There's nothing quite like a magnificent, manual, mechanical camera to stir the passions of seasoned photographers. Perhaps that's why we've recently seen glorious creations such as the limited-edition Nikon S3 2000 (a clone of the '50s rangefinder 35), the late, lamented Olympus OM-3, and that elegant, contemporary classic, the Nikon FM3a. Now, Leica has gotten into the retro-classic act with an update of the legendary Leica MP, a spartan rangefinder 35 aimed at pros and produced in very limited quantities in 1956 and '57.
The original MP-identifiable by its external, manually set frame counter, lack of self-timer, and bottom-mounted Leicavit trigger winder-came in two versions, each connected with a renowned photojournalist. The satin-chrome-finished model was associated with the late Alfred Eisenstaedt, and the black-lacquer-finished version with still-active octogenarian, David Douglas Duncan. The new MP (which also comes in satin-chrome or black-lacquer) bears a striking resemblance to these collectible originals, but its features, which include through-lens metering with LED finder readouts, are very similar to those of the Leica M6. Nevertheless, today's MP is far from a gussied-up M6 with a few styling licks-it's been internally re-engineered, and incorporates a host of significant optical, mechanical, and electronic refinements that fully justify its illustrious monicker.
The most obvious distinguishing features of the new MP hearken back to the original MP, and are sure to resonate with Leica fans-a classically contoured, all-metal wind lever (in place of the plastic-tipped lever found on most late-model M-series Leicas) and a traditional rewind knob instead of the angled rewind crank used on all Leica Ms since the M4. A closer look also reveals that the MP's hot-shoe is nondedicated and has a single, central contact. The official specs coyly allude to the lack of TTL flash by stating that autoflash is provided "by a sensor in the flash unit or manual guide number calculations." Finally, the shutter-speed dial turns clockwise to set higher speeds-another traditional M-series touch that was abandoned on late-model M6s and the M7 (introduced last year).
Pick up the Leica MP, and the first thing you'll notice-along with its exquisite finish, the substantial heft of its compact, all-metal body, and ergonomically rounded contours-is the new textured PVC cladding. It's at least as grippable as the leather-textured vulcanite found on previous Leicas, though some may find it less elegant. The official Leica party line is that the new lighter-textured covering "emphasizes the clean, classic lines of the MP." Although we were skeptical at first, we now agree-the new covering suits the camera very well and sets it apart from other M-series models.
Functionally, shooting with the MP is the same as shooting with an M6. In the Leica M tradition, you remove the bottom plate to load the camera; the system works well, but takes some getting used to. Bring the camera to eye level and you see the glorious M system of projected, parallax-compensating finder frames covering lenses with focal lengths from 28- to 135mm. The frames appear in pairs-35- and 135mm, 50- and 75mm, and 28- and 90mm-and are auto-indexing (the right one automatically comes into view with its mate as you mount a lens). You can also preview the field of view of different focal lengths manually by pushing a small lever at the left of the lens. Below the finder frames are the metering LEDs. Touch the shutter release and they light up brightly in red. The readout system is very simple-a central "correct exposure" dot flanked by deltas guides you in turning the aperture ring. It is also very sensitive. The lenses are clickstopped in half stops; when the deltas turn off, you can meter accurately to within about 1⁄4-stop. The left-hand delta flashes when the light level falls below the metering range. There's also a low-battery-warning display.