The Leica M10-P “Safari” Edition

Leica just announced a “Safari” version of it’s M10-P Rangefinder. You may be wondering if there is anything special about it, and if maybe you should buy one.

First of all, the “special” part: It’s green. It’s a green camera. That’s it. In addition to the body, Leica is making a green version of the not particularly distinguished 50mm Summicron. I think the lens looks pretty cool in green, but it’s still a version of a lens that by Leica standards is nothing special.

So should you own a green camera? Let me share my personal experience.

I own an M-P 240 Safari kit I purchased in 2015. The green body came with a 35mm Summicron (old version) in silver and the old-fashioned and very cool vented metal hood, along with a leather strap and a few other small accessories. I wanted a black M, but through a still-unexplained quirk of Leica’s pricing strategy, at that point I was able to save about $1500 by buying the kit. (No such discount applies to the M10-P Safari.)

I get lots of questions and compliments when I shoot with the Safari M. It’s a real attention getter. That’s also the problem. Don’t get a green camera if you want to do stealthy street photography. It’s such an unusual color for a camera that it draws the attention of everyone within ten or twenty feet. For street photography I had to learn to shoot from my chest without using the viewfinder. As soon as I lift the camera, every head turns toward me. It gives my work a quirky and distinctive look, but I’d rather have more options.

Stealthy Shot from Chest Level

Here is my Safari M-P 240, with a 50mm Summilux mounted and a matching Thumbs Up! thumb rest and soft release.

It’s a gorgeous color, but be aware of the downside of being more conspicuous. If you’re mainly a street photographer or want to do candid work, don’t buy a green camera.

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Do you need a “real” camera?

In my opinion, a good smartphone camera is good enough for most purposes, particularly if your main use for the pictures is to post them online in relatively small sizes. It’s also much easier to get good results, right now, with the better ones like the iPhone XS, which are doing huge amounts of neural network and other processing to overcome the limits of conventional still photography technology (not to mention their very small sensors.)

Here are a few applications where you will still need a “real” camera:

  • Shooting things that are very far away. If you want to shoot animals or sports, you will usually need a telephoto lens of some sort, and a way to hold it steady. 56mm (“full frame” equivalent or EFOV) is a long lens on a smartphone. But you’re going to want 400mm or more for birds, rhinos, or quarterbacks. Add-on telephoto adapters for smartphones are not the answer for those applications.
  • Shooting things that are moving very fast. Fast, 3D tracking autofocus is still much better on high-end cameras, particularly SLRs, than it is on smartphones. There is very effective hardware support, such as dedicated phase detection sensors in better SLRs, which are better than what you find in mirrorless cameras and cell phones. (Increasingly there are focus pixels in the main sensors of EVF cameras and smartphones, but there are still significant trade-offs in terms of speed and image artifacts.)
  • Making large prints and close crops. There are two issues here: First, a 12MP cell phone camera has fewer pixels than a 50MP high-end camera. When you make large prints, or crop to just a portion of the image, you run out of pixels. Second, while a good smartphone camera can produce tonally beautiful pictures, and the weird sharpening and smoothing artifacts we used to see are less common in the best ones, if you zoom in far enough you will see a fair amount of excessive smoothing. At a certain point things start looking more like paintings than photographs. You can see this with the iPhone XS when you use the native camera vs. a RAW camera app: The same sensor produces RAW pictures with noticeably better resolution but significantly more noise, than the fancy AI in the native camera app. There are still trade-offs, even though the software is brilliant. So if you want a 30″ print of that fantastic sunset shot, you may not like the results from your smartphone.
  • Demanding environmental conditions. Yes, your new phone is probably waterproof. If you drop it in the toilet, you won’t have to sheepishly make excuses to the Genius Bar person at the Apple Store anymore. However, If I am going to be photographing in the Arctic in blowing snow and sub-zero temperatures, I’d rather have a camera with honest-to-goodness weather sealing, a large, replaceable battery, and proven low temperature performance specs. That’s not all cameras, of course, but you can buy ones like that if you need them.
  • Critical applications. Quick show of hands: Who wants to photograph a wedding with only a smartphone? If you can’t afford to lose any images because you won’t get another chance at them, you need some redundancy and backup. Dual memory card slots, maybe a spare body compatible with all your lenses, extra batteries and memory cards: These are all things that reduces the chance you will find yourself losing images or opportunities in a critical situation.
  • Serious video work. Cell phone cameras are often much better than low priced cameras at taking video. But if you want to be able to do manual focus pulling, or layer on accessories like microphones, external displays, and complex stabilization and motion rigs, you probably want something more substantial than your iPhone. Yes, you can buy that stuff for an iPhone, but really? (See “add-on telephoto adapters” above.)

A year or two ago I would have added a section on shutter lag problems, but with the iPhone XS synthesizing virtually zero shutter lag by doing pre-capture, that’s much less of an issue anymore. This list is getting shorter every year, but there were always be certain limitations imposed by the laws of physics, which will make “real” cameras the right tool for certain applications.

Ultimately, I don’t think all cameras will be replaced by smartphones. However, I think consumer level cameras will virtually disappear as a product category in the next few years. Surviving will be high quality and moderately expensive camera systems used by a shrinking number of serious amateurs, and expensive professional camera systems used by a small population of surviving professionals. Manufacturers in both those categories will slowly adopt computational photography features that first appeared in smartphones. But the stand-alone consumer camera is dead.

The Most Essential Photography Skill

The most important photography skill you can learn is seeing like a camera. That means, among other things:

  • Abandoning three dimensional vision. A camera flattens everything into two dimensions. All the unconscious information about the depth and relative size of objects in a scene disappear. All the information binocular vision gives us to separate objects from each other is gone. All that is left is tone, color, sharpness, and local contrast, and the viewer’s assumption about the relative size of known objects. An effective composition uses these to create the illusion of what is not present in a photograph.
  • Eliminating selective perception. Why didn’t you see the guy wearing the T-shirt with the obscene message behind your friend when you were taking her picture? Because you were spending too much attention on your main subject. As a photographer, you have to cultivate an attitude of detachment from the scene, treating each object in the scene as of potentially equal value and weight. Short of photoshopping things out in post, you are pretty much stuck with everything in the frame.
  • Photographing light, not stuff. A CMOS or CCD sensor is not a stuff sensor. It’s a light sensor. You are, as the word literally means, writing with light. That light reflects off, contours, limns, silhouettes, and colors the physical objects of the world, then makes its way to the sensor or the film. If you are totally focused on what cool, funny, amazing, or interesting stuff you are photographing, you will be confounded by how dull a photograph it makes. Seeing like a camera means seeing light first. Yes, photographs are aboutthings, but weirdly, they are not pictures of things. They are pictures of light.
  • Working within the limitations of your camera system’s dynamic range and depth of field. In any given moment the optical physics of your eye are probably much more limited than your camera lens and sensor, which are miracles of modern engineering and manufacturing. However, your eyes are connected to your brain, which is a massive neural network processing system devoted to creating the illusion of unlimited dynamic range and depth of field. If you’re shooting with the native camera app on an iPhone XS, you are using one of the first systems that attempts to emulate some of that neural processing. Otherwise, you need to learn that the camera cannot always, in a single exposure, capture all tones in the scene or keep everything in focus, in the way you experience it through your visual system.
  • If you are shooting in black and white, becoming sensitive to luminance rather than color, and in particular recognizing that objects visually distinguished by color may merge together when color information is stripped out. This can be mitigated by shooting in color and remapping colors to tones in post, but if you are using black and white film or a monochrome sensor, the die is cast with the click of the shutter.

There is lots more to learn, and I feel that composition skills come a close second, but I think this process of learning to “unsee” is the hardest and takes the longest. As a personal anecdote, about ten years ago I began to develop multiple cataracts in one of my eyes, and I slowly lost my stereo vision over the course of several years. During that time my photography improved significantly, and I attribute much of that improvement to the enforced training I received in how to see the world in two dimensions. As an exercise, you may want to cover one eye with an eyepatch while shooting. If people look at you funny, just tell them you’re a pirate.

Is Your Older Digital Camera Obsolete?

Lately my equipment doesn’t become outdated as quickly as it used to. Part of that is the technological maturity of digital cameras, but my maturity as a photographer also has an effect. I shoot with a Leica manual focus digital rangefinder camera, whose basic design dates back to the 1950’s. It has a very simple center weighted exposure meter that I use most of the time, and I bought the amazing Lumu exposure meter attachment for my iPhone for times when I want to meter externally. (There is also a matrix metering system in the camera, but it’s not as fast or convenient to use, for various reasons.)

Because I don’t rely heavily on leading edge technical features that are undergoing rapid change, my camera is still completely satisfactory almost five years after it was originally announced, even though Leica has released two new M-series cameras since I bought it. Only one of those two has a new sensor, and its main advantage is about 1.5 more stops of high ISO performance. My sensor resolution is already 24MP, more than enough to make large prints. (I’ve learned to compose in the viewfinder, so I seldom need to crop much.) I transfer my photos to my computer via a card reader, so WiFi (available in the two later models) doesn’t matter a lot to me.

There was a time when sensors were improving rapidly and substantially, and after that we saw significant improvements in autofocus technology and performance in mirrorless bodies. Those improvements have slowed down. Improvements now will be largely in the area of processing, as techniques used in, e.g., the iPhone XS and the Light camera start making their way into cameras with larger sensors. If you buy an excellent body like a Sony A7R III or a Fuji X-T3, it’s hard to see why you would want to trade it in for the next model any time soon, unless you want 8K video or 50MP resolution. (The Nikon Z and Canon R are a slightly different case, since they are the first of their line and should be expected to improve more rapidly in their next iterations.)

Leica rangefinder with antique lens

Leica digital rangefinder with lens from the 1950s.

I should also point out that concerns about obsolescence are even less relevant for lenses. I can and do mount Leica lenses designed in the 1930s and manufactured in the 1950s on my 2015 M-P Typ 240. My Leica Summilux 50MM f/1.4 is based on a design from 2006, and has not been improved upon by any manufacturer since. Over the past 30 years there have been huge improvements in computer design tools for optics, and in materials and manufacturing techniques, but it’s unlikely we will see further leaps in lens design and quality at a given price point.

I would go so far as to say that you can’t go wrong buying a high end used digital body, rather than springing for a new one, unless you have specialized needs that can only be met by the new model. I wouldn’t have said that five years ago. For example, it’s likely that the Fuji X-Pro 3 will have the same 26MP sensor that’s in the X-T3. The current but aging Fuji X-Pro 2 has a 24MP sensor. The performance of the two sensors is extremely close. There will probably be some amazing deals on the X-Pro 2 once the next model is announced. Is the X-Pro 2 “outdated” now, in light of what we know about the X-T3? I don’t think so, for most applications.