Thursday, July 12, 2018

ODE TO A LEGEND – THE LEICA M4


By Tom Grill

For me, the M4 is the camera that reached the pinnacle of analog design. It was the natural sequel to the M2 and M3 designs into one body with a few more bells and whistles added. The one time Leica attempted to diverge from this basic M design with the M5 model in 1971 led to such an uproar that the M4 was reinstated only a few years later and has continued to be the basis for flagship camera design of the company even up to the newest M 240 digital model.


 
My 1968 black painted M4. I sent it back to Leica for a factory replacement of the viewfinder so it now has six lens frame lines of the M6 instead of the original four. I did this because I use a 28mm lens a lot and usually have the Leica meter on top of the camera taking up the slot where I would normally put an auxiliary optical finder. And look at the beautiful engraving on top. Don't see that much anymore.


There were several iterations of the M4. The M4-2 was introduced in 1977, followed by the M4-P in 1981. Each new version added a couple of new features -- a hot shoe, motor-drive capability, extra finder frames -- but modernized the production line and replaced the black enamel with a more durable black chrome.  I always had a penchant for cameras with black paint over brass. After a little use some of the paint wears through to the brass and the camera takes on an individual patina that identifies it as yours. Excessive brassing becomes a battle-worn badge of honor, something to be worn proudly, as if to say, "I served".


 
 The Leica M4 with MR-4 meter mounted on top.


The M4 was introduced in 1967 and produced until 1975 with a little break while the M5 ran its short-lived, orphaned course. The M4 had framelines for 35mm, 50mm, 90mm and 135mm lenses in a 0.72 magnification viewfinder. Mine was made in 1968, and had a later, standard factory addition of the M6 viewfinder adding 28mm and 75mm frame lines.

I always liked the look of the Leica meter. Not that it worked all that well -- I still carried around a hand held auxiliary meter for more accurate readings -- but it slipped conveniently into the accessory shoe, had a high/low range, and synchronized with the shutter speed dial, all pretty advanced stuff for 1968.


 
 The handle-crank rewind knob was one of the late-to-the-party innovations Leitz added to the M. The one on the M4 was angled so it could be operated quickly without constantly scraping your fingers on the side of the camera -- something of an anachronism in today's digital world, but much appreciated at the time by photographers needing to get the spent roll out of the camera quickly and reload it for the next breaking shot.


Adding the angled rapid rewind crank was considered a big deal at the time. I can still recall discussions with veteran photographers who were convinced that Leitz maintained the slow turning rewind knob on the M2 and M3 to avoid rewinding the film too fast and causing static light discharge that might damage a film frame.


 
 The M4 did away with the removable film take up spool, and introduced a faster film loading system that gripped the end of the film automatically to load it onto the spool.


 

 
 The self-timer lever was an M4 luxury -- some say frivolous addition -- eliminated from later versions of the M series. After all, pros don't need self-timers.


 


The M4 was the last of a breed. It reminds me of souped-up, propeller-driven fighter aircraft at the end of WWII. Each had reached the apex of analog, hand-crafted design on the cusp of fading into oblivion in the face of a newer technology. The planes were replaced by jets, the rangefinder by the SLR. Fortunately, the M-series camera hit a very responsive chord in the human psyche that has made it last even into the digital era. For many, Leica M is the icon of professional camera, and retro styling based on the Leica M design is undergoing a renaissance in cameras like the popular Fuji X-Pro1.  And let's not forget that in keeping with the M analog tradition Leica continues to make the M7 and MP film cameras today.


For more of Tom Grill’s work go here 


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8 comments:

  1. Nice Article...Just want to add a shout out to Walter Kluck of Leica Canada without whose efforts the M4 or Leica M camera itself might not have survived.

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    1. You are correct, however, the Leica M camera that was manufactured at ELCAN (Ernst Leitz Canada) upon Walter Kluck's initiative was a new version of the Leica M4, the Leica M4-2. I had the good fortune to tour the plant in Midland Ontario and saw the manufacture of the M4-2 there.

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    2. How did you manage to tour the Canadian facility? I heard that they did not allow tours because of the many secret military contracts.

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    3. You are right. When I first inquired about a tour, I was told that I couldn't because of the many military items being made. But I didn't give up so quickly. I guess what clinched it for me was telling them that I had toured the (old) Wetzlar plant the year before with my dad and that he was coming for a visit and that we would like to see the ELCAN plant as well. I did get an agreement and a date. We lucked out because that very day, the head of the Japanese Leica sales agency was there to tour the plant as well. We were asked to tag along. I am sure that because of this we were shown a lot more than otherwise would have been the case. But only part of the facility was open to us. Many manufacturing stations were blocked off from view. Unfortunately we had to agree not to take any photographs. But it was a memorable experience non the less.

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  2. In my humble viewpoint, a very interesting and insightful article on the Leica M4, as explained by the author, the last of a breed, a camera perhaps not as famous as the M3, M2, M6, M7 and others, but a real masterpiece in many sides as proved in the essay, with profusion of top quality brass within its innards, in addition to being faster to use than the M3 and M2 and easier to film rewind.

    Regarding the look of the Leica meter, as accurately pointed out by Tom Grill, its mere look is a relish to behold, as well as confirming the value of the emotions and top-notch craftsmanship as one of the key ingredients that have traditionally been part of the legendary Leica legacy.

    " Excessive brassing becomes a battle-worn badge of honor, something to be worn proudly, as if to say, "I served".

    It´s true. And Abbas Leica M4 black paint was a good example of it, with wide stretches of its body with the brass in the open air after so many years of extensive professional use.

    Because Leicas are cameras to be used, limited in their range of available focal lengths inherent to their rangefinder nature (roughly between 21 mm and 135 mm) but by far the best photographic tools made hitherto to fulfill genres of reportage, photojournalism and street photography shooting handheld from very near distances and with maximum levels of discretion.

    " The M4 was the last of a breed. It reminds me of souped-up, propeller-driven fighter aircraft at the end of WWII. Each had reached the apex of analog, hand-crafted design on the cusp of fading into oblivion in the face of a newer technology " .

    I do absolutely agree. The M4 is to photographic cameras what a Merlin Rolls-Royce liquid cooled V12 Merlin Rolls-Royce radial piston engine or the MK24 Griffon powered variant to a Supermarine Spitfire fighter or the 257 bhp desmodromic 8 cylinder in line powerplant of the Mercedes-Benz W196 Formula 1 car from 1954 to racing cars.

    jmse

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  3. And I also agree that the Leica M4 has continued to be the basis for flagship camera design of the company even up to the newest M 240 digital model.

    As a matter of fact, the Leica M4 was the core enabling the historical initiative accomplished by Walter Kluck ( CEO of Leitz Canada and a tremendous pundit on cost estimating and grasp of the potential of selected dealers to foster the brand) when he envisaged the unmatched capabilities in the photographic missions for which it was created and future possibilities of the Leica M System and the necessity to preserve its lineage, being able to convince Ernst Leitz Wetzlar top directives in 1976 to transfer the production and manufacturing tools to Ernst Leitz Canada in Midland, Ontario, Canada, which resulted in the beginning of production of the Leica M4-2 (the rangefinder camera that really saved Leica, as often stated by Stephen Gandy) in Canada in 1978.

    Therefore, in my opinion, the " Ode to a Legend " title of this article made with a lot of love and penchant for the truly masterpiece products lacking programmed obsolescence and strongly rooted in the artisan concept of things, is utterly justified because of the huge historical significance of the M4 for the preserving of the Leica M System of cameras and lenses, which has endured nothing less than 64 years being the reference-class mirrorless 24 x 36 mm format tool for getting pictures handheld with available light of the photographic industry as well as preserving praiseworthy levels of compactness and low weight in both camera bodies and lenses.

    If we add to it that the Leica M5 (a camera with which Leica started a new breed featuring spot metering and that anticipated approximately 40 years to its time regarding its outline and appearance of lines) had a great influence in the design of shapes of the excellent range of Sony Alpha 7 24 x 36 mm digital format mirrorless cameras (particularly in the profiles of the top extreme areas and the rounded contours of the adjacent front right surfaces next to the Sony E- Mount) introduced from October 2013 until now, it seems apparent that the influence of Leica was in the analogue era and goes on being in the digital one really amazing.

    jmse

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  4. Leica discontinued the M7 back in May didn‘t they?

    I often wish Leica had developed the M5 concept more. I would be interesting to see where it went. It’s my favourite of the M series. It has the best ergonomics of them all.

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    1. Yes, the Leica M7 was officially discontinued this past May. I too used to have an M5, the slightly larger size, which it is so often criticized for, never bothered me at all.

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