Leica vs DSLR

A Leica is like my favourite Bike…

..it can be great at what it was intended for but does not suit every situation perfectly

The longer I take photos the more and more I start to appreciate the strengths of different cameras, lenses, films and formats.

My Bike(s)

I currently ride a full carbon Orro Oxygen (“Orro”) road bike.  I love it and it has made my daily commutes so much more enjoyable.  I like to ride hard as I do with my bombproof single speed winter bike, a Cinelli Bootleg Black Mystic Rats, but have already managed to bend the back wheel of the Orro.  I need to realise I can’t do everything I do on my other bikes on my Orro Oxygen just because it is my current favourite bike.

I can’t ride the Orro on a track as it doesn’t meet requirements.  I can’t use the Orro for downhill mountain biking as it was not intended for that purpose.  I could use the Orro for muddy canal paths but the performance would be severely impacted.  I could modify my Orro bike slightly in a attempt to do something it currently can’t.  Grippy puncture resistant tyres would let me do cyclocross racing (off-road riding on a road bike) for example.  I am just in the process of ordering new Mavic Kyrsium Elite road wheels to replace the existing Fulcrum 7 “kit” wheels and then I can use the Orro Oxygen for my speedy commutes without concern that it is not up to the task.

My Camera(s)

Leica M9 vs Nikon D800

My main camera is a digital Leica M9.  Since purchasing the M9 in August 2013 I have pretty much stopped using my Nikon D800 DSLR.  The Nikon D800 has twice as many megapixels (36mp vs 18mp), better high ISO ability, autofocus, better battery capacity, cheaper lenses available, better and larger 3 inch LCD display, weather sealed, faster.. the list is endless.  The Leica M9 is smaller with a great CCD sensor and accepts some of the best lenses.

1 Camera, All tasks

For all of my photography tasks no matter the subject I started using my Leica M9.  I use it for low light wedding photography, moving subjects such as children photography, macro photography, telephoto photography using a longer lens and pretty much everything that I have photographed.

Film Cameras

The M9 is my primary digital camera but I also enjoy using a wide range of analogue film cameras. 35mm Leica film cameras (Leica M3, Leica M2), medium format film, 6×4.5, 6×6, 6×7, 6×9 formats and also large format film, 4×5.  For me film always beats digital if there is sufficient light.  Better colours and lattitude make me shoot film but for low light I think digital still has the edge.

Nikon F4

My latest camera purchase was a 35mm Nikon F4 SLR film camera.  As I bring film more and more into my modern day photography I wanted to get a slightly newer film camera with more ‘mod cons’ that my 1950s Leicas.  The purchase has meant I have started to shoot with my Nikon glass again and as such also my Nikon D800 for testing.  Yesterday I got my newest lens, a Tokina AF 100mm f2.8 macro lens and over the last 24hrs I have started to appreciate the facts.

In my pre-Leica days I enjoyed macro photography and that was my thing prior to portraiture.  Once I purchased the Leica M9 my macro photos stopped completely apart from a few rare occasions when I proved it was possible to shoot macro with a Leica.

Leica Lenses

Leica cameras are best suited to 35mm and 50mm focal lengths in my personal opinion so when I got my M9 I stopped using my long lenses and use ultra wides less.  I can use wider lenses but need an external viewfinder to compose.  I can use longer lenses such as 90mm or 135mm but the lenses look large on the camera and the viewfinder patch is quite small for focusing.  As such I became a 50mm man favouring 50mm lenses on my Leicas for most of my photography.  The 50mm Leica Noctilux on my M9 and 50mm Summicron DR on my Leica M3 are both marriages made in heaven combinations.  That is all great but you (I) start to become blinkered in that I shoot life from a 50mm perspective.  Life size.

Tokina 100mm Macro lens

When trying the Tokina 100f2.8 macro lens yesterday I remembered how nice it can be to get closer to a subject than 0.7m (closest focal distance using the Leica M9 rangefinder and standard lenses).  I can take an everyday household object in available light and make it look intersting.  Before the M9 I used to use a Nikkor 200mm f2 Ai-s lens for portraits.  The longer focal length and shallow depth of field let me shoot through foreground objects for natural vignetting and framing.  I stopped doing that once I shot with 50mm lenses as the impact is not the same.

The purchase of the Nikon F4 has opened my eyes to start shooting with different focal lengths again and also different digital camera formats.  For me the Leica M9 sensor kills the flat looking Nikon D800 CMOS sensor every day of the week BUT if the D800 will let me create an image that I can’t with the M9 then I should not just avoid the photo all together.

From now on if the Nikon D800 is better suited to a taking a certain photograph I will use the D800 rather than struggling or avoiding the image with my Leica M9.

Yes I am a gear head but very slowly I am starting to realise the obvious.  Nobody actually  cares what camera I use to take a wedding photograph or fashion photo.  It is the final image that counts whether on my i-Phone 5, M9, D800 or film.

That said I will put my neck on the line and stay if you shoot with only rangefinder cameras for 12 months I can guarentee you will be a better photographer after the experience.  I am far from perfect but I am better than I was.

I now enjoy using lots of different cameras but I use them all with a Leica eye. 🙂

Have a great weekend


5 thoughts on “Leica vs DSLR”

  1. I agree with the comment about shooting with a rangefinder for 12 months, but shooting with one camera/lens combination for 12 months will also improve photography.

  2. Plenty to agree with here Matt. I love bikes too. In fact I was wearing a Cinelli tee shirt when I read this post and nad just been fitting a new set of brake levers to Cinelli bars & stem on a bike I’m rebuilding. Anyway the bike analogy is a good one. As with cameras it is asking the impossible to have one machine which is ideal for any task.
    The rangefinder lens thing is interesting, the same happened to me, although not quite so marked as yourself. I was shooting with lenses up to 135, though 85 was usually the longest I’d use. Then with the Contax G2, although I have the 90mm I hardly ever use it. Now when I do shoot with an SLR I tend to use 50 and wider. Even when using a 645 I tend not to use the 140mm, preferring instead the 80. (although I now have a 120 Makro-Planar for the Hasselblad which I hope to use for portraiture)
    I now have two Zeiss ZM lenses for the M2, I opted for the Sonnar 50/1.5 and the Biogon 35/2. This setup will be my main one from now on for small format.

    1. Hi Jeremy, thanks for your thoughts and great to hear you are a cyclist too. I know quite a few cycling Leica shooters.
      Yes I used to shoot weddings with a 200mm and an 85mm keeping back as much as possible. I was quite a quiet guy before taking up photography so I preferred to keep my distance from people. Model photography has changed me completely, and for the better. I am now a very chatty individual and I like to be in the thick of it at weddings with a 25-35mm FL and prefer to work closer to models to have a dialog and to get them at ease quickly so the photos become stronger. That said there is occasions at weddings where I want a longer lens yet I don’t want a 200mm zoom despite the flexible as I feel the look of the lens makes people uneasy. I opted for the 100mm AF and have a 135mm Ai which are both small yet give me more teach. I will try to use the 200mm f2 again but each time I do I find it’s difficult to build a strong rapport with a model from the other side of the road or field :). I also plan to start doing more ultra wide work as have the 15mm Voigtlander that I don’t use as much as I should.
      Zeiss lenses are very good, super sharp and contrasty. I still have 21+25mm Biogons but sold my 50s. You have a strong setup with your M2. Enjoy!

      1. You have made some really good pictures in your Model photography sets. I imagine it is very liberating to do projects such as that. At times I’ve found that even a 28mm can be used effectively for some portraiture. I thought of getting a 28 for the Leica but I have the wonderful Contax G2 with 21 28 35 45 & 90 lenses so didn’t feel the need to double up or make that system redundant.

        I look forward to seeing more of your W-A work. 15mm is very wide indeed! Do you have a specific project in mind?
        I have a Hasselblad 903SWC which I planned to make my wide angle of choice but as yet I’ve put only a couple of rolls through it. The equivalent 35mm would be 21mm but of course it is square format which adds impact.

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