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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
Long time readers of this magazine know that I like to shoot with an old manual from time to time to slow me down and keep the juices flowing. So I wasn't concerned when the box sent by Leica contained no documentation on the M6 TTL. The first thing that jumped out at me was the way that the M6 is packaged. Most cameras come sandwiched in styrofoam and packed in a cardboard box. The M6 TTL comes in a hard plastic case that opens into a display case. The sort of thing you get with a $1,000 dollar watch. This box isn't simply a shipping container, it's a presentation case for the camera. This is your first clue as to why some folks buy Leicas. They're buying the craftsmanship and mystique. The same reasons people buy a Ferrari. If that's the case, than pedestrian comparisons to "lesser" cameras are like comparing a Ferrari to a Chevy Caprice right? 

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 first roll or two had a few out of focus images. I'm so used to seeing an out of focus image with an SLR that I initially made the mistake of not using the focusing aid in the center of the finder on one or two occasions. This passed quickly though and had more to do with me than the camera. Once past that, using the Leica became second nature quickly. Having shot manual SLRs for years, things like remembering to set film speed and to compensate for the center weighted meter were no problem. The meter itself proved accurate and the camera showed no bad habits. Expect to work slowly with the M6. While I got used to the camera quickly I never got fast with it and I'm not sure that I would. 

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
I've really enjoyed using this camera. In use it has the feel of a precision instrument as did the manual SLRs of 20 years ago. So naturally I found myself asking if one of those SLRs, or a modern equivalent, could fill the bill for less money. 

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.

If money was no object I would absolutely own this camera and a selection of four or five lenses. 

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...

28mm f2.0 Summicron-M Aspherical and 90mm f2.8 Elmarit-M lenses

These are very nice, tack sharp lenses. As stated in the text their focus is smooth and well damped. They have a reassuringly heavy solid feel. Images were of the quality that you would expect from a lens in this price range. One noticeable drawback to their design however was their inability to close focus. Several times I wasn't able to frame images as tightly as I'd have liked for this reason. The resulting image was certainly sharp enough to allow for cropping but I'd have preferred to have been able to crop in-camera.

On the plus side both lenses had clear, easily read depth of field scales etched into their bodies with measurements in both feet and meters. This made it easy to pre-focus based on distance for moving subjects so that only a quick touch-up was needed when tracking the subject. The aperture rings had a softer feel than I've experienced with current Nikon or older lens designs from other manufactures. Those designs all felt as if the aperture ring snapped into place with each setting. The Leica lenses have a smoother feel while still retaining positive feedback. Lens mounts are all metal and should stand up to a lifetime of use by the serious amateur and professional alike.

SF-20 Flash
Lightweight and compact I wish I could buy this flash to fit my SLR. The SF-20 is powered by two CR123 Lithium batteries. It recycled quickly in use. Flash compensation is set using three buttons on the rear of the SF-20 over a range of +/- 3 stops in 1/3rd stop increments. When you depress the shutter the current film speed is displayed and you can check the flash range in feet with the press of a button. You also have the option to switch out of TTL mode and set the flash manually. It has a guide number of 20 and an angle of coverage of 35mm, 24mm with the snap on diffuser in place. Left on it's default setting I found images from this flash to be a little "hot" and preferred to dial in a bit of exposure compensation to get a more natural look - but that is something I find myself doing in most flash systems. All in all the SF-20 is an impressive little package.

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