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Leica MP: Retro Coup And Marketing Ploy?

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

For a company that rightly boasts one of the most beautifully made and rugged cameras in the world – its legendary M-series rangefinder – Leica has been making a lot of noise recently about how much MORE rugged is its brand new – or is it very old? – addition to the Leica line, the rangefinder MP.

Slightly heavier than the already substantial Leica M6 that it replaces, the MP looks like a Leica rangefinder camera, but seems to have even more gravitas than its predecessor.

The added weight comes from solid brass top and bottom plates. The easy-to-grip black sharkskin-like body covering – as opposed to faux leather-grain vulcanite – harkens back to Leicas of old. The sharp-eyed will note too that there is no small red-dot "Leica" logo on the front of the camera, but that there is the company name elegantly engraved on the top plate, just as it had been on Leica cameras decades ago.

And, my goodness, will you look at this: the rewind knob no longer is canted at a 45-degree angle with a collapsible crank for easy winding. Nope, the MP makes you lift the knob up into rewind position, then makes you slowly, laboriously – but clearly with a reverence for tradition – wind your film back into its cassette. [In fairness, Leica does offer an auxiliary, after-market manual winder for the knob, just as it did decades ago for the Leica M3, which this camera uncannily resembles.]

Dear and gentle reader, are you asking what I asked myself when I first heard about this remarkable, albeit deja vu, camera: What the hell is going on here?

Some very canny marketing, I think, along with some smart market positioning.

It also may be true, as some Leica critics would argue, that the company finally is listening to complaints that recent Leica rangefinders simply were not up to their illustrious predecessors of the post-World War 2 era in terms of finish or fittings.

[I must note here, though, that tales of alleged Leica shortcomings are matters of degree, especially when compared to today's plastic-bodied, electronics-filled, temperamental and skittish SLRs. For example, I once dropped my metal M6 onto the pavement and I swear I thought I could hear it laugh. For the record, not only was the camera unharmed; I couldn't even find a scratch on it.]

"Not a photographic whim, but a camera for life," Leica says in advertising that, in effect, touts the MP as the photographic equivalent of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle. Still, you have to ask: if Leica has to deny that the camera is a whim, doesn't that imply that at least some folks might think it is one?

In fact, the MP (standing for "Mechanik in Perfektion" – mechanical perfection) may be the ultimate all-manual, all metal camera that still has in-camera metering. [Keep this in mind; it's important as a justification for the camera's existence.]

"We see the Leica MP as an antithesis to the trend toward digitization and automation," declared Leica CEO Hanns-Peter Cohn. He certainly is right on that point. Already renowned as one of the most rugged 35mm cameras on the planet (some hard-to-please critics notwithstanding) the Leica rangefinder camera is so far removed from digital photography and from cameras that do your thinking for you, that they might as well be from different solar systems.

The Leica M-series camera always was, and likely always will be, the prime tool of the available light, up close and personal, documentary photographer or photojournalist. It is not the camera for the studio shooter, or for the news photographer who covers politicians speaking from podiums 50 or a hundred yards away.

The Leica is a stealth camera whose shutter release is a sigh, whose film advance is a whisper. Even the comparative silence of a pro-level digital camera – say the Nikon D1x or the Fuji FinePix S2 – is nothing compared to a Leica M. And remember: in situations where you don't want to call attention to yourself, these big digital rigs, with their equally big zoom lenses, stand out like a sore thumb compared to the unobtrusiveness of an M.

But I keep coming back to what motivated Leica to go back to the future with a camera that, in many ways, is merely a clone of the Leica M3 of yesteryear.

It took a while, but I think I've figured it out.

When the first buzz about the MP began earlier this year, the only things I heard were: "all manual," and "rugged as hell."

I had to wait until I got my hands on one to gauge the rugged part – and when I did I had to admit that it felt like a tank. Leica notes that it has made subtle but significant improvements to the camera's internals, as well as added another lens element to its rangefinder to cure a stray light problem that some had noticed. So confident is the company in the camera's longevity and reliability that it is offering a five year warranty as well as a promise that replacement parts will be available for at least the next 30 years.

OK, so the camera is a brick. But the "all manual" part of the equation still was intriguing. To me that meant absolutely no reliance on batteries – like my wonderfully reliable, and also tank-like, Hasselblad 500C/M. Could this mean that, in its rush to be retro, Leica did away with an in-camera meter? Even a troglodyte like me had grown to rely on my M6's meter, quickly rotating my aperture ring or spinning my shutter speed dial until a little red dot indicating correct exposure lit up in my viewfinder. [Note: this system works only when you manually set the ISO dial on the back of the camera – no arriviste auto-indexing here!]

Further inquiry revealed that the MP is not really an all-manual camera: it does rely on two small batteries, or one larger 3v., to power the in-camera exposure meter that I'd come to rely on in my M6. The MP does not, however, offer TTL flash metering – no biggie since these cameras never were designed for serious flash work.

But, I asked myself, if the MP has a meter like the M6, why should anyone buy an MP which at roughly $2600 list is about $500 more than the M6?

The answer: Because there aren't anymore M6's.

In discontinuing the M6 after a highly successful run of nearly 20 years, Leica leaves photographers looking for a new rangefinder camera with two choices: the "new" Leica MP or the less new (introduced last year) Leica M7. The M7 (list: $2995) made headlines by having, among other things, aperture priority. More important than this mundane, albeit useful, feature was the fact that the M7 had Leica's first electronic rangefinder shutter, and flash sync up to 1/1000, instead of an anemic 1/50, as well as TTL flash metering. This, of course, meant that the camera was inexorably tethered to its batteries and became little more than a paperweight when they died. (Actually Leica engineers did rig the M7 so that it would work at 1/60 and 1/125 even with dead batteries or no batteries – something no big ticket electronic SLR can do).

Finally, there is the question of black paint and the reincarnated winder.

In unveiling the MP, Leica also has resurrected the Leicavit-M manual winder, an ingenious device that substitutes for the original baseplate and lets you shoot at more than 2 frames per second with no battery drain at all since it's powered by your fingers. But, like anything with the Leica name, this accessory ain't cheap, listing for just under $1,000. [A half-price privately made version, may be seen at www.rapidwinder.com]

As for black paint, it may not seem like a luxury item, but with Leica, all bets are off.

In the old days, before anodized aluminum, black-body cameras were painted shiny black on top and bottom. This meant that over time the paint would wear off at the edges, letting the brass underneath shine through, looking molto cool.

Wouldn't you know that the black body version of the MP is painted black, so that shooters subjecting this camera to even moderate extended use at, say, the country club or on vacation, can fantasize about covering Vietnam with Graham Greene or sharing a bunker in Iraq with Jim Nachtwey.

In the end, what Leica you buy depends on your own preference, pocketbook and how much you buy into the Leica mystique. I admit I buy into it pretty well – my M6 is without question, the best camera I own. But I love being free of batteries, so the M7 is out. (Without batteries, the M6 and MP work just fine at all shutter speeds; it's just the meter that won't go.)

Would I ever buy an MP?

If I didn't already have an M6, perhaps.

If I could afford both, in a heartbeat.

And if that ever were to happen, please don't laugh if I start rubbing off the black paint.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

©Frank Van Riper
The new Leica MP (left) actually is a reincarnation of the all-manual Leica M3, but with in-camera metering. The M6 (right) has been discontinued after a long, distinguished run.

©Frank Van Riper
Chalk it up to retro fever. Note the MP's old-style, much slower, rewind knob (front) versus the more familiar 45-degree angle winding knob of the M6 (rear).

©Frank Van Riper
Besides unveiling a new/old camera, Leica is resurrecting its nifty Leicavit manual winder. Powered by fingers instead of batteries, this pricey accessory will let you shoot at more than 2 frames per second – with practice.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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