Overview of the M System

Last updated on January 29, 2014



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Fully illustrated guide to film and digital Leica M bodies covering 60 years!

Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. M3 (1954-1966)
  3. M2 (1958-1967)
  4. M1 (1959-1964)
  5. M4 (1967-1975)
  6. M5 (1971-1975)
  7. M4-2 (1978-1980)
  8. M4-P (1980-1987)
  9. M6 (1984-1999) & M6 TTL (1998-2002)
  10. M7 (2002-present)
  11. MP (2003-present)
  12. M8 (2006-2008) & M8.2 (2008-2009)
  13. M9 (2009-present)
  14. M9-P (2011-present)
  15. M Monochrom (2012-present)
  16. M-E (2012-present)
  17. M (2013)
  18. Special Editions
  19. Viewfinder Reference
  20. Replacement Batteries

Introduction

The Leica M system as we know it has been in existence since 1954 when the first model, the M3 was introduced. Since its introduction, little seems to have changed on the surface - but there are many subtle differences. The M3 turned the 35mm camera industry on end with several groundbreaking features for the time including the bayonet lens mount (which is still in use today) and a viewfinder with multiple, automatically changing framelines with parallax correction that was bright and clear. Over the years, the M system developed more on an evolutionary rather than revolutionary track. Small refinements and changes were added with each release:

  M3 M2/M4 M5 M6/M6 TTL M7 MP M8/8.2/9/9-P
Type 35mm Film 35mm Film 35mm Film 35mm Film 35mm Film 35mm Film Digital CCD
Shutter Mechanical Mechanical Mechanical Mechanical Electronic* Mechanical Electronic
Size/mm 77x138x36 77x138x36 84x155x36 77x138x38* 79.5x138x38 77x138x38 80x139x37
Weight 595g 580g/600g 700g 560g* 560g* 600g 585g/600g (-P)
VF x .90 .72 .72 .58/.72/.85 .58/.72/.85 .58/.72/.85 .68
Flash M/X Sync M/X Sync M/X/Shoe Shoe/TTL Shoe (TTL) Shoe Shoe (TTL)
Motor No -MOT No Yes Yes Yes Built-in
Meter No No CdS Si/TTL Si (TTL/AE) Si Si (TTL/AE)

This overview only covers the major bodies - excluding some of the variants such as the M2-MOT (1967), MD (1965), M4-MOT (1967), MDa (1967), MD-2 (1977) and the special editions which made their debut after the release of the M6 such as the M6J, etc. They might be added at a later time, but for now they can be summarized as follows.

The MD variants are essentially "Documentation" cameras and do not feature a rangefinder or viewfinder. Instead, they accept index strips - which required a special base plate with a light-tight slot. Used for photographically recording documentation and rather specialized. They could also be used with the Visoflex (an SLR attachment).

The M2-MOT and M4-MOT allowed for coupling to a (large) motorized winder. The compatibility became standard with the M4-2/MD-2 and M4-P onwards with both dedicated winders and the universal Leica Winder M and Motor M. While the size of these motorized winders shrank considerably over the years, the top speed never surpassed 3fps. They also operate at a slower speed of 1-1.5fps and can be triggered for either single or multiple exposures via the shutter button.

For the M1/M2/MD models, there was the Leicavit (very rare) and for the MP (original modified M3 and later 2003+ MP) models the Leicavit MP. This accessory replaced your baseplate with a manually operated lever that both advanced the film and cocked the shutter. With practice, up to 2fps were possible.

Early Leica M bodies had a cold shoe and offered M (flashbulb) and X (electronic flashgun) sync ports. These are not compatible with regular PC sync cords, though adapters are available. The hot shoe didn't make an appearance until the M5 (introduced in 1972) and it was a single contact up until the M6 TTL (introduced in 1998) which featured TTL flash metering and brought the count up to four (the shoe acting as a ground for both).

M3 (1954-1966)

The M3 is the quintessential M camera that started it all, defining the M system for the next 57+ years and was even featured in the James Bond movie, "Dr. No." It was a groundbreaking camera when it was introduced and many of its traits carry on through to the latest M cameras, including the bayonet lens mount and viewfinder features. It's a strictly manual (and mechanical) camera in every sense of the word. Many consider it among the finest cameras that Leica has ever produced and is a particular favorite among 50mm shooters because of it's high-magnification .90x viewfinder. The framelines available are 50, 90 and 135 and feature automatic parallax correction. The 50 is always visible - 90 or 135 become visible as well with the corresponding lens mounted.

The M3 was essentially in a constant state of development during its production (much to the delight of collectors). The first batches of the M3 didn't have the frame preview lever but appeared shortly thereafter in 1955 (as of #785891). The shutter speed dial was also calibrated to German standards of the time (e.g. 1/100s, 1/50s, 1/25s, etc.) until 1957 (from #854001) when the normal speeds we see today were introduced. Finally, early M3s were equipped with a shutter cocking/film advance mechanism that required two strokes of the wind lever (so-called "double stroke" or "DS" bodies, as opposed to "single stroke" or "SS"). The latter made its debut in 1958 (as of #915251).

About 225,000 M3s were produced.

M2 (1958-1967)

The M2 is very similar to the M3 but differs in one key aspect; the viewfinder magnification was reduced from .90x to .72x (which would become the standard for all M bodies to follow) to allow the viewfinder to display framelines for the 35mm focal length. The framelines available are now 35, 50 and 90 and behave as all following Ms will - 50 is no longer fixed. The exposure counter is also different (and now requires a manual reset to zero). Notice the lack of bevels around the windows and a slighly changed top plate. This would define the look for bodies to follow. You'll also notice the illumination window for the framelines is now a fresnel lens, which improved light gathering - and made for brighter framelines.

Early versions of the M2 didn't have a self-timer and had a film rewind button instead of a lever (so-called "button rewind" bodies).

About 83,000 M2s were produced.

M1 (1959-1964)

The M1 was sort of in between the M2 and the upcoming MD body that replaced it in 1965. It had a viewfinder, but no rangefinder and permanently displayed the 35/50 framelines (though it did have automatic parallax correction). Therefore it had no frame preview lever, and also lacked a self-timer. It was meant as a camera for scientific/technical and documentation use. The MD that followed had no viewfinder at all.

About 9,392 M1s were produced.

M4 (1967-1975)

The M4 introduces further changes to the viewfinder, which now covers the 35/135, 50 and 90 framelines while still at a .72x magnification. Body controls (winder, self timer and preview levers) change to the more modern look and the film rewind becomes an actual crank, which sits at an angle now.

While actually making its debut with the prior M2R (or "military M2" body, not listed here) the M4 utilizes a new film loading system, which no longer requires a separate take-up spool.

About 58,000 M4s were produced.

M5 (1971-1975)

The M5 is unique among the M cameras in several ways; some people like it while others loathe it. The body dimensions are quite a departure from the traditional, being both larger all around (except in thickness) and heavier. The TTL metering is unique among M bodies in that it features a match needle system, and it is because of this and the swing-in metering cell "paddle" that the camera took on its characteristic size and shape. To its credit, it featured a couple of "firsts" in the M system, including a light meter (which requires a battery), a hot shoe and shutter speeds visible in the viewfinder. Some unique features include the rewind crank, which is in the base plate and both horizontal and vertical strap lugs. Because of the uproar from the long-time M shooters and poor sales (It cost close to $1,000 when introduced), it was short-lived - and almost killed the M system entirely, as Leica started focusing on the R system.

M4-2 (1978-1980)

The M4-2 marked a turning point for Leica - it was a return to the M system with cost-cutting as a major consideration. Production was moved to Midland, Canada. As a result of the cost-cutting, several things would change about the M. The changes included moving from an engraved "Leica" script to stamped, a lesser vulcanite, and removal of a condenser in the rangefinder mechanism (which introduced the potential for ghosts/flare, which persisted through the M6 model), loss of the self timer and a simplification of its internals.

To its credit, it still had brass top and base plates. The majority of M4-2 bodies were black chrome, though silver chrome was an option as well. From this (and the MD-2 from 1977) model forward, M bodies could now accept the Leica Motor and Winder M accessories - putting an end to the "-MOT" models.

M4-P (1980-1987)

The M4-P is quite similar to the M4-2. It introduced us to the now standard frameline pairs of 28/90, 50/75 and 35/135. Like the M4-2, the majority were produced in black chrome (silver chrome was also an option). Introduced with this model are the zinc top and base plates. The last 1,000 bodies were produced in Wetzlar, Germany as production of the M6 began.

M6 (1984-1999) & M6 TTL (1998-2002)

The M6 is very similar to the M4-P but reintroduces electronics to the M system (since the M5) featuring a TTL (Through The Lens) meter, but a more modern implementation. It uses a silicon photodiode as compared to the M5's cadmium sulfide meter cell and covers a greater area of the scene (12mm vs. 8.5mm). Like the M4-P, the M6 features zinc top and base plates.

The M6 TTL differs from the M6 in a couple of ways and marks a new direction for the M bodies - namely, increased use of electronics. The meter from the M6 is now microprocessor controlled and allows for TTL flash metering and the viewfinder display also changed slightly (from "< >" to "> o <"). This last change corresponds to the new shutter speed dial direction, which many now call "backwards" in rotation (to the previous M bodies). The shutter speed dial is larger, as is the body itself - some 2.5mm taller and 60g heavier over the M6. Another new option with the M6 TTL was the availability of the .85 viewfinder magnification in addition to the standard .58/.72. While .85 viewfinders on the M6 exist - only 3,130 were made at the factory that way.

Compare the M6 (top) with the M6 TTL (bottom) - notice the larger shutter speed dial, improved rangefinder/viewfinder and taller top plate of the TTL:

M7 (2002-present)

The M7 continues the integration of electronics in the M with the addition of an aperture priority mode ("A") and an all-new viewfinder display for exposure. In addition to the manual metering of the M6 TTL ("> o <") it also offers an LED readout of shutter speed, which remains in use up through the latest M9-P. Early viewfinders were able to be updated to the MP version (which reintroduces the condenser removed starting with the M4-2) and is available in .58 and .85 magnifications besides the standard of .72 as with the M6 TTL. The DX reader could also be updated - the original was electromechanical whereas the revised reader is optical (in some cases problems were noted with the original). Later M7 bodies had both the updated MP viewfinder and optical DX reader. After 22 years, for the M7 (and the following MP) Leica returns to using brass for the top and base plates.

Another feature of the new electronics comes in the form of an electronically-controlled shutter in the M7 that's both quieter and more accurate. However, it now depends on a battery for operation outside of two fall-back speeds of 1/160s and 1/125s which become mechanically controlled should the battery die. This is an important distinction for some over the mechanically-controlled shutters of other bodies.

MP (2003-present)

The MP is a bit of a mix between old and new. Essentially an M6 with M3-style design elements (controls) and metering of the M6 TTL/M7 (without the TTL part) with a return to high quality components and construction. Leica calls it the MP for "Mechanical Perfection" and is the modern version of the original MP (which were based on a modified M3 and thus the styling). Among the refinements include a rangefinder mechanism which reintroduces the condenser removed starting with the M4-2, brass top and base plates and engraving rather than stamping of the top plate scripts. Like the M6/M6 TTL (and unlike the M7 onwards) the shutter mechanism is controlled mechanically and requires no battery to operate at any speed.

M8 (2006-2008) & M8.2 (2008-2009)

The M8 marks Leica's entry to the digital realm; no easy feat given the requirement of maintaining the M body aesthetics and form factor. A custom sensor had to be developed to allow the use of existing M (and adapted LTM) lenses. The forward-thinking decision to exclude an anti-alias/anti-moire ("AA") filter and a minimal infrared ("IR") blocking filter gave the M8 extremely good image quality, but caused issues with IR contamination of images (the so-called "magenta issue"), causing Leica to give away two UV/IR filters to owners under a limited program.

The M8 and M8.2 share a common 10.3MP CCD sensor (Kodak KAF-10500) which is an unusual size of 27x18mm - creating a 1.33x crop as compared to a more typical 1.3x. It features a decent 6.8 µm pixel pitch. Due to LTM/M lenses generally having shorter distances from the rear of the lens to the film/sensor (especially wide angles) than typical SLRs - created a unique challenge for Kodak/Leica. With these short distances, the light spreads at a relatively wide angle. The solution was to offset the microlenses above each photosite. As you move out from the center of the sensor, the microlenses are offset increasingly - which gathers the light more effectively. Another thing the M8, M8.2 and in fact, all digital M bodies share is the new standard of a .68 magnification viewfinder. There are no options for other magnifications as with previous (film) bodies.

Additional correction was applied through the firmware, depending on the lens mounted. Leica accomplished this by introducing us to "6-bit coding" (which is used on all digital M bodies and lenses since). A group of six small pits on the lens mounting flange that are either black (off) or white (on). A sensor on the camera side reads these for automatic selection. It's worth noting that only Leica lenses after 2006 come from the factory (or can be sent in for) 6-bit coding. Third parties such as Cosina/Voigtländer and Zeiss do not offer it and lenses must be sent to a skilled repairperson for permanent coding. One could also "hand code" the lenses using a black Sharpie marker or paint along with a template. More recent lenses from third-parties offer a shallow groove on the mounting flange in an effort to make hand coding last longer (by not wearing off). One could also swap the lens' mounting flange with one that's machined with the necessary pits and coded as-needed. Quality varies widely from cheap eBay flanges to custom made brass.

Read more about Leica Lens Codes in our comprehensive article.

The M8.2 (and upgraded M8s) was a bit of an evolution of the original M8. It differs only in a few key areas. The top shutter speed was capped at 1/4000s over the original 1/8000s to make it quieter, smoother and place less stress on the mechanism. Generally considered a change for the better despite the new lower top speed. One change that was not so well received was the addition of the Snapshot ("S") mode, which essentially tried to turn the M8.2 into a point and shoot camera (as much as possible, anyway). Still available in the later M9, it was moved to a profile setting and off of the shutter speed dial. A more welcome change was the revision of the framelines in the viewfinder, which are now more accurate (optimized for 2m rather than .7m) and the change of the LCD cover to sapphire glass. The body itself remains unchanged except that the black chrome is now black paint, the vulcanite is a more traditional, rougher type (as opposed to the "shark skin" of the original M8 and MP) and finally, the red Leica logo/roundel on the black paint bodies was made blac (silver chrome bodies kept the red). Compare the M8 (top) with the M8.2 (bottom):

M9 (2009-2012)

The M9 (which was "impossible" in 2006) was announced with great fanfare on September 9, 2009 and is regarded by some as "the digital M the M8 should've been" but because of technology and price constraints, couldn't be. The most obvious change is the move from a 10.3MP 1.33x crop sensor to a new full frame 18.2MP sensor. Maintaining the same 6.8 µm pixel pitch, it gains a slightly thicker IR filter which eliminates the need for UV/IR filters. A host of ergonomic refinements were also made - the "PROTECT" button was replaced with "ISO" for example, and the SET/MENU screens were also updated. The body was slightly changed, losing the battery and shot counter LCD on the top, which is now accessed through an improved "INFO" screen. It now looks more like older M bodies. In a bold move, Leica dropped the traditional silver chrome finish in lieu of a new steel-gray colored paint, in addition to black paint. The vulcanite is the shark skin variety on the steel-gray and the traditional on the black. The logo/roundel returns to its red color. As with the M8 and M8.2 that preceded it, the M9 (and the variants - the M9-P and MM) have a .68 magnification viewfinder with no alternative options.

The M9 is still in production today, with an estimated count of around 30,000 bodies in August 2011. At that time it would have meant selling approximately 40 bodies per day since launch. Indeed, the M9 (and M9-P to follow) was a watershed moment for Leica. These bodies continue to be immensely popular, in part contributing to the dire shortage of new lens stock (among other reasons).

M9-P (2011-2012)

Some consider the M9-P to have a bit of "special edition" flavor, though it is part of the regular models offered. Virtually identical to the M9 in every way - except the body style is more reminiscent of the MP, with different top/bottom plates. The model number and logo/roundel are missing from the front of the camera and the top plate features the "Leica" engraving. Replacing the steel-gray paint is a return to silver chrome - black paint is still an option as well. The vulcanite is the rougher, older style on both models and the LCD cover is sapphire glass, to further promote a more "MP" feel to them. Older M9 cameras can be sent to Leica to be upgraded to the M9-P (of either color). The body shell, base and top plates are returned to you (the latter of which includes the shutter speed dial and button).

M Monochrom (2012-present)

The M Monochrom was announced on May 10th, 2012 at Leica's "Das Wesentliche" event in Berlin. It is essentially a black-and-white only version of the M9-P. The M Monochrom has no bayer filter array in front of the 18MP sensor, meaning it can capture more light (up to ISO 10,000) - but cannot capture color. It also means there is no need for demosaicing (the process of combining color information from adjacent pixels), so higher levels of resolution and detail are realized. In most respects, the M Monochrom shares its hardware with the M9-P. Where they differ is the black chrome finish of the body, the new leatherette and a black hotshoe with the only indication of model - merely stating "monochrom." As a result of the increased sensitivity of the sensor, the base ISO has been raised from the M8 and M9/M9-P's 160 to 320.

M-E (2012-present)

The M-E represents an "Entry" level model M camera - it is essentially an M9. New features are entirely cosmetic; the "Anthracite Grey" paint and chrome controls. Two things missing in an attempt to reduce cost are the USB port and frame preview lever.

M (2013)

The M10 that everyone was expecting simply came to be called the M for "Milestone." It represents a radical departure for Leica on many levels. It features a 24MP CMOS sensor, live view and video, offers a Visoflex EVF2 Electronic Accessory Viewfinder (EVF) option and sports a larger 3"/920k LCD.

First off, what's with the name? As we all know, digital technology moves at a rapid clip, so numbering bodies presents a number of problems. In an interview with Jesko von Neuyhausen he says, "We don't want to give our customers the feeling that when the M10 comes out, for instance, that the M9 is suddenly the 'old' model and they have to buy the new one because the old one isn't good enough anymore. We decided that the continuous numbering concept is not the right thing for us in the long term."

Though the little details were no less interesting. For example, no more sapphire screen but rather Gorilla Glass - the same material used in iPhones, made by Corning. The normal buttons along the left side got a makeover. You'll now find the MENU button among the line up as well as a dedicated LV or live view button. Gone however is the INFO button - which is now located at the center of the revised direction pad (under the thumb). On the front is the Focus button and on the top is the Movie button, which are totally new - as is the thumb rest/dial. So much for the Thumbs Up now!

What's interesting is the new base ISO of 200 rather than 160 as with all previous models. This is more in line with the M Monochrom, and though to a lesser degree - might not appeal to "wide open shooters" as much. One thing we found interesting, considering this is now a CMOS sensor - is the rather limited top-end, at ISO 6400. We'd have expected a bit more there. Of course, this ISO will likely turn out to be very clean. Those higher ratings touted by the SLR manufacturers, while nice - are largely unusable.

Metering on the M is now vastly different. Besides the standard "centerweighted" metering (now with variable aperture) there are also "spot" and "multifield" capabilities. Focusing is also vastly different. There's the usual optical rangefinder we all know and love, but live view offers us magnified focusing as well as the popular focus peaking. This is big news. The metering is way more advanced and so is the view - optical, electronic, live view or magnified. This makes macro and tele very easy, especially with adapted R lenses. You can also focus those .5m minimum distance lenses (e.g. ZMs) all the way down as well.

Thankfully the things that make an M an M, remain the same. The body shape is there, as well as the milled brass top and bottom plates. The layout hasn't changed very much either and anyone familiar with previous bodies will feel right at home with the new. Speaking of new, the Handgrip Mhas been redesigned and borrows a feature from the M9 Titanium - an optional rubber Finger Loop (available in three sizes). The really interesting addition is the Multifunction Handgrip M. It offers built-in GPS, a hot shoe, flash sync and USB ports and finally, a port for an external power supply! Another feature borrowed from the M9 Titanium is the LED-illuminated framelines. On second glance you'll notice the missing fresnel lens/window on the front because of this. The default color is white, though you can select red from the menu.

The bottom of the camera is also interesting - as far as the baseplate goes. The tripod socket isn't part of the baseplate anymore but rather the camera itself (and the post now passes through). A much more solid solution, but no more popping off the plate to swap batteries in such situations. The plate itself has a plastic-filled slot to allow better signal strength and compatibility with WiFi cards. The battery is the real shocker as it's now twice as thick as the old ones. Now carrying a BP-SCL2 designation (Leica part number 14499), it still has almost the same rating (1800mAh vs 1860mAh) but over twice the voltage (7.4v vs. 3.6v). Despite things like a 3" screen, video and live view, you should still get around 400-500 shots (about five hours of continuous usage) or around 800-1000 shots using the optical viewfinder. This represents a two to threefold improvement over previous!

Along with video came a few other minor differences body-wise (such as the mono microphone and buttons). The video quality includes 1080p up to 24fps and utilizes MJPEG and Quicktime formats. Audio can be recorded in stereo with the Microphone Adapter Set and features both manual and auto level as well as a "concert" preset. Stills are of course now 24MP (5952x3976) but still DNG format. To help capture all this, battery life is much-improved over the previous models and the camera receives a CPU upgrade in the form of the Leica Maestro image processor. You might recognize it from the S medium format cameras.

The last little detail that's interesting to note is that the new body is "splash proof." Although the previous versions weren't hugely vulnerable given some care, now it's officially sealed up. Does this mean we'll see "splash proof" lenses down the line? Speaking of lenses, you can now use those R lenses on the M with the new R-Adapter M (the body includes profiles for 21 of them).

Special Editions

Leica is well known for releasing "limited" or "special" editions. No camera body saw more of this than the M6, which came out in a bewildering variety of permutations. There were a few M7 versions (namely the Hermès, in two variations) but things didn't pick up again until the digital Ms; the M8, M9 and M major revisions each received some attention, getting more exotic... And more expensive. In fact, the Leica M (RED) is the most expensive Leica ever at $1.8M USD. They typically make their appearance near the end of a product's lifespan; both to clear out inventory and make some hefty profit in the process. Below are a couple of examples of some recent treatments.


M6 LHSA


MP LHSA


M7 Titanium


M7 Hermès (orange)


M8 Safari


M8 White


M9-P Hermès


M9 Titanium


M Monochrom "Ralph Gibson"


M (RED)

Viewfinder Reference

Over the course of its history, the Leica M system has had a variety of viewfinder magnifications and framelines visible. Below is a comparison (as seen in later bodies) that will help illustrate the various combinations (click for larger):

Replacement Batteries

When replacing batteries in the M6, M6 TTL, M7 or the later MP bodies, the preferred replacement is a single (two for the M7) CR1/3N 3v lithium battery. They're not that common, so if you have any trouble finding one while out and about and in a bind, you can use two (four for the M7) PX76/SR44 1.5v silver oxide batteries. Do go with the better silver oxide batteries over the alkaline version if at all possible.

Sanyo CR1/3N are also known as/similar to:
Duracell DL1/3N, Kodak 2L76 and K58L (11.6 x 10.8mm)

PX76/SR44 also known as/similar to:
A76, S76, D357, 10L14, EPX76, KS76,SR44, 357, and V76PX (11.6 x 5.4mm)

M6, M6 TTL, MP: M7:
 

The M5 required the PX13/PX625 1.35v mercuric oxide coin type batteries, but they were banned because of their mercury content. A modern replacement is the Wein MRB625.

The M8, M8.2, M9 and M9-P all use the same lithium ion battery, with a nominal voltage of 3.7v and 1900mAh capacity. The M8 models had a battery level indicator atop the body (along with remaining shots) through a discrete LCD display, and in the M9 models via the the "INFO" button and displayed on the rear LCD. An additional acoustic warning when capacity is low was also added. The Leica battery carries a part number of 14464, and is also available from third-parties. Due to the varying quality of third-parties batteries, it is strongly recommended to stick with OEM unless cost is a major concern.

The Leica SF 24D flash uses one CR123 3v lithium battery. Rechargeable batteries are not recommended.