I became a fully paid up member of the rarified club of Leica ownership in May this year. As with any exclusive club, the entry fee is enormous and not justifiable by any normal rational processes, other than for the super-rich. I wanted to find out what all the fuss and awe is all about, and so, after hours of reading blogs by Leica lovers and looking at photographs taken by Leica photographers, I visited London dealer Richard Caplan. As soon as I held an M9, and was shown how to focus using the rangefinder, I was hooked. This felt different from any photography I had ever done before. Two hours later – after some successful haggling – I walked out with a good deal on a used, but mint, Leica M9 and a new Leica 35mm Summicron f/2. Perhaps in another post, I will explain my thinking for opting for a 35mm, rather than a 50mm.
Was it/is it worth it? In a word, YES.
A Leica M camera has some serious limitations. It is, for example, close to useless for any sports event where fast, accurate focusing and rapid continuous shooting is essential. It also does not compare favourably to high end DSLRs in low light, at higher ISOs.
But, for the kind of shooting I do most of – street photography, family portraits, architecture, some landscape – it is as close to perfection as one could wish for. Once focus is mastered, its ease of use and simplicity makes it a joy to use. It feels in the hand small (compared to any DSLR), but sturdy and minimalist, stripping back photography to the bare bones, allowing the user to concentrate on taking the shot, as opposed to concentrating on the technology. One of several particular pleasures is that the clear viewfinder allows the photographer to compose the frame in a wider context, by seeing what lies outside, as well as inside, the intended frame. For street photography, the camera is discreet because of its size and its uniquely quiet shutter. The M9 is also, almost miraculously, a full frame sensor digital camera, providing all the convenience of digital with truly sensational image quality. (Until the arrival of the Sony A7 and A7R in 2013, no other manufacturer had managed to build a digital camera with a full frame sensor.)
Using a Leica M is not essential for taking beautiful, high quality images. In my view, the image quality has a special Leica rendering which cannot be achieved with other cameras, but of course full frame DSLRs like the Nikon D800 are capable of producing files of stunning image quality. The real reason why Leica fans come to love their cameras with a religious zeal is nothing to do with image quality, but with the way the camera feels to use – the quality of build, the shutter, the viewfinder, the overall aesthetic. These together create the Leica Magic.
Be warned. Once hooked, it is not possible to wriggle free. I have since added a 50mm and 21mm to the lens collection (both Zeiss, at a fraction of the cost of the Leica lenses) and, as my interest in film photography has grown, it was only a matter of time before I got a Leica film camera – an M2 and a classic collapsible 50mm Elmar f/2.8.