Japanese DSLRs may be ubiquitous but what of German rangefinders from Leica? We take a look at the new affordable model.
Leica; just as Rolls Royce is a byword for luxury automobiles, most camera aficionados know that Leica produces top-quality, top-drawer — and top price-cameras. Just as people who love cars may dream of owning a Phantom, the prospect of going out shooting with a Leica M9 or M9-P and a small arsenal of Leica glass in tow is a mere fantasy for many photographers. It’s hard to talk about Leica without talking about money.
But a fantasy it must often remain. Top quality rarely comes cheap and Leica duly has a reputation for producing cameras that are priced well out of budget for the vast majority of enthusiasts.
Which brings us to the Leica M-E. Yes, it costs £3,900 but yes, it really is the cheapest Leica M camera you can buy. However, there is some good news to be had — excellent news, in fact. Leica has not stripped the M9 down to its bare bones in order to facilitate the M-E. Despite the fact that the M-E costs over one thousand pounds less than the M9, essentially, everything is the same. 18-megapixel CCD sensor? Check. Full-metal, die-cast magnesium-alloy body? Check. Classic Leica look? Check.
So, what’s missing? You might not even notice, at least not for a while. The frame-selection lever (sometimes referred to as the image-field selector in Leica literature) has been left on the bench for the M-E, as has a USB port. Very few photographers leave their memory cards in the camera and transfer images directly from the camera to a computer via USB, so we think that this is unlikely to cause anyone any great distress. The frame-selection lever is something of a luxury feature, allowing you to preview different focal lengths without the need to attach the lenses in question to the camera.
Will anyone miss this? If this is your first Leica, then you almost certainly won’t know any different, as it’s not a standard camera feature. If you’ve owned other Leica cameras, then presumably you’ll be well aware of what this feature does and how important — or not — it is to you. Perhaps the biggest impact that the absence of the frame selection lever actually has is in the looks department. The front of the M-E looks a tad spartan when compared to the M9, simply because of this one variation. A little lever somewhere on the front of the body was fairly commonplace back in the days of the Olympus OM-1O and the Nikon FE2, so the lack of one on the M-E makes the camera look a touch less vintage.
In the hand, the Leica M-E feels precisely as you’d expect it to feel-solid, tough and undeniably classic.
If you’re not sure what classic feels like, you’ll know as soon as you pick up a camera like the M-E. Cold to the touch thanks to a dearth of non-metal parts and assuredly bereft of fuss in the design department, it’s probably safe to say that the chances of feeling disappointed by the M-E are desperately slim. It’s the sort of camera that, with a knock or two here and there, will only look more appealing. Above all, this is the sort of camera that makes you feel like a photographer — and makes you want to take photos in earnest.
It’s important to make it clear at this stage that Leica does not approach camera design in the same way as Canon, Nikon, Sony or pretty much any other manufacturer does. Leica makes its own rules and makes cameras for people who love Leica. Buying a Leica isn’t just about choosing a camera — it’s a lifestyle choice. Crucially, the firm makes cameras for people who like their photography as nature intended. Leica isn’t built around digital photography. It’s a digital camera, but not as we know it. With that in mind, certain things, like the absence of autofocus, the small, low-resolution LCD screen, relatively limited battery life and conservative noise reduction look much more purposeful.
Manual focus doesn’t suit every type of photographer and for those used to trusting autofocus, the Leica M-E may make you feel like you’re lost without a sat nav. But let’s be honest — you wouldn’t buy any Leica M model unless you were pretty serious about photography and happy to sit in the driving seat. The Leica M-E is aimed fairly and squarely at photographers who see the absence of automation as a bonus. The camera’s looks really don’t lie: this is a camera designed for fuss-free photography. It’s amazing how quickly you get used to bringing the camera up to your eye and using the split-image focusing screen to bring the lens into focus.
Even with Leica’s back-to-basics approach in mind it’s difficult to feel enthused about the 230,000-pixel, 2. 5” TFT on the back of the camera. It does the job, but only just. While it’s true to say that we were all once quite happy with a display of this ilk, those days are gone; both the resolution and the size of the display on the M-E cripple the camera’s usability to a certain extent. An old-school, retro approach is so often a good idea when it comes to design but not, it would seem, when it comes to the LCD. Harking back 25 years to the design of the Leica M6 is good; sticking with the LCD specifications of 2005’s Nikon D200 is not so good.
Being fair, this is purely down to the fact that the M-E basically is the M9 in all but name, barring a few largely inconsequential alterations. The M9 was launched in 2009, and the 2.5-inch LCD screen was looking a bit past its sell-by date even then. Unfortunately, including a better display on what is supposed to be the M9’s little brother would have caused havoc with both the Leica line-up and the price. The result of this is that trying to review your images is an uncomfortable, awkward and rather unsatisfactory experience.
In use, the camera is generally a pleasure. On our tests, battery life wasn’t stunning, but once again it’s important to consider that Leica has not developed cameras for photographers who want to shoot thousands of images in one go.