To me this was the camera to rule them all… for a while. Although the Leica M6 isn’t as pretty and sturdy feeling as the M3, its still perfect, but don’t expect any less from Leica.
Anyway, so the Leica M6. It’s great! For me it was better than the M3, here’s my list of reasons why:
1. More frame-lines (28mm, 35mm)
2. Light meter
For those of you who have read my Leica M3 review, you would know that these are also the only two things that I didn’t like about the M3. Coincidence? Probably not. As technology got better in the 60’s and 70’s, and the 35mm and 28mm focal lengths gained popularity, this was the minimum Leica needed to do in order to stay relevant. And as Leica is a pretty minimalist company, thats basically all they did! And thats perfect! Its why we love Leica: they only focus on being perfect and removing any distractions.
Oh, they also changed the materials used for the body from brass to zinc, which is kind of a downgrade. This sucks a little as you don’t get brassing anymore, but it doesn’t really take away from the experience.
I basically got the M6 because I got the M3, but then I wanted to work with a slightly broader focal length and I wanted a light meter. I imagine this happens to a lot of people, they get into Leica because of its legacy, but then want something more convenient… and theres really no shame to it, because the great thing about Leica is that it makes you want to go outside and take pictures, and thats where the M6 really shines.
The M6 offers convenience and complete creative control, and thats what I love about it. If you want to start experimenting with your photography, its the perfect tool.
First of all, the light meter gives you confidence. You know its a simple spot-light meter as you can clearly see the white spot of the light meter on the shutter cloth, when you open the camera. You also know it will be accurate because its Leica. Even the way it gives you feedback gives you confidence. At the bottom of your viewfinder (going from left to right) you either see one arrow pointing to the right (to indicate that you need to increase the amount of light coming in), a single dot (indicating that you can take the picture!), or an arrow pointing to the left (indicating that you need to decrease the amount of light coming in).
Very quickly I was able to easily underexpose or overexpose a shot, in what felt like a very natural way. For example, if you want want to under-expose your shot to focus on the highlights in your image: you just spin shutter-speed wheel until you see a red dot, then decrease your incoming light by one or two stops by spinning the wheel in the faster-shutter-speed direction listening for the two or four distinctive clicks of the wheel. Then take the picture!
It just makes so much sense. Also it gives you so much satisfaction to be able to control exactly how much light is coming in, and how that light is coming in (via the manual Leica M lenses), in a way where you feel like you actually know what you’re doing. And it’s this feeling of satisfaction and creative freedom which makes the M6 so fun, and probably so loved. You really go outside and feel like you can do whatever you want.
When you get your pictures back you might be a little less satisfied though. You might realise you didn’t have the creative insight you thought you did. But it doesn’t matter! Because the fact that you are being creative with your M6 probably means your images are already a lot more interesting than most. And when you did get that shot, just as you pre-envisioned it, theres really no better feeling (in photography).
Note*: I no longer shoot film very much and I rarely take pictures like this anymore. Sometimes I find this a shame, and I do plan going back to film and this kind of photography one day. I’ll explain why in some later later posts, probably the one about my M9M and about making the switch from film to digital. Despite this, I feel like using the M6 every day for two years was the best basic photography education I could have had, and so I would recommend the M6 to anyone.
Also the 35mm and 28mm frame-lines are essential to the success of the M6. The way I see it, 35mm and 28mm are the two story-telling focal lengths: they are the best at telling the viewer a story. Whereas 50mm or 90mm will generally have you focusing on one subject or event that is unfolding, the 35mm and 28mm field of view lets more into your image, and as a result the story of what is taking place because much more obvious.
However, in my experience the story that each focal length tells is quite different. Im generalising here, but if I had to explain it, 35mm tells the story as the photographer wanted the viewer to experience it. With 35mm you are still able to leave (sometimes crucial) aspects out of your image. So you can steer an image to be much more dramatic, or less dramatic than the situation actually was. With 28mm it feels much more difficult, practically impossible to hide essential details. Hence the image tells the story in a much more true-to-life fashion. I think this is why 28mm is so popular for documentary or journalism photographers. In both cases you’re trying to capture and tell a story though, hence the ‘story telling’ focal lengths.
You might wonder, well what about 24mm? 21mm? etc. Well 21mm is where people start to get warped up the point that things stop looking natural. Also 21mm can feel so wide that the picture looses it’s story-telling element, as the story in the picture takes up such a small portion of the frame. As a result, when I started experimenting with wider and wider focal lengths, I eventually drew the line (for street photography) at 21mm. It is still possible to use 21mm or wider focal lengths for street photography, and every now and then I do for fun, but for everyday use I would advise against it for these two reasons.
I will have to come back to the 24mm focal length in a later post. I love it and use it regularly for street photography, but I havent quite formed an opinion about how it can render an image or tell a story, yet. Maybe this is the appeal?
Anyway, it was important that Leica adopted these focal lengths as Leica’s are usually used by journalists and street photographers (predominantly for its small size), and story-telling is important for both of these groups.
For all of the reasons above, when I picked-up my M6 I was pretty convinced it would be the last camera I ever needed. It did everything I needed it to do and nothing more, I actually couldn’t have been more satisfied with it. This is why I saw it as a camera to rule all other camera’s.
The M6 experience is similar to that of the M3. It feels very premium and comfortable in hand, although slightly less so than the M3. The ergonomics are great. The leatherette grips well, and the shutter-button and the film-rewind lever are in very easy-to-reach places. When loaded the film lever also acts as a nice place to grip the camera with your thumb, if you want. Loading film is easy and much quicker than with the M3, with the newer quick film-loading system of the later Leica M models.
As I mentioned earlier, the light meter is simple and intuitive. The M6 takes a single CR1/3N button battery, which is actually not so easy to find anymore. The best solution is to stack two PX76/SR44 1.5v silver oxide batteries, which are slightly easier to find (I ordered a whole bunch online from a battery specialist). But you don’t need a battery to operate the camera, as everything except the light meter is mechanical.
The click of the cloth shutter is almost as satisfying as that of the M3, it gets pretty close. Still much more satisfying than any later Leica models I have owned/tried. In fact I think sometimes I pick up my M6 and take some pictures just for the satisfying sound of the shutter.
The camera is built extremely well even without the brass elements of the M3. Mine has taking a bit of a beating, especially the film rewind lever. I dropped it on the ground and it bent, so I had to bend it back using some pliers so that I could get it to spin again. The styling of the M camera's hasn't changed since the M4, which is a little more simple and modern than with the M3. Most people cant tell the difference between my M10 and my M6 as I tape-up all of the logo’s. In fact I recently went to a camera store that sell Leica, and they thought my M10 was an M6 because I had my old 35mm Summicron vIII on it, a lens which came with my M6.
At one point my slower shutter speeds weren’t working quite right, and I feared I had to send my M6 away for repair, but then it fixed itself! Probably some dust lodged in the mechanism which then got unstuck.
Oh and I shouldn’t forget to name to obvious: It’s pretty light, super compact (especially with an old-school 35mm Summicron with no lens-hood), and you get to work with arguably the most iconic line-up of lenses in terms of character and image quality ever created.
As far as the camera goes that’s basically it! As proven from my extensive field tests, and those of hundreds of reporters, war photographers, etc., its a pretty unbreakable tank of a camera that you can always rely on, and it sometimes even fixes itself. What more could you want?
Other than the fact that that it doesn’t brass, which would make the M6 look even better over time - google pictures of brassing with the black M4 to see what I mean - the M6 has no cons. It does everything it needs to do. In my opinion, it’s the best 35mm film camera you can own.
You could also opt for the M4 or the M7. With the M4 you make the sacrifice of a light meter, making your life more difficult than it needs to be. If you do, don’t get the newer M4 without the brass, then you’re really just downgrading to an M6 without a light meter. The M5, although it was made with good intentions and amazing innovative new technology for its time, it was a mistake. Leica quickly corrected this by restarting the production of M4. With the M7 you gain an automatic shutter option, but loose the ability to take pictures without a battery. Personally I feel that this goes against the main idea of shooting film in the age of digital camera’s. Film can give you a pretty special look, but one that is largely (but not completely) reproducible by digital sensors.
I think the main reason to shoot film today is to learn how to take better pictures. As film takes much more effort to develop and scan (and money), you become more reluctant to take pictures. This is good, as it forces you to think about what you are doing before taking a picture. You learn how to envision a picture before taking it, and decide if that would be interesting enough to press the shutter button. You also learn to appreciate how much effort (and fun! …but not always) used to go into photography after taking the picture, especially if you develop and scan the film yourself. And I feel like all of this goes against having an AUTO setting for your shutter, but that’s just me. If you’re really just shooting film for the look of film, then get an M7, it’s more practical.
So what happened? What happened was a combination of circumstance and ambition. I moved to Edinburgh for 9 months, and I thought it would be too unpractical to bring all of my film-developing chemicals and other equipment over for such a short period. As a result I bought the Leica M9M, which I thought I would trade-in after a year. But after a few months with the M9M I decided to switch to digital after all, the main reason being my ambition to take better images. Soon I will make a more in-depth post about my switch.
I still have my M6, and I still love it. I use it occasionally when I want to remind myself why I got into street-photography in the first place, and how simple photography can be. I will never sell it, after all, its still the best 35mm film photography camera you can own.