How much does it matter what camera you use? The popular saying is that the best camera is the one that you have with you, but I think that some cameras are more likely to tempt you to carry them around than others. The Leica M series of rangefinder cameras are indeed very tempting. That said, the body of a camera has little to do with the quality of images you produce. Even less so when you are comparing different 35mm film camera bodies. While Leica glass is superb, Nikon, Canon, Zeiss, Voigtlander all make great lenses too. In fact, many Leica shooters don't even use Leica lenses.
So what makes someone pay $1000+++ for a Leica film camera over say a $100-200 Nikon or Canon camera? For some it's the prestige or excitement of collecting the most premium possible cameras. For me, I guess it comes down to the shooting experience. I enjoy the rangefinder shooting experience. It suits my style of photography. I like that you can see the space around the frame of what you're photographing. I focus more comfortably with a rangefinder than an SLR for the focal lengths I use the most (25mm, 35mm, 50mm). And let's not forget the satisfying sound of that Leica cloth shutter. The Leica badge, besides being a status symbol (to the frustration of many Leica shooters), is also a sign of quality. When you buy a Leica camera you know that the level of care and craftsmanship put into the producion of your instrument is above and beyond what went into production of mass market SLRs made in Japanese factories. Okay, that last part is arguable, but it's undeniable that you feel something when picking up a Leica camera that just isn't there with other brands. At least that's how it is for me. And while that doesn't automatically make them the best cameras, it's something. It's also nice to shoot with a camera produced by a company that has steadfastly continued to produce film cameras well into the digital age, despite the exorbitant prices to purchase them new.
But now, let's take a step back. Assuming we're on the same page rangefinders and Leicas for a minute. If you're in the market for a Leica rangefinder camera you're faced with a number of options, most of them starting with the letter M, but it's not always easy to tell what the differences are and why you should buy one Leica M as opposed to another one.
When I first decided to get a Leica rangefinder, I landed on the Leica M4-P. Initially it was a matter of convenience, somebody was selling one locally for a reasonable price. I did a bit of research but ultimately purchased it rather quickly as things tend to sell fast when they are a decent price. This was the camera that got me into Leica cameras and can really be blamed for my subsequent purchase of 4 other Leicas as well as a set of lenses for the Leica M mount. So far I have no regrets.
The Leica M4-P falls somewhere between the Leica M4 and the Leica M6 in that it's styled similarly to the more modern Leicas with the two part film advance, the 'quick load' film loading system (that I actually find to be slower than the older system), the same framelines as the M6, the .72 viewfinder that has become the most standard for the Leica M6 onward, etc.
I shot the Leica M4-P for about a year and was quite satisfied with it, but at the same time I couldn't help but wonder if this other, almost mystical M6 that everybody always talked about was really the ultimate Leica rangefinder while mine was just a second rate knock off made in Canada. Initially, I resisted the temptation of the GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) and went on happily shooting the M4-P, but when I saw a minty Leica M6 Titanium pop up in my feed of local cameras for sale for a quite reasonable price, I couldn't resist and bought it.
Now while Leica M cameras are nice, they are pricey enough that I can't exactly justify having 3 (already owning an M3 as well as the M4-P and then M6) so I committed myself to selling one. The M3 I bought on a whim as and I'm keeping as a project camera as it was purchased for about $200, but is in need of some repair.
That leaves the M4-P and the M6. One would stay and one would be sold. The good thing about these cameras is that they hold their value quite well, at least as long as film is still readily available.
So now that I had both cameras in my possession, it was time to figure out what the differences really were so I could inevitably choose which one to part ways with.
The biggest and most noticable difference between the Leica M6 and the M4-P is the simple fact that the M6 has a light meter while the Leica M4-P doesn't.
When push comes to shove, there are really very few actual differences between the M4-P and the M6 and of these, almost all are strictly aesthetic. It's also worth mentioning that the M6 has been produced in various types from 1984 to 2002. The one I have seems to have been produced in 1992 according to the serial number, so other versions of the M6 could have some slight differences as well.
The biggest and most noticable difference between the Leica M6 and the M4-P is the simple fact that the M6 has a light meter while the Leica M4-P doesn't. This is literally the one single practical difference between these two cameras and in Leica terms that means the difference in price from about $650-850 for a used M4-P to about $1000-1500 for a used M6. If you really want an M6 but can only afford an M4-P or you want an M6 because everyone talks about it but you don't need or want a built in light meter, getting an M4-P is a perfectly fine solution.
There are, of course, other minor differences. For starters, the Leica M4-P has a vulcanite (ebonite) grip which is basically very hard grippy rubber and seems like it would be difficult to replace, but has held up quite well on my camera. The Leica M6 has many different editions but it seems that the vanilla M6 has a leather or leatherette covering. The Leica M6 Titanium that I have has a kind of patterned leather which I've seen referred to as buffalo, emu, or ostrich from various sources, but I think that only refers to the pattern. It's nice with the leather, but I stressed less about getting the vulcanite dirty or scuffed.
- The ISO selector on the M6 is used for telling the light meter which film you have. On the M4-P you have a picture of a film selector. Not sure why there's a picture really, maybe so you can remember what film speeds exist and wonder which one is in your camera? Both ISO selectors are cheaper looking and feeling than the one on the M3, but that's another story.
The M4-P includes a flash sync port for both electronic flashes (X) and flashbulbs (M), while the M6 has dropped the flash bulb port. I doubt anybody missed that one (not like the headphone jacks on smartphones).
The shutter speed dial on the M4-P is metal and a bit stiff to turn, pretty much the same dial as on the M3, whereas the shutter speed selector on the M6 is plasicky and easier to turn. It looks just like a smaller version of the one found on the digital M cameras. Note: this may vary based on M6 production year. Also, the M6 TTL (latest M6 Model) eventually got a bigger shutter selecter just like the one on the digital M cameras.
The viewfinder on the M6 is flush to the body, while the one on the M4-P is a bit inset. The viewfinders themselves don't seem to be much different, if at all. I have the .72 version of the M6 which matches the one in the M4-P, although I find that the rangefinder patch actually tends to flare out more on the M6 for some reason.
They have different threading for the shutter release cable or soft release button. No idea why, but now I have to buy another soft release button.
Other than that, there are only cosmetic differences that can be seen in the photos and probably make no differences except to the most extreme of Leicanauts.
- 99% of the body design.
- The shutters are the same cloth shutter with the same speeds of 1 second up to 1/1000 of a second plus bulb.
- The viewfinders are pretty much the same (the M4-P only lacking lightmeter readout).
- They both use the more modern 'quick load' film spooling system.
- Both cameras have the two part elbowed film advance lever.
- And most importantly of all: they both take the same lenses and essentially take the same photos as long as you don't totally mess up shooting without a built in meter.
In the end, I decided to keep the Leica M6 and I'll be selling the M4-P. The main reason for my decision was the same reason I bought the M6 in the first place, while I don't mind shooting without a meter in almost every situation, there are just those certain occasions while shooting in difficult lighting that I don't want to have to think too hard over my settings or risk getting the wrong exposure. For me it was worth the price of the upgrade for the built-in meter.
The M4-P is a great camera that really embodies everything I have come to appreciate about the Leica brand. It sits in a nice place in the Leica lineup, finding a balance between the oldest M3 and the newer M6. For someone looking to get into rangefinder photography or to get a Leica for the first time, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend the M4-P. In fact, of all the Leica camera's I've tried, I think I would recommend it the most to a new Leica shooter, basically over the M6 because of the price (and it can be relatively easily sold and to upgrade later), and over the M3 because of the wider viewfinder with support for 35mm lenses. In the year or so that I had the M4-P, it was easily my most used 35mm film camera. I'm hoping the same will be true of the M6 in the years to come.
You can also see a slightly rambling version in video format on my Youtube: Here.