Leica M-A Report

With the Leica M-A we are back to the photographic technology of the mid-fifties of the 20th century. The M-A can be discussed from three perspectives: (1) as a replica of the M3, and fitted with the M6 viewfinder; (2) as an M4-P, but fitted with the advance lever and rewind knob of the M3 and (3) as a modern MP, but without the internal exposure meter. There is a difference between a test, a report, an opinion and an impression. I call this text a report, because there are no measurements that check the framing accuracy of the viewfinder and the accuracy of the focus, nor is there any test of the shutter speeds. Experience, based on testing many Leica cloth focal plane shutters, indicates that the shutter speeds are very accurate from 1/8 to 1/250 and hold their value over a long period (several years) of heavy use. The 1/500 and 1/1000 are slower by 20 - 30%, but that is not visible on normal film. One third of a stop is a density difference on the negative of D=0,1 and this is barely visible. The rangefinder is also quite accurate, but the frame lines are only an indication of what will be captured on film, depending on focal length and distance of object.
Focus shift, a popular discussion topic, is hardly an issue with the M-A. Leica lenses have a measured focus shift between 0.0 and 0.08 mm (stopping down from f/2 to f/5.6), and the average thickness of the film emulsion is 0.018 - 0.020 mm. Only in extreme situations will the location of the plane of sharp focus be outside the emulsion layer. The same argument applies to a small focusing error when using wide-aperture-medium-telelenses, like the 75 to 90 mm lenses and even the 135 mm which is a very good match for the M-A.
It is evident that the camera engineering is optimized for use with film. The wind lever is of the classical M3/M2 shape. In the past there were problems with this shape: when rapidly advancing the film there was a tendency for the thumb to slip off the lever. The new design of the M4 with the hinged grip increased the stand-off to a point where the thumb could securely hold the edge of the lever. The M-A returns to the original version and I have to say that it suits me well, but then I am not often in the situation where really rapid advancing is imperative. This discussion about the best shape for the wind lever does not concern modern users who are accustomed to motor-driven cameras or digital cameras where there is to film to advance. The comparable discussion about the rewind knob versus the angled rewind crank revives a nostalgic past.
With a more philosophical view, there is surprisingly little difference between a picture produced by the wet darkroom workflow and the digital workflow on the computer. At least when the picture size is restricted to A4, the most suitable size for a 35 mm sized negative and sensor. This is an important conclusion and one that may become a prospective game changer. Leica has now the barebones M-A and the full-featured digital M. Both are capable of produces high-quality prints that may be lookalikes when both are printed expertly. Only one (the digital M) is integrated in the modern internet and social-media eco-system. The other one (the M-A) is integrated in the equally modern culture of black-and-white chemical processing that includes a long history of great and iconic picture taking.
The viewfinder of the M-A is extremely bright and the dreaded rangefinder patch flare cannot be detected, even when focusing obliquely into the sun. This does not imply that it is not possible to induce flare into the viewfinder, but this is now a seldom occurrence. It may be that the production process has been improved. There are many plane surfaces in the finder mechanism and these plane surfaces are extremely difficult to manufacture.
The shutter noise profile is a very short but audible pitch. In this respect we are very spoilt and the famous Leica whisper is no longer with us. You really need an M3 to experience this sound. The M-A has of course a different sound profile compared to the digital M camera.
The M-A camera body feels extremely solid and weights about 600 grams, where the digital M has a weight of about 700 grams (both without lens, but the digital M with battery included). These hundred grams are a significant increase in the subjective experience of the actual weight. The original M3 has a weight of about 600 grams. This same weight of the M-A can be explained by the use of some weight-saving synthetic materials possibly as a compensation for a top cover that is slightly heavier.
The smoothness of the shutter release button is legendary and the M-A does not disappoint. The shutter trip travel is short (less than 2 mm) and the resistance is even and the button can be depressed with a constant small force. The time lag between depressing the button and the shutter release is hardly noticeable and is still ahead of the digital M camera bodies. Indeed using the M-A is an immediate encounter with the true fundamentals of photography.
The rapid-loading take-up spool once was a major improvement in camera design and the M-A can be loaded with film cartridges with speed and assurance. The few controls of the M-A operate with a butter-smooth feel.
There is some discussion about the wisdom of the Leica people to offer a modern camera body without an TTL exposure meter. Any exposure meter (internal and external handheld) has to be used with intelligence to get precisely that result on film (or sensor) that is aimed for. The simplest approach of course is to use exposure bracketing, but this is a brute-force approach. A handheld meter (spot metering and/or incident light) forces the photographer to think about the actual distribution of brightness patches of the scene and how these should be represented in the final print. And the act of manually transferring the meter readings to the control knobs/rings of the camera/lens is a conscious act that allows the photographer to establish an emotional rapport with the scene or person to be photographed.
Deciding on the actual exposure is only one of the several conscious decision-making acts that the intelligent use of the Leica M-A presupposes. The choice of film and the choice of developer must be carefully considered before taking the picture. Thinking about the motives, the considerations about the best or challenging ambient lighting conditions and how they should be rendered is also part of the process. And even the use of a small flash unit is part of the equation. I use the Leica SF20 with good effect as a fill-in flash for certain situations.
In my small Billingham Hadley bag I can pack the Leica M-A, three lenses (Apo-Summicron-M 50 and 90 mm and the Summilux-M 50 mm ASPH FLE), the SF20 flash unit, the Gossen Starlite-2 exposure meter that has a Zone System option, and five rolls of film with ISO speeds from 100 to 400.
All the arguments above apply with the same validity to using the M4-P (the only non-TTL M-camera with six frames) and the question is certainly justified why buying a new M-A when one can also buy a second-hand M4-P. My answer would be: the M-A has a better rangefinder, better materials and better engineering, not by much, but worth the difference in price.