Taking a photo with a Leica seems to be some sort of ritual. The moment you buy a Leica camera you join a cult for which Henri Cartier Bresson is the spiritual leader and the red dot serves as the universal symbol of affiliation. Though all Leica cameras grant access to the cult, the Leica M6 is popularly considered the holy grail.
The M6 has such a glorious reputation that the thought of writing about it seems to demean it. “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image” and neither should you judge the supposed pinnacle of German engineering. But occasionally the untouchable has to be examined, without silk gloves.
In 1984 when the M6 was first introduced, it was especially popular amongst photojournalists and street photographers. Its compact design and the sturdy magnesium alloy body made it a discreet companion for tough environments. It eventually became the longest-produced Leica rangefinder.
In 1998 when the original M6 was discontinued, the Leica M6 TTL stepped in for another four years without introducing major aesthetic changes besides a bigger shutter dial. And still to this day the M6 influences the appearance of Leica’s M-mount rangefinders – even the digital ones.
The Leica M6 is a fully mechanical masterpiece allowing the user to shoot at any shutter speed from 1/1000 of a second to one second, or bulb mode, all without batteries. The two LR44 batteries hidden beneath a circular cap on the camera’s front are only there to power the internal light meter.
The camera has some weight to it. 560 grams does not sound like a lot, but considering the body’s size it does become a pretty hefty tool to carry around your neck all day. Though the internal mechanisms weren’t as robust as earlier Leicas, nor hand-assembled in the old method, my years shooting the Leica M6 have always felt confident.
Aesthetically it’s gorgeous, the classic Leica design. Ergonomically it’s similarly classic – in ways both good and bad. Holding it in one hand is not all that easy, because we are missing any sort of grip to hold on to. But since the M6 is so coveted, maybe gripping it with all of your fingers is not that bad of an idea. After all, that big red dot is especially visible on the Leica M6 (all previous models where a bit more discreet about their heritage).
As with most cameras, the top plate of the Leica M6 is where we find most of its controls. The shutter button sits in the middle of the advance lever and allows us to screw in any regular shutter cable release. The film counter lies right next to it and is very clear and easy to read. Once we’ve finished the roll, flipping up a small lever that sits right beneath the bold “LEICA M6” engraving on the front allows us to rewind film using the lever situated at a slight angle on the left of the top plate. This mechanism was first introduced on the Leica M4 and accelerated the rewinding process over the previous M2 and M3. The film counter will reset itself once we unload the film through the bottom plate. Unloading an M6 is easy. Loading, on the other hand, will be foreign to some.
To an SLR shooter, the loading process on a Leica camera can appear a bit cumbersome. You first need to remove the bottom plate by rotating a knob on the opposite end of the tripod mount. Then, once you have removed the entire plate the film strip needs to be expanded to reach the second spool on the opposite side. Unexperienced users will usually waste one or two shots per roll by making sure the spool really catches onto the strip before reattaching the bottom plate. Otherwise you risk getting to 37, 38 and 39 shots on the film counter before realizing the 36 moments you had tried to capture previously are really nothing more but a fading memory. From my own experience I would go as far as to classify this incident as a traumatic event.
Leicas have been loaded this way since the M4 came out in 1967, but I would argue the previous models’ loading mechanism was actually smoother. Though you had to insert the film leader into a separate spool which slowed down the process, chances of not exposing a film at all were very low. So while Leica’s “bottom loading” is not especially convenient, the process has sure been improved over the years – at least concerning speed.
A less debatable “downgrade” from predecessors is the M6’s ISO dial on the back. While older Leicas like the M3 and M4 were equipped with a beautiful metal plate, newer cameras have a much simpler, plastic dial. Though the M6’s ISO dial – which is coupled with the internal light meter – goes all the way up to 6400, there is something about the little sun and light bulb painting on the back of older models that really conveys the brand’s attention to details. The functionality may have increased (those earlier Leicas with their beautiful ISO dials had no light meter), but the camera back has lost some of its charm.
Talking about purpose: there is no wheel for exposure compensation on any film Leica rangefinder. Therefore pushing or pulling your film requires you to set a lower or higher ISO respectively on this dial instead. The decision to leave out any additional buttons and levers is what makes this camera so simple and reliable.
Looking at the very few changes Leica has made to its cameras since the M6 came out, it seems that Germans feel they’ve found the quintessential formula for rangefinders. The original M6 came in two colors, black and silver. Both were available with three different finders that featured different magnifications and frame lines. Then came the M6 TTL that allowed for through-the-lens flash synchronization, and Leica also introduced countless limited edition specials of this camera to commemorate many things – the discovery of America, the Danish Royal Wedding, or the turn of the millennium, just to name a few.
But the differences in these special editions are pretty frivolous (except to fat-pursed collectors). The changes concerning the finder magnification are probably the most important ones to keep in mind, since they influence the combination of frame lines which the camera displays, which models are best for which lenses, and which are best for certain types of photography.
It is important to note that most of the Leica M6 viewfinders indicate two frame lines simultaneously. If you were to buy an M6 with a 0.72x magnification finder, which is the most common one, shows the following frame line combination: either the 28 and 90mm, 35 and 135mm, or 50 and 75mm focal length frame lines in pairs. With the 0.85x magnification the 28mm focal length cannot be previewed through the finder. On this model the frame line combinations are as follows: 35 and 135mm, 50 and 75mm, plus the 90mm frame line displayed on its own. Last but not least, the 0.58x magnification finder displays the frame line combinations 28 and 90mm, 50 and 75mm, and the 35mm frame line on its own.
There are a lot of numbers that can to be looked at when buying an M6. Real Leica aficionados will consider the serial number on the top plate, look for special editions produced in limited quantities, or find out which viewfinder is the rarest one just to up the value of their newly acquired treasure. But luckily for less particular shoppers, any Leica M6 is a solid choice that will always deliver on the great user experience that makes Leica cameras so unique.
Buying a Leica is always an investment, not just because of the price tag or the cult you get to be a part of. A well cared for Leica M6 is simply a reliable tool. It is a camera that does not get in the way of your photographic journey. It can even fit into your pockets. This camera does not try to be great, it simply is. And the engineers at Leica worked hard for it.
If you compare the M6 to its predecessors there are countless ways in which it’s been improved. Though the Leica M5 has its own appeal, back when it was first introduced the general response was quite bad. Leica therefore really had to earn back its reputation after the misstep. Perhaps for this reason, the Leica M6 is humble, and maybe that is why it’s such a good Leica to own. It does feature the red dot more prominantly than the M3, M4 or M5 but not out of pride or pretentiousness. The red dot is a burden. It raises expectations, and the M6 manages to meet those expectations. It convinces professionals, enchants amateurs and leaves a lasting impression on everyone in between.
Maybe writing about the Leica M6 wasn’t that dangerous after all, even without my silk gloves on. If there’s one takeaway from this review, it might be that trying to temper my everlasting euphoria for Leicas is simply impossible. Maybe because they are just too good.
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