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I just saw a Leica M9 priced at 6995 USD, and a Leica M8 at 6295 USD. This is similar to the price for a high-end Nikon D3X or a Canon 1D Mark IV. So, I am trying to compare the specs, but can't get some useful information (at least in my eyes as a beginner).

What would make me prefer an M8 or M9 over a D3x or 1D? Performance-wise that is, not because Leica is more compact or it has a tougher frame — or because it just is Leica.

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Everything is worth what its purchaser will pay. –  John Cavan Aug 3 '11 at 10:38
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Don't forget the $1995 charge for removing the red dot from the front so potential thieves don't know it's a Leica... –  ElendilTheTall Aug 3 '11 at 12:32
    
I suggest you take a look at this video: vimeo.com/6551861 as it's very relevant to your question. –  Agos Aug 3 '11 at 22:11

5 Answers 5

up vote 23 down vote accepted

Leica is a luxury brand with much smaller production runs than the big players in the camera industry.

Low volumes lead to high prices, especially since research and development costs have to be covered. In addition, there's more manual labor involved in manufacturing Leica cameras and lenses. This labor is German, which means higher wages and thus higher prices.

The luxury part translates into exclusivity. A large part of the draw of Leica is that not everyone can afford one. So even if Leica could lower their prices, it would not necessarily translate to lower prices.

Why would you prefer a Leica? The lenses are unique, in for far as no other manufacturer makes a rangefinder camera system. There's no DSLR equivalent to the Summilux-M 21mm f/1.4, for example, or the Noctilux-M 50mm f/0.95. However, you will have to pay many times more than the body to get one of these lenses.

Some people prefer the rangefinder for focusing and composing. The camera can be more unobtrusive, but this is less true now when it costs as much as a used car.

For a more detailed look at the differences between rangefinders and (D)SLRs, see this question and answer.

I would say that if you're a long-time Leica shooter, you'd prefer a digital M over a DSLR simply because you can use your existing lenses. If you're starting out, it's a lot of money to pay for some pretty intangible benefits.

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"no other manufacturer makes a rangefinder camera system"? The Zeiss Ikon and Voigtländer Bessa are both current rangefinder systems each with a fine collection of really nice lenes. If you really believe Leica lenses are worth the $ but you don't want to spend $6-7k on the body, you don't have to. As for "low volumes" I doubt Voigtländer's volumes are really that much bigger than Leica's so I doubt that explains the 5x to 10x differences prices. –  user3408 Aug 3 '11 at 15:10
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No one else makes a digital rangefinder system, at least if we discount Epson's R-D1. –  mattdm Aug 3 '11 at 18:14
    
Both Zeiss and Voigtländer brands are produced by one company, Cosina. They also use the M bayonet (a very few use the Leica screw mount). Cosina is Sigma to Leica's Canon. –  gerikson Aug 3 '11 at 18:27
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You buy a Leica for many of the same reasons you purchase a Rolex. Both are outstanding quality, precision engineered, and very durable examples of their device. They also sell for a premium because of their name, and those that want to be seen using a device of that name. –  cmason Aug 3 '11 at 19:09
    
@mattdm: it's not clear to me from the OP that the question is limited to digital cameras. –  user3408 Aug 3 '11 at 23:28

Compactness / lightness aside there are no performance advantages of the Leica digital M series. In many ways the rangefinder design is inferior in the age of digital, as Leica discovered to their cost when they released the M8.

Without a mirror in the way a rangefinder lens can sit closer to the sensor. This was traditionally an advantage as you could make fast wide primes without the need for a retrofocal lens group.

However when this design was translated into the digital age, the angle at which light rays exiting the close sitting rear element hit the sensor was more oblique than with a DSLR, causing light loss among other problems (film, on the other hand was more happy for light to strike at angle). To combat this Leica used a thinner filter assembly on the sensor, which lead to the camera being too sensitive to ultraviolet light. Leica had to embarrassingly ship lens mounted UV filters to all their customers!

As a pure photo tool, the Canon 1Ds mkIII or Nikon D3x would be a better choice for the money. The Leica does have things to offer, though:

  • Compactness
  • Discreetness (if you tape the red dot)
  • Fantastic set of ultra-fast prime lenses
  • Nostalgia
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Matt, if the camera became more sensitive to IR, why did they provide complimentary UV filters? –  ysap Aug 3 '11 at 11:30
    
thanks for spotting that, I meant UV –  Matt Grum Aug 3 '11 at 12:25
    
well, while we are here - should be discreetness, and not as written :-) –  ysap Aug 3 '11 at 12:50
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Assuming you meant the camera is less noticeable and not that you can take it apart, then, according to Merriam-Webster: merriam-webster.com/dictionary/discreet discreetness is definitely the way to go (Wiktionary agrees too). –  ysap Aug 3 '11 at 13:22
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Why yes I do think one of the defining characteristics of the Leica M cameras is that the pieces aren't all welded together! :-) –  Matt Grum Aug 3 '11 at 13:35

I have a 1Ds mk II with matching L-lens outfit, and a parcel of film Leicas with Summicrons and Elmars and Summarons and what have you. I can't comment on the digital Leicas first-hand but from all reports the digital bits inside it just are not nearly as good as the Canon and Nikon stuff - no big surprise frankly given the resources than a small boutique company like Leica can devote to this compared to the Japanese juggernauts which sell millions of digicams per year to absorb development costs.

The big difference however is in the shooting experience - photographing with a Leica is just very very different from using a big (heavy!) pro DSLR brick. I imagine it to be somewhat akin to the difference between driving a small classic British stick-shift four-cylinder open two-seater roadster and a new, large, top-of-the-line auto-everything BMW. It just ain't the same, and so what if the canvas roof leaks a bit and the headlights don't necessarily work all the time and you have to have a box of replacement sparkplugs at hand at all times? It's FUN, dammit.

If rangefinder photography appeals to you (it certainly is not for everybody) having a full-frame digital M body might just be worth selling a kidney for. I know I'd like one, but not quite at the present price level :)

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Leica has no advantages over DSLR or mirrorless systems in regard of automation and functionality available. You have to know the basics of photography technique enough as to not rely on camera's microcontroller as substitute to your brain. The lenses are the best, period (apologies to white-barreled, gold-rimmed crowds here). But it's a niche system, that works best for documentary-style photography. If you ever think you'd like shooting macros or airshows, you wouldn't have much fun.

Generally, if you have to ask this question, you're not quite at the point when you need a Leica. If you fall along the line of photography where Leica is at its best, the choice will come naturally.

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+1, but I think that the idea that the lenses are "the best, period" is more mythos than fact. (Particularly rooted in some of their classic designs and not necessarily true in the last thirty or forty years.) –  mattdm Aug 3 '11 at 11:59
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Leitz classic designs are mediocre at best in this day of age. But among the contemporary lenses, modern Leica glass has not much rivals. Some of Carl Zeiss products. Mainstream SLR prime lenses in normal and wide range are very dated, cost-optimized designs. Very few of them anywhere in the same league as comparable Leica specimen from the last two decades. –  varjag Aug 3 '11 at 12:14
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Sure: high-end Leica designs beat anyone's "dated, cost-optimized" ones. But that's different from saying "the best, period". –  mattdm Aug 3 '11 at 13:06
    
Speaking of dated lens designs Leica's acclaimed Summilux 50 f/1.4 was designed over half a century ago and is still widely regarded as the best normal lens for the M mount. Also Leica have some superb wide primes, but I've yet to see any evidence that their supertelephoto offerings are better than the Canon L series superteles. For the price of the Leica lenses you have to consider medium format glass where there are many optics which are comparable (though again not in the wide & fast variety). –  Matt Grum Aug 3 '11 at 13:32
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Not trying to get in a brand war here or anything. It's inarguable that Leica makes stellar lenses and that that alone is a reason to be interested in their system. Here's an interesting article on the topic from 2002 luminous-landscape.com/columns/sm-02-09-22.shtml –  mattdm Aug 3 '11 at 14:15

Performance-wise there isn't too much advantage to the Leica rangefinder system over to of the line DSLRs. Leicas are outstanding cameras, but, as stated by others, their smaller production runs and uncompromising dedication to outstanding build quality does make them more expensive than comparable cameras from other brands.

As Matt Grum said, rangefinders situate their lenses closer to the sensor plane than SLRs, so some of the lens designs can be different. Also, rangerfinder's viewfinders show more of a scene than just what will be recorded. This can allow you to better anticipate moving objects that will come in or out of the frame.

Other than this, the primary differences are the more compact build and tougher build. Performance-wise, at least as you frame it, there isn't much to set Leica apart. The main difference would be in how the smaller build and rangerfinder viewfinder would allow you to take photos in a different manner than using a SLR. It's difficult to describe in words, but if you've every used a rangefinder, you'll know what I'm talking about.

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