The Leica M series comes with history. Only a few cameras throughout time are proven out not just by their features, but by the photographers who have used them and the iconic images that they’ve created with them. You know them — the Rolleiflex, the Hasselblad, the Nikon F1, etc. The Leica M is not only on the list, for many it tops that list. Certainly by the criteria above (who used them and what images they took), the Leica M sports a who’s who of legendary imagery and photographers — the wars, the bands, the Life. Why is that important? Because a lot of photography is about your confidence in the field and with the equipment you’re using. And if you believe in the idea of tried and true, then few cameras give you the buyer’s confidence of an M. Not everyone has the inclination or desire to compare all the specs and features. You can do worse than buy into a camera system that has been used and trusted by the people who’ve made history.
However, in recent times, every camera on the list of all-time greats has found itself in competition with even the lowliest of digital cameras, for their convenience, cost efficiency and ever-growing feature sets. The camera companies can no longer rest on their historic laurels and have found themselves needing to redefine their legacy within a new set of needs and, some would say, a whole new genre of photography. How do you invoke everything that made your flagship camera great, when by-in-large it has needed a near-entire reinvention in order to stay current? And how important is history in the context of digital photography, where seemingly all things are essentially made equal through Moore’s Law?
This, to my mind, is a conversation that is most relevant with the Leica M. No other camera, save for perhaps the Polaroid, carries over any part of what made it special into today’s cultural needs from a camera system. Sure, there are digital backs for some epic medium and large format cameras — and that might give them special mention — but those have become such a specialist piece of equipment that they rarely leave their tripods in the studio. It certainly isn’t the system you bring on vacation, to the beach or on assignment.
This is not to say there aren’t great new cameras out there, of course there are many. Maybe more now than in any time in history. It’s to say that if the conversation is about a versatile camera system that also has a long heritage of great photography and photographers behind it and if you’re talking about a camera system that has seemed to carry that history with it over the hump of the digital photography revolution, then you’re almost exclusively talking about the Leica M.
Does this matter? It depends on your history and if you like rangefinder shooting.
My History With Rangefinders
I’ve been shooting professionally with a rangefinder for over five years now. I recently upgraded from the Leica M240 to the M10-P, while in London on assignment. The reason I upgraded to it is a story in and of itself and highlights one of the under-appreciated features of any camera — the sound of the shutter. But first, a quick recap of how I ended up with a rangefinder.
I began my photography with a 35mm SLR — the Nikkormat — back in the early 80’s. This was considered the poor man’s Nikon, but it was still thought of as an advancement on the rangefinder camera, as you could see through the lens, rather than through a traditional viewfinder window. But despite being born a bit past the rangefinder days, all of my reference for great photography was from the photographers who used rangefinders in the 50’s and 60’s. Their work was on my walls growing up.
I used film SLRs all the way up until it seemed I could get nearly as good quality with digital. And as I’d already amassed a good set of Nikon lenses, switching over from a film Nikon body to a digital one made sense. I’ve owned the D300, D700, D750, D800 and D850. And they’ve served me well in my professional career as a photographer. No complaints.
Then in 2014, a friend of mine was looking to offload his M240 and 35mm Summicron. I was conflicted. I grew up in a time of rapid technological growth. Computer chips, camera sensors, video games, communication devices… it was all getting better, faster and more interesting. I had what seemed like an innate proclivity toward invention. The rangefinder, even a digital one, seemed like a throwback concept. But there was something about it that called to me and it has everything to do with what SLRs lack.
There is one thing that an SLR can’t do very well. It can’t be anything other than a feature-rich computer that leans ever-forward toward the addition of new capabilities and complexity. This is the DNA of the SLR. And in so being, it can never be simple. I’m reminded of the heat and air condition controls of automobiles. There was a time when you simply pushed a lever from hot to cold in your car. It lacked many of the features we have in our cars today, but it certainly was a study in sublime simplicity. Even though heat controls peaked in the 70’s, no car uses that system anymore, or would consider it, because it’s the automobile’s nature to add features and improve, even if that means becoming more complicated. SLRs are the same.
And so the question I was really asking in considering a rangefinder was: could a simplified approach to picture taking change how I approached photography and, possibly, how my images looked? My images, as nice as they might have been technically, didn’t convey the emotion of those artists I grew up admiring and I wondered whether the techniques of shooting with a rangefinder might help transport me back to a purer place of documentary style work.
What is rangefinder shooting and why does it seem to inspire emotionally-driven documentary photography? This takes some unpacking.
Rangefinder shooting harkens back to a simpler time — like the hot and cold sliders of older automobiles. The original idea was to make photography portable and simple, as it was a reaction away from larger format cameras on sticks. It featured a small lens that sat on a small body and fixed itself as close to the film as possible, for the best quality image at an unassuming size.
The one drawback, besides the lower quality image of smaller film, was that you had to look through a little window in the top corner of the camera (the viewfinder) and while that generally looked out at the world in front of you, it was an approximation of what you’d actually be framing up or getting on film.
The invention of the SLR sought to fix the “problem” of inexactness by looking through the lens and giving you a better preview of what your photograph would look like. To accomplish this, SLRs added complexities that, in fact, distanced both the camera from film (or sensor) as well as the shooter from moment. Enter shutter lag. Enter visual blackouts. We accepted these drawbacks in the name of innovation and exactness and now, a few generations forward, we’ve been conditioned to care more about technologies in cameras than emotion in photographs.
But those who truly enjoy rangefinder shooting do so because they want to feel closer and more in touch with their surroundings. The eyes-wide-open approach to rangefinder shooting is continuously intertwined with the surroundings and subject, often striving to go unnoticed — or at least feel like a camera that was there and unnoticed. A way of being and shooting that is almost entirely impossible with SLRs and even most new digital cameras. The articulated screens of many new smaller cameras come close to approximating this, but still, nothing is exactly like putting a rangefinder up to your eye.
But the most interesting thing for me is that everything that a true rangefinder lacks (namely auto focus and through-the-lens viewing) turns out to be a plus, when it’s all said and done. Because for documentary shooting, the goal is not perfection, but emotion. And there is just something about a well-timed shot without the preciousness of perfect focus or infallible composition that tends to come across and feel real.
The result is imagery that feels less staged; there is less awareness from the subject, or at least less formality for having the sense of being in front of a person rather than a large SLR. The camera itself, in its size and simplicity, frees the photographer to be less of a cameraperson and more of a person person. And this tends to unhide the photographer’s personality and allow for relationships to happen that also put subjects at ease and allow situations to play out normally.
There has been a philosophy that a photographer must disappear for objectivity to exist in imagery. My belief is that this is a false concept and that a photographer can never disappear because they are a physical mass, with eyes and limbs and sweat glands. And that the myth of invisible photographer is loved by introverts but never plays out in practice. In truth, great photojournalists don’t disappear, they fit in — that’s a very different thing. Fitting in means all the colors of the chameleon. Empathy, laughing at jokes, crying at tragedy, running with the crowd and knowing how to handle yourself in front of royalty and poverty alike.
Rangefinder shooting is a blend of photographer, camera and environment. The role of the camera in this relationship is important and is helped by a commitment to simplicity, quickness and manual focus, viewfinder shooting. This is the owned territory of the Leica M.
The reason this is a discussion more than a review is that the Leica M stands alone, at the moment, in rangefinder shooting — so there is little need to review or compare it. The discussion, for me at least, is whether the latest iteration of the M indeed bridges new with old better than their last one did. It’s a fascinating, almost-philosophical look at design because by many accounts the M6 and earlier models were already perfect for a rangefinder shooter and, as we’ve explored, you can push too far with innovation. So, the advancement of the M walks a razor thin line. And tightrope acts are always fascinating.
To jump to the conclusion, the latest M10-P has proven its commitment to the essential aspects of rangefinder shooting by being ever in service to the core of the tool’s simplicity. In fact, the biggest advancements in the M10-P from its predecessor is a study in restraint, minimalism and some decision-making (like the removal of video, a delete button, a logo and battery life) that only this camera company and this camera would make.
But the big/little things of note for the purpose of this discussion on the Leica M10-P are:
No Auto Focus
The M10-P is the latest in the line of manual focus-only digital rangefinders which, if it were a category at all, would be a category of only one brand — Leica. But as I’ve explained before, manual focus is in many cases a far superior way to shoot, most importantly because it changes the prioritization of your decision-making process.
In auto focus, focus points force a specific method of shooting: See -> Focus -> Shoot. Seems good, but consider what happens when you switch it around to Focus ->See -> Shoot. In that small re-ordering or priorities, you put yourself closer to the moment — actually by quite a lot. If you already know you’re in focus, there is almost no time between seeing a moment and shooting the moment. And because you’re looking through a viewfinder, the scene continues to unfold before you with no blackouts in those moments when the camera is actually shooting.
Manual focus shooting is a far different experience than auto focus shooting, designed to keep you in touch and instantaneously connected to your surroundings.
With manual focus-only, Leica has found a feature (or non-feature) that tethers it to its heritage. And this is the most remarkable thing about the camera and a unique platform from which to build from. This is not new in the M10-P, but it is the major tether between new and old, so it continues to be its most significant trait.
Less Shutter Noise
Okay, about that story.
I was on assignment with a celebrity recently on a three-week trip around the world. He was taking an interview in his hotel room and I was shooting away. Suddenly, he stopped the interview and looked right at me. “You know I can hear every time you click that thing.” He was disturbed by the sound of my shutter on my Leica 240M-P, not a camera with a very loud shutter to begin with, and it was distracting him. Pretty much a photojournalist’s nightmare. I upgraded to an M10-P the next day.
The M10-P features a near-silent mechanical shutter which is quiet even to me as I shoot it. For most people I’ve shot since acquiring it, they can’t hear it at all. In fact, at a recent event shoot down at Comic-Con, I had to tell people I was shooting because they seemed to be waiting to hear a click that never came. It’s that quiet.
A quieter shutter is the kind of thing that seems small but could be restated as an engineering refinement — it all depends on what you value and what your bias is. It’s worth mentioning that the Sony a series cameras have completely silent shooting, but are also probably among the most advanced cameras available today. A lost distinction to be sure, but silent shooting as one of a thousand incredible features is different than quiet shooting as a refinement to a system based enirely on simplicity.
The Leica M10-P evolves the simplicity of rangefinder shooting by making their flagship camera even less detectable than the previous model.
The M10 line is smaller than the previous digital Ms, bringing it almost exactly in line with its film predecessors (though still a bit taller and weightier). If you’ve held an M6 and loved its weight and size then the M10 will feel like a full frame digital camera that has found (or returned to) its perfect dimensions.
And unlike the “plastic fruit” of the new breed of lightweight cameras out there, the Leica M does not sacrifice build quality to get to its ideal size and weight, giving it an entirely different feel. Like comparing an old Porsche 911 to a Smart car — similar weight, completely different feel. Here’s a video of its construction.
So, in the same conversation about manual focus and the quiet shutter, honing in on an idealized size harkens back to the M’s history in a relevant way. This is the size, shape and feel of the same cameras that these great photographers of the past carried — and so they make the history of the camera a thing you can touch and hold.
The Small Stuff
The Leica M10-P has other features that separate it out from the previous M — a pared down menu, touch screen display (though only for thumbing through and zooming in on images), wifi, a physical ISO dial and higher low light capabilities. I lump them all together because none of them are particularly differentiating, either against their competitors nor as any kind of homage to its own history. The ISO dial is cleverly placed in a similar position to where the film winder was on the M6 and, overall, these kinds of small improvements do serve to make photography easier and faster, as opposed to more capable. But they are, necessarily, small improvements that only serve to make way for the bigger ones.
100% of reviews of just about any Leica camera, but especially the M, end in a discussion about the price — and whether it’s worth it. The camera is notorious for inviting criticism about its cost/value ratio. This is something Leica could, if they wanted to, easily address within a marketing strategy, but the brand has always (understandably) preferred to let their brand values draft off of the people/celebrities who use the camera.
In my opinion, the cost issue is not about its features, but about its competition. There is none, and so it can run wild. Should Nikon have made a modern-day SP (their first professional rangefinder camera), rather than the Z Series (or alongside it), someone like me who grew up with a dream of becoming a professional documentary photographer, with a cheap Nikkormat in my hands, might find myself with a very romantic choice to make. With no choice in the marketplace for a true rangefinder experience, the issue isn’t what I have to pay for it, but why.
The Leica M is a difficult camera for anyone who has exclusively used auto focus cameras. It is inherently purposeful as it, famously and punishingly, does not take over the work for you or give you much to hold onto. It is the manual shifting of photography. It has a learning curve that immediately makes it a thing you must want to do, to do. Like a manual shift car, it’s largely unnecessary today, but it does put you in control and forces you to make the decisions you once handed over to the camera. It stands out as a camera for being essentialist in nature. The pencil forces your hand into an odd position, too. But some objects’ simplicity somehow create the human desire to be better.
Thank you for reading. You can see more of my work at joshrose.photography