The Leica M is a stunning camera, exemplifying the craftsmanship and dedication to quality of its creators. Perhaps because of this, some owners take excessive care of their rangefinders, handling them with the proverbial kid gloves. So, is there a place for the Leica M in the wilderness?
Many Leicas do spend a sheltered life, if not actually in a display cabinet of sorts. I think a camera is meant to be used but to each their own. Scratches and scuff marks are fine by me. It’s not that I don’t take care of my M, but I won’t let the risk of a small dent get in the way of enjoying the camera. That makes my M10 a perfectly fine option to take into the wilderness. But it does come with some drawbacks.
Size and weight
The wilderness isn’t the most obvious place for a Leica M. It is not the natural habitat of the camera. Urban environments are where the camera feels at home. However, the M has a lot to offer when it comes to looking for the right camera setup to take hiking. The two most obvious ones are size and weight.
Even though the M itself is not a light camera, the lenses are incredibly light compared with those of other systems out there. Many mirrorless cameras are quite light these days, but the weight of many good lenses undoes that when looking at it as a combo. When out hiking all day in difficult terrain, every gram counts.
The other element is size. An M body isn’t that much smaller than a Sony A7 or Nikon Z7. The M is much smaller compared with traditional DSLR cameras, obviously. But it is the lenses that make the difference once again. You can easily fit an M with three lenses in a rather small bag. This makes quite a difference compared to larger mirrorless or DSLR options.
The small size also echoes through in the choice of a tripod. You can get away with a very light regular tripod, or even work with smaller options such as GorillaPods. So, from a size and weight perspective, I think there’s a strong case for using a Leica M in the wilderness.
Focus and framing
So far, so good on size and weight, but what about the shooting experience in the wild? This is where things become more challenging for the M. The lack of autofocus is not a problem at all. I am looking at the use of the M in the wilderness from a landscape photography perspective, not shooting fast-moving animals. For that, you clearly need a different tool. But for landscape, it is perfectly fine to shoot with manual focus.
But one of the bigger drawbacks when shooting landscapes with the M is the lack of a tilting screen. When you shoot handheld at a normal angle, the focus patch works great, as always. But when you want to shoot at other angles, from low down, for instance, things are less ideal.
Even on a tripod, not having a tilting screen means you need to manoeuvre yourself into all kinds of positions to be able to see the focus and your composition. The focus itself isn’t even the biggest problem when you shoot with smaller apertures, as most M lenses have clear indicators on them.
Framing the shot is a different story altogether. This is where the M is not as well-suited compared to other options. I read rumours that the next iteration of the M might have a tilting screen — perhaps emulating that on the new Leica Q3, which I would welcome. Already today, you can use a Visoflex, but that is also not great when shooting from really low.
A limited window
There is no shortage of wonderful glass available for the M-mount to capture the beautiful landscapes on our planet. Whether it is native Leica glass or options from the Zeiss or Voigtländer and others, there is a broad set of very high-quality lenses available.
These options all sit in a limited window, connected to the optimal focal spread of the rangefinder. The widest focal length I shoot with on a rangefinder is 21mm which is already pushing it just outside the boundaries of the viewfinder. But it is doable. Anything wider than that, and you need an external finder or use the screen, which brings us back to the challenges described above.
The upper limit is probably 90mm. Leica has options for 135mm, but I find 90mm challenging enough. This creates another problem, as I love using a telephoto perspective for certain landscapes. To be honest, though, the majority of my landscape work sits within the 21mm-90mm range, so I don’t feel too limited by this restriction.
What about the lack of protection from rain and dust? I think this is somewhat of a challenge, especially if you are a hardcore landscape photographer who shoots under all conditions. For me, it is something to think about, and I will let the weather influence what gear I bring.
With my Pentax kit, I know I can leave it out in a downpour and not have to worry about a thing. This ease of mind is not there when I take the M. My M10 has seen some modest rain, but I am hesitant to go any further. That does create limitations, and it also determines when I am ok to take the M into the great outdoors.
Deliberation about my Leica M in the wilderness
Whenever I am thinking about what gear to take on a trip, I will reflect on how much hiking and outdoor activities I have in mind. This will guide me in deciding whether I take my M10 or not. If the main focus of the trip is the outdoors, I will probably take my Pentax.
But if it is a mixed trip with an occasional hike, the M is a great option for landscape photography, especially since it is easy to take with you.
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