Should Leica 'dump' the rangefinder? Leica SL (Typ 601) at ISO 50,000

Leica SL (Typ 601) 1/30th. sec. f/1.1 (Voigtlander Nokton) ISO 50,000

The above image isn't great, but then what do you expect from ISO 50.000? However, since it was taken in almost total darkness using my Leica SL I was able to take it with the cameras excellent viewfinder and focus peaking. Something that wouldn't have been possible with a Leica rangefinder system if correct focus was required. I know, I tried to focus on the guitar headstock with my Leica M7 film camera and it's rangefinder focusing system but I couldn't even see it, let alone focus on it. This followed an incident earlier that day when I struggled to find part of an apple tree that the rangefinder 'liked'. Sometimes the secondary lens image is so 'transparent' that it's difficult to get a lock on the  desired point of focus, particularly when the contrast is low and when what's in the viewfinder is 'busy'. Since I couldn't get the focus to my satisfaction I lost the light. The sun disappeared behind an enormous black cloud which was going to take a while to pass over and drench me in the process. So I decided then and there that I'd had it with rangefinders. 

So I'm seriously contemplating selling my M7. Unfortunately I will be stuck with some rangefinder focusing since it's part of my Fuji 6x9 medium format film camera, But if I have another option on a camera system I will default to that. Now Leica have persisted with this anachronistic system and lets not forget it dates from the 1930's. So it's nearly 90 years old. And it may have been state of the art back then, but it's not now. Plus it is also VERY restrictive. Leica framelines run from 28mm to 135mm. Anything else beyond that requires an additional viewfinder to frame the images and obviously the rangefinder focusing doesn't work for anything beyond those limits unless you 'fool' the camera.

Now Leica have introduced a system whereby an additional viewfinder, the visoflex, can be used. Plus focus peaking. So lenses beyond the 28 > 135mm primes can be used on the (Typ 240) and M10 cameras. However, I have a visoflex which I use with my Leica T's, but neither that or even the EVF in the Leica Q could cope with the light for the image above. I tried and both were incapable of giving me enough light to focus properly. 

So, for Leica cameras it's the SL EVF alone that is capable of working in virtual darkness. In this case a room where the only illumination was from a distant street lamp outside visible through a small window. As you might imagine 1/30th. sec. at f/1.1 and ISO 50,000 reflects pretty dark conditions and is not much better than moonlight. And with the above cactus image I used my Leica T 35 1.4 Summilux APS-C Lens on the SL and got autofocus. And while it wasn't that fast, it did lock on accurately. So if you are keen to take pictures in VERY low light with Leica cameras and lenses, the SL would seem  to be the only option. (It will be interesting to se what the TL2 can do however) All of which makes the SL for me the more useful camera. 

Now up to quite recently (when I got the SL) I did actually prefer OVF's. The SL has changed that. But it has to said that all EVF's are nowhere near as good as the SL's. However this surely is the future. That SL EVF is, by some distance, the best camera viewfinder I have ever used, both for stills and video. But it won't be long before Sony, Panasonic etc. catch up. But even with this the M10 will probably sell way more than the SL? Why? Well to get an answer to that I guess you have to ask those who still buy rangefinders when there are other better options. It's obviously something to do with the history and prestige of Leica M cameras. And while people are perfectly entitled to buy and use whatever they want, I am somewhat mystified as to why serious photographers would handicap themselves by using that Leica M rangefinder system for focusing. 

In practical terms, for the images above, I took my SL + Voigtlander 50mm f1/1 Nokton to the interior of a dimly lit stately home. Sure any rangefinder would cope with this level of light, but the SL viewfinder is so bright it was easy to get these images very quickly. The viewfinder is so good I didn't even have to use the magnification option. And while the light was much better than the image at the top of the page that I shot in almost total darkness, it would still have been more difficult and slower to use rangefinder focus at this location.

So earlier in this post I stated that the the Leica M10 will outsell the SL. Because of all the history that goes with the M series. And yes I also stated that 'I'm seriously contemplating selling my M7' but of course I won't. Like everybody else who uses M series cameras I am totally seduced by that old school look and feel. And I would LOVE an M10. However, it's a good thing that Leica have upgraded the M series so that an electronic EVF option is available. So for example, Leica M users now have the possibility to use Leica's R series lenses and are no longer restricted to that 28-135mm lens range. 

Hopefully the M series will continue evolving, but for the time being at least I'm not holding my breath about Leica getting rid of the rangefinder system. Whether they like it or not I suspect that they feel that they have to stick with it, because their customer base pretty much demands it. A totally electronic M11 with built in EVF? I think not. However there is an alternative now both in terms of using the M series and the brilliant and evolving T mount system. It's actually interesting that in Leica's current lineup they have the most old-fashioned camera you can buy with the M10 and arguably the most modern, the TL2 with it's touchscreen interface and superb live view screen. 

So I guess we'll continue with a retro styled system that has a focusing option that was state of the art in the 1930's and Leica will keep feeding that appetite for, what is after all, one of the most iconic camera designs ever. Even if as I suspect it takes attention (and sales) away from their more modern cameras, which in many ways are some distance ahead of their competitors. The T Mount cameras and the Leica Q are beautifully made and designed and refreshingly gimmick free. Designed by photographers for photographers. And I'm not the only one I'm sure who would love to see an interchangeable lens version of the Q. A no brainer you might say, but the Leica M series casts a huge a huge shadow over that possibility. I cannot imagine Leica releasing two similar systems. Which is a shame and why I have the audacity to suggest that the rangefinder focusing system is (WAY!) past it's relevance for todays photographers. But then I expect I'll get some negative comments for even daring to suggest that. For some the Leica M concept is 'untouchable' and the rangefinder system an integral part of the M series appeal. Which is odd since throughout this post I haven't once mentioned the fact that the Leica framelines are not accurate anyway. WYSINWYG. (What you see is not what you get) Whether or not Leica would sell more cameras and attract the wallets of photographers who currently use high end mirrorless is open to question. And I see no indications that Leica would risk that. But then I can't help wondering 'what if?' Leica fully embraced the modernity that they also promote. But then speculation and reality rarely coincide.