This is a good question, in light of the rapid development of mirrorless cameras and the incredible advancements in technology that have given rise to cameras like the Sony A7R, A7R II, Olympus OM-D E-M5 II and others in recent times. Amazing technical performance is becoming less and less expensive, with cameras like the Ricoh GR showing how much performance can be delivered in a compact $600 package. So, why is it that the Leica M retains such a following and why am I bothering to write this? Well, its primarily aimed at those who have limited experience of the very expensive Leica M system and who have probably dismissed the concept out of hand…
Lets start with perceptions: Leica is a polarising word: for some it means ‘luxury’, while for others it is synonymous with ‘rich git with more money than sense and who is personally responsible for world poverty by oppressing the struggling masses’. A slight exaggeration, but you get the idea…. On top of this, Leica has an illustrious heritage, including production of some of the most game-changing 35mm portable cameras and the natural consequence of that: some of the most iconic images of the 20th century have been produced with said cameras. Detractors assert that current users are inhaling the vapours of former glories, while devotees are likely to reply with ‘there is still no other camera like a Leica M’. Considering the huge cost of digital Leicas, are there any sensible reasons to engage in a system that is so incredibly expensive, where in the case of the soon to be replaced Leica M Type 240, there are competitors that have left it well behind with regard to sensor resolution, Dynamic Range, high ISO, Live View and weight?
So where does the truth lie? I know that you know that there is no definitive answer to such a silly question, but I can at least outline my personal thoughts on the Leica M system as a practical proposition amidst a growing ocean of mirrorless cameras. I do think Leica Ms are perhaps less compelling than in the past, but they are far from on the extinction list. In fact I’ll venture that they may even outlast DSLRs…
Illustrating this article are images from my ‘Russians and Royals’ and ‘Afghan Heroin: Not For Export’ projects that were shot on Leica M film cameras from 2008 to 2010. These are digital snaps of prints so some may appear a bit fuzzier than they should. Here’s a review of the Mk I M9-based Monochrom (including images).
So what’s my Leica story?
I began with film Ms and still own several bodies and a good range of lenses, all of which got well-used in Afghanistan from 2006 to 2010. I subsequently bought a Leica Monochrom (M9M), as this was the only camera able to lure me away from film for B&W digital and there can be no higher accolade than that. However, with all the recent camera developments, I would be lying if I said that I had not thought of selling up: Sensor corrosion (permanent solution en route). Expensive repairs. Rangefinder calibration. Lens-Body calibration…. and the list of potential snags goes on further still, not to mention the large amount of money tied up in glass particularly.
But I haven’t sold up (though I may thin out my lenses to pay for the 645Z) and there are solid reasons why not, despite my best efforts to strong arm myself into doing so! My reasons are shared by many, but constantly under attack by those who would like to think us brand-crazed snobs who have no idea of the ‘advantages’ of other camera systems. But the critics are invariably focusing on measurable, technical parameters, as if they solely govern such decisions and lead directly to better photography. Were they to, nobody would ever have bought a Holga and I would never have shot this project.
So, after much waffle, here is my list of what is special about the Leica M and why I still love mine.
Rangefinder: These cameras utilise a rangefinder design, which means that the viewing window is independent of the lens. By not looking through the lens at open aperture (as tends to be the case with most other types of camera), everything is sharp. There are no fuzzy backgrounds. There are no people behind the subject whom you cannot see, but who may impact the final image. You see everything that is there and you see the relationships between those elements. Although may people love the tremendous performance of M-mount lenses at wider apertures, I would argue that most of the best images throughout history, that have been shot on a Leica M, have been shot at middling apertures to render most elements in the scene either sharp, or at least similarly (almost) sharp. By seeing everything clearly in the viewfinder, you are already half way there – you can spot in an instant how the ‘bigger picture’ has changed and fire the shutter and the right moment. With a SLR, you might not even notice, because you see the scene with the lens at its widest aperture and this can force your eye to concentrate on whatever is crisp in the viewfinder. On top of this M cameras have frame lines, which in many cases you can see outside of, allowing the photographer to better understand how elements will enter and interact within the frame. This all aids anticipation and good timing.
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