To preface this review, let me talk a little about my photographic evolution. I became interested in photography about 10 years ago, and got a small digital Kodak point-and-shoot. It had sever limitations, but I spent some time taking photographs after I moved to California. In 2006, I got a super-zoom point-and-shoot, and in early 2007 I moved to my first DSLR, a Nikon D80. I spent 2007 working with (what were at the time) high-end professional Nikons as I worked as a photographer for a newspaper. I got the film bug in 2008, and used an old Nikon N80, and a Nikon FM2, at first. I also used a Nikon F4, an Olympus ME Super, and other film SLRs. During that time I also experimented with a series of old fixed-lens rangefinders–Yashica GSN, Canonet QL17 G-III, Olympus 35RC, and others–that I enjoyed but for one reason or another didn’t quite click. However, I continued to use the D80 digital SLR until late 2009 when I upgraded to a full-frame D700. I have used a variety of Nikon lenses, but have disliked zoom lenses almost since the start; primes have been better for me in many ways.
I became frustrated with the size and weight of the Nikon, and got into the Micro Four-Thirds system early on in 2009 with the Lumix GF1. I enjoyed that camera, and used it quite a bit. When it came time to upgrade, I was faced with a world of new cameras. It seems, at times, like there is a new camera every week from a whole suite of manufacturers. I tried the GF3, thinking I could use my old lenses; I tried the Sony NEX-5n, with a larger sensor and the ability to mount older, “legacy”, glass. Finally I made a decision that has shaped my photography ever since: I tried the relatively new Fuji X100.
I immediately loved the X100, and you can read my review of that camera if you want to know more about it, and my feelings toward it. I still use the camera to this day and it is easily my favorite digital camera ever; it is my most-used digital camera day in, day out.
And just like that, I was hooked. I caught the rangefinder bug. Shortly thereafter, I got a great deal on a local Minolta CL, complete with 2 lenses: the M-Rokkor 40mm f/2 and the M-Rokkor 90mm f/4. The size and compactness of the system was wonderful. The near-silent sound of the shutter was similar to my X100, and I loved shooting film again. I had been shooting less and less film over the year before that. It was great to get back to it. I then moved on to an M3, then to an M6TTL, next a Zeiss Ikon, and finally, most recently, a Leica MP. The CL had been harder to focus and the film-loading was a pain; the M3 was great but had a limited 0.91x viewfinder and no light meter; the M6 had been a 0.85x magnification, which was still a little too tight for me; the MP has a 0.72x, which is the Leica standard. It also has no ornamentation, and since it’s a used one–not at all mint–I got a great deal. In fact, due to the scuffs and brassing it exhibits, I’m not afraid to simply throw it in my bag and shoot it. That’s a big relief; many people are so worried with the exterior of their Leica M that they forget that it is a very sturdy mechanical machine built to be used, and used hard. For many, the M is a “shelf queen” for fear of ruining the resale value of their investment.
The MP, is, as you may know, an exquisitely-crafted tool. It brings together the best point of the decades of Leica M cameras into what is surely the last film camera that will be made by Leica. The MP is still made and sold new to this day, along with the more automated M7. The MP is all brass construction, and mechanical; it uses a battery only for the light meter inside. If the batteries die or if one removes them, the camera operates as normal, leaving the exposure to the user. It has no ornamentation on the front–the red dot that has become standard with the M6 is gone in favor of the simpler design of older M cameras like the M3 or M4–which is refreshing. Personally, I find the red dot a bit distasteful. There is a simple engraving on the top plate.
The exterior of the MP looks great, but that is not, ultimately, what one buys a camera for (well, some do, but that is silly). Looks are part of the package, but what really matters is how it works. So how is it in actual usage?
The camera is heavy. An all-brass interior and exterior construction means there is a heft to the MP that there isn’t, for example, with my Zeiss Ikon. Even my M6TTL was lighter than the MP. As I said before, the MP brings together decades of Leica rangefinder design into the pinnacle of the series; it looks very similar to the cameras that have come before it. Due to the weight and the lack of a real grip, it can be difficult to hold for long periods of time (I generally use a wrist strap, so my hand is actually carrying the camera the entire time I’m shooting). For a day of shooting in the streets, for example, this can be taxing. A neck strap might take care of this, however. The film advance lever of the MP is the one used on the M3, and I prefer the plastic-tipped lever of the M6, which is what my MP has (they are customizable). It makes operation much smoother, but others may prefer the all-metal M3-style lever. The film rewind is done with the M3-style crank instead of the spinning dial of the M4/M6. Some say this makes it slower to rewind, but honestly, who shoots a Leica M for speed? Not me. I prefer the more solid-feeling crank of the MP. But again, personal style has something to do with this. With an investment of this magnitude, it is nice that there are some options to customize the Leica to suit its owner.
Film loading is the same as all previous Leica M cameras. The Zeiss Ikon, for example, has the more common swing-back that is associated with most film cameras that you will have ever used. The MP, or any other Leica M for that matter, has no window to let you know what film is loaded into it. Many other cameras have this feature which is nice if you don’t finish a roll for a while–as I sometimes do. These are mostly things that one is familiar with if one has previously used a Leica M, however.
The viewfinder of the MP is very nice. However, I prefer the viewfinder of the Zeiss Ikon for most situations. The Ikon is bigger, brighter, and easier to focus a lot of the time. I find the MP’s finder to be cramped at times, especially when I wear my eyeglasses; the framelines can be difficult to see, depending on which focal length is selected.
However, I am happy to report that the MP is a joy to use. It’s simplicity of use makes it fast and effortless to use. After a bit of time with it, I find that its operation becomes second nature. I have enough experience with exposure that I can assess a scene by adjusting shutter speed and aperture before I bring the camera to my eye, and use the internal light meter for slight adjustments once I am looking through the viewfinder by sliding the aperture as needed. It’s generally a single stop, if less. Focusing is fast and easy, but this also depends to a large degree on what lens is mounted on the camera. The maximum aperture, available light, and the length of the lens’ focus throw all play into how fast one can focus.
The film rewinding and film loading do not take that long, and with practice are just as simple as any other film camera. Loading my Hasselblad 501CM, for example, is much slower. Like I said, if you have used a Leica M rangefinder before, you will be aware of what you’re getting into.
The Leica MP is built to withstand heavy usage, and not reliant on electronics for the operation of the camera. This is one area where the M7 and the Zeiss Ikon fall behind the MP for me. Without batteries, the MP works as normal; the other two do not work at all if you lose battery power. Electronics can fail with exposure to extreme temperatures, or moisture, and will eventually fail in time regardless of how careful one is with them. With the Leica MP costing what it does, I intend for this camera to be the last film rangefinder I will ever need to buy. As such, I need many years out of it.
The shutter of the MP is near-silent, helping to stay inconspicuous when shooting people up close. In fact, the Leica rangefinder is touted by many as the “ultimate street photography camera” due to the fact that it does not attract attention when shooting it in public like a big, heavy DSLR does. To an extent, I agree with this assessment. While the compact design and discreet shutter to indeed help one avoid catching the attention of anyone being photographed, the Leica brand has become well-known over the last few years, and many people who are even marginally interested in photography know what a Leica M looks like. They are expensive and not often seen; this attracts attention and questions at times. On the other hand, while my D700 is clunky and has a shutter like a small pistol, DSLRs are now so ubiquitous that many don’t give them a second glance, allowing the shooter to fade into the background. So I can go either way on that argument.
The biggest reason for me getting my MP was the fact that I simply love the experience of shooting with a rangefinder. The process is more enjoyable, and since photography, for me, is about more than simply creating images, that matters. The final image is not all that counts, as some would have you believe. Just ask the guy who travels overseas with his heavy DSLR, collection of expensive zoom lenses, flash, and tripod, among other accessories. He may have gotten the images, but his back hurts from carrying all that gear and he didn’t enjoy himself on his trip. Contrast that with traveling simply with a Leica M body and a Fuji X100 (as I did this past year in Portgual for two weeks); not only did I get nice images (as least I think they’re nice!) but I also had a light bag to carry my gear in, and I didn’t have to spend time setting it up. I also wasn’t a target for thieves with an obviously expensive collection of gear–unless they know something about cameras. Even then, it’s a film camera. As I would ask any thief who tried to take it: “what would you do with that?”
Seriously though, the MP is enjoyable to use, easy to carry, and does not suffer from “digital rot” (the term for the rapid depreciation of digital cameras). It uses film and will continue to work as it does today forever, as long as I have it CLA’ed (cleaned, lubed, and adjusted) periodically, and take reasonable care of it. I am not concerned with the resale value of it, as I do not plan on ever selling it.
But the one question on your mind, if you are reading this (and you are), is: is the Leica MP the right camera for me? If you have to ask, then probably not. The MP is a fine camera but you can get alternatives that are much cheaper and work just as well if not better. On the used market, you can get a Zeiss Ikon for around $1000, or a used M6 for slightly more. Then why would you pay double or triple that for a used MP? Well, the differences between the MP and the M6 are very slight and not worth worrying over for most people. I don’t mean that to be condescending in any way, it’s just a fact. Most people won’t care about the brass construction, rather than the zinc of the M6. Most photographers won’t mind the red dot on the front, or if they do–they will find that electrical tape takes care of the red logo just as well, and is far cheaper. Others will not be interested based on the fact that this is not a digital camera. Still others will want the automation of the Zeiss Ikon or the M7.
If you desire a rangefinder, and can justify the money, then I think you’ll find the MP is an excellent tool. There are slight differences to the M6, and it is also–in some cases–20+ years newer than many M6s.It may not suit your needs like it suits mine, but I can highly recommend the Leica MP to anyone who is interested. The camera will not make you Henri Cartier-Bresson. If you want to capture the “decisive moment”, you can do it just as well with another camera. I would say that the Leica MP is not a camera you buy simply for the end result; rather, it’s a camera you buy to enjoy the experience of making photographs. I find that in actual usage, the camera is a joy and fun to use. It’s slower and more deliberate than any autofocus camera I have ever used. But that is fine with me. I understand that it isn’t ideal for all situations–“horses for courses”, as they say. But it works for me most of the time. And when it works, it works very well.
For me, it was worth it, and I’m happy I did. I look forward to many years with the MP, which I think of as less camera and more of a companion every time I use it. Either way, it’s a tool that works for my needs and it will be the last film Leica that I ever buy…unless I can get a nice M3 as a backup to my MP ;)