Leica is not like other brands. Most manufacturers boast about the sophistication of their technology and the latest features that help you take pictures with greater proficiency. Bragging rights come from more autofocus points, the number of frames per second, the sophistication of the in-camera processing. Not Leica. Here the emphasis is on simplicity and tradition and this is perfectly expressed through their flagship model, the Leica M.
It is without doubt that Leica is a luxury brand. A quick search will tell you that anything that sports that famous red dot will command a hefty price tag. Compare specs with products from other brands and you would be forgiven for thinking that opting for a Leica would be bit mad. This is particularly true of their flagship ‘M’ models.
Leica M : Origins
The Leica M first appeared in the 1950s, with the famous and at the time game changing M3. Beloved of photojournalists and art photographers, M cameras have been associated with an impressive array of now famous names such as Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Elliot Erwitt, Mary Ellen Mark, William Eggleston, Inge Morath, Lee Friedlander… the list goes on. But is this just nostalgia? These photographers worked in film, and their careers peaked decades ago. Today we have digital cameras, bristling with electronics and sophisticated automation that makes taking pictures so much easier, so much quicker. The current line up of Leica M models shows little of these developments, and in truth with the exception of substituting film based capture with an electronic sensor, the M has hardly changed in its 50+ year history. Why then in this day and age would anyone spend such exorbitant amounts of money on dated design? The M is manual focus, it offers only manual or aperture priority exposure, the viewfinder is approximate and there is no communication between the lens and the body, rendering aperture exif data as guesswork. Jpeg image processing is also more limited that you might expect to find in a DSLR or another manufacturer’s mirrorless system camera, and as for the likes of built in flash, HDMI output or touchscreen menus? Fat chance! Unless you purchase the additional grip, there isn’t even a USB port!
Mies van der Rohe – “Less is More”
For the Leica M then, less is very definitely more. You could argue that the M is a relic, a ‘retro’ white elephant that has slowly transformed into a luxury status symbol, more about being seen with than seeing with. It is in some ways analogous to that equally famous German icon the Porsche 911, a car that although undergoing continuous development has stuck to its original design concept with the engine hanging over the back axle. Nobody but Porsche think that this is a good place to put it.
Leica Philosophy in Black and White
In 2012, Leica introduced a new M model, the ‘Monochrom’. This is a camera that only shoots in black and white, there is no bayer colour filter. And for the privilege of this lack of versatility? Thats right, its more expensive. Just like that special edition Porsche, the one without the radio, or the carpets. But things are not quite as simple as they may first appear, not so black and white. The Monochrome is loved by its users, and I do mean loved. The fact that is is dedicated to monochrome photography is seen as an advantage, not a limitation. The lack of Bayer filter allows every pixels to record directly resulting in an extraordinary level of definition and detail, and I am told quite astonishing high ISO performance. This camera also allows the use of monochrome filters (orange, red, green, etc.) in the same way as traditional film to control tone and relative contrast. Yes, you are limited to black and white, you can’t shoot colour… but rather than dismissing this as ‘limited’ we could say that the M Monochrom is ‘focused’. It doesn’t do everything, but what is does do, it does exceptionally well.
Why Leica M?
So, having spent the first part of this article seemingly ‘dissing’ the Leica M, here comes the counter argument. I suggest that the strength of the ‘M’ is in its minimalism. The fact that it lacks sophistication and automation is not its failing, it is its strength. Shooting with an M is not like shooting with any other digital camera. Shooting with an M is like shooting with a film camera.
Taking a photograph is a simple procedure, least ways it should be. Choose an appropriate ISO, set your shutter speed, your aperture, focus and frame… press at the right moment – simple. The M reduces the camera to a simple device. A shutter speed dial on top, aperture ring on the lens, direct mechanical focusing and a bright viewfinder. What Leica understands, which most other manufacturers seemingly do not is that this is what we want. Simple, precise and direct controls that allow us as photographers to forget about the camera and engage with the subject, with the image. Who cares is you haven’t accurately recorded the aperture in the exif data? Who cares if it was f6.3 or f8. Once you have learnt the basics of photographic technique, you should know what aperture you used, its the one you deliberately chose when you took the shot.
Then there are the lenses – Leica M lenses are spectacular. Super-sharp even/especially wide open and extraordinarily well constructed with silky smooth focus and crisp, positive aperture setting. For some, Leica’s optics are reason enough to choose this brand.
Even Less is Even More!
Recently Leica introduced a new model to the M line, the MD (type 242). This camera takes Leica’s philosophy to the extreme, as even the screen has been dispensed with. There are no menus, not digital settings as such, simple a shutter speed dial on top, and an ISO setting (aperture is set on the lens as with all M models). The camera only shoots in DNG. So what we are left with is the full electronic incarnation of the old M film camera. You set your exposure, focus using the rangefinder, through the viewfinder, frame and shoot. Only when you return to the studio (‘darkroom’) and download (‘process and contact’) can you review the results. Those who do not subscribe to Leica’s ethos will no doubt find this to be ridiculous.
I must confess that for me the Type 242 may be a step to far. Whilst I can accept that the monochrome indeed offers more for less (for more cash), I am struggling to find what real advantage this new camera will have over a conventional M240. Perhaps with this product Leica have finally made the ultimate luxury camera. But not all of their products are quite so ‘mad’.
A few of weeks ago I had the opportunity to try out another of Leica’s new(ish) products, the Q. On the face of it this might appear to be an equally ludicrous purchase, it is after all a fixed lens compact camera costing as much as a high end DSLR. But hear me out. This is a full frame camera with ‘M like’ build quality and a similar 24 megapixel 24x36mm sensor. It also comes with a proper Leica 28mm ‘Sumilux’ lens. Compare it to other brands it is expensive, compare it to an M, it might be a bit of a bargain.
So here then are some of my observations from my brief encounter with the Leica Q. Firstly the Q is not an M. It is considerably lighter, has an electronic viewfinder and it is autofocus. That said, the Q feels like an M in many ways. The viewfinder is positioned as an M, is of excellent quality, high resolution and very responsive. I did not notice any appreciable lag. The lens has the look and feel of an M lens, albeit slightly bigger. The aperture ring, positioned towards the front just like an M lens, is solid and positive, and there is the familiar ‘tab’ for manual focus. Incidentally, when using manual the focusing feels smooth and well dampened with real stops at the extremes, just like an M lens. As an experienced M user I found that with virtually no instruction I was able to shoot freely and accurately with this camera and within a few minutes I felt completely in tune with it. I quickly got into the zone almost entirely forgetting that I was supposed to be trialling a new camera, it felt that familiar.
Returning to the store (eventually), I discussed the Q at length and I did identify one or two points that I think are worth noting. Firstly it is touchscreen. Now perhaps this would be seen as a positive in some quarters, but not for me. As I have commented elsewhere (and on more than one occasion) I like my cameras to behave. I set them up, and they do what I tell them. With a touch screen camera it is all to easy to accidentally activate a menu or alter a setting. I have never felt the need for a touchscreen. This facility can be disabled to a degree on the Q (although not entirely I am lead to believe). That said, the fact that I didn’t realise that the camera was touch screen until some time into my shoot suggests that this feature is not intrusive on this camera.
Is the Q the new M?
As the Q is a compact, not an M, the sensor is live. As you bring the camera to your eye the camera switches automatically from screen to electronic viewfinder, but whilst I was able to switch off auto review (something that I do with all my digital cameras) I did not manage to disable the screen from ‘live’ view. This I found a concern as when shooting ‘street’, arguably the Q’s natural environment, taking the camera away from your eye will light your face up. That said, it may be possible to switch the screen off, but I didn’t manage to find that option in the menus.
As with all digital Leicas, the Q records image files in both jpeg and DNG formats. However, the choice is either jpeg or DNG+jpg. DNG only is not an option. I only shoot raw. Perhaps, like the screen issue this is something that Leica could fix in a firmware update.
Limitations of the Leica Q
A major talking point around the Q is Leica’s decision to choose 28mm as the focal length for the fixed lens. Many, myself included, might have preferred 35mm. The Q addresses this by using ‘crop’ modes, to represent 35mm and 50mm focal lengths. Essentially this is digital zooming. I tried it, it works… and it even gives you the frame lines in the viewfinder that are very ‘M’ like. The jpegs are recorded as per selected lens simulation, but the DNGs are recorded fully. On import into Lightroom, DNGs shot in crop modes are ‘pre-cropped’, a visit to the develop module will allow the full 28mm, 24 megapixel file to be restored. So, a nice idea, it kind of works and the optics are definitely up to it, but I suspect that if you find 28 to be too wide in the majority of cases, the loss of resolution to achieve the desired angle of view is less than ideal. There has been speculation as whether Leica might introduce a 35mm version of the Q, but some how I doubt this.
Finally, I feel I should also point out that being a live sensor camera, with an electronic viewfinder, battery life is no where near as good as with the M. So if this camera is on your radar, budget for additional batteries.
Leica M or Leica Q
The M is not perfect, not by a long shot. Manual focusing with a rangefinder is more challenging than autofocus, at least at first. Whilst some maintain that with practice it is possible to focus with a rangefinder as quick if not quicker than using autofocus, the M is not a great choice for fast moving subjects such as sport, wildlife or motorsport. The M is also limited by its close focusing, or more accurately its lack of. Most M lenses will only focus down to about half a meter. Here the Q scores over the M. The autofocus is accurate and lightning fast, and there is an excellent macro mode.
All things being equal, the Q is a phenomenal camera, one which I definitely covert. Is it better than the M? The short answer is no. It lacks the versatility of an interchangeable lens camera, and for prolonged shooting I suspect the battery life might frustrate the M user. But the brilliance of the design of the Q is that it feels ‘M’ like. Put down the M and pic up the Q and there is virtually no adjustment required on the part of the user. Is the Q a better option than a second M body? Well, that’s a much harder question.