The Leica rangefinder took the small film size from cinema cameras and created 35mm photography for the masses. The masses who could afford it, that is. Almost a century later, these classic cameras are a favorite both among collectors and active film shooters.
WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR?
- Size. The bodies are relatively compact compared to an SLR, but the M bodies are still quite big. The early Leica III with a collapsible lens is truly pocketable.
- Focusing. Achieving focus is a pleasure with a rangefinder. The lenses are cleverly designed with a lever for your index finger to manipulate. Once the split images line up in the viewfinder, you are in focus.
- Quiet operation. The shutter sound from the M-series cameras is a satisfying 'crunch' as quiet as a whisper. A lot of my enjoyment from vintage cameras are from how they feel and sound - the Leicas have the most beautiful shutter sound of them all.
- Simplicity. You get one Leica and one lens and you are done. Further, the camera has options for shutter speed and aperture and focus and that's it. The picture becomes more important than the camera.
WHAT'S THE COMPROMISE?
- Ergonomics. There is nothing to grip on these cameras. Form definitely trumps function in this area.
- Not through the lens. The rangefinder is a separate light-catcher than the lens. Therefore you see a slightly different image from the one captured on film. A minor problem. More of an inconvenience are the limited number of framelines available. The rangefinder is generally optimized for a 50mm or 35mm lens. Longer lenses use smaller framelines that become difficult to use efficiently in the finder, unlike an SLR which gives you a full-size preview of the image from through the lens. Wider than 35mm and a separate viewfinder accessory is needed for composing shots.
- Tripod mount. Pre-digital Leicas have a tripod mount on one side of the base rather than in the center. This means I can't use my capture clip on a Leica, and panning for panoramas becomes difficult.
- Weight. Not a major issue, but these cameras are heavier than they look. This is the result of large brass components along with all-metal lenses.
WHAT'S IN MY CAMERA BAG?
- Cameras: Leica III with nickel fittings, Leica M2 with self timer.
- Lenses: 35mm F3.5 Summaron M39, 50mm F3.5 Elmar M39 collapsable (nickel)
- Accessories: M39 screw mount to M-bayonet adapters (35 and 50).