The rarest of the rare

This camera up for discussion might not be in the greatest of condition, but it is surprisingly rare.
What’s so rare about a Leica 35mm SLR, you might ask?

Leica RE with lens

If you have those Leitz R mount lenses, this is where they belong

Well, Leica SLRs are certainly out there, about a half million having been made from 1964 Through to 2009 when the last R9 sank beneath the waves (along with the Digital Modul R that converted it to a very costly 10 megapixel DSLR). But this camera here is a Leica R-E, which oddly enough ranks as the lowest production model of all the Leicaflex/Leica R lineup. It was introduced in 1990 as a lower cost alternative to the full-fledged R5, but pretty much the only features missing were the program and shutter-priority modes that no one really ever needs. The trouble was that Leica at that time making a lower cost SLR was like Rolls Royce making a lower priced sedan – so only about 6,000 or so R-E’s rolled off the production line, and that makes it a low production rarity in anybody’s book. Even the poor-selling last-gasp R9 got 9,000 customers. In contrast, the most successful Leica SLR was the R4, which sold over 100,000.

Leica RE front

A bit of wear, here and there, but still in perfect working order.

I was loaned this rare camera for a few days to help test and adjust a bunch of Leica R series lenses that were headed for a new career in cinematography, so it seemed appropriate to run a few rolls of film through the beast – especially since I don’t think I’d ever had the privilege to shoot with a Leica SLR before. I’ve owned and used a few Leica rangefinders from time to time, but never a “Leicaflex”.

Leica RE top

That little “m” in the round circle means manual mode with spot metering.

If you aren’t familiar with Leica’s foray into the SLR world, you can be forgiven. The first Leicaflex arrived in 1964, and despite being precisely well made and German, it was already obsolete, using an external meter cell when everyone else had embraced the TTL concept. The Leicaflex SL and SL2 played catch up, but fans of the Leitz SLR glass realized something was up when Leica turned to Minolta in Japan to help launch the Leica R3 – which was essentially a beefed up and refined Minolta XE-7. The Leica R4 arrived in 1980, as a beefed up and refined Minolta XD-11. Even some of the vaunted Leitz lenses were made under contract by Minolta in Japan. You couldn’t dispute the quality and precision, but were they really German? Were they really Leica?
The later R5, R6, and R7 cameras also used the revamped Minolta XD chassis, even though Minolta by that time had moved on to increasingly plasticky autofocus cameras and lenses.
So this rare-ish Leica R-E is still based on the XD platform, and still has that slow “ker-chunk” shutter sound I enjoyed so much in my XD-5 a gazillion years ago. But the thing to remember is that this Leica isn’t a 1970s model, or 1980s, it came out in 1990. Like its R5 big brother, its flash sync was only 1/100th, and autofocus was strictly verboten. Leica was still chasing the Nikon F3, at a time when the F4 was already looking long in the tooth, and the F5 was on its way.
When this R-E was new, I was shooting with a Nikon F-801s, and enjoying autofocus, flash sync at any speed up to 1/250th, and built in autowind, all run on four AA batteries. Could I have done all the same things if I’d bought an R-E or R5 at that time? Not a chance.

Leica RE back

Clean and simple. A 1980s camera made for the 1990s.

Nevertheless, this R-E is a lovely thing to behold. While the layout and technology is very reminiscent of the old Minolta XD models, there’s a lot more refinement and solidity. Every metal part that could be made thicker and beefier, was.
There’s no on/off switch. Pressing the shutter button always activates the meter (also just like the Minolta), but the R-E continues Leica’s fascination with the spot meter. In aperture priority you have a choice of average metering, or spot. Manual mode is spot only. The viewfinder display uses a combination of LED lights, and windows for aperture and manually set aperture. Again, this all anyone really needs, although newer cameras with digital readouts all in one place below the screen have us spoiled.
The oddest thing about the R-E is its viewfinder, which has a strangely bluish-green tint about it. I don’t know about you, but I prefer my viewfinder image to be the same colour as the outside world. But that split-image focusing ring in the centre is just the way things ought to be.
I took the camera out, with four Leitz lenses, making for a very hefty kit. To add to the misery, I brought along my latest DSLR, which needed to be shown the ropes. While the DSLR is big and pudgy, the Leica feels dense as uranium, especially with those stoic, precise, and thickly barrelled lenses. The Nikon lenses seemed deft and nimble in comparison.

Still, one doesn’t knock the Leitz optics. I don’t care whether they were made in Germany, Canada, or Japan, they all prove their worth. The only downside is that they won’t turn ordinary photographs into masterpieces, despite what their well-heeled owners may have been told.
The R-E wasn’t going to be a big seller in the early ‘90s, not with all those AF cameras dominating the market. And Leica was still towing the party line in those days, insisting the magnificent precision of their lenses was not compatible with the loosey goosey sloppiness of autofocus. Contax, the upscale brand from Yashica, said the same thing about their German-sourced Zeiss optics. Trouble is, magazine covers, and award winning journalism was being shot with autofocus Nikons and Canons at the time. The old ways might have been appreciated, but were being forced into the background.
It wasn’t long before Leica was essentially becoming less a manufacturer of high-grade, but relevant and practical 35mm equipment, and more a maker of Euro-luxury goods. Prestige was supposed to win over practicality, but it was a slippery slope. It might work for Rolex, but photographers don’t buy jewellery. I wasn’t the only one nauseated by the long list of special edition models that permeated the Leica rangefinder line. I think I truly lost a lot of respect for the concept when I evaluated an M6 Titanium, with its matching titanium lens. Now, titanium had been used to make camera shells lighter and stronger for some time. That M6 had a gorgeous tan metallic sheen on both body and lens, and complementing ostrich skin leather. But further inspection revealed it weighed no less than a regular M6. Huh?
Turns out the “titanium” was merely a finish on a normal body and lens. And the ostrich was also just embossed leather. Despite the premium price, it was no lighter or more durable than a regular M6. I guess the collector types weren’t supposed to notice.
But this R-E was made before all that nonsense, and as a no-nonsense 35mm SLR, it deserved to be loaded up with black and white film and put through its paces. The solid, firm handling lenses inspired confidence (I used a 50mm f2.0, a 24mm 2.8, 90mm 2.0 and a 80-200mm f4.0 zoom). The images didn’t disappoint, and I share some of those scanned negs here.
The irony is that cameras like this are enjoying some renewed interest these days. It just seems appropriate to have a traditional wind lever under the thumb, and a shutter dial under the finger when shooting 35mm film. The higher tech AF bodies, with their LCD displays and multi-modes just seem like digital SLRs without the digital, and nobody wants them right now.
It was nice to have the privilege of trying out this classic rarest-of-all Leica SLR, especially as it’s getting harder and harder to do so. All those solid, well-made, sharp R series lenses are being poached by the cinema crowd and having all manner of adapters fitted. Sad to say, those Leica SLRs will all be sitting around lenseless.

~ by windsorphotooutfitters on September 1, 2017.

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