On a business trip to Europe last month, I had some extra time and went to Bordeaux to check out some great wines. On my last day, in a very small camera store right next to my hotel, I glanced a silver Leica M (Type 240).
From a distance, I thought it was a mirage, or at best, a mockup/demo. (Understand, I placed an order for the M the day it was announced in September 19th of LAST year and still don’t have an ETA as of mid-June.) Even though I was late for the airport, I decided to at least check out the camera. Sure enough, it was a working model and I wanted to purchase it – just not the silver one. Assuming failure, I still asked the store clerk (in very bad French) if they had a black version. After much discussion amongst themselves and several minutes later, they brought out a brand new black one!
I immediately purchased it, processed the duty free form and headed to the airport. Anyway, here is my initial review of the new M camera. This is coming from an amateur novice photographer who came from a Nikon background and still owns (and uses from time-to-time) a D700 and D4 that is just a gadget geek and also own the M8, M8.2 and M9. Even though my background is scientific, this is not a scientific review, but more a “software” (since I ran a software company in a prior life) and general usability review since that is what you really want to do with a camera – use it and take great pictures.
First of all, I really love this camera. I really liked using the M9 and with my 3rd Range Finder (RF) camera, I felt I was getting the hang of taking pretty good pictures with it. Unfortunately, the M9 was still frustrating in low light conditions and focusing. In regards to focusing, without getting into the details of RF cameras, if the lens and body aren’t perfectly calibrated, when focusing a high performance (i.e., 50mm f/0.95) Leica lens (which is why you use Leica), the image will come out blurry and unfocused. This has happened to me several times even though I swore I took the time to meticulously focus.
With Leica switching imaging sensors from an 18MP CCD based Kodak sensor to a custom 24MP CMOS based CMOSIS sensor, it gave the two big features (again, not going to debate CCD vs CMOS because the M looks great). The first is “Live View” where you can focus using the 3” 920K pixel LCD display on the back of the camera. This addresses the calibration issue above by letting you do a sanity check of your focus just in case the alignment is off. The second feature CMOS allows is the recording of video (up to 25fps @ 1080p). Some other benefits, I believe that this camera derives from using a CMOS sensor includes greater dynamic range (important – later), higher ISO support (to address low light issues) and multi-field metering (whereas, the old Leica only had center-weighted metering).
Multi-field metering, is actually quite helpful as older Leica’s had to manually meter with a mushy half press of the shutter, hold (again, on a mushy trigger), recompose and finish the press to shoot. While the multi-field/matrix measuring sometimes doesn’t work correctly and is slightly slower than the other options, it does a hell of a lot better than me. With the current firmware (126.96.36.199), it seems like the multi-field calculations are very sensitive and will tend to miscalculate with even a small lighting change in the background. A good way to test this is to take several photos in sequence using continuous burst mode (3 fps of up to 8 pictures). You will notice that each picture will be shot at a slightly (or quite a lot) different exposure. However, due to the higher dynamic range of the sensor, when you under or over expose, there is a lot a latitude available for correction in apps like Photoshop.
One other benefit of “Live View” is the better support for the full lineup of M lenses. Up until the M9, the RF system used frame lines in the viewer to show you area of coverage. This explanation gets complicated without explaining the RF system in detail. Nevertheless, the M9 frame lines only “natively” supported 24mm – 135mm (though 135mm was pretty useless since it’s almost impossible to focus on an RF system).
I am also using the Electronic View Finder (EVF) option on my Leica M. It attaches to the hot shoe of where the flash usually goes. This is basically a small display that shows everything the Live View display. It is a lower contrast, lower refresh rate and lower resolution display so it doesn’t accurately reproduce colors like the Live View window does. However, it gets the job done. The only thing I would fix on this is the “power” button requirement to switch between Live View and the EVF. Finally, the swivel on the EVF should have a little more resistance. When you put your eye to it, you tend to push it upwards into an awkward position.
With Live View/EVF, you have also the option of Focus Peaking. This feature will let you know (through a red dotted line around the subject) what area the lens is currently focused on. This is very useful when it’s difficult to find the exact plane you have focus on. However, what is ironic about this is that when shooting at a faster aperture (especially f/1.4, f/0.95), the depth-of-field and focus area (obviously) is much shallower and thus, the red “outline” is perhaps only one pixel wide (e.g., very hard to see). While I understand the logic and you tend to see a much broader red “brush strokes” outlining the depth-of-field on a slower aperture, you tend to know the focus area already. Therefore, I hope that in the next firmware, there is a minimum pixel width or flashing or movement or another color sandwiching the actual depth-of-field line. Also, to help with the focusing, there is a badly documented feature called the “Focus Assist” button (in the front of the camera above the lens release button) which, if pressed, will let you zoom into the picture (center only) at either 5x or 10x magnification. It takes getting used to, but once you get used to it, it is that much more helpful in getting that perfect focus. The only problem is, since it can only zoom on the center, you may have to “find” the focus area (especially at 10x), recompose and shoot – all while going back-and-forth between normal view and 10x magnified.
I am not going to cover video here because I have not tried to play with it as much. With the little playing I did do, I realize that shooting a movie takes completely different skills to even make watchable. Other than that, some other comments:
1) While the M (240) is much quieter than the M9 (which was already quiet), there are a lot of clicking shutter noises that tend to confuse you when are in a rush to take a picture immediately after power on. This probably has to do with using the multi-field option where the camera calculates exposure from the sensor and thus, the shutter has to be open. So: power on, brief pause, shutter opens (‘did I accidentally take a shot?’), metering starts, shutter closes to end metering – which, by the way, sounds just like when you take a photo.
2) Startup time takes a little longer – ~2 seconds.
3) When quickly scrolling through letters (when setting the copyright notice) the camera will lock up.
4) GPS is unfortunately a bulky add-on (which isn’t available until later in the summer). It’s unfortunate they couldn’t include that in the camera – especially when the menu keeps taunting you about the features settings.
5) There is now a horizon level display. It is probably only useful when setting up a tripod. Unfortunately, when taking a picture, there is no way (yet) to bring up the horizon level within Live View or the EVF.
6) Taking video is a great option that I’ll talk about in the future. The only immediate issue is the location of the button being too close to the shutter as I have taken several movies by accident. Finally, when taking a movie, it is not obvious in any of the display that you are doing so.
7) The menu is tremendously improved but is somewhat complicated by both the Setting Dial and the Direction Pad doing the same thing (scrolling) and/or the Set button being duplicated by the Info button on the Direction Pad (but not always consistently).
[For pictures samples, visit my FaceBook page here.]