Reclassification of the Leica M

There is a history in most scientific fields of reclassification – whether it’s the normalisation of latin names of ferns, or the recategorisation of potsherds following new discoveries in forensic archaeology that undermine conventional understanding. Reclassification is a good thing that helps people understand the links between a connected set of elements, when the original identifiers were found to be inappropriate.

Enter the Leica M camera series. Released in 1954, it was the third major generation of Leica camera after the “Ur-Leica to Standard” and “Screwmount” generations. Under the current classification, the Leica M-system remains the current series; but that’s where my disagreement begins.

While they look similar to the film M, the digital Leica rangefinders are by requirement, entirely different technologically. As well as replacing the film with a sensor stack and electronics, they also add a titanium blade shutter, like most other digital cameras. Instead of 700-1000 thousandths-of-a-second, the new shutters can reach 1/4000, 1/8000. They add a second communication from lens to camera; the ‘6 bit coding’. One model is an “APS” sized image, another shoots movies, and still more have the ability to wirelessly preview the image on a remote monitor while shooting.

All of this makes the combined viewfinder/rangefinder that signified the jump from III to M3 seem trivial by comparison. And yet, the M name has persisted. Obviously, this makes perfect sense from a marketing perspective – but as a researcher, it’s irrational. As such, we need to introduce a new moniker for the digital range of cameras. The origin of the M in “M3” was the german word for Rangefinder, as this was the main technological advancement of the M3; the unification of the rangefinder with the viewfinder. As the primary difference between the M7 and the M8 is the digital sensor, it would make sense to name the digital range after that technology. In German, digital is still spelt with a “D”, and out of consideration for the unique branding of Leica, I feel that copying Canon (5D) and Nikon (D5) is beneath them. However Binär, the adjective meaning “Binary”, is a letter that isn’t in common use in a modern camera system. As such I would propose that following Leica’s “Three is first” tradition, the M8 would be rebranded the B3.

Before we start cataloguing the rest of the B-series cameras, lets take a step back and finish the job of the M-series. There are a few nomenclatary traditions to be aware of. As we’ve noted with the formerly-known-as-the-M8, Leica starts systems with the number “3”. The first M camera was the M3, of 1954. After that, there was the M2 – which bore a wider viewfinder, a simpler film counter and a new design that used a flat style, rather than the detailed embossing around the M3’s top plate. The M3 was then replaced with the M4, which added new ergonomics and combined the M3 and M2 framelines into a single finder. From this, we could derive either that a change in body design, or a change in viewfinder would merit a number increment. However – the M5 added no additional framelines but a new body style, and the M4-P added new framelines to the existing M4 body style and did not merit a new number, only a suffix. Therefore, we can state with certainty that a new body style is what merits a new number in the Leica system.

Following this, we need to categorise the suffices used. We’ve already mentioned the M4-P. This suffix was previously used on an earlier M, known originally as the Leica MP, but more commonly referred to as the M3-P. This was an M3 which applied steel gears to the M camera to allow faster shooting with an external winder. Unfortunately this is where things break down again, as the second camera to add this function was referred to as the M4-MOT, and the third was the M4-2. Other than the framelines, the M4-2 and M4-P are identical. As such, if we were to standardise on the -P suffix for an externally driven camera, there would be three models of M4-P, and every model of what is currently known as the M6 and M7 would also acquire that suffix. Instead, we must use the intent of the camera. The M4-P was the last mechanical M to be intended for professional users. This was also the intent of the M4-MOT, and the M3-based MP. The M4-2 by contrast, was a cost-reduced model designed to attract people back to the system.

Next we have the M6 “Classic”. This camera was originally known simply as the M6, but gained it’s unofficial moniker to differentiate it more clearly from the successor, the (officially named) M6 TTL. We’ll come to that camera shortly. The M6 Classic uses the same external body design as all models of the M4, but changes the top-plate material and adds an electronic meter. However, as the body design remains the same, we must use an M4 moniker for this camera. Like the Leica B3 digital rangefinder, there is no simple choice for this – no other Leica system has gone from mechanical to semi-electronic to electronic. The SLR systems have always been fully electrified, and the III never gained a meter at all. My preference is to use the suffix “E”. This would give us the name of “Leica M4-E” for the former M6, and “Leica M2-E” for the modern MP camera. Similarly, the former M-A can now follow the M2-E and M4-2 and become the M2-2. It’s all coming together. While the M5 was both an “E” camera and a P camera, as a professional-oriented, meter equipped camera – it was also a unique body design, and as such keeps it’s numerical increment.

We now have all the major pieces in place for the Leica rangefinder cameras. But there are two major cameras that we have yet to consider – the M6 TTL, and the M7. However, the M6 TTL is actually very simple. This is in point of fact, the true M6. The M6 TTL contained such an excess of electronics, that the camera was actually built taller than the M4-E was. Combine this with a new shutter dial, and the M6 has a new body style and interface – which we had previously determined was the correct point for a numerical increment. The M7 then needs renumbering, because it is externally identical to the M6. It was not an enhanced -P camera, but nor was it a cheapened -2 camera. It’s sole point of differentiation is the electronic shutter actuation – but this allows us to name it. The electronic actuation permits this camera to be the first M with aperture priority, or A-mode. Thus we have the M6-A. This conveniently aligns with Voigtländer’s Bessa rangefinders, which use R*A for cameras with aperture priority.

It is worth noting that the M4-M, M6, M6-A, M2-E and M2-2 cameras are not -P cameras. None of them were intended for professional use, which can be determined by the number of special editions of the M4-M through M6-A, and the re-release of the old M2 interface with it’s poor ergonomics; not at all conducive to professional work – at least by comparison with the M4, M5 and M6.

The last cameras we have to clarify are the “rangefinderless” M cameras. These include the M1, MD, MDa and MD-2. Of these, the M1 has a viewfinder with framelines but no rangefinder; and the others have a solid top plate with no viewfinder at all. The true answer is – they are not M cameras at all. Much like the M to B transition, the rangefinderless “M” cameras do not include the technology change that was significant to the M series – the combined viewfinder-rangefinder. As such, these models are in fact still part of the previous I series of cameras – just updated with the M mount. As such, these would be called the Leica Ih, Leica Ij, Leica Ik and the Leica Ik-2 (being a simplified version of the Ik).

Two examples of the Leica Ik in various states of disrepair, along with an example of the Leica Ik-2.

Therefore, we have our concluded list:

Leica “Marketing” DesignationReclassified Standard Identifier
Leica M3Leica M3
Leica MP (M3-derived)Leica M3-P
Leica M2Leica M2
Leica MP (Modern)Leica M2-E
Leica M-ALeica M2-2
Leica M4Leica M4
Leica M4-MOTLeica M4-MOT*
Leica M4-2Leica M4-2
Leica M4-PLeica M4-P
Leica M6 (Classic)Leica M4-E
Leica M5Leica M5
Leica M6 TTLLeica M6
Leica M7Leica M6-A
Leica M1Leica Ih
Leica MDLeica Ij
Leica MDaLeica Ik
Leica MD-2Leica Ik-2
The Leica M4-MOT should be seen as a special-edition of the M4, mostly because M4-P was already taken by the serial-production camera.

Now we must return our attention to the B-system. We have established that the Leica B3 replaces “M8” as the first member of the system. However, the convoluted branding of the Leica B-system mimics that of it’s sibling M line. As such, we will try now to standardise on a convention that follows the M system where possible. Unfortunately, the B3 itself throws a wrench immediately, as the M8 had a mid-life upgrade, the M8.2 – which was an optional conversion for original M8 owners, and borrowed the naming convention of a Leica SLR – the R6.2. The main difference from an M8 to an M8.2 was the introduction of a simpler shutter. This was allegedly done to increase reliability, but involved the reduction of the top speed of the shutter from 1/8000 to 1/4000. As such, we will define this as a simplification – and as such the M8.2 becomes the B3-2, as the M4-2 and M2-2 before it. Unusually, the B3 could actually be converted into a B3-2 at the factory as an optional “upgrade”, a service yet to be offered for the successor models.

Leica then radically changed the body design for the M9 – now B4. Much like the M4, the M9 was a radical ergonomic overhaul, that standardised the viewfinder (the B3’s cropped sensor mandated a different finder from the rest of the B and M systems). Here again however, complications arise. There were a number of major variants to use the M9 body – the M9 Monochrom (a black-and-white exclusive), the M-E (a cost-reduced version) and the M-P (a premium, though not professional version). As there has never been a member of the B-system that has been intended as a professional camera, I see no negative effects from us following Leica’s intent and repurposing the -P designation for a “Premium” camera. As such, the B4, B4-2 and B4-P follow our existing conventions. As for the Monochrom, B4-M seems an appropriate choice.

The M (Type 240) could be deemed the point where Leica gave up trying. The cameras mononym was immediately deemed unworkable by everyone except Leica, and it was routinely called the M240. Here now, we can bring sanity to the digital line as we have to the film line. The B5 then, is not unlike the M5 in that it was widely unloved for it’s form factor, despite having unparalleled technology for a Leica B-system camera. Here we struggle with duplication. The B5 had again, a B5-M monochrome variant and a B5-P premium variant. However the B5 introduced a new model, which removed the display, and a number of features. Normally we might call this a “simplified” -2 camera, except the M-D (as it was called) actually cost more than a standard M, and the B5 had two other discounted variants, the M (Type 262), and the M-E (Type 240). As the latter was very much a special edition, the B5-2 must be the former Type 262. The M-D however remains problematic. The only solution can be to adopt another suffix. Here we must follow Leica and borrow from the R line – the R4S was a simplified camera in the manner of the M4-2, but it also had a professional variant, the R4SP. As such, S clearly is a reasonable choice for a reduced-function but premium camera. So, we have the B5, B5-M, B5-2, B5-P and B5-S. As you can plainly see, the B-System is becoming rapidly convoluted.

Leica tried to restore some measure of sanity by introducing another numerical camera, the M10. Conveniently, this has another new body design, allowing us to increment in time – so the M10 becomes the B6. Similarly to the M4-E (Former M6), the B6 attracted greatly renewed interest in the range – once again demonstrating that the flow of time as perceived by humanity is curiously cyclical. The B6 (thankfully) introduced no additional variants outside of special editions, and so we retain our classification scheme from the B5: The B6, B6-M, B6-P and B6-S. As of yet, there has been no cut-cost B6-2. There is also rumour of a high-resolution version of the B6, however Leica have conveniently decided to exercise a measure of common sense and introduce the simple and novel suffix “M10-R”. As such, should that camera come to fruition, the camera will retain it’s branding and be the B6-R. Once again, we can summarise:

Leica “Marketing” DesignationReclassified Standard Identifier
Leica M8Leica B3
Leica M8.2Leica B3-2
Leica M9Leica B4
Leica M-P (M9 based)Leica B4-P
Leica M-E (M9 based)Leica B4-2
Leica MonochromLeica B4-M
Leica M (Type 240)Leica B5
Leica M-P (Type 240)Leica B5-P
Leica M (Type 262)Leica B5-2
Leica M (Type 246)Leica B5-M
Leica M-D (Type 262)Leica B5-S
Leica M10Leica B6
Leica M10-PLeica B6-P
Leica M10 MonochromLeica B6-M
Leica M10-DLeica B6-S
Leica M10-ELeica B6-2*
Leica M10-RLeica B6-R*
The Leica B6-2 and B6-R are speculative products that do not exist at the time of writing, but have been pre-emptively included under the expectation of their release.

And there we have it. We have successfully standardised the M system (except for special edition) nomenclature, by deriving a standard set of suffices, and by correctly reclassifying the “Digital M-System” as an independent, though related family.

It should be made evident that this was not a serious attempt to encourage a rebranding effort. Perhaps it is better regarded as a demonstration of why marketing and categorisation are so rarely compatible efforts. As an example from elsewhere in the photographic industry, the chemical “4-aminophenol” may be unfamiliar; however “Rodinal”, is rather more known.

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