Buying into the Leica family of bodies and lenses is no small decision… I had been mulling this over for the past three years. I’m writing this article for those of you simply interested in why someone would switch to Leica from the likes of Nikon, Fuji, and Canon and for those of you who are considering a similar switch. It’s no secret that there are many DSLR and mirror-less bodies that are more capable than Leica’s best offerings, for a fraction of the cost, but I believe that there can still be an argument made for owning a Leica as a professional body.
Important Note: I still use the Nikon D810 along with the Leica M262 for professional work. I’m a huge proponent of using whichever tool is right for the job. With that said, I rarely if ever take the D810 out when shooting personal projects.
After shooting the Leica M262 for a couple of months I made the tough decision to retire the X100T and my venerable Nikon Df (Perhaps I’ll buy the second generation Df if Nikon sees fit to release one). Retiring the X100T was an easy decision as Fuji generally releases a new X100 version almost yearly which I’d be happy to buy as a casual or professional beater tool. Retiring the Nikon Df was/is much more difficult… So much so that retiring it has meant simply taking the lens off of it and setting it on my bookshelf until I can convince myself I should sell it.
There are 3 main reasons I prefer a Leica*; image size, manual rangefinder, and camera design. The Sony A7RII was a runner-up but eventually lost out because of its terrible menu system and if I’m being completely honest, its one of the ugliest cameras I’ve ever used (similar to its clone, the Leica SL). If you’re thinking “the way a camera looks shouldn’t determine whether you use it if it’s the right tool” then keep reading. Also, If I did not earn money from photography I would not have multiple bodies, perhaps then I would have settled on something more versatile like the Sony or kept the Nikon Df as my primary body.
*Like any camera the Leica M262 isn’t perfect… At the end of this article I’ll touch on some of the shortcomings of the camera and whether or not I believe they will be long-term deal breakers.
Clients are trending towards wanting larger and larger prints… I’m not talking about 36 inches, I’m talking about blowing images up north of 7 or 8 feet. Though possible with a 16MP camera like the X100T or Nikon Df because of the incredible software out there, it’s not ideal. The Leica’s 24MP sensor is the smallest I would want to use in the off-chance a client wants a large image like that printed.
Here is a print that was created with the Leica and the Nikon D810. The layer with the bridge and the tall building in the background was taken on the Leica M262. This was commissioned and now hangs in the historic Union Trust Building in downtown Pittsburgh, it measures eight feet by eight feet. For more samples of recently commissioned work in the Union Trust Building check out my portfolio at the top of the page.
With photography, especially street photography, the photographs you take may not be repeatable so it’s important to attempt to future proof your body of work. I feel like the Leica allows me to future proof my work better than the X100T or Nikon Df do.
The Leica is my camera of choice, whether I’m on assignment or not you’ll likely find one with me. I’m always trying to capture the best image I’ve ever captured and if I do, I want to be able to market it to potential clients without the caveat that it can only be printed as an 8″ by 10″ (think iPhone images).
I said it when I reviewed the Leica M-E, I said it when I initially reviewed the Leica M262, and I’ll say it again… There is absolutely nothing in photography as satisfying as dialing in your focus manually with a Leica rangefinder. Nothing. Photographers like to think of themselves as painters of light, well I consider manually focusing a rangefinder as close to making an actual brush stroke in photography as you can get without actually painting on your subjects face.
Wondering how long it takes to master a rangefinder? Check out this article.
Other than the high cost of a Leica and it’s lenses, the number one deterrent to photographers interested in Leica is their fear of using manual focus. The reason is primarily because the manual focus systems built into our current generation Canon and Nikon cameras (what they’ve experienced so far) is complete garbage (my vision is better than 20/15 and I still think focusing the Nikon D810 is too time consuming for anything other than macro work). Sure, they work fine… If you’ve got an extra few minutes to nail focus or don’t mind guesstimating ranges for zone or hyperfocal distance focusing.* The Leica M rangefinders are incredibly easy to focus using the split focus screen in the viewfinder.
*Some legacy lenses and very few current lenses do have distance scales on them making manual focusing on DSLR bodies slightly better but still terrible compared to a rangefinder system.
The ease of manually focusing a Leica aside, the lenses have all of the markings necessary to take advantage of zone focusing quickly and easily. Using zone focusing makes your camera faster than any auto focus camera out there. Make no mistake, zone focusing a manual lens (or any lens in manual mode) is far faster than any auto focus technology and works regardless of the light or contrast a subject/scene has.
Walking around with a Leica is a double-edged sword… No, you can’t use it to fight cosplay battles with your Warcraft friends, not that kind of sword. It’s an expression that means that walking around with a Leica is both good and bad in a way. While attracting camera aficionados who will look longingly at your camera it also attracts unwanted attention from potential criminals who know exactly what you’ve got hanging off your neck… Their next payday. This is why you’ll likely see a photographer with black tape over the tiny red Leica dot on their rangefinder.
I was moving around, I was fast and fancy, so I could take a picture and move to another moment before they became aware of me. I knew when to stop so they wouldn’t react to the camera.
– Bruce Davidson
The occasional head-turning aside, the design of the Leica is beneficial in that the camera doesn’t intimidate subjects. This is especially helpful in street photography where a strangers guard is naturally up. In fact, I’d rather not look like a professional photographer when I’m shooting on the street. I want to blend in the best I can in the hopes people will act as if they aren’t about to be photographed. It’s amazing how someone on the street changes their behavior or expression once they know they are on camera.
An incredible photographer for Magnum, Bruce Davidson, once said of photographing the clash in Birmingham “I was moving around, I was fast and fancy, so I could take a picture and move to another moment before they became aware of me. I knew when to stop so they wouldn’t react to the camera.” I too, like to be invisible with my camera when I’m creating street photographs. The relatively small size of the Leica is ideal for this type of maneuvering. Again, there are smaller cameras out there that are wonderful (think Fuji X100T) but I desire the larger sensor/resolution of the Leica in order to future proof my work.
The menu system is incredibly easy to understand and navigate with a Leica. When I first started PhotolisticLife I used to review many more cameras and I had adopted a test I used to relay back to readers about the ease of use of a camera… I would take the camera out of the box, leave the direction at home, and hit the trail or sidewalk and make adjustments on the fly. The point of the test was simple, if I (someone who has used many different cameras from different manufacturers) could figure out the menu without having to resort to looking up this or that then the camera was fairly intuitive. If, on the other hand, I was unable to find something simple like switching how I used focus points when using Live View (I’m talking to you Sony) then the camera was docked points. The Leica is by far the easiest camera I’ve every used and gets major points for simplifying the menu system.
That’s not to say there couldn’t be improvements… Coming from a Nikon, Fuji, or Canon pro body you’ll miss some of the speed of the programmed buttons you’ve customized on your body. All I can say is the Leica isn’t meant to replace these bodies for the professionals out there. I really believe the Leica fills a great, perhaps essential, place in a professionals stable of assets.
Should Your Camera Be Aesthetically Pleasing?
I’m a proponent of buying whichever camera will motivate you to pick it up and take it with you. For lots of people, myself included, a camera I like the look of, and enjoy carrying, is the one I’m most likely to take with me on a daily basis. I’m not talking about simply picking it up to go out and shoot, I’m talking about taking it everywhere with you. To the grocery store, the gym, to work, out to eat, etc….
An interesting looking camera can break the ice with potential subjects as well. Recently I was working on a project in Boston and wanted to photograph vendors at an open air market. As I was working, one of the vendors motioned me to come over and we struck up a conversation based on his knowledge of the Leica I was using and his background in photography (he went to school for photography). I got to know about his business, take as many shots as I wanted, and made a new contact… All because he noticed the camera. I’m certainly not saying this couldn’t be done with an entry-level DSLR or point and shoot camera but this is a recurring theme with the Leica. I’ve never had anyone pull me aside to have a conversation about cameras or photography when I was photographing with my iPhone or the D810 (the Nikon Df would catch the occasional subjects attention).
On the flip side, I was at an opening where my art was being unveiled recently and a professional photographer who was documenting the event took a look at my Leica and said “are you a hobbyist?” So there’s that. If you remember from my comments in the section above, I’d prefer not to look like a pro and simply blend in to work inconspicuously… Goal accomplished.
There is no such thing as a perfect camera… However, there are cameras that will be perfect for you. For me, the Nikon Df was perfect while the lack of video recording capabilities was a deal breaker for others. Is the Leica one of these cameras? Simply put, no. The Leica M262 (and M240 or any other current M as of July of 2016) seems more like a bridge between the past and what could be the future of Leica. The sensor is still not what I would consider great (or even competitive) in regards to dynamic range and high ISO quality, perhaps I was just spoiled by the incredible capabilities of the Nikon Df. The shutter mechanism stumbles if you hit it too quickly after waking it up or simply trip it up coming off of continuous shooting.* The frame rate when using continuous shooting is laughable.
*A workaround for the shutter issue, where it sounds like it half triggers producing a black frame, is to not use auto sleep and giving the camera a second to recover after using continuous shooting mode.
The M262 solidifies Leica’s reputation as a camera that a photographer wants but never needs. It’s capable, when one understands and embraces the shortcomings, to produce professional quality images. With that being said, there are many less expensive and more rugged mirror-less and DSLR bodies out there but none of them are true rangefinders (of the digital nature).
The Leica is a very capable camera. There are more capable and less expensive alternatives out there if you’re simply looking for a tool to get the job done. None of those options looks or feels like a Leica though and that’s saying something. I would certainly recommend renting a Leica before making the large financial investment into a body and lenses. If you’re a working photographer I would suggest the Leica as a great second body or backup but not as a primary body.
Please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section below… Unless they are negative, you can keep those. If you’d like more samples of my work with the Leica M262 scroll to the bottom of this page to find my Instagram feed, each Leica image is tagged as #Leica.