Yet another Leica M6 review, so I will try to keep it brief in the overstated aspects of the camera and more so discuss my experiences with it so far and how it has helped me grow as a photographer… so bear with me.
When it came to deciding to purchase a Leica M film body I really had no reason for doing so. I had my Contax 139Q was really happy with it. With the affordable Zeiss lenses, it was a great camera that packed a punch. There was no reason for me to change anything up, but I did anyways.
I think I mostly just wanted to see how I got along with the minimalistic form and function of the M system. I felt I needed a meter in my camera (something I would feel differently about today) so I found an M6 for a good price and pulled the trigger. Nearly two years later, I can say with certainty that this was definitely a good decision.
The two things that stood out to me when I first handled my M6 for the first time were the size of the camera and the film advance. The film advance was so dang smooth and the camera nearly fit in the palm of my hand and the profile of the camera (not including depth) was just larger than my iPhone X. There is not much to the M6, as with any M, so I don’t have much else to say. My first impression was that it was a very well built, perfectly sized camera with an addicting film advance.
The camera handles very well in most circumstances. The quick load mechanism is nice and fast. The plastic tipped film advance does more than I initially thought it would and is very practical in use allowing for an easy catch and stroke. The shutter speed dials turns smoothly, however, I do wish that it extended further out into the front of the camera as it does in the latter M6 TTL. Rather than just adjusting the shutter speed with the knurl of my index finger I have to use my index finger and thumb on most occasions to change the shutter speed with the camera held up to my eye. A disclaimer though, I have small hands so this could not be the case for most.
When it comes to bringing a roll in, the angled rewind knob is nice and quick and my thumbs thank it for this. When I handled an M3 in a camera shop prior to purchasing my M6 I did not like the rewind dial and it seemed like in cold weather it would be a real pain to use (living in Minnesota at the time this did not sit well with me). Overall, the camera handles exceptionally despite its simple design. Everything seems to be in the right place and if it isn’t necessary, Leica has omitted it from the design to maintain a minimalistic design and operation.
The viewfinder has bright frame lines, or at least mine does, as the RF patch is bright and contrasty making focusing a pleasure. The one thing I wish I thought about when buying the camera was the viewfinder magnification. I wear my glasses probably 80% of the time and love the 28mm focal length. I bought the standard 0.72x VF magnification and I definitely can’t see the full frame when composing with a 28mm lens (a 0.58x would have better suited my style). In fact, I can hardly see the 35mm frame lines.
To fix this problem I bought a 40mm summicron and filed it down to bring up 35mm frame lines, which I think is a great compromise as it allows me to compose well without pulling in too much, albeit learning how to frame with a 40mm lens took practice. I just recently started shooting with a 28mm lens again and just accept the VF limitations. So for first time M buyers, I would definitely recommend thinking about what focal length you shoot most and use that to help determine was magnification is best for you.
The meter is very accurate and reliable. I can count the number of bad exposures I’ve had over the past two years or so on one hand. It is a center-weighted meter so you can’t exactly just point it at tough lighting and expect to get perfect exposures every time. I try to make an effort to meter for the shadows in most cases as film I shoot responds much better to overexposure than under.
It is a very simple metering system to get used to, as mentioned above, but keeping a keen observation of the aperture and shutter speed while metering through the viewfinder is key. It is dangerous to get caught up flying through different f-stops while metering and lose a sense of technical composition (which has happened to me one too many times).
A huge benefit of a rangefinder camera is the omission of mirrors which ultimately leads to a larger range of use in low light. I’m sure that this differs from person to person depending on how steady their hands are, but I came to learn that my minimum shutter speed to shoot handheld was 1/4th of a second. In comparison, anything I shoot on an SLR seems to be limited below 1/60th of a second. That’s a 4 stop difference for me, which is huge. With an SLR, I usually pair it with an f/1.4 lens for low light shooting as opposed to the f2 of my 40mm Summicron. So in practice there is still a 3 stop difference when pushing the limits in low light which I still view as advantageous.
Other than the low light advantages, the shutter is oh so quiet. When shooting candid photos or street photography this is a huge plus for me. Someone can be less than 1 meter away and not hear the shutter. I have yet to own a camera that has so many advantages due to a shutter design. I know some people comment on burning the cloth in the shutter when shooting into the sun a lot and this is definitely something to consider when using an M cloth shutter versus say a Nikon S titanium shutter. If it does happen, I would not feel guilty at all having to replace the shutter cloth because I enjoy shooting into the sun and won’t change my style for a camera.
This is an area where any M, an M6 in my case, excels more so than any other camera I’ve used to date, and is the main reason as to why it has become my favorite camera and one that I will never part with – in the near future at least – GAS can really get a hold of you sometimes. Many of the best cameras ever made are great for specific technical and mechanical traits that they carry and make them known in use. This seems to especially be a problem in the age of digital photography where it is more a battle of megapixels and ISO performance than actual design and use.
This is where the M6 differs for me. The M6 is not a great camera on paper. It has a slow maximum shutter speed of 1/1000 seconds, it doesn’t have aperture priority, spot-metering, a self-timer, or a double exposure lever. On top of this, it requires more frequent servicing than say a Nikon F due to the need for rangefinder calibration.
Where the M6 excels in design is the omission of excess functions, allowing for simple use. This, for me, makes the M6 a forgettable camera. What I mean by this is that in use, it disappears. The simple design and function allow me to just shoot and not fiddle with the camera. This incredible ability of the M6, and of many other M’s I assume, is what makes them so special.
With all of this being said, there are many limitations to the M system. The most obvious being price. New models are pricey to say the least and most of the even somewhat affordable lenses are slow, either an f/2 or 2.8, and if you want a fast lens it’s going to cost you in either image quality or burn a hole in your wallet. However, most M users buy used and gravitate towards the older models which are still affordable and with lenses dating back to the 1930’s, the options are vast.
Price aside, it is hard to put a price on capturing family and life moments and the M6 is a camera that lets me do so exactly as I intend to. The accumulation of the size, simplicity in design, and handling have made the M6 the best camera for my uses that I can think of. This is completely subjective and the M6 may very well not be that camera for others and this is the beauty of having such a vast array of cameras across varying formats and mediums.
Some More Photos
To wrap it up, the M6 is a wonderful camera that both has many advantages and disadvantages. It is a matter of weighing these and determining if it is the right camera for you. For me, the advantages that the M6 has to offer far outweigh the disadvantages. It can be argued many ways for one’s personal preference of camera, whether it be for image quality, build, or use.
What matters most and speaks the loudest to me are the photos that I create with a given tool. The M6 has become a tool that I take everywhere and it allows me to create lasting, personal photos, whether it be family trips or documenting my daily life. For me, the M6 is an irreplaceable camera and I completely understand the hype but is it the camera for you? I can’t answer that question but it certainly has become the perfect camera for my needs. I look forward to the many more photos and moments that I’ll capture with this elegant, simple camera.
All photos shot on Portra 400 or Ilford Hp5+ with either a 40mm Summicron or Voigtlander Ultron 35mm f1.7 and scanned with a Plustek 8200.
You can find Hamish’s review of the Leica M6 and M6 TTL here