Thursday, July 9, 2015

So You Want to buy a Leica: A Beginner's Guide to the M240

Leica M240, 35mm Summilux and Ona Berlin messenger bag

One does not simply walk into a Leica store.

Unless you are a person of means, buying a Leica M camera is usually not an easy decision. There are many reasons to own one; some of them aren't particularly good or beneficial to your wallet. If you can get past the shortcomings, then you can arrive at a place where you no longer need to justify having one; you simply enjoy it. Yes, that means a Leica M is an indulgence. The extravagance isn't that the camera is merely expensive, it's that it is expensive in an impractical way. Nobody needs a Rolex, but that doesn't stop many from appreciating them. A Ferrari is obviously under-used when it is crawling through city traffic, but that won't stop people from turning their heads when one goes by. The same applies to Leica cameras: everybody has their indulgence and if you are photographer, this might be yours.

Leica Summilux 35mm f/1.4 on M240

Why Leica Succeeds Where Hasselblad Struggles 

To understand why Leica succeeds as a luxury brand whereas a company like Hasselblad does not, it is helpful to look at the concept of luxury as one or more of three things:

  • Conspicuous Consumption
  • Conspicuous Precision
  • Conspicuous History

In city terms, Las Vegas is a city of conspicuous consumption. Zurich is a city of conspicuous precision, and Paris is a city of conspicuous history. The Leica M embodies all three aspects. It's ostensibly expensive, the optics are impressively precise, and the company maintains an evident connection to its past. All that could have been be true for Hasselblad, but the reason why the Lunar and Stellar cameras fail is because they are only about conspicuous consumption. They're based on old technology, and thus do not command attention to conspicuous precision. Lastly, try as the company did, there was simply no way to connect these cameras to its history. The Omega Speedmaster was the watch that was worn on the moon and will always be, but Hasselblad has not maintained the brand of the 500 series in the way that the M rangefinders have endured. Just as many watches are homages to the same classic designs... the Omega Seamaster, the Rolex Day Date, the Cartier tank... one only has to look to Fujifilm to see that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Of course, if you move up in price point to the Hasselblad's H-series medium format cameras, the price is significantly higher than what you would pay for Leica, even the Leica S series. That in itself does not a luxury brand make. The average person will not know what a H5D-50c is when they see it; when you tell them how much it costs, they will be impressed, but that is all. Show them a Leica M, and they will be captivated.

In the Footsteps of the M9

There's a hardcore contingent of Leica users that maintains that the M9 generation was the greatest of them all, and that the M240, being a CMOS camera, does not have the (arguable) superior CCD "look".

Forget all that.

While it is true that the M240 colour profile is different and less film-like, many, many things about the M240 are better. At base ISO, there is a pleasing look to M9/ME images, but image noise intrudes as you go up the ISO scale. Side-by-side, M9 images are grittier than M240 images and have less leeway durign post-processing. Where the M240 is simply better is in practical use. The battery lasts longer.... a lot longer. The frameline selection is electronic and automatic. There's live view to aid with ultra-precise focusing. Live view also helps for lenses that require focusing goggles. The LCD screen has a higher resolution. To top it all off, the M9 is quite simply slow by modern standards.

Focusing with the Rangefinder Mechanism

The core of the Leica M experience is the range-finder focus mechanism, "M" being the  abbreviation for the word "Messsucher" which is German for "rangefinder". There's a conceit that the Leica aesthetic is about pure minimalism: hardly anything gets in the way between you and the image if only that were true. Leica's marketing would have you believe that automatic focus and automatic exposure control are "hindrances" whereas the simplicity of a manual range finder is user friendly. Anybody who thinks that Leica is all about simplicity and easy of use clearly hasn't used one. The simple matter of fact is that "simple" is quickly raising your camera, composing and letting the autofocus and autoexposure sort out the details. No, what the rangefinder is about is the ephemeral concept of "purity". You don't take a picture with an M camera... you create it.

Which isn't to say that the M system is an all-manual affair; that's a popular misconception. Focusing is manual, but the exposure system allows for aperture-priority exposure control; naturally, the converse is not possible for shutter-priority control because the camera does not have a mechanical connection to the aperture control on the lens. Things get easier as there is auto-ISO; if you combine this with aperture-priority shooting the mental work-load is not considerably greater than using a modern DSLR.

However reality meets expectation when you start using the rangefinder. It does take some getting used to with the double-image focusing method, and truth be told, many Leica M users are at an age when it's a bit of a strain to see what is going on in the range-finder patch.

There's a misconception that you can't take pictures of fast moving subjects with manual focus camera. That isn't true; while you can't do tracking focus, you most certainty can pre-focus and anticipate the subject entering your intended zone of focus. This is where the ability to see what's outside the frame line comes into play. Rather than react to what's happening at the point of focus, you instead plan and anticipate for your shot.

Anticipation and calmness are the key. First time users of M lenses tend to spin the focus ring too quickly, overshooting their focus mark. With experience, you have a greater sense of what is going on with the focus and tend to use smaller and more efficient finger movements. Practical considerations abound for the rangefinder though. The actual rangefinder patch is small and takes up a tiny portion of the viewfinder. This will be a bother for some, but there are accessory magnifying eyepieces, which a useful if you don't use the wider angle lenses. The widest frame line is 24mm; anything wider than this requires accessory goggles on the lens or the use of the live view feature. The mechanism of the rangefinder needs maintenance to give accurate results as well.

M240 baseplate and battery/memory card chamber.

Using Leica Lenses on a Sony A7r / A7r Mark II

Leica Summilux 50mm f/1.4 on Sony A7 Mark II

On paper, pairing Leica lenses with a Sony A7r might sound like the best of all worlds. You have benefit of the Leica glass on a more fully featured camera body. However, there are some caveats. The first is that the focus peaking feature on the Sony A7 cameras isn't perfect. If you set the tolerance towards the user-friendly end of things, the focus peaking algorithm tends to to highlight more than it should. If you tighten the tolerance the camera's definition of what is in focus becomes stricter, but what you see may or may not be what is actually in focus. A good many people will prefer using the electronic EVF method, as it is direct and comfortably familiar to how they've been using a camera. However, the pure optical viewfinder does away with the electronic lag that you can get in lower light. In crude terms, the electronic viewfinder makes you feel more in touch with what the camera is doing, whereas the optical rangefinder makes you feel as though you are more in touch with the actual photographic subject. At the heart of it, the optical rangefinder on the Leica is not perfect, but it is a different experience than using the electronic EVF. The EVF has many advantageous, but it doesn't have the immediate connection that a purely optical device has.

The second caveat has to do with the performance of Leica lenses when they are adapted to other cameras. The M mount is unique in how close to the sensor plane the rear element of the lenses sit. This is a legacy of the film era; it allows for the extremely small design of the M-mount lenses but in the digital era it means that there are issues of corner sharpness and vignetting. Modern Leica lenses are coded to overcome these issues... by software, mind you, so its not a truly "pure" optical quality that you are getting.

The extreme rearward projection of M lenses makes for two issues when adapted with the Sony A7 cameras. The first is again, corner sharpness and vignetting. The A7r has offset microlenses to deal with this; in practical terms it does better than the regular A7 and A7 Mark II with lenses that are 24mm or wider... but the sharpness is still not as good as what you would get on a native M camera body. There is a further issue with the thickness of the sensor cover glass. it is fairly thin in the Leica, and thicker in the Sony cameras. What this means is that the Leica sensor better allows for the steep angle of the corner light rays exiting a M-lens than the Sony sensor. All told, using the same wide-angle lens, the results will be sharper on an A7r or A7r Mark II than on an A7 or A7 Mark II, but the sharpest results corner to corner will still be if the lens is used natively on an M body.

Which Lens to Start With?

Because of the significant cost of a M240 body, many Leica owners are budget-limited for lens choice during their initial phase of ownership. If it comes down to having just one lens to own, it usually comes down to either 35mm or 50mm, as these are the most versatile lenses for most situations. Though 35mm is the "classic" Leica focal length, most will start off with a 50mm. The difference comes down to your style of shooting and budget. The 35mm lenses (Summicron and Summilux) are more expensive than their 50mm counterparts and erquire a different mindset when shooting, as you will typically stand closer to your subjet than with the 50mm. if you are shy, this might be a downside, but being closer to the subject is also what gives 35mm more "personality" than a 50mm lens.

The second major choice is between the f/2 Summicron lenses or the f/1.4 Summilux lenses. Both are superb and can be used wide-open with immunity, but the Summilux lenses are sharper and produce more striking bokeh.

The third decision to make is whether or not to get silver or black lens. Simply put, the silver chome body (silver top, black grip) looks good with both silver and black lenses, but the black body only does well with black lenses. There is nothing wrong with using a silver lens on a black body, but most will find that its a peculiar aesthetic choice.

Concluding Thoughts

It's not as if Leica does not know how to make a "modern" camera either. Witness the Leica Q; not only is it thoroughly modern, it is also exceptionally well executed. There are many cameras that are technically better than the M240, but the M system is still the best combination of sharp and small. The Q has better autofocus (okay, it was autofocus....period) but the M is the platform for the greater world of Leica's remarkably sharp lenses. That said, even if the image quality is there the camera truly isn't suited for "modern" client-oriented professional work. Client and institutional demands are now simply too high for the average working pro to invest in a camera that requires you to take time and evaluate every single step. If you need to shootr for other people, then the obvious best choices are a Nikon D810, Canon 5D S R, Sony A7r Mark II or anything else of that ilk.

Rather, the Leica M is a camera that is relentlessly personally-focused. It's a camera for the act of taking pictures for yourself. What Leica seems to understand better than other camera companies is that people don't just buy cameras for the simple act of taking pictures. Think of Apple; if you only see it as an electronics company, you would be missing the point. Apple isn't just about selling iPhone; its about selling the empowerment that comes with it. In the same vein, Leica isn't just a camera company. The cameras are the product, but what is being sold is the empowerment of personal expression.

With thanks to the Leica Boutique at Broadway Camera

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