It sure is one nice looking piece of photo equipment. But not every photo enthusiast or pro will ever want a Leica M. For many it will only ever be a luxury item or simply a rich man`s toy. But for those of us who have learned to love the quality feel of Leica cameras, who treasure the simplicity of use and adore that allegedly superior Leica glass, that new M might well be a great temptation.
And I must confess, having owned the previous model M9, I just could not resist testing the new beast. Unfortunately the new M arrived only a few days after my Easter trip to Vienna. Great timing! 🙁 D`oh! This would have been a great opportunity to give the new CMOS sensor a go. Then, when in Vienna, I was just about to cancel my order because it just so happened that my Fuji X-E1 did a great job – even in sleet and snow – and I was quite happy having autofocus at my disposal. In the end my affection for the Leica brand got the better of me and I have been fondling the new M ever since.
But the question still remains: Is it worth shelling out the cash? In Germany you currently have to pay € 6.200,- and in the U.S. around $ 6.950,- for the pleasure of owning an M Typ 240 – and that is without any lens (just adding one Summilux would set you back another few grand). I will try to find an answer to the question while avoiding going into technical details (there are plenty of good sites including Leica`s own Homepage for that). Instead I would like to give you a quick glimpse of relevant features and what I personally think is good and not so good about the new M.
For all of you who have already ordered (hopefully sooner rather than later…) it might just be a confirmation of some of your own thoughts. For all of you who have not ordered yet…well, there might be enough time to indulge in further very intensive reading. I think you will probably not see your copy until the year 2014. The waiting list is T H A T large. According to a nice guy at the formidable Leica Store Vienna, there is a backorder of over 140 M Typ 240 in that store alone. How many dedicated stores are there worldwide? Well, you can easily assess there have to be a lot of people waiting for their precious. In fact someone at Leica in Solms told me last week, they have a waiting list of over 2.000. Products in part assembled by hand do tend to take a while in production, so you will either have to be very patient or try to find one on the secondary market.
So here you have it – the good and the not so good (IMO):
Fantastic build quality and haptics
The new M just feels perfect in your hands. It has the right weight and looks solid as a rock. Compared to some of the plastic Japanese contenders it is in a world of its own. So the quality feel is just right. It remains to be seen if the product quality on the whole can confirm the first impressions after a while of heavy usage.
Still the best way to make use of Leica glass
I tried using my Leica lenses on other cameras with high quality adapters but found no joy in doing so. Especially with wide angles there is no real alternative to an M body to date. Color casting and light fall-off can be moderately corrected in software most of the time but why should you bother. The NEX 5n actually gave some very good results but nowhere as good as with my old Leica M9. And instead of a nice wide angle you have to make do with a crop factor. Right now, there is no other full-frame alternative for mounting M-glass so there is no real reason to forego the native lens solutions of e.g. Sony or Fujifilm. In fact I found that Fuji lenses can almost compete at eye level. You would have to look twice to notice the difference between an M9 with 50mm Summilux ASPH and the Fuji X-E1 with the current 35mm Fujinon lens. But if you want to use Leica glass there is no alternative to a Leica body right now.
Great new full-frame sensor
The new 24 megapixel CMOS sensor not only gives you more pixels to crop away. It also does away with one of the greatest shortcomings of the good old M9 or ME. The low light capabilities now are almost on par with other professional full frame cameras. Certainly useable way up to ISO 3200. Above that I usually take advantage of some other form of lighting anyway.
Some say the new CMOS sensor lacks the crisp output of the old CCD sensor used in the M9/ME. Well, I simply cannot see that. There may be some sort of difference that pixel peepers can define, but personally I have not been able to notice anything of the kind when comparing to my old M9 files.
The dynamic range has also greatly improved compared to the old M9. Apart from that, the new sensor is also supposed to give much better results when using older ultra wide legacy lenses. I cannot confirm this myself, since I do not own such a lens at the moment.
What I do not like is the pronounced vignetting wide open that occurs with all of my existing lenses. The fall-off seems to be worse than with the M9. Auto White Balance can also be tricky at times. I will have to do some more shooting to verify that. Maybe a firmware update will need to attend to these problems at some later time.
Better shutter release button
This has been greatly improved. Works like a charm. The two step release button renders an optional external shutter release button obsolete.
High capacity battery
The new battery may be a bit on the heavy and large side but it lets you shoot longer than the old battery in the M9 due to its greater capacity. It even charges fully in about 2 hours which is absolutely fantastic. I was able to run my M for approx. 500 shots using live view or the EVF quite extensively and more than 1.500 shots should easily be possible using the OVF exclusively. Nevertheless I never would depend on a single battery and have ordered a second.
Advanced mode metering
Gone are the days the M could only do center weighted metering. In the advanced mode you can also choose between matrix and spot metering, which is great when using Live View. I am sticking with the classic version for now but it is nice to have alternatives for precise metering.
High resolution 3“ LCD
The new screen features VGA resolution and is a joy to use and finally big enough too. The screen on the M9 was awful – this one is absolutely suffcient giving realistic colors and providing enough clarity even in fairly bright daylight use (a light sensor on the back of the body measures the amount of reflected light and dims if necessary).
Live view with focus peaking
So now we have live view and focus peaking. It really works but it could be a bit more pronounced for my liking. I can hardly make out the very thin red lines and it would have been nice to be able to change the color of the peaking. No electronic split screen focussing as seen on Fuji X100s, but instead of that we can always use the OVF.
Speaking of the Optical Viewfinder. Well, I currently do not have an M9 at my disposal for direct comparisons, but I honestly believe they have done something to improve even this. I was simply amazed at the brightness and clarity coupled with the absolute precision of the rangefinder mechanism. I think there is nothing that can beat this viewfinder. You have to see it to believe it.
For all tose that have waited to reanimate their old R-lenses there is finally a good solution. At Leica Service I was recently shown a prototype adapter and strapped on a battered Leica Elmarit-R 135/2.8. It works just as well as with any M glass. It is not for me though, since I do not have old R-lenses and would not ever buy them used either. They may be good lenses but M-lenses tend to have better optics. Then again, there is no real zoom M-lens. The Leica Vario-Emarit-R 28-90 might make a good companion for some M users.
No built-in EVF
Now that is a little disappointing. It seems the native Leica EVF 2 is a rebranded Olympus VF-2 made by Epson with some slight cosmetic alterations. In fact I bought the Olympus version myself and saved more than 50% on the price tag. I certainly would not pay a premium of Euro/Dollar 200,- to see the shiny white Leica logo – but some people may find it is worth the extra cash.
Although the EVF does a good enough job (with a 1.4 MP resolution) it is not quite up there with some of the newest Japanese viewfinder solutions. Sony is even rumored to have a 3.8 million dot resolution EVF in the makes for the next NEX flagship, also giving far quicker refresh rates. So there may be updates to this hardware coming from Leica before there is an update for a new M 240. I can only hope that by then they will manage to incorporate a built-in hybrid viewfinder. Fuji can do it, so why not Leica?
The only benefit I can see using the external viewfinder is that you can tilt it upwards by 90 degrees (although I have not really found this useful myself). I would suggest using the LV on screen instead and switching to the excellent OVF when necessary.
Badly placed microphone and dirt-prone accessory port
If the EVF was top notch I would not have any complaints here. But as it stands, the accessory port only accounts for an ugly crevice in the camera body. This can be covered up by the plastic cap but that does not make the finished product any nicer. I wonder if the port is weather sealed in any way, there certainly is no way to save it from dirt (unless you keep the ugly plastic cap on). Same goes for the badly positioned microphone openings on the top left of the body. For those of us who like to plug the cam into our PC instead of unscrewing the base plate to transfer the files…well that port has been omitted. You might want to consider the optional grip which includes the USB.
Necessary rangefinder calibration
My new M 240 did a great job shooting in Live View but at first try I just could not get any crisp looking files using the optical viewfinder. That is not an uncommon problem when using rangefinders. IMHO you have to be very lucky to receive a new camera which is perfectly tuned. Your existing set of lenses might possibly need adjusting too. The problem with the rangefinder is, it has to be calibrated just right. Some experienced Leica users venture to adjust this themselves with an Allan key and self-made tools at home. But I would not recommend that. It might void your guarantee with Leica and it could completely ruin the rig. Once the M is calibrated, it usually does not end there (unless you are happy using the EVF or can live with a little focus drift in the long run). It is wise to check your system once in a while because the rangefinder mechanism is quite sensitive to changes in temperature and might not take it too kindly when accidentally knocked on something. Other cameras can be more forgiving in this point. The Fuji way of implementing hybrid viewfinders may prove to be the better way to go in future – but then again, nothing compares to the clarity of what you get when looking through the Leica viewfinder and the possibility to look beyond the given frame. I had to take my own brand new M 240 to Solms for calibration along with my existing lenses. They did a great job there and now I can finally use it the way it is supposed to be. I hope I do not have to send my camera in to service all that often though.
There is no sensor cleaning on board. We will have to wait and see, how this will work out after a couple of months of normal use. I can only say, I was fairly shocked to see my sensor with lots of dust specks fresh from the factory. And cleaning at Leica Service did not really help. I had the same problem with my M9 right from the beginning. And no sensor cleaning ever got a real grip on that. Maybe this is one of those things Leica fans will have to live with. At least Lightroom comes free of charge with the camera – so you can always stamp away…
But at Leica I was shown how cleaning the sensor is done most effectively and I will soon do an article on that. So stay tuned.
Limited video capabilities
Rolling shutter effects, frame rates only up to 25p in HD and the lacking HDMI connector on the camera are just some of the shortcomings that limit the usefulness of the video capabilities. I do not care much for video, so for me it is nice to have but no necessity. For video I can make do with my Sony NEX or an old iPhone. Some pros may be disappointed but most Leica fans tend to use an M for photos and probably ignore the video function anyway. Maybe Leica will give us a firmware update that makes it possible to re-assign the video button for some other useful application. If you use video a lot yourself, you will be pleased there is a dedicated movie-button. You do not have to hit Live View first, simply press “M” and off you go. Some may prefer a locked movie button because they are afraid to take movies of their camera bags but I think that is a bit overanxious. I have not managed to hit the button accidentally yet.
No autofocus – naturally…
AF happens to be the one thing I am missing on my M 240. If my eyesight gets any worse, I will be forced to switch brands no matter what. On the other hand the manual focussing does appeal to a great number of retro-minded photographers. So it may in fact be beneficial to Leica marketing giving it a unique selling proposition no one else in this category of cameras would dare to copy. But in time I believe Leica will have to adept and offer both AF and MF in all of their cameras. Personally, after shooting the M for some time now, I have become so enchanted with the bright OVF that I think I may not miss AF after all. In fact, it seems I can focus more precisely and sometimes even faster than with other AF cameras. I believe it is better to correctly focus manually than to leave the task to some falsely adjusted electronic parts. I was never very happy with my D800 for instance. It left me flabberghasted, waisting files shot wide open almost all of the time. I finally had to return it because Nikon Service could not adjust it properly.
Did you know that Leica actually invented autofocus back in the seventies and then sold their patents because they did not believe in the benefits of their own invention? It was Minolta who then bought the patents. The biggest threat to the Leica M might well be a full-frame autofocus NEX model rumored to hit the market maybe as early as 2014. Ironically Sony is the company that snatched up Konica-Minolta. So the decision to sell the AF-patents might prove to be more of the same old nuisance for Leica.
Order wait times
I do not want to wait a lifetime for an ordered product. It took my M almost 7 months to arrive (and I ordered on the day of announcement). In fact that happens to be a fairly quick delivery considering you will probably have to wait for at least another year until it becomes more widely available. That is way off target and may put off a lot of Leica fans and wannabes.
Not an ” M10″
This new naming policy may prove to be a mistake. It probably will not help extend the value of the camera in its lifecycle but rather confuse prospective buyers of second-hand equipment. People will still count by numbers and the next model undoubtedly will be known as the M11 – rather than the “Typ 240 Mark 2” or “M Mark 2”. So the benefit of the new naming policy does not really make any sense to me. But for Leica it may now be possible to implement minor changes in hardware without having to market a complete new model M. Those that want to buy a new M will be delighted if new features are incorporated and users of previous versions will not be put off (they still have an original M and only the well informed buyers of the secondary market will know the differences). So it might make sense after all – at least for the Leica AG.
I had far too little time to play with the new M so far because it had to be calibrated back in the factory. But from the limited use I could put it to so far, I believe the new M is a delightful evolution. Lacking a hybrid viewfinder it is not really the mighty milestone it set out to be – but that was to be expected. Nonetheless it is an absolute pleasure to use and makes sense for everyone who wants to use the great Leica lenses. It may be purely a luxury item for some and a professional tool for others. But most of us will buy this camera for the pleasure in handling and the almost three-dimensional rendering that can be achieved using top-notch Leica glass at full aperture.
There may also be cameras that have higher resolution (e.g. Nikon D800E) or can even top the output with an equivalent sensor (Sony RX-1) and surely there will in time be yet other full frame cameras that will have more features and even greater sensor resolution – but none will be quite like an M.
The M is unique and probably will be for a long time. It may be expensive but the resale value is good and if you invest in the great Leica lenses, they keep their value well or even tend to go up in price. So it is up to you to decide whether it is worth investing in a Leica system or not. But be prepared to spend a lot of money should the Leica virus hit you.