A Brief History of Leica M Cameras

February 2022

Introduction

Compact, discreet, reliable — for seven decades, the Leica M cameras have defined the rangefinder category and shaped the history of photography. The M’s concept — fitting the most advanced technology into the smallest possible package — has won over loyal fans, including many renowned photographers: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Elliot Erwitt, Josef Koudelka, Alex Webb, to name a few.

Since its introduction in 1954, the Leica M has witnessed wars, peace, triumphs, defeats, and anything in between. Its value — a compact and nimble tool that gets out of the photographer’s way, wherever they go — is best demonstrated through the iconic images it has created. Che Guevara, Muhammad Ali, children fleeing napalm attacks in Vietnam, a man holding a book in his mouth in New York — many of these are moments only an M can capture.

Over nearly 70 years, the M’s appearance has barely changed while the technology inside has evolved constantly — some more drastic than others, such as the switch from analog to digital. Evolution, rather than revolution, is the M’s philosophy: just like a Porsche 911, every generation is unquestionably better than the last while feeling unmistakably part of the family. It is the epitome of progress through iteration.


Leica M3

1954

The original M. “M” stands for Messsucher, a compound from German words Entfernungsmesser (“rangefinder”) and Sucher (“viewfinder”). It highlights the technological innovation that separates the M3 from previous Leicas: a combined view- and rangefinder, allowing the photographer to focus and compose simultaneously.

The viewfinder on the M3 has a magnification of 0.91× — the highest of all M cameras. It offers three framelines: 50 mm, 90 mm, and 135 mm, automatically shown when the respective lens is mounted. Parallax compensation shifts the framelines as you focus from 0.7 m to infinity, ensuring accurate composition.

Also debuting on the M3 is the new M lens mount. The bayonet mount replaces the screw mount of previous Leicas, allowing fast lens switching and creating a standard for compatibility. Every M camera from 1954 onward can work with almost any M lens — made by Leica or not — from the past seven decades, making the M system a long-lasting, and consequently, environment-friendly investment.

In 1957, Leica released the M2, a simplified model with a 0.72× magnification viewfinder and framelines for 35 mm, 50 mm, and 90 mm lenses.

Design details

Leica M3 viewed from the front. It has framed windows, a rewind knob in the top right corner, and a self-timer.
Technical data
Viewfinder magnification 0.91×
Exposure metering None
Exposure control Manual
Min. shutter speed 1/1000 s
Flash sync speed 1/50 s
Dimensions 138 x 77 x 33.5 mm
Weight 585 g

Leica M4

1967

The M formula, refined. Underneath the M4’s familiar silhouette are numerous improvements: an angled rewind crank replaces the knob, allowing faster film rewinding; a redesigned takeup mechanism makes reloading film easier; the viewfinder, same 0.72× magnification as the M2, now includes four framelines — 35 mm, 50 mm, 90 mm, and 135 mm.

Like the M3 and M2, the M4 also doesn’t have a built-in exposure meter. Photographers who needed precise exposure control had to rely on an external light meter — but that’s about to change.

Design details

Leica M4 viewed from the front. It has frameless windows, a rewind crank in the top right corner, and a self-timer.
Technical data
Viewfinder magnification 0.72×
Exposure metering None
Exposure control Manual
Min. shutter speed 1/1000 s
Flash sync speed 1/50 s
Dimensions 138 x 77 x 33.5 mm
Weight 560 g

Leica M5

1971

The metered M. The M5 features a built-in exposure meter, measured with a CdS cell on a swing arm in front of the shutter curtain. Reading from the meter appears at the bottom of the viewfinder along with shutter speed, allowing the photographer to change exposure settings without removing the eye from the finder.

However, fitting all the new technology inside means increased size and weight: the M5 is the largest and heaviest M camera ever made. As a result, it is less popular among photographers, despite its excellent build quality and advanced features.

Alongside the M5, Leica partnered with Minolta in Japan to produce the Leica CL (1973), a more compact and affordable model featuring the same lens mount as M cameras.

Leica ended the production of the M5 in 1975 due to poor sales and reverted to making meter-less M models based on the M4 (M4-2 and M4-P).

Design details

Technical data
Viewfinder magnification 0.72×
Exposure metering Spot
Exposure control Manual
Min. shutter speed 1/1000 s
Flash sync speed 1/50 s
Dimensions 149 x 87 x 37 mm
Weight (with battery) 680 g

Leica M6

1984

The metered M, take two. After struggling sales and nearly a death sentence for its rangefinder system, Leica returned in 1984 with the M6. It addresses the biggest complaint of its predecessor: it looks like an M again.

Thirteen years of progress means it’s now possible to increase function without changing the form. Side by side, the M6 is almost identical to the M4 in both size and weight; the only visual difference is the battery compartment on the front — to power the built-in meter.

It’s hardly a surprise, then: the M6 went on to become one of the most popular M models of all time. Classic design combined with the convenience of the exposure meter makes the M6 especially welcomed by newcomers to the M system.

Following the M6, Leica released an upgraded version in 1998 (commonly referred to as M6 “TTL”), adding through-the-lens (TTL) flash metering functionality.

Design details

Technical data
Viewfinder magnification 0.72×
Exposure metering Center-weighted
Exposure control Manual
Min. shutter speed 1/1000 s
Flash sync speed 1/50 s
Dimensions 138 x 77 x 34 mm
Weight (with battery) 560 g

Leica M7

2002

The pinnacle of analog M. The M7 is the ultimate form of the film rangefinder: aperture-priority automatic exposure, electronically controlled shutter, automatic film sensitivity setting via DX code, three available viewfinder magnification… All in a familiar package.

The M7 inherits the slightly taller body of the M6 “TTL”, with a larger shutter speed dial rotating in the same direction as the exposure indicators in the viewfinder. New to the M7 is a power switch, allowing the photographer to “lock” the camera while preserving the selected shutter speed.

Via the Leica à la carte program, three choices of viewfinder magnification/framelines are available at the time of purchase:

  • 0.58× — 28 mm, 35 mm, 50 mm, 75 mm, 90 mm;
  • 0.72× — 28 mm, 35 mm, 50 mm, 75 mm, 90 mm, 135 mm;
  • 0.85× — 35 mm, 50 mm, 75 mm, 90 mm, 135 mm.

Design details

Technical data
Viewfinder magnification 0.72× (0.58× & 0.85× optional)
Exposure metering Center-weighted
Exposure control Manual, aperture priority
Min. shutter speed 1/1000 s
Flash sync speed 1/50 s
Dimensions 138 x 79.5 x 34 mm
Weight (with battery) 610 g

Leica MP

2003

The mechanical perfection. For many photographers, the M7 is almost too advanced, relying a bit too much on electronics. What if you want the simplicity of the M6 but the build quality and the improved viewfinder of the M7? The answer: MP.

The MP takes design cues from the M’s origins: no markings or “red dot” logo on the front, just an understated engraving at the top and a rewind knob in the corner. The essentials, nothing else.

Unlike the M7, the MP is fully functional without a battery (except for the exposure meter, of course). It is a camera for a lifetime — or two.

Design details

Technical data
Viewfinder magnification 0.72× (0.58× & 0.85× optional)
Exposure metering Center-weighted
Exposure control Manual
Min. shutter speed 1/1000 s
Flash sync speed 1/50 s
Dimensions 138 x 77 x 34 mm
Weight (with battery) 600 g

Leica M8

2006

The beginning of digital M. Taking lessons from the M5, Leica ensured that its first digital rangefinder carries the familiar body shape and feels like an M. The result? You almost can’t tell from the front that the M8 is digital.

On the back, an LCD gives it away. Gone are the film advance lever and rewind crank — where we’re going, you don’t need them. A small, circular display now sits where the rewind used to be, showing battery level and remaining SD card storage.

At the heart of the M8 is a 27 x 18 mm, 10.3-megapixel CCD image sensor made by Kodak. Yes — the same Kodak that makes Ektachrome films. A unique feature of the M8’s sensor is its ultrathin filter stack. It does away with a Moiré filter, which helps retain the maximum pixel acuity.

A new 0.68× magnification viewfinder accommodates the APS-H format sensor with 24 mm, 28 mm, 35 mm, 50 mm, 75 mm, and 90 mm framelines. In practice, these are equivalent to lenses 1.33× their focal lengths (a 24 mm lens is equivalent to a 32 mm on a film Leica, and so on).

Design details

Technical data
Viewfinder magnification 0.68×
Exposure metering Center-weighted
Exposure control Manual, aperture priority
Min. shutter speed 1/8000 s
Flash sync speed 1/250 s
Dimensions 139 x 80 x 37 mm
Weight (with battery) 590 g

Leica M9

2009

The digital M, version 2.0. As faithful as the M8 stays to the M’s heritage, there’s one small problem: its image sensor is not the same size as a frame of 135 film — the format pioneered by Oskar Barnack in 1913 on the Ur-Leica. The M9 corrects that.

At 36 × 24 mm, the M9’s image sensor (still made by Kodak) matches the film size and utilizes the entire imaging area of an M lens. The total pixel count increases to 18 megapixels while each pixel remains the same size as the M8.

With the “full-frame” sensor, the M9’s viewfinder also returned to the same frameline configuration as the M6/M7/MP: 28 mm, 35 mm, 50 mm, 75 mm, 90 mm, and 135 mm. Magnification remains at the same 0.68× as the M8.

Last but not least: the M9’s sensor features a redesigned filter stack that effectively cuts infrared light, eliminating the M8’s color-shift issue (some black fabrics will appear purple in the images, for example).

Design details

Technical data
Viewfinder magnification 0.68×
Exposure metering Center-weighted
Exposure control Manual, aperture priority
Min. shutter speed 1/4000 s
Flash sync speed 1/180 s
Dimensions 139 x 80 x 37 mm
Weight (with battery) 585 g

Leica M10

2017

The M’s return to the essentials. After experimenting with various new technologies on the M (Typ 240) series, Leica refocused the M10 on what generations of photographers loved about an M — slim body, quiet shutter, tactile controls, simple operation. The result: a perfect fusion of old and new.

Inside the M10, a low-noise CMOS image sensor replaces the CCD units found on the M8 and M9, with 24 megapixels (later 40 megapixels on the M10-R) and a top ISO of 50,000. A new, 0.73× magnification viewfinder with LED-illuminated framelines elevates the rangefinder experience, while a live view function enables precise composition and focusing.

On the top, an ISO dial lives where the film rewinder used to be, providing direct, tactile control. Gone is the movie function — the M10 is squarely focused on still photography. The simplification continues on the back with the three-button interface layout, balancing physical input and ease of use.

Underneath its simplicity, the M10 offers state-of-the-art technology. The camera has Wi-Fi connectivity for remote control and wireless transfer of images. The hot shoe has hidden contacts for connecting an electronic viewfinder — which can also send GPS data to the camera.

Design details

Technical data
Viewfinder magnification 0.73×
Exposure metering Spot, center-weighted, multi
Exposure control Manual, aperture priority
Min. shutter speed 1/4000 s
Flash sync speed 1/180 s
Dimensions 139 x 80 x 34 mm
Weight (with battery) 660 g