Traditional Manual Focus Lens Designs. While this may sound like a disadvantage, for certain applications it is a huge benefit for others. It makes it easy to leave the lens focused at a useful distance and leave depth of field to take care of the rest. In combination with the point above, you now have a camera where everything is clear through the viewfinder, where you feel connected beautifully to what is actually going on, which you can fire at whim knowing precisely where you are focused. You do not have to worry about autofocus deciding to grab the wrong subject. You do not have to even think about recomposition (assuming the subject falls within the depth of field afforded by the aperture). You can just shoot the instant elements ‘align’ within your beautiful clear window. While this can be achieved easily with any manual focus lens, many modern DLSRs lack decent screens for focusing manual lenses and many mirrorless cameras lack lenses that can quickly be set to a given distance. Many lack distance scales on the lenses altogether, or as so skewed towards AF usage that they are all but useless for manual focus (and feel nasty in the process). Oddly, the only camera I feel possibly outdoes the Leica M in this regard is a compact, the Ricoh GR, because it combines normal AF usage with a snap focus option, where the camera will fire at a pre-designated focus distance with one swift full press of the shutter button. This allows you the best of both worlds, albeit via a non-manual interface.
One can also now ponder the importance of perfect sharpness. Many famous ‘Leica M’ photos are not famous because everything is sharp. They are famous because something magical – a moment – was caught perfectly. Now you know how the rangefinder design can contribute to this.
Simplicity, Intuitiveness and Connectedness: This area is where Leica Ms score off the charts, IMO: they are very simple cameras – even the digital ones. They may lack features found on some other (cheaper) cameras, but this simplicity prevents distraction. It simplifies what you can do and places greater emphasis on the photographer, which in turn helps the photographer to build a level of concentration that helps in entering ‘the zone’ – that place where intense focus and concentration gives rise to intuition and a sense of connectedness. You are connected to your own thoughts and to your subject (which you can see clearly for reasons described above). Of course, other cameras do not prevent this, but it is my opinion that simple cameras make it easier. There are fewer buttons, lights, beeps, options, menus and everything else. You spend less time as camera operator and this can only benefit the creative process. Camera operation becomes intuitive and there just aren’t any demands made of the user to force you out of ‘the zone’. When you think how few features and settings are actually required for strong street, documentary and reportage imagery, it all starts to make sense. After all, the Leica M is not typical studio fashion photographer workhorse material and nobody is claiming it is.
Learning Curve: Once you are used to using a rangefinder, there is nothing to learn. Sure, having use of aperture, shutter speed, focal length and depth of field down to a tee is important in my view, but once you have that sorted, there is almost nothing else to think about. Less thinking, fewer options to ponder, fewer menus to get lost in = more creativity. I will also say that I think Leica has been pretty clever about how they simplify their menus on the digital models. A Type 246 Monochrom is not much different to a M8.2 or M4, which means that from one generation to the next, there is so very little to learn.
It’s a Machine: It is a hunk of metal, mostly. It feels good to hold. Most users say they enjoy using them immensely. If you enjoy using them, you will use them and that means more photographs get taken. More fun is had. It’s a good thing all round. This seems to be something that the anti-Leica brigade fixate upon: people who enjoy using Leicas become ‘fondlers’ and, while it is true that there are many shiny camera loving collectors out there, only good things stem from feeling motivated to get your hands on your camera (the same could be said of most things, including your partner in life!)… but there is another aspect to it: Leica Ms, even digital ones, feel like like an interaction with an electronic gizmo than many other cameras. In a world where everything has buttons, screens, apps and less manual interface than ever before, this can feel remarkably important. If you work on a computer all day and own a Leica, you may know what I mean. Even if your images end up on a computer, there is some respite in between.
The Whole Package: When you add all of this up, whether it is 24MP or 30MP, or has 13.5 or 14.1 stops of DR becomes fairly trivial. What we can say is that Leica has managed to incorporate a sensor into their current M240 that is head and shoulders above the one gracing the EOS 5D III – Canon’s flagship. Leica’s sensors are certainly not at the top, but they are not far enough from the top to matter a bunch in light of the other benefits the overall camera package possesses for certain applications.
This leads me to application: Criticism of the Leica M naturally leads to comparison, but a lot of the time the M is compared to cameras that are completely and utterly different. It becomes an apples to oranges comparison and with any item, we rarely get the best of everything available in the market in one camera. Being a Leica means probably not having Sony or Canon level resources available and this shows in the firmware glitches, lock ups etc, not to mention the comparative performance of the sensor. But a camera is a lot more than a sensor. It is a tool that, with a lens attached, allows light to be shone on that sensor.
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