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Leica M Preview

by
Posted: September 19, 2012

First Impressions: May 9, 2013

Ladies and gentlemen, the Leica M digital camera is here, and it is not your Daddy's rangefinder! After the first significant overhaul in three years, Leica's latest M-system camera sports a number of significant new features that are quite a departure from the Leicas of days gone by. The Leica M (Typ 240) now boasts functionality taken for granted by the rest of the market for years, such as full-time live view and high-definition video capture, as well as a few options that are less common.

It also boasts a new naming schema. Taking a page from Apple's book, Leica will apparently no longer be giving its products unique names. The intent, says the company, is to "emphasise the enduring and long-term significance of the respective systems". Of course, from our point of view and those of Leica owners, it's a recipe for confusion--or at least will be as soon as the company launches its next generation of products. If you want to be able to tell cameras from different generations apart, instead of a reasonably-elegant product name, you'll now have to include the clumsy model number--Typ 240--if you want anybody to know which specific camera you're referencing. At least Leica didn't simplify still further and ditch the system names as well!

With that aside, though, the latest Leica M camera looks like quite the upgrade. The body is not just solid--underneath the pleather, it's constructed from milled brass plates top and bottom, with a die-cast magnesium body in between--it's now also weather sealed. While Leica doesn't state the degree of seals nor exactly how much they can handle, it does note that the camera is now both dustproof and splashproof. Note, though, that Leica's lenses aren't yet sealed to match. We're honestly not sure to what degree that's necessary for splashes, given that they are entirely manual in function, but until we can get some information from Leica we'd suggest not using them in rain or where they're likely to get significantly wet.

The Leica M is based around a 35mm full-frame sensor developed in cooperation with CMOSIS.

At its heart sits a brand new image sensor, which enables most of the new features. For the first time since the LiveMOS-based Leica Digilux 3 way back in 2006, a Leica interchangeable-lens camera is based around a CMOS image sensor. The 35mm full-frame chip was developed in partnership with Belgian image sensor supplier CMOSIS, rather than long-time Leica partner Truesense (previously a division of Kodak.) Effective resolution is 23.7 megapixels (5,952 x 3,967 pixels), with a pixel pitch of 6 µm, a well depth of over 40,000 electronics, and a claimed linear dynamic range of approximately 76dB. That allows an expanded sensitivity range of up to ISO 6,400 equivalent, versus the ISO 2,500 max. of the earlier Leica M9.

According to CMOSIS, the Leica M's sensor is--with the sole exception of the ceramic packaging--designed and manufactured entirely in Europe. Manufacturing is handled by STMicroelectronics at a fabrication plant in Grenoble, France that was originally set up to develop CMOS image sensors for consumer use such as in camera phones. It's built on a combined 110nm/90nm CMOS process, and the die size actually exceeds the photoreticle size used in its manufacture, requiring one-dimensional stitching to create a full 35mm sensor. The sensor design reduces the distance between color filter and photodiode to a bare minimum, and features taller microlenses with strong curvature. This allows crosstalk between adjacent photodiodes to be reduced and reduces light loss to reflection where there's a high angle of incidence. Other features of the CMOSIS chip include an electronic rolling shutter with global reset, 14-bit A/D converters, plus both analog and digital noise cancellation. The sensor package includes both an anti-reflective coating, and an IR cut filter.

Output from the new full-frame image sensor is handled by a Leica Maestro-branded image processor, as also employed by the company's S-system cameras. The inclusion of Maestro, says Leica, means that the entire image pipeline is under control of its engineers, allowing it to ensure images meet the company's standards. It also allows full-resolution burst shooting at a manufacturer-rated three frames per second--not stunning, by any means, but a fair bit better than the pedestrian two frames per second of the earlier M9 and M9-P. There's a choice of single, continuous, or self-timer drive modes, set with the Power dial that encircles the Shutter button. Two self-timer durations are available: two, or 12 seconds.

The M's 24 megapixel sensor sits behind a standard Leica M bayonet lens mount, which includes a sensor to read the identity marked on modern Leica M-mount lenses. The identification is done thanks to a small six-bit monochrome code painted on the lens mount, and read by a light sensor in the camera body. There's hence no electronic communication between camera and lens. Older lenses can also be modified to add the code, so long as there's a corresponding entry in the camera's lens database. If the code isn't available, the camera won't correctly indicate the field of view in the rangefinder, which will mean your framing is limited to guesswork. That will only be an issue for older lenses, however. The six-bit code is also used to optimize image quality, allowing the camera body to perform tasks such as correcting for vignetting.

The Leica M features a rangefinder design that eschews much automation, in favor of a camera that's discreet, relatively quiet, and requires the photographer actually think before pressing the shutter. There's no autofocus here: like any rangefinder, you focus by trying to line up two superimposed images on top of each other. The viewfinder doesn't provide a through-the-lens view of your subject, and nor does it change its focal length to match the attached lens. Instead, you're presented with a framing guideline which the Leica M selects automatically. The camera moves the guideline to try and account for parallax error, and the aim of these guidelines is more to provide a general idea of framing than a precise one.

The viewfinder eyepiece has a fixed -0.5 diopter, and Leica offers optional correction lenses that can provide an adjustment between -3 and +3 diopters. Viewfinder magnification is 0.68x. Unlike the earlier M9, the Leica M lacks the front-panel switch that's used to select from the available framing guidelines in its rangefinder. (These, by the way, are 28/90mm, 35/135mm and 50/75mm.) That means you can't preview a different framing without first switching lenses to change the guideline. It's also an issue if you're planning on using uncoded lenses, which won't show the correct frame. That's not quite the showstopper it is on the simultaneously-announced Leica M-E, however.

Why? Because for the first time in an M-system camera, the Leica M includes a live view function, courtesy of the new image sensor and processor. It also provides a much nicer, roomier screen on which to preview and review your shooting, with a three inch diagonal and a much more generous resolution of 920,000 dots (approximately a 640 x 480 pixel VGA array, with each pixel comprised of separate red, green and blue dots.) That means even if you can't frame a particular lens in the rangefinder, you can revert to shooting on the LCD in live view mode.

Of course, if you do so, you lose the rangefinder focusing, and you don't have any autofocusing to rely on. Leica's included a couple of features that should make live view focusing less painful, though. You can enable a live view zoom with up to 10x magnification, letting you see if your subject is sharply focused. There's also a focus peaking feature that marks the highest-contrast edges in the image, making it much easier to see where the point of focus is.

The new LCD panel is overlaid with Corning Gorilla Glass, a chemically-strengthened glass that's more resistant to scratches and shattering than standard glass. (But not as much so as the sapphire glass used in the Leica M9-P.)

Like the M9 and M9-P before it, the Leica M doesn't offer fully automatic exposure. You have a choice of aperture priority autoexposure, or fully manual exposure. TTL center-weighted metering is used. In aperture-priority shooting, you have +/- 3 EV of exposure compensation, and can bracket exposures with three or five frames, with a step size between 0.5 and 3 EV.

Shutter speeds range from 1/4,000 second to 32 seconds, plus a bulb mode that enables exposures as long as 60 seconds, and are set with a physical dial on the camera's top deck. Flash x-sync is at 1/180 second max.

White balance modes include Auto, seven presets, Manual, and a direct color temperature entry ranging from 2000 to 13,100 Kelvin. You can also select from a variety of film modes, and adjust saturation, contrast, or sharpness for JPEG images.

There's no built-in flash strobe, but external strobes are accepted on the Leica M's SCA-3502 compatible hot shoe. Flash sync choices are first or second curtain.

Another area where Leica has made a significant development in the M is the addition of movie capture. Again, this comes thanks to the new sensor and image processor pairing. You can record at Full HD (1,920 x 1,080), 720p (1,280 x 720), or VGA (640 x 480) resolution, with rates of 25 or 24 frames per second. (VGA movies also allow 30 fps.) Audio comes from a built-in monaural microphone, and a stereo microphone adapter--presumably pairing with the accessory port--will be offered as an option. Levels can be adjusted automatically or manually, including during capture, and there's a Concert levels preset for loud environments.

One point that may be an issue, though, is the use of MotionJPEG compression. Since that doesn't use interframe compression, and compresses the image in each frame separately (aka intraframe compression), it's not as space-efficient as more modern compression formats like H.264. However, it also provides the possibility of better per-frame image quality, and has much lighter editing requirements. The thing is, MotionJPEG Full HD video takes up card space, rapidly. The most recent camera we reviewed with 25fps Full HD MJPEG video was the Pentax K-5, and that was capable of sucking up a whopping 10MB of card space per second.

Changing flash cards on the Leica M requires removing the entire bottom plate of the camera, so you'll want to make sure you've either got high-capacity flash cards or a tripod that doesn't block the locking cam on the base plate, if you plan on shooting much Full HD video with the camera on a tripod.

Images are stored in JPEG compressed or DNG raw formats, and the latter can be written either compressed or uncompressed. For JPEGs you have a choice of two color space options: sRGB, or Adobe RGB.

Power comes courtesy of an included 7.4V, 1,800 mAh lithium-ion battery pack. Leica hasn't yet stated a specific battery life rating for the Leica M, but has suggested that its components have low power consumption, suggesting there may have been an improvement in this area.

In terms of connectivity... well, there's not a lot, by default. The Leica M is rare in not even offering a USB port in the camera body itself. For USB transfer, you'll need to pick up the Multifunctional Handgrip-M, which also includes a built-in GPS receiver for tagging your photos, as well as an optional, retro finger loop that makes sure you don't drop your camera by mistake. The grip also features a DC input socket for an optional AC adapter, an X-sync socket for studio flash strobes, and a duplicate hot shoe (since it mounts on the base of your camera body). We believe the Multifunctional Handgrip-M draws its power from the camera body when not using the DC input, and is specific to the Leica M, so you can't share it with an older M-system body. Unlike many such grips, it doesn't add any controls for portrait photography, and nor does it provide room for an extra battery pack.

There are also a couple of accessories that can mount in the flash hot shoe, where they also mate up nicely with the accessory port beneath. These include the Leica EVF2 Visoflex viewfinder, an accessory that's shared with the Leica X2 camera body. There's also the aforementioned microphone adapter, which presumably mounts in the same manner.

Data is stored on Secure Digital cards, including the higher-capacity SDHC and SDXC types. There's no optimized support stated for UHS-I cards, however. The product bundle includes the camera, battery, charger, charging cable, carrying strap, accessory port cover, body cap, and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4 software.

Available from early 2012, the Leica M is priced at around US$6,950 list. That's almost identical to the list pricing for the M9, making it a great value compared to the earlier model--even if it's likely well beyond the reach of many enthusiast photographers. Body colors will include a choice of black paint, or silver chrome.

 

Leica M First Impressions: 24 Hours with a 240

By Michael Reichmann

(Editor's note: This First Impressions review of the Leica M first appeared on Luminous Landscape)

As a Leica M user since the 1960's I've found the birth of a new M to be a cause for celebration. The new M240 in particular, because I was one of a small group who, early in the process, were privy to Leica's design intentions for the M. I even made a few feature suggestions which ended up in the final product.

It was therefore with not a little sadness that due to my being in Mexico this past winter I was unable to be part of the M's alpha test program. (Getting a prototype M legally through Mexican customs was a process that I had no patience for. Life really is too short for such nonsense). So, all I could do was talk to my friends about it, including Sean Reid of Reidreviews, who was part of the process.

But then, when I returned to Toronto in the spring and a promised M review sample still hadn't shown up, I decided that if the mountain wouldn't come to me, I would go to it. Sean lives in Vermont, and we decided to meet half way between there and Toronto, in upstate New York. Mark Dubovoy had just purchased his new M a couple of weeks prior, and when he heard about our plans to get together decided to fly up from California and join us. Chris Sanderson, our video producer, was with me on the drive to Ithaca, and we ended up spending a couple of days filming a field shoot with the Leica M. We also produced a wide-ranging round-table discussion about the new M and non-SLR cameras in general. There's a revolution going on, and we wanted to put our finger on its pulse. This video will appear in an upcoming edition of The Video Journal. Watch for it.

On Set with Chris, Sean and Mark. Taughannock Falls, Tomkins, New York. April, 2013
Leica M with 24mm Summilux @ ISO 200
Copyright © 2013, Michael Reichmann. Image used by permission.

The M in Hand. Needless to say, having only had the new M in hand for 24 hours, this is not a review. Let's just call it "first impressions". But, having been an M Leica user for some 40 years, and knowing well what the design brief for the new camera had been, it didn't take long for me to discover what I liked and what I disliked about the camera. I had brought with me my full collection of M lenses: both Tri-Elmars, 24mm, 35mm and 50mm Summiluxes, and 90mm and 135mm APOs. Mark had brought his Noctilux (or should I call it Noctilust) and I tried the M with as many of these lenses as I had time for.

Branch and Falls. Tomkins, New York. April, 2013
Leica M with with Tri-Elmar @ 50mm @ ISO 200
Copyright © 2013, Michael Reichmann. Image used by permission.

Image Quality. Let's cut right to the chase. The M240's new CMOS sensor is brilliant. I mean that in the way the British use the word, ie. terrific. I didn't have an opportunity to directly compare images between it and an M9, but I have no reservations about any of the sensor's major characteristics – colour rendition, dynamic range, high ISO and resolution. There are sensors that may score higher on tests, but for real-world photography it's hard to find anything not to like about the new M's sensor. Sean Reid sees some occasional banding at high ISO, but I see nothing to fuss me. I do see some IR contamination when very deep shadows are opened up, but the M isn't alone in this regard, and I'm talking six stops or more below 18%. Reviewers whose opinion I respect seem to pretty much agree that this is a great sensor, or at least let's say that I now agree with them.

Live View. Of course, for M enthusiasts what may or may not be a big deal is live view. If you're a died-in-the-wool rangefinder user you can choose to ignore the fact that it's available, and use the new M240 just as you've used every M series camera before it. But if you want to use live view, it's there at the press of a button. For use with longer lenses such as a 90mm or 135mm, it's a real pleasure. And of course with the R lens adapter, those terrific Leica SLR lenses can now also be used.

Live view focusing is via a magnified image, along with focus peaking, if desired. This works well, though a choice of peaking colours and intensities such as provided by some other brands would be useful.

I should mention that Mark Dubovoy, who is no fan of EVFs, told me when we got together that his preferred way of working when shooting slowly and methodically with the new M was to use the rangefinder for focusing and then the live view LCD or the EVF for composition. The rangefinder is the most accurate for focusing, while the screen or EVF allowed for precise composition.

Curiously, after only a short while I found myself agreeing with Mark and using the system this way as well. For street style shooting there's no doubt that I would prefer the window finder to the EVF. Frankly, though, I have become spoiled by autofocus -- which the M of course doesn't have in any form.

"Unless one is shooting fast action, one of the nicest ways to use the camera is to use the rangefinder for focusing, use the EVF for composing, and set the camera preferences to auto review (in the EVF) with the large RGB histogram. In this mode, after releasing the shutter and thanks to the very fast Maestro processor, one can see the image just shot almost instantaneously with a nice big RGB histogram at the bottom. I find this immediate feedback as to whether the image looks good and whether it was well exposed quite useful and reassuring." – Mark Dubovoy

The optional electronic viewfinder is simply a rebranded EVF from Olympus. The resolution isn't as high as some, and the refresh rate is low for a 2013-vintage electronic finder, but it's usable. My real issue with the EVF is that there is no "eye detect". This means that one needs to switch on live view via a rear camera button and then, if the EVF is wanted, turn it on and off manually via a separate button on the finder. Then if you have auto-review turned on, or you wish to check the image at any point, you'll need to switch manually again to the rear LCD.

Frankly, after working extensively in recent months with the Fuji X-Pro 1 with its effective eye-detect system, and a built-in rather than add-on EVF, the new M seems clunky by comparison in this regard.

House on the Cliff. Ithaca, New York. April, 2013
Leica M with with 35mm Summilux @ ISO 200
Copyright © 2013, Michael Reichmann. Image used by permission.

Buttons. The new M's user interface will be familiar to anyone that's used an M8 or M9, and mostly that's a good thing. Whether you're an experienced digital M user or a newcomer, you'll likely find that the button and menu system is straightforward and allows for rapid access to needed controls. I have to say, though, that having the menu system as one long list without the ability to jump between sections can prove a bit tedious.

My real disappointment is with the placement and operation of two new buttons: the one on the front which controls exposure compensation and manual magnification, and the one on top which turns on video recording. I found them both to be problematic. Fortunately you can set your preferences to "auto" in the focus aid section and then get either 5x or 10x magnification automatically when the camera detects any movement in the focusing ring. This will obviate the need for pressing the front button for some users.

The front button is used to activate exposure compensation, yet it is almost impossible for a typical human hand to press while also having one's finger on the shutter release and with the camera held in the right hand, as one normally would. The top button has an M printed beside it and is used to activate (M)ovie mode. It, on the other hand, is all to easy to activate accidentally, not so much when shooting but when lifting the camera in and out of a bag, or when changing lenses.

Sean, Mark and I agreed that a simple solution to both problems would be a firmware fix that made both buttons into user selectable function buttons, each also with an "Off" option. This way, for example, the awkward-to-reach front button could be made the Movie button, while the easier-to-reach top button could become magnification. Or both. Or not. Or Off. It would be a simple fix to a number of problems, and could be accomplished just with a firmware update.

Battery. The M's new Maestro processor, along with the CMOS sensor and Lord knows what else, demands more power than the M8 or M9. Consequently, the new M has a much larger battery and, according to Sean (who's been using the M much of the winter), battery life is excellent. Along with the SD card, one still has to get to it via the traditional (antiquated?) removable base plate. This means any accessory grip or mounting base plate has to be removed first.

Since battery changing doesn't occur that frequently, I can live with it, but I really wish that Leica (as well as 90% of other camera makers) would put the card slot on the side of the body, where accessibility is less of an issue.

Auto ISO. While Auto ISO is there as it should be, for some reason it is crippled compared to the way it worked in the M9. With that camera, and most others designed by camera makers who have actual photographers test their new cameras before production, if you manually set both a shutter speed and an aperture the camera will set the ISO required automatically. The new M does not do this.

Again, this is easily corrected with a firmware upgrade, which hopefully will appear sooner rather than later. My guess is that this was simply an oversight on Leica's part.

Taughannock Falls Historic View, Tomkins, New York. April, 2013
Leica M with 135mm APO Telyt @ ISO 200
Copyright © 2013, Michael Reichmann. Image used by permission.

Leica M First Impressions: Summary

I was both pleased and annoyed by the M. Pleased by the superb image quality, and of course the ability to use my M lens collection on a camera that they were designed for -- or should I say one which was designed for them. On the other hand, for me and the way that I now prefer to work when doing documentary style street shooting, autofocus has become de rigeur. I understand and appreciate the accuracy of a rangefinder, and I absolutely love using a window finder-style camera for this type of work. But there are many situations doing other types of shooting -- light weight travel, for example -- where subjects such as foliage are downright difficult using a rangefinder.

I sold my M9 last fall before heading to Mexico for the winter, anticipating that I would buy the new M when it came out. But now that I have had a chance to use one -- albeit just for a day -- I am no longer in a great rush to actually buy one. I have a couple of other cameras that do a very nice job with my M lenses, and while not necessarily offering the absolute resolution or other possible IQ advantages of the M, they do a quite admirable job and are suitable for my current needs. I reserve the right to change my mind, depending also on the state of my bank account at some future point in time, but for the moment I'll live without a Leica M -- the first time that this has been true in some 40+ years.

(Michael Reichmann is the founder of The Luminous Landscape. Visit Luminous Landscape to read more great articles about photography.)