The lenses are Optically Spectacular. I am not going to labour this, because there is nothing more to say. They are stunning, but its not the reason why I continue to own Leica M equipment. After all, before lenses get to do their job, we have to have carried the camera to the point of exposure, composed the image and timed the shutter’s release. This is what Leica Ms do so well for street, documentary and reportage that rely so heavily on ‘complete scenes’ where timing and spacial sensitivity need to be so crucially aligned. What I enjoy most about the optics is not that they are so good, but the fact that you can happily stop concerning yourself with optical factors. I know Leica shooters can be some of the most obsessive nuance-splitting lunatics in the cameraverse, but the truth is they’re only doing this because they can. They’re doing it because everything is already so good that the usual topics simply aren’t feasible.
Ironically, Leica’s older and less perfect lenses may be their strongest suit. How many other camera bodies can you plonk an uncoated 1930s lens on and shoot it alongside a modern super sharp aspeherical? Now, before you say ‘Sony FE!’, remember that lenses wider than 50mm rarely play nicely on the A7 or A7R, so its not as simple as that. Besides, no matter what anyone says, native lenses are normally the most seamless and enjoyable user experience and having access to so many wonderful Leica lenses, where the distance scales won’t lie and the rangefinder can still be used to the full, well, its wonderful (but a Sony A7 will probably give your 50mm Noctilux f1.0 a new lease of life).
Refuse The Technology Arms Race: If you’re already considering an M, you probably know enough about cameras to know it is technically not the best camera on Earth. You know that Sony sensors have more dynamic range and that Sony, Canon and Nikon now all produce cameras with more resolution in their A7R, A7RII and 5DS and D800/810 models. This in itself can be a hugely powerful force for the betterment of your photography, by forcing a person to concentrate more on how a great photo is made, rather than the sensor and gizmo trickery that made it. It helps remove the owner from the ‘arms race’ on the day of purchase and therefore not to chase the next best thing. This would be typical defensive language and hard to justify were we talking about a camera that had direct competitors, but it exists alongside the uniqueness of what the Leica M is.
Heritage: The Double edged Sword: A great criticism is that Leica M lovers are ‘high on nostalgia’ and ‘stuck in the past’. Certainly the latter can be an obstacle to interesting new work, but the former is hardly a problem. That connection reminds every Leica user that mortal men and women made some of the most recognisable images in history on similar cameras. Instead of looking over one’s shoulder at the next person who has more megapixels, a person looking into the past and being reminded of how little technology the masters had at their disposal is more likely to be humbled and empowered. It’s a sage reminder of the contribution we need to make to that next photograph and how the camera facilitates our work, rather than makes it. After all, I doubt 2015’s finest 35mm Kodak Tri-X can resolve more than a 6MP camera on a good day….
The Ownership Prospect: Leica M cameras are hugely expensive, but used lenses tend to appreciate rather than depreciate in value. Yes they are expensive to buy, but there are so many used ones around that one can see that intial investment as money tied up for a while in a useable form and certainly not lost. They contain no electronics, so don’t tend to go wrong. A clean every decade or two at the cost of $80 or so is about all that may be required. Bodies lose money, sure, but there seems to be much less of an urge to change and upgrade them (for me at least) at the sort of frequency one sees elsewhere. Its funny how someone still using their D700 for serious work is regarded as a bit ‘left behind’ by their peers, but the person using a ten year old M8 gets barely a second thought from Leica users. There is a different culture borne of a different philosophy that is a product of a different relationship between the camera, the owner and the photograph. Now that Leica has a few full-frame models under their belts, used bodies can be acquired for not entirely unreasonable sums. Yes, they will be behind the curve technologically speaking, compared to what can be bought today for the same money, but if that is your first thought then a Leica M is unlikely to be anywhere on your shopping list in the first place.
At the end of the day, the Leica M is not for everyone, but no other manufacturer has managed to assimilate and aggregate the qualities I have listed above sufficiently to lure Leica M devotees away. I’m not stuck on the brand for the sake of it and would be gone in a flash if another manufacturer could give me the same qualities in a much less expensive package. To date no other manufacturer has succeeded.
Leica themselves are probably the greatest threat to the M system, with the new Leica Q and the rumoured interchangeable version some expect to be released in 12-18 months. The Q offers wonderful manual focus options for zone focusing, along with the benefits of super quick AF and mirrorless features, all wrapped up in a tactile Leica package. But it doesn’t have a big clear glass window to look through and it is clearly an ‘electronics heavy’ tool.
No, it looks like the Leica M will remain here for some time. Not everyone wants to look at a computer screen inside their viewfinder, no matter how crisp and fast the refresh is. The fact that the Leica M does not superimpose anything on reality, or filter the viewers experience in any meaningful way will likely keep the platform alive for a long time to come. No matter what other technology is possible with other camera lines in the near future, one won’t be able to escape the fact that its only ever the end result that counts. Here, the Leica M has been delivering stunning images for 60 years and don’t see that changing any time soon.
P.S. You make enjoy reading my interview with Jonathan van Smit, whose photographic style is well-supported by the features I have described above.