35m Leica Compared to Modern Cameras

Henri Cartier-Bresson was a brilliant photographer who saw the potential of the 35mm Leica M camera for capturing intimate and decisive moments. That Leica changed everything, for photojournalists, in particular. An extremely compact body using 35mm movie film and capable of rendering crisp, clear, sharp photographs, the Leica was nothing short of revolutionary. Compared to slow and bulky Speed Graphics and other cameras of the era, the 35mm Leica became “an extension of the eye as used freely in the hand” that gave Cartier-Bresson and those who followed the freedom to bring their artistic vision to bear without interfering, to record everyday moments in ways not previously possible. Street shooting brought to the viewing public unposed glimpses of life, “freezing” the extraordinary moments in unscripted photographs that could tell real stories of life as it was happening.

Leica M
Leica M

While the Leica M blazed a new trail, most photographers ultimately migrated to SLRs and then DSLRs. Over time, these cameras became bulkier and more obtrusive compared to the svelte rangefinder Leica. DSLRs are very fast, but their bulk and distinctive shape, which is so recognizable everywhere in the world, has made them less spontaneous and more noticeable and therefore more difficult to use in many situations. More recently, smartphone cameras have really come into their own and opened up a new age of close-up, spontaneous possibilities, but with some obvious drawbacks (lack of image quality and photographic control looming large among them).

Fujifilm FinePix X-Pro1 vs. 35mm leica
Fujifilm FinePix X-Pro1

Now, the camera manufacturers strike back. Camera phones are rapidly replacing point-and-shoot cameras, but for more sophisticated photography, a new generation of large-sensor, feature-rich, yet compact digital cameras is becoming available. For the street shooter, these are ideal, as they offer excellent image quality and photographic control, yet are very compact and unobtrusive—most will fit into a jacket pocket with “street” lens attached. Our major criteria for a street-shooter camera in this article are compact size (unobtrusive and easy to carry), excellent image quality (hence, APS-C or larger image sensors) and an eye-level viewfinder (either built in or available as an accessory). We’ve included interchangeable-lens and fixed-lens models to suit your preferences.

Fujifilm FinePix X100 vs. 35mm
Fujifilm FinePix X100

It’s also important to note that today’s digital cameras—especially the larger-sensor ones, like those presented here—have low-light capabilities beyond the dreams of Cartier-Bresson and his contemporaries. Not only do they have ISO settings that go well beyond the highest ISO speeds available in films, but image quality of these digital cameras is far better than that of films of equivalent speed. This exemplary high-ISO performance makes these digital cameras especially good for handheld available-light street photography and gives today’s street shooter the ability to record images that simply weren’t possible for the Leica M-wielding photojournalism pioneers. Today, you can use much higher shutter speeds to reduce blur due to camera shake and subject movement, and stop down for additional depth of field, yet still get excellent image quality with ambient light.

Fujifilm FinePix X-E1 vs 35mm leica
Fujifilm FinePix X-E1

Naturally, the choice of focal length is up to your vision. Cartier-Bresson tended to prefer a 50mm “normal” lens (“normal” meaning close in focal length to the diagonal measurement of the image format) on his 35mm Leica, and you can acquire a “normal” lens for any of the interchangeable-lens cameras mentioned here. The Sony Cyber-shot RX1 and Fujifilm FinePix X100 have built-in, slightly wide-angle lenses (35mm for the full-frame RX1 and 23mm for the APS-C X100—equivalent in angle of view to 35mm on a full-frame camera), also very good for street photography. The APS-C-format Sigma DP1 Merrill has a 19mm wide-angle lens, equivalent to 28mm on a full-frame camera, while the DP2 Merrill has a 30mm lens, equivalent to a 45mm normal lens on a full-frame camera.

Leica is still a good source for a modern street shooter. In fact, Leica has just introduced two new digital M-System rangefinder cameras: the M (which likely would be the “M10” except Leica has decided to stop numbering M models) and the M-E (which is an “economy” version of the M9). Both feature legendary Leica quality and rangefinder manual focusing, and use the superb Leica M-series lenses. The M features a 24-megapixel CMOS sensor (previous Leica M digital cameras used CCD sensors) and Leica Maestro processor to deliver improved image quality, a wider ISO range (200-12,800, expandable down to 100), live-viewing on the 3.0-inch, 920K-dot LCD monitor (with focus peaking) and even 1080 full HD video at 24 fps. Besides the M lenses, the new M can use Leica R (SLR) lenses via an optional adapter. The M-E uses the same 18-megapixel CCD sensor as the M9 (with no low-pass filter to maximize sharpness) and provides ISO settings from 160-2500 (expandable down to 80) and a 2.5-inch, 230K-dot LCD with no live view or video. (As Leica says, “Rather than offering all that is technically possible, it is limited to only those functions that create a better image.”) In addition to the built-in rangefinder, the M accepts an optional eye-level electronic viewfinder. Both cameras measure 5.5×3.1×1.7 inches; the M body weighs 23.9 ounces, the M-E, 20.6 ounces. The M body lists for $6,950, and the M-E lists for $5,450.

Sony NEX-7; Sony Cyber-shot RX1 vs. 35mm leica
Sony NEX-7; Sony Cyber-shot RX1

Sony’s new Cyber-shot RX1 features a full-frame, 24.3-megapixel CMOS sensor (the same one used in Sony’s new SLT-A99 full-frame DSLR) and a built-in Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* 35mm ƒ/2 wide-angle lens—it’s the first full-frame pocket camera (it measures just 4.5×2.6×2.8 inches and weighs 17 ounces). Normal ISO range is 100-25,600, expandable to 50-102,400. There’s a 3.0-inch, 1229K-dot LCD monitor, and optional eye-level optical and electronic viewfinders are available. The RX1 can shoot 1080 video at 60p and 24p. List price is $2,799.

Another quality Sony street shooter is the NEX-7 mirrorless model. It has a 24.3-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor (the same one used in the Sony SLT-A77 and SLT-A65 APS-C DSLRs) and a normal ISO range of 100-16,000. There’s an excellent built-in eye-level OLED electronic viewfinder, as well as a tilting 3.0-inch, 921K-dot external monitor. Besides excellent still images, the NEX-7 can shoot 1080/60p full HD video. Measuring a compact 4.7×2.6×2.7 inches and weighing just 10.3 ounces, the NEX-7 uses Sony E-mount lenses and (via an optional adapter) Sony A-mount DSLR lenses. List price is $1,199 (body only).

Fujifilm offers three excellent street shooters. The FinePix X-Pro1 features Fujifilm’s X-Trans image sensor, a 16.3-megapixel APS-C unit with a unique RGB filter array that diffe
rs from conventional Bayer arrays by using a more random arrangement that positions red, green and blue pixels in every horizontal and vertical row. This minimizes moiré and false colors, allowing Fujifilm to do away with the sharpness-robbing optical low-pass filter required by most Bayer-sensor cameras. Normal ISO range is 200-6400, expandable to 100-25,600. Video capabilities include 1080p and 720p at 24 fps, with stereo sound. The X-Pro1 uses the Fujifilm X electronic lens mount. Currently, three XF lenses are available: 18mm ƒ/2 R wide-angle, 35mm ƒ/1.4 R normal and 60mm ƒ/2.4 R macro. Dimensions are 5.5×3.2×1.7 inches and 15.9 ounces. List price is $1,699 (body only).

Sigma DP2 Merrill; Sigma DP1 Merrill vs. 35mm leica
Sigma DP2 Merrill; Sigma DP1 Merrill

The X-E1 is a lower-cost alternative to the popular X-Pro1, featuring the same 16.3-megapixel APS-C image sensor, but replacing the X-Pro1’s unique, but bulky Hybrid Multi Viewfinder with a high-definition, high-luminance 2.36M-dot OLED electronic viewfinder that actually has higher resolution. The camera has a 2.8-inch, 460K-dot external LCD monitor, and contrast-based AF is very quick; it can shoot still images at up to 6 fps. Video capabilities include 1080 and 720 at 24p in H.264 (MOV) format, with stereo sound via a built-in microphone or an optional external mic. The X-E1 takes the same lenses and has the same ISO range as the X-Pro1. Dimensions are 5.1×2.9×1.5 inches and 12.3 ounces. Estimated street price is $999 (body only).

Fujifilm’s third street shooter (actually, the first, chronologically) is the rugged FinePix X100, an all-in-one model with a 12.3-megapixel APS-C sensor and a built-in 23mm ƒ/2 lens (35mm equivalent on a full-frame camera). EXR technology lets you choose high-resolution, wide dynamic range or high-sensitivity/low-noise processing. Normal ISO range is 200-6400, expandable to 100-12,800.

It features a 2.8-inch, 460K-dot external LCD monitor, and a unique hybrid viewfinder lets you choose between electronic and optical viewing. You can shoot 720p video at 24 fps, with stereo sound. Dimensions are 5.0×2.9×2.1 inches and 14.3 ounces. List price is $1,199.

Sigma’s newest DP models, the DP1 Merrill and DP2 Merrill, each features the 45-megapixel (three 14.8-megapixel layers) APS-C Foveon sensor used in the current SD1 Merrill DSLR. The photodiodes (pixels) in image sensors aren’t sensitive to color; they just measure the amount of light that strikes them. To produce color images, conventional image sensors use a Bayer array of red, green and blue filters over the pixels so that each pixel receives just red, green or blue data; the missing colors for each pixel are then obtained by interpolation using data from neighboring pixels and complex algorithms. The Foveon sensor stacks three pixel layers so each pixel site records red, green and blue data. This results in image quality well beyond what a Bayer sensor of equivalent horizontal-by-vertical pixel count can produce. The DP1 Merrill has a built-in 19mm ƒ/2.8 wide-angle lens (28mm equivalent on a full-frame camera); the DP2 Merrill has a built-in 30mm ƒ/2.8 “normal” lens (45mm equivalent on a full-frame camera). Otherwise, the two cameras are pretty much identical. They have 3.0-inch, 920K-dot LCD monitors, with optional eye-level optical finders available. ISO range is 100-6400. Each camera can do 640×480 video at 30 fps. Both cameras are 4.8 inches wide and 2.6 inches high; the DP1 Merrill is 2.5 inches deep and weighs 12.0 ounces; the DP2 Merrill is 2.3 inches deep and weighs 11.6 ounces. Each camera lists for $999.

Interchangeable-Lens Street Shooters
Mount Sensor Size Sensor Resolution Normal
ISO range
AF System Max. Drive Max. Video
Fujifilm FinePix X-Pro1 Fujifilm X APS-C 16.3 MP 200-6400 Contrast 6 fps 1080/24p
Fujifilm FinePix X-E1 Fujifilm X APS-C 16.3 MP 200-6400 Contrast 6 fps 1080/24p
Leica M Leica M Full-frame 24.0 MP 200-6400 MF only 3 fps 1080/24p
Leica M-E Leica M Full-frame 18.0 MP 160-2500 MF only 2 fps None
Sony NEX-7 Sony E APS-C 24.3 MP 100-16,000 Contrast* 3 fps 1080/60p
*The optional Sony LA-EA2 adapter lets you use Sony A-mount (and legacy Konica Minolta) A-mount lenses and incorporates a phase-detection AF system like the one in the SLT-A65 DSLR.
Fixed-Lens Street Shooters
Lens Sensor Size Sensor Resolution Normal
ISO range
AF System Max. Drive Max. Video
Fujifilm FinePix X100 23mm ƒ/2 APS-C 12.3 MP 200-6400 Contrast 5 fps 720/24p
Sigma DP1 Merrill 19mm ƒ/2.8 APS-C 14.8×3 MP* 100-6400 Contrast Not stated 480/30p
Sigma DP2 Merrill 30mm ƒ/2.8 APS-C 14.8×3 MP* 100-6400 Contrast Not stated 480/30p
Sony Cyber-shot RX1 35mm ƒ/2 Full-frame 24.3 MP 100-25,600 Contrast 5 fps 1080/60p
*The Foveon sensor stacks three pixel layers, each containing 14.8-million effective pixels, so the sensor contains 14.8×3 = 44.4 effective megapixels, but output images measure 4704×3136 pixels; see text for more details.

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