What’s So Special About the Leica M System?

A thoughtful article on the Leica M system, reprinted from thephotofundamentalist.com

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). 

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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 camera averse, 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 aspherical? 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).

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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 initial 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.