M System Accessories
Or, "Pimp your M."
Last updated on November 27, 2011
Like any camera system that's even mildly popular, the M system enjoys a wide variety of accessories to customize the user experience. In this article, we'll delve into some of the options available. They range from simple, inexpensive DIY modifications to more complex and generally more expensive modifications involving parts or accessories. Enjoying a niche market, some of the aftermarket accessories can potentially be a bit expensive (though of a very high quality in return). As with anything, it's best to weigh your options and shop around - as items can be had both new and used. This article will help to guide you as to what's out there.
We won't get into the truly "generic" accessories such as tripods, cable releases, flashes, etc. Even though there are both Leica-branded and third-party options available for all three - we'll concentrate on the bodies themselves here as there's a lot of ground to cover as it is.
There are a variety of optical enhancements available, mainly of two types. Those that modify the internal viewfinder in some way, either through magnification for use with longer focal lengths or through correction for less than ideal eyesight. The second type is more of a true "accessory" or external viewfinder which provides framing for focal lengths not generally represented in the internal viewfinder. The former screw into the internal viewfinder and the latter are mounted in the camera's hotshoe.
We won't cover magnifiers in any great detail here as we already have a dedicated article on Viewfinder Magnifiers available. These devices screw into your viewfinder like diopter correction lenses but rather than correct - increase your viewfinder's magnification for use with longer focal lengths.
Diopter lenses are used in correcting for the user's eyesight when not wearing glasses or contacts for shooting. While some viewfinder magnifiers (such as those from Japan Exposures, formerly Megaperls) offer built-in, variable diopter correction - the rest do not. Some will allow you to screw in these diopter lenses - while some will not. You'll need to know your particular prescription and realize that the M cameras have a built-in correction of -0.5 (which is actually aimed at those with 20/20 vision) and you should take that into account when figuring out which to get. Say your prescription calls for +1.0 diopters of spherical correction. In order to arrive at that, you would then get a +1.5 diopter correction lens (-0.5 plus +1.5 = +1.0 correction). Leica currently offers corrections of +/- 0.5, 1.0, 1.5, 2.0 and 3.0 diopters.
If you have astigmatism, a new option is coming onto the market from Walter RX Eyepiece which combines regular diopter correction to include that for astigmatism as well. Each is custom made by providing your prescription at the time of order. While not inexpensive at $479.00 USD, it offers complete correction - which no other solution provides. You could get close with the regular diopter lenses - by adding half of your cylindrical correction value into the equation above - but it's usually only close whereas the Walter RX Eyepiece is exact. See our full review for more information.
Left to right are the Voigtländer metal 28mm and plastic 21mm finders and the Leica "SHOOC" (135mm) finder.
As mentioned earlier, external viewfinders mount in the hotshoe and allow framing for more exotic focal lengths (e.g. 18mm, 21mm, 24mm, etc.) as well as more common ones that are represented in the internal viewfinder but perhaps with additional features (e.g. the "SHOOC" finder for 135mm lenses which provides a 1x or 1:1 magnification). We won't cover these extensively here, rather in a more in-depth future article.
Eyecups are relatively rare in the M system. The only real option for Leica M bodies is the E-Clypse EyeCup by Match Technical which offers both regular and magnified options. Shooters of the Zeiss Ikon can utilize threaded Nikon eyecups.
- Thumbs Up
- Soft Releases
The ergonomics of M cameras hasn't changed much in the over 50 years of its existence. However, consider that most of these bodies have been for film. With the introduction of the M8, two key aspects changed. The first is the fact that we're now talking about a digital body - and thus, has no wind lever against which to brace your thumb. Secondly, the M8 and M9 bodies are a bit heavier and larger. Regardless, the situation is exacerbated on all bodies by utilizing fast, heavy lenses.
In the case of digital Ms such as the M8 and M9, the lack of a wind lever and heavier weight can make for a less than secure and stable grip on the camera. A great solution to this is the Thumbs Up device from Match Technical. They're available in a variety of configurations, so consider them carefully. What they all share is solid brass construction in a finish to match (or complement) the camera body. While pricey, most users will agree that they definitely help and are well worth the expense. If you're looking for a cheaper, DIY option - one great solution has been to use a stick-on 3M rubber bumper, available from your local hardware store. A bit upscale from that is the "SNOB" from Leicagoodies.
In between the Thumbs Up and the SNOB is a great device called the Thumbie. Well designed and ergonomic, it's not as expensive as the Thumbs Up and much more elegant than a rubber bumper - see our full review for more information.
Another option for improving the handling of the camera are hand grips. There are quite a few options available here from both Leica and third-parties. While not everyone's cup of tea, they do offer a very good grip on the camera - especially when combined with a wind lever or Thumbs Up device on the M8/M9. If you regularly use fast or long, heavy lenses, you might want to consider either (or both) options.
- Leica - Handgrip M for the M8/M9 and for the MP/M7
- Rapidwinder - RapidGrip
- Really Right Stuff - BM9-Grip
- Photo Equip - MD-Grip
- eBay - Search for no-name wood grips
One feature the hand grips all have in common is that they still allow for the use of the camera strap lugs. Where they differ is how they're implemented. While some grips (e.g. the RapidGrip) attach to the tripod socket of your existing baseplate, most replace it entirely. In the case of the BM9-Grip from Really Right Stuff, it goes a step further as it's modular in design. The baseplate and optional L plate both have dovetails for tripod quick release mounting and the actual grip is another option (all three are available as a set).
Similar to the way hand grips are implemented where they replace the baseplate - exists the winder category. You can have a motor drive with Leica's "Motor Winder M" or take a strictly mechanical approach to quick winding with something like the RapidWinder or Leicavit. The latter is a relatively rare Leica product while the former is a currently produced item with a simpler, less finicky design and more finish options. Both work essentially the same - a lever that extends downwards from the body which you can quickly squeeze with your left hand to advance a frame and cock the shutter (instead of using the winding lever). All of these options can net you up to about three frames per second.
One last option that works with anything with a tripod socket is the Leica Lens Holder M. It allows you to mount a second lens to the bottom of the camera. A very minimalist approach to having a second lens handy at all times. Think of it as a 1/4-20 tripod screw to M bayonet mount adapter...
The third ergonomic accessory is the so-called "soft release" or "softie" as they're often called. A very basic item, they're essentially a button that screws into the cable release thread of the shutter button. They all basically do the same thing - raise the shutter button above the guard/lip, where it's easier for your finger to maintain a proper "trigger finger" position for the smoothest possible release of the shutter to minimize motion blur on longer shutter speeds. Whether it's concave, convex, large or small is mostly a matter of personal preference. They come in a large variety of materials, colors and even inscriptions or artwork as well. Quality of course varies and generally the pricier softies utilize better materials and have a better finish in both machining and color/art. Choices are plenty:
- eBay softies (in cheap aluminum, all sorts of colors and inscriptions)
- Rapidwinder (in aluminum, large and small, convex in a multitude of colors and artwork)
- Leicatime (in stainless steel, convex or concave)
- Match Technical (in brass, large and small, convex or concave in a multitude of colors and artwork)
Some folks swear by them - others swear at them. Two complaints are that they introduce the possibility of accidental exposures as the shutter button is no longer recessed and safe from bumps - and that they can increase the "notchy feeling" of releases such as those on the M7/M8/M9, which have three positions (off, exposure lock and trip). If you're curious, try one of the cheap options on eBay first or just resell your more expensive one. In some cases, they can work loose through use. The quick solution is a tiny dab of clear nail polish on the threads of the softie before screwing into the shutter button. As for the accidental exposure problem, either lock your shutter button if the body offers that - or just don't wind on after each shot.
- Half cases
- UV filters
This category is a bit more random - not necessarily just for protection but also ergonomics. For example, half cases can provide a grip as well and straps are more for carrying than for any sort of protection. But you get the idea.
Half cases are thus named because they just cover the body itself and nothing more. The opposite of this would be a full case, also known as an "eveready case" (sometimes nicknamed the "neveready case" since your camera is all enclosed). Some prefer using one for protection, others for the grip options. What they all have in common is that they do protect the body to a degree from every day bumps and bruises (save for the top plate) and muffle the sound of the shutter slightly. On the downside, what they also all have in common is that it makes getting to the film, SD cards or batteries more involved as not only is there the bottom plate to deal with but now the case as well. They're available from a number of vendors and vary in quality. Generally the rule here is "you get what you pay for." Common ones include the "Luigi" case from Leicatime, the "Zhou," Leica, A&A and Black Label cases.
A new type of "case" that has appeared on the market is the holster. Making its debut with the M9 Titanium limited edition, there are now two aftermarket companies making these for the M system; Fast+Prime and WontanCraft. A cross between a camera strap (they go over your shoulder and neck) and a half case (though the camera is withdrawn from it for use).
Straps might not even be so much an accessory - as a necessity. Without one, you'd have to hold your camera in your hand all the time. If you prefer this but would like a little more security you can get a "wrist strap" as opposed to a full length "shoulder strap." While some prefer the down to business and highly functional Leica strap as provided with the camera - others prefer a more personal approach. They come in a variety of materials, colors and lengths. Popular upscale options are the regular and deluxe leather straps from Leicatime and the braided silk ones from Gordy's or A&A.
Camera bags are as wide and varied as it gets. There are a number of options here; one that's more or less made for the M system, more generic or even a DIY bag by putting a "Domke Insert" into a generic messenger bag as an example. Some popular bags made for the M system are the A&A and Leica leather bags of old. There are also some no-name bags for the M system available on eBay. More generic bags that are popular are the Think Tank Photo "Urban Disguise 10 & 20" and "Retrospective 5" bags, the Domke F-5 and F-8 (among other) bags. Really, the options are bewildering if you go purely generic - any bag will do as long as it meets your storage, capacity and protection needs.
UV filters are a hotly debated item in the photographic community as far as "protection" goes. We won't try to answer that here, but suffice it to say that some like to affix one to the front of a lens to protect the front element from damage. The downside is additional cost and potential for image degradation. M8 users have no choice in the matter as they have to use UV/IR filters. Two birds with one stone and all that... Whichever side of the fence you're on regarding UV filters, one thing is certain - you must use a high quality filter. That means B+W, Heliopan or the higher-end Hoya filters. Cheap filters are no bargain - they're garbage.
- Black dots
- Custom parts
There are a variety of other custom modifications that you can do to your M body. Not so much accessories per se, but actual modification or swapping of parts.
The first variety is the customization of body parts. The simplest, the so-called "black dot" is a rather easy and sought-after modification for the "stealth" crowd. Instead of the bright red Leica roundel (logo) on the body, this one is black. Nothing more, nothing less. They're an actual Leica part, used on some bodies (e.g. M8.2) and run about $10-25, because of which you can really only get from repair shops. This makes them a little hard to come by mostly because of availability and their popularity. Avoid the way overpriced ones selling on eBay.
Unlike the other modifications, this is a DIY project as they're essentially just metal stickers. The old one is twisted off (with the help of something grippy like a pencil eraser) and the new one affixed. You could also paint your "red dot" though it might not look as clean and involves more work. You basically spray your dot with whatever color you wish and carefully sand it from the lettering to bring back the silver script of the Leica name and re-glue.
Another common modification, though slightly more complicated (yet still inexpensive) - is replacing the "skin" (a.k.a. vulcanite) of the camera. Either with a better material and texture than the original or even a completely different color if you wish. While DIY (you can also have it done for you) it does involve a fair bit of effort to remove and skill to install the new one perfectly. Check out Cameraleather or Aki Asahi for an idea of the possibilities. You can go with real leather of varying qualities and sources or the popular "Griptac" option. The latter looks like normal vulcanite but grips far better; less slippery and somewhat soft.
Beyond black dots and skins is a more hardcore approach - replacing parts such as levers (see the "softie" image above as an example). This is more involved as it requires specialized tools. One such modification is replacing the winding and frame preview levers on a more modern body (e.g. M4 onwards) with more classic "M3 style" controls. Whereas the former may include plastic bits, the latter are all metal and some prefer these. Even more hardcore (and expensive) are MP viewfinder upgrades or changing the magnification of same (e.g. .58x, .72x or .85x). You really want to have Leica or a competent repair person perform these modifications for you.
Further customizations are also possible. One common modification is to the frameline mask. Later M bodies are sometimes criticized as having "cluttered" viewfinders with two framelines visible at all times rather than just one. For example, the common 28/90mm, 35/135mm and 50/75mm pairings on later .72x M bodies. Some prefer a cleaner, simpler viewfinder and certain framelines can be masked out so as not to appear. One such combination might give you a 35mm, 50mm and 90mm set of framelines which is more like the earlier M bodies, such as the M3 or when combining a .85x viewfinder and 1.15x magnifier (both offering a nearly 1x or 1:1 view). For a 50mm shooter, it doesn't get much better than a setup like this!
It's worth pointing out that if you're looking for a custom M and are buying new - it might be worth while to check out the Leica á la carte program over customizing a body on your own - though the latter is often much cheaper especially when buying used and having a third-party service person perform the work.
Hopefully some of these will give you ideas on how to improve or at least customize your camera to your liking. Either for a tangible purpose such as correction or protection or just to make it your own.