Equipment

Understanding the ‘Leica Look’

Published August 25, 2022

I’m always inherently a bit of a skeptic when someone’s explanation for something involves a ‘magic’ or a ‘minutia’ that can’t quite be explained. When someone offers an explanation to reasonings for what gear they use, I want them to take a pragmatic approach – This lens is much more robust than the alternative; this sensor offers two extra stops of dynamic range, etc, etc. 

As such, I’ve always been a little skeptical of Leica. Sure, their lenses are fantastically sharp, and their cameras are cool to use and have a great film aesthetic. But the price hasn’t ever justified the specs for me, and the common reasoning I’ve heard time and time again is “Leica photos just have a special look to them.” This is the reason that they can sell exclusively black & white cameras, why they can charge $10,000 for cameras that don’t offer anything particularly special on the spec sheet, and why they can remove digital screens from their cameras altogether.

So a few months back, I had some downtime in my work, and I decided to give Leica a try – and compared the Leica M10 with the Leica M10 Monochrom. However, with my self-admitted cynicism, I left it up to the readers of the article to determine whether or not they could identify which photo was shot with the Leica M10, and which was shot with the Leica M10 Monochrom. The results were precisely what my cynical brain expected; most could not.

But also while borrowing a couple of Leica kits for the weekend, I wanted to do a similar test with the “Leica look”. The Leica look is something talked about for decades at this point, from forum posts, to educational articles, to even film presets sold under the moniker. Since Leica makes their sensors (unlike Nikon and Fuji at this point) and has been making cameras, lenses, and scientific equipment for over a century now, it’s easy to take the Leica look in good faith – but in the era of digital photography and RAW capabilities, does the Leica look actually exist?

To test this, I decided to put the Leica M10 and Leica 50mm f/1.4 Summilux up against my old Canon 5d Mark IV and Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L. In the interest of fairness, I shot all these photos in JPEG (to capture the sensor’s true color profiles) and with equal camera settings and white balances. Additionally, I made the images available to you to vote on, to see where you stand on the ‘Leica look’.

For comparison, a Leica M10 and Leica 50mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH system would cost you roughly $13.5K new, whereas the Canon 5D Mark IV and Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L can be had new in the neighborhood of $4,000. And while I didn’t put these cameras through the wringer, I did decide to take photos of various things throughout my day, to see if the basic color profile of the Leica offered something special over the Canon system.

So as a result, these images aren’t a test of camera features, or even bokeh, but rather, if the Leica look exists within the color rendering of its images. To my surprise, I did find some pretty significant differences in the two camera’s color renders when shooting in jpeg – especially in the greens and yellows. However, I didn’t see how one was better than the other – just different. But that may be my cynicism poking through.

The Images

Below are the images taken with both the Canon 5d Mark IV, and the Leica M10. Clicking on these images will give you an enlarged version of them, making the comparison easier. Both sets of images were shot with manual focus (and one of the comparison images is slightly out of focus (blame me and my coffee-riddled body, not the cameras)), and designed to test the color rendering of the systems. Can you tell the difference? Take a good look at the images below, and prepare yourself for the test to follow.

The Quiz

My Thoughts

As mentioned above, I was surprised to see such a color rendering difference between the Leica M10 and the Canon 5d Mark IV – particularly in the greens and yellows. By default, I did prefer Leica’s rendering with the majority of the images. However, with RAW processing, the differences in each of the images are very minimal – simply because I don’t generally shoot in JPEG. With the incredible flexibility of editing that comes with RAW processing, each camera feels very similar in its sensor capabilities. Neither camera is clipping colors, so the flexibility is endless when editing one to look like the other. And so, am I impressed with the Leica look? No more impressed than I am with the Canon look or Sony look. Both cameras’ RAW iterations of the same photos offer a more muted color profile and contrast, and when processed with Capture One or Lightroom, can look nearly identical with a few small adjustments. Both cameras sit at different starting points, but the finish line is the same.

But what do you think? Feel free to chime in with your deductions and quiz scores in the comments below. And I’ll be sure to chime in in the next day or two with the results as a whole.


Author: Zach Sutton

I’m Zach and I’m the editor and a frequent writer here at Lensrentals.com. I’m also a commercial beauty photographer in Los Angeles, CA, and offer educational workshops on photography and lighting all over North America.
Posted in Equipment
  • T N Args

    The Standard Distribution Award.

  • Supreme Dalek

    This is an old article by now, but I’m coming back to it because everything on the Internet lives forever (until Zuck or Jeff or Elon decides to stick it behind a paywall) SO… you state that Leica “makes their own sensors” while others, e.g. Fujifilm and Nikon, do not.

    Really? There’s a cozy little corner in the Leica factory in Solms where twinkly-eyed old craftsmen named Jürgen and Kurt painstakingly position sensor wells on chips with tiny tweezers, before golden Rhinemaidens polish them with their hair?

    Or does Leica simply DESIGN their own sensors and farm out the job of constructing them to a “fab” that has the multimillion-dollar machinery needed to make them, just as Fujifilm and Nikon and just about everybody else (except possibly Canon) does?

    It’s not that I disbelieve you, it’s just that I want to see an authoritative citation… because there’s a fog bank of endowment effect surrounding each and every data point of Leica lore…

  • James Sarrett

    It’s important to think about these results statistically and correctly. Notably getting all them right is almost the same as getting all them wrong (you just mixed up which label, but you can still tellthe difference). If you truly can’t tell the difference, you should get near 50% (random chance).

  • Matt E-D

    I’ve turned into a self-declared Leica junkie and fanboy over the last few years and agree there is nothing special about their colour science or sensors that I would call “magic”, although they do have fairly pleasing and accurate colours for the most part, and I like the default profiles in Lightroom as starting points, although I’m honestly not sure if this is more to do with Leica or Adobe engineers.

    What keeps me hooked is the shooting experience of the bodies (Q2, SL2-S, and various Ms in my case) and the quality/look of the lenses (although that part is not just limited to Leica glass, as Zeiss/Voigtlander make some of my most used lenses). The M lens mount has everything to offer from classic/vintage glass to ultra-modern clinical APO lenses, and there is no denying that they perform best on Leica bodies, unless you swap out your sensor cover glass. The rangefinder shooting experience is unique, and I’m convinced it helps me use different parts of my brain somehow, although I have no way to prove this. What I am sure of is that quite often when I shoot my Ms alongside my Q2, SL2-S, or Fuji APS-C bodies, the M shots are often my favourites.

  • Ernest Green

    I got 71%. Mostly the Leica was easy to tell by simply identifying the flatter less punchier picture (which I tended to prefer since our cell phones over-saturate and over-punchier everything) but as Roger pointed out, RAWs, you can pretty much do anything. I’ve done similar tests myself testing XT3 vs Canon EOS RP, both 26MP using RAWs and equivalent focal lengths and apertures on sunset photos. Out of the gate, Canon tends to be punchier and stronger colors while Fujifilm is subdued. I also found that Canon gets me to where I want to be faster (when my aim is for colorful/punchy sunset photos) whereas Fujifilm took a lot of massaging. Both both ultimately could be taken to the same exact place when shooting RAW and editing. For my style shooting (colorful–see my avatar) I find Canons are superior for things/objects/landscapes while Fujifilm is superior for people and just the experience generally. I shoot both systems.

  • Abraham Latchin

    I only got two wrong, and that’s without any enlargement… 71% is a fail though :/

  • Glenn R

    Doesn’t the “Leica look” go back to the days of film? I always thought it was supposed to be about the “rendering” of the lenses, not digital sensors and color science. I’m glad to see someone finally doing a side-by-side comparison, but the differences in color, exposure, and framing made it hard for me to see other differences. It would be interesting to see shots converted to B&W and adjusted so exposure and framing are exactly the same, to be able to see if the “rendering” from the lenses are different. Even then, though, there could be differences in resolution of the sensor and default sharpening. Maybe a better way to see differences in rendering would be comparing shots taken with the same film stock and comparing Leica lenses to other lenses, such as Canon EF, Nikon, Zeiss, etc., shot on film.

  • Will T.

    Amazing the photos changed after I took the test!

    All the Canon were correctly exposed and all the Leica are over exposed!

  • Andreas Werle

    Shooting Canon and Leica, I scored 71% easily.

  • Friedhelm

    I miss Nikon here..

  • Athanasius Kirchner

    There’s a trick to acing this quiz, just like I did.

    Canon cameras expose to the right by default. This means their output looks brighter than that of other brands, all other things equal. Also, Leica use a much warmer default WB, which can be used to easily identify the last test images.

  • Kurt Mann

    It’s not like Canon has bad color science. I would love to afford a Leica, great small lenses, a unique shooting experience that’s very refined in its simplicity; but alas! I keep slumming it with my Nikon Z6.

    I would love to buy the Z 50 f/1.2, an amazing lens, but that fat cat weighs more then the M11 with one of their world class glass.

    And yes, it bothers me that the Leica brand appeal to me so much. I would probably use the Nikon more if I’m honest with myself.

  • Joe Toole

    …or a bartender like myself, as I’m dashing away on my bicycle!

  • Joe Toole

    Leica ‘look?’ cough… bullshi…cough… and I shoot with a Leica! It’s partially true that I bought my Q2 because I wasn’t happy with the way my Fuji did colours -noticeable magenta cast in some shots with light gray, particularly concrete- but the main reason was because of the lens, the fabulous view finder, and the shooting experience -particularly if you’re a person who shoots manually most of the time like myself. These days, one can create presets to change a camera’s colours, contrast, shadows, brightness, etc., to suit their tastes, if they shoot raw, which I do, but a ‘Leica look?’ If there is such a thing, I’m more inclined to believe it’s because of the glass in front of the sensor.

  • Merle

    It appears to my eye that the images in the quiz are sometimes the reverse of the image order in those above the quiz. I find that somewhat confusing, since you look at the larger images in the first set of images and make your comparison there.

  • Roger Knight

    I scored 100% mainly by choosing images which I considered looked slightly underexposed. So, if that is the Leica look, then sometimes I prefer it and other times not.

  • Mike Peters

    I got one wrong, or an 86%. What I see is that the Leica images have more headroom with highlights, and the shadows are more open. I see the same difference in my Lumix m4/3 system, with the Leica lenses having better color and tonal separation than the newer Olympus lens designs, and some of of the less expensive Lumix lenses. The difference is there to see, even with, and I would say especially with, raw files as you’ll just have more to work with when it comes to shadow contrast and highlight detail.

  • Christoph Münch

    So the whole Leica thing boils down to: For a really good JPEG engine (i.e. some lines of code in the firmware) you have to pay thousands of dollars and dispense with many features available on other current cameras.
    Sounds like a good deal, says the doctor or lawyer and dashes away in his Tesla.

  • rwodaski

    I went about something like this but the other way around: same camera, different brands of lenses. It was weird – the Canon EF 85mm was always easy to spot and always my favorite; the Sony alternative seemed cold by comparison. I think there are indeed differences, but most of them do seem to disappear if you work in RAW. The only time they don’t? When the RAW result of one piece of equipment is consistently more pleasing prior to modifications. I shoot landscape; some lenses make my fight back from overly yellow greens while others manage a warm look that I may not even be able to suss out the reason for. This is what one does in photography; the most you do it, the more you have language and tools and eyes for it. FWIW, I took your quiz and got half right, half wrong — I assigned my favorites in each case to the Canon. That pretty much sums up the ‘difference’ in this case.

  • Yugo Nakai

    Seems like the Leica JPEGs have a bit more saturation and (for a film-like look) crushed blacks? I got 71%, all but the last 2.

  • sarathmenon

    Wow, either I am very good at this, or I just liked the warmth of the Lieca images. I’ve never scored 100% on a quiz. What did I win? 🙂

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