My Leica M10 is getting used less and less these days. It is time to own it. This is the story about a fanboy’s digital Leica rangefinder fall from grace.
The story of my digital Leica rangefinder fall from grace
Years ago, I started shooting Sony cameras because of the EVF. The EVF was the killer feature for my work and it was more important than the the crummy ergonomics, disastrous battery life, half crummy autofocus, and off kilter color during the early years of Sony mirrorless.
Sony was my gateway to manual focus lenses. During a trip to Japan, I picked up a few vintage lenses and became a camera nerd. What I didn’t love was manually focusing lenses on a Sony camera. That was a miserable experience.
Trying to improve the manual focusing experience on a digital camera, I turned to Leica and hit the ground running with an M10 rangefinder. Although there were limitations which would later wear on me, the rangefinder was fantastic.
What I didn’t expect was that while I was playing cameras and lenses with the M10, my most important client wanted me to shoot “The Leica” whenever possible. The images were far superior to what I was getting from Sony. She could pick Leica images out of a gallery of mixed Sony + Leica images like a truffle hog searching for truffles.
During the Leica years, life was good. I went fanboy. I got an M7 to compliment the M10. The good times, however, wouldn’t last. When I switched from Sony back to Canon, the deck was shuffled.
Switching back to Canon after almost 7 years was a great move for my commercial work. What I didn’t expect was that the Canon R5 and RF lenses were so good there was no longer any justification for me to use the Leica M10 at work. The poor old rangefinder was relegated back to personal use and for playing cameras and lenses. Trouble was brewing in fanboy paradise.
Meanwhile, my wife wanted an autofocus digital camera that would look cool on the shelf when she wasn’t using it. She went for a Fuji X-Pro 3. I happily ignored that silly little crop frame sensor partly because she protected that camera like a honey badger; and partly because my Leica fanboy nose was firmly planted up my full frame fanboy ass. I would be smelling fresh air shortly.
So there I am. Happy as a clam with a Canon camera that makes great images but it was too big, too ugly, has zero style, and is too heavy for me to want to drag up a mountain or (gasp) take on vacation. When I shot Sony, the Sony was small enough to make due for those uses but the Canon is just too darn big. The manual focusing system on the R5 with adapted lenses is also pretty terrible, Mitigating the size of the R5 with smaller, manual focus, lenses was not an option.
The Leica M10 also wasn’t an ideal option given that I previously killed 3 cameras that lacked weather sealing. I also had a rangefinder go out of alignment on me. I was skittish about adventuring with the M10.
So there I was, a camera nerd with a great work camera who wanted something smaller and weather-sealed for adventuring and along comes my friend Todd Glaser floating in the open ocean with a spanking new Fuji GFX 100. The images were incredible but my fanboy nose was still firmly lodged in my sphincter hole. I was still missing it.
A few days later I met Todd to shoot some skate. I brought a Leica and he brought the Fuji GFX 100. I hadn’t thought about Fuji since I killed off an early version X100 before they added weather sealing. After using the GFX 100, however, it clicked….. go upstairs and steal the Fuji X-Pro 3 from my wife.
So, I go upstairs, steal the Fuji X-Pro 3 and shoot a few images and some BTS in the studio the next day. And just like that, Fuji put the nail in the coffin on my extended monogamous relationship with a digital Leica. I am now doing some form of polyamorous digital relationship thing with Fuji and Leica. It is all so confusing. This is the image I took as a BTS in the studio with the Fuji X-Pro 3 that changed everything.
Should you buy a digital Leica rangefinder or Fuji-film X camera (1)? A decision matrix.
Over the years, I was asked this question many times but could never responsibly offer an answer. Now I can.
TL;DR: the right digital Leica rangefinder for many normal people is a Fuji. What follows is an 8 question decision matrix that MIGHT help.
This approach only MIGHT help because the root of the decision tree is not based on logic. This is where most people, and every You Tuber who makes a stupid video comparing Leica to anything else gets in trouble. This decision matrix is predicated on feels rather camera specs or logic because anytime you talk Leica you are talking feels.
The elephant in the room is that (at least for the people that ask me for help buying a camera) people considering a Leica are looking to buy cool shit and there is no way to quantify why one piece of shit is cooler than another piece of shit. Purina, however, does have a fecal scoring chart that will help you quantify dog shit but will likely be of no use to your camera purchasing decisions (2).
Question 1: Is the main reason you are considering Leica because it is cool shit?
It is very possible that the people I talk with don’t represent the larger Leica community but I have no reason to believe that is true. In my discussions I am usually able to get them to open up and be really honest about their camera lust. Oftentimes they admit that they are considering a digital Leica purchase because they like cool shit. For a camera nerd, Leica is the pinnacle of the poop pile.
I do not judge. Maybe that is why they come clean with me. I am their people. From my vantage point, cool is a perfectly viable reason to buy a camera. I like playing cameras and lenses and I am not too proud to say it. I get it. I also get fine wine. I get expensive watches. I get UBCO bikes. I get Enve wheels. I also kind of sort of get Golden Goose shoes. Luxury is luxury and if that gets you activated, I will be right there cheering you on to spend your money but before you do, you really need to ask yourself…
Question 1: is the main reason you are considering Leica because it is cool shit? Are you considering a Leica because you are playing cameras and lenses rather than taking or making pictures?
Be brutally honest. If the answer is yes, great, get the Leica. You will love it. You can always sell it but until you scratch that Leica itch, the Leica itch will haunt you. If, however, cool is only part of your purchasing decision then keep reading. For many people, cool is not enough to make them happy over the long haul.
Question 2: Can you afford to buy two Leica cameras – TODAY?
A mistake people make when buying a Leica is that they stretch to make a purchase they can’t 100% afford. This is an issue because after the purchase, they realize that there is a “Leica Tax” on the back end. The Leica Tax is a luxury tax similar to the tax that other luxury goods manufacturers charge to punish customer for buying their goods. Odds and ends and repairs that are affordable with other companies are exorbitant with luxury goods companies. For example, if you drive a BMW, get ready to pay thousands of dollars to fix a broken sensor that would cost about $100 on a Kia. With regard to Leica, we are talking about $200 lens hoods, $300 batteries, and expensive CLA’s.
They say a camera is an investment and you can always sell a Leica for as much or more than you bought it for. That is a fable unless the camera never leaves the house. In the real world, cameras get dinged and scratched which is an issue. If you ever try to sell a Leica camera, you are going to find the people buying on the reseale Leica market are borderline insane. Any blemish or spec of dust drops the price of the camera tremendously. Owning a Leica gets expensive if you actually use your camera in the wild then go to sell it.
The price of legacy rangefinder lenses skyrocketed in the last few years. When I started down this road that wasn’t quite the case. I can honestly say that if I was starting now, I might not have gone the rangefinder route but lets play cameras and lenses and not revisionist history. My second question is intended to recalibrate your thinking.
Question 2: can you afford to to buy two Leica digital cameras? If the answer is yes, then get two. If you can afford two, you can afford the lenses, the Leica Tax, and stomach a ding or two. If the answer is that you can only afford one Leica camera, then think long and hard about purchasing a luxury camera.
Question 3: Are you considering a Leica because it has a rangefinder?
When I got my first Leica, I got it because I wanted a better way to manually focus lenses on a digital camera. It was a no brainer. At the time, there was no other good option. I was buying a rangefinder attached to a digital camera.
When I talk with my readers, however, the rangefinder doesn’t seem all that important to them and I find this interesting. My feeling is that if the main reason you are considering a digital Leica isn’t primarily because of the rangefinder, you should buy absolutely anything other than a Leica rangefinder. A rangefinder is great but there are drawbacks and they will eventually drive you insane unless you value the rangefinder experience.
These limitations include 1) shooting lenses wider than 28mm or longer than 50mm are a pain 2) the close focusing distance is poor and 3) it is difficult to accurately focus fast glass wide open unless you are shooting things that don’t move like dead animals, muffins, garden gnomes, parked cars, and maybe a rusty basketball hoop at sunset.
So, Question 3: are you considering a Leica because you want the rangefinder experience? If the answer is yes, there is really only one option. Get the Leica. If the answer is “no” or “I don’t know” or “maybe,” you should do yourself and figure that out first.
Question 4: are you buying a Leica because of “The Leica Look” in your images?
A lot of the mystique and magic surrounding Leica is a holdover from the film days, legacy lenses, marketing, or nonsense that is repeated ad nauseam by bloggers or YouTubers without crucially thinking about what they are regurgitating.
From what I can tell, back in the day, Leica lenses may legitimately have been “the best” if we are talking technical specs. Moreover, because everyone was shooting the same film, it was the lenses that gave an image its “look.” If you wanted a “Leica Look” then you shot Leica glass on a Leica camera. That made sense in the film days but with digital I am not so sure.
I hear people talk about the color of a lens on a digital camera but color happens in post. I hear people talk about sharpness but many companies make sharp lenses. I hear about bokeh and 3D pop but so many companies make lenses that you can use to slay, crush, and otherwise mutilate the bokeh. I hear people talk about character but there are any number of legacy lenses that are imperfect enough to give your images some character.
What I see too often is that people find a Leica picture they love and decide it was Leica magic that gave the image the look rather than just a random alignment of the moon, stars, light, color, shadow, and post processing that made it happen.
What I am saying is that if you are chasing “The Leica Look” and you think you are going to find it in the digital camera, it is possible you are chasing rainbows. Any look you are after comes from the lenses first and, remember, you can use Leica lenses on other camera bodies if you don’t care about the rangefinder. Which brings us to….
Question 4: are you considering digital Leica rangefinder because you are chasing “The Leica Look? If so, you might be disappointed in what you find. You can certainly get it with a digital Leica rangefinder but it isn’t 1965. There are other ways. Consider the Fuji, adapt some Leica lenses, and maybe spend 5 minutes in post.
Question 5: do you already own a bunch of rangefinder lenses?
Although there are limitations, an argument can be made that the best and/or fastest way to focus manual focus lenses can be a rangefinder. If you already have rangefinder lenses, and you want to make the most out of them, your decision is already made for you. Get the Leica.
On the other hand, if you don’t already own rangefinder lenses, I encourage you to think long and hard before you make that investment. Everyone prattles on ad nauseum about Leica glass but even though Leica might have been “the best” in 1969, it is possible that the gap has narrowed if you are looking for modern style lenses. Vintage rangefinder lenses are also expensive and can be difficult to find. So…
Question 5: Do you already own a bunch of rangefinder lenses? If so, get the Leica. That is the only way to take full advantage of your previous investment. Similarly, if you own or are thinking about owning a film Leica, a Leica digital rangefinder might be your best bet. If you cant satisfy either of those requirements, you need to think long and hard about going down the rangefinder lens road. The following image is taken with an adapted Pentax lens. If you are searching for character there are lots of places to find it. A rangefinder is not a requirement.
Interlude and PSA: HEDONIC ADAPTATION
Some comedian (I couldn’t find the quote) once said something like “Even if a guy marries a supermodel, he is going to eventually get bored of her looks and start looking at other women.”
This may or may not be true in all cases but it accurately describes hedonic adaptation which is otherwise known as the hedonic treadmill.
The hedonic treadmill describes to the tendency for our happiness to return to a baseline regardless of our accomplishments or how many luxury goods we buy.
Some photographers (present company excluded) try to achieve happiness buying material goods like cameras. Unfortunately, you cant buy happiness. Not for very long at least. The happiness that comes from retail therapy has a limited shelf life. if you are like most normal people, you will get tired of your stuff – even if it has a red dot on it.
This will become important in a minute. Hang on….
Question 5: Do you judge digital camera build quality like a caveman?
I like to say that photographers often judge camera lens quality like a caveman. If a lens is heavy they pick it up, say “ooo ooo ahh ahh” and their lizard brain tells them “heavy – must be good.” Pro tip: they do the same for cameras.
Photographers also seem to like things that are made out of metal and go clicky clacky like I imagine a caveman or 5 year old would. I am right there with you. I have a Hasselblad and I still get activated by the sound of the mirror slap. I am still in awe of the buttery smooth film advance on my weirdly heavy M7. I am not immune to the pathology.
You, however, need to be smarter than me, smarter than a caveman, and as smart as Dr. Phil for 5 seconds before you decide that the “sexiness” of a camera is a factor in whether or not you buy a camera. No matter what you think right now, hedonistic adaptation will eventually get the best of you and “sexiness” won’t be as important to you as it once was.
The issue (at least for me) is that all of that sexiness comes with a cost. You need to take care of a Leica. You need to worry about it getting stolen. I also worry about replacing my M10 if it breaks or dies. I don’t intend to upgrade to an M11 and they are no longer making M10’s. At some point in the future, batteries are going to be hard to come by. With a Fuji, I can always just get another. With the Fuji, there is no background stress that I seem to carry with my Leica M10 (3).
There is math that might help you internalize how I feel about this concept. This math is going on in my head right now as I grapple with the situation.
(Sexiness of your Leica) – (stress of taking care of your Leica) – (stress of not being able to easily replace the Leica in the future) – (hedonic adaptation/emotional depreciation) = actual real world difference in sexiness between Leica and Fuji.
For me, the Fuji feels about 70% as sexy as a digital Leica rangefinder when you first get it. I expect that if you give it a few years, after hedonic adaptation sets in and you have to send your Leica for a CLA a few times, the differences are mitigated. I am not sure if this process is more akin to how the crummy songs on a Jane’s Addiction album grow on you over time so you think the JA album is better than it really is or how, as a kid, you grow to resent any boy band you might have liked before you knew you weren’t supposed to like boy bands. Am I learning to like the Fuji more or the Leica less is what I am asking? I dont know that I can tell the difference.
Question 5: how important is the sexiness of a camera to you? If you are a sociopath who is immune to hedonic adaptation such that every day is Groundhog Day when you pick up a camera, get the Leica. If you think that calling electronics sexy is pathology and/or you are a normal person with normal feelings and emotions consider the Fuji.
Note: For the record, calling electronics sexy is, in fact, pathology and using the word sexiness to describe electronics makes me want to hurl. I am going to go flog myself now.
Question 6: do you go out in the rain? Desert? Salt Flats? On vacation?
Fact: many Leica cameras never leave the house. They don’t need weather sealing. I make fun of this throughout LLFNP where I talk about garden gnomes and parked cars because those object are all the most Leica cameras ever get to see.
If however, you intend to go out in the world where there is actual weather, you have to come to terms with the fact that Leica rangefinder cameras are not weather sealed. To me, weather sealing is as important as the weight, look, and feel of a camera because I tend to kill cameras in the rain, snow, and sand. Your mileage may vary. If your camera will live in the environment and not on a shelf you need to answer question 6:
Question 6: do you go out in the rain? Desert? Or on vacation? If the answer is yes to any or all of the above, give added consideration to the Fuji but remember that you will need a weather sealed Fuji and WR lenses to be better protected from the elements. The following image taken with a Zeiss ZM Biogon 35mm lens and Leica M10. Nothing happened to my camera this day but I was very aware of the sensor corrosion issues of older Leica digital cameras and very aware of the risk of shooting around salt without weather sealed equipment.
Question 7: how important is manual focus?
I am not asking how important is it to use rangefinder lenses or adapt rangefinder lenses. We already did that. If you already have rangefinder lenses, get the Leica. This question is for people starting out in their vintage and manual focus journey.
In the past, my inclination would be to advise you that a rangefinder is the best method of manually focusing lenses on a digital camera and then go on a tirade about how manually focusing lenses on a digital camera is a pain in the ass without a rangefinder.
Manually focusing lenses on a digital camera has always involved extra steps like clicking to zoom the image to get critical focus, then clicking more times to zoom out. What really drove me nuts was having programmable buttons in places that required moving fingers here and there to zoom in and out. All of the zooming in and out and button pushing is awful.
Focus peaking and other digital focusing aids were also awful.
The final awful part of using manual focus lenses on a digital camera was trying to use them in low light where the zoomed image is all pixelated and nasty making critical focusing impossible.
Read those last three paragraphs again. They are all past tense. Given my experience with the Fuji X-Pro 3, I can no longer claim that focusing manual lenses on a digital camera without a rangefinder is an awful experience. This is actually the reason I finally pulled my head out of my full frame ass. I am not sure Fuji makes a big enough deal of this in the marketing.
When I first picked up the X-Pro 3 I thought the OVF was a bit gimmicky. I didn’t see any use for an OVF with native AF Fuji lenses but I don’t stand in the street taking pictures of strangers so there is that. That all changed when I put an M-mount lens on the camera. OMG. Mind blown.
The X-Pro 3 has three game changing features built into that OVF that nobody else seems to care about or use or even give much attention to.
- There is an always on, always zoomed, preview in the lower right corner of the OVF. Because it is always zoomed, you don’t have to push buttons like a rabbit on cocaine when you are focusing. Moreover, because it is already zoomed, focus peaking actually works.
- The second trick is that you can put the focusing box anywhere in the scene. Unlike a rangefinder, you are not limited to having your focusing in the center of the image.
- The third trick is even sneakier and fixes the issue of manually focusing lenses in low light. pixelated low light. If you half press the shutter button, something magical happens to the preview in the lower right corner. The focus peaking is turned off, the image somehow gets brighter, it cleans up the pixelation, and you can fine tune your focusing. I don’t understand how this works but it does.
This analog + digital cyborg focusing system is so functional that it can be more accurate and faster than a rangefinder. Importantly, I am also more comfortable and accurate shooting wide open with faster glass.
The OVF experience, however, isnt all fun and games. There is a a parallax issue that the camera cannot account for when using adapted lenses. Basically, the focusing box doesnt really line up with reality so even though the focusing box is, for example, on an eye you will be focusing on a chin. It is a pain point that is almost nonexistent with wide angle lenses at far focusing distances but gets progressively worse with longer focal lengths at near focusing distances.
That was long and probably only makes sense if you have already used an X Pro-3 camera but it brings us to….
Question 7: how important is using manual focus lenses on a digital camera? We already covered this a little bit in question 3 but it bears repeating. If manually focused lenses on a digital camera is the be all and end all for you, get the Leica. If you will never use an autofocus lens, get the Leica. However, you only like playing cameras and lenses from time to time, you want to play cameras and lenses with SLR lenses rather than rangefinder lenses, and/or you want autofocus from time to time get the Fuji. I am unaware of any other digital camera that has a comparible manual focusing system and that includes Sony, Panasonic, and Canon. This cyborg focusing system is why I say that the best digital Leica for many normal people is a Fuji and not a Sony, Panasonic, or Canon.
The following image was taken with a Panasonic S1 and Leica 90mm Elmarit 2.8. The viewfinder in the S1 was great but the manual focusing experience was similar to other digital cameras (i.e. lame). I was still stuck zooming and and zooming out trying to make focus peaking work. It was a pain. I sold the camera.
Question 8: can you handle the crop factor?
With this question I am not asking about the crop sensor vs full frame sensor debate. I mean specifically, can you handle the 1.5x crop factor? If you are using native Fuji lenses or Fuji X mount manual focus lenses from Voigtlander or other third party, this question is entirely irrelevant.
If, however, you intend to adapt m-mount or SLR lenses to the Fuji, the crop factor is a pain in the ass and there is no getting around it. A 28mm lens becomes a 40mm lens. A 50mm lens becomes a 75mm lens.
This is a particular headache if you like to shoot wide angle. Legacy wide angle lenses are often large, slow, and expensive. To get a 28mm equivalent you would have to start with something like an 18mm lens. Good luck finding that in a vintage lens. All of the vintage super wide angle lenses can also be pretty distorty and I am not sure distorty is even a word.
Question 8: can you handle the crop factor? I don’t know that this changes your decision for or against Leica or Fuji but it is just something to be aware of if you plan on adapting lenses. You can make both work but the crop sensor makes finding wide angle lenses more difficult. I plan on using a 28mm, 50mm, and something like a fuji 10-24 (15-35mm eq) or 16mm prime when I need something wide.
The following image was taken with a 28mm Zeiss Biogon ZM adapted to the Fuji X-Pro 3 at f/2.8. A 28mm Lens has a 40mm field of view.
That is my decision tree. Nothing else matters.
That is my decision tree and if you were my brother, mother, cousin, or boss those are the questions I would ask you. Nothing else matters. Not even the crop sensor vs. full frame debate I know you are jonesing to have with me. That doesn’t matter to me either.
I don’t see enough difference between a 26mp APSC and a 24MP full frame sensor when it comes to cropping images. If you need to crop all the time, I encourage you to get a 50mp sensor. I do just that with my Canon R5 for business. For personal use, however, I prefer not to deal with 50mp images. The crop sensor is a feature and not a bug for this use case.
The Fuji vs Leica color science debate you want to have also doesn’t matter to me either. You have a digital image. You can make a digital image whatever color you want. You can even cook up a Leica recipe and bake it into your JPEG images on the Fuji camera.
I could nerd out with you about bokeh, ISO performance, and all of the rest but, honestly, it doesn’t matter to me. Moreover, if you are like other people that ask me about this stuff, it probably doesn’t matter to you either. As we already discussed, most people I talk with who are considering shooting a digital Leica rangefinder camera are not there because of the image quality. They are there because it is cool, they already own rangefinder lenses, or, like me wanted to shoot a rangefinder camera.
This doesn’t mean that the Leica isn’t excellent or the Fuji is better than Leica or whatever words you are going to try to put in my mouth. What it means is that when it comes to the images it literally doesn’t matter to ME which camera I use.
Stated another way, I am 100% as happy with the Fuji X-Pro 3 images as I am with my digital Leica M10 images.
I use my X-Pro 3 and M10 for personal use and when I am playing cameras and lenses. I am just as happy with the images from my crop sensor Fuji as I am with my full frame digital Leica. In the future, I forecast that the M10 will be sitting at home more than it used to. I really enjoy not worrying about using a camera and/or lenses I cant easily replace. I also appreciate access to autofocus without needing to bring another camera. Your mileage may vary.
I encourage you to use the decision matrix above. It is different than anything else you will find online. Maybe that is because I am off the hedonic treadmill and have no skin in the game. Maybe it is because I have no qualms saying I like nice stuff for the sake of nice stuff and/or playing cameras and lenses for the sake of playing cameras and lenses. Importantly, I don’t need to hide all of that that behind a story about microcontrast, 3D pop, or color science; and I dont judge camera quality like a caveman. It is also probably because my income isn’t reliant on YouTube, Fuji, or Leica. I buy everything I use.
All things considered, it seems to me that if you already own rangefinder lenses or really love using a rangefinder for any reason, a digital Leica rangefinder is the way to go. You will love it. My M10 is a fantastic camera. For many normal people, however, the Fuji will be just as good and the best digital Leica for many normal people is a Fuji ESPECIALLY CONSIDERING that you can still use any and all Leica lenses…although you will have to deal with that pesky crop factor.
Remember: this discussion only applies to Leica digital rangefinders. My feelings about Leica film cameras are unchanged. The following image taken with a Leica M7 this month.
- This particular discussion relates to largely to the Fuji X-Pro 3 camera. Some of it applies to the other Fuji cameras but I don’t yet have enough experience with them yet to responsibly comment about other Fuji cameras. I am toying around with getting an XT-4 for times when I mix work and personal use but I a not sure I can swing that purchase right now. Time will tell.
- The Olympus Tough TG-6, however, is a #7 but that is a story for another post.
- If you were wondering, I don’t have that stress with a film Leica camera. They are still making new film Leica bodies and, because old film Leica bodies can get repaired and/or don’t require electronics, I can always find a replacement film Leica body.