Classic Camera Review: The Leica M4

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Leica M-series rangefinder cameras are considered, by many, to be the quintessential camera. They are exquisitely designed, they’re hand assembled from the finest materials, and because Leica produces what are arguably the best lenses made, they’re capable of taking outstanding photographs. Still, it’s taken me close to 50 years to get my head wrapped around the idea of going out and taking pictures using a camera that doesn’t allow me to see exactly what the lens is seeing. Having a penchant for tight compositions, this drives me nuts, despite the fact I know Leica frame lines are deadly accurate.

It also drives me nuts that rangefinder cameras do not focus close enough to take the types of pictures I enjoy taking without the aid of add-on close-up attachments. Lastly, rangefinder cameras do not allow for depth-of-field preview, which can make selective, wide-aperture focusing difficult, which further aggravates me.

However, I recently purchased my second Leica M camera. Why? Because there’s something about Leicas that makes me want to snatch a roll of film out of my freezer, load it up, and go take pictures. I don’t know if it’s the heft of the camera’s brass-and-metal alloy body, the simplicity of the camera’s design and functionality, or the fact it simply feels right in the hand.

1967 Leica M4 with Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon ZM. Leica M4s were available in chromium-plated brass or harder-to-find black paint. An earlier owner of this camera had it refinished with an olive paint job, which sets it apart from the crowd.

A Quick History of Leica M Cameras

The original Leica M camera, the Leica M3 (1954-1966), which featured an all-new bayonet mount and a coupled rangefinder with frame lines for 50mm, 90mm, and 135mm lenses, proved to be a worthy successor to Leica’s original screw mount cameras. The M3 was soon followed by a progression of simplified, less expensive models that included the Leica M2 (1958-1967), M1 (1959-1964), Leica MD (1964-1966), and MDa (1966-1976).

Bucking logic, Leica M model numbers aren’t chronological, but rather reflect the number of frame lines visible in the camera’s viewfinder, except when this rule doesn’t hold true, as in the case of the M2, M1, MD, and MDa. In the case of the Leica M6 and M7 however, this frame-line rule does, in fact, hold true.

The Leica M2 was like the M3, albeit it featured a lower-magnification viewfinder (0.72x versus 0.90x) for accommodating frame lines for wider-angle lenses. (The M3 had frame lines for 50mm, 90mm, and 135mm lenses versus 35mm, 50mm, and 90mm on the M2.) Other improvements included an external, manual frame reset counter, and a fresnel rangefinder lens, which improved the light-gathering qualities of the camera’s rangefinder system. A few later models also had self-timers.

The M2 was followed by the M1, which had frame lines for 35mm and 50mm lenses, but lacked a coupled rangefinder focusing system. Focusing choices were guesstimating or focusing through the optional Visoflex reflex viewing system. The Leica MD (1964-1966) and MDa (1966-1976), which were designed for use with microscopes and technical instruments, lacked viewing and focusing systems altogether. Because they had accessory shoes that accept optical viewfinders, these cameras have proved popular among wide-angle shooters who bypass the lack of in-camera focusing in favor of hyper-focal focusing and stopping down to f/8 or f/11.

One additional camera produced during this time was the original Leica MP (1956-1957), which featured steel gearing instead of brass and an external frame counter. Approximately 500 MPs were made, which makes them worthy collectibles these days.

The Leica M4

The M4, introduced in November 1966, resolved some of the less popular aspects of the M3, including slow, effort-intensive film-loading and rewind systems. Other improvements included frame lines for 35mm, 50mm, 90mm, and 135mm lenses, a redesigned, plastic-tipped film advance (which some people liked, and others disliked), and a frame counter that automatically reset itself (which everybody liked). Other improvements included a redesigned self-timer and frame-selection levers, and a hot shoe in place of an accessory shoe.

Improvements to the M4 included an articulated plastic-tipped film advance lever and a quicker and easier film rewind knob. The above cameras illustrate the differences. The M4 is on the left. On the right is a 2004 Leica MP, which, in a nod to the camera’s roots, went back to the original style advance lever and rewind knob. While the earlier designs are aesthetically pleasing, in use, the M4’s improved advance and rewind systems are, IMHO, preferable.

Leica M4 with Zeiss 21mm f/4.5 Biogon ZM, Kodak Professional Portra 400

The M4 was also the last of the M-series cameras that, up until the introduction of the radical Leica M5, were mostly hand-assembled using Leica’s legendary “adjust and fit,” in Germany. The M5 was the first M camera with a built-in light meter. It was also universally panned by consumers.

In a bid to save face, money, and the future of the company, Leica moved its manufacturing facilities to Canada, streamlined, simplified, and in some opinions, undermined the quality of Leica products during this period in the company’s storied history.

Building details: Leica M4 with Zeiss 21mm f/4.5 Biogon ZM (left), Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon ZM (right), Kodak Professional Portra 400

Cameras produced in Midland, Ontario, include the M4-2 and M4-P, which featured aluminum-and-zinc-alloy construction (no brass), more plastic internal parts, a simplified rangefinder system that was prone to flair compared to earlier models, and a few other cost-saving measures. Despite the jeers of Leica elitists, the M4-2 and M4-P are fine cameras that deliver the Leica experience for notably less expense than more desirable Leica M cameras. As for the Leica M5, just as the Ford Edsel has become a collectable among automotive enthusiasts, Leica’s M5 has also seen its value rise with the passage of time.

The original M4 was available with a chrome or black chrome finish, or the rarer and more desirable black enamel paint finish.

Leica M4 with Zeiss 21mm f/4.5 Biogon ZM (left), Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon ZM (right), Kodak Tri-X 400

Unlike the M4-2 and M4-P, which have zinc-alloy top and bottom plates, the M4 featured brass top and bottom plates that, with time (and ample rubbing), would begin to peek through the edges of the camera’s chromium or paint finish. Just as a good pair of jeans get that impossible-to-fake worn look over time, “brassing” is something that personalizes a camera to the owner—it’s a testament to its use.

Until the introduction of the Leica MP in 2004, the M4 was also the last M camera with an engraved script Leica logo on the top plate. The M4-2, M4-P, M6, and M7 had stamped logos, which were more cost effective than engraving, a practice that resumed with the introduction of the MP, which along with the Leica M-A (Typ 127), remains the only film camera manufactured by Leica.

Loading Film

Loading film into an M-series camera is a bit more involved than most 35mm film cameras. Rather than a hinged door that swings open with a twist of a latch, which is how most film cameras are designed, you first must remove the bottom the bottom plate of an M to load and unload film. (When you remove the base plate, you automatically reset the frame counter.) You then must lift the film pressure plate door and feed a few inches of leader film across the film track and tuck the end into the three-pronged take-up spool on the opposite side. After advancing the film far enough to ensure it’s loaded properly, you replace the bottom plate and advance to frame one.

Loading film into a Leica M requires you to remove the bottom plate, lift the pressure-plate door, and hand-feed the film across the film plane and into the three-pronged take-up spool. It’s easier than it sounds.

Once loaded with film, it’s simply a matter of taking a light reading and opening one’s eyes to the world around us. The experience is totally analog in that you must make conscious decisions every step of the way. You must take a meter reading, set the aperture and shutter speed, focus, and compose the image before tripping the shutter. You then advance the film and repeat as desired.

Loading docks, Leica M4 with Zeiss 21mm f/4.5 Biogon ZM, Kodak Professional Portra 400

M cameras are sensual in that there is a very tactile look, feel, and sound to them. The film advance system is smooth and positive and, when you trigger the shutter, the “click” sound you hear is unlike the shutter sound of other camera types. Better yet, unlike digital cameras and smartphones, the sound you hear is the sound of a real shutter taking a picture. To focus the lens, you peer through the viewfinder and rotate the lens’s focus ring until the two split images overlap. It’s easy to get the hang of focusing rangefinder cameras, and they are far easier to focus when shooting under low lighting conditions compared to reflex viewing cameras.

Graffitied doorways, Zeiss 35mm f/2 Biogon ZM, Kodak Professional Portra 400

Production of the M4 ended briefly in 1972, but in a bid to counter the losses incurred by the ill-received M5, production of the M4 was soon resumed and continued until 1975, when a special 50th-Anniversay model was introduced, followed by the Canadian M4-2 (1977) and M4-P (1981). The M4-2 and M4-P were discontinued, in 1981, with the introduction of the Leica M6, which in addition to TTL metering, featured frame lines for 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 75mm, 90mm, and 135mm lenses. These same frame lines were carried forward to the Leica M7 and Leica MP, the last of which remains the only Leica film camera currently in production.

The Leica M4 featured in this classic camera review was manufactured during the first year of production (1967). Originally finished in chrome, sometime between the day it left the factory in Wetzlar Germany and the day I spotted it in the B&H Photo Used Department, somebody refinished the camera in matte olive paint with white detailing.

The photographs that accompany this Leica M4 review were taken in the Ironbound section of Newark, NJ, which is a working-class neighborhood with an industrial accent and an old-world air about it—Portuguese, to be exact. The Ironbound is also chock-a-block with auto parts yards and the jack-hammering of gentrification. Visually, it’s a feast.

The lenses used with the Leica M4 to illustrate this story included two Zeiss M-mount lenses: a 35mm f/2 Biogon ZM and a 21mm f/4.5 Biogon ZM, which I use with a Voigtländer 21/25mm optical viewfinder. Films included Kodak Tri-X 400 and Kodak Professional Portra 400.

In total, about 58,000 M4s were produced (46,336 chrome, 6,775 black chrome, and 4,889 black paint), compared to the 225,000 M3s produced over its production run.

Why Leica Rangefinder Cameras?

Why do I enjoy shooting with my Leicas? It’s all about simplicity. It’s about doing away with all the amenities of modern digital cameras that all but guarantee successful results. When I shoot with a Leica, everything I do leading up to pressing the shutter counts—nothing happens automatically. If the picture comes out, it’s only because I did everything right, and there’s something very rewarding about that.

Do you have any experiences with Leica M cameras or other rangefinder camera? Tell us why you love them, or tell us why you don’t, just below, in the Comments section.

4 Comments

A Leica guy, since I bought a screw thread Leica II in 1965, moving later to an M3, an M2, an M4 and an M6.  Currently I use two M2s and an M3.  I have always done my own home processing which is far simpler than people believe, and 70 years of developer and fixer have never given me skin problems; but with clean darkroom technique it should not be on your skin anyway.  A Leitz Valloy II and an El-Nikor lens, and it takes me an hour to print a film and clean up the debris. I had a Focomat but it is so big.

Why do I love them? They are quiet, inconspicuous, and reliable. If they break, mechanics can fix them; Digital cameras sooner or later end in landfill. Leicas never do - Gus Lazzari is currently cleaning my Leica I that dates from 1928.  They teach you photography and many, who don't like them, can't be bothered to learn.  If you haven't the motivation to find out about exposure, or the energy to focus a lens without a motor to help you, you are not likely to become a great photographer.

Taking 36  photos, each visualised through the best viewfinder ever made, and that one has thought through, is better than taking hundreds of crap ones just because it costs nothing. Pouring over prints, tells me what I got right and what I got wrong; without learning self-criticism one does not improve. Because So many other firms copied the Leica, there are vast numbers of good lenses with screw threads, just waiting for an adapter and to be mounted on a Leica; I love the Canon ones in particular like the great 35mm, 50mms and 100mm.

So my Leicas will see out my lifetime, with 400 ISO film from the Great Yellow Father.

I have used M3, Ms, M4, M4-P and a couple M6 for a total of 40 years, still use together with digital M.  You got some details wrong.  ALL M have a bottom lid in brass.  M4-2 and early M4-P had same top covers in brass, but later M4-P were in zink.  M4-P was produced parallell to M6 until 1986, M6 started 1984.  I have a general feeling that the early M4-P are of higher quality than the later, and also than the M6.  Some introductory problems with M4-2 were corrected in M4-P, which are excellent cameras!

Like you, I have used Leica cameras for a very long time. My first was a M2R which I purchased in 1969. Followed by a M4 in 1970. The M4 was a daily shooter until I sold it in 2010 to partially fund a M9. The M4 was a wonderful camera, probably the best non-metering Leica ever made. Probably should have kept this camera but just don't shoot film anymore. I shoot with a M10 now which comes as close to the soul of a M4 as any digital Leica.

Analog shooters should look at the earlier German versions of the M4 and not the lower quality later versions. 

Also, the M4 did not have a "hot" shoe.

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