If you’re a photographer, should you consider an expensive digital rangefinder?
I’ve been using a Leica M9 rangefinder for almost ten years. It’s been a great camera. It forced me to get back to the basics of photography. Prime lenses. Framing each shot. Manual focusing. Considering exposure and depth of field for each press of the shutter. It was limiting but also liberating.
It’s easy to let the computer inside a modern camera do a lot of those things for you and I think I was falling into that trap. Too much automation can make photography rote. I still use my Nikon DSLR and mirrorless cameras and zoom lenses for speed and versatility, especially when traveling – but alongside the Leica.
Digital technology has a lifespan and, after ten years, the CCD sensor in the M9 was getting a little dated. It still produced beautiful warm RAW images but there was no live view and no ability to do focus peaking for very narrow depth of field shots – something becoming more important for my aging eyes.
I sat out several generations of upgrades to Leica’s rangefinders, successors to the M9, like the M240, the M and a few other variants. I thought the advances were negligible and didn’t warrant the price. My M9 was working just fine. Then, in 2017, Leica released the M10. It had a new 24mp CMOS sensor, a larger optical viewfinder and, most importantly, the ability to use a high resolution electronic viewfinder. Now I was tempted.
So after waiting (and saving) for a year or so I decided to pull the trigger. I checked the B&H used inventory and found an ‘open box special’ for an M10-P, a more expensive version of the M10 with no red dot and a quieter shutter. Because it had been a demo unit it was priced lower than a regular new M10. So I ordered it.
Although impeccably engineered, the original M9 was a slightly awkward looking camera. It was the first Leica rangefinder designed for a full frame digital sensor. To fit the electronics and a full frame sensor that could accommodate traditional M lenses, the camera ended up being a little thick and it had some jutting edges. But the photos were amazing so all that was forgiven.
Aesthetically and ergonomically the M10-P seems close to perfect to me. It’s beautiful to look at. The controls make sense. It feels solid in the hand. It’s the thinnest digital M yet. And the quiet shutter is incredible. The damping gives it a nice feel and you barely hear the Pa-lunk sound.
How are the images? I attached a 35mm Summilux lens to the camera. This lens is a little soft wide open but it’s a classic and I wanted to see how it looked with this new sensor. Pretty good, it turns out. Images had that classic Kodachrome look. The sensor was at least as good as the CCD in the M9 in its color tone and rendition.
I have been using the M10-P for just over a year now and it has not disappointed. It has been a pleasure to use. (My new favorite lens to use with it is the Voiglander Nokton 40mm f/1.2.) Here are a few more photos from the M10-P.
Leica gear is expensive, no getting around that. But the quality is undeniable.
Is something like the Leica M10-P worth the cost? I like to think of these Leica rangefinders as my version of a mid-life-crisis Harley Davidson, something a lot of people in my shoes go for. In that light the cost is not so bad. So yes, for me it was worth it. Your milage, of course, may vary.
I’ve been experimenting with DLE photography. I ordered some ICE neutral density filters and downloaded the NDTimer app to help with the math. Here are a couple of experimental shots from this afternoon.
The first is a 15 second exposure with a 10X ND filter. The second is a 15 minute exposure, using a combination of 10X and 6X ND filters.
The effects from the longer exposures are apparent but it’s a matter of taste whether they’re desirable in a photo. The light diffusion is nice. But LDE photos can be a bit gimmicky sometimes. In this case I like the dramatic clouds in the shorter exposure but the glassy water effect in the longer exposure jumps out. Very situational. But, it’s another tool in the box so I’ll continue to experiment and hopefully learn more about it.
It’s astonishing how good the cameras on phones are these days. Although I dread the inevitable dominance of computational photography, you have to admit that it can produce nice images.
I took this photo with an iPhone 11 pro near Groton, Connecticut, from the window of a fast moving Amtrak train. The train windows added a bit of light distortion to the sky but overall this is a pleasing result, considering the circumstances.