Rangefinders (Changeable Lens) Thoughts on Cameras

Leica M2: Overlooked lesser sibling or minimalist, ‘gold-standard’ talisman of classic Leicadom for wide angle? – By Chroma

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!

Chroma

www.chromacomaphoto.com

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33 Comments

  • Reply
    Hamish Gill
    December 16, 2017 at 8:58 am

    Great post! of course I entirely disagree and prefer the M3 (and M-A, and M4-P for that matter). I also really don’t like the frame counter on the M2… But, I get it! What’s amusing, I think, is the cavernous gap so often implied between models. Those of us who have had the privilege to have have tried many of the different models know we would be happy with any of them, really. All brilliant cameras, with a hairs breadth of minor preferences between them.

    • Reply
      chromacomaphoto
      December 17, 2017 at 3:20 am

      Thanks for the kind words Hamish. I agree that for so many people, they are simply all just great cameras full stop. It’s just fun comparing the use and general ownership experience of them sometimes 🙂

  • Reply
    jeremy north
    December 16, 2017 at 9:28 am

    Superb article Chroma. I’ve an M2 and am delighted with it for all the reasons you mention. The frame counter is a bit of a pain but I tend not to keep an eye on frame count on cameras anyway. I just shoot until the film runs out.
    I’m not sure that I agree with your point that the M2 is overlooked or that it is deemed to be a lesser sibling to the M3. I think we buy cameras depending on what we find and within a budget. I’m sure I’d be happy with any Leica if it was in nice condition. Were money to be no object I’d get an M-A, the idea of a brand new Leica is very appealing. However the M2 is perfect for me as I use only 35 & 50mm lenses. (until I get a 28 haha)

    • Reply
      chromacomaphoto
      December 17, 2017 at 3:23 am

      Thanks Jeremy. I like the idea of a brand new meterless film Leica M also but still not entirely convinced of the build quality of the modern ones compared to the old classics. As an aside… if you do get a 28mm lens and don’t like the idea of an external finder…I found that on a standard .72 finder, if you just ignore all the framelines and treat the whole viewfinder window itself as one big 28mm framing window, it works better than you might think. Not perfect but very workable with something like a 28mm Elmarit V3 on an M2!

      • Reply
        jeremy north
        December 17, 2017 at 11:06 am

        Hamish reviewed the M-A a couple or so years ago. If I remember correctly, build quality is superb though I think he criticised the film speed reminder dial.
        Thanks for the tip re 28mm lens.
        By the way, apart from the Elmar 50, I have Zeiss 50 & 35 lenses and of course the splendid 7Artisans 50/1.1

  • Reply
    Steve
    December 16, 2017 at 10:25 am

    I owned an M2 for a while and thought it was a brilliant camera. However, I parted with it after trying the M3 because I prefer the M3 finder. I shoot mostly 50mm and 35mm with the M3. I have a 35mm Summicron with goggles that is just wonderful, so I don’t think you are compromising 35mm with the M3. Leica 35mm lenses with goggles work fine on all other other Leica models except for the M10.

    • Reply
      chromacomaphoto
      December 17, 2017 at 3:26 am

      Oh absolutely Steve, I couldn’t agree more. 50mm is better on the M3 finder without a doubt and the goggles are just fine. In fact, for people who wear glasses, using a 35mm goggled version lens on a regular .72 finder is a whole lot easier and helps you see more of the entire frame with ease.

  • Reply
    Terry B
    December 16, 2017 at 10:26 am

    Hamish, I generally agree, although I wasn’t too put off with the M2’s frame counter when I owned an M2 and M3 at the same time. The M3 was my first Leica because, well, it is the first and original and set the style for all later models. I thought I would get the M2 some years later as I believed it would be better when using a 35mm w/a lens, but then niggles set in, but mainly the smaller magnification v/f which made itself felt with any lens longer than 35mm, and I’d switched to 28mm for my w/a shooting making the M2 v/f redundant for my needs. So I sold it without regret. And this is the point, we choose cameras which for the most part meet our needs and must endure whatever are their idiosyncrasies.
    And it is so when it comes to the M3/M2. Use whatever floats your boat.

  • Reply
    Neil
    December 16, 2017 at 10:27 am

    I must admit I’m not a fan of the M3, I find the design of it somewhat fussy, particularly the frames round the windows but it doesn’t have the daft frame counter of the M2 so it’s kinda good in that respect. An M2 with no self timer and a film rewind lever rather than button looks very sleek and timeless, it’s only the frame counter and flash sync ports on the back which give it away. I shoot with a 50mm and I prefer a bit of space around the frame lines, so I’ve never found the .72 magnification to be a problem. I enjoyed reading this, thank you, but I’m already a convert 🙂 it’s telling that the design of the M-A, Leica’s greatest camera 😛 has the best bits of the M2 and M3 AND has the modern looking more angular lettering – it’s really taking those cues from the earlier models and coming up with something definitive. Shout at me if you like but I don’t think this model can be improved upon.

  • Reply
    Christos Theofilogiannakos
    December 16, 2017 at 11:24 am

    You got your M2, good for you, enjoy it, blah blah blah, but please stop raising prices for us folks who are still trying to save money to buy one.

    • Reply
      chromacomaphoto
      December 17, 2017 at 3:27 am

      I know, I know… the internet really is a double edged sword isn’t it? 🙂

  • Reply
    Eddy
    December 16, 2017 at 11:28 am

    Hello Chroma. Thanks for sharing these thoughts. I’m an M2 fan like you and for the same reasons. I use mine mainly with a Summaron 35 and it’s a wonderful, simple machine. Great, immersive photos as well.

    • Reply
      chromacomaphoto
      December 17, 2017 at 3:30 am

      Thanks for the kind words Eddy, the Summaron 35 is probably my fave classic Leica lens and maybe even my fave classic Leica 35mm full stop. Results are just sublime on B+W film. I actually preferred it to a Version 1 8 element 35mm cron!

  • Reply
    George Appletree
    December 16, 2017 at 3:20 pm

    The more I read about Leica, the more I think is like discussing about old ferraris; very good for collectors indeed.
    Maybe Leica style is minimalist but the photographs they like to impose are rather maximalist: dramatic b&w contrasty shots and pop up color digitals

    • Reply
      jeremy north
      December 17, 2017 at 11:11 am

      I felt the same way George, until I handled a Leica. The feel and build qualities are exceptional, unlike anything else. It is a shame that most are owned by collectors which collect dust rather than being used. Herr Barnack would be horrified.

      • Reply
        George Appletree
        December 17, 2017 at 2:44 pm

        Well, Jeremy. Thank you. I’ll explain myself:
        After owning one of those retractable lens fake leicas and a Minilux I owned an M6, an M6 TTL, and an M7 and M8 I still onwed together with a Summicron f2 Titanium.
        I was in a Leica mood for some years. Abducted, like many Leica fans, I would say. Or simply idiotized.
        Maybe herr Barnack would be horrified, but their descendants have become a factory of luxury “exclusive” producs, launching day after day ridiculous special editions that any intelligent photographer would immediately reject.
        Yes, I was in London recently, in one of those antique stores offering pretty old Leica stuff for a good price. And still hesitating if biting the hook.
        No, not at all.
        I like my leica cameras (less and less by the way), even thinking in selling all that brass (and titanium lol) weight.
        They’re just cameras. Good, very good if you like. But not more.
        I don’t use wearing jewels.
        That’s it. No hate at all. Just my brain.
        Enjoy yours though.
        About minimalism and style, Leica influence on the photography world have been for decades I would say distorting. They’re in any photographic soup telling which are the good photographers and which aren’t. And I’m personality tired of watching Salgado work here and there.

        • Reply
          jeremy north
          January 3, 2018 at 7:26 pm

          I get what you’re saying George. I am in agreement with you regarding the “boutique” nature of Leica’s marketing and image. Your Ferrari analogy is spot on, that’s how I feel too. However none of that matters to me. Mine is an M2 and I have
          zeiss lenses for it. I’m not by any means a Leica fan, nor an apologist, I just like it for its build, feel and simplicity.

          • Hamish Gill
            January 3, 2018 at 8:23 pm

            Build, feel and simplicity – yep, it’s amazing how this get’s overcomplicated

  • Reply
    Alex Hakimi
    December 16, 2017 at 5:36 pm

    nice opinion piece. we share similar sentiments on the M2. if you haven’t read it yet, check out my article on the M2-R.

    https://www.35mmc.com/01/06/2016/leica-m2-r/

  • Dan Castelli
    Reply
    Dan Castelli
    December 16, 2017 at 5:51 pm

    Thanks for the posting. I like the M2’s funky film counter dial. In an earlier life, my M2 had the original viewfinder replaced w/a M4 viewfinder. I added a rapid rewind knob over the pull-up rewind knob, and, on the advice of a long retired photojournalist, got a couple of spare take-up spools, and have them pre-loaded with a couple of rolls of film . That way, I can change out film a bit faster than the speed of a glacier.

    • Reply
      chromacomaphoto
      December 17, 2017 at 3:50 am

      Yeah, agreed on having spare Leica film take up spools, I always meant to do that myself. No doubt that comes in handy in fast action shoots around a city.

  • Reply
    Hern Tan
    December 16, 2017 at 6:55 pm

    I was about to protest vehemently at the denouncement of the M3…until I realised that you were talking about the M2 as the best body with a 35mm lens, in which case I agree! Perhaps the M-A is better overall, but it does cost quadruple the price of a decent M2 these days.

    • Reply
      chromacomaphoto
      December 17, 2017 at 4:00 am

      Indeed I do mean more from a standpoint of a 35mm lens shooter really, well noted.

  • Reply
    jeffrey
    December 16, 2017 at 9:11 pm

    Very interesting article, but it does neglect the real differences between the M3 and M2 viewfinder designs, which go beyond different framelines and magnification factor. The M2 viewfinder/rangefinder is a simpler version of that of the M3; for example, the light that illuminates the framelines is reflected into the eyepiece through a mirror in the M2, but through a silvered prism in the M3. There are fewer optical components in the rangefinder light path also, although I don’t know what effect the element count might have. All in all, considering the simplified viewfinder and the nonautomatic frame counter, it is reasonable to conclude that Leitz was trying to design a less-expensive body than the M3.

    That said, the M2 was the second Leica I bought new–the first was a IIIg–and I love mine dearly, even if I don’t use it much any more. I was never comfortable lugging around a 135mm lens and usually used my M2 with a 35mm, and a 90mm collapsible Elmar. The combination makes for a very compact yet versatile. kit.

    • Reply
      chromacomaphoto
      December 17, 2017 at 4:01 am

      Thanks for the added Technical insight Jeffrey, very much appreciated.

  • Reply
    Hil
    December 17, 2017 at 4:52 am

    I have both M3 and M2. I agree that I prefer the M2. I mostly shoot 50mm and I prefer the M2 frame lines. I just don’t get along with the ugly giant round corner frame lines of the M3 that are always there. And when I do shoot a 35mm, I like the clean look through the finder. No double lines, etc. And I would as soon use a tripod as I would an external finder. M2, 50 DR without goggles, 28/2.8 Summaron = heaven.
    The wheel for the film counter is awesome. I use it like worry beads. Just spin around and around as I look around. I don’t really need to know how many frames I’ve shot.
    The M3, at least my M3, is much smoother and softer shutter release. than the M2. I will grant that much.
    Nice write up! Thanks!

    • Reply
      chromacomaphoto
      December 17, 2017 at 7:46 am

      Thanks for the reply and especially for this comment ‘The wheel for the film counter is awesome. I use it like worry beads. Just spin around and around as I look around’ which is one of the more amusing Leica M comments that I’ve ever heard 🙂 Strange thing is, I totally get what you mean!

  • Reply
    Cory
    December 17, 2017 at 8:55 am

    As a M2 and 35mm 2.8 summaron owner myself, I very much agree with your opinions. I recently had mine overhauled and replaced the viewfinder and rangefinder windows with multicoated glass. An upgrade that makes a legendary camera even better in my experience

    • Reply
      chromacomaphoto
      December 17, 2017 at 10:10 am

      You have good taste indeed, I have never experienced an older brass M with multicoated and updated modern finder mods, must be nice. Shoot it in good health!

  • Reply
    Richard Coombs
    December 17, 2017 at 6:38 pm

    Interesting article! Thanks for posting it.
    I’m fortunate in that I own both the M3 and M2. I love both and wouldn’t part with either.
    I prefer the M2 simply for its 35mm frame lines. I’ve never, ever considered it to be in any way a budget/lesser M version, and I have no problem with the frame counter.

    • Reply
      Ming
      December 25, 2017 at 1:04 pm

      First, thanks for that great article.

      I have, like Richard, a M2 and M3. Same here, would not give up with either.
      So. What I can say from 5 years of using both, CLAd in Wetzlar, that they are not the same.
      The M3 s shutter is a Little more quiet, creamy (may this does. Make sense) but it is more smooth in operation.
      The M2 a Little harder when releases…nuances.

      The M3 is the M for 50. there is no other Camera that can compete.
      The M2 is the perfect M for 35, wonderful with a Summaron 2.8/35 mounted. Actually there is no need to reset the counter. I can shoot 38 frames. When reload, I transport the Film twice and there you are at 0. It is the same with the M3, it starts at -2 frames…you cock twice to zero.

      At the end, M2/3 are very nice build cameras, so is my IIF.
      Enjoy any of them and keep shooting .

      Merry Christmas to all.

      • Reply
        chromacomaphoto
        December 26, 2017 at 2:43 am

        Agreed, M3 rules for 50mm. I agree that the M2 film counter usually doesn’t need resetting in normal use, the first 2 blank frames take care of that in general. I do sometimes find that the wheel can get turned around sometimes if the camera is in a bag though and so it’s often a good idea to check it when reloading film.

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