Today, it is the digital Leica M-E that embodies the philosophy of the M-System in its purest form. – Leica Camera AG
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From the get go I should point out that this is as much a love story as it is a review of a piece of photographic equipment.
Yes, I love the Leica M-E. But this is the love of someone who owned a Leica M9 for over a year and who put 24k shutter clicks on that first full-frame Leica digital rangefinder. I did not like my M9. I don’t like YOUR M9. (I’m kidding, I don’t know your M9)
Almost from the moment I first held my M9 something seemed to be not quite right. I’d been shooting an unused silver M7 for about four months, a camera that Ken Rockwell likens to a gun. I know exactly what he meant by that. The camera feels like a .45 caliber military side arm. Heavier than you would expect and more solid than you’d think possible for something made to simply take pictures.
The M9 did not have that feel. Mine didn’t anyway. The material used to cover the camera felt rough and uncomfortable to my hand. The camera had smear marks which showed constantly on the black metal top and bottom plates. From the start I was disappointed in the build quality of the camera.
Now I know these are just impressions. But those were my impressions of the camera. It never really felt comfortable in my hand or solid and impervious to anything other than gentle treatment.
I also had issues with the color and working with the files out of the camera. Overall, my experience with the M9 was a downer and I sold mine a little over a year after buying it.
Then I shot film for almost two years. I shot my M7 and then also added a black M6. I shot and scanned probably a hundred or more rolls of color film. I learned a lot about shooting Leica by shooting within the limitations of a chosen film speed for the entire roll. I also learned a lot of discipline given the fact that 24 or 36 frames is all you get per roll and also given that you can not see what the result is of the frame you just shot.
But you might be thinking, if you didn’t like the M9 and you have two film Ms to shoot, why did you jump back into an M-E which is merely, in the opinions of so many, just a ‘cheaper’ version of an M9?
There are a couple of reasons. One I grew very tired of the process of having to drive somewhere, the dropping off for developing, then waiting, and then scanning the negatives. Having to do all of that just to see what kind of images I’d shot. I also got very tired of not being able to experiment freely with my great Leica lenses as one can only truly do with a digital camera.
But I also recalled some types of things that the M9 did really well photographically. Black & white, for one, and if I only used this camera for shooting black & white, and I loved my results, well, uh, jeez, aren’t there people out there who have made that exact choice by purchasing and shooting the Leica Monocrom?
There were more reasons. I thought that another M9, but this time much less expensive, but new and with a new warranty, wasn’t a bad thing to have as a second camera to go with the truly new M that I and so many others have on order.
So I took the leap. Very nervously and apprehensively. Unsure of myself or my purchase. It’s still a very expensive camera. I’d heard the M-E was ugly, made of cheaper materials, gutted of at least a couple of rarely used features in order to save production costs. I heard that it was also viewed as the entry level Leica M.
And then, I really didn’t hear much else. No one that I’ve seen has even taken the time to write a review on this camera. Why bother? It’s just an M9 stripped and cheapened for ‘entry level’ users anxious to make their move into shooting Leica digital rangefinders.
At BelAir Camera, where I buy my gear if I’m not buying online, the guys were talking about what a great camera the M-E is. Our relationship isn’t one wherein they are inclined to try to hard sell me on anything and they all knew how much I really didn’t care for my M9. My buddy Rika would go on about the anthracite finish. I wasn’t expecting, however, that I’d have any different sort of impression or experience in buying and owning and shooting an M-E than I’d had in buying and owning and shooting an M9.
Well, my goodness, was I surprised. From the moment I took the M-E out of the box and mounted my 50 1.4 Summilux on it, and held the camera in my hands, I began to immediately bond to this mechanical object. The fit and the finish are unlike anything that I’ve ever owned. Ever. It is the most flawless and solid piece of digital equipment I’ve ever seen or held in my hand. That alone was a huge surprise for me.
Where do I even begin? How about the anthracite-paint finish. I have to confess that I’m notoriously bad about wiping down my gear when I’m done using it. It just doesn’t happen unless I’m doing a job and my hands have been sweating, both of which are rare things these days. While my M9 showed everything, the M-E shows absolutely nothing, even after weeks and weeks of use. It’s as if this paint has properties that resist the accumulation of the oils from your hand.
But one of most important changes that improves the M-E over the M9 is that the body covering is now *LEATHER. Soft luxurious LEATHER. The camera is a pleasure to hold and to grip with one hand. It is never hard feeling on your fingers. The camera feels incredible compared to the much rougher feel of the M9.
(*correction. the body covering on the M-E is synthetic leather. it feels soft and fantastic, but oops on me, it’s not real leather. maybe there’s a language mishap to blame, but Leica shouldn’t refer to the body of the M-E as having a leather covering as they do “its leather trim offers superior grip” on their product description page. It’s only when you read the specs page where they mention that the leather is synthetic. Not so good on them.)
The application of the leather on the body of the camera is so perfectly accomplished that looking at the camera itself makes you wonder how it isn’t selling for MORE than the M9, as opposed to much less.
I said on dpreview in a thread on the Leica forum a few weeks ago to someone that they should buy an M-E, that it was a better camera than the M9. That statement was met with just a little bit of questioning of how such a thing could be. How could it be better than the M9 when it is essentially an M9 with some slight changes in the finish and covering and two rarely used features removed?
My question is how could it NOT be better? Just think about what I’m saying. It is an M9, right? The camera that so many people are crazy about. But it’s missing two holes from the body that give moisture two places to enter into the camera. Those two missing features are things that you can feel with your hand as you hold the M9 and believe me, they are things that your hand enjoys NOT feeling on the body of the M-E.
Leica says on their product page for the M-E.
The top and base plates are discreetly and unobtrusively finished in anthracite-grey paint. The design of its body expresses clarity, and its leather trim offers superior grip. The mechanical yet almost inaudible sound signature of its shutter release remains as a reminder that this M too is a masterpiece of unparalleled craftsmanship.
Look, if you’re someone inclined to dismiss this as just some corporate marketing bullshit, then we’re both probably wasting our time in this review. But this will be your mistake. And you won’t be able to say that you weren’t warned or at the very least that no one came forward with a user review to give their impressions or feelings about the Leica M-E.
But the truth is that Leica did not strip some expensive features off of their flagship M9 in order to produce an entry level M made up of either less or lesser body components. That’s snobbery talking and it’s not at all a reflection of what Leica could or would do. The M-E is a refined M9. That is the news I’m delivering to you now in this reveiw. It IS a masterpiece of unparalleled craftsmanship and it WILL be classic camera for years to come.
I have bonded with this camera and love it more than any thing I’ve ever owned. I can not express to you how different those feelings are for me than how I felt about the M9 that I ultimately could not wait to get rid of. I am sure that over the years of manufacturing that camera some refinements were made in the quality control or subtle changes that maybe account for how happy people have been with a camera that so displeased me.
Maybe that is what is reflected in the M-E that enables me to agree with the Leica product blurb that calls the camera a masterpiece of unparalleled craftsmanship. I honestly don’t know the answer to what my issues were in comparison to the satisfaction of others. But this camera is, by all accounts, simply an M9 that’s missing two unsealed openings in the body that make the earlier camera that much more vulnerable to moisture or the elements, and the M-E’s anthracite paint and sublime leather grip make it an unparalleled pleasure to hold and shoot with.
So much so that I now find myself dreaming of a second M-E far more than I’m dreaming of the new ‘M’ that I have on order.
That’s about all I have to say. Except I’ll add this for anyone who thinks I might be just another Leica fan-boy or merely sucking up to Leica.
I’ve been on record in the past as being very critical of the Leica M9 and especially the color issues that were ultimately something I just couldn’t live with any more. And I mean, I have been brutal. I despised not only the color I got from the M9 but also the color most everyone else was getting. A visit to the M9 Master Shots on LFI is still like a trip to the dark side of a year of bad memories for me. Sorry, Leica.
I still and always will hate the look of the M9 images as produced by a majority of M9 shooters. I don’t like what people are doing with their images, but I believe I’ve come to understand that it’s not the camera’s fault entirely and the hint that I might be right about that comes from something that Monocrom users often say about the files that camera produces. You have to REALLY work with them to get good results.
That applies, I contend, equally so to the DNG color files that come out of an M9 or an M-E. Anyway, I’ll have a lot more to say about all that in the coming weeks and months.
And that brings me to what will be the next part of the discussion about the M-E and that is what I’ve done to make myself as happy with the camera’s images and color as I am with the body itself. And I AM happy with the color I’m achieving at the end of my processes. I don’t know that I can replicate a process, however, or that I plan on outlining exactly what I do because that would be impossible. It varies so much for every lighting condition.
Anyway, thanks for reading. If you are a person who frequented this blog in the past, thank you for coming back and for your patience and for, I hope, excusing my long absence. If you read the blog from the early days you know that last year was a very difficult one for me. It’s taken a long time to feel like posting about photography and Leica equipment again.
Bottom line, thank you, Leica, and bravo. You’ve outdone yourself with the M-E. Unfortunately very few people in the Leica community seem to have any idea of how true that is. I sincerely hope that this review begins the process of changing that fact and awakening the deserved recognition for this amazing camera.