Leica M60 Edition Review: Gorgeous steel-grey retro pushes all the right buttons
Leica's M60 Edition is truly an object of desire. It celebrates the golden jubilee of the the M3, the first Leica with a combined viewfinder and rangefinder in one window, and comes in the form of the all-steel but very oddball version of the M Type 240. I've had the good fortune to borrow one for review from my friends at Red Dot Cameras in London.
The M60 isn't a camera for the faint of heart or the loose of purse. It costs all of £12,000 but comes in a tremendously impressive and commodious presentation case, together with an exquisitely crafted grey leather half case and strap. This is just as well, because Leica forgot to equip this costly commodity with strap lugs. To compensate for this omission you get the case and strap—plus a pair of white fondling gloves.
For your £12k you receive a smooth, shiny steel version of the M240 together with a unique steel-finished version of the legendary 35mm Summilux ASPH lens. I like to think of it as the Steelilux. The price doesn't seem quite so daunting when you compare this rig with a standard camera and lens. Choose off-the-shelf stuff instead and you are still in for more than £9,000. The premium isn't totally ridiculous. In fact, in comparison with some previous Leica editions, the M60 is a positive bargain.
In the hands, the M60 entices. The quality is palpable, all 1,280 grams of it, some 200 grams heavier than the standard camera and lens. But this is no ordinary M. It is a stripped down racing model. It's like a Porsche or Ferrari that has shed its creature comforts in the interests of pure performance. Unfortunately, unlike these road models, this one is actually heavier than the bog-standard version with all its fripperies.
Sepia, where art thou?
The first thing you notice is that there is no screen. A digital camera without a screen? Whatever next? How to set the white balance, choose a backlit scene or enter beach mode? Not to mention cope with Las Vegas by night? How to decide which size and quality of in-camera-processed picture to set for your holiday snaps? And where's the sepia tone gone? The simple fact is that you cannot do any of these things. Nor do you need to. Everything you require can be done in post processing, just as in the old days.
The M60 is an electronic camera on ration books. Not only is the screen AWOL, there are absolutely no controls to influence picture quality other than the three available settings for aperture, shutter speed and ISO. Don't even look for an auto ISO setting.
And, in a nod to all those M owners who have never pressed the video button, the M60 designers have done something really useful with that neglected knob. Press it now to check battery level and the number of remaining shots on the card. In line with the stripped-down nature of the beast, the display in the viewfinder presents cryptic red digits which briefly replace the shutter-speed reading.
Back to basics
I love this return to basics because, frankly, digital cameras have become burdened with complicated menus and endless options that often result in confusion. Having struggled with the impenetrable menu system of the Sony A7II over recent weeks, I am ready for a bit of elemental simplicity. In reality, much of this excess is caused by keeping up with the Fujis or ticking the specifications boxes to keep reviewers happy. Why else would Leica have equipped the current M with that video button?
This camera shoots RAW, just like any film camera. It does condescend to measure the light for purposes of exposure and even permits aperture priority shooting, so perhaps it is more akin to the M7 than the M3. But the rest is down to you. Choose the ISO, set the shutter speed and you have the same options, no more, no less, as you do on a film camera. Truth be told, this is just how I treat the suited and booted M, video button and all, so I felt right at home with the M60. There is nothing I really miss.
Build quality of this special edition is exemplary, fully reminiscent of a steel-built outhouse. The silk-grey metal of body and lens is offset by the the embossed leather skin in anthracite grey. It is a class act and no mistake.
Work of art
The lens is a work of art in itself. Markings are etched exquisitely in dark grey against the lighter silky steel finish. The red dot is the sole contrast to grey, grey and more grey. I can imagine the lens alone, even without the camera, being a collectors' item in its own right. It comes with its own carefully crafted screw-in hood and looks absolutely stunning. The smoothness and perfection of finish is masterly. Of course, the internals are standard but this is no bad thing because the 35mm Summilux-M ASPH is one of the finest and most desirable stars in the Leica firmament.
But back to the body. A nice touch is the way in which the ISO dial is placed centre-stage on the back of the camera, just like on any film M from 1954 to 2015.
It is actually very practical, too. The dial is just stiff enough to prevent inadvertent movement, but slight pressure on the serrations makes setting the sensitivity very easy. It runs from 200 to 6400 ISO in third-stop increments. As I have said, there is no auto setting, so you do need to keep a weather eye on the dial while shooting. In fact, glory of glories, you can check all your settings at a glance—aperture on the lens, shutter speed on the top plate and ISO on the back of the camera. What more could you desire?
On the road
How does the M60 hang together as a photographic tool? Is it just a gimmick or the next big thing? There can be no surprises in terms of image quality and the accompanying shots are no better, no worse than you would expect from the standard M. It is, after all, the same sensor, the same camera internally. The rangefinder focus operation is standard stuff, just like any other M.
That said, the experience of using the M60 is somehow different. It is the same as using an M7 or any film camera where you have no chance to chimp every exposure or fiddle with endless menus. You just get on with the job and worry about the results when you get home. At least you don't have to wait for the film to come back from Boots. The shutter sound is subtly different to that of the standard M or M-P and this is perhaps accounted for by the dense construction of the body; perhaps it provides more of a sounding board to mellow the click. In short, the entire experience of using the M60 is cathartic and makes you want to go out and use it more and more.
The M60 proves, if proof were needed, that all you really need to make a good photograph is the old fashioned holy trinity: Speed, aperture, sensitivity. Everything else is either superfluous or distracting. Using the M60 is a totally compelling experience.
In a way it is a pity that this is a limited edition. When I interviewed Leica's Stefan Daniel at Photokina last September I realised he was exceptionally proud of the M60. It is his baby and I know he hopes that the M60 Edition will open a discussion which could lead to a production version of the camera.
This special edition isn't without its critics. Some think it is the "dumbest idea ever" . I prefer to keep an open mind and I have to say I like the concept and the execution. Personally I would have retained the strap lugs, but the rest of the M60 is remarkably well conceived.
Whether or not this is one of those special editions that will go up in price is a matter for the future. Only 600 copies have been made and I suspect many of them will stay in their boxes, carefully tended like exotic plants, in the hope that demand will rise. Such neglect will be a pity. The M60 is a camera that just begs to be used and, I am sure, those who resist the temptation to keep it in mothballs will be rewarded. Forget the white gloves, any Leica owner would enjoy giving this camera an outing.
My considered view is that a production version would succeed. Many experienced photographers are frustrated with the excesses of the camera digital world, the endless menus and lists of options.
There is room for at least one digital Leica to be as simple as a film camera. I know that many photographers are moving back to the simplicity of film. But many others, who would otherwise succumb, are put off by the problems of processing and the wait for results. I believe a production M60 would offer the purity of a film camera with the post-processing advantages of a digital.
The M60 is essentially an film camera with a digital sensor replacing the film. I think Leica is on to something and, I suspect, Leica is the only company in the world that could get away with it. If they did, I would be delighted. And please, Herr Daniel, can I have the smaller body of the M7 but with the basic stripped-down configuration of the M60?
My thanks to George of George James Photography for his assistance with this review