I hear this question asked often by pro photographers and hobbyists. While there are those who have already developed an inner commentary on the brand as well as its patrons, there are still many who inquire with a genuine interest. For those curious among us, there are many common answers out there having to do with build quality, amazing optics, and the "rangefinder experience", but for me, its the little things...
What are these little things I speak of, you ask? Lets start with the most obvious, the analog controls. An aperture ring and a shutter speed dial are not just for hipsters. One habit these controls inspired me to pick up was learning to meter by eye. As I'm strolling through wherever I happen to be strolling through on any given day, I simply glance down and quickly make adjustments to the camera hanging from my neck based on the changes in the lighting conditions. Glancing down is not really even necessary if you already know where your exposure is set, as the positive clicks on both the aperture ring as well as the shutter speed dial are more than enough of an indicator. At this point, when the moment should call upon you, exposure is where it needs to be already. One less thing to do, how convenient.
So what else do you need to get that shot? Oh yes, focus! There are a few factors at play here that make the Leica M a formidable camera for the decisive moment. Lets start with all of those numbers and lines and the corresponding numbers that spin around the lens as you turn the focus ring. Enter the focus scale. With a bit of knowledge on depth of field and how it relates to focal length, aperture, format, and focus distance, you can really put the focus scale to work for you. I will leave the formal education to others, but a great resource to check out is www.dofmaster.com. Keep in mind you need to have a pretty good eye for distance as well, but that comes easy with a little bit of practice. At this point, you are not only able pre-focus in anticipation a shot, but when stopped down a bit and especially on wider lenses, you can easily set focus based on your scale and depth of field without even lining up the rangefinder patch. Now we're picking up some speed!
Here is a very near and dear favorite of mine, the focus tab! Many Leica lenses are equipped with this magical appendage. When I first learned to use the focus tab, I was amazed at how conveniently ergonomic it made the whole experience. It fits the finger like a glove and allows for smooth focussing with a single finger using a very natural grip on the camera. But wait, could there be more to this feature beyond comfort and convenience? Yes! I like to memorize the focus scale settings on any lens in use with my tab at roughly 4, 6, and 8 O'clock. Again, with some understanding of depth of field and some good light, voila! Street focussing made easy. This lovely feature combined with the focus scale and the analog controls will have you metered and focused before the camera even hits your eye. You can not get any faster than that!
So what's left? Exposure is already set. Based on your depth of field and distance to your subject, you instinctively turn your focus tab to the desired point as you lift the camera to your eye. All that is left is to look through the viewfinder, frame, and release the shutter. But this is a rangefinder, and that means that you have frame lines based on the focal length of the lens you are using, and you can not only see what falls within those frame lines, but you can see what falls just outside of them. So how is this useful?
Looking through a DSLR or Mirrorless viewfinder, you see what the lens sees regardless of whether it is through the reflection of a mirror or through an electronic display read directly from the sensor. Don't get me wrong, there are advantages here also, especially with an electronic viewfinder that has the capability of providing a "what you see is what you get" interpretation of your current exposure and depth of field settings. We have come past that though with the Leica M. By the time we are looking through the viewfinder, we have already determined and set the exposure as well as having taken depth of field into account.
As shown above, the Leica M viewfinder window will project the appropriate framelines to the focal length of the rangefinder coupled lens you currently have mounted. Being able to see the space outside of those framelines is a very fast and efficient method of determining the composition you are looking to achieve as you can not only see above, below, to the left, and to the right of your frame, but you can also see subjects that are moving into your frame as well. Add this to the fact that the rangefinder configuration of the Leica M promotes a "both eyes open" style of shooting, and you can really get a feel for how the experience of the M keeps you connected and aware.
This post was not meant as a review, but as a look into why I feel that the Leica M is actually an intuitive camera that is very quick on the street when time is taken to get to know the system and learn how it is used and how to exploit the various tools the M provides. Sure, there is a learning curve, but it is like that with most things. I have to say that from my personal experience, the time and effort it takes to learn to use the Leica M is well worth it.
In the near future, I would like to share some more insight into the M system and the roads it has taken me down since my time with Leica began a few years back. I am not sure whether or not these will come in the form of traditional reviews, focussed vignettes such as this one, or some combination of the two. In any event, I hope you enjoyed this quick perspective, and invite anyone to comment or ask any questions they might have below.