So why Leica? This a simple question that I get asked a lot recently and have been thinking about this as well as I keep dropping a lot of money into this new system. Luckily, as we rolled out of Covid in China, the Chinese new year rolled up so I had a lot of free time to sit down and think about why I enjoy Leica cameras so much.
I started my professional career with Pentax and had to switch to Nikon when the Nikon D700 came out as its high ISO capability at that point in time, made my life substantially easier and allowed me to get much faster shutter speeds at night when shooting bands. Since buying my first Nikon camera, I have been a hardcore Nikon fanboy and most of my shooting was done on a Nikon camera. From my personal film photography, all the way to my pro work with bands. The Nikon camera systems have never let me down or disappointed me. But most of that work was done on the DSLR systems. When the covid pandemic started, my personal Nikon camera that I use for fun(Nikon Df) died on me so I bought a new Nikon Z6 system with some lenses, and I guess this is where I began to fall slightly out of love with Nikon.
At first, I thought the Nikon Z6 was fantastic and I shot with it all the time, the EVF blew my mind away and it was so much better than the older Fuji cameras that I had previously used but without even noticing it at first, I started to shoot less frequently. I slowly started to leave my apartment in China and did not take a camera along as I had no film for my Nikon F2 and I didn’t want to take the Nikon Z6. I won’t go into too much detail now about why I dislike the Nikon Z system here, but to summarize it very briefly, I started to detest the EVF viewfinder, the very large but boring lenses, and the cheap-feeling plastic camera body and plastic lenses. My Nikon DSLR cameras felt like they were real tools in my hand but the Nikon Z system really did feel like a toy, a consumable product that you would use for a while and then replace with something new. Even now, if I pull my very old Nikon D700 out of storage and put a battery in the camera, I would play around with the camera in my hands and take some test shots, but the Nikon Z6 sits on my office table yet I never play with it. It is a camera that simply does not inspire you to use it. I guess that is the best way I can put it.
Thanks to covid and the stupid decision to scan all parcels hundreds of times to kill the virus with delivery companies in China, I decided to buy the Leica Q2 Monochrom to scratch my film itch and it worked for a while. The Leica Q2 Monochrom was my first Leica camera and I loved the camera’s raw files, especially once the ISO got to about 3200. It really did start to look like film at that point in time and I shott with the Leica Q2 Monochrom and Nikon Z6 for a while. But once again, the Nikon only got used for sunrises and sunsets and the Leica saw the bulk of the work. Sometimes I would switch out the Nikon Z6 for the Ricoh GRiii, which is a fantastic little camera that I enjoyed using a lot as well. The biggest problem with carrying both the Leica Q2 Monochrome and the Ricoh GRiii is that I am stuck with the 28mm focal length and most of the time, I tend to need longer lens when I am shooting scenes with more color. I thought about buying another Nikon DF to replace the Nikon Z6 as I always enjoyed my time with the Nikon Df but as covid continued and my boredom at home grew from consistent city lockdowns in China, I decided to try something new and bought a Leica M10 after playing around with some M mount lenses on my Nikon Z6. I especially wanted a Leica M10, not the Leica M10R or Leica 11 as the Leica Q2 Monochrom had taught me that those huge megapixel files are a pain in the arse to edit, catalog, and store. 24 megapixels is the sweet spot for me when it comes to resolution.
The Leica M system was basically a tale of two cities for me when it arrived. I loved how the camera felt in my hand but I also hated the ergonomics of the camera. The Leica M system is not that comfortable in my hand and I hate wearing a neck strap, so the camera would only ever be in my hands. Luckily, I think Leica knows that the ergonomics of the cameras’ are not great so they made a very well-designed camera handle that replaces the base plate on the Leica M10, making the camera feel so much better in the hand. I could wear a wrist strap and carry the camera around all day with almost no problem now. On a quick side note, I am not sure if the ergonomics of the camera are really terrible or the simple fact that the camera is very expensive so I was tending to grip the camera extra hard as I didn’t want to drop it, but the camera handle has taken care of the problem now so it doesn’t bother me anymore.
But having said all that, why do I enjoy using the Leica system so much recently? Could I use the M-mount lenses that I bought on the Nikon Z6 and create the same type of images.? Absolute. But that would not help resolve the issue that I have with the EVF, which I absolutely detest now, nor would it have helped me get my mojo back and motivate me to go outside and shoot again. I am a firm believer that our gear not only helps us with our tasks but also motivates us to use them.
I think in some way, Leica understands what drives photographers. We are artists but we are also technically minded. We create with tools in our hands. We feel and appreciate the design and texture of products that we use and they become a part of us, in a very real sense. Many famous retired photographers from the film area, kept their cameras and never sold them off once they stopped working. They formed an emotional bond with the camera and I can understand that. I have the same feelings about my Nikon D700.
It is the emotional connection that I think is driving a lot of the fanboy-ism in the camera industry and I have seen more camera fanboys than I ever saw in the gaming scene. The fanboy culture in the camera community is huge and Leica has built a cult-like following among many photographers. But it is more than just fanboyism that is driving many people to enjoy the Leica experience. Or at least it is that way for me. I enjoy products that are well-designed, that were crafted by experts, not mass-produced in a factory somewhere in China or Vietnam (Living in China has made me keenly aware of what happens in the production facilities for all the western products that we love to use). I love products that get made by hand, by skillful technicians, demonstrating what humans can do with some patience and clever thinking. I love my mechanical watches for all the technical brilliance that is required to make something so small and complicated. I can watch the movement in one of my mechanical watches for hours and be amazed that we were able to produce something like this by hand. I can wear my leather boots and enjoy the fact that they were made by hand, by a real person, and not mass-produced by some machine in China. This is exactly why I enjoy the Leica M system as much as I do right now.
The Leica M camera really is an amazing machine, and it feels fantastic in the hand. (The Leica Q2 Monochrome does not create the same kind of feeling). The camera is a heavy solid piece of metal and it feels like a tool. It feels like it was designed to be used and appreciated. I am usually very hard on my cameras as I have seen them as tools of the trade. I would clean my sensor but I would worry too much about cleaning the body or even protecting it. But the Leica M system feels different to me. The camera system feels more like a high-performance car, you want to take care of it and make sure it is in tip-top condition. It is a camera that I am always playing with. It tends to follow me around the apartment, and I am consistently picking the camera up and playing with it. There will be times when I pick the camera up, look through the viewfinder, and focus on something in my apartment and not even take a shot. I just felt like playing with the camera. The camera is just fun to use and it consistently makes me feel like I should go out and shoot. There have been so many days recently, where I felt lazy or slightly depressed because the weather had been terrible but I would pick up the camera, start playing with it and the next thing I know, I am walking outside and taking some photos again.
The Leica M system really does motivate me and make me shoot more, especially during those times I am feeling less motivated to shoot and for that single reason alone, I think the Leica M system cameras are worth their weight in gold. But as much as I am enjoying using the system, it is not a perfect camera. I would never use Leica for my professional work, and I think that as strong as Leica is on the mechanical side of engineering, their actual electronic side of camera making leaves a lot to be desired. Most of the time, when a Leica camera has an issue, it is the electronics that have failed. All the modern digital Leica cameras have had issues. The M9 had sensor issues, the M240 had reading SD card problems, M10 had motherboard problems, and the M11 had DOA problems with the cameras when it first came out. Perhaps the biggest reason why I would never use a Leica M system at work would have to be the lenses. Shooting bands at concerts and music festivals usually means big lenses. I would guess that more than 60% of all my printed work has come from photos taken with lenses longer than 180mm. Right now the longest lens that I have for the Leica M system is a 90mm lens and I am thinking about picking up a 135mm lens soon. The only thing I could use the Leica M system for at work would be BTS stuff.
I know that a lot of the old-school music photographers made their careers with Leicas but that was a different time and if you look at the stages they were shooting, the stages were much smaller and they could get up closer to the stage. I really respect the work produced by many music photographers such as Jim Marshall, who mostly shot with Leica and produced a great body of work but doing that now would be impossible with the way the festival and the concert scene as changed. If you only shot with a Leica M, I can even imagine what you would do if you arrived at a venue and were told that you are shooting from the soundboard. Shooting from the soundboard means you need at least a 500mm lens and even then, I would use a cropped sensor body to give myself some extra reach. So for me, the Leica M system would never be a “work camera”. But it is the camera I most enjoy using now. If I go off to shoot a landscape, it is the camera I want to take, a walk around the street, my Leica is firmly placed in my hand now. The only real question for me comes down to shooting film. I love my Nikon F2, and I don’t know if I should buy a Leica film camera or if I do, what would that do to my usage of the Nikon F2? But this is a problem for another day as I haven’t got the foggiest idea as to what I will do about film right now.
Perhaps one of the biggest and most overlooked aspects of shooting with the Leica M system is the complete kit. What I mean by that, is the gear you will take with you when you go out shooting. If I carry my work bag, it weighs in around 40kg in my pelican case. If I take the Nikon Z system outside for the day, it is also pretty bulky, as the Z system has massive lenses. But I can carry my two Leica cameras with a few lenses in a very small camera bag, and the bag will not break my back. Traveling lighter has so many benefits that I am only starting to discover as I grow slightly older now. I don’t think you will ever be able to appreciate a small light camera bag until you have dragged a 40kg bag around all day at a music festival, walking anywhere from 20000 to 30000 steps. One of the reasons why I used to be so attracted to the Fuji x mount system was due to its compact size. And the Leica is exactly the same when it comes to having a small light setup.
The final reason why I really enjoy my time with the Leica M system comes down to video. I love the fact that the camera is a pure, picture-taking camera.No compromises made to videographers. It is a machine with a singular purpose. It was designed and built to take photos. I really feel that most modern camera systems focus on video too heavily lately. Taking a photo with the camera has become an afterthought as the camera manufacturers focus on expanding into the video market. The Leica M system is one of the few systems that you can buy new, and it will not shoot video. It gives you a single purpose to concentrate on. Couple that with a fixed focus prime lens, and all you focus is on taking a photo with a single focal length, no distractions, just pure photography.
In many ways, that was the exact same reason why I enjoy the Nikon DF when it came out. Many people hated the camera because they thought it was a hipster camera(AKA Digitalrev, video down below) but I loved the camera and used it all the time until it died on me a few years ago. Just a pure photo-taking experience.
To be honest, I need to wrap this blog post up and I am not exactly sure how to do that at this moment in time. I really enjoy the Leica M system, I love the tiny jewel-like lenses, and I love how I am completely in control of all aspects of the photo(just like shooting film in that regard) but I still have a lot to learn about the system and the entire Leica mythos. While I was sick in bed with Covid, I spent hours reading up on Leica lenses, following posts about the Leica look and the Leica glow that some lenses are supposed to have. I have watched interviews with the lens designers at Leica and read blog posts by people who know this system way better than I do at this point in time. l, feel like I am back to a place of learning when it comes to photography and I am excited to see where this path will take me. I will continue to blog about the Leica system into 2023 I think, and slowly start to explore the different lenses that the system does offer. Usually, the music season does start until March as China is usually too cold as it enters into early spring so I have some time to relax and play around with the Leica system.