Leica and the Big Shutter Speed Dial Reversal

Leica is a funny camera brand. For many reasons. But one of the reasons is the company’s vehement refusal to make significant changes to their products in any conventional amount of time. Often, no matter how much people complain or demand change, Leica model after Leica model remain nearly identical to the previous, sporting only very nuanced, deliberate, incremental updates.

And because Leica photographers have grown accustom to and content with this snail pace of evolution, some folks completely lose their minds at those pivotal moments when certain changes are finally made.

A great example is the Leica M5 of 1971. It was the most technologically advanced and arguably smartest camera design that Leica rolled out since the 1954 M3 and the 1925 Leica I. But the M5 was so wildly unpopular due to numerous deviations from the original Leica rangefinder style that it nearly took the company bankrupt and spawned a revision to the previous M4 model to tide photographers over until the release of the M6 in 1984 could put everything back on track again.

I’d like to talk about another head-spinning change that Leica sort of flip-flopped on before committing to – the reversal of the direction of the rotation of the shutter speed dial.

From 1925 to 1998, the shutter speed dial on all Leica cameras was about the same diameter (except the M5) and rotated clockwise to faster speeds. On knob-wind Leicas, the photographer has to advance the film, pull the SS dial up with the thumb and forefinger, rotate it to the desired position and drop it back down to lock in the speed. With M rangefinders, the SS no longer needed to be lifted up and dropped down but is usually still operated with thumb and forefinger. It’s a little cumbersome to make this adjustment while keeping ones eye on the viewfinder. So you’ll often see film photographers dropping the camera down off their face, looking at the SS dial, changing it and then putting the camera back to their eye. Not just Leica, but nearly all fully manual 35mm cameras.

1999 Leica M6 TTL

Then came the M6 TTL of 1998 and M7 of 2002. The shutter speed dials on these otherwise conventional-looking Leica M bodies were larger, similar to the M5 in concept. The larger diameter made the SS dial flush with the front panel of the camera, allowing the photographer to adjust speeds with the forefinger only, without any need to remove the eye from the finder. Not only this but the direction of the shutter speed dial was reversed for the first time since the Leica was created. Rotation was now clockwise to slower speeds.

This change took place over two decades ago and some photographers are STILL complaining about it. People complained about it so much that when the successors of the M7, the MP and M-A were designed, Leica restored the size and direction of the shutter speed dials to their previous convention.

So why did Leica do this, and why should we care?

It was all in service to another mind-blowing change to Leica cameras – the light meter.

The introduction of a built-in light meter revealed a basic flaw in the seemingly irrefutable logic of Leica’s controls – the aperture control and shutter control rotated in opposite directions. Before the M6 TTL, to admit more light using aperture, the photographer rotated the ring to the right but to admit more light using shutter, the photographer rotates the shutter dial to the left.

1930 Leica I/III

Your fingers of course just adapt to the camera and nobody cared about this contradiction until they were looking at a fully coupled light meter. In order to integrate a light meter that maintained Leica’s legacy of perfect ergonomics, something would have to change. Rather than change the rotation of the aperture on all new lenses and limiting their use/appeal with older cameras, Leica wisely (in my opinion) chose to reverse the direction of the shutter speed on new cameras.

While the protests of meter-free veteran film photographers won out with the MP and M-A, Leica did take a cue from the M6 TTL and M7 when they launched their first digital M, the M8 of 2006 by retaining that large diameter, reverse-rotating shutter speed dial. And the feature has been conserved for each digital M since.

The results of all this controversy over seemingly trite details?

If you shoot digital Leica’s, you might consider running an M6 TTL or M7 alongside your digital M.

And if you shoot only film Leica’s you might consider avoiding the M6 TTL and M7, or doubling down on shooting ONLY M6 TTL and M7.

For me, I run an M6 TTL and an LTM Leica together and find that there are enough differences between bodies that the difference in SS dial direction is irrelevant. This may be the case for hybrid digital/film shooters too. For other shooters I talk to, they don’t even mind the difference and shoot an M6 TTL and an MP, for example, alongside one another very comfortably.

What Leica cameras do you use together? Does the direction of the shutter speed dial have any affect on your muscle memory or not? How ridiculous is it that I’ve written a whole blog about the direction of the shutter speed dial?

Thanks for reading and happy shooting!

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7 thoughts on “Leica and the Big Shutter Speed Dial Reversal

  1. One of life’s great mysteries….

    The other is….other than status (for many/most owners, like with lux goods in general, I’d bet a good bottle of scotch that this is the primary driver of ownership), what is the attraction of the brand’s product for the user who sees beyond the nameplate? Is it the optics are that far superior?

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    1. Some people say the optics but certainly, historically, other brands of similar lens have been competitive to Leitz/Leica and by all measures, surpassed.

      For me, choosing Leica has nothing to do with scotch and I have never understood the criticism of branding. FED engraved their brand on their cameras and lenses also. Surely all photographers understand the value of branding when they put their name on their work and attempt to make a sale or get a like.

      For me, I shoot with Leica and Nikon cameras mostly because these companies have long track records of producing the type of camera that appeals to me (a no frills, quality tool) and they, therefore also, have a wide compatibility of lenses and accessories, but all made with respectable craftsmanship and durability for serious use.

      You shoot with LTM Leica’s, right? What are your reasons?

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      1. My “go to” is a Nikon S2 with the 5cm f/1.4. If I need other focal lengths I use a Nikkormat or a plain prism F. I’ve never even held a Leica. I have wondered how it could be “better” than my S2; I really like the results from that old lens, I like the camera’s sound and handling, and I am in general a sentimental retrocrank anyway….

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    2. I’ve always been partial to Jack & Jim, two fine southern gentlemen. Just last evening, Jim joined my wife & I as we sipped Manhattans. I’m also fond of my pair of M’s – 2 & 4P.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I see – I knew you shot rangefinders, love your work and blog incidentally! If you enjoy the Nikon and are successful with it, I don’t think it matters if a Leica might be “better” by anyone’s definition. I use Nikon SLR’s but the rangefinders always felt a little exotic to me. Leica’s have just been in front of me for many years and I also like that Leica remained committed to the 35mm rangefinder. I’m not keen on companies that treat cameras like current fashion – changing things “constantly” to cause shooters to keep chasing the latest thing instead of helping us to be good photographers by forgetting about the camera itself to a degree. And that’s the Leica branding for me. I can use the same lenses on my 1930 and they even have comparable control placement, the topic of this blog. I like that once Nikon got into SLR’s, they continued to make all manual 35mm SLR’s much longer than any other manufacturer and they also maintained the F mount, albeit with variations, for decades. Nikon rangefinders though, I’ve always read good things about and imagine that performance-wise, despite lack of current support, they are just as good as any non-metered Leica.

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  3. Scotch — I intended no negative vibes in your direction re: Leica. A good scotch is a marvelous thing, but that’s a different topic…
    Just because I appreciated ‘branding’ less than the average Joe doesn’t mean much. And from my first introduction to your online work it has been evident to me that the Leica is a highly effective tool for your creative work, which I have admired considerably. I hope you will continue. Clearly the right tool in the right hands.
    I went with the S2 only because I wanted to try an RF (I’ve always liked my Nikkormat, and because of the design lineage sticking to a Nikon RF seemed to make sense) more versatile than my Kodak Signet 35, and an S2 was an affordable ‘gamble’. I was surprised how much I’ve enjoyed it.

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    1. I’m more of an absinthe drinker but admittedly don’t know a lot about scotch! Much appreciated on the comments – it seems that both camera lines have landed with the right people 🙂

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