A Pro Photographer's review of the Leica M6 and lenses for it
by Kirk Tuck
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 camera.
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 with 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 way I use my M cameras and lenses.
The M's are great cameras 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 brochures.
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 Summicron.
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/exposure 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 second.
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, rangefinder Leica?
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 better.
- 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 focusing deficiencies.
- 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 shooting methods.
- 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 photos.
- 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 above.
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 eye.
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 securely.
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 400mm.
- 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 loading available.
- 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.