Leicas for Users

Copyright 1989, Tom R. Halfhill

[ LEICA M4-2 ]

Leica M4-2 with 35mm f/2 Summicron lens: Made in Canada, but who cares?

Perhaps the most prestigious and highest-quality 35mm cameras in the world are those made by Leica. This reputation dates back more than half a century, ever since the original Leica I "Model A" was introduced in 1925. Although Leicas were not the first 35mm cameras made, their precision engineering and sharp lenses were largely responsible for establishing the 35mm format among both amateur and professional photographers. Until Nikon, Canon, Asahi Pentax, and other Japanese companies popularized the single-lens reflex in the 1960s, Leicas dominated the 35mm field and were the favored tools of many photojournalists.

Leicas no longer dominate the 35mm market, but their exceptional quality and timeless design have made them very collectable. This is particularly true of the M-series rangefinder models. As readers of Shutterbug well know, you can hardly turn a page in this magazine without seeing an advertisement offering used Leicas for sale. And the prices they command are remarkable. Very few cameras (or anything else, for that matter) hold their value as well as Leicas. Thanks partly to the recent surge of interest among Japanese collectors, some models that are even 20 or 30 years old can fetch $1,000 or more.

Unfortunately, this collectability is a double-edged sword that has seriously hurt one group of people: photographers who like to own and use Leicas. I know, because I belong to this group. We're users, not collectors. We aren't interested in buying a camera that must be mothballed in a glass case to protect it from the scratches that would degrade its valuable condition. Instead, we're interested in buying a Leica for its handmade craftsmanship, mechanical reliability, swift and silent operation, compact size, and famed lens quality.

But due to the upward spiral of prices encouraged by avid collecting, and the downward spiral of the U.S. dollar caused by government deficits, Leicas today are simply priced out of reach of most photographers. You could easily spend $1,000 for a good used M-body, or $2,000 for a new M6, plus a few thousand more for a full complement of lenses.

Don't give up hope, however. If you've always wanted to own a Leica but didn't think you could afford one, there are some tricks to getting around these high prices. Although an M-series Leica will never be a casual purchase for most of us, it's still possible to save hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of dollars by shopping wisely. If you've been thinking about buying one of the new autofocus SLR systems, be aware that a similar investment can get you started with a workable Leica outfit.

What's the secret? Very simple. All you have to do is listen carefully to the sage advice offered by knowledgeable Leica collectors—and then do exactly the opposite!

This will sound like sacrilege to the ardent Leica collectors out there. But remember, we're approaching this from the viewpoint of users. We want to find affordable, usable Leicas—not expensive, collectable Leicas. And to do that, we must take a different route than the well-worn path followed by collectors. (In fact, if you're a dedicated Leica collector, it might be a good idea to stop reading this article right now. I don't want to be responsible for the heart attacks and strokes that might result.)

Of course, there's one disadvantage to bucking the advice of the collectors: If you later change your mind and decide to sell your Leica equipment, its resale value will naturally be less than if you had the kind of equipment that collectors prefer to buy. So before taking this approach, be fairly certain that you'll hold onto and use the equipment. (Still, if you do change your mind, you'll find that Leica gear holds its value better than almost anything else you could have bought. Even gold coins fluctuate in value more than Leicas!)

Here, then, is some down-to-earth advice for minimizing the cost of getting started with a Leica outfit.

Buy Ugly

The Leicas most highly prized by collectors are those in "mint condition," and the standard for "mint" is very high. To a serious collector, "mint" means virtually "new." The camera or lens must show almost no signs of wear, and ideally should come with its original box, instruction booklet, and packing materials. Believe it or not, some fanatic collectors actually buy brand-new Leicas and never break the seal on the package. (To those of us who are users, this is true sacrilege; there's nothing more agonizing than seeing a perfectly good Leica imprisoned forever in its factory-sealed box.)

When collectors buy their mint Leicas, they put them away and rarely, if ever, use them. The reason is obvious: If you regularly use a camera, no matter how careful you are, eventually it's going to show signs of wear. The neck strap will chafe against the body and rub off the black paint or chrome finish; minor scratches will accumulate; the camera might even suffer a tiny dent or two. These seemingly minor flaws can depreciate the value of a mint Leica by hundreds of dollars.

But as users, we don't need a pretty camera. We can do just fine with an ugly camera, as long as it's in perfect working order. Naturally, you should avoid equipment that shows signs of extremely heavy use or abuse. A bad dent might indicate internal damage or an out-of-alignment rangefinder. But a few nicks, scratches, and bald spots are actually desirable, because they can cut the price of the camera or lens by hundreds of dollars. (Also, you won't feel as bad when you inevitably add a few scratches of your own.)

Better yet, look for equipment that bears an engraved name or social security number. Some people put this information on their cameras for identification purposes, in case the cameras are stolen and later recovered. But it seems to automatically knock about $100 or more off the value of a Leica body, depending on how and where the information is engraved. If the engraving is professionally done and is tucked away in an inconspicuous location, it doesn't devalue the camera too much. But some folks try to do it themselves with one of those electric engraving tools sold at hardware stores, and they might even do it right on the front or top of the body. Not many people are foolish enough to deface a Leica in this manner, but if you're lucky enough to find one, you might save hundreds of dollars and end up with a perfectly workable camera.

You can also save lots of money on lenses by looking for examples that have minor cleaning marks or scratches on the outer glass elements. Cleaning marks (sometimes abbreviated "clng mks" in advertisements) are caused by people who frequently clean their lenses by rubbing them with dry lens tissues—or worse, by rubbing the lenses with anything else that might be handy, like a Kleenex or a shirttail. For decades, Leica instruction manuals advised new owners that "it's better to keep your lens clean than to keep cleaning your lens." Nevertheless, an amazing number of Leica owners (and other photographers as well) mistreat their equipment in this fashion. You can take advantage of this and save some major dollars. If the cleaning marks aren't too serious, the lens is almost certainly suitable for photography.

Minor scratches on outer lens elements also won't interfere with general photography. Lens scratches never show up as lines in your photos, of course, but bad scratches can result in exaggerated flare and fuzziness. Tiny surface scratches can be safely ignored.

If the scratch appears on an inner lens element, though, be very wary. There's nothing inside a sealed lens barrel that can scratch a lens element. An internal scratch may indicate that the lens was clumsily repaired, or that a cemented lens pair is separating, or that fungus is attacking the glass. (Fungus sometimes resembles a scratch; be alert to this if the lens was previously used in a tropical or very humid climate.)

Buy Canadian

Leicas, of course, are German cameras, but not all of them are made in Germany. Leica has maintained factories in Canada and Portugal for many years, and quite a few cameras and lenses have been partly or wholly manufactured there. Today, the Canadian plant concentrates on binoculars and military equipment, but the Portuguese factory continues to make parts and subassemblies which are assembled in Germany. The finished cameras and lenses are always marked "Made in Germany," not "Made in Portugal."

However, you'll definitely find many Leica cameras and lenses marked "Made in Canada." This represents a great opportunity for savings, because Leica collectors don't seem to value the Canadian-made equipment as highly as the German-made equipment (although there are exceptions). When collectors buy a Leica camera or lens, they generally look for the engraved message "Leitz Wetzlar" or "Made in Germany." This indicates that the equipment was assembled at the main Leitz factory in Wetzlar, West Germany. (Actually, the "Made in Germany" mark is the only sure identification. Some products marked "Leitz Wetzlar" were not actually made in Wetzlar.)

What all this means for users is that a body or lens bearing the inscription "Made in Canada" can typically be purchased for significantly less than its German-made counterpart, even though the construction quality and materials are the same.

For example, compare prices of two almost-identical models, the M4 and M4-2. The M4 is the earlier model; more than 58,000 were produced between 1967 and 1975, almost all in Germany. The M4-2 came later; an estimated 16,000 were produced from 1978 to 1980, almost all in Canada. In nearly every respect, these two cameras are virtually identical. The only differences are that the M4 has a self-timer, and the M4-2 has a hot shoe and a connection for a motor drive.

Based on this information, you might logically conclude that an M4-2 is worth more than an M4. After all, it's a later model that offers useful extra features and was produced in smaller numbers. But collectors see things differently. A truly mint-condition M4 might fetch $1,400, and even in excellent-plus condition is worth close to $1,000. Yet, a Canadian-made M4-2 in similar condition can be found for $600 or so. From the user's point of view, the M4-2 is obviously the more desirable model.

The same rule of thumb applies to lenses. Those made in Canada might be worth $50 to $100 less than their German-made equivalents. Yet, they're made of the same glass and are just as sharp as the Wetzlar lenses.

This price differential may become even more pronounced in the years ahead, because the "Leitz Wetzlar" logo is a thing of the past. Due to corporate reshuffling, Leica cameras are now marked "Leica" instead of "Leitz," and the main factory in West Germany has been moved from Wetzlar to Solms. Therefore, older equipment marked "Leitz Wetzlar" will probably command an even higher premium.

Buy Smart

All Leicas are created equal, but in the exalted hierarchy of Leica collecting, some models are more equal than others. For reasons which often seem obscure or even downright silly to outsiders, certain kinds of Leicas just aren't worth as much to devoted collectors. Fortunately, this provides some worthwhile opportunities for us bargain shoppers.

Take the classic Leica M3, for example. Introduced in 1954, the M3 was the first Leica body with a rapid-wind film-advance lever. (Earlier Leicas had winding knobs.) On the first M3 bodies, this lever required two thumbstrokes to advance the film to the next frame. Later models were slightly redesigned so that the lever required only one stroke. These two variations are known as "double-stroke" (DS) and "single-stroke" (SS).

Knowing this can save you money, because collectors generally value an M3 SS at least $50 more than an M3 DS in similar condition. Therefore, you can pocket a chunk of change merely by purchasing an M3 DS and flipping your thumb twice instead of once. Is that such a terrible sacrifice for owning a Leica? (Interestingly, Shutterbug Technical Editor Bob Shell says that old-timers at the Leica factory in Germany believe the double-stroke M3 is the best of the M series. So you're in good company if you buy an M3 DS.)

Let's look at a few more examples. The current-model M-series Leica is the M6, and its immediate predecessor was the M4-P. Occasionally you'll see an ad for an M4-P that says it has "M6 windows" or "M6 frames." To the uninitiated, this might mean that the M4-P being offered for sale has the same viewfinder bright-line frames as the M6 (that is, 28mm through 135mm). Actually, all M4-P bodies have the same bright-line frames as the M6. What this really means is that the M4-P in question is a very late model that, like the M6, does not have a tiny, raised lip surrounding the viewfinder and rangefinder windows. Earlier-model M4-P bodies do have the lip.

Now, even Sherlock Holmes on a good day probably wouldn't notice the difference between these windows. But collectors do, and they're willing to pay a little more for an M4-P with "M6 windows." Which means you can save a little more by getting an M4-P with M4-P windows.

Yet another example is the Leica CL. If a "Made in Canada" stamp can affect the value of an otherwise fine Leica, imagine the lowly status of the CL, which was manufactured for Leica by Minolta in Japan!

In truth, the CL is downgraded for some logical reasons. It lacks the same "feel" as other M-series Leicas, and it's somewhat limited in its selection of lenses. Although it accepts Leica M-mount optics, the only viewfinder frames are 40mm, 50mm, and 90mm. Also, the rangefinder prism and shutter are reputed to be trouble-prone. Due to these and other factors—largely its Oriental pedigree—the Leica CL is not highly valued by collectors. You can sometimes pick up a Leica CL with a 40mm f/2 Summicron-C lens for about the price of a much older M2 or M3 body alone.

Still, a better alternative might be the Minolta CLE, though it's hard to find. Technically speaking, the CLE isn't a Leica, but it's pretty darn close. It is basically a redesigned Leica CL that accepts Leica M-mount lenses. Minolta improved the viewfinder by adding a 28mm bright-line frame, and the CLE doesn't seem to suffer from the shutter or rangefinder problems that sometimes trouble the CL. In addition, it has something else you can't find on any other M-series body—exposure automation. Besides the traditional manual shutter speeds, the CLE's shutter-speed dial has a position for shutter-priority automatic exposure. Consider this feature a preview of what we might see in the next century when the Leica M10 is released!

To educate yourself about these and other oddities, I recommend two sources of reading: Shutterbug and the Leica Pocket Book (now in its fourth edition, from Hove Photo Books). Shutterbug ads will give you a good fix on price variations for all kinds of Leica cameras and lenses. And for only a few dollars, the Leica Pocket Book will help you sort out the subtle differences between those cameras and lenses. For instance, do you know that the M3 was the first M-series Leica, not the third? And that it was followed by the M2, not the M4? And that the M4-2 and M4-P came after the M5? If you find all this as confusing as everyone else, you need the Leica Pocket Book.

Buy Carefully

Anytime you buy anything secondhand, you should examine it carefully for signs of damage or unusual wear. Leica cameras are very sturdily built and withstand lots of use, but they aren't impregnable. A little attention before you buy can save you plenty of money in repair bills later on.

Pay especially close attention to the sound of the shutter and the feel of the controls. If you've never used a Leica, try to find a friend or a friendly dealer who will let you handle a new or recently reconditioned Leica for a few minutes so you can become familiar with the proper feel. Without using a motor drive, fire the shutter at least once at all speeds while listening closely. No other camera sounds like a Leica. In particular, listen to the slow shutter speeds below 1/60 second. Use this experience as your reference point when examining a used model.

Similarly, the film advance and shutter release should be smooth and positive. Leicas are built like fine Swiss watches, and when they're in proper working order they should operate with equal precision.

Be extra careful when buying a Leica from a bonafide collector. You probably won't find yourself in this situation too often—collectors tend to demand top dollar for their spotless cameras—but someday you may be tempted. The problem is that some collectors put their cameras on a shelf and don't use them for years. This is bad for any camera, but particularly bad for all-mechanical Leicas. Ideally, a roll of film should be cycled through a camera at least once every few months to keep the works in good shape. A camera that's been kept in a closet for years might look nice and seem like an attractive buy, but it may need a general tune-up before it serves our purposes as a working Leica.

Incidentally, if you're worried about whether you can get an older Leica serviced, don't be. Leica USA maintains both the parts and the expertise to completely repair or overhaul any M-series Leica dating back to 1954, and there are several independent repair shops advertising in Shutterbug that also work on Leicas. A thorough overhaul will cost about $200, however, so don't buy a camera that's not in perfect working order unless you get a really exceptional deal.

Buy Old

If you're really pressed for cash, there is a way to save hundreds of dollars on lenses, but it has some drawbacks. When Leica introduced the bayonet-mount M-series cameras in 1954, they knew that thousands of photographers already had lots of money invested in Leica screw-mount lenses. So they came out with screw-on adapters that converted the older lenses to the new bayonet mount. These adapters were very cleverly designed and do not interfere with infinity focus or cause any other problems usually associated with lens-mount adapters. The old lenses couple perfectly with the M-series rangefinder mechanisms and even gain a new function—when fitted with the proper adapter, each lens keys in the appropriate bright-line frame in the viewfinder!

As a result, you can use any Leica screw-mount lens on an M-series camera body. The Leica screw mount was standardized in 1931, so there are plenty of lenses to choose from, and they usually cost much less than the newer bayonet-mount lenses. In addition, keep in mind that Nikon, Canon, and other independent manufacturers also made Leica screw-mount lenses from the 1940s to the early 1960s. As a matter of fact, it was the startling quality of Leica-mount Nikon lenses that won the loyalty of photojournalists in the Korean War, and later led to the success of Japanese cameras in America.

The drawbacks to this approach? First, the screw-to-bayonet adapters are getting a little harder to locate these days. There are three different types of adapter rings, and you need to find the right one so that the lens makes the proper frameline appear in the viewfinder.

Another drawback is that the older lenses aren't as sharp as modern lenses—although they hold up remarkably well, considering that they were designed without the benefit of modern optical glasses and computers.

More seriously, the older lens coatings are considerably more primitive than today's coatings, and are absent altogether on lenses manufactured before World War II. If you've never used an old lens with poor coatings, you'll be shocked at the difference in flare and contrast.

Therefore, as users, we're probably better off leaving the really old lenses to the collectors. Still, I recently met a gentleman who started out with a screw-mount Leica IIIc back in the 1950s, and upgraded this year to a brand-new Leica M6. Instead of buying an expensive new set of M-series lenses, he purchased adapters for his 35mm, 50mm, 90mm, and 135mm screw-mount lenses, and is very pleased with the quality of his Kodachrome slides.

Conclusion: By heeding all of this advice and supplementing it with your own research and some astute shopping, you should be able to get started in the Leica system for about the cost of a modern autofocus SLR and zoom lens. In fact, it's possible to get a very usable M2, M3, CL, or CLE for just a couple of hundred dollars more than some of the more expensive "bridge cameras" aimed at rank amateurs.

The question isn't which kind of camera is best, of course, because every type of camera has its place. But if you appreciate the experience of working with a classic—a rare, handmade artifact in a computerized, automated world—a rangefinder Leica can still be an attainable alternative.


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