First shots with the Leica M-A

This is a short look the Leica M-A film camera, from the perspective of someone used to shooting the technically much more advanced M7.

The M7 has been my main film camera for more than five years now. What started as an experiment to reduce the size and weight of camera equipment has ultimately led a growing reliance on Leica M series rangefinders for most of my photography. A key advantage being the ability to keep the same lenses and basic shooting experience in both digital and 35mm film media.

The M7 has been an eminently practical camera, with the most accurate shutter mechanism and the option for aperture-priority auto-exposure shooting. But with the camera approaching its 2nd decade and having endured some painfully extended servicing, it felt like it was time to replace it with something newer and more dependable. The M7’s achilles heel is its central dependence on both shutters and microcontrollers that are now no longer manufactured, making repair increasingly difficult.

Leica now sells just two film bodies, the M-A and MP, which are fundamentally the same camera but with the M-A omitting any internal electronics and metering in favour of a cleaner viewfinder design.

I opted for an M-A over an MP or another second-hand camera for a number of reasons.

Firstly, I think that much of the value in 35mm film photography today comes from the limitations of the equipment, and the way that the photographer either embraces them or tries to overcome them. A meter-less body embraces this philosophy, and also gives a cleaner and less distracting viewfinder. The lack of electronics also means that I am less nervous shooting in poor conditions such as rain or extreme heat (where, for example, sweat would cause problems with the M7’s ISO dial – it gets pretty hot here in summer).

Secondly, I wanted a camera that was minimalist and discreet. The M-A does this almost perfectly, with an all-black chrome finish, no red dot and no fancy logos or unnecessary engraving. I much prefer the durable matte black chrome finish to the MP’s black paint, which is shiny and intended to wear down to brass to demonstrate that the camera has been used (personally, I think that the photographs should do that!).

And lastly, I wanted a camera that was not mechanically 50+ years old and in need of constant care and attention. The M-A is unique in that it offers a classic rangefinder design very similar to cameras from half a century ago yet it is still manufactured today.

At first, shooting with the M-A was nerve wracking. Although I have shot with other non-metered cameras, the lack of the M7’s glowing lights in the viewfinder left me with an unexpected sense of uncertainty as to whether or not my exposure was even in the right ballpark.

Of course, shooting with a meter-less camera does not mean shooting without a meter. There is the old fallback of sunny-16 (in sunlight, set the shutter speed to the reciprocal of the film ISO and set f16), and I also have a trusted Sekonic L-308X hand-held meter. But the lack of those LEDs in the viewfinder at the point of shooting somehow seemed to sap all confidence.

This initially became another of those niggling excuses to not go out and shoot, ganging up with “there will not be anything worth photographing”, “you always have the wrong lens” and “you never manage to frame things correctly anyway”. Not good.

But getting out and shooting has made all the difference – and in fact not one single frame has been exposed in a way that had not been intended.

Most of the night shots seen here were made without regard to any electronic metering at all. Even good hand-held meters can be difficult to use in high-contrast lighting, and in many cases I just used exposures that I knew had worked in similar light in the past. Push-processed monochrome film still has excellent high-light latitude – just be careful to not underexpose.

One aspect of the M-A that initially worried me was the shutter speed dial, which has a reputation for being difficult to turn and which turns the opposite way to all the Leica cameras that I have used in the past.

Yet, this has been a non-issue. The smaller dial and lack of viewfinder meter display acts as a memory cue that makes it easier when switching between cameras – and I find that I can easily move the dial with one finger while looking through the viewfinder.

The speed dial also has the benefit of a hard-stop between 1/1000th and B, which is useful when changing the shutter speed without looking. The 1/50th second speed is also useful, as the exceptionally short rotation to 1/60th allows you to feel what speed has been set without looking. This is particularly handy for night photography in Barcelona, where shutter speeds are typically between 1/15th and 1/125th.

Beyond that it is hard to say much more about the M-A. There are no new fancy features, nothing is programmable, and there will never be a firmware update.

There are, of course, differences from other Leica M film bodies, such as the design of the film winding level or the film rewind knob (both of which recall the earliest M series designs). But, these are mainly cosmetic nips and tucks, and none are a strong reason for or against this camera.

That said, there are still a couple of things that I think could be improved.

The first is the lack of a shutter lock. On the M7, there is a switch around the shutter button which both disables the metering and also locks the shutter to prevent accidental exposures. With the M-A, the camera is always ready to shoot, and so there is a risk of the shutter firing by accident when the camera is packed in a bag.

The second is the film “reminder” dial on the back of the camera. The dial does not really do anything terribly useful – it is meant as a memory aid as to what film is loaded, but anyone absent minded enough to forget what film they loaded will also likely have forgotten to set any reminder. Unfortunately, the dial is silver and extremely shiny – and it is eye-catchingly visible when carrying the body pointing downwards so as to protect the lens. Still, it is nice to know that the camera still has a traditional use for good old black gaffer tape.

At the end of the day the M-A just does the minimum needed to take accurately focused pictures with fast lenses. Nothing more and nothing less.

The feel in the hand is solid and reassuring. Its zen-like shooting experience is a refreshing antidote to modern digital photography.

For me at least, that makes it the most enjoyable camera that I have ever used.

All the images shown here were shot in Barcelona using the Leica M-A and 35mm Summilux ASPH, using Kodak 400TX (Tri-X) processed for EI1600 in XTOL. Several of the night scenes were shot at the annual Llum festival in Sant Martí.

5 Comments »

  1. Your photographs get better and better, Mark! I love it when I receive posts from Transient Eye!

    The M-A is the modern equivalent of my M4-2. Never say never, but I will likely not ever sell that M. Simplicity, durability, reliability, minimalistic. I don’t shoot enough 35mm film these days, but I’ll just keep that one and a couple of lenses around for when I want to. My M4-2 is 1978 issue; I had the viewfinder serviced when I bought it in 2012 and know that the shutter needs an overhaul (probably new curtains etc) but it’s only off a smidge at 1/1000 and 1/500, still no reason to spend the money. Eminently restorable to as new condition still.

    If I didn’t have it and wanted a new M, I’d be first in line for the M-A. Although I see better and make more satisfying photos with a digital sensor nowadays, I still love to work with film images too.

    • Thanks Godfrey. I tried to find a good condition M4P in black, but the only ones that I could find either really beaten up or sufficiently expensive that the jump to a newer camera made sense.

      For a while, I did seriously consider moving to a Monochrom, and I suspect that I will at some point in the future. Digital black-and-white has its own really seductive look.

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