For those of you who take photographs, a lot of judgement is passed on which camera is the “best” camera out there. Some argue Nikon, some argue Canon, hell some even argue Sony or Pentax. Then there’s mysterious brand that some know of called “Leica”. Leica Camera AG is a German camera company that manufactures a variety of cameras, both digital and, yes- some still film. Leica is an internationally renowned camera company well known for its production of rangefinder style cameras. For those of you who are well versed in firearms, the term “rangefinder” may become a confusing term when associated with cameras. I assure you- there is relevance. Leica rangefinders (particularly the M system) are camera bodies that use zone focusing (focus via a manual focus ring with a scale in meters and/or feet (and vice versa) or a rangefinder viewfinder. Rangefinders are a very difficult concept to explain to those who have never experienced using one. At first, it may seem confusing, but after you use one, it makes complete sense.
I personally started shooting with a point and shoot digital camera. Nothing glorious or magical, no, but it was my first camera. I had no idea what rangefinders were until about a year ago. I knew the name Leica through the movie “Eurotrip” but never actually knew anything about them. One day, I decided to teach myself. What makes these cameras so different? What makes them so special? Why the hell are Leicas so expensive? Upon first viewing, I noticed they were very minimalistic in design, and remind me of modern/contemporary interior design. Personally, I love minimalism, so naturally these cameras stuck out to me. Upon further research, I noticed they had this odd system of focusing using a “rangefinder patch”. I still had absolutely no god damn clue what this was after looking at several things on the internet, and for some reason still couldn’t grasp the idea when it was explained to me in detail. One day I had the pleasure of handling an M9 and a 50mm Summilux E46 ASPH. In lamens terms, this is the cat’s meow of rangefinder equipment. (as far as digital goes) From that moment on, not only did I understand, but I was smitten.
Fast forward a few months, and I now own a Leica M3 dual stroke. This camera is approximately 50+ years old, slightly post WW2 in age, and needed a CLA (cleaning, lubrication and adjustment) as well as a vulcanite (leatherette) re-wrap. After sending the camera out for 2 weeks and 200$ later, I had virtually a brand new camera. This was film, yes. No, it didn’t have a built in light meter. No auto exposure. Simply an exposure dial, aperture control on the lens, and a manual focus ring with a shutter and film advance arm. That’s it- that’s everything on the camera- barely anything. No buttons, no menus; I fell in love.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago: I’m at a crossroads with my photography. I’m bored with my 5d3 and L lenses, and I’m not inspired to shoot anymore. It feels too automated, too detached. What’s missing? Rangefinders. Leicas. It’s time. So, I found a killer deal on an silver M8 and purchased it. I needed a lens, so I traded my Fuji Xpro-1 kit (PHENOMENAL camera by the way, to anyone who’s considering it) for a 35mm Summicron E39 ASPH- regarded as one of the sharpest (if not the sharpest) 35mm primes ever. After seeing that little rangefinder patch for a few frames, I decided I want to do it. This is it. I’m switching.
After a mental game of tennis with pros and cons for each system, I decided to throw “logic” out the window and go with what I’m happiest shooting with- which as you’ve already guessed, is a Leica. Now- there’s the argument of whether or not the lenses are worth the astronomical price tags placed upon them. Well- that’s relative to what you consider to be “worth it”. If you want tack sharp images out of a lens wide open, with little to no distortion, this is the system for you. If you don’t mind little flaws here and there, and having to deal with painfully slow auto focus (cough cough 85L cough cough) and you’re on a “budget”, (I use that term looser than Snooki’s meat curtains) then maybe Canon or Nikon is a good choice for you. It really honestly comes down to what you prefer. I like the simplicity, minimalism, quality, and- yes- lineage that comes with shooting Leica. It’s a COMPLETELY different experience shooting with the M system versus a DSLR. In short: Yes, I do believe these lenses are worth it.
I usually absolutely hate when people say “it’s not the gear, it’s the photographer”, for this very point. WHAT you shoot, and HOW you shoot, greatly effects your work, your attitude, and enthusiasm for this. I used to be all about DSLR’s, and all that stuff. Then I wanted a more intimate shooting experience, so I dove into film with my M3 and an old EOS 650 for my EOS lenses. Then I jumped to my fuji system to slow down my pace, but still stay digital. When it came down to it, I wanted Leica again. There’s technical reasons why they’re superior and yes, some of them don’t justify the outlandish and honestly overpriced price tags on the equipment- but it’s all in the experience. If you enjoy shooting 6×7 film- go do it. If you enjoy DSLR’s, go shoot them. Fill up those SD/CF cards. If you enjoy large format, have at it. Shoot what you love, and love what you shoot with. It really does make all the difference.