As modern digital cameras put ever more megapixels and endless features into the hands of the everyday shooter, what does Leica—one of the most revered names in photography—come out with for its latest release?
A film camera.
You read that right. And not even a new film camera, but a reissue of a shooter from 1984, the M6. There’s no screen to review your photos, no button to upload your selfie over Wi-Fi, and—perhaps you should sit down for this—it’s manual focus. Has the company gone verrückt?
Not at all, insists Stefan Daniel, executive vice president of technology and operations at Leica. “The prices for the M6 on the secondhand market have been rising constantly,” he says, “and the majority of people who want it are younger.” A new generation is embracing analog photography, along with vinyl records, and Leica has been preparing for this moment.
“We never stopped making film cameras,” says Andrea Pacella, director of global marketing and communication at Leica, “even when sales of film were zero and we were only selling one camera per day worldwide. Any other company would have stopped.” And now that there’s a bull market, reissuing the M6 was a natural choice. During its initial 18-year run, nearly 175,000 units sold, making it one of the company’s most popular models.
Why is the M6 so in demand? Leica believes it’s the simplicity. “It has nothing too much and nothing too less,” says Daniel. “Just what you need to make great photographs. Nothing else. It gave rebirth to rangefinder photography.”
So the next time you find yourself sorting through 5,000 digital photos from your vacation, consider how an M6 may have made things easier. “When you shoot film, you have to think before you press the button,” Daniel explains. “It will cost you money, and you only have 36 options. That makes it precious and authentic. Maybe we needed this digital revolution to value film again.”
Robb Report visited Leica’s home base in Wetzlar, Germany, to watch the manufacturing team prepare this new version of the classic camera for its close-up.
1. Have Camera, Will Travel
The M6 begins its journey at Leica’s Portugal facility, where the company relocated its older machines for producing film-camera parts. “Thank God we didn’t throw them away,” says Pacella. Technicians give each model over 16 hours of individual attention, crafting the instrument from more than 1,100 parts, rigorously testing it and fine-tuning any adjustments before shipping it to Wetzlar. “Like a great watch, every piece is mounted and checked by hand.”
2. All-Seeing Eyes
One of the most complex components of the M6 is the rangefinder, which uses a series of prisms and lens elements to help the photographer frame and focus the shot. In Portugal, an optical team and a mechanical team take turns progressively building it from about 150 components. Then, in Germany, an optics expert calibrates the rangefinder using a more precise digital “eye” to see through the viewfinder. These tweaks are the most crucial part of the process.
3. Warning: This Doesn’t Make It Waterproof
The cloth shutter system is essentially the same design used by Leica since the mid-20th century. The rubber-coated material was originally procured from a German raincoat company but now comes from a standard supplier. In Portugal, the curtains are run through the old machines by hand for stitching—the crew have maintained a skill no longer required in digital-camera production. In Germany, the shutter is checked at all speeds, from one second to 1/1,000 of a second.
4. The Big Picture
The main body of the M6 is made from magnesium alloy, and the top plate, which covers the rangefinder and the camera’s electronics, is milled from brass. Both are sanded and polished by hand to remove the rough edges, then covered in anodized black paint. Once the inner mechanisms of the camera have passed inspection, they’re placed inside and the top plate is attached to the body.
5. Bells and Whistles and Buttons
Next, the shutter button, the film-advance lever, the shutter-speed dial and the rewind crank are secured to the top of the camera. The frame counter is checked for accuracy to ensure that you don’t lose track of how many of the 36 frames you have left.
6. Local Hero
A member of the final assembly team lines up the leatherette that will cover the M6 body on an old green press machine, which imprints the “Made in Germany” stamp. Quality has always been key to Leica’s reputation and explains why its cameras and lenses actually appreciate over time—the reason many photographers don’t mind investing more in a Leica system than in other brands.
7. Getting Dressed
Some parts, such as the lens mount, are temporarily removed from the main body in order to apply the leatherette covering. (Anything that would require adjustment remains in place so as not to defeat the purpose of all the prior testing.) The self-adhesive cover is pulled off the back, and the leatherette is centered over the lens opening, then carefully pressed down to the outer edges.
8. Back Where It Began
Ernst Leitz founded his eponymous company in 1869 to make microscopes—it wasn’t until 1986 that the name was changed to Leica (a portmanteau of his surname and “camera”), thanks to what had become its most popular product. Here, as with the original M6, the name Leitz is written on the famous red dot, which, along with the camera’s distinctive shape, makes the brand instantly recognizable.
9. Almost as Confusing as a Rotary Phone
At last the camera is loaded with a dummy roll of 35 mm film and checked to make sure all is working properly. It goes through a wind test and a pressure test to confirm that the film presses and moves along the back plate correctly. Some of the company’s most popular YouTube videos feature snippets demonstrating how to load film into a camera—something today’s younger generations likely have no experience doing.
10. Everything in Focus
Leica intends the M6 to be more than a retro novelty. “I know someone who is the only American abbot of a Tibetan Buddhist abbey in north India,” says Pacella. “He left everything to follow the Dalai Lama. The only earthly possession he still has is his Leica camera, which he uses to document his life. Limited controls [and] manual focusing somehow bring mindfulness. Having to fight some odds is a great way to apply your mind.”