(and their faults)

Recently a young friend inherited five Leicas, along with a load of other kit, some of it valuable, much of it junk. I'd known her father since the 1970s, when we were both in our 20s.  She was born on my 40th birthday, but as we were living on different continents at the time. I didn't even meet her until she was 12. Then in 2008 (when she was 18), she came to us for Christmas and has since become so close that Frances and I often just introduce her as our daughter (we have no other children) instead of explaining the whole back story.

Anyway, her actual biological father died in late 2016. By then he and her mother had long been separated, and her stepmother was no longer on the scene either. She wants to get rid of the stuff, splitting the proceeds between herself and her four siblings, and she couldn't figure out how to do it. That's where I came in. The chance to try five different, new-to-me Leicas was irresistible, so I borrowed them to write them up. They're all for sale, preferably quickly (she also inherited a house that needs doing up for sale) and you can contact her at

In order of age, the Leicas were (are) an M3 from about 1961; an M2 from about 1966; an M4-2 from 1977; an M4-P from 1982 ; and an M6 from 1998 (the only one that's younger than his/our daughter). In other words the newest of them was almost 20 years old when I wrote this, and the oldest was at least 55 years old. Even the newest needs minor repair. The oldest is frankly ratty. I was going to try putting a film through each of them, but given that they all have their faults, I decided not to bother. 

Why are they still worth anything? Because they are very good 35mm cameras. Even after allowing for the price of repairs, they're worth a total of two or three thousand dollars, pounds or euros, simply to use. Yes, at the time of writing £2000 was about 2150€ or $2350 and £3000 was about 3450€ or $3750, but the differences in currencies are lost in the noise of foreign exchange fluctuations and in the different values of the cameras in France (where we all live), the UK and the USA, to say nothing of the practicalities of flogging the things and what she can actually get for them. 

Of course there's the Leica name and its associated mystique, but really, that's beside the point. They're just cameras. Either you get on with them or you don't. If you do, there's nothing quite like them. I've got on with them since 1969 when my girlfriend bought a 1932 Leica II. A few weeks later, after she kept asking for it back, I bought a 1936 Leica IIIa. I got my first M-series in about 1974.

It's often said that if you buy an old Leica, you need to figure in the cost of a "CLA", a "clean, lubricate and adjust". This is only partly true. A cheap CLA can do more harm than good, because all they do is sluice out the old lubricants (whichmay not remove all the dried up stuff), slosh in some new lubricant (often something unsuitable); and then over-tighten the springs to bring the speeds back. After quite a year or two, the camera may be worse than it was before, with more wear, less accurate speeds, and everything stiffening up again. At the other extreme, a proper strip, clean and overhaul with renewal of all worn parts could easily cost six or seven hundred euros. At the least, a basic CLA should cost around 150€, and twice that is not out of the way.

Remember that if a dealer is offering a 3-month guarantee, they have little incentive to pay for an expensive CLA before selling. Rather, all they need is to get the camera in working order, with the cheapest possible repair. If you want to keep and use the camera for the long term, you'll do better to go to a good repairer and pay for the CLA yourself. Unless you are a collector rather than a user, don't buy too many Leicas either: better two or three that are used regularly than four or five, some of which are hardly ever used. 

This is why I have suggested to our daughter that she sells the cameras un-CLA'd: uncleaned, unlubricated and unadjusted. That way, the buyers get exactly what I've described here, and can decide for themselves what to do. 

Unsurprisingly, the newest camera, the black chrome M6, is in the best condition  The shutter speeds are not perfect, but they are not far off. Even the worst is within tolerance and the rest are spot on or 1/3 stop out. Given that the camera was almost 20 years old at the time of testing, and has been sitting in a cupboard for most of that time, this is pretty good. The actual figures (from my ZTS Pro) are 1/1000=1/640; 1/500=1/500; 1/250=1/250; 1/125=1/100; 1/60=1/60; 1/50=1/50; 1/30=1/30 or 1/25; 1/15=1/15; 1/8=1/8; 1/4=1/4; 1/2=0.42-0.50; 1=1.

 It's cosmetically excellent, but it has one very minor and one fairly minor thing wrong with it. The very minor problem is the the rangefinder is off horizontally: infinity is reached at about 50 metres. This is an easy DIY fix. The fairly minor problem is that the viewfinder frames are stuck. If you change lenses, or operate the preview lever, nothing happens: it's stuck on 28mm/90mm. This happens when the camera is not used for a long time or if it's only ever used with one lens, without operating the preview lever occasionally. My M4-P, always used with the 35 Summilux, suffers from the same problem, though it's stuck on 35mm. It's a quick, easy, cheap repair, and along with the rangefinder it's all that's needed, though no doubt some people would go for a CLA. Well, if they want to waste their money, who am I to argue? 

Because it's the 0.85x viewfinder model, which is apparently more sought after than 0.72x, and because it even comes with its original box and the sticky base plate protector (now peeling slightly), I've told her it should fetch 900-1000€; call it $1000-1100 or £750-850. It would cost a lot more at a dealer's but they'd fix the masks and give a guarantee.

At the other extreme, when it comes to condition, age and value, the M3 is frankly ratty. 

There are patches of vulcanite missing, and more fell off while I was taking the pictures for this, as seen in the picture immediately below. You can see it partly off in the picture about three shots below, from the base. It's not worth sticking it back on, because it really is quite crumbly. 

The paint on and around the back door is scabby and manky:

The top and bottom plates are scuffed, especially the top where a Leica Meter has been slid on and off:

...and the first shutter curtain is hanging up, i.e. not closing fast enough. This means that it doesn't open at all at 1/1000 and the rest of the frames are unevenly exposed. It might just about work from 1/30 to 1/125. On the bright side, all the frames work; so does the self timer; and the rangefinder appears to be accurate, at least by the crude old test that if it works at infinity (easily tested) and looks about right at one metre, it'll probably work OK throughout the range. 

Even as a "beater" Leica, in need of at least 100€ of cleaning and repairs, it's probably worth 200-250€; and of course because it's a Leica it could be restored, at least mechanically,  to "as new" condition by anyone sufficiently determined,. Re-cover the body and it could look pretty good too. Do-it-yourself "re-skin" kits start at under $20, call it £15, and there's quite a choice at under $30. It's apparently quite an easy job. It might be more fun, though, to get a decent CLA and then use it as a deliberately ratty, ugly old camera. 

The camera I'd be inclined to go for is the M2, partly because it's my favourite non-metered Leica, but also because the rangefinder works and and the speeds are very good. 

Cosmetically it's a lot prettier than the M3, with just a tiny chip out of the vulcanite but (like the M6) the viewfinder masks are sticky. They're better than the M6, in that the lever brings up 35-50-90, but the actuator is slightly off so you need to use it in order to see all of the border to each frame. 

The shutter speeds are however very good indeed for a camera that's more than 50 years old: 1/1000=1/800 to 1/500, 1/500=1/500 to 1/250, 1/250=1/200 to 1/125, 1/125=1/100 to 1/125, 1/60=1/50 to 1/60, 1/50=1/50, 1/30=1/25, 1/15=1/13, 1/8=1/6, 1/4=1/3, 1/2=2/3, 1=1.3. I estimate the value an easy 300€, and maybe even as much as 400€. 

You can see that the leatherette on the hinged back has lifted on one side, and has come away entirely on the left side. The missing piece fell of while I was photographing the cameras, and of course I could have stuck it back on, but in keeping with the "truth in advertising" that I wanted to promote in this piece, I decided not to. I just put it in a glassine negative bag and kept it with the camera.

The original M4 (also found German-made, and in black paint, both of which increase the value considerably) was the first to have four frames: 35-50-90-135, with 35 and 135 appearing simultaneously. It also had a rewind crank instead of a knob

Variants of the M4 tend to be somewhat unloved by many Leica users, especially the Made in Canada versions. Partly this is a mystical belief that Leica Elves can flourish only in or near Wetzlar or Solms; partly it is that when new, they were often rather rougher feeling than their predecessors (though they smooth out with use); and partly it was the black chrome finish in place of black paint, which is loved by some and hated by rather more. 

A more telling objection is that because of a change in the viewfinder design, later M4s and both the M4-2 and the M4-P suffer far worse than earlier cameras from rangefinder patch flare-out: it just goes white and you can't use it. This occurs only under a very limited range of lighting conditions: basically, spotlights in just the wrong place. Some people never encounter it, and swear either that it doesn't exist or that it doesn't affect their camera. On the other hand when I was shooting a folk festival in Kent I found that I couldn't use my M4-P but that both my M2s (I've since sold one) worked fine Current Leicas (M7 I think, and certainly MP and digital) have reverted to something closer to the old design. You can have M4 to M6 Leicas modified professionally to remove or at least greatly reduce the problem. If you go for a CLA it's probably worth having this done at the same time. 

The M4-2 was essentially a reintroduction of the M4: the M5 was less than enthusiastically received. The only real differences are the ability to accept a big, heavy electric motor, and the absence of the self timer. Like the M4, but unlike earlier Leicas, it has the vastly inferior but much more popular PC (Prontor/Compur) flash connector.

Cosmetically this one is pretty good in black chrome: a mark above the accessory shoe (just visible in the picture above and rather clearer in the one below), the usual rub marks from straps (nothing like as bad as mine), and a small amount of wear and tear on the base plate.

One of the synch sockets on the back (the M-synch, so you can still use the X-synch) is missing, too. As far as I can see there's nothing broken in there, but apparently a disintegrating flash synch block (the bit the socket screws into) is a known fault on the M4-2. I'd be inclined just to tape it over or to fill the empty hole with a dab of hot glue. But then, I buy Leicas to use, not to admire.

On the other hand, it needs to go in for repair anyway. The frames all work fine, but the rangefinder is off both horizontally and vertically. This is an easy DIY fix. but the shutter speeds are another matter. The high speeds are just about inside tolerance but vary according to whether the camera is held "portrait" or "landscape": they are 1/1000=1/500 to 1/800; 1/500=1/250 to 1/500; 1/250 = 1/125 to 1/200; 1/125=1/100 to 1/125; 1/ 60=1/50 to 1/60; flash = 1/50; and then, all other speeds = 1/60. This suggests that the slow speed train is failing to engage, so it definitely needs cleaning. The fact that it's a newer camera than the M2, and in better cosmetic condition, pushes the value up. The fact that it's barely usable as it stands unless you stick to shutter speeds above 1/30  pushes it back down again, but not quite as far: I reckoned maybe 400-450€. And remember: it is over a third of a century old. 

The M4-P is a revised version of the M4-2 with additional frames for 28mm (appearing at the same time as 90mm) and 75mm (appearing at the same time as 50mm). Some feel that this gives an excessively cluttered viewfinder. Others like the extra frames, especially the 28mm, 

This one is cosmetically even better than the M4-2, and all the frames are fine, but the rangefinder is very slightly off (infinity coming up at about 100 metres) and although the shutter speeds are mostly pretty good (see below), during the course of testing two speeds (1/8 and 1/4) intermittently reverted to 1/60 and 1/4 was all over the place. You can hear this when it happens but if you are shooting that those speeds this is not necessarily a great consolation. 

Measured speeds were 1/1000=1/500; 1/500=1/320 to 1/400; 1/250=1/200; 1/125=1/125; 1/60=1/60; 1/50=1/50; 1/30=1/40; 1/15=1/13; 1/8=1/8-1/13 or 1/60; 1/4=1/3 or 2/3 or 1/5 or 1/10 or 1/60; 1/2=1/3 to 2/3; 1=1/3 to 1.3. 

Again, the camera is usable, subject to the problems with 1/4 and 1/8, and either it or the M6 would probably be my second choice after the M2. My valuation on this one is 500-550€, but again, I'd want it mucked out sooner or later. 

So there you have it. Five Leicas, "the best cameras in the world", all in need of a greater or lesser degree of tender loving care; or "repair", as we say in English. 

Five Leicas, which after something between a small repair to a complete rebuild will be usable for decades more. Five Leicas, which are something of an embarrassment of riches: when you're looking at that many, and not really planning on buying any of them, it's quite easy not to notice things like the missing synch socket on the M4-2, at least at first. This is particularly dangerous when you really, really want a particular model, and it comes up at a good price, even if it is in as appalling a state as the M3. 

For that matter, I'm almost tempted to offer her 200€ for the M3 and use it teach myself Leica repair. Then I could sort out the others (and the viewfinder masks on my own M4-P) and she could charge much more for them. If you're thinking of contacting her, be warned: Leicas are seriously addictive

All of them illustrate that the worst thing you can do to a Leica is not use it. At the very least, run through the shutter speeds a few times a year, and exercise the preview lever. I really ought to get rid of my own M4-P for this very reason: I don't use it as much as my M2 or MP. But it's well worn, with appalling worn patches where the strap rubs against the body, s  it's not worth very much, so I persuade myself to keep it.  As I say... They're addictive. 

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Words and pictures copyright (c) Roger Hicks 2017