In part one of this little series on putting together a budget Leica kit, I gave you a quick rundown of the M3 kit I put together for $600. In this follow up post, we’ll cover some excellent alternatives to my setup if you’re bargain hunting for a Leica.
Starting the list off strong, with the Leica M2. The M some argue is the best ever made (they’re wrong, for whatever it’s worth). The Leica M2 was Leica’s follow up to the body that changed everything, the Leica M3. The main advantage of the M2 over the M3, and one reason people really love this camera, is that it introduced framelines for 35mm lenses.
On the other hand, the M2 is missing a few things that made the M3 so great. The most glaring of these is the film counter, which is actually just a manually adjustable wheel underneath the shutter that advances with each stroke of the advance lever. The wheel is a pretty obvious step back from the M3’s more refined counter, which was housed under the top-plate and covered with glass. The other major difference between the two cameras is that in order to cater to wide angle shooting, the viewfinder on the M2 has a much lower 0.72 magnification factor.
But these are minor things. The M2 is an awesome choice for building a budget Leica kit becuse in addition to being an AMAZING camera in its own right. For some reason, most likely photographers’ obsession with internal light meters, it also tends to be amongst the cheapest of the Ms as well. A look at finished auctions for M2s on eBay saw ending prices go anywhere from $480-$900. A number of years ago, I was even fortunate enough to find a beater (cosmetically) M2 on Craigslist locally for $200! I put another $150 or so into it to have it overhauled but that’s still a crazy kind of deal for the quality of camera the M2 is.
Even though I don’t mind shooting a 35mm lens on the M3, I would go as far as to say that if you plan to shoot 35mm or wider lenses most of the time, the M2 is likely going to be your body of choice.
Next, we have the Leica M4-2 a camera that illicits strong reactions from people. By the time the M4-2 was released, Leica was struggling massively to stay profitable. Their previous release, the controversial M5 was a commercial flop and at the same time SLRs had almost fully replaced rangefinders as the camera of choice for professionals and amateurs alike. In an attempt to win the cost battle, Leica made an M body that while perfectly functionable, was built in an entirely different way. Earlier Ms–the M2, M3, and M4–were built to last using brass mechanical parts that can be adjusted in order to be returned to specification. Not so with the M4-2, which was made with precicse mechanical parts that were meant to be replaced when they wore out or otherwise failed.
Now, this wasn’t such an issue when film cameras were still the norm and would naturally be supported by their manufacturers. Repair shops could get replacement parts from Leica, and violá! Camera repaired. But fast forward X years to a reality where new film cameras make up a tiny sliver of the overall camera market and the possibility that over time parts may no longer be available and you can see where there might be some issues down the road.
Okay, that sounds bad, right? But it’s not all doom and gloom, because the camera was still built incredibly well (after some hiccups on very early models), to Leica standards. It’s still a wonderful camera that lots of people own and enjoy shooting. And from what I can gather, at this point it can still be repaired.
The M4-2 is also dinged by some Leica enthusiasts for its cheaper, glare-prone viewfinder. However, as Andrew Nemeth notes in his write up of the M4-2:
Of course the M4-2’s RF optics were modified and cheapened from that of the M4, but as all the latter Ms until the MP inherited this cheaper scheme, we can hardly complain about it.
Did you hear that? That sound was M6 owners everywhere letting out a little gasp upon realizing their ‘sophisticated’ Leica is just an M4-2 with a meter. But, I would also add that unless you spend lots of time shooting directly into the sun, you probably won’t have much of an issue with this. The viewfinder on the M4-2 is still clear and bright and the rangefinder patch is still contrasty and easy to focus with, so in practice there isn’t much to worry about.
The upside to its (perhaps unfair) reputation as a lesser Leica is that it can often be had for cheaper than it’s cousins the M4, M4-P, and M6. A recent search showed M4-2s running anywhere from $599-$800.
In my first post, I gave you a rundown of the excellent Nikon Nikkor HC 50mm f/2 that is more or less glued to my M3. However, as a fellow photographer pointed out to me on Facebook, there are some other fantastic lenses to be had on the cheap. Even a couple of Leica brand lenses can be had on the cheap.
Leica Collapsible Summitar 50mm f/2
Leica’s best normal lens from the late 30s until the introduction of the Summicron in the 1950s. Like the Nikkor, it’s a thread mount lens, so you’ll need an adaptor, but that shouldn’t stop you from choosing this lens, especially if you think you might be using your Leica for portraits. The Summitar–like the Summarit below–has a reputation for having crazy, swirly bokeh wide open and respectable sharpness and contrast stopped down. A great combination for situations where clinical sharpness isn’t a required, or even desired.
And it can be had for a great price, if you look around. A recent search sold listings on eBay had Summitars listed between $168-$250.
Leica Summarit 50mm f/1.5
A budget Leica lens that can be had in M mount? Yes, it exists!
The Summarit 50mm f/1.5 was made between 1949 and 1960, starting off with the LTM version and then adding a M mount version in 1954. Like the Summitar, it’s well known for the it’s swirly bokeh, which is great. Unfortunately, Summarits are also known as being unusually soft lenses, a phenomenon usually attributed to their age. In fact, the most likely culprit of a soft Summarit is haze on one of the lenses surfaces. Summarits are well known to have an unusually soft lens coatings, both on the exterior and the interior. This made it susceptable to scratches on the front element and haze on interior elements. Still, I’ve seen my fair share of images taken with a Summarit riddled with haze that I still found pleasing, so it really comes down to personal preference.
To get an idea for the insanity of the bokeh produced by this killer little lens, head over to Japan Camera Hunter’s comparison of the lens with a Canon LTM lens of the same era.
A recent search sold listings on eBay had Summarits listed between $200-$550.
There are few others with generally favorable reviews that you might take a look at as well. Two Canon LTM lenses and a few newer Voigtländer offerings:
- Canon 50mm f/1.5
- Canon 50mm f/1.8 Serenar
- Voigtländer 50mm f/2.5 Color Skopar
- Voigtländer 35mm f/2.5 Color Skopar
This list probably isn’t comprehensive, given the sheer number of LTM lenses made in the early part of the 20th century, but it’s a really good starting point. I truly believe that you can create absolutely fantastic images with ANY of the images listed above. All things being equal, of COURSE the Leica Summicron is going to give you improvements in some of the areas chart readers and pixel peepers love, like micro-contrast and edge sharpness, but that’s really not the point of this post.
And frankly, if you want the best image quality possible, you shouldn’t be shooting a 35mm camera in the first place.
There are many places to find the kinds of bodies and lenses mentioned above. The obvious first place most people look is eBay. The big bad auction site has tons of camera dealers as well as people who bailed on film and are looking to make a quick buck on their old rangefinder gear. But there are others.
My favorites, in no particular order, are:
- Blue Moon Camera
- Igor’s Camera Exchange
- Rangefinderforum Classifieds
- APUG Classifieds
- Film Gear Facebook Group
- Adorama Used Department
- BH Photo Used Department
- Glazer’s Camera Used Department
So there you have it, part two is in the books. The key takeaway here is that when you scratch below the surface, there are actually a lot of ways to put together an affordable Leica kit. Have a look around and once again, feel free to give me a shout if you have any questions!