A Leica Shootout: Minilux vs. CM vs. Minilux Zoom

A Leica Shootout: Minilux vs. CM vs. Minilux Zoom

Introduction

Leica generally stands alone in the camera world. Others have tried to copy them at times, and some have arguably done better, but no name carries the same weight as Leitz Wetzlar. When Leica made a camera like the Minilux, people took notice.

Leica’s offerings in the world of premium compacts, however, are less talked about than their rangefinders. This segment is far more saturated, and cameras like the Contax T2 and Olympus Mju-II have become standouts in recent years. They have skyrocketed in value, bringing the rest of the market with them.

As prices rise, it becomes more important to invest wisely. If you’re going to spend hundreds of Euros on an electronic point & shoot, you want it to be the right one, right? So which high-end Leica compact should you pick?

For the purposes of this investigation, we’re testing the Leica Minilux, CM, and Minilux Zoom. All the shots were taken on the same day, with Kodak Gold 200. I’m joined by my coworker Alex, who shoots film a lot faster than me and helped me not take an entire work day to shoot 5 rolls of film.

We only took half a work day!

History

After over 70 years in the photographic industry, Leica’s engineers made the decision to flesh out their product line. They had collaborated with Minolta before, and created some iconic cameras like the Leica CL and R series SLRs. Next up? Point & shoots.

This led to Leica calling up Minolta to create the AF-C1 in 1989. This camera featured a dual focal length lens and was really more of a rebranded Minolta AF-Tele Super than an original Leica camera.

The other point & shoots that followed were similar, and none quite lived up to the red dot's standards of build or image quality. It took until 1995’s Minilux for that to change.

The Minilux reminded people why Leica had become the icon that they are. An all-metal body paired with a tack-sharp 40mm f2.4 Summarit, this camera was targeted squarely at the highest-end point & shoots of the day. 

The styling takes clear inspiration from the Contax T2 that was released 4 years prior. With design cues like the folding lens cover or the manual focus / aperture control dial on the top right, it’s clear who Leica had in their sights with this design. For once, Leica was chasing Zeiss.

Leica continued to make lower-end point & shoots alongside the Minilux, such as the Cx series and the Z2X, but the Minilux was the star of the show. The Minilux Zoom joined the team in 1998 to offer a bit more flexibility. It also may have been a response to cameras like the Contax TVS and Yashica T4 Zoom.

Then, in 2004, Leica released the CM. The rise of digital prevented the CM from seeing widespread success, but it features a redesigned body and improved handling over the Minilux. The lens is the same 40mm f2.4 Summarit, with six elements in four groups.


The Shootout

This un-scientific test involved me and my coworker walking around Tampere, Finland on a cold, cloudy day each armed with two Leica compacts. I had a Minilux and a CM and Alex had a Minilux DB Edition and a Minilux Zoom. 

All the shots were taken with Kodak Gold 200, developed in the same Fujifilm machine by our lab tech Sasa, and scanned on the same Noritsu scanner. No editing has been done to the photos.


The Cameras

Before I get started talking about the cameras, it’s worth mentioning that one of the Miniluxes gave me the tragically-classic E02 error message within 5 shots. Truly an ironic failure, but one worth mentioning.

The electronic nature of these cameras means that even with good care, there is no expected lifespan. It’s very difficult to tell when, or if, these cameras will stop working. The same is true for more or less every electronic camera, though, not just Leicas.

Luckily, the repair masters at Cameramakers are able to repair this issue with the Minilux, so it will find a new home soon. Even more luckily, I found this issue before a customer at Kamerastore did.

Now to the cameras. All of these cameras are beautiful pieces of technology with outstanding industrial design. Their titanium bodies and genuine leather accoutrements feel solid and elegant in the hand.

They all also feel very similar, with nearly identical dimensions. Let's break down the differences and look at some photos.


Leica Minilux

The original high-end Leica point & shoot set the design language for all the cameras in this review. Despite some slight changes, the other cameras feel more like variations on the Minilux than different cameras entirely.

As mentioned before, the Minilux takes a lot of inspiration from the Contax T2. The folding lens cover and position of dials makes that clear. The top mounted LCD is a bit small, though, and it’s strange to put the control buttons so far away from the LCD they control. 

Putting them on the top left of the camera means the photographer has to use their left hand to adjust the controls, which feels unnatural. I found myself using my thumbs to press the buttons.

And you will have to press the buttons, because the Minilux (and all the cameras here) have the dreaded problem of forgetting flash settings when powered off. Every time the camera is turned back on, the photographer must manually turn the flash off.

The Contax T2 solved this problem and clearly inspired the Minilux, so why isn’t it solved here?

Another issue Alex and I both had is with the closeness of the manual focus dial and the aperture selection ring. We both, at one point or another, tried to rotate the aperture dial and ended up setting the camera to infinity focus. We probably ruined quite a few shots this way.

It’s frustrating because you have to use this dial to turn the camera on. Perhaps putting a kind of lock (like the one found on top of the Minolta TC-1) could prevent missed focus.

The final thing worth nitpicking is the viewfinder. Yes, it’s small, but most point & shoot viewfinders are. The issue is with the lack of information presented to the photographer.

Compared to similarly-priced point & shoots, having only two LEDs for focus confirmation and flash readiness is a strange choice. 

The Contax T2 has metering information in the viewfinder. The Konica Hexar AF has a distance scale and parallax correction. The Minolta TC-1 has a distance scale and a shutter speed indicator, despite being significantly smaller than the Minilux.

The camera does show the chosen settings on the top LCD, but having to take my eye away from the viewfinder to see my chosen shutter speed is frustrating for a camera at this price point.

The grip, though, is surprisingly good. There isn’t really much to it except a slightly rounded section on the back right, but I was pleasantly surprised by my ability to hold the Minilux with one hand. Alex had a bit more frustration with it, but he has smaller hands than I do. Perhaps that’s why.


The Photos

 

The Minilux takes great photos. Although Alex had a few issues with the focus not picking a subject even if it was directly center frame, the Summarit 40mm f2.4 is wonderfully sharp without being clinical in most situations.

Color rendition when paired with Kodak Gold is pleasant, even on a cloudy day. Perhaps a bit of a green/yellow tint to some of them, although this could probably be our scanner as well.

 

The way the camera handles the sometimes-challenging shadows of a cloudy day is impressive as well. It consistently managed to properly expose the buildings and shadows without blowing out the cloudy sky.

The camera is a bit less sharp with the flash, possibly due to the shutter speed the flash syncs at. The flash also does only a fair job metering and changing its strength depending on the situation.

 

Leica Minilux Zoom

Alex used the Minilux Zoom, but after handling it myself it becomes clear what’s different about this versus the normal Minilux. This camera does not offer aperture priority, instead using that dial for the zoom function.

It's heavier, with a physically larger viewfinder and a lens that protrudes from the body. It also comes with one of those tiny lens caps that I know for a fact I would lose within a week or two unless I was really careful. Which I guess I would have to be to own a Leica Minilux.

Alex mentioned frustrations about the minimum focusing distance of the Minilux Zoom. It’s listed at 70cm, which is exactly the same as the normal Minilux. Maybe the focus was hunting a bit more, or is just slower in general. It does have to move around a more complex seven element, six group lens, after all.

One area where the Zoom does lag behind the normal Minilux is maximum shutter speed. The Zoom can only fire at 1/250th and below, whereas the non-zoom can fire up to 1/400th of a second. Not a huge difference, but a noteworthy one.

The Zoom’s viewfinder is more or less the same size as the normal Minilux, but it does, of course, zoom in and out with the lens.

The styling of the Minilux Zoom is also different, as it doesn’t have the leather sections found on the CM and Minilux. The entire body is titanium. I’m a fan of it, but that’s just personal preference.

The Minilux Zoom also added a hot shoe and was sold alongside the CF flash for more flexible flash use. The Minilux Zoom’s 35-70mm f3.5-6.5 Vario-Elmar is a bit slow compared to the original Minilux, so the flash will help it be prepared for any situation.

The Photos

 

The Minilux Zoom is the softest of the cameras we tested, but that’s to be expected. It’s almost unfair to compare this zoom model versus two prime lenses. Almost. That being said, the zoom is still an impressive lens. 

The f3.5 lens is capable of greater separation than would be expected, and the transition from in-focus to out-of-focus areas is quite smooth. Color rendition in general is wonderful, just as good as the normal Minilux. Maybe even better, under certain conditions. Colors really seem to pop with the zoom.

 

The flash seems to exacerbate the Minilux Zoom’s softness issues, as all the flash shots we took came out quite a bit softer than non-flash ones. Perhaps the camera chooses a slow shutter speed to sync at, or perhaps we were a bit too close for the camera to achieve critical focus in low light.

Overall, I was impressed with the Zoom’s capabilities. Having access to extra focal lengths while still being usable without flash adds quite a bit of versatility to a point & shoot.

 

Leica CM

The CM was Leica’s final attempt at a high end point & shoot using film. For me, it fixes most of the Minilux's issues. The lens is great, so keep that mostly the same. LCD a bit too small, with buttons too far away? Move them to the back of the camera, make them bigger, and put the buttons right next to it.

The buttons did confuse me at first when I looked at the camera because they’re unlabeled. This wasn't an issue after powering it on because the buttons correspond with icons that show up on the LCD. Maybe not the greatest design, but it's functional.

The control wheel next to the LCD is a great improvement, though. Instead of repeatedly pushing buttons to change settings, the photographer only needs to push one button and rotate the wheel. It’s much faster, and may draw inspiration from professional SLRs that used unlabeled dials. Contextual and customizable dials have become standard in digital cameras today, and Leica was right there in 2004 with the CM.

In my opinion, the CM is also much better looking than the Minilux. Extending the leather all around the camera makes it look more like the M-mount bodies it’s meant to complement.

The viewfinder is also improved compared to the Minilux. It’s larger and contains more information. This camera actually tells you what settings it’s using, even in program mode. When set to P, the CM will alternate between showing the selected aperture and shutter speed. In aperture priority mode, it’ll just show the selected shutter speed.

My only complaint, and it is a small one, is the power switch. I understand why Leica wanted to reassess the power button, as it was one thing Alex and I had issues with on the Minilux. Having to constantly play with the aperture dial to turn the camera on gave us issues with unintended apertures and focus mistakes.

But why they settled on the bottom, right, front of the camera I will never understand. This is not ergonomic in any way. If anything, this might lead to the photographer touching the lens or blocking it.

At multiple points, I found my fingers in a place where I felt like I was preventing the lens from opening or focusing. Every time, I worried I would break the lens mechanism.

The on/off switch also mechanically opens the lens door, which no longer bears the lens specification. Just a little cosmetic change, and one I’m a fan of. The CM’s plain cover is a bit more understated, as expected from Leica.

The Photos

The CM, simply put, takes exceptional photos. For a camera this size, it's extremely capable and well-featured.

For an f2.4 lens, the bokeh is beautiful and smooth. Color rendition is natural and flat for the most part, possibly a bit more contrasty than the original Minilux.

The yellow tone we had with the original Minilux is still slightly present, but feels better managed by the CM. I wouldn’t be surprised if they updated the coatings between 1995 and 2004.

 

I did notice a tiny, tiny bit of vignetting when photographing a flat gray sky, but it’s negligible under all but the most extreme conditions. The exposure system normally overexposes the sky enough to avoid this issue.

My issue is that I tend to leave too much sky in the frame with auto exposure cameras. This makes the camera try to expose the sky correctly and underexpose the subject.

Under the right circumstances, though, the CM will wow you with sharpness and contrast. The photo of the construction workers climbing through a window and the blue door show almost no distortion, great contrast, and wonderful sharpness across the frame.

 

I think the flash of the CM does a far better job than the Minilux of filling without overwhelming. Assumedly the internal computer system is quite a bit faster and smarter, so the CM won’t have nearly as much trouble figuring out how much flash to use. 

When I did use the flash, it’s almost hard to tell because of how subtle it is. The main tell, like with the Minilux, is that the photos seem a bit softer. Again, I’m not 100% sure what’s causing this, but I believe it's a slow sync speed.

 

Conclusions

The high-end Leica compacts are beautiful cameras that take beautiful photos. They come with the red dot of clout, and the build quality is excellent. Everything looks like a Leica, almost like a scaled-down M series full of computers and magic instead of springs and gears.

The photos are excellent across the board, with great sharpness and contrast and excellent metering systems. Leica knows lenses better than almost anyone, and they didn’t slouch in these high-end point & shoots.

The main issue I have with these cameras, and with many similar cameras, is the price. The Minilux sells for 800-1000€, the Minilux Zoom for 600-800€, and the CM for as much as 2000€.

That’s a lot of money for any camera, especially considering their slightly unreliable reputation. I’ll remind you that we started the day with two Miniluxes and ended the day with one. The one that died didn’t even make it through half of a roll.

This argument can be made for any high-end point & shoot. There are plenty of horror stories about Contax T2’s, Minolta TC-1’s, and even the much-cheaper Olympus Mju-II’s. Cheaper point & shoots have plenty of issues as well, although losing a 100€ Pentax UC-1 is less of a blow than losing a 1500€ Contax T2.

Holding the CM, despite its excellent build quality, was a bit harrowing. Holding an M body feels substantial and expensive as well, but comes with the peace of mind that a good technician can fix basically any issue that might arise.

The Minilux line does not come with that peace. Perhaps I’m just a bit paranoid after watching one die in my arms less than a kilometer from my office, though.

I would never hold the CM without a good strap, or maybe even a case. I didn’t even feel comfortable with it in my jacket pocket without holding it in my hand at the same time.

I don’t think I can recommend any of these cameras at their current price. For just a bit more than a Minilux, you could get a Leica CL with the 40mm lens and have a very similar kit. You can get a Leica M6, or even an M3 with a lens if you get a good deal, for around the same price as a CM.

No matter how excellent the Leica Minilux series is, it’s impossible to ignore the context of the film camera market. We’re currently in the middle of a high-end compact bubble, and these cameras are selling for incredibly high prices considering the features they offer.

Additionally, these cameras are liable to stop working any time they're powered on and off, so it's safe to say there are better options. You can easily get 90% of the Leica Minilux without spending as much as a used car. The only caveat is that you'll be missing out on that red dot and everything that comes with it.

Some Alternatives

250€ might still seem expensive for a point & shoot, but you can buy 3 of any of these for the same price as a Minilux and still afford dinner.

Agfa Optima 1035 Sensor - No aperture control, but with 40mm f2.8 lens in compact body. Zone focus, manual ISO. Has its own big red dot for a shutter button. Approx. 100€

Olympus AF-1 - Similar to original Mju, 35mm f2.8 lens in full-program, plastic body with clamshell. Approx. 100€

Yashica T3 - Carl Zeiss 35mm f3.5, plastic compact body with clamshell design. Approx 200-300€

 

Nikon L35AF - 35mm f2.8 Nikkor lens, full program compact. Manual ISO. Has a red line, almost as good as a red dot. Approx 150-200€.

Minolta AF-C - VERY compact, with 35mm f2.8 Rokkor. Detachable flash, manual ISO. Approx. 150€

Konica C35 EF - Manual focus, manual ISO. Plastic body, with 38mm f2.8 Hexanon lens. Approx. 100€

Canon AF35 ML - full program, plastic body, with ultra-fast 40mm f1.9 lens. Approx. 250€

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This article was originally published on 5.11.2020.

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