The Digital Rangefinder: an Endangered Species? – by Ailbíona McLochlainn

It was just over a year ago, that I made my foray into the world of digital Leica M cameras. Admittedly, I was rather late to the party. But when it comes to photographic equipment, I tend to be a creature of habit. I began with analogue SLRs as a teen in the 1990s, then by default transitioned to DSLRs. And for the next two decades, that was that. I can’t say that I found my equipment exciting. But it never occurred to me that excitement was a factor to consider when it came to camera gear. Neither did it occur to me to question whether it was ‘the best’ system for me. It was logical, affordable, familiar. Most importantly, it did the job.

It was my husband who rocked the boat and disturbed my tranquil, stagnant world of good-enoughness. He received an offer he couldn’t refuse on a well-loved Leica M9, bundled with a 50mm Summarit lens. Being more gear-curious than I, he decided to take the plunge. At first I stayed away from his new acquisition, like a skittish cat from a new piece of furniture. It took some coaxing and prodding, but I finally deigned to give it a try.

The outcome? I have not used a DSLR since…

No pun intended, but the M9 and I ‘clicked.’  It had nothing to do with the Leica name. Or with its famously minimalist design language. Or (and I struggle to even write this whilst keeping a straight face) with the so-called ‘Leica look’ of the photos the camera produced.

No. The feature that converted me was the rangefinder. 

As someone for whom an optical, manual-focus experience is a non-negotiable part of photography, I was of course aware that  rangefinders existed. I had used analogue rangefinders before; I had owned a few Zorkiys and even a Leica IIIF. But somehow I failed to make the cognitive leap to the idea that maybe, just maybe, I should try a digital rangefinder system as an alternative to the DSLR. To be honest, I had a hard time accepting that the two concepts (digital and rangefinder) were even compatible!  I had assumed the Leica thing was an overpriced gimmick.

It was both exciting and terrifying to be proven wrong. Exciting, because the digital rangefinder was such an ideal fit for me, that using it felt as if we were viscerally integrated. The frame-lines fused with my field of vision. The focus-patch was so easy to use, I wasn’t even aware I was doing it. My eyes no longer grew tired, and I stopped getting migraines after long photo shoots. My out of focus rate decreased dramatically. And I do believe my images improved – not because Leica takes better photos, but because I, the photographer, was fortified with a new-found sense of comfort, wonder and optimism.

Of course, the terrifying part was… I would now need to sell all of my worldly possessions, to get a digital M of my own. (Okay, I exaggerate. But only slightly!)

Today I am the owner of a Leica M10 and a small collection of M lenses. It’s a system that works perfectly well for me. Which, considering my preference for optical focus,  50mm lenses, and natural light, is hardly surprising. I am basically the ideal candidate for a digital rangefinder.

But let’s face it: For the very reasons it’s perfect for me, the digital M isn’t for everyone. Most photographers tend to appreciate electronically-assisted focus. Most photographers don’t want to limit themselves to a neutral focal range. Most photographers want at least the option of using macro, and perhaps off-camera flash. For such applications, a rangefinder is far from ideal. 

And yet… The digital Leica M is popular. More popular than it should be, considering what it’s designed and not designed to do. This was something I could not help but notice when I plunged into the online Leica universe whilst deciding which body and lenses to purchase.

At the time, the release of the M11 had just been announced, and the internet was buzzing. On an almost daily basis, there was a glut of new Leica M content, in the form of reviews, comparisons, discussions, analyses, and future predictions. 

I consumed it all with the earnest enthusiasm of a newcomer, and observed a recurring theme that soon began to alarm me: The focus (no pun intended) seemed to be disproportionally on non-M-ish aspects of the digital M cameras. And I don’t mean just the techie things like the number of megapixels, improvements to dynamic range, low-light performance, and so on. No, I mean truly non-M-ish things (in fact, anti-M-ish might be a more fitting term), like… the Visoflex (external EVF accessory), which Leica introduced several years ago to the delight of M users. And new M lenses, which offered a reduced minimal focusing distance when used with live-view and Visoflex. There were excited rumours that the new M11 might in fact have an internal EVF. 

It was at this point I began to feel as if I had taken a wrong turn and ended up in the Twilight Zone. Was I that late to the party, that the party was effectively over? As I was discovering the joys of the digital rangefinder, were others casting it aside in favour of electronic-assisted focus? And if that was indeed the case, why did they want an M camera in the first place, when Leica already offered a perfectly good mirrorless full-frame EVF model, aka the SL?

In attempts to unravel this mystery, I reviewed quite a lot of content and took part in some heated backchannel discussions. And what I’ve gleaned does not bode well for my newfound digital soulmate. I will try to summarise it here in a way that I hope does not come across as aggressive or overly critical, but rather reflects my understanding of what is happening… But in any case, here goes:

 1. A considerable subset of Leica M users does not actually want, or need, a Leica M.

What they really want is a mirrorless camera with an electronic viewfinder, that has the aesthetics, ergonomics, and user interface of a Leica M. (I suspect that some also want the cachet of  a rangefinder camera, without actually having to use the rangefinder feature… but that is a topic for another time.) I do not know how else to explain that so many M-shooters I’ve spoken to admit they tend to focus via the Visoflex attachment and the live-view mode, as opposed to the optical rangefinder. In the same vein, much of the online content pertaining to M cameras seems to be centred on finding solutions, workarounds, and ‘hacks’ for the various limitations of a rangefinder. Of course, the obvious solution would be to choose a different camera. And yet there is a palpable attachment to the idea of the Leica M that supersedes practical considerations.

2. The Leica SL range offers all the features Leica users want. Alas, it is uncool.

Conversely, I find it intriguing that while SL series actually does offer the features Leica users want, it is persistently shunned. It appears that the aesthetics, ergonomics, and size of these cameras (as well, as, arguably, its associations with Panasonic and Sigma), make it less desirable for the type of customer who gravitates toward the M.

3. The above two points combined put pressure on Leica as a company, to evolve the digital M range towards something it is not…

…Namely, toward an electronic mirrorless camera with vestigial rangefinder features. Unfortunately, there is evidence of Leica starting to yield to that pressure. While the new M11 does not have a built-in EVF, the rangefinder-incompatible features of some new M lenses are worrying, as is the amount of attention dedicated to the Visoflex .

For that small subset of digital M users who actually prefer, value, and want the optical rangefinder specifically with as little electronic clutter as possible, none of this feels like good news.

Moreover, considering that the ‘M’ in Leica M stands for messsucher, which literally means ‘rangefinder’ in German, it is hard to ignore the absurdity of this development.

Would Leica not benefit, I wonder, from  keeping the M series a pure rangefinder, whilst dedicating resources to a redesign of the SL series?  Make the SL more ergonomic, sexier, more Leica-esque… make it out of brass… rename it if they have to!

Alternatively, perhaps a new hybrid M-E line can be launched, offering that blend of rangefinder and electronic-assist features that many find desirable. That way, characteristics of the original M bodies and lenses can remain protected.

As I write all this, I can readily anticipate the obvious retorts.  ‘Don’t you think that Leica knows what they are doing?’ and ‘Who are you exactly, to opine on this topic?’ And in fairness, I can’t argue with either point. Nevertheless: The rangefinder changed my relationship with digital photography. And therefore, I do  feel invested in what happens next.

At the moment, I cannot help but wonder  –  is the digital rangefinder an endangered species? Considering the uncompromising and artful way in which Leica managed to stay true to the rangefinder design through the precarious transition into the digital era, it would be a shame if all this were lost. It would be a shame if the digital M  became a messsucher in name only.


Header image: The Leica M9 and M10. Photo taken with a Leica CL and a Voigtlander 90mm 3.5  APO-Lanthar lens.

Ailbíona McLochlainn is a photographer, knitwear designer, and recovering academic, based in Ireland. For additional information and lots of pictures to look at, visit

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65 thoughts on “The Digital Rangefinder: an Endangered Species? – by Ailbíona McLochlainn”

  1. Those are very good questions dear Ailbíona. After I attended the re-launch of the M6 in Wetzlar though I guess that Leica will carry on making digital Ms after the 11. And then there is the sexyness of the Q2 monochrom for people who put the M in the glass menagerie, and who consider the capable SL clunky.

    1. The M6 relaunch does fill me with hope! (although I think I would personally prefer the MP…)

      What do you think of the new M6 compared to the original?

      For those who considered the SL clunky, I thought the CL (which I also had the opportunity to use for several months) was an excellent alternative. I was very surprised they decided to discontinue it. The crop factor was not noticeable (I used the camera for professional work and it was absolutely fine), and the user experience was excellent. I suppose the idea is to steer people toward the Q, but it really isn’t the same.

  2. Very thoughtful and research essay Ailbiona. Thank you very much for triggering my interest and thoughts first thing in the morning! An alternative would be to develop two lines of products : the current M line and one you suggest that would be an extension of the CL, full-frame with an EVF. As for analog Ms I’ll take an M6 (which I own) over an MP fir the rewind crank alone. Far faster and more convenient. Best

    1. Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll be completely honest here: I dislike the slanted corner created by the rewind crank on the M6; it makes my brain twitch when I look at the camera (it’s as if someone bit off a piece!) But I realise this is a functional element that improves usability, so of course I am being completely unreasonable.

    2. I have to side AM on this one. I much prefer the aesthetics of the knurled knob of the M3 and MP (et al.) over the more ubiquitous rewind lever of the M6. I guess I’m in the minority because I’m not even annoyed with the knurled crank on my M3! I enjoy the rewind process and have never been in such a hurry that I felt that the additional five seconds of winding cost me a photo. But, then again, I’m just a hobbyist shooter.

      Great questions to ponder, Ailbíona!

      1. I have used my M6 on many occasions as a professional photographer where how fast you could rewind and change film did matter (and frankly I loathed rewinding film on the M3 and M2 I used prior to the M6)

    3. Funny but I too prefer the knurled rewind knob of the M3 over the angled but much more speedy design of the M6 & M4. The loading mechanism on the M4 forwards is also a decent improvement though over the M3. I’ve just sold my much loved M4 to buy a new M-A which aside from having all the bits I like from the M3 and the M4 also has a gorgeously bright modern optical rangefinder. It’s perfect for me, paired down to the absolute basics with no electronics it should outlast me.

  3. Being still very much on the fence on whether to move to digital Leica or stick with what digital camera I have, your article makes a good read… thanks! As a 50mm-addict, with strong preference for optical viewfinders and a happy user of a M4, the second-hand M10s keep calling….

    I kind of get your point on the stuff they did with the M11 that make it less range-finder-y. But consider, in the M10, they also removed movie-making (definitely not very range-finder) which did exist on the Typ 240. As for live-view… my DSLR has it, never used it. The mere fact it’s available doesn’t make the DSLR any less SLR to me. If I’d have a digital M, it would be just the same. An additional feature that’s not for me.

    My one beacon of hope, is that I think that Leica knows what it’s doing, and that that doesn’t always results in them doing what the masses think they should be doing. If the collective internet wisdom is anything to go by, I don’t believe they’d ever would have gone digital to start with, but once they did, they’d never had made new film cameras nor Monochroms. So perhaps the vocal masses on the internet are not all that predictive of what Leica ends up doing…..

    1. I too am the type of photographer who immediately disables the live-view feature when setting up my camera. I only use the back screen to review photos when doing work-related photoshoots, just to confirm I got the framing and exposure the way I want.

      The comparison to the M240 is apt. That ended up being an unpopular model precisely due to the extra bells and whistles. So with the M10 Leica returned to a more minimalist approach. I am hoping to see the same in the future M12, compared to the M11.

      1. Hmmm, I beg to disagree with the M240 being an “unpopular camera”: many whom I know bought it, as I did. It was their first digital M after all the problems that both M8 and M9 encountered. I bought it for the same reasons and finally went from an M6 to a digital M. It probably saved Leica in fact and opened the path for the M10. Color rendition was far more realistic than the M9 (some obviously enjoyed the slightly oversaturated images generated by this latter camera. By the way something that can be easily replicated with a Photoshop/Lightroom/Adobe Camera Raw preset (see reddotforum for details). It finally had a reliable 24 Mp sensor (which did not have to be sent back to Leica). The M9 noisy shutter had been replaced by a quieter one, more in the line of the last analog Ms (M6 and M7). It had Live View which helped those using lenses wider than 24 mm and longer than 135 mm (so it expanded shooting possibilities). As for the added video, one can easily ignore it if they do to use it. As far as some of us were concerned it was the first convincing digital Leica M. The total number of buttons on the back were rather minimalistic compared to any other digital camera of the time (only one more than on the M10).

        1. That’s interesting & not an angle I considered. Thanks for that.

          (And I too find the M9 colours problematic. ‘Slightly oversaturated’ is a generous way of putting it, especially when it comes to skin tones!)

  4. The biggest problem with a rangefinder is that it’s not accurate enough to deliver sharp 60-megapixel images. That’s my best guess.

    And Leica made the M10 M-D that didn’t have a digital screen, so you couldn’t see what you’d shot until you were home and downloaded them to your PC.

    Still, I think this is the golden age of digital cameras; in the future, everyone who’s not a pro will either shoot film or use their cell phone; look at how quickly scanners disappeared as consumer items – when cell phones get better, expect something similar.

    1. The megapixel arms race has certainly contributed to Leica having backed itself into a corner with the digital M line. I am not sure what the solution is. Except of course the obvious.

      Part of the reason I opted for the M10 and not the M10R, is that I didn’t want the hassle of the extra megapixels when it’s completely unnecessary for my line of work. Hopefully, my camera will last me a good long while yet!

      1. 60MP almost no one needs on any camera and the way Leica has backed out of that corner is letting users select 18, 36, or 60MP. Best of all worlds. If you go gallery level work for landscapes, 60mp with a Tripod is probably desirable. I am more of a documentary shooter, so I would probably go 36mp. For my M10M, you do need to be mindful of shutter speed, but that’s why I often have a minimum speed of 1/250th with auto ISO to prevent that.

    2. Strictly speaking, sharp images have nothing to do with the M11 rangefinder itself, or its sensor by comparison with an M240, M10 (P, R or monochrome). If an image is not sharp/in focus with the M11, it will still not be sharp/in focus with the M10, M240…The rangefinder being a focusing aid, either the image is focused for its subject or it is not. On the other hand using a rangefinder at extreme apertures (f 1.4, f 1.2, f 1, f 0.95) may result with not accurately focused images if the rangefinder is not precisely calibrated, but, I do not think the size of the sensor that is involved here in any way
      As for film, once the new generation of analog camera users(the older one already knows) has realised how much time and money is involved in film for images that, most of the time, end up scanned (and whose results are sometimes worse than their digital equivalent), many will do back to digital … or their cell-phones. PS: do you know many people that use daguerreotypes collodion glass negatives ? It is true that very few have gone back to those for their love of the process but far more used film once it was invented as far more people use digital now rather than film. Ease, convenience, results, and ultimately cost..

      1. You are right about ease, convenience and cost, however, part of us do film for the result they get.
        I was a digital shooter that went bak to film a couple years ago and have completely abandoned digital photography except for some workshop i attend to. I do scan my film and process the good shot (it keeps my “talent” on ps) but use this as a way of knowing which shot i will be printing in the dark room.
        By the way (i know i’m odd) the best digital m i shot with and still cherish is the m9 monochrom…
        Also, regarding the cost, if you use old equipment and roll/process your film yourself i’m not sure how many years it takes to be equivalent with a xxx thousand euro camera.

      2. That’s not entirely true. It’s definitely true that your rangefinder needs to be calibrated – one of mine is going Into service this week for that very issue. However, while the physical sensors of all of those camera occupy the same amount of physical space, the density of the pixels occupied on that spaces is much different, ie a 60MP sensor has many more pixels that are smaller, packed into the same area. This means that it is much more sensitive to pixel shift, which will cause the image to seem out of focus, even if the range finder is properly calibrated the the image was properly focussed. Shutter speed becomes much more of an issue in terms of the cause vs the other two.

  5. I had the “new” Zeiss Ikon (ZI)- it’s rangefinder viewfinder was much bigger and brighter than my Leica M6 TTL, and came with discreet frame-line indications. It shows that there is still room for improvement for those of us who want a simple rangefinder camera. I think that the Leica Q2 is the camera you are fearing (with a 35mm lens?) , but we already have it. To me it’s EVF makes it a no no!
    PS the ZI was not good, mine failed twice. The rangefinder was easily knocked out of alignment, and it felt and sounded like what it was… an old Cosina SLR with the top taken off. Aesthetics do matter.

    1. Interesting. I’ve always been curious about the (original) Zeiss Ikon, but never owned one.

      The most curious/ obscure rangefinder I’ve ever owned was a medium format Moskva. Not the easiest or most intuitive to use for sure!

  6. “disturbed my tranquil, stagnant world of good-enoughness” what a great phrase! Add writer to your list of professional accolades.

    I am no expert on rangefinders but I have had an interest in them for a long time. Right now I am waiting for the first roll from my FED 5B to be developed and I had an Olympus rangefinder in the 80’s. So barely even dabbling so far. A rangefinder has two main qualities to me: 1) it removes autofocus from the equation and replaces it with a very accurate but manual process – that is good becuase to me, managing the autofocus system is a major distraction when composing a thoughtful image – I want to decide where the point of focus is and once I have decided, I want it to stay there until I change it! and 2) it forces you to imagine the final image becuase you don’t have “live view” in an lcd or EVF to help you.

    Most photographers who require speed, certainty and instant feedback are going to go a different path (even though some photojournalists and war correspondents have used Leica M cameras successfully for years).

    One other comment: not to distract from your overall point, someone who uses a digital rangefinder every day sometimes needs some technology to make sure they have captured something they can use for a client or for publication. So in my opinion, some digital evolution is necessary for digital rangefinders to survive commercially. Photography is full of compromises and this is just one of them.

    1. Ha, thank you Kevin!

      I am wondering what you mean by this:
      ‘someone who uses a digital rangefinder every day sometimes needs some technology to make sure they have captured something they can use for a client or for publication.’

      Do you find that your rangefinder cannot consistently produce suitable images for client work? And if so, what kind of work do you do?

      I was worried about using ‘only’ the M10 for client work and publication, but find that I have no issues. But I’m guessing the requirements in our fields are different.

      (Genuinely curious about this by the way, not attempting to contradict you but rather understand the differences in approach/ point of view)

  7. What a lovely read. Your turn of phrase is so reminiscent of my Irish grandparents and you have such a fresh and honest take of the Leica world. Thanks for the article. As a hand knit wool sweater and vest addict I also loved your knitwear. Keep up the good work on both fronts.

  8. You have made several excellent points Ailbiona. Leica has been cursed by its market niche almost since its inception. Alas, prats and posers who don’t want to learn how something works nor wish to develop and hone skills are drawn like moths to a flame by the exclusivity of the brand. Leica will pander away the qualities that made the cameras one of the top makes of the rangefinder segment of the market. They have done this before. When late to the SLR party, Leica sold Leicaflex cameras at a loss hoping that lenses and accessory sales would rescue their bottom line. Minolta rescued Leica, along with the stalwarts of the Midland (Canada) plant who pushed for the M4 and M4-2.

    As for film Leica M cameras, the tanks are the M3 and M2, which were designed for rugged press use even in war. Once serviced they cannot be beaten. Later M cameras are fine but not as tough.

    As for the digital M, my personal preference is for the cameras which behave most like a film camera with a digital back. Also, any model without a red dot gets preference. (Red dot models get black electrical tape!) The EVF is a nice accessory for checking focus coupling adjustments but a true mirrorless body surpasses a workaround for such things as close-ups with a rangefinder.

    Thanks for your excellent thought provoking article.

    1. It was riveting, learning about that precarious chapter of Leica’s history. Thank goodness for Minolta and the stalwarts of the Midland! (I am also grateful for my beloved 40m Summicron-C lens, which is a byproduct of that era!)

      I am currently sharing an M3 – whilst trying to decide whether to buy an identical M3 for myself, or save up for an MP or (new) M6. It is essentially a question of paying 2-3K extra for a lightmeter and the assurance of a newer, possibly still warrantied product. So really I know what the answer is; just need to accept it.

      1. Honestly i own several m canera’s and my favorite is the M2. it is very reliable and if you need a cla it should go for a couple decades. My first was an M6 ttl back in 2001 and never returned to the factory. i’m still using it but it’s the M i like the less. It’s materials doesn’t compare to an MP or an MA for new and really not have absolutely nothing in commun. with an M2 in good conditions.
        Also, there are some nice speed loader you can buy for not a lot and that replace the spool with something similar to m4/m6/…..
        Very nice essay! i thank you for it

      2. Castelli Daniel

        The M2, M3, M4, & M5 were hand assembled and individually ‘tuned’ for optimal mechanical precision. Later mechanical models are made from mass-produced parts and pre-assembled components.
        I have a M2 & a M4-P. There is a noticeable difference in the mechanical action of the two bodies. Both have been serviced by DAG, so so the possibility of different outcomes by different repair services is not a factor.
        My father was a highly trained toolmaker. He assembled complex machines that weighed hundreds of pounds, but needed to be so balanced that the turn of a hand would activate the operation of the machine. I mention this in the context of longevity. The difference is like night & day. Buy the M2/3/4, have it serviced by a competent shop. Buy a light meter. You’ll still have dollars/euros/pounds in your bank account.

  9. My Monochrom 246 is my favourite camera ever and if/when it dies I’d probably be more than happy to just acquire another one, however the nature of digital means that might not be feasible in the long run. I’d hate if Leica stopped making new Monochroms equipped with the rangefinder. As for colour, after a few years of doing b&w almost exclusively I got myself a little Sigma FP and it’s great but something pushed me towards the SL very recently and now I feel a little foolish I haven’t thought of it earlier. It cost me the same as the FP with an EVF but it feels so much more like a serious camera and it’s outstandingly built, anyone who thinks it’s uncool must have never held it. The minimalistic unlabelled buttons are so unpatronising, shame the later models are more “normal” in this regard. Still, Monochrom above all but SL is still cool as fuck, especially with all the ostentatious branding taped over.

    1. I would absolutely choose the SL if I were in the market for a full frame mirrorless camera. And I agree about the look. It is minimalist, with an almost brutalist 1960s aesthetic. Very cool. Glad you are enjoying it!

  10. Beautifully written! With the heart and mind united in a single, perfect sphere, to quote the late and much lamented Neil Peart. I am one of the Visoflex nutters, I also have several old Visoflex monsters, but I combine the rangefinder and the evf. If I want the unadulterated rangefinder pleasure, I reach for the imperfect M8. Fake colours and all. If you are having fun with the M3, try to get or borrow the dual range 50 mm Summicron. You will not be disappointed. Thanks again and take care

  11. I agree with all your points, but at the end of the day the *rangefinder* has been an endangered species since the release of the Nikon F in 1959, and yet the M has carried on (for 64 years…). I suspect it will continue to do so long after the rest of the interchangeable-lens camera market has succumbed to smart phones.

    As an aside, Point 2 is an interesting one for me. There’s constant interwebs chatter about a a Leica M with an EVF and AF lenses, and I always think – isn’t that just an SL with a rangefinder-styled body? I’ve never understood the desire to ‘modernise’ the M-mount, when Leica already has the L-mount up and running.

    1. I always saw the SLR vs rangefinder as parallel paths, and didn’t realise the Nikon F was perceived as a threat to Leica when it came out (until I started reading up on the history recently).

      FWIW the first film camera I purchased myself as an adult when I finished grad school, was the Nikon FM3A. The shop still had some in stock and offered me a discount of something like 75%. At the time (2004 or so), retail shops and professional photographers were all switching to digital en masse, and were practically throwing out all their remaining analogue equipment. I still remember the mixed feelings of excitement to be able to buy it at such a great price, and sadness that this great instrument was now nonchalantly being discarded by the industry.

  12. Follow the money. It’s always about the money lass. In October 2015, Leica introduced the SL (601) for $7450. A month later in November 2015, they introduced the M Typ 262 for $5195. It made sense that the SL (601) was a substantially more expensive 24MP camera since it was chock full of modern technology and the Leica M (262) is, well, a rangefinder. Fast forward thru the M10 iterations and you will note that Wetzlar flip-flopped its pricing. Why? Because they can. They are marketing luxury goods to rich people. NOBODY needs a $9K digital rangefinder body. God Bless Kapitalism.

    1. Yes, I noticed that about the pricing when looking through old reviews. I assumed the cause of the flip was Leica seeing the difference in the resale value of pre-owned Ms vs SLs and aligning their retail pricing to market trends, if that’s the proper way of putting it.

      There is no arguing, 9K is a lot. What about the Pixii at 3K? And do you think there will be other manufacturers offering ‘non-luxury’ rangefinders in future? Voigtlander perhaps…

  13. What a fabulous read Ailbíona! Beautifully written as so many others have observed. I too was enchanted by the optical rangefinder of M series cameras and it’s that feature primarily that keeps me locked in.

  14. Excellent article, you certainly stir the thoughts. I’ve loved rangefinders ever since buying a used Voigtlander bessa R. I’m not a Leica fanatic with rosy tinted glasses looking at anything Leica make as perfect. When I treated myself on retirement to a new M9 it turned out to be a bad-un, probably built on a friday sfternoon! Reason: corroded sensor within 6 months, shutter that spat oil on the sensor, firmware full of glitches, then a 2nd corroded sensor, a horrible very loud shutter, I came from Lumix and Pentax that just worked. Got rid of the M9 for an M240, never looked back. I really like the M240 and use it like a film camera, review off, video off, never use live view or an EVF and can’t see a reason too, never use raw. I believe digital M’s and film M’s will live in harmony together. Not sure about hi pixels count cameras when the M240’s, Q1, SL1 and M10 have more than enough pixels for anybody. My local Leica dealer has deposits for 20 of the new M6’s, it’ll sell well I’m sure. I had an M6 but preferred my M2 that had an MP rangefinder update. So I say long live the rangefinder in whatever form.

  15. Honestly, it’s getting harder to mentally unpack all the back & forth comments, opinions, et al, flying about on social media about Leica anymore.

    The fabled “Leica Look’ died long ago. It was a combination of film, enlarging paper, chemicals and lenses tuned for film. The new ‘Leica Look’ is achieved by software, image sensors, and lenses tuned for digital capture.

    If you want to create the traditional Leica Look, they buy a (film) Leica M, a lens made before 1985, some Tri-X, D-76 and go for it.

    Not a snob comment, but it will be taken as such: A Leica M is a specialized piece of equipment. It is not for the vast majority of photographers or hobbyists. The design and usage of a Leica M requires the person holding it to accept the intended methodology of a rangefinder. It invites you to be in the middle of the action, or to interact with people (mostly strangers) almost in an intimate way. You need to talk, to spend more than a fleeting moment with them. Not everyone is wired like this. It doesn’t stop people from buying Leica’s, it’s just that you might be better off buying DSLR. Try this exercise: Get a Leica M and a 50mm or 35mm lens. film or digital. Now, ride the subway/Tube/T, etc. Approach strangers and ask if you could take their photo. For most people, this is a terrifying experience. But this is what the Leica M evolved into; a quiet unobtrusive camera.

    A generation of people have grown up with the effortless ease of cell phone photography. Could it be people exploring high end digital photography are looking for that same effortless experience they’ve gotten used to with their cell phones? I don’t know.

    I do know that good photography takes work. Lots of work. Much of the work should be done before you make an image. Too much reliance of the “I’ll fix it later in Photoshop” rather than getting it correct at the time of making the photo.

    But, different strokes for different folks. I’m happy with my M2 and 35mm lens. I’ve got a well-stocked darkroom, and I’ll never love long enough to print all I want. If the digital M appeals to you, and it helps you find your voice or vision, go for it.

    1. Whenever someone insists on the Leica look, we do a very simple experiment. I show them the wall in my living room displaying a collection of framed photos (or show the front page of my website if the interaction is virtual) and ask them to point out which photos were taken with a Leica. No one gets it right. Same deal with people who insist they can distinguish between film vs digital photos.

      I have not considered the social aspects of using a Leica M in the way you describe. Something to think about. I do like to be engaged with the people I photograph, and have no problem approaching strangers. On the other hand, I do not enjoy stealth-type street photography. Even if I want to photograph someone on the street from a bit of a distance and without them outright posing for me, what I do is catch their eye and give them an inquisitive look, lifting my camera slightly. The result most of the time, is they give me a micro-nod of acknowledgement, sometimes even a shy/ coy/ flattered look that can be quite nice to capture. Then they go back to what they were doing, and I can take more naturalistic photos without feeling weird about it.

      1. Completely agree with Ailbiona. When digital appeared, lots of people said they can distinguish. Having sceptical-critical-defiant personality, I always liked to tease people about their beliefs. So, once, for example, I’ve mixed archival-quality 4mpx prints made with a cheap Minolta Dimage S404 between RC prints from Nikon FM3a + F3, and no one was able to reliably tell. Not even any of fellow designers in out digital design office before I hung the pics in the gallery inside glass frames, where any kind of difference would be even more invisible.

        And I did similar thing with the “Leica look”. I put out in a word that I use Leica and then watched the audience react to that, commenting that my pictures show the Leica look, and that the Leica makes it easier for me to take such great pics. Yet all the pics were from various Nikons I’ve used over the years, long before I purchased my first Leica. Later, when I got my first film Leica, I’ve mixed pics taken with the film Leica and Leica lens (those that are supposed to still provide the famed “magic”) between pics made with the film SLRs (recently I use mostly Nikon FM2 and Minolta XD7), and unsurprisingly no one was able to tell them apart. AI-s Nikkor 35/2, or Minolta MD 35/2.8, paint a picture virtually indistinguishable — at least for me — from Summarit-M 35/2.4, or Summicron-M 35/2 (some Made in Canada)… I develop films only few times a year, and often forget what camera I used to take such film, and even looking at high res scans on the computer I can’t tell the camera used… then I look whether there are any pics on that film that are taken from very close range, as that’s the easiest differentiator between my rangefinder and SLR pics… one can’t get closer than 0.7m with a rangefinder, which can be sometimes a bit limiting for portraits…

  16. One thing I always find very intersting is how rangefinders “do it” like nothing else for some people, and leave others fairly indifferent. I do have quite rangefinder cameras (Olympus 35 RC, Yashica Electro 35, a bunch of Cosina Compact 35 clones…) . I use them, I can deal with focussing pretty well, but it simply doesn’t have the same appeal to me as it clearly does for you and many others. The world seems to be split in rangefinder people and SLR people teh same way as it’s split between cat people and dog people 😀

  17. Dear Albiona,
    it’s always nice to read a post by a female photographer and especially about the “M” topic. I’m glad that the rangefinder changed your approach to photography. The rangefinder certainly has its flaws but who doesn’t enjoy the rather light bag to carry it.
    Where might Leica go with the rangefinder? We will find out. I wouldn’t mind an EVF like on the Q with the size of the M. Would then the M be a Q? No.
    Up above appeared the thought that the rangefinder might not be precise enough for the 60MP of the M11. I think it will, except for exotic lenses like the 50 f/0.95 or the 90 f/2 at close range. And even the live view won’t do it, because your body might sway.
    So that’s an argument I do not go along with.
    I’m happy with my M10 as well.

    1. It’s funny that ‘female photographer’ is such a rarity on the internet; in real-life it’s always been about 50/50 in my world.

      I think a mirrorless camera with the Q’s EVF + the M’s form factor + interchangeable lenses compatible with M mount yet capable or macro = exactly what most people need. Perhaps add video functionality too, for good measure, why not. A hybrid line called something like the EM (electronic M). While the basic M line remains rangefinder-only, with protected characteristics.

      I am seeing different explanations behind the idea that a rangefinder is not precise enough for 60+MP.

      One line of reasoning seems to be: ‘The rangefinder is inherently less precise than EVF critical focus, but this is not noticeable until you increase megapixels.’ In which case, I’d be tempted to disagree. In my hands (operating at 24MPs), a rangefinder is consistently MORE precise than EVF critical focus. So by that logic, this will only become more noticeable as the megapixels increase?

      Another explanation is to do with camera shake & other factors introduced by the increased megapixels. This bit I don’t understand well enough to debate, but to an extent it does make sense.

      1. In my experience, rangefinder is perfect for slower lenses, or wideangle lenses (that are hard to focus on traditional SLRs). For fast mid to long lenses (I’d say the likes of 35/1.2, 50/1.4, 90/2…), and especially for close range focusing, it comes out of alignment all too easily, and it was easily visible even on M9 with its low megapixel count. Also, calibration of lenses from the factory is not even even :), meaning you have to sometimes send your camera + all your fast lenses for calibration together. And repeat that every once in a while, always when you knock the camera harder (it can be de-calibrated even when always used in soft fluffy cases; no dropping to pavement needed), or when it misaligns due to wear/use. For example Noctilux 50/0.95 I own is a real pain to use because of this – I regularly re-calibrate my Leica M2 to use it, as I found that’s the only way how to use that lens reliably. But I won’t have the balls to calibrate digital M at home… M2 is at least relatively simple and I do not risk warranty etc., so it’s “riskable” to do it at home.

        1. I am probably in the minority on this, but I don’t especially enjoy using wide angle lenses on a rangefinder (even at high F numbers, so it’s not a focusing issue, something else). I do love my 40mm (Summicron-C), but somehow even a 35mm is already a bit weird. Can’t put my finger on why exactly. In any case, 40mm-50mm-75mm seems to be my optimal range.

          De-calibration: I’m with you on that. It always surprises me when people describe their Ms as ‘tanks’ that can be knocked about. They definitely shouldn’t be!

          My heart breaks reading about your struggle with the Noctilux :)) If you need it re-homed, I will only charge you a nominal room & board fee. Joking. I am actually a very boringly happy Summarit 50mm user. Would love to try a Summilux and Noctilux of course, but thankfully I don’t yearn to own either. Do you find that you can only use your Noctilux on a tripod, or are you able to hand-hold it?

          1. Well, I have “inherited” the Noctilux… so free of the burden of the purchase I can criticise it and not feel bad for my purchase 🙂 (Which is another factor why Leica seems to be so much loved and praised by many of its users, even when I see them struggle with their Leica, or when they have to solve many quality-related issues with it; it’s choice-supportive bias that’s always very strong with very expensive items.)

            The lens can be used quite normally. It’s heavy and covers lots of the viewfinder, but I have some nice pics taken with it handheld… of mostly stationary subjects :). Due to its weight and size (and price) it’s a lens that I use rarely, but in the days or months after the calibration it is almost like a normal lens. On black and white film that I shoot the most the worse sharpness at f/0.95 is not even so strong… not that it would even matter. I guess it would be an awesome lens for shooting some hardcore documentary stuff in limited light, such as people working in the foundries, glass factories, mines, or similar. Or for portraits, but the limited focusing distance and field curvature are limiting its usefulness there; so maybe more like environmental portrait. I also think that the new Chinese lenses, like the 75/1.25 or 50/1 or 50/0.95 (TTartisans, 7Artisans…), or even Voigtlander 50/1.1, are very similar if not indistinguishable in most real world scenarios — and perfectly sufficient on grainy black white film. Maybe you can find someone who sells them to try some of them; particularly the 75/1.25 from 7artisans is interesting (I own and was very positively surprised it’s even better than my former Summilux 75/1.4).

            Regarding wide lenses, I have the longest experience with 28mm (Voigtlander Ultron 28/2). I use it without an external viewfinder mostly with the M2, the framing precision is acceptable for me, and the focusing precision is much better than what I can achieve with my manual 28mm lenses on my SLRs. I have this feeling of better focus success rate also with 35mm lenses, but not really with 50mm. I also have Voigtlander Snapshot-Skopar 25/4 which is not rangefinder coupled, but its wide angle and slow aperture makes it really easy to focus based on hyperfocal distance – it has nice detents on the focusing ring. I also like the experience shooting with it, and huge external viewfinder, compared to experience using 24/2.8 and similar lenses on manual SLRs; but not for focusing precision, more like the overall experience and easier setup of those common hyperfocal distances.

      2. I totally agree with you, that a rangefinder is as precise or even more precise than an AF. And … you your focus where you intend it to be and not where the camera sets it, not talking about in which AF-mode you are and where the AF-Point is set.
        The limiting factor, at least to me, is eyesight. I’m 59 and use a -2dpt lens screwed onto the the viewfinder. It’s hard to see where the squares are especially with tired eyes.
        To use a rangefinder camera one has to get involved with the system. You either like it or not, period.
        My next argument towards are rangefinder of Leica is the superb quality of the lenses together with their size. As Peter Karbe said: “it’s a lot easier to make a lens if I have 5mm more of diameter.”
        We go out shoot and enjoy.

        1. Dirk. the argument about the size of the cameras and the lenses is the one that resonates for me, and I believe there must be some other users of the system who are in it for this “feature”; not just, or not at all, for the rangefinder itself. Other manufacturers can make small cameras and lenses too, but apparently most users (potential customers) don’t care… when I ask my friends-photographers, they don’t mind their Canons and Nikons are so big, or that the late Fujifilm lenses also grew in size — they say they’d always trade that for the picture quality (which is true; there are many large SLR/mirrorless lenses that are optically better than Leica rangefinder lenses, that are full of compromises, esp. in vignetting and therefore also the bokeh ball shape).

          I am not aware of any other digital (or even analog) camera system that would allow me to have 35/1.4 lens, or its fullframe equivalent, that would fit in the palm of my hand. Fujifilm used to be close with their first series of XF lenses, that’s when I started using them, but since then they’ve gone a long way and now their most popular cameras and lenses are almost as big as those for average DSLRs (or Sony A mirrorless).

          I think these users like me won’t ever switch to SL or Fujifilm, because having a tiny camera is so addictive. On the other hand, if there would be any alternative, I would try it immediately, as I am very much disappointed with the Leica quality control and reliability.

  18. Is nobody going to mention the Fuji X100 series or the XPro series of mirrorless digital cameras While not specifically a rangefinder, they do have a rangefinder format, with hybrid viewfinder that you can switch between optical and EVF modes. The X100 series has a fixed lens, but it’s very compact, and offers a tab for manual focusing. XPro series allows you to change out lenses for any of the very fine Fuji offerings, any of the many 3rd party offerings, and to adapt any vintage manual focus lens you like, including Leica glass. Compared to the cost of these Leica digital rangefinders, buying a used X100 or XPro series camera is much less, and still offers a similar experience, albeit with an APS-C sensor. I think this is a perfect option for the value-minded buyer, still looking for more of a “pure” rangefinder experience.

    1. This is of course very subjective/ personal. I briefly owned the Fuji XPro back when they first came out and we did not get on on multiple levels. I eventually traded it for a dark room. A year later, I checked in with the new owner and he was delighted with it. We each still felt like we got the better end of the deal!

      1. My entire point is that there are digital rangefinder-esque options out there for people who will never be able to shell out all the money that even a used Leica digital rangefinder will cost. Maybe you didn’t “get on” with a Fuji XPro1 when it first came out over 10 years ago, but the series has improved/changed in that time and still represents a viable alternative. Even 10 year old Leica M9 still sell for over $2000 on Ebay, whereas a used XPro2 can be had for $800. First world problems all around, eh?

  19. Hi, just one factual correction – digital Leica M cameras are not what I would call popular in general populace (quote from your article “The digital Leica M is popular. More popular than it should be, considering what it’s designed and not designed to do.”). The production numbers are a fraction of what production numbers for other cameras are. Quote from another article ( “To remain exclusive, Leica cameras are made in very limited numbers, with just a few thousand of each model built annually.” — When M9 was manufactured, it was about 20 thousand a year, but it was when Leica didn’t have parallel models. This limited production is confirmed by my personal experience with waiting for spare parts for lenses — even those are not kept in stock, and you can wait until another production run, meaning that you might need to wait half a year for a simple part. Another indication the equipment is not as popular as the “bubble”/echo chamber of privileged youtubers, chosen aficionados, and photography press, might suggest.

    1. Just to put this into perspective, I found the release article from Fujifilm about X-Pro 2 production — the production capacity was 800 cameras a day, making it almost a certain that this one model was manufactured in hundreds of thousands; yet, at the time it was only one model in portfolio consisting of at least 3 other models (maybe more), and Fujifilm is rather small manufacturer. The numbers for Canon/Nikon/Sony are probably in another universe… I’ve found that the production of Sony A mirrorless models are in millions. This makes Leica tinies of tiny manufacturers, and its real popularity absolutely negligible.

  20. I avoided the megapixel image debate yesterday but the worms’ can has been opened. The question is not can rangefinders accurately focus 60 mp sensors. Proof of this can be seen with Linhof cameras made 60-70 years ago in 2 1/4x 3 1/4, 4×5, and larger, which also used longer focal length lenses (upwards of 180mm) with world class results. The question really being asked is, “Can one pixel peep at full size at a 60 mp image and be happy that there will bragging rights for clarity and sharpness?” This is rather like watching a Aston Martin owner trying to look cool and speedy in a traffic jam.

    Reproduction limits of digital cameras are meaningless in isolation. The resolution of the lens, its calibration, the user’s skill, care, and ability, atmospheric conditions, the camera’s condition and calibration, tripod use (and its quality), are just the tip of the iceberg.

    The end result of photography is pictures. The intended end product dictates sufficient resolution and reproduction. Internet photos require even less quality than a 4×6 print. A well used 12mp camera can easily produce quality (uncropped) 16×24 inch prints. By extension by at 48mp 32×48 are possible with outstanding clarity. However, as the print size increases so the viewing distance should also increase and therefore the ppi ratio can fall making even larger prints possible. This is easily demonstrated by old slide projectors. Five and six foot screens were commonly used to project slides in the film era. Viewers raved about the results from appropriate distances from the screen. The same still happens in the movies. Get too close and the result pales.

    If the camera and lens are well adjusted by a professional, or skilled amateur, NOT by following a youtube diy video for cheapskates, and sufficient time practising the skill of accurate critical focusing, longer lenses (90 and 135) as well as fast normal lenses can produce consistently excellent results. There will be errors. No system is always infallible. By the way, the close but not quite phots can make lovely smaller sized prints too. As far as cameras constantly coming out of adjustment is concerned, once a proper set up as described above is done one should be good for years. My father’s Linhof never went out of adjustment in its 60 plus years of use. Keep in mind rangefinder focus setup is a compromise at best. 50mm and longer lenses should be set up so that the most commonly used focus distance is spot on (usually 2-3 m). Everything else will be close enough. This is the nature of the physics of optics. We may not like to admit it but the laws of physics are some of the only things in life which do not change. Also, the rangefinder system used by even the newest Leicas has only minor changes from the 1950’s design used in the M2. Even the M3 purists have the M2 system if they have a later M3.

    As for my admiration of the Tank aspects of early Leicas, I have seen battle scarred cameras that should not be working but are. I am not suggesting abusing equipment but a camera is a tool and not a piece of modern art sculpture for the mantel. It is rather like admiring the tatty old Land Rover that soldiers on and will pull its modern day relatives to the breakers when their time has come. I have no doubt that my M2 will outlast my digital. It has recently been fully serviced and will likely run another 70 years before needing another go. I won’t be around to worry about that.

    One entire aspect of rangefinder cameras has been missed so far and that is zone focusing. Particularly for family snaps and high speed action photography zone focusing is outstanding. I realize that the rangefinder system and therefore its use is the principle focus of your article. Rangefinder cameras do offer this as another modus operandi. You mentioned not really liking wide angle lenses on the Leica but this were they shine. A 35mm, f8, set 15′ and you’re set from 8′ to infinity! Frame and shoot. (The best article can be found in the book The Leica and Leicaflex Way)

    Kind regards

    1. Castelli Daniel

      Regarding the argument of a camera being a “tool” vs a piece of art comes down to cost. Amateurs and hobbyists have a limited supply of $$$. During the glory days of film photography, news organizations bought the cameras for the photographers, or at least made them available for use. We buy one or two. To replace a new M6 is the equivalent of a 25% down payment on a new VW. A M10? New roof. I would not have domestic in my home.

    2. I am going to drop out of the megapixel discussion, simply because I don’t like to comment on stuff I don’t fully understand and have no personal experience with.

      Question about the calibration issue/ non-issue: Would you take either an older or newer M on a bicycle, on off-road terrain? I’m not talking extreme downhill mountain biking, but more like off road travel? Bumpy gravel, speeds up to 40mph downhill, the bike has no suspension but wide cushy tyres, the camera is in a padded handlebar bag? My intuition is no way, but I have seen fellas on the internet do it.

      1. My cameras travel in Lowe Pro camera bags. One saved a Leica and a Canon iiS2 from a tumble on a paved driveway with no damage and no calibration shift with either. They regularly travel in Land Rovers and Pinzgauers on the metal floor without issue. As for the bike, as long as the bag is not banging against the frame I don’t see a problem. A rear carrier would likely be advisable. When in doubt take a Zorki! 🙂

  21. I am surprised no one mentioned the unloved Leica M5. I had been using anumber of digital RF Leica’s as they came on the market and stopped with the M240. Nice camera, but a little too fat and a bit fussy where the menu is concerned. For digital I now use my CL and my SL. But I missed the rangefinder. Several monthe ago, I bought a very nice M5 that had just been CLA’d. What a nice camera! While it is larger and a bit heavier than the M3, M6-M7’s, it has a terrific viewfinder/RF and a dead simple match needle meter that is large, intuitive and very accurate. I have larger hands so I find the body size to be perfect for me. Being unloved and better priced than its fore-bearers and followers, it is my gain and other’s loss.

  22. I think your concerns are needless. It’s true that there a many Leica users who really want the look of an M and the features of a SL. Thank god there are because that is what allowed you to get your M10 in a way, assuming it was used vs. new. And if not you many of us.

    The M is not for everyone, but Leica as a company is doing very well indeed. Are they hyper-focussed on marketing Visoflex ? Absolutely – why – because that is just a margin rich add on that also very few people need and use. Everything you that can be festooned upon a Leica, made by Leica, is insanely expensive and that is also allows M’s to keep being made because without doubt of all the camera brands, it is the most margin rich for the manufacturer. But let me also remind you that Leica has been doing this since time began, by offering external viewfinders for all manner of focal lengths for focal lengths that don’t have frame lines, as well as many that do. It’s very profitable.

    As for myself, 3 years ago, I stumbled upon the Leica M10 Monochrome on its day of release. Like you, I realized that I would have to sell all of my worldly possessions to own this system, which by every metric is completely crazy to own, has so many limits, constraints, and an archaic rangefinder to boot. And that is entirely the point for me. The constraint forces me to be so mindful and intentional, and yet at the same time, it is so intuitive. It is nothing less than a appendage, like my hand, and arm, directly attached to my brain. Because it is like this for me, I am always with this camera, in a way that I never was with my Nikons ( my F4 might be an exception ) or my Fujis, which were very capable beasts. But because I am always with this tool, this work of art, this magic device, I never miss an opportunity to always try new concepts, capture unexpected moments, and refine and hone my craft.

    Who knows what the future holds – perhaps your vision will come to pass but so what really. The first digital rangefinders like the Epson RDX1, and the M8 are still being used by their original owners, providing the same longevity their film counterparts have done. For if you are satisfied with the image you are getting from your present M10, outside of outright mechanical, electrical failure, theft or destruction, what reason would you have for an M11 over a M10? Every mechanic of how you use the camera is the same. What’s different is the battery system, the handgrip, the visoflex, the cases etc., I can honestly that when the M11 came out, there was nothing that made me feel compelled to own one over what I had and I do not have fomo for those that made this choice. I imagine there will be an M11 M soon – maybe this week even, but I see no need. I beyond happy with what I have been lucky enough to find.

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