Wednesday I said "consider that you can still buy, brand new, a film Leica"—and linked to a Leica M7. When I linked to it, the B&H page said "More on the Way." Soon thereafter, it said "Discontinued." Sorry for the SNAFU; it was not-a my fault.
So here's how to buy a film Leica, Mike variation. (Where Leicas are concerned, you will generally encounter, ahh, let us say "a variety" of opinions out there on the woolly Web.)
You can buy a new one from B&H. Yes, I'd get an M7...it's not a purist Leica to the manner born*, but it's got the easier-to-use rewind crank and a light meter, and aperture-priority AE which I love and find easiest to use with B&W negative film. (Yeah, it's fun to go on a retro adventure, but you still need to be able to take pictures.) You can still buy an M7 new from B&H or Amazon. The M3-style rewind crank on the stylish and beautiful mechanical MP looks great and is best for those who intend to not use their new camera. (Just kidding. But not really. Um, let's move on.)
UPDATE: According to David Farkas at Red Dot Forum, the Leica M7 is officially discontinued as of yesterday(!). He says "Leica will no longer produce any more new M7 cameras, in black or silver." If that's correct, then as soon as current stocks are depleted, that's it. (Thanks to Jeff for this.)
The M-A is an MP with no light meter. Like, you know, used Leicas. Except without all the dirty fingerprints and cooties from other homo sapiens.
But really, unless you've got OCD problems, the best film Leica to buy is the M4. In my opinion (<—note the qualifier, woolly Web denizens). The Ernst Leitz, Germany-made, 1966–75 Wetzlar M4, in chrome because that's how most of them were made. The M4 is the best-built M camera (period—I got this straight from one of the most respected Leica techs in the USA and one of the very best Leica techs in the UK, back when I was Editor-in-Chief of Photo Techniques—but see above point in re woolly Web). It has the least production variation, and, all things considered, will likely be the easiest to use and maintain.
The M4 is not the most prestigious or stylish film Leica in the opinion of collectors, which in my view is a point in its favor (the views of the woolly Web may vary). Historically, values have gone up and down; if purchased in a "down" period, such as we seem to be in now, they can be quite good value for money. They're now running in the ~$1k range and sometimes even less.
An M4 described as "Mint in Box" currently being offered on eBay for $3k
You can buy a "mint" M4 if you want to pay a hefty premium, but I'd encourage you to also look at "users" with some honorable scars...real Leicas aren't meant to be shelf queens, they're meant to be used. A sample with a few bumps and nicks can be much less expensive. A few quirky little marks and dings just makes your camera an individual.
After purchase, you're not done yet. First, you need a CLA (clean, lube, adjust)...unless your seller provides documentation that one was recently performed. I won't recommend specific shops, but a little research should lead you to reputable technicians.
Although it can be mighty tempting to try all sorts of lenses, and there's nothing wrong with that, I'd recommend choosing one lens for your Leica and sending the lens to the repair shop when you get the CLA so the lens can be specifically calibrated to the rangefinder. The classic focal length is either a 50mm or a 35mm, depending on your personal preference.
Being contrarian, I'd pick a non-Leica lens for my Leica. Or a nice historical lens. Something like a Konica M-Hexanon 50mm ƒ/2 (a personal fave), or the nifty Voigtländer Color-Skopar 35mm ƒ/2.5 PII pancake (which has excellent contrast for B&W though not the greatest shadow separation), or the Zeiss C Biogon T* 35mm ƒ/2.8 ZM (a sleeper, highly flare-resistant). Of course, Leica's own lenses, such as the marvelous 50mm Summilux-M ƒ/1.4 ASPH., work also. Historical lenses include the lovely pre-ASPH. 35mm Summicron (v. IV) that I owned in days of yore [Ed. sobs for lost youth. Where did that damn youth go, anyway? He was around here a few minutes ago.]
I'd also recommend using one film. One film and one lens will send you one your way to mastery and unconscious familiarity. To set the exposure controls, you can either get a modern clip-on meter, which is simple to use and works very well, or Train Your Brain to Guess Exposures like old Henri did. The latter is more fun, of course.
And fun is the name of the game with retro!
Not be be narcissistic (might be 12 and half years too late, quoth the gnarly blogger), but I did this for a year—shot with an M4 and a beautiful 1950s collapsible 50mm Summicron that a maniacal collector had gotten multi-coated. (Same lens Henri used for 90%+ of his photos for 90%+ of his career.) My good friend Nicholas Hartmann, son of the late former President of Magnum Photos Erich Hartmann—both just the finest of gentlemen—loaned me the M4, which he bought in a "down" market period. It had a precious and prized ding on the back of the top-plate. That ding saved him hundreds of dollars. I guessed my exposures that year, which actually isn't hard if you practice enough.
Of course, you should do whatever you want to. The point of retro is to have fun, and only you know what's most fun for you.
Viewed through the rose-colored glasses of my yearning for lost youth, my M4 year was one of the best years ever in my experience of photography; the results I got weren't always consistent, but when that camera and lens sang, they sang sweetly. Of course it's much easier to get better pictures now, but I don't think I ever felt closer to this wonderful, rich medium of ours than I did that year. Where did that year go? Seems like it was such a short time ago.
TOP is off on Saturdays. See you on Sunday!
*Let's not argue about this phrase. It can be "manor" or "manner." Wm. Shakespeare, Hamlet, 1602:
HORATIO: Is it a custom?
HAMLET: Ay, marry, is't:
But to my mind, though I am native here
And to the manner born, it is a custom
More honour'd in the breach than the observance.
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Adam Lanigan: "I had a one lens / one film / one month experience with my neighbour's M4 and the dual-range 50mm Summicron. It was a short but great honeymoon. I still count a few pictures from that month six years ago among my best."
Gordon Lewis: "Wouldn't the more pertinent question be why to buy a film Leica (or any Leica rangefinder for that matter)? Personally, I'd want to have a damned good answer to that question before I considered shelling out thousands of hard-earned dollars on equipment that may have no discernible difference in the quality of my images."
Mike replies: Why? Because someone might want to. Is that not a reason?
Ken Tanaka piles on: "I second Gordon's earnest and keen question. (And I do so as someone with an M7, a gorgeous silver MP, an M9, and an M10 close at hand.) Unless you're collecting antique cameras or just like to impersonate a photographer of bygone decades (both of which can be great fun) there's absolutely no practical or rational reason to use either film or a rangefinder camera today. The severe limitations of both represent artificial barriers."
Mike replies: You answered your own objection right before you stated the objection: because it can be "great fun." It can be rational to do something just because it appeals to a person and would be fun for them, eh?
Another reason is "for the experience." After all, there's absolutely no practical or rational reason to ride horseback today. Yet people do.
Mark Sampson: "My first top-quality camera was a Leica M3. In 1978 I had earned enough to buy a new camera. So I went out shopping for a Nikon FM or an Olympus, but came home with a 19-year-old Leica (for which lenses and accessories were nearly impossible to find). With its 50mm ƒ/2 Summicron, I had a lot of fun, learned a lot, and made many photographs; it even earned its keep. To be honest, I bought the romance and mystique; it was a quirky and anachronistic choice, even forty years ago! But the M3 did a great job. It was my only camera for four years, when I bought a 4x5...and, finally, a Nikon FM2 in 1986. I used the M3 (along with an M6, eventually) and various lenses until I soaked it in salt water in 2010. Now it's an honored desk ornament...see my posts from yesterday. So I heartily agree with your recommendation—those few of TOP's readers willing to shoot film will enjoy using a Leica, if they don't already."
Paul De Zan: "I've had an M4 forever, love it, don't use it and will keep it forever. It's one of those things."
Andrew: "I've bought and sold my share of cameras over the years, including many film rangefinders. The only camera and lens combination I miss is my departed M6 TTL .85 with Hexanon 50mm. Wonderful camera and wonderful lens!"