[Editor’s Note : Someone read this article and sent me a message that, in part, told me to kill myself. Pretty ridiculous, but I wanted to clarify that this tongue-in-cheek article is more of a silly conversation starter than a true examination into which Leica is best. And in any event, favoring any camera over another isn’t really grounds for death. Happy shooting, friends.]
The Leica M2 is just a simplified and cheapened version of the M3, right? Yeah, it’s a good camera, but if you’re going to buy a Leica M why not buy the best, why not buy the original? Right? Well what if we told you that there are valid reasons for using an M2 over its legendary predecessor? What if we told you that, today, the M3 is actually the worse of the two classic rangefinders, and that anyone looking to buy an M3 would be better served shopping for an M2?
With clear understanding that we’ve already sent half of you running for your pitchforks, hear us out. Both cameras are amazing, and a case can be made for each, but we honestly think at this moment the M2 is best. Here are four justifications for our heretical blaspheming. And no, I couldn’t come up with five. So what?
Reason #1 – The M3 is Ugly
Alright, it’s not ugly, but the M3 is a bit cluttered aesthetically speaking. The physical allure of the M rangefinder is in its no-nonsense, clinical approach to design. It’s a camera that’s sleek, clean, and streamlined. Except, the M3 kind of isn’t. It’s got bulges, ridges, and knobs all over the place. Did we not know better we’d assume Leica was the German word for “bezels”.
The M2, by contrast, is decidedly more refined. All optical windows are flush-mounted, and the raised ridge on the front of the M3 has been shaved away. This gives the M2 a more modern and contemporary design, and seems to adhere more closely to the Bauhaus aesthetic that’s surely at the heart of the M rangefinder’s design brief.
We know some fans love the moldings surrounding nearly every feature of the camera, but we don’t. We feel they’re overwrought and add nothing to the overall aesthetic. Even worse, they actually detract from the whole.
We just can’t understand why Leica embellished their flagship camera with so many useless bits of metal. And those photophiles who are truly obsessed with simplicity can even search out an M2 with virtually nothing extraneous hanging off the front. It’s possible to get an M2 minus the frame line selector lever or self-timer lever, and with a surreptitious rewind button in place of the M3’s rewind lever. You can’t possibly find an M3 without that giant self-timer lever protruding from the front.
Are we picking nits here? Yeah, a little bit. But if you like concise design, the M2 is the best choice.
Reason #2 – Viewfinder Woes
This is the big one; the most important difference between the two cameras and the number one reason to shoot an M2 over an M3. It’s so important that we’ve nonsensically embedded it here in the very middle of the article. It’s the viewfinder.
Yep, the M2 has a better viewfinder than the M3. There, we said it, and we can already hear the raucous harangues over .92X magnification, 50mm focal length, and the prevailing opinion that the M3 is the best viewfinder in the history of the universe. But we’re going out on a limb and proclaiming that none of that matters, because the M3’s viewfinder is two-thirds useless.
It’s all in the frame lines. Both the M2 and M3 have automatically selected frame lines correlating to the focal length of the mounted lens. With both cameras, attach a 50mm lens and 50mm frame lines appear in the viewfinder. Or attach a 90mm lens and 90mm frame lines appear. But mount a 35mm lens and only one of these two Ms will show 35mm frame lines. Guess which?
That’s right, the M2 is designed to work with the 35mm focal length without adding any extra weight, cumbersome accessory viewfinders, or shelling out humongous sacks of cash for specialized “goggle” lenses. If you want to shoot 35mm with an M3 you’ll be spending a lot of money, carrying extra weight, and losing viewfinder brightness. The alternative is to guess your framing and go for it, but that’s so… un-German.
Some will argue that the M3’s native 50mm, 90mm, and 135mm frame lines are a better set compared to the 35mm, 50mm, and 90mm found in the M2, but we disagree mightily. For our money, the frame lines found in the M2 are far more practical. 35mm and 50mm are among the most important focal lengths in all of photography, and having the choice to use one or the other is vital.
Not to mention that when shooting at 50mm with an M2 there’s the added benefit of extra viewfinder coverage. Shooting this way with an M2 allows one to look through the viewfinder and watch as subjects pass in and out of the image field. This is especially useful in street photography, or to easily scan the environment for elements that will work best with your composition.
Plus, when was the last time anyone shot an M with a 90 or 135mm lens? Honestly. That just never happens.*
*We acknowledge this is a highly subjective opinion, but you’re reading an opinion piece. What do you expect?
Reason #3 – Price
The Leica M2 was released as a simplified “budget” version of the M3, originally costing around $250 compared with the M3’s price of around $290. The well-known secret then being that while the M2 was marketed as a lesser M3, it really never was. Build quality is of the same impressive caliber as found in its more-respected brother. Cock the shutter and fire both cameras while wearing a blindfold and you won’t feel any difference.
So why does the M2 cost less than the M3? There are different opinions on this, but we’re chalking it up to reputation. Featured in everything from James Bond novels to Steve Jobs’ keynote presentations, virtually everyone’s heard of the legendary M3. When someone says “Leica”, people reflexively think “M3”.
Conversely there are many people who’ve simply never heard of the M2. And it’s human nature for many people to operate under the assumption that “if it were any good I would have heard of it.” So essentially, M2s cost less because less people know of them, and less people want them. Simple enough.
While the price difference between an M3 and an M2 has shrunk since they were newly released machines, and continues to shrink these days, there are still substantial savings to be had by choosing an M2 over an M3. Often the difference in price today falls between $100 and $300, depending on condition and how lucky you may be. Look for a copy with worn vulcanite, replace it yourself with new leather, and you’ll save even more.
Just this past weekend we picked up an M2 for $400. Pretty amazing.
Reason #4 – It’s not an M3
To our earlier point, literally (figuratively) everyone’s heard of the M3. All the hipsters are shooting M3s, and that makes shooting an M3 lame. The M3 is so last year. Yawn. Who wants to be seen with the camera that everyone else is shooting? What’s up? You don’t have a mind of your own? You can’t make your own decisions? If you want to be cool, you’ll shoot an M2. Simple as that.
Owning an M2 shows you’re a smarter, more discerning, more specialized photographer. You know what’s truly hip. You’re likely better looking, have higher taste, know more things about stuff, and are better in bed than a comparable shooter with an M3. Obviously.
Well, we hope we’ve presented this with enough delicacy to avoid the pitchforks and flaming torches of the mob. If not, let us backpedal a bit. Is the M3 a bad camera? Of course not. It’s amazing. It’s one of the best machines ever made. It’s just that we think the M2 is marginally better and feel it deserves more recognition.
Do you agree? Disagree? Maybe you think the M6 is better than them both? Or maybe you think the M1 is all you really need! If that’s the case, let us hear about it in the comments. Just don’t tell me that everyone’s shooting Alpa now.
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I almost agree with you, though the M2 is one I do not shoot: I currently use an M3/M4 combo. The M3 really is ugly – those window frames! Being a 50mm nut I prefer the M3 viewfinder and focusing a cron 90 at f/2 is much easier on the M3. Both are better than the M9 which has a really bad viewfinder. Ultimately though my favourite Leica is a 1934 Model F which goes to show it is all about the heart rather than the head (or the viewfinder).