Of course, Leica today makes beautiful retro style digital cameras based on its original film rangefinder designs, but here we’ll look only at its film cameras.
The Leica M3 (1954-1966) is the first Leica to feature a bayonet-mount, making changing lenses so much easier than unscrewing and screwing a lens. It quickly becomes a favorite of pro photographers and solidifies Leica’s position as the top camera manufacturer.
Why are Leica designers so good at their job? From the beginning to even now, Leica camera designs are in a class of their own. Even when Leica was rebranding Panasonic digital cameras, they brought a certain touch to elevate their versions to classic Leica luxury and elegance. Well, while many photographers know who designed the Olympus OM-1, they would probably be at a loss to name the designer of the iconic Leica M3, M4, M4-P and M6: Heinrich Janke.
Truth be told, I love all the Leica camera designs, so it’s really difficult to choose only a few to show here. In the Leica M3, I especially like the small Film Advance Lever, the round Film Counter, and the three square/rectangular viewfinder/rangefinder windows. All the proportions just look right. The M3 is my favorite Leica camera design.
The Leica M4-P (1981-1987) is considered by many as the best analog camera that Leica has ever made. It is basically a Leica M6 minus the built-in light meter. Interestingly, it has a Canadian connection, having been made in Canada to cut labor cost and so it is the most affordable Leica you can buy. The “P” stands for “Professional.”
Look Ma, no self-timer. What professional photographer would waste his or her time by taking “selfies,” eh?
Leica partnered with Minolta (one of the many camera manufacturers it would form a close partnership with down through the years) to design two models: the Leitz Minolta CL/Leica CL, pictured above, and the Minolta XE/Leica R3 pictured below. Those two cameras were instant successes.
The Leica CL (1973-1976, not to be confused with the 2017 Leica CL APS-C mirrorless digital camera) is classic beautiful Leica design. (Later, Leica would rebrand Panasonic digital cameras and give them its own distinctive classic Leica look.)
As mentioned above, the Minolta XE (silver XE-1 in Europe, black XE-7 in North America) was designed in collaboration with Leica. Leica would then license the XE and bring it out under the Leica brand as the Leica R3 (1976-1979).
Leica brought a few design changes to the XE-1 to give the R3 its own distinctive look: It made the self-timer a little shorter, removed the horizontal bar under the pentaprism, reshaped the pentaprism, and used a little round window instead of a rectangular window. The little window is the Illumination Window, and it allows light in to display the shutter speed in the viewfinder. The Leica R3, whether all-black or silver, is a beautiful SLR. Even then, as I mentioned in another post, the silver Minolta XE-1 is still my all-time favorite camera design.
The Leica M6 (1984-2003, not to be confused with the 2022 Leica M6) is THE most iconic of all the M series. The M6 can be thought of as the Leica M4-P with a built-in TTL (through-the-lens) light meter. It does not have a self-timer and the space is used for a light meter battery compartment (powers only the light meter, camera keeps working even if battery is dead). As far as design is concerned, I prefer having a self-timer than the circular battery cover up front like that. (A battery compartment should be kept hidden from view, IMHO.)
I love the slanted Rewind Crank, the vertical slats of the Illuminating Window, the viewfinder, and just the overall aesthetic of the camera.
That’s it! What are your favorite Leica retro film camera designs?