Leica M-E review: as of 2018

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My Leica M-E coupled with the 50mm Summilux.

Subsequent to my last post debunking rangefinders for street photography, I decided to write this one now to report my relationship – or shall I say my passionate relationship – with my Leica M-E.

This is by no means a camera review as I’m sure the internet is full of Leica M9 reviews since 2009 when the camera was launched (in case you are unaware, the M-E is an M9, but more on this later). Besides, I’m not sure if anyone would be interested to read a full Leica M-E review now, as the camera is already outdated.

But is it really outdated?

It’s 2018, I still use my Leica M-E and I’m proud of the results I get. Things move fast in the digital age and we are talking nearly 10 years of technological evolution since the M9 was launched. Yet even by current standards this camera is a star performer and as so I have never ever considered replacing my M-E with an M Typ 240 or the latest M10.

I bought my Leica M-E in 2013

For those who don’t know, the Leica M-E is basically an M9 without the USB port, the frame lines preview lever and the “M9” engraving in the body, so is even more minimalistic than the M9. The M-E has got a special paint that I like to call “industrial grey” as it reminds me of old German machinery.

But let’s enjoy some camera porn first.

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“Industrial gray”. Reminds me of German machinery from the Bauhaus period. Note the thumb grip from Match Technical. It improves the grip significantly, definitely a must have. The paint has worn out beautifully.

The M9 was released in 2009; then the M-E in 2012, and it was cheaper. The cameras are so similar that even the SD card, when coming out of the M-E, reads “M9” in my computer. Leica engineers didn’t even bother to change this!

In 2013, after much hesitation, I decided to take the plunge. I paid MOP$ 50 000 for the body, which is approximately USD$ 6 250. It was a massive investment – at least for me – especially because I did not sell any gear to fund this. Alas, to call it an investment is actually inaccurate because I’m not a pro photographer and I don’t earn any money with photography, so there will never be any return of investment!

Anyway, since this was big money, initially I did not “invest” in any Leica lens. At that time, I owned several Voigtlander M-mount lenses which I had previously bought for my Olympus EP-3 and used via an adaptor. So for the first time I was going to use the same lenses without any adaptor because, yes, I was now the proud owner of a Leica M mount camera!

Phase 1: The Voigtlander lenses

So I had the Voigtlander Nokton 35mm f/1.4 and the Voigtlander Nokton 50mm f/1.1 to play with. As said, for the first time I was going to use these lenses without any adaptor. Moreover, I was going to experience their full focal length, since with my Olympus EP-3 there was a x2 crop factor.

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My Voigtlanders: Nokton 35mm f/1.4 (top) and Nokton 50mm f/1.1 (bottom). Good character, good value for money, but not up to Leica standards.

Both Voigtlanders were built to high standards and I liked them both. They had character and I have many keepers using them. Considering their price, it was really good value for money. My favourite was the 35mm because it was so small yet it was fast with its f/1.4 aperture. The 35mm is also the focal length I use the most, so this lens was 90% of the time attached to my Leica M-E. And it looked really cool, with its chrome filter thread.

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Voigtlander 35mm: note the uneven bokeh at the center-back. Looks like somebody punched the wall!

The 50mm was a bit heavier and looked weird in the Leica M-E body due to its size and large radius. This lens looked daunting, it was all glass, it felt dense. I mean, it was an f/1.1 lens! So it was like this little bomb, huge glass at the front and then full black metal body and a small M-mount at the back. You could possibly use it as a weapon to knock someone down. So with this lens the Leica would be front heavy and I can’t say that I fully enjoyed using it – even though it produced some nice photos.

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Voigtlander 50mm: there’s noticeable light fall-off and the colours are subdued compared to the ones coming out of my other two Leica lenses.

After using the Voigtlanders for some months, I was starting to realize that these lenses had their limitations. Colours seemed to be a bit subdued and there was an overall softness. These were by no means sharp lenses, unless you stop them down to f/4. Shooting wide open would also result in light fall-off. Yes, all combined it gave character to the photos, they looked classic. But in case I wanted to be more clinical, those lenses couldn’t deliver.

On the other hand, the bokeh from both lenses looked distracting to my taste. They were not smooth, sharp edges would show up occasionally as well as patterns similar to motion blur . This happened with both lenses, but more with the 35mm. The bokeh would sometimes display uneven patterns, almost like if it was poorly produced by using the smudge tool in Photoshop.

I felt it was time for the upgrade. I mean, I knew sooner or later it was going to happen, I had to buy Leica glass. I admit this was gear acquisition syndrome hitting me, but on the other hand it was also a logical decision.

If you are into the Leica experience, you cannot limit yourself to the camera body. Yes, in the digital age the sensor is a fundamental part of the final outcome of your photo, therefore the camera body is important. But when we are talking Leica, you have to experience the superb quality of their lenses.

The Leica M9 and M-E have a CCD sensor from Kodak that was a big thing back then, because it was tailor made for Leica and it has no anti-alias (AA) filter for enhanced sharpness. Now that we are in 2018, the lack of an AA filter became a common practice by almost all camera brands. But as far as I can remember, back then Leica was the first to take this step. So with such a sensor I had to get sharp Leica lenses to match!

Phase 2: The Leica lenses

So I managed to sell both Voigtlander lenses to help fund a Leica 35mm Summicron. In case you don’t know, in Leica vocabulary a Summicron is a f/2 lens. Honestly, the money I got by selling the Voigtlanders did not contribute much due to their second hand market price and Leica’s premium price. Anyway, I had to do it even to convince myself psychologically.

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My 35mm Summicron with its rectangular hood attached.

Leica’s 35mm Summicron is a superb lens. As a user, all I can say is that this lens, when coupled with the Leica M-E, produces the sharpest images I’ve ever seen. And it’s not only about sharpness, it’s the overall corner to corner brightness you get across the entire frame, and the vivid colours that give it punch.

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Leica 35mm Summicron lens: creamy bokeh, crazy sharpness, punchy colours, consistent performance across the whole frame from corner to corner. Welcome to the Leica league.

I was completely blown away by the results and I can tell you it immediately changed and raised my standards from that moment onward. At that time I had a full frame Canon 5D and several Canon L lenses, but still I had never seen something like the output of the Leica M-E with the 35mm Summicron.

Subsequently, it was only a matter of time when I started thinking on my next lens. The cool thing about rangefinders is that essentially you will get just a few prime lenses and there are not so many focal lengths to pick from, as opposed to DSLRs or other mirrorless systems. There are no zoom lenses, wide angles are scarce and long lenses stop near 90mm.

I ended up getting a 50mm Summilux, which is a f/1.4 lens. I hesitated a lot between this one or the 50mm Summicron with f/2 aperture because, frankly, I did not feel the need to have an f/1.4 lens. Plus, the Summilux was almost double the price, larger and heavier.

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The beautiful 50mm Summilux attached to the camera.

But since I already had a 35mm Summicron, a 50mm Summicron would be quite similar. In the meantime, I had read many interesting reviews about this 50mm Summilux, the way it renders the images and its bokeh. Long story short, I took the Summilux.

The Summilux is a bit different from the 35mm Summicron. It’s got more character, I’d say. While the 35mm Summicron is the scientifically perfect lens, super sharp with superb quality entire the whole frame even wide open at f/2, the 50mm Summilux is sharp wide open at f/1.4 but not as sharp. In some situations, under low light, it even shows some light fall-off. It’s not as noticeable as my Voigtlanders, but occasionally it happens and I can spot it. The bokeh from this lens is creamy-dreamy smooth though.

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50 Summilux: high end results with character.

Living harmoniously with my Leica set

With the 2 Leica lenses I started shooting and shooting and shooting with the M-E and never thought about selling it to get whatever updated model. I started feeling the mystique of the Leica name. I loved my images, the colours and the special ambience that the photos showed. It’s difficult to describe, they look organic, they don’t have a digital look. Sometimes you get in the photos a very calm and peaceful atmosphere, especially when taken in low light. Like coming out of a dream, it’s hard to describe.

Over the years Leica launched 2 newer generations of M cameras, the M typ 240 and most recently the M10, plus their respective spin-offs under the “M-P” and “M-D” families.

Yet I had never thought for a second about getting a new one. For me the M9/M-E is already a classic. It was the first full frame rangefinder, it has no AA filter and a CCD that renders the images in a very special way. Some people even argue that the newer Leicas with CMOS sensor will never get the same magic of the M9/M-E’s CCD sensor.

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Straight out of camera, no editing needed. Magic.

Frankly the M10 is very interesting and the M10-D even better as it takes simplicity to the next level by removing the back screen. I wouldn’t mind getting one and perhaps one day I will, but for the time being I’m still in love with my M-E because the photos, with either of the 2 Leica lenses I own, are fabulous.

Nailing focus with a rangefinder is not an easy task, especially when taking photos of kids that are always moving around. Yet nothing is impossible… I don’t zone focus because in most occasions I want the subject separation from the background, so I figured out the best way is actually not to touch the focusing ring when minor adjustments are needed, but to move yourself front and backwards – a common technique in macro photography.

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The challenge of nailing focus with ever moving subjects…

When you nail focus and produce a keeper, the level of satisfaction is immense because it takes some effort, is not as easy as with auto focus cameras.

The black & white simulations

The only time I thought about getting another Leica M camera was to get a M Monochrom. And I’m talking about the one based on the M9, launched in 2012. Sometimes I still think about getting one – probably will be able to find a good deal in the second hand market.

I’d like to get one because the idea of a camera that only shoots black & white really attracts me. On the other hand, I like the fact that it is a spin-off of the M9 – so everything I enjoy about my M-E that I described above would be the same.

To overcome the idea of buying an M Monochrom, sometimes I set the camera to shoot JPEG + RAW, and on the JPEG settings I select “black & white”. As a matter of principle, with every camera I own I don’t shoot JPEG, I shoot RAW only. But with the Leica M-E I make an exception.

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Straight out of camera black & white JPEGs.

Objectively speaking, one must admit the black & white straight out of the Leica M-E looks pretty cool.

The Leica M-E in 2018

Shooting with my Leica M-E is a unique experience and now that the camera is aging it makes everything even more enjoyable. The menu of the camera is super simple, it’s all in 1 page. This camera is about simplicity so there is not much customization, not much for you to play with. Because this is a camera, not an electronic gadget.

The small buttons in the back feel 80s old school… Then there’s the shutter noise, which sounds “click-wheeeeez”, the “wheeeeez” being the re-cocking of the shutter mechanism. The shutter sound is a bit loud, yet I like the fact that it does not sound sophisticated.

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Low-resolution screen with Kraftwerk style graphics. Love it!

The back screen is low-res and was already outdated when the camera was launched, but being an outdated screen, especially by current 2018 standards, puts a smile on my face. It gives me special joy using it because I feel I’m using a vintage camera of some sort… Yet the screen is very much usable, it’s small and slow but I can still zoom in to check focus so all good for me.

A lot of people criticized Leica at the time for the low specs of the M9 / M-E which seemed inconsistent with the camera’s price. While this is debatable and perhaps these people were right to criticize, I think one thing they missed was that the photos coming out of this camera are jaw dropping.

And there were actually innovations where you need them. The CCD sensor was tailor made by Kodak and had micro lenses at a specific angle to deal with the proximity of the lens. This was a challenge that Leica was able to overcome. And the sensor had no AA filter to increase sharpness, which was a new thing as well. So this alone – and photography gear should be about the ultimate image quality, not the specs – justifies the price tag.

Don’t be misled to think that just because the M9 was launched in 2009, it is now outdated. As I say over and over again, forget the unnecessary specs. Image quality is what counts and the Leica M-E in 2018 still kicks ass.

Yes, it has many flaws and in many ways my other cameras will beat the Leica M-E in overall flexibility, usability and deliver outstanding results as well. But nothing really beats the experience and joy of shooting with this Leica M-E.

So we are in 2018 and I can honestly tell you that this camera is aging perfectly well and still holding its own.

It’s like driving a vintage car

And perhaps this is the best way to describe my feelings towards the Leica M-E.

Everyday when I go to work I drive my Lexus which has all the latest technological in-car systems you can thing off. It’s smooth, it’s fast, it’s silent, it’s ultra comfortable, it’s perfect.

But every now and then I feel the mood to drive my vintage classic Mini Cooper because it gives me something I won’t find driving my Lexus: the pure joy of experiencing a no-nonsense, back to basics mechanical car.

The sheer pleasure of pressing the clutch, going through the gears of a manual gearbox, controlling the car through a direct steering wheel that has no power assistance and lets you feel every bump on the road.

Everything you touch, press and turn is connected downstream through the most simple, basic and rudimentary mechanisms.

So my Leica M-E is like my Mini Cooper. I have several modern mirrorless cameras that offer a much easier, flexible and comfortable user experience. But every now and then I have to shoot with my Leica.

Because nothing beats its purity.

 

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2 comments

  1. Great review! I am using a Leica M8 and was thinking about getting an M9, too. So i stumbled upon your page.

    As for getting an M Monochrom: People say the M8 is the poor man’s Monochrom and i agree. Have a look at those black & white photos i took with it: https://www.flickr.com/photos/feiningers-cat/tags/leicam8/
    It’s baffling that you can take this kind of quality photos with a camera from 2006!

    Greetings from Germany!

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