The Leica Trap

No other camera line has a following anywhere near as large as the Leica M line.

Certainly, there are pockets of the internet devoted to other cameras, and many photographers will freely tell you why whatever brand they’re using is the best. But very rarely will you hear someone speak about, say, the Nikon F, with the devotion and reverence as the average Leica M fan.

So mythic are these cameras that many new photographers can feel like they’re missing out on this special, important, required piece of equipment that they can easily become distracted from the reason they care about photography in the first place.

Speaking from personal experience, I certainly was. In my first visit to the local film camera store several employees implied I should buy a Leica just because. Coupled with seeing what felt like thousands of articles about how no other camera can ever hope to approach I gave in. I bought a Leica M4.

And it was … fine.

The “Leica Magic”

A Leica M4, without a lens

The highlights of most reviews (though love stories is probably a more accurate term) on a Leica M camera are as follows:

  • Because of its tiny size you really feel like it’s possible to blend in with the scenery, and capture those “Decisive Moments”.
  • Being purely mechanical (most models), you can keep using the same camera until the sun explodes, and you never have to worry about carrying batteries around.
  • Leica cameras are incredibly well designed and beautiful to look at.
  • No other camera can compare to it.

It’s hard to argue against those points. The first two are actually true, and the last two are entirely subjective. The problem is that it’s not the whole story.

An aside: How should you choose a camera?

When it comes to picking out a camera, beyond ensuring that it works and will take photos, the only question that should matter is “will this camera help make it easier to achieve my goals?”

The deeper question in there, of course, is “what are my goals?” It’s a question only you can answer. Most likely, if you’re considering buying a Leica you already have and have used a different camera. Hopefully you’ve used it well enough that you’ve developed a sense of what you like and dislike about it so that at this point you can find a camera that does more of what you like, or does what you like better, and doesn’t do the things you dislike.

All of this is to say that a Leica M may be the right camera for you. In no way is what I’m about to say meant to Leica owners and users. They’re great cameras, and if your style and needs mesh with their features you shouldn’t avoid buying one just because they don’t work for me. I just want to provide a counterpoint to the endless praise these cameras receive.

Pulling back the curtain

As I said, you can’t really dispute any of the standard review points. What I can do is provide some additional context to those points.

Because of its tiny size you really feel like it’s possible to blend in with the scenery, and capture those “Decisive Moments”.

Yes, the Leica M cameras are fairly compact, but so are almost all rangefinder, and a host of smaller SLR cameras. Specifically, I have a Canon Canonet QL17 and Olympus OM-2n which are comparably sized, and I honestly prefer both of them over the M4.

Of course, they’re not entirely comparable cameras, you can’t swap out the lens on the Canonet, and the OM-2n isn’t a rangefinder. But that’s partially my point. You can find many cameras, of different styles, that are close in size and weight (and sometime smaller and lighter), it’s not something intrinsically unique to Leica M cameras.

But what about the “Decisive Moment” thing?

For some background, the Decisive Moment is a term that comes from the title of the English translation of a book by the famous street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (the original French title more closely translates to “images on the fly”). Cartier-Bresson’s central thesis was that what makes a good photo is the composition you create in the camera, which is made up of two elements, location and timing. What makes the moment decisive is that you have found the correct place, positioning, and most importantly time to capture an interesting image. The timing aspect is key, as you may need to wait to get all of the right elements lined up before you can take the shot.

The reason Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive Moment is frequently brought up in the Leica discourse is because he exclusively used a Leica rangefinder. What is frequently ignored when talking about this is that at the time (1931) his options for a compact camera were very limited. My understanding is that the only option was Leica. Their first major competitor, the Contax, wasn’t released until 1932.

Being purely mechanical (most models), you can keep using the same camera until the sun explodes, and you never have to worry about carrying batteries around.

This argument applies to all of the M models except the Leica M7.

Just like the first point, that it’s small, this is true, but it’s not exclusive to Leica cameras. As recently as 2006 Nikon was selling film cameras with a mechanically controlled shutter. One of the best selling cameras ever, the Pentax K1000, has a mechanically controlled shutter. The disposable, single-roll cameras Kodak and Fujifilm sell today are fully mechanical.

Why people care about a mechanical shutter, compared to an electronically controlled shutter (which you see more frequently in cameras made from the 70s onwards), is that one, it doesn’t need batteries to function, and two, that you can always repair a mechanical shutter and get it into “like new” condition. If a mechanical shutter starts to get too slow a technician can tighten some springs to get the timing back in sync. If an electronic shutter starts to get to slow you have to hope it’s not because the controller finally gave out. Gears and springs are easily replaceable, electronic control boards, less so.

Gearing in the mechanically controlled Minolta SRT 201 (wires are for the light meter). The electronics in this camera are completely dead, but it can still take photos at any shutter speed.

So yes, purely mechanical is a nice thing. But it comes at a cost. First because these cameras are usually priced higher than similar electronically controlled cameras. And second because they usually lack some of the niceties you get with electronically controlled cameras.

Only four Leica M models have a built in light meter, the M5, M6, M7, and MP, and one of those, the M7, doesn’t have a mechanical shutter. These models, on average, cost twice as much, or more, than the earlier, meterless models. The M5 is the odd camera out, it can usually be found at around the same price as the older models, but this is because it doesn’t have anywhere near the same love as the rest (because the M5 has a radically different design than any other M camera).

Additionally, only the M7 has an auto exposure mode (aperture priority). This is not unique to Leica’s mechanical cameras, I can only think of one camera at all with a mechanical shutter that also features an auto exposure mode (and it’s because its shutter weird).

My point being, mechanical shutters are great and all, but do you need one? Is having the ability to work until the end of time and not needing batteries, but costing more worth the trade off of the possibility your camera breaks down and you need to keep a set of spare batteries with you, but the camera will have more features you might want? And consider, for the price of one Leica M camera you can buy ten electronically controlled but feature packed cameras.

Leica cameras are incredibly well designed and beautiful to look at.

Honestly I agree with this. Leica M cameras are very pretty machines. But so are a lot of cameras. I really like the metal and leather look of almost every classic film camera, I just don’t think you can go wrong with it. And while the M cameras are incredibly sleek, even boxy SLRs have their charm.

But while looks can be a factor in choosing a camera, it shouldn’t be the only factor. It needs to be weighed against how useful the features it has are. I have a chunky, plastic, late film era Canon that I like to pull out because sometimes it’s nice to have autofocus or any of the other automatic features it has.

No other camera can compare to it.

I just strongly disagree with this. There are a number of cameras out there that match the different Leica M cameras in features, and then go beyond. And they’re usually available for less than the equivalent Leica.

Two specifically come to mind, the Leica CL (sometimes branded Leitz Minolta CL), and the Voigtländer Bessa R2 (and R2M, R3M, and R4M).

The Leica CL was made in collaboration with Minolta, and featured the same lens mount and mechanical shutter that most M cameras have, but with a light meter and smaller body. The CL was so popular that Leica discontinued it because it was hurting M sales. It continues to be well loved by reviewers online, and sells in the $500 range (half of what the older, meterless M cameras sell for).

Unlike the CL, I have experience with a Voigtländer Bessa R2, and I’ve found my experience shooting with it to be much nicer than the Leica M4 I have. Like the CL, the Bessa R2 uses the Leica M mount, has a mechanical shutter, and includes a light meter. Having been released in 2002 (compared to the mid 70s for the CL), the Bessa R2 sells online for around $1,000.

So… should I get a Leica?

As I’ve been repeating through this whole post, it’s entirely possible a Leica M is the camera for you. I don’t believe the hype around them is particularly deserved, and as I’ve explained I think there are a lot of trade offs you have to make when you use one, but they are not fundamentally bad cameras.

What I would really like is for people to get out of the mindset that owning a Leica should be The Goal. Like all cameras, they have good aspects and bad aspects, and nothing about them is terribly unique. For a fraction of the cost you can find cameras with the same features, or cameras with entirely different features which may work better for you.

The most important thing, from my perspective, is that you stop and ask yourself why you want a Leica, and if buying one will help you achieve your photographic goals. If a camera doesn’t help you take the pictures you want to take, how is it any better than an expensive paperweight?

2 thoughts on “The Leica Trap

  1. I had a Leica once, along with several hundred other cameras. I sold the Leica because I found its reputation to be 40% reality and 60% hyperbole. There are plenty of other cameras that work just as good and produce equal quality images yet cost considerably less money.
    As an aside, I think Sony wants to be the Leica of the digital world.

    Like

    1. Fully agree. You can get them to do basically whatever you need, but I didn’t find the experience substantially better than any other camera I’ve tried.

      As for Sony, I have no idea. I’ve never used any of their interchangable lens cameras besides just playing around with a friend’s for five minutes. I do know their rx100 line is really nice though, because I use one when I need a smaller camera.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: