Leica M4: The story of one of Leica's most popular rangefinders
A few days ago I was asked by Amateur Photographer’s assistant editor, Geoff Harris, for background on the Leica M4 in connection with an M4 50th anniversary article he was putting together for a up-market yachting magazine.
Funny he should ask that. While I have a good general knowledge of the Leica story, from Barnack to Q, the M4 saga has always been difficult to follow. It’s not only the three main models, M4, M4-2 and M4-P, it’s the split manufacture between Wetzlar and Midland, Ontario, not to mention the brief sabbatical while the portly but advanced M5 rose and fell. It’s quite a story.
Adding to confusion is that secondhand prices are all over the place, everything depending on which model is in focus and, above all, on the finish of the body. Canadian M4-x cameras were predominantly produced in black chrome, so the few silver chrome relicts command a small premium. Conversely, Wetzlar M4s were largely in silver chrome with the result that black is normally more expensive. That’s black chrome. The even rarer black-paint M4 is top of the tree.
M4 production topped out at about 58,000 examples compared with the 225,000 run of the earlier M3 — another factor in adding to rarity value. Of the total of M4s just 6,775 were finished in black chrome and 4,889 in black paint. As always, limited production sets the collectors’ pulses racing.
The M4 is considered by many to be the finest of the unmetered Ms. Some prefer the M3 or, even, the M2, but the M4 combined the best of its predecessors' virtues, including superb build quality, and added a feature or two. With its engraved top-plate and M3-like craftsmanship, the M4 upped the rangefinder game. Its additional features, which don’t sound too impressive at this remove, were actually a big deal at the launch in November 1966.
The angled rewind lever, instead of the knob on earlier models was, in its way, as big an improvement as the film advance lever on the first M3. It dramatically speeded up the rewind process. And the quick film loading feature, dispensing for the fist time with a return spool, was a hit. The new advance lever with its floating end-piece received a mixed reception but few could argue with the benefit of the self-setting film counter.
Above all, the M4 in 1966 continued the tradition of the M3. With framelines for 35, 50, 90 and 135mm lenses it was also more practical than the M3 which lacked the 35mm lines, necessitating an external finder.
Clouds on the horizon
But clouds were gathering on the horizon even as the M4 was launched. Rangefinders were losing ground to SLRs and Leica had failed to offer serious competition in that area. The company was also encountering financial problems — its rangefinders, typified by the M4, were hand-made by craftsmen and expensive to produce. The situation was exacerbated by the failure of the radical M5 — the first M with an exposure meter. M4 production was stopped briefly in 1972 but the poor reception of the M5 caused Leica to restart the M4 and, soon, to move production to the E.Leitz Canada plant in Midland, Ontario. Some 2,500 M4s were made in Canada towards the end of the run.
The solution to Leica’s problems came in the form of a new, simpler production process and trimmed features to keep costs down. In particular, instead of the painstaking adjustments and artisanal tinkering that typified earlier cameras, the plan was to introduce a standardised component system. Less adjustment was possible and, if something didn’t quite work or was out of tolerance it was simply swapped. Previously, the craftsman would have performed custom adjustments to individual parts.
Plain Jane Leica
The ensuing 1977 M4-2, often called the “plain Jane Leica”, was the camera that saved Leitz. It compromised in several ways beyond the cheaper production system. It had a stamped top plate in preference to the M4’s engraved plate; the rangefinder optics were cheapened by the removal of a condenser and the self-timer was deleted. It did, however, grow some new features — the ability to attach a motor drive and the addition of a hotshoe.
Early production difficulties led to some questions over reliability but these were tackled and the M4-2 remains a popular buy, even if prices are lower than the M4 and the subsequent M4-P. One internet dealer in second-hand cameras, Peter Loy, told me that the M4-2 can sometimes be troublesome. But Patrick Tang at Aperture Photographic isn't so sure. He hasn’t noticed particular problems with the M4-2 and, he says, if he has an M4, M4-2 and M4-P on display it is the M4-2 that will sell first. It makes an great "budget" buy and should perform flawlessly.
The M4-P was the last of the rather complex M4 range. Introduced in 1981, it was identical to the M4-2 but with the addition of 28 and 75mm framelines. It is generally considered to be more reliable than the M4-2 and commands a slightly higher resale value. Interestingly, the last thousand M4-Ps were made back in Wetzlar (serial numbers 1691951-1692950 in case you have one under the bed).
When considering buying a used M4/2/P there are lots of factors, including specification, location of manufacture and colour to take into account. As I mentioned earlier, the rarer the colour finish the more the cost.
If asked for a recommendation I would say that the sweet spot is either a pre-1977 M4 in silver chrome or an M4-P in black chrome. You’ll pay more for a black chrome M4 or a silver chrome M4-P so, unless you are a collector and are prepared to pay the premium — or really must have the rarer model for aesthetic reasons — the more popular colour is the one to go for.
Between these two cameras you might be swayed by the fact that the later M4-P has the comprehensive 28/35/50/75/90/135 viewfinder lines to cope with the majority of M lenses. It is also able to handle a motor drive like the M4-2 but unlike the M4. This, however, is less important these days than it was when the camera was in use for professional purposes. Personally, I find the motor drive pretty pointless. I have one (for use on my MP, not the M4) but soon got fed up. With only 36 shots on hand, it's more satisfying to use the advance lever.
In the past couple of years there has been a revival in the fortunes of all Leica film cameras (perhaps with the exception of the M5 and M7, although both these cameras have their dedicated fans). Young people are rediscovering film — as is Kodak by all accounts — and the Leica M3 is the camera that grabs most attention. The M6, also, as the first traditional M to incorporate an exposure meter (the quirky and short-lived M5 led the way, but that's another story) is high on the wish list. The M4 is somewhere in the middle.
I have acquired samples of all M film camera ranges except the M5 (but I'm not a collector, you understand) and, given the choice, I’d pick my German-made black chrome M4 model as the most handsome and enjoyable to use — the pick of the bunch. I bought it from Aperture Photographic in Rathbone Place, London (see link below). It isn't for nothing that the M4 is considered to be the finest unmetered M model you can buy.
The black-chrome M4 is also the definite favourite of noted Leica expert and Macfilos contributor Frank Dabba Smith, albeit in his case the rarer Canadian version engraved 'Midland'. For so many of us, a much loved camera model also depends on our personal histories as Frank relates:
"In 1975, I was in my first year studying at University of California at Berkeley and I was getting more and more involved with photography and became especially interested in photojournalism.
"Two friends at Berkeley had black chrome Midland M4s and I was seduced by the functionality and appearance of this camera. Unlike other people, I was especially drawn to the flat black finish and the white infills on the frame selector and self-timer levers. I've owned every M variant along the way but the Midland M4 is my quintessential Leica." Today, Frank still uses his Midland M4 along with an M-A when he works with film.
Dealer versus auction site
If you fancy an M4 bear in mind that, because of the smaller production run, secondhand examples are rarer than, say, the prolific M3. I would always recommend buying from a dealer rather than an auction site. No doubt you can get bargains from eBay or similar, but this is by no means guaranteed. You might end up paying more than you would at a reputable dealer who will always provide a level of after sales service and, in some cases, a limited warranty.
One point worth noting is that most, if not all, Leica rangefinders of whatever age will likely hold their value and could well appreciate in nominal value because of inflation. So, in general, your running costs will be minimal because there is no depreciation to take into account. You could even sell at a profit in a few years' time when you want to upgrade.
A good dealer will give you an honest assessment of the condition of the camera, including whether or not it has been recently serviced. In some cases he might recommend a “CLA” (clean, lubricate, adjust) and that can cost around £160. It’s worth doing if there is any question over shutter speeds, for instance. They can get out of adjustment, often from lack of use (I have a regular schedule reminder to "exercise" my film cameras), and it’s a point to check when buying.
How much to pay? I consulted two experienced dealers, Peter Loy and Will Tang at Aperture Photographic. These are ballpark figures and, as usual, exceptional condition and provenance (box, papers, original receipt, famous but careless owner) can command a premium. Prices have risen in recent months following the fall in the value of the pound sterling, mainly because foreign buyers have snapped up existing stock which looked cheap to them.
- M4, silver chrome - £700-£1,000
- M4, black chrome - £1,200-£2,000
- M4, black paint - £2,200-£3,000
- M4-2, black chrome - £500-£700 (slight premium for silver chrome)
- M4-P, black chrome - £600-£900 (ditto)
I can personally recommend the following dealers for both for personal visits and internet browsing. Please mention Macfilos if you've enjoyed this article.
- Red Dot Cameras (showroom)
- Aperture Photographic (showroom)
- Richard Caplan (showroom)
- Peter Loy (internet)
- MW Classic Cameras (internet)
- Leica Store Manchester (showroom)