Update March 30, 2015: Please read my article about potential issues with dust scratching the Leica M9 and ME sensor before making any purchase decisions. This is not covered under warranty.
If you’re reading this as a first time visitor: here are my favorite recent pictures The images in this article are some of my least favorites. This article is my opinion and I’m careful to use the language “I made” and “for me” as often as I can.
Leica makes gorgeous, all metal, finely crafted digital and film cameras. My Leica ME is the most enjoyable tool I’ve ever used. It was also unreasonably expensive. You should know a few things before you buy one.
The nicest thing about the Leica M system is that there are no compromises. These cameras have been the standard for candid available-light photography for more than 50 years. Every few years a new model Leica M is introduced with minor refinements.
I bought my Leica ME in Japan at the start of my travels around the world. It was not the first camera I owned. I have owned far too many cameras, but it is the camera I have used the most. My shutter count is 24,771.
I love the camera. I’m so glad I have it. Elsewhere on this site I write about how I love the Leica ME. These are the mistakes I made.
Mistake 1: Not Paying for Training First
The biggest mistake I made in buying a super expensive camera was not knowing how to use it. Sure, I could shoot some nice landscapes before my trip, and shot decent portraits of friends, but a Leica is a massive investment in photography. I now think that it only makes sense as an investment after substantial training.
Since living in Cambodia I’ve had two portfolio reviews. The first told that I was really bad a photographing light. The second told me that I was way too afraid of people and photographed the backs of heads too often. I should have known that before I started my trip, not nine months in.
Lesson: I wish I’d spent $2,000-$3,000 on training at the start of the trip and $1,000 on a camera instead of $6,000 on the camera and no money on training. If you’re seriously considering dropping six grand on a camera, make sure you’ve attended a few workshops and portfolio reviews first. Books didn’t work for me. I needed someone to tell me where I was messing up very directly.
If you need help finding a workshop or portfolio review, ask a photographer you admire. They would be more than happy to recommend a friend (it will probably cost money).
Mistake 2: Buying an Expensive Fast Lens
When I bought my Leica I got a used 50mm 1.4 Summilux Pre-Asph lens along with it. I bought the fast f/1.4 lens because I thought f/2 lenses could never be good.
One of the “rules” told to new photographers is too not skimp on lenses. So why do I recommend a used f/2 lens for new Leica Ms? Because any Leica and Zeiss lens at or faster than f/2 is fantastic. Canon and Nikon make some cheap f1.8 lenses, Zeiss and Leica don’t. Stay away from Leica f/2.5 “Summarit” lenses though — they’re more expensive than a perfectly fine used f/2 lens.
Later I got a 50mm f/2 Summicron and loved it. The Summicron was lighter, had a focus tab, and had a shorter focus pull (rotation to go from close to far). The f/1.4 Summilux was so heavy that my camera tilted forward on it’s strap. The Summicron lenses are small, light, and insanely sharp.
For me, the ergonomic perfection of the Summicron series outweigh the light gathering capabilities of the Summilux series. I quickly stopped using the Summilux and sold it. Most of my good photos are at f5.6 or narrower, a place where Leica f/2 Summicron lenses shine.
**Lesson: ** I learned that I prefer light f/2 lenses instead of bulky f/1.4 lenses. I’d recommend a Leica 35mm f/2 (Asph or pre-Asph) or Zeiss Biogon 35mm f/2 as first lenses. The Leica 50mm f/2 Summicron and Zeiss 50mm f/2 Planar are great too, but I’ve stopped shooting 50mm. Try to find these lenses used, there’s rarely a reason to buy a new lens.
Mistake 3: Shooting Wide Open
None of my favorite photographs were shot wide open. Sebastião Salgado is famous for shooting at ISO 3000 and narrow apertures. Henri Cartier-Bresson varied the aperture on his camera and not the shutter speed to take pictures, generally shooting at what looks like f5.6 or narrower.
Leica makes phenomenal lenses and those lenses look beautiful and sharp if shot wide open. I disagree that Leica lenses are “made to be shot wide open.” Leica products are made to do an acceptable job at any setting they allow, they don’t dictate how you use them. You pick how to photograph and Leica cameras make that easy, but in my experience great photographs are rarely shot wide open.
Mistake 4: Thinking I Needed a Discreet Camera
As I grow in photography I’ve realized that I’ve only taken one or two critically good pictures. None of those good pictures depended on the camera being hard to see or quiet.
It’s very nice that Leicas are small and quiet, but most pictures result from people knowing I’m taking their picture.
Outside Orussey Market. Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Most people in this frame either knew I was taking their picture and looked at me or didn’t care. It’s not a fascinating shot, but it’s getting in the right direction. I could have maybe moved a foot to the right but then I would have lost the man in the bottom right corner.
For carrying and preventing theft a small Leica is great. Most people actually think it’s old and worthless. The top question I get in Cambodia is “why don’t you buy a nicer camera?
Lesson: I love having a tiny and somewhat light full frame camera in my backpack all the time. I love having unparalled image quality in two thirds the weight and half of the size of an equivalent SLR, but this doesn’t make the pictures better. I don’t think that the Leica’s size makes it any better for photography than an SLR at half the cost.
Mistake 5: Shooting Long Lenses
When I started shooting pictures I shot at 50mm. I recently wrote an article about my switch from 50mm to 35mm lenses.
I used to cling to my 50mm lens because Henri Cartier-Bresson used 50mm lenses.
But most street photographers today shoot at 35mm or 28mm. Wider angles let you fill the frame with people while also giving the viewer a feeling that they’re part of the scene and not an observer.
Lesson: Bresson was the first person to prove that photograpy was a medium worth exploring on it’s own separate from painting. At the time photography hadn’t made a full break into being it’s own medium. Now that photography is clearly it’s own medium, the wider lenses have shown themselves to be better for documentary work. Most documentary photographers shoot 35mm. Give it a try.
Shot at 50mm, and I think it could be better if taken much closer. The tree would be above you, you’d see some of the leaves, and you’d feel the dust kicked up by that 100cc Daelim in your nostrils. Outside Siem Reap, Cambodia. May, 2014.
Mistake 6: Seeking The Wrong Source of Feedback
Likes, faves, and reshares are not good feedback. Gaming for traction on Instagram, 500px, Flickr, or Facebook is fishing in the wrong pool if you want to make pictures that serious photographers will like. I’m now trying to pick my critics wisely.
Real musicians love jazz. I can’t stand jazz. It makes me nauseous. Just like jazz, serious photographers get interested in strange things about photographs that most people don’t like.
Take a look at my profile on 500px to see the evolution of what I consider my best pictures. You’ll see me moving around in color selection, how close I get to people, and perspectives. My latest pictures, which most photographers agree are far better than the previous ones, are close up, show faces, and are in black and white. They do much worse on social media than my more recent images.
This doesn’t mean that people on social media lack taste. It means that the path from one type of good photo to another type of good photo is riddled traps along the way. I’m in a gap right now where I’ve picked a new style. My pictures in that style aren’t good. It’s tempting to shoot old styles that I was good at, but those aren’t the kinds of pictures I want to make anymore.
Lesson: As I grow I wish I’d found better sources of feedback. I spent a long time frustrated that the images I liked the most didn’t “do well.” Part of that is that the images sucked, part of that is that I was targeting the wrong audience.
I hope those tips save you some time and maybe money if you decide to buy a Leica M system.
In summary I wish I had:
- Spent at least as much on training as I would spend on a nice lens.
- Bought an f/2 lens instead of an f/1.4 lens. Bokeh is nice but it’s lazy. My back and my bank account would thank me.
- Only shot wide open at night and otherwise shot at f/8 as much as possible.
- Not worried about having a discreet camera. I would have done fine with a Canon 6D and a 40mm pancake or 35mm USM. It’s not as discreet but it also doesn’t matter much.
- Learned to shoot wider than 50mm earlier.
- Sought out the right sources of criticism: artists who I admire.
If I could go back in time would I buy a Leica again? Probably. I enjoy using rangefinders far more than SLRs. It’s not easy for me to have a darkroom and develop my own film, so the digital Leica is a wonderful tool.
I’ve heard great things also and grumblings about the Sony A7, and I don’t like how the Fuji X100 still doesn’t have a focus scale on the lens. The next best bet for me right now would probably be either a Fuji XPro-1 and Fuji 23mm f/1.4 or Olympus OMD EM-5 and Olympus Zuiko 17mm f1.8. Both of those cameras are small and light and their lenses have manual focus scales on the lens.