My Leica M-E Review for street photography

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View from Untersberg, Austria, August 2013

Is the Leica M system the absolute best for street photography? Many street photographers swear by the M, especially the film ones, and I have been dreaming of getting my own digital M for a long time.

I have been a big supporter of the micro-four-thirds (MFT) format for most of my photographic life and the format has served me well. The main benefits for me was a small and lightweight system providing good image quality. Some of the lenses are first class. Four years later, after attending a couple of workshops conducted by Magnum photographers Nikos Economopoulos and Martin Parr, my photography has evolved significantly. I no longer worry about exposure or the right aperture. I now know when to trust my camera to make its own decision and when to override it. Each camera has its own quirks and signature.

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The outsider in pink, Tamilnadu, India 2013

The biggest issue for me with the MFT system cameras is the time taken to wake up from sleep and nail a shot. Even when it is awake, the time taken to focus and shoot is a wee bit too long. Most of the time it is not an issue, especially with the joyful Olympus OMD-EM5, which is really a complete camera in many ways, except when you want to wake it from sleep to shoot a fleeting moment. The other major hiccup is when shooting mobile objects. As I keep hunting for those fleeting moments, sometimes from inside a moving car, I started missing shots and sometimes don’t even bother to shoot knowing very well the shot is too fast for the camera.

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Anything goes on the road, Tamilnadu, India, 2013

One of the big strengths of the MFT format is the ability to use almost any lens with an adapter. I started experimenting with a lot of manual focus lenses. The Zeiss and the Leicas ultimately stood out producing absolutely sharp images with a kind of dramatic presence that was absent in other lenses.

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Nostalgia, Vienna, August 2013

During one of the Magnum workshops I learned Nikos’ technique to handle instantaneous shooting. He shoots at F/8 during the day time with his 35mm lens set to focus from 2.5 meters to infinity using hyperfocal distance. In fact Nikos has his lens’ focus ring taped at this setting so that it doesn’t change by accident. He does it on his Leica M9. I guess he should have upgraded to the new Leica M Type-240 by now.

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Waiting for pal to finish his job, Tamilnadu, India, 2013

My first introduction to Leica was through a National Geographic advert in my schooldays. I still remember the ad showing a hummingbird hovering over a flower, sparkling in all its multicolored glory. The ad proclaimed the silent shutter of the Leica (M6 I guess) that made it possible to shoot the picture without disturbing the bird. In fact, Leica is the only camera brand I remember from my childhood apart from Yashica. I have seen a few Yashicas in India but never a Leica! I have only read about them.

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I have catalogued all my shots from the past 5 years and most of them fall around the 50mm focal length. With every system I choose, the 40-50mm is the width that gives me most confidence. I like to be close to the action but not too close. After using the zooms that are bundled with the camera, I invariably mount the Panasonic 20/1.7 or the Panasonic Leica 25/1.4 for serious shooting.

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Daido from a distance!, Prague, August 2013

The 50mm angle of view also gives me the comfort to shoot quickly using the eye to frame. It is easy to make an assessment if a scene would fit within the frame. If it is too wide and if I do not have the luxury of backing up, I just enjoy the scene and walk away, knowing I have missed a great shot. I have learned that I can’t shoot everything that I see.

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Street Portrait, Salzburg, Austria, 2013

I made the lens moves for a M-system in the form of the classic Elmar 50/2.8 and the Zeiss Biogon 35/2 and have been waiting to get my hands on a full-frame Leica. I have been using these lenses on my MFT system with an adapter and they were churning out well-liked images. Jay (my wife) was wiling to buy me a Leica M and unfortunately (for me and fortunately for her) the Leicas were in extreme short supply. It is rumored that there is a 1-year waiting list for the M Type-240. The cameras have been out of stock for a good part of 6 months now.

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Looking away, Tamilnadu, August 2013

When we made arrangements for our summer holidays to Vienna, Budapest, Prague, Munich, and Salzburg, all extremely photogenic cities, I was making web searches for photographic stores in those cities. Unlike the American stores (online) from where I usually shop, two of the stores had the Leica M-E and also the M Type-240 in stock. Analyzing the financial as well as the CCD-CMOS options, I settled for the M-E. Luckily, Digital Store in Vienna had two cameras in stock by the time I arrived. Ever since, I have been shotting with my M-E non-stop.

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Jay, Salzburg, August 2013

I also added the Zeiss Planar 50/2 to my collection of lenses. It is a great all-rounder with all the desirable qualities. I weighed it against the Summicron Apo, which is completely out of my wallet’s range for many foreseeable years, and decided to go for it. I have been enjoying every single moment I use this lens with the camera. Now I shoot nothing but this lens. I sometimes use the Elmar for its classic swirly bokeh that adds a bit of magic to portraits.

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Japonaise, Salzburg, August, 2013

For my style of street photography I wanted a camera system with the following characteristics:

  • great image quality at ISO 800
  • sharp and fast lenses, especially at 35-50mm range
  • super-fast operation, especially after a period of idleness
  • Long battery life

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Bad choices make good stories, Salzburg, August 2013

The above image is a great example. All of my MFT cameras would have delivered the image in terms of quality. In fact, the quality of the lens and the noise performance is extremely unimportant for this image. It is all about swift action. In terms of swiftness I would have missed the shot with other systems. By the time I read the message on the t-shirt and realized the potential of an image, the subject was just about to vanish out of sight. The Leica does a great job getting these reflex shots like no other camera I have owned. The quality of the lens and everything else is an added bonus. Jay didn’t even notice that I took a shot as she was looking at the train timetable.

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Another example of a shot before the girl smiled!

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Olympic Park Tower, Munich, August 2013

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That one moment before the closing of the doors, Munich, Summer 2013

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Get away you little devil. Don’t block the door!, Munich, Summer 2013

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The little big mohican!, Prague, Summer 2013

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Boo!, Prague, Summer, 2013

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Too tired or she is not that into you, Prague, Summer 2013

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Can’t escape gravity, Prague, Summer 2013

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Little Princess, Prague, Summer 2013

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Reflections, Prague, Summer 2013

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Little Princess – II, Vienna, Summer 2013

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All grown up (my daughter Nivya), Summer 2013

I have been shooting with the Leica M-E for just under a month and my current thoughts are as follows:

  • Do not muck around with a Leica if you are still learning the basics of photography. The Leica needs a lot of discipline and once mastered it will reward with gorgeous images.
  • Build quality, fit, finish etc. is all better than any other camera. It is quite heavy for its size and is not for single handed use. Every other camera feels a little hollow after holding a Leica, but they are well made too!
  • Some of the electronics can be seen if you peep in the gap in front of the viewfinder. I guess mine is not some misalignment as focusing seems to be perfect.
  • The user interface is pretty straight forward. One niggle if you don’t read the manual is that you have to set ISO in two places if you are planning to use Auto ISO and set a limit. Thankfully Leica’s default options are just about perfect.
  • The LCD is prone to get scratched. Get a good HD-quality screen protector. Leica would do good to ship the camera with a protector.
  • If you wear glasses, stick to 50mm. You can’t see the 35mm frame-lines unless you remove your glasses.
  • The Zeiss Planar 50/2 is a bit wider than the 50mm frame-lines. You get more than you aimed for and so you may have to crop a little bit after shooting.
  • The LCD has lesser dynamic range and so shows the shadows too dark. When you transfer the images to the computer, the shadows look all right. It takes some time to understand this and stop compensating for underexposed shadows.
  • The shot is taken way before you think the shutter activated!

All in all, the Leica is a wonderful camera and I bought it with a leap of faith. Even in Qatar, the country with the largest per capita GDP in the world, there is no official retailer carrying the Leica brand and so I had no opportunity to try it before I handled it in Vienna. I was able to adapt to the system quickly and the pictures have been fabulous.

For street photography, it is absolutely the best camera where lightning reflex action, inconspicuous presence, gorgeous image quality, and a long battery life are all mandatory. Many other cameras deliver many of these features, but none of them deliver all. I am looking forward to many years of happy memories.

My long-term review of the Leica M-E with the gorgeous Summilux 50/1.4 can be found here.

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6 thoughts on “My Leica M-E Review for street photography

  1. Dear Mo Han
    All shots are great and speaks volumes about ur potential in photography, besides in medical fields.

    mansoor

    1. Hi Chetan,
      Thanks. I am happy you like the portrait. I made a short visit to India after I came from Munich. The post has some images from that visit too.

      M

  2. Congratulations on both your ME and your very understanding wife supporting such a purchase. As an M9 (same thing) and M Monochrom (less is more) user, I totally understand.

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