By Mark Kronquist
Thanks to my friend and esteemed Leica Historian James Lager for his superb volumes
from which, some of this is drawn.
Leica R cameras and, for the most part, lenses are far underpriced and underappreciated these days. An M2/3/4 was produced by the same craftspeople who made the Leicaflex SL/SL2 yet the SL/SL2 sells for at best 1/10th the price. A first generation all-mechanical M6 fetches $2,500-3,000 yet an all mechanical R6 is hard pressed to reach $500 on auction sites… the same is true for most common lenses and accessories. If you want a Leica SLR, the time to shop is now!
The Visoflex might well be considered the first Leica SLR. The Visoflex went through at least three major and several minor revisions from the quite cumbersome PLOOT to the rather refined and still very useful version found on Leica M9/10/11 digital cameras, the Visoflex III System.
The Visoflex allowed one to turn a basic SM or M rangefinder into a pseudo SLR… from close-up kits to 800mm super-telephoto lenses.
To understand the Visoflex System (the name, has, sadly, been recycled to denote an EVF) you need a secret decoder ring or a Leica catalogue as there were dozens of adapters and mounts and things that added versatility to the system (and based on the period eye-popping prices, profits to Leitz). It allowed V lenses to be used on the Leicaflex SLRs (which was a must as when the Leicaflex came out, there were only four lenses available – 35/50/90/135…
Leica reflex lenses have four major generations… many can be upgraded to later cam configurations. Most earlier lenses will fit and work with limitations on later cameras but there are several exceptions.
The basic guide goes something like this:
- One-cam: for the original Leicaflex.
- Two-cam: for the Leicaflex SL/SL2 (fine to use with the Leicaflex).
- Three-cam: the most versatile, for Leica R3 through to R9, also fine with Leicaflex and SL SL2.
- R-Cam: for use only for the R series of the cameras.
- R ROM: for the R8/9/DMR; it is said ROM lenses will not work on earlier (Leicaflex SL SL2 cameras) but I have never tried it.
All this being said, the SL2 has a slightly different mount so some lenses may not mount with earlier cameras.
Cinematographers love fast R glass and have snatched much of it up and driven prices sky high, but there’s plenty of normal stuff left… if the 80/1.4 Summicron is out of budget, the 90 f2.8 should do 90% of the job for 10% of the money…. The same thing goes for the cheaper 35mm and 50mm lenses, and the telephoto lenses are very reasonable.
The first true SLR, the original Leicaflex, was the Diesel Leica overengineered and built like a Tiger II Tank, it burst onto the scene a half decade later than it should with non through-the-lens metering and a difficult to focus (but bright) aerial image focusing screen along with robust construction.
It lasted from 1964 to 1968 and was quickly replaced with the much-improved Leicaflex SL bodies used one-cam lenses and are fairly easy to find. Most are chrome. I have a couple of them, and paid no more than $99 for each of them.
The Leicaflex SL (1968-1974) brought through-the-lens, full-aperture metering and a somewhat more ergonomiic styling, aswell as two-cam lenses. There were about 1,000 made for use with the rather large Leica Motor and a special edition was made for the Munich Olympics. SLs are plentiful in chrome and black chrome and can be found in black paint as well. The SL feature set made it at least competitive with the Minolta SR-T series and Canon FTbs, though the build quality was far superior and the price far higher. The SL is one of the best of Leica’s R-mount SLRS, in my opinion, and can still be found for little more than $200.
Then there’s the SL2. A much more refined SL with a staggeringly high production cost. It is said that to turn a profit on one camera, Leitz had to sell two additional lenses for it. There was a motorised version as well. 1974-1976. Surprisingly affordable, a rare, chrome one just closed for $340 US. An excellent camera worth far more than it is selling for.
The R3. The OMG Minolta marriage. Leitz had been working with Minolta since about 1972 and the Leica CL/Minolta CL was one of the first fruits of this partnership. The next fruit was the Leica R3 with its electronic shutter. My dad shot with Minolta XE cameras and loved them; he was right to do so, they are great picture takers to this day.
The Leica R3 was a Minolta XE camera all dressed up for the prom with added bells and whistles and excellent quality but it was very obviously VERY Minolta XE-based…. much to the horror of traditional Leica folk. I have a couple. They work well and later ones accept a winder to save wear and tear on your thumb.
The following R4 and its derivatives… what say we? The R4 is strongly related to the Minolta XD platform (the databacks interchange, for instance)…. a “modern” compact multi-mode SLR. They say the first examples suffered from electronics problems and to avoid them, but my gut says they have either died or been sorted out by now. The R4 was introduced in 1980 and went through a number of variations in different markets deleting features to make price points.
The R4 series lasted until 1987 when it was replaced by… drumroll please, the R5. Common as dirt and $200 still gets you a prime one.
The R5 added multi-mode program automation and lasted until about 1990. The R-E was the economy model of the R-5 with a few modes deleted to meet a cheaper price point.
The R7 was a taller R5 running on with four LR44 batteries cells instead of two and with SCA flash automation… But wait, we forgot a couple of my favourites, the R6 and R6.2.
Back in the mid to late 1980s (1986 for the Olympus OM-3 and 1989 for the Leica R6) a couple leading manufacturers went back to the basics with all-mechanical marvels. The Leica R-6 has mechanically timed shutter speeds from one second to 1/1000th of a second (the R6.2 goes to 1/2000 and for quite a bit more money). The batteries (two LR44-style cells) are used for the meter, the VF illuminator and the electronic self timer. If they die mid roll, you just shoot on.
The R6 is far and away my personal favourite from Leica’s SLR range and looking at that auction site just now, there are a couple listings that will give you change back from your $500 bill. Mine have been to five continents and have never let me down.
Finally, we get to the R8 and the R9. The R8 and R9 (really an “R8.2”) were a ground-up redesign and a break with the Minolta-inspired past. You either love or hate the styling. The R8/9 use ROM lenses which convey data to the camera. In my mind the one excellent feature is the instant swap to a DMR, the Digital R Back for these cameras. Should I chance upon an affordable, working kit, I will snatch it up. Until that time the others work quite well for me.
Vivitar, Spiratone and many others made Leica “R” Mount lenses. Tamron offered three Adaptall 2 mounts; one for the SL and SL2, one for the mirror lenses and one for the other R cameras.
Videographers have now driven the 19mm f2.8 to absurd prices, but you can still go ultra-wide on a budget with great quality with the Tamron Adaptall 17mm…
Whichever model you choose, happy shopping and happy shooting with a Leica that is still affordable… for now.
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I own a minty R5 and R8. personally, I love the design of the R8, but like you say, people either love or hate them. both are wonderful camera’s to use, and of course, the Leica glass is superb as always. I have a 50mm Summicron, 90mm Elmarit and a 70-200mm Vario Elmar. all 3 cam lenses so they can be used on both cameras. would love a wider angle lens as well. and a 180mm Elmarit lens is on my list as well for one day.