Leica Virgin – Why I Bought a Leica M 240

I recently took a rare plunge and spent far more money than my talents can justify and bought the Porsche 911 of cameras. A Leica M (Type 240) rangefinder digital.

Like the 911, it’s German. It’s Iconic. It’s been used by masters to do amazing things.
A masterpiece in both design and execution. Both the 911 and the Leica M are revered by many, though unlike the 911 (which is quite rightly, rarely criticised) the Leica can be lampooned by some – typically because they’re occasionally bought by buffoons like me.

This is not a photo of my specific camera and lens, but my setup looks exactly the same.

The lens is a Leica Summicron 35mm f2 ASPH and just like the one in the photo above, mine is finished in silver. It looks a bit strange, but I’ll live with it.

I won’t go into the specific amount that I spent but let’s just assume that it was ridiculous. Because it was r-i-d-i-c-u-l-o-u-s. Both the body and lens were second-hand and they were still ridiculous (and the body was just over half the price of a new one!).

It looks even more ridiculous when you consider the following:

  • It only uses prime lenses.
  • It’s completely manual focus.
  • It’s basically useless for fast-action shooting, as far as I can tell. Continuous shooting mode is a joke and the buffer doesn’t allow you more than 2 or 3 shots in RAW before it needs a cup of tea and a good lie down.
  • It’s pretty ordinary in low light and completely useless at night without a tripod.
  • It’s minimum ISO is 200 and while it goes up to native 3200…. don’t. Just don’t. Anything above 1600 is going to have noise.
  • While mine does have video capability, it’s not great. In fact, the video on my camera was so poor that they took if off subsequent releases from the same generation of cameras, and they didn’t re-introduce it in the all-new, just-released M10

The question, then, is why?

1 – Size

SLR’s are big. Nobody really felt they were big until a new generation of mirrorless cameras from manufacturers like Sony came out. All of a sudden, SLR’s started to look a bit like dinosaurs. They’re big-bodied and the lenses can be huge.

Leicas are the original mirrorless camera. And they’re so compact, even today, that they make the Sonys of the world look big.

Here’s a (rather poor) shot of my M next to my 17-35mm f2.8 Nikon lens. Just the lens, not even the massive Nikon body.

Being so small definitely has its advantages. They say the best camera is the one you have with you. Well, this one is much easier to take everywhere.

The other thing about the Leica’s small size is that it isn’t intimidating when you’re shooting on the street. People get quite conscious of photographers walking around pointing SLRs with massive lenses at them. It’s like bringing a tank to a gunfight.

The Leica is small. It’s non-threatening. You look almost grandfatherly carrying it and people don’t respond nearly the same way if you’re pointing it in their general direction. Many don’t even notice.

I’ve been here in Europe for over 2 years now I’ve hardly travelled during that time, except for work. I’ve been to the UK a few times, but that’s all. I’ve not been to France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Portugal, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, Czech or any other desirable spots yet. I’m planning on changing that pretty soon.

The M will be the perfect travel camera, both because of its amazing results, and quite pointedly because of its compact size.

Yes, shooting just the 35mm focal length will limit some of the shots I can get but I think the benefits of being able to travel so light will overcome that. Those times when you simply can’t be bothered carrying around a big bag won’t even be a consideration (I have 5 lenses for the Nikon and three of them are bigger than the one above).

Shooting just 35mm will mean a different sort of travel photography but different doesn’t necessarily mean limited. It’s just different. In fact, I’m sure that my travel albums will feature shot after shot that I wouldn’t have taken if I had a full bag of zooms.

Will I miss zoom lenses from time to time? Sure. And I’m sure there’ll be times when I’ll take both systems with me. But the Leica allows me to cut loose and travel light when I want to. That’s a very liberating thing.

2 – Results (especially for size)

I’m not a pro photographer, by any means. I’m not even worthy to carry a pro’s bags.

The M 240 is, however, a pro level camera that’s capable of producing pro-quality images. And I like the fact that it can do that in such a small package.

I’ve only had the camera a week so I haven’t done much with it. I went on a walkabout photo tour of Copenhagen last weekend with some locals. We shot for about an hour and it’s fair to say that I’m over-the-moon giddy with some of the early results.

It sounds like a bunch of marketing mumbo-jumbo but there really is something about the way the Leica renders colour, the way it makes something look both soft and sharp at the same time.

Maybe I’ve just drunk too much of the Leica Kool Aid?

Here’s a sample shot to show you what I’m excited about. It’s a streetscape and a pretty ordinary one, at that.

What excited me about this shot is the sharpness from front to back.

Take a look at a close-up of this sign from the top left corner….

I love the way it seems to smooth out the colours yet retain perfect clarity.

Here’s the bar sign from the middle ground. Again, the colour rendition is gorgeous and the image is wonderfully sharp.

The sharpness peters off as you get to the end of the street, but it’s a nice fade that still includes the details you need.

I didn’t do any maximum aperture shooting to test the bokeh on this shoot, but it’s supposed to be wonderful. An earlier version of this lens was known as The King of Bokeh, for what that’s worth.

3 – Glass

The company that would eventually become known as ‘Leica’ started off making microscopes in the mid-1800’s and they built on their worldwide renown in that area for 60-70 years before pioneering the world’s first 35mm format cameras.

In other words, Leica knows good glass. They were making some of the world’s best lenses before they ever built a camera.

They make you pay for it, too. The basic 35mm f2 lens that I picked up for my M 240 cost more second-hand than my old Nikon D750 body cost brand new.

The reason it costs so much is the same reason so many people love to shoot with them – they’re exquisitely made – by hand – and yield amazing results. In fact, it’s fair to say that a lot of people buy Leica cameras simply so they can shoot with Leica glass.

There’s a lot of historical virtue in the Leica system, too. I’ve just bought a camera that was built some time around 2013 or so, and yet I can use almost any Leica M system lens dating back to the first M lenses in the mid-1950’s. And they’re all superb.

4 – Simplicity and versatility

At the top of this article, I listed all the ‘limitations’ of this camera.

  • It only uses prime lenses.
  • It’s completely manual focus.
  • It’s basically useless for fast-action shooting, as far as I can tell. Continuous shooting mode is a joke and the buffer doesn’t allow you more than 2 or 3 shots in RAW mode before it needs a lie down.
  • It’s pretty ordinary in low light and completely useless at night without a tripod.
  • It’s minimum ISO is 200 and while it goes up to native 3200, don’t. Just don’t. Anything above 1600 is going to have noise.
  • While mine does have video capability, it’s not great. In fact, the video on my camera was so poor that they took if off subsequent releases from the same generation of cameras, and they didn’t re-introduce it in the all-new, just-released M10

Many shooters will see those as limitations. A lot of Leica shooters that I’ve read and watched prefer to think of them as creative liberations.

Using another automotive analogy, think of a sports car from today vs a sports car from the 1960’s or 70’s.

Today’s version has traction control, ESC, ABS, TMPS, and all sorts of other acronyms. Today’s version is incredibly fast and allows even the most cack-handed driver to feel like he’s Lewis Hamilton in relative safety.

The car from the 1960’s provides a different type of experience. It doesn’t have all the bells and whistles. In many ways, it’s a more manual experience that relies on the driver interacting with the car.

The analogy doesn’t fit perfectly because there are some fancy electronics hidden away in the M, albeit nowhere near as many as what I’ve got on my Nikon D810.

But the analogy does work in that both experiences allow a thrill – they just do it in different ways. One relies on ultra-modern technology to assist the operator and the other is a more organic experience.

The M is very much a camera that’s designed to concentrate your attention on your exposure, focus and composition. Those are the key creative elements in photography and sometimes they’re easy to overlook in a world of 400-point autofocus systems.

Put it this way….. It’s not quite old-school. But it’s definitely not new school.

5 – Value

This will seem like an odd criterion to think about when spending a metric buttload on a camera and lens system, but it works.

The good news about Leica values is that after just a little bit of depreciation post-unboxing, they hold their value quite well. Some lenses actually go up in value.

I’m choosing to look at this as an investment in a hobby that I love, an investment that will allow me to be more free in pursuing some unburdened travel and one that will hopefully yield me some great photographic results.

And if I hit an emergency, I can always sell it and use my phone’s in-built camera.

——

Here’s a sample of images from the Copenhagen walk-around, including a couple of happy accidents on the way home. None of them are spectacular, I know, but they make me happy.

And that’s what photography is all about.

You may also like

8 Comments

  1. Without question a thing of great beauty and a fine investment. You have a great conversation-starter and a camera you really WANT to be taking photos with – and you will… BUT – and there’s always a ‘but’ – I suspect you will be frustrated quickly by the slow focus and limited low-light capability. In those moments you miss the great shots you’ll wish you had your D810 – although you didn’t want to lug the damn thing around. And your Leica is still not as convenient nor as compact as your mobile phone. So after a while you will wont carry it. You will dust it off occasionally and feel a bit disappointed with yourself and, maybe, regret the cost again. As a pro-photographer, I suspect it is a nice camera to own but not to use. Retail therapy. Enjoy.

  2. I couldn’t afford one so I got a Fuji XT-10 instead. I’m still trying to figure it out but paired to a 35mm lens its superb.

  3. Congratulations Swade.

    ISO 3200 on the 240 should be usable if you massage the DNGs (raw files). You won’t get rid of all the noise, but you can get a rock and roll feel that suits many images.

  4. Ahh… The indulgences allowed when college tuition isn’t in the budget. I’ll have to settle for Leica lenses in my Panasonic G3 (which is also a poor find for action shots).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *