Why Leave Leica M?
It hasn’t been an easy decision to sell up and move on. As any Leica M owner is likely to understand, it has been an emotional one! Maybe some of you have been having similarly treasonous thoughts? I’m using this language tongue in cheek of course, but in recognition of how emotive such topics can be. I’m certainly not inviting hate mail from Leica wing nuts, just outlining a personal decision which has proven much harder than such things should be.
I have shot the Leica M system for over ten years and I still absolutely love it. But things have changed. My needs and priorities have changed and my circumstances have changed. The camera ‘landscape’ has also moved forwards and these all impact such decisions. I started with Leica film cameras (I’ve owned various M2, M3, M6 and MP cameras at one point or other) and jumped into Leica digital with a Monochrom (M9M). The resultant photos have wowed me, but there is more to it than that. I have to remain focused on the most cost effective ways of producing the best photographs I can. Its also important not to forget that you can’t evaluate the quality of photographs you haven’t taken. One must therefore ask whether a system is restrictive and leaves you wishing for X, Y or Z.
I’ll go through my reasoning in a minute, but suffice to say that selling up will help release funds that I can put into other systems, print making and travel. This is crucial. I want to make photographs and I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about how I can open up as many opportunities as possible, close to home, elsewhere in the UK and further afield. I’ve never regarded my Leica equipment as a piggy bank, but there is no doubt as to its ability to act as such, especially if you buy used and wisely.
I recognise that this is a one way decision. There is no way on Earth that I will be able to re-buy the equipment I have built up over a decade once it is gone. I have therefore thought it through very carefully. Maintaining multiple systems costs money, takes up space and creates choices that you’re sometimes better off without. I’ve had different cameras in different countries, but now that I am settled on one place, it is clear that I need to pare things down and refocus on making printed photographs. This is my passion and I have over 100 photographs from Iceland to print for starters….
The toughest part is this: after many thousands of frames in Afghanistan, wandering about such a landscape and photographing such memorable people and moments, everything changes (for me, at least). I cannot pick up my black Leica MP without remembering the images I shot with it. The camera transitions from tool to memorabilia, for those who are sentimentally inclined. Nonetheless, we can be our worst enemy and I still think it’s the right decision and here is my thinking.
Leica M Performance
There is still no doubt about it; my Leica Monochrom still delivers the most consistently perfect frames of any camera I have ever used under non-extreme lighting. I know the apertures to set on each lens so that no matter what, the frame will be perfect from corner to corner. And I mean perfect, always. Every single Leica lens I own will do this and most will do it at wider apertures than much of the competition and more consistently. However, outright optical perfection isn’t everything. After all, it comes at a price and, again, the competitive technology landscape has shifted (see ‘The Alternatives’ below).
I wrote an article called What’s Special about the Leica M System and the points raised remain largely as valid today. However, what the M system is not is a Jack of all trades and I would like fewer camera systems to do more for me. The Pentax 645Z is my ultimate quality landscape tool and the truth is that the Monochrom cannot match the Pentax for sheer image quality. But the Pentax is a tank, especially with the 28-45mm SR attached. Between them, my Sony FE (A&/A7R) cameras have been filling the lightweight and portable travel/documentary/landscape role and here is what I have ideally been wanting from such a system:
- Reasonably lightweight and compact bodies
- High resolution and high ISO bodies/options available.
- Excellent dynamic range and metering for extreme contrast scenes and contra jour lighting.
- Excellent optics, with superb wide-angle primes.
- Reasonably compact/light prime lenses.
- Ability to fit old/obscure optics.
- Ability to use long lenses seamlessly i.e. 70-200/300.
- Ability to easily use native, fast portrait lenses
- Affordable bodies to allow me to carry a 2-3 body kit.
- Street shooting agility, with responsive shutter and non-electronic viewfinder options.
The Leica Monochrom delivers well on most of these, but not all.
Point 1 – The M system remains very compact indeed, but the bodies are not as light as they used to be. The M240 based cameras are a bit tubby I feel and they’re nearly 700g without a grip. My Mk I MM is 100g lighter, but is still quite a bit fatter than my film Leicas.
Point 3 – Although files are hugely flexible in post, low ISO dynamic range is sub 12 stops. The metering system is a bit crude so it can be tricky to get exposure right (quickly) when there are hot highlights or zones in a scene. One can work through this, but it can be frustrating at times.
Point 8 – Clearly long lenses are an issue with the Mk 1 M9M, because it lacks live view. Even with the type 240/246/262, its not a simple as fixing a native 70-200 onto a body as per other systems.
Point 9 – Fast portrait lenses are few and far between and tough to focus with a rangefinder.
Point 10 – is an impossibility for me, due to the high costs of the bodies (and the huge risks associated with three digital Ms in one bag!!!).
So what does this mean? It means the M system does not easily stand alone if you want to do all of these things very comfortably, which is why I have held DSLR and mirrorless systems at the same time. I shot all my head/head and shoulders portraits in Russians and Royals with a Canon 85mm f1.2 L II, for example.
Two years ago the Sony FE system lacked superb wide angle optics, meaning I relied upon the wonderful Leica wide angle lenses. Everything wider than 35mm was Leica territory, because I had nothing else for full frame that came close to touching them. For my first 2015 Iceland trip, I took the Sony system along with a EOS mount Tokina 16-28mm lens which did very well, but was large and unwieldly (at 1200g) with its Metabones adaptor attached. Due to the extreme weather, I decided to leave the Leica at home, although I did long for my 21-28mm Leica and Zeiss ZM primes!
The gap in the Sony FE wide angles is long gone, however. The 28mm f2 FE is very good indeed (not Leica good, but it is 15% of the price and it performs very well indeed). The 25mm f2 Batis is not only fast but stellar and the 18mm f2.8 is simply jaw-dropping. We have the Voigtlander Heliar 15mm f4.5 in native FE mount now, along with the Loxia 21mm. All these lenses are easily as good as required for most uses and the 25mm/18mm Batis and 21mm Loxia are genuinely ‘Leica good’. Add the fact that you can now buy a 10mm Voigtlander ultra-wide in FE mount and there really isn’t anything missing on the wide angle side of things for the Sony. At the long end we have been well-served for some time. The 70-200mm f4 OSS G is an excellent lens and while it is twice the weight of a late model 90mm Elmarit-M, it is also much more flexible. The Sony 70-300 G has arrived, we have the Sony 90mm G Macro and the 85mm Zeiss Batis. None of these are as compact as Leica primes, but in many cases the weight is actually comparable.
If the FE system is weak in one area it is in really snappy, spritely feeling cameras & lenses for street use. The A7 series have somewhat vague shutter releases and their EVFs/shutter nature involves some lag. Even the A7R II feels a little unresponsive compared to a decent DSLR, or M43 camera. The A6000 and 6300 improve matters dramatically, but where are the very compact optically superb slow primes? This is an area Sony is yet to tackle, however, a while ago I bought a Ricoh GR (reviewed here). This little camera does everything I could needs from a Leica M in the street role. It has a wonderful snap shooting feature, it is tiny and light compared to a Leica M and the lens and sensor combination are so good that you are left wanting nothing (assuming 28mm works for you). Sure, you get better high ISO from a Leica M 246 and you can use much faster lenses, but I rarely shoot at very wide apertures on the street and I rarely shoot anything that moves quickly at night. The Sony FE system and GR really do have street and general documentary, street and travel sewn up between them. If I am honest, the Sony FE-GR combo offers me a much wider performance envelope at a lower cost and risk. Where there are shortfalls compared the to Leica in sheer image quality, they are minor and in some cases the reverse is true.
Portraits have always been frustrating with the Leica M. Focusing 50mm f1.4 lenses is hard enough if there is any movement of the subject, whereas the likes of the 75mm f1.4 are very tough to reliably nail focus (assuming you can afford what has become an insanely expensive lens that is) even in a controlled environment. When shooting film, I always used to carry my EOS 1n around with an 85mm attached, because my subjects gave me seconds not minutes and I needed to be sure I could reliably catch sharp eyes on the fly. I would not have stood a chance with a 75mm Summilux…. not a snowball’s chance in hell. It always irked me that I felt the need to carry a big Canon around just to solve the 75-90mm portrait lens issue.
Now the Sony FE system has the wonderful 85mm Batis f1.8 and the new Sony GM 85mm f1.4. With fabulous eye focusing on the newer Sony bodies, sharp eyes is no longer a challenge even if the subject is drunk and standing in a gale. I think most people would agree that both 85mm lenses offer excellent imaging quality, both technically and subjectively. Both are sharp, but the Batis is fairly small (weighing the same as a 90mm f2.8 Elmarit-M) and very crisp, whereas the GM has super smooth bokeh and weighs in a little more than a 75mm Summilux. I will now be possible to shoot all aspects of my travel and documentary work with one system, instead of two. It will weigh a lot less and take up less space, which cutting down on faff and giving me a second (or third) ‘same system’ body in the bag.
DSLR Autofocus? Clearly the Leica Monochrom cannot do this and it’s rare for me to need SLR quality tracking autofocus, when shooting documentary/travel/street (or AF at all). However, I am expecting that within a few years Sony will release a body that will be truly in DSLR territory with regard to continuous tracking focus and responsiveness. This will be yet another capability that will be available to FE system users and which will no doubt trickle downwards into cheaper models. For everything else I find the AF on the Mk I A7 bodies fine. Its a bit slow, but its OK. The MK II bodies are decidedly better and no doubt the MK III will be another level up. Truth be told, I use only a tiny fraction of the settings on my Sony bodies, leave them in Aperture Priority 99% of the time and shoot them like my Leica in any case. The only bit missing is that glorious optical viewfinder/window into the world.
On the subject of Optical versus Electronic viewfinders, I like both. While an optical viewfinder is wonderful much of the time, when there is harsh lighting, glare of backlighting, I feel my eyeball protesting. As my body has picked up injuries over the years, I am more inclined towards looking through a hole at a screen than at the sun. Although the Type 240 series have live view on the back screen, its next to useless when orientated towards the sun. One needs a shrouded internal EVF for that really. Having both options a la Fuji X100 would be nice, but I have no objections to a good EVF!
My ‘Leica M antidote’ will be an expanded Sony FE system with the Ricoh GR thrown in. The GR does the quick snappy street shooting and candids and the Sony FE does the rest (including the bits the M never could). The fact that the GR weighs about the same as a 28mm lens for the Leica M (with no body attached) makes it clear that its hardly an inconvenience to shoot ‘two systems’. Moreover, the GR is so much lighter to carry for long periods of time than any Leica M combination and my brilliant little Zeiss 25mm/28mm accessory finder fits perfectly 😉 When not in use, the GR will slip into a pocket, so one does not even need to mess about with bags. I used mine a lot in Iceland as a snapshot camera and found it produced a startling percentage of my final portfolio images….
I said at the beginning that the Sony FE system was going to be dynamite and it is only getting stronger with time. We can expect much, much more from Sony and Zeiss. I fully expect to be able to mount my FE lenses on genuinely pro-grade FE bodies in the not too distant future. The A9 is rumoured to be coming this year and we can expect it to be expensive, but likely well below the Nikon D5 and 1DX II level. But none of this matters, because the Sony FE system is now mature enough to do so much already. The fact that it will probably replace my Canon EOS system within 3 years is a separate, fanciful consideration, but one that I strongly suspect will become reality. Canon will have to produce a truly amazing EOS mount Full-Frame mirrorless camera to stop the Sony Zeiss juggernaut now. Besides, I am personally deep enough into Sony mirrorless than hopping over to Canon for some future unknown mirrorless system would be absurd.
I was considering a move from Canon DSLRs to Pentax or Nikon to obtain more dynamic range and less base ISO noise (and banding) with my DSLR system, but now I think I will be patient and see if the Sony FE system becomes able to serve my SLR needs.
Which cameras have I used for most of my ‘serious’ photos over the last few years? Sony, Pentax & Ricoh… Iceland was shot with these and all share Sony sensors, all of which throw out files that feel somewhat similar. Afghanistan 50K was shot on Sony FE and Panasonic GM-1 cameras. The Leica did not have the live view for shooting at odd angles through a plane window. It didn’t have the long lenses for Iceland. The Leica M system I have is truly wonderful. It’s beautiful, but it isn’t getting used as much as it should be.
So that’s it? Well, no actually. I may retain a couple of old M mount lenses that were given to me with an ancient M2 that needs a service 😉 The Leica 75mm Summarit-M is so wonderful (and small) that it may stay behind along with my 35mm f1.2 Voigtlander. But this is the point… I can shoot all of these on the Sony cameras with an adaptor. The M2 that was given to me and which started it all will have to stay as well. Adaptors will allow me to shoot with the old glass and enjoy the old school look if I need it. The rest will go: three film bodies, one MM and about eight lenses (including Zeiss ZM).
Regrets? One: film. The Sony FE system hasn’t got a film body and I would rather have this capability inside the same system, but when did I last shoot film? It was the just before I bought the Monochrom actually…
Leica equipment retains value like little else. Seeing as I bought most of my equipment used (or several price hikes ago), I can release quite a bit of equity from selling Leica kit. It is very much more difficult to do this with Sony, Canon or others which lose value more precipitously. Does this mean that the Sony and Zeiss lenses I buy will lose lots of value? Yup. But I don’t care, because I do not buy camera equipment as an investment. The Sony system is only going to get stronger and more ‘useful’. It is also vastly more affordable when you need something. As you will know, I am very fussy about wide angle lenses, because they’re my bread and butter. On the Mamiya 7 it was the 50mm and 65mm (24 and 32mm equivalent, roughly) lenses that were glued on. With my M, it was the 24mm, 28mm and 35mm, with 21mm once in a while.
Lets look at a few lens price comparisons:
Leica 28mm f2 Summicron ASPH – £2900
Leica 24mm Summilux ASPH – £5170
Canon 24mm f1.4 L II – £1100
Zeiss Batis (FE) 25mm f2 – £980
How good are the FE Mount FE wide-angle prime? What does that £980 for a Zeiss Batis 25mm mean? Well, based on the one I have beside me right now, it’s as good as I will ever need. It is sharp, draws nicely (in a modern way), has phenomenal cross frame performance at wide apertures, it focuses quickly and it seems well made. It’s significantly lighter than my 24mm Summilux ASPH, it costs a fraction of the price and, with the high ISO of Sony bodies (and IBIS on Mk II bodies), f2 is just fine for my needs. Had Leica made a 24mm Summicron I would almost certainly have bought that instead of the Summilux. I also don’t need an accessory finder to shoot the Batis either. With 35mm tending to be my body cap, 24/25mm gets a lot of use. I enjoyed the 0.58 viewfinder magnification on the film M Leicas because you could use the entire viewfinder as a rough guide to 24mm so never needed an accessory finder. With the digital bodies all being 0.68, you cannot use this workaround. As I say, the ‘all in one’ solution of the A7 + 25mm Batis is better. The 24mm Summilux asph is still one of the finest lenses ever made IMHO, because it blends a less aggressive, more organic look at wider apertures with excellent corner to corner performance at middle apertures. But this comes at one heck of a price and, once again, I am not sure I can justify having such a lens tie up that sort of money.
Does the Batis have the character of the 24mm Summilux APSH? No (but it is sharper across the frame at f2 than the Summilux is). Can I live with this balance of attributes for 20% of the price? Oh, yes. The size is good, it is much lighter and smaller than my Canon 24mm L and, well, its a wonderful Goldilocks lens. It feels just right. FWIW, its rendering is not as clinical as I thought it might be. It is ‘clean’ in the same way as Zeiss ZM lenses are, or modern Leica ASPH optics…
I feel that the release of the 18mm Batis has really rounded out the wide end. The Batis lenses are extremely good value when their performance is conisdered and a much better overall value proposition than the Leica M equipment they will be replacing (assuming they are reliable in the long run). The only meaningful advantage the Leica M lenses have left (for my uses) is compactness and I can live with a compromise that gives me AF and saves a ton of money. Certainly the Zeiss lenses are giving up nothing I can really see in terms of sheer imaging performance. Besides, Voigtlander and Zeiss may well release more Heliar and Loxia, all of which are certainly compact.
What about bodies?
Leica M240 – £4200
Sony A7R II – £2499
Sony A7 II – £1179
I’m not going to go into pros and cons here, but its easy to see that a two body Sony system (one of each) is £500 cheaper than a single Type 240 Leica. It is £4700 cheaper than a two Leica system. The other way of looking at it is the £4200 it would cost to add a Leica M240 (or £4800 for a M246), versus the money I get back by leaving Leica altogether and buying Zeiss and Sony FE lenses to cover any gaps. The difference is six digits.
Let’s stick with ‘au revoir’, because who knows what the future will bring? I’m excited to see what the eventual new Leica (M 240 replacement) will look like and I am thrilled that the company is releasing products like the Q and the simplified Type 262. None of this is a snub to Leica, because the M system has done for me what nothing else could seem to manage over the years and it remains unique and wonderful to use. My conclusion is not a product of Sony ‘fanboyism’ either, but a cool-headed recognition of my needs next to current offerings. But while we are being reasonable and rational, it is fair to say that were it not for the Sony’s expansion of the FE system its Zeiss’s new wide angles this would not be happening – so credit where credit is due.
I am just focused on the here and now, with a bit of ‘future plans’ thrown in. I’m excited about all the photographs and experiences I haven’t yet seen and the memories that are yet to be made. After Iceland and the last few years in Afghanistan, I know my Sony equipment will do all I need it to. Any failures or poor performance will of course be down to me. However, I may just sell my least used Leica gear first in case I change my mind 😉