REVIEW – LEICA M
I am going to open this review stating I know I am very late to the game with this! The Leica M240 has been on the market now for five years and is certainly not a new camera. There has even been a new model released since, the Leica M10 earlier this year in January 2017. But, over the course of the last three major digital M releases, (the M8 was not full frame, so I won’t compare that here), the M9, M240 and M10 are overall the same camera with minor changes. The rangefinder concept and camera features stay consistent with slight improvements with each iteration. (And this is good… when its right, its right!)
So due to these minor upgrades, I feel this review that will focus much less on the tech features than the overall user experience, can be very helpful to those thinking about moving to the Leica system. It was these kinds of reviews that really helped me make this decision when I was researching and looking to purchase my first Leica.
When I purchased my Leica M camera almost two years ago (2015), it was certainly not a decision that I made lightly. Leica is a brand that is both compassionately loved for quality and heritage and notoriously hated for its polarizing prices. I am defiantly not a rich dentist or surprise beneficiary of the lotto / dead relatives, so I had to really consider and research my decision to buy into the Leica M system.
SO WHY DID I BUY A LEICA M?
There were a number of factors that amounted to my decision to switch from being a very happy Canon and Fuji photographer (and both are still fantastic systems) to Leica, and they were:
The want of a more analog feeling to my hobby. I spend all day looking at screens in my job and I wanted to get away from that. The lack of an EVF, manual focus lenses with a menu system that I don’t have to touch and physical controls and dials was very refreshing with the M. All of this without giving up the convenience of digital over film.
The incredible lenses. When searching online I continually found myself drawn to images taken with Leica lenses. They have a way of capturing the light, that to me, has a more artistic and cinematic feeling yet still retaining an incredible amount of detail and micro contrast.
- Inspiration and joy of use. Taking photos is something I do for enjoyment, so the tool I am using has to be one that encourages me to pick it up and get outside. After using one initially at the Leica Store in Los Angeles and then more extensively when I borrowed one from a friend, I loved the experience. To me, this is by far one of the most important reasons for purchase, and one that is often downplayed. Its the reason I can’t use Sony cameras which are obviously technically superior, they just aren’t fun to use.
- Build Quality. I love well made things. I live an 100 year old house and have old furniture from the 1930’s. Its not expensive stuff, but its beautifully made, and made to last. I know when I purchase Leica gear it will be made beautifully and solid as a tank and only ‘needed’ to be replaced because I want new things, not because its worn out.
The other reason I wanted to write about the Leica M240 is that since the M10 has come out there are a lot of used M240’s in fantastic condition available. Its a great way to get into the Leica platform with less initial cost outlay.
To me, the Leica M10 feels more like an Apple iPhone ’S’ version of an update. Its obviously improved in a few key areas, the sensor is better for high ISO with less noise (that would be the key reason for my upgrade), there is a ISO dial on the side of the camera which is nice. It’s thinner, also another good thing to have. And finally the viewfinder is better. Its bigger and clearer which I can see being another reason for potential upgrade.
But there are some elements of the 240 I would miss. The battery is a lot smaller in the M10. The battery in the M240 is amazing. I can get well over 1000 shots on a single battery and often up to 1500. It has a horizon line level which the M10 does not, which I love.
However, like a Porsche 911, the design of the Leica M is classic and changes very little. Using it feels much the same as you move between versions, and to me the experience of using an M is what makes us lust over purchasing one. So whats it like to use? Lets find out!
It is so different to any other camera system. The whole Leica philosophy is simplicity. It takes very little time to work out how to use the camera, but is a fun challenge to master. The viewfinder is optical with digital frame lines and a very simple readout to let you know if the image is over or under exposed. Its looks like this: < • >. The < means its under, the • is exposed correctly and the > is over. Being this basic means its so easy to make the changes at a glance and keep your focus on what matters, the image you are photographing.
But looking through this optical viewfinder is amazing compared to even the best digital EVF. Its so clear, bright, and seeing outside the frame lines, for me, has really upped my game when composing a shot. I see what else I can include, or exclude from my images.
MENU & CONTROLS:
The menu system is also very simple. There is just two pages to work through. After the first time I set up the camera, I find I barely use the menu as all the major controls are on the camera. The only buttons I really press is ISO so that I can scroll through and make changes and INFO to check the histogram on certain images.
Otherwise, all the major controls like shutter speed, aperture and exposure compensation are physical dials on the camera and lens. I love this as it removes the digital element and I don’t even have to look down at the camera to know what I am changing.
The 24 megapixel sensor is fantastic and coupled with the incredible Leica lenses, renders fantastic colors and detail. It has an overall good dynamic range with a lot of details in both the shadows and highlights which can be drawn out in post-processing. It can shoot to 6400 ISO with a very usable level of noise. I usually keep it around 3200 maximum without any worry at all. The noise looks nice on this sensor too, it has a filmic feel to it which I like.
You cant really talk about this camera without mentioning the lenses. They are amazing and one of the primary reasons for using Leica gear. You can read more in depth articles on Leica lenses HERE, but the main thing to discuss in this review is that they are manual focus only on the Leica M. This is something I personally love. Manual lenses are also great for low light. Ever had an autofocus lens search constantly to find something to lock onto in the dark? None of that here!
Its by far the hardest part of the switch to Leica to master, especially when using the faster aperture lenses with the very small depth of field. Lenses like the Summilux and razor thin focus of the 50mm Noctilux f/0.95 take some time to get a high hit rate of in focus shots. But this challenge to me makes it very enjoyable. Its certainly not a camera for high speed sports or maybe even to capture your fast moving kids unless you want lots of blurry memories. But for street and landscape photos, its hard to beat.
The rangefinder focus mechanism is very simple and seems amateurish compared to the whizz-bang features of modern DSLR cameras of today. When looking through the viewfinder your will see a center box or patch where the image looks like it has doubled up or come out of alignment. You slowly move the focusing tab on the lens until the element you want in focus in your photo lines up, meaning this part of the image will be focus!
The interesting thing is at first this seems so slow and clunky you wonder why the hell Leica would keep this feature! But with practice you start to realize the brilliance of this simplicity and I can honestly say you become extremely quick and accurate at focusing. When I have been out shooting with people who have not experienced this kind of camera before, they tend to be very surprised at how fast I am at focusing and nailing the shot.
You also find tricks that help a lot as your get more experience with the camera. The biggest one for me is zone or pre-focusing. I find I use this a lot, utilizing the markings on the lens barrel that tell you the distances between what will be in focus. The other way is to pre-focus on a point in a scene and wait for the action to enter that area. This is how I took many of the basketball and skateboard photos at Venice Beach.
This camera is not for everyone. My Dad played with mine and really disliked it. He loves the lenses and images it creates, but the focusing mechanism is just not for him, and as he says, “not enough bells and whistles!” But, if you are looking for a different way of taking photos or the best possible way to utilize Leica’s amazing lenses, the Leica M240 or Leica M10 is the camera for you. Its such a beautifully made camera and its so fun to take photos with. My wife was terrified at the initial cost and if I would use it enough to justify the price. But since having it over the last two years, that worry has not been an issue. This camera makes me want to get out and take photos, and I have taken more than I have ever before. To me, thats all the matters when purchasing a new toy!
WHERE TO BUY?
There are a number of places I would highly recommend for purchasing your Leica M. The local Leica gallery stores are great if you have one in your city, but my main choice when buying anything Leica is Ken Hansen.
Leica Dealer in New York (no tax!) who is a legend. He is the biggest seller of Leica gear in the US and has no store or website – just great service.
A massive store and online presence with a great return policy if anything goes wrong and free shipping.
So easy to deal with, free shipping with Prime and great return policy.