How Long It Takes To Learn How To Focus A Leica M Camera Quickly And Accurately

Pretty fast it turns out.  Recently I set out to see how difficult it was to quickly and accurately focus a Leica M series camera (they are all manual focus only).  I’ve tossed the idea of buying a Leica around for the past couple of years but have held off for a number of reason, focus speed and low light abilities are the two main ones (more on the low light abilities coming soon).  The tests were not scientific per say, perhaps if I owned a beaker and some test tubes I’d have approached this a little more scientifically… but probably not.  If we’re being honest.  If you’ve ever wondered if manually focusing a Leica takes years and years of practice read on.

Focusing a Leica involves looking through the viewfinder and trying to line up an overlay of your subject in a small patch at the center of the finders screen.

I should preface this with the fact that my vision is 20/15 and my hand eye coordination is still solid at the ripe young age of thirty-two.  I only tell you this because if you don’t have perfect vision or your hand eye coordination sucks, your ability to master the manual focus Leica (quickly) will suffer greatly.

To test my ability to focus the camera quickly I chose three different objects at varying distances; one close to me but not at the minimum focus distance to avoid cheating (if it was at the minimum focus distance all one would have to do is turn the focus tab as far clockwise as possible), one as far away from me as possible without reaching the infinity area of the lens (again, to avoid simply having to turn the lens to the complete opposite side to focus on far off objects), and finally one object between the other two.  After that I went into the wild with it, leaving my other cameras behind and relying solely on the Leica.  I focused on finding interesting subjects as always but also on trying to capture moving subjects by focusing each time rather than relying on zone focusing like a wuss (just kidding, I’m a huge fan of zone and hyperfocal focusing).

Within a few minutes I was nailing focus.  I know, I couldn’t believe it either.  I quickly learned to go with your first attempt rather than trying to second guess yourself and “fine-tune” things after you’ve select focus, the first time is usually the best.  I was amazed at how quickly the Leica could be focused manually.  The time between nailing focus, when trying to see how quickly I could adjust between objects at varying distances, was only a second or two.  With practice, I’m confident I would be able to obtain focus as quickly as your cameras auto-focus does.  Though just like auto-focus I’m sure I would miss a few here and there.  Most Leica owners say something like “at least if you miss it you have nobody to blame but yourself” to which I say…  I don’t really want to blame myself.

L1000161
Low light with the Leica. Shot at ISO 1600, f/2.8, 1/45 sec.

Using the rangefinder on a Leica in low light situations was a breeze but I didn’t really doubt it since I use optical viewfinders everyday and realize that they are still much nicer than electronic viewfinders (sorry evf fans, they aren’t quite there yet).  While shooting in the city under nothing but the street lights I was still able to see the split screen and align it quickly without straining my peepers.

Was I a master of the Leica rangefinder the first day?  No.  I missed what would have been a great shot one evening because I quickly rotated the focus tab the wrong direction.  After shooting with the Leica for a more extended period it became an extension of my mind and that mistake didn’t happen, there is certainly a learning curve though.

One of the things that surprised me most was how rewarding using the Leica rangefinder was, it makes one feel more responsible for the creation of an image.  Though auto-focus can be more accurate in an inexperienced Leica shooters hands, it’s also much less gratifying that focusing a Leica camera.

This unscientific experiment served three purposes for me:  First, it allowed me to recognize that the Leica, though manual focus only, was a serious contender for a primary camera (I’ve always looked at Leica as a sort of pro-enthusiast camera, though I get the same comment about my favorite Nikon Df).  Second, it gave me a glimpse into why Leica cameras (even with their obvious shortcomings) has such a loyal following…  It’s the rangefinder experience.  And finally, it made me realize that I need a lab coat, beakers, and a test tube or two for future, more scientific, testing.  I strongly encourage you to get your hands on a Leica to give it a try, even if it’s just to say you’ve used one.

Have you used a Leica?  Own one?  What do you think about using the manual focus?  Bookmark the site for upcoming reviews of Leica gear and tips on how to reliably nail focus each time.

 

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6 Comments

  • My first camera was a Canon Canonet. A classic 35mm viewfinder camera, with a fixed 45mm f1.9 lens. It used the same focusing method you describe in the article. Mine had a built in meter (wow!) and you focused using a little knob attached to the focusing ring on the lens barrel.

    Because of the focal length I would get close to my subjects. I had to focus and act quickly. At the time I didn’t know what street photography was, but I guess I was doing it. The camera seemed to be built for that kind of work.

    To this day I cannot get used to EVFs. I much prefer a viewfinder, so I won’t be giving up my Nikon SLRs any time soon. Thanks for the article, and have fun with the Leica!

  • I didn’t own the camera for very long but my first camera was a Sony NEX-3. I was buying cheap manual focus lenses off ebay and practicing with them. I screwed up a ton of shots but I was pleasantly surprised at how good I became at focusing photos manually. I think it helped with my auto focus shooting since I’m able to determine focus a little better than I was before I shot manually. Now I’m taking less out of focus shots. Of course the 5-Axis on the E-M5 is probably helping with that more than my ability to determine focusing, but as a beginner (still am one) I found that forcing myself to manual focus was important in helping to improve my ability to take decent photo.

  • My first “real” camera was a Minolta X-570 that I got as a graduation present. I used it as much as I could afford (film and processing being expensive for someone with a minimum-wage job). Of course it was manual focus only, with a Program Mode. Since A/F didn’t exist then, I didn’t think about focus, you just had to do it. Looking back (way back), it seemed like focus wasn’t that big of a deal. But when A/F came out, pretty much everyone switched to it, and A/F speed is still a big deal today.

    I have a small collection of older Leica models in my camera collection. I bought a used/abused M3 because if you have a camera collection, you pretty much HAVE to have a Leica in it. Then I got an M4, then an M6. The M3 was CLA’ed, and all 3 are usable. I run a roll of film through them from time to time.

    I finally decided to get myself a new Leica M on my last birthday, and picked up an M-P. I’ve only had it for a couple of months, so I’m still learning the interface. Switching from my Nikon DSLR to the Leica is still hard for me. For small family gatherings, I lean on the auto-everything Nikon. But my goal is to move to the Leica for anything that needs 50mm or wider. The M-P is heavy, but quite a bit more compact than the Nikon with a decent lens.

    Great article. I saw the title and had to read it. Would like more detail on your process. Do you go for nailing the double-image in the viewfinder every time? Do you keep the focus wheel set to a specific distance and work from there? Etc.

  • I bought a Leica M typ 262 but haven’t been able to nail the focus and exposure in 2 weeks, since I bought it, particularly in low light. Wonder what I am doing wrong? Though I am able to handle all my canon dslr’s manually and perfectly.

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