I recently bought a Leica M4-P, very recently in fact. It’s the funny thing with these Leica’s, they seem to inspire me to write about them fairly quickly, especially this one. Maybe it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, but one way or another, it has fit perfectly into the role I hoped it would, and indeed gives me exactly the user experience I was hoping for…
The usual pre-amble…
If I’ve had one small regret about the Leica M7 I bought, it’s that I bought a silver chrome one. I’m not sure it’s a serious regret, as I do think it’s a beautiful thing, but once in a while, it does make me feel a little bit self-conscious. It’s just a bit bling, and since it’s been summer and I haven’t been able to hide it under my coat as I did in colder times I’ve become a bit more aware of it. Sometimes I just feel like I’m carrying an expensive thing, and that it’s obvious to others that I am.
I’m also prone to getting frustrated with myself for always having loaded a film I don’t want to shoot. This has the annoying side effect of me just not shooting any film outside of my comfort zone, as when I come to load it, I only want to load it with film I know I can use almost regardless of where it goes. The best example of this is having bought a roll of Ektar, my first roll of Ektar in fact. I bought it in March, wanting to shoot it in the Leica, but then didn’t shoot it until the end of July, on the day before I was expecting the Leica M4-P to arrive. This was pretty much down to the fact that it’s 100iso and I couldn’t get my head around shooting a whole film that wasn’t at least 400iso in the M7… What if I went somewhere that the light wasn’t good enough for 100iso film? What if I didn’t finish the roll on an outing, I’d be stuck with a roll that was out of my comfort zone in my default camera. A stupid mindset I know! Anyway, long story short, it was clear for a while that a second Leica M body was on the cards. But before I could buy one I needed to make the difficult decision about which one I wanted.
The first thing on the list of requirements was that it needed to be black, with a silver chrome M7 that felt a bit bling, I didn’t want another silver chrome body. The second sticking point was that it needed to be relatively inexpensive. Anything with a black paint finish was therefore off the cards. This basically ruled out everything pre M5. I also couldn’t afford another M7 or and M6 for that matter, so they were out. This left M5, M4-2, M4-P, and the CL. The CL, for budgetary reasons, being at the top, but at the bottom for the form factor.
The M5 was interesting; I like the sound of the meter and it sounds well designed, but again the form factor put me off. I really like the shape, size and design of the “standard” M bodies. The M4-2/P were probably the most interesting but looking to be going for a bit too much cash. That was until I saw a pair of M4-P’s on rangefinder forum; a tatty one and a good looking one. A deal was done for both, allowing my mate Alex to have one too… Because of this, they came at quite an attractive amount of money.
I thought a lot about an M6, and whether or not I should just save a bit more cash to get one. But quite often it occurred to me that whilst having the built-in meter was nice in some ways, in others it was just going to make me want for the M7 when using it. The argument for having an M6 over an Leica M4-P is always “just take the batteries out” but that’s not an elegant solution to me. Spending up to and possibly more than double what I paid for this M4-P on an M6 just to use it without batteries in struck me as a bit silly. What I really wanted was either another M7 or a complete departure from it i.e. something that takes no batteries, something that is completely manual and something that has near-zero chance of failure, ever.
I did argue with myself a little bit when it came to this particular GAS hit, as of course there is an iiia on the shelf for completely manual shooting if I want it. But whilst the Barnack cameras are lovely things, they are no M Leica to my mind. And I really feel quite an attachment to the M Leica’s since the relationship with the M7 bloomed so strongly.
With my GAS self-justification ramblings out of the way…
Unlike with most camera purchases, on this occasion, I’ve had the opportunity to experience and play with two of the same camera. Whilst the Leica M4-P that Alex has had is a little tattier, I’m told that is was serviced around 4 years ago by Sherry Krauter. My one was apparently kept in good order by the previous owner to the chap I bought it off, though hadn’t been serviced in at least ten years. To my mind, there is a marked difference in how smooth the cameras feel. Mine feels very nice, Alex’s, on the other hand, feels as buttery smooth as I could imagine any Leica feeling. It might look a bit beaten up, but that is a lovely camera to use! It’s not that mine isn’t, had I no comparison I wouldn’t question the condition of mine at all, it’s just that Alex’s is that little bit smoother.
M4-2 vs Leica M4-P vs M6
As I said, I went for the Leica M4-P over the M6, mainly for cost reasons, but also for the departure from any reliance on batteries, but why not buy an M4-2?
As you do, when researching a purchase, I did a lot of reading online before I got to the point of buying the Leica M4-P. There seems to almost be two schools of thought or at least two ways of regarding the Leica M4-P. The first lumps (to be unnecessarily derogatory) it in with the M4-2, the second compares it more favourably with the M6. To me, it seems the comparison with the M6 is a more fair one, at least when it comes to buying one now.
The criticism of the M4-2 seems to revolve around the fact that it was the first camera to use precision-machined internal components rather than the picked-by-hand and adjusted brass components of before (M3, M2, M4 etc). This was a cost-saving exercise that may or may not have caused issues for early M4-2’s; supposedly teething problems meant that some of the early cameras were apparently not up to scratch. If there were indeed issues, they were seemingly resolved by the time the Leica M4-P was released. The M4-2 was also subjected to other cost-saving production methods including use of more cost-effective materials alongside the most cost-effective production methods, this was all done to produce an overall cheaper camera.
And then there is the M6, which but for a zinc top plate seems to be essentially the same camera as the Leica M4-P with the addition of the light meter. The M6 still used the precision parts over the brass ones and is still made using some of the cheaper materials, yet the early issues and cost-saving measures of the M4-2 only seem to be associated with the Leica M4-P and not the M6. Other than the meter, the only major other difference between the M4-P and the M6 seems to be that main production of the cameras was moved back to Germany. But since, as I understand it, unless you are a collector or a xenophobe, buying a Canadian Leica makes no difference over buying a German one, that factor is largely meaningless when It comes to actually using the camera.
The Leica M4-P and M6 also share the same set of 6 frame lines from 28-135mm, so short of minor differences I am not aware of/don’t think matter enough to mention, the Leica M4-P and M6 share as much, if not have more in common than the M4-2 and M4-P. Yet despite this, the price of an M4-2 is a hell of a lot closer to that of an M4-P than an M4-P to an M6. In fact ‘P’s and ‘2’s go for practically the same amount, with M6’s going for often a lot more. What’s really odd to me is that the M6 is highly regarded, yet this regard seems to be rarely carried backwards to the Leica M4-P, which as I say gets more frequently tarnished with the “cheap” reputation of the M4-2; a reputation that seems to have come about from the same production methods that were eventually used to make the M6. Perhaps I am missing something? Please feel free to correct me if I have left out any glaring differences between the cameras in question…
It seems to me that the crux of the Leica M4-P’s problem is purely its lack of meter. Most people looking for a meter-less Leica would probably choose an earlier model rather than go for the piggy in the middle – not quite a classic, not quite an M6 – M4-P. What this all means, in a roundabout way, is that to my mind, a good Leica M4-P actually represents a bit of a bargain. Of course, you could argue that they neither have the charm or design style of an early Leica or the functionality of a late one. But I prefer to take my rose-tinted “bargain” viewpoint!
On the subject of the design style of the Leica M4-P, it is probably fair to say that it’s not the prettiest of Leica’s. The “Leitz” red dot on the front left is the most brazen of all red dots, a massive shiny thing it is, it doesn’t give anywhere nearly the same sense of quality as the one on the M7 does. It then has “Leica” and “M4-P” plastered across the front and “Leitz ” again on top, all in white paint. The “P” in the moniker is supposed to stand for “Professional”, this same “P” was used on the M9-P. But unlike the M4-P the M9-P goes for very much the understated look. I think it’s a shame they didn’t make the same choice for their 80’s “Professional” model, though I suppose “understated” and “1980’s” don’t often share the same sentence … One way or another I’ve decided to dull the look of mine somewhat with bits of black electrical tape. One of the biggest factors in buying a black Leica for me was to be and feel more inconspicuous, big red dots and bright white writing are not the first things I’d choose when going for that look.
Just quickly on the subject of taping up logos, it was said to me on twitter after posting a picture that “no one knows what a Leica is. or cares”. It’s actually a very good point, and those who know it’s a Leica will always know it’s a Leica despite the tape anyway. So really, what is the point in taping it or de-badging it?
For me it’s more about how I feel about the camera, feels less like something of value, it’s less showy, less brazen, more just a camera than “a Leica”. In photography, ultimately, the tool always affects the photographer’s mood or mindset somehow, altering that mindset to suit, even subtly, can be a positive thing for the photographer in my opinion. And anyway, I like what the Leica M4-P looks like when it’s all black more than I do when it’s not…
But seriously though, is the Leica M4-P actually any good?
All this rattling on and I still haven’t said anything about how good the Leica M4-P actually is. The fact is, there isn’t a great deal to say about it. It is pretty much just a very functional tool. A shutter, with a button to trigger it, a dial to change its speed, a lever to reset the shutter and advance the film, and a viewfinder with a mechanism for focusing; it has very little more than the basic requirement. And it does all of these things, as you would hope, very nicely. There are complaints though, some I share, others less so.
One of them is about the cluttered viewfinder; some people seem to have an issue with too many frame lines in the Leica M4-P viewfinder, I can’t really comment on this as it doesn’t bother me at all. My viewfinder is bright and clear and I don’t find frame lines distracting so I’ve no issues there. Although I seem to have to wipe it to keep it clean and bright more than I do with the M7’s VF, maybe it’s a coating thing? Or maybe it’s been hotter and I’ve had sweatier fingers?
Either way, that’s not an issue either! One minor failing of the viewfinder is that Leica M4-P rangefinder seems to flare out sometimes, though again it seems some find this more an issue than others, I just move the VF off centre to my eye which despite reducing the distinctness of the RF seems to solve the issue of being able to focus. There is another slightly low-quality part… It doesn’t, thankfully, have the crappy plastic control dial the M7 has on its back door, instead, it has a pretty crappy disk you are supposed to mark with a pen to indicate the film inside. If I can ignore the crappy plastic thing on the back of the M7, I can ignore this disk.
I do have one other personal issue with my Leica M4-P, and that is that I don’t find the shutter button feels as responsive as the M7’s. It just feels like it needs a bit more of a push than I’d have liked. I might try a soft release on it, I suspect that will solve the issue. And really, I think it’s only my being used to the M7; a shutter that is different rather than better.
What else is there to say? Nothing really, the Leica M4-P just a solid feeling well functioning tool. And I think that’s my conclusion really… Due to it not really being a classic, and not having the light meter of the closely related M6, and due to the fact that it was made by Canadians and not Germans, and due to the fact that it gets most of its reputation from its near-namesake the M4-2, and due to the fact that it’s not as pretty as many other Leica’s … and breathe … It’s not hailed as anything special, and actually I tend to agree, it’s not special … but it’s still a Leica. It works like a Leica, feels like a Leica in the hand, and if you peel the black tape off it couldn’t really be any damn clearer that it is a Leica … But yet somehow it doesn’t feel quite as luxurious as my other Leica’s; where the M7 oozes both “luxury” and “tool” with every millimetre of itself, the Leica M4-P feels much more of just a tool. It’s not that the Leica quality doesn’t feel present, it’s just that its basic function overrides the glamour of its name. Maybe Leica felt the same about it, maybe that’s why they felt the need to emblazon “Leitz” or “Leica” on it no less than four times, just so people didn’t forget … And indeed maybe it’s why I feel the need to cover their handy work with tape.
Cheers for reading