A Return to Form: Leica's M6 is Reborn
Now, you may be thinking to yourself – why on earth would any company want to manufacture a new film camera in 2022? Let alone one that costs as much as a Tudor Black Bay Chronograph or Omega Seamaster 300M – and that’s just for the camera body. Well, the answer is simple – people still really give a damn about film photography.
Some would go far as to say that film photography is having a renaissance. Take Kodak, for example. They have seen their still film production increase every single year since 2015; and it has more than doubled from 2015 to 2019. New companies like 35mm Co. have exploded onto the scene with inexpensive and reusable film cameras, making over $2 million in sales during their first year of business.
Why is film growing? With the proliferation of smartphones and digital cameras, it seems that we’re in an era of fast photography. People don’t think twice when their camera fires off the equivalent of an entire roll of film in seconds. Perhaps analog photography is growing precisely because it offers the exact opposite experience – every aspect is slower and more finite, the images are always a little imperfect, you can’t see them right away, and they become physical once developed.
All in the Feel
Could it have something to do with the tactile experience film photography provides? Take the music industry in recent years. In the US, vinyl record sales have increased steadily every year since 1986, despite ever-evolving technology. From 2020 to 2021 sales jumped by 51.4%, marking the first time that vinyl record sales surpassed the sale of CDs since they were introduced. This to me says that we as humans ultimately place greater importance on the physical experience than ease of access.
It’s not just about sales numbers either – Kodak’s Instagram account has over 1 million followers. Ilford Photo, the UK photography manufacturer known for its black and white film, has nearly half a million. Artist and professional photographer, Joe Greer, who almost exclusively shoots on film, has over six hundred thousand Instagram followers. And on TikTok, arguably the barometer for where Gen Z’s attention currently lies, a search for “film photography” has 880 million views.
The Legend of the M System
The Leica M System was introduced in 1954 with the release of the Leica M3, alongside an entirely new system of lenses that affix to the camera body much like a bayonet. Now with the push of a button, a simple quarter twist, and a tactile click, the lens was free. Prior to this system, lenses that could be removed were screwed into the camera, like a lightbulb. This made for a slow and sometimes clumsy experience. The M3 was also the first new release for Leica in about 20 years and would go on to shape the design language of cameras forever.
30 years later, the original Leica M6 was released. And from 1984 to when it was discontinued in 2002, the M6 was in constant production. Over the course of 15 years, nearly 175,000 units were produced and the M6 became a legend unto itself thanks to its discreet nature, utilitarian design, and extreme reliability. Some of the most recognizable names in photography used it, from Henri Cartier-Bresson, Annie Leibovitz, Jim Marshall, and Mary Ellen Mark. More than fifty special editions of the original M6 were created, including a gold-plated version and one literally fit for royalty – a 1995 edition commemorating the wedding of the Crown Prince of Norway.
Leica stopped producing the M6 in 2002, but even to this day, people still continue to review the original M6. And now, twenty years later, the iconic camera is set for a comeback with the release of the new 2022 M6.
Weighing in at 575 grams, the new M6 only weighs 15 grams more than the original, which is remarkable considering that the top and bottom covers are now milled from solid brass. The original M6 was manufactured using a die-cast zinc.
Beyond that, everything else remains the same. When you turn the camera over in your hands, you’ll see the same iconic shutter speed dial, slanted quick-wind lever, bottom-loading film chamber, and red Leitz logo (instead of Leica). Think of this not an entirely new camera, but the same one we know and love, but now made with modern machining, tighter tolerances, and more durable materials.
Leitz, Camera, Leica!
While my time with the new M6 during a recent visit to Leica’s headquarters in Wetzlar was brief, there was virtually no learning curve to using it. The simplicity of its controls outstrips the necessity for the complexities of modern digital cameras. Your choices are simple – focus, aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. The only electronic component is an exposure meter (visible through the viewfinder), powered by a battery. In the unfortunate event that your power supply is depleted, the M6 will still continue to operate, just without an exposure meter thanks to its mechanical-first design. Holding the new M6 for the first time, I couldn’t help but feel like I had used a camera like this before. Most, if not all analog 35mm (and digital rangefinder) cameras use some part of its hallmark design.
The small, boxy camera has a matte black finish that keeps the new M6 looking discreet both in front of and away from your face, which is exactly what you want when you’re in the thick of it. The lacquer used to cover the brass body is also highly scratch-resistant, keeping it looking newer for longer. Both of the rangefinder windows now have a special coating to significantly reduce stray light when metering for your exposure.
The Intersection of Art and Science
I think if you were to create a Venn diagram of the qualities of Leica cameras and luxury watches, you’d probably find a significant overlap – extreme high-quality, precision, reliability, and accuracy. The supreme attention to detail is present on every surface of the M6 and I believe it will satisfy the fastidious nature present in virtually all watch enthusiasts.
Leica has also taken great care in perfecting the haptic experience. From the sound the shutter makes, to the glide-click of the shutter speed dial, every aspect of this camera has been carefully considered. Using this camera is not just about the resulting images, but the entire experience of photographing.
Now, if I haven’t convinced you to go and find your old film point-and-shoot camera at the bottom of your closet, or to unpack a parent’s old film camera, I strongly encourage you to visit your local Leica store and try the new M6 for yourself. With a store, boutique, or authorized dealer on every continent, you owe it to yourself to experience one at least once.
The new Leica M6 Rangefinder Camera is available worldwide for $5,295.
(Photography by Liam O'Donnell)