Impressions of the Beta M Leica (240)
by Sean Reid
Michael has asked me to share some of my impressions, so far, from beta-testing the new Leica M (240). He would normally have been testing the camera as well but complications relating to Mexican customs, etc. precluded that.
First off I should explain that neither this article, nor any of the M (240) articles currently on my own site, are reviews per se. Production level press samples of the camera are not yet available and I won't be able to formally review the camera until those go out to journalists. All I'm doing at this point is sharing some of my observations as a beta tester.
As one reads this and other reports about the M (240) on the web it's worth remembering that various aspects of the camera are not yet finalized. As of this writing (February 23, 2013), camera start-up and other processing/functional times are still being tweaked. Corrections for vignetting and color drift (with various lenses) are not yet finalized. Auto-white balance is still being tweaked. Various little bugs (which have plagued virtually all pre-production cameras I've tested from every company) are also still being sorted out. That said, however, the pre-production M I've been testing is significantly less buggy than some production level cameras I've tested from another company making window finder cameras.
The new camera is very slightly larger than the M9 but I never notice that when using it. It's also heavier, though, and I do notice that. About half of the extra weight comes from the new features in the camera and about half from the mass of a new, large and serious battery. Sony did a lot of things right with their RX1 but when it comes to the battery I really wish they'd taken the task seriously and given their camera the kind of capable battery the M uses. I won't have formal battery life figures for the M until the camera is finalized but, informally, I can say that battery life has been excellent so far.
The new thumb grip on the M works very well though I'd love to see more room between that grip and the upper right corner of the screen. The action of the beta camera's front button (for EV compensation and focus magnification) needs a little adjustment and I'm told Leica is doing that. Otherwise the camera feels a lot like a slightly heavier M9.
As I suggested in an article on my own site last fall, and as my colleague Jono Slack has also written, there are two ways one might look at the new M.
1. As A Traditional DRF: Used simply as a digital still camera with a window finder and rangefinder the M has much more usable frame lines than the M9 (the M's are set for two meters, like the M8.2), weather seals and better high ISO performance. Used with a special grip it can now also signal a TTL or standard flash unit while leaving the hotshoe free for wide-angle optical finders (24 mm, 21 mm, etc.) These four changes alone (all of which I've argued for since this camera was first proposed) will be important to a lot of professional and serious amateur photographers who like working with a traditional rangefinder camera. One could use this camera for years and completely ignore its live view and video options if desired. The M is still very much a classic Leica; which is to say that there's still plenty of 1954 in it (and I mean that in the best sense).
2. As An Electronic Finder Camera: If desired, one can also use the M as an EFC (via the rear display or an accessory EVF). It's important to understand, however, that this is really an auxiliary system (much as it is on many DSLRs) and not the heart of the camera. M cameras have always been mirror-less (a confusing and not particularly useful term better suited to wicked stepmothers than to cameras) but this M now also offers an electronic view of the subject.
This is historic, of course, because it marks the first time a stock M can be used as a TTL (through the lens) camera. The potential advantages are obvious. Macro photography (without a Visoflex or the like) becomes accessible, telephoto photography views can now fill the frame and precise focus can now be set directly by eye (using a magnified electronic view and focus peaking at the same time). It also gives the M an excellent means to work with adapted SLR lenses including the Leica R optics (via a dedicated Leica adapter), tilt/shift lenses, etc. Additionally, it opens the M up to video use.
At the same time, one doesn't forget that the M is not primarily an EFC. In its normal optical mode the M has very little shutter lag. But in live view mode there's a little extra lag as the shutter goes from open to closed to open to closed to open again. Actually, considering all the machinations that happen there it's pretty quick but not quick enough to avoid a bit of extra lag. Again, we're talking about a beta camera but I think there are mechanical limits governing how fast all of that can happen in the production model as well.
The M lenses are also fully mechanical and, of course, have never needed to have an auto-aperture stop-down system (so they don't). To focus the M precisely in live view mode (unless the chosen lens suffers from a lot of focus shift) one needs to focus with the lens wide open (for minimal depth of field) before stopping down to the taking aperture. So that aperture changing takes some time as well. Of course, some photographers may choose to compromise some focus accuracy (setting focus while the lens is stopped down) in order to gain speed.
Then there's the fact that the sensor can only feed the EVF or LCD at 30 fps. So, if the subject or camera moves much there can be some blurring of the electronic image in the finder.
For myself, at least, what all this adds up to is the following. For fast, fluid work the M is best used with its traditional optical finder and rangefinder focusing. There the framelines are fairly accurate at most distances, focusing can be done quickly (while always keeping the full subject frame in view), shutter lag is almost non-existent, the lens stays set at its taking aperture, etc. Some of the best (possibly the best) sports photography I've ever seen was done by Garry Winogrand working with a Leica M4. So don't believe anyone who tells you an M doesn't work for sports (especially when one can be close to the action). It's a matter of developing good RF and pre-focusing skills.
The M's live view mode, on the other hand, seems (in my mind at least) to be better suited to slower paced work. In fact, it's great for tripod work especially. Given a little time one can open the aperture up, focus very precisely using magnification and focus peaking, stop the lens down and then release the shutter. I loved this mode in the studio. That's not to say that the M doesn't work as a hand-held EFC -- it certainly can -- but one must adapt to the method it requires. Rangefinder lenses were not designed for fast TTL work and one must adjust to that. One has the same challenge when using RF lenses on other cameras with electronic finders.
Let's say we were to compare the M (used in live view mode) with an Olympus OM-D E-M5 and sealed kit zoom. The former has been adapted to auxiliary live view use and the latter was born as an auto-focus EFC. Grab both cameras to shoot a fast paced event and the Olympus (with its fast AF and auto-aperture stop down) will run circles around the live view M in terms of speed. (Though the Olympus itself is similarly slow if used with an RF lens via an adapter). Switch off the Leica's live view, however, put an eye up to the window finder and the M (240) will come into its own as a fast and athletic camera.
The Leica M9 was the most compact interchangeable lens full frame camera in the world when it was introduced. The M (240) is currently the most compact interchangeable lens full frame live view camera made. But, perhaps even more interestingly, it's one of only two live view digital cameras in the world that perform well with a wide range of rangefinder lenses. There are various adapters on the market that let one fit RF lenses to mFT cameras, NEX cameras, Fuji X-Trans cameras, etc. but none of these cameras -- that I've tested -- perform well in the outer zones when paired with challenging RF lenses. They seem to lack the microlenses needed to accomplish that (because they weren't designed for RF lenses). The only exception, among EFCs, is the Ricoh GXR M-Mount module (which was designed expressly for RF lenses).
So if one wants live view and strong performance, across the frame, with a wide range of RF lenses, there are only two cameras that can offer it: the GXR M-Mount and Leica M (240). If one adds full frame to the requirements that list drops down to just one camera. So while some dedicated EFCs may outperform the functionality and speed of the M as a live view camera, they won't necessarily excel as bodies for M lenses. Does that matter? It depends on the photographer and upon what kinds of lenses he/she owns or want to own.
Understood as what it really is (a much improved DRF with live view and video as enhancements) the beta Leica M (240) I've been testing is quite a competent camera so far. I'll need to test a final version to know all of its strengths, weaknesses, quirks, etc. but I'm encouraged by where things stand now. I'll leave it to Michael to tell you about the camera's video performance as he knows much more about video than I do.
So there are some initial beta camera observations to mull over as the reader waits for Michael's review of a production level camera. My own site's coverage of the camera is happening in several parts.
1. First impressions of the beta M (240) (published September 17 - 25, 2012)
2. Report on results of controlled studio tests comparing the file quality (at various ISO levels) of the beta M (240) to that of the Leica M9 and M Monochrom (published February 23, 2013)
3. Report and sample pictures based on field testing the beta M (to be published in the near future)
4. Report on results of controlled studio tests comparing the beta M (240) to the Fuji X-Pro 1, Sony RX1 and Sigma DP2 Merrill (Published March 7, 2013)
5. Formal review of the M (240) when press samples are released to journalists (timing TBD)
About Reid Reviews and Sean Reid
Sean's latest articles for his own site, Reid Reviews, include coverage of the beta Leica M (240) and reviews of the Fuji X100s and Sony RX1. He also recently published an article that compares the file quality – at various ISO levels – of the beta Leica M (240), Fuji X-Pro 1, Sony RX1 and Sigma DP2 Merrill.
Sean Reid, an American, has been a commercial and fine art photographer for almost thirty years. He studied under Stephen Shore and Ben Lifson and met occasionally with Helen Levitt. In the late 1980s he worked as an exhibition printer for Wendy Ewald and other fine art photographers. In 1989, he was the first American photographer to receive an artist-in-residence grant from the Irish Arts Council in Dublin, Ireland. His commercial work is primarily of architecture, weddings and special events. His personal work is primarily of people in public places -- especially in rural New England where he resides. Most of his newest reviews and other articles can be found at Reid Reviews. The site concentrates on reviewing equipment intended for professional and serious amateur photographers but also includes a wide range of essays about various aspects of photography. It pays particular attention to rangefinder camera equipment and compact cameras for serious photographers. Most of the reviews are based on extensive field work as well as formal studio testing.