Leica M – “Camera for Bloggers”The Full Review
It was early in 2014, long enough after the introduction of the Leica M (also known as the ‘Typ 240’, or ‘M10’) when I finally bit the bullet and decided to sell my trusty Leica M-E for this newest, rather different digital rangefinder camera from the German niche camera maker.
Basics and Usage
Leica M cameras are ‘rangefinder’ type cameras, which is something different than an SLR. The main difference between an SLR (‘Single-lens reflex’, like Canon or Nikon’s cameras) and a rangefinder is the viewfinder and focusing mechanism. With the SLR, the camera user always sees through the lens. Effectively, your view of the world is entirely the same as your lens, and once you release the shutter a mirror moves the image onto the sensor or film. Rangefinder cameras are mirror-less and do not operate in this way: they have a little window which shows a set of lines overlaid on the image that correspond to what your lens will capture. Looking through the viewfinder, it looks like this:
Note you can even see the lens on your camera in the bottom right!
The bright patch in the middle is for focusing. Rangefinder based focusing is one of the older technologies for capturing a sharp image and works incredibly simply: as you turn the focusing ring on the lens it pushes in a cam on the camera which in turn moves a prism near the viewfinder that projects a horizontally offset image of what you are focusing on on top of your viewfinder. Once these two images — the projected, offset image — and the regular image of what you are framing are overlapping, the focus is accurate.
Leica has an excellent reputation as one of the best camera lens makers in the world, and the M line of cameras has an incredible variety of glass.
Thanks to the all-mechanical aspect of the lenses — no autofocus, all-metal — even some of the oldest Leica lenses from many decades ago work perfectly with the modern M camera. With the new M, you can also adapt a huge variety of lenses from established camera brands like Canon, Nikon, Sigma and even Leica’s old R-line of SLR lenses, thanks to the new camera’s sensor being a CMOS.
The previous Leica M camera, the M9, used a CCD sensor. While it gave it lovely colors and a more pleasant-looking noise pattern, it had poor high ISO performance and no movie or Live View capabilities.
The newer M, with its CMOSIS CMOS sensor can indeed now record movies or show the photographer exactly what the lens is seeing with ‘Live View’: a video feed right from the sensor. It’s a fantastic addition: not only does it offer more options for focusing and exposure checking, it also eliminates one of the drawbacks of a rangefinder camera: putting a long telephoto lens on it is now completely viable through the use of the electronic viewfinder (EVF) or the screen on the back.
Leica makes some of the world’s most beautiful cameras, which has the somewhat sad side effect that what seems like a majority of Leica shooters don’t really go out and use their cameras. I often get called out at serious shoots on sets or at music festivals by astonished photographers that find it insane that I actually take it out to shoot with. A bit embarrassing, isn’t it? If you aren’t going to use your camera for its sole purpose — taking photos — what good is it?
The M comes in two colorways: silver chrome and and black. I have typically opted for chrome-finished Leicas. Some people swear by the notion that a rangefinder camera, being the tool of the street photographer, should be as stealthy as possible and thus black. I have found the chrome versions to be a bit nicer looking and reactions much nicer if people are aware their photos are taken anyway — not to mention putting any camera up to your eye will get you noticed, black camera or not. They seem to hold a higher value, too, for a reason I am completely unaware of.
An added benefit of the classic look of silver chrome and black leather is that people almost always assume it is a film camera, which is generally received with a more warm attitude as well as having the great benefit of letting you take photos without people wanting to see them immediately after.
Functionally speaking, the M has a very minimal take on camera controls: it simply has one dial for setting exposure and a shutter release button. The two buttons on the front are a lens mount release button and a button you can use for focus assist if you use the electronic viewfinder.
Aperture is controlled on the lens itself, and a smattering of buttons are on the back of the camera to view images as well as adjust ISO other and settings.
Leica’s lenses are something else entirely as far as design goes, as well. ‘Design’ is often misunderstood to be a mere aesthetic flourish or a lick of paint, but for Leica it’s not just the impeccable color highlights and typography on the lens that makes them a design leader. Their products have a tactile sensation that’s not quite unlike the feeling of an ultra-high end car door, or a finely tuned motorcycle gearbox. I can’t actually think of a single physical object that has as pleasant and satisfying of a tactile feedback as the aperture ring on Leica’s top tier lenses. You may only have manual control — Leica’s M lenses are simply metal and glass, with no electronics — but the treat is that the manual controls feel exceptionally good.
Where many camera lenses offer a shoddy feeling plastic hood, Leica’s lens hood literally just slides out, and completely vanishes into the lens barrel design when not in use.
Newer lenses even have the hood lock into place – and thus, putting a hood on your lens is as simple as 1, 2, 3: