The Leica myth: are the Leica Ms worth the price?

I decided to step into a mine field to adress a question I often asked myself: is Leica gear worth the price it costs?

I'm talking about the Leica M gear, which is what comes to mind anyway. When we say Lamborghini no one thinks tractors (yes they do tractors too).

A lovely 7000$ M9. Full frame rangefinder, great iso performance, superb built quality. Amazing lens range.

Now let's put a price on it: new from an analog M6 to a digital M9, a Leica rangefinder body costs from 5000$ to 7000$. Lenses, from where image quality actually comes from, cost at least 1200$, up to 6500$ for a rare 50mm f1.1 .

Is it worth it?

1/ Why is Leica so expensive: let's talk quality and history (credits to Luminous Landscape for this part).

Leica is to cameras what Rolex is to watches. It has the historical back up and the pedigree. German pre WW2 craftsmanship, strictly mechanical with outstanding longevity. A Rolex doesn't give you better time than a Casio, but the history and work behind the final product represent an achievement. Having one is supposed to remind you that you are successful enough in life to own an object that is prestigious, even if not significantly superior.

Lens designs are sweet. Lenses are great, period. Leica can make terrific optics, microscopes and else. They just do it really really well and it's a known fact.

It feels super nice. Now that never made great pictures, but a tool's a tool. Whatever you do, weither it's for cooking of DYI stuff, having nicer tools is great, it's part of the pleasure of doing what you like. In regards to that, Leicas are really nice tools. I get the same feeling from my Mamiya RZ67: ergonomics is not so good (it's a cube), but the way it a Swiss made 50 caliber machine gun, heavy metal well put together... love it.

Famous photographers used it, Cartier-Bresson, Cappa, etc... That helps selling.

 Cartier-Bresson with a Leica M

2/ Is it really better than any other 35mm systems ?

First thing to keep in mind, the M series are rangefinders with manual focus, and they are usually used with prime lenses. That answers a huge chunk of the question: if you need fast focusing, huge zooms, to shoot wildlife, action, sport...then a lot of cameras do better than Leica. Pretty much any premium SLR or DSLR equipped with a premium lens. A Nikon F5 sells for 300$, with a prime Nikon lens you get great results, superb metering, mega fast AF. A Nikon D700 performs as well as an M9 noise wise, an is much more versatile. On a strictly function oriented side of things, plenty do better than Leica.

But what if we focus on what Leica Ms are for, how's competition doing? Leica M are for photographers that want own exposure and focus, rely on their skills, and expect an amazing feel on the final image. In that case, you disregard the functional aspect of things.
Well in that case Leica becomes harder to beat, but it's not significantly superior to what some can offer.   My first thoughts go to Contax and Zeiss, other well crafted brands from pre WW2 with a history. A Contax G2 with Zeiss lenses is the closest to a Leica M system when it comes to design, and costs much much less. When it comes to images, well appart from the Leica Noctilux 50mm f1, I can't see the difference. The only difference is the brand, the psychological value. Leicas might be better built, but images are fairly the same.

A Nikon camera, digital of film, with the 50mm 1.2 gets results that are very very close to it. Once again, the marginal benefit of Leica is in no way proportional to the marginal cost.

Finally, if you suck, you'll suck even worse with a Leica since it won't take smart decisions for you. Go to flickr and type Leica M. Then type Contax G2, then type Nikon FM3A. You will see that the shots are not significantly better in any case. The key variable will be...the photographer. I mean, you can take shitty pictures with a Leica, and mind blowing stuff with a single use camera.

Contax: is to Leica what Omega is to Rolex. The same, with a not as strong brand image. This even has auto focus !

Keep in mind one thing, and I'll use the cooking analogy again: it's just a tool. If your knifes aren't sharp but your are a great cook, it'll taste awesome. Same applies here: it's only about owning a really nice tool.

3/ What can you get that beats it and costs a lot less?

Following up on the previous point (it's just a tool), so what better than a Leica will, as a tool, provide me with nicer looking images?

Answer is simple : shoot bigger formats. Any 6x7 camera from Pentax, Fuji, Mamiya, Blad, Rollei or else will outperform your Leica by a mile. No kidding, format is everything. Those can come, for a full set of gear, at less than 600$.

35mm shot (Nikon F5 + 35mm F2 FX lens: premium gear)

Same time, same place. Medium format Mamiya RZ67II. It needs no comment.

Point made, if you strictly care about images, Leica Ms are B-League cameras, so are all 35mm cameras. A-League is medium and large format. See many of my other posts.

4/ Finally, why should you still get one?

First of all, you should only get one if you are so filthy rich that you don't care about the price. You might also argue that if well taken care of, if retains value very well.
If you get a mortgage to get one, hoping that it will allow you to enter a new world, you are greatly mistaken. Only shooting, challenging yourself, being criticized, and looking at other pictures all together will allow that leveling up. Sorry, it takes work and efforts :)

I have to admit, this look ultra cool.

So here are my final points:

  • if you want a 35mm rangefinder with a emphasis on premium lens quality, and only that, get a Contax G2 with Zeiss lenses.
  • if you want stunning images, the best you can get given your talent, go medium format (Pentax 67II, Contax 645 AF)
  • if you have money, too much of it, send it to me !!! If by any chance you dislike me, and you like the idea of owning a precious object, get an M with the Noctilux 50mm F1 lens for 14000$ all together, and... I don't know, whatever, just enjoy owning one. It's cool, I'd get one if I was rich too, just for the f... of it.
It's like a Lamborghini or a Rolex: don't need it, won't make you drive better or give you more accurate time, it's just really sexy. It's a luxury product in the sense that it's worth... whatever you decide it's worth.

This doesn't and will never have anything to do with your ability to take great pictures.


  1. Great things to think about in this one. Always interested to hear thoughts on people shooting with Leica glass / gear.

  2. 1. I don't think Leica worth its price.
    2. I recently bought a Leica M9 and I am dreaming on the Leica Monochrome.
    3. Contradiction? I don't think so. The look of the images produced by Leica is so different from any other camera (and I have lots of them), that in the last couple of years I only use Leicas. I hate their price, I adore the results..

    1. i guess your comment is a perfect summary: worth it from a technical stand point, probably not, but if you like them...why not! Enjoy :) they retain value well