a hands on review
A Leica rangefinder is a special camera. I still remember (and occasionally still use) my first professional M2. It feels good in your hands. It makes you want to create good pictures. With the new M, Leica remains responsible to its long and distinguished line of rangefinder cameras, while pushing the envelope of the latest digital technology. When reviewing a Leica camera it is always important to remember that Leica is a system camera. As good as the camera might be, it gets even better when coupled with lenses that are second to none in the world of photographic optics. It is almost impossible to evaluate the camera in isolation.
DxOMark has given the M sensor a very high rating, with the camera coming in 11th overall. When you add on top of that the superb optical quality of Leica lenses, you have a winning combination that is very hard to beat.
Since the biggest change made to in the new M is the sensor, let's discuss that first and circle back to the physical features later.
With the M Leica changed from a CCD to CMOS sensor type and increased the resolution to 24mp. This makes a huge difference, particularly in the low noise performance characteristics, where CMOS excels. I loved my M9 camera and found the resolution excellent, but I would rarely take it beyond and ISO range of 640. I have tested the new M up to ISO 6400 and can say that this camera has one of the best low noise characteristics of any camera I have ever used. And keep in mind that I use professionally all the current top Nikon camera bodies (D800, D600, D4), which are the high ISO/low noise champs. At ISO 1600 I do not even see noise with the new M, and feel quite comfortable taking it to 2500 without worry. At ISO 3200 it show a noise easily handled in post-processing, and can be taken to 6400 so long as you realize you will have to work the image a bit in post.
I did my high ISO testing in New York's Grand Central Station. I have always viewed this as one of the most difficult situations for hand held, photography. The place is cavernous with light and dark areas, is a mix of several lighting sources including daylight tungsten, and some others I have never figured out. You usually need an ISO of at least 1600 to obtain an overall decent exposure, and the light balance with all the varied light sources is a nightmare.
Below are the test images I did with the Leica M at various ISO ratings. You can download the high res samples to see the actual noise performance for yourself. Right off the bat, I can say that the Leica M color balanced the scene better than any other camera I have ever tested in this situation. I did not alter the color balance in the image tests below.
|A shot like this is a real challenge for any camera. The clock is severely backlit with a bright sunlit window, while the interior scene is very dark. The clock itself has an interior tungsten light source. The dynamic range of this scene is intense. I managed to use an ISO of 800, but the exposure was dark so I had to open the shadows and still bring down the highlights. Click here to download a full high res version of this image.|
|ISO 1600: Click here to download high res version.|
|ISO2000: Click here to download high res version.|
|ISO 2500: Click here to download high res version.|
|ISO3200: Click here to download high res version.|
|ISO 6400: Click here to download high res version.|
|For me what was most interesting is not so much the color balance of the flowers, but the accurate color rendering of the basket. This scene is absolutely right on.|
|Click here to download high res version of this image.|
|Click here to download high res version of this image.|
|Click here to download high res version of this image.|
The addition of live view and an EVF (electronic view finder) is a game-changer for the M series. I personally use M cameras for shooting travel and landscape photography where I often need longer telephoto or macro lenses, both of which are not suitable for a rangefinder camera. So I usually end up carrying two camera systems, both a DSLR and a Leica M rangefinder. With the EVF and an ability to adapt the Leica R-lenses, a Leica M can now do it all.
I took the close up photo below by adding a close-up filter to a 50mm Summilux lens. The EVF coupled with the new focus peaking feature of the M made this possible. By pressing a button on the front of the body the image can be enlarged in the EVF finder by 5 or 10x. As you focus the lens, bright red lines appear around the areas that are in focus. A simple tap of the shutter or front focusing button returns the finder to normal view. I found this feature to be extremely accurate, even in a situation like that below where the camera is in close with a shallow depth of field.
|This close up was taken with the Leica 60mm Macro-Elmarit-R lens stopped all the way down for maximum depth of field. The scene was lit from a soft window light from behind with no fill in the foreground shadows. This shows exceptional dynamic range as even the deepest shadows have detail. Click here to download the hi res file.|
The M (240) has been more robustly weather sealed against dust and water.
The motor shoots at 3fps, and I found I was able to take approximately 12 photos in DNG mode before filling the buffer. The buffer did empty quickly so that continuous shooting could continue very soon. In fact, if you pace your shooting with a bit of stop-start, you may be able to shoot fairly continuously.
An auto ISO feature allows you to select the maximum setting and also set the maximum exposure time as either a manual input or a formula based on 1/focal length. I found this feature quite handy for times when I was continually moving in and out of varied lighting situations.
The camera does have GPS capability but you will need a hand grip accessory to take advantage of it, since the antenna is built into it.
There are two metering modes, classic and advanced. Classic is the typical 60/40 system that was popular in all cameras years ago. I still like it. It means that 60% of the light reading comes from a central area where the main subject is presumed to be placed, and 40% of the reading comes from the surrounding areas of the frame. In advanced metering there are three options: spot metering, center-weighted as in classic, and what Leica calls "multifield measuring", which I presume is similar to the metering algorithms used in most cameras today. The Leica manual does mention that the classic mode might increase speed slightly in image capture so I just left my meter set that way. It's the metering system I grew up with so I'm used to it.
If you shoot in jpg, you have a choice of three film style settings: Vivid color, Smooth color, and black & white. Furthermore, within the black & white you can choose a filter type to use, and a warm, cold, or neutral tone. Of course the feature does not actually work in DNG mode because it is a RAW capture. Nonetheless, you can see a monochrome image on your display if you select it as a film option. When I want to use a feature such as this, I set my camera to capture both RAW and jpg so the jpg file has the film style and the RAW has everything. That way I have a choice later.
The battery capacity has been increased and the battery is much larger. Its charger has an 80% indicator light. It that takes approximately 2 hours to reach this level. While longer battery life is a big improvement over the M9, keep in mind that continual use of live view or the EVF will tend to use up the extra capacity rather quickly.
The menus have been given a facelift as you can see from the photo below.
|The button marked "M" is a start/stop for recording for video. It's placement near the shutter where you already have a finger placed makes it very easy to hit by accident. This view also shows the thumb rest/protector built around the setting dial.|
|Photo of the Chrysler Building in New York taken with the Leica M (240) and 50mm Summilux lens at f/5.6 and ISO 200. Click here to download a full res version of this photo.|
|Taken with 21mm Elmarit at f/5.6 and ISO 200. Click here for high res download.|
|Photographed with a Summilux 50mm lens at f/8 and ISO 200. Click here to download the full res version.|
With the convenience of the EVF finder I find myself using the 135mm APO-Telyt lens more than I did. Below are two shots of the same scene, one with the 135mm lens and the other with the 50mm Summilux. Aligning the sun in the photos below would have been extremely difficult if not impossible using the standard rangefinder viewfinder.
|Taken with 50mm Summilux at f/4 and ISO 200. Click here for high res download.|
|Taken with 135mm APO-Telyt at f/8 ISO 200. Click here for high res download.|
As mentioned, I primarily use the Leica for travel and landscape photography. I realize that it also has a very large following for taking candid street photography. For the latter, using the traditional rangefinder viewfinder is going to be the way to go. EVF finders on mirrorless cameras have an inherent drag to them that slows down shooting. As this camera type becomes more popular, I expect this to improve. For now, however, expect the M to behave very differently in live view mode. It will definitely lack much of its characteristic spontaneity. Nonetheless, the convenience this feature adds of precise compositional alignment for photographers like me is well worth the extra delay it might take in capturing the photo.
In terms of resolution, dynamic range, capability in low light, and expanded features, the M (240) has reached a pinnacle of digital perfection that is exceptional in the tests I have done so far. Keep in mind this is a system camera and gains in strength when coupled with its superb optical support. That support has now been expanded to include R-lenses -- something that adds to the convenience of the M as a full system camera. It will be interesting to see if Leica will now expand and improve upon its R lens series
Since writing this post, I have noticed a few anomalies with the M 240. Occasionally, the auto color will jump off track for a frame or two and return colors that are way off target.
I have also noticed that the EVF view finder will suddenly pop into its magnified mode even though the magnification switch has not been pressed.
I will be reporting these anomalies to Leica.
|I am including this photo to demonstrate the portrait capabilities of the M. This was shot with the 90mm Elmarit-M lens in available light with daylight illumination and one uncorrected tungsten lamp off to the left acting as a hair light. The camera was set to auto white balance. I did readjust the color a bit afterwards by lowering the yellows towards blue based on the inclusion of a color correction card. I often mix daylight and tungsten like this to achieve a warm, sunny-like look with the hair light, and I find this amount of correction to be normal under these circumstances. Click here to download the high res version.|
|35mm Summilux, ISO 2500.|
|Grand Central Station: 135mm APO-Telyt, ISO 2500.|
|35mm Summilux at f/16, ISO 1000, 1/15 second to create the blur. The truck was standing still. I panned the camera.|
|Taken with the 135mm APO-Telyt f/3.4 and ISO 1600. The EVF finder now makes precise compositional alignments possible with long telephoto lenses.|