Homage to my Leica M-E

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Taking a short Easter break and with nowhere to go, I decided to take a walk in old Macau and bring my Leica M-E with me. I have many cameras suitable for this type of sortie, but the Leica M-E is the one I enjoy the most because of its pureness.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy shooting with my other cameras. In fact, I can even say with my other cameras I can achieve results with less effort. But it’s just that they all feel and behave like electronic gadgets and no other camera gives me the same raw feel like the Leica M-E.

Yes, my Leica M-E is a digital camera, but it feels and operates like a film camera from days past. It’s a beautifully designed piece of machinery worth celebrating and it still delivers outstanding image quality by current standards, even 10 years after its introduction.

M cameras from Leica are iconic and over the decades had inspired so many camera brands. In fact, to this day they still do — just take a look at the latest Fuji X100V.

What’s impressive is that so little had changed in the appearance of M cameras and the fundamentals are still the same. If Henri Cartier Bresson was alive today, you could give him the latest digital M and he would feel at home in no time.

My photo walk with the Leica M-E thus inspired me to write this post to once again share my experience with this superb camera, and you can consider this a sequel of some sorts because two years ago I wrote this post here.

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The simplicity of the Leica M-E’s operation is still one of its main attractions to me. This camera is as transparent as you can get in terms of operation. There are no bells and whistles. No fancy, over the top, high-tech functions.

From all the cameras I own, the Leica M-E is the only one I can confidently say I’m 100% familiar with all its setup options, because there are only a few of them. The entire system menu fills one page only that you scroll up and down in the back-screen. One single page. One.

All my other cameras, with their complicated menus and sub-menus, I probably only know about 50% of their capabilities — at best. With my Sony RX1R II, there are settings that I tweak and I don’t even know what exactly is being changed. In fact, I still haven’t figured out how to extract the maximum of its AF capabilities. Same with my Fujis. There are so many AF options and sub-options, the combinations of which I’ve never cared to spend time and investigate. A stupid mess.

With the Leica M-E there is none of this nonsense and if you fail to take a good photo it’s not because the camera was setup incorrectly or you forgot to turn on that specific function that would help you take the perfect photo in that particular occasion.

If you fail, it’s because you failed.

And I can only take this as a quality — this is how you improve as a photographer. No high tech rubbish here to distract you from the essence of photography. Read the light, set the exposure: know your ISO, aperture and shutter speed. Frame it properly. That’s it.

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The Leica M-E is build like a tank. From the moment you hold it and feel its weight, you understand this is a quality product. It’s an interesting bond, the one between quality and weight. In my school days I enjoyed using my drawing tools from Rotring, a German brand with high quality products that were build to last and heavy on your hand. To this day — and I’m 42 — I’m still using a mechanical pen from Rotring I bought in my teenage years.

Yes, I appreciate lightness and portability in my camera gear. I’m not the athletic type of person and I have small hands. My Fuji X-E3 and the Fuji XF lenses are high quality and lightweight, and they are great for a long day out. But the lightness make them feel hollow. The Fuji X-E3 is so unbelievably light that it feels like a toy.

I’m not saying this is a bad thing, it’s just that the lack of weight makes you feel it lacks seriousness, makes you feel you are holding something put together with cheap materials. Which is not true when we are talking about Fuji, of course, but you just get that feeling. I felt the same when I checked the first Fuji X100 in the camera store. I thought I was holding a display dummy and I just couldn’t connect myself to it.

The Leica M-E feels heavy in my hand and since the body is relatively small, it feels dense. It’s a nice feeling — the feeling of quality. This weight actually makes it feel comfortable in my hand and well balanced whatever the lens I attach to it, including the heavier 50mm Summilux. The weight also makes it more stable, less prone to camera shake when shooting.

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The build quality of the Leica M-E is impressive. This camera is build to last. I bought mine in 2013, I’ve been shooting it for 7 years now. I’ve been in several places with the Leica M-E. Hong Kong, Mainland China and, most recently, Paris and London. Coupled with the 35mm Summicron, it makes a solid travel camera.

I’m not particularly gentle with my cameras. I clean them regularly to remove any dust and dirt, but when I take them out I’m quite heavy duty. I don’t use camera bags, I just throw them inside the backpack, the backseat, or the floor of my car.

When I’m outdoors I don’t care about the surface where I lay my camera down, as long as it’s relatively clean. Cameras are professional tools to be used and abused. This is how I broke the plastic red dot bayonet marking of my 35mm Summicron. And once my 50mm Summilux, mounted on the M-E, fell from a parapet when I was setting up a shot and had to be serviced by Leica in Germany.

It’s not carelessness. As said, a camera is a tool. And I don’t wish to brake anything, even less when we are talking about a product that cost me an arm and a leg. But I don’t mind the occasional war scar, I even appreciate it to some extent because it’s my own personal signature in the gear I own. I like to use my gear properly with no compromise.

I dislike people who use their cameras over-cautiously, with big fluffy hands like it was some piece of high-end jewelry. Your camera is a professional tool that should be on hand and ready to shoot when the opportunity unfolds in front of you. Keeping it in the bag with the lens cap on doesn’t help.

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But still, after 7 years of abuse, my Leica M-E’s body shows hardly any scratches. In contrast, the Match Technical Thumbs-Up grip that I’ve been using since day 1 has already lost part of the paint and showing the brass surface underneath. It just shows the quality of Leica’s paint finish, the thickness and durability of the coating which is highly impressive.

Unsurprisingly, the camera’s bottom plate is where I find more scratches. But still, most of them are not deep enough to reach the brass underneath. It’s amazing. Brass is showing up only at some points around the edges of the camera.

I know some Leica owners deliberately scratch out the paint to get that aged look, which I think is a ridiculous think to do. It’s like removing the hair in some parts of your head to look old.

You ought to let it happen naturally. Let the paint wear out naturally and properly. Aging is a process and it comes with time. This is how you get the beautiful patina of age, not by faking it. Faking it is absurd.

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In my Leica M-E even the red dot Leica logo looks exceptional. Looking in detail and I can’t help but to appreciate the quality of the engraving and the finishing. I have a Leica V-Lux Typ 114 and somehow the red dot logo seems not the same quality.

There is absolutely no fault between the red paint of the back and the silver-coloured letters. The cut-off line is perfect. Just as everything in this camera that seems to be machined to the highest possible precision.

The joints between the camera body and its several openings — rangefinder distance meter, external light reading, frame lines illumination window, optical viewfinder — are perfect.

And I say it again for emphasis: they are perfect. There is basically no gap, everything fits-in perfectly around the edges. This is a demonstration of exceptional manufacturing and workmanship ability worth admiring.

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In other products it’s common to find uneven gaps, parts are produced with a certain tolerance to be compensated on assembly by a bit of silicon here and there, a rubber gasket or whatever they put in to make it fit in place in the final product.

Not Leica, and certainly not in my Leica M-E where there is no such thing because everything is produced with the exact correct dimensions to fit flawlessly.

On the top plate, the collar switch around the shutter release button, the shutter speed dial and the hot shoe are machined to perfection as well. I managed to find a screw-in soft release button which is exactly the same colour. It looks and feels fantastic.

The hot shoe in itself is a piece of art if you care to analyze it in detail. It sits flush within the body. The edges are not round shaped like in other cameras. Instead, they are chamfered with straight edges matching the lines coming from the body, morphing into it with perfect continuity. Beautiful geometry.

The hot shoe is actually thicker than what you will find in other cameras, so again this is something built to last that will resist the most stringent heavy-duty use. And the engravings therein indicating the camera model and serial number in traditional, old school industrial fashion, are a worthy highlight.

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Then there is the controversial bottom plate that sparked so many negative comments since day 1, for which I can hardly understand because for me this is one of the most interestingly well designed parts of the camera.

Any modern camera review you read, whichever the camera, there is always a comment on the quality of the SD card and battery access doors. Most often these comments are negative, because this is one of the areas frequently overseen by camera designers. The most expensive, high-end, professional grade camera, can sometimes feature the cheapest plastic access door you can think of.

In the case of my Leica M-E, there is no access door. Instead, you remove the base plate altogether by turning a latch, after which you will find a very neat and nicely finished bottom face of the camera, with access to both SD card and battery.

With the base plate on, all you see is a clean, flat surface. In case you ask, there is a sensor and the camera knows when the base plate is removed. If you turn on the camera without the base plate, a message will pop-up in the back-screen reminding you to put on the base plate.

This base plate arrangement is a very clever design only found on Leica M cameras. In contrast, the Leica Q’s camera bottom, for instance, looks cheap and unfinished in comparison.

Most people criticised the base plate removal for being impractical, especially when your camera is mounted on a tripod. Frankly, how many times a day these people need to access the battery and SD card?

Furthermore, what’s the likelihood of a Leica M camera mounted on top of a tripod?..

Mind me, most people had probably never used a Leica M camera. But the world is full of Leica haters because of the price of their cameras. Yes, Leica cameras are expensive compared to other cameras in the market — this is a true fact.

But I just wish before criticising, these haters cared to understand all the features of a Leica M camera. The unique signature of its images when coupled to the excellent Leica lenses. The quality of the product. The level of design. The level of workmanship. All this that needs to be put together to create a superbly build camera like this Leica M-E.

Make no mistakes, this is a camera designed and built to the highest possible standards, and this is why you pay a premium to own a Leica.

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Notwithstanding the CCD corrosion fiasco that Leica handled beautifully by offering a free sensor replacement or camera upgrade programme. It’s a detail — a serious one, I admit — that belongs to history now and, to be fair, is the result of Leica pushing the boundaries because the M9 / M-E’s sensor was tailor made by Kodak for this specific camera.

It had specific micro-lenses to deal with the proximity of the M lens to the sensor plane and no low-pass filter for increased sharpness — a first back then.

This was a unique CCD sensor from Kodak and it still is to this day, because the Leica M9 / M-E are the only cameras in the world using this sensor — unlike other cameras in the market that belong to different brands, but actually share the same sensors mass-produced by the same few manufacturers.

The Hasselblad X1D, Fuji GFX 50S, Fuji GFX 50R, Pentax 645Z — they all use the same sensor produced by Sony, although each brand will claim they customized the sensor for their specific camera.

I’m not saying the CCD corrosion problem in the Leica M9 / M-E is acceptable for a camera that sets you back USD$ 6500, but I’m satisfied this issue was the result of Leica and Kodak producing something unique coming from uncharted waters. And, as mentioned, Leica assumed mea culpa and offered a free replacement programme.

My Leica M-E was also the victim of CCD corrosion and I had no other choice but to send it to Wetzlar for a sensor replacement. I was stupid enough to miss the free replacement programme.

Right at the beginning when Leica officially acknowledged the problem, I did check my camera and indeed found the corrosion spots. But somehow I just didn’t care and continued to shoot happily, perhaps blindly optimistic that the corrosion would not further develop. How stupid from me. One day I took the camera out and just realized it was getting worst. Too late by then.

I had to pay close to USD$ 1800 to have my camera shipped to Wetzlar for the CCD replacement. What else could I do? I was not into buying a new one — the M10-P would be a candidate — and abandon my M-E, letting the CCD corrode all the way, turning this once excellent camera into an expensive paperweight. This was never an option.

The good thing is that the camera came back with a full maintenance inspection from Leica, including rangefinder calibration and the shutter mechanism. Together with an official certificate from Leica, hand signed by the Technician. And, obviously, a new CCD sensor.

Yes, I paid a premium for all this, but at least I received excellent quality service in return. I’m not complaining — I was the one who missed the free CCD replacement window, let’s not forget.

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Shooting with the Leica M-E is a unique experience. You turn the camera on and almost nothing happens — there is this tiny red LED light in the back that flashes for less than a second and that’s it, the only indication the camera is effectively turned on.

The back screen will not brighten up because this camera offers no live view, nor will it stay on when you shoot to show you the essential camera settings like in other cameras.

Nope.

The back screen is off most of the time because you only use it to visit the menu or to playback your photos. There is not much to do or change in the menu and I have auto playback off, so my back screen doesn’t light up that much.

With no live view, the only way to take photos is by looking through the old school optical viewfinder. And all this together is probably the main reason why this camera provides such a unique experience, feels like a proper camera and not an electronic gadget.

Thinking about this, I realised for the past 10 years I’ve been shooting with EVFs 98% of the time. Ever since I sold my last DSLR — a Canon 5D — and embarked on the mirrorless revolution, I basically stopped using optical viewfinders, the Leica M-E being my only exception.

While EVFs bring obvious advantages that I embraced since the very beginning, one thing is certain: you are no longer looking at the reality in front of you through analogue optical means, but an interpretation of the reality through an electronic interface.

So under this circumstance, how can your camera not feel like an electronic gadget?

Talking of which, I would even contemplate buying a DSLR if one day any of the current brands decide to produce a back-to-basics, small and portable DSLR.

I’d like to see something similar to Leica M’s approach, with bare minimum essential old school controls. Say a Nikon FM2 or a Canon AE-1 with a digital sensor. That would be highly interesting.

There is something romantic about the Single Lens Reflex mirror box and pentaprism which, being obsolete technology by now, still works quite well and gives the photographer a unique non-electronic view through the lens.

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By the same token, the rangefinder of the Leica M-E offers this same unique experience, although the view is not through the lens. You just look through a piece of glass which is crystal clear and even more directly connected to reality in a way. There is absolutely no electronic gibberish standing between you and the physical world that you are about to shoot.

And this pretty much sums up the experience using the Leica M-E. It feels like a proper camera and it behaves like a proper camera because you will seldom visit the camera’s digital interface.

You turn it on, set the exposure using the shutter speed dial and the aperture ring which is not a by-wire mechanism — you turn the ring and see the aperture blades moving — and start shooting.

Then of course there is no auto focus. You turn the focusing ring and you are really turning the lens elements by mechanical means, applying your force with your fingers and controlling the speed you turn the ring and focus.

Some people find the lack of auto focus a bit frightening. I actually come from the days of manual focus and it’s not something I was not used to. You just need to adjust the way you shoot and slow down a bit. The Leica M-E is obviously not a camera to shoot sports, but for everything else manual focus works fine and you just need to anticipate things a bit.

I have perfect keepers from my kids running around in the park. Normally I find a reference point in the objects surrounding me, pre-focus on it and when my kid reaches that point, I press the shutter button.

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Stopping down the aperture will help with the increased depth-of-field. With my 35mm Summicron and 50mm Summilux, I shoot between f/2.8 and f/4. It’s enough for subject separation and beautiful bokeh. I don’t need to shoot wide open all the time, like many people do nowadays.

There is this obsession with large apertures and bokeh. I see photos from people where only a small portion of the image is in focus, then all the rest is blurry. Portraits where only the subject’s eyes are in focus, or sometimes only one eye. And people praise the bokeh. I don’t get it. They shoot for the specs, not for photography.

On the other hand, I guess most people approach auto focus the wrong way. They expect auto focus with face detection, smile detection, eye detection, closest eye detection, animal eye detection, whatever… They expect all this rubbish high-tech functions to solve everything for you. Your kids are running like crazy in a park, you chase them with your camera, and you expect the camera to nail focus.

Even if it does, the resulting photo is mostly sub-standard, with weak framing and a distracting background. Not surprising because, hey, you are running around and cannot expect a perfect composition under such conditions, right?

Call me old school, but I still think the best way to shoot kids — and I have two kids who are constantly running around — is to tell them to stop for a couple of seconds and pose for the camera. This is how you take the best photos, irrespective of the camera you use, with manual focus or the best-of-the-best-high-tech auto focus.

Don’t blame your camera for its slow auto focus — just change your approach.

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Coming to this point, having no auto focus in the Leica M-E is not a problem for me. The rangefinder mechanism works great, the split image is bright and easy to use. Manual focus means you have absolute control on your desired focusing point, no camera electronics interfering with your decisions.

With the Leica M-E everything is manual and physical and this is the beauty of it all. The simplicity is liberating and it’s a shame that photo gear nowadays had evolved to a point where you have hundreds of functions which are essentially unnecessary.

Modern cameras are overladen with specs that become a huge distraction for the photographer who, again, is expecting the camera and its high-tech superpower to overcome the most adverse situations.

In fact, this is exactly where, as a photographer, you should be able to use your skill, experience and creativity to overcome the problem by thinking out of the box or trying a completely different approach within the limitations of the camera that may actually work better — as opposed to expecting the camera to do everything for you.

And if the situation is physically impossible to solve, then you may as well decide not to shoot because insistence will result in a lousy photo anyway.

In a way, it’s very much a case of less shots, but more quality. Hence a back-to-basics photo camera like the Leica M-E will have you focus on the essentials and potentially turn you into a better photographer.

Unfortunately, the way the market works at present dictates that this is a niche camera for its lack of bells and whistles. And because of this we have to pay a premium to get to this level of simplicity.

We have to pay more to get less.

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The Leica M-E is a very unforgiving digital camera though. The DNG files don’t offer the same latitude for post-processing from current CMOS sensors. Forget low-noise, high-ISO performance. Forget how-many-stops of dynamic range. Forget under exposing deliberately to get details and then pull up the shadows in post-processing.

In short, forget shooting carelessly with the hope of fixing things in post-processing — the DNG files from the Leica M-E won’t allow much room for this. You better nail your shot on location. Which is, frankly, how things should be done whatever camera you use.

Getting the right exposure is not easy with the Leica M-E. Essentially, you need to understand how the light meter works. Unlike other cameras, there are no different metering modes to choose from. None of the evaluative zones, matrix, or whatever they like to call it nowadays. In the Leica M-E there’s only one metering mode: center-weighted.

You have to understand how it works. If you have complex lighting across the frame, the camera may give you an inappropriate reading. So you have to keep this in mind, but frankly it’s not the end of the world because this is digital and you can always playback your photo to check the result. Shoot again if needed to get the exposure right.

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The Leica M-E works best when the weather is good. With good directional sunlight and shooting with the sun at your back, the colours are vivid and punchy, but not in an over saturated way. Yet what amazes me the most is the overall brightness and luminosity of the photo across the entire frame.

This is probably the result of not only the unique CCD from Kodak, but also the superbly engineered Leica lenses. Even to this day, in 2020, I still think the Leica M-E coupled with the 35mm Summicron is a killer combination, very hard to beat when the conditions are absolutely right. The colours, the sharpness, the 3D pop, the micro-contrast and overall luminance… It’s hard to beat even for my medium format Fuji GFX 50R.

With cloudy weather though, or without good light, everything just falls apart. Colours become dull and flat, noise levels are hardly acceptable. Under these conditions, I normally switch to shooting black & white JPEGs. Or simply leave the camera at home.

Just like when shooting film.

Hence I say the Leica M-E is unforgiving because it is not as versatile as other current digital cameras with a CMOS sensor. To extract the maximum from it, you really need to get everything right.

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Ultimately, this is the reason why I enjoy using my Leica M-E. The limitations of the camera take me back to the film days, to the discipline involved in the art of creating a photograph. Yet, it’s a digital camera and you get the immediacy digital offers.

Most of all, while with other modern cameras you can easily take a breath-taking photo because cameras are really this good nowadays, with the Leica M-E you need to put your effort on it. The level of satisfaction you get when you create a good photo is incomparable.

From time to time I do contemplate the idea of getting an updated digital M, probably a silver M10-P. But this idea fades away as quickly as it comes because with a new, more capable M on hand, my M-E would probably spend the rest of its life at home — and I’m honestly not into this, especially after having spent so much money fixing it.

So this is how I’m signing out this homage to my Leica M-E. I’ll keep using it and enjoying it as much as I can, because it still is and it will always be a very capable camera.

And probably two years from now I’ll come back to write another sequel.

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