Leica Portrait Photographer: Best Leica Camera for Portraits
After being a Leica portrait photographer for the last decade I now have a good understanding of what is the best Leica camera for portraits. Instead of naming just one camera I will breakdown the options to help you decide which might be the best camera for you. To add as much value as possible I will include both digital and film Leica cameras and some sample photos. If you love Leica and you love portraits this post is for you!
My Leica Portrait Work
To give you a background and perhaps a baseline to understand my opinions that will follow, I’ve enjoyed using Leica cameras since 2013 and have owned cameras from every Leica digital system and Leica film camera system with the exception of Leica medium format cameras. (I have used the Leica S2 but haven’t owned one). I specialise in black and white portraits of female models, usually with Leica cameras. This is what I’m asked to teach at most of my workshops. I’ll state the obvious and say you can take portraits with ANY Leica camera (and non-Leica) but some bodies are better suited than others.
Best Leica camera for portraits – Film cameras
Let’s first look at the options for taking portraits with Leica film cameras. Here are the systems available:
- Leica Standard + Leica without a rangefinder (Leica Ic, If, ig, MDa, MD-2 etc)
- Leica iii cameras
- Leica M film cameras
- Leicaflex SL series (without built in diopter)
- Leica R cameras (with built in diopter)
- Leica CL (Minolta CL)
Leica iii camera portraits
If I include all Leica iii cameras with a built in rangefinder, these cameras are your smallest option for shooting film. The rangefinder magnification is greater than most Leica M cameras making it easy to critically focus. Leica iii cameras are limited by their 1m close focus distance so for half body portraits I use 50mm lenses.
The Leica iiig is the only model with parallax correction so it is easy to mis-frame you portrait using other cameras. Leica iii bodies accept Leica screw mount lenses and almost all of these lenses are now 50-60+ years old. This can give your portraits a certain softer dreamy look especially with lenses shot close to wide open (maximum aperture). A 90mm lens can help get you a closer crop for portrait photos.
Best Leica iii camera to photograph people
My top choice is the Leica iiig camera which gives you a larger viewfinder, 50mm and 90mm framing and parallax correction. The drawbacks are this camera is slightly larger and heavier than other Leica iii cameras and it is the most expensive version.
Leica M film camera portraits
All Leica M film bodies with the exception of the Leica M3 and Leica M6 variants give you a less accurate viewfinder than a Leica iii camera. The advantage of Leica M cameras is you have a combined viewfinder rangefinder window making it faster to focus recompose shoot. If your sitter is moving this feature helps you get more images in focus.
The 0.85x viewfinder Leica M6 edition is the second most accurate M camera with the M3 being the best option. All Leica M camera models will focus to 0.7m except the Leica M3 which is 1m. You can modify your M3 to focus at 0.7m as I have (just ask your repair guy to calibrate the rangefinder to 0.7m). The beauty of Leica M cameras is you have access to the latest and great Leica M mount lenses made by companies such as Voigtlander and of course Leica.
The portrait king – Modified Leica M3
My modified Leica M3 cameras are my top choice for film as a Leica portrait photographer. To get geeky about it my Leica M3 single stroke is my number one film camera. I sometimes forget to double advance my modified Leica M3 double stroke so miss images. The Leica M3 in king for me because of the ease of focusing and because I shoot mostly 50mm lenses. The M3 viewfinder is a dream for 50mm shooters. It’s nicer made than later M cameras and all in all I just love using it. Comparing it to Leica iii cameras and Leica R film cameras for my eyes the M3 is the fastest to operate.
Best portrait lenses for Leica M film cameras
The list of possible lenses could be near endless but some to consider to use on film include the Leica Summilux 50mm f1.4 ASPH and Voigtlander Nokton 75mm f1.5. (I tend to use sharper lenses on film and soft lenses on digital). We’ll get to digital shortly.
Leica R mount camera portraits
As someone that owns multiple Leica R camera bodies, I find the Leica R5, R6, R6.2, R7 easier to focus than my Leicaflex SL as they have built in diopters to aid critical focus. Leica R mount cameras give you access to SLR style Leica R lenses. This brings multiple benefits. Leica R lenses can often focus closer than Leica M lenses and there are some very good telephoto and Leica zoom lenses available.
2 of my favourites are the Leica Vario-Elmar-R 35-70mm f4 and Leica Vario-Elmar-R 80-200mm. Leica R cameras are SLR cameras so they also give you a faster maximum flash sync speed and often faster maximum shutter speeds (which can be useful if using fast lenses on a bright day).
Love 35mm or wider?
If you love to use a 35mm (or wider) lens for portraits definitely look at Leica R cameras as you need to be able to get closer to get the impact from a 35mm lens. A 35mm lens on a Leica M film camera is OK but it lacks that up close distortion and wow factor. 35mm lenses on Leica iii cameras isn’t a great choice for portraits with a 1m MFD.
Worst Leica film camera for portraits?
If I only consider cameras with a built in rangefinder and viewfinder, for me the least ideal option is the Leitz CL. This camera has a short effective base length (EBL) so it’s less accurate with say a fast 50mm lens. That said, you can still make it work if you try hard enough.
Leica film cameras summary
So if you are a Leica portrait photographer that prefers film, it will come down to what lenses you enjoy using the most. For those of you that like ultra fast glass such as 50mm f1.0 lenses then go with Leica M cameras. Equally if you want a modern APO style performance go with the M system.
If you want to get close and intimate with your portraits look at Leica R SLR cameras. Do you love zoom lenses or longer lenses? Again, I think the R system will suit you the best. If you use flash in much of your portrait work, again the Leica R system will work the best.
If you love uber compact camera systems and shoot mostly 50mm lenses and you like the vintage rendering, consider Leica iii cameras. Are you on a tight budget? In this instance look at Leica iii or Leica R cameras. In summary, pick your lens first, camera second as it’s the lens that will give your portraits that unique look.
Are you a Leica User?
Digital Leica Portraits
OK, so for you digital photographers Leica offers 5 digital camera systems. Let’s look at each in more detail.
Leica CL Portraits
The Leica CL type cameras are APS-C (1.5x crop) not full frame and have now sadly been discontinued. These are L mount mirrorless cameras so will accept native L mount lenses such as those made by Sigma, Lumix and Leica (plus Leica M mount and LTM lenses via the correct adapter).
The Leica CL has a built-in EVF making it very easy to critically focus portraits with manual focus lenses. You can also benefit from using the autofocus L mount lenses if that is how you prefer to shoot. L mount lenses often focus much closer than Leica M mount lenses so that can be useful for creative portraits.
The 1.5x crop will give you more reach with all of your full frame lenses so suddenly your fast 50mm becomes a very nice 75mm equivalent. The drawback is you favourite fast 50mm is no longer a 50mm so it depends on how you view the argument.
The disadvantage of the crop sensor Leica CL series cameras is that you don’t get quite that shallow depth of field wow look that you can get from using full frame cameras. I was happy for over 2 years as a Leica portrait photographer using the Leica CL as my main camera body so you can make it work. If you prefer full frame cameras keep reading as we cover those next.
Using digital Leica M cameras for portraits
The digital Leica M cameras can be split into 2 groups. The early Leica M8 and Leica M9 which are rangefinder focusing only and later models that offer you the option of using a Visoflex or EVF. If your rangefinder is accurately calibrated you can get fantastic images using fast lenses such as the Leica Noctilux 50mm f1.0 without an EVF. That said, I would 100% recommend using a Visoflex with your Leica M240 / M10 / M11 if you enjoy using fast glass.
Many rangefinder coupled lenses are limited to a close focus distance of 0.7m or 1m. If you are happy to focus via a Visoflex you can benefit from buying lenses that can focus to closer than 0.7m. The Voigtlander Nokton 35mm f1.2 lens that focuses to 0.5m is brilliant for that reason.
If you don’t mind a slower pace of work the Leica M8 and Leica M9 cameras can create stunning portraits thanks to their Kodak CCD sensors. For faster paced work I would suggest cameras like the Leica M10 variants or Leica M11 as they don’t lag and buffer. Leica M cameras offer you manual focus only so if you prefer autofocus keep reading.
28mm portraits with Leica Q cameras
If your preference is wide angle portraits or perhaps environmental portraits you might enjoy the fixed lens Leica Q series cameras. Is 28mm too wide for portraiture? Not at all! I’ve shot models with the Leica Q and Leica Q2M and achieved really nice results. Leica Q bodies bring with them multiple benefits. Firstly, the fixed lens prevents you from getting overwhelmed with the choice of lenses to use. Second, the 28mm f1.7 Leica Summilux lens offers you fast autofocus and stunning image quality and the lens will focus as close as you need.
The obvious drawback of the Leica Q is the fixed lens. 28mm is not the ideal focal length for female portraits especially. 90mm and 135mm lenses are probably the most flattering. Luckily we have a better option. Keep reading.
The best digital Leica camera for portraits
Without question the best and most versatile Leica cameras for portraits are the Leica SL series. After using all mentioned Leica cameras I settled on the Leica SL. The Leica SL series cameras are full frame mirrorless Leica L mount cameras with a big bright high res built in EVF. SL series cameras use the same L mount lenses that you can use on the APS-C Leica CL. L mount lenses give you autofocus and shorter minimum focus distances both which can be very useful. You can also benefit from using L mount zoom lenses such as the popular Leica 24-90mm and 28-70mm or the more exotic Leica APO Vario Elmarit SL 90-280mm.
My current setup is to use the original Leica SL type 601 camera plus Leica M mount lenses via a Leica M-L adapter. I also use the 7Artisans M-L close focus adapter to let me focus all Leica M mount and all screw mount lenses closer than their native minimum focus distance.
The ultimate Leica portrait setup
If I won the lottery (unlikely as I don’t play it) I would buy the Leica SL2-S camera. The Leica SL2-S is said to have the best colours for those of you that shoot in colour (comparing to all Leica M cameras, Q and SL series, excluding the Leica M9). The SL2-S offers you image stabilisation which can be useful in low light with static models. The autofocus of the current model is also improved over the earlier Leica SL if you enjoy autofocus lenses.
What about medium format Leica S cameras
There is a strong argument that the Leica S cameras such as the Leica S2 that I’ve used on several occasions should be the number 1 choice for portraits. The reason I’ve not listed these top is that the Leica SL series cameras give you access to both the latest lenses (L mount and M mount) and vintage lenses. As a system camera the modern SL bodies are a more sensible choice for all situations. If you have the luxury of being able to use the S line in addition to full frame Leica cameras then yes absolutely, grab one and keep it for high end portrait work.
Leica portrait photographer best camera choice – digital
So if we summary for digital photographers, the best do everything portrait cameras are the Leica SL series. You can enjoy Leica M, LTM, R and L mount lenses. Shoot portraits with everything from 15mm to 300mm, up close or further away. You can have the autofocus option, image stabilisation, best in class viewfinders, solid build quality and dual card slots. These cameras do it all.
Perhaps the only counter arguments for the minority could be; 1) Get a Leica Q if you only shoot 28mm, 2) Look at Leica M cameras if your style is environmental street portraits where you want a small setup, 3) Consider the medium format Leica S series if you are a studio photographer.
Best lens for Leica portraits?
This will depend on the look that you are going for and if you prefer manual focus or auto-focus lenses. It will also be limited by your budget. Leica make some fantastic lenses, old and new, SL lenses and M lenses. Recently I’ve been very impressed by the Leica Summicron-SL APO 90mm f2 lens.
If you want something more affordable some of the third party lenses are worth considering. Sigma DG DN lenses such as the Sigma 90mm f2.8 can give you a small and affordable auto-focus kit. If you want soft and dreamy I love the TTArtisan 50mm f0.95 M mount lens via the M-L adapter. Voigtlander lenses never fail to deliver and the Voigtlander Nokton 50mm f1.2 can give a dreamy look shot wide open. Even the plastic fantastic Panasonic Lumix 50mm f1.8 can create stunning images.
As mentioned above, my preference for female portraits is often softer more dreamy lenses when used on digital.
Right tool for the job
After 12+ years of photographing models I think I’ve learnt to select the best tools (camera + lenses) for the job. If you are a Leica portrait photographer you can get great results with any of the mentioned cameras if you master that one system. I used to quite happily use the Leica Noctilux 50mm f1 lens on my Leica M8, M9 and M240. Once I saw how easy it is to focus with the Leica SL now I use that camera for fast glass every time without hesitation. Equally I was happy with my Leica CL but when I started to use a lot of vintage lenses I wanted all those juicy edge of frame imperfections so I had to move back to full frame.
If you’re new here I’ve published comprehensive reviews on all the cameras and lenses that I use, both in written format here and video format on YouTube. To keep up to date on the latest equipment that I’m using sign up to the free monthly newsletter.
Improve you black and white female portraits
If you are struggling with your portraiture and are looking to improve feel free to get in touch to book onto one of my model photography workshops. I’ve taught model photography workshops for almost a decade and you can check out the recent workshop testimonials. You don’t need a Leica camera and I can promise you that you can leave the workshop with images similar to those shared in this post. (Others students have already proved this and are now contacting models directly themselves to organise their own photoshoots!)
Create strong black and white images
Most photos are wrecked at the editing stage of the process, not in camera. It’s very easy to trash a really nice photo with bad editing. I’m not the best at editing so I just cheat and rely on MrLeica Lightroom preset packs. I shoot all cameras in RAW, add a MrLeica preset and then I send every image to the models. Done. It’s that easy!
Can you imagine how much time you can save which can then be spent taking photos instead! (When I process images for myself I open the full size Lightroom export JPEG file in Photoshop, adjust a little to taste, add a border, save and post to Flickr). Patreons have access to my annual model photobooks where I share my favourite 40 images from each year as a small photobook.
Need Leica Presets?
Model photography – Don’t know where to start?
No fear! I put together a free model photography eBook to get you started: