Back in 2020, news emerged that Leica was working on a new film camera, cheaper than the ones they currently offered.
The new-for-2022 Leica M6 unveiled at a special event in Wetzlar in Germany last week (20 October) is the first new model in Leica’s line-up since the launch of the Leica M-A in 2014. It isn’t, of course, an entirely new camera – it’s a reworked version of a camera the company first produced back in 1984. And it’s not exactly cheap, either; the new M6 will set you back €4,800 (and no, that doesn’t include a lens).
The news – and the price tag – has been met with a mix of excitement and shock. Many of the Leica M-mount shooters I know seem to be doing the mental maths gymnastics to see if they can afford one. Others have wondered how a camera body that costs as much as a used car can be described as “cheap”. You can put me firmly in the latter camp: aside from a brief period a few years ago, when a friend of my wife lent me their classic M6, I have never shot Leica M-mount cameras. The cameras are undeniably excellent and the lenses fantastic, but they’re at a price I have never been able to justify. My Leica itch has been scratched, instead, with R-mount SLRs – still affordable – and a 1950s Leica IIIC that cost little more than £150.
Bringing a 1980s-era camera back into production is no mean feat
But even resolute resisters to the lure of the M mount should be able to appreciate the effects of Leica’s decision. It could produce some very positive ripples. Leica are the first major camera company to introduce a new film model in recent years. But will they be the last?
Bringing a 1980s-era camera back into production is no mean feat, even with the caveat that the new M6 differs in several different ways. The first Leica M6 rolled off the production line in 1984 – 38 years ago. That’s only a few years less than the gap between the original Nikon S3, released in 1958, and the Millennium model of 2000. That camera was such a sideways step from the (mostly) autofocus cameras Nikon was building at the time that it required some of the original engineers to be brought out of retirement. Even as the shadow of digital swept across the camera industry, Nikon showed that a camera maker looking back at their past was more than just sentimental nostalgia. The 8,000 Millennium S3s produced were almost instantly snapped up.
Leica has shown there is life in the film camera market yet. But which of the remaining large camera producers could also be persuaded to return to camera making?
Nikon, of course, no longer makes film cameras – over the first few decades of the 21st Century, its range dwindled year after year. The F6 remained in production until October 2020. When it was discontinued, it brought to an end Nikon’s film camera production.
Canon, too, has exited the film camera world. The Nikon F6’s most worthy rival, the heavyweight EOS-1V, was also Canon’s last film camera. It disappeared in 2018.
Now, the two giants of professional SLRs are contemplating the end of the digital SLR (DSLR) aswell. Mirrorless cameras have gutted the DSLR market to such an extent that Nikon has admitted it will largely stop making them from 2025. The runaway success of Canon’s R mirrorless cameras has also had a huge affect on their DSLR sales.
Japan Camera Hunter’s Bellamy Hunt has written a thinkpiece on the new M6 and the effect it might have on the winder industry. He says: “But will other manufacturers take a chance like Leica? Initially I don’t think so. Leica has a unique position and has continued to produce film cameras. Whilst the other big players in the business ceased production. Starting up production on even an old model would be extraordinarily expensive. And Whilst Nikon, Canon and the others may have big names, they may have difficulty asking $5k for a new camera.”
He hits upon something else: economy of scale. It’s worth remembering that the high-price likes of the Nikon F6 and Canon EOS-1V existed as part of a range of film SLRs. If you didn’t need the all-weather sealing, the eight-frames-a-second burst mode or the rugged construction to survive war zones, you could pick something cheaper from the rest of the range. And that amounted to tens of thousands of cameras over the course of a year. Any model returned to production won’t achieve a fraction of that. The cost per unit may be too much to bear.
With the large-scale death of DSLRs will come a swift unlearning of the art of making an SLR. When DSLRS were still a booming market, they also offered a much more realistic possibility of more film SLRs. Nikon’s family of DSLRs were based on the final generation of F models, so too the digital EOS line-up.
Plop a digital SLR next to one of the models from that last generation of autofocus film SLRS, and the dimensions are almost identical. Now production has moved over to mirrorless models that do away completely with the reflex mirror. They’re an entirely different beast.
If Nikon did make a new film model, I think it’s less likely to be an autofocus model and more like the camera they released way back in 2001. The FM3A was a replacement for the workhorse FM2N, which had been in production since 1982, and an update of the aperture-priority FE2 of the early 1980s. The FM3A went against the grain of the film camera development of the time but was – in fact still is – hugely popular with film shooters. The genius of the FM3A was that it both referred back to cameras of the past while offering features which had never been available in a single model.
The FM3A was in production for just five years, a relatively expensive model aimed at professionals and enthusiasts rather than amateurs. Its price has increased with every year along with its cult status. Could Nikon dust off the blueprints to produce an FM4A for the 2020s?
Canon and Nikon are of course the two big producers of conventional still cameras, but they’re not the only ones who could be eyeing a return to film camera production.
First off, there’s Cosina. In the mid 2000s this Japanese manufacturer made a range of cameras based on their venerable CT-1 Super SLR, including the Bessa family of Leica-mount rangefinders and the Bessaflex M42 SLR. Cosina still makes excellent lenses in Leica M and screw mount. But its camera production has come to an end.
The signs for its revival are not good. In 2017, Kosmo Foto spoke to a Cosina employee who said the company no longer had the ability to make cameras. He blamed “production cost including mould and development cost, hard situation of parts supply especially around shutter unit, and unpredictable situation of film camera market in the future”. This was obviously before the film camera market saw its recent rebound, but is unlikely to have changed, especially since the price of Leica M-mount Bessas is rising steeply. If they were still able to make them, you’d have thought they’d have taken advantage of that interest by now.
The pocket-friendly Mju-II now sells for more than £300 here in the UK
Olympus’s innovative camera division – which under designer Yoshihisa Maitani came up with such groundbreaking cameras as the Trip 35, the OM-1 SLR and the XA compact rangefinder – was sold off last year. The new OM Digital Solutions has doubled down on mirrorless digital cameras, not least the new OM-1 which harks back to the style of the film SLR Olympus had released 50 years before. Could it add a film version to the fold? Unlikely, given that mirrorless form factor.
Far more likely, in my opinion, is a new Mju compact. Olympus Mju series – and especially the Mju-II – were a runaway success in the 1990s. The Mju-II packed a sharp and contrasty 35/2.8 lens into a splashproof clamshell body. Following models added unspectacular zoom lenses into the equation, but they couldn’t complete with the Mju-IIs cult charm. The pocket-friendly camera now sells for more than £300 here in the UK; not bad for a resolutely consumer model never intended for Leica longevity. Would I buy one for that price? Not in a million years. Would I pay more for a new version that paired that wonderful lens with the promise of spare parts and proper servicing? Absolutely.
Sony may have absorbed the Konica-Minolta camera division in 2006, but it has never made any noises about bringing a film model back. That’s understandable. Sony was best-known for its electronics before it wandered into the camera market. It has no historic footprint in film photography, and while you could find many excellent Minolta and Konica fans happy to tell you which models could be brought back, the Konica and Minolta camera names are likely dead for good.
That brings us to one other famous film camera manufacturer: Pentax. Now part of the Ricoh group, Pentax hasn’t made a film model since 2003. Much while it has pivoted to digital, it has done so with a difference – it has resisted the lure of mirrorless. Pentax has doubled down on DSLR production as Canon and Nikon have eyed leaving the market altogether. Its latest flagship design is the K-3 III, a pro-level SLR with an APS sensor. Could the K-3 be tweaked to take a 35mm shutter and a film compartment?
Pentax have certainly done it before. That last film camera they released was the *ist, a K-mount consumer model with a fastest shutter speed of 1/4000 and all the various modes you’d expect in a film camera of the time. The *ist was released alongside an identical digital model, the *ist D. Pentax had realised film’s mainstream market was beginning to tip over to digital, and seamlessly switched from analogue to digital SLRs with the very same model. Could their engineers repeat the trick, albeit in a different direction?