It’s difficult to write an objective review of the Leica M4. The camera is as much like family as it is a piece of photography equipment. If there was a house fire I’d risk certain peril to rescue it. When I die it will be willed to those in my family whom know it’s importance to me. It’s the finest camera I’ve had the privilege of owning and one that will be with me for a lifetime.
The purchase of my Leica M4 was a product of naivety combined with a healthy dose of gear acquisition syndrome. I had in fact never held a Leica, nor had I known anyone who owned one for me to try out. I simply knew it was an object of beauty, much like the Hasselblad I already owned, and that the only way I could try it out was to take the plunge. I saved for what felt like an eternity, eating ramen at night, and borrowing condiments from the refrigerator at work until I could finally afford the camera.
After the camera arrived it would be months again before I could afford a lens and so I waited. It sat on my desk as a tortuous reminder of my impulse until the day came where I could finally afford a lens to affix to the camera. I settled on a used Zeiss 35MM Biogon and my adventures in rangefinder photography began.
I loaded film as soon as I could. People would see me and the camera and certainly know that I was shooting a documentary photography piece which would go down in the history books as a classic. “Why yes, this is a Leica,” I practiced saying while adjusting my ascot in the Florida heat. In actuality my foray into rangefinder photography was less of a fantasy and more of a nightmare.
For the first month everything I shot looked like shit. Half of my frames were poorly composed while the other half were poorly focused. It seemed that every charm of the camera lens combination was being lost in my hands.
First and most frustratingly the lens sample which I had seemed to have the “Zeiss wobble” which made it difficult to focus properly. The lens was fully capable of achieving focus, but it had just the slightest amount of clearance which made it difficult in that you’d rotate one way and then have to rotate the other having gone too far. Youxin Ye serviced my lens and in no time I was back at it trying to figure the camera out.
The rangefinder system is a different experience than an SLR and as soon as I understood that my life got a lot easier. With my DSLR I’d shoot at f/2 in the white hot Florida sun with a hundred zillion autofocus points and 1/8000th of a second shutter speeds at my disposal. The rangefinder made me slow down; it made me figure out making photographs one step at a time.
When I slowed down I started getting sharper shots, better framing, and actually enjoyed using the camera more. No longer would I wait for a contact sheet from the lab only to throw my hands up in the air about more missed shots.
Before moving to Japan I had my Leica CLA’d as a precautionary measure. In all likelihood this was the first service the camera had received since it left Germany some 30 years prior so the measure seemed called for. I won’t be mentioning where the camera was serviced for reasons you have yet to read, but the initial service they provided was timely and reasonably priced.
For the first six months of living in Japan I shot between between 10 and 15 rolls of film per week. The camera worked flawlessly until one day, while loading it in my office, it ceased to function. I cocked the shutter, but it would not fire. I opened the camera to see where there was once a cloth shutter there was now nothing, only a lens.
In a pinch, and just not knowing better I sent the camera back to the same service center it was CLA’d at. I was quoted $110 for the parts to repair the camera since it was still within labor warranty from the CLA, but in a struggle that lasted the course of several months I ended up paying over $588 to get my precious camera back. To say the camera was held hostage would be an understatement. Needless to say I now only use Youxin Ye whose work, frank nature, and communication skills are impeccable.
The materials in this camera are top notch. Both the top and bottom plates of the camera are made of brass which is a relatively soft metal. You can in fact dent this camera if you’re not cautious of where it’s swinging and what you’re doing. The gears are also made of brass which gives it part of that silky smooth advance. In fact everything in this camera harkens back to a time where men were challenged to build things in the best way that they could instead of in the cheapest way possible.
The Leica M4’s shutter is nearly silent and boasts modest speeds from 1/1000th to B via a rotary dial on the top plate. In practice I always leave mine on 1/1000th of a second and adjust only the aperture as I go. I almost always push my film one stop to ISO 800 which generally affords me f/8 or f/11 when the weather is good resulting in plenty of depth of field. If you’re looking to shoot wide open apertures you’re likely going to need to invest in some neutral density filters as the shutter speed can limit you somewhat in that regard.
It’s viewfinder is bright and features 35/50/90/135 bright lines which are pulled up depending on which lens is affixed to the camera. My primary lens is a 35mm so the viewfinder of the Leica M4 works just fine for me. I frequently shoot with a 28mm as well and use the outsides of the viewfinder as a frame line. In practice this works just fine and I can seldom tell if anything is “missing” from a shot.
What’s so great about it? Well, I love the density it bestows upon my hand. A chunk of cold hard metal with which to make pictures. I love that some 40+ years ago someone showed up to work and assembled my camera by hand. I like to think a little bit of that technician travels with my camera everywhere it goes. I love that no other camera can be this particular camera. It has a history uniquely it’s own and was designed not as part of a product cycle but as an attempt to create a perfect camera.
In the book Annie Leibovitz At Work she says “I’m not nostalgic about cameras. When I talk about how important the camera is to me, I mean the idea of the camera.” I agree with this 100% and preach it frequently, but can honestly say with regard to the Leica M4 I am in fact nostalgic.
The Price of a Leica
A lot of folks get all up in arms about the price of a Leica, but what most fail to understand is that this is a lifetime camera. I paid $1269 for my Leica M4 in March of 2011 plus the CLA and repairs which I estimate to be around $800. All in, the grand total for my refurbished M4 was $2069 for a camera which will last me a lifetime. I paid $999 for my Digital Rebel XT which I owned for all of two years amounting to $500 per year during the course of ownership. In 2006 I replaced my XT with a Canon 5D to the tune of $2800 which I owned for 6 years costing me $466 per year. In 2011 it took a shit and had to be repaired, and I purchased a backup 5DMKII for another $2800 for and sold only three years later in 2014 costing me $933 per year. Consumers line up to hand over stacks of cash for the latest Disposable SLR from Canon or Nikon and become cogs in a product cycle that will never satisfy you.
My point is that you will waste far more money on other camera shit by avoiding the things you want and buying substitutes. If you want a Leica, buy one, the Leica M4 is a lifetime camera that will cost you far less in the long run than buying substitutes.