In episode #2 of All About the Gear, Frederick Van Johnson and I discuss the Leica Mystique. I spent more than a week shooting with an M9 and an M (typ 240) plus a collection of lenses.
Most of what I learned is in the video, but here are my notes in case they’re helpful.
The Leica Mystique
Ultimately, it’s really all about the lenses. Other than the least expensive ones (which are still very expensive for us mere mortals) they’re gorgeous. Probably the best lenses you can buy. As far as the bodies, would you like to build your next home with nothing but gold-plated hand tools? Then a Leica could be the camera for you.
The M9 body was released in September 2009 and was (I think) the first full-frame mirrorless digital camera, an honor it held for three years. Feature wise, the M9 is very unimpressive by today’s standards. The design is retro/minimalist. Focus is manual only. Aperture is manual only. (No shutter-priority mode.) There’s no built-in electronic viewfinder (EVF), just a rangefinder. And the rangefinder doesn’t even have a diopter adjustment. (External diopter lenses are available.) The rangefinder covers a maximum angle-of-view that matches a 28mm lens. If you want to shoot wider than 28mm, you need to stick an external rangefinder into the hot shoe.
When new, the M9 body was priced at US$7,995. You can buy one used these days for about US$4,500. The M9-P model was released in 2012 with not much more than cosmetic differences. The rear LCD glass is improved and they removed all brand markings (“M9” and the Leica red dot) from the front of the camera.
So why do Leica fans love them and how is it they can produce such gorgeous images? Yes, when paired with high-quality Leica glass, the images really are gorgeous. But in fact, at least some of the Leica mystique is the hype. The Leica brand has been compared to Rolex or Ferrari. The quality is there, but is it really all it’s made out to be? At the end of the day, does a Rolex keep time more accurately than an old Timex?
It turns out that it’s not all hype. There is a difference in the Leica “look” and it took me some time to really get to the bottom of it all.
If you read the analysis of the M9 on sites like DXOMark.com you’ll see that the camera’s sensor (18.5MP CCD made by Kodak) is consistently rated quite low. For example, see how it compares to other full-frame cameras such as Nikon’s least-expensive D600 or even the original Canon 5D (not even the MkII or MkIII). Subjectively, I can tell you that the Leica M9 looks a whole lot better than these comparisons would suggest. So much so that it has shaken my faith in these quantitative sites like DXOMark.com. I used to pretty much count on them for helping me compare sensors, but not after this experience.
How does such a poorly rated sensor deliver such terrific results? First of all, the bodies (sensors and processors) are tuned to the Leica lenses. There’s a six-bit code on the rear of each Leica M-mount lens that tells the processor which lens it is. I couldn’t find any details about exactly what the processors are doing, but they’re definitely doing something. One way to tell is to use the Leica lenses on non-Leica bodies. There’s no doubt about it: the resulting images are more impressive with the Leica bodies. We tend to think that RAW files are literally just the bits that come off the sensors but that’s not true. All of our cameras have processors that tweak those bits, correcting color, contrast, vignetting and dynamic range. Pairing a Leica lens with a Leica body allows the engineers to create a very unique look to the combination.
One area in which the ratings don’t lie is in high-ISO performance. Above ISO 800 the M9’s noise is so severe that it wipes out the advantage of the sharp Leica lenses. If you want to shoot in low light, plan on using expensive fast lenses and shoot wide open. And do everything you can to keep the ISO as low as possible (160 or 200).
The M8, Leica’s first digital camera, had an APS-C (cropped) sensor, and was one of the first (if not the first) digital cameras to omit the anti-aliasing filter in front of the sensor. The full-frame M9 also has no AA filter. On most cameras you can’t see much differences in the images with or without an AA filter, although it does reduce moiré patterns on relatively rare occasions. But in the case of the better Leica lenses, they’re so damn sharp, that the AA filter really would make a difference.
Yeah, the good ones are really sharp and contrasty. When you look at them 1:1 (full-sized) in Lightroom, etc., the sharpness jumps out at you. If you’ve captured a vertical or horizontal line squarely, it’s just that — a line. None of the soft two or three pixels you typically see with lesser lenses.
By now you’re probably getting the idea (correctly) that Leica marches to the beat of a somewhat different drummer. To confirm this, you just need to look at the lens lineup. First of all, they’re all primes. No zooms. And none of this autofocus or image-stabilization stuff. These are no-frills serious lenses with real aperture rings and depth-of-field markings. Like your grandfather’s lenses. They also have strange names like Summilux and Elmar. What’s that all about? Turns out that all the lenses in a given family are of a similar design and have the same widest aperture. Here’s the cheat sheet for most of the current M-mount lenses:
- Elmarit-M f/2.8 (28mm)
- Summarit-M: f/2.5 (35mm, 50mm, 75mm, 90mm)
- Summicron-M: f/2 (28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 75mm, 90mm)
- Summilux-M: f/1.4 (21mm, 24mm, 35mm, 50mm)
- Noctilux-M: f/0.95 (50mm)
Oh, and what do they cost, you ask? Here are the lenses I used for my tests:
- 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit-M ($2,195) Gorgeously sharp and tiny.
- 50mm f/2.5 Summarit-M ($1,650) Just a so-so lens as compared to others.
- 50mm f/1.4 ASPH Summilux-M ($3,995) Wow!
- 50mm f/0.95 ASPH Noctilux-M ($10,995) Okay, I didn’t get to test this huge baby, but I hear it’s amazing, as it should be for that price!
One thing about these lenses, at least those that I tested: they don’t focus very close. The 28mm Elmarit-M won’t focus any closer than 0.7 meter. The 50mm Summilux only goes to 0.8 meter. Definitely not for closeup/macro work.
The M9’s controls are basic and effective. The LCD’s menus have just one level: no nesting of functions. Out-of-the-box, there’s no control for exposure compensation, but you can assign that function to a dial via a setup change. The rear LCD is only 230,000 pixels and has no LiveView. It’s just there for the menus and playback.
The shutter is fast (1/4000 second) and inherently quiet, but you’ll be shocked the first time you take a picture. The click of the shutter is followed by a whir that will make you think there’s a motor drive winding film. I almost laughed out loud. I think the sound you hear is a small motor cocking the shutter, but there’s no mistaking that the engineers who designed this thing went out of their way to emulate the sound of a motorized film camera.
The same attitude is clear when you go to replace the battery or SD memory card. You have to remove a metal plate that covers the bottom of the camera. You’re led to think there’s a 35mm film canister under there. Silly. I’m sure some of the Leica fans think it’s cool, but it’s entirely unnecessary
Surprisingly, the camera is very slow. I tried to use it for handheld HDR shots, but it took three seconds to shoot three bracketed exposures. It appears that writes to the SD card might be the culprit. In any case, one frame per second is so far below par by today’s standards as to be unacceptable for some situations.
The camera’s native RAW format is Adobe DNG. This is a nice timesaver for those of us who would otherwise have to convert to DNG during imports to Lightroom, etc. As far as JPEGs, don’t waste your time. Since high image quality is the point of a camera like this, and because you’re not going to come home with too many images, why not preserve all the dynamic range and color that you can? Stick with RAW.
Unlike a rangefinder, the modern single-lens reflex (SLR) camera is like a Rube Goldberg machine or a helicopter — a bunch of spare parts flying in close formation. You press the shutter button, the camera quickly autofocuses, the mirror(s) are slammed up out of the way, the lens iris that was held wide open for viewing and focusing is crunched down to the desired f-stop, the shutter opens, then the entire sequence is run in reverse. It’s no wonder they’re so large and heavy.
But before the (D)SLR we had the rangefinder, which managed to capture perfectly good images with only the very last of those steps. You focus first (typically manually), then press the button, which opens the shutter. It’s simple and reliable. You don’t need lenses with motors or with irises that can stop down in few milliseconds, and you certainly don’t need those mirrors. A rangefinder is generally brighter than an SLR’s viewfinder and it doesn’t go dark while you take a picture. But rangefinders have three disadvantages: (1) they don’t precisely show the boundaries of the frame; (2) they suffer from parallax, particularly as the subject gets closer; and (3) if you change focal lengths, something has to be done to adjust the displayed field of view.
The Leica M9 shows the full frame (without parallax correction) of a 28mm lens. To see the field-of-view for wider lenses, you have to pop an optical viewfinder into the hot shoe. For longer lenses, the rangefinder superimposes an outline of the image area. To correct for parallax, this outline shifts position based on the focus distance set on the lens. (The lenses have mechanical levers that link to the rangefinder.) You can also override the focal-length setting to have the rangefinder show you the field-of-view you’d get using different lenses.
Also in the rangefinder view is a central split-image area for manual focusing. As you bring your subject into focus, the top and bottom views align in the rangefinder. This works great for bold vertical lines, but it’s useless in two cases: (1) If you only have horizontal lines (eg, a horizon) you have to turn the camera sideways to focus. (2) If you have any repeating pattern (eg, architecture) you go crazy trying to figure out which of the pattern lines to align. I’m sure I could get better with practice, but I found it almost impossible to focus on these repeating patterns or on complex textures such as foliage or fabrics. Focusing the M9 is easier than manually focusing an SLR that doesn’t have some sort of focusing screen installed, but it’s much more difficult than using LiveView or an electronic viewfinder with focus peaking. (See the Leica M240 details below.)
Regardless of your focusing dexterity, a rangefinder definitely makes photography a more deliberate process. Unless you’re shooting subjects that move quickly (eg, sports and kids) I find this to be a good thing. Using the M9 I certainly came home with fewer images than I would have using a DSLR or mirrorless/EVF camera, but they were more carefully considered and composed. I guess one could say that shooting with an M9 is such a pain that each image is more precious.
The Universal M Mount
One thing you don’t read or hear much about is the universality of Leica’s M mount. The lenses are designed to be a fairly long distance from the sensor — farther than on other mirrorless camera systems such as Sony’s NEX (E-mount) Fuji’s X-mount or the Panasonic/Olympus micro four-thirds (MFT) mount. Because of this, you can attach M-mount lenses to these other bodies using simple and inexpensive adaptors. And these are passive adaptors; they have no glass. That means there’s nothing to interfere with or reduce the optical quality of the lenses.
This opens up a world of possibilities. For example, using a US$16 adaptor, I used the Leica lenses on my Sony NEX-6 and -7. The results were terrific. Okay, I gave up the fine-tuning of the sensor/lens combination you get with the Leica’s own bodies, but in return I gained all the advantages of my Sony bodies. In particular, I got the NEX electronic viewfinders and their excellent focus peaking. Remember, the Leica lenses are strictly manual focus and aperture anyway, so I didn’t give up anything there. Oh, and my NEX-6 costs well under US$1,000 as opposed to at least $4,500 for a used Leica M9.
I see two ways to take advantage of this phenomenon:
- If you think you might want to eventually go all-Leica but are starting on a budget, invest in the Leica glass, but start with a Sony or Fujifilm body for now. For the same expenditure you can get two or three additional Leica lenses.
- If you want and can afford a Leica body, consider a Sony or Fuji for a backup.
Also note that Leica is making lenses under the Panasonic brand for MFT cameras. For example, as I write this review I’m testing a Panasonic GX7 with a Leica DG Summilux 25mm ASPH f/1.4 (US$529). That’s the full-frame field-of-view equivalent of the 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-M, which costs US$3,999. Stay tuned for that review in episode #7 of All About the Gear.
M (Typ 240)
The latest Leica M, introduced in September 2012, is named the “Typ 240”, generally called “M 240” or simply “M” because that’s the only marking on the front of the camera. It’s quite an improvement over the M9-P, but it retains the same Leica stoicism. The differences include:
- Price: It’s down to “only” $7,000.
- Leica switched from a, 18.5MP CCD sensor to a 24MP CMOS one. Some say the CCD was richer. Others claim the CMOS is more saturated. It’s certainly rated much higher by DXOMark.com. Most noticeable is improved high-ISO performance. I’d say they gained about 1.5 stops or so from my own observations.
- The M240 shoots up to 4fps.
- The shutter is much quieter than the M9’s.
- The body is now considered “splashproof”. Not quite sure how “proof” that is.
- The rangefinder shows the same crop lines as the M9. They’re brighter, but they only appear when the camera is powered on.
- There’s no manual frameline selector lever, so you can’t preview the field-of-view for alternative lenses like you can on the M9.
- Optional EVF. Good and bad on this one. The optional EVF2 electronic viewfinder (US$499) fits into the hot shoe. It does the job, but it’s not great. It doesn’t automatically switch from the rear LCD when you press your eye to the EVF like most other cameras do. And the image is quite small in the EVF. You can save yourself at least US$300 by buying a used Olympus VF-2, which is literally identical to the Leica one. They’re on eBay for between US$180-US$200. Some die-hard Leica fans have adapted to focusing using the rangefinder and composing in the EVF.
- The M240 has LiveView on the rear LCD and in the EVF. Hallelujah! And you can zoom in using the rear dial.
- And here’s what turns the M240 into a really usable camera, at least for me. The LCD and EVF have focus peaking for manual focus. You can’t change the color of the peaking from white, but it’s still great to have. At this point, I don’t think I’d buy a camera without it.
- There’s an exposure-compensation dial on the rear, thank goodness!, but the compensation value doesn’t appear on the rear screen, only in the viewfinder. At least that’s what my notes say.
- The M240 shoots video, but who are you kidding? This isn’t a legitimate video camera for all sorts of reasons. The rolling shutter problem is pretty bad.
- The auto white balance seems (subjectively) better to me than on the M9, which isn’t particularly good. The metering is supposedly improved, but it’s still not as good as the best point-and-shoot cameras out there. It was pretty easy to fool the metering. Yes, this is a full-manual camera.
To rip off a well-know phrase, the lenses are willing but the body is weak. The M-series Leica lenses are nearly all terrific when it comes to image quality, but you really pay for that quality. They look best when used on Leica bodies (particularly the M240), but those bodies are only for wealthy masochists, IMHO. (I can hear the hate mail already!)
If you want to “go Leica” I suggest you start collecting their great glass, but shoot with a much less-expensive body like a Sony NEX-7 or the NEX full-frame, which was not announced as of this review. The lenses will hold their value and they don’t wear out. You can always upgrade (?) to a real Leica body when you’re feeling rich.
You, too, will experience the Leica Mystique.