There’s an odd misconception about the use of Leica cameras that I often get challenged with – especially on social media. As someone who frequently uses 3rd-party lenses on my Leica cameras, and posts photos of them on my Instagram, I’m often told that what I am doing is somehow wrong. Apparently, the only reason to shoot a Leica camera is to give the photographer the ability to shoot with Leica lenses. Case in point, I recently posted a photo of a Leica M6 with a Voigtlander 35mm f/1.4 lens mounted and I was told: “Putting a Voigtlander lens on a M6 is like driving a Ferrari with retread tires”.
Personally, I really can’t get my head around where this idea comes from, and, to be frank, pretty much think it’s a load of nonsense. As such, I thought I’d pick this perspective apart a bit, as well as hopefully explaining why I think that it’s an entirely illogical conclusion to come to!
My personal preferences
I guess the place to start is to first explain my feelings toward Leica brand cameras and lenses. If you’re new to this website, you might not be aware that I’m a massive fan of Leica rangefinder cameras. They are, to me, the absolute peak of camera design!
Now, just for clarity, let me say that I don’t think they are the best cameras ever made, or that everyone should own and shoot them, or that they take better photos than other cameras. I’m well aware of their flaws; I’ve shot most of them now, so I know what about them works, and indeed what doesn’t.
All I’m saying is that, for me, and the way I use cameras, they do work – in fact, they suit me down to the ground. They’re small, they have a simple interface which I appreciate a great deal, they are rangefinders – which work better for me than SLRs – and I’d even add to those pros by saying I like the way they look. Call me shallow if you like, I don’t care! As a photographer, I think I’m well within my rights to appreciate the things in front of my eyes based on their aesthetic appeal!
As for the lenses though, I’m not so smitten. It’s not that I don’t like them, in fact I’ve had a lot of appreciation for all of the Leica lenses I’ve shot for one reason or another. They just don’t ever give me what I want from a lens that I can’t find elsewhere. In fact, more often than not, what I find elsewhere costs less money, and I like what I find slightly more.
But, before I get to some some of the realities of Leica lenses, I just want to touch on the odd fact that this sort of ideal doesn’t really exist in other brands – at least not to the same extent. What compounds the oddness here is that it would actually make more sense in some other brands.
For example, if someone were to purchase a Nikon SLR film camera, just to access the Nikkor lens range, I don’t think it would seem particularly unusual. This is primarily because to shoot a Nikon lens and retain full functionality, ideally a Nikon camera is required.
Things are different with Leica rangefinder cameras because their lens mounts are so universal. Many brands over the years have made lenses that fit Leica cameras too. In fact, Canon, Nikon, Zeiss, Voigtlander, Minolta, Konica, Fuji, Olympus and many more, have all at some point in their history made lenses that will – without compromise to functionality – work perfectly on the Leica mount camera systems.
Not only this, but many if not most of these brands have also made cameras that take advantage of the Leica lens mounts, meaning it’s just as viable for someone to buy a Leica camera just to shoot a Konica lens as it is valid to buy Konica camera just to shoot a Leica lens.
With Leica mount kit, it all comes down to subjective preferences for both camera and lens, but since the lens mounts are the same – and there’s no compromise to functionality with either combination – the choices made can be for subjective preferences for either or both camera and lens, and not just for technical compatibility.
Lens choices – by objective measures
So what about the arguments made that Leica lenses have always been objectively better? Well, given the fact that the likes of Voigtlander and Zeiss (all be it largely via Cosina) still make Leica Mount lenses today, and the fact that even very old Leica lenses demand a significant premium on the used market, there’s a good chance there’s a 3rd-party lens that offers objectively more than what an equivalent Leica lens does at the same price point.
For example, if you’ve just bought a Leica M6 for £1200, and you want 50mm lens for it and have a budget of up to £800 to keep your total spend less than £2k, you could buy a brand new Zeiss 50mm f/2 Planar, a Voigtlander 50 f/1.2 or f/1.5 Nokton. Or you could buy a 1970’s version 3 Summicron – a great lens in its own right, but the modern 3rd-party alternatives are – objectively speaking – better lenses (sharper, less flare, etc).
If you want a new, or at least modern Leica lens, you need to push that budget to at least £1000, if not more. A new 50mm Summicron will set you back £2000, and bring you very little, if any, objective advantage over the Zeiss Planar. And if you want something that’s as fast as some of the 3rd-party lenses I’ve just mentioned, well you’re not likely to get much change from at least £2500, and that’s on the used market. In short, if you buy a Leica camera and want the best bang for buck in terms of your image quality, you’re probably better off buying a non-Leica lens.
Of course, for some, money is no problem. But even without the financial boundaries to entry, the 3rd party alternatives from Zeiss, for example, often offer something that’s simply “different” rather than “worse” – and are sometimes in fact “better”. The Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 ZM for example is reputed to be sharper into the corners and have a flatter field than the Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux. The compromise being that it’s a bigger lens.
That said, it is fair to say that there are a couple of Leica lenses that are objectively “better” and offer something other lenses for the system don’t, at any price point. Take for example the Leica 50mm f/2 APO-Summicron – a snip at just clear of £6000. As great as I’m sure that lens is though, it seems to be designed for digital cameras, with one of its key selling points being good control over colour-aberrations on digital sensors. In short, you’d have to be looking pretty damned close to see any advantage over the Zeiss Planar if shooting one with a Leica M6 film camera.
Lens choices – by subjective measures
So maybe then the argument isn’t really an objective one, maybe it’s all all about the subjective quality of Leica lenses. It’s hard to argue that Walter Mandlers’ Leica lenses from the 1970’s don’t have a wonderful optical qualities. I loved my version 3 and 4 Summicrons, when I owned them, and got some great results too!
But, if it comes down to subjective preferences, why is it not just as viable that I’d have a subjective preference for a Zeiss or a Voigtlander lens? I do, in fact, prefer my ZM Sonnar to the 50mm Summicron that I owned prior to it.
Of course, there are some people out there who wax lyrical about the wonderful character traits of all Leica lenses. More power to them, if that’s what they like, thats fine by me. You won’t find me questioning other people’s subjective preferences when it comes to any lens – even ones that cost a great deal more, and to my eye aren’t as “good” as the ones I like. Because… it’s subjective!
Subjectively speaking, I think Zeiss lenses are better than Leica lenses. And suggesting I am wrong would be no different to suggesting I am wrong to prefer brown bread to white – it’s just personal taste!
It’s the outcome that counts
Of course, when comparing the likes of Zeiss and Leica, what’s subjective and what’s objective in terms of the ideas about what makes a lens “good” can blur. Both of these brands produce lenses that are designed to be optically optimal within the scope of the particular series of compromises they are designed. In photographers seeking to shoot with lenses like these – at least in most cases – there is likely some desire for high quality optics and results without aberrations.
But, not all photographers want high quality optics. Because lens choice is so subjective, it’s entirely viable that some photographers might find the most joy mounting the least expensive, lowest quality lenses to the most expensive Leica camera. The fact is, “good” photography is not simply about “good” optics.
I might think that Zeiss lenses are “better” than Leica lenses, but this doesn’t preclude me from a potential desire to shoot lenses that I know are “worse” once in a while. As I go to great pains to explain in my post about what defines the perfect lens, what counts is the end result – especially when considering that everything prior to the end result is meaningless to the 3rd-party observer of a photo.
I for one, have a great deal of love for the Russian Sonnar-knockoff lens, the Jupiter-8M. A lens, that given the right light, has a wonderful propensity toward gentle rendering and flare:
Of course, I accept that the way that the image above looks might not to be everyone’s taste. But the point is, I like the way it looks, and it’s a look I achieved using a very inexpensive lens on a fairly expensive Leica. I might have been able to produce a similar look with Leitz lens of some sort – maybe an and 50mm Summarit for example – but would it be any more valid an image? Would my wife appreciate the image of our daughter more had I spent more money on the lens I took it with? Of course not, that’d be ludicrous – my wife doesn’t give a shit about the camera or lens I took the photo with, she just likes photos of her babies.
Finally, once again touching on the subject of money, I just want to make a point in favour of those who do have a desire to shoot Leica lenses, for whatever reason, but can’t yet afford to.
A lot of what I’ve talked about in this post comes down to people with elitist attitudes sneering at people based on myopic ideals about how other people should do things. This is bad enough in the context of the arguments above, but it’s worst in the context of the affordability of Leica products.
Leica kit is expensive, but that doesn’t mean people with less resources shouldn’t be allowed to own it. If someone wants to buy a Leica camera, and then shoot it with a Voigtlander lens until they can afford a Leica lens, they are well within their rights to do so without people questioning them for any reason.
Now, to be fair, I don’t think the chap on Instagram that I highlighted at the top of this post was having a go at people who can’t afford to put Leica lenses on their Leica cameras. But, if you take his his opinion in the context of affordability… Well, to me, that sort of opinion leaves a funny taste in my mouth! In what world do we live it where it’s ok to look upon people with less financial resources and regard them with such disdain?!
What makes a camera or lens right for the individual is, of course, down to the individual. There are many factors that determine the choices an individual might make about what camera or lens they choose to shoot – from price point, to potential image qualities, and everything in between.
It is therefore perfectly valid to buy a Leica just to gain the ability to shoot Leica lenses. What is not valid, is then claiming that everyone else should do the same! Photography is far too rich with creative options and possibilities to be so blinkered and narrow minded as this!
Ultimately, If you want to shoot a £2 lens on a £6500 Leica, then fill your boots, I say! It’s not a crime, and never will be – despite what some of the elitist morons on the internet might think!