|Leica M6 TTL
by Jim McGee
I've got to admit the idea of the M6 has intrigued me for a long time.
The M6 is a precision made camera with high quality interchangeable optics that's not much bigger than a point and shoot. It's small size and quiet shutter allow you to shoot in stealth mode and make the M6 a seemingly ideal travel camera - allowing your whole camera system to be distributed among a few pockets. These attributes have given the M series Leicas a virtual cult following among amateurs and pros alike, and made it the darling of many photo journalists (A number of Magnum photographers have favored Leicas).
But everything has a price, and the price of the M6 is steep. For this test we asked for an M6 TTL system including 28mm and 90mm lenses, an M6 TTL body, and an SF-20 flash. We did some comparison shopping of mail order houses and came up with an average street price for this system of $5,200. While the M6 has a lot of virtues that appeal to the emotional side of my brain - the practical side is saying that you can buy one hell of a lot of SLR equipment for $5,200!
So went the thought process as I placed the box from Leica on my desk and unboxed the M6. Would this camera live up to it's price and my expectations?
Living with the Leica
Yes and no. Get past the Leica mystique and at heart it's still an image making machine. So it matters how it stands up against other image making machines. After all a Ferrari wouldn't be very impressive if any old Caprice could blow it's doors off at a stop light.
The M6 TTL may be small, but its solidly built, all metal body is no lightweight. Pick up the M6 and you immediately know this is a machined piece. No plastic here. Everything about this camera quietly speaks of quality. The M6 logo and "made in Germany" marks are engraved, not stamped into the metal. Levers, winders, and buttons all have a precision feel to them. Mount a lens and the feel is very solid. There is no slop and the lens locks in with a solid sounding snap.
The view through the rangefinder window is surprisingly sharp. We had the .72x finder on our evaluation unit (a .85x model is also available). You focus the M6 by aligning a small superimposed image at the center of the viewfinder. When both images are aligned your subject is in focus. This system takes a bit of getting used to but it works better in low light than the split image finders on most manual SLRs which tend to black out in low light.
An interesting feature of the M6 is how it deals with the image area covered by different lenses. A tab on the lens mount engages a mechanical lever on the camera body. This lever changes a set of framelines projected into the viewfinder that indicate the image area. If you have a 90mm lens fitted and you want to see how your 35mm lens might open things up you can move the lever to the left of the lens (right if looking from the front) to vary the projected frame lines. This can help in choosing lenses on the fly. I mentioned there are two finder versions available; The .72x finder we had covers focal lengths from 28-135mms. The .85x finder (~ $100 option), which provides slightly higher magnification, only covers 35-135mms. Given a choice I'd rather trade the slight difference in magnification for the additional coverage.
Before taking your first pictures you'll need to load film into the M6. This is done by lifting and turning a lever on the bottom of the camera that allows you to remove the base plate. Film is loaded through the bottom of the camera and threaded on to a take up spool. The system works well but I never got past it feeling a bit strange. Once the film is loaded, you set the film speed via a large dial on the back of the camera. It takes a firm press and turn to set the speed making it unlikely you'll accidentally change speed while handling the camera. Advance the film to the first frame and you're ready to go. When you're ready to rewind, trip a small lever on the front of the camera, lift the rewind crank handle and wind away until you feel the film pull free.
Metering on the M6 TTL is accomplished using a silicon photodiode (SPD) located just above the lens. The SPD meters the central 13% of the frame. All of the old caveats of center weighted metering apply here requiring you to compensate for backlit subjects, snow scenes, etc. But my experience has been that once you're familiar with what center weighted metering will and won't do, you tend to compensate automatically. This camera is definitely targeted towards the experienced photographer - not the novice.
Looking through the finder you'll see LED arrows that light up indicating over/under exposure and a circle between the two that lights when proper exposure is achieved. Exposure compensation is accomplished manually or by compensating with the film speed setting. The direction of the arrow indicates which way to either rotate the shutter speed dial or aperture ring to achieve proper exposure. Available shutter speeds range from 1 second to 1/1000th of a second and bulb. A flash sync speed of 1/50th of a second is indicated by a red lightning bolt on the shutter speed dial and an OFF setting turns off the camera.
Press the shutter and the movement of the cloth shutter curtain is amazingly quiet - a reason so many photojournalists favor this camera. It's quiet and inconspicuous compared to an SLR. Why so quiet? Because its a rangefinder, meaning you look through a window in the body not through the lens. There is no mirror assembly to slap up and down and make noise as there is in an SLR. How much quieter? I never really noticed the sound of the shutter in my SLRs until I shot with the M6 for a while. Suddenly they sounded deafening!
You know this is a TTL model because the tiny letters TTL and a lightning bolt are engraved in the flash shoe. If you are an M series connoisseur you also know because the TTL body is slightly taller than the non-TTL version. The TTL cell is just inboard of the lens mount on the lower right inside the camera body, pointing upward at the central portion of the film plane so it can take a reading directly off the film during flash exposures. The M6 TTL will work with SCA compatible flash units from Leica or third party manufacturers.
In the Field
The solid feel of the M6 is no lie. It has stood up to the abuse heaped on it by photo journalists and earned it's reputation for reliability.
One thing that did feel odd was the offset tripod mount. It is set to the far right under the shutter release and took a bit of getting use to. The shutter release takes a standard threaded cable release.
A nice feature of rangefinders is that the viewfinder doesn't black out when you trip the shutter as it does when the mirror moves up in an SLR. A downside is that you can't see the effect of filters through the lens. Both Leica lenses take a 46mm screw type filter which we didn't have in house. I improvised by using a larger polarizer, rotating it off the camera to see the effect and then placing it over the front of the lens to shoot.
The SF-20 flash is incredibly compact and light compared to most SLR flash units. About the size of a pack of cigarettes and not much heavier, it snaps on easily and worked well for general flash duty. Test slides were a little over exposed for my taste and in one or two cases highlights were blown out. The MF-20 flash allows you to dial-in exposure compensation in 1/3rd stop increments. Two thirds of a stop to a full stop under-exposure worked best for my taste but I tend to dial-in a little under-exposure on most flash systems. I'd have liked to have a few more features such as support for rear curtain flash but all in all this is a pretty handy little flash.
Light Pocket Alternatives
As you can see from the image below the M6 and 28mm lens is about the same size as this FG and 24mm lens. The modern equivalent would be an FM3a which has the same dimensions as the FG pictured here (we didn't have one in house). It sells for around $600. Street prices for 28mm and 90mm Nikkor lenses compare favorably. A 28mm f2.0 Nikkor lens has a street price of around $700 and a 105mm f2.5 lens is around $420 - considerably less than the $1,800 and $1,100 price tags for the Leica. But they are also considerably larger and heavier. The Nikon SB-50DX flash retails for around $165 rounding out the Nikon system at $1,885. A whopping $3,315 less than the M6 system!
No one would suggest the Nikon system I proposed here is junk. Both cameras have a solid precise feel about them. Both sets of lenses are capable of high quality images and focus with a wonderful, precise, well damped feel. Both have center weighted metering and TTL flash. The Leica does have a silkier feel to the controls but the Nikon with it's faster shutter speed and additional features has merits of it's own.
But the Leica, with it's physically smaller lenses and flash can be used as a pocket camera. Something you won't do comfortably with the Nikon. And there is a certain indefinable something that is captured in the Leica. It's something that is wrapped up in the jewel box case, in the subtle feel of the lenses, and in the precision engraving on the body. Call it exclusivity. Call it pride of ownership. Call it whatever you want. But there really is something about this camera that, frankly, I'd have laughed at before an extended stint shooting with one.
On a magazine editors salary I have to scratch this particular itch with a 20 year old FG and a couple of manual lenses bought used - but it's just not the same. The problem I now have is when I flip through mail order catalogs, I'll no longer think about what an M series Leica might be like. Now I know. And as I start boxing up this camera to send it back, that itch is already starting to bother me...