Frankly, I never intended to write a sequel to my article "Leicas For Users," which appeared in the November 1989 issue of Shutterbug. That article discussed how working photographers -- as opposed to collectors -- could save money when buying used Leica equipment. My general advice was to seek out the particular models of rangefinder cameras and lenses that are shunned by most discriminating collectors. By carefully choosing bodies and lenses that are considered less desirable because of their physical condition, pedigree, or both, users can save many hundreds of dollars and still end up with good, workable equipment.
Soon after the article appeared, however, a friend asked me a tough question. "OK," he said, "you talked about how we can save money when buying the stuff. But which Leica should I buy? All of those different models are so confusing."
True enough. Even the most avid collectors sometimes have trouble remembering all of the little differences between the Leica M2, M3, M4, M4-2, M4-P, M5, M6, and so on. What chance does the average user have? And which models really are best for the working photographer?
Of course, the answers are readily available within the many volumes of Leica literature. But if you don't feel like acquiring a small library and plodding through books for the next few months, this article can be your shortcut. We'll take a look at each model and evaluate it strictly from the user's point of view. We'll cover the major pros and cons of each camera body, and even talk a little about which lenses to buy.
However, let's limit this discussion to Leica rangefinder equipment -- M-series camera bodies and lenses. Not that there's anything wrong with Leica's R-series single-lens reflex cameras. It's just that there are dozens of 35mm SLR cameras on the market, and Leica SLRs don't differ radically in terms of features from Nikons, Canons, Minoltas, Pentaxes, and many others. It's fairly easy, therefore, to compare the relative features of SLRs.
But there is only one interchangeable-lens 35mm rangefinder camera currently on the market -- the Leica M-series. And used Leica rangefinder equipment is widely available, though not widely understood outside of collectors' circles.
Also, we won't talk about the older Leica screw-mount rangefinder cameras, or why a working photographer might want to use a rangefinder camera in the first place. Screw-mount Leicas are very fine machines, it is true, but they are much less convenient than M-series Leicas. Their viewfinders are rather poor by modern standards, they are more difficult to load, and the earlier screw-mount lenses are generally not as good as the later M-series (bayonet-mount) lenses. It's easier to get M-series equipment repaired, too.
And as for the question of why you might want to use a rangefinder camera in the first place, we'll assume you're already familiar with all the standard arguments about rangefinders versus reflexes. In the interest of brevity, we'll skip them here (or perhaps cover them in a future article). Most working photographers already know that each type of camera has its own strengths and weaknesses, and that there's often a need for several types of cameras in a well-rounded outfit.
Now, let's take a look at what each M-series model has to offer -- again, strictly from the user's point of view.
By far the most common M-series Leica is the M3. About 235,000 were manufactured over a period of 13 years, from 1954 to 1967. Although its model number implies that it was the third M-series Leica camera, it was actually the first. (The M1, a scientific model which lacks a rangefinder, followed later in 1959.)
When the M3 made its debut in 1954, it introduced several innovations over the earlier screw-mount Leicas. These innovations included bayonet-mount, M-series lenses; a hinged back door for easier loading; a rapid-wind film advance lever instead of a winding knob; a single shutter-speed dial for all speeds (earlier Leicas had separate dials for the fast and slow speeds, or no slow speeds at all); a combined rangefinder-viewfinder window (screw-mount Leicas have separate windows for the rangefinder and viewfinder); lifesize viewfinder optics (earlier Leicas have less-than-lifesize viewfinders, similar to looking into the wrong end of a telescope); bright-line frames in the viewfinder to indicate the lens' field of view; bright-line frames for three different focal-length lenses, each of which appears automatically when the corresponding lens is mounted on the camera; and automatic parallax correction as you focus (achieved by shifting the bright-line frames within the viewfinder).
As you can see, most of the M3's innovations concern the viewfinder, long considered a weak point of screw-mount Leicas. Viewfinders are also the key to distinguishing between the various M-series cameras that followed the M3. Surprisingly few changes have been made to the cameras since 1954, except for the viewfinders.
The M3's viewfinder has three bright-line frames: 50mm, 90mm, and 135mm. To use a lens of any other focal length, you must clip an auxiliary viewfinder onto the accessory shoe atop the camera (with one exception, noted below). Auxiliary viewfinders are inconvenient, because you have to view your subject through the auxiliary finder and then focus through the camera's regular viewfinder. Although you can learn to quickly shift your eye back and forth, it takes practice. Also, auxiliary finders have no automatic parallax correction.
There's one exception to the rule that you must clip an auxiliary finder onto the M3 when using lenses other than 50mm, 90mm, and 135mm. Certain 35mm wide-angle lenses specially made for the Leica M3 have what are sometimes known as "bugeyes" -- corrective eyepieces that slide in front of the camera's rangefinder and viewfinder windows when the lens is mounted on the body. The bugeyes reduce the magnification of the camera's viewfinder so that the standard 50mm bright-line frame shows the correct field of view for the 35mm wide-angle lens. You can view and focus through the camera's regular viewfinder as usual.
This leads us to a disadvantage of the M3. When buying a 35mm lens, you must find one that has bugeyes. Certain 35mm lenses (such as the f/1.4 Summilux) are more difficult to find with bugeyes and command high prices among collectors. Also, the bugeyes make the lenses very bulky compared to 35mm lenses without them.
To address these difficulties, all later M-series Leica cameras have 35mm bright-line frames built into the camera's standard viewfinder. In order to make room for the larger 35mm frame, however, the finder's magnification had to be reduced to slightly less than lifesize. For that reason, some people prefer the M3's finder over those in later Leicas, since it provides a slightly larger image. This is strictly a matter of personal taste that you'll have to decide for yourself.
From the user's point of view, the M3 has a few other disadvantages to consider. Although like all M-series Leicas it has a rapid-wind lever for advancing the film, it has a knob instead of a crank for rewinding the film. If you're too young to remember what it's like to rewind a 36-exposure roll with a knob, you're in for a nasty surprise. And if you're so young that you've always relied on motors to rewind your film, you're really in for a shock. The slow rewind means it takes much longer to reload the camera and be ready for more pictures. Accessory cranks that fit onto the rewind knob were sold for awhile in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but they're hard to find now.
Reloading is slowed down even further because of the M3's unusual loading system. As with all M-series Leicas, you have to remove the baseplate and drop the film in vertically. With an M3, you must also remove a takeup spool from the camera, thread the film leader into the spool, drop the whole assembly into the bottom of the camera, open the back door to make sure the film is properly seated on the sprockets, and then replace the baseplate. Most later models of rangefinder Leicas have a speedier loading system, as we'll see in a moment.
Another disadvantage of the M3 is its nonstandard flash connectors. Standard PC cords won't work without an adapter. Luckily, these adapters (usually called "flash tips") are available for only a few dollars. But the adapters are just one more accessory you have to fool with.
Also, note that very early M3's lack a frame selector lever. This lever (located on the front of the camera, just below the viewfinder) lets you preview any of the three bright-line frames, no matter which lens is currently mounted. This makes it easier to decide which lens to use without actually attaching the lens to the camera. Only the very earliest M3's lack this feature.
Early M3's also are known as "double-strokes" because it takes two flips of the film-advance lever to wind the film and cock the shutter; later models require only a single stroke.
So even though M3 cameras are very popular among Leicaphiles, they do present several drawbacks for the working photographer: a limited viewfinder, bulky and harder-to-find 35mm lenses, slow rewinding and reloading, odd flash connections, and a few missing features on early models. On the other hand, M3 bodies are plentiful and relatively affordable by Leica standards. Also, some photographers consider M3's to be the best-made of all Leicas.
Following the M3, the next model to be introduced was the M2. (Leitz's system of assigning model numbers is confusing, to say the least.) The M2 came out in 1958 and, like the M3, was manufactured until 1967. It was originally intended as a lower-cost alternative to the M3. As a result, the M2 is almost identical to the M3, with a few minor exceptions.
To reduce costs on the M2, Leitz eliminated the self-timer; substituted a small push-button for the rewind lever; and replaced the automatic-reset film counter with a manual-reset film counter. (In other words, you have to manually reset the counter to zero after reloading the camera.) None of these changes should make much difference to the average user, although it's easy to get confused if you forget the set the film counter. It should be noted that some later versions of the M2 were equipped with self-timers and with rewind levers instead of buttons, thus making the camera nearly identical to the M3.
The biggest difference between the M2 and the M3, however, is the viewfinder. While the M3 has bright-line frames for 50mm, 90mm, and 135mm lenses, the M2 has frames for 35mm, 50mm, and 90mm lenses. Thus you gain the wide-angle 35mm frame, but lose the telephoto 135mm frame.
From the user's point of view, this is an interesting tradeoff. You don't need to find a special 35mm wide-angle lens with bugeyes, as you do with the M3. But what happens if you want to use a 135mm lens?
Answer: bugeyes again. There are two 135mm telephotos available for Leica M-series cameras. The 135mm f/4 Tele-Elmar does not have bugeyes, but the 135mm f/2.8 Tele-Elmarit does. These bugeyes -- which, like the 35mm bugeyes, make the lens much bulkier and heavier -- increase the magnification of the camera's viewfinder, effectively converting the 90mm frame into a 135mm frame. So if you can put up with the extra weight and bulk, you can indeed use a 135mm telephoto on the Leica M2, even though it lacks a built-in 135mm frame.
This isn't really such a bad tradeoff. Keep in mind that you'll have to put up with bugeyes no matter what in order to use a 135mm f/2.8 lens on your Leica. The only lens of this focal length without bugeyes is the one-stop-slower Tele-Elmar f/4. So if you plan to get a 135mm f/2.8 lens anyway, there's no drawback to having an M2, even though it doesn't have a 135mm frame.
In all other important respects, the M2 and M3 are identical. They share the same removable-spool loading system, the same slow rewind knob, and the same nonstandard flash connectors. (All M2's have frame selectors, however.) Although the M2 was manufactured in smaller quantities than the M3 (only about 85,000 versus 235,000), quite a few are available on the used-camera market. Prices are about the same as M3's in similar condition.
In 1967, Leitz discontinued both the M2 and the M3 and replaced them with the M4, which was manufactured until 1975. Because the M4 introduced several new improvements and is now considered a classic, it is highly prized by both users and collectors.
The first improvement was to combine the features of the M2 and M3 viewfinders. The M4 has bright-line frames for 35mm, 50mm, 90mm, and 135mm lenses. Although you can use bugeyed lenses on the M4, they're not required.
Leitz also addressed some other criticisms of the M2 and M3. The M4 has a folding rewind crank instead of a knob, standard PC flash terminals, and a faster loading system. Although you still have to remove the baseplate and drop the film into the camera vertically, you no longer have to thread the leader onto a removable takeup spool. Instead, the leader drops into a slotted, nonremovable spool and automatically catches when you close the camera and cock the shutter. The new loading system was such a simple but effective improvement that Leitz made conversion kits available for the M2 and M3. These kits are often available for under $50.
Because of these improvements, many photographers regard the M4 as a better user's camera than either the M3 or the M2. Unfortunately, since collectors are also attracted to the M4, this model is not very affordable. Truly mint M4's can fetch upwards of $2,000, though you should be able to find a well-worn body for less than half that much.
In 1971, without discontinuing the M4, Leitz introduced the M5. This was the first rangefinder Leica with a built-in lightmeter. (All previous Leica cameras were not only fully manual, but utterly meterless.) Furthermore, the M5's meter was (at that time) an up-to-date, through-the-lens system. The meter cell is mounted behind the lens on a swinging arm that automatically drops out of the light path when you release the shutter.
The M5's meter is a typical 1970s-style match-needle device. There's a shutter-speed scale in the viewfinder, and the shutter-speed dial was redesigned so it slightly overhangs the front of the camera body. This allows you to turn the dial with your right forefinger so you can set the shutter speed without removing your eye from the finder. There is no aperture scale in the viewfinder, though.
Other M5 features are similar to those of the M4, including bright-line frames for 35mm, 50mm, 90mm, and 135mm lenses. The folding rewind crank was moved to the bottom of the camera to make room for the meter's electronics.
At first, the M5 seems like the best user model yet. It combines the proven features of the M4 with convenient through-the-lens metering. But the M5 was an ill-fated camera that was manufactured for only about four years, and it was shunned by many Leica-lovers at the time.
Why? Well, for one thing, the M5 is considered by some Leicaphiles to be the ugliest rangefinder Leica ever made. To make room for the meter and its associated circuitry, the camera body is noticeably larger than all other rangefinder Leicas. Although it's still more compact that most 35mm SLRs, it just doesn't have the same elegant proportions as other M-series Leicas, which all share the same basic body style. This might seem like a minor point, but keep in mind that Leicaphiles are diehard traditionalists who don't suffer changes gladly.
A more significant drawback to the M5 from the user's point of view is the problem caused by the lightmeter's swinging arm. Some wide-angle lenses with protruding rear elements would foul the meter and therefore can't be used on the M5 without conversion. The 28mm and 21mm lenses are the chief culprits. Never try to mount one of these lenses on an M5 body without first checking the serial number of the lens in a Leica reference book. Lenses below certain serial numbers are verboten on the M5.
Another idiosyncracy is the strap lugs. Early Leica M5's have two strap lugs, just like most other 35mm cameras -- except that the lugs are both attached to the same side of the body. This leaves the M5 dangling vertically and rather awkwardly from its strap, like many of today's point-and-shoot cameras. But what's fine for casual point-and-shooters isn't so great for those who like to hang two or more heavy camera bodies around their neck. This lug arrangement is particularly odd, considering that the M5 is by far the largest and heaviest rangefinder Leica of all.
Fortunately, Leica soon corrected the error and added a third strap lug to later M5's so the camera could be suspended from a strap either way. If you run across a two-lug M5, you may be able to have a third lug added later.
The final verdict on the M5 is mixed. If you really want a built-in meter and don't mind the largish body, the M5 can be a good user's camera. And it probably won't cost any more than a similar-condition M4.
After both the M4 and the M5 were discontinued in 1975, Leitz reissued the M4 -- with a few minor modifications. The M4-2, as it's known, is virtually identical to the classic M4. But it has a "hot" flash shoe (instead of the "cold" accessory shoe found on earlier Leicas), plus a connector for a motor drive. In fact, the M4-2 was the first rangefinder Leica designed at the factory to take a motor drive (not counting special low-production models which now command impossibly high prices among collectors).
The only feature sacrificed for these two improvements was the self-timer. This makes the M4-2 a very good user camera. The hot shoe is convenient for shoe-mount flash units, and you've still got the standard PC terminals on the back. The motor drive is bulky, but relatively quiet and fires about three frames per second.
On top of that, collectors favor the M4 over the M4-2, which helps to keep prices down. Only about 16,000 M4-2's were made before it was discontinued in 1980, and virtually all were manufactured at the Leitz factory in Canada. Collectors tend to prefer German-made Leicas, and the M4 is regarded as more of a classic. As a result, you can almost always find an M4-2 for a few hundred dollars less than an M4 in similar condition.
In 1981, Leitz replaced the M4-2 with the M4-P. This is another M4 variant that makes a good user camera, although M4-P's typically cost a couple hundred more than an equivalent M4-2.
The M4-P has one improvement over the M4-2: additional bright-line frames for 28mm and 75mm lenses. This brings the number of built-in viewfinder frames to six: 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 75mm, 90mm, and 135mm. The frames are arranged in pairs, so two of them always appear in the viewfinder at the same time: 28mm and 90mm, 35mm and 135mm, and 50mm and 75mm. (Theoretically, this means you could forget which lens is currently mounted on the camera -- but if that's a problem, you probably shouldn't be using a Leica in the first place!) As with other M-series Leicas, you can manipulate the frame-selector lever to bring alternate frames into view without changing lenses.
The M4-P was manufactured until about 1985, and partly because it's a recent model with a full complement of viewfinder frames, prices are relatively high. Hint: Try to avoid buying an M4-P that's advertised as having "M6 windows" or "M6 frames." This doesn't refer to the bright-line frames in the viewfinder; it simply means that the M4-P in question doesn't have tiny raised lips around the viewfinder and rangefinder windows. Early-model M4-P's have the lips, and later ones (like the current-model M6) don't. The raised lips make absolutely no functional difference, but an M4-P without them costs about $100 more than a regular M4-P, thanks to the eccentricities of Leica collectors.
In 1984, the M4-P was supplanted by the M6, which remains the current model in the Leica M series. The M6 has only one improvement over the M4-P, but it's a big one: a built-in, through-the-lens lightmeter.
This time, however, Leitz didn't repeat the mistakes made with the M5 a decade earlier. Externally, the M6 body is identical to the M4-P, M4-2, and M4, which in turn are nearly identical to the M3 and M2. To fit the meter into the camera without increasing the size of the body, the miniaturized electronics were squeezed into the space formerly occupied by the M4's self-timer. To set the film speed (the M6 has no DX contacts), you turn a large dial on the back of the camera, where earlier M-series Leicas have a film reminder dial. The bulky match-needle mechanism found in the M5 was superseded by a more compact (and probably more reliable) solid-state system.
Leitz also found a clever way to provide accurate through-the-lens metering without the M5's swinging arm. A fixed meter cell is tucked into an out-of-the-way corner inside the camera body, just behind the lens mount. The cell is aimed at a circular white spot on the shutter curtain. When the shutter is cocked and the shutter release is partly depressed, the meter reads the light reflected off the white spot.
The meter reading is displayed by two arrow-shaped LEDs at the bottom of the viewfinder. Proper exposure is indicated when both LEDs glow equally bright. If one LED is dim or extinguished, all you have to do is turn the lens aperture ring or shutter speed dial in the direction of the arrow.
Because the M6 reads the light passing through the lens, its metering angle varies according to the lens in use, just like an SLR. The metering angle is a circular area about two-thirds the height of the bright-line frame currently displayed in the viewfinder. Although the metered area isn't marked, it's easy to visualize.
Since the M6 doesn't have the M5's swinging arm, older-model 21mm and 28mm lenses can be used on the M6. However, the protruding rear elements of these lenses still prevent the M6's meter cell from reading the white spot on the shutter curtain. You either have to take your meter reading before mounting the lens, or else use an outboard meter. Later-model 21mm and 28mm lenses, of course, have been redesigned to eliminate the large rear elements that formerly protruded into the camera body. They can be used on the M6 (and M5) with normal metering.
Unlike the M5, the M6 has been embraced by Leicaphiles. It preserves the traditional, compact configuration of the original Leica M3, yet provides convenient, accurate metering. True, there's still no exposure automation or fancy metering modes. But like all rangefinder Leicas, the M6 is a rugged, reliable camera that doesn't depend on batteries. If the batteries fail in an M6, all you lose is the meter, because the rest of the camera is still fully manual and completely mechanical.
As a result, the M6 is the most desirable Leica of all for users. Unfortunately, it's also the most expensive. New ones cost a whopping $2,500 to $3,000, and used bodies generally run at least $1,500. That's $500 to $1,000 more than what you might pay for an M4, M4-2, or M4-P -- an awful lot to shell out for a lightmeter.
If you absolutely must have an onboard meter, but can't afford an M6 and don't like the M5, there are a few alternatives.
The first option is to get a clip-on meter for your M2, M3, M4, M4-2, or M4-P. Several different models of these meters have been produced since the 1950s, but they're all basically alike -- they clip onto the camera's accessory shoe and couple with the shutter-speed dial via a small prong. After the meter is attached, you set the shutter speed by rotating a dial on the meter, not on the camera. When you press a switch on the meter (which can be done while looking through the viewfinder), a needle and a calculator dial indicate the proper combination of shutter speed and lens aperture.
Since the clip-on meter doesn't read through the lens, the acceptance angle never varies. It's about the same as a 90mm lens, so you can easily visualize the metering area in the viewfinder by flipping the 90mm bright-line frame into place with the frame-selector lever. You can't actually see the meter reading in the viewfinder, but the needle locks so you can lower the camera from your eye and check the reading.
Clip-on meters generally fetch about $100-$200 in decent condition. Go for the later models; earlier meters weren't as sensitive to low light.
There are three drawbacks to clip-on meters: They aren't quite as convenient as through-the-lens meters; they add size and weight to the camera; and, since they attach to the camera's accessory shoe, they prevent you from simultaneously using a shoe-mount flash or auxiliary viewfinder.
That leads us to the next alternative: the Leica CL. This camera has through-the-lens metering and is relatively affordable, but suffers from even more limitations than the M5.
The CL (Compact Leica) was conceived as a throwback to the smaller screw-mount Leicas and as a less-expensive introduction to the famous Leica system. It was designed in Germany by Leitz, but manufactured in Japan by Minolta. A fairly large number, perhaps 65,000, were made between 1973 and 1976. Although the Leica CL is a 35mm rangefinder camera with an M-series lens mount, it actually has little in common with its German cousins.
For one thing, the camera body looks completely different. It's much more compact and has a different control layout. Like the M5, the shutter-speed dial is on the front of the body and the rewind crank folds into the baseplate. There is no frame-selector lever or self-timer. The shutter-release button is located next to the film-advance lever, not atop the lever as on other Leicas. And although the CL has a hot shoe, it does not have PC terminals.
The loading system is different, too. The baseplate and camera back are all one piece, and the whole thing slides off. You load the film horizontally, much as you would with a conventional 35mm camera, except that you have to fold the pressure plate out of the way first.
The Leica CL's viewfinder has only three bright-line frames: 40mm, 50mm, and 90mm. Note that the CL is the only Leica with a 40mm frame. That's because Leitz introduced only one lens in this focal length -- the 40mm f/2 Summicron-C, which was designed especially for the CL. It's sort of a compromise between a 35mm wide-angle and a 50mm standard lens.
Leitz also introduced a special 90mm lens for the CL: the 90mm f/4 Elmar-C. Since the 90mm lens is roughly twice the focal length of the "wide-normal" 40mm, the idea was that these two lenses would make up a mini-outfit capable of covering most picture-taking situations.
Using any other lenses on the CL is difficult. You might think it's possible to use a 35mm or 135mm lens with bugeyes, or to clip an appropriate auxiliary viewfinder onto the camera's hot shoe, but there's another problem -- the CL's rangefinder has a much shorter base length than the rangefinders on other Leicas. (The base length is the distance between the rangefinder window and the viewfinder window.) The shorter base length prevents the bugeyes on 35mm and 135mm lenses from matching up properly with the CL's rangefinder/viewfinder windows, and it also means that the CL cannot focus as accurately as other Leicas. The CL is accurate enough to focus the lenses for which it was designed, but not much more.
For instance, if you try using a 135mm f/4 Tele-Elmarit (which doesn't have bugeyes, remember) by clipping a 135mm finder onto the camera's hot shoe, you may find that the CL won't accurately focus the lens when it's wide open at close distances. There won't be quite enough depth of field to cover up the rangefinder's lack of accuracy.
The 90mm f/2.8 Tele-Elmarit is marginal. Because it's one stop faster than the 90mm f/4 Elmar-C intended for the Leica CL, it has less depth of field when used wide open. So you may get fuzzy pictures at close distances, especially if the rangefinder is slightly out of adjustment. And forget about the 90mm f/2 Summicron. Not only is it too fast for the CL's rangefinder, but it's also such a large lens that it obscures much of the viewfinder and even part of the rangefinder.
Another lens limitation is that the CL has the same kind of swinging-arm meter found inside the M5. You cannot use older 28mm and 21mm lenses on the CL at all, because their protruding rear elements would damage the meter cell.
It should also be noted that the CL has an uncertain reputation among some photographers (and collectors). The shutter is said to be trouble-prone, and the rangefinder prisms in some CL's have been known to lose their silvering over time. (When a rangefinder prism loses its silvering, the focusing patch in the viewfinder grows dim. The prism can be resilvered or replaced by a qualified repair service, but it's expensive.) Before buying a used CL, check it out carefully.
So the Leica CL is a handful of compromises. It's a compact camera with convenient through-the-lens metering, but you pay a significant price in terms of lens flexibility. Still, the CL is an alternative for someone who perhaps doesn't need a wide-ranging Leica system. If you're looking for a rangefinder camera to go with a larger outfit of other types of cameras, the CL with its sharp 40mm and 90mm lenses may do the job. The CL is also relatively affordable compared to M-series Leicas. And sometimes you can get a slightly lower price on a CL body that's marked "Leitz/Minolta CL" instead of "Leica CL." The cameras are identical, but the ones labeled with Leica's famous name are worth a little more to some people.
Finally, there's one last alternative to consider -- an oddball camera known as the Minolta CLE. After Leitz discontinued the CL in 1976, Minolta reintroduced it with a couple of interesting new features. First, the viewfinder was expanded to add a 28mm bright-line frame, in addition to the 40mm, 50mm, and 90mm frames. But it was Minolta's second modification that really shook up Leica traditionalists: The all-mechanical shutter was replaced with an electronically timed shutter that provides aperture-priority exposure automation!
An automatic rangefinder Leica? That's tantamount to sacrilege in some circles. But that's what the Minolta CLE amounts to, although it's a little hard to find and rather pricey. Expect to pay a few hundred dollars more than what a Leica CL in similar condition would cost.
Aside from the 28mm frame and exposure automation, the Minolta CLE is nearly identical to the Leica CL. You still have full manual control, of course, but by setting the shutter-speed dial to automatic, you can go about your business without worrying about lightmeters at all. And like the CL, the CLE displays the selected shutter speed inside the viewfinder.
Three special lenses were manufactured for the CLE, all marked "Rokkor-C" to distinguish them from their Leitz cousins: a 40mm f/2, a 90mm f/4, and a 28mm f/2.8.
This brings up one important point about something that often confuses Leica users. You can use M-series Leitz lenses on either the Leica CL or the Minolta CLE, and it's equally permissible to use Minolta Rokkor-C lenses on the Leica CL, Minolta CLE, and M-series Leicas. But you should never use the Leitz 40mm f/2 Summicron-C or Leitz 90mm f/4 Elmar-C lenses on anything but a Leica CL.
Why not? Because the two Leitz lenses designed especially for the Leica CL employ a slightly different rangefinder coupling that may not yield accurate focusing on an M-series Leica. The lenses seem to mount and focus just fine, but due to a very small difference in the coupling cam, your pictures may end up out of focus. This is not a problem, however, with Minolta's Rokkor-C lenses for the CLE. They're fully compatible with any M-mount camera. Therefore, you're probably better off buying the Rokkor-C lenses. They cost less, too -- often $100-$200 less than an equivalent Leitz lens.
Now for some conclusions. After all is said and done, which is really the best Leica for users?
I don't mean to hedge, but the answer depends on you. Would you like to own a genuine classic that will see occasional use? Check out an M2 or M3. Because of their slow reloading and other limitations, they aren't quite as convenient as later models for heavy-duty photography. But they're widely available and relatively affordable.
Do you crave a Leica for more regular use? If you abhor hand-held lightmeters and don't have a few thousand dollars to plunk down for an M6, your chief options are the M5, CL, and CLE. In that case, I'd pick the M5, even though it's big and ugly. It works with more lenses and is more solid. But I'd insist on the version with three strap lugs.
Do you want a compact rangefinder camera for occasional grab-shooting, not as a main camera? Look at the Leica CL or Minolta CLE. The 40mm f/2 wide-normal lens is ideal for quick grab shots, and it's also much faster and sharper than anything on a modern point-and-shoot camera. You can switch to the 90mm lens for portraits at a comfortable working distance. You've got through-the-lens metering and, in the case of the CLE, exposure automation. Plus you can carry the whole two-lens outfit in a coat pocket.
If you want more lens flexibility, need a motor drive, or intend to use the Leica as your primary camera -- and if you can do without a built-in meter -- consider the Leica M4-2. It's less expensive than the classic M4, yet offers both a hot shoe and motor-drive capability. It costs about $1,000 less than a used M6, but aside from the meter, the only difference is the lack of 28mm and 75mm frames. If you must have a 28mm lens, you can either clip an auxiliary finder on the M4-2 or spend a little more for an M4-P.
No matter which Leica you choose, there's one thing you don't have to worry about. Good, used Leicas are always in demand, so if you buy one you're unhappy with later, you should have no trouble trading it for something else!