Simple But Sophisticated – the Leica M6

Simple But Sophisticated – the Leica M6

2000 1125 Dario Veréb

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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Dario Veréb

Dario Veréb

Dario Veréb is a photographer and journalist from Zurich, Switzerland. After having shot extensively with an Olympus Mju II Zoom 80 in his childhood he rediscovered his love for film photography when he stumbled across an Olympus OM-1 in his hometown. He has not found a cure for his GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) since and is often found roaming flea markets and thrift stores in search of cheap point and shoots and all things Japanese.

All stories by:Dario Veréb
18 comments
  • I am glad that I bought my Leicas a few years ago before the prices increased (about doubled) these past five or so years.

    I have a M3/4/6 and I have to say the 3 and 4 are my favorite. After about three years of living in southern Japan my M6 frame lines started to stick and it was time for a CLA. Might as well get a MP finder upgrade while I am at it.

    Sent the camera to Sherry Krauter who performed the service. I received the camera back the week I was taking a trip to Hong Kong.

    When I was developing the negatives from the trip I found that a light leak now existed in the camera, which ruined a few negatives that would have turned out quite nicely. A google search found that this had happened to someone else who did the upgrade (but not sure who performed that).

    I sent the camera back and the fix was to put two strips of foam on the backplate where the door closes. The adhesive sticks to the door and just makes the camera feel unrefined. Also when I got the camera back from the second fix it no longer focused down to 0.7m. She had me fix this by slightly bending the cam that the rangefinder roller cam is attached too. But now the camera doesn’t accurately focus at distance of about 30’ and farther – an issue with a 75mm, 90mm and 135mm lenses.

    So robust?… Kind of. Like any mechanical object it is prone to failure eventually. Now the camera mostly sits in my dry cabinet until I decide to send it on to YYe or DAG for a fix.

    • Dear Zach
      Thanks for reading my article! You are obviously right. Anything mechanical can break. But I personally think Leica cameras set a very high standard which is why I would still argue the M6 is very durable. I therefore hope you will give it another chance and any issues you have encountered in the past will never occur again. 🙂

    • I had a bad experience from YYE recently to fix a light leak on my m4-2. I was very disappointed in the whole experience as well. I bought the camera in 2016 and had it serviced by YYE because the viewfinder had fog. I got the camera back and it had a light leak. It would only do it every so often but it was bad enough that I used the camera less and used my m3 more. I decided to send the camera off to yye again in the spring in March of this year to fix the light leak and a frame line issue were the preview lever and lens mounting would not show the correct frame lines. I did not see the camera again until august. YYE had lost the at their facility. they said it never showed up and after showing them the tracking numbers they said it did not have the return adress on the box (was BS he sent the box back with the camera and it had it on the original label.) Eventually they “repaired” the camera and I got it back. When it was all said and done and the light leak was fixed but the camera I got back still had issues. When it was all said and done and hundreds of dollars later the frame lines were slightly off. I really liked the communication from YYE initially. but I felt it turned nasty when the camera was lost. the whole It made me so uncomfortable. Nedless to say I might be using DAG in the future. your experience reminded me of mine.

    • Zach, sorry to read about your issues. But they resulted from the tech you used, not the camera. I had to have DAG fix stuff that went wrong after that tech serviced my Leica. Bending the cam is a crazy thing to do on a camera that used to focus correctly before that tech got hold of it.

  • I suppose we are living in a post truth world, but I believe the M6 only came with the 0.72 viewfinder. It was the TTL version that offered the 3 different viewfinder magnifications.

  • I have a mint M4-P that I have had for 15 years. Even though i don’t shoot film much these days, I will never let this camera go. The M4-P is one of Leica’s “apex” M cameras (in my view). It is sturdy and to hell and back reliable. For me, my M4-P is a reminder of the golden era of Leica M film photography and it is a constant reminder to never lose sight of where we all came from as photographers.

    • Dear Allan
      Thank you for your comment on my article. I am happy to hear firsthand that other cameras stemming from the M-series are just as good as the M6 and obviously I am not too surprised either. As I said, Leica cameras in general just offer the user something special. Glad you found your “holy grail”.

  • Great article! I enjoy reading other peoples perspectives on the M6. I have a M6ttl with the .85 finder. I use mostly 50mm and my 90mm summicron with my m6. I also use a leicavit m on it. sometimes I put my 28mm finder on it sometimes and use my 28mm Ricoh lens on it. I will say the M6ttl is a wonderful camera. I purchased it recently and i am still unsure if I like the camera or if I like my old M4 and m3 much better. I like that it has the 75mm frame lines and have been thinking of purchasing a 75mm lens. But I thought the light meter would be more like the meter in my Nikon fm2 and In many ways it is. Some how the meter does not seem as intuitive as the fm2 meter though. leica m6ttl .85 cameras seem to sell for around 3000$ now. I am unsure its worth having over even a nikon FM2. Hell I am even unsure the leica m6 is better to have than just using one of those leica mr4 meters on an unmetered body. Yes the m6 is much better made than the fm2 and the m6 is a dream camera. but I have never had an Fm2 fail. my biggest struggle is I bought the m6ttl to fufil an itch to have a metered leica, but I own an m4 and m3. For me the m6 has been getting harder and harder to justify owning. Lately my eyes have been falling upon a nikon sp with a 35mm f1.8 or maybe a nice vintage leica summilux 35mm. I recently decided to leave the camera home on a kayak trip. mostly because I was worried about it getting damaged. that being said I really enjoyed using the nikon f2 fm2 combo I had with me. I know it sounds snobby to be nitpick about the m6 but if I am going to own somthing so valuable I gotta really mesh with it. its gotta be THE camera I own. Hummmm who knows what I will do with my m6ttl.

  • I hate to be critical about this article but I think that it paints a little too rosy a picture.
    First off, I am not a Leica hater, I shoot with a bunch of Ms but I feel that camera reviews need balance.

    “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.”

    This statement applies to pretty much any camera of the era. Nikon F, F2, Pentax MX, K1000, Nikon FM, Nikkormats, Minolta SRTs etc etc. Some of which can now be had for $40 and up.

    🙂

    The M6 has serious issues with RF flare. This also was prevalent in the later M4-2, M4-P, M6TTL and early M7s. In many lighting scenarios the RF patch just flares out making focus impossible unless you move the camera slightly and/or reposition your eye in the VF. This was because Leica removed a condenser in the RF mechanism that was present in the M3/4/5, came back with the MP and later M7s (after serial #3xxx). The MA always had the condenser. This was a cost cutting move, that could be retrofitted later.
    The M6’s top plate is made out of zinc, not brass, and with some cameras they were afflicted by ‘zinc bubbles’ which while was purely cosmetic, spoiled the finish.
    The M6’s meter readout was just 2 arrows pointing together. Both illuminated meant correct exposure. The M6TTL improved on that by adding a dot between them, when that dot illuminated the exposure was correct. Purely manual exposure cameras like the Pentax MX, Nikon FM, Nikon F2 show far more information in the VF.

    Shooting with a Leica M is a fantastic experience, and I prefer using them than my SLRs. But I think it helps to provide the full story of the experience for any potential owners before they drop the $2000+ currently needed to get one.

    Kind regards
    Huss

    • Dear Huss
      I am thankful for any feedback on my articles and yours is especially detailed. I appreciate it. There are many other cameras that work without batteries. I did not say the M6 was the only one. I just thought it would be worth mentioning since the M6 does have a light meter which could lead people to think the camera needed batteries to function.
      I know the M6’s rangefinder is not the easiest to read but I believe it does hold up under any circumstances. Maybe the comparison to other Leica viewfinders is something I could have included but I simply chose not to. As I stated in the end, this article was meant to halt the euphoria inside of me. Maybe, I just could not. 😉
      As for the light meter I guess I just prefer simplistic approaches. I mainly use Sunny 16 to work out my exposures and the arrows offer me a great way to check my estimates without making the experience too technical. That is an issue I always face when shooting digital.
      Thanks again Huss and please do not hesitate to let us in on your knowledge in future articles!
      Have a great one
      Dario

  • Hi, great article about a great camera. I own both the M6TTL and the M3. The M3 just works. It is in need of some work on the RF window with some balsam separation but other than that is has been reliable for many years. I got the M6 largely for the 35mm frameline. And for metering in a pinch. For the M3 I use the very good Voitgtlander VC meter. With the M6 my issues have been as follows: The winding lever is (for me and larger hands) very flimsy and fidgety. Mine wore out probably from my troubles with it. I am probably an outlier, but I like the spool wind on system in the M3 much better than the split spool system in the M6. I brought THE M6 to Youxin Ye for replacement along with a full CLA. I had the pleasure of sitting with Youxin while he performed the CLA – his home is about 45 minutes from mine. It was amazing to see him dismantle the camera. I had lunch with him and his wife, and we talked Leica all day. It was a great day. If there is interest, pictures from my day with Youxin are in a post on my blog. It is my most viewed blog post, getting at least 3 – 4 views per day – my blog is otherwise not often viewed. While performing the CLA Youxin replaced the RF with one less prone to flare, and the change worked. The camera worked fine for about 6 months after which the meter stopped working. I contacted Youxin and he could not address this since he does not perform “electrical” repairs. I sent the camera to DAG camera and it was promptly repaired and returned. DAG replaced the main meter/shutter contact assembly that according to him is very common in the M6-TTL. I am sure that for a good amount of time, given the camera has been restored, I will have many years of trouble free performance. The repairs (including the elective full CLA and RF replacement) all told ran about $1,000. DAG’s cost component was about $250. I did get a good deal on the camera with a Zeiss 35mm lens attached, but obviously this was a bad investment dollar wise. This the risk of owning film cameras, especially expensive ones. In considering whether to invest the money, my decision came down to owning a premium camera and wanting it to work right. I don’t regret shelling out the dollars. With the $1,000 I could have purchased an FM3a and stellar 50mm 1.4 kit and had money to spare. In the end, I like owning and shooting Leicas and I like all of my cameras to work as intended. I like the simplicity of the rangefinder experience, the compact kit size, the stealthiness, the ease of use once rangefinder employment is mastered, and I am a sucker for historical cameras of which the M6 is definitely one. Given the choice between a fully functioning M3 and an M6, I would choose the M3 all day long just for it being more robustly built and its enhanced simplicity. For 35mm on the M3, I just shoot to the limits of the viewfinder and the framing is close enough. Leica users are passionate souls so I hope I don’t ignite a war of words here! Thanks again for the article, including the beautiful images of this stellar camera.

    • Dear Louis
      I just checked your blog and let me tell you: I am jealous! You perfectly described the magic of Leica cameras in your comment and I will therefore definitely remember your blog and check on it from time to time. All the best to you and your M6. And if it decides to break, well, you are in good hands!
      All the best
      Dario

  • The one camera I will always regret selling.

  • This is a great camera, certainly one of best Leica M. Great review : Bravo !
    By the way, I prefer the M3, and this is the M3 I use the most, because bright and totally simple : pure

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Dario Veréb

Dario Veréb

Dario Veréb is a photographer and journalist from Zurich, Switzerland. After having shot extensively with an Olympus Mju II Zoom 80 in his childhood he rediscovered his love for film photography when he stumbled across an Olympus OM-1 in his hometown. He has not found a cure for his GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) since and is often found roaming flea markets and thrift stores in search of cheap point and shoots and all things Japanese.

All stories by:Dario Veréb