Feb 072014
 

Leica M cameras are reknowned for their great full-frame performance coupled with the pure luxury feeling using precision tools for advanced manual photography. Prior to the new Sony Alpha A7/A7r the Leica M happened to be the smallest full-frame system camera in the market. Featuring comparatively small sized manual lenses does indeed make a luxury package Leica kit possible that fits into a medium size bag, but small does not necessarily mean compact.

There is one lens however, that can make this dream come true – a vintage collapsible Leica (or rather Leitz) lens that still is readily available on the secondary market. It can can be found for as little as 100-300 $/€ depending on the condition it is in. Very often you can still find almost mint copies that have not been used for ages.

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The Leica Elmar f/3.5 50mm (officially it says f = 5cm on the lens but I will refer to it as the more commonly used 50mm) has quite a simple mechanical and optical design, but one that changed the face of 35mm photography when it was introduced in 1930 (screw mount version). Some years earlier its predecessor had already proven outstanding results on the first ever 35mm fixed lens camera (the famous Ur-Leica or Leica I as it was called later). When this non-removable lens was made available for an interchangeable Leica lens system, 35mm photography as we know it today was born. This makes this a very special lens indeed. And it can still be very special in our times – used wisely on a digital Leica M.

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All you need is a comparatively cheap adapter that turns the screw mount into an M-mount and you are ready to go. I use a Pixco M39 adapter (you can find more about that accessory here). From 1954 on this lens was also produced with an M mount (which eliminates the need for an adapter).

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Disclaimer/warning: Be careful when you put the adapted lens on your prestine Leica M camera. Leica themselves state, the collapsible lens design is incompatible with the current camera models and I have heard some people complain they did damage to their equipment using the Elmar. I did not encounter any problems myself – but I will not take responsibility for any damages. You will have to try adapting this lens to your equipment at your own risk. If you want to make sure there will be no problems with the camera in question, only mount the lens when it is fully extended (i.e. not in its collapsed state). Once mounted there should be enough room for the lens to extend within the camera body – but again, all of this is at your own risk. For my part, I did not have any problems with the adapter used, but of course there may be camera/lens/adapter combinations that do not work as flawlessly. So be careful if you want to try this with your very own digital M. 

Having tried this myself, I can say that in my view the Leica Elmar f/3.5 50mm works well with any Leica M camera ever made including the digital Leica M9, Leica M9P, Leica ME, Leica M Typ 240. The results are quite outstanding, especially considering the age, the simple lens setup and of course the incredibly compact size when collapsed. I got my copy via eBay, it was made in the 1940`s and is in a very nice condition.

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It is not the fastest of all standard lenses (only f3.5) but you get a whole lot of a lens apart from that. The Leica Elmar f/3.5 50mm is quite sharp,  colours are awesome and there is practically no distortion or colour fringing worth mentioning either. The bokeh is quite nice too. Handling is fine by my standards. A small focus knob can easily be turned to enable precise focussing. Best of all, with this lens there is no finder blockage. The only caveats: the aperture is set on a ring on the inside of the front of the lens. This is quite awkward but you can get used to it. Using the new M you will have to rely on the rangefinder. The lens does not allow for live view focussing. Shooting in bright light without a sunshade can cause a little lack of contrast (as can be seen in one of the examples below). But this can easily be compensated for (and if you prefer black and white this is quite negligable).

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This lens is so tiny, there is no need to pick up your other compact camera any more. With the lens attached and collapsed, you can easily slip your Leica M in your coat pocket. Why not try one? This combination is almost as compact as my Fujifilm X-E1 with the Fujinon XF 27mm f/2.8 pancake lens mounted but with the added benefit of full-frame. You can`t do that with a Sony full-frame either…not yet anyway 🙂 .

Need some examples? Here are some basic raw shots (no photo editing tools applied except for conversion from dng to jpg) with the M 240 and the Leica Elmar f/3.5 50mm. You can find some more pics shot (not by me) with this lens over at pixel-peeper. Just follow this link.

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Aug 092013
 

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The previous marketing campaign for the “Mini M” was seen as misleading by many Leicaphiles who were hoping for a new kind of Interchangeable Lens Camera (ILC) with some brand new features from Leica. All they got was the Leica X Vario Typ 107. The final unveiling of this camera was a great disappointment (at least to me) and certainly was not what most people were expecting. See my earlier report via this link.

Now there is a bit of hope for all who have patiently waited for a Leica mirrorless camera with better features giving an alternative to the bigger, manual focus Leica M.

Several sites have reported a recent filing of a Leica C (Typ 112) with the Taiwan National Communications Commission (NCC) – see this link at digicame-info if your Japanese is any good at all 😉 .

There are not many infos you can derive from that except that the new camera will have built-in Wi-Fi capabilities. That fact and the tentative preliminary naming “Leica C” does suggest that there will be some kind of camera featuring an M-mount and possibly some other cool features. Maybe this will indeed turn out to be what many Leica followers were expecting the clumsily advertised “Mini M” to be in the first place.

The new camera will probably be announced this fall or next spring. In a recent interview published on Focus Numerique the CEO of Leica Camera AG, Dr. Andreas Kaufmann, almost said as much when he hinted at some new interesting products that would be introduced in this specific time span. Since he also stated that Leica is working on other solutions for the full format, this could even point to a full-frame solution for the Leica C Typ 112. Then again it might turn out to be just another point and shoot Panasonic clone.

 

My personal wish list for a new Leica C:

  • built-in Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) or possibly even hybrid OVF/EVF (but that is too much to hope for…)
  • 24 MP APS-C CMOS sensor without anti-aliasing filter (better still full frame…but let`s not get overexcited 😉 )
  • Auto-Focus
  • M-mount
  • 2 or 3 new zoom and prime AF-lenses to kick off the new line
  • compact camera body dimensions (comparable to Fuji X-E1)
  • body price below €4.500 / $6.000

 

That is about it. If this camera came true, it might entice a lot of photo enthusiasts to buy into this system. Alas, I am not convinced. I am pretty sure, Leica will not endanger their Leica M Typ 240 by introducing a strong competitor with features bettering the professional system. Building up another line of lenses is equally unrealistic. But maybe they should, to keep up with the game.

We shall see what Leica will do in the next few weeks to promote the new camera. I am sure they have learned the painful lesson not to proclaim greatness and then just deliver another perceived mediocre product that tees off a great score of their loyal customers.

 

Apr 302013
 

The plastic screen of the old M9 was quite prone to scratches, so it was wise to cover it with an additional screen cover. Lucky owners of the new M can now put all their trust in the special tough Corning®Gorilla®Glass that comes with the camera (which in most cases will probably suffice to save it from damage) or may choose to show their screen that extra bit of care by applying additional covers.

ACMAXX for Leica M

ACMAXX for Leica M

 

Let us take a look at the choices usually available:

Protective Foils

Widely available are special foils with silicone adhesive layers that can easily be applied but usually do not last very long and have to be replaced frequently. A single foil can cost up to €/$ 10. This seems steep considering the material is dead cheap in production.

Glass Screen Protectors

Alternatively you can stick on additional protectors made of tempered glass. Good ones (e.g. by GGS or Giotto) can cost way up to €/$ 20 a piece. They provide great protection against scratching and usually do not significantly reduce the screen clarity. Higher end protectors claim more than 98% of light transmittance using various different layers of coating. Alas, in very rare cases they can break if they are thumped hard enough and this could result in damages to the LCD screen that was to be protected in the first place.

Nevertheless these glass covers are very popular. I would have bought one myself but I simply have not been able to find one for the new M yet. The screen sizes just do not match even if they have the stated 3 inches. This is because the new Leica M screen shows a little more glass on the right side of the screen than is actually used for the color display. Manufacturers do seem to take a while in accommodating to these new camera models with varying screen sizes.

Plastic Screen Protectors

Stick-on screen protectors made of poly-carbonate offer a third option. They can offer good screen protection with the added benefit of not breaking easily and can quickly be removed if necessary. They are more resistant to glare than glass but naturally not as tough when it comes to scratching. But isn`t it better to have scratches on the protective cover than the camera screen itself?

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ACMAXX mounted on the M – only low reflection

 

I did a quick test of the only cover I could dig up that fits the new M / Typ 240. It is called the ACMAXX LCD ARMOR. You can find out more about the material used and the places to buy via this link (but watch out, the cover for the new M is not yet listed on the site). I bought mine for about € 22 including shipping via eBay and it was sent to Germany within a couple of days straight from California.

The ACMAXX LCD ARMOR offers good protection, showing good colors with quite enough contrast and the low-reflection coating seems to work just fine, also offering UV protection. In comparison to my glass screens used on other makes it does have a tendency to attract a little more dust to the surface but this can easily be blown off or wiped away.

Applied to the new M - rounded corners

For the new M – with rounded corners

 

Considering the foils and even most glass covers are quite thin, the ACMAXX LCD ARMOR is of much thicker material (0.8mm). The corners of the cover are rounded whereas the corners of the new Leica M screen are not. Thus the fit is good but not 100% perfect. Most people will probably never notice this. IMO this screen protector is the best you can get for the new Leica M today – unless you prefer foils or want to wait until glass protectors for the new M become available.

Lupico`s Take
Quality       ★★★★
Usability       ★★★☆☆
Price       ★★★☆☆
Recommendation       ★★★☆☆

 

Apr 182013
 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Superior 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.

R-adapter

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.

Sensor dust

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.

My take

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.

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