First Roll: Leica M4

TOO MANY PHOTOS IN ONE POST ALERT: READ AT YOUR OWN RISK

Okay, I lied. I actually shot 1.5 rolls with the “new” Leica M4. I had to do it. You can’t get a “new” camera, not test it, and then head into the unknown thinking you are gonna set the world on fire. I have utmost faith in Leica technicians, but THEY would want me to test it, so I did. I happened to be in Newport Beach, so I started walking and searching. I put myself in Newport at days end, hoping for some decent light, at least some decent direction. The first thing I noticed is that the M4 has some heft to it. It’s not heavy it’s solid. It feels great. The second thing I noticed is the camera is smooth, REALLY smooth. When you crank the wind lever it is like eating a stick of butter.




I knew within about ten frames that this is the best film camera I’ve ever had. It’s not even close. The M4 is all brass and all mechanical. There is no meter. Another photographer said to me, “Oh that sucks, no meter, what a pain in the ass.” For a split second I was kinda thinking the same thing, then I quit huffing paint for two minutes and realized my Hasselblad has no meter and I love that thing. So when I did this M4 test I put my trusty light meter in my back pocket, but instead of pulling it out and metering the scene I just viewed the scene, analyzed it, and then set my exposure. Then I pulled out the meter and tested to see how close I was. The vast, vast majority of the time I was right on the money. So, in short, I don’t need a meter.



The crazy thing about NOT having the meter is what it does to you, or doesn’t do to you, when you look through the viewfinder. There is NOTHING there except for the framelines. That’s it. There is ZERO distraction. Now it’s not like the M6 with the small red circle and arrow is greatly distracting, not at all, but this M4 is so damn basic it is impossible not to pay full attention to what lies within those faint white lines.


This is now my everyday camera, my number one, my big cheese, my big Kahuna. I’ve been carrying it now for about a week, and I have to say, everywhere I take it people flock to it like bees to honey. I’m not sure why this other than the fact that old cameras are cool, but there really seems to be something more to it. The only thing I can come up with is that in an age of something new every six months, people have a great appreciation for things that last. This M4 is over forty years old and it is just as good today as it was when it was first released. How can you not appreciate that?



Last night I was at a retirement party for a local college photography professor, someone I’m going to write about in the coming days, and I found myself at table with four young photography students. I put the M4 on the table and grabbed a menu. I felt four sets of eyes on the camera. “Wow, what is that?” one of the students asked. What followed was a conversation about learning the basics, about editing, about finding a style and about the latest greatest isn’t always the best. Is this the only camera I’m going to use? No, not by a long shot. Over the last week I did two shoots with the M9, then turned those shoots around minutes after the shoot was over. I see a future of continuing to do the same. Using what I want to use, when I want to use it. After all, I’m the photographer. I make the decisions.

These pictures are not world beaters, but the test was successful. And if you want to know more about the M4…click here.

54 Responses to “First Roll: Leica M4”

  1. Shan says:

    Great pics! What kind of B&W film do you use?

    Thanks.

  2. Mark Olwick says:

    Thanks, Dan. I love your perspective on gear!

    Mark

  3. Brian Miller says:

    Nice! Can’t wait to see your new baby.

  4. LionelB says:

    Daniel,
    I went to the South of France a few weeks ago with my M3 and expected to shoot four or five rolls, including some colour.As it turned out I made just 31 images on Tri-X. Of those, 24 make me feel good inside and three or four I would contentedly exhibit. I say that not blow my own trumpet, just to show that being quiet, unhurried and contented is the place to be, at least for me. The M3 makes me smile, makes me really look.

    • Smogranch says:

      Lionel,

      I guess that is what this entire endeavor is about. Something that works for you and allows you to just think and see. South of France sounds good about now.

  5. Chad Tobin says:

    Hi Daniel, Love the M4 post. My first Leica experience was shooting my friends M4 and it got me hooked. Just a magic camera. I have a question about when you are working on a project for say a blurb book. Do you use TR-X the whole time to keep a consistent look so there is no disconnect from the way the images look? Thank you again for your posts you have me out shooting more and more because of your passion to make amazing images. Chad :)

    • Smogranch says:

      Hey Chad,

      I typically choose a film at the beginning of a project and then stay consistent. The only real departure from this is when I use a little 3200 in certain situations. But, now that I’m in the darkroom I’m using more TRI-X. Portra for my color. Thanks for those kind words. If you are shooting more because of me, that is a good thing.

  6. Ricke says:

    Love the photos! Tri-x and leica is like a match made in heaven

  7. mike a says:

    I guess I’m a Leica virgin. I’ve never even held one but I’ve always wanted one, especially an M4. No bells or whistles is what I want. Every time someones asks me about my 5d I always say too many buttons. If I had a plane it would be a old bi plane. If gas didnt cost a fortune I’d drive and old car from the 50′s or something. I hate complicated things, I guess I just have a simple mind. I just love the sound on the simplicity of the M4.

  8. Sean says:

    Please, please stop this. I want to spend money on flights to exotic places, rolls and rolls of Portra, and use the rest for cold beer.

    I don’t want to buy a new camera this year but you’ve had me checking out prices. AGAIN.

    • Smogranch says:

      Sean,
      Look, don’t feel bad about taking the bus. Is a 96-hour bus ride really that big a deal after the first 18 hours? You won’t feel your legs a minute past 15 hours, so just knowing your M is tucked away in the 8 inches of storage should be a great feeling. Also, pack of a flask of grain alcohol. That way, when you need it, a few bottlecaps and you won’t remember anything.

    • Sean says:

      I never knew it was that easy!

  9. MarkusA says:

    Great Post – beautiful brass M’s; you can not beat them. I own a couple of black MP’s myself and the psychology of shooting with bodies you feel connected with can be profound – and it can impact the work in a positive way. I just don’t get the same thrill from a 1DmkIV.

  10. Michael says:

    I’ve been wanting a rangefinder for a long time and I appreciate your previous advice to me. However this article adds a new twist. Up till now I have been looking at Voigtlanders and old Minoltas because I cannot (I really mean it) spend much more than $1000 right now for a body and lens. I might be able to find an M3 or M4 in that price range. Should I really be looking at a Leica or stick to something a little more modern for my first one? I haven’t even put my eyeball to a finder yet so I’m really nervous about spending these precious few dollars.

    • Smogranch says:

      Michael,
      Rangefinders are not for everyone. They have been romanticized for decades, but to really get to know one you have to really commit to it. The reason why there are so many for sale is that a lot of people buy them and never really give them a chance. It took me a long while, about five years of full time usage before I realized I had finally figured it out. I have Voigtlanders, but never a Minolta. I would save the money and buy a Leica. M4 or above. M4-P is a good option, not too expensive, no meter, smooth, dependable. M6 you can find for about $1000. The lenses are what is tricky now. Very expensive and hard to find. You don’t need 1.4s’. The 2′s are awesome and smaller. Cheaper too.

    • Love your work and the blog. Very inspirational. I’m close to pulling the trigger on a Leica and was looking at the M3 and M2. Interested in why you recommend M4 or above? Loading? Meter?

    • Smogranch says:

      Dan,

      The M2 and M3 are fine too. Some people want meet in which case I would look M6 or M7. M4 has modern wind and load system which I’m used to. Simple cameras, little to go wrong.

  11. Mark Berndt says:

    Dan, congrats on the new camera. My first M was an M4-P. In 1988 a cinematographer I was working with gave me the unlisted number of an Asian man who bought and sold used Leica gear. On a Saturday morning I met him in a parking lot in Hollywood. I exchanged a wad of cash – more money than I’d spent on a camera SYSTEM before – for an already brassing M4-P body and a Canadian 35mm Summicron, both in scuffed red and white boxes that he pulled from the trunk of his car. More like a drug deal than an equipment purchase, but I was hooked and my life as a photographer changed forever.

    • Smogranch says:

      Hey Mark,
      That is really funny and I know EXACTLY how you feel. The first time I “quit” photography I sold all my equipment sans a Canon 70-200 2.8, the original black one. I somehow managed to trade that for an M6 and 35mm. The guy came to my apartment in Laguna in a pouring rain and came inside. He pulled out the Leica, I pulled out the lens. I actually said to him, “This is a terrible deal for you,” but he did it anyway. That camera became my primary camera for the next five years.

  12. LionelB says:

    Completely different league but get a Beauty Lightomatic rangefinder for the price of 5 or 10 cups of coffee. Lanthanide glass, silent shutter, f1.9, bright focus. True it isn’t a Leica but it is a serious camera. See how you go with it. They were built like tanks. Pull out the winder lever to free the shutter !

  13. Man that is like camera porn dude. Awesome. Me wantsss the precious…the thing about gear not getting in the way is something I picked up from you and now I think about it all the time using a camera. Just don’t get in my way camera, just let me connect to the scene and then obey when I click the shutter. Big heavy DSLRS are not doing this for me anymore, they get in my way.

    • Smogranch says:

      FBJ,

      I’ve seen the Mark III and D800 and the others, but I can’t imagine using them for what I do. They are unreal cameras, they really are, and will allow you to make pictures you won’t make on a smaller camera, so they do what they do, but I’m cool with my stuff.

    • Am considering selling my Mark II and all the gear to help finance an X-pro1 and M6. Still, my Mark II can do amazing things with video and timelapse. Hopefully I’ll just find a money tree soon.

    • Reiner says:

      Strange feelings come up when these posts fly around. Leica’s seem to push everyone back to the basic basics -only the greatests look at a scene and make the lightmeter obsolete- but I’m not an owner, even didn’t touch or felt one and I’ve got this haha feeling when handling all my plastic Nikons from the 90ies. Yes stinky autofocus newly born… but they seem to fit not only my hands, even better and more important they seem to fit my “mind”. I think that’s the corebusiness here. Leica’s can fit the mind for mister or misses X, N’s or C’s or M’s or P’s or H’s can fit mister or misses Y. Fit as if you would take photo’s with your fingers and eyes and not with a plastic or bras tool.

    • Smogranch says:

      Reiner,

      That’s the thing, use what feels right. I have at least six different cameras I use depending on how I feel.

  14. Paul Joyce says:

    Just reading all of the above comments starts me looking at various websites and dreaming of getting a Leica or something smaller.

    I still shoot with an old Canon 350D but have become tired of carrying it around, which means when the opportunity presents itself I often don’t have it with me. Something smaller, simpler is what I have my eye on…I’m just not sure what and how much I want to spend.

    I still dream of coming across an old Leica somewhere like a flea market/car-boot sale here in Germany and the person selling it not really knowing what they have. No luck so far…

    • Smogranch says:

      Paul,
      I think what is important here is the idea of using a camera where you can’t see the image. That alone will change things for you.

  15. Chen Sun says:

    honestly, does it make that much of a difference while shooting?? just that much better than a M6? :D

    • Smogranch says:

      Chen,

      Just different that’s all. You might like the M6 and meter better. I have both and will use both. The M4 feels a bit smoother, but not like that is going to change the world.

  16. Chen Sun says:

    one more question, have you ever consider shooting some of the Zeiss M mounted glasses??

  17. Chris Fuller says:

    What I find interesting about these photos (and some of your work) is how much you seem to enjoy an open cloudless sky.

    • Smogranch says:

      Chris,

      I don’t really enjoy it at all unless I’m in an environment where I can really take advantage of the starkness, like the CA desert, Morocco, etc. Living in SoCal…we have a clean sky for about eight months a year, or more. Not much I can do about it. I much prefer New Mexico, Sicily, etc, places with..well…weather.

  18. Jon says:

    Wonderful blog! I too have M9s but just can’t let go of my M3 with B&W film. Personally I love the amazing 50mm viewfinder better than that of anything later. I mainly use 50mm but get a real kick out of the the looks and remarks I get when I use my Summilux 35 with goggles.

    Thanks for brightening up my evening

    • Smogranch says:

      Jon,

      Yes, the 50 mm is the best lens I’ve ever had. I am using the M9, but what I’m learning is that I need to commit to it from the get go. I can’t shoot digital and film at the same time, at least at the level I need to so see a project to fruition. Someone asked me yesterday, “How do you like that M9?” For me, it’s exactly the same as my M4 or M6 because I’ve been using them for so long it’s just natural at this point. Not giving up M4 or M6 anytime soon.

    • Jon says:

      I think it must be the viewfinder difference, but I just can’t get comfortable with 50mm on my M9 so always use 35 but on the M3 50 is so natural.

    • Smogranch says:

      Jon,

      They are both great lenses. Whatever seems to work sounds good to me.

  19. bob Soltys says:

    great photos and story … where did you find that gem of a camera?

  20. Hey Dan! After using it for a couple months now, any new thoughts?
    Drawbacks? In the past (80′s) I used an M-4P for all my journalist work. Unfortunately had to sell it. Don’t think I ever used the meter in it, so I wouldn’t even know if it was accurate. Found an M-4 in Upstate, NY here for around 1,100.00. Sounds like a deal now! Thanks for the post!

  21. My M2 is 52. My M4 is 41. Since first using Leicas in 1994 I have NEVER used better cameras for how I shoot than these. I know these cameras like I know the back of my hand and I wouldn’t trade them for Nutin.
    Hey. People like Gary Winogrand, Lee Friedlander and Jim Marshall can’t be all wrong. M2′s are dirt cheap. And if you can find an M4 for south of $2k then jump on it. You won’t regret it.
    Great post man.

  22. Ha. Actually my M4 is 43. Jeez!

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