I don’t believe there’s such a thing as a “perfect camera.” Each camera has its own purpose, its own job to fill. But after a trip to Iceland where the barrage of icy rain and strong wind made it very difficult to shoot with my Hasselblad, I knew I needed a different camera… one that could adapt to how my photography was changing. I needed something faster, more agile yet timeless.
I had always wanted a Leica, dating back to when I was a teenager working at a camera store, but the price point always made it seem unattainable. So when I returned from a difficult trip to Iceland where I didn’t get the images I had hoped for, I felt the urgency to invest in a better camera system. Shortly after returning to Los Angeles, I bit the bullet and bought a Leica M6 and a Leica 50mm Summarit f/2.5.
The M6 was released in 1984, at a very interesting time for Leica. Nikon had the professional market monopolized with their FM, FM2, FE, and F3 cameras. Canon had released the ever-popular AE-1 and was working on developing their auto-focus feature, the first to do so. SLR-systems had taken over the photography market, both professional and consumer, and for the first time ever Leica was no longer dominating the photography market after the disappointing release of the M5. Because of this, Leica made a bold decision: include an exposure meter on their newest camera. This wasn’t new technology by any means, but it was the first major innovation of a Leica M camera in decades.
Shortly after I bought an M6, it quickly became the most important tool in my camera bag. Just as the Hasselblad had in years prior, the Leica M6 helped define my photographic style. No longer did I use my photography to simply capture epic landscapes. This M6 changed how I thought of my own photography. Now I was documenting the journey, not just the destination. While I agree that the camera is just a tool and a good photographer can make a pleasing image with anything, the viewfinder and ability to zone focus is the greatest technical attribute to my photography and a reason why I will carry this camera until the day I die.
If you’re a fan of buying a camera based on how it feels in your hands vs technical specs, then you’ll quickly fall in love with this camera. The shutter flicks with the brush of a fingertip. The functionality is quick and simple. The camera has some weight to it, but it’s small and is easy to carry. Does it have the best analog light meter? No. Does it have a shutter speed capable of 1/2000 of a second? Also, no. If you’re a gear snob or tech enthusiast, this isn’t the camera for you but if you want a camera that uses simplicity to its own advantage, then this is the camera for you.
No, we’re not talking about that Leica CL. Before making digital cameras, Leica designed another CL: a funky little 35mm camera released 11 years prior to the M6 in 1973. Is it a Leica camera? Well, technically yes. Can it use the Leica M lenses? Also, yes. The CL was a collaborative effort between Leica and Minolta. The camera was designed in Germany by Leica, but manufactured in Japan by Minolta. The camera body itself is tiny, much smaller than the M6 and because the housing is made of plastic, it’s much lighter too. Because of this, the CL has a plasticy feel to it. On one hand, it’s extremely compact, which I love, but I’ve never been a fan of plastic bodies. But whether you like how the camera feels or not, there’s no denying this camera has a few significant flaws.
First, we have the framelines. The M6 includes framelines for 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 75mm, 90mm and 135mm. The CL? 40mm, 50mm, and 90mm. When the CL was released, it included a small 40mm f/2 Summicron lens, but this lens was only in production for a short while and Leica hasn’t made a 40mm since. 50 years later, the choice to use 40mm frame lines has made this camera difficult to use. Personally I use a 35mm lens and just plan for it to catch a little extra outside of the lines, but this irritates Leica purists, no doubt.
Secondly, the build quality. A quick eBay search will find you dozens of Leica CL’s with lightmeter problems. Leica took a unique approach by including a spot meter that mounts to an arm and moves every time the shutter fires. Earlier versions of this camera had the wiring to the meter spread out in the body, leading to them to regularly fail. I was lucky enough to find one with a functioning lightmeter… but the frame counter doesn’t work, so I have to guess how many photos I have left on a roll.
Two other pet peeves I have with this camera: the strap mounting rings and the shutter speed dial. Both strap mounting rings are on the same side of the camera, meaning the camera won’t sit level across your chest like most cameras. Instead, it dangles on it’s side, which irks me because I fumble around with it every time I grab it to shoot a photo. To adjust the shutter speed, the dial is on the front of the camera, but it rotates in the opposite direction as Leica’s f/stop ring on their lenses. Why did they do this? Who knows. But when you need to adjust your exposure, it’s near-impossible to adjust without taking the camera away from your face.
But for all it’s flaws, the CL has a cult following and it certainly has a place in the film community. It’s one of the cheapest entry points into Leica’s M system. Searching for a budget friendly Leica sounds like an oxymoron, but it allows you to sink your money into the lenses. If I only had $2,000 to spend and had to choose between a M6 with a 35mm Voigtlander lens, or a CL with a 35mm Summicron, I’d take the CL & Summicron combo any day.
As for me, there was still a place in my arsenal for a CL. After sinking $6000 into a M6 and three M-mount lenses, I started questioning whether it was the right camera to bring out in situations where I didn’t want to draw any attention. If someone pulled a knife and asked for my camera, I wouldn’t think twice about handing over the CL. If someone asked for my M6, I might hesitate. Since then, I’ve used the CL for situations like backpacking across Guatemala, walking around busy city centers, and any other situation where I questioned the safety of having an M6 around my neck.
At the end of the day, comparing the CL to the M6 feels a little disingenuous. We’re cherry picking one of Leica’s finest cameras and comparing it to an afterthought that Leica couldn’t be bothered to manufacture. But if you look at the CL from the perspective of being a small, lightweight Minolta camera capable of mounting Leica M lenses, then it’s actually pretty great. Sure, there are some flaws, but what 50 year old camera doesn’t have quirks to work through?