After almost a year shooting with a Leica M-E I have moved on from initial impressions to firm beliefs about this system. This review is based on my experience with the Leica M-E and verious lenses for the system, mainly of 50mm and 35mm focal length since that is my preferred focal length.
Buying a camera, for most people, is usually an expensive endeavour. Even the cheapest camera is bought with a lot of deliberation and analysis, balancing benefits against expensees. Buying into an expensive system like a Leica needs a lot of more thought and deliberation. Most photographers know that the purchase usually never stops with a single camera and a lens. Street photography is a very demanding genre, requiring a lot of attention from the photographer as the scene and subjects are in a state of constant flux. This continuous change and the challenge to observe and capture it is one of the enticing aspects of street photography. The photographer is required to be on high alert, constantly scanning and reassessing the scene. A street photographer needs a camera that is lightning quick and simple to operate and also delivers outstanding image quality under challenging light, especially high-contrast situations.
I have been shooting on the streets for the past four years using a range of light-weight cameras, usually micro-4/3 format cameras. I have been a supporter of this format ever since Panasonic introduced the venerable GF1. The most enjoyable cameras for me so far have been the Panasonic GF1 with the excellent 20/1.7 lens and later the Olympus OMD-EM5 with the excellent Panasonic/Leica 25/1.4 lens. The 5-axis image stabilization of the Olympus makes night shooting a breeze as long as the action isn’t too fast. The camera also is a speed demon and locks focus with no problems on the street.
Last year my wife bought me a Leica M-E. I had been planning a Leica rangefinder-based system for quite some time and had been racking up lenses that I also shoot on the micro-4/3 cameras using adapters. I have ultimately ended up with the Zeiss 35/2, 50/2, and the Leica Summilux 50/1.4 lenses. I also have the Leica Elmar-M 50/2.8. My favored shooting range is 50mm and that’s the reason for too many 50mm lenses. My experience also extends to the Fuji X-E1 with the Zeiss Touit 32/1.8 lens, which is my current backup system for the Leica M-E.
Reviewing a range-finder camera is actually reviewing three different-but-connected parts of the system. The first part is the rangefinder, which is a certain way of focusing and framing your subject. The rangefinder is operated manually and if you have not used one beforehand it will be a completely new experience. It is bound to exhilarate or stump you depending on your specific photographic needs. The second part of the system is the digital bits of the camera made up of the sensor that actually captures the image, the LCD to review the image, and the various buttons and menu options of the camera. This should not be any different from other digital cameras, but different manufacturers have different ways of looking at things, especially the layout and intuitiveness of the menu of settings. The third and final part of the system is the lens itself, without which there can be no image.
You are bound to like some parts and dislike others and it is the balance of these three parts that is likely to satisfy or frustrate the user. I have split my long-term review of the system along these parts.
The Leica Rangefinder system
The rangefinder system is a way of focusing a camera using two adjacent views, very much like the human eye. A complete explanation of the process is beyond this review but the simple explanation is as follows: You look through the view-finder and see two things: a) the general field in front of you that will be recorded and b) a small bright patch in the middle where an image from a slightly different angle is superimposed (let us say from the other eye). When you turn the focusing ring on the lens, the subject in the central patch moves to the left or to the right depending on the direction of the turn. When a particular subject from both the views overlap, it is then considered ‘in focus’.
It is important to note that a tubular ring in the lens, called the helicoid, moves in and out of the lens as you turn the focus ring, which pushes a small metal tab in the camera (inside, at the top of the lens mount) that moves/activates the central patch. What you see in the viewfinder is not the same image that gets recorded through the lens. There is a bit of a parallax involved. Depending on how close you are to the subject, the difference between what you see and what is recorded could be significant. For capturing images of people and for street photography, parallax is generally not an issue.
Rangefinder systems differ from camera to camera in certain important aspects. The size or magnification of the image in the viewfinder and the size of the bright line that frames the image that will be captured by the camera is important to consider. I have the Zeiss Ikon film camera which has a contemporary rangefinder mechanism similar to the Leica M-E, which is used as a comparator for this review. There is no right or wrong level of magnification. A 1:1 life-size magnification will be great for users of the 50mm lens but impossible to operate for 35mm and wider lenses. This is a limitation of rangefinder philosophy and not an issue of choice. That’s the reason why Voigtlander has three similar film cameras with different magnifications and frameline selections – everything else being virtually the same. Leica has dealt with this problem using screw-on optional magnifiers that will magnify the image seen through the viewfinder. This is an important accessory to consider depending on the types of images you shoot.
If you wear glasses you would find it difficult to shoot lenses with a focal length of 35mm or wider on the Leica. For 35mm, the default frame is quite large and you won’t get a full view of the frame without moving the eye around. Leica engineers have stuck faithfully with the original lens that made the company famous, the 50mm angle of view. The magnification and frame-line is perfect for 50mm lenses. If 35mm is your optimal lens and you wear glasses, the optional negative-powered magnifier is a must-own piece of addition. Alternately, if you are married to the 50mm lens, the Leica M-E has the perfect rangefinder setup. Luckily for me that is is the case.
In comparison, the Zeiss Ikon has a larger and brighter view with usable 35mm as well as 50mm framelines, even for users who wear glasses. The only issue with the Zeiss is that your eye has to be placed dead center to clearly see the focus patch. Slightly off and you would lose the focus patch. This is a small but critical issue with an otherwise magnificent rangefinder system. For the streets, both are perfectly usable as focusing is done mainly using the zone system.
Another thing to note is that you get a little bit more of the image in the digital capture than in the viewfinder. It gives you some leeway in cropping the image later in post-processing. If you are intent on framing the image perfectly in-camera, you will have to get used to the frame-line lax. Remember that this lax varies between lenses of different manufactures. Each manufacturer has a slightly different angle of view although they all rate the lenses as 50mm. It sounds like a big deal but you get adjusted to this pretty soon. The image being a little larger is actually helpful to avoid missed shots in the street when a leg or a head will go out of the frame quickly. The most important thing is to use a single lens and stick to it. Although lenses can be used interchangeably, the rangefinder philosophy is to use a single lens 90% of the time. Do your research and buy the right lens the first time. Good rangefinder lenses are not cheap! (in fact good lenses are not cheap).
I have tried different focal lengths from 28mm to 90mm on different cameras and almost all of my good pictures are taken within the 40-50mm range. I find the options chosen by Leica perfect for my style of photography. As mentioned early, if your comfort zone is a little wider or longer, you should strongly consider improving usability of the system with the help of an accessory viewfinder magnifier. This should be considered as an essential part of the kit.
The Digital Guts of the Leica M-E
The digital guts of the camera is built around a Kodak CCD sensor churning out 18 megapixel DNG files. If you are new to camera sensor technology, please note that the world is moving on to CMOS sensors that are more energy efficient, provide live view and offer better noise suppression compared to CCD sensors. High ISOs are cleaner using CMOS technology. The Leica M-E CCD sensor doesn’t provide live-view or any video recording capability. If capturing occasional videos are your thing, count this camera out. This is a pure still-photography machine fine-tuned for the 50mm lens.
I own a Panasonic LC1, which is a rangefinder-style digital camera developed in partnership with Leica. It has one of the most amazing 28-70mm lenses I have ever shot with. Incidentally, it also has a CCD sensor. It is one of the best point-and-shoot cameras ever made if you are willing to shoot only ISO 100. Shooting RAW on the LC1 is so slow that manually cranking a film winder to move on to the next shot is way faster. But when you hit the right buttons the camera sings and the CCD churns out amazing images that are well saturated and contrasty. Very little adjustments are required in post-processing. It’s a pity that the camera is only 6 Megapixels. If that camera was just updated to 12 or 16 Megapixels, it would be a big hit.
The Leica M-E files have a similar signature – contrasty, well saturated, plenty of details, and a delight to convert to black and white with little effort. The M-E is the camera that has consistently satisfied me in moving work from shot to print with very little post-processing. Many times I do no post-processing at all other than a little sharpening, depending on the lens. Most of the work is done in cropping the image a little bit to adjust for the viewfinder slack I get.
Many reviewers have complained about the image signature when Leica moved from CCD sensors to CMOS sensors to keep up with the march of technology. I do not own a Leica M-240 to make a direct comparison. Compared to all other of my CMOS-sensor-based cameras, the Leica M-E always delivers better images. The CCD sensor of the Leica delivers amazing details and pleasant light-to-shadow transitions. Always.
High ISOs are not the strength of the M-E. I never push the ISO higher than 1250. With modern mirrorless cameras you can set the maximum ISO to 3200 and forget about ISO adjustments. The M-E struggles in the night. One more stop of ISO flex would have been better, but this has been the Achilles heel of all CCD sensors. What you gain in color saturation and contrast you lose in high ISO ability. You also gain valuable time that you would otherwise spend in front of the computer post-processing. This may look like a trivial issue at the beginning, but over time it helps as you spend more time shooting rather than post-processing.
The LCD on the back of the camera is an eyesore. It has such high contrast that for the first few sessions I thought I had lost the shadows and used exposure compensation to lift them up. Lightroom showed clipped highlights and I had my doubts about the camera. Then it dawned to me that the problem was just an artifact of the LCD! Now I only trust the histogram during replay. The camera exposure meter is ‘spot on’ almost always. I rarely use exposure compensation unless the scene is totally light/dark or for deliberate artistic reasons. I understand that the LCD issue is not a matter of skimping on specs by Leica. It is just that the processor involved and the sensor’s power-hungry nature means there is little possibility to drive a better LCD without needing a larger battery or reduced shot count. Though it seems a bad choice, you quickly develop the right instincts to get the desired output. The Leica is not a camera that you can pick off-the-shelf and start shooting great images from the get go.
The Leica menu system is also one o f the most simple and effective in the market today. It’s just a single page and gets the work done efficiently. Please remember that you have to click ‘Ok’ to confirm ISO selections; just going back after selecting an ISO will default back to the original choice.
Some reviewers have reported occassional camera lock-ups. I have never experienced this even once. With little chimping, you can do a whole day’s shoot with a single charge. The Leica also wakes up from sleep way faster than other mirrorless cameras. I have no experience with DSLRs and so am unable to compare them.
The Summilux 50/1.4 lens
I have read many reviews of this lens and was in a huge dilemma on which lens to select – the Summicron or the Summilux or do I wait and spend a lot more for the new Summicron Asph? It was a big decision and the one review that really helped me was by Roger Cicala on his lensrentals blog (http://www.lensrentals.com/blog/2012/01/the-great-50mm-shootout). Though Roger doesn’t test the uber Summicron Asph, his test showed – at least in numbers – that the Summilux was a cut above the rest. So I just went ahead and bought the Summilux 50/1.4 from a local vendor.
I have never turned back and have never mounted another 50mm lens on my Leica eversince. For me, this is the best 50mm lens in the world. I have used many m-mount 50mm lenses and 50mm-equivalent lenses on my Fuji X-E1 and m43 bodies. None of them compare to the Summilux. It is razor-sharp from the get go, has great contrast, has no bothersome aberrations, has no flare issues, is not too heavy, has a beautiful in-built hood… I can go on and on. This is the best 50mm lens and is perfect for the streets.
One of the common issues cited by a lot of photographers is that the Summilux is a little stiff to focus, especially at the beginning of the focus movement (when you start moving the focus ring). It is true due to the double helicoid tubes involved (to keep a floating element in the design). Once you start focusing, the ring moves easily and is no different from other good quality lenses. I do not see this as an issue for street photography. In fact, I see this as a great advantage. Most of street photography is done using zone focusing (F8, 5m – infinity focus using the scales on the focus ring). The Summilux 50/1.4 stays without moving between shots. It doesn’t need a rubber band or Gaffer’s tape to keep it in position. For quick focusing it may be a bit of a bother, but for street photography this is a great asset.
Overall, there is nothing to complain about this lens. For me, it is the perfect lens for street photography. If I have to live with just one lens for the rest of my photography career, this would be the one.
Some common issues with the Leica M-E
Sensor dust issues. The sensor quickly develops small spots even if you do not change lenses. I read that one of the reason is due to oil droplets from the shutter. I use a blower and the spots usually reduce in intensity. I was never able to get rid of them entirely though and remove them in Lightroom. I have just bought a sensor dust removal kit and will try soon.
Sensor banding issue. I have noticed banding issues in DNG files on two occasions, both at base ISOs. Many users have reported banding at high ISO, which is common in many digital cameras. On both the occasions I have encountered this, the shutter speed was at the fastest (1/4000). So I guess there is a bit of overexposure involved. Normally, you should be able to overexpose deliberately for artistic reasons and not expect banding, at least at base ISOs. I am investigating this issue and have never encountered this again. Some reviewers say that this may happen when the battery is at its fag end. Both my incidents happened at the middle of sessions. Another factor was that both the shots have a bit of the sun in the background. This issue is not repeatable as I have shot so many images with the sun in the frame with no banding issues. So I guess it is an isolated, one-off issue. I will post more if I encounter it again.
Any camera is a great tool in the creative pursuit of photography, if one is willing to understand and accept the deficiencies and maximize the potential of what it offers. That said, street photography places extreme importance on speed, simplicity of control, and unobtrusiveness. The ideal camera, for now, will always remain a film camera with no electronics to come in the way of speed. In the digital world there is always the Leica.
The Leica M-E and the Summilux 50/1.4 is an ideal combinations for street photography. The portability and the image quality will be difficult to beat. Acceptable shot count and the quick response time makes this camera a delight to use on the streets. The Leica M-E is now my primary camera and all my other cameras are gathering dust on the shelves.