Leica M (Type 240) Digital Camera Review
A Leica M with live view and video? Besser spät als nie.
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There are few cameras in history more revered than those from the Leica M series. But since the M3 debuted in the 1950s, Leica's rangefinders have mostly remained the same, even as technology advanced and the photography world transitioned from film to digital. Leica's rangefinders have never been at the forefront of these changes, with the M series sticking with film all the way until 2006's M8 finally included a digital sensor—nearly 10 years after digital cameras first rose to prominence.
The M8 was replaced by the M9 in 2009, and the M9-P in 2011. But though technology continued to advance, the M9/M9-P seemed stuck in the past, eschewing modern features, such as live view and video recording, that had become commonplace. Leica has remedied these faults, however, with the debut of the Leica M (MSRP $6,950.00). Announced back in 2012, the M is the bold step forward technologically that Leica fans and broke daydreamers have long waited for.
Oddly enough, the Leica M brings modern features to the venerable M series just as the desire for retro camera designs has skyrocketed. The M is poised to take advantage of this movement, as there's a classic sensibility to using a camera that combines the analog charm of a rangefinder with the modern advances other top-shelf cameras enjoy. And even with all the new bells and whistles, the M is a camera that makes you stop and think about what you're doing. The idea of a digital rangefinder may be anachronistic, but it's also timeless, and the ostensibly staid design belies massive performance gains under the hood.
Design & Handling
The M series has its downsides, but design quality isn't one of them.
For the last 60 years or so, the Leica M series has been extraordinarily consistent in terms of design, operation, and build quality. All discussions about value and price aside, a Leica M-series camera is always dependably well-built. This latest Leica M—codenamed "Type 240" now that Leica has gone the Apple road and dropped the numeric designation—is made of a single piece of magnesium alloy, with machined brass top and bottom plates. The body is wrapped in a slick leatherette that gives some purchase, though there's no extra grip as the body is essentially one large rectangle with rounded edges.
The Leica design certainly has its share of detractors, as Leica is usually sold less on its performance and more on its build quality, style, and commitment to traditional, analog photography. The Leica M series, in particular, tends to advance at a rather glacial pace. Even though the M integrates some long-overdue features like live view, video recording, and focus peaking, the M Type 240 is still made to look and operate just like Leicas of old.
Shooting with the M requires a little more active problem-solving than with other cameras. There's no autofocus and exposure is handled via manual dials, though the camera can automatically meter and control all but aperture if you let it. You frame by looking through the extra-large, bright, offset viewfinder. Unlike DSLRs, the M's viewfinder does not show exactly what the lens sees. As a result your perspective is shifted somewhat and the viewfinder is often far larger than the lens's actual field of view, with framing guidelines roughly outlining what the lens sees. A second rangefinding window is coupled to the focusing mechanism and calibrated to display the same image as the lens, projecting this onto the center portion of the finder.
By aligning your viewfinder image with the cutout projection from the rangefinder, you'll focus on your subject. This takes some practice, but it allows for quick and accurate focus most of the time. Using a rangefinder lends a sense of deliberate purpose to your photography, as you have to think about your subject in ways you don't with other cameras.
There are numerous issues to overcome with a rangefinder like this. Though the wider angle of view in the finder lets you see things that are about to enter the frame, it's difficult to compose with any degree of real accuracy. This invariably requires pausing to review your shot to make sure you aligned it properly. The viewfinder also doesn't magnify with the lens, so when using a telephoto like the Leica 75mm, you're still viewing the image from a wide-angle perspective, which makes precise focus accuracy a challenge. It also places a practical limit on telephoto lens design, so the longest native M-mount lens is just 135mm.
Once you adapt to these constraints, however, shooting with the M is a treat. The camera is splash-proof and exceedingly well built, with absolutely no flex to a body that prominently places its "LEICA CAMERA MADE IN GERMANY" designation smack in the center of the back of the camera. One thing from the M9/M9-P we are glad to see gone for good is the 2.5-inch, 230k-dot display. In its place is a more contemporary 3-inch, 921k-dot LCD, which matches what most other cameras offer. We never could figure out why Leica used such a low-rent monitor on the M9/M9-P, as pinching pennies on a $7,000 camera seems unlikely.
The best-performing Leica we've ever seen still has its quirks.
Hey, Leica lovers! Great news: The Leica M is the best-performing Leica we've ever seen. It excelled in every performance test we threw at it. It sets a new high watermark for Leica cameras, using a 24-megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor that sits on par with entry-level full-frame bodies like the Nikon D610, Canon 6D, and Sony A7R.
Hey, Leica haters! Great news: The Leica M is another overpriced full-frame Leica camera that lags behind even cheaper cameras on the market. Its sensor performs well, but not quite a match for cheaper full-frame options such as the Nikon D800, and Canon 5D Mark III.
Okay, now that we've gotten the obligatory fanboy/hater stuff out of the way, let's look at the performance a little more objectively. The Leica M is far, far more advanced than the M9 and M9-P, with performance that holds up much better against contemporary full-frame cameras. It does well enough to satisfy even professional shooters, but it doesn't quite reach the dizzying heights of something like the Nikon D800.
The 24-megapixel full-frame image sensor in the M is excellent, though, capable of around 12 stops of dynamic range in our tests at the base ISO of 200. Noise rises steadily from there, but it's still vastly better than the M9/M9-P, and shots are printable right through ISO 3200 with a little care and post-processing. There's also a pull ISO 100 that does extend dynamic range slightly by retaining better highlights. It isn't really any better than ISO 200—noise actually is slightly greater—but it drops the exposure by about a half-stop, which works to the M's advantage. In general we'd recommend exposing a bit to the left to counteract the strong shoulder exhibited by the M, saving more details in bright areas of the scene.
The M is the first Leica M-series camera with video, and the quality is better than we expected, though still not fantastic. It greatly resembles the early efforts of Nikon and Canon to capture a 1080p signal from a large sensor. The video is fairly sharp and the 75mm f/2.5 lens we used for testing produced some gorgeous focus falloff, but aliasing artifacts abound and motion causes plenty of ghosting and trailing. If you're exclusively interested in shooting high-quality video, you'll want to look elsewhere, but for Leica shooters who want to shoot video with M-mount glass natively, it's more than passable.
In terms of capture speed, the M is a little slower than most. Then again, this is a camera that lacks autofocus, so speed isn't exactly a priority. In terms of just raw shot-to-shot continuous speed you can manage up to three frames per second, but the buffer fills up rather quick. It's enough for quick bursts when street shooting to ensure you don't miss a shot, but not enough for consistently capturing action. Also, in keeping with previous Leica M-series cameras, this M has excellent battery life. In two weeks of testing, shooting, and powering the camera on and off we only had to recharge once.
Leica's M series joins the 21st century
Prior to the M Type 240, choosing to commit to a Leica body meant giving up quite a bit. While Leica bills the M9 and M9-P "Authentic. Natural. Without compromise." the fact is that both cameras required quite a few compromises compared to less expensive full-frame cameras from the last few years. No video, no live view, no focusing aids, no automatic controls, and few frills. The Leica M Type 240 remedies all of these issues, however, delivering a camera that allows you to shoot the way you like while enjoying everything a modern digital camera should be capable of.
Compared to most cameras in its class, the Leica M has a pretty standard feature set. For exposure it is a mostly manual affair, with a shutter speed dial that has an auto function but otherwise maxes out at 1/4000th of a second. It has an ISO range that stretches from ISO 200-3200, with a pulled ISO 100 and pushed ISO 6400 option, as well as an auto setting. Aperture is set only with the physical ring on the lens.
Despite using the rangefinder for focus, the camera has through-the-lens exposure, with bracketing, exposure compensation, and standard metering options like center-weighted average and spot. Be warned: the auto exposure works, but there's often a half-stop of variance from shot to shot and sometimes the camera completely swings and misses, giving you a blown out or overly dark image.
The M records shots to its SD card (located beneath the bottom plate, which you'll have to remove entirely to access the slot) in both DNG and JPEG formats. The camera doesn't have traditional color modes, but can save shots in monochrome, vivid, or smooth color palettes. You can also record video in 1080p, 720p, or VGA modes. The HD video is shot at either 25 or 24fps, with 30fps an option for VGA as well. There's only a mono mic onboard, but it has manual level control if you need and a stereo mic attachment is available.
The other main benefit of the improved sensor readout is live view, with options for focus assists via zoom or peaking. The functionality works very well and it's a big help for those who want to shoot with a Leica but either can't or don't want to deal with focusing via rangefinder. It's also a help for certain subjects where the rangefinding focus system is less than ideal, such as high frequency repeating patterns where it's nearly impossible to tell whether you're actually in focus or the pattern is just repeating to resemble an in-focus image.
If you want the benefits of both a viewfinder and focus aids, you can go with the optional external electronic viewfinder, the Leica EVF-2. Don't buy it. If you want an electronic finder, go with the Olympus VF-2, which is the exact same accessory except it's half the price without the Leica branding. We promise, it's the exact same finder and will work the same with the M Type 240.
The Leica for the modern shooter
Shooting with a Leica has never been easier than it is with the M240. Not only is the new sensor a great performer, but features like live view, video, and focus peaking dramatically expand the overall experience. The M is still a tool designed to take great still photos, but the enhanced performance and larger feature set certainly fill some of the gaping voids in the Leica M9/M9-P's resume.
Unlike most cameras on the market, it's difficult to critically judge the value of a Leica camera. So much of the Leica M's $6,950.00 MSRP is based on aesthetics, on the buyer's naturally subjective desire to own a beautifully made object. Can you buy a better-performing camera for less money? Of course. That's never been a question. But, for the time being anyway, you can't buy a better-performing Leica at any price.
You may have noticed at the top of this review there is no numeric score. We've done this previously with cameras like the Lytro and Leica M Monochrom. This is because we score every camera based on a standard set of rules, principles, goals, and assumptions. Our scores scale based on what we feel the ideal every camera should strive for, as well as how every other camera we've tested performs by those same benchmarks. Our current 10/10 camera, the Nikon D4S, is simply the best performing camera we've ever tested, and our scoring algorithm scales every other camera down from there.
But like the Lytro and the Monochrom, the Leica M can't be scored on that scale because it doesn't strive for the same benchmarks as every other camera. The Leica M may cost about as much as a Nikon D4S, but they're fundamentally different devices. Yes, the ultimate goal is to take beautiful photos, but the Leica strives to let you do that while also engaging with your photography in a way that is different from other cameras on the market.
We won't try to wax poetic about how it's different because it's a Leica, as though shooting with a rangefinder were some inscrutable pleasure that scratches an itch for analog photography etched onto our very soul. No thanks. What we can say is that the Leica M is the product of a design philosophy that is perfectly sure of itself; Leica knows what Leica shooters want and the M delivers it while expanding into some areas that are virgin territory for the company. It's a fine camera by any measure except raw value. Is it worth the money? Can you justify spending $7,000 on a body alone? Matters of personal finance aside, if you're asking that question you probably already know the answer, and there's nothing we've found in our time with the camera that should change your mind.