The Leica M2, if you can believe it, was introduced as a budget alternative to the M3. A younger sibling so to speak. That was then, but now the M2 is as iconic as any of the Leica M models. Like almost every other model of the Leica M range, certain owners will argue to no end that the M2 is the “best” Leica ever.
For me it is the pleasure of using it that makes me pick it up time after time. I acquired the M2 as a companion to the M3, so it has a specific use. The widest lens the M3 has frame lines for is 50mm, without using special goggles. The M2 on the other hand is able to frame a 35mm lens naturally.
I like to shoot both 35mm and 50mm, which makes this a pair made in heaven. Rarely will I carry both out on an outing though, so I tend to choose between them based on what focal length I feel like shooting the most.
To totally contradict what I have said above, I will also use the other focal lengths on each when the scene warrants it. The end photograph is what really matters.
And here we hit the reason on why the Leica M2 is such a sought after camera. We all know the lenses and film, along with technique, are what delivers the quality. A camera which facilitates the process well, and makes it enjoyable as a bonus, definitely enters the equation. There is a reason why I and many others reach for the M2 often.
The interesting thing about the M2 is that while it was designed to be the reduced model compared to the M3, it was built with the same quality. It does lack a few features to justify that, but to be honest, none that would impact the ability to make quality photographs. Or to make it feel cheap for that matter.
As per all other Leica cameras, the M2 carries its own amount of hype. That situation also brings along both supporters and detractors. The debate can be quite passionate on both sides, especially these days where it is played out online. It gets so intense that there will be arguments on the smallest differences between this camera and others, and not only other Leica cameras.
You may recognise by this point I do love using my M2, but I am not a die-hard Leica fanatic. I shoot with quite a few cameras and in most cases, each has something I enjoy. The reason I do keep returning to it though is that it has multiple reasons that I enjoy it. As an example, I, as per many that have stated before me, also enjoy something as simple as the film advance. It is just so smooth!
I’ve had the Leica M2 now for about 4 years. As you can tell up to this point, I really like it and it is one of my mainstay cameras. The question is why this is the case and what about the camera makes it so attractive? Let’s find out a bit about it.
Ernst Leitz founded Ernst Leitz Wetzlar in 1869. I’m not going to try and cover the Leica history here. There is a much better sites dedicated to doing that which will do a much better job of it.
In 1925 Leitz introduced the Leica I in a fair in Leipzig. This was a camera using the 35mm “movie” film but rotated 90 degrees. This started a 29 year range of 39mm screw mount cameras, or more commonly known as Leica Thread Mount (LTM).
This standard was adopted by quite a few other manufacturers, especially in the Soviet and a few in Japan.
1954 was where Leitz revolutionised their product range and introduced the Leica M3. Initially with a double stroke advance and a 0.91x magnification viewfinder with a large rangefinder patch, it was a big hit. In the 12 year production run, 200,000 units were sold until 1966. One of the restrictions of the M3 was that it has frame lines for 50, 90 and 135mm lenses. Anything wider than a 50mm lens requires special lenses with a “goggles” attachment or external viewfinders.
In 1956 a variant of the M3 was sold for a year called the MP, with the “P” signifying Professional.
The M2 came in 1958 and had a 9 year run until 1967 with 88,000 units manufactured. It was sold as a scaled down version of the M3, thus a lower cost. The main differences it has are the 0.72x magnification rangefinder, which can frame for 35mm lenses and a non-resetting frame counter. The M2 also has a Fresnel plastic lens for the frame line window as distinct to the M3’s ground glass.
Leitz produces continuous models of the M series to this day, into the digital models. In 1986 they officially changed their name to Leica representing their primary product line.
The Leica M2 is a 35mm rangefinder camera. The body is constructed of brass which has been chromed. This copy was constructed in 1959 and is designated as a “Vorlaufwerk” which translates to “Forward Drive” (according to Google Translate). But for you and me it means it is a model which has a self-timer. It is estimated 600 units of this type where produced in that year.
The lens mount is the Leica M mount which is a bayonet type. The rangefinder cam is inside the mount at the top. On the mount is also a little cavity which will have an “L” in there which is only there if the camera is serviced by Leica. Some collectors will only buy a M camera if it has the “L”. The lens release button is on the right of the mount.
On the left of this camera is the frame line selector lever. This allows the user to view how the image may be framed as if an alternate lens is mounted.
The right side has the self-timer, of which not all M2 cameras had one installed. Above this is the rewind lock lever, which has to be pulled down to disengage and allow the film to be rewound.
On the back of the camera is the flash connections, a film type and speed reminder wheel and the viewfinder. The viewfinder has frame lines for 35mm, 50mm and 90mm lenses which is automatically adjusted. Also in the viewfinder is the rangefinder patch, a nice big yellow patch in the centre, though not quite as big as the M3.
The rangefinder patch also has a couple of little notches off it, one on top and one on bottom. These are used to help determine the depth of field on a 50mm lens. The top marking indicates how much you can be off at f16, the bottom at f5.6, and still have focus within the depth of field.
The M2 top plate is a very functional set up. On the left is the rewind knob, which pulls out slightly for a better grip. In the centre is the cold shoe with the shutter speed selector just to the right of it. Shutter speeds range from 1/1000thsecond to 1 second and Bulb.
On the right hand side is the film advance lever which is full metal with a knurled grip. Within it is the shutter release button which can be fitted with a standard remote cable release or a soft release. Around the shutter release button is the frame counter which needs to be reset manually when the film is loaded.
Loading film is classic Leica rangefinder, i.e. from the bottom. The bottom comes off after turning the key on the bottom right. The take up spool comes out for threading and both the film canister and the take up spool are put back in the camera together. The back flap is opened to allow the film to be flattened and properly engaged with the sprockets. When closed it pushes the back plate to into place ensuring a flat film plane.
The bottom is then attached and the key locks it into place. The frame counter is then set up manually by rotating it clockwise.
A cloth shutter resides within the M2.
I was searching for the right Leica M2 for quite a few months in 2016. Interestingly I found this one literally in the next suburb of where I live. The seller still wanted to post it rather than pick up, so I patiently waited for it to arrive for a few days.
I was not looking for any specific variant, but I think when it is a camera you know will be one of your “special” cameras there is a gut feel on which one to buy and I was not getting that with any of the others on eBay. I knew it would be a camera I would really cherish, not by the fact it was a Leica, but as I already had the M3 and had a fair idea what to expect.
The reason I wanted an M2 was that I found that I was using my Carl Zeiss Biogon 35mm lens more and more often. I wanted a more natural experience than using the attached viewfinder.
When I did finally have it in my hands I was very excited. It was in even better condition than I expected. I loaded the camera the very next day, mounted the 35mm lens and took it to work with me to shoot in the afternoon.
From the moment I first used the film advance lever, to framing the first shot and releasing the shutter I felt right at home. I did have a little adjusting to do as I was used to using the M3 with a double stroke. In the hands it felt very similar, and muscle memory kept kicking in.
I ran a few rolls of Ilford HP5 Plus through initially and took the camera with me at many places around Sydney. In Winter, Sydney has some amazing light. That is because there is less rain in Winter than other times of the year and with the sun so low, it is a combination making beautiful light.
I started walking the streets and finding shadows and light streaks. Framing and focusing was a pleasure, with that nice large rangefinder patch. I didn’t use, or ever have used, the little notches to determine the depth of field. The markings on the lenses tend to be enough for me.
Another thing I did not use much was a soft release which came with the camera. It caused me so many accidental exposures that I gave up on it. The standard release button is soft enough for me.
I won’t got into detail on how the image quality is, as that is more about the lenses. There is an argument, to which I also subscribe, that equipment that is reliable and functional contributes to the quality. That is where Leica has the advantage over other rangefinders and many other types of cameras.
When I use the M2 I am very confident in its accuracy and that it will work and work. I understand that this is also the case with other cameras when they are periodically serviced, though it is required less often with the Leica. In its own way, the M2 gets out of the way and lets me concentrate on the image.
There are two things I did have to get used to. One being that it is a camera without a meter. That is something quite a few of my cameras have, but this is probably the most used one of these. In most cases a single incident reading gives me enough to then adjust or basically sunny-16 it. If it was more of an issue I would consider an M6.
The other is the resetting of the frame counter. I have lost count of the number of times I have forgotten to reset it. Neither of these are a huge issue for me.
Others have also complained about the rewind knob, that it can be hard to hold well compared to a lever. I do not have an issue with that, in fact I think I prefer the knob. Sure, it might take me an extra 5-10 seconds, but I am not in a war zone so it is not an issue.
I have had the Leica M2 now for about four years. While I had the initial questions on whether I should spend a decent amount of dosh on this camera, I am really glad I did. I have not regretted it for a moment and have enjoyed every moment using it. It has been on trips both domestically and abroad with me and it will continue to be a good travelling companion amongst a small selection of my collection.
Would I recommend the Leica M2? Yes. Are there other options? Yes. It all comes to the balance on how much you are willing to spend and if what the M2 brings to the table is worth that expense. Just don’t get sucked into overpaying due to the hype.
In Leica M2 Review – Unique in its own Subtle Way, Hamish Gill describes how he compares the M2 against the other Leica M rangefinders.
Joe Boentges talks about shooting his grandfather’s Leica M2 in: Cherishing grandfather’s legacy – Leica M2 Review.
There is a quick review from Jake Horn in: Leica M2 Review.