The Dawn of the M-System
At the beginning of the fifties, Leica was known all the world over as the camera of choice of some of the world’s best-known photographers, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alfred Eisenstaedt and even Queen Elizabeth II, as well as a whole host of LIFE magazine staffers. The maker was also one of the pioneers of the 35mm film format, which allowed users to ditch their view cameras and start toting the small, compact, and almost invisible camera.
During these early days, Leica’s system camera used a 39mm screw mount, which, as you might expect, made switching lenses a wee bit slow. A major change took place in 1954 with the introduction of the M-system, a bayonet mount which has a very short flange distance, thereby allowing the manufacturing of much smaller lenses. The first M-mount camera was the Leica M3, where the ‘M’ stands for messsucher or rangefinder, and the ‘3’ refers to the 3-frameline camera. The naming convention flip-flopped over the years, but that’s a tale for another time.
The Leica M2 – The Lesser M?
At its introduction, the Leica M2 was marketed by the company as a lower-end M3. Cosmetic differences include the loss of ornate beveling around the rangefinder and viewfinder, as well as the use of an external film counter, as opposed to an internal one viewed through a counter window (like the one in the M4-P below).
Internally, the camera uses a slightly different (and some say more flare-prone) rangefinder mechanism compared to the M3. Its viewfinder magnification is 0.72x, compared with 0.91x, giving a more ‘zoomed out’ look to the scene. This was no doubt to facilitate the wider frameline set (35-50-90) compared with the M3 (50-90-135). One nice touch on the finder is that the rangefinder patch (the bright rectangles in rangefinder cameras) is not just a plain rectangle, but also has an optical depth-of-field indicator. It’s not very useful, and some consider this as nothing more than a nice touch, but it’s attention to details like these that make Leica’s such a joy to use.
Another example of the attention detail can be seen in the film reminder dial. Unlike many cameras in the era, the film reminder is not an afterthought conveniently stuffed under the shutter or rewind crank. Instead it is prominently placed on the rear door, and you set the film type and speed by simultaneously depressing and turning the reminder dial. Newer cameras (like the M4-2 and M4-P, both manufactured in the age of great cost savings during the slump in rangefinder sales in the seventies) have a silly looking plastic stuck in the same spot. They look almost the same, but the latter feels terribly cheap compared to the classic dial.
Using the Camera – the Leica Magic
A Leica camera is different from all the others – It plays strictly by its own rules, and does not seem bothered by technological advances. While other cameras have a side-swinging door held by a spring-loaded catch, the Leica’s use a slightly clumsy key-lock bottom plate, which when removed, allows the back door to swing up. The film is fed into a removable take-up spool (which is easy to lose in the field), and both the film canister and the spool is then pushed back into camera and wound.
Once you maneuver past the awkward film-loading, the camera is a perfect balance of heft and portability. Depending on the lens mounted, the camera can even be stuffed inside a pocket! Now how’s that for compact! The shutter on the camera is legendary – HCB described it as a kiss. And what a kiss it is. When released, the shutter is barely audible. Better yet, there is a slight, well-damped vibration of the camera body, which makes it an absolute joy to use. The film winder is also extremely smooth, and feels like cutting butter. The only way to describe the feel of a Leica M2 in one’s hand is tactile paradise.
A Minor Caveat
The only bad thing I can say about the Leica M2 is the cloth shutter curtains, at once its greatest strength and weakness. While it is a mechanical marvel, it is also prone to pinholing – small holes burned into the curtains when a mounted, uncapped lens is pointed at the sun. In fact, my copy had a lot of pinholes, and also incredibly inaccurate shutter speeds (lost 5 rolls of film because of that, including possibly many of my best pictures), both of which the seller deliberately hid from me (I was a noob). Nonetheless, a 300-dollar CLA/repair later, the camera comes back perfect. Absolutely perfect. 😀
P.S. I strongly recommend Youxin Ye for CLA jobs. While I had to send it to him 3 times (it was a light seal that kept peeling off) the turn-around was always quick, and communication always excellent.