The Leica MP Non-Review

It's hard to explain.

Even to those who 'get' Leica, it's hard to explain why anyone would (or should) spend such a sizable chunk of money on what is, truth be told, an anachronism.

The Leica MP is the latest and greatest (and probably final) incarnation of a line of film cameras, born in 1954 with the classic Leica M rangefinder camera: the M3.  In fact, the evolution of the M series begins further back than that, with the classic screwmount cameras ('Barnack' Leicas, in Leica-speak), such as the I, II, and III series cameras.  As such, the MP represents the culmination of nearly a century of 35mm camera development.

The Leica MP is a camera that is nearly devoid of defining features.  In fact, it's defined more by what it doesn't do than what it does.  Unlike the contemporary Leica M7, the MP features absolutely no automation; no aperture priority exposure, no TTL flash, no automatic ISO detection via DX code.  Nothing.

And yet, this is precisely the gestalt by which the MP tries to live.  Manual everything; ultimate power in the hands of the photographer.

Leica MP - The most perfect creative tool I've ever used

If you're reading this review, it's more than likely that you understand the appeal of a Leica rangefinder camera, so I'll spare you the historical and philosophical overview.  I'll simply say this: if you enjoy and value the 'rangefinder experience', there is simply no better camera on Earth than the Leica MP.

In terms of specifications, there's really not much to say.  The MP is a rangefinder camera, meaning focus is achieved through a coincident rangefinder patch in the viewfinder (at far right in the image above).  The image is composed through the same viewfinder patch using focal length-specific projected framelines, meaning that unlike a (D)SLR camera, your image is subject to parallax error; you're not seeing precisely what the lens is seeing.  This is not an issue for distant objects, but becomes progressively more problematic the closer the camera gets to the subject.  In practice, this is a non-issue; the rangefinder can only focus down to 0.7 meters, and the framelines shift in the viewfinder to compensate for parallax.  That said, if precise viewfinder accuracy is important, the Leica is not for you.

The MP is offered in three viewfinder magnifications: 0.72x (the standard), 0.85x, and 0.58x.  Basically, the higher the magnification, the easier it is to focus longer and/or faster lenses, at the cost of seeing the full field of view of wider lenses.  Lower magnification viewfinders are better for those who wear glasses and/or primarily prefer wide angle lenses.

Classic form mated to classic function...with a modern twist where it counts.

For many people considering a film Leica M, the question is this: why should one pay more than double the price for an MP over, say, an M6 (current used prices for an excellent condition body are roughly $1200-1400 USD for an M6 and $3000-3200 for an MP)?  What sets the MP apart from the M6 or, for that matter, any other M that can be had for potentially thousands less?

Well, that's what this 'review' is going to be all about.

35mm rangefinder camera, 50mm and 35mm lenses.  All I really need, to be honest.

Let's start with placing the MP in its proper place in the pantheon of great M cameras.  The MP shares many features with classic M bodies such as the M3, M2, and M4: it features a brass top plate and brass internals, a viewfinder that doesn't flare in direct light, and to the dismay of gaffer's tape manufacturers everywhere, the complete absence of a red dot.  Like the M3 and M2, it 'features' a film rewind knob rather than the crank of later Ms.  Many people dislike the knob, and as a former M6 owner, I can confirm that rewinding with the knob is far slower than with the crank.  However, the knob does have the advantage that the film can be partially rewound without having the crank spin out of control if you take your hand off of it (owners of crank-based Ms will know what I mean).  The knob is a bit of a retro throwback which is more stylistic than functional, but after having used it for a while, I've come to appreciate its virtues.  Suffice it to say, I like the knob (no one quote me on that, please.......).  Fortunately, Leica resisted the temptation to install the old-style film loading mechanism in the MP, and stuck with the now-standard M4-and-beyond style 'tulip'.  Still no hinged back, though.  One brilliant feature of the MP is the M2/M3-style film advance lever.  This is an absolute joy to use (more on that in a minute), and much preferred to the M4-style hinged lever.

While it's firmly rooted in its past, the MP also shares more 'modern' (read: circa 1984) features with recent Ms: like the M6, it features TTL metering (though not TTL flash metering, like the M6 TTL and M7) and an ISO dial at the rear of the camera.  Metering is centre-weighted (no fancy-pants matrix metering here), and is visualized by two red arrows (indicating 'over' or 'under' exposure) and a central red dot (indicating 'proper' exposure) in the viewfinder.  The red dot is a nice addition over the original M6, which only featured the two arrows.  Still, this is a LONG way from a 21st century in-camera exposure meter; no one is going to confuse the viewfinder for that of a Canon or a Nikon.  And in many ways, that's a VERY good thing, indeed.

Simplicity.

I could write pages upon pages of about the MP's technical specifications, but, as with most Leicas, you really have to use one to understand why this is such a brilliant camera.  When I first got my M6, I was blown away by how refined the camera felt.  Everything just fell to hand so perfectly.  The understated sound of the shutter was almost musical, and the film advance an absolute pleasure to use.  I was in love with that camera.

I can state, without reservation, that using the MP is more pleasurable than using the M6 in virtually every conceivable way.  It really defies explanation.  As good as the M6 shutter was, the MP is quieter and crisper; more of a 'click' to the M6's 'thwack'.  As nice as the film advance is on the M6, the MP is so much nicer.  You can almost feel the brass internals churning away as you crank the lever; the action is just so damn smooth.

The single biggest difference between the M6 and the MP is the viewfinder.  Both cameras feature the familiar 0.72x magnification, and the framelines in the regular 28/90, 35/135, 50/75 combinations (NOTE: the MP can be ordered 'a la carte' from Leica with certain framelines removed - for a substantial fee, of course).  But the MP's viewfinder is far and away superior to the M6's.  First off is the complete lack of flare.  For those who've never shot with an M6, the rangefinder patch has a tendency to 'white out' when the camera is pointed at or nearly at a direct source of bright light.  When it does this, focusing is impossible.  Apparently, this issue was caused by the removal of a condenser lens from the frame line mechanism during the production of the M4-2 and all subsequent cameras.  The M6 can be retrofitted with the MP viewfinder, which goes some way to improving the M6 experience (though dramatically decreasing the cost differential between the two cameras).  The MP viewfinder is not only flare-free, but also noticeably brighter and, to my eyes at least, contrastier than the M6's viewfinder, making focusing a bit easier.

Aesthetically, the MP (especially in black paint) is a significant upgrade to the M6.  The MP's brass top tends to show through the black paint over time, resulting in a beautiful 'brassing' of the camera.  In fact, one might argue that the camera actually starts to look better with age.  In contrast, the M6, with its zinc top and black chrome finish, will tend to look dull and warn over time.  Actually, this isn't purely aesthetic; the brass top actually serves a structural purpose as well.  Brass tends to dent when subject to an impact (such as a fall), while zinc tends to split.  An MP is thus more likely to survive impact damage than an M6 is (though you shouldn't be dropping your $3000 camera, should you!?!).  Shit happens, though, and it's nice to know I've got a resilient camera in the MP.

Is It Worth It?

Yes; in my opinion, the MP is worth the additional cost over an M6, if you want/need a metered Leica (if you're trying to decide which Leica to get, please consult my Handy-Dandy chart).  I use my Leica every day, and shoot hundreds of rolls of film every year.  Because of this, I want the best possible shooting experience, and I want a camera that I know will be both a joy to use and have the longevity required to justify the (admittedly) large investment.

On the other hand, if you don't need/want a metered M, an M3, M2, or M4 might be a great option.  The upside to these cameras is, of course, the significant cost savings over the MP.  An EX+ condition M3 or M4 can be had for about $1000, while M2's are even cheaper.  These cameras offer the classic brass Leica look and feel, without the modern creature comforts.  The downside to these cameras is their age; yes, Leica's are built better than virtually every other camera, but you're still talking about a camera that is 40-60 years old.

As someone who likes metered cameras, then yes, I would argue that the MP is very much worth the additional cost, relative to other Ms.  The more philosophical question is whether the MP is worth the money in general.  This is a much tougher question to answer.  For the cost of a used MP, one could purchase a very nice modern whizz-bang DSLR like the Nikon D800E.  Even if one enjoyed the Leica rangefinder gestalt, one could purchase a used M9 for the same price as an MP, and gain all the convenience of digital capture.

In the final analysis, this comes down to what you value in photography.  I personally value the experience of making photographs more than anything else.  I don't need the insane megapixels of the D800E.  The M9 is a brilliant camera, but when I buy a Leica, I buy it to last decades; Leica just doesn't have the track record in building long-lasting digital cameras (and the evidence we have suggests the M9 isn't going to be a great long-term performer).

As for the 'film vs. digital' argument, and whether it's wise to spend $3000 on a film camera (a 35mm one, at that), brevity - never my strong suit - prevents me from making a complete argument.  Let me just state that, as with Leicas, one either 'gets' film or does not.  That's not a value judgement; I have nothing against digital cameras (all of the images on this page were shot with the Fujifilm X-Pro1).  But for my street and travel photography, film is the preferred medium, and likely always will be.  Will I ever purchase another digital camera?  Well, never say 'never'.  But right now, with film still widely available, I just don't see the need.

For me, the MP is the absolute finest camera I can buy, in the style that I enjoy shooting.  I dislike SLR cameras as a rule, and I shoot film as a matter of preference.  I spend enough time with my camera that I want the utmost quality, and I expect my cameras to outlive me.

In this way, the MP is perfect.  I simply could not ask for a better camera.

Basic Statistics for Photographers

In statistical analysis, there are two fundamentally opposing forces at play, which one must, at all times, keep in balance in an attempt to suitably analyse a given set of data.

Suppose we have a new drug that we'd like to test for the treatment of runny noses.  We would design an experiment where some people get the drug and some people get a placebo ('sugar pill'), and then, over time, we'd see how many runny noses we observe in the two groups compared to when we started.  At the end, we'd analyse all the data and determine whether the drug works.

In this determination, we can conclude that the drug either does or does not cure runny noses.  And in so doing, we have two ways of being wrong; either we can conclude the drug does cure runny noses when it, in fact, does not (this is known as a 'false positive') or we can conclude  that the drug does not cure runny noses when, in fact, it does (not surprisingly, this is known as a 'false negative').

Minimizing false positives and false negatives is ALWAYS a trade-off.  The more you do to minimize one, the more the other becomes a problem.  In the end, the trade-off determines the accuracy of your experimental test (at this point, we go beyond what is commonly accepted as 'basic statistics', into the realm of receiver-operator curves and integral calculus...a realm into which I dare not - and some might say cannot - tread).

Whether you err on the side of false positives or of false negatives really depends on your specific question.  In some cases, it would be very much better to avoid false positives (e.g. Is this drug effective against breast cancer?), while in others, minimizing false negatives is preferred (e.g. Does this new food additive cause cancer?).

So what on Earth does this have to do with anything?

Well, consider this photo.

Two steps to the right, and this would have been great...

What's wrong with this (besides the blown highlights)?

Well, I don't know about you, but where I come from, people generally don't have poles sticking out of their heads.

I took this shot last November during my trip to London (...clearly).  It was about 9PM, and I was returning to my hotel after dinner.  It was misty and cold (...clearly), but that made for a very moody atmosphere, which I was trying to capture in the shot above.

It nearly worked.  By the time I saw this guy crossing the road and focused my Leica, he was two steps too far.  A potentially lovely photo of an interesting subject became a miss.  A false positive, if you will; an error of commission.

Now consider this photo, which I consider a false negative; an error of omission.

This was the greatest photograph in history.  Honest.

The photograph above was a false negative; it would have been an awe-inspiring photo for the ages, but I never took it.  Shame, really.

This highlights the key point I'd like to address: all other things being equal, should photographers err on the side of the false positive (i.e. shoot everything, and toss the crap later) or the false negative (i.e. take fewer - but hopefully better - photographs)?  And what is the appropriate balance between these two types of 'error'?

First, one might be tempted to argue that in this age of digital photography, which is more-or-less free after one has purchased the gear, the photographer should take as many photographs as possible, and then edit out the bad ones later.  After all, there's no additional cost to doing so, so why not?

This is essentially the 'spray and pray' method.  Undoubtedly, you'll end up with some nice photographs.  But you wont be learning anything in the process about how to actually make a good photograph; you'll just be a million monkeys on a million typewriters.

On the contrary, I'd like to advocate for taking fewer photographs; that is, for making more false negative errors.

Garry Winogrand was once asked whether he worried about all the pictures he was missing while he was reloading his Leica.  He famously replied "There are no pictures while I'm reloading."  The implication here is that the photographer is an integral part of the photo making process, and that "missed" photos were never actually photos in the first place.

As photographers approaching a scene, the first thing we should ask ourselves is not "How can I photograph this?" but rather "Should I photograph this?"  I would argue that, in the vast majority of cases, the answer to the latter question is "no!"

For example, consider the following photograph.

Utter crap.

I shouldn't have taken this photograph.  It's boring, cliché, and really has no redeeming value whatsoever.  And guess what?  I've taken thousands of photographs just like it, and so have you.  I should have kept right on walking, and aborted this awful attempt at street photography.

So how can we learn to walk away?  And if we walk away, how can we ever hope to learn about what works and what doesn't?  After all, we don't see the photos we never take, and thus we can't learn from them.

Well, therein lies the irony.  We need to take bad photographs in order to make good photographs.  We need to look at monstrosities like the shot above and recognize our faults, and try very hard not to make the same mistakes again.  As we progress as photographers, we need to learn to press the shutter button less, not more.  We need to learn what constitutes a good photograph, and have the confidence to say "No!  This scene in front of my does not pass muster."  We need to work harder to make good photographs, and a big part of this is taking fewer photographs.  FAR fewer.  Making more false negative errors.

Having said all of that, there is also a fundamental difference between the false positive posted immediately above and that at the top of this post.  The former is, in my opinion, a photograph that could have been a winner, were it not for my relative sloth in getting the shot taken.  It's a near-miss, and while I'm disappointed that it didn't work out as intended, it was worth the attempt.  On the other hand, the latter photograph is pure junk, and I should have known better.

What we need to do is teach ourselves to recognize crap photos before we take them.  A cursory glance at Flickr suggests we are far, far away from this ideal.

So what do you think?  Is it better to take more photographs and toss the junk, or to think more up front and take fewer, better photographs?