WHY A M6 TTL? WHY A FIFTEEN YEAR OLD CAMERA?
If you are looking for an in-depth, technical review, forget it. I suggest you look elsewhere. As a Leica user since the 1970s, the following are my thoughts and experiences with a model I love and use pretty much most of the time. I assume you have knowledge of Leicas… hope this post is of use…
There is little at all logical about choosing a camera, especially a Leica M. Sure, one can put together a plus-and-minus spreadsheet listing the pros and cons of different models compared to one’s wants and needs. There are umpteen pages on the web giving advice and recommendations, some insightful and useful, some not. There are Leica ‘haters’ and ‘fans’, ‘users’ and ‘collectors’ all equally passionate in the their views. I’m of the ‘user’ variety, one who has found empathy with a camera that suits my needs and one I love to use at every opportunity.
In the end, for most, I guess it comes down to the heart over the head when deciding on one model over another. What one person applauds, another disdains. So here’s my reasoning as to ‘Why a M6 TTL?’
Leica’s film flagship and, by any measure, a supreme example of the camera maker’s art and craft, built for a lifetime’s work without compromise. Many a Leica film aesthete’s ultimate goal, it is a camera pared to the minimum… and not my first choice. Basically, it boils down to the fact that I prefer the M6 TTL’s larger speed dial. That said, if one came my way at a good price…
In essence the M7 is a M6 TTL with the addition of electronic aperture-priority, and together with the MP, Leica’s only other film camera in their current inventory. A reputation (some will say undeserved) for somewhat dodgy electronics and flaky DX coding (especially in the early days) puts me off and, frankly, I don’t need auto exposure. Though more than this, the blinking LEDs in the viewfinder when making an exposure or ISO compensation, and a shutter speed limited to 1/60 and 1/125 without batteries is not to my taste, and its shutter release is not as smooth as a M6. Also, I dislike its angled rewind: the one on my M4-P was vulnerable to being knocked open in use and in consequence it failed and needed repair.
Since primarily I use a 35mm lens on a rangefinder, the M2 is my favourite of the ‘classic’ Ms with its 35, 50 and 90mm framelines. There is something indefinably magical about how, together with M3, this beauty fits the hand (maybe the fact that the M2 and M3 are 4.5mm thinner than a M6 TTL has something to do with it). Handle and use a good example and one will quickly appreciate its buttery smooth controls that pretty much eclipse many a modern camera. However, M2s are knocking on a bit, so not for me as an everyday camera, and they don’t have a built-in meter. Another sticking point is that I just can’t get along with the early M2’s film loading, although a ‘rapid load’ model came along at the end of its production.
A much better film loading system that the M2, the addition of 28mm framelines, and like the M2, no meter. Mine had a MC meter. A camera that took all I asked of it… and more… and a favourite of the diehard rangefinder-toting photographers of the 1980s. Mine never let me down, except for the angled rewind crank getting damaged.
The M6 TTL
For me, it just does its stuff. No fuss, no bother, including loading. Remove the base. Drop in a cassette, pull the leader into the ‘tulip’ take-up spool, make sure the cassette is seated properly, close the back flap, attach the base, wind on one frame, fire. Job done, ready to go. I get 39 from a 36-ex roll.
Speed Dial & Meter
I like the larger speed dial that I can turn with the edge of my index finger with the camera to my eye. I’m not bothered that it turns the ‘wrong way’ compared to my ex-M4-P and its clip-on meter. All that matters is that the dial turns in the correct direction for a M6 TTL’s meter. The meter readout is simplicity itself. Three red LEDs (>O<) the left and right pointing to the direction of travel for the speed dial or aperture ring to give correct exposure with the centre LED lit (O). There is also a flash ready LED but I do not use flash.
Primative judged by today’s multi-matrix, all-singing, all-dancing meters, the M6 TTL’s meter reads off a 12mm diameter white spot printed on the cocked shutter blind, which equates to about 13 per cent of the negative area. It works wonderfully well. Constantly I’m amazed at its performance and the consistency of exposure on a roll of 36-ex film. Simple, effective, elegant.
If the battery fails, it’s just the meter gone. All mechanical, the M6 TTL carries on regardless with a full set of speeds. Leica rates the M6 TTL’s battery at 8 hours compared to the M6’s 20 hours. Some worry about this. In all honesty, using my M6 TTL most days, my current battery (a lithium CR 1/3N 3v – same as for my Olympus OM 2) has lasted nearly three months, including during the winter when it went down to -7C. With the shutter cocked the M6 TTL shuts off its meter after ten seconds, tap the shutter release and it wakes up, ready to go and fire. My advice is not to cock the shutter and put the camera away in a bag, as anything pressing slightly against the shutter release will turn on the meter and run down a new battery in 8 hours. The meter circuit remains off but on ‘standby’ drawing a slight current when the shutter is un-cocked and the speed dial set to anything other than ‘Off’… only the ‘Off’ position on the speed dial cuts the meter circuitry so that it draws no current – chew through batteries or get used to using it!
During a day out and about shooting I set the speed dial to say, 1/250 or 1/500, which switches on the meter, and I forget about it. At the end of the session I turn the dial to ‘Off’ and put the camera in my bag. When the battery begins to give out the viewfinder LEDs flicker or disappear.
Uncluttered, the M6 TTL, feels great. Pressing the shutter release, compared to what feels like the M7’s constant, differing resistance of detents, is smooth throughout its travel to release of the shutter… which is an efficient and almost noiseless ‘scher-stick’ or ‘schtick’ depending on the set speed. Half the time I wonder if there’s a film loaded, the advance is so effortless and dependable, so quiet and smooth, no matter how hard I ‘thumb’ the lever. A joy to use.
Whenever I hand my M6 TTL to someone who’s never held a Leica M, their surprised comment invariably is, “Wow, it’s really solid and heavy.” All up with a 35mm f2 Summicron Asph black paint, lens filter, battery, Leica strap and loaded with film, my ‘Millennium’ weighs 1003g or 2lb 3.4oz in old money.
Mine is a .72 viewfinder. As a wearer of spectacles, and with a 35mm Summicron attached I can see the full 35mm framelines but not the 28mm framelines without shifting my eye line. As I don’t use a 28mm lens, it’s of no consequence to me. The MP’s and M7’s finders are anti-reflection coated, my M6 TTL isn’t. I’ve never found flare an issue, though it’s an accepted problem that ‘patch flare’ and ‘white out’ caused by bright light entering the fresnel framelines illumination window leaking into the rangefinder patch window and flaring out the viewfinder is enough to make it unusable white light.
With a slow flash synch of 1/50, Leica’s venerable shutter design has stood the test of time. The rubberised cloth blinds are almost whisper-quiet in their operation, and demand to be used. Compared to modern shutter designs the mechanism is huge, over engineered and probably built out of iron girders by men in stovepipe hats. In thirty years I’ve never had a failure with any film Leica shutter. My thirteen year-old M6 TTL probably will outlast me… and if it goes wrong, it’s easily adjusted or repaired.
To cock or not to cock? I’m reliably informed by a top repairman that a Leica M6’s shutter actuation springs are always under tension whether they are cocked or uncocked – 50 per cent uncocked, 75 per cent cocked. They are designed this way. Whether you keep your M6 cocked or uncocked doesn’t make a ha’p’orth of difference to the shutter’s effective life, accuracy or dependability. Forget it.
The ‘Millennium’ M6 TTL Black Paint Version
With production limited to 2000 worldwide, my ‘Millennium’ is a proper, day-in, day-out, working camera. Not a fondler. Not a shelf queen. Not boxed away as an ‘investment’ never to see the light of day. Coupled with its 35mm f2 Summicron Asph black paint it’s out there taking its chances in the Big Wide World. My ‘go to’ film camera for monochrome, it’s pretty much always in my bag. Why have a camera and not use it?
It came to me unexpectedly as an ‘as new’ used sale when I saw the advert and made an offer: I’m its second owner. I doubt that it had more than half a dozen rolls of films put through it prior to my purchase. The strap had not even been taken out its box! I just love black paint bodies and wanted a Leica to share some history with me. Not abused, but used just as I use my other cameras, it’s brassing up rather nicely.
Why a ‘Millennium’ M6 TTL black paint? Deal maker for me is the M3 style rewind knob. I much prefer the knurled knob to the standard M6’s angled rewind crank. Silly, isn’t it? As I wrote above ’heart over the head’!
Film Reminder: Some Leica M users tear off a portion of a film box as a reminder and wedge it in the hot shoe. As I have a cover on the flash hot shoe to make the body lines smoother, if I need a reminder I stick a piece of white electrical tape on the base plate and write the relevant information on it with a marker pen. If required the tape then can be stuck to the exposed film cassette.
Condensation: Being all metal the body and lens will attract condensation on entering a warm, humid room after being out in the cold. I wrap my M6 TTL in my coat and allow it to warm up slowly somewhere safe. Some suggest putting a cold camera in a Ziploc bag to keep out moisture. I’ve never felt the need to try this – perhaps the UK doesn’t get cold enough – though I do use Ziploc bags when on the beach to keep out blown sand particles.
Battery Compartment: First rule – don’t loose the metal screw-in cover! Second – keep the contacts clean. At the bottom of the battery chamber there are two contacts (used, I think, for circuit diagnosis). There are known cases of these becoming loose and protruding into the battery chamber, thereby touching the battery, which causes intermittent metering problems. I’ve never had a problem, but just in case, I cut a piece of polythene to act as an insulator and carefully wedged it into the bottom of the battery chamber to cover the two terminals. If the contacts loosen they then can’t touch the battery. Better safe than sorry.
Shutter: Unlike a SLR with its mirror to reflect sunlight, a rangefinder is vulnerable to sunlight being focussed and concentrated onto the shutter blinds by a lens. Being rubberised cloth the blinds can be damaged. Don’t lay the camera down on its back, and use a lens cap.
Rangefinder: Due to wear and knocks the linkage mechanism can and does go out of whack, leading to focussing problems. Like any precision instrument a Leica doesn’t take kindly to being thrown about, knocked heavily, dropped or totally immersed in water… Leica Ms are also a lot tougher than many give them credit for – they were and are used in conflicts and war zones the world over. It is a professional piece of kit. Leica rangefinder cameras cope fine, whatever the weather, if used sensibly.
Which is what I am about to do… use my M6 TTL.