Describing the elegant simplicity of the Leica M digital rangefinder camera system to the uninitiated can be tricky. The words of praise that I hear come out of my own mouth often come off as comically paradoxical. “Nope, it doesn’t have autofocus or image stabilization, and oh, the minimum focus distance is probably double that of your DSLR or mirrorless lenses, which is all part of what makes shooting with it such a special experience.” Statements like these are usually met by laughter, or blank, confused stares, unless of course, I’m in the company of someone who’s had the pleasure of spending time with a Leica rangefinder.
When I first got my hands on the Leica M10-P earlier in the year, it was my first time visiting this strange alternate universe that strictly prohibits autofocus, and culture shock set in immediately. Sure, I was used to flipping on manual focus at times when using my Sony mirrorless system for shooting a landscape or a skyline, just to make sure it was the sharpest of sharp, but never without a tripod. To be honest, I’d never even dreamed of trying to stick to manual focus when shooting anything that moves. All of a sudden, manual focus was the only option, and I was kind of at a loss.
Despite having patented autofocus technologies as early as 1960, no Leica M rangefinder has ever had autofocus. Rumor has it that back in the day, the company decided that all its customers knew how to focus manually, and they wouldn’t want to rely on the camera to do it for them. Whether the rumor is true or not (Leica has since incorporated autofocus into the Leica Q, Leica S, Leica SL, and Leica CL/TL camera systems), if you’re switching from your DSLR or mirrorless system to the Leica rangefinder, and you’re as reliant on autofocus as I was, you’re probably going to be a bit uncomfortable at first. But thankfully, there is an extremely handy technique known as zone focusing that really helped me get my bearings with the rangefinder, and it’s surprisingly easy to learn. As I became more comfortable with zone focusing, which helps you understand what your zone of focus is depending on your aperture, using the system slowly started to become more second nature, and my “sharp photo percentage” started to increase.
So why is it worth the trouble? Why not just use a camera with autofocus? For me, the answer is twofold. First, the experience of “getting one” is far more rewarding for me when achieved using the rangefinder. I really feel like I work harder for the picture, and when I do get a great, sharp shot, it’s even sweeter than it would be with a DSLR or mirrorless that has autofocus. Second, the Leica M image quality is just amazing.
Authentic, yet saturated colors, razor-sharp focus that falls off naturally and beautifully into bokeh, natural skin tones, and high contrast are words I would use to describe the quality of the images produced by Leica M digital cameras. I find that in general, I don’t feel the need to do much to them at all in post, even when shooting RAW. And that’s coming from someone who, in fact, enjoys working in Photoshop and Lightroom.
Apart from the all-manual focusing system and lack of image stabilization, the Leica M digital rangefinder system does employ some of the exposure-related functionality to which you’re probably accustomed. When you’re learning how to zone focus using the rangefinder, you’ll be pleased to find familiar modes such as aperture priority and auto ISO.
Although still technically manual focus, the system also features focus peaking, which comes in especially handy in low-light situations where using the rangefinder can be difficult. Recently, I had the opportunity to shoot with the high-resolution Leica M10-R with a Summicron-M 28mm f/2 ASPH. Lens that was fitted with the Visoflex (Typ 020) Electronic Viewfinder. The Visoflex (Typ 020) EVF slides easily into the camera's hot shoe, and, I have to say, it makes a world of difference when it’s too dark to see well through the rangefinder.
For instance, when my friend Neil asked me to help document his classic guitar collection, the Visoflex (Typ 020) EVF really saved the day. While you wouldn’t think a shoot like this would be so hard to do using manual focus, Neil wanted me to get creative with the lighting, and we ended up using some colored gels to get kind of a moody, dark feel. He insisted that the brand names on the headstocks of the guitars be sharp and readable, and I was having trouble seeing the letters clearly through the rangefinder in light that low, especially with the heavy cast from the gel light. But, through the EVF it was a cinch to achieve precision and tack-sharp focus manually, even in those low-light conditions.
Any way you cut it, if you’re coming from a DSLR or mirrorless camera system and you don’t have any experience whatsoever with an all-manual focus system, there will be a learning curve switching to the rangefinder. But the more comfortable with the rangefinder you become, the more you start to appreciate the visceral, hyper-attentive experience of shooting with one. Have you moved from DSLR or mirrorless to a rangefinder? Either exclusively, or maybe you oscillate back and forth between systems? What has your experience been like? Let us know in the Comments section, below!