If you want a Leica and you have the disposable income required to inhabit Leica town my advice is to get a Leica.
If you want a Leica and have full-blown metered red dot fever, but do not have the disposable income required currently do not buy anything else because you will eventually sell it, potentially at a loss, in order to finance a Leica. If you do not mind the maligned aesthetics of the internally metered M5 that is an option. An older body like an M3 may do the trick for you. Not bad at all with a Leicameter atop. Pricey for the vintage, but waaay less than an M6. And, unlike non-Leicas, it will hold it’s value or even appreciate when you do flip it for an M6 or the like.
There are technically other options also if you wish to consider them. Zeiss, Leitz/Minolta collab, so on and so forth are all fine cameras. But some of those can get pricey quickly as well. They may be right up your alley if you have a bit of a contrarian bent. But if you are determined to get a Leica they may get flipped later as well.
Ok, let’s get more specific. If like me you:
- Had an older Leica, M3 with a Leica meter in my case, and enjoyed it.
- Largely fell for the Voigtlander lens attached to the front of as much if not more than the camera itself.
- Loved, even have an emotional attachment to, the images created with this combination.
- Eventually sold it when logic (I know. Logic in film photography?) dictated that a brace of very good gear could be purchased by trading this in.
- Really wanted an M6, but could not pull the trigger at a near or more than a new full frame, full feature “entry level” digital camera price.
I offer you an alternative that until recently I knew of, but did not take seriously. The Bessa R2.
Why? After some research, the quick answer is I gave it a go because on paper it would give me everything I liked in the M3, plus what drew me to the M6, an in-viewfinder meter.
Sidebar: Abridged Bessa backstory based on my reading. Bessas are Voigtlander branded bodies made by Cosina in Japan that started production in the early 2000s. Most were M mount, but the first gen Bessa R had a Leica screw mount and proving Cosina engineers are a fun loving bunch they also made Contax rangefinder mount and Nikon rangefinder variants.
I will list the minus, singular, first.
- Unlike the first gen plastic bodied Bessa R the R2 has a much more solid all metal body. Feels solid and is great viewed in isolation, but unsurprisingly does not match the hewn from granite feel of an M6.
Why the R2 and not the other Bessa R variants: It was the earliest model that had an M mount and a metal body. Plus while it lacked an aperture priority mode like the ‘A’ versions it also does not require batteries to operate manually like those models do. Also it’s price was more reasonable while later versions creep back up into premium pricing territory.
Why not the Zeiss Ikon M mount? Those I saw online were priced in Leica territory. Fine cameras though with beautiful build quality. But if spending near Leica money, as much as I like the way they look, I may as well get a Leica.
Why not the Minolta/Leitz CLE M mount cameras? Research seemed to indicate that these were not the most robust of cameras with many seen online not having functional exposure meters. There was also talk of incompatibility with some lenses owing to the exposure sensor placement on an arm behind the lens mount.
Why not the Konica Hexar RF? This one is tough. With 1/4000s shutter speed and good build, I would look at this if it were not so expensive. Perhaps owing to it being a cousin of the Contax G line of all these, including Leicas, I want this most. But it comes down to a cost. Too much. I would sooner buy an AF Contax G2.
Pluses once received and used:
- Bought Olive green because that is what was available at KEH. Some online have called it ugly, but looks were not my main reasons for purchasing. Once I received it I would have it no other way and really like the look. Not garish at all and contrasts nicely with the black rubberized grip. The olive body color also brings silver switchgear which also livens up the look without being flashy.
- Now that I mention it the grip it is fantastic. Combined with the rubberized, raised hump or bump on the film door the rubber grip has a great hold by the end at your side feel to it. Feels very secure in hand and I actually prefer it over the leatherette on the M3 I had.
- Love the light meter. Simple 3 light, under, properly exposed, over setup. Later models offered more exposure marking lights and some AE, but I appreciate the simplicity of this setup.
- Familiar film loading. Loading an M3 by removing the bottom plate is not difficult, but it is more fiddly and less common than the standard method employed here.
- As mentioned earlier I like that this camera does not require batteries to operate manually. And when they run out the batteries are readily available anywhere.
- Viewfinder. Some time has passed since my M3 ownership, but I recall it had the best and brightest viewfinder with the clearest focus patch of any rangefinder I owned. I still own these other rangefinders and while I cannot say which is larger or brighter between the M3 and R2 I can say that the R2 is the new king of rangefinder viewfinders around these parts.
- Recent manufacture and electronics. Despite appearances and old lens accommodations, these are relatively recent devices. The R2s were produced between 2002 and 2004. Additionally, in all of my research, I heard no grumblings regarding fragility like some other cameras considered.
- Manually selectable frame lines. Actually like this more than the mount driven frame line selection of the M3. A personal preference. Both work fine.
- Shutter speed. My M3 topped out at 1/1000s shutter speed and the R2 tops out at 1/2000s.
- Some reported a louder shutter sound, owing to the metal shutter, but I am happy to report that it is not nearly as loud as I thought it would be. The tiny PEN FT SLR is a good bit louder.
- My favorite part about owning the M3 was the excellent results obtained from the Voigtlander lens hanging off of the front of it. Seems right to have a camera by the same name.
- Last, but not least it functions as billed by being a sturdy lightproof box holding on to a Voigtlander lens and keeping it the required distance from the film plane. The most important part of all in my book.
And that lens. The Voigtlander Nokton 40mm f/1.4.
More on the lens later. For now suffice it to say that it was a compromise of availability, value, physical size, and aesthetics. I do enjoy the smaller form factor. Not better than the screw mount Nokton 50mm f/1.5 I had before. Different.
Result? When I am feeling rangefinder-ish I do not miss the M3. Longings for an M6 are no more. Again, personal preference is at play here, but I could not give this camera higher praise.
Out and about the reactions were not what I expected. When noticed some recognize that it is not a Leica, but want to to know what it is. Some others do not get a good look and assume it is a Leica which starts a chat. Either way, I was expecting a more low key experience and that is not the case.
Would I recommend one to others? If you would like a solid M mount film camera with inbuilt exposure meter yes. If you want a Leica film camera no. Buy a Leica.
Below are some samples and here is a link to an ongoing album.