With more wannabes in the wings, is the lowest-cost Leica M-series rangefinder really a bargain?
To understand the Leica M-E, let's roll back the calendar: 9/9/09 was an amazing day. That's when Leica announced the world's smallest full-frame digital camera and the world’s first full-frame Mirrorless System Compact, the Leica M9. It was a smashing success. With its 35mm sensor and full compatibility with Leica's rangefinder lens system—and its $7,000 price tag—the M9 was truly in a class by itself. When I unboxed the recently introduced Leica M-E I felt like I was stepping back four years in time, because it's basically the same camera as the M9 with a couple of minor differences. But there's one significant difference. At the Adorama price of $5,450—$1,500 less than the M9—the Leica M-E is the most affordable digital M-class Leica ever.
A lot has changed since that late summer day four years ago. Fujifilm and Sony introduced high-end mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras (the Fujifilm X-Pro 1 and Sony NEX-7) that, despite their APS sensors, were clearly gunning to take a bite out of the Leica market. The situation got even more interesting in early October, when Sony announced the A7 and A7R, both full-frame mirrorless system cameras that are smaller and lighter than the Leica M, and promise better quality. Leica last year introduced three cameras on the same day: The Monochrom M, which I reviewed earlier this year and declared the images it produced the best black-and-white photos I've ever seen from a digital camera; the Leica M, a high-end, spare-no-expense 24MP full-frame camera, and the ME, designed to appeal to those who want Leica quality but who simply can't afford the pricier models.
I recommend reading Jason Schneider's review of the Leica M9, which appeared in 2010, as well as my Street Photo Stress Test. While not perfect, the M9 was a huge improvement over the M8, Leica's first digital rangefinder, which featured an APS finder. The M9 was the real deal; many photojournalists and street shooters switched from film to digital on that day.
Leica M-E vs. Leica M9
What’s the difference between the M-E and the M9, besides the price tag and the fact that the M-E is available in gun-metal gray while the M9 was available in either black or silver? First, the M9’s USB port is gone. This isn’t a big deal when a $35 card reader will do the job of transferring images form your SD cards just as well or even better. Second, the preview lever is missing—something I hadn’t noticed until I looked at a photo of the M9 for comparison. That’s it. With used M9s going for about $6,000 at the Adorama Used department, is it really worth an extra $500 for these two features?
In the hands
The Leica ME has the same minimalist design as the M9, with a shutter speed dial on the top plate and continuous, single-shot, self-timer and off options around the classic Leica shutter release. Flip the camera upside down and remove the bottom plate to access the battery and SD card port. (Note to fans of Eye-Fi cards: The Leica's solid metal bottom plate blocks the card's antenna, so no Wi-Fi for you.)
The camera back is typical digital fare, with play, delete, ISO, image info buttons. Hit the menu button to navigate functions like lens detection mode, Auto ISO setup, sharpening, color saturation, shutter mode (discrete, soft, or normal) and image preview duration). The “Set” mode lets you actually change camera settings.
You can customize the camera's default settings via user profiles. Basically, name your profile and it will save all of your current setting preferences. Easy.
The info button gives you detailed information about battery life and how much room is left on your SD card. This is important especially because like its predecessor the M9, the ME goes through batteries quickly. I recommend bringing along extra batteries, because one will not get you through a busy day of shooting. Extra batteries are available from Adorama here.
One of the greatest strengths of any Leica M camera is not just the camera; it's the lenses. All Leica M lenses are precise, hand-made, manual-focus lenses that are clearly marked with an aperture ring, focus distances, and a depth-of-field scale. Unlike other competing digital interchangeable-lens compacts, which offer lenses with unmarked focus rings and force you to confirm focus in the LCD or viewfinder, Leica lenses have a unique focus tab. You can determine focus by feel simply by knowing that at 6:00, your focus is 10 feet, at 5:00 it is 7 feet, etc. When shooting fast-moving street scenes, this enables you to get shots that other systems will miss due to the limitations of autofocus and lack of a manual focus tab.
For that feature alone, many photographers are willing to pay a premium for a Leica.
Indeed, when shooting on the streets of New York, I used the focus tab on the supplied Leica 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit to its fullest, and didn't miss a shot. When there was time I confirmed focus using the superimposed dual-image rangefinder focus system, but thanks to extensive experience my fingers "knew" to set the lens at the right distance. If this sounds too difficult, trust me: With a few hours of practice, you'll get it, and will be amazed at how much more control you have over focus!
The half-stop shutter dial indents (and half-stop aperture indents) make it easy to calculate exposure manually without taking your eye off the scene. Simply count the clicks from your previous setting. This is a different mental discipline from the one you might be used to when using a digital camera but I find that it allows me to work faster in fast-changing lighting conditions such as when crossing a street from the sunny side into the shade.
Exposure couldn't be simpler: Two green arrows on either side of a green dot at the bottom of the viewfinder point toward the dot. If you are underexposed, the left arrow is illuminated. Overexposed? You'll see the right arrow pointing left. When the exposure is correct, you just see the dot.
The shutter release, when set to “Discrete” seems almost as quiet as a film Leica M. As soon as I got my hands on this camera I made this my default setting so I could do any kind of candid photography. One of the downsides of the camera is that it takes about half a second for the camera to reset the shutter between exposures.
Street Photo Stress Test
What can one say about the Leica M-E that hasn't already been said about the Leica M Monochrom or Leica M9? With no lag time, I didn't miss a single shot (except for when I hesitated!) The camera's full manual control over exposure and focus is simply and easily marked and it was easy for me to quickly visually confirm settings. The camera was quick, quiet, and precise and is one of the best cameras I've used for unobtrusive shooting.
The Leica M-E's limitations are that the optical viewfinder, to the uninitiated, takes some getting used to. The hesitation between exposures can also be a problem when shooting rapidly-evolving street scenes, but I found that to be a rare occurrence even when shooting in New York City.
Sample Street Shots
In order to keep the cost of the M-E down, Leica chose to use basically the same sensor as the M9. While image quality (especially below ISO 800) is excellent, technology has moved on, and it is easily eclipsed by the Fujifilm X-Pro 1's 16MP APS sensor as well as the Sony NEX-7's 24.3MP APS sensor. Despite that, the grain structure holds up well and has a film-like feel when displayed large.
So, the potential Leica owner on a budget has a dilemma: Compromise a bit on image quality, or compromise on ergonomics. If you want modern sensor quality and Leica manual control, you'll need to pony up a few more bucks to get the Leica M, which has Leica's latest 24MP sensor. I have not yet had the opportunity to field-test the Leica M, but Leica's supplied sample images look impressive.
Sample image quality shots: Pixel peepers, beware!
The setup: The corner of 18th Street and 5th Ave, shot at ISO 180, the Leica ME’s native resolution…
100% blowup at ISO 180: No noise.
At ISO 400, image still looks clean.
Again, no problem with noise at ISO 800
Grain becomes apparent by ISO 1600 but not objectionably so.
By ISO 3200, grain is pretty nasty.
Comparison with the competition
This isn't 2009, when the M9 was the only game in town. Leica's rangefinders have company. But let's say you decide to go with one of the M-E's competitors. You would lose the ease-of-use and simplicity of the Leica system. You could buy an M-mount adapter to take advantage of the Leica focus tab and aperture ring, but (with the exception of the new, untested Sony A7 and A7R) there's that nasty business of the crop factor. Want a 28mm equivalent? You'll have to buy a pricey 21mm, and that will only get you to 32mm. But if you use a Sony or Fujifilm lens you may be slowed down by the lack of a focus tab and markings.
Also, after using both the Sony and Fujifilm cameras that are most obviously trying to compete with Leica, I must also report that both of these cameras have lag time issues. Shutter lag doesn't happen all the time, but you can't always assume you'll get split-second response every time you press the shutter release. For instance, the Fujfilm, inexplicably, can freeze up for a second when shooting in bright sunlight, but works fine most of the time in the shade. Go figure!
The Leica ME exhibited no lag time under any conditions from nighttime shooting to bright daylight. For street photographers and photojournalists, that can be a deal-breaker.
Conclusion and Recommendation
As a street shooter with 35 years' experience with a variety of film and digital Leicas, I've quickly grown to appreciate the Leica M-E as much as the M9. My main concerns are exactly the same ones as with the M9: Short battery life, an LCD that lags behind in resolution, and the lack of a thumb rest in the back. I barely noticed the two features missing from the M9. I was, however, aware that other smaller-sensor cameras have recently delivered better results at higher ISOs.
If you are really concerned about quality and must have a Leica, find a way to pay the extra $1,500 and get the Leica M. But if you can't afford the top-line $6,950 Leica M, and you crave the ergonomics and optics of the Leica system, the ME is a very viable, relatively affordable alternative. And keep in mind: The best camera is the one you can afford!