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Leica M Impressions

24 Hours with a 240

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, and 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.


The M in Hand

On Set with Chris, Sean and Mark. Taughannock Falls, Tomkins, New York. April, 2013
Leica M with 24mm Summilux @ ISO 200

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 Summiluxs, 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.


Image Quality

Branch and Falls. Tomkins, New York. April, 2013
Leica M with with Tri-Elmar @ 50mm @ ISO 200

Let's cut right to the chase. The M240 new CMOS sensor is brilliant. I mean that 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 LV is 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, by comparison the new M seems clunky in this regard.

House on the Cliff. Ithaca, New York. April, 2013
Leica M with with 35mm Summilux @ ISO 200

Buttons, Batteries and Auto ISO

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 can 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) 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

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 (for 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, 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.

April, 2013

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Concepts: Leica Camera, Single-lens reflex camera, Digital single-lens reflex camera, Camera, Image sensor, Digital camera, Leica M9, Exposure value

Entities: Toronto, New York, New York, Ithaca, Leica, Mexico, Taughannock Falls, EVF, Michael Reichmann, Mark Dubovoy, Sean Reid, Sean, Chris Sanderson, Sean, Mark, The Video Journal, New York, California, Vermont, SLR

Tags: camera, Live View, button, Leica, Mark Dubovoy, New York, EVF, way, rangefinder, user, lenses, camera makers, Sean Reid, CMOS sensor, rear camera button, window finder, image, RGB histogram, exposure compensation, Maestro processor, high ISO, upstate New York, new CMOS sensor, Leica SLR lenses, hand, died-in-the-wool rangefinder user, base plate, finder style camera, new camera, Live View focusing, new Maestro processor, alpha test program, Live View LCD, wide-ranging round-table discussion, Leica M user, large RGB histogram, big RGB histogram, user selectable function, vintage electronic finder, course