When I started with serious travel photography nearly 30 years ago I used a Nikon F3. I had chosen this camera because it was robust, reliable, had a great viewfinder, and no quirks that get in the way of photography. I really loved this camera.
When I changed from film to digital I also changed from Nikon to Canon (D60). After using the Canon 5D and 5DII together with Zeiss ZE lenses for some years with great success I was very curious to try out the digital Leica M system and bought three years ago an M8 and later an M9-P.
My main reason for switching to Leica was the significant reduction in size and weight while retaining the same level of high image quality. I was very happy with the performance of the Leica lenses, especially the 21mm Super-Elmar, the 24mm Elmar, the 28mm Summicron, the 50mm Summilux, and the 90mm Macro-Elmar. These are all very small lenses with extremely high performance. The sensor of the M9 is at basic ISO quite good, although the dynamic range is a bit limited.
When I switched from the Canon 5D to the 5DII I thought that it would be nice to have 21 MP instead of 12 MP, but that I would nearly never use the live-view function. Man, was I wrong! I soon discovered that working from a tripod live-view is extremely helpful, both for perfect framing and for perfect focusing.
When I bought the M9, I did know that I would miss the live-view function, especially for framing. The viewfinder of the M9 allows no precise framing. I often had to reshoot an image 5-10 times before the framing was correct. But I thought that the M9 would only be an intermediate step for me to a perfect digital M system.
I was convinced that Leica would release a digital M with a great live-view function soon. I was wrong again. As expected Leica presented the M 240 with live-view September last year (available since March this year), but sadly the live-view function is so restricted that the benefit from using it from a tripod is very limited. You can only zoom in the center of the image and it’s not possible to move around a cursor in the image for the zoom-point, neither before magnifying nor after. This means, that if you want to focus on an object outside of the center you have to first focus and then afterward have to adjust the framing again. If you want to check whether some distracting objects are at the edge of the frame by magnifying this area, this is just not possible with the M 240, and re-framing after zooming won’t help in this case.
With nearly every other camera (including low-cost point and shoot cameras, DSLRs, mirrorless system cameras) magnifying areas outside the center is possible, just not with the 6000€ M 240. According to the Leica customer service and technical support with whom I exchanged some emails and telephone calls, this restriction is due to some limitations of the electronic hardware and not fixable with a firmware update.
Of course, the M 240 has at least some kind of live-view function and due to this is better suited for tripod photography than the M9. The IQ seems to be at the same level as the M9 with a slightly better dynamic range. Don’t get me wrong, the M 240 is probably a great camera but it definitely has some quirks especially for landscape photography from a tripod. Another example, that the M 240 was not really designed with tripod photography in mind is, that you have to remove the tripod plate if you want to change the battery or SD card. Not a huge problem, but not a great idea either.
If the Leica M 240 wouldn’t be a 6000€ camera, I would probably have given it a try to see whether I could live with these restrictions. But I know for sure that the M 240 is not a perfect camera for me and that, if there will be a new generation with better live-view implementation in 1-3 years, I would like to upgrade. Since I often do long-distance trips to remote places, I always carry two identical bodies on these trips. I’m not willing to pay the costs for regularly upgrading two 6000€ bodies every 2-3 years.
Just keeping and using my M9s for the next years was also not an option for me, because I wanted to have back live-view for precise framing and focusing.
Therefore I decided to go a full circle, sell all my Leica stuff on eBay and buy two Nikon D800E bodies with some Zeiss ZF.2 lenses. Of course, both bodies and lenses will be much bigger again, but I will try to restrict myself to 3-4 lenses, instead of 6-7.
The main reasons for choosing the D800E was the great resolution, high sharpness at pixel level, high dynamic range, and good useability of the body. Since I’ve used mainly cameras without AA filter over the last 3-4 years (M8, M9, DP1, DP2M) the choice between D800E and D800 was obvious for me. I will never go back to a camera with a (strong) AA filter.
Another reason for switching back from Leica M to a DSLR was, that my daughter is quite enthusiastic about snorkeling at the moment, and to combine her interests with my interests I thought starting with underwater photography would be a good idea. You can get some great housings for the D800E but not for the Leica M. I’ve already planned two snorkeling trips this year to the Maldives and Egypt and will write here on my blog about my first steps in underwater photography.
Together with the two D800E, I bought the following lenses:
Zeiss 2.8/15mm ZF.2
Zeiss 2.8/21mm ZF.2
Zeiss 1.4/50mm ZF.2
Sigma 2.8/15mm Fisheye (mainly for underwater photography)
My first tests with the D800E revealed that it is a great camera with a high dynamic range and very good useability. Although I prefer the live-view implementation of Canon with better sharpness at 100% magnification and showing the image wide open and not at working aperture. But I can easily live with these restrictions.
A really big problem with the D800E is, how demanding it is regarding the optical performance of the lenses. The Zeiss 21mm lens, for example, was just perfect on the Canon 5DII with nearly perfect corner sharpness wide open. With the D800E I have to stop down the lens to at least f/8 (better f/11) to get sharp corners. After seeing this I did send the lens to Zeiss for checking because I could not believe the result. But they tested the lens and confirmed that it is perfectly within the MTF specification for this lens.
The Zeiss 15mm is pretty much useable only at f/11, below this the corners are very soft and above this, the whole image is soft due to diffraction.
The Zeiss 1,4/50mm is even in the center soft below f/4. For perfect corner sharpness, you have to stop it down to f/8. At f/11 IQ is already significantly worse compared to f/8 due to diffraction.
The Sigma 15mm Fisheye is only useable at f/11. Below this everything outside the center is soft and above the whole image is soft due to diffraction.
If you want to get the best out of the D800E you have a very limited choice of useable F-stops (and lenses), but since I do most of my work from the tripod I can live with this.
So far I’m satisfied with my new equipment, but the real tests are my planned trips to Iceland and Egypt later this year. Stay tuned, I will write on my blog about my experiences with the D800E on these trips.
Hello Boris, thank you for your interesting article. Re. the Leica M9. My first Leica was the M9 that was plagued with problems like unexplained ‘black frame’ every so often, shutter replacement at Leica service fixed the problem but I lost confidence and traded it for M9P. Use the M9P for a short time and sold it with a view to get an M (240). Than I have read lots on Sigma DP2 Merrill that I purchased a week or so ago. So far I am very impressed with the image quality of the DP2M and the idea of getting M is almost nonexistent now. Like you I am looking to get a Nikon 800E and some Carl Zeiss lenses. All the best in your travels, kind regards, Vladimir.
The Sigma DP Merills are great little cameras. I was even thinking about just getting the DP1M instead of the D800E, but I would really miss the focal lengths below 28mm, especially my favorite focal length 21mm. And I really hate the DP workflow using SPP, but Adobe has announced that they work on integrating the DPxM files in the RAW-conversion of LR, which is great news.
If Sigma ever releases a DP camera with an ultra-wideangle lens and Adobe manages it to provide a great RAW conversion for Foveon files I could imagine doing a lot of trips with just some Sigma DP cameras.
Ricoh has just made a 28 to 21mm (35mm equivalent) converter for their brand new Ricoh GR. Knowing their dedication to perfect optics I believe it is worth a try on the Sigma DP1M.