Leica M-mount rangefinder film cameras have always held a special place in photo history. For one, because it was Leica who started the 35mm film revolution. Then, because the M3, the first M-mount rangefinder camera that Leica made, started a series of incredibly popular photographic tools used by countless professionals and amateurs alike for decades. And finally, because Leica-made M-mount lenses can be considered to be some of, if not the best lenses there are for 35mm film cameras. In this article, we take a look at what we deem the five greatest M-mount film cameras that were ever made. Not necessarily all by Leica, though.
Leica M2 (1957-1968)
Yes, you read that right. We’re starting this list with the Leica M2, and not with the Leica M3. While I am sure that many die-hard fanboys will feel deeply insulted now, there’s a simple reason for this. While the M3 was indeed the camera that started the M-series and is by many considered to be the best camera to use with 50mm lenses (due to its high magnification viewfinder), the M2 has one clear advantage: framelines for 35mm lenses. These weren’t so popular yet when the M3 came out, which is why Leica opted for 50-90-135mm framelines in the M3.
The viewfinder of the Leica M2 was the first to feature the 0.72x magnification ratio and the 35-50-90mm frameline set which became the standard for all later M-mount models. What makes the M2 especially awesome is the fact that the viewfinder is large, bright, and uncluttered, as for each focal length only one frameline is shown at a time, unlike the later models that show framelines pairs for two focal lengths at a time.
As with all Leica cameras, the M2 is a machine that was built to last. Even today where it’s well over fifty years old, a well-serviced M2 is still a joy to use. And it since it’s all-mechanical, it can be (relatively) easily repaired. On top of all that, you can find a perfectly fine M2 for a perfectly reasonable price, so it’s also the ideal all-manual meterless M-mount Leica unless you absolutely need 28mm framelines. Which takes us to the next camera.
Minolta CLE (1980-1984)
The Minolta CLE was an evolution of the Leica CL, a small entry-level M-mount rangefinder that Leica developed and sold jointly with Minolta. Also known as the Leitz Minolta CL, the camera was first introduced in 1973 and featured framelines for 40mm, 50mm, and 90mm lenses. It was sold in kits with the still highly esteemed 40mm Summicron-C f2 lens (branded 40mm Rokkor for the Minolta version) and the 90mm Elmar-C f4 lens. The original Leica CL was so popular that it compromised sales of the Leica M5, which is why the production was eventually halted.
Minolta, however, decided to take things one step further, and improved the CL in almost every way possible, which yielded the Minolta CLE in 1980. Now sporting framelines for 28-40-90mm lenses and a lower magnification viewfinder, the Minolta CLE was one of the most advanced M-mount cameras of all time, featuring a highly elaborated metering system that actually metered off the film during exposure, as well as an aperture-priority auto-exposure mode–something that Leica only introduced with the M7 in 2002. The Minolta CLE, together with the Leica CL, is also the smallest M-mount camera ever made.
Besides all this awesomeness, it has one huge letdown, though: because of its unconventional 28-40-90mm frameline set, the CLE is virtually incompatible with standard M-mount lenses, unless you like to guess during framing. Putting a standard M-mount 28mm lens on the CLE will actually activate the 90mm frameline, and putting the 28mm f2.8 Rokkor that came with the CLE on a standard M-mount camera will activate its 35mm framelines. So in that regard, the CLE only really works with the lenses that were made specifically for it.
Konica Hexar RF (1999-2003)
When the Konica Hexar RF was first released in 1999, it was the most advanced of all M-mount cameras, even though its exposure metering system was nowhere as elaborate as that of the Minolta CLE that came almost twenty years before it. However, the Hexar RF managed to significantly up the ante over all previously released M-mount cameras, especially those made by Leica, by including several technologies that had long been the standard for SLRs, but mostly neglected in the rangefinder world.
The Hexar RF is to this date the only M-mount rangefinder camera that sports an automated film advance and rewind, besides add-ons that are available for other models. The Hexar RF also has the fastest shutter of all M-mount rangefinder film cameras, maxing out at a whopping 1/4000 sec. In addition, it features an AE lock position on the shutter speed dial, a metered manual shutter mode besides the auto-exposure mode, DX code reading (first introduced by Leica with the M7 in 2002), and as another unique feature among M-mount film rangefinders, an LCD panel that shows the battery status as well as the frame counter.
The viewfinder of the Hexar RF sports the same 28-35-50-75-90-135mm frameline set as those of all Leicas from the M4-P onwards, and with a magnification of 0.6x is better suited at the use with 28mm lenses than Leica’s standard 0.72x magnification viewfinder (though Leica has been offering an 0.58x magnification option for some models.) One big letdown with the Hexar RF is that–according to some reports–it is not 100% compatible with all M-mount lenses, due to slight differences between Konica’s and Leica’s bayonet mounts. So the Hexar RF is best used with the accompanying Konica KM lenses.
Leica MP (2003-Present)
The Leica MP is the pinnacle of Leica rangefinder film cameras. Not because it’s so technically advanced, but rather because it isn’t. It’s an all-manual camera that combines the best of all of Leica’s previous models in one: the highly accurate and virtually silent cloth shutter that made the Leica M so famous as a reporter’s camera, the large and bright viewfinder with precise rangefinder focusing, virtually the same unobtrusive body styling as the Leica M2, the 28-35-50-75-90-135mm frameline set that was introduced with the Leica M4-P, and finally the center-weighted meter of the Leica M6–the only part in the MP that requires a battery.
Add to that the fact that the MP is pretty much built like a tank, and you’ve got a camera that will accompany you anywhere, and that won’t stop working whether you travel to the arctic or to the desert. Which is why it’s preferred by many over the technically more advanced M7 with its battery-dependent exposure system.
Zeiss Ikon ZM (2006-2012)
The Zeiss Ikon ZM carries the honorable name of a line of German-made 35mm cameras of the days past, yet it was made in Japan by Cosina under license from Zeiss. That doesn’t make it any less of a high-quality product, though. In fact, the Zeiss Ikon has a number of features that make it the better choice over a Leica for some. For one, there’s the auto-exposure mode with a fast 1/2000 sec. shutter (Leica cloth shutters traditionally only go as fast as 1/1000 sec.) Then, there’s the combined shutter speed/exposure compensation/ISO speed dial which is very convenient.
But most of all, what makes the Zeiss Ikon ZM stand out is its incredibly huge and bright viewfinder. If you thought the viewfinder of a Leica M is like a window into the world, try that of a Zeiss Ikon ZM, and the Leica viewfinder will seem like a tiny peephole. It seriously is that huge. On the downside, it lacks framelines for 75mm and 90mm lenses and instead adds 85mm framelines to match Zeiss’ 85mm M-Mount lenses. Speaking of which: the Zeiss Ikon ZM was built specifically for the amazing Zeiss ZM lenses, which can rival those from Leica in almost every aspect, besides being a lot more affordable.
Honorable Mention: Voigtländer Bessa R-Series (2004-Present)
Finally, a series of M-mount rangefinder film cameras that didn’t make it into this list, but that deserve an honorable mention: the Voigtländer Bessa R-series. Like the Zeiss Ikon ZM, these are made by Cosina in Japan. But unlike the Ikon, the Bessas are not meant to be a top-of-the-line product, but rather entry-level choices that enable those on a budget to get into the world of M-mount cameras. But despite their position at the lower end of the market, they’re still very high-quality products.
What makes the Bessa R-series stand apart from all other current M-mount cameras is that they come in a number of different flavors to choose from. For one, they’re available either as all-manual models (unfortunately now discontinued but with stocks remaining), or as auto-exposure versions. Secondly, there are three different models with three different viewfinder magnifications and different sets of framelines:
- the Bessa R2A/M sports an 0.7x magnification viewfinder with 35-50-75-90mm framelines,
- the Bessa R3A/M sports a 1x magnification viewfinder with 40-50-75-90mm framelines, and
- the Bessa R4A/M–unique in the world of M-mount cameras–sports an 0.52x magnification viewfinder designed specifically for the use with wide-angle lenses, showing 21-25-28-35-50mm framelines.
Just like the Zeiss Ikon ZM was designed to be used with the Zeiss ZM lenses, the Bessa series of cameras was designed to be used with the Cosina-made Voigtländer VM lenses.
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