Now that I’ve owned both of these wonderful cameras, I thought I could share my thoughts by comparing them a bit. They are seemingly both very similar looking cameras, but what kind of differences that lay under? It is actually very surprising how different experience they provide.
I’m sure you’ve already read a ton of actual reviews about Leicas, so you’ll probably know the gist of them. In a nutshell, M4-2 is a simplified, Canadian made version of the M4 and M6 is what some people consider to be the flag ship of Leica rangefinders and the last true film Leica. I suppose that debatable, but I’m along those lines as well.
I think it’s fascinating, that Leica has kept their design so uniform through the years. But why to change something that’s already perfect? And yes, at least purely from the design and production stand point, I think Leica M’s are absolutely perfect. Maybe that’s one of the reason all the classic M line-up of Leica cameras look so similar. Sure, they did come up with M5, which was a different design. But they jumped the gun immediately and went back to the classic design with the following models.
When I got interested in Leicas, I had honestly hard time figuring out what’s the difference between different models. Sometimes the differences are very subtle. I have a background in Canon and Olympus. I’ve had for example AE-1, FTb and Pellix and they’re all so notably different compared to each other. I am a huge fan of Olympus SLR’s as well and I have OM-1 and OM-2n, which share the same body shape and design, but otherwise deliver a much different shooting experience compared to each other. Any Leica (except the M5) produced between ~1950—2000 (M3—M6) have much less obvious iterations. The changes look much more subtle — almost like slight improvements of the same product.
My M4-2 had seem some life. I don’t own it anymore, as I swapped it to the M6 very recently. It was well worn and it looked like it’s been through couple of wars. My M6 on the other hand, is what I would consider mint. That has a huge impact on the camera’s character, even though they are just cosmetics. But you just cannot help, but to let that affect the mental image that you have about the camera. Every camera of course have a unique wear and tear, but I just wanted to mention this as well, because, at least in my case, it definitely enforced the sense of M4-2 being much more vintage. The mint M6 on the other hand feels like it was made yesterday. My M4-2 was made late 1970’s, probably 1978 and my M6 has been made in 1986. It’s still more than 30 years old, but it feels, looks and performs like brand spanking new!
The biggest and most obvious difference is of course, that the M6 has a light meter and M4-2 doesn’t, just like most of the classic Leicas. M6’s light meter doesn’t feel very patronising at all, so if you’re looking for a traditional shooting experience, M6 actually still feels like a very classic camera. It still leaves much of the thinking work for you and doesn’t remove the responsibility of exposure decisions from your shoulders. I like that, because initially I actually wanted a model that didn’t have the light meter. That’s why I opted the M4-2 when getting my first Leica.
One thing that I don’t like about built in light meters is that I really want to have a viewfinder, that doesn’t have any crap in it. I don’t like viewfinders, that are cluttered with information. They are a distraction and ideally I’d like to concentrate on the subjects, timing and composition when looking though the viewfinder. (That’s why I probably get seizures when looking though a view finder of a digital camera.) Light meter needle or leds draws my attention to them, causing distraction from the actual shooting. M4-2 has a wonderful, classic viewfinder that has only the frame lines and nothing unnecessary. M6 has very bright led arrows to indicate the light meter reading. It’s a very simple design and doesn’t clutter the viewfinder too badly, but the bright red leds definitely draws attention.
Viewfinder brightness and rangefinder flare
I could be wrong, but M4-2 seemed to have slightly brighter viewfinder. It was pretty much perfect. M6 doesn’t have a dim viewfinder by any means, but the differences between the models are sometimes just so tiny.
M4-2 didn’t have a similar kind of rangefinder flare as the M6 sometimes seem to have. From time to time M6 is a bit harder to focus, because the rangefinder patch seem less contrasty due the flaring. Covering the frame line illumination window takes away the flare, if you’d really need to.
I’ve noticed that M4-2 is often criticised by the build quality. I’m not a mechanic, and I’ve never opened up a Leica, and would not dare to, so I don’t know exactly what kind of materials and parts the interiors consist of. But whatever materials they are, it most definitely doesn’t translate to any lesser mechanical feel or user experience. Leicas are known for very well operating mechanics. For example the film winding feels like heaven. If I’m not mistaken, the M4-2 has gears made out of different metals than some of the German made Leicas. Some say they render a rougher film winding feel, but actually my M4-2 felt slightly smoother than my M6. That’s probably because my M4-2 was worn in better than my M6, which still seems like brand new. And brand new things never feel as good as they will, after they’ve been worn in, like a pair of jeans.
One big misconception seems to be that M4-2 has a plastic body, which is not true. It is just a metallic as any Leica.
The leatherette covering the camera is much worse in the M4-2 than in the M6. It was the only thing that bugged my when it comes to materials. M6 has a wonderful leatherette that is just perfect. M4-2 has a plastic one that doesn’t look, feel or age as well. M6 has vulcanite. I have no idea what that is, other than it looks and feels like my wildest dreams of leathery goodness.
If I know my Leica history at all, the production of M4-2 and M4-P were moved from Germany to Canada to bring down production costs. Some of the production and material choices were also different compared to German made ones, which seem to create the misconception, that the Canadian made are somehow lesser Leicas. Sure, there are probably a lot of less obvious differences caused by the streamlined prodiction, but they’ve done it so well, that judging purely from how the camera operates, you could never tell. Or could you?
All that being said — the M6 feels in many ways different than the M4-2. Let me emphasise the word feels. This is where it becomes a bit hard to explain. So purely from the production quality stand point, both cameras are in my opinion just as good, but they feel as different as two different persons. They have the distinct family resemblance but somehow they have their own character and personality. That translates as different kind of shooting experience, but it is hard to pin-point what exactly causes it. The devil is in the details I suppose.
It kind of reminds me about the phenomenon about a child’s teddy bear. The particular teddy bear is really important to the child, because it’s her/his very own. Replacing the teddy bear with a different one, wouldn’t be the same, even though it would be seemingly identical. The significance is attached to the specific copy. Okay, rough analogy but maybe this somehow illustrates what I’m after. Let me give another example. Let’s say we have two identical cameras, but the other has been owned by Henri Cartier-Bresson. They have a huge difference in significance even though they are identical cameras. Or how about Jon Voight’s Le Baron? I know this isn’t the same thing, but all in all, M6 feels like holding something a bit better, with higher significance, in a way that is hard to explain. It just somehow feels like the ultimate Leica in my opinion.