Why I am "okay" with a Q2 and am not rushing to line the shelves with digital Leica M cameras. And lenses.

 Life is short. If we're lucky we get to buy and play with whatever we want. 

Father and daughter in Paris.

Many years ago I was happy to shoot with Leica M series rangefinder cameras. I wrote an article in 2000 about my experiences with the then current model Leica M cameras and lenses and extolled the virtues of shooting film with them.  The article, on Photo.net, got millions and millions of page views and earned me an invitation to the LHSA. My earliest mentor in photography was a documentary photographer who shot almost exclusively with older Leica M series cameras like the M4 and M2. As soon as I could cobble the cash together I found and bought a very nicely preserved, single stroke M3 camera and a 50mm Summicron lens. I thought I was in heaven. And, when I photographed Austin's nascent downtown with the Capitol building in the foreground, from the window of a helicopter some time in the mid-1980s the resulting Kodachrome 25 slide blew me away. And impressed the crap out of every photographer I showed it to. I was hooked. 

Back then our studio work was largely done with medium format cameras and 4x5 inch view cameras. Clients loved seeing the big transparencies on light tables. They hated leaning over with loupes to their eyes to consider 35mm slides. That remained the prejudice at the higher end of the market even after the turn of the millennium. But the Leicas earned their place in the camera bag for event shoots, documentary shoots and endless vacation and personal photos. They were, for the most part, dependable and the lenses were really good. They were one of the few cameras that picky CEOs didn't hate because of shutter and mirror noise. A Canon or Nikon back in the film days, going off in a small conference room was akin to banging on trash can lids by comparison. Not exaggerating. 

Before we transitioned to digital, in the last few years of the film era, my load out for a I have no idea what I'm walking into sort of shoot was: three M6 cameras bodies. One with a .58 magnification viewfinder for wide angle lenses down to 28mm. One with a .72 magnification viewfinder for 35mm and 50mm lenses and one with the .85 magnification viewfinder to use with the 75-90mm lenses. The lens complement would usually consist of a 28mm lens, a 35mm f1.4 Summilux, a 50 Summicron and an 75mm f1.4 Summilux. If I needed a little more reach there was always a 90mm Summicron. If I needed a longer lens I might bring a Canon EOS 1 with the cliché 70-200mm lens on it. But that was always a grudging addition. 

Sometimes I would end up using only one lens but would pre-load all three camera bodies with the same film because it was faster to switch lenses to a body with fresh film than it was to rewind the spent film in a body and then re-load it on the fly. I tried the motor winder on one of the M6 bodies but never liked the way it felt and I didn't like the increased noise. 

When it came to flash photography the cameras were limited to 1/50th of a second as the top sync speed. If I needed to use flash in bright daylight I switched to medium format cameras with leaf shutters. Either the Hasselblads, the Rolleis or my favorites, the Mamiya 6 cameras. The 'right tools' kind of thing. 

When we switched to digital it was interesting. All of a sudden everything was auto focus. There was no film loading. And we never had to take the bottom plate off the cameras to load the film. I would have kept the M Leicas and lenses but I wasn't rolling in cash then and needed to sell the stuff to make the transition to digital. And I did need to make that transition because clients all adored the idea of digital imaging and the accelerated pace of delivery. Had I been a hobbyist I might have resisted the lure of digital past the pricey/shitty days of digital until we hit a spot where everything worked well and the prices fell from the nose bleed level down to the just slightly nauseated level. 

The Leicas, once you learned to use them transparently and without having to think about it, were wonderful picture taking tools but obviously not without their flaws. The biggest issue I ever had was with rangefinders that had a tendency to go out of adjustment and have you focusing either in front of or behind the subjects that you really wanted in focus. This was especially bad when you used fast lenses like the 75mm Summilux wide open. And a badly adjusted rangefinder was not a rare occurrence.... It eventually happened to all three of my M6 cameras but, curiously, never occurred in my M3 or M4 cameras....

If you wanted the rangefinder adjusted correctly you sent the camera back to Leica and prayed for a turnaround time closer to six weeks than six months. It could be agonizing. 

The other faults were design choices that one just had to accept if you were going to use the products. The biggest roadblock to fast working was the need to take off the bottom plate of the cameras to load film. You invariably held the plate between your teeth so you could use both hands to load the film into the finicky system. But the cameras were quiet and felt perfect in actual use. And the images coming out on film could be superb.

So why is it that I have no interest in the M cameras now that they are all the rage in digital circles ?

Well, until the arrival of live view in the M10 cameras I feared the same old problem of mis-calibrated rangefinders or rangefinders that left the factory perfectly calibrated but drifted over time. The whole idea of a rangefinder camera is their ability to very quickly and ACCURATELY focus manual lenses. Especially fast lenses and even more especially fast, wide lenses. Degrade this super power and you end up with just an expensive camera and soft images from expensive lenses. 

There is also the sheer investment cost. If I were to buy into the M system for work; meaning that my priority was the assured delivery of images to clients, I would want to have two identical cameras to use as a bulwark against just the kinds of failure I've outlined just above. At $ 9,000 apiece I would need to cough up $18,000 just for two camera bodies. And then there's the price of the lenses... Assuming I went cheap and just bought the most basic three f2.0 lenses I'd still have to sink a veritable fortune.

The three f2.0 lenses I would consider as the base investment in the system would be $12K and I'm sure over time I would want to trade up from the base level 50mm Summicron to the APO Summicron which would set me back about $9600 more. And I would wind up with cameras that don't really do video and don't work as well as the L mount system cameras for anything longer than 90mm or anything shorter than 28mm. Forget reaching out to 200mm or longer. Equally --- forget precise comping with ultra wide lenses as well.

In the L mount system I can always substitute less expensive Sigma and Panasonic alternatives for Leica gear that isn't mission critical. But once you stumble into the M system cameras your lens choice are stark. You either pay top dollar or you get cheap, third party lenses that just don't perform well enough to justify your original investment in the system. 

And then there is the fact that M cameras and lenses don't share the weather resistance of the Q2 or either of the two SL camera models. That's a lot of camera inventory to take out into the rain or snow with no assurance that it will survive....

And finally, some of my advertising work means I have to follow comprehensive layouts to the letter. The parallax and occluded viewing through the optical rangefinder (occluded in one corner by the lens) means more struggles to get images lined up just right. The workaround is Live View and that works well enough but sometimes you really want or need to use a eye level viewfinder. I guess you could splash out even more cash for the attachable accessory EVF but wow. A lot of stuff to keep track of when you should be concentrating on creating an image instead of managing inventory. 

For work with flash (not TTL but studio) the SLs are better configured and easier to use. I've also become attached to zoom lenses for some kinds of work (environmental portraits...) and it would be sad not to have the 24-90mm zoom ready to go just to have the bragging rights of using a rangefinder Leica. 

The Q is a nice alternative to that whole system approach. If I was in charge of Leica products the very next item on my "we must build" list would be a Q50 with a 50mm Summicron lens permanently attached to the front at the same price point as the Q2. Then one could have a nice faux rangefinder system that's easy to AF, easy to AE and could cover a variety of focal lengths ---- all for less than $12K as a duo. 

Maybe Leica could sell them as set and toss in a little discount. They do discount. If you have registered a product with them previously you can now (until the end of Dec) get an SL2 or SL2-S and receive a $1,300 discount off the list price. No add-on gear required. You don't need to package the cameras with a lens or any of that nonsense. It's just a straight $1,300 savings. That makes an SLS-2 a bargain at under $4,000. That makes a lot more sense to me than an M11 at $9K. And a lot more useful (to me) as well. 

Some other time we should discuss the old Leica R system. I have painfully deep knowledge of that system as well. Just dyin' to share. Not that Leica will be much pleased....

I'd do a gift guide for you for Christmas but this is not a "for profit" site. I have no affiliates. And I already got paid by my professional, commercial photography clients. OMG. A real, live working photographer. Who would have guessed? 

But I'm still interested. What's on your list? 


Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

Subject matter thanks to platinum level commenter on VSL: CRSantin.

Thanks for the inspiration. It's not the first time.

adam said...

I'm hanging around for the january sales, tax bills are due end of Jan here so the sale raises cash for it, hoping for a tasty discount on an x-t5 or x-h2, it's not a black friday kind of sale, I got a bunch of stuff that'd been hanging around for long enough to have stuff growing on it last year, sent the filter back and cleaned whatever it was off the bounce card I got, took a lot of elbow grease that one.

I like the look of samyang/rokinons new AF cine primes, E mount only at the moment, I emailed rokinon and asked nicely for x mount versions, my theory being that if an aps-c lens lets in more light on mft then a ff will do the same for aps-c, they're all 280g, supposed to be for drone mounting apparently, all f1.8

crsantin said...

Thanks for the shoutout Kirk and glad I could be of some use...but what the hell happened to the whimsical, care-free Kirk Tuck who bought a camera or two just for shits and giggles? Since when did Mr. Tuck become so responsible and reasoned? I live vicariously through you, at least when it comes to camera gear. Leica in Canadian $$$ is rather prohibitive, at least for me. The cheapest Leica I can get in my currency is the M5 and the SL, both at about 2k used. Everything else is closer to 5k, without a lens. I've never so much as held a Leica so it's more of a curiosity for me than a necessity. And the Youtube folks do nothing but gush over everything Leica so that's of no use to me at all.

Edward Richards said...

Do you have a link to that Kodachrome?

Anonymous said...

Well said, Kirk. I don't trust the rangefinder to stay calibrated either. Many of us in the Leica community are lobbying Leica to produce an M12 with EVF and IBIS, rangefinder be deleted. Then would be a merger of SL and Q lines with a smaller camera than a SL and interchangeable lenses of the M.

Price would still be a shocker. But oh, those Leica colours and build bring a smile to my face.

My Canons do the work for me and I have to do the heavy lifting of them without the smile. I won't buy an M until the mis-calibration issue is fixed. I am using a SL2 with m lenses to cut the wight down when I want to use my M lenses.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

CRSantin, I just bought my 7th Leica. How is that anything but irresponsible and unhinged? And I was trying so hard....

TMJ said...

I still have my M lenses but haven't bought a digital M body, yet and I'm not sure whether I will do.

A Nikon ZII with the 24-70mm f4 appeals to me. Although a longtime Canon FF user, (TSE, etc), the current mirrorless cameras and lenses are a step down in terms of engineering and image quality. The R5 is very mediocre, a view reinforced when our small unit at the medical school had our group photos taken by the uni photo dept - with an R5, only last week.

Anonymous said...

News shooter, 70's in Los Angeles basin. Leica rangefinders were the only film cameras in the courtrooms per order of Presiding Judge. Quiet shutter was the reason. The order was Brand Specific even though some others were as quiet, if not quieter in use.

Biro said...

I've been pining for a camera with a stacked CMOS sensor for wildlife. Sony's A1 and A9 cameras are simply too expensive for me. But Fuji's X-H1S? Perfect. It's at the top of my Christmas list - and I already have the lenses for it.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

Biro, did you mean the X-H2S? The Fuji XH cameras are great!!!

Joachim Schroeter said...

Let‘s have a Q with M mount please, or an M with inbuilt EVF. So that folks with (strong) glasses or otherwise impaired eyesight, folks who love wide open apertures and/or tele lenses, and folks who like to shoot in low contrast, dark or otherwise challenging light situations can get a hand with accurately focussing gorgeous M glass. And no, I don‘t like an external EVF instead - a bit like a baby cart coupling on an Italian racebike -, in fact have sold my only M because I really got to hate it in 8 years of grudging usage.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for writing (what could be) my story of frustration with Leica M cameras. I am keeping my M9, for the CCD sensor, but the newer M bodies have not been much of a temptation.

For my M lenses, an SL2 has become the body of choice. Not to mention a great body for adapting legacy lenses in almost any mount. Though, we will see if the joy of use remains when my body comes back from Leica service; my sensor/light meter has serious over exposure issues and I have been warned the wait could be 6 months. :”(

This year I took advantage of the special offer on the Panasonic S5 W/ 20-60 kit lens, so I have something L-mount to use while my SL2 is in for service. Unless, I yield to the temptation of the Fuji XT-5 instead. Fuji seems to be working at becoming the next Leica.

Happy Holidays

Joachim Schroeter said...

Fully concur. Q w/ M mount, a/o M w/ EVF inbuilt. No-brainer.

Frank Field said...

Love the father / daughter image. Same arched eyebrows, same look into the camera. Nice capture.

Robert Roaldi said...

Do not go look at the Pixii web site. It won't do you any good.

Joachim Schroeter said...

And Kirk, I also concur with a Qx sporting a 50mm lens - with an aperture wide enough to also keep the same 49mm filter diameter as the Q2 please. Given the real estate of some 50MPx and perhaps more in future, the 28/50 combo easily has you covered 28-100mm, perhaps even beyond (YMMV).

Chris said...

If you had a 50mm fixed lens Q then you might as well retain the current digital cropping modes like the current Qs: 50-75-90-135mm. That would be cool.