Something happened in world of photography during the last couple of weeks, that I confess to being very confused about. Legendary camera manufacturer Leica announced a new camera in their iconic M series and, unsurprisingly, the buzz around it has been incredible. The Cult of Leica has been around for decades, with some of the most influential photographers of the 20th Century using them because, well they were the best available. These days there are many, more capable camera systems available from the other manufactures, that makes the brand less appealing to the jobbing professional; however, the cult remains. Leica cameras are still made to the highest quality standards, have superb lenses and the price tag to go with them, but they also have a substantial fanbase, which includes yours truly. In their line-up, the M is the one that most captivates us fanboys. When the first M3 camera came out in 1954, it was a lesson in great ergonomic design, something that was lacking in Model III that preceded it. Although great cameras in their own right, the III’s were complicated and a bit fiddly to use. They prioritised precision and accuracy over usability, where the new M3 was all about the latter. Everything on the new camera was within easy reach, the coupled rangefinder was now viewed through a single viewfinder window and anything that didn’t need to be there was left out. The experience was one of spending more time looking at your subject, and less time fiddling with the controls. I have two Ms in my collection, one of which is a 1957 M3; it remains one of my favourite cameras to use because it feels some simple. Over the years, the M design was updated and naturally became digital in the early part of this century, the current model (at least until very recently) being the M11. When the announcement of a new camera came, it was a surprise to learn that it wasn’t for an M12. Leica had decided to resurrect perhaps the most popular and revered M of them all, the M6.
The most famous of them all. Still a favourite of street photographers and cool people the world over
Wait, what? Bringing back a 35mm film camera in 2022? That cannot be right. The other M that I have is an M6 from the 1980s and I completely understand the reputation it has. Apart from some technical and manufacturing differences, the biggest improvement was that M6 had a light meter, which the M3 didn’t. Now the photographer didn’t need to be a genius at calculating exposure in their head, or carry an external meter, like they did in the 1950s In addition to the meter, the camera was a significant update to the earlier models in that it was manufactured from cast zinc instead of machined brass so was lighter, and had a more convenient film transport that simplified the act of loading the film. Size and weight continued to be a key requirement for Leica as they moved into the digital age. Rangefinders have no mirror box like SLR/DSLR cameras, and in the case of the M, the shutters were made of rubberised cloth which made them both lighter and quieter than their metal counterparts. The task of improving the M series over the years, while maintaining what made the design special was, I imagine, akin to what a Formula 1 team might go through to increase performance of their car. I was still totally confused. As good as I think it is, I still couldn’t understand why Leica was choosing to bring it back. All of that technological advancement just to go back to a design from 1984? I started to look at the press coverage around the new camera and, sure enough the design is pretty much the same as the original model. Some improvements in the anti-reflective coatings in the rangefinder optics, an improved ISO selector and new leatherette on the camera’s body, didn’t sound that innovative to me.
I thought about other possible reasons, beyond nostalgia or to be popular with hipsters, for Leica to deviate from its digital path, and some things started to occur to me. Firstly, it’s very easy in the modern age to jump to conclusions about technology, because of the pace of its evolution. When new tech takes over from old, we immediately assume that the latter becomes obsolete. It doesn’t occur to us that there are people who still use it. Take the so-called ‘vinyl revival’ for example. There are people who never stopped listening to music this way, and while they were not carried along by the age of the compact disc as the rest of us, they have continued to enjoy that unique listening experience. I was one of the crowd who couldn’t wait to get rid of the crackly, fragile plastic in favour of a system where I could easily cue a track, and even shuffle them if I wanted to. I was too young to care about the sound quality of vinyl compared to CDs; I just wanted convenience. When I bought my first digital camera in 2001, I had the same feeling of Thank God I don’t have to buy and process film anymore. There were people who didn’t jump to the new technology, which I was already aware of, given that I also have a Nikon F6 the collection; a digital camera manufactured for professionals right up until 2018! Like vinyl before it, there has been a renaissance for this film technology that isn’t perfect, but whose imperfections lend themselves to a different creative experience. Film is still expanding in its appeal, particularly with young people, who never previously had that experience of handling something physical that they made.
The second thing that occurred to me was that some design ideas have an importance that isn’t measured on a technical drawing or in a spreadsheet. For example, the original M3 had a brass top and bottom plate, which somehow made handling the camera a pleasurable experience. By the time the M6 came along, this process was replaced by cast zinc for weight and presumably cost reasons. As a consequence, for all its strengths, the M6 doesn’t have that same tactile feel to it. The new M6 returns to the original brass manufacture, with Leica finding alternative ways to keep the weight down. Perhaps then, intangible things that make a design work are as important as the tangible technological advances. Many companies revisit their successful products and try to capture the essence of what made them special. Lamborghini has recently produced a new Countach to celebrate its 50th anniversary, the car bearing only an aesthetic resemblance to the original. Polaroid has re-invented its popular line of instant cameras, but with Bluetooth connectivity. What Leica has done, is to restart the production of a previous product, with the kinds of minor tweaks that leave us with a camera sharing more than mere DNA. They are, in essence the same camera. It was when considering this last point, that I realised something that increases my fanboy-ism considerably. My M6 is one of 175,000 units produced between 1984 and 2002, and its build quality means that many of them are still available to buy used. The prices of these cameras have been increasing steadily over the few years that I’ve owned mine, with a similar vintage costing over 50% more than I paid at the time. While owning the original is more cost effective than the new one (around $5k), getting the parts and having them serviced has been looking like a potential issue for the future, with only a handful of experienced companies left in the UK. The release of the new model so similar in design to the old, potentially ‘future proofs’ the vintage M6, meaning that we can continue shooting with this brilliant camera for many more years to come. Now, I Leica that very much.