Solid Leica M Reference¶
writer: russell j.t. dyer; posted: sep 2009; revised: oct 2017; readers past month: 803
Review of Leica M Compendium
author: Jonathan Eastland
publisher: Hove Books Ltd.
Buy on Amazon
The Leica M Compendium is a fine book on Leica M cameras and Leica lenses with the bayonet or M mount, as well as many related accessories. It’s written by Jonathan Eastland, a professional photographer who is an expert on Leica cameras and published by Hove Books (who seems to be out-of-business). In many ways this book is out-of-date since it was published in 1994. It doesn’t include any Leica M cameras after the M6. So, the M7 is not mentioned and when it was written the author knew nothing about the M8 or M9 digital cameras. Nevertheless, it’s still an excellent resource after fifteen years and will remain so for many more years: just like the Leica cameras that are still bought and used for decades. Besides, those who are looking to buy their first Leica tend to look to the less expensive older models. On that basis in particular, this book will be very useful to them.
The Leica M Compendium is a bit pricey and it’s reminiscent of an old text book with all black and white photos and layout style. However, considering how much one can spend on a Leica camera and lenses, the price is miniscule. I can’t imagine that there are bad Leica purchases — assuming one pays a fair price. However, wishing one had bought a different model camera or lens is likely and can be particularly upsetting given the higher prices.
There are ten chapters and a few appendices to this book on the Leica M cameras and lenses. Weighing in at a little under two-hundred pages — that’s with letter size pages — and a list price of fifty-dollars (about $36 on Amazon), you get a hefty book at a chunky price. However, it’s worth it if you start buying Leica cameras and lenses and use this as your guide.
If you’re going to immerse yourself in the world of Leica (particularly the M series), you can expect some skepticism from photographer friends. You need to be able to converse about the attributes of Leica M cameras. To that end, Chapter 1 covers the history of each Leica camera, as well as the attributes of each. For instance, despite what you might think as a newcomer, the M3 came before the M2, and it before the M1. Related to this, you should have a specific reason for buying an MD since it doesn’t have a viewfinder or an LCD screen.
Chapter 2 goes through the Leica lenses available at the time that Eastland wrote the book. These lenses, along with a few newer ones, are still manufactured and sold today. For some, Leica has released a newer version taking advantage of new technology (i.e., lens coating), but most of the basics are unchanged. Sorting through the different nomenclatures of Leica lenses (e.g., Summilux, Noctilux, and Elmarit) can be confusing. The author lists the attributes of each lens and suggests situations in which each would be useful. These first two chapters account for about a third of the book and they alone make it worth having.
Chapter 3 basically explains how to use a rangefinder, the viewing system of the Leica M camera. This includes not only the built-in viewer, but also viewers that you can purchase and attach to the top of the camera. This can be necessary when using a lens that has a focal length different than the lengths for which the camera was designed or just to have an enlarged view for focusing. The last couple of pages of this chapter introduce Visoflex attachments. A Visoflex attachment is used basically to convert a Leica camera into a reflex camera. This is useful with long focal length lenses. Chapter 4 explain how to use a Leica with a Visoflex. If you want a Leica reflex camera, though, you probably should buy one of the Leica R system cameras instead — or an SLR from another maker since Leica discontinued the R line.
In Chapter 5, Eastland goes through many of the accessories available for the M system. This includes the Leicameter (a separate light meter that is attached to the top of an M camera); the Leicavit, the Winder, and the Rapidwinder (all three attach to the camera to wind the film faster); and the lens carrier (which seems quite ridiculous to me). This chapter also discusses lens hoods, filters, and flash guns.
From Chapter 6 on the book becomes more of a tutorial and less of a historical and factual reference book on the Leica M cameras and lenses. This is not to say that the material isn’t specific to the Leica M system. There is plenty of equipment specific information and related photos and illustrations. Chapter 6 involves the basics, a ‘Getting Started’ booklet of sorts on the M camera. Normally, such a chapter is in the beginning of a camera specific book like this. However, it seems more appropriate here since most readers need help understanding the Leica equipment before buying one. After the reader has purchased a camera and at least one lens, they will be looking for this kind of information to start using their camera. So, Chapter 6 explains how to load the film — a very different experience with a Leica camera — and all that relates to that subject. It also explains how to focus the camera — also different for many since it’s a rangefinder camera — and how to take pictures with a Leica M camera. Photography is all about exposure of the film (or the image sensor, in the case of digital cameras) to light. To that end, in Chapter 7 Eastland explains the light meter system of a Leica M camera, in particular the M6 camera — the latest model as of the writing of the book, which would still apply to the M7. He also points out the advantages of using a Leicameter, the light meter attachment that he touched on in Chapter 5.
Chapter 8 is a nice chapter on photograph composition and selecting the proper lens for various situations. It also has some good text on street photography, something of a specialty associated with the quiet Leica rangefinder cameras — making it popular among photojournalists. Following this aspect of the Leica, Chapter 9 explores some practical considerations related to photojournalism. In Chapter 10, Eastland provides an afterword about Leica cameras, great photographers who have used them and some thoughts on the company that makes Leica cameras.
Book Reading & Equipment Buying Guide
Most people don’t read non-fiction, technical books from cover to cover. As a person who writes them, I can tell you that some authors don’t even write them in order. They tend to be more modular, albeit coherent when viewed in a linear way. So, if you’re going to jump around and plan on buying your first Leica camera soon, I would suggest that you first read the Introduction of this book. Then go on ebay and look through some of the Leica cameras (look at cameras already sold, not ones just listed) to see which models you think you can afford. Next, read about the M3 camera (even if you’re not going to buy that model) and the section related to the camera model you’re thinking about buying. Then go back to ebay and look for models that are still on auction and read the descriptions of them and look closely at the photographs, trying to understand what each knob and setting does. The descriptions will usually mention the condition of various aspects of the camera (e.g., the shutter’s condition), as well as what year the camera was made. Compare these comments to what is written in this book. As you go along, you may reconsider which model you want. The whole process will teach you much more about Leica cameras. There’s a lot to learn about Leica and the information will be valid for decades, given the consistent history of Leica cameras.
Often, Leica cameras are sold separately from the lenses on ebay. This is good since you won’t get a price break for buying the lens with the camera. Remember, it’s an auction, so buyers set the price and they don’t do each other favors when bidding. The advantage of lenses being sold separately, though, is that you can buy the one you want. Just be sure to buy one with a Leica bayonet or Leica M-Mount and not a Leica screw or thread mount lens: those are for pre-M models. Leica produces rangefinder lenses of three focal lengths, typically: 35mm, 50mm, and 90mm They have more than these three (i.e, 21mm, 28mm, etc.), but these are the most common. Plus, the viewer on the M camera will have frame lines based on these three focal lengths. If you buy something odd, you’ll need to attach an external viewer to the top of the camera — which look both dorky and cool. So, you need to decide which focal length to buy.
If you’re buying a Leica, you probably already have another camera, probably a DSLR camera. If so, you probably also either have multiple prime lenses or you have a zoom lens or two. Pull out your DSLR camera and attach a lens that has a 35mm focal length. See how close you have to get to a subject to take a photograph. Think about what kind of photographs you typically take. If it’s landscape photography, then maybe 35mm is fine. If it’s street photography, if you want to get closer shots of people that you don’t know, you may prefer a 90mm lens. Try out one of your lenses that has a focal length of 90mm — zoom to 90mm with a zoom lens if you don’t have a prime lens that’s close to that length — and see if it will work for you. If you’re doing portraits where the subject will let you get close, or if you’re taking pictures of buildings and general travel photography, this might be too much. Maybe 50mm is a good balance for you. These are the kinds of things you have to consider. Basically, play with the equipment you already have and think about what kind of photography you like, what kind of pictures you would like to take with your Leica camera. You can eventually get more lenses. However, since you will be spending a good deal of money on the camera and just one lens, the first lens should be one that will allow you to have good experiences with your new camera.
After you’ve narrowed down to the focal length that you want, flip to the table of contents on this book and find the sections of Chapter 2 which covers Leica lenses of that focal length. Read each of those sections so that you know what each lens can offer you. Then go on Amazon and find those lenses to see how much they cost when new. Then check out sites like Adorama and ebay to see how much a used one might cost you — don’t be fooled by opening bids: they’re not cheap and ebay buyers are ignorant. Leica cameras are solidly made cameras and can take a lot of abuse. So a used Leica camera will usually be fine. However, I’m leery about used lenses: they can be broken, scratched, and become cloudy from age. For me, the lens is the most important part of the equation. That’s where I try to put most of my money. Still, you probably should buy what you can afford and what you feel comfortable buying.
Once you get your camera and lens, pull out this book again and read Chapter 3 for help loading the film and for help understanding how to focus a rangefinder camera — assuming you’ve never used one before. It’s not readily intuitive, but I think it’s better and quicker once you know what to do. After having read and fiddled, then go out and take some pictures, pictures of anything — preferably outdoors to make an outing of it — and then drop the film off to be developed. Calm yourself about having to wait a day or two to get the pictures. The results and feeling are going to be different and in time (if not immediately) you’ll see that they are worth the wait. After you look through your photographs from your first rangefinder film camera adventure with a Leica, pull out your book again and now read Chapters 6 (on basic handling) and 8 (on composition and street photography), and then maybe a light read of Chapter 7 (on light metering) if you’re still wanting to read and not anxious to go back out and take pictures again. After your second round or two of shooting with your Leica, even if you read skimmed Chapter 7 already, read it thoroughly now and maybe reread Chapter 8 while considering your experiences.
Unless you want to read the entire book because that’s your style, reading carefully only the chapters highlight above in this reading guide section should be enough for most people. Readers that don’t want to convert their Leica rangefinder camera into a relex camera can skip Chapter 4. You probably can just skim Chapter 5 (on accessories), slowing down to the parts in which you’re interested. The rest of the pages of the book you can flip to as you need to refer to them over the years.
If you’re new to Leica cameras, especially if you’re thinking of buying your first Leica, you should consider buying a used, older model Leica from a camera store (e.g., Adorama) or from ebay. It will cost you a few thousand dollars less and, since Leica cameras are so durable and change very little between models, it will probably work just fine. If you think you might do that, you definitely should get a copy of this book. Even if you’re going to get a new model, you’ll still find value in this book. So, get a copy before you buy a Leica camera and put some time in reading it carefully, referring back to it as you shop.