A couple of weeks ago I almost inadvertently became involved in an online conversation where I jokingly called people who claim to “like the rangefinder experience” liars. The reaction was swift and vigorously aggressive. It really got me thinking. This defensive reaction indicated that either I was wrong, or they were in deep denial. So, for those who are contemplating switching to Leica M, and for those who already did, but cannot really explain rationally why, I decided to write about my very own impression based upon a bit more than twenty-five years of experience with rangefinder cameras and seven years of using Leica M exclusively for my work in commercial photography.
In my opinion, Leica M is an example of a classic controversy, and using it is much like, as one of my friends said, “watching your mother in law falling off a cliff in your favorite Bugatti”.
There is a widespread opinion among “uninitiated” that Leica it is more about the lenses than cameras. Well, not quite, but let’s weigh pro and contra.
Any Leica aficionado will explain to you in a great detail that things like an always bright viewfinder, regardless of the lens speed, small, light and super cute lenses, uncluttered interface and unbelievable German precision are distinct Leica M features that make it so pleasant to treat it as a family member to say the least.
Someone who actually shoots Leica M in a meaningful fashion, will tell you about its amazing low-light capabilities with no guessing whether the image is in focus or not, freedom of shooting at 1/15 of a second with a 50mm lens with no tripod and still getting reasonably sharp images, its unassuming looks, which helps one become a “fly on a wall”…
Yes, both leicaphiles and Leica users are right, this is all true. I support their claims wholeheartedly, as there are unquestionable advantages to the rangefinder, however user friendliness is not one of them. How do I mean? Read on and tell me, what’s not to love?
- An itsy-bitsy tinny frame for 90mm lens – a portrait photographer’s delight. Did you know that the longest lens for the M system is whooping 135mm? BTW, nobody buys it, as it is nearly impossible to use.
- Up to 1/3 of a viewfinder obstructed by the lens – certainly makes shooting more exciting, as you never know what’s in there until you see the picture. This is the case with all lenses that made Leica famous: Noctilux and all Summiluxes, except the 50.
- The worst LCD screen in the industry – a dream for a purist who never chimps (well, it was true about M8 and M9. Screens on newer models are not that bad, actually.
- Are you a lefty, by any chance? Ever tried looking in the Leica peep-hole with your left eye? Try it, it’s a lot of fun, especially it your nose is like mine, or larger (does not happen often, though).
- Now, how about that built-in diopter adjustment? Haven’t found one? Of course, because there is not any. You can buy one from Leica for the price of a Canon 1.8/50 EF USM prime 🙂
- And the last… ever tried to use a polarizer? It’s a cakewalk!
Taking all this into account, we all learned how to ignore all this for many reasons. Some of us did because shooting Leica is cool, some others because this is nothing compared to that famous and elusive “Leica look”, some because it is better to put up with all of the above than haul twenty pounds of glass and a tripod, some because of all mentioned reasons plus because it does give you a competitive advantage if you know what you are doing.
What most Leica shooters will not tell you, however, is Leica M actually makes you a better photographer. Well, maybe it is not such a good idea to generalize, but it definitely worked for me. Leica’s spartan viewfinder is always the same, regardless of what the lens you use. Since there is no lens effect to enjoy, the only thing to look for is substance. That’s why pictures taken with a rangefinder camera are more meaningful, even when there is the lens effect present.
Due to its brilliantly simple interface, Leica does not take all those unnecessary accessories that other camera systems are famous for. Leica M makes one concentrate on photography, not on toys (although admittedly some people actually manage to turn their Leicas into toys and even fetishes). It’s like a racing sailboat, which requires from all its crew full competence, unreal concentration and utter indifference to pain and suffering to round all marks in the shortest amount of time.
So… as much as I love Leica M system, I would be extremely hard pressed to state that rangefinder experience is a joy. No, it is not a joy, it’s a challenge. It is Leica M’s limitations not letting me get too comfy, much like ballerina’s point shoes, that keep pushing me into getting better yet.
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