Vintage Camera Review: Leica CL (Leitz Minolta CL, Minolta CLE)

Years ago, I owned a Leica CL when I was getting into photography. Trying to balance an understanding of both film and digital, I toted this around with my old school Olympus E-510 DSLR. They were perfect together for a college student. But then I needed money, and unfortunately had to sell my Leica. Very recently though, I took the plunge before my 30th birthday and bought myself another one. You see, the Leica CL is the same camera as the Minolta CLE and the Leitz Minolta CL.

Some consider it not a true Leica because it wasn’t made in Germany. Instead, the Leica CL was a collaboration between Minolta and Leica. It was a camera that sold very well and perhaps too well. In fact, it’s rumored that sales were so good that they discontinued the camera because it ate into the sales of the Leica M5.

A big thanks to the folks over at Lomography for processing this film. 

Real Leica or not, this is and always has been a fantastic camera. They’re sold pretty affordably on eBay and sometimes they tend to rise in price depending on when new products are announced. But if you’ve ever wanted to get into Leica cameras, then this and the Leica M2 have always been some of the best ways to start.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Small size
  • Great feeling in the hand
  • Fairly bright rangefinder
  • Bright viewfinder
  • Can be found fairly cheaply
  • Manual controls
  • Smooth operation

Cons

  • The light meter can be useless
  • The widest frame line is 40mm.

Gear Used

The Leica CL was tested with the Leica 40mm f2 lens: the Minolta version of it. Lomography X Pro Slide 200 film and a film that has been expired since 2008 were used. Yes, I know I’ve given myself a crazy disadvantage. But that’s part of the fun of this!

Tech Specs

There are loads of other websites out there that will do a better job with tech specs than I will. Here’s one.

Ergonomics

When you look at the Leica CL, you see just how small and beautiful a camera it still is. You see, back then cameras and products were made to last a lifetime. And this one surely will! I’ve covered up the logo and signage with black tape. But when you look at the front of the camera you’ll spot the lens release, the ISO/Shutter speed dial, the rangefinder, the viewfinder, and the area where the light gets soaked up for the rangefinder.

Scoot over to the top of the Leica CL and what you’ll find are the hot shoe, shutter release, film advance and the film counter. It’s a simple and beautiful camera–much simpler than today’s options!

Come to the back of the camera and you’ll spot pretty much nothing. Considering that the ISO dial is on the front, you won’t see it here. But you’ll find the viewfinder. Because this is a rectangle viewfinder, you’ll be very hard pressed to find diopter adjustment glass.

Move to the bottom of the camera and what you’ll find here are the film rewind release, the film rewind lever, the bottom plate release, and another switch that can be turned and has to do with the meter.

When you unscrew the bottom, you’ll get to take the back and bottom off. This is basically how you go about loading the film.

Build Quality

This camera is built like a tank and as good as most other Leica cameras I’ve used. Some people don’t like the shutter dial but I do. Since I never keep a battery in mine either I don’t mind taking it out into the rain, which I’ve done only once. Granted, this camera and lens aren’t weather sealed.

Ease of Use

The ease of use really has to do with two big things: whether you want to use the meter or not and if you know how to use a rangefinder. This isn’t a camera for beginners, but if you’ve got experience then I’ll recommend staying with it for a while. If you’re going to use the light meter then know that it’s essentially spot metering. And if you’re going to use the rangefinder, then just be careful that you don’t block the light going into it.

You’re best off using this camera with both Sunny 16 and zone focusing in mind.

Metering

The Leica CL has a spot meter for the center of the scene or essentially what’s directly in front of the center of the lens. In my opinion, it’s useless. If you just learn Sunny 16 instead, you’ll get better shots.

Focusing

Focusing with this lens and camera combination is great in good lighting. The thing about rangefinders is that they’re only as good to focus with as the light that they’re typically around. If you’re in the dark or there isn’t a whole lot of light coming into the rangefinder, you’ll be harder pressed to focus.

Zone focusing works just fine though. Generally speaking, that’s my favorite way to use this camera.

Image Quality

As with all film cameras, the image quality really has to do with the lens you’re working with and the film type. In this case, the film is expired and the Lomography X Pro film is designed to be cross processed despite that moniker these days meaning something else totally. But if you’ve got “proper film” then the image quality is only as good as you are as a photographer. Portra will look like Portra for example.

Conclusions

These vintage film camera reviews are very fun for me to write. I have enjoyed and still am enjoying using the Leica CL. It’s a fantastic camera and will perform well no matter what lens you put on it, providing you’re aware of the framing. Overall, it’s still one of my favorite Leica cameras and I am really glad it’s back in my possession.

We’re going to be reviewing more film emulsions using this camera. So stay tuned!