Let me start off by saying that I’m a FujiFilm user, I’m good friends with FujiFilm and I’ve been using all their cameras and own a FujiFilm X-E1. However I also own a Leica R4 with some lenses and I love that camera for analogue, and am also connecting those lenses to my X-E1 and soon Sony A99. In my reviews I however always try to take a 100% neutral view on the products so I have to start by saying that there was NO preference what so ever to start with and the review is 100% my honest opinion.
Of course some people will say that you need at least some weeks of experience with a rangefinder before being able to do a comparison, I agree and disagree. Over the years I’ve shot with a lot of different cameras ranging from the Zeiss folding cameras with zonefocus only, Lomo, 35mm ranging from all manual to full auto (ended up with the R4 from Leica and Mamiya 1000S), Medium format and even some box cameras. With digital the list is even longer including all FujiFilm cameras and at the moment I still use the Mamiya RZ67ProII with digital/film back on a regular basis, so I think I can pretty quickly adjust to a new camera and I’m used to doing stuff manually (especially focus). Truth being told a camera can grow on you, the remarks you read in this review are based on the experience I have with different cameras and the way the M9 felt in my hands. On the subject of pictures I can be very very short, they were shot during a small photowalk in Rotterdam lasting less than 1 hour because the time I had with the camera was limited I decided to first get familiar with the camera in the studio and at home and shoot some quick comparison shots during our trip to Rotterdam. Most of the review is based on the 2 days getting familiar with the camera, but I don’t want to bore you with my personal shots of my wife and son 🙂
For some time now people have been asking me “which camera should I buy, should I buy the Leica or the FujiFilm”, I always said “get the FujiFilm” for the simple reason you can buy 6-7 X-E1’s for the price of 1 Leica, and the same goes for the lenses, if your budget is unlimited that’s another story of course, but most people have to keep within a budget and with the prices of the Fuji lenses compared to the Leica lenses… well let’s say you can buy a nice collection of Fuji glass for the price of one Leica lens. But because I always want to be complete in my advise and I never shot with a digital Leica before I decided it was time to test the M9 during a small photo walk and compare the two, swap lenses etc. I only could use the Leica in the field on one day due to the limited time I could borrow the camera, but I think when reading this you will get a good idea of what the differences are. I would love to use the system a while longer and with more lenses but for now this will have to do, as mentioned in the intro I did get familiar with the camera at home before testing it in the “field”.
Let me start by saying that the Leica M9 is drop dead gorgeous, it’s heavy and build like a tank… but that said I think the X-E1 with silver top and leather case wins this first round, and ok when you hold the Leica you feel a lot of weight and again it looks sexy, but the FujiFilm is great to travel with when you have to take care of weight and for me it just looks better due to the silver top (I borrowed a black M9). However looks are 100% unimportant of course, it’s all about getting the shot, and that’s where I think the difference lies.
With the test I used the 18mm on the FujiFilm X-E1 on which I have to add that this is actually my least favorite lens in sharpness and look, and the 35mm on the M9. I wanted to go wide for this test so this is where the test was based on (also because the M9 was only available for the review with the 35mm lens) I would have preferred to compare the 35mm to the 50mm to be honest.
To get a good shot we need a few things.
1. A good scene : well this is equal for all cameras
2. The right moment : also this is equal for all cameras
3. The shot : here is where the photographer and camera go into a cooperation that has to work
My shooting experience with the Leica is a real love/hate one. Focussing is a matter of getting used to but it’s slow, much slower than for example my R4 and even with focus peaking and manual the X-E1 is faster. It’s a matter off getting a square in the middle of the frame line up with what you see in the whole frame, the reason for this is that with a rangefinder like camera you actually don’t see what the lens sees, so there has to be another form of focussing and to be honest this sounds easy right… and it is, in fact as soon as you get used to it it’s very fast and accurate…… however try to do it when there is VERY much detail, on some scenes I was literally giving up and first aimed at something that had a recognizable pattern to get in the ballpark and then back to the “chaos” to line everything up, after an hour or so this technique became almost second nature and when you “get” it, focussing is very accurate and relatively fast. Especially the accuracy is something that surprised me, the first time I used the technique I thought “this can never result in razor sharp images wide open” well that was wrong, when you get it right, it’s right, I’ve shot with cameras using this kind of focussing that were MUCH worse.
Shooting with the X-E1 is a different experience (especially) after the firmware updates, FujiFilm does it every time, the speed and accuracy of the lenses and camera are improving with every single firmware update, at the moment it’s a system that focusses very quickly and very accurately, on the street I found myself looking for focus with the M9, often pre focussing on distance and hoping it would work, and therefore often missing a shot. With the X-E1 you point press through (if needed) and the camera shoots and in the majority of the cases where you shoot from the hip or very fast the focus is death on. When you take the time and focus and press it’s 99.9% accurate on the street. The main difference for me between shooting with the M9 and X-E1 was that with the M9 I always had to put the camera on smaller apertures (higher ISO) and “guess” the distance when shooting from the hip and after that…. hope. With the X-E1 you actually don’t think you just press and the camera does the rest. Now some people will say “yeah but that’s not photography” well I can be quick with that… whatever gets me the shot, and sometimes you just can’t put the camera to your eye and draw attention to yourself, so shooting from the hip in those cases becomes a necessity.
To compare both cameras I also put the X-E1 on manual focus, working with an EVF is of course 100% different than working with an OVF/rangefinder, but for me also in a positive way, indeed the feel you get when looking through the viewfinder of the M9 is one of “WOW GORGOUS”, the X-E1 looks a bit disappointing after that, but having said that with the new focuspeaking option in the new firmware setting focus is very fast on the X-E1 compared to the M9, I would say at least twice as fast on normal scenes, and if you have time just press the dial and it zooms in to the center so you can really get the focus spot on, press the shutter and voila perfectly focussed images. Now I agree that when you work with the Leica for a few weeks or months/years the focussing will probably become second nature but I have to say that in most scenes I did have a lot of trouble to find out where my detail in the focussing square belonged and that figuring out slowed me down considerably I much more prefer a viewfinder where everything is out of focus and you focus the SLR way (like the Leica R4), but as you all know that’s not the way the M series work, so also not how the digital one works. I can agree with the purists on the fact that Leica kept it this way, on the other hand I also believe that time goes on and techniques improve, there must be some way to get the focus system working more easily with digital techniques, it now seems a bit that Leica has very much tried to keep the M “experience” as much as possible in tact and not go all the way digital, again I agree with it for that feel of the old vs the new, but I would have loved to see some more focus help in the camera, maybe via an extra option so you can choose to switch it on or off.
The main difference/problem (when we look at the system) is for me is that there is no option for live view with peaking, no option for AutoFocus (and yeah I know that is the heritage but still) with the M9, with the X-E1 you can opt for manual focus, peaking, zooming and of course fast and accurate AF. What also did irritate me with the M9 was the fact that I constantly saw the sun hood in the corner of my frame. Making the X-E1 a more versatile system, when I want full auto I can choose it, but when I want to shoot with manual I also can do that. The only “problem” some people will have is the EVF vs the OVF, for those people I would advise to check out the X-Pro which does have an OVF, for me I found that I hardly used the OVF and that’s why I opted for the X-E1. I have to add that the experience with the X-Pro1 compared to the M9 I do like the viewfinder from the Leica a LOT more including the manual focussing, on the X-Pro1 I always opted for the EVF because the focussing with the OVF (even after a few weeks) just wasn’t my thing, as soon as you understood the viewfinder it was accurate but just not my cup of tea so to speak.
One of the most important tests is noise at higher ISO, I’ve read some review in which the Leica was labeled unusable above ISO400 (older type Leica) well the M9 is very nice and handles noise pretty well up till ISO2500 (max ISO) for prints, BUT…….. the Fuji wins HANDSDOWN and I mean with a WIDE margin. So if you find yourself on ISO1600 or higher on a lot of shoots the X-E1 will beat the Leica with ease. I’ve actually have some A2 prints made with the X-E1 on ISO6400 in daylight that look pretty good without even touching the noise kill slider in Lightroom.
The look of the images, because that’s where it’s all about.
According to many there is some Leica magic in the look of the images, and let me start by saying that I agree that lenses are very very important for the look of a system, on my A99 I use a lot of different lenses from Minolta to old Zeiss and modern Zeiss glass and some really old funky M42 lenses, and trust me they all have their look, that remark “Minolta colors…” yep that’s 100% true and I love the look. So is there some Leica magic?
The Leica M9 has a certain look, it’s a bit more 3D than the FujiFilm X-E1 but not much, what’s weird is that in some skies the X-E1 gives me a standard/correct blue sky where the M9 gives a sort of red glow in the sky, it’s very faint but it’s there. Also the whitebalance is different, the Fujifilm X-E1 gives me very accurate colors (although sometimes a bit towards the blue side) but compared to the M9 it’s more accurate, which is of course COULD be due to the lenses, however.. it is a rather big difference, which actually makes it clear it’s not the lens (lenses will never add that much difference), plus when I connect the lens to the FujiFilm X-E1 with the M convertor that “big” color difference is gone, it’s still there a little bit (like every lens is a bit different from the other) but the big difference is gone.
This means that the M9 is actually creating the look, now one can argue if that is a good thing or a bad thing, I have to be honest I would rather have more accurate colors and later in Lightroom add some toning, on the other hand you can always correct the M9 images. On the X-E1 it seemed like the 35mm Leica lens performed slightly better than on the M9 itself (probably due to the sensor design of the FujiFilm that in my opinion is in a league of their own). The 3D look on the M9 was better, but this is also due to the bigger sensor, it’s the same difference I saw when switching from a 20D to 5D a long time ago and it’s often hard to explain to people because both sensor and lens are debit to this effect (number 1 is light of course), but it’s just something that I see in a shot. I have to add that I did not yet test the new Zeiss lenses on the X-E1 but knowing my experience with Zeiss on the Sony I know for sure that this 3D pop will also be in the Zeiss lenses. Most of the 3D look is hardly ever explained online because in my opinion it’s something that’s very hard to explain, some claim it’s micro-contrast but I’ve some very old glass that has an incredible 3D look them but trust me when I say that they hardly have any contrast so I think it’s something else although I can’t tell you what it is exactly, I normally will shoot with a lens and if that effect is there it will show itself pretty quickly, over the years I’ve started collecting lenses that in my opinion have that special look and I have to add the Leica glass without a doubt has some of that magic. At the moment I’m using Leica R lenses on the FujiFilm camera and will try to upload some samples in a few weeks.
For the review I left BOTH cameras on AWB and did NO corrections in the RAW conversion.
Sharpness is good on both cameras, on some shots I like the look of the X-E1 more, on some shots the Leica M9. The Leica creates a very detailed image with a more “soft” look which I really like, and don’t get me wrong, the soft look is not meant as NOT sharp, it’s more of between very sharp but not too “digital/hard”, the X-E1 has a VERY sharp picture but sometimes can be a bit harsher than the Leica. It’s a very personal choice on which you like and I wonder if a lot of people will see the difference. Due to my background in calibration/Home Theater (ISF) I’m very sensitive for this look, same for the slight color difference by the way. For portraits I like the Leica a bit more, for city and street shots I actually prefer the X-E1.
If they were both the same price I would probably think about the M9, but the lack of autofocus on the lenses would really hold me back, but I could live with it due to the fun you have while shooting the camera and the gorgeous viewfinder, it’s a challenge, it’s a camera that makes you work. I can compare it to shooting with the RZ67ProII, when I want quick accurate results I will take the A99 or the Phase One DF with Leaf Credo, but if I have time and I just want that “WOW” experience I will take out the RZ67ProII and yeah I will miss more shots and it’s a lot slower but man is it fun to shoot. However… I’m afraid that after that “fun” part is gone I will go back to the FujiFilm very quickly for the following reasons:
Now when we know that most people will use the Leica on the street and that you need some speed there I think that the Leica is a great/sexy/cool and awesome to shoot with camera BUT… due to the lack of focussing speed it’s not the camera I would advise, even if it was the same price…….. However seeing the fact I can buy 6x X-E1’s for one M9 (and I don’t even talk about glass)… well I will advise the X-E1 without a doubt in my mind. Also take into account the dynamic range in the X-E1 and the much better handling of noise I’m more and more convinced the Leica is not the better choice.
So did I like the Leica digital experience
Well I’m in doubt.
Shooting it was fun, working the focus is fun, the focus “holder” on the lens is an idea that more manual lenses should have, the viewfinder is fun and (call me a geek) I love the sound the camera makes after taking a shot (sounds like a film roll forwarding) but when I spend 5000+ on a camera I expect certain things and during the review the camera did not boot several times, meaning I missed shots, I had to turn it off and on a few times and it worked again, this is of course unacceptable in a camera in this price range, the sunhood in the frame was something that annoyed the heck out of me after 1 hour and that feeling did not go away. The square in the middle to align the focus also disappeared on me a few times maybe I got my hand in the wrong place but it was gone, also the fact that you don’t look through the lens got me some images on the street which I’m still trying to figure out what was in front of my lens, the viewfinder showed everything perfectly but there was something in front of the lens and that made me miss the shot, of course it’s the way a RangeFinder works… but again it did cost me my shot.
I really wanted to LOVE the Leica because I really like the R4. But I found that every time I took out the X-E1 I was a bit disappointed that I missed the viewfinder of the M9 but as soon as I started shooting everything was forgotten because I simply got the shots I needed. Back home looking at the files there is a difference between the cameras without a doubt, and if ALL was equal I would prefer the M9 probably due to the slightly more 3D look but all is not equal and I cannot say anything else than that although I love Leica I’m afraid that I will never buy one for that kind of money. I have to dive more into the Leica glass and will do that with my own R lenses but for the moment I think the best option is to mount some Leica glass on the X-E1 if you really love the glass and you will probably be much better off and have the best of both worlds, because the Leica glass really has it’s own look just like Minolta and Zeiss glass (which I really love).
The M9 would be the perfect choice for people who own a lot of Leica glass is one of the reasons I hear from people buying the Leica, however with the convertors to mount different lenses on different cameras I think this reason is not valid anymore, the sensor in the FujiFilm cameras is a little piece of magic with incredible detail and sharpness and will without a doubt squeeze every bit of sharpness and depth out of the best lenses, the only REAL difference is the crop vs Full Frame factor, and to be honest that’s not worth that kind of money. The M9 is build like a tank, has strong connections with the past and feels awesome but…. I think it’s way overpriced for what it delivers. Although I do love the slightly more 3d look in the final images.
Boring lens test
Of course you also want to see a few more boring shots right?
So here we go.
What really got my attention was the difference in WhiteBalance between the two cameras, the FujiFilm is slightly too cold in this shot, but pretty accurate, the Leica however is WAY to “golden”.
As you can see there is a difference in color rendering which I actually prefer above the 18mm Fuji lens but the colors are more accurate although also here there is a bit too much red in the picture compared to the real situation.
And for the pixelpeepers some 100% crops:
All crops are straight out of the camera without any sharpening.
FujiFilm X-E1 with Leica 35mm wide open.