Many photographers—even seasoned pros who once revered their large pro DSLRs with all the bells and whistles and huge, fast zooms—are starting to take notice of the trend toward smaller, simpler, interchangeable-lens systems sparked by mirrorless cameras, and are downsizing their systems for much of their work. Not all subjects can be covered effectively with a smaller system, but many, if not most subjects, can.
For many years, compact cameras were sleek and small, made to be pocketable, but with small sensors and slow, built-in zoom lenses that weren’t very good for much more than snapshots. The growing trend at the moment is to fit a larger sensor into a camera that’s relatively diminutive, while still allowing room for buttons for dedicated functions, as well as keeping it large enough to be handled comfortably.
The most interesting part of this trend, however, is the retro-styling aspect. Camera designers have one eye to the past while designing these cameras for the future, and it has really caught on. Some dismiss this as "hipster" form-over-function aesthetic snobbery, but the truth is, these iconic designs are coming back because they actually function very well. They’re compact, yet comfortable.
Let’s take a look at some of the options available, and the strengths and weaknesses of each.
The real rangefinder digital camera is about as close to the experience of shooting a film camera as you can get. This realm is dominated by one company: Leica. Introduced in 2007, the 10-megapixel APS-H-sensor Leica M8 had quite a few bugs, but was still a success. Leica built upon that success with a much improved 18-megapixel, full-frame CCD-sensor M9, which is carried on (slightly modified) into the current line as the M-E, and they have since released their flagship model, the 24-megapixel, CMOS-sensor, full-frame Leica M (Typ 240), as well as the unprecedented black-and-white-only camera based on the M9, the Leica M Monochrom.
The Leica M-series digital rangefinder cameras are for all practical purposes fully manual. There’s no autofocus, and the aperture is set manually on the lens. The cameras do have an aperture-priority auto setting, which uses a center-weighted meter to select the shutter speed, but that’s about the most automation you’ll find for exposure settings.
The main drawback to the digital M series is the price. The M (Typ 240) camera is about $7,000 (add $1,000 for the M Monochrom), and the cheapest current camera, the M-E, comes in at $5,400. Leica lenses are expensive, as well, ranging from $1,650 to $10,000 new. Fortunately, you can find a few somewhat less expensive older lenses in the used market, and some good third-party Voigtländer and Zeiss lenses, too.
The main advantage of going with a Leica system is that it’s an investment. The lenses are expensive, but they hold their value. Being digital, the cameras themselves hold their value for less time, but longer than a typical digital camera does.