The Leica M4 in many people’s eyes is the last of the classic Leica rangefinder cameras. In fact, if you spend any time reading around forums and websites looking for opinion on this camera, you’ll find it holds the prize with many as being the ultimate Leica M camera. I’m not so sure myself – all of the models have their hardened fans – but looking back at the features and the history of the Leica M, it’s easy to see how people come to some of the justifications and positive views held about the Leica M4.
If you are unaware of the history of the Leica rangefinder, the M4 pretty much superseded both the M3 and M2. The Leica M3 was originally released in 1954, with the M2 following in 58. The Leica M2 was designed as a cut cost, more accessible and slightly more versatile version of M3. Production of the Leica M4 started in 1967 after the M3 ceased production in 66 and the M2 in 67. It took the best features of both M3 and M2 cameras and combined them with new advancements of its own to create what, as mentioned, some view as the ultimate classic Leica.
Of course, since then we’ve also seen the M5, M4-2, M4-P, M6, M6 TTL, M7, MP and M-A; and that’s just the large-scale production models – there are a whole bunch of other rarities (the M2-R for example) to choose from too. So what would make one choose the M4 over any of the other models? Well, as I talk about in the preamble to my M2 review, seeing as so many of the range are so similar to each other, on paper it just comes down to a combination of budget and preference for fairly minor differences. Of course, with Leica cameras, there’s sometimes a bit more than just what’s on paper… The question are then, what are the minor differences the Leica M4 provides, why would someone choose one over the other models, and what else might swing it into favour?
Advancements upon the past
The most obvious place to start with the Leica M4 is to look at the specifics of how it was designed to be an advancement upon what came before. The most simplistic way to view at least a couple of it’s advancements is to simplify them to their core purpose. It appears evident to me that one of the biggest goals of the design of the Leica M4 was for it to be quicker to use than the models that came before it.
The quick load mechanism
There are two key ways in which the M4 is faster to use than the M3 and M2, the first is in the process of loading camera, the second is in the unloading. Loading the older M3 involves taking the bottom of the camera off, removing a take up spool (which automatically resets the frame count) and pushing the end of the film into the take up spool. You then need unspool just the right amount of film from the canister, then insert both film canister and take up spool into the camera parallel to each other. You then need to make sure the film is located properly, close the back of the camera, attach the bottom plate and finally shoot and wind on the camera a couple of times to make sure fresh film is in front of the film gate and the counter is set to zero. This sounds like a faff, but really it’s fine when you get used to it, it’s just not a particularly quick process.
The M2 was pretty much the same, though there was the extra step of manually resetting the frame count to zero once the camera was loaded. Interestingly, there was actually a version of the M2 made that was designed to speed up the process. The original process of loading the film was apparently too much faff for the US Army. As the story goes, they commissioned Leica to make a version of the M2 with a quicker loading, though a final order for the cameras was cancelled. This quicker loading M2 was never mass produced, but a version of the quick loading mechanism was used in the later Leica M4. (Alex talks more about this in his M2-R review)
Loading a Leica M4
To load a Leica M4, you simply remove the bottom plate – which automatically resets the shot counter to zero – open the back, pull out a length of film long enough to sit within 3 prongs of the new take up mechanism, insert the film into the bottom of the camera, ensure its located properly, close the back, attach the bottom and shoot and wind the film until the counter says zero. Even though it still takes me a fair few words to explain it, there is no doubt that this process is quicker. It’s also preferred by what I’d guess is the large majority of Leica rangefinder photographers. Not only this, but this loading mechanism is still used all these years later within current production models.
Clumsy loading equals no photos?
For some reason, some people don’t like this mechanism over the earlier removable take up spool. This seems to revolve around the idea that it’s easier to not load the film properly. Personally I can’t fathom this. There’s not been a single occasion that I’ve loaded a roll of film into a Leica with a 3 pronged take up mechanism and it’s not loaded properly… And even if this did happen, I’d be able to see the film wasn’t loaded by the fact that the rewind crank doesn’t rotate when I actions the film advance.
Which brings me neatly to the second speed increasing advancement of the Leica M4: The rewind crank. The earlier M3 and M2 are rewound using a knurled knob that’s pulled up and rotated between the thumb and forefinger (there’s a fun sentence for you!). The Leica M4 makes use of a crank that flicks out from a larger rewind knob making it quicker, easier and less fiddly to rewind the film.
A more debated advancement
Now, though this is quicker, some (including myself) don’t find this particular advancement to be quite perfect. Whilst there is no doubting that it’s faster, it is – to me at least – a little less aesthetically pleasing as part of the camera somehow. It’s also more fragile and – as I’ve found to my frustration in the past – more easily bent or broken. I don’t think this is just me who feels this way either, if you look at the later MP and M-A the original knurled knob was reintroduced. This is likely for aesthetic and nostalgic reasons as much as anything else, but it does indicate some broad preference for the older style, slightly less functional design – more on that point later…
Plastic tipped film advance
There’s another feature of the Leica M4 that didn’t make it onto the late MP or M-A too, and that’s the plastic tipped film advance. The earlier models have all metal film advance levers, which again were readopted in the latest current models. Though admittedly, once again, this is likely for aesthetic reasons as much as anything else.
The plastic tipped film advance of the Leica M4 is actually a pretty clever design. If like me you carry your all-metal-film-advance-Leica rangefinder camera on a fairly long strap, you will know of the fairly infrequent but nonetheless irritating sensation of the metal grip of the advance jabbing you in the hip bone. The beauty of the plastic tip of the M4 lever is that it folds neatly away meaning it can’t jab you. Yet despite it being foldable, it still feels like it’s in the right place to quickly advance the film when you’re shooting.
This is definitely a good bit of design, but of course it’s also made of plastic, which whilst more trendy and cutting edge in the late 60’s, feels comparatively cheap in a world where plastic is more commonplace, and perhaps less associated with luxury. I suppose this is why there’s been some return to metal tipped levers in the later cameras. The metal looks nicer, and some would probably argue is nicer to use, it’s just not quite as an intelligent a design. Personally, I like my Leica parts made of metal – that maybe makes me a snob though…?
Combining the best of the M3 and M2
Fortunately, short of two very small plastic covers on the frame line preview and self timer levers, there wasn’t any other major use of plastic as a material within the Leica M4’s design – at least not that I can see. In fact, most of the rest of the camera is a combination of the best of the design features found on the previous two cameras, with the basic body shape being that of the more clean lined shape of the M2. Of course for many peoples tastes it’s not what’s on the outside, it’s what’s on the inside that counts.
After the M4 came the M5. The M5 is an awesome camera, especially by the standards of many Leica shooters these days. Unfortunately for Leica, in its day it was a flop. It’s failure forced Leica hand in moving their camera building operation over to Canada and to start using less expensive metals and precision machining to build their cameras.
The cameras that came before this move – the Leica M4 included – were made using hand selected brass components that were matched perfectly to each other part within the camera to make for the highest quality and smoothest possible operation of the camera. For many this was a cut off point – what came before the M5 was a proper Leica, what came after was a little less special.
Personally, though I can feel the difference between my new M-A and old M3, I don’t find the difference to be something I could use as means to choose between the two – and as I have said countless times on this blog, one of the smoothest feeling leicas I have ever used is my mate Alex’s Canadian M4-P. To my mind, all of these are precision machines that feel nigh on perfect to use. Regardless, the early manufacturing methods with which the M4 were built remains a factor by which the M4 is judged positively.
Viewfinder & Framing lines
One quite significant way in which features from the two previous models were combined in the Leica M4 is viewfinder and frame lines. The Leica M3 was called as such because it was designed to work with 3 focal lengths: 50mm, 90mm and 135mm. Or at least, these were the frame lines contained within its viewfinder. The M2 broke this naming convention straight away as it still included three sets of frame lines, though these were 35mm, 50mm and 90mm.
Even to this day, the viewfinder in the M3 is regarded as one of the best rangefinder viewfinders if you wish to shoot with a 50mm lens. It has a high 0.92x magnification which gives it the longest effective base length of any M-mount Leica rangefinder. As well as this, the 50mm frames fill a large percentage of the width and height of the viewfinder. The problem is, if you want to shoot a 35mm lens on the M3 you either need to use an external viewfinder or use a lens with a pair of special attached “goggles” to change the magnification of the built in finder.
The Leica M2 was the first Leica to use the now much more commonplace .72x viewfinder. The .72x mag allows for wider angle frame lines to be included in the viewfinder. In the case of the M2 this was the 35mm lines. Unfortunately for anyone who shot a 135mm lens on an M3, they would have found their lens not supported by the M2.
The Leica M4 took the framing lines from both cameras by including the 135mm lines as a pair with the 35mm lines. Technically, it also therefore temporarily brought back the naming convention by having 4 sets of frame lines: 35mm, 50mm, 90mm and 135mm – though I’m not sure this was necessarily intended.
For what it’s worth, I think think the 135mm lines are pretty useless in a .72x Leica – at least without the use of an additional magnifying eyepiece. The M2 finder with its standalone 35mm lines is a wonderful thing too. That being said, the inclusion of the extra lines in the more broadly useful 0.72x finder is a decision based around making the camera more useful to more people, and on that basis it’s hard to argue too strongly with their inclusion.
Frame line coverage
One final point of note to be made about the frame lines in the M4 is their coverage. Comparing the frame lines in the M4 to my M-A there is quite a noticeable difference in the size of the coverage of the lines. The M4 lines frame bigger than the M-A lines. I’ve read something about later lines being more relative to the visible part of a framed slide, thus making later cameras more ideal for shooting transparencies, but I’ve no idea if there is any truth in that. One way or another, later Leicas have smaller coverage frame lines, which whilst fairly insignificant in the grand scheme of things, seems to be one of those subjects that causes a certain amount of debate as to which is better. Funnily enough, once you start shooting with either size of lines, I’ve found you soon forget.
Subjective thoughts (my extended conclusion)
Before I get into this part of the review, it’s probably worth while explaining how I came to be shooting this camera. I’ve come to review it through some slightly less conventional circumstances that have meant that I don’t technically own it. It was bought collectively by the readers of this website, with the idea being that I would review it then give it away as part of a competition.
The result of this is that I’m writing about a camera that I’ve never had any intention of keeping. Additionally to this, for a long time I’ve felt strongly that I’ve found the right cameras for me in the Leica M3 and M-A. The result of this is that I came at this camera review having already made up my mind about whether or not it’s the right camera for me.
I had in fact considered buying a black paint M4 before buying the M-A, but having then borrowed an M-A from Leica I was completely sold on it instead. The reasons for this are quite simple. As I’ve already mentioned, I favour the all metal film advance and earlier style rewind knob. I also wanted the full set of frame lines the M-A has, and – possibly of greater significance than any of the other justifications – I wanted a new Leica of my own. Some might question my logic – in fact some did – but at the end of the day it was my choice, regardless of the smallness of the deciding factors.
That being said, one thing I didn’t consider when ruling out the M4 was just how much favour I would find in it were I to use one. Track back a year or so ago to around the time I first used an M-A, I also borrowed a Leica M2 off my mate Ben. The process of shooting this M2 gave way to little doubts about my motivations for buying an M-A. Shooting an M4, I’ve had the same feelings again. When using the M4, it becomes very clear, very quickly why folks love this camera. Setting aside the personal (and fairly insignificant) preferences, this camera feels exactly what it was designed to be – a refined version of the cameras that came before.
As mentioned though, there are a lot of cameras that have come since it too – surely there have been improvements made to the design since the Leica M4? Well of course there were improvements made – but “improvements” is a subjective word in this context. The Leica M5 was a massive leap forward from this design. The problem was, people didn’t like it very much. More people seem to find favour in it today with it becoming a bit of a cult classic, but for some (myself included) it just didn’t/doesn’t fit their needs as well as some of the more basic featured cameras.
In the context of this post, the really interesting thing about the Leica M5 is that actually its failure appears to have sort of wedged Leica into a groove. Take a look at every other Leica that came after the M4 up until the M7 and they look pretty much the same. Ok, there were advances like further added frame lines, light meters and eventually automation, but largely speaking the cameras remained in the same image, and the advances that did come, came at a glacial pace.
Not only did the advances come at a glacial pace, but the features added to later models arguably weren’t “fixes” as such, they were more feature additions. Extra frame lines were useful if you wanted to shoot 28mm or 75mm lenses, but not so useful if you didn’t. Light meters and automation that featured in the M6s and M7 are again features that appeal to those who want or need a light meter or automation, but are needless to those who don’t. The M4 on the other hand had fixed the previously slow loading/unloading, which – whilst some may still prefer the older features and mechanisms – are still more readily identifiable as fixes to issues with the original design.
If you look at the Leica M4 in these terms, it almost becomes the boiler plate for all of the cameras up until the M7. Yes there were design tweaks, but nothing in the order of how different the M5 was. The M5’s failure cemented the large majority of the exterior design of the M4 in place for 30 odd years – and for Leica users this was seemingly welcomed.
But of course, regardless of what followed, the Leica M4 also has its trump card of having been made in Germany, in the original method of construction, before more cost cutting measures were applied to the design. Outside of the use of less expensive manufacturing methods, later models apparently had parts removed from the viewfinder that made it more likely to flare, and in the case of the M6 plastic was for a time used internally and the top and bottom plate material was changed from brass to more cost effective zinc. Even the method for colouring the cameras black changed from black enamel paint to chemically blackening the chrome.
All of these cost saving changes, combined with later features that for many were superfluous, is what must for have made the Leica M4 appear to be the peak of Leica M design. For many years this must have made a lot of Leica users nostalgic for times gone by. To me it appears that this nostalgia, combined of course with the inescapable facts about the quality of the M4 is what has levitated it to its ultimate classic Leica status.
Of course the story didn’t end at the M7. Eventually Leica brought out the MP, claiming it to be “Mechanical Perfection”. Even more recently they released the M-A which is touted as some sort of modern day purist Leica. But, for some people even these cameras don’t trump the M4. For a start, with their introduction returned the solid metal film advances and rewind knobs – which whilst playing on the nostalgia and design aesthetic of the cameras of yore – don’t bring the more pragmatic advancements of M4. Then there’s the fact that the MP has light meter and a big plastic dial on the back. The M-A doesn’t come in black paint, and they both have all those potentially superfluous frame lines…
So is the Leica M4 ultimate Leica? Well, there are some folks who might like a built in light meter, or more or less frame lines, or a different magnification viewfinder, or (like me) maybe just prefer the aesthetic and feel of the older film advance and rewind knob, and for all of those people there are plenty of subtly different Leica M rangefinders to choose from. In that regard the M4 is just one of a bunch of cameras that might have the perfect selection of features for any given individual. All this choice – as I talk about in my M2 review – is the beauty of the Leica M rangefinder series.
But – and this the point I hope I’ve put across through all this waffle of mine – when looking at the path Leica have taken with the design of their cameras and the ups and downs of the history of the range – as I said at the beginning of the post, it’s not hard to see why many would place the Leica M4 on a pedestal above all the cameras that came before, and indeed the cameras that have come since.
You can find more photos I’ve taken with this camera here
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