Leica M-E (M9) – A Street Photography Review . . .

. . . In this review I mention the Fuji X-E1, but all the images presented here are taken with the Leica M-E . . .

. . . Question: What do a Fuji X-E1 and XF35 1.4 lens, a Leica M6, an electric guitar and effects pedal, an iPad and a Cello all have in common?

Answer: That is what was sold in order to finance what is for me, the ultimate street photography camera – the Leica M-E, or to give it its full model designation, the “Leica M-E, Which Is Actually An M9 But Without The USB Port Or Frameline Preview Lever And In A Different Colour. Apart From That It’s Identical In Every Way To An M9.”

Of course that can be a bit of a mouthful at times, so for the purpose of this article I shall refer to it solely as the Leica M-E.

I also won’t bore you to death with the industry-standard approach when reviewing a Leica ‘M’ camera, that being a ‘mini-tutorial’ of how a rangefinder works in practice, endless comparisons to DSLR’s or Micro Four-Thirds and especially how manual focusing with a rangefinder is better or worse than auto-focus etc.

So without further ado, let’s start at the beginning with a good-old photograph of the ‘beast’ in question – albeit a beast costing a four-figure sum . . . Gulp !!!

leica m-e m9 street photography test review uk photographs

Naturally with ‘M’ camera bodies, the price didn’t include a lens, though luckily and considering my manic desire to ‘sell sell sell’, I had the presence of mind to keep hold of the wonderful Voigtlander 50mm f/1.5 lens previously mounted to the M6 and M2 (the latter of which I still have – hey I’m not that mad 🙂 )

Truthfully though, there are some folk out there in internet land who would probably say I am mad and with arguably good reason.

The problem stems from the sensor fitted to the M9, sorry M-E. Yes it’s full frame, yes it’s 18.5 megapixels and yes it produces wonderfully ‘leica-like’ images, even at high ISO (in B&W at least). No, the problem runs a little more deeply than ‘a bit of noise’ at ISO 2500 – that being sensor corrosion.

Sadly, since the launch of the M9 in 2009, a proportion of the Kodak manufactured (now Truesense) CCD marvels, with their special UV glass and microscopic offset micro-lenses, have been harboring a pesky secret. Seems that over time and if atmospheric conditions are right, any tiny marks left from overzealous and haphazard cleaning can cause the wafer thin glass to actually corrode and decay. The first that the unfortunate owner knows about it is when their treasured photographs start showing strange blobs and imperfections. Needless to say, a new M9 sensor may leave enough change out of £1000 for a coffee and doughnut.

So why on earth would someone (myself) pour such a large wodge of cash and sweat into purchasing one?

The reasons are threefold. Firstly, this particular example I stumbled upon purely by chance, as until recently I had no idea that Leica themselves sold used cameras. That was until I discovered Leica Mayfair, an online version of Leica’s own store in Mayfair, London. Here they have a good selection of used and ex-demonstration M’s, both film and digital, as well as compact cameras and lenses. What’s more, all of their used cameras come with a 24 month manufacturers warranty (unprecedented) and are fully serviced and fettled.

Secondly, this particular example came with a brand new sensor, fresh from Leica’s factory in Wetzlar.

If all that wasn’t good enough, Leica themselves have addressed the sensor issue head-on by doing the decent and honorable thing (official Leica statement here) – anyone with an affected model (M9-M9P-ME-Monochrom) and no matter how old or how many previous owners, can send their camera to Leica whereby the sensor will be replaced free of charge. As far as I was concerned and taking into account the very attractive price, purchasing the M-E was a no-brainer.

Suffice it to say, the M9 (sorry M-E) arrived, was slowly and excitedly unboxed, the Voigtlander 50 mounted and within a few days, I’d hit the streets of Chester and Manchester.

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man with furry hat walking dog chester street photography uk photographer kevin shelley prints for sale leica m-e m9

So far so good and being no stranger to Leica’s and rangefinders, I didn’t anticipate much of a ‘settling-in’ period – and on the whole, was quite confident. However, as with any new acquisition, there IS the inevitable settling-in period, so I’m prepared to bite-the-bullet and show the ‘almost but not quite’ pictures . . . later.

As alluded to above, the M9 (sorry M-E) is my eighth Leica M, so it was a fairly logical and relatively painless transition to the M-E and it’s particular peculiarities.

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crowd of people staring at a man manchester street photography uk photographer kevin shelley prints for sale leica m-e m9

Of course I’d greatly enjoyed the Fuji X-E1 & XF35 lens that I’d previously owned and used to capture a large chunk of favored pictures, all of which ended up on this here blog. In fact (and this is something you won’t often hear a Leica owner admit), it’s the better camera – Shock, horror !!!

For a start, the Fuji’s quieter. It’s also lighter – much lighter. Then there’s the speed and accuracy of actually taking a picture and the ability to set up the camera so it’s configured to one manual setting for any and all ‘street’ situations. Further, the metering rarely went awry, pictures were almost always in focus and the sensor and lens packed so much resolution and resolving power that you could almost make an 8×10″ print from the tiniest of crops.

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young boy touches owl chester street photography uk photographer kevin shelley prints for sale leica m-e m9

Conversely, the M9 (sorry M-E) with the exception of the sensor and lens resolution is none of the above.

It is heavy, especially with the added bonus (?) of that sizable lump of alloy and glass attached to the front. For a photographer such as myself (stubbornly sticking to his beliefs), I categorically refuse to carry the camera round my neck. In fact, I will often endure tiresome wrist pain, so as to carry the camera in my favorite and time honored position, that being in my right hand with the neck strap wrapped in a well practiced figure-of-eight around my wrist.

The Leica is still fairly noisy. Not as loud as the M8 (that was LOUD) but still noisy all the same. Mercifully however the actual shutter ‘click’ is fairly mute, the ‘Discreet’ shutter mode at least allowing the user to take the noisier re-cocking process ‘somewhere else’.

portly gentleman in leather coat listening to ipod street photography uk photographer kevin shelley prints for sale leica m-e m9

Older man in Furry Hat Listens to iPod street photography uk photographer kevin shelley prints for sale leica m-e m9

Exposure wise, I initially found the center weighted metering to have an apparent mind of it’s own, though it soon became clear that with 20 or 30 shots under my belt, the camera was suffering from nothing more than ‘operator error’. So used to (as I was) the exceptionally proficient metering system of the Fuji, I had simply assumed that the Leica would behave in a similar fashion – just point and the camera would take into consideration the entire scene. In reality the M9 like the M8 and M6 before it meters a single point of the image, such as someones face. Get that right and the rest of the image will (usually) fall into place.

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young and fashionable shoppers manchester street photography uk photographer kevin shelley prints for sale leica m-e m9

Now we come to the biggest culture shock and the area where even a previously ‘seasoned’ Leicaphile will spend the most time adjusting and twiddling. That of setting the camera up for the ever changing environment of a busy street.

The Fuji X-E1 was a ‘pussy cat’ in comparison and rather forgiving of various lighting situations, regardless of how the shutter or aperture were set. This was mostly down to the exceptional high ISO performance.

Typically and on an all too regular British ‘cloudy weekend’ and with the Fuji in hand, it would be a simple matter of setting the shutter to 250th/sec, aperture around f/8, with the Auto ISO hovering in the region of 400 – 6400. No problems here – even at such high ‘film’ speeds your images are guaranteed to be sharp and noise free.

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men interested in their other halves manchester street photography uk photographer kevin shelley prints for sale leica m-e m9

With the M-E however, it’s not quite so clear cut (at least not yet). Learning the ropes so to speak, I missed several opportunities, or managed to capture them but the results were so so. As promised here are the ones ‘that could have been’, or ‘if only’. Still, you learn from your mistakes, hopefully.

Nearing the end of the day and with the soles of my feet suitably tenderised like a good steak, I decided for a change to try sitting on a step and shooting people of interest as they walked by. With the light beginning to fade, it was time to adjust the M-E for low light. I had a few options at my disposal, that being 125th – f/5.6 – ISO 400, or 250th – f/4 – ISO 400, or 125th – f/8 – ISO 800.

My problem here was that I was (as I believed) limited by the high ISO performance of the M-E. I was fearful of going too high and introducing undesirable noise into the images. With this uppermost in my mind, I went for the 125th f/5.6 ISO 400 approach. In hindsight, this was a silly choice and I needn’t have worried about raising the sensitivity as my images are mostly converted to black & white. Leica image noise looks like film grain in b&w. I’ll remember that for next time.

These two images could’ve been so nice. Sadly the slow shutter speed coupled with my attempts to zone focus the necessarily shallow depth of field (so as not to appear obvious to passersby), meant that the background is sharp-ish but the subject is blurred and out of focus as they walk by. Shame.

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family with child look worriedly at camera manchester street photography uk photographer kevin shelley prints for sale leica m-e m9

Learning from this, I realise that I could have comfortably raised the ISO to 1250 (2500 if converting to B&W), thus allowing a shutter speed more capable of freezing the action such as 250th/sec and an aperture of f/11 to provide a margin of error in the focusing.

Somewhat perversely however, this is one of a list of reasons why I’ve taken the plunge, sold a kidney (so to speak), given up the simpler Fuji life and bought the camera I have literally hankered after since it’s release on the 09/09/09 . . .

man walks along hiding bottle behind him manchester street photography uk photographer kevin shelley prints for sale leica m-e m9

woman in gold coat hides in front of gold sign manchester street photography uk photographer kevin shelley prints for sale leica m-e m9

. . . The M9 has an initially steep learning curve, though once one gets one’s head around it’s particular preferences and habits, the operator will be rewarded with a machine that becomes almost an extension of your eye, whereby the mere act of ‘seeing’ a photograph results in its capture. Sure a lot of what I learned with the M8 began to come back to me, but most of it had been forgotten due to the shooting perfection of the X-E1.

Ultimately though, my heart is and always has been with Leica. Not, I might hasten to add, through any sense of superiority or snobbery. More through an appreciation of fine engineering and quirkiness, a particular style of photographic image and a sense of history and belonging, that Rangefinder and it’s focusing method, the weight and solidity of age-old engineering metals and the inherent pride and sense of achievement of owning something so finely made.

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people buying incense sticks in manchester street photography uk photographer kevin shelley prints for sale leica m-e m9

Which brings me to the final part of this review/article/test, that of the name of the camera. You may have spotted my little running joke throughout the post, “Leica M9, sorry M-E” and that as it turns out, is quite a pain in the proverbial.

You see it’s an inescapable part of Leica ownership that you WILL be approached on each occasion you take the camera out by one or two well meaning and genuinely interested folk, who will ask “What Leica is that?”

And therein lies the problem which ultimately leads to the same unavoidable response, “It’s an M-E, which is actually an M9 but without the USB port or frameline preview lever and a different colour. Apart from that it’s identical in every way to an M9”.

To that end I’ve rechristened it the M9.

P.S. I’m so relieved that Leica saw fit not to ‘chisel’ the name of the camera onto the front, as per the M6, M8, M9 etc

To walk around carrying a camera with the word ‘ME’ in bold white letters would only reinforce the countless beliefs and opinions regarding Leica owners – not to mention even more questions. 😀

If you are interested in buying a Leica M9, there are often several used examples to chose from here on eBay UK.

 

Author: Kevin Shelley

Street Photography. eBooks. Blog. Shoots and reviews cameras. Develops film. Writes novelesque articles.

14 thoughts on “Leica M-E (M9) – A Street Photography Review . . .”

  1. yes, it is a confusing name Leica gave that camera and it’s the one that got me p****d off with Leica. P’d off you say? Yes, P’d off. I had a Leica M9 and a Leica 35mm lens (I can’t remember which version) and bought it when I took out my pension early (a studid thing to do) and, like you, took some time to get used to it. The problem I had was the 50mm Leica lens I ordered was taking too long to come from Leica via Jacobs Digital due to Leica having production/supply issues, and that plus the fact I wasn’t a fan of 35mm lenses for general use (being a 50mm man at that time), plus I’d just bought the Fujifilm X-Pro1 and the XF35 made me decide to sell the M9 and lens to replace it with the D600 from Nikon. With hindsight it was a big mistake selling it for the Nikon: firstly I hadn’t given the M9/35 a chance (I now own a X100s and love it!) and now wish I still had it, and secondly, the Nikon D600 was one of the ones with the sensor crud issue (a year after selling it Nikon replaced these for new D650’s for those suffering the sensor problem). I got screwed by Leica indirectly due the M-E coming out at the price point that second hand M9’s were fetching and that destroyed the trade in value, and I lost a lot of money as a result. My own fault as I now wish I still had it but I was worried about the sensor issues the M9’s were reported as having. The other problem was with the glass screen in front of the sensor cracking so keep an eye for that one. All in all, it was all part of life’s experiences and I have learned the hard way not to be so impulsive or worry about things getting damaged (just dropped my few months old iPhone 6 and put a ding on the edge) so, my advice is enjoy your M9… Sorry, M-E (what a daft name!) and keep shooting.
    Best regards from an ex-Leica owner (I’d love an M with 35 & 50) and Fujifilm X-Pro1/X100s,
    Thesrpspaintshop (Flickr)

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    1. Hello MacJim and good to hear from you again. Hope you are well.

      I really enjoyed reading your comment and apologise for having a bit of a giggle. That’s the strange thing about a bad dose of G.A.S. In my own experience it’s easy to spend and lose chunks of money, only to end up back with the camera model you started with.

      But what the heck, Gear Aquisition Syndrome is a fun and essential part of being a photographer, and long may it reign. 🙂

      Cheers,

      Kev

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    2. ” I got screwed by Leica indirectly due the M-E coming out at the price point that second hand M9’s were fetching and that destroyed the trade in value, and I lost a lot of money as a result.”

      That’s an odd way of looking at things. Leica was rearranging their product line to get rid of the numbers in their product line. They didn’t indirectly screw you, YOU directly screwed you.

      Leica is a business, and they were attracting new customers by offering a more affordable option with a more affordable camera. They didn’t do this to screw over M9 sellers, they did it as a refresh to an aging product.

      As far as the M-E being a “daft” name, they needed to distinguish from the new M, as well as the older brother the M9. You also have M-M for M-Monochrom and M-P for M-Professional. I’m sure if I looked hard enough I’d find the reason for the “E”. (For what it’s worth way before the M-E Leica had the R-E, which was a cheaper version of the R5).

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  2. Great to see your latest pictures Kevin (I’ve missed them!) Interesting to read your comments!—-regarding the Leica,I quite understand the comparison between the Fuji and the Leica.—-however,in my opinion,it’s what inspires you to take the best photographs! —-If it takes a superbly engineered ,and heavy piece of kit like the Leica to achieve that,—-then —so bei it!
    For my part I constantly admire the courage ?,and skill it takes to be a good “street photographer”

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    1. Hi Don and always great to hear from you.

      It’s been a bit of an emotional rollercoaster for some time now – just when I think things are beginning to level out, the old brain takes a sudden nosedive.

      Always seems to go away when I have a camera in my hand though, so I must make more time to get out and about.

      I’m delighted that you enjoy my pictures and with the slightly less than Arctic weather on the horizon I’m looking forwards to more trips away.

      This year I’m planning an excursion to the streets of London, as well as the Edinburgh Fringe Festival again, as well as many Chester and Manchester visits. Liverpool looks to be on the cards as well.

      Cheers,

      Kevin

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      1. I forgot to mention Kevin,that my son (Murray Close) is a movie “stills” photographer—–Stanley Kubrick—the Harry Potter movies—withnail and I—etc,etc—–He seems to use Leica M9 ? a lot, although it’s true to say that when actually shooting a movie, he has to use the Canon range!
        Useless information ? ( murrayclose.com)

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      2. Hi Don and thank you for sharing your sons website.

        I knew from before that he was a successful photographer but I didn’t know how successful.

        I’m truly lost for words. To be there photographing such iconic actors and characters and in an environment where photography is actively encouraged.

        I don’t suppose Murray is looking for a 47 year old intern by any chance?

        Kevin

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  3. I’ve had the M-E now for about 2 years and find that it is the best tool for the job omitting the nonsense like frame selector lever and cable connections on the camera body. Who really uses such stuff anyway. Every laptop, tablet or computer, especially Macs now come with SD card readers anyway.

    I was not going to pay the price a new M9 commanded, so the M-E was just right for my wallet.

    However, having just spent close to €850,00 for the check-up and repair of my M6 (second hand purchase). At the same occasion I had my M-E checked for sensor corrosion. Silly enough they found 2 scratches on my sensor…!!!!! I bought my M-E new from a dealer who had obviously dabbled himself in sensor cleaning!
    However, as the Leica Tech in Wetzlar also found some minor corrosion on the sensor they decided to replace it anyway. Phew! Lucky me!
    Naturally I had all sorts of questions about how this could happen; have the replacement sensors been improved; is the supply of replacement parts secure; how long will it take…..????????????
    Well, it’s like this:
    There are loads of spares available. They are not and have never been made by Kodak. The tech was aware of all the babble online but he assured me…insisted…Kodak had never been involved! Additionally, cameras sent in will need to be worked on for about 2 weeks and then go straight back. Additionally there is no preferential treatment for cameras coming from Germany. It’s on a first come first served basis. The infamous backlog has been cleared.
    So, good news overall.
    I always go directly to Wetzlar. The staff is very helpful and on one occasion I even was invited to a free coffee at the Leitz Cafe. I always thought as I bought the ‘cheap’ entry level (poor man’s) leica I would ‘only just’ be just tolerated….
    This is not the case. At Leica the customer is King and is treated as such, no matter how old your gear is. My rejuvenated M6 is my pride and joy now!

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    1. Hi Duncan and thanks for your post,

      I do like a story with a happy ending. The question of Leica’s stock of sensors was one issue that gave concern before buying – it’s all well and good Leica saying they will replace sensors ‘no matter how old the camera’, if they don’t have any left. But your reply from Leica is encouraging news.

      The M6 is a fantastically well made and thought out camera and with the repair work, should give 50 years before needing another service.

      In my opinion the M-E is the ultimate expression of a digital M (sorry M240 owners) and with the removal of the preview lever and USB port, is as simple and ‘pure’ as a digital camera can get (and the closest to a film M). As a bonus it’s marketed as the cheapest digital M, which is good news for those who know the truth. 😀

      I would have to disagree though with what the Leica Tech told you about Kodak never making the sensor for the M9/M-E. Sure they are now made by Truesense Imaging, but I have found this statement released by Kodak when they were awarded the contract to make the sensors for the (then new) M9.

      What’s in a name though. Despite the sensor corrosion issue, it’s an incredibly competent ‘light gatherer’ and with a company like Leica behind it, I think its future is in safe hands (until they run out). 🙂 As you say, the customer is king.

      Kevin

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  4. Thanks for an interesting article. But…

    I’m sure you love your Leica; and I’m really not into criticising anyone’s choice of gear (or anything else for that matter!), but like pretty much any other article about Leicas, I’m still left with the “why?” question lingering in my head. “Why?” in this case being why there’s anything special at all about a Leica. It seems from your article that: (a) focus is tricky and you mainly resort to zone focusing; (b) the camera (and lens combo) is heavy and the shutter is loud (and we’re talking street photography); (c) the sensor is noisy at even modestly high ISO; (d) the metering is crude; and (e) it costs a fortune! You yourself admit that the Fuji was an easier machine to use…

    Also, I’m not criticising your shots (some great images there BTW), but I can’t see how any one of them couldn’t have been taken with a Fuji, an Olympus, a Panasonic etc, etc. Moreover, none of those cameras would suffer any of the operational limitations you mention (AF, metering, weight, noise, ISO performance, cost).

    Now, I know that the ownership experience of a Leica is likely to be a cut above the Fuji et al crowd, and I know that Leicas will be beautifully crafted, but I don’t see that the end result does anything for producing better pictures – and isn’t that what it’s all about?

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    1. Hi Paul and thanks for giving me such a difficult question. 🙂

      Difficult because it’s not something that’s quantifiable with spec’s and statistics.

      There is (and always has been I suppose) an attitude towards consumer items that the ‘old’ models are no longer capable of performing their task anymore, to an acceptable level. When an updated or new camera for example comes along, the older models and technologies are somehow no longer able to take acceptable pictures – or as you say, ‘better’ pictures.

      What exactly does better mean?

      Why does a mountaineer climb the cliff, when the cable-car is the ‘better’ option? It’s quicker, safer, you get good views and it’s not as exhausting?

      Why drive an old E-Type Jaguar when the latest Jag’s are better made, more reliable and comfortable, quicker and more fuel efficient.

      Why buy and play an old Grand piano, when a top of the range Yamaha Grand costs so much less, stays in tune for longer and won’t have any woodworm?

      For me the answer is because you have to work at it and practice. Make mistakes and learn from them. Each time you take a picture you’re proud of, you think YES !!!

      Like climbing a mountain, when you sit at the top and look out on that spectacular panorama, it’s with a sense of achievement – not because it was easy, but because it was hard (er).

      Hope this helps?

      Kev

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  5. Hi Kev

    Just seen this article. First, sorry you lost your Mojo, I’m sure it will come back.

    2nd, I have just got a 2nd hand M9 (yes a real one) as had very similar feelings about an M9 many year ago when they came out. The reason I got one is simply the colours. I’ve had a few camera’s (GX1, G3, Em-5, RX100iii which I’m keeping) but even though they have been fantastic camera’s & the colours great, I just like the colours from the M9. I’m also finding it a massive learning curve, LCD that sucks big time, etc etc.but man those colours…..

    Take some colour pics and refind that mojo 🙂 all the best

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    1. Hello Jon,

      Thanks for your comments. I think the Mojo is showing signs of resurfacing again and I’m sure it’s inevitable the M9 (sorry, ME) will be seeing some Street action soon.

      There’s a certain something about shooting an M (digital and film), a feeling that you have something tangible in the bag every time you hit the shutter that I didn’t get with other cameras, digital especially if that makes sense.

      With regards that screen, I find it’s best not to use it. Looking at your shots on it just makes you feel all your pic’s are really bad. Just ignore it (I have mine switched off) and rest assured that they’ll look great when you get them home on the big screen (or in print).

      The colours are special, very film like and the CCD vs CMOS debate will rage on forums for years to come I’m sure.

      P.S. The Leica free lifetime sensor replacement is a huge peace of mind.

      Enjoy the M9,

      Kev

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  6. I’m not a Leica photographer (yet) as cannot justify the cost. I’m a professional photographer and therefore need tools capable of making work to a high standard and there are many options other than Leica. However, were I an amateur photographer, I’d be all over Leicas.

    As I get older, the idea of Leica becomes ever more appealing. The work I make, especially for myself, is well suited to Leica M and the Fujifilm X100 series serves me extremely well in this regard. Fast. Quiet. Extremely high quality files. And so on. But the Fujis wear out in a way the Leicas just don’t.

    I expect the sensor and engine inside the Fujis will run for years and years, whereas the Leicas do need servicing. But the dials and buttons on my Fujis have worn out. They get loose and twitchy, like a old car where the Leicas most likely don’t. They do seem to be built to last. To be designed for the rigours of heavy use and difficult environments. And for these reasons I will, asap, embrace Leica and justify the cost as I want my next camera system to take me to the end of my career and life, to go the distance.

    My original X100 has a perfect sensor and lens but I can no longer properly rely on the thing as I cannot consistently access these as the buttons and dials have become spongy and unresponsive. This is an area where Leica appear to really shine. And for that the hype is right. Leica will soon have my custom. To me it makes good business sense in the long term.

    – Paul Treacy.

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