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Leica R4 & R4s: a review

The Leica R4 was introduced in 1980 as the successor to the R3, and became the most popular among all the R-system cameras, with more than 125,000 copies of the different R4 versions being sold worldwide. The camera had a significantly smaller and lighter body than the R3 and resembles the Minolta XD-11 (XD-7 in Europe) in many regards. These cosmetic and technical similarities are no mere coincidence, but the result of a joint development effort between Leica and Minolta that had been going on since 1972. The new, compact chassis of the R4 was well received and continued to be used for the subsequent R5, R6 and R7 cameras.

The second headline characteristic that the R4 brought to the Leica reflex line-up besides its compactness was the addition of Program exposure mode, making it the first multi-mode Leica. It thereby followed the technical developments of the time, and its core specifications are in line with other SLR cameras of the early 1980s. What set the Leica truly apart, though, was that it was giving photographers access to the full line of excellent R-system lenses, ranging in focal length from a 15mm ultra-wide angle to an 800mm super-tele. The R-system was discontinued in 2009 when Leica decided not to push ahead with the development of the R10, but the R-lenses retain their high-quality reputation and the R4 represents nowadays one of the cheapest options of buying into a Leica interchangeable lens system.

Leica R4/R4s Specifications

  • Leica R bayonet mount;
  • Focal plane, electronic, metallic curtain shutter; from 1/1000s to 1s;
  • Program, aperture priority, shutter priority, and manual exposure modes (R4s: only aperture priority & manual);
  • TTL integrated or selective (7mm) exposure metering;
  • Ground glass, interchangeable viewfinder screen;
  • Hotshoe flash control; 1/100s, no TTL-metering;
  • External controls for battery self-check, eyepiece shutter, multiple-exposure, selective/integral exposure, DOF preview, self-timer;
  • ISO range of 12 – 3200;
  • Film transport by manual lever; optional motor drive or winder;
  • Batteries: 2 x SR44 (LR44) cells or 1 x CR1/3N;
  • Dimensions: 138.5 x 88.1 x 60.0mm (width x height x depth);
  • Weight: 630g;

In addition to its thumb-powered film advance, the R4 offered a build-in provision for motorized film transport. Early versions of the camera carried the label R4 MOT in accordance with a long-established naming convention for Leica's motor-ready cameras, but the MOT extension was dropped from 1981 onwards. Moreover, since 1983 a simplified R4s was being sold at a more affordable price point. It offered Aperture and Manual exposure modes, but unlike the standard R4 not Program and Shutter priority. The R4s also lacked a shutter speed indication in the viewfinder. The latter omission was rectified at the end of 1985 in the R4s MOD P (in Europe: R4s MOD 2), alongside the addition of the ability to switch from spot to full field average metering when in "Manual" mode, the enlargement of the rewind knob, the substitution of a slideswitch for a push button to undertake exposure compensation, and the full enclosure of the lever wind in plastic.

The R4 has an electronically-timed shutter, with vertical-traveling metal blades. It offers shutter speeds from 1 to 1/1000 sec, which are continuously-variable in Aperture-priority and Program modes, and change in one-stop increments in Shutter-priority and Manual modes. Electronic flash synchronization occurs at 1/100 sec. Moreover, the R4 features a bulb (B) mode, and — in case the batteries are out of power — a mechanical shutter setting with a speed of 1/100 sec.

The viewfinder of the R4 has an eye-level, non-interchangeable prism. Viewing is at full aperture, but a depth-of-field preview is available. The viewfinder readout display includes selected metering mode, shutter speed, aperture, memory hold, over/under-exposure, flash ready and manual override. One characteristic of the R4 is that the viewscreens are interchangeable. The standard viewscreen has a coarse central microprism area and central split-image focusing aid with a matte focusing area on the remainder of the screen. Alternative viewscreens include:

  • a plain matte screen (Leica order number 14304);
  • a screen with microprism focusing aid and no split-image aid (no. 14305);
  • a matte screen with horizontal and vertical grid lines (no. 14306); and
  • a clear screen with crosshairs (no. 14307).
Leica R4 data back
Leica R4 with Data Back[fotokor.com]

The metering system of the R4 incorporates five metering modes, all selectable via a dial on the camera top plate. Light metering is accomplished through a silicon photo diode that measures the incoming light through the lens. Light for the meter readings passes through a semi-silvered main mirror to hit a secondary reflector, from where it is directed to the photo diode on the floor of the mirror chamber. A condensing lens is shifted mechanically to switch from selective to integrated metering ("full field metering"). The latter can be used with Aperture-priority (mode A), Shutter-priority (T) and Program exposure (P) modes, while the spot meter readings are available with Aperture-priority (a) and Manual metering (m).

Numerous accessories were available for the Leica R4. The camera is compatible with all 3-cam, R-cam, and ROM lenses of the R-system, and earlier 1-cam or 2-cam lenses could be modified to fit. Moreover, a data back (Leica order number 14297) was sold for use with the R4, as well as a Motor-Winder (2 frames/sec, Leica number 14282) and a Motor-Drive (4 frames/sec; Leica number 14292). In addition, mechanical and electronic remote controls were offered, alongside an angle finder and a complete set of macro-accessories. Many of these items can nowadays be found in good, pre-owned condition on ebay.

Leica R4 FAQ

While the R4 represented a substantial advance for Leica's reflex system, it was not without weaknesses. The camera did not offer TTL-flash metering (introduced into the R-system with the R5), and did not provide a mirror lock-up option. Also, the Shutter speed and Aperture indications in the viewfinder are not always easy to read, and there is no viewfinder illumination.

Moreover, early batches of the R4 suffered from a number of electronic failures, due to the use of insufficiently reliable components. Only serial numbers below 1,600,000 were affected, and no problems have been reported with any of the R4s models. In any case, even if you come across a camera with a low serial number, the deficient parts might have been replaced already under warranty or by the previous owner, so that not all early R4's are susceptible to failure. Yet, it is worthwhile checking for these issues, as repairs of vintage cameras can quickly become expensive.

Below are some additional issues and questions that have been encountered by Leica shooter's with corresponding responses or suggestions.

What are the Leica order numbers of the different R4-versions?

Leica R4 (chrome): 10041; Leica R4 (black): 10043; Leica R4 (gold): 10051; Leica R4s: 10045; Leica R4s MOD 2: 10046; Leica R4s MOD P: 10047 [leica-wiki].

How do I know whether I see a R4-S or a R4-S MOD 2 (or MOD P) in a product picture?

If the camera shown is a later model, the designation 'Leica R4-S MOD 2' or 'Leica R4-S MOD P' is engraved on the flanges of the accessory shoe.

Does the R4 have an AE-Lock feature?

Yes, the R4 has AE-lock for spot metering in Aperture-priority auto-exposure mode. One has to lightly press the shutter release until the meter diode goes out.

What is the viewfinder's magnification and coverage?

The viewfinder offers 0.9x magnification and covers 92 percent of the actual field of view.

Do the non-standard viewscreens also indicate the sensitivity of the spot meter?

Yes, the region of the spot meter's sensitivity is marked on all screens.

Who produced the shutter for the R4?

The shutter mechanism for the Leica was provided by Japan-based Seiko.

Does the R4 age well?

Yes, a vintage R4 can still provide good services. One issue to be aware of, though, is that the foam light seals on the camera back may degrade over time, which can cause light leaks around the film identification window.

Where can I send my R4 for repairs?

Leica Customer Care does no longer undertake repairs of the R4. The company recommends its clients to contact Paepke-Fototechnik in Düsseldorf instead.

Further Reading

Additional details on the R4 and its features and operation can be found in the Leica R4 manual. Moreover, the French website summilux.net carries a detailed review (in French) of the camera, including links to Leica flyers and promotion materials of the time. A broader set of downloadable information resources on the Leica family of reflex and rangefinder cameras can be accessed on the Leica downloads page.