It's easy to jump on a bandwagon--root for the winning team, rave about a popular restaurant or join in on a fad. On the other hand, it's lonely supporting the underdog, trying a hole in the wall dining spot or setting your own personal style.
Such as it is with the Leica R6, one of a series of SLRs that Leica introduced beginning with the SL and SL2 in the 1960s and culminating with the oddly shaped R9 in 2002. Scour the internet for reviews on any of these cameras and you'll find slim pickings. While cameras like the Canon AE-1, Minolta X-700, any of the Nikon F series, Pentax M42 or K mount bodies or Leica's M rangefinders have legions of devoted followers singing their praises, with the Leica R series...you'll hear mostly crickets.
Let's face it, Leica was not known for building great single lens reflex cameras. The company wandered down that road only after it became apparent that Japanese camera manufacturers were capturing the imagination of photographers (and the marketplace) with a quickly evolving line of well designed and easy to use SLRs. After the SL and SL2, German designed and built manual everything tanks, Leica teamed up with Minolta to release a series of perfectly capable camera bodies with varying degrees of technology that mated to a limited but quite extraordinary series of Leica-built R lenses. The R3, R4 and R5 cameras had electronically-controlled shutters and auto exposure metering. None of them sold well. By the time 1988 rolled around, Leica decided to return to what they knew best--a fully manual minimalist mechanical camera. At this time, it was far more economical to build a camera with an electronic shutter rather than the clockwork mechanism required for a shutter independent of electricity, so when the R6 hit the shelves it came with a price tag that put it out of reach for the advanced amateur and pro market it was intended for. When you consider the fact that Nikon was rolling out their revolutionary auto focus F4 at the same time as the R6, it's amazing Leica sold any of these cameras at all.
Unpopular and unloved. An underdog. A perfect camera for the Fogdog Blog!
Truth is, I tried an R6 once before. I stumbled across one early on along the path of my rediscovery of film photography. At the time, the R6 was not appropriate for me, either because of my skill level or for whatever hair I had up my ass at the time. I shot one roll, wasn't impressed and sold it. It wasn't until I read a review on the Leica R5 on Casual Photophile and emailed the author to see if I could buy the article's subject camera that I got to thinking about my relationship with the Leica R series. After an enjoyable weekend spent shooting the R5, I got the itch to revisit the R6 and see how I felt about it, only now through the lens of a few more years experience.
Despite the low volume of Leica R cameras sold when new, there always seems to be an ample selection for sale on eBay. Having had quite a bit of experience with Leica over the years and knowing the pitfalls of buying a bad one, I opted for the safer route of reaching out to Ken Hansen, one of my trusted sellers, to source my R6. Ken had one of the largest and most respected camera shops in New York City for years, has been an authorized Leica dealer since 1976 and now buys and sells out of his home in Manhattan. There is no better choice anywhere for Leica and you won't find a more knowledgeable, honest or responsible seller than Ken. I emailed him and to my delight he had a mint R6 on the shelf for a very affordable price!
I'm not certain now what turned me off about the R6 when I tried it the first time. Looking through my archives of camera shots, I was shooting an Olympus OM-2n quite a bit then. I had also just been introduced by my friend Jim Grey to the wonderful Pentax ME, so perhaps those two, small, joyful cameras clouded my experience with the Leica SLR. In any event, when the box with the Ken Hansen label arrived, I opened it with the intention of giving the R6 a more thoughtful test drive the second time around.
First, the specs. There is nothing revolutionary about the R6, especially when you consider where the competition was at this point in time. Mechanical shutter with speeds to 1/1000th--(Leica would later introduce a R6.2 version of this camera with speeds to 1/2000th). TTL metering with a choice of center-weighted or spot. A very simple metering display in the viewfinder, similar to the Leica M6 rangefinder, two arrows and a center dot. Adjust aperture or shutter speed until just the dot lights up and you have proper exposure. That's about it. Minimalist and...wonderful!
The camera is smaller and lighter than I remembered and felt comfortable in the hand. A thumb rest on the back film door cover helps in handling. Having used many many different film cameras over the years, it became apparent how thoughtfully well designed the R6 controls are with everything falling naturally in place and all of them being just the right size. Leica was working hand in hand with Minolta during this time and you can easily see bits and pieces of the best of the Minolta XE and XD in the R6. With the craftsmanship of Leica and the brilliant minds of Minolta--how could you not have a winner?
Shutter speed dial, metering switch, ASA selector and other basic camera controls are robust, feel sublime and are perfectly intuitive without reading any instructions. Film advance is silky smooth and the shutter sounds wonderfully authoritative.
I paired my R6 with Leica's signature standard prime, the 50 Summicron. For Leica newbies, all Summicrons are f/2 lenses just as all Summilux lenses are f/1.4. The Leica Summicron R 50 deserves its own blog post, but nicely rounds out the shooting experience with perfect focus feel and delicious aperture clicks. The R6 has a big, brilliant viewfinder with various focus screens available. My R6 came with a grid screen that I intend to replace with a split image screen as soon as I find one. Even without split image assist, focusing is easy and sure with the R6 and the Summicron.
Leica suggests loading film into their R series cameras a bit differently than most 35mm cameras. Open the film back, thread the film leader into the grooves of the take-up spook first. Then pull the film back across and drop the cartridge into place. It sounds odd, but it works! I chose Kodak's Pro Image 100 film to test my R6. Film speed is set manually. The R6 doesn't read film speed off the film canister...of course.
I took the R6 for a hike along the Kortum coastal trail near Bodega Bay. I love this bluff-top trail because it winds along the cliffs of the Pacific Ocean and can be joined at multiple locations along the Pacific Coast Highway so you can take a short or all day hike. It's mostly flat, but there are some hilly sections that'll provide a hardy work out if you're up to it. There are also lots of spots for coastal picnic.
Is there really a difference in a Leica camera compared to others? I know some say this is an overblown myth and that people make way too much of the Leica mystique. I will say this and it's only my personal opinion from having used several different Leicas...there is. Drive a Chevy or a Honda and then take a BMW or a Mercedes for a spin. A car is a car, but the German cars just "feel" different. There's a thoughtfulness to everything. Even the turn signal actuation has been carefully thought out, the feel of the knobs and levers. It's the same with Leica. Thoughtful, inspired design, well engineered, over built, special. I believe every photographer should at least try a Leica rangefinder or a more affordable Leica R series camera. Even just once.
As for the R6, I'm glad that I decided to revisit this mostly unloved camera. For me, the true test of an old camera is whether or not I am willing to invest in having it serviced. I believe every vintage camera you intend to keep and use regularly deserves a CLA. As I write this, my R6 is on its way to DAG for some spa time. This time around, it's a keeper.