Read this post before buying a Leica M or a rangefinder camera

May 26, 2017

Vincent Moschetti

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

Read this post before buying a Leica M or a rangefinder camera

May 26, 2017

Vincent Moschetti

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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Today I want to share with you my thoughts on the Leica M and more generally the Rangefinder system. When I sold all my digital equipment to make a permanent switch to analog camera I went for a Rangefinder camera. The obvious choice for me was to buy a Leica M6 and a full set of lenses to cover a wide focal range.

I first bought the body then ordered at the same time all sort of lenses from different resellers. I had a good sum of money from my sales and was feeling like a kid in a candy shop! I bought 5 lenses going from 21mm up to 135mm thinking that I would never need to buy glass for the rest of my life… Of course that was wrong otherwise we wouldn’t be here today!

The Leica M6, credit

The biggest mistake I did was to don’t take the time to learn enough about the Rangefinder cameras before making my purchases. I should have understand that these cameras are meant to work within a specific focal range. If you’ve never used a Rangefinder before let me explain quickly how it works in 2 points.

FOCUSING

 In the case of the Leica M6, it comes with a set of predefined focal lines that appear in the viewfinder window. This may change depending on the magnification of your camera’s viewfinder. I have the standard version which is magnified by 0.72x (3 different versions exist for the M6). That means what I see inside the window is slightly smaller than in reality (but still very large compared to other cameras). 

What also comes with this magnification, is a set of frames lines that appear inside the viewfinder. These lines automatically changes depending on the lens mounted. Frame lines appear in couples : 

  • 28mm & 90mm
  • 35mm & 135mm
  • 50mm & 75mm

For those of you who are used to shoot with SLR cameras (where you seen directly through the lens) this makes a huge difference. With a Rangefinder the frame remains the same and the image inside the viewfinder doesn’t change when mounting a new lens. The only things that change are the frame lines inside the viewfinder. Also note that this system doesn’t work with zoom lenses, only fixed focales will work.

View in side the viewfinder with a 50mm or 75mm lens mounted

If you are shooting with 90mm Summicron for example, the corresponding frame lines will appear very small in the viewfinder window. With this small size comes issues to nail the focus. When shooting with long lenses the depth of field is very limited especially at wide apertures so focus is critical.

With an SLR camera, it’s easier to determine if the image is in focus or not, whereas with a Rangefinder it’s more difficult since the image is so small in the viewfinder.

View in side the viewfinder with a 28mm or 90mm lens mounted

It’s even worst with this 135mm. Even if it comes with the goggles to magnify what’s inside the viewfinder, focusing with this beast is an art of its own!

Another point is that it makes the camera difficult to handle and completely unbalanced. I strongly discourage anyone from getting such a long lens on a rangefinder system. It may work for some of you but I find the ergonomic and experience of this setup really poor.

View in side the viewfinder with a 35mm or 135mm lens mounted

Focal Coverage

The other major disadvantage of this system is the focal coverage. If the focal you’re shooting with doesn’t fall into the range of predetermined frame lines, you will need an external viewfinder.

I’ll take the example of the 21mm f/3.4 Super-Elmar that I own. This focal is too wide to fit inside the viewfinder window (the M6 covers up to 28mm) and there are no corresponding frame lines so I have to rely on this very expensive external viewfinder that fits into the hot shoe mount.

This external viewfinder is only used to compose the image and you still need to rely on the other one to adjust your focus. You sure can use the hyperfocal or zone-focusing but that’s not always ideal for every situations.

Composing with this is not the most pleasing experience. Everything appears distorted almost like with a fish-eye lens or an old TV, and you can even see the lens hood at the bottom of the frame.

View in side the 21mm external viewfinder

Leica cameras are meant to be minimalist and to offer the purest photographic experience possible. Even if you’ll look like a badass photographer with this setup, I find that it defeats the purpose and simplicity of the rangefinder system.

The Leica M6 with an external viewfinder, credit

Last lens I’m not entirely satisfied with is the 50mm Summicron. Don’t get me wrong here, the lens itself is amazing and gave me great results but I just don’t like using it with this camera. It’s again a question of frame lines that appear too small.

If you are more like a 50mm kind of guy, then you should look at the Leica M3 instead. It comes with a viewfinder optimised for this focal so you can see better what’s in the frame and focusing will also be easier.

The Leica M3, credit

The only lens that I’ll keep is the 35mm Summicron. That’s the one that works best for me on the M6 and I really enjoy shooting with it. The camera feels good in hand and it’s perfectly balanced when I hold it.

Inside the viewfinder, the image appears bright and clear. I see enough outside the frame but not too much. This helps a lot to fine tune the compositions and remove unwanted elements inside the frame.

Shot with my Leica M6 + 35mm Summicron on Fuji Pro 400H

Looking back it makes complete sense but when I bought my first rangefinder, I thought that it would be a piece of cake and could work with all those lenses without any problem. Again this is just my personal opinion and some of you may find their way using all sorts of focal on rangefinder cameras but that’s not working for me.

My point is not to scare you away from Rangefinders. This a great system and I really appreciate shooting with this type of cameras, especially with my Hasselblad Xpan, but it may not suit all types of photography. I just want you to understand what are the pros and cons, and how to avoid the frustration I’ve had.

About the Author

Vincent Moschetti is a photographer from France. He has been into photography since 2013 and worked exclusively with digital equipment until recently. While looking for new ways to challenge himself, he got hooked by the beauty of shooting with film cameras. From this discovery, he has decided to sell all his digital cameras and get committed to analog photography for at least one year.

You can follow Vincent on his website and Instagram or like his Facebook page. This article was also published here and shared with permission.

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28 responses to “Read this post before buying a Leica M or a rangefinder camera”

  1. Gerhard Schulze Avatar
    Gerhard Schulze

    Yes. Buy a camera you know and learn. Silly otherwise.

  2. Jimmy Harris Avatar
    Jimmy Harris

    So you sold all of your digital gear, then bought a camera AND a bunch of lenses before you tested them out to find out if they were right for you? I think your real problem wasn’t the lack of research ahead of time, but the lack of discipline when confronted with an attack of G.A.S. You don’t sell off all of your tried and true gear, just to afford new stuff you’ve never tried. You save up your money ahead of time and exhibit some patience, then buy it when you can afford it. And you don’t buy a whole set of lenses all at once. You buy one camera and one lens, use those for a while, and see if you actually need any others. Jumping head first from obsession to obsession will always leave you with disappointment and regret.

    If anyone else is looking to get into rangefinder cameras, I recommend starting off with a Russian rangefinder, like a Zorki 4 or Fed 5. They’re a whole lot cheaper and will tell you if you like the rangefinder system or not. And if you decide to upgrade to a Leica or Hasselblad Xpan thereafter, you can probably sell your Russian rangefinder for about what you paid for it.

    1. EsaKivivuori Avatar
      EsaKivivuori

      I agree. Also Olympus 35 SP is also extremely good alternative.

      1. Bubba Jones Avatar
        Bubba Jones

        True, very true, had one sold it, desire another. Now have the Canon Canonet GIII QL17, and Leica IIIf with a 50mm and 28mm.

    2. Vincent Moschetti Avatar
      Vincent Moschetti

      I understand your point but I took this decision to challenge myself as a photographer and progress faster by committing to film for at least an entire year. I never regretted until now and all the lessons learned made me think that it was the right choice even if I won’t end up using the unnecessary gear I’ve bought. Thanks to that I was able to refine my style and determine what I’m good at and what I enjoy shooting. That’s just my way to approach photography, probably not the most conventional but the one that work for me

      1. murhaaya Avatar
        murhaaya

        That challenge seems more financial than photographic. Especially if the commitment is for a year.

        My approach, that worked for me, is to squeeze every bit of potential from the camera I have before buying a better one. Many years back I craved Leicas. Long before I’d know what to even do with a camera of such qualities. Now, after those years when I finally afford Leica I no longer want one because I know that it would not be a good camera for me. When I am buying new gear, I cannot afford to shell out such amounts of money on a whim so I research, I read and watch reviews, I try the camera at the store, borrow the camera from somebody, I read the user guide so when I buy the camera, I am ready.

        Diving head on into untested (and expensive) waters can only result in disappointment because the expected value based on the hype and price is not going to come. At the end of the day, even leica is just a box with lens.

  3. Fred Beringer Avatar
    Fred Beringer

    Newbie … ?

  4. Luciano Avatar
    Luciano

    All the things from this article can be found after a few minutes of research by someone interested on rangefinders. The fact that the author completely missed to do so, don’t bring a lot of credibility to his takeaways.

    1. Martin S Avatar
      Martin S

      I thought a “takeaway” was a Chinese or a Curry. Sorry but I couldn’t resist that!

      1. Luciano Avatar
        Luciano

        Where I live you have all types of cuisines for takeaway. :)

  5. EsaKivivuori Avatar
    EsaKivivuori

    During last 45 years I`ve had 8 different Leica-M cameras. The first one was second hand Leica M4 in spring 1972. If you have to use eye glasses, it`s better to use M6TTL with 0,85x finder with 50mm (and longer lenses) and/or use any other body with 0,72x filnder with 35 mm lenses. M-Leica is limited many ways but it really an outstanding tool for one purpose only – taking photographs.

    PS.
    My favourite is still M4 :)

    BR

    Esa Kivivuori ARPS

    Photo: The Sketchmaker Notre Dame du Haut Ronchamp © Esa Kivivuori
    Photo: La Tourette Let there be light part I www © Esa Kivivuori

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/beb4b1544de72156afd2c8d8a62c33535ba6691744c6ec21b4e4b93c4ac0558c.jpg
    Finland https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/02d9affa8b48027bdb3989ce045c0535ec8ca67c1fe43aa4b29042c01f5226c3.jpg

    1. Martin S Avatar
      Martin S

      Prefer the M3. I had an M6TTL but simply couldn’t get on with it. I always though there was something missing (or Probably NOT missing, the meter in fact, as I thought it was primitive and I prefer using an external refurbished Weston Master IV)

  6. Gillman Avatar
    Gillman

    Well I think it was a worthwhile post Vincent. Any good advice from any source is always welcomed by most. It’s a shame about the negative (smart arse) comments below, we all learn from mistakes I guess some people are perfect, must be hard keeping ‘petfection’ up. Thank you.

    1. Vincent Moschetti Avatar
      Vincent Moschetti

      Thanks for your comment. Indeed, I’m getting better by doing mistakes and like to share them. Hopefully my experiences will be useful to some people :)

      1. Harry Langdon Avatar
        Harry Langdon

        The problem is people are embarrassed to share their mistakes. Bravo!

  7. Daryl Avatar
    Daryl

    Some issues have solutions such as magnifiers for the viewfinder. A rangefinder, just as any system is not perfect for everything, most photographers will also have other systems that compliment it such as a dslr or mirrorless

    1. Vincent Moschetti Avatar
      Vincent Moschetti

      That’s right. I thought that it would replace my DSLR but as you said, some systems are more suited for specific usage.

  8. J.L. Williams Avatar
    J.L. Williams

    A fascinating report from the Institute of Well, Duh.

    Summary: It’s a good idea to find out what you’re getting into BEFORE spending a five-digit sum of money.

  9. Dimitris Servis Avatar
    Dimitris Servis

    ROTFL

  10. Arthur_P_Dent Avatar
    Arthur_P_Dent

    I’ve actually found, as my eyes have gotten less flexible with age, that the rangefinder’s split-image focusing can work better than trying to focus on ground glass. When you only see one image, you’re focused. I recently used my mother’s old Argus rangefinder to take current photos of places she went on vacation 60 years ago with the camera. I just need to find a place to process the film and give me back negatives.

  11. CAugustin Avatar
    CAugustin

    Even though one can find lots of information about Leica M cameras, it does no replace experience! And every Leica user has his/her own story to tell. So it is good to have yours to read.

    Some commenters might not think of the resale value of (used) Leica gear – experimenting is expensive to start with, but you don’t lose much money in the process, if any.

    And I would not recommend to “test” using a rangefinder with old Russian cameras – one might not find them that appealing (and they are easy to get in really good technical condition).

    While I started with a Voigtländer Bessa R (screw mount), I found the M6 to be vastly superior. But it was a good way to check if one is a “rangefinder type” of photographer.

    1. Martin S Avatar
      Martin S

      Good points in my opinion. The other thing is that Leicas are superbly engineered instruments. Pick one up and you will want it, especially the M3

      1. CAugustin Avatar
        CAugustin

        It depends. Some might find the M2/M4/M6 to be the one to want – much more versatile (the M3 finder is only for focal lengths from 50 mm up, and it has 100 cm as the closest focussing distance – very limiting).

  12. Woods Points Avatar
    Woods Points

    Which company is best nikon or leica? Kindly share some reviews!

    Regard: Suman Khan

  13. spengler1 Avatar
    spengler1

    About the only lens I use with my M7 is a 35mm Canon f2.8. I will go so far as to use viewfinder with my 21mm skopar. An SLR will handle other focal lengths better.

  14. James A. Rockey Avatar
    James A. Rockey

    Nicely written, Vincent. I loved especially how you covered the important factors of before buying a leica m or a rangefinder camera. Also, the pro-tip focal coverage at the end is awesome.

  15. Harry Langdon Avatar
    Harry Langdon

    Terrifically helpful. Got into a Leica mood and started rummaging around in what I find a forbidding jungle. Your article helped a lot.

  16. Alex Burt Avatar
    Alex Burt

    These Cams were so lit. You have to save these from every thing. Like sticky liquids or fall in pools.