I've been beavering away revising my book The Empirical Photographer to eventually send as a thank-you gift to my Patreon supporters, and I've gotten a little carried away with adding new articles and revising and re-editing old ones. (I keep trying to stop—"just one more and that's it!"—but it's hard.) One of the bits that has required the most work collating and re-writing has been the various posts about "The Leica Year."
And I have to say it makes me a little bit nostalgic. I miss being able to recommend a year with a film Leica to ambitious young photographers. I believe that even if you didn't "take" to it, using one for a while was an excellent learning experience. It forces—or encourages—you to learn how to do a number of things you might not otherwise learn so easily. It's fun and interesting, but also good for you.
There are other RFs, of course—this time I mean rangefinders, not retractable fastbacks—but why wouldn't you use the iconic example? If you want to try a roadster and you're only going to own one, it should be a Miata. And if you want to try a rangefinder and you're only going to own one, it should be a Leica.
The best ones to buy were always the M4 and the M6, although there were others that would serve nearly as well. In the Comments yesterday, Gabe said the gestalt of the first Miata (MX-5 if you insist, but they're Miatas) was "a light ragtop with minimum frills," and a Leica, despite its later enthusiastic adoption by the fru-fru carriage-trade status-symbol crowd, was originally similar: a rugged, minimalist camera with no frills that you had to learn how to handle yourself.
A worn but not worn out M4 currently for sale for $717 on eBay.
Photo courtesy Roberts Camera.
I was surprised to find that M4's and M6's* on eBay are holding their value pretty well. Many recent auctions are for unusual or collector pieces, in keeping with the new order. Most M4's were chrome, meaning the black ones are more sought after, and collectors seeking shelf-queens want "mint" examples. (I hate the word "mint" almost as much as I hate the word "imagery.") Why would a photographer want a mint M4? It would just mean you'd either have to not use it or else feel guilty about using it. Buy a proper used one with some wear on it, so you can sling it over your shoulder and carry it around! Anyway, plain-jane chrome M4's with a decent amount of age-appropriate wear seem to be going in the $7–800 range, which is impressive enough; but similarly utilitarian M6's (plain-jane M6's are black chrome) are still averaging well above a grand. Not bad for cameras that use hopelessly outdated and inconvenient sensor technology!
I suppose my affection for these cameras is one of many things that are generational. The generation you look up to most tend to be either the group that were teenagers when you were a kid, up to people midway, or a little more, toward your parents' age. Those were the photographers I grew up looking up to, and many of them used Leicas at least part of the time. So I wanted to, too. Just as with my Miata, I owned and used an M6 for three years (I had another year borrowing a friend's M4—thanks again, Nick—which parallels, I suppose, the young married woman I worked with who used to loan me her MGB all the time). Present company excepted, I suppose you'd look high and low and long and hard for modern digital photographers who saw any value in experiencing a film Leica.
Despite which, it might still amplify nicely the joy of being a photographer. The Leica is a still a good teacher; it just has fewer students now is all.
*TOP site style calls for an apostrophe when pluralizing alphanumerical equipment model names, to avoid such awkwardness as the 1Ds being pluralized as "1Dss." "1Ds's" is strictly incorrect but reads better.
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Trevor Johnson (partial comment): "Shirley, my wife, says that I love my Leicas and funnily enough, Terry O'Neill, in a Guardian interview last Saturday, said his old Leica was his most treasured possession."
Dave Karp: "I have never owned a Leica, but my Dad showed me how to use a camera with his Nikon S rangefinder. My first camera was a Konica Auto S2 rangefinder. It had a fixed 45mm lens. That was my camera/lens combination for years. It never really dawned on me until today that I had the one camera/one lens experience in spades, using a rangefinder, albeit one that had a meter built in! I don't know if it made me a better photographer, but it made me a photographer."
Chuck Albertson: "You don't have to look too far. The other day, some 20-something barista at Starbucks spotted the MP hanging of my shoulder and asked about it; he said he was saving up for a film M. I left a generous tip."
Peter Wright: "Well I suppose I'm still a Leica student! One of the things I learned is that you get over the 'But it's a LEICA!!' Feeling quite fast, and then the camera is absolutely uninteresting in use—no seductive bokeh effect looking through the viewfinder, no complex AF system to master, etc. It's almost boring, although that's not the right word. Then if you keep on using the camera past that point (the point I suspect that many DSLR owners start planning their next purchase), it goes completely out of mind, leaving the user with nothing to think about other than the photography. That's the only reason I can think of to explain why I get a disproportionate number of my best pictures from using one."