Switching system is never going to be easy, especially for a professional, because it usually takes years to assemble the ultimate ‘killer’ kit for the type of work one does. For me, I have been a long term Canon user and still I use it but only left for the very specific categories. Last year, I made the switch from the auto-crazy Canon DSLR system to the opposite manual-everything Leica M system. More importantly, I downsized from my usual five-lens set up to only two primes. I still take my roller case around because I still keep my DSLR and a couple of lenses as backup and for some portrait photos but now 90% of my wedding documentary work is done with the Leica M.
Those who have been reading my blogs and following me would know that I did a thorough test and consideration before switching to the big ‘L’. I’d said that I never liked to throw my money out for show and whatever I spend, I want to make my money back. So the Leica has to be productive. Therefore, for the past year, I’d spent enormous amount of time using the M. Through the paces of my work as a wedding documentary and street photographer. Since March 2014, the M had covered all my weddings and used as my ‘ONLY’ street tool. Despite a few hicups (more about that later), the M didn’t disappoint me by giving me some of the most stunning images I have ever captured. The unique draw from the famous M lenses (and M compatible lenses such as my favourite work tool – Voigtlander Nokon 35mm 1.2 VM II) simply put some of my Canon pro lenses to shame, apart from the ever so special Canon EF 85mm 1.2 L II USM.
So, this particular user report (or review if you wish) is a rather interesting read for all my beloved followers and those who are wondering if Leica is still relevant in the professional arena today. Yes, there are numerous reports out there and frankly, most professional reviewers would write a review based on some intensive and short-term usage of the equipment. No offense here and many, and that includes me, read or watch them before parting our hard earn cash for these equipment. So I want to pay tribute to all these hard working reviewers for their work. But there are many who may want a more in depth look at the equipment that they want to buy. Something that perhaps from a professional user and his/her experience gathered after some time of use, not few weeks or few months, may be a year? For practical reasons, this report should gives a pretty good idea on how good the M240 or M-P really is as a professional tool.
Before you read further, if you have missed my previous user reviews of my M240 and M-P, please have a read so you know how I feel about them after using them for a brief period. Now, let me dig a little deeper on what the M can and cannot do. And let me start with the negatives first.
Size and Weight (why is it a negative?)
Ok, no matter how you look at the M, it’s one of the most compact and elegant full frame camera around. But why would this be a negative? Well, let me explain. For the best part of last year, I’ve used two lenses almost exclusively, the magnificent Leica Summilux 50mm 1:1.4 ASPH and the lovely Voigtlander Nokton 35mm 1:1.2 ASPH VM II. I do have other lenses to play with but these are my workhorses. In most instances, I would use the Nokton for wedding documentary. There are times I would use the Summilux for half portraits or group portraits outdoor. The Nokton has some unexplainable draw, more natural to my eyes than the superior Leica Summilux 35mm 1:1.4 ASPH FLE. Despite it’s less sharp and having some barrel distortion, I prefer the rendering of the lens, very film like when paired with the M sensor. Not that I won’t buy the Leica 35mm Lux, it is just that I prefer this lens for wedding, less clinical. The 50 Lux however, is perfect because it’s got the most beautiful bokeh for a fast 50mm. Crazy sharp at wide open and when I am shooting outdoor, I usually stop down to 2.8 or even 6.3 for group, by then, I can see all the imperfections on my subject’s skin. Also great for details around the venue too!
Sorry, I got distracted a bit by talking about lenses but I do have a point. When I do pair the M with the Nokton, it does weight quite a bit (and front heavy). It’s as heavy as my Canon 5D with a 35mm f/2 prime! Not that it will kill me by its combo weight but the rounded classic M design is a little slippery for such a weight. Because I use this combo a lot, I can’t just hold the M bare with nothing on it. I usually have to put the Leica leather half case to help with the handling. A handgrip would be good but I just don’t like the look of it, too much of a DSLR in my opinion. I would also presume that it will have the same effect when using the monstrous Noctilux. However, I am very confident that it will have no handling problem with lighter setup such as Leica Summicron 35mm, even my Summilux 50mm is fine without using the case.
Now I am to talk about speed. There are a few things I want to talk about though. First being the almost useless EVF. I have one and I use it when I need to use a long lens such as 135mm. But I don’t use it for anything else. I find it a little to clumpsy and simply too slow. Even with the image preview turned off, the delay in between shot was too great. I only managed to use it for portrait sessions when my subject was still enough and did not move too much in between frames. I sincerely hope that Leica will improve the usability of the EVF in the future Ms. I mind you though, this also applies to using LiveView too! Not that I dislike EVFs and I haven’t used Leica T’s EVF, but the one on the M is simply not good enough for my use. I actually find the one on my OM-D to be the best implementation so far.
Then here’s the start up speed. This is 2015 and Leica’s start up speed is like 2005’s point and shoot digital camera. Even my very old 2005 Canon EOS 5D starts faster than the M. This is disgraceful. Ok, start up speed never really bothers me because I usually start the camera well in advance before I enter any ‘situations’ but this is 2015!! Wake up time from sleep is equally disappointing. Just like starting up. This doesn’t seem to be a problem during any normal wedding but when I am traveling or walking on the street, the M may go to sleep after a few minutes (something that you can of course change in the menu). Sleep is good for extending the battery life even though the M has a substantially bigger battery, probably the biggest amongst all other batteries I have. But as any fellow street or documentary photographers would know, instant readiness is critical for the ‘moment’ shot. So I would expect the wake up time to be split second and not ‘seconds’. So, for us M users, for now, we need to either turn off the sleep mode altogether or just wake up the camera before any potential moments (just use your visual senses).
As I don’t chimp my photos, image review is never my main concern. I do, however, do some focus checking every now and then. I do find that it takes a good second or so after the shutter fires before I can view the photo, then it will take another couple of seconds before I can ‘zoom’ in to 100%. This is quite slow by today’s standard really. Continuous shooting mode is not record breaking at a respectable 3.5 fps, about the same as my original 2005 Canon 5D. But the buffer on the M240 was simply not sufficient for my wedding use. Not that I am a machine gun shooter but I do need the occasional multiple succession photos for the most important moments of the day. I had several occasions when I had to wait for my M240 to clear the buffer memory before I could shoot again. While it’s clearing the buffer, I wouldn’t be able to do anything else… so I just…. stood and waited. Lucky I had my 5D and OM-D backups so I never have to worry about losing a frame but ideally, I would prefer to use the M instead of switching to my backups. It’s too much of a risk to miss something important.
Then it’s the accuracy of the rangefinder and the lenses. Over time, they will shift and require calibration and adjustment. I have had lenses that already shifted focus and needed adjustments. I know that doesn’t happen often but it does need some TLC and not to over knock it around during jobs.
Then some minor things like there’s no ultra sonic sensor cleaning system. So I have to ‘blow’ the sensor every now and then to keep the sensor free of dust. Oh, did I mention VisibleDust’s Arctic Butterfly? I use it to clean my sensor and it’s brilliant!!! No liquid and the super soft brush simply ‘sucks’ the dust out. Battery life is much better than the M9 but still no match to the DSLR. My Canon 5D battery can easily do around 1300 shots per charge. I only manage around 700 for the Leica. So I have to have three with me all the time to cover each wedding.
So there you go, all my nags about the M. I nag about other cameras too and like I said before, there’s no PERFECT camera out there.
Now it’s the turn for the positives.
In terms of being a pure photographic machine, Leica M has succeeded it. What does a pure photographic machine do? It produces brilliant photographs and the latest Leica M doesn’t disappoint. I am not a pixel peeper nor a lab scientist but speaking from a professional point of view, the Leica M produces one of the best and richest RAW files I’ve seen. At its base ISO (200), it’s way way way better than any Canon EOS cameras I’ve used. It has a very wide usable dynamic range. Canon RAW files traditionally fall short in the shadow areas and when I push the Leica files, it’s just unbelievable. When couple with the best Leica glass, it’s just like magic. It’s arguable these days that the best Zeiss lenses always being noted as the BEST in the world but there’s nothing like the Leica’s perfect balance on size, weight and performance.
Despite having only 24mp, it’s more than enough for my use. I do believe that this is the best resolution for weddings. Not too large to slow down my workflow and computer but large enough to enlarge prints to anything upto A3 without having to interpolate the pixels. I don’t want 36 or even 50mp. These are good to have if I am a landscape or commercial photographer but I want speed, whether for operation or post processing.
Then there’s the size advantage. Now my day to day pack is much smaller than anything. I use my Billingham Hadley Pro to fit my M-P with a lens attached, then another lens, some batteries and memory cards, oh, a bottle of water. This is good enough for me to go out for a day. I used to carry a much bigger shoulder bag for my DSLR kit. My should isn’t hurting anymore.
Finally, built quality. It’s still the best in my opinion. It’s no doubt that Leica is THE BEST BUILT camera on earth, period. It certainly feels it too. Despite the aforementioned handling issues, holding a M camera feels like holding a solid gold brick. Yes, dense and solid. It’d durable that I am sure it will probably still works after an atomic blast. However, due to the inherited mechanical rangefinder system, it’s also a little delicate. Rangefinder is susceptible to shifts if there’s any big knock to the camera, unless EVF is your thing. I much prefer using the finder patch for focusing as it’s many times quicker, though it may not be as accurate for long tele or ultra fast lens like the Noctilux, but for my 1.4 or even the 1.2 lenses, I have no problem in ‘nailing’ it.
Finally, the discrete look. The M (240) was already a very low profile camera but my M-P took it further by removing the ‘Red’ dot. I shoot in the street without much notice. Furthermore, the relatively quiet shutter is good with tactile sound. Yet, it’s nowhere near as silent as the electronic shutter of my E-M5 II!
To summarise, I would say my experience with the M has been unique, demanding and very satisfying. It was unique because operating a rangefinder camera is definitely different to using any other cameras. The full manual controls also put a lot of pressure to the photographer’s brain, especially to those who are brought up by automated SLRs and DSLRs. The M demands the photographer to think before every shot. A lot of us now rely on all the autofocus and metering system to get the perfectly exposed and sharp picture. But you know what? These technologies may have improved accuracy and yet it got us lazy. I have not regretted my decision for the switch. As a matter of fact, my photography actually improved after started using the M. It’s simple manual controls took away some of the automations that I used to heavily rely on. Instead, the M took me back to the root of photography. It’s all good things. It may have a 1950’s physical design (a little dated for today’s world, beautiful yet a little clumsy), but it’s certain very much 2015 if you consider it as a PURE camera. As an image taking machine, Leica have succeeded, just like the good old days. It’s lenses are still up there with the top but with the advancing technologies, some Japanese lens manufacturers are catching up fast. Leica still has its advantage, small and well built metal lenses that will last a lifetime. Harder to say about the camera body though (more of the electronically controlled shutter and sensor).
Footnote: Forget about video mode which is a function that I didn’t even mention.
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