Surprisingly many Leica M6 loading tutorials, reviews, overviews, and other resources, that you’d find online, are full of a bit misinformed advice concerning the correct way of loading the camera. Many film shooters criticise Leica’s loading system to be fiddly and hard to use, which is not true. It’s only fiddly, when done wrong.
I’d like to try and and make a correction to the matter, by sharing the correct way to load Leica M6 (or any other Leica rangefinder film camera, that has the so called quick loading mechanism). And no, this isn’t some new revolutionary method of my own invention. I’m rather trying to point out the intended method that the factory actually recommends — just to save you from frustration and hassle.
Leica says the M6 has the fastest loading mechanism in zi world. Once you know to operate it correctly, you’ll understand why they are so comfortable making such a bold claim. Would anyone actually think that Leica would make otherwise a near perfect camera, but insist making a fiddly loading system? It is a professional camera for crying out loud — it is made for photographers who don’t have time to screw around with a simple task like film loading.
First order of business — read the manual
Many of us probably buy our Leicas second hand, without the original user’s manual, but it’s essential that you actually read it. It can be found in PDF format at Mike Butkus’ website. Click the link to grab a copy of your own. The manual will tell you exactly what the manufacturer actually recommends and I’d base my loading technique on the provided information, rather than random YouTube videos where people are merely assuming how the loading should be done.
Here’s a also quick video demonstration that I made. As you can see, quite a simple process with no fussing around. If you want to see an incorrect (and typical) loading attempt for comparison, I’ll link one at the end of the article.
Inserting the film the correct way, step by step
Here’s a quick step by step guide in a nutshell, if you still haven’t checked out the manual. When done correctly, it’s basically just a matter of dropping the film and cranking the advance lever couple of times.
- Remove the base plate.
- Open the back door.
- Insert the film canister and pull enough film out for the leader to reach the fork shaped take-up spool.
- Drop the film canister in. Make sure it goes all the way down.
- At this point there’s no need to advance the film or trying to align the film perfectly by fingering it. There’s a mechanism that’ll do that for you. This is one of the biggest misconceptions that most tutorials get wrong. What’s the harm? Read on and I’ll explain.
- Put the bottom plate back on.
- Advance the film and fire. Manufacturer recommends to fire couple of times. Advancing the film even once though, will pull enough unexposed film out of the cartridge. I’ve tested this at least with factory rolled Ilford HP5+. Pay attention to the rewind knob, it should turn when the film is loaded correctly. If you advance the film only once, there might be enough slack in the film to keep the knob stationary. Advancing it twice will cause the knob to turn for sure.
Mistake number one — Almost every loading tutorial will tell you incorrectly to advance the film couple of times before putting the bottom plate back on. This is actually quite unnecessary and potentially harmful, because it sometimes causes the film to slip from the take-up spool and you’ll have to start all over. I presume the ill-formed Leica shooter’s just want to make sure that the film leader is actually catching the take-up spool (not trusting the mechanism). There’s no need to be concerned about that. As long as you just pull enough film out from the canister (very important), so that the leader will reach the take-up spool, as illustrated inside the camera, it’ll always catch the film.
I’d assume that the pressure from the guide wheel, located at the baseplate, is needed in order the mechanism to work reliably. I suspect the leader slippage can occur due to lack of this pressure, which is why the film shouldn’t be advanced without the baseplate.
The film slippage has happened to me even after putting the baseplate back on, when first advanced without the baseplate. At the time it caused me much head scratching, which inspired me to read the manual word to word. Since then, I’ve loaded the film literally as described in the book and never had any problem.
Another common mistake is trying to align the film by hand. It doesn’t matter if the film leader isn’t straight or a bit wonky. The guiding mechanism will make sure that the film and sprocket holes are aligned perfectly. If you look at the back door, there’s couple of extensions sticking out from it. They’ll press the film against the gears, making sure the sprocket holes catches them. The steering wheel looking thing at the bottom plate will also press the film to the correct position from another angle.
Nothing bad will happen if you keep fingering the leader to a perfect angle yourself, but you definitely don’t need to. You can pretty much just trust the mechanism and it’ll save you a lot of time on the field. You’ll appreciate the clever mechanism when you realise how reliable this system is. If you’re sceptical, I’d practise five minutes loading the film like this to see for yourself. And yes, I suppose this is one of those things that has to be practised a bit first, because it’s old school — not plug-and-play. Mastering the correct and intended loading technique can be really valuable skill when you’re on the field and have to change the film fast. Ideally you just want to bang the new film in and continue shooting. If you’re for example doing street photography — or think about a war or other conflict photographer — there’s absolutely no time to sit on the park bench in the midst of the action and fuss around, poking the film leader for five minutes, before being able to continue.
Once you realise how this works, and trust the system, loading the film will become totally hassle free — as it should. But don’t take my word it. I’m just a guy on the internet. Please refer the camera manual if you want to be completely sure. I am however basing this article on the manufacturer’s instruction and referring my loading technique as close as possible, to how I interpret the manual.
The harm of loading incorrectly?
Loading the film incorrectly will, of course, cost you a lot of time. When the film leader keeps slipping of the spool, you’ll be reloading the camera for a small eternity, when actually it shouldn’t take you more than half a minute. A lot of frustration can be avoided with a little homework and practise. It’s a total waste of valuable shooting time, trying to align the film by hand, because the camera will do that for you anyway.
If you crank the film back door open, you’ll be wasting film. If you advance the film before and after reattaching the bottom plate, you’ve easily wasted few frames for nothing. Like I mentioned, I’ve even tested advancing the film only once. The manual clearly advices to advance couple of times, but even one stroke will pull enough unexposed film out of the canister. Two strokes is of course a safer bet, just in case you’ve made some other loading mistake, like not pulling enough film to the take-up spool, but if you’re quite certain there’s no such risk, I’d happily proceed with advancing/firing just once. Correct loading will improve your film economy and if you’re a total cheapskate like me, you could be shooting closer to like 39 frames per roll.
If you also want to see a grand example of a film loading done completely wrong, you can for example check out this video (not my video, of course) where the author actually makes all the mistakes described above.
November 5th 2018: few small additions and edits added.
November 7th 2018: couple of more small edits made and clarifications added.