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.
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.