How are Leica M body rangefinders still a thing?

how-are-leica-m-body-rangefinders-still-a-thing
This article is by Horatio Tan (Website|Instagram|Facebook). It is written as a parody from the perspective of a Leica SL photographer, regarding the superiority of the SL system over the M system. Check out his other articles, also available on his website.

I think that Leica has a problem. And it has to do with how amazing the Leica SL is. Makes you wonder why any Leica shooter would still hang onto their Leica rangefinders. The thing is, I too at one time felt this passionately about my Leica M body rangefinders. Despite the world moving towards better focusing systems, my resolve was unshakable. Nothing was going to get in between me and my Leica rangefinder, to adapt a quote from a young Brooke Shields in her Calvin’s. In fact, nothing was going to separate me from my M. You would have to pry it out of my cold dead hands, as if it were a rifle clinging onto Charlton Heston. I can go all day with my bad adaptation of famous popular clichés.

The point is, we practitioner of Leica rangefinder photography are a loyal bunch. And it didn’t matter to us that the times are a changing. Photography moved on from rangefinder photography, to through-the-lens, to autofocusing. But we few, we happy few, we band of brothers (and sisters) maintained our loyalty, upgrading generation after generation, edition after edition, to the next newer and better M body iteration of rangefinder technology.

Thing is, rangefinder technology really hasn’t improved from the M3 – assuming you could call rangefinder a technology at all.

Let’s be fair. Of course, there has been improvements. The M has come a long way, from its humble beginnings without a proper light meter. Yes, the M has improved. You don’t have to be burdened anymore with having to remember the Sunny 16 Rule, when shooting with contemporary M body rangefinders.

But when you think about it, how has the Leica range of rangefinders actually improved? Can you really say that the M7 is a stark improvement from the M6 or the M4 or even the M3? I suppose if you’ve lived your entire life under a rock, never having focused and composed through the lens, incremental improvement of faster shutter speed from 1/1000s to 1/2000s is a big deal. And if that rings true to you, I suppose that having a light meter was an unexpected surprise.

Oh, let us not forget that Leica did eventually make the leap to go digital with the M8 – much to the chagrin of purists denying the inevitability of megapixels over emulsion. I guess accepting progress didn’t make sense to those still hiding in their darkroom workflow.

Leica SL + Leica 50mm f/1.2 AA at f/1.2. With the EVF, I was able to frame and focus at the same time, without the need to reframe for the sake of composition.

Leica SL + Leica 50mm f/1.2 AA at f/1.2. With the EVF, I was able to frame and focus at the same time, without the need to reframe for the sake of composition.

Leica SL + Leica 50mm f/0.95 ASPH at f/0.95. The room was pitch dark, and I was able to frame and focus on the lead eye without straining my eyes.

Leica SL + Leica 50mm f/0.95 ASPH at f/0.95. The room was pitch dark, and I was able to frame and focus on the lead eye without straining my eyes.

Leica SL + Leica 50mm f/0.95 at f/0.95. Again, the room was very dark, and I was able to frame and focus.

Leica SL + Leica 50mm f/0.95 at f/0.95. Again, the room was very dark, and I was able to frame and focus.

Thing is, when it comes right down to the nitty gritty of photography, nothing really matters except for getting the shot. And with respect to that reality, rangefinder cameras like the M are clearly at a distinct disadvantage. How so could Messsucher ever match up with through-the-lens focusing? How could it even begin to compare with focus magnification in electronic viewfinders? Think of how absurdly antiquated a rangefinder is. It’s focusing by lining up two superimposed images in the viewfinder.

It’s not so bad if you’re subject is up close, or if you’re shooting stopped down. But the minute you shoot wide open with the light going bad, and the subject further away, getting tack focus on the subject’s lead eye (or anywhere else) is more a matter of luck than skill. On top of that, if the subject is not stationary, forget about getting focus at all. The odds of getting focus becomes a crap shoot.

How could you, under those unideal circumstances? Think how counterintuitive the rangefinder focusing process is. You focus first, then you shift your camera out of that confirmed focused position for the sake of composition. In that split second of reframing the camera, you might very well have moved the camera out of focus, or the subject might have moved out of focus as well.

And then there is also the issue of frame lines, parallax, and viewfinder limitation beyond normal focal length! Please don’t get me started on that. Have fun composing your image on a rangefinder with 100% accuracy.

What we put-up for the pleasure of photographing with those legendary Leica glass!

Not no more, now that the Leica SL is here.

I mean – OMG – how are Leica M body rangefinders still a thing? We don’t need to shoot with an M body anymore, if we want to shoot with a Leica M-mount lens! And it’s not like the price difference is that insurmountable, between the Leica M240 and the Leica SL… although I admit, the M262 is significantly cheaper.

But if cheaper is what you want, you could always go down the route of a Sony A7 – although do we really want to go down that route?

The thing about the Leica SL is just how wonderful it feels in hand, and how truly amazing it is the moment you lift the electronic viewfinder up to your eyes. The experience feels as if Leica sprinkled all their pixie dust into making the Leica SL into something unimaginably refined for the photographer that understands how important ergonomics is to getting the shot.

Leica SL + Leica 28mm f/1.4 ASPH at f/1.4. Again, framed and focus wide open without the need to reframe.

Leica SL + Leica 28mm f/1.4 ASPH at f/1.4. Again, framed and focus wide open without the need to reframe.

Leica SL + Leica 75mm f/1.4 at f/1.4. Shooting at the 75mm focal length is amazing on the Leica SL, because you can actually frame and focus at the 75mm focal length.

Leica SL + Leica 75mm f/1.4 at f/1.4. Shooting at the 75mm focal length is amazing on the Leica SL, because you can actually frame and focus at the 75mm focal length.

Leica SL + Leica 21mm f/1.4 ASPH at f/1.4. No need for an external finder on the Leica SL. At 21mm, you can frame and focus through the EVF.

Leica SL + Leica 21mm f/1.4 ASPH at f/1.4. No need for an external finder on the Leica SL. At 21mm, you can frame and focus through the EVF.

It’s so simple what Leica did with the SL. It’s basically one giant electronic viewfinder with a comfortable hand grip, and the most ideally situated joystick selector for your thumb, used for selecting focus points. The way the Leica SL feels, it makes you just want to shoot with it.

With the Leica SL, you can do all the things that used to hurt your eyes, when shooting M-mount glass on a rangefinder. You can shoot wide open with a Noctilux, in low light, on a subject far away from the camera, without having to reframe the camera for composition. I mean, how crazy is that! To be able to frame, focus, and capture all in one motion, without straining your eyes! Makes you wonder why Leica didn’t think of it sooner?

And beyond a Leica M-mount substitute, the SL can also be adapted to shoot with R-mount Leica glass much better than the M240. But it doesn’t just stop there. Because of how shallow the flange focal distance is, you can pretty much adapt any Nikon or Canon lens on the Leica SL.

With how versatile the SL is, it’s easy to forget that the SL has its own autofocus lens system too! I mean how crazy is that – an autofocus system - including zoom lenses… and not just any zoom lenses, but a native telephoto one! For the first time in the modern era of autofocus photography could a Leica photographer acquire and track focus on a subject across a distance without relying on a competing DSLR brand. Think about how amazing that is! Interchanging between Leica M-mount and AF telephoto zoom lenses on a single shoot, without having to bother with two different battery and charging systems!

I’m not making any of this up. It’s not like I’m running for president. I’m just saying it as it is. The Leica SL is just so much better. And it really makes you wonder how Leica M body rangefinders are still a thing. All for the sake of heritage and compactness? I mean, for real?

But like all things in life, certainty is only as constant as the Northern Star, and no less reliable than a presidential poll. Certainty of the Leica SL’s superiority is clouded by rumors. In this case, the rumor is the imminent release of the next iteration Leica M rangefinder – the already legendary M10. It will have a dedicated ISO dial, positioned ever so thoughtfully by the designers at Wetzler, to mimic the appearance of an old-style film rewind dial.

And let us also not forget the rumor of a high-resolution Leica sensor, also predicted by yours truly.

Leica SL + Leica 24-90mm Vario. It is a joy to autofocus on the Leica SL.

Leica SL + Leica 24-90mm Vario. It is a joy to autofocus on the Leica SL.

Leica SL + Leica 24-90mm Vario. With autofocus, I can actually track with a Leica!

Leica SL + Leica 24-90mm Vario. With autofocus, I can actually track with a Leica!

Leica SL + Leica 24mm f/1.4 ASPH at f/1.4. On manual focus, I can focus further from the conventional focusing points of DSLRs.

Leica SL + Leica 24mm f/1.4 ASPH at f/1.4. On manual focus, I can focus further from the conventional focusing points of DSLRs.

My head is spinning! This rumored Leica M10 could potentially be the perfect digital rangefinder. And if Leica makes a monochrome MD version, could you imagine how perfect that would be? It would be the perfect camera ever – film or digital!

Like Homer Simpson to the last bite of forbidden donut, you know it’s a foregone conclusion that we’re going to trade our soul for this Leica M10, the minute it starts shipping. It’s truly beyond our control. Daddy needs his dedicated ISO dial!

In the end, rangefinders may be inferior. But once bitten by the Leica M rangefinder bug, you will always be forever smitten by its lure. So how is it still a thing? The M body rangefinder has never been about the precision, or what’s better. For us loyal bunch, it’s always been about the Leica M rangefinder experience.

Still, the Leica SL is just so much better. With that said, I can’t wait to pre-order the Leica M10 – assuming the rumors are correct. So… I guess that this whole article is just bunk… total worthless nonsense.

I hope you liked my piece. For more fun articles and sample images, please visit my website. And if you are thinking about getting the Leica SL, much has been written about it on my site, in addition to my experience with various Leica M-mount lenses.

If you have an interesting idea for a guest post, you can contact me here.

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  • astrostl

    SL too large, focus-and-recompose (and mail in for recalibration) doesn’t sound fun to me either. The M10 could be my first Leica.

  • I’ve personally never found the SL the most comfortable camera myself, at least compared to DSLRs, which seem more ergonomically designed, mirrorless or not.

  • soundimageplus

    Personally after using my SL for 6 months any thought of returning to a rangefinder M as my primary work camera has disappeared. It would, for me be a huge step backward. And no matter how attractive and aesthetic the M10 may be, getting the image in the most efficient way takes precedence and for that the SL is simply unbeatable.

    • CHD

      I want an M body with no rangefinder, just the EVF from the SL. I like my M240 but the rangefinder is more of a hindrance in most cases then a benefit.

      • I think this will be next experiment Leica will do after the M10.

        • CHD

          I so hope you are right….

  • hjwulff

    An SL is not a Leica M. For you that may be a disadvantage, but for me it leads to a distinctly different way of seeing and shooting. At present I use three different digital systems, each for their strengths and non is a DSLR system; those don’t offer me anything I need.

    But again, shooting an M allows one to see and shoot in a different manner that I have come to appreciate over many decades. The SL would only allow me to partly replicate one of my other systems, not replace the M.

    • Charles

      I use both film & digital Ms, and have a modern DSLR.
      I’ve often read about this idea of an M allowing one “to see” in a different way.
      As much as I enjoy the shooting experience of the M, I would never claim that the Messsucherkamera offered something special that modified the way I pre-visualise or visualise the world photographically.
      Certainly, shooting any camera for a couple of decades would improve one’s photographic eye, use of light and composition, but that would equally occur with a DSLR or the Leica SL.

  • brook

    Who cares about either. Have tested both and the chips are 5 years behind everything else. I have a Q and love shooting with it but the chip isn’t as good as a Nikon d600. Doesn’t mean its not fun to shoot with though. I really want an af M or a Q with interchangeable lenses but until the chips get better I won’t be buying anything else from the red dot.(I am not referring to mp but color depth and the ability to push a file.)

    • CHD

      Really???
      I think we’re so spoiled by sensor performance these days that we obsess over specs that matter little. I look back to my Canon 20D and it’s 8mp sensor and limited dynamic range. Then I look even further back to when I shot film and refused to use anything faster then iso400.

      There isn’t a digital camera available today that cannot provide world class imagery behind the right hands. I agree Leica is a little dated with their sensor tech but even today there is not another camera out there that performs with M mount glass better then Leica M cameras.

      • brook

        Thats one way to look at it. I refuse to pay a premium for outdated products. And as a pro I have advanced what I can shoot because of this new chip technology. I couldn’t have shot 10 years ago what I shoot today, you are right. Doesn’t mean I want to go back there. Don’t make excuses for Leica. If they are going to charge a lot, demand they make great products….

        • CHD

          ‘demand they make great products….’
          They do make great products. I can’t think of another camera manufacturer that produces cameras of such hi quality fit and finish….it’s why I bought my M240:)

  • Les

    I guess you are trying to be cute.

    Is it part of the joke that most of your SL compositions have the subject right in the middle of the frame?

    • Yang Ye

      You told the truth 😀

    • T Woo

      yes
      i guess once you got a decent looking subject.. compositions doesn’t matter any more…
      and that’s what I don’t like

  • Chas Herren

    Just Right On, Man! It’s about time we replaced the world with a tiny TV!

  • Kivi Shaps

    Ok, count me in. Now who is going to pony up the bucks for me to get an SL?

  • THEFLAPDONG

    Photographing cute Anna is too easy. Try other subjects please.

    • T Woo

      True true this is just showing off

  • EnPassant

    How could we disagree when the author show us what can be done with a camera and lenses costing more than 400 grand!

    For people with less budget older and cheaper M lenses and cameras for film is still the way to go for the true rangefinder experience.
    With slower lenses and film precise focus is not as critical as with fast lenses and high MP sensors.

    The digital “rangefinder” alternative on a budget (compared to Leica!) is Fujifilm’s X-Pro 1 or 2. For thin DOF as in these photos there are a lot of OEM and third party alternatives for several FF camera brands.

    Except for a classical M rangefinder Leica could also do a version with the EVF from SL.

  • you have to compare the SL with a nikon D5 and not with a M, it’s just out of the subject, with the special lenses of the SL, it is just a no go of street photo and, AND: the M is a street photo camera; nobody cares about you! you go out with a SL in the streets with a SL and the big zoom: you look like a zombie…take pictures with a nice model which doesn’t move and keep on smiling: for me it’s just another clic

    • CHD

      The whole, ‘shoot an M because nobody sees you’ thing is such a cliche. If anything I get noticed more often with my M240. ‘Hey, is that a film camera? Hey, what kind of camera is that? Hey, that’s pretty cool’.
      Shoot a crappy Canon Rebel with the 40mmSTM and you will really know what ‘nobody sees you’ means.

  • 3foot1

    Jonathan Swift, you’re safe.

  • Kim Yee

    Hahaha, really? Leica’s track record with the S and most of M quality issue is not mentioned at all. It’s such a badly manufactured digital camera!!!

    • CHD

      :I

  • Brennan McKissick

    If it wasn’t for the disclaimer at the top, you could pass this off as a serious article. It would be terrible but it would fall in line with the way some people think now.

  • kkd

    Get me a monochrome SL and I’ll consider swapping to it.

  • ekgurbuz

    Oh yeah, sure, for sure. “Can’t shoot with a rangefinder” couldn’t have been expressed so improperly. Gimme a break… Even I can do it! Horses for courses is a different matter, but then this is not what the article is saying.

  • CHD

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again….I want an M styled body with a built-in EVF and no rangefinder. The current M240 still performs better with M glass then the SL….and it is also a smaller camera.
    M mount M style camera and built-in EVF….and I know I’m not alone.

  • After using a DSLR for a few years and using the M. I find the M a lot more fun to shoot and makes you really enjoy photography when you nailed the shot. I was a 5DMK3 user and they’re great for a work horse but definitely not for street. Lowkey, I’m a passionate street photographer but I havent worked the courage for it yet. For now I am just shooting with a Leica M-D, 50mm .95 https://www.instagram.com/superbvisual
    My work flow has changed and it’s all about “imagining the shot” and not just rapid shooting. Forces you to really think and slow you down compared to a DSLR. Now, if you wanted me to shoot a wedding I would probably use a DSLR just to make sure I get paid LOL or better yet for the sake of the post a Leica SL all the way.

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