The Leica MP is touted as “the ultimate tool”. Admittedly, my perspective might be influenced by the contrarian in me, but I’ve long been quite sceptical – it’s the most expensive full production Leica film camera, but just how good could it possibly be compared to the others?? Until recently, the Leica MP was actually the only full-production Leica M film camera I hadn’t shot with. So when Des (all round good bloke and follower of 35mmc) decided he’d be happy to loan me his MP, it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss!
The Leica MP is a current production camera out of Leica. Not to be mistaken for the absurdly valuable 1950s MP or the modern digital M-P – I’m talking about the current model 35mm Leica MP. As of 2018 this camera is one of 3 film cameras made by Leica alongside the M-A and the M7. The M-A is the non-metered camera, the M7 is the the battery reliant version with an aperture priority autoexposure mode, and the MP sort of sits in the middle as the happy medium with a light meter, but is also fully (and supposedly “perfectly”) mechanical – more on that in a mo…
Paint it black…?
The Leica MP essentially comes in 3 varieties, the black paint, the silver chrome and the design-your-own “a la carte”. The black paint seems to be the most common and I suspect is more sought after. To be honest, I don’t personally see the black paint as the attractive finish most seem to. The glossiness gets tarnished quite easily with fine scratches, and eventually wears to brass on the corners. That being said, I am aware that I’m in the minority here. Most people seem to find the brassed look very appealing. Leica even go as far to say on their website that “After years of hard use, when a bit of bright brass begins to show through, it’s a sure sign to savvy photographers that the camera and its owner have shared many memorable experiences”.
In the case of a famously brassed cameras such as Sean Flynn’s recently discovered M2, I’ll quite happily admit that some reverence applies. But when it’s just wear and tear given to a camera over years of use, to my mind all it amounts to is a bit of a tatty looking camera – albesayit a well built one. Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and as mentioned, many people find this patinated aesthetic very appealing. Fair enough I say – if you like that sort of thing who am I to argue? For my tastes, I personally prefer the more utilitarian look of the silver or especially the black chrome finish.
Mechanical Perfection and the Leica Mystique
I mention all this as it’s not the tastes of other photographers that I want to pick at, it’s Leica’s play on their brand mystique that rubs me up the wrong way. As far as I can gather, when Leica launched the MP it was touted as the ultimate Leica M film camera. Looking at Leica’s website, they never actually explicitly say what MP stands for – though it is implied on one of the subheadings on the main Leica MP website pages that it stands for “Mechanical Perfection”.
This idea of mechanical perfection is something I can get behind, but combine it with a black paint finish that will lightly wear “after years of hard use” and you have a camera that perfectly fits both the positive and negative sides of the Leica brand image. Yes they make very long lasting and durable cameras, but it’s not quite enough to sell a camera that lasts a long time through quality of build. With the black paint not being as long lasting as the camera, it ensures that those around the owner of the MP will be able to see – as Leica says – “that the camera and its owner have shared many memorable experiences”.
By saying this, to me it feels a little like Leica is attempting to tap into the reverence that people apply to the famously heavily used cameras of the likes of Sean Flynn and countless Magnum photographers. They play on people’s desires to be like those photographers, and indeed the idea that having a camera that’s like those photographers’ implies something positive to those around them. If this isn’t the case, at best, they are playing on the idea that people like to show off their expensive things.
As I talk about in my recent post about the Leica mystique, I enjoy the luxury to a point, and appreciate the cameras as the nice things they are – but that’s a personal thing for me. I don’t need other people’s admiration. I already feel judged enough as someone who really likes and often waffles on about how great I think they are – not to mention the greif I get for the amount I post about them on my Instagram, etc. As such, I have no desire to show off how well worn my shiny luxury camera is in some sort of pre-specified attempt to demonstrate that I’m such an interesting person it’s apparent in the patina of my camera.
I love my Leica cameras, don’t get me wrong, but I love them as cameras. This idea that people know “that the camera and its owner have shared many memorable experiences” is what turns them into accessories, or worse, “jewellery for rich dentists” (yawn). Leica playing on all this personal image nonsense sullies the camera behind it all and plays into the hands of those who wish to diminish those of us who do find them to be the ideal cameras for our shooting needs.
But anyway, as I say, if you like the look of a brassed camera that’s fine by me. It’s not the look I’m having a go at here, it’s the garbage that Leica attribute to it that bothers me. Cameras are for taking photos, at a push they are for personal haptic or aesthetic enjoyment, they might even represent historical interest – but at the point they become an accessory to personal image, I’m out.
Not my ideal Leica
What’s on the surface is one thing, but actually the Leica MP doesn’t amount to my ideal Leica under the skin either. I must be honest, I’ve always had these slightly negative views towards the MP. Because the above rubs me up the wrong way, I’ve long been less forgiving of the idea of the Leica MP feature set. To me, it’s just seemed as though it’s a bit of a showy version of the Leica M6 classic.
The M6 classic is admittedly a great camera, but as I talk about in my M6 review, it’s not the camera for me. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely get why people favour them. The combination of fully mechanical function with a built in and very simplistic light meter is very appealing, but for one reason and another, it doesn’t quite work for me.
The counter intuitive meter
As I describe in my M6 review, the way the light meter works seems counter intuitive. The meter readout in the Leica MP does have one improvement over the M6 classic. As in the later M6 TTL (and all the metered Leica Ms since) it has a 3 LED meter instead of a 2 LED meter. But unlike all those cameras, the MP shutter speed dial has the same rotational direction as the older M6 and the cameras that came before it. This might not sound like anything to be concerned with until you understand how the meter works. If you’ve not used a later model metered Leica (M6-M10 inclusive), the way the metering is displayed is via a projected LED readout in the viewfinder. In the case on the Leica MP is works as follows:
Left (right pointing arrow) LED lit – underexposed
Left LED lit and centre LED lit – 1/2 ev under
Centre LED lit – correct exposure
Right (left pointing arrow) LED lit and centre LED lit – 1/2 ev over
Right LED lit – overexposed
All sounds sensible, but because the shutter speed dial rotates clockwise to increase the shutter speed, in practice it feels as though you’re doing the opposite of what the light meter direction arrow tells you to do. As mentioned, this was an “issue” that Leica fixed in the later M6 TTL and subsequent M7 by reversing the direction of the shutter dial, but when they then made the MP they reverted to the earlier standard.
I don’t know for certain why they would do this. You might think that logic would dictate that after you make an advancement taking a step backwards doesn’t make too much sense. Of course, this sort of “logic” doesn’t always apply, especially not with Leica. And then of course there’s the fact that what’s a technological step forward, and what’s a step back is arguably subjective – a fact that I often tout on this website.
Unfortunately for me – someone who shoots a combination of older non-metered film Leica cameras, and later metered digital Leicas – the way the Leica MP works doesn’t work well for me. The issue is, if I pay attention to the meter in the viewfinder as I do with my digital cameras I’m inclined to rotate the shutter speed dial in the direction I’m used to. Having shot an M7 for a while, and then a string of digital Leicas, it’s almost muscle memory now, so almost every time I’ve used the MP the meter has confused me. The result of this is that I’ve often found myself having to look at the top of the camera to change the shutter speed, but then of course I can’t see the light meter readout anyway, so I’m just as well using an external meter.
Admittedly, this is very much my problem. Some people will prefer the traditional rotation of the dial to that which followed. This is likely especially true for those who otherwise only shoot more elderly Leica m film cameras. Given the fact that most of the of the other features of the MP are based on more traditional features of Leica cameras too, I think there’s a distinct possibility that the MP was aimed at these sorts of users too.
Alongside the black paint and the traditionally rotating shutter speed dial, the MP also features a few other traditional Leica m features. The full metal frame line preview lever, older shape and also full metal shutter advance and rewind knob all hark back to design features found on the M3 and M2. These are actually all preferences of mine over the later plastic tipped film advance and frame line preview lever. I even prefer the rewind knob over the later crank. I’m not fussed that it’s a little slower to use, think it looks nicer, and from experience bending the rewind crank of my M7, I can tell you that it’s less fragile too.
Some modern features
Fortunately, they didn’t revert to the old school with all the design features. The Leica MP retains the later quick-load pronged take-up spool that was introduced in the M4. I should say at this point, I’m not bothered in the slightest by the older removable take up spool in my Leica M3, but I know many find them to be quite frustrating. The Leica MP also has the flush viewfinder window introduced in the very late M4-Ps and M6 Classic which gives the front of the camera cleaner more minimal lines – again, this is a preference of mine over the interim sunken viewfinder of the M2 – M4-P.
Not very traditional features
A design choice I can’t fathom is the use of plastic for the ISO dial on the back of the camera and battery cover on the front. I talk about this in my Leica M7 review as being something that completely baffles me. I was basically in love with my M7 when I wrote that review too, but despite this I couldn’t let Leica off the hook for the naff feeling plastic bits. Such an odd design choice for such a high value camera. The wheel – which is admittedly just a reminder – on the back of the M-A is made of metal, and though a little fiddly to use, feels really nice. Why they couldn’t have developed something like that for this camera is beyond me.
The Leica MP in use
It probably sounds like I’ve been a little harsh about this camera so far, or at very least like this review has been weighted toward the negative? I think it’s worth bearing in mind that most of this comes from very subjective preferences between the different Leica models. I’ve been fortunate enough to have tried all of the full production run Leica cameras now, with the M4-2 being the only one I’m yet to write about. There’s two things I’ve realised as I’ve worked my way through them. The first is that the differences between them all are fairly minor. But for the M5 (and CL if it counts) they are all based on the M3, with only small changes between them. Some changes might seem like advancements, and some might appear as backward steps depending on preferences. The second realisation I’ve come to is that the often tiny changes between them can still seem like huge issues when comparing one that fits ones ideals to one that even ever-so-slightly doesn’t.
In reality whilst I’ve been using the Leica MP, short of the couple of times strangers have asked me about it, I haven’t really thought about my distaste toward the black paint. With a bit of practice I’m sure I would get over the slight oddness I find with the light meter when using this camera alongside my digital Leica rangefinders too. In fact, in using the Leica MP, it’s probably fair to say that some of the scepticism you might have caught a glimpse of earlier in this post has been diminished.
I’ve found myself very impressed with the feel of the Leica MP; this MP at least. Compared to my Leica M-A, which despite some of its more traditional features feels fairly utilitarian to me, the MP just feels more refined. The flat black finish of the M-A plays a part in this, but the feel of the shutter advance is different to – it feels clockwork. It feels correct, but you can feel the gears in the mechanism. The same can even be said of my M3. Advancing the shutter in this Leica MP, you can hardly feel a hint of the mechanism, it’s just perfectly smooth… So perhaps MP does stand for Mechanical Perfection? Or maybe I just happen to have borrowed a particularly nice copy? Either way, ignoring my personal preferences for a moment, it’s definitely fair to say that this MP feels like an incredibly well made camera that has been a pleasure to shoot with!
Skip to the end
Setting aside my minor quibble with the rotation of the shutter speed dial, the inexplicable use of plastic and my distaste at the nonsense Leica peddles about the black paint, it’s hard to argue with the Leica MP. In reality, most people who find the Leica MP to be the ideal Leica for them won’t be fazed by the rotation of shutter speed dial or be fussed the use of plastic. Instead, they will likely find an exceptionally well built Leica camera with a simplistic but useful built in light meter. Additionally, those who buy into the Leica mystique will no doubt love all that worn black paint guff, and those who don’t will probably just ignore it as inconsequential marketing tripe and get on with appreciating the patinated aesthetic on their own terms as their camera ages.
As such, it’s fair to say that I’ve possibly harshly picked holes in the Leica MP. The “issues” I’ve highlighted are so minor really that they probably seem daft to those who shoot and appreciate this camera. The fact is though, whilst acknowledging that each time I review a Leica M film camera I find myself coming to the conclusion that the differences between the models are more subtle than I previously thought, I also find myself more strongly identifying the specific features I want from a Leica, and therefore become more certain about which of the models suit me best.
The crux of my point is, however nice the Leica MP is as a camera, it’s not the right camera for me. It’s also the most expensive/valuable standard production run Leica M film camera. So whilst most articles about this camera take the view that it’s the embodiment of “mechanical perfection”, the result of years of refinement of the Leica M concept, and perhaps even the ultimate Leica film camera, were I to buy one I’d be paying over the odds for features and fluff that I don’t need and that don’t wash with me respectively.
The reality is, if the Leica rangefinder concept is right for you, there’s more than a handful to choose from. Just because this one is the most expensive and is “the ultimate tool” it doesn’t mean it’s the right specific Leica camera for you. Of course for those who find the combination of features to suit them best (and can afford the premium), they really are in for a treat – there’s no doubting that the Leica MP is a truly excellent camera!