Disclaimer:I didn’t go to Photokina this year and therefore have not had a chance to handle the Leica M. Since I don’t expect to receive a pre-production model from Leica for a review and it’s very unlikely I will be seeing one in the next 6 months, these are my thoughts on this new release from Leica. Again, this is just my opinion as per specifications posted on the Leica Website and numerous reports from Photokina 2012.
The New M
I must admit I am bit disappointed with the just announced Leica M. Not that I had any features in mind that were not included in the camera, but rather features that made it into the camera that I feel are not necessary. Obviously there are a number of improvements but the balance in the end made me feel that this is not a camera for me and will not replace my M9. I will tell you why…
Few things I really like in the new camera:
1 – Faster Image Processor – Maestro. This should made less painful to review images in the LCD screen, specially when zooming to check focus accuracy.
2 – Splash-proof camera body. Not that I would be planning on taking a rangefinder for a swim, but it is always nice not to worry about the camera when it starts to rain. Caution should be made since the lens are not designed to be splash proof so water can come from that end.
3 – 3” LCD display with 920,000 pixels – Finally matching what is available even on an entry level Nikon dSLR (D3200), this is a huge improvement over the one in the Leica M9 (2.5”, 230,000 pixels).
I have mixed feelings about a few things:
1 – Revised ergonomics and control: Although I am happy with improved resolution of the LCD monitor, I am concerned about its size. Perhaps too big for an M body. The nice, newly designed, multidirectional button almost seems too close to the right edge of the camera, kind of pushed by the large LCD. I wonder if using the same 2.5” screen but with a better resolution would keep the ergonomics at the same time would save some battery juice. The new screen was also blamed on the added thickness and weight of the new camera when compared to the M9.
The new thumb rest seems small and might not be as good as the Matchtechnical Thumbs Up (and the one for the M9 is unlikely to fit the new M). The new control wheel is a nice addition and I hope it does not get in the way like the Fuji X100 “Command Button” does.
Truth be told: only with the camera in hands one can make a comment about its ergonomic and newly arranged controls. However, those were my concerns.
2 – New battery: Larger, bulkier and heavier, the new battery should allow you to take many more pictures in one charge. But if you are planning on keeping your M9/M8/MM as a backup or second body just be ready to carry two chargers, extra batteries for both cameras, etc. The new battery is supposed to have more charge and allow more pictures to be taken but I wonder if it was actually designed bigger to allow video recording and powering the new large monitor, more pictures was just a consequence of that.
3 – CMOS Sensor: I understand in part why Leica wants to develop their own sensor. First is to make sure it conforms to the lens design and housing of the sensor in a rangefinder body. Second to differentiate from other companies and give a “Leica feel” to the image. The biggest problem I have with the M9 is the low light performance. I rarely use ISO above 800 and when I do, I convert the image to B&W since the noise is just terrible. Above 1600 is a no no even when converting to B&W. I always thought that this poor high ISO performance was to boost the sales of the Noctilux! My hope was, when moving to CMOS sensor, new horizon would open and we would see ISO as high as the ones seen on Canon dSLRs (up to 25,600 – boost to 102,400 on the 5DMkIII and the new 6D). Unfortunately the new Leica M ISO goes up to 6,400. This is less than the M9’s modified CCD featured on the Leica Monochrom (10,000). I’ve seen some amazing images at ISO 6400 and some very usable images at 10,000 with the Monochrom. Other than the pictures featured on the pdf Leica M brochure , there is no pre-production Leica M jpg or RAW available out there as far as I know. At some point I was evenhoping that Leica would use a modified Sony or Canon sensor since those are proven to be good. Developing from “ground up” is tough, may have some hiccups but I hope in the end it was the best choice. Only after we see images of the production camera we will be able to judge the quality and low light performance of the M.
4 – R Lens adapter – Kudos to Leica to make available an adapter to integrate the dead R system. This is very welcomed to the ones that have a number of R lenses or if you want to use your M camera to take macro pictures or use long and zoom lenses. The peak focusing system still have to prove itself as an accurate and easy way to focus. Obviously its better than having your old lenses collecting dust since you no longer use your R body. You will have to use either the external viewfinder or the Live View Mode.
5 – Accessories – It’s great to see Leica coming with a brand new set of dedicated accessories for the M. The regular Handgrip look way more ergonomic than the one for the M9. It actually looks like the one for the M6, which I love. The Multifunction Handgrip comes with a built in GPS module, which is very cool. Additionally, you have an extra port SCA (same type connections as a hotshoe) to allow the connection of a flash unit in case the one on top of the camera is already used by the external viewfinder or the Mic. Will it allow you to use the Mic and the external viewfinder at the same time? Doesn’t seem so. There is also a USB port for tethered shooting or to transfer files to the computer without removing the SD card. An additional power supply port is provided. To be honest, I don’t know where Leica is going with all of this. GPS is a nice feature, but all those other ports almost seems like a studio camera than a rangefinder. Wouldn’t be nice just to have the GPS unit? Take a look at the pictures below. Is this an elegant solution?The finger Loop for the Handgrip M was inherited from the Leica Titan. It is actually one of the few things I liked about that camera. It does seem to be a nice addition and helps with the handling and gripping.
Things I didn’t like:
1 – Video: I don’t want to be a purist, but do we really need video capability on a camera without autofocus using lens without image stabilization? If you look at the Leica Promo Video where they show a bit of the footage obtained with the M, oh boy, that’s shaky! Ideally you would be using the External Viewfinder for shooting video (where you hope to see better the contrast lines of the focus peaking feature) but wait, you have to chose between the external stereo mic and the EVF (both use the camera hotshoe and connection)? Seems odd, and the more I think about the video on the Leica M, the more I see people getting disappointed with it. One may say: well, don’t like, don’t use. Well.. I would say: if you can’t implement something right, don’t do it. Don’t add the extra electronics, buttons, weight, power consumption, just because you can. Don’t make an excellent photographic camera a poor and rudimentary video camera. You will end up having a M camera that shoots video and still use your iPhone for videos.
2 – Electronic Viewfinder and Live View mode: Is there anything more pathetic than taking a picture looking at the LCD of a camera? Other makers of mirrorless cameras are going in the opposite direction and actually putting the viewfinder back on the camera (Sony NEX 6 & 7 and Fuji X line). Fuji implemented the most elegant solution, in my opinion, with the hybrid viewfinder. I just dream about the day Leica pay the royalties to Fuji and have that implemented in a Leica M (Type 450?). The Electronic viewfinder, no matter how good it is, can’t compare to an optical viewfinder. I’ve used the critically acclaimed EVF of the NEX-7 and it’s not even close to the experience of a optical viewfinder or the hybrid one of the X100. The external EVF (made by Olympus) seems to be very good. I understand people using it on a X2 or other mirrorless cameras that have no viewfinder at all (like the olympus pen line). But it is a design compromise, the whole thing looks bulkier and ugly. Perhaps better off with a small discreet SLR. It shifts from the rangefinder style of shooting to a SLR style.
I understand that live view/EVF is necessary in order to use R lens and the peak focusing system. Again, sure it is good you can use some old lens and other focal lengths that you couldn’t before with a rangefinder, but what the experience will be like? Will this focusing system be fluid and fast as the rangefinder system? I doubt.
The only advantages of having the live view to me is that you can use different wide angle lenses (16mm,18mm, 21mm) without having to buy individual optical viewfinder for each focal length. This can be good for landscape photography, but I doubt I would be using live view for street shooting.
3 – Design. The new M borrows a number of features from the Leica M9 Titanium (that limited edition US$26,000 designed by Walter de’Silva). To be very honest, I didn’t like the Titanium to start with, it looked odd with the candy Leica logo in the middle along with the absent Illumination Window for bright-light frames. Not only looked odd but lacked a few useful design features: eyelets to attach the camera strap, tapped hole for cable release and the Image Field Selector (that small lever on the right side of the lens mount on a Leica M9). Well, that was more of a concept camera, and thankfully two of those features made it back into the Leica M (eyelets and the cable release hole), but not the Image Field Selector (that was also removed from the new M-E). I still have to look at the illuminated frame lines to be convinced but I always liked to use the lever to change the frame lines and see what a different focal length would change my composition.
4 – Simplicity: One of the things I really like about the Leica M9 is how simple the menu system is. I recall when I bought the Nikon D700: I spent days exploring the menus, saving specific profiles and learning all about the camera. When I bought the M9, I looked at the menu for a few minutes and then went out shooting. No long menus to dig in and no numerous setting to learn. All I needed was in my fingertips: ISO, aperture and shutter speed. From what I’ve seen on the Fotokina videos, the new Leica menu is way more complex (in part due to the video settings), but hey, it has a new font!
5 – Tripod thread: This is no longer attached to the base plate but rather on the body of the camera. This means if you have a “rapid release” base plate of a tripod attached to your Leica M, you have to first detach it before opening the camera to change the battery or SD card. If you are using one of the new M handgrips then it wouldn’t matter since the grip is just attached to the base plate (a la M6) and the tripod attached to the grip. I do have a handgrip for the M9 and although it looks ugly and less comfortable than the one for the M6, I always liked the ability of swapping it quickly with the original base plate where my tripod plate is always attached.
My final thoughts
The Leica M may surprise me, it may prove me wrong (and I hope it does), but so far it has not convinced me or excited me to the point of making me pre-order it. The interesting thing is that it made me have a second look at the last true digital rangefinder: The Leica M Monochrom (MM). When first announced I was really excited: Finally a digital M6 loaded with endless TriX. However I was disappointed to hear that the same, but modified, M9 CCD sensor was used. I was afraid it would have the same terrible low light performance as the M9. It was not until recently that the camera started to ship and finally some amazing images started to float on Flickr and Forums. It blew my mind. I was saving for an M10, now I will have to same more for the MM. Perhaps I had the trouble of writing this post just to justify spending even more money on my next camera. Perhaps I am just disappointed at the new Leica M.
Many compared the new strategy on Leica’s product naming (M as opposed to M10) to Apple’s strategy. To be honest I could care less about the name (and M10 would look ugly in the front of the camera though) as long as it provides improvement on image quality and add features pertinent to a photographic camera. I would rather see super high ISO (25,600) than video. A handgrip with an additional battery and GPS alone instead of power port and additional hotshoe port. A unique way to be able to record on the EXIF file the aperture used on the photograph would be extremely useful. Maybe a second SD card slot. Oh and obviously, a nice hybrid viewfinder! I don’t know, I bet there is a lot to improve on a digital rangefinder. I am looking forward to see what Johnny Ive from Apple will do with the limited edition next year. Hopefully the innovations he brings to this one of a kind Leica will make it into the next M (type 450?). Hopefully he will being back simplicity, focus and design back to the M.
On Leica’s website, the M stands for Milestone. To me, unfortunately, the M stands for Mistake. Mistake in trying to make the M a camera something it was not meat to be: a complex video camera with SLR style of shooting, a gizmo. I hope I don’t get into Solms black list and hopefully my MM will arrive soon.