Leica? More like Lies! Lies…ca? Or Something?

Leica? More like Lies! Lies…ca? Or Something?

2400 1350 James Tocchio

When Ernst Leitz GmbH invented the M system in 1954, they named their first M camera the Leica M3 for a very good reason. The name M3 signaled to the unwashed masses that the camera was a rangefinder (the German word for this is messucher) with three framelines (the number 3). The name makes sense and camera-likers knew what they were buying. For this reason, the Leica M3 went on to be the best anything that anyone had ever made anywhere. But every Leica camera since then has been a gigantic leap backward, and a complete and unmitigated disaster.

In 1957, Leitz unveiled the M2, a slightly lower-cost camera based closely on the M3 design. It could have been a decent camera. But it’s not. Even if we were ready to forgive the brazen insult that is a non-glass-encapsulated film frame counter, there is one irreconcilable flaw at the heart of the machine. Its name does not make sense. Following the naming conventions of the three-frame-line-equipped M3, the M2 (Messucher two) should have two frame lines in the viewfinder. But it doesn’t. It has three.

I’d love to know what happened to the dolt at Wetzlar who flubbed that all-time flub. No doubt he settled for a career as a mid-level product designer at the local wooden toothpick factory. Good job, bro.

By now you’re thinking that things couldn’t possibly get worse following the M2 three-frame line debacle. Prepare yourself. It gets worse.

In 1959, Leitz unveiled the M1, and I know what you’re thinking. James, you’re thinking, please tell me it’s got one frame line. 

Dude, I say resting a gentle hand on your shoulder in a not weird way, it’s gunna be okay, but it’s so much worse than thatTo see an M1 is to look upon a double lie.

Not only does the Leica M1 have more than one frame line (it’s got two), but it ain’t even a gall-darned rangefinder! It’s a viewfinder camera! And those jerks who were working at Leitz sixty years ago couldn’t even be bothered to make a new top plate. They just stuck a piece of metal over the insultingly vacant rangefinder window, wrote “M1” on it, and enjoyed a good chortle at the local brat haus at the expense of all the fools buying the latest Leica messucher.

The M1 is the photographic equivalent of a ninety-year-old German man walking up to you on the sidewalk, tipping his Tyrolean hat, saying “I promise not to hurt you, and this is the same type of hat Abe Lincoln wore.” then smacking your tibia with a hickory switch. Why would Leitz do this?

Google Translate tells me that the German word for “viewfinder” is “sucher.” They should have called the Leica M1 the Leica S2, so then we’d know what we were buying (a viewfinder camera with two frame lines). I’d even accept it if they only softened their lie and called it the Leica S1. We’d still be “suchers” for thinking it had one frame line, but at least we’d be closer to a mutually respectful relationship with its maker.

The year 1963 saw the release of the MD, a medical-use Leica made for attachment to microscopes and other imaging tools. This camera, if you can believe it, has neither a rangefinder, nor a viewfinder. It’s got no sucher whatsoever! Frankly, I’d be surprised to find out that the MD ever even finished medical school.

The catastrophic train derailment that was Leitz’s naming methodology seemed as if it might miraculously land back on the tracks in November of 1966 with the release of the Messucher four. Leitz’s Leica M4 was announced to indeed show four frame lines in its viewfinder, bringing initial optimism to a multiple-times-bitten and very shy public. Imagine the backlash when camera-likers the world over finally got their hands on the M4, and the true depth of Leitz’s stone-cold betrayal became clear, even through the blinking tears.

Sure, the new Leica M4 showed four frame lines, but it showed two of its four frame lines at the same time. What Leitz really produced with the M4 (aside from seventy-seven dump trucks full of broken promises) is a camera that shows two individual frame lines (50mm and 90mm) and one pair of frame lines (35mm and 135mm), totaling three frame lines. It’s simple math. In the same way that covering two legs in unison make up a single pant, naturally, two frame lines displayed simultaneously equals a single frame line.

The M4 could have been an acknowledgment of past sins and a stoic step toward healing. Instead, it was a failure only matched by the shaky logic and mixed metaphors found in those last two paragraphs.

The Canadian-made M4-2 and M4-P piled insult onto injury in ways that are too flabbergastingly graphic to type. We are the potato fries and Leitz’s lies are the gravy in our poutine of misery (can I just say that I actually laughed out loud when I typed this last sentence?).

With the M5 of 1971, Leitz continued to slap its long-time fans, who’d been waiting patiently for a correctly-named camera for almost twenty years, in the neck. This camera should have obviously had five frame lines (it’s the Messucher 5, after all). But it has four frame lines only. Four. And a stupid light meter. And what’s with that dumb body? And what’s with those strap lugs on that one side of the camera? And what’s with it not being able to use every single lens Leitz had ever made in the history of time? And what’s with that time Leitz said light meters were for people who lack creativity in that ancient print advertisement that I’m sure only I can remember? Way to flub it again, bros.

It’s at this point in history that we should expect that Leitz would fail. They’d been betraying their customers for decades. The brand was in such dire financial straits that they nearly went bankrupt. This diminution of the German firm’s fortunes was blamed on market forces and the veritable tsunami of competition from Japanese SLR makers, instead of on the real cause – Leitz’s failure to name their cameras correctly.

Okay, let’s just… let’s just hold on a minute here? I mean, I was all-in on this one. I was really going to just blast on through the entire timeline here, right up to the M240 and M10, and talk about how neither of those cameras have ten or two-hundred-and-forty frame lines. But, I mean. I just can’t do it. I have so many presents to wrap, and I’ve written a couple hundred articles on cameras. I just gotta take a few days, you know?

You get the joke right? This was all a joke. I love Leicas.

Hey, thanks for visiting. See you next year!

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio
  • No surprises here. None of these new-fangled M-series cameras can be considered to be true Barnack-Leicas!

    I have a 1936 Leica-II & I would classify the Leica-III series as marginal. The 3G does not qualify as a Barnack camera in my book…

    Having been released in 1932 I think we have reached a point where we can draw some conclusions about the long term viability of the Leica-II as a user camera:

    1). By eschewing unnecessary frills such as slow shutter speeds – which inevitably gunk-up & a self timer – superfluous on a hand held camera, the machine does what it needs to do & keeps on doing it for the longer term. My camera is now in its eighties & its knobs & dials give the feeling that it left the factory last week.

    2). “Form folgt Funktion.” The Leica-II follows this Bahaus principle without making a big ‘look-at-me’ deal about it. The camera is built around the 35mm cassette & this shows in its sleek compact lines. It has all that is needed for hand held photography; A reliable shutter & film transport system. The compact rangefinder-viewfinder unit has a rangefinder with a higher magnification than the separate, clear & uncluttered, viewfinder. Combined with the collapsible f/3,5 Elmar this setup is sufficient for most situations.

    3). These features combine to give a truly pocketable 35mm camera system. I use a 1952 50mm f/3,5 Elmar which ‘lives’ on the camera & a very compact 1938 90mm f/4 Elmar. Unfortunately, trendy collectors bandying the term “pancake” have priced the 35mm Elmar out of my reach. I use the rather bulky 35mm f/2.5 Voigtländer-Cosina for this focal length. These lenses their hoods & a pair of Soviet accessory viewfinders in 35 & 85mm (or my less used Tewe 35-200mm zoom finder) fit nicely in my left jacket pocket balancing the camera & its wrist strap on the right. Add a Gossen for a touch of luxury!

    There is some controversy about what qualifies as a Barnack camera. The Leica-II is the original & the best. I will court controversy here & suggest that the early FED & Zorki rangefinders (now referred to as the FED-1 & Zorki-1) are Barnack style cameras. They lack the exacting tolerances & quality materials of the Leica original. However, in use they are inexpensive copies of the camera that Oskar designed. In spite of the quality of the materials, engineering tolerances & the expensive branding the M series Leicas are not Barnack cameras.

    • I have a Leica IIIa and love it. it was one of my first cameras. I use an Elmar 50mm 3.5 and a Voigtländer 50mm 1.5 on it occasionally.

  • Ho Ho Ho

  • Leica Leica Leica…blah blah blah…

  • I’m sure I’m not going to be the only one to point this out, and I might not even be the first, but it’s Messsucher (three Ss). Thanks for another great article and merry Christmas!

    • You are right now, but when going back to the time the Leicas came out, you are wrong. If the same three letters meet in a combined German word, like “Mess-sucher”, under the current rules, ou write all three. But back then, the rules were different: “Mess-sucher” would become “Messucher” becaus the “u” is not a consonant. Makes sense? No? Well, they changed it anyway.

    • I actually had an entire paragraph in this article in an earlier draft that dealt with how the orthography has recently changed, and in keeping with the satire of this post, took a bunch of pot shots at Leitz for not knowing the rules would change in seventy years. It still makes me laugh.

  • Yeah, sometimes it seems that the Leica company is the ‘master of desaster’.

    Logic is not very helpful to understand what they’ve done (and doing).

    However, they are still in business and healthy.


  • Ha, Ha, got me going there. For those interested, I believe the numbering for the M3 derives from the fact it is the third in a distinct series of r/f models with 1 being the Barnack style r/f coupled but non-interchangeable lens models, and 2 being the subsequent r/f coupled Barnack’s with interchangeable lenses.

    • Dr Ricardo Davidson December 24, 2018 at 1:14 pm

      Yours is the correct interpretation, the article above may be amusing but it is technically rubbish. It works like this: In the screw-Leicas, original (no letter), a (Ia and IIa not marketed), c, f, and g (I do not think there was a IIg) signal modifications or evolution of a basic design. The number means the degree of functional sophistication, 1 means a basic shutter and film box, 2 has a viewfinder and coupled rangefinder, 3 has a viewfinder, rangefinder and slow speeds, which were a separate mechanism. In the M Leicas, the shutter was of standard unitary construction, so rather than leave out part of the escapement they correctly left it as it was and it’s the same in all iterations. The 1 therefore means box + shutter, 2 means a down-market version for amateurs but still as accurate and reliable as the top of the range, and 3 is the top of the range. The finders were selected according to what the marketing idiots at Leitz thought, so the pro camera did not have a 35 mm frame (there goes your candid street photography), and the amateur version left out the self-timer, saved a few pennies on the counter mechanism and used a rangefinder that was simpler and cheaper to build. This is not an inferior rangefinder, just re-engineered for better economics. As it turned out, the pros wanted the M2 viewfinder, amateurs wanted the self-timer, nobody liked the cheapo counter, and the nomenclature was total b-s. Deep breath and start again…the M4, M5, M6 etc represent logical model evolution. The gremlins are still at Leica though, because suddenly it all went to cryptic model names again, like the MP. In the reflex line they were more consistent, starting with the R3 as the 3rd major reflex model and then just counted up, with the R-E sneaking in…Naming cars is so much easier, you just select a name like Pinto and tack on the engine size. BMW and Audi are fairly rational as they have a number denoting car size and (BMW) another for engine size. Jaguar had a bad moment when they named the XK120, 140 and 150, the number was supposed to signify maximum speed. Bad idea, people with an XK120 sometimes did their utmost to effectively have an XK140, even if just for a few seconds going down that steep hill having added some “stuff” to the petrol…
      Personally I use an M2 or an M3, because of the almost life-size viewfinder on the M3 this is my favourite, and I have finally got hold of a 35 mm lens with the optical attachment to use on the M3.

  • Ha, Ha, Ha! I think, you are way to harsh with Leica. I have had the M3 and the M2, both were wonderful cameras. The only issue (for me) was the way to insert film as I have not three hands. Today their RF-cameras are far to expensive for being digital ones. Remembering the complaints of their whoreshippers about the M6 and M7 for using batteries. 6K bucks for a digital RF without any lenses? Never.

  • I own an M3 and a m4. its a love hate relationship. I love using them, then other times I look at them and think I could buy so much more things for the price of this. I hate that feeling. I have been thinking about selling my m3 for a Hasselblad 500cw. I will say the only thing that I have used that comes close to the build quality and feel of my Leica m3 is my Nikon f2sb. I am excited though because I just got word that my Leica m4 is finished from its cla and will ship on Wednesday. I can’t wait to use it. my m4 always had a foggy viewfinder so I hated using it. Anybody looking to get their Leica cla should look into Youxin Ye. He was very good with communicating to me and I feel he does a good job (he did the cla on my m3 years ago.)

  • Leica named it the M2 because it was closer to perfect than the M3, they were just distracted when they named the M1.
    Every article ever written about Leica mentions how expensive they are. The least expensive used car costs more than a Leica, and everyone has a car. Anyone can afford a Leica if they want a Leica, and that leaves money on the table for a Zorki if you think you need a back-up camera, which you won’t.

    • The Cosina Zeiss Ikon ZM now costs more than pretty much any film Leica bar the M7, MP and MA.
      So for $400 more than a sweet made of brass, made in Germany, gen-you-whine M4 you can get a stamped/cast zinc made in Japan Cosina.

  • My favourite Leica series at this very moment is the one that Leica made for pirates. And the best of that series is the R(rrr)9.

  • Leica was a nice brand still they was not contaminated by this marketing century and by the idea to cut the costs. Now this is a marketing brand like all brand which propose a new body every year or every two year to make money. This is the reason why : best Leica are oldest one, like of course the M3. Actual Leica are good, but not so much according to the price. The famous signature, … you can change with a software. I know people who take images with Sony, they have a Leica too, but they modify Sony capture in a Leica style and claim it is Leica capture…. The point is, certainly M10 p is great but for 7.000 US box it could be !!! My point is, good photographer can make great images with any body camera, … also the worst, give a M10 to someone who has no sense of image, and you will get poor photos, … if you want to take good pictures, everything should be good, now the Nikon Z7 will push the competition, RF, mirrorless, small lenses, big Zeiss Sigma Art lenses, everyone is right and wrong, personally I prefer small lenses, this is the only interest of Leica, the lenses, but you can find great lenses from other manufacturers from a quarter of the price some Canon LTM, old Zeiss for Contax RF, or some Nikkor for Nikon RF are gorgeous and small.
    For me there is two best Leica : the M3 and the M6 classic, these are the best Leica ever made.
    Actually I use them with also a Minolta Hi-Matic 7Sii, or a Nikon 28 TI or a Contax T, or a Sony A7 R2, and …. sometimes, the Contax T wins because his lens is gorgeous, is meter accurate, and so light and pocketable that I can carry it all over the day and forget it, what I can not do with any Leica, … So …. for me the 3 reasons to have a Leica are :
    We love film and film is better than digital
    we want a great machine : Leica M3
    we want small high definition lenses
    In digital world, I am not sure Leica carries and add-value !!! According the mirrorless can use M-mount lenses and are nearly smaller than a M body …
    We can discuss.

    • Eric soo true on the m3 it is an awesome camera. I have an m3 ss and an m4-2. I would argue the m4 is better than the m6 but don’t disagree that the m6 is a great camera. I wish leica would put an m3 view finder in a digital body. In my opinion it blows every viewfinder I have used except for maybe a Nikon f2. they could call it the m3-D. thats the only digital Leica I would consider buying.

  • Satire about Leica — a brave man indeed. Quite funny even without the word “poutine.”

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio