The world of Leica: my first impressions

Leica, and rangefinders in general, are so different from what I’ve experienced so far. It really is a world of its own, a million miles away from traditional DSLR photography. Clearly, each serves a different function, and I can say for certain that some people will totally dislike it. Well, I loved it.

It’s been four days since I purchased the Leica M, and I had the opportunity to shoot pretty much every day since then. I’m barely discovering its possibilities, so far, but I have seen enough of it to share a couple of thoughts with you J

The experience is what makes all the difference. Yes, it is really awesome to shoot street photography with a Leica, and for very simple reasons. First, it is so light compared to a DSLR. Heavy enough to be stable in my hands, but light enough to carry around everywhere. I wanted a camera that I would not hesitate to bring with me… And I found it. Secondly, it makes you look invisible and / or not very threatening. People look at you with curiosity, and smile at you. Why, in Chicago my friends, where everybody can see you coming from everywhere, this makes a world of difference! I can all of a sudden get so close to people that this is fantastic. Thirdly, the viewfinder that never blacks out is a pretty awesome part of the experience. I am not a “decisive moment” kind of photographer – I generally frame and isolate one subject carefully, and often don’t get it wrong (if autofocus doesn’t screw up that is). But now, I can also, if I want to, extend my photographic subjects to particular expressions, configurations etc. And I feel part of everything J Which is a very nice feeling indeed!

Pictures are beautiful, lens is so so very sharp. Really. I was so impressed with the raw files generated by the camera – so sharp, and the colors are incredible. To be fair, I can’t compare with my Canon lens since I have used it at f 2.8, which is the largest aperture. I didn’t try f6 or 7, which would have, no doubt, resulted in greater sharpness. However, those raw files are still spectacular, and at very large apertures as well. The color files have that unique look, nearly vintage, that really makes me want to do more colors J

Manual focus is hard, but rewarding – when light is good. I realize that the world is made of endless possibilities that I had never seen before. Of course, I screwed many shots – particularly when I wanted to change focus distances in an instant. But I am getting better, and zone focusing is a pretty unique way of doing street photography J I can see some limitations of course. I was not that impressed with Leica in low light conditions. I think that night street photography will be a challenge, as I can’t yet estimate distance very well. Choosing f2 is out of question, the margin of error is inexistent and my subjects will be way too often out of focus. The ISO capabilities, as you probably know, are very limited compared to DSLR, so do not count on it either. Another limitation is the semi-automatic mode. Leica does make pretty strange decisions as far as ISO and speed are concerned. It is especially difficult in an environment where there is a combination of dark and light zones (such as under the tracks of the L train in Chicago). Most often than not, the exposure was totally off, and the speed was too low. You can of course set parameters for Leica to operate: max ISO, max exposure time. We will see if that makes it better, but overall, I do think that Leica is manual in essence. Which for street photography can be a little hard at times.

In conclusion, Leica forces me to change the way I do photography. I usually use a very large aperture in autofocus, with a zoom. I now have to do with 35mm and apertures that do not allow me to isolate that well my subjects. On the other hand, I am discovering the joy of pre-focusing, where the camera never hesitates – where the focus is just as good as you’ve set it. Is there still a place in my heart for my beloved Canon 60D? Yes, of course. I can’t get those awesome bokeh shots on the street with Leica, not without autofocus for now. And I can’t quite do street photography at night either, as far as I have seen (but that may change when I become better J). But the world of rangefinders make everything a lot more worthwhile in a way. It comes back to the essential, and it lets you in, right into the scene, as if you had never left it.

I wanted to go full frame. Leica was the obvious choice for me. And that was a wise, wise decision that I don’t regret at all.