I have been taking pictures most of my life. It all started with a little Minolta 110 Zoom SLR Mark II I inherited in 1986. I found the photographic process fascinating. It was amazing that you could capture little moments on a film cartridge and after a trip to the local lab or drug store, you got back a stack of prints and negatives. I don’t know how many rolls I shot in that camera but it wasn’t very many, probably around 20. Even after I graduated to professional 35mm cameras I held onto it until my last big move in 2004. After doing some research it turns out this was actually quite a capable little camera and certainly not a toy at over $300 new.
I was vaguely aware of the Leica rangefinder, usually getting a glimpse of one in a movie. It was more of a subconscious awareness and due to the ubiquity of the SLR in America at the time, it never became anything more than that until about seven years ago when I bought my first rangefinder. I had shot some street before but I was keenly interested in the rangefinder experience I had heard so much about. Being a fan of uncomplicated cameras and ultimate control, it was a no-brainer. After much research (and saving) I decided on the M6. I watched Craigslist for a few weeks and I found what sounded like a great deal – a ‘Panda’ M6 0.72 with 35mm Summicron v4 for $2,200. It seemed like an awful lot of money at the time but today you can expect to pay that much just for the lens! I met the seller at a coffee shop in Brooklyn and was immediately smitten with its diminutive size and sturdy build quality. Soon after I acquired a 50mm Summicron v3 and then several others of various makes and vintages over the next few years.
There was definitely something alluring about the rangefinder camera. It was a different way of working, a different way of thinking. It certainly helped that the lenses, even the humble 50 Summicron v3 that is least desirable of all 50 Summicrons, gave me images that had that famous Leica glow and 3D quality so often touted. The 28mm Elmarit wasn’t a very good performer and neither was the Voigtländer but I hardly ever used that focal length so I ended up getting rid of them.
Coming from SLRs, it did take some time to acclimate to the VF system and its idiosyncrasies. It doesn’t show you exactly what will be exposed on film. Rather, it does its best to give you a reasonable idea of what will result and it does it quite well. When I want or need absolutely precise framing for interiors or geometric compositions, I reach for an SLR, usually one of my Nikon Fs. In a world full of tiny viewfinders with less-than-100% coverage the incredibly simple viewfinder of the Nikon F or F2 is a breath of fresh air. With these I can have surgical precision with regards to what will register on the film. I took that for granted for many years but after falling under the spell of the rangefinder I find I actually prefer the slight uncertainty of the rangefinder. Still, it’s quite accurate and I find myself taking carefully-framed architecture shots with it and getting exactly what I expected.
I have to agree with Bellamy Hunt that the M6 is the overall best Leica M to have and we’re not the only ones who feel this way. Mechanically, the M3 was and still is the finest camera Leica ever produced. Some even argue that it is the finest camera ever made by anyone and I’m inclined to agree. However from a more objective, macro view, the M6 is a clear winner. Firstly, it has simple, reliable TTL metering. Most people today can barely operate an automated camera in any other mode than Auto or Program let alone Manual so a meter is definitely a requirement. The M3 doesn’t have this luxury but as someone who has become comfortable metering by eye or with the aid of a handheld incident meter, it’s often liberating to shoot without the distraction of onboard metering. Certainly Ken Rockwell makes a good point in mentioning the virtual “locomotive headlights” of the metering LEDs of the M6 in low ambient light but it’s nice to have if you want it. If you don’t want it all you have to do is remove the batteries and it operates perfectly fine since it is completely mechanical.
There’s something reassuring about an entirely mechanical camera. Not only is it built to superlative standards and has precise, watch-like innards but it also sounds and operates in a way not matched by any of today’s plastic picture-making machines. A certain sensory bliss accompanies the use of these cameras and it explains why they continue to be cherished by legions of film shooters and collectors alike. With the introduction of the M7 and its aperture-priority mode, the designers had to surrender the shutter to circuitry and it became utterly dependent on batteries. Sure, it still has mechanical backup speeds of 1/60 and 1/125 but really that will only let you limp by until you get some fresh batteries installed. The M3 through the M6, in addition to the MP, have all speeds regulated by gears. Furthermore, intermediate speeds are attainable in between each of the notched speeds! It’s these sorts of masterful touches that make Leicas so special.
Another reason I feel the M6 is great is its fast transport controls. Compared to the original M3 and M2 loading and rewinding, it’s quite a difference in real use. Now that I’ve had an M3 for a while, I’ve gotten used to its quirks and it doesn’t take me much longer to load and unload it but for my first Leica, the M6’s easy rewinding was nice to have. This can go both ways however. While the canted rewind knob makes rewinding easier, it has proven to be a source of trouble for some. Several users have reported it jamming up on them, requiring it to sent in for expensive service. The M3 and M2 rewind knobs have no angled gearing and thus suffer no such maladies. With one of the available accessory winder attachments, the cumbersome M3/M2 rewinds become just as convenient as their canted brethren.
There’s another double-edged sword in the M6 and it is its finder. My first M6 was a standard 0.72 magnification finder and this gives you framelines for 28/35/50/75/90/135mm lenses. Two frames are paired at once so the result is a fairly jumbled viewfinder. Furthermore, because of the magnification the 50mm framelines are sort of small. If you mainly shoot 28 or 35mm, the 0.72 is great. If you mainly shoot 50mm, I suggest the 0.85 viewfinder which is what I have now. It omits the 28mm framelines and the 50 lines are big and beautiful, nearly as nice as the 0.91 viewfinder of the M3.
Now for the rub. In a controversial cost-cutting measure, certain changes were made in the rangefinder assembly of the M6 and the result is that it is more prone to flare than any other M body. In practice, I found it wasn’t too bad but there were certain conditions where light was entering the masking window at just the right angle and indeed, it would flare out the focusing patch making it very difficult to focus. There are some DIY solutions to this problem which usually involve modifying the masking window in some way. My friend Monica simply taped hers off and since she only ever used the 50 lines, she didn’t really need the framelines anyway. This is the quick and dirty way of fixing the problem. The more permanent solution is to send it in and have it “upgraded” (restored is a better term) to what is essentially the MP viewfinder. I will soon be sending my M6 0.85 in to have this procedure done. This cures the flaring problem completely but is an unwelcome expense to an already-expensive camera for an early adopter. That said, I haven’t had any persistent problems with the flaring. It’s still an amazing camera out of the box.
All told, the M6 is a modern classic. It could be considered old by today’s standards of technological advance (read: engineered obsolescence) but in terms of M chronology, it’s still a relatively fresh face. They are readily available in proper working order and their prices are reasonable. If you are considering a dip in the Leica rangefinder pool, do yourself a favor and consider the M6.