Something I’ve been thinking about for a long time is modifying – or indeed having modified – a Leica rangefinder. Earlier this year I took the plunge and sent my Leica M3 to Alan Starkie of Cameraworks-UK. It went with a list as long as my arm, and came back a work of art. So impressed I was that I decided to send my M4-P for a couple of smaller tweaks. I now have two Leica cameras that feel as truly mine as any camera could feel – so I thought it about time I wrote about them, as well as penning a little bit about the standard of service I received from Alan
I’ll start with the Leica M3, as that’s the camera that had the most effort put into it… in fact, it’s fair to say that it’s possibly one of the most heavily modified Leica M3s I’ve ever come across. I’m sure I’ll be corrected on that – there’s bound to be someone who’s done some more outrageous things to one (I’m looking at you Bellamy Hunt) – but for my tastes and desires this is where the line of near perfection sits:
The Leica M3 Titan Panda
- 1 The Leica M3 Titan Panda
- 2 Silver Lettering
- 3 Self timer and flash socket removal
- 4 Leather
- 5 Teeth
- 6 Coated optics replacement
- 7 Replacement FTA frame line mask
- 8 Titanium shutter upgrade
- 9 The Leica M4-P Super-Rat
- 10 Glass replacement
- 11 The M-A vs the customised M4-P
- 12 A note on the service I received from Alan
I’ll start with the aesthetics first, as they are the most obvious changes, with the black paint being the most significant. I’ve made the point elsewhere on this website that I’m not a fan of the shiny black paint look that harks back to the early Leica cameras. I get why some people like it, but it’s not for me.
My preference has always been for the flatter black chrome look. I’m actually not wedded to the chrome finish, it’s just the shininess of the paint I don’t like. Chatting to Alan about this we settled on a near-matte black paint. He uses a hard wearing paint from the states called Duracote which he assured me will take quite a bit of a battering before it chips. As you can see, I also elected for a “panda” finish with the only part I wanted painting that wasn’t the top or bottom plate being the centre of the rewind knob. Don’t ask why, I just fancied it being that way.
One of the selling points of the choice of paint for me was what Alan referred to as a “warm” finish. I couldn’t quite get my head around this until handling the camera, but he’s right. The paint finish feels quite thick on the surface. It’s matte in finish, but it’s also matte in feel. There’s almost a grain to it that feels – at least in my opinion – very comfortable in the hand. And Alan is right too, it does feel warm, but if I were to explain that I’d say it comes from the layer it provides between your fingers and the metal.
It is almost the antithesis of the shiny paint which – whilst still feeling like a layer between user and the metal of the camera – to me feels plastic and cheap to the touch. The Duracote paint’s texture just feels more pleasant, and actually higher quality. It also gently sparkles in the sun, which is way nicer than the harsh reflections off the black shiny paint. Caveat emptor: your mileage may vary, but I knows what I likes, and I likes this a lot!
Another paint related choice was the silver paint for the lettering on top of the camera. The tradition is obviously white, and whilst I didn’t want to deviate too far from that, I wanted something a little less bright. Alan’s suggestion of silver came out very well I think – it’s not glaringly different to the white paint, it’s just a little more subtle.
Self timer and flash socket removal
You could argue that the self-timer and flash socket are more than aesthetic features, but when in nearly three years they’ve not been touched, they do become somewhat pointless adornments. Alan did a very good job of removing them; only leaving the slightest scar on the back where the flash sockets used to be. The self-timer has been removed to a standard like it was never there.
The removal of the self-timer of course meant the grip needed replacing. I had Alan replace it with the standard leatherette material from Aki Asahi. I’m not fussy when it comes to this sort of thing, as long as it has a neat, tight finish and is black, it’s good with me. He’s done a great job – I can’t see a single uneven edge… though to be fair, this is possibly as much attributable to the quality of the Aki Asahi laser cutting as it is to Alan’s ability to fit it.
A fairly subtle aesthetic change, that I’d probably not have noticed if Alan hadn’t have told me about it, was the removal of what he calls the “teeth”. Looking at the before picture you can see two bits of metal that drop down from the top plate around the side of the lens mount. Alan removed these to give a cleaner finish to the front of the camera. I must admit, when I first got the camera back I wasn’t sure – it was the one option I’d never been 100% about when he suggested it – but it’s grown on me completely now – it just simplifies the lines of the front of the camera slightly.
Aesthetics are one thing, but they certainly aren’t where Alan’s skills end. There are a number of mechanical upgrades that can be undertaken as part of the work that Cameraworks-UK can achieve and which are above and beyond the usual remit of a “Clean Lubricate and Adjust”. I elected for all of Alan’s suggestions…
Coated optics replacement
The only really visible upgrade to the mechanics, or at least the function of the camera in use, is the use of coated glass. In the right light you can see the green coating on the front of the viewfinder glass. This coated glass has also been used in the rangefinder window and indeed the front of the frame line illumination window. Without doing a side-by-side comparison it’s hard to be specific about the extent that this has improved the user experience, but there certainly seems to be an increase in clarity to the view through the viewfinder.
Replacement FTA frame line mask
One of the first conversations I ever had with Alan was about his replacement “Free to Air” frame line mask. Some time ago he identified a fairly significant flaw in the design of the early Leica cameras. Essentially, there is a component called the frame line mask which is part of what projects the frame lines and rangefinder patch into the viewfinder. Alan found that the original, which was made out of glass, was deteriorating in a lot of cameras. I’ll let Alan give the full explanation via a piece of content his own website here, but the short version is that Alan solved the issue by reengineering a metal mask similar to that found in later models.
My M3 didn’t seem to be suffering the issues Alan talks about, at least not to a degree that I had noticed, so my logic was preventative rather than remedial. To me it just made sense to make the move whilst Alan was doing so much to the camera already. It’s also fair to say that the RF patch is amazingly bright now – though I suppose that could be down to the mask, the coating or just the fact that it’s been serviced. One way or another, I’m very pleased with it!
Titanium shutter upgrade
The final, and possibly most significant upgrade to the mechanics of the camera is the replacement of the cloth shutter with the titanium shutter curtain out of a dead Nikon F2. When I first mentioned this on Instagram, I had a fair few questions asked about it, the primary one being about the noise it makes. There seemed to be a fairly common assumption that it would be louder than the cloth shutter.
This was of course the first question I asked Alan when we initially talked about it. In theory, you’d think it would – after all when people talk about the quietness of the shutter in the Leica it’s often attributed to the fact that it’s cloth. In fact, the titanium shutter is no louder at all. I asked Alan about this; his theory is that it’s down to the simple fact that the Leica shutter mechanism is just quiet.
He commented that regardless of the material that the shutter is made of, when he replaces cloth with titanium, the ends of the shutter curtains are still capped with the same material. It’s this end material that that’s largely responsible for the sound of the shutter, not the curtain material itself. That said, I suppose it’s fair to say there is a slight difference in sound, but it’s definitely no louder and no more noticeable in use. Hear for yourself:
One of the other questions I was asked was “why?” That’s a slightly more tricky one, as there’s an element of “because I could” in the answer. Alan suggested it, told me my titanium shutter mod would be the first he would do for a customer, and I said yes. In fact, Alan went on to tell me that my M3 was the first Leica he’d rebuilt to a fully working camera with a titanium shutter. His previous test run had only ever got as far as a working shutter on his test bench.
Shallow bragging rights aside, there are some technical reasons a titanium shutter is an advantage – the primary one being that it’s impervious to pin holes being burnt through sunlight shining through a lens. Titanium melts at something insane like 1600 degrees centigrade. I suppose it must be harder wearing and longer lasting than cloth too.
Of course, on one hand, all this does somewhat debunk the myth that the Leica shutter is quiet because it’s cloth, it also begs the question as to why Leica persisted with cloth shutters until they switched to the vertical metal shutters in the digital cameras? I guess only Leica know the answer to that question… unless anyone out there has an answer?
One way or another, I’m happy I went for it. I trusted my M3 before, it’s always felt like a solid camera that’s highly unlikely to fail on me. This upgrade makes it feel even more dependable – especially since Alan had to completely dismantle and rebuild the camera to do all this work. It has essentially had about the most rigorous service and overhaul I could possibly hope for!
The Leica M4-P Super-Rat
There’s a bit of a back story to my Leica M4-P. It is actually one of a pair of M4-Ps I bought a few years ago now. I bought the pair when they were still reasonably affordable, I think they cost me £630 for the pair – hard to believe looking at the value now. I kept one – which I subsequently positively reviewed here – and my mate Alex bought the other one off me. The one that went to Alex is the one I eventually sent to Alan, I sold mine to help buy a Leica M-A… more on that in a mo…
I suppose some might be tempted to have a camera that looks as tatty as this repainted. For my tastes, I like it as is. It might look like a rat, but it has charm… not to mention the fact that I can rest fairly comfortably with taking this camera anywhere I might like to. It’s not like I could do too much damage that would impact on the overall look of the thing.
That being said, if there’s one thing I don’t like about the design of the M4-P it’s the garish red Leica badge that adorns the front of the camera. The removal of said badge and a new Aki Asahi grip was high first on my list of things to do to this camera. Again, very happy with the fit from Alan.
New frame advance lever
Second on my list was to replace the old plastic tipped film advance with a metal one. I just don’t like the plastic ones, despite knowing deep down that they’re more practical. Alan painted an old-style one black for me, and even gave it a bit of premature wear so as to not make it look too out of place. The black paint still looks slightly out of place on the black chrome camera, but since the whole thing looks like it’s gone 10 rounds with an industrial tumble drier, I ain’t fussed. It adds to the charm, if anything.
Despite the physical appearance of this camera, it actually works perfectly. In fact, more than perfectly, it’s possibly the most smooth feeling Leica I have ever used. The film advance is as smooth as the MP I recently reviewed, and more smooth than my M3. The chap I bought it off told me it’d been serviced in the early 2000’s by Sherry Krauter too, so I had no concerns about it having any mechanical issues. Alan agreed that it’s in good working order.
One issue it did have was a slightly hazy viewfinder. Fortunately, the haze was located on one of the bits of glass Alan can replace as part of his coated optics upgrade.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the viewfinder is as clear and bright as my Leica M-A now. The only difference being that the view through the M-A is noticeably warmer tinted, whereas this has a cooler tint. I have no preference for either. You’ll notice this glass has a purple tint compared to the above green in the M3. This glass is Schneider coated, and I’m so convinced it’s better than the Hoya glass Alan used before, that I’m going to send the M3 back to him to upgrade it again.
The M-A vs the customised M4-P
That’s the sum total of the work to the M4-P. It just didn’t feel like it needed anything else doing to it. Which I think says a little something about my relationship with my Leica M-A, and certainly points to the reasons I decided to sell it in favour of keeping the M4-P. I always regretted selling the M4-P, so when Alex told me he was selling it, I bought it back off him. I actually made a video about this subject, so won’t waffle on too much. You can watch the video here:
If you can’t be bothered to watch it, the gist is this: The only thing the M-A brings to the table is slightly less rangefinder patch flare – something I don’t really find issue working around. Beyond that, I can’t see any real-terms advantage of the M-A over the M4-P. On top of this, the basic functionality of the Leica M3/M4-P combination is perfect for me. The M3 is my primary camera; with the high magnification viewfinder it’s perfectly suited to my mostly-50mm photography. The M4-P acts as a perfect second body that allows my to more readily shoot wide-angle lenses when I feel inclined. The M-A is superfluous within this combination. It feels too valuable a camera to be second fiddle to an M3, and now I’ve had the M4-P modified the M-A actually feels less like it’s mine than the M4-P does anyway.
Something else I’ve realised is a point I talked about in my post about the Leica Mystique. I think I’ve gotten over a previously enjoyed “luxury” element of Leica ownership. I think there was an element of that pleasure that drove the original purchase of the Leica M-A. But now I don’t aspire to that luxury, it feels like there’s a hole in my rationale for owning such a thing. Don’t get me wrong, I still think it’s probably the ultimate Leica camera, besting even the MP – for my tastes at least – I just don’t feel like I need it in my life when the M3 and M4-P do everything I need.
The really crazy thing is this: Add up the cost of the M3, the M4-P and the work I had done to both and it still doesn’t come to as much as the cost of a new M-A. Realising this, and taking note of how little the M-A would be used when I have these other two wonderful Starkie-Leicas was the final straw in the decision to sell it… any takers?
A note on the service I received from Alan
Finally, I just want to talk a bit about the service Alan and his son James provide. I’m not going to tell you it’s a perfectly flawless process, nor am I going to tell you it was fast. Alan and his son have clearly made a bit of a rod for their backs being as good at what they do as they are. They are busy, and as such, you can expect to wait at least a couple of months from when the camera is received at Cameraworks HQ. There’s a good chance Alan will have lots of questions too, and in my experience, he might ask some of them a couple of times too. He clearly has a “ask twice, paint once” policy… and who can blame him?! There’s a lot of work that goes into these cameras, he wants to get it right for both his customer’s and for his own sake.
For all that some of that might sound negative, it’s not supposed to. When you deal with Cameraworks-uk, you’re dealing with two blokes who clearly have a passion for what they do, a passion that is backed up with immense skill, and a wealth of knowledge. Above all else, there’s a real human touch to the whole process, and for me, that goes a long way. I really couldn’t be happier with my modded Leicas – thanks again, Alan & James!