged viewfinder
image also makes framing and composing a bit easier.
For the rest of the review I'll just refer to the M6 unless there is a
compelling reason to mention one model.
If you've been using automatic SLR's and autofocus SLR's for a good while, the
first few sessions with a non-automated rangefinder will leave you shaking your
head and wondering what the heck you were thinking when you parted with upwards
of $2,500 for a primitive camera body and one optic. Once you've had maid
service, it's hard to go back. Most of us have gotten used to a camera that
instantly sets exposure and snaps into focus the minute we bring it to our
Even loading the film in a Leica seems awkward and confounding.
But then it starts to grow on you. The ergonomics are so much better than what
we've settled for previously and the tight, well defined metering pattern makes
metering less guess work and more science. The ability to prefocus without
holding down special focus lock buttons seems so streamlined and easy. The depth
of field scale on the lenses encourages us to play with hyperfocal distance
focusing and to think more about the pictorial effect of depth of field. It's a
camera you can take to lunch, a camera you can take on a date or even to a board
meeting without attracting much attention or interest.
But it's really the image that you see through the viewfinder that will
convince you that this camera is special. Very sharp and very bright. And one of
the most delightful things for most serious shooters is the fact that there is
one simple exposure indicator in the bottom of the finder and no other confusing
letters, numbers, lights or arrows. If you are working with a separate, incident
meter (as many pros do) you can remove the batteries from the camera altogether
and it will still function. You just won't see any meter indications.
The best feature for me, when I am shooting in the street or in the board
rooms of major corporations, is the fact that when I look through the finder of
my camera, with a 50mm lens attached, the frame lines float in the finder and I
can see on the other side of the framelines. This allows me to see new ways to
compose or crop as well as seeing what may be coming into the frame. The SLR
seems to impose a composition on it's user while a rangefinder camera shows you,
the artist, what is available just a few feet to the left or the right (or the
top or the bottom) of the framelines.
When I started to shoot with a manually focused camera again, the first thing
I noticed about my style of shooting was that I began playing more with the edges
of the frame. Unconstrained by centering the camera and locking focus and then
recomposing, I would focus once and then shoot without bothering to focus again
until I or my subject changed position or distance. Images started to come alive
for me as compositions became more relaxed and I was able to take full charge of
what I saw in the viewfinder.
Moving a step further, to a Leica rangefinder, I found the freedom of the
viewfinder, with it's "window" to areas outside those shown within the
framelines, pushed me to actively consider my compositions. Images are less
centered and less formal. While a little lever on the front of the camera allows
me to preview the framelines of any other lens whenever I please, without having
to actually mount the lens on the camera.
Finally, I became permanently attached to the camera when I began to use it on
travel assignments. Two bodies and four lenses took up about as much space in a
camera bag as one Nikon F5 and one of it's companion lenses. Smaller and lighter
is always better on overseas trips (or trips around the block, for that matter).
I used to travel with the following in my bag for assignments:
Two Nikon F 5's, extra batteries, an 80-200 2.8 zoom lens, extra batteries, a
20-35 2.8mm zoom lens, extra batteries, a Noct-Nikkor 58 1.2 mm lens, extra
batteries, and an 85mm 1.4 af lens. Almost twenty pounds of stuff, not counting
flashes, film, accessories and connecting cords. Usually an extra, smaller body
such as an N90 or the F100 went along so I could go out street shooting during
the gaps in my working agenda. Let's call it twenty something pounds. The largest
Domke bag, stuffed to the gills. Walking a block with this stuff was an exercise
in, well, exercise. And back aches. Because of the heavy lenses and the mirror
slap, a tripod was always required for available light photography, and you may
have noticed that most professional users of autofocus cameras seem to use flash
for everything, mostly to compensate for the inability to handhold these monsters
Now I travel with the following: Two Leica M6 bodies. The 21mm ASPH, the
Tri-Elmar 28-35-50 lens (Leica's answer to the zoom lens. One small, compact lens
with three focal lengths. Very high imaging performance, even at full aperture).
A separate brightline finder for the 28mm focal length, the 50mm Summilux 1.4
lens and the 90mm APO Summicron. A small Leica tabletop tripod and one small
Leica SF20 flash unit. This kit tips the scale at only six pounds and change, and
it fits in a medium sized Domke bag, giving me more room for film. This is a
package that, with the exception of long focal lengths, gives me the same image
range as the Nikon with results that are much superior.
Consider the case of the 21mm lenses. The Nikon zoom was very sharp, except in
the corners, but it does have some pronounced distortion. To make the image as
sharp in the corners as it is in the center requires stopping down to f5.6 or f8.
This precludes handheld exposures in most interior locations. Out comes the
tripod or the flash. With the 21mm ASPH for the Leica the distortion wide open is
non-existent while sharpness and resolution wide open in the corners rivals the
Nikon image's center at 5.6. Point and game to the M6 and the 21mm. Quick and
painless. At the other end of the focal length choices one would assume that the
80-200 Nikkor would have it all over the 90APO Summicron but that isn't really
so. Most of my use for long lenses is either for portraiture or the documentation
of keynote speakers at corporate events. I'm usually positioned in the first row
for the keynote speakers and am expected to get a good range of expressions
during the speaker's performance while calling the least attention to myself. I
also can't distract the speaker. Flash is strictly forbidden!
I generally use Kodak Supra 800 film with an 80C filter over the lens. This
gets me halfway to the proper correction for daylight film with tungsten lighting
and the lab can handle the rest of the correction. It also eats up a stop of
light. Here's the choice: The huge, heavy Nikkor wide open at 2.8 with a shutter
speed of 1/60th or the Leica 90 with an f stop of 2.0 and a shutter speed of
1/125. Guess which one is easier to handhold. Guess which one has less shake?
Guess which lens is much sharper wide open? Yes, it's the Leica.
Additional Leica M benefits which are paramount under these conditions are
it's much, much quieter shutter, quieter manual wind and a silent rewind.
The one area that the Nikon would seem to be superior is in the reach of it's
80-200mm zoom lens. But, the longer the focal length used, the greater the
magnification of vibration from the mirror slap and the shake induced by human
frailty. Surprising to me was the fact that a blow up from a partial area of the
M6/ 90mm images was sharper than a full frame shot with the Nikon. The
combination of the single focal length lens' higher sharpness wide open, the
faster shutter speed and the ease with which the package could be hand held all
were visible advantages.
Weaknesses of the Leica M System
While the M6 is the camera I choose for a lot of my work, it does have some
weaknesses. To wit:
This is not a camera with which to shoot sports or wildlife. The longest lens
is a 135. And while it is arguably the best 135 lens in the world, most sports
shooters and wildlife experts will tell you that, for them, photography begins at
This is not a camera for people who want a point and shoot. You must meter
and set the shutter speed and aperture manually. You must focus. And you must
master loading film like they did in the old days. No drop-in automatic film
This is not a camera for folks who like to shoot outside with fill flash! The
top shutter speed for flash sync is a paltry 1/50th of a second. About the only
film you can reasonably use to do daylight fill flash would be Agfapan APX 25.
And it's been discontinued by Agfa.
The M6 would not be my first choice for studio camera as you cannot preview
depth of field or attach an after market Polaroid back for testing. That being
said, I've shot some great portraits with studio lights and the 90mm. The camera
is a wonderful tool for non-intrusive photography, candid portraits and available
light documentation, but the body is only half the system. The crucial point for
many users is the lenses!
While the famous industrial designer, Alessi, stated that the Leica M camera
body is one of the few designs of the 20th century which he thought was so
perfect he would never try to change, it is the Leica M series lenses that are
the real lure of the M system for most available light shooters. In the next
section I'm going to talk about a number of the lenses and compare them with
similar lenses that I've owned and used extensively in the Canon, Nikon and
Contax G systems. As a corporate photographer I run a lot of film through my
cameras and often log 100 to 200 rolls in a week. I get to know my cameras and
lenses with an intense intimacy, in a short amount of time, that would take an
amateur user years to match. Also, working with tools under pressure brings out
the best and worst points in each piece of equipment. The following evaluations
are subjective but are based on 20 years of looking and learning.
The Leica 21mm ASPH Elmarit. This lens is absolutely superb. It has a biting
sharpness wide open that seems to be a shared family trait of all the newest
Leica optics. I own the same focal length in the Leica R lens and find that I
must stop down to at least f8 to even get near the ballpark of performance that
the M lens gives me wide open. Both the Canon and the Nikon optics lack the
corner sharpness of the Leica at any aperture and only come near to matching the
performance of the Leica in the center of their images at f5.6 or f8. Also, most
of the slides seem somewhat equal in sharpness until you put them in an enlarger
and crank them up to a large size (16x20+). Then the differences really become
apparent as the ultra fine detail just keeps coming in the Leica optic, the other
lenses have no more detail to offer.
My experience with the Contax G series 21mm was relatively limited because the
supplied finder exhibited high levels of distortion while the lens lacked
contrast and bite. It was quickly returned to the dealer. In addition, the widest
focal lengths really cry out to be manually focused and the manual focus of the G
system is barely usable.
The Leica Tri-Elmar 28-35-50. This is a wonderful lens. Small and light, yet
solid. I use it mostly in exterior locations as the f stop of f4 is limiting for
use in low available light. At 50mm it is, to my eye, as good as the current 50mm
M Summicron, thought by reviewers to be "the lens to beat" in 35mm normal focal
lengths. At the middle apertures, most manufacturer's lenses are very good. Most
of the difference is in the way they design for contrast rendition. The Tri-Elmar
is a bit "snappier" or more contrasty than the samples from Nikon and Canon, and
that is the main visible difference.
I do like the look of the Contax G series 45. It is not quite as snappy as the
Leica product, but the colors and tones have a very pleasing, rich quality to
them and the sharpness is equal to both the Leica products.
At 35mm the Tri-Elmar has high sharpness but there is a slight decline in
contrast when compared to the 50mm focal length. The 35mm ASPH Summicron lens
from Leica is the lens to beat in this focal length. The Tri-Elmar comes fairly
close. Both are very far ahead of the single focal length lenses from the two
Japanese SLR Manufacturers. The Contax G series 35mm lens has a flatter rendition
and while the colors are rich, as in the 45mm, the sharpness is not as high.
Finally, at 28mm the lens is on par with the competition's lenses for the most
part. The Leica has a bit more distortion but it also has a higher level of
contrast. The images, on film, have their own characteristics, but, the ease with
which the Tri-Elmar can be accurately focused on the rangefinder cameras becomes
a clear advantage at this focal length as this is the point at which the SLR's
limited wide angle focus/autofocus abilities start to fail. This is evidenced in
the higher number of improperly focused images in both my samples and the samples
and anecdotal evidence given by other professional shooters. Contrary to popular
mythology, the depth of field of a 28mm lens wide open is not limitless! And it
is certainly not enough to mask all focusing errors.
Since imaging quality is at least equal to all the single focal lengths
compared, the real benefit is the tiny package this lens presents. The ability to
carry three separate, high performance focal lengths in a space no bigger than a
small SLR lens is a clear advantage. The ability to focus it accurately under all
conditions is crucial to my success with this lens.
The 50mm Summilux. Leica's standard high speed optic of the M.
At this juncture I must confess that I love high speed, normal focal length
lenses. I once bought an EOS-1 just to be able to use Canon's 50mm 1.0 L lens and
their 85mm 1.2 L lens. Both of these optics were spectacular. It's unfortunate
that they were rendered nearly unusable for quick reportage by USM motors that
were as slow as molasses. Indeed, if these lenses had autofocus to match their
on-film performance, or had a way of being used manually that would give you real
time focusing, I would still be using them. They are superb and easily the equal
of the Leica glass. That being said, the 50mm 1.4's from Nikon and Canon are
nothing to write home about. Not very sharp wide open and not very contrasty
stopped down. The 50mm Summilux blows them away at every stop. And it's half the
size! The only high speed lens that is better wide open is Leica's latest 50mm
Summilux for the R (reflex cameras) with eight elements and glass so cool that it
must have been invented for NASA. This lens, the 80 Summilux and the 180 apo's
are what keep me with Leica's SLR system for some assignments.
Both the Contax SLR 50's are decent normal lenses but, again, both are not as
sharp wide open and both lack the contrast and super fine detail of the Leica
products wide open. The only real contender is the G series 45 which, while
different in it's rendition from the Leica products, is very, very good.
I use the 50 Summilux wide open for most of my "available darkness" shots. It
is resistant to flare and nice and contrasty. The look of an image with a high
degree of sharpness in a limited plane is a look that I think emulates the way
the human eye actually sees and we are intrigued by all the stuff in the
background that just blurs away. I believe that this lens and the M6 are the
ultimate synergistic imaging system for me.
The 90mm APO Summicron. Too sharp.
I have owned four different 90mm Summicrons. The original with the tripod
mount on the bottom. The next generation. The Summicron for the R series, and the
current 90 APO. This lens cannot be compared to any competitor's lens or even
other lenses within the Leica system. It is brutally sharp wide open, and retains
that sharpness right on out to f16. If you must use this lens for flattering
portraiture, be sure to filter it or shoot in low light so that the subject's
breathing and slight movement take some of the sharpness out. I have kept the
first version around for portraiture just for this reason. The first version is
quite a bit softer wide open and has just a little flare in backlit situations.
Using the latest APO version I have been able, using Kodachrome 25 and Fuji
Velvia, to have 40 by 60 inch LightJet enlargements made that rival the sharpness
I get with Hassleblad lenses and with most 4x5 lenses.
The above four lenses that I use most with my Leica M6's. Many Leica fans will
be incredulous that I did not include either of the Aspherical 35mm's (the f2 and
the f1.4) as they are widely considered to be among the best of the best of
Leica's lenses. The truth is that I own the 35mm ASPH and have used it to good
effect, but it's just not my favorite focal length. It's an impressive performer
but one I use only when the 50 has my back up to the wall. I don't own the new
135mm APO-Telyt but I have used one. It's performance is wonderful, but I just
can't seem to get comfortable with such a long lens on a rangefinder camera. The
viewing frame in the finder is just too small. More experienced Leica users have
told me that the almost life sized viewfinder of the M3 makes this lens a delight
to use, but the M3 has no metering and no facility to use the modern lenses
shorter than 50mm so I pass.
Contax G2 Versus Leica M6.
At first use the G2 seems to be a compelling choice. As the weeks drag on
though, so does the camera. The G2 has a squirrely little finder that is not at
all fun for users of eyeglasses. The autofocus doesn't always autofocus where I
would like it to and the use of a focus hold button just bores/frustrates the
hell out of me. There averaging meter pattern is less useful than the clearly
defined pattern of the Leica meter. The rewind is motorized and much too loud to
be used in a theater, a board room, a conference, a classroom or anywhere else
when discretion is critical.
The limited selection of lenses doesn't include any high speed optics and,
while the 28 and the 45 are superb the other choices are less so. The 90 is a
nice lens but requires much skill to achieve consistent autofocus.
The manual focus makes the camera chancy for street shooting as many street
shooters prefer to keep their lenses prefocused on a fixed distance and then fine
tune the actual shooting distance the moment they bring the camera to their eye.
The G2's manual focus isn't up to this challenge.
Finally, and this may just be a personal thing, but the G2 doesn't seem to
have the right "feel". It seems just a bit off.
Leica M6 Body with Voightlander Lenses.
While I think it would be foolish to buy a Leica body and not buy some of
their best lenses to go along with it. I've run into shooters at the Democratic
convention in Los Angeles and fashionistas on South Beach in Miami who added more
wide angle capability to their Leica kits with the Heliar 15mm lens and the 25mm
Skopar lens and were very happy to have them. I must confess that I bought one of
the 15mm's and used it extensively for an annual report job in December of 2000.
It made wonderful images. Even the vignetting worked for the dusk images we
captured. As to some of the other focal lengths, I would test them thoroughly
before choosing. The Leica lenses that I've detailed are head and shoulders above
most out there and are a great value/performance proposition.
I'm based in Austin, Texas, been shooting professionally for 20 years and have
worked recently in venues around the U.S. and Europe for IBM, Motorola, Dell, The
Leo Burnett Agency, GSD&M, Cellular One, USAA, Time Warner Cablevision,
Business Week, Elle Magazine and many more. When I started my business
photographers were expected to shoot every format and for years we shot most
things on 4x5. The 90's was the decade when we shed our 4x5 equipment. We are
getting ready to let go of the medium format stuff. 35mm is starting to look
incredibly good next to all the digital sfuff. But we shoot that too. The future.
I'm shooting with film and Leicas and scanning with a Nikon LS-4000 until the
next big thing.
My business philosophy is, Photography is a physical sport. Stay in