35mm Leica CL Film Camera (Leica Minolta CL) – Review
35mm Leica CL film camera review (also known as the Leica Minolta CL camera). If you are looking for the digital CL see here instead – Digital Leica CL. This article is a comparison of the analogue Leica CL vs Leica M3, Leica CL vs Leica iiia and considers the Voigtlander Bessa R3A camera. YouTube video embedded below.
Leica CL (a film Leica CL!)
My first discovery of the 35mm Leica CL camera was seeing one in a vintage camera store in London years ago. I picked it up as the low price interested me but I put it back. The film Leica CL didn’t impress me enough at the time but my photography has matured since then. Perhaps 5 years later I found myself buying a Leica CL camera on eBay.
This review is based on the Leica CL purchase and compares it to other film cameras -Leica M3, Leica iiia and Voigtlander Bessa R3A.
Digital Leica CL and film Leica CL
As I already use the digital Leica CL camera it will get confusing now I also have the film Leica CL. I’ve started to write “digital Leica CL” on my Flickr posts and I will make sure to “film Leica CL” when I start posting film images! Any images posted prior to this review were shot with the digital CL for reference.
Minolta CL vs Leica CL
The Leica CL is different to many Leica cameras in that it was built in collaboration with Minolta. Some of the CL cameras manufactured are branded as Minolta CL or Leica Minolta CL and some, like mine as a Leica CL (or Leitz CL). The Leica-Minolta collaboration is perhaps similar to that between Fuji and Voigtlander when they worked together a few years back. Fuji and Voigtlander joined forces in 2008 to release their amazing 6×6/6×7 folding camera. I have the Fuji GF670 branded version but this is the same as the Voigtlander Bessa iii camera.
OK back on topic..
The Lens – Leica CL 40mm lens
40mm lens (40mm vs 50mm)
The Leica CL is unusual in that it is designed around the use of a 40mm lens rather than the standard 50mm focal length. The first Oscar Barnack Leicas were build around a 50mm lens and all the early Leica cameras have a 50mm (or 5cm at the time) viewfinder window only. This was also true for the first Leica M camera, the Leica M3 which has a 50mm frameline viewfinder as the default design. Other manufacturers followed and most early LTM or L39 mount lenses were 50mm. Examples include the Leica Summar, Summitar, Summarit, Summicron, Elmar, Summilux 50mm lenses and similar designs from Canon (especially), Nikon and others. The 50mm focal length was said to be easy to design compared to wider lenses so that probably explains why 50mm became the ‘normal’ lens on most cameras there after.
40mm is an unusual focal length as it is too close to the popular 35mm lenses so most consumers and manufacturers seemed to skip 40mm in their lens lineup. There are exceptions, the Leica 40mm/ Minolta 40mm (which I will come to), Voigtlander Nokton 40mm f1.4 lens and Voigtlander Ultron 40mm f2 SL II lens (Nikon mount) which I own. There are others such as the Canon 40mm f1.9 pancake lens but generally speaking 50mm is much more common for interchangeable lens cameras.
If you look at fixed lens rangefinder cameras from the same period as the Leica CL (1970s) the opposite was true . 40mm was often the go to focal length for fixed lens cameras as it gives a normal view. 40mm offers the perfect balance between 35mm for say street photography and environmental portraits and 50mm for a tighter portrait crop. Popular rangefinder cameras that favored the 40mm fixed lens design include the Canon Canonet QL 17, Minolta HI-Matic and Yashica Electro 35 GSN (45mm*). I tend to prefer interchangeable lens cameras but these fixed lens rangefinders offer great value for money if you want a cheap 40mm rangefinder camera. The closest camera I have to this is a Olympus 35RC.
Leica Summicron-C 40mm f2 lens
If you search online for the Leica Summicron C 40mm lens you will find it is particularly affordable for a Leica Summicron lens (and tiny!). Almost worryingly cheap when you see the cost of a Leica 35mm Summicron lens.
Leica Summicron 40mm vs 35mm
I hadn’t planned to buy a Leica CL or a Leica Summicron 40mm lens. It was a purchase fueled by photography GAS (gear acquisition syndrome!) when I was looking at the highly regarded Leica Summicron 35mm f2 lens. Summicron 35mm lenses are crazy expensive and I didn’t want to spend that much money. I saw the size of the Leica Summicron 40mm f2 lens and the much lower price tag and I was immediately interested. I headed over to Flickr to find examples of this lens and reviews seems very positive.
The verdict online seems to be that the Summicron- C 40mm isn’t quite as good as the 35mm Summicron lens but it offers exceptional value for money. The 40mm Summicron is said to be the smallest Leica M lens but I’m not sure that holds true. Collapsible lenses like the Leica Elmar M is smaller when collapsed. Some Leica LTM lenses are also smaller and other brands made small lenses such as the Voigtlander Skopar lenses (M mount and LTM mount)(examples – Voigtlander Color Skopar 21mm f4 lens / Voigtlander Color Skopar 35mm f2.5 lens) and Canon LTM lenses.
Minolta Rokkor-M 40mm vs Summicron 40mm
If you come to buy the Leica Summicron 40mm f2 lens you will find there are 3 similar versions. The Leica Summicron-C 40mm f2, the Minolta Rokkor-M 40mm f2 version 1 and the Minolta Rokkor-M 40mm version 2. Optically I understand that all 3 lenses are identical but the Minolta 40mm later version is said to have better lens coatings. Better coatings makes the Minolta 40mm v2 less prone to flare (unlike the Leica Summicron and Minolta v1). For this reason I purchased a later copy of the Minolta 40mm. Being non Leica branded the Minolta lenses also often sell for less than their Leica sibling. That works for me! I called myself MrLeica.com some years ago but I’m not loyal to any one brand. I just try to use the best cameras and lenses I can afford regardless of the name.
Version 2 Minolta Rokkor-M 40mm Summicron
What you get with this lens is a modern lens coating, mine has a blue tint, in a tiny package with great optics. The Minolta Rokkor-M 40mm has pleasing audible aperture clicks and looks a little similar to my Leica Summarit-M 50mm f2.5 lens but is smaller and lighter.
Minolta Rokkor 40mm Portraits
Example photos using the Minolta 40mm lens on digital Leica cameras
The camera – Leica CL first impressions
When I received my 35mm Leica CL film camera I experienced mixed emotions. I bought the CL specifically for a small Leica M film camera setup. Compared to a Leica M camera such as the Leica M3 the CL is lighter and shorter length ways along the camera body. The camera width is similar as is the camera height. Compared to a Barnack Leica such as my Leica iiia the Leica CL is less long but bigger overall and a similar weight.
Leica CL film camera – build quality
If like me you are used to Leica M cameras (and more recently for me Barnack Leicas) you probably appreciate these cameras for their beautiful build quality. The vintage Leicas are particularly beautiful and the Leica M3 is often said to be the best Leica M camera. I understand better now why the Leica M3 is so nicely built. It was build during the 1950s period when Leica iii cameras were still in production. Most people probably don’t release that the M3 was built before the Leica iiig Barnack.
Anyway where was I.. ah yes the Leica CL. So I am used to the best of the best Leica cameras in terms of built quality so it would be difficult for the Leica CL to impress me. Unlike the precision made all metal Leica M and Leica iii cameras the Leica CL is plastic. It doesn’t feel as light and cheap as perhaps a Cosina Voigtlander camera like the Voigtlander Bessa R3A but it is plastic.
Leica CL film loading
Compared to any other Leica camera I find the the Leica CL film loading very easy. I will record a YouTube video on film loading and link it when I get chance. I’m used to Leica cameras and I find the Barnack Leicas as easy to load as the Leica M2 or M3. My least favourite to load are the later Leicas such as the Leica M4-P or Leica M6. As with all Leica film cameras you should be able to get 38 exposures per roll of film with the CL.
Comparison: Leica M3 vs Leica CL
If you are comparing both cameras when would you use each. If I had the choice of Leica M3 vs Leica CL and could only have one camera it would be the M3, no question.
- Build – The Leica M3 is a proper Leica camera with the expected precision and metal Leica build quality. The Leica CL is still nicely built but is plastic.
- Viewfinder – The Leica M3 has a larger brighter viewfinder with 50/90/135mm framelines. The Leica CL has 40/50/90mm framelines.
- Rangefinder – The Leica M3 0.91x magnification rangefinder patch is big bright and contrasty giving a much more accurate rangefinder that is very easy to use. The Leica CL rangefinder patch is small and less magnified (0.6x) making it much more difficult for any sort of precision focusing (such as the portraits I enjoy taking).
- Leica M mount – Both the M3 and CL are Leica M mount so this gives access to some amazing M mount lenses. If you already have a digital Leica M camera and want to experiment with film the Leica CL could be a great starting point.
- Size and weight – the Leica CL is both smaller and lighter (365g) than a Leica M camera. The Leica M3 is one of the heaviest (580g) Leica M film cameras. The M4P is lighter (520g) if you prefer an M camera to the CL.
- Price – The Leica CL is surprisingly affordable for a Leica. This is especially true for a Leica M mount Leica as Barnack Leicas are also good value but they are LTM mount (Leica thread mount).
- Lightmeter – the Leica M3 is an early (the first) Leica M camera so it has no light meter. Later models such as the Leica M6 do have a lightmeter. The Leica CL has a built in spot lightmeter so this is helpful if you don’t want to carry a handheld Sekonic light meter (or similar).
- Film loading – Leica M3 cameras are quite quick to load (no slower than a Leica M6 for me). Bottom loading like all M cameras. The Leica CL is a different design and the whole camera back detaches making it very easy to load film.
- Speed of use – For me the older Leica M3 is faster to use as the rangefinder is far better to quickly focus and shoot. The CL can fire off shots just as quick if less precision is required. The Leica CL has a film rewind crank vs the rewind knob of the M3. This makes the CL faster to reload.
Summary – Leica M3 vs Leica CL
I prefer the Leica M3 for everything except weight. The M3 is quite heavy for it’s size. You will not find a better viewfinder – rangefinder experience than the Leica M3. For precision focusing with fast lenses for my portrait photography I will always chose the M3. If I wanted a Leica for travel photography I would look to take either the Leica CL or a Barnack Leica such as my Leica iiia.
Comparison: Leica iiia vs Leica CL
If I could only have the Leica iiia or a Leica CL I would chose the Barnack Leica iii camera. Why? –
- Build – The Leica iiia is even nicer than a Leica M3 build wise! Such a beautiful camera with a precision Leica all metal build. The Leica CL is a nice looking camera but more plastic and modern in design.
- Viewfinder – The Leica Minolta CL viewfinder is clear with 40/50/90mm framelines. The Leica iiia viewfinder is small and hard to see through easily and is a fixed 50mm view without frame lines. I use hot shoe viewfinders on the Barnack Leica cameras for a clear bright viewfinder (Usually Voigtlander viewfinders).
- Rangefinder – The Leica iiia 1.5x magnification rangefinder is small but very accurate due to the longer rangefinder base. The Leica CL rangefinder patch is small and less magnified (0.6x) making it much more difficult for precision focusing at wide apertures when up close to a subject.
- Lens Mount – The Leica CL has the common Leica M mount giving access to all the amazing M mount lenses whether Leica, Zeiss or Voigtlander. You can use any lens from your Leica M cameras on the Leica / Minolta CL. The Leica iiia Barnack camera has the Leica screw mount (aka. Leica Thread Mount – LTM) so M mount lenses will not fit. You need to use LTM lenses, L39 or M39 lenses on a Leica iii camera.
- Size and weight – The Leica CL and Leica iiia cameras are both small and light. Leica iiia – 410g, Leica CL – 365g. Perfect for travel or for a jacket pocket to keep with you all day.
- Price – The Leica CL and Leica iiia cameras are both around 50% cheaper than a Leica M film camera (say a Leica M3 or M6). Leica iii cameras are often seen for less money than a Leica CL on eBay so that is the cheapest option.
- Lightmeter – The Leica CL has a built in lightmeter (spot meter) but it is a common feature to break on these cameras. My Leica CL light meter doesn’t work. The 1939 Leica iiia doesn’t have a light meter.
- Film loading – The Leica iii cameras are a pain to as you need scissors to cut the film leader before loading film. Leica CL film loading is super fast and easy. Probably the fastest Leica camera to load.
- Speed of use – The Leica CL has the common film advance lever as found on the Leica M3 and most film cameras. The CL also has a film rewind crank on the base of the camera so it is quicker to rewind film too. Leica iii cameras have a film advance knob which is slower to operate than a Leica CL or Leica M camera. Leica iii cameras also have a film rewind knob the same as the M3 which are slower than cranks.
Summary – Leica iia vs Leica CL
I prefer the Leica iii vs Leica CL as it is just as small and nearly as light. It is cheaper too and with a far better rangefinder (and build quality). Dislikes of the Leica iiia are the film loading (where you have to cut the film leader prior to loading) and poor viewfinder. The Leica CL is faster to use and faster to load. Perfect for street photography or travel photography when stopping the lens down a little. The Leica iiia is better suited to slower pace photography but I have used it for model photography too.
Comparison: Voigtlander Bessa R3A vs Leica CL
If you want a cheap Leica M mount camera the common two options are a Leica CL or a Voigtlander Bessa camera. The Voigtlander Bessa R3A is the closest Bessa to the CL as it comes with 40mm frame lines. It was the Bessa R3A that made me buy my first Leica so don’t rule out this camera. The Bessa R3A kit lens the Voigtlander Nokton 40mm f1.4 lens is also excellent. The Nokton 40mm will mount on a Leica CL body for a fast 40mm lens setup (f1.4 vs the Rokkor f2 aperture).
So not to repeat myself with another Leica CL vs camera X list instead I will share 10 facts about the Voigtlander Bessa R3A.
Voigtlander Bessa R3A Specs – 10 Bessa Facts
- Viewfinder – Large bright 1:1 magnification viewfinder with 40, 50, 75, 90 framelines (even more magnified than the 0.91x Leica M3!)
- Flash sync speed – 1/125 (better than the 1/50 of Leica M film cameras or 1/60 for the Leica CL).
- Hotshoe – rather than coldshoe of the M3 (so can use speedlights without adapters – the same as with the Leica CL)
- Maximum shutter speed – 1/2000 (for when wanting to use wide apertures in daylight without ND filters)(vs 1/1000 for a CL or M camera)
- Weight – Voigtlander Bessa R3A weight – 430g (vs 580g of Leica M3)
- Build – Cheap plastic feel but light to carry (Leica CL feels better made)
- Rangefinder – Voigtlander Bessa Rangefinder can be knocked out of alignment easily (meaning the camera will not focus accurately). (Mine is out of alignment again).
- Affordable – Approximately half price of a Leica M at time of buying
- Film loaded – Back door film loading is very easy (not via bottom plate)
- Lightmeter – TTL Centerweighted light meter that works unlike most Leica CL meters.
Summary – Voigtlander Bessa R3A vs Leica CL
The Leica Minolta CL and Voigtlander Bessa R3A are both nice cameras with their own pros and cons. If the Voigtlander Bessa R3A rangefinder was less prone to mis-alignment it would be a fantastic camera. The Bessa R3A combined 1:1 viewfinder rangefinder is lovely to use and the LED display light meter gives a modern touch. The Bessa R3A dimensions are near identical to a Leica M but it is light weight. Both the CL and R3A cameras offer 40mm framelines if that is your thing. If you want better build quality in a smaller slightly lighter package get the CL. If not get the Bessa. Some Voigtlander Bessa camera prices have gone crazy in recent years, especially the Bessa R4M.
Other cheap lightweight cameras for Leica lenses
There are a few hidden gem cameras out there to consider. If you are only looking to buy a Leica CL to get a lightweight Leica lens setup there are alternatives. If you only shoot wide lenses stopped down and just want a super light camera I can help! Check out the Voigtlander Bessa L if you use LTM lenses – an amazing camera! If you don’t use Leica thread mount lenses look at the Voigtlander Bessa T. The Bessa T camera is a Leica M mount version of the Bessa L.
Leica CL film – Test roll
Here are some photos from my Leica CL test roll shot out exploring in Romania. Photos were taken mostly using 2 lenses – Minolta Rokkor-M 40mm f2 and Canon 28mm f2.8 LTM lens. Film is expired 35mm Kodak Portra 160 exposed at ISO 100.
Leica Minolta CL or Leica CLE (Minolta CLE)
I must be confess. I messed up when I bought my CL and was a little disappointed. My main interest of having a Leica CL was for the 28mm framelines. 28mm framelines in a small Leica camera body for the perfect travel camera. After reading many reviews on both the Leica CL and CLE I bought the CL. I wanted a manual camera that didn’t rely on batteries to operate so that ruled out the CLE. The Leica CL is also around half the price of a Minolta CLE which also helped my choice!
What I overlooked was the fact that the Leica CL doesn’t have 28mm framelines. Doh. Only the Minolta CLE has 28mm framelines. I wish Leica-Minolta had made a CL2, just a CL with 28mm framelines included. Sadly they didn’t. You can get the mentioned Voigtlander Bessa R4M or R4A which have 28mm framelines but they are expensive. The cost of a Bessa R4M is more than a Leica M6 camera that I already have. For 28mm lenses on the CL I had to settle for using an external 28mm hotshoe viewfinder. This gives me a precision composition or I can just guestimate by using the whole CL viewfinder area. (The CL viewfinder area is closer to 35mm).
Reservations of the Minolta CLE
My main reservations is the Minolta CLE is an electronic camera that needs batteries to function. I worry about buying a camera where if the electronics suddenly die it’s a dead camera that can’t be repaired (most of the time). One of my Fuji GA645 electronic cameras suddenly just died one day without warning. I much prefer fully manual cameras or as manual as possible. Even the Mamiya RZ67 Pro II can be a pain due to it’s electronics. A Hasselblad 500 camera is better in that regard – nice and simple.
Conclusion – Leica CL film camera
So to conclude. Will you like the Leica CL film camera? If you don’t own any other Leica cameras then probably yes. For those people that enjoy small cameras then yes the CL will probably interest you. If you own Leica M cameras and lenses and want a lighter setup then yes the CL is a good choice. Cost wise the CL is a bargain compared to most Leica cameras, as is the 40mm Minolta Rokkor-M 40mm lens (recommended!).
How will I use the Leica Minolta CL?
I will probably not use the Leica CL film camera for portraits too often and that is bulk of my photography. The CL is a good camera to have for when wanting to travel light and use Leica M mount lenses. If I stop the lens down I could have a killer travel camera setup using the Leica Macro-Elmar-M 90mm f4 lens, the Minolta 40mm and say the Leica Elmarit-M 28mm f2.8 lens. For wider lenses I will probably use the Voigtlander Bessa L camera or the Leica iiia.
YouTube: Leica CL film camera review
Summary table / Spec sheet
Leica CL vs Leica M3 vs Leica iiia vs Voigtlander Bessa R3A
Here is the key information about each camera for a quick side by side comparison. There is no clear winner for all categories so it is about using the right tool for the job, or compromise if only using one camera.
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