Leica lenses and cameras are the best in the world, but useful only if you can afford them.
I’ve used Leica rangefinder equipment since I found Grandpa’s M3 and some lenses in the basement in 1969. Since then, Leica has given us the ultimate 35mm film camera in the M7. That was 2002, when they also told us there’d never be a digital Leica M. They turned around just four years later to produce the flawed but usable crop-sensored M8.
(Almost) Catching Up To The Competition
Fast-forward to 2012. Leica’s full-frame M typ 240 finally offers live view, auto white balance that works, and usable ISO 3200 performance. It’s still six to eight times as expensive as today’s EVF cameras offering lower noise at higher ISOs, sensor self-cleaning, and similar or smaller size and weight.
At this writing (May 2014), the only small-bodied EVF alternatives with a bayonet lens mount, real shutter speed dial and no sharpness-robbing anti-aliasing filter are the Fuji X-E2 and its forerunner X-E1 and X-Pro1 cameras. They offer a 16MP sensor with a 1.5X crop factor over full-frame.
With an adapter, the X-E2 works well for Leica M-mount lenses, within the limitations of its EVF. It can also let you leave your heavy dSLR at home when you travel. I’ve used the X-E2 almost daily for over twelve weeks now, with lenses from 15mm to 135mm.
You need an M-mount adapter to use any Leica M lens on the X-E2. I use Fuji’s M-mount adapter. It has advantages I’ll talk about below.
You’ll be manually focusing all those lenses. The X-E2 provides two manual focus assist methods. Focus peaking shows glowing highlight edges on in-focus areas, in red or white. Digital split image shows blurry offset pieces of your subject which merge to one when you’re in focus. Either mode’s accuracy improves when you magnify the finder view 3X or 10X.
Manual focusing works best at a lens’ widest aperture. Wide-open, you get the shallowest possible depth of field for the best visual indication of sharp focus. Accurate focusing can be difficult with f/2.8 and f/4 lenses that are shorter than 28mm on the X-E2. An optical rangefinder will always be more accurate focusing 15mm-28mm lenses.
CAVEAT – Of course, if the lens shifts focus as you stop down, all bets are off. Neither wide-open or rangefinder focus methods will guarantee your subject’s sharpness.
M-lenses wider than 35mm may show problems in the corners – vignetting (darkening), color tints, or focus-smearing for some, especially for non-Leica lenses. Fuji’s M-mount adapter gives single-button access to a lens-correction menu, where you can store corrections for up to six lenses. No other mount adapter offers this. So you can reduce the vignetting and corner color shifts right in the camera – if you remember to select the lens you just mounted, and set up corrections first. There’s not much you can do about focus-smearing in the corners except crop.
Finder Contrast and Menu-Hunting
The EVF and LCD both have limited contrast range. White areas may appear to be blown out in the finder, but images will show detail in those areas when downloaded to Lightroom. The only way to check this in the camera is to look at the histogram for blown highlights.
You may find yourself hunting through the X-E2’s deeply-nested menus to change camera settings such as enabling the histogram in the viewfinder, until you discover some settings are slightly less nested in the Q-menu. That Q-menu button wouldn’t be needed with a smaller set of camera functions. It’s an acknowledgement that there are too many choices.
Practice Needed for Sharp Shots
Fuji’s unfiltered 16MP X-Trans sensor is capable of fine resolution. However, its RAF raw file format isn’t handled well by Lightroom 5.3, and Lightroom 5.4 gives only slightly better results. DNG raw images from the Leica M8’s unfiltered 10MP sensor can appear sharper than those from the X-E2 in Lightroom. These issues made me want to very accurately focus the X-E2, and hold it very steady for the sharpest images. So the X-E2 is good enough to reveal all your focusing flaws and hand-held unsteadiness. It also shows any flaws in your RAW processing software..
Sharpness and Shutter Speed Dial Versus the Boat Anchors
CR2 raw images from Canon’s 20MP EOS 5D mk II can appear sharper than those from either the X-E2 or the M8 in Lightroom 5.4. However, the 5D mk II is a boat anchor with any EF L-series zoom attached.
Beyond those limitations, the X-E2 provides you with a real shutter speed dial and instant access to exposure compensation. With practice, well-focused pictures can match the resolution of those taken with a Leica M8. Those pictures show accurate auto white balance, compared to the M8’s overly-blue AWB. The X-E2 also provides almost noise-free images at ISOs above 1300, unlike Leica’s M8 and M9. And like any recent dSLR, the X-E2 has ultrasonic sensor cleaning, which Leica M-cameras lack.
Horses For Courses
If you need critical rendition of expansive landscapes with fine details, or of architecture with straight verticals using tilt-shift lenses, or shoot fast-moving sports or wildlife in sketchy conditions, use a dSLR.
If you want to travel light with the versatility of interchangeable lenses (adventure travel), use the X-E2 or a Leica M-camera. Digital Leica M-cameras are better for photojournalism or street photography with lenses between 15mm and 35mm, with their simple, uncluttered viewfinder. Leica M-cameras are also faster-acting – they has shorter turn-on time, their viewfinders are always on, and there’s just a single level of limited menu choices. The M-camera’s rangefinder is better when you need critical wide-angle focusing. Of course, the M-camera is also much more expen$ive.
Leave The dSLR At Home?
On balance, the X-E2 will likely replace your other cameras for 80% of your photography, but you’ll need your dSLR for a few critical situations. A Leica M-camera makes a great companion alongside the X-E2, and both together weigh less than a comparable dSLR outfit.