Leica M-E Preview
by Mike Tomkins
Posted: September 18, 2012
Think quickly! How much would you pay to have a USB port and an extra switch on your Leica digital camera? Did you say US$1,500 or more? If so, then you can stop reading this preview: the German camera legend would rather you looked at our review of their M9 and M9-P instead.
If, though, you're the kind of person who's willing to sacrifice a couple of features that--let's face it--you probably wouldn't use much anyway... Well, the brand-new Leica M-E might just be the rangefinder camera for you! The M-E retains almost all of what made the M9 so popular with Leicaphiles, and yet somehow manages to shave a very handy 21% off the list price.
In fact, the price difference is so significant that we found ourselves poring over the spec sheets looking for any slight differences. We were convinced we must be missing some significant omission between the Leica M-E and the more expensive M9, which has been shipping since September 2009--but no. We can find only three differences between the M-E and M9 beyond their pricetags. For that matter, we note only two additional differences from the even more expensive Leica M9-P, which lists for almost 47% more than the new model.
We've already mentioned the lack of a USB port on the Leica M-E. The second change is the lack of a switch on the front panel of the M-E, which is used to select from the available framing guidelines in its rangefinder. (These, by the way, are 28/90mm, 35/135mm and 50/75mm.) That's not quite the issue it might seem, though, because the M-E will detect the focal length automatically and set the framing guideline appropriately. Hence, the only times you'd have used that switch on the M9 were when you wanted to preview a different framing to decide if you should switch lenses.
...and that's it, as far as the operational differences go. The only other change we could spot between the Leica M9 and the new M-E is that the latter camera ships in a different body color. The M9 was offered with a steel-grey or black paint finish, whereas the M-E has an anthracite-grey painted finish.
We'd wager there are quite a few folks who couldn't quite stretch to the US$7,000 list price of the M9 who will be more than happy to accept those differences. Compared to the M9-P, the M-E also lacks the protective sapphire glass cover plate over the LCD panel, and the retro Vulcanite rubber grip material over the body. Instead, the M-E has the same standard glass cover plate and pleather grip as the standard M9.
If you're already familiar with the Leica M9, the only other thing you'll need to know about the Leica M-E is pricing and availability, so feel free to skip ahead. If not, though, we'll recap.
The Leica M-E 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-E 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.
Inside the Leica M-E's solid body--underneath the pleather, it's constructed from milled brass plates top and bottom, with a die-cast magnesium body in between--sits the exact same Truesense KAF-18500 CCD image sensor as in the M9. The sensor was originally developed when Truesense was still a division of Kodak, and has approximately the same dimensions as a frame of 35mm film. Maximum image dimensions are 5,212 x 3,472 pixels, for an effective resolution of 18.1 megapixels. The sensor provides everything from ISO 160 to 2,500 equivalents, and you can also pull the sensitivity to ISO 80 equivalent. There's also an Auto ISO function.
Burst shooting is manufacturer-rated at a rather pedestrian two frames per second, and in our testing of the earlier M9 and M9-P, we found the actual speed closer to 1.7 fps, which will likely apply here too. 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-E's 18 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. The six-bit code is used to optimize image quality, allowing the camera body to perform tasks such as correcting for vignetting.
There's no live view, but you can review your images on a 2.5-inch LCD panel with a rather dated resolution of just 230,000 dots. That equates to just 320 x 240 pixels, or 160 pixels per inch, lagging well behind the high-res displays found on many modern digital cameras.
Like the M9 and M9-P before it, the Leica M-E 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, five, or seven frames, and a step size between 0.5 and 2 EV.
Shutter speeds range from 1/4,000 second to 32 seconds, plus a bulb mode that enables exposures as long as 240 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 12,800 Kelvin. You can also adjust saturation, contrast, and sharpness for JPEG images.
There's no built-in flash strobe, but external strobes are accepted on the Leica M-E's SCA-3502 compatible hot shoe. Flash sync choices are first or second curtain.
Just like the earlier cameras, there's no movie capture on the Leica M-E. 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 AdobeRGB.
Data is stored on Secure Digital cards, including the higher-capacity SDHC types. There's no support for SDXC or UHS-I cards, however. Power comes courtesy of an included 3.7V, 1,860 mAh lithium-ion battery pack. (That differs slightly from the 1,900 mAh rating of the M9 and M9-P, but we'd presume this is simply a difference in rounding.)
The product bundle includes the camera, battery, charger, charging cable, carrying strap, body cap, and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4 software.
Available immediately, the Leica M-E is priced at around US$5,450 list. That's a pretty impressive US$1,500 off list pricing for the M9, a significant difference for a camera that lacks only two small features! The only available body color is anthracite grey.