After being away from the film game for a few years, a friend of mine decided to buy himself a Leica M series film camera. When he saw the high prices that these cameras now command, he passed out and hit his head on his walnut desktop. From the hospital bed where he spent his concussed convalescence, he wrote me an email which echoed a common question – “Why are Leicas so expensive now, and where can I get one cheap?”
I wasn’t surprised to read this email (I receive similar messages weekly). People want cheap Leicas, even though Leica M film cameras cost more today than they have at any time since the “death of film.” Going back to as recently as 2014, when I launched Casual Photophile and opened my camera shop, prices for some Leica M models have tripled. Even the once-considered-lowly Leica M4-P and M4-2 each now cost over $1,000 on average (I used to buy these for $399). Twenty years ago, the Leica M6 was thought of as “the cheap Leica” and today it costs twice the price of an original M3 (a camera which is, according to the written gospel found in ancient Rockwellian tomes, “the world’s greatest 35mm camera”).
I don’t see the rise in price as a bad thing (and not because I sell cameras for a living). If we consider the trend objectively, it’s only natural that prices of film cameras should rise. Think about it from a distance and through the prism of other “unnecessary things on which people spend money.”
Prices are rising for specific and valid reasons. Especially in the cases of mechanical cameras, which most Leica Ms are, these cameras are (still) useful tools. They’re uncommonly well-made objects which have survived their original intended lifespan. They’re a finite resource, making them inherently collectible. Particular models and variants which were made in fewer quantities are even rarer, and are now bought specifically for their rarity. A new generation of photographer (buyer) has entered the market, and noticed the unique quality of these old cameras. Add to all of this that they’re simply beautiful objects that draw the eye and the hand – equal parts science, engineering, and art – and it’s easy to see why prices are up.
But just because they’re expensive, that doesn’t mean that they’re overpriced.
I’ve said this elsewhere – some popular professional camera likers see the rise in film camera prices and say that it’s all built on undeserved hype. I couldn’t disagree more. While extrinsic prices for certain poorly-made, unreliable, or otherwise undeserved film cameras are unjustly outstripping their intrinsic value (hello, Mju II), the prices of classic, collectible, or exceptional film cameras are not inflated artificially. On the other hand, prices for well-made, reliable, and capable old cameras are now exactly where they should have been all along. Leicas aren’t over-valued today – they were under-valued for two decades, and we got used to it. (The same can be said for other film cameras – the Nikon F3, Canon’s EOS 1, Hasselblads.)
While this meandering preamble around extrinsic versus intrinsic value and the free market as it pertains to sixty-year-old film cameras answers the first part of the two-part question first posed by my hospitalized friend’s email as it appears in the opening paragraph of this article – “Why are Leicas so expensive?” – it does little to answer the second part of that question. And this is the important one – “Where can I get one cheap?”
The answer is simple. You can’t. Leicas cost a lot and you ain’t getting one cheap. The days of finding an M6 for $300 are long gone and they’re not coming back.
Furthermore, complaining about the price of Leicas is like screaming at a rain cloud – you can do it, but buddy, you’re still gonna get wet. Here’s some good news; there are a lot of alternatives to the Leica M, and I’ve got ’em locked and loaded like glistening brass bullets in this magnum revolver hand cannon I call “my brain.” (On balance, I’ve also called my brain “a big bowl of tepid oatmeal.”)
Anyway. That’s enough of whatever that was – without any more of my nonsense, here are five (or six, or seven, I’ve not decided how many yet, and I’m not coming back to edit this sentence later) alternatives to the Leica M.
I’ll outline here the criteria which cameras must meet to find themselves upon this illustrious list of mine. For any camera to be included it must –
- Be all mechanical.
- Offer some degree of exposure control.
- Be capable of mounting lenses interchangeably.
- Be a rangefinder.
- Be a quality camera with great lenses.
- Be affordable in comparison to the premium-priced Leica M series (for me, that means that each camera must cost about half of what a Leica M costs).
Some of these selections were decided upon after conversation with my fellow CP writers. If comparing any one of these cameras to the hyperbolically lauded Leica M series offends you, be sure to histrionically yell/type at us in the comments.
Let the listicle begin.
Canon 7 and Canon 7s
Every time that a Canon rangefinder camera from the 1950s and 1960s comes through my shop, I’m stunned by the quality of the things. After seven years of this being my full time job, it shouldn’t surprise me anymore, but it still does. And the last time a Canon 7 came through, I was once again deeply struck. I echoed what Timothy Lebedin said in his article on the Canon 7 – “How the hell is this thing so cheap?”
The Canon 7 is a camera that perfectly meets all of the criteria which I mentioned for inclusion in this list. It is an all-mechanical, manually controlled, 35mm film rangefinder camera with a Leica Thread Mount lens mount, and (in a one-up on the pre-M5 Leicas) a built-in light meter. It’s a smooth shooting, high-quality, reliable and effective camera, and it can make beautiful images (again, see our writeup).
What’s most arresting about the Canon 7, however, is what I alluded to earlier – it is unbelievably inexpensive. You could buy ten Canon 7s for the price of one Leica M6. Astonishing. When buying a Canon 7, make sure it’s in good shape and sold guaranteed to work. If you buy the original 7, don’t expect the light meter to work or be accurate unless it’s stated to be so – Selenium meters fail over time.
The later models, known as the Canon 7s and Canon 7s Type II, swapped the Selenium meter for a CdS battery-powered meter. These meters are more likely to work today. This of course means that prices for the 7s are notably higher than for the original Canon 7. That said, a mint Canon 7s will still cost a quarter the price of most Leica Ms.
Nikon SP (Nikon S2 for Budget Buyers)
When I started my own business full-time and bought a house, I decided to treat myself to a “forever camera.” Wow, what self-indulgent nonsense. That self-deprecation out of the way, what camera did I choose? A Nikon SP 2005 Limited Edition. And while that specific camera is not the camera that I’m including on this list as a viable alternative to the Leica M (because the 2005 SP is too expensive to meet my criteria), I am including the original Nikon SP.
The Nikon SP of 1957 is the most advanced rangefinder camera that Nikon ever made, and in many ways it’s one of the greatest cameras of all time. It’s a relatively compact, all-mechanical, fully-manual 35mm film rangefinder camera with an incredible viewfinder, precise and luxurious build quality, and a full suite of astonishingly gorgeous Nikon lenses made to fit its S-mount lens mount.
This camera really is all about the lenses. The Nikkor 35mm F/1.8 is legendary. The 105mm F/2.5 was born on this system (and would later go on to be one of the most popular portrait lenses of the manual focus era). The classic 50mm F/1.4 renders stunning images for laughably little money.
And that last point – price – is a good one to mention. The Nikon SP can be bought with the Nikkor 50/1.4 for a few hundred dollars less than it costs to buy a body-only Leica M3. If you’re a budget buyer, get the Nikon S2. It does a lot of what the SP does, but cuts cost by having a much simpler viewfinder.
Konica Hexar RF
With the Konica Hexar RF, we’re sort of scratching at the ceiling of my criteria, for two reasons. First, the Hexar RF is pretty expensive, and again because it’s an electronically operated camera (rather than fully mechanical). But, it squeaks in just under the acceptable limit on price, and it finds its place here on the list because it’s a damned impressive camera in every way.
The Konica Hexar RF is a gorgeously-made 35mm film rangefinder camera that’s most directly comparable to Leica’s M7, Leica’s only M series camera with automated exposure modes (aperture priority). Konica’s camera offers the same aperture-priority mode, plus essentially everything else we get with the far pricier M7. It’s got manual exposure, manual focus, a big, bright viewfinder and excellent rangefinder, frame lines of the usual focal lengths from 28mm to 135mm, generous “outside the frame” viewfinder coverage (with .60x magnification), and a solidly built chassis with fine exterior details. It even uses the same mount (although Konica called theirs the “KM Mount” and never referred to Leica when discussing which lenses would work on the Hexar).
In typical Japanese manufacturer fashion, Konica even outdid Leica in a number of ways (sound familiar, Minolta CLE fans?). The Hexar RF is about the same size and weight as a Leica M3, and yet it manages to maintain these dimensions and heft while adding motorized film advance and rewind. And while some purists will sneer at motorized film and its reliance on batteries, I’m no such purist. I’m too old to be wasting my life rewinding film, and I just repaired a Pokémon Stadium 2 Nintendo 64 cartridge with nothing but a soldering iron and a piece of speaker wire. How hard can it be to repair a Hexar?
Voigltander Bessa R and Bessa R2
While the build quality of the Voigtlander Bessa R comes up short of Leica standards (the Bessa R uses polycarbonate plastic top and bottom plates), its excellence in all other areas lands it on this list. Introduced in the year 2000 by Cosina in Japan as part of the relaunch of the Voigtlander name, the Bessa R is a whole lot of rangefinder camera for very little money.
It’s a simple, all-mechanical, fully manual camera with through-the-lens metering, user-selectable frame lines (35/90mm, 50mm, 75mm), and the Leica Thread Mount capable of mounting any LTM lens.
The Voigtlander Bessa R2, released two years later in 2002, replaced the Bessa R’s Leica Thread Mount for the more modern Leica M mount, and swapped the plastic top and bottom plates for more robust magnesium alloy. For these reasons, the Bessa R2 is the more desirable model, however the price for the better machine will naturally be higher. Buyers can expect to pay about $499 for the Bessa R, while the R2 will cost closer to $800 (bodies only). Remember, these prices are still significantly less than a Leica.
Minolta 35 Model IIB
Probably the most unusual addition to this list, the Minolta 35 Model IIB is not a camera that many people know about, nor is it one that anyone would typically recommend as an alternative to the Leica M series.
The first Minolta 35 released way back in 1947. At that time it was among the best rangefinder cameras in the world, and in fact featured many advancements over contemporary Leica cameras. These include a combined rangefinder/viewfinder system, self-timer, an integrated film take-up spool and hinged film door which made loading a faster and easier process than with Leica’s machines.
The Minolta 35 Model IIB released in 1958, and is the best Minolta 35 variant ever made, with superior convenience features (such as a lever style film advance mechanism), as well as numerous technical improvements. These include a larger magnification viewfinder, full frame image area (all previous Minolta 35s shot slightly smaller than the 24×36 standard), and an improved effective rangefinder base of 32mm (admittedly sub-Leica standard).
The Minolta 35 Model IIB accepts all Leica Thread Mount lenses. But the real magic is when we use Minolta’s own “Super Rokkors,” a succinct lineup of incredible performing LTM lenses.
It’s not a common camera, so it may be a bit hard to find one. But if you can find a nice Model IIB (and there are always a few on eBay) you should buy it. There are few “sleepers” out there these days, cameras which are truly excellent but undiscovered. The Minolta 35 Model IIB may be one of those – it’s a compact, solid, and beautifully-built classic camera made of metal and glass, and today (with an amazing lens) it costs half as much as a Leica (body only).
Got a great rangefinder to compete with the Leicas that we left off this list? Let us and our readers know about it in the comments. You can see more affordable rangefinder cameras here and here, and some uncommon rangefinder cameras here! (Damn, we write a lot.)
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