The best 35mm film cameras in the world are Leicas. This is a known fact, right? And the best of the best is surely the M series, yes? I mean, at this point in time the argument is essentially decided. If someone with no experience in photography were to dip their toe into the hobby in even the most superficial way, this unassailable opinion is so ubiquitously plastered across forums, websites, and social media, that it would take a true maverick to even entertain thoughts to the contrary.
The party line is always the same. The best photographers and the legendary shooters who shaped the very foundation of photography, all use and used Leicas. The timeless Bauhaus aesthetic, the auditory discretion, the compact and perfect form factor, the brass, the hand-built precision; the M is an instrument of Zen, an extension of the eye, an artist’s brush. The mystique is so dense it’s palpable.
But what if I told you that a lot of what you’ve read about the M series is overwrought hyperbole? What if I said there’s a camera that takes everything that everyone loves about the M and improves on it? What if I told you that Leica doesn’t make the best 35mm rangefinder in the world?
Many readers have already answered “I’d say you’re an idiot,” and clicked away to a site that more eagerly accepts the established narrative. For those who’ve stuck around, thanks. As a reward for your open-mindedness, let me show you the best M mount camera around.
Meet the Minolta CLE. By now you’ve probably heard about this camera. After all, it was first released way back in 1980, and in the ensuing three-point-six decades there’s been much written about the machine. But for those who may not know, enjoy a quick history lesson.
In the 1970s, Leica entered into a technical cooperation agreement with Minolta through which the two brands would share ideas and designs, and help each other manufacture cameras, lenses, and component parts. For the most part this meant that Minolta would develop and manufacture things for Leica to put their name on, though there were instances of the inverse occurring; Minolta used a Leitz-developed, Copal-produced shutter in their exceptional XE-7 SLR (a camera that would go on to be modified and sold as the Leica R3).
Early in the agreement, Leica requested a camera that would be cheaper to produce and just as capable as their well-loved M series. the result was the Leica CL, a Minolta-designed M mount rangefinder with built-in light-metering and a lower-than-M price point. In line with most of Minolta’s body of work, the CL was an excellent camera and it sold very well. But Leica soon tired of their M machines losing market share to Minolta’s less expensive cameras, and ended production of the CL.
It’s often stated that with the discontinuation of the CL so too ended the partnership between Leica and Minolta. This is not true. Minolta went on to produce components, cameras, and lens elements for their German friends right up until the late 1990s when Minolta’s focus shifted to more modern, hi-tech machines. Similarly misleading is the glut of forum posts that state Leica was disappointed with Minolta’s quality, and that German quality control officers rejected more than sixty percent of Minolta lenses. There’s no evidence to support this whatsoever, and Minolta’s long-standing reputation as a powerhouse in optics flies in the face of this rumor, which reeks of Leica elitism run amok.
When the CL was discontinued Minolta sought to enter the M mount market with a camera wholly its own. The result was the CLE, and a technically masterful machine that offered so much more than any of Leica’s cameras. With through-the-lens metering with an informative LED-equipped viewfinder, off-the-film dynamic flash metering, and aperture-priority auto-exposure in addition to full manual mode, the CLE offered a combination of features not found on any Leica M series camera until 2002.
I know what you’re thinking, and I agree; the M series are amazing cameras. They’re gorgeous. They’re impeccably built and legendary. It’s true – but I think the CLE is better, and here’s why.
To this day, thirty-six years after it was built and ten years after Minolta sold its camera-making interests to Sony, the CLE is still the only M mount rangefinder that offers such a complete combination of general features matched with the specific qualities that are so ultimately prized by Leica lovers.
But the M is the most beautiful camera in the world, isn’t it?
People swoon over the aesthetics of the M, typically because of the way it carries itself as a stark, minimalist icon of a bygone era. And I understand this. Whether it’s an M2, M3, or an M6, Leica machines are purposeful, refined, and stoic (we’re ignoring the M5 for real reasons). But the company continued to release the same old, same old for far too long. A fact that’s become painfully glaring in most recent days as Leica seems content to showcase bloated, digital caricatures of their previously iconic designs. The over-saturation effect is certainly not helped by the ubiquitous nature of today’s social media, which ensures that our Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr feeds are never without a daily overabundance of shots of Leicas.
By contrast, the CLE is downright refreshing. It almost seems like the camera Leica would have designed had they not been afraid of offending the sensibilities of their devotees. It’s sharper, more concise, and more refined than the Ms before it. The modern angles are cleaner, the sharper lines are more distinctive, and the black-only paintwork evokes a welcomed air of professionalism. The CLE is a gorgeous camera, and while this opinion is entirely subjective, I think it’s fair to say that it’s at least as beautiful as any M before it.
But the M is the best street photography camera in the world, right?
The M is small, discreet, and quiet, so it’s perfect for street shooting, right? Yeah, that’s absolutely true. But the CLE is even smaller, more discreet, and quieter. Here are the numbers; the tiniest Leica M is the M4, which comes in at 138 x 77 x 33.5mm / 545 grams. All other Ms are larger and weigh more. The CLE measures 124 x 77.5 x 32mm / 380 grams. That’s smaller and lighter than even the smallest M you can buy. In fact, the only M mount rangefinder that’s smaller than the CLE is the Minolta-designed Leitz CL. Interesting.
The CLE will also catch fewer eyes on account of its blacked out livery. It was only ever mass-produced in black (though special editions came in gold, and in limited numbers), while most Ms are sparkly, flashy chrome. Certainly black Ms are available, but expect a financial hit. An original black M will stress the budget of all but the most well-heeled photo geek at a price that can typically pay for three or four CLEs.
This final point really shouldn’t matter to any rational mind, but since I see it cited so often as a superlative quality of the M I feel I have to address it. My decidedly non-scientific testing (placing a decibel meter next to both cameras in my quiet office) reveals that the shutter release of the M3 and M4 is louder than the shutter release of the CLE at every shutter speed. Advancing the machines produces louder noises from the Leicas as well.
Perhaps the popular opinion of the M’s perceived dominance as a street machine is influenced by Henri’s (you know who I mean) use of the Leica. If the progenitor of the craft used one, it must be the best, right? But remember that he fathered street-craft long before the original M3 even existed. In any case, objectively speaking the CLE could and should be regarded as a better street shooter over even the stealthiest M.
But the M is the highest quality camera ever built.
Certainly the M trumps nearly every other 35mm camera in the realm of build quality. Leicas are truly masterful pieces of engineering. But at what cost? As I’ve already mentioned, Ms are heavy cameras. While lots of photo geeks love this, let’s not blindly conflate weight with quality. I’ve shot a toy camera with blocks of lead glued into the bottom to give it a feeling of quality. It was not a good camera. I won’t say that the CLE feels more robust or stronger than the M series- it doesn’t. But it doesn’t feel much worse.
Leica fans will squawk about brass and metal, and claim the CLE is cheap and plastic. Sure, brass is nice, but just because the CLE isn’t brass doesn’t make it less of a camera. The top and bottom plates of the Minolta are made of an extremely durable and impact resistant material that’s finished to an impeccable standard. Polycarbonate covers were coated in copper and electro-plated with a black-chrome finish. Upon disassembly we can also see that these covers are decidedly thicker than nearly any other polycarbonate camera covers I’ve ever disassembled (and I’ve disassembled a lot of cameras).
Time marches on. So too does technology. Today, we want a camera that’s not only well-built but one that will travel well. The CLE uses metal intelligently and adds plastic and electronics where possible to lighten the load. And it works. Its density is surprising given its minuscule dimensions. Advancing the film and cocking the shutter is a beautifully mechanical action that’s smooth as silk. Shutter release is quiet and clean. Dials, knobs, and levers actuate with mechanical fluidity and settle into their detents with precision.
Claims that the CLE can’t rival the Ms in reliability are dubious, though prevalent in places where Leicas are put on a perch. Yes, the Ms are mechanical cameras and the CLE is electronic, and though mechanical cameras fail with the same unpredictability as do electronic cameras, the electronic nature of the CLE seems to be a pretty big blot on the camera’s record for some Leicaphiles. For those concerned with this, I say there’s an easy way to allay your fears; whether buying an M3 or a CLE, buy one that looks good. If a camera looks like it’s been through the mill it’s probably going to be less reliable than a gently-used model. Through my shop I’ve sold a lot of CLEs to a lot of happy customers. I’ve also been shooting mine for a long time with no issues (even after it fell over a footbridge into a snowbank).
It uses common, inexpensive batteries and the original strap provides a compartment for storing spares. It’s the digital age. Don’t be afraid of electricity.
Okay, the CLE sounds neat, but can’t the M do all the same stuff?
The M series has always promoted the pure photographic experience. Typically this is done through marketing, usually in the form of a black-and-white video with tinkling pianos accompanied by a voiceover from a well-known and respected photographer as he discusses the way that the M provides only what is necessary to make a perfect image. And there have been many perfect images made with Ms over the decades. That much is true.
But it’s just as true for the CLE, and the CLE does so much more. For that pure experience, we have an aperture ring on every lens and a shutter speed dial on the top of the camera. We can connect with the essence of photography just as easily here as we can with an M. In manual mode, the experience is identical, and even improved through the use of technology. LEDs in the viewfinder showcase the selected shutter speed, a feature lacking in many Ms.
While there is certainly something to be said for adjusting shutter speed and aperture, getting to the heart of the craft, and shooting in manual mode, sometimes that’s just impractical. Yes, I’m a photography enthusiast. I love photographs and I love challenging myself to make decent photographs. But sometimes I want to relax. Sometimes I’m out with my leash-tugging dog, or I’m in an obtusely hostile part of the city at midnight, or I’m on a boat. Sometimes I’m doing things or being places where I’m more interested in what’s happening around me than I am in my camera’s settings. It’s in these moments that I want auto-exposure, and the CLE gives me that. Most importantly, the CLE’s auto-exposure system yields a degree of artistic control through its allowing depth-of-field adjustment and exposure adjustment through an exposure compensation dial. I find this methodology to be functionally perfect.
And this part is important, so I’ll say it again; the CLE’s metering system and auto-exposure system are unfailingly perfect. This wonderful camera uses a light meter to read exposure off the film plane and steplessly and continuously varies the shutter speed to suit. When shooting faster than 1/60th of a second, the camera meters off of a multi-colored segment pattern on the shutter curtains. When exposures are longer than 1/60th of a second, the camera reads light from both the shutter curtain and the film surface itself. This system is among the most advanced of any film camera, and it works impeccably. Shooting in aperture-priority mode you will simply never make a bad exposure.
Furthermore, when using a flash the metering system operates in a dynamic way, measuring light directly from the film plane and exposing exactly as required by ambient light and light produced by the flash.
Equally important to the conversation, this combination of features is unmatched in the range of Leica Ms. There isn’t a Leica M series camera that offers the scope of metering and exposure modes that the CLE offers. The closest we get is the M7, which was made more than twenty years after the CLE, is notably chunkier and heavier, and much more expensive.
The CLE’s viewfinder is uncluttered and gorgeous. It doesn’t offer the massive magnification favored by some Leica enthusiasts, but what’s here is nothing to complain about. Framelines are bright and beautiful, and automatically appear and disappear depending on what lens is mounted. Native framelines exist for 28mm, 40mm, and 90mm lenses, and while these focal lengths are a bit abnormal in the minds of some, for me they’re perfect. The rangefinder patch is contrasty, bright, and adequate, and while the Ms are certainly easier to focus the CLE isn’t a slouch. It’s still easy, it’s just not as easy. Bright LEDs bring the rangefinder into the modern age, and show us everything we need to know.
Any M mount lens can be used with the CLE, barring a few that are so large that they impede the rangefinder window or protrude too far into the camera body. These lenses are so few as to have little impact on photo geeks looking to build a solid lens kit. Minolta’s own M-mount Rokkors comprise a set of some of the best and most underrated optics around, and the just-different-enough focal lengths are appealing to those, like myself, who are tired of 35mm and 50mm standards. The 40mm M-Rokkor, in particular, is regarded by the few who noticed as one of the best 40mm lenses ever produced. And while some examples of the 28mm lens exhibit a strange affliction in the form of little white dots on the front element, unaffected versions of this lens are also commonly rated at the top of their class.
If it’s so great then it must be too expensive.
You can’t discuss Leica without discussing price. They’re expensive cameras, and sometimes I feel that that’s a big part of the reason people hold them in such high regard. I mean, essentially they’re just nicely-crafted but obsolete cameras that cost a lot and are out of reach for most shooters. Even the most primitive Ms are expensive, while the M that comes closest to matching the CLE in features will run into the quadruple-digits.
Logically, the CLE should cost more, being the more advanced machine. But as is often the case in this hobby, logic doesn’t hold much sway. A perfect, pristine CLE will cost between $390 and $490. While that’s still a lot of money for many people, I have no compunction in declaring it the very best camera that anyone could buy in this price point. In fact, I think the CLE is just about the best 35mm film camera I’ve ever owned.
Is it really that good?
I recognize that this article might be received with equal parts passive interest and vociferous resentment. To be clear, it’s not my intention to hatchet the M series at the knees. One of my favorite cameras of all time is the M2. I’ve loved that machine for years and that’s never going to change. But I’ve run a lot of rolls of film through Ms and I’ve run a lot of rolls through the CLE, and I feel impelled to get the word out that the CLE is simply a better camera.
It does more, feels better, travels lighter, and costs less than any M I’ve ever used. While some other cameras do specific, individual things better, the CLE offers a combination of features, size, performance, and style that can’t be beaten by any M series machine. It’s a camera that works with me in a way that the Ms never have. It’s slow when I want to be slow, it’s fast when I want to be fast, and it helps me make better photographs. The CLE is the best 35mm rangefinder I’ve ever used, and if this article inspires a like-minded shooter to discover the camera of his or her dreams, I’ll have done my job.
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Great and interesting article as always James, that’s what I like about this site, not afraid to give a point of view that flies in the face of fanboy reasoning.