Advance disclaimer: I’m not a full-blown Leica M nut, so most of my opinions are just that: opinions. But I’ve used a few of these things in my time, both professionally and for personal work. These images predate my recent DIY film efforts, so you’ll see a mix of color negative and slide film in there – I was mostly shooting Provia 100 and Velvia 100F at the time. The vintage of the images is also given away by the early watermark…
The Leica M6 series is perhaps the most accessible film Leica for most; I mean this in terms of both usability and price. A very large number of these cameras were produced in several key variants from 1984 to 1998; this volume means that prices on the secondary market have stayed relatively affordable. For not much more money over a ‘classic’ M2, M3 or M4, you can have something with slightly updated materials – likely resulting in longer service intervals – and of course, most importantly, a meter. With any of the classic M bodies, you need to use an external meter or an experienced eyeball to determine your exposure. Ignoring the design oddity that was the M5, the Minolta-collaborative CL and the more recent (and expensive) M7 and MP, we’re left with the M6 for most people if you want a film M camera with a meter.
Though the M6 requires a battery to operate the meter, the camera itself is fully mechanical: it will work just fine without the battery. The shutter mechanism – and of course film advance – is powered by springs, gears, and that winding tab. This is in contrast to the later M7, which requires batteries to operate the shutter. The MP does not, but it’s also significantly more expensive – and is an upgraded version of the M6 anyway. The M6 had several major variants – a plain old ‘M6′ (classic) that has the meter but no TTL flash metering or hotshoe contacts; the M6J, which was a limited edition fitted with a high magnification 0.85x finder, and finally, the M6 TTL that added TTL flash metering and the necessary hotshoe contacts. There are also a mind-boggling array of limited edition variants based off this camera – around 31, if my math is correct – making them not really that limited at all; there were six thousand of the M6 Titanium made alone. This is reflected on the secondary market, too – an M6 Titanium doesn’t cost that much more than a regular M6 TTL.
Enough on the collector-geekery. What you get with the M6 is the same formula that Leica have used for all their M cameras: cloth focal plane shutter, running from 1-1/1000s with 1/50s x-sync and bulb modes; manual exposure only. Set the aperture on the lens, focus and compose via the parallax-corrected rangefinder, set your shutter speed via the triangles and dot in the finder (under, correct, over). The meter is a simple center-weighted affair that takes a reading off a light-coloured circle painted onto the front shutter curtain; it theoretically shows exposure two stops in either direction; the illuminated dot means you’re at what’s metered; circle and triangle is one stop either way, triangle is two or more stops. Then hold the camera to your eye, brace it with your thumb in the crook of the wind lever and the body. Hit the shutter release, and wind on.
What really sticks in your mind after shooting with an M6 are a couple of things: firstly, just how smooth and silent the shutter mechanism is; for those who’ve only experienced the digital M8 or M9 / M Monochrom, you’re in for a surprise. This type of shutter feel is precisely why Leicas were renowned for their stealth; the buzzy M8/9 shutters are a loud disaster by comparison. And they’re notchy, too – the buttons lack the progressive hair-trigger feel of the M6 which you can modulate to the nearest ounce of pressure. The new M240 is a significant improvement over the M8/9, but still nowhere near as good as the mechanical cameras. Film advance on the M6 is similarly smooth; I actually like the slight bit of give in the articulated plastic tip of the M6′s wind lever as compared to the MP’s solid metal piece. It’s also less likely to scratch the edge of your shutter speed dial.
The other thing is not so good: loading. I suppose this is true for any M camera; chances are, you’re going to misload it a couple of times in your first few attempts. This was my first film Leica, coming from an M8; though not my first serious film camera, of course. The first roll went in fine; you have to take off the bottom plate, flip up the back window to thread film cleanly through the film gate (the back window is a pressure plate to keep the film as flat as possible across the entire imaging plane) and then slot the end into one portion of the three-lobed takeup spool at the other end. Easy, right? Not really. Not only are you juggling various openings and levers, you’ve also got to ensure that the film winds properly at the other end. I discovered the best way to do this was to advance one frame, then use the rewind crank to tension the film; fire off a second frame, and if the rewind crank moves when you advance the film, the two ends are connected – via the film – and you’re good to go. If it doesn’t wind, and you can continue to spin the rewind crank in the rewind direction, start again. Do not wind the film back into the cannister – you will almost certainly land up losing the leader inside!
Rather embarrassingly, I learned this the hard way: I about 20 images on my second or third roll, confident that I had some great stuff, then happened to notice the rewind crank wasn’t moving on film advance. And it was loose. And I could rewind it easily. Uh oh…I exposed the leader with 20 great images that day. Since then, I didn’t have a single misload because I made sure to run through the little dance above. It’s still admittedly a lot more hassle than putting a roll into the F6, for instance. Curiously, I’ve never misloaded a Hasselblad even though it’s significantly more fiddly.
Rangefinder cameras are really all about the viewfinder: the ability to have a bright, clear window on the world that’s uninterrupted by the shutter or mirror cycling. You also have the added bonus of seeing outside your framelines, which can help with anticipating action as well as seeing how you might better alter your composition. It’s a double-edged sword, however; framing precision isn’t great, and the sole focusing point is the rather small rangefinder patch in the center; it’s probably why we also tend to see a lot of RF images with central subjects – by the time you focus and recompose, the subject has moved and the moment has gone. I also found that the 0.72 magnification finder I had wasn’t so good with wide lenses and spectacles; I’d rather have had the 0.58 since I shoot mainly with 28 and 50mm on my rangefinders. Finally, it’s worth knowing that some versions of the M6 and M6TTL have viewfinder flare issues: if a bright source strikes the RF window at a certain angle, the RF patch can flare out and disappear in the finder, making focusing impossible. It’s fairly easy to shade it with a finger on your right hand, but later cameras had a slightly modified internal design that also later made its way into the MP.
I think if I was to buy an M6 again, I’d probably go for one of the Titanium versions – it isn’t solid titanium by the way, just coated – it’s uncommon enough to be special, common enough to not command too much of a premium over the regular M6, retains the classic two-tone look of the chrome/black Leicas, but is a bit more stealthy; don’t worry too much about the TTL vs non TTL decision. I’ve never used a flash with one of these things, and I suspect the vast majority of most people don’t either; it simply goes against the whole M gestalt in my opinion. I would probably change the ostrich leather for griptac, though. MT
The best place to find vintage gear is on the secondary market in Japan – send an email to Bellamy Hunt of Japan Camera Hunter; he can source to spec and budget. I get a good chunk of my stuff from him and can’t recommend him highly enough. Send him an email and tell him Ming sent you!
Visit the Teaching Store to up your photographic game – including workshop and Photoshop Workflow videos and the customized Email School of Photography; or go mobile with the Photography Compendium for iPad. You can also get your gear from B&H and Amazon. Prices are the same as normal, however a small portion of your purchase value is referred back to me. Thanks!
Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved