Hi, I’m Chroma. I live and shoot in Bangkok, Thailand. I am very grateful to Hamish for letting me add to the ever growing tome that is 35mmc. All of the musings and insights into compact 35mm photography on this site have been fantastic to read and look at and have really helped set the bar for solid work of a high standard within this sub-genre of photographic interest. I usually shoot and showcase my film work in Thailand at www.chromacomaphoto.com but one thing has invariably led to another and I also find myself waffling on there about classic film cameras quite a bit too. At my site you will also find one of the most comprehensive guides to shooting film and digital in Bangkok and Thailand. Check it out if you are planning a trip there with a camera.
Now then, down to brass (Leica) tacks…(and yes, I am including favourite shots taken by myself in Bangkok with a Leica M2 throughout this post).In reading this article, it is assumed that you are already familiar with the basics about classic Leica M bodies of the 50s-70’s and about how every man and his (presumably German) dog will tell you right off the bat that the Leica M3 is where it’s at. They will usually wax lyrical about how this camera started it all for the M mount and how it is the unassailable king of the hill, end of.
I’m going to do a dangerous thing in the world of Leica fan boys (and girls). I’m sticking my head above the parapet and saying ‘ …das ist (ja) alles dummes Zeug!’ (That’s a lot of nonsense)
I think the M2 is the best of the best. It has everything you need, nothing you don’t and is a 35mm lens shooter’s dream Leica body par excellence. So, what or who exactly is this cheeky upstart of which I speak?
Leica legend has it that following the runaway freight train success that was the M3, they felt the need to make changes to the model lineup in 1958, adding the M2 to the range (to be sold alongside its bigger brother). And therein lies the rub, in the eyes of many, the M2 is simply a lesser version of an M3. It’s often seen as a young sibling riding on the back of the family name without making its own well-deserved way in the world. This is a view sometimes supported by the fact that the M2 was sold more cheaply when new and had (very slightly) less features than the M3. Added to this that its very name has a lower, lesser number…I mean why have an M2 when you can have an M3, right? Wrong!
Although this is often the train of thought that many had with regards to the M2, in recent times it has perhaps become more evident that this model is possibly as deserving of the spotlight for classic Leica body affections as any model, maybe even more so. For starters, the claims of ‘budget M3’ really need to be addressed head on. Firstly, the Leica M2 is in fact, really a late model single stroke M3 with but a few differences. Its build quality and feel are second to none and the M2 features the same legendary all brass construction, inside and out, from gears to top and bottom plate material.
Basically it’s an M3 with a few things deliberately omitted along with some new tweaks. Today we think of a budget model of anything as being produced to appease the bean counters in accounting rather than anybody else. There is often an underlying connotation of downgraded, cheapened quality and the consumer somehow receiving something which is perhaps a little ‘sub-par’. But these cameras were conceived and constructed in a different era, an epoch where great men could figure out everything on slide rules and paper and then machine them perfectly into existence from only the very best quality materials so as to last a lifetime (or two) with ease. The very idea of a ‘budget model’ from Wetzlar in the 50’s simply meant a few things left off or out but everything still made of the same amazing materials and screwed together to the same impeccable standards. Let me say it once and for all: There’s no difference in quality between and M2 and an M3. There was no shortcut, cost-cutting ‘cheap and cheerful’ model available, that’s just not how Leica did things in the 50’s. Full disclosure: I’ve been lucky enough to have owned both, I feel reasonably qualified to comment.
The finder was changed from the M3’s .91 magnification to become the now ubiquitous .72 affair. This also allowed Leica to fit a new frame line combination into it. It was still a set of three but the focal lengths covered had changed to become 35, 50 and 90mm. This choice was a reflection of how more commonly used the 35mm lens was becoming and to allow for lenses wider than a 50mm to be deployed without the special ‘goggled’ M3 versions or the need for any auxiliary finder shenanigans (just look at all the M3’s adorned with such jewellery in any black and white Vietnam war field shot to see how widespread the need to use something other than a 50mm on the Leica was). This now meant that around this time, certain 35mm Leitz lenses were available both with and without the ‘goggled’ lenses, hence their more accurate nomenclature of ‘M3 version’ vs. ‘M2 version’ which isn’t always used with clarity today.
Not all M2’s have a self-timer (although many do) but they typically all sport the frame line preview lever. Gone was the tidy little guard around the lens release button, never to be seen again (shame?). Also off the menu for this model was the magnified bubble window and automatic frame counter display. Leica here saved money by using a ratcheted, rotating, manually-set disc as a frame counter. It seems to be the subject of some debate these days, with people either describing it as something they can adapt to easily without a second thought or something that they simply can’t abide and even selling on the camera as a result, in extreme cases. Before I slowly waded into the M2 waters myself, all this talk about the film counter dial on the internet had almost duped me into believing that this was some sort of huge Wetzlar design faux-pas that might threaten my very ownership of the camera. Once I took a few minutes to avail myself as to the correct operation and function of said feature, I almost found it amusing that anybody could regard it as an Achilles heel. It’s actually incredibly easy, simple and effective to use. I personally find it to be a complete non-issue and even a well thought out design (although the auto M3 version is perhaps a little easier as there’s nothing to remember when using it whereas the M2 version does require an occasional bit of forethought every now and again to keep it on track).
Externally and at a quick glance, the two models can easily be confused. The main thing to note is that an M3 has its trademark raised edges or borders around the viewfinder windows as a first giveaway whereas the M2 is more flush with some recessing. The film counter will then tell you the rest of the story from there. The film rewind knob end of the body on an M2 is the same, old school knurled little fella that has to be gripped and twisted to rewind the film. This design sometimes draws heat when compared to the later angled knob rewind that first appeared on the M4 (continuing for twenty five years or so all the way through to the much beloved M6 variants) but my take has always been that if this design was so hideously off the mark, why did Leica eventually return back to it again decades later for the modern MP? Having owned both types, I can see the merits of each but think that I honestly prefer the older style. It’s a personal choice at the end of the day. Shutter speeds were the same as the M3 (but later ‘normal’ speed M3’s, not the ‘scientific’ numbers of early models). Again M2’s were nearly all chrome and yes, you’ve guessed it, original black ones are rare and command a silly premium indeed. Film loading is the same as the M3 in almost every case apart from the very end of the production run where some of the modern system ‘tulips’ started to be phased in. Sometimes on the second hand market, you’ll run across an M2 that has had this mod added after the fact. It’s really no biggie but some people prefer it to the standard ‘old-school’ Wetzlar spool standard.
It is my contention then that if you like to mainly shoot a 35mm then you might not be too ill-advised in skipping an M3 altogether and just going straight down M2 street. The frame lines are simple and cleaner for such a shooter and you lose nothing in terms of build quality and reliability. Any good M2 is just as good as any other good M3, there’s simply no point debating it too seriously. The second-hand prices of the M2 used to be quite a bit cheaper than the M3 (oh, they were happy times) but people have been steadily talking it up on the internet over the years (exactly what I am doing here, irony duly noted) and it’s become quite the star in its own right, deservedly so I feel.
An M2 with a nice fast prime (especially a 35) is a wonderful rig that brings smiles for miles. I personally think that this is best with some period correct glass that was made for it such as a Summaron 35, or an early pre-asph 35 lux… simply sublime. It’s also great with a nifty-fifty of course (my best recommendation would be the collapsible 50mm elmar 2.8 as this was often advertised with the M2 back in the day and it folds down to make a surprisingly pocketable little combo), it’s just that seeing as this whole model’s raison d’etre is arguably the 35mm lens, it just makes so much sense to run one that way. If you do try this, I am fairly certain you will never be left wanting or disappointed in any way whatsoever.
I have owned and shot with M2’s,3’s,4’s and 6’s plus had some seat time with an MP. Honestly, my all-time fave Leica rig is a tough call. I dearly loved my M6 classic (early Wetzlar in black) with the adorable 35mm pre-asph ‘lux but for all of the aforementioned reasons….I think a Nice, clean M2 with an all brass 35 Summaron (M2 version) was the very best set up I ever used. The images from it looked as nice as the thing itself and for an everyday classic Leica set up that is surprisingly ‘affordable’ (this always a relative term in Leicaland of course!), I simply think it can’t be beaten.
Thanks again to Hamish for tolerating my inane drivel on such a well-respected site and even bigger thanks to you all for reading!