Is there any camera better known by photographers than the Leica M? I would say most likely not. It’s a true classic in every way and for a reason. So many world famous photographers have used it and many still do. I’m not a world famous photographer, but let me tell you how I ended up getting my first Leica M and falling in love with it.
Maybe the reputation was one reason why I in first place got interested in a Leica M. It happened after I moved into the city center of Helsinki. I didn’t need a car as much any more and I started carrying a camera during my walks in the city. It was a small Leica D-Lux (109), fitting nicely into my coat pocket. As I wrote in my earlier blog, I’ve always preferred a portable camera so that it is easy to have with you, and Leica D-Lux is one.
During the autumn 2014 I got more and more inspired with the street photography, but started to feel that the camera was not perfect for my needs. The viewfinder was small for the details especially in low light and I’ve always preferred using the viewfinder instead of the back display. If you have lived in the Scandinavia, you would know that there is not much light in the autumn and winter. The noise levels, while shooting handheld with a relatively small sensor, started to feel like a limitation more and more. And it wasn’t weather sealed so I was worried using it when it was wet, like it many times is in Finland. I still enjoyed shooting, but the camera just didn’t feel quite fit for the job.
So I started wondering what would be an ideal street camera? At the end of 2014 I also decided to start to shoot professionally so I was looking for more than just a street camera. I thought that for the street photography it should be a compact camera, with big aperture lens for low light, low noise/high ISO, weather sealed, robust, full frame sensor if possible… Being an engineer I naturally studied all possible available cameras. I also tried to find out which cameras other street photographers were using and preferring. Some used Sony RX1, some Leica M, some Fuji etc. and naturally there where many using various Canon and Nikon models.
The first thing I opted out was DSLRs simply due to their size. You have no way shooting discreet with them and they are far too heavy to carry long times. This left only few full frame cameras to look into. After a while, Leica M started to look like the best one for many reasons. I liked the possibility to be able to change lenses and that they are optically excellent and still small despite wide aperture. Manual focusing, yes, but I’ve been shooting with manual lenses longer than autofocus lenses so it didn’t bother me. Finally I went and tried one in the shop. It was love at the first touch. It felt solid, but compact enough, the optical viewfinder was clear and all the settings were simple and very intuitive to use. So after some consideration I bought a Leica M240 with a Leica Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 Asph. lens and started to shoot with it. I did keep the small Leica D-Lux too, but it is now used by my daughter as a small holiday camera.
First about the Leica-M lenses. Within few days after getting the M240, I decided to buy a second lens which was a Leica Summilux-M 50 mm f/1.4 Asph.. I soon realised that I started to prefer it much more than the 35mm. I continued carrying the 35mm in my small camera bag or coat pocket, just in case, but I rarely used it. And when I did, I missed the bokeh and the “feel” of the 50 mm Summilux, especially when shot wide open like I most of the time do. I had 35mm shooting periods, but in the end I nearly stopped using it except for specific needs. A year later I changed it to a Leica Summilux-M 35 mm f/1.4 Asph., which I like and use much more. However, I’m still preferring the 50 mm as my number one lens. I can’t explain what it is in the Leica-M lenses, but I love the way they let the light through. Some call it the Leica look, maybe there is one, maybe not, but to me they just feel right.
Third Leica-M lens I got for was a Leica Macro-Elmar-M 90 mm f/4 and a macro adapter. It is an engineering genius mechanically. So small when used on its own, and easy to adjust for macro shots. You can use it with the macroadapter in place, still being very compact for a 90 mm lens. Due to this versatility I had a period of time shooting portraits, macro and also on the streets with it, but again and again I went back to the 50 mm Summilux. I realised that I could shoot most of the shots with the 50 mm. After two years I sold the 90 mm Macro-Elmar and kept the macro-adapter when buying a Leica SL, but that is another story. Naturally I have kept my favourite Leica-M lenses and I love them both; a 35 and 50 mm Summilux. The latter being my preferred lens on the streets, now attached to a Sony A9. I have to say that Sony A9 is in many ways the most advanced camera on the market today, also for a street photographer. It is my preferred camera (in addition to Hasselblad X1D) currently and I shoot most of my assignments and pictures with it. I’ll write more about the Sony A9 another time and continue the Leica M story now.
Now you know that most of my published street shots are taken with the 50 mm Summilux (or 35 mm). You can see them in Twitter, Instagram and 500px (links on the side). Cameras have changed, but these two lenses have stayed.
I’m not a specialised macro photographer and yes, I sold the Macro-Elmar even though I enjoyed using it and the pictures it could give. You can find three example shots with the Leica M240 and 90 mm Macro-Elmar attached. Click them to see them bigger (not full size pictures though).
So how about the Leica M240 as a camera? I can say that it was nearly perfect for my needs. It was easy to take with me, it didn’t mind the weather no matter was it raining or freezing cold in -24°C. I loved the way the pictures looked both in colour and in black & white straight from the camera. I shot RAW with monochrome JPG, like I still do with the Sony A9. Many times I could and did publish the black & white JPGs without any or very little post processing in Lightroom. The bokeh with the 50mm Summilux is beautiful, and with the 35mm Summilux too. The M240 got stuck sometimes, but nothing the battery removal didn’t solve. All Leica M240 users are familiar with this I’m sure. It wasn’t perfect, but I loved the M240 so much that after five months I bought the Leica M246 as a second camera, a monochrome only camera. It’s high ISO capability with low noise and excellent sharpness was perfect especially during the winter months and I loved it as much as the M240. The only drawback I didn’t like in the M246 was its tendency to burn the highlights. I could explain this technically, but Thorsten Overgaard has written all there is about it already so you can check his website. And for the record, M240 doesn’t do it so sharply.
I’ve even had a third Leica M body, Leica M10. After it was published, I thought that the improvements where significant and I swopped my M246 into M10 at the beginning of 2017, without trying it first. The previous summer I had already swopped the M240 and the Macro-Elmar into Leica SL. Leica SL is an excellent camera and it served a bigger variety of my professional photography needs, but now back to M10. After using the M10 for roughly half a year with a five digit number of pictures, I can say that it is a great camera, but so is the M240. M10 is a little bit slimmer than M240 and it has also less noise with higher ISO, but the differences are rather small. The biggest disappointment with the M10 was the EVF. I was expecting it to be much better than the EVF on M240. I was hoping that it would be closer to the viewfinder in SL, but no, it is not even close to it. Unfortunately it is slow and not very sharp. Using it also ads a delay into the shutter reaction time. If you shoot mainly through the optical viewfinder then no problem, but with these mirrorless cameras I’ve learned to see the “final” picture before pressing the shutter. This way I feel being more in control how the picture will come out eventually.
I was happy to be able to shoot with the Leica M10, but I was not fully happy with it maybe because the Leica SL was better in many areas, also for street photography. So when the Sony A9 came out, I wanted to try it for few days and compare it against both the M10 and SL. I was sold immediately. Sony had finally come up with a camera I truly liked and that was the end of my M10 story and also SL story. I’m a very happy Sony A9 user now, using both the Leica-M lenses and the Sony GM lenses on it.
Despite being a satisfied A9 user already for a year now, I still feel strongly about the Leica M. It’s like missing an old love and I’m sure one day, when I have some extra money ;-), I will find a nice one to shoot with. Manual focusing with a camera like Leica M slows down the photography in such a nice way that it becomes nearly a meditative experience. That feeling got me hooked and being in love with photography even deeper and thus I owe it to Leica M! Tens of thousands of pictures taken with the M’s has also been an excellent learning experience. Sometimes less is more and I mean less features in this case.
I’ll add one more picture showing the Leica M10 after a photoshoot in a slushy cold Helsinki. If you have a Leica M, don’t hesitate to take it out and use it, in any weather. I did it and many pictures I personally like I’ve taken in a wet or really cold weather. This is one reason why I loved the M’s.
I could continue telling about the M’s, but l’ll finish writing now. I hope you found my short Leica M love story interesting and possibly even useful for your own camera considerations. I also made two promises today; to write about the Leica SL and especially the Sony A9 so I’ll be back with new blogs. Until then ;-)