The Leica Experience - Days One and Two

So, three weeks ago I got my first Leica camera.  I wanted to spend 60 days working with it, getting content together, and then start frequent blogs on my experience learning how to shoot with it, choosing lenses, and the how/when/who/where/why of my various photography experiences.  After three weeks, the presence of this camera in my life has gone quite better than expected, and with that came far more content and potential for writing than I had originally anticipated. 

I’ve decided not to wait, and to catch up on writing the longer, more introspective pieces I’d been looking forward to at a later date.  I’ve got a lot of content, and don’t want to have it sit on a hard drive and disappear, I rather get it out there and begin sharing the experience.  So without further ado...

I was surprised at the level of excitement I had when I came home with my Leica M240. I have owned many pieces of gear in my life, but there was something about this one, perhaps the mystique I’d attached to it, perhaps the long time I’d waited for the right camera at the right price, but I really felt excitement the likes of which rarely happen in my life, especially around an object not an experience.

I immediately wanted to get to shooting.  I was planning my Leica related purchases carefully, and once I got the body I was waiting for very specific used lenses to show up at my target pricing. I was lucky that my friend and neighbor Giulio Sciorio had a M-mount lens he had used with a micro 4/3rds adaptor I could borrow to begin shooting.

Giulio dropped off a great Leitz 40mm f/2 lens, and I wasted no time taking plenty of pictures of the mundane items around my house… My wife, my dog, cars in the neighborhood etc.

The experience was completely unique, and I’ve broken down a few of the key points I believe any aspiring Leica owner should know.

Focusing - One of the key factors that had drawn me into Leica was the capabilities of complex focusing, and the M240 in particular was exciting because I wanted to learn hyperfocal and zone focus shooting, but also be able to use the 3’ viewfinder to help compose shots.  The focus qualities on the M240 with good glass are incredible.  The rangefinder is an acquired skill that will take time to master, but the viewfinder is a great solution as well, it helps outline the area of focus in red.  I found the level of focus capability unbelievable, I was getting the hairs of my dogs beard in focus with blur an inch back if I so desired.

It really is that good - The photos I shot, as JPG, straight from the camera, exceeded any I’d taken with my previous cameras as far as my personal preference: Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 7D, Panasonic GH4, Sony A7S, even the Sony A7R II.  The Sony A7R II gave extremely crisp images with tons of dynamic range in the RAW files for Lightroom, but right out of the camera, for my purposes and for the looks I enjoy, the Leica was unbelievable.  The experience made me really want to compare with the Leica M9, which while packing less technology than the M240, I’ve heard presents the best straight from the camera photos of any digital Leica. Maybe in the future!

Wide open - The opinions you’ve likely heard are correct, shooting wide open (at the lowest f stop the camera allows) looks fantastic.  I made sure to resist the urge to only shoot wide open, but ended up coming back to f/2 on the Leitz again and again.

The light - Shooting into the light, and working with the M240's ISO can produce fantastic lens flare and bokeh results.  I’d always put attention onto where the light was hitting and never on using it as a composition tool, with the M240 I changed my approach to think from both perspectives immediately.

Time for the shot - For my first day with the M240, I switched the camera to Aperture priority mode, and focused exclusively on f-stop, focus and some basic ISO.  This was a good decision, because one of the first things I noticed was the sheer time it takes to get the shot.  Focusing without rangefinder mastery is not a swift process.  Adjusting the aperture with so much available range can take time as well, but I quickly settled for shooting wide open if I wanted to really work on focusing subjects, and shooting f5 and above if composition and a generally overall focused image were important.  The Leica itself is just a slow camera as well, the shutter is slow, the reboot time for the next photo is slow, everything about it just makes you take a step back and really focus on the work of classic photography.  I immediately responded well to this after the first few photos;  I found myself saying to my wife to not worry about the baby smiling or trying to set up a shot, just let me capture a moment. There was definitely frustration at first because even in the perfect second for a picture I was often still adjusting.  That frustration gave away quickly, it ended up as almost a relief after the photography in my life being mainly iPhone shots that were important to get for an exact second.  With the Leica I felt able to breathe a bit, to focus on perfect setup and get caught in the moments.   

Identifying my first lens - With the 40mm f/2 nothing in front of 4ft was a focus target, which helped me quickly identify what I wanted for my first lens… 35mm or below.  You’ll quickly learn what kind of shooter you are, and I break initial shooting into 35mm or 50mm brackets (more on this in the future).  The hardest part of working with the 40mm f/2 is that the closest I can focus on something is about 3-4 feet away.   If I was focusing on street photography, that would be fine, but since I want to shoot a lot of life around me, my family, food etc, I realize I’m definitely going to need an initial lens that allows me to engage at close distances. I identified the need for closer shots immediately when i couldn’t focus the camera on food at a restaurant, or my baby if we’re lying on the floor together playing.  

The photos in this blog are completely unedited, and right out of the camera, which I think helps give you the best first impression.  

Quick social edits for instagram:

I’ve always liked looking at raw files from different camera type, so I’ve included two Leica M250 raw DNG files here from the vehicle shots I took, if you want to download and explore the dynamic range of the M240.