My Leica M6TTL has become central to my photography over the last couple of years. I have recently begun to reflect on what I value about this camera, partly through writing about photography, and partly through my restless experimenting with different cameras and formats. Why, I’ve asked myself, does this camera endure? Proclamations of love for a specific piece of kit or format may be doomed to later contradiction, but it is very tempting to say that if I could only keep and use but one camera it might well be this, 50mm lens attached.
I remember picking up the M6TTL for the first time: it was much heavier than I expected. It is not unusual for people to have this experience when picking up Leicas for the first time - they look small but are surprisingly solid and hefty. Leicas are handmade tools and are built to last. I bought mine second-hand, very lightly used; I believe it dates from the turn of the new millennium. I remember it being cold and resolutely machine-like. Having used a largely plastic DSLR (along with some compact cameras) for some time, this was something of a shock.
I had read a great deal about the famous ergonomics and design of the Leica, but I can’t say it felt luxurious in my hands. I did notice how smooth the wind-on lever was and the shutter press felt ‘silky’, if somewhat recessed. I had used quasi-rangefinder cameras before: I played briefly with a Zorkii to study the design and shooting method, and I had used a diminutive Ricoh GR1s for many years (not a rangefinder of course, but, having a finder unconnected to the lens, unlike an SLR). I found that the design and operation of the Leica is quite distinct. I wouldn’t advise anybody to try out a ‘budget’ rangefinder to see if they may like a Leica. There isn’t enough information there and it can therefore be a false economy.
The pictures I first made with the Leica were impressively sharp. As a result, printing the negatives in the darkroom yielded a clear and much-appreciated lift in the quality of my prints. There are various theories as to why Leica cameras yield this advantage. The most obvious one is the lack of a reflex mirror. Only the cloth shutter is at work when the picture taken and thus the camera subject to fewer vibrations. Another is that the form and heft of the camera, often pressed to one’s face for extra support, allows one to press the shutter with a very gentle squeeze. I soon followed the Leica crowd and installed a soft release in my camera’s shutter button. I do believe this facilitates a more gentle and responsive shutter press. The winder also allows one to install one’s thumb behind it as one presses. This I believe is a reason why people install ‘thumbs-up’ metal supports into the hotshoe of digital Leicas.
The other thing that strikes you straight away is the finder. (I should say for completeness that I write about 50mm framelines on a 0.72 viewfinder magnification. This is significant technically because other focal lengths, finders, and cameras won’t give you the same view). The framelines sit within a wider frame. Photographing, one has the sensation of isolating ‘pictures’ in a bigger continuum of the world. I have written elsewhere about the effect and it’s something I really enjoy. As I look at the frame I can visualise my image as a picture (print) separated out from what is around it, but I still have the information of what is outside the frame. Some people particularly like being able to see things before they enter the frame, but it’s not so much this as the feeling of looking at a picture that I enjoy (and indeed, that I miss terribly on my digital mirrorless camera).
I started using my Leica for candid portraits as soon as I had it. Looking back on these early days, I see some of my favourite people images, and cannot help but think that the Leica raised my game. This may be nothing more than a subconscious owner’s pride, or an attempt to live up to the famous marque. After all, as Roger Hicks has pointed out, you hardly have any excuse for your poor photography when shooting with a Leica. I don’t believe it is this (or just this): I think the process of manually setting aperture and shutter speed, of conscious pre-focussing, of the need to imagine depth of field and indeed the film emulsion (in short, properly to visualise the result), leads to more careful and perhaps more memorable shots. Maybe it is the gap between taking and seeing an image with film that leads me to remember more vividly my film shots, but I think the care that the Leica demands seems to play a part too.
Leicas are not intimidating cameras to point at your subjects. I found that my regular family muses soon started to ignore the little M6TTL and went about their business, just as I like from a photographer’s point of view. Leicas are quiet, to the extent that subjects are hardly aware when a picture is taken. As we all know, this is a blessing because of the ‘acting up’ effect of so many initial encounters with a conspicuous camera and shutter.
So I return in conclusion to my original question about why the M6TTL has endured, for me. It is a well-made, hard wearing, quiet, unassuming camera that demands manual control and close attention to aperture, shutter speed, depth of field and timing. It offers a view peculiar to it (although we could speak of different views imposed by digital cameras and advantages therein) and encourages visualisation. Technical quality, when employed properly, is superb (there is a case for saying second to none with 35mm film, notwithstanding the role of different lenses and other factors). I know that the fact that I shoot film is of importance to me and surely a factor in my regard for the M6TTL.
My preferences are my preferences, they may not be yours. If, however, the factors mentioned above are important to you, or even spark your interest (and you haven’t yet tried this camera or something very like it), then a very interesting journey may well await you. Maybe a Leica M6TTL will turn out to be your ‘one camera choice’ too.