Leica is better? Why photographers prefer Leica cameras (Digital)
Some photographers say Leica is better so I wanted to understand why. I asked the question to my YouTube viewers – “Why do you prefer to use digital Leica cameras (over other brands)?” Here I share the results and my own opinion as a long term Leica photographer. This article is to also give Leica some love following my recent “Problems with Leica cameras” video and blog!
Why are Leica cameras better?
Depending on who you ask the answer may vary slightly but the replies often include any of the following:
- Premium camera build quality
- Simple camera design (with fewer extra features)
- Digital-analogue rangefinder camera experience
- Superior image quality – colours and black and white
- Straightforward menus
- Camera design and aesthetics
- Leica body to pair with Leica lenses
- Legacy of the Leica brand (and Leica meaning good quality)
- Good investment
- Luxury item/ status symbol
Poll 1 – Why are Leica better? Why photographers love digital Leica cameras
48% – Leica build quality and simplicity
The number one reason photographers prefer Leica cameras is the build quality and simplicity. This is quite broad so I break in down in poll #2 below.
19% – Leica image quality and Leica colours/ B&W (that Leica look)
The first comment you hear when a photographer tries a digital Leica camera for the first time include any of the following – “wow the photos look amazing straight out of camera”, “the colours are so good from this Leica camera”, “Leica cameras make proper black and white photos” + “this is so good” + “OK I need a Leica camera”. I always enjoy watching expert/ professional photographers tied to a different brand try a Leica camera for the first time. Their eyes just light up and their face is full of joy. The Peter McKinnon Leica Q2 Reporter video is just one perfect example of many!
15% – Digital rangefinder cameras
If you’ve ever used a rangefinder film camera you probably either instantly loved the process or just didn’t get it. I was used to the size and bulk of Nikon DSLR cameras in my early photography days. Then I got a Voigtlander Bessa R3A 35mm film rangefinder camera. Game changer! Rangefinder lenses are just so small. Awesome! These cameras are compact and I can see better to focus too. Why don’t they make digital cameras like this? This is why me and many others turn to Leica. Leica are the only company making digital rangefinders cameras so if that’s the type of camera you want you need to buy a Leica M camera.
Photographers prefer rangefinder cameras for multiple reasons:
- Simplicity of the camera design (See poll 2)
- Rangefinder focusing process
- Optical viewfinder
- Off centre viewfinder
- Quiet operation
- Compact design
- Small precise metal and glass rangefinder camera lenses (“Proper lenses!”)
10% – Leica brand / Leica legacy
Some photographers value the Leica brand and the history behind Leica cameras. Photographers often write to me with excitement to say they finally got their dream camera. For some Leica is the top and their ultimate camera to own before they pass.
Leica Camera AG, a leading German optical company, have been designing and developing 35mm cameras since 1913 (Read full Wiki post). I’m not sure if the Leica brand today is as strong as it once was but I value their cameras and older Leica film cameras in particular. My restored 1931 Leica I standard feels like it was made yesterday and is an absolute joy to use.
8% – Leica lenses are better on Leica cameras
There is good evidence that to get the most from a Leica lens, you need to use it on a Leica camera. More specifically than that, use Leica M lenses on a Leica M camera. This depends on the specific lens but some M mount lenses have shown to perform better on my Leica M240 than my Leica SL. (Depending on the thickness of the focus stack, some non-Leica cameras give softness or smearing at the corners of the image).
To get the most from your Leica M lens I also strongly belief that you need to use a full frame camera. This was the primary reason for buying the Leica SL when compared to the APS-C Leica CL. If you use a APS-C camera whether Leica, Fuji or otherwise you are only using the centre portion of the lens. This means you get often nice clean looking images with minimal vignetting and sharpness across the frame. But what if you want all the juicy goodness and soft bits at the edge of the frame? Then you need a full frame camera. As a portrait photographer/ model photographer it’s those arty edge detail imperfections that makes the images more appealing to me. Vintage Leica lenses are particularly good for interesting bokeh and edge imperfections. If you prefer clean modern sharp corner to corner photos then you’ll probably prefer modern Leica lenses.
Poll 2 – Understanding why photographers love “Leica Build Quality + Simplicity”
At the risk of a slight overlap or duplication in the answers I wanted to pin point exactly what people like abut Leica cameras.
35% – Analogue-digital experience
The top answer was the simple analogue-digital experience. This answer refers to Leica M digital cameras that offer you the basics (like the earlier Leica film cameras) but not too much more. It also refers to the digital rangefinder experience covered above. This simplicity is what sets Leica apart from all other brands.
27% – The feel of Leica cameras
If you’ve ever picked up a Leica camera you probably said “wow that’s heavy”. That’s normally the first things models say to me if I pass them the camera. Leica cameras are usually pretty compact but also dense. (Note. the Leica SL series are larger and the Leica Q series feel light in comparison to M bodies). Leica feel nice in the hand. I enjoy small cameras but the larger Leica SL fits my hand like a glove and the viewfinder is a dream to use. I use Leica because I truly enjoy operating them.
I’ve had the opportunity to try Canon, Nikon, Sony, Fuji, Lumix and often they feel more plastic, flimsy and electronic somehow. Like looking at a TV screen LCD rather than what feels like seeing in real life (Leica M optical viewfinder) (but also Leica Q, CL SL EVF finders).
25% – Minimal buttons/ features
I think this answer related to the Leica Q, SL, CL cameras more than the Leica M as I listed it as an alternative to the “digital-analogue experience”. It’s true that the Leica M cameras give you the purest form of digital photography (just the basics) but the Leica other models do well to offer a variation of this too. It’s very easy to use the Leica CL, Leica SL and Leica Q cameras where you set the ISO for the day and after than only need to touch the shutter dial and aperture control. (There is the argument that you can apply this approach to any digital camera but it definitely works for Leica).
Fewer features and buttons also means Leica cameras offer simple easy to follow menus. As someone that has been teaching photography workshops since 2014, the most common problem I see with non-Leica cameras is users getting lost in their menus (which stops their photography).
9% – Faith in the Leica brand
As covered above, the Leica brand is something that many Leica photographers value. Some photographers believe Leica make the best cameras which are built to last and can be relied upon. Proof in point, the 4 digital Leica cameras I use in 2023 were released in: Leica M240 (2012), Leica SL (2015), Leica Q (2015), Leica CL (2017). Can you even imagine telling your friend that your camera that you use for profession work is over 10 years old (or older if you use the Leica M8 or Leica M9)! They are that good.
You do hear some horror stories like multiple new Leica M11 cameras being dead on arrival. It happened to one of my students, Jim in Arizona, just before they were due to embark on a European trip and meet me in London for a workshop.
My Leica repair guy gets to see “what’s under the hood” of some Leica equipment and some of his stories would tarnish the Leica brand. That said, to the most part Leica cameras are excellent and they often just keep on going. I rarely find myself suffering with photography GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) as the older Leica models do all I need.
5% – The stylist look of Leica cameras
Leica are cool. Some people buy Leica to wear as a statement or style accessory. Like a luxury watch or tailored pair of shoes, a Leica camera says something (and at the very least is often a talking point on the street). I feel Leica photographers fall into 3 main groups –
- Red strap brigade – loud and proud. They enjoy their Leica camera and add a pop of colour to show off their favourite camera
- Leather strap/ black strap crew – more subtle but still proud. They love their camera but don’t want to draw attention to themselves (me)
- Tape it or lose it clan – low key but appreciate the camera. They tape up their Leica cameras to hide the Leica logo so it looks like a generic (cheaper) camera
Are you a Leica User?
Why I prefer Leica cameras – My story (Leica M9, M8, M240, CL, SL, Q)
I can’t speak for others but I use digital Leica cameras for the following reasons. Each camera needs to hold it’s own so let’s go through them.
When I first got into digital Leica cameras I loved film rangefinder cameras and lust after the same experience with digital. I was completely unfulfilled with my digital Nikon D800 at the time. A student at one of my workshops let me try his Leica M9 and I bought one a few hours later. Next followed the Leica M8 as a second body and finally the Leica M240 which replaced my M9 (part-exchanged).
Digital Leica M cameras give you the purest form of digital photography in my opinion. Set the ISO in cameras (like loading your favourite film stock), select your preferred aperture value on your lens, dial in the required shutter speed and shoot. It’s that simple. For anyone coming from a modern non-Leica digital camera this lack of features will be a breath of fresh air. It’s like getting back to proper photography again as you might remember when using an old rangefinder film camera.
Next I bought the compact Leica CL, not expecting to like it and purely as a smaller backup body for travel. I fell in love with the easy to use EVF when combined with manual focus Leica M and LTM lenses. The images were “good enough” despite the APS-C sensor and the compact design was a big plus. The Leica CL menu is easy to use and it has just enough features and buttons. It feels less like a Leica than a Leica M body but I can still make images I’m happy with.
My next camera was the Leica SL. I valued the EVF of the Leica CL but wanted a full frame camera to get the full enjoyment from the Leica M and Leica LTM lenses I was adapting via the Leica M-L adapter. The Leica SL EVF blew me away. It’s safe to say it is more that twice as good as the Leica CL EVF as it is bigger, brighter and 2x higher resolution.
I like the robust feeling, the Leica branding and the ease of use. I can now adapter all my favourite lenses for my model photography. Is the Leica SL images quality something special? Not really. From my testing the images are very similar to my Panasonic Lumix S5 camera when using Leica glass on both bodies. As with the Leica CL I think Leica got the camera design spot on with the SL. A perfect number of features to give everything I need and not much more. The Lumix S5 takes the same photos as the SL but I always pick up the Leica because it feels nicer to use (and the viewfinder is twice as good in terms of resolution).
The Leica Q was a more unusual purchase. As many others have described, you get the amazing Leica Summilux 28mm f1.7 ASPH lens free when you buy this camera and it gives you autofocus and close focus abilities. I bought the Leica Q purely for my Leica wedding photography as I honestly think it’s the best tool for the task for my needs. Yes I need to pair the Leica Q with a second camera for more reach but for the fast action and interior shots the Leica Q is priceless.
Features that impress me with the Leica Q are number one, the lens. This includes images quality + autofocus + close focus / macro ability. In addition to the lens, I love the size and low weight of the Leica Q, the sleek design and simple menus.
I never thought I’d own a Leica camera
In my early photography years I didn’t once think I would own a Leica camera. I started with a cheap Lumix M43 camera and then moved to Nikon. As I taught myself more and more about photography (learning as I went), I started to make money with my cameras. Before I knew it I had my first Leica camera and the rest is history (as they say).
If you love the idea of owning a Leica camera one day you might find my eBook helpful to earn some extra cash.
What is the best digital Leica camera to buy?
The best digital Leica camera for you depends on your specific needs. Watch this video next for some tips –
Do you prefer film cameras? What is the best Leica film camera?
If you are specifically interested in Leica M film cameras see my Leica M film buyer’s guide. If you are open to ideas watch this video below –
Are Leica cameras worth it?
In summary, you might ask the question, are Leica cameras worth it? To answer that check out my previous article.