Tennis (or, 'Why I Use Leica Cameras')

I've always loved tennis.

One of my greatest memories is of watching Boris Becker win Wimbledon in the summer of 1985.  While it might seem odd to think of a 7 year-old remembering something like that, it really isn't; you see, my birthday is in July, and often coincides with the final week (and sometimes the final weekend) of Wimbledon.  School was out for the year and my birthday was near, and thus I was always a huge fan.  NBC's (late, great) 'Breakfast at Wimbledon' was a staple in my house.

I grew up a huge Becker fan.  Learned to serve and volley like him, hit big looping groundstrokes like him, and swear at myself in German like him.  Above all, I coveted his oddly-shaped Puma G. Vilas racquet.  Becker switched to an Estusa racquet in the early-90's, and it was then that I was *finally* able to afford one.

I loved that racquet.  I learned how to *really* play with that thing.  I still have it, and while I don't use it that much anymore, I'll never part with it.

I was away from the game of tennis for several years, and then picked it up again in the mid-00's, this time following closely the career of Roger Federer.  Not surprisingly, Federer played (and still plays) in a very similar style to Becker, though with far more skill, creativity, and self-control.  As I got back into tennis, I decided I needed a new racquet, and there was no question which one it was going to be.

The Wilson K Factor Six-One Tour 90.  The Federer racquet.

Now, if you're not familiar with tennis racquets, let me fill you in: this racquet is not for beginners.  The head is a comparatively tiny 90 square inches, which means you have to be extremely precise about where the ball hits the strings.  The frame is very narrow, which means the racquet isn't doing any of the power work for you.  Basically, the racquet will do whatever you tell it to; no more, no less.  Hit it right, and you'll be knocking out down-the-line backhand winners with gusto.  Hit it wrong, and you'll be chasing balls in the park adjacent to the courts.  Even as an NTRP 5.0, I've had my fair share of the latter.  I *know* I'd hit fewer unforced errors with a larger, more forgiving racquet.

But I simply don't care.  I'm good enough to tame the K Factor most of the time, and above all else, I simply *love* playing with it.  It feels perfect in my hand.  The sound of perfect contact with the ball is unbeatable.  Yes, I shank more than a few shots, but I know that I simply wouldn't enjoy tennis as much using a different racquet.

And that's why I use Leica cameras.

I've used cameras from Canon, Nikon, Fuji, Olympus, Sony, and others.  For the most part, they've all been excellent and, particularly in the last 3-5 years, produced images of superlative quality.  The lenses for these cameras are wonderful; sharp, contrasty, and quick to focus.  The Fuji X cameras, in particular, are amazingly capable cameras with incredible lenses.  They even comp the rangefinder vibe that I enjoy so much.

But none of these have provided me with the enjoyment that my Leica M rangefinder cameras have.

Do Leica's have faults?  Is the Pope Catholic?

First off, they cost a comparative fortune for what you get (as do the lenses).  They're also relatively fragile, have middling-to-poor low light performance, are slow, and can't be used effectively with lenses longer than 135mm (and even that is pushing it if you're not stopped down).  In fact, Leica M rangefinders are really suited best to lenses of focal lengths between 28-50mm, and to subjects that are at least 1 metre away.

Fuji X cameras, for example, are superior in virtually every single one of these areas.  They're weather-sealed (at least the most expensive ones are), they're excellent at very high ISOs, and they can be used with lenses from very wide to very long, including macro lenses.  They have autofocus.  They're also much, much cheaper than Leica's.

I've owned four Fuji cameras.  The original X100 was a remarkable camera; incredibly fulfilling and incredibly frustrating, all at once.  The X-Pro1 was a fuzzy implementation of a very clear concept.  The X100T was (and is) an excellent and mature iteration of the X100 series, lacking in virtually nothing.  My current Fuji, the X-T10, is a lovely little camera, mated to an excellent kit zoom lens, which I use for pictures and video of my (growing) family.

By any measure, each of these cameras is more than enough to sustain any photographer for the rest of his or her life.  Even the old X100, warts and all, is a more than adequate street photography camera. 

But none of these cameras - or the dozens of cameras that came before them - have ever satisfy me as much as my Leicas. I used the Fujis because they were cheap(er) and had better performance and so on and so on.  I made great images with them.  But I never really loved using them. 

Despite all of their faults, and despite the fact that I could take objectively better photographs with other cameras, I love using my Leicas.

This camera sucks. (image courtesy of Ben Fredericson, used under Creative Commons License)

This camera sucks.

(image courtesy of Ben Fredericson, used under Creative Commons License)

Take the M-E (a.k.a. M9 minus superfluous features), for example.  The Leica M-E has an 18MP full-frame sensor; 18MP hasn't been state of the art for FF sensors since about 2005.  It has an LCD screen that can charitably described as "a fucking terrible LCD screen".  It produces extraordinary images at ISO 160-400, and then quickly begins to shit the bed.  ISO 640 is ok.  800 is pushing it. 1600 is awful.  And 2500 is.  Well.  Not the best.

The M-E is rated for continuous shooting at a glorious 2 fps.  It has a rangefinder that requires calibration every year or so.  It has a sensor that will eventually corrode into a flaming pile of Wetzlar.  It doesn't take video or do live view.  It has poorer dynamic range than almost any camera made since 'Friends' was still on the air.  I have to manually tell the M-E which non-Leica lenses I'm using so that it doesn't produce nasty vignetting and colour shifts in the DNG files.  Even after doing this, I still have to pre-process the DNG files to get rid of residual colour shifts, especially with ultra-wide angle lenses like the Voigtlander 21 f/4.

In short, the Leica M-E is, with respect to the circa-2016 digital camera, laughable.  Oh, and it costs about $3000 on the used market.

And I wouldn't want to use any other digital camera.  Why?  Because I don't enjoy photography as much when using any other camera.  And if I don't enjoy shooting, what's the point?

I'll just go back to playing tennis.