So I now own a Leica M6 (insert woot here). Like most people that want a Leica, the M6 was top of my list. The question is, did it live up to expectation, and did it blow the competition out of the water?
Those of you that follow what I do know I have a special place in my heart for the Olympus 35 series of rangefinders. Specifically the 35RD and 35SP. I will be using these as the main comparison for this article, because of the sheer amount of time and experience of shooting them.
Firstly, nobody will dispute the quality of the build on a camera like the Leica M6. When you hold this camera, you instantly recognise it is a quality piece of equipment. The baseplate and top plate are solid, made out of magnesium, and on my unit has a matte finish. The dials are firm and hard to knock, but move smoothly when you turn it to the next stop. The battery compartment being on the front is really handy, and it takes A76 batteries, which is a bonus. The parallax line selector to switch between focal lengths moves fluidly, and the lens release button works as you would expect.
Secondly, the viewfinder (0.72 version). This is where Leica blows away other rangefinders, the viewfinder is several times brighter than any other rangefinder I have used, and this includes the parallax marks and rangefinder patch. All the lines are a bright white, and standout even in bright mid-day summer sunlight. In fact, I commented to a friend it almost feels like digital fame lines (but it is not). The parallax level to select different frame lines allows you to view the other frame lines for this camera, and it is really cool to flick through them. Focusing is very easy with this patch, once again much better than any other rangefinder I have used. However, I have found found that I can see and focus about 95% of the time, and there were a couple of occasions where I could not see what I wanted to see in the path. This was rare though, and being a rangefinder, using the focusing guide on the lens will save you.
Thirdly, the light meter. When I first used the camera, I was disappointed with the light meter. Not because it wasn’t accurate, it works just fine, but instead of a needle you have two arrows, one pointing left and one pointing right. Both light up when you have the correct exposure, but there is a caveat to it. The arrows point in the correct direction in regard to stop changes you need to make on the lens aperture dial (fantastic!), however it moves the opposite way for the shutter dial. I tend to keep my shutter speed fairly high when shooting, so eventually I found the light meter useful, and just used the aperture to adjust exposure.
Fourth, is changing the film. Now, this is a bottom loaded camera, and I have always read that people tend to find this very awkward. However, I found it fairly easy to load. Just make sure the film fits between the two prongs, and make sure that the film is catching in the sprockets. You will need to raise the film to fit the sprockets (lowering, if you have the camera resting on top plate). Compared to any other camera, it is more fiddly, and you have to do a bit more to make sure you are correctly loading the film. The 35 series is much easier to load.
Fifth, is the M mount. It is no secret that the M mount lenses are something special. They produce beautiful images, have fantastic micro contrast, and are quality builds. Is there a myth that these lenses are better than others? Yes. A completely different, and more vintage flavour, than a lot of lenses you find today. I still maintain that the 35SP has one of the best lenses you will find on a rangefinder camera, but it is a different flavour to a Voightlander/ Zeiss or Leica lens.
So what are the downfalls of the M6? I have always heard that this camera is quiet and discreet. This is where I would have to disagree. I was taken aback how loud the shutter is compared to other rangefinders. Yes, it is a lot quieter than an SLR due to mirrorslap, but the shutter is not what I would consider quiet. This camera is not large, but it is not ‘small’ either. It is about the size of a mirror less camera today, but heavier. I will concede the size feels quite right in the hand.
I would also say that is it not discreet. Certainly not without covering up that red dot! I had a lot of attention when out shooting this camera, and a lot of people knew exactly what it was. I can see why some people tape over the dot and text. Other than that, this camera is not the discreet machine that will allow you to get close candid street photographs without being noticed, you will still need to rely on your street shooting skills. People will hear the shutter, and people will notice the red dot.
My final thoughts are about the camera overall. The shooting experience with this camera is certainly something I loved. Moving past the brand name and the pedestal that people put it on, this camera truly felt like quality in my hands, and was a joy to shoot. Once I figured out the light meter, I found that I could manipulate the settings and frame shots a lot easier than other rangefinders I have used. I am impressed the most by the viewfinder and parallax lines, they are a lot brighter than I expect, and made it very easy to compose. I decided to go with Voightlander glass, as they quality of their builds is fantastic, and they are made in the same factor as Zeiss lenses. After doing research, some of their lenses perform more to my taste than some of the Leica lenses, and are a hell of a lot cheaper.
If you are reading this thinking about taking the plunge, then I would recommend it if you can afford it. If you have not shot a rangefinder before, I would suggest buying one or two other cheaper rangefinders and using them first. Find out if the rangefinder medium is something you gel with, and if it is, upgrade at some point to the Leica. Trust me when I say this approach is a good one, as if you don’t like the rangefinder system you will waste money, but if you have used a rangefinder system, you will appreciate the brightness of the viewfinder when you purchase the Leica.
Suggestions for other rangefinders? The Olympus 35RC and SP are good places to start. Yashica also have a cool rangefinder, and their glass is very reminiscent of Zeiss.
I will leave it there for now, but I will touch one rangefinder systems once again in the near future - Sly.