Last year I wrote a buyer’s guide exploring the many models of Leica rangefinder cameras and explaining which would be best suited to various types of photographer. It’s a buyer’s guide that has helped at least a few people pick their perfect Leica rangefinder. But what if you want a Leica that’s not a rangefinder?
Though less popular than their rangefinder counterparts, Leica has made quite a number of excellent SLR cameras. From the original Leicaflex to the cameras co-designed by Minolta and beyond, there’s a Leica SLR for everyone. Here’s our buyer’s guide for would-be Leica photographers who prefer the single lens reflex way of shooting.
General Rules of Leica SLRs
First, and this is a through line spanning four decades of Leica SLR cameras – Japanese competition was almost always producing objectively “better” cameras. But this is only true if your definition of better reads as “more stuff for less money.” It’s true that Leica SLRs are generally less-equipped and more expensive cameras compared to their contemporary (and more popular) Japanese SLRs, but like Leica’s rangefinder cameras, it can be argued that Leica SLRs provide everything a photographer truly needs and nothing the photographer does not.
What’s the most obvious proof of this theory of specification inferiority that I can point to? How about the fact that no Leica SLR offers autofocus. Even the R9, the final model in the series and a camera that debuted in the year 2002, was a manual focus only camera. That’s downright archaic compared to the industry-dominating Canons and Nikons of the world.
Was this a blunder or a strategic move? Remember that Leica invented a unique autofocus technology and then promptly sold the patents to Minolta under the auspices that Leica’s customers “know how to focus.” This information noted, shrewd observers might begin to suspect that there was some level of mismanagement happening at one of the most storied brands in the camera industry. This evidence becomes especially damning when we recall that Minolta then developed and sold (lots and lots of) the first successful autofocus SLR, the Maxxum 7000.
Then again, none of this really matters today. Despite their lack of bells and whistles, many of Leica’s classic SLRs are among my favorite SLRs ever made. Each model iterated on its predecessors in subtle but important ways, and at times these steps were more like leaps. This is most evident in the changes that occurred when Leica partnered with Minolta between the release of the Leica-developed Leicaflex series and the Minolta-developed R series, and later when that partnership dissolved and Leica developed their final two SLRs.
Lastly, and this may not be obvious, Leica SLRs don’t use the same lenses as their rangefinder cameras. The SLR cameras use R mount lenses. Generally speaking they are exceptional, like their M mount counterparts in the rangefinder world. They render with the same famous “Leica look” (or whatever you want to call it) as do the lenses in the brand’s legendary M range.
All of that mentioned, let’s get to the specifics. Just as we did with our rangefinder buyer’s guide, we’ll list the common core functionality that photographers are often looking for, and then tell which of the many Leica SLRs offer this functionality. Choose what you need in a camera and we’ll tell you which to buy.
Do You Need Auto-Exposure?
If auto-exposure is the thing you most need in a camera, and there are plenty of shooters for whom this is the most important feature, Leica’s got you covered. They have a surprisingly vast number of SLR models with auto-exposure modes of varying sophistication, all within the R series of machines co-developed by Minolta and later solely developed by Leica in the instance of the R8 and R9. The company’s embrace of AE in their SLRs runs in stark contrast to the company’s rangefinder lineup, which didn’t offer an auto-exposure camera until 2002’s Leica M7 (we’re not counting the Minolta-developed and produced Minolta CLE of 1980).
The earliest auto-exposure capable Leica SLR is the Leica R3 of 1976. This camera was developed by Minolta and was heavily-based on Minolta’s XE (that Minolta was my first film camera, coincidentally). It offers aperture-priority auto-exposure, plus full manual mode. It is essentially a Minolta XE with a Leica-developed shutter and modifications to the metering system to allow user-selection between center-weighted metering and spot-metering. It also shares the Minolta XE’s somewhat earned reputation for electronic failure in the metering and exposure systems – and since this camera’s electronic shutter will not work without battery power, these electronic failures can end the camera’s career.
The Leica R4 is the successor to the R3, and is a more advanced (yet troubled) camera than its immediate predecessor. It offers shutter-priority, aperture-priority, full program, and full manual modes, with selective spot metering available in aperture-priority and manual modes. It’s a great camera, but is also plagued by electronic reliability issues, especially prevalent in models with serial numbers below 1,600,000. Search for one newer than these and it will work fine. A more reliable R4s was released a few years later, but this camera removes the shutter-priority and full program modes, making it less appealing. The R4 also only works when batteries are installed.
The Leica R5 continues to iterate on the R4 (they’re very nearly the same camera) but adds a greater shutter speed range (15s to 1/2000th compared with the earlier camera’s 1s to 1/1000th of a second). It’s an excellent camera that has had many of the earlier R4’s electronic faults sorted and fixed. Thus, it’s a more reliable machine and one that I’m personally happy to reach for anytime I want a Leica SLR that can shoot in aperture-priority, shutter-priority, full manual, or full program modes (proven when I reviewed it last year). There also exists an “economy” version of the R5 called the Leica R-E, which loses the R5’s shutter-priority and full program modes. Therefore the R-E is an R5 with only aperture-priority and full manual modes. Pricing is fairly identical today for either camera.
Skipping over the Leica R6, which dropped any and all auto-exposure modes, the next Leica SLR to offer AE is (predictably)1997’s Leica R7. This camera’s great selling point is that it was the first Leica SLR to offer fully automated through-the-lens flash control. If you’re a photographer who lives and dies by the flash, the R7 is the cheapest way to shoot a Leica SLR. It offers mirror lockup, which is good for eliminating camera shake during long exposures. The camera also features backlit information displays in the viewfinder for the first time in a Leica SLR. All of these additional gizmos demanded that the camera be larger and heavier than the R-series cameras that came before it, a minor liability.
The final two Leica SLRs are the Leica R8 and R9, and predictably each of these are the most advanced Leica SLRs ever produced. They both offer everything the modern SLR shooter would expect (except autofocus), incurring some features that even the best SLRs couldn’t match, such as the blisteringly fast maximum shutter speed of 1/8000th of a second. They’re included in this segment of the buyer’s guide for all these reasons, and because they naturally offer full PASM shooting modes. The big detraction (though in use it’s actually an asset) is their unusual shape and size. They are bulbous cameras with strange, seemingly non-ergonomic shapes. In actuality they are the easiest Leica SLRs to hold comfortably – you’ll just need to get over the reprehensible styling. Oh, and they can be had for around $400 today, which is amazing.
My recommendation for which Leica SLR to buy if you’re looking for auto-exposure modes is simple – buy the Leica R5. It’s the smallest and lightest Leica SLR to offer every shooting mode, and its classic shape and clean styling make it look and feel phenomenal. It can mate to the largest assortment of Leica R lenses (one cam, two cam, three cam, R only, and ROM lenses), and the electronic issues of earlier Leica R series cameras had, by the time of the R5’s release, been sorted.
Do You Need a Light Meter but Not Auto-Exposure?
Do you want a light meter but only ever shoot in full manual mode? Do you think auto-exposure modes are cheating? Leica’s got some cameras for you, and some of them are true classics. We’ll start with the oldest and work our way forward in time.
Before the partnership with Minolta that birthed the R series cameras, Leica had developed their own range of SLR cameras. These were called the Leicaflex cameras, and they are stunning (if decidedly more primitive) cameras.
The original Leicaflex camera was a masterpiece of mechanical design, though when it was released in 1964 it was already outmoded by many existing Japanese SLRs. Its viewfinder offered only a patch for focusing, rather than a fully-focusing screen. Its light meter was mounted on the prism, incapable of reading light through the lens. And it was more expensive than any of the more advanced competitors’ cameras. However, there are few other SLR cameras that I’ve used that provide a more satisfying shooting experience. The mirror assembly is a nearly shakeless, balanced mechanism that makes the most delightful noises at all shutter speeds. The ground-glass focusing screen, while limiting in the ways already mentioned, is bright and beautiful. The body is solid and all controls click with mechanical certainty. It is, in short, a stunning machine, and it’ll fire without batteries (these are used only to power the meter).
1968’s Leicaflex SL added through-the-lens metering to a Leica SLR for the first time, and added a true full-view focusing screen. These changes offered a big improvement over the earlier Leicaflex, while retaining the battery-less operability and the high quality mechanisms previously mentioned when discussing the original Leicaflex.
The Leicaflex SL2 was released in 1974. It was the third Leicaflex camera and offered minor but important improvements to the earlier Leicaflex SL. Chiefly these included a split-image focusing patch in the viewfinder, illumination of the viewfinder light meter readout, and an aperture window in the viewfinder to show the selected aperture. Importantly the light meter was more responsive than the one found in the original SL, and the mirror assembly was reformulated to allow fitment of three new wide-angle lenses. It is the rarest of the three Leicaflex cameras, and for this reason prices are slightly higher than the others. Watch out for de-silvering of the viewfinder. If possible, look through it before buying and watch for rainbow patterns or a dimmed VF. If the camera exhibits either of these symptoms, move along.
The Leica R6 and R6.2 were released in 1988 and 1992 respectively, and these cameras bucked the trend of incorporating auto-exposure into Leica’s R series cameras. The R6 and R6.2 (the R6.2 increased the original R6’s maximum shutter speed from 1/1000th of a second to 1/2000th) are fully manual cameras with a combination of average or spot light meter connected to an LED display in the viewfinder. In many ways it’s correct to call the R6 and R6.2 the Leica M6 of the SLR world, since they are so similar in methodology.
A major selling point for the R6 and R6.2, today, is their ability to shoot without battery power. The mechanical shutter does not require electricity to fire, only the light meter requires battery power. For this reason it is likely the best Leica SLR for people who detest batteries but want a relatively modern SLR. These two cameras are also the newest, smallest, and lightest cameras in the Leica SLR range that offer metering and can be operated without batteries.
My recommendation for which meter-equipped, all-mechanical, all-manual Leica SLR to buy is complicated – I have a recommendation if you’re a shooter, and one if you’re a collector. If you’re a shooter, the R6 is the best practical choice. It’s the smallest and lightest of the available machines in this segment. It can mate to the largest assortment of R mount lenses, and it’s lack of 1/2000th top shutter speed isn’t much of a liability compared to the Leicaflex series and the R6.2.
But if you’re a collector, or even a shooter who also recognizes that classic cameras are also rare objects to be collected, the Leicaflex SL2 50 Jahre Edition is the camera to buy. Released in 1975 to mark the 50th anniversary of Leica, this machine is simply gorgeous, capable, and rare enough to set it above less collectible models. Silly, but that’s the way it is.
Are you on a Tight Budget?
Obviously there will be plenty of buyers looking for the best deal on a Leica SLR. Happily these cameras are much more affordable than their Leica rangefinder counterparts, but they’re still not cheap.
The earlier Leicaflex cameras, the Leicaflex, SL, and SL2, command a premium due to their vintage and collectibility. The cheapest of these is often the original Leicaflex, but it’s also the least capable. Expect to pay anywhere from $200 to $300 for either the Leicaflex or the Leicaflex SL, depending on condition and your personal luck. The SL2 is slightly more money, around $400, typically.
Cheaper options exist in the R series cameras, and though it’s not always the case in the classic camera world, the pricing of these actually makes sense! The earliest Leica R series camera, the R3, is often the cheapest. As we look at newer and newer models with improved functionality and reliability, prices tend to increase. But it’s possible to find an R3 or R4 for under $150 if you’re a patient and shrewd shopper. Any R series camera scored for under $200 is a great deal, just make sure it’s working properly (buying from a reputable camera shop can help).
Unfortunately there’s no easy answer when it comes to “the cheapest Leica SLR” question. Do some searching, be patient, and you’ll find one in your budget. Just remember that Leitz Leica R mount lenses are expensive (but also remember that you don’t necessarily need a Leitz lens to make good photos, as shown in my R5 review, where I paired the R5 with a Tamron Adapt-All lens).
My Own Personal Choice
I’d know exactly what to say were you to stop me on the street and say, “James, tell me which Leica R mount camera I should buy.” First, I’d humbly thank you for reading my site. Next, I’d tell you that the best Leica SLR (as I said in my review) is the Leicaflex SL2, in black chrome, with a 21mm Super-Angulon attached. We’d chat a bit longer, you’d thank me for my time, internally comment on what a weirdo I am in real life, and move on with your day. But a few weeks later when shooting your own SL2, you’d possibly remember me and think, “Wow. That idiot sort of knows what he’s talking about.”
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