I have something of a love/hate relationship with the Leica M series. I love the style, the quality of the engineering and just the all-round 'feel' of the cameras. I used an M3 for many years and fell completely in love with its large, bright viewfinder and contrasty focussing rectangle (still the best of any M camera in my opinion) and the almost silent shutter release.
It hardly needs saying that Leica knows how to make lenses, but the Leica experience is about more than just top-quality metal and glass, it's about the little things - the embossed leather lens pouches, the vented lenshoods, even the plastic PC sync socket covers look beautiful! Leica's rangefinders are desirable objects built to an extremely high standard, and they're priced accordingly.
Leica's M-series rangefinders are arguably the last great manual focus cameras - or at least the last great small format manual focus cameras. Using a Leica M is unlike using any other camera, and using a digital M like the M9 and M9-P is different again. Rangefinders demand a more deliberate (I won't say slower) approach to picture-making and personally, I find that I just get different pictures when I shoot with one. Not better necessarily, than I'd expect from a DSLR, just... different.
But there are downsides to the Leica experience, too, and I don't just mean the cost of building a system. Not even the most ardent Leica fanatic would argue that a camera like the M9 comes close to matching the versatility of an equivalently-priced DSLR outfit, and to say that shooting with a rangefinder takes some getting used to would be a dramatic understatement.
But I don't want to start sounding negative rangefinders have some definitely strengths compared to SLRs - they don't have a mirror so there are fewer potential causes of noise or vibration at the point of shutter release, and the optical viewfinder is basically just a window, so it's always nice and bright (or at least as bright as the environment in which you're shooting).
Unlike an SLR, where manual focussing can be very tricky in poor light, focussing a rangefinder is comparitively quick and easy. Those photographers that haunted the jazz clubs of the 1950s and 60s with their Leicas weren't carrying them because they wanted to look cool - their equipment was quieter, less obtrusive and more usable than contemporary SLRs.
But writing that makes me realise that this is the problem with talking about the M system - you always seem to end up talking about the past. The digital Leica Ms of today - the M8, M8.2 and the current M9 varients - are very different cameras to the groundbreaking M3 or the justly-famed M6 in some ways but in others, they're frustratingly similar.
Removing the base of the camera to load film in an M-series is awkward, but it's fine - all part of the experience. I wouldn't want to trade the uniquely solid lozenge-shape of the film Leicas for the sake of the convenience of a 'clamshell' film-loading door. But do the digital M-series really have to be loaded in the same way? What possible reason is there to have to remove the entire base of the camera to replace memory card and battery, beyond design nostalgia?
I suspect there may be technical reasons why Leica does not offer live view in its digital M-series models, but it is annoying nonetheless that I could get more precise focussing and framing from my 1953-vintage M3 than I can from the M9. 'How so?' you ask. Well, there was a door in the back of the M3 (and subsequent film M models) specifically designed to allow access to the film plane, so you could place a sheet of ground glass in there for critical focussing and composition. Now admittedly I've never done that, but that's not the point - the point is that the need of some customers for more critical focussing and composition than could be achieved using the viewfinder alone was recognised by Leica in the 1950s.
There are other frustrations about using the digital M-series cameras too - the teasingly subtle exposure compensation indicator in the viewfinder and a 'gray-on black' menu system spring to mind, but after a while you get used to both.
Something that I've never got used to about the digital M-series though is the woefully poor LCD screen on the back of them. A resolution of 230,000 dots is shamefully low considering the enormous cost of the cameras, but more importantly, it's inadequate for critical analysis of focus. Would these issues stop me buying one if I had the cash? I have to say that yes, they would. But if Leica upgraded the screen, overhauled the GUI, developed a genuinely 'discreet' shutter and added live view I'd start saving up immediately.
Thanks to Damien Demolder for permission to use some of these images in this article.