Leica M-E (Typ 220) review

The Leica M-E (Typ 220) is the least expensive digital rangefinder in the company's lineup, appealing to CCD devotees and Leica shooters who have no need for live view.
Photo of Leica M-E (Typ 220)

Even though it’s Leica’s least expensive digital rangefinder, the M-E (Typ 220) ($5,450 list) isn’t a budget camera by any means. It packs the same 18-megapixel full-frame CCD image sensor that was used in the M9-P, and aside from cosmetics and a few minor differences, is the same camera. If you’re stretching your budget in want of a digital Leica, and are averse to buying an M9 or M8 on the used market, the M-E is a viable option, albeit one that doesn’t feature the latest and greatest in technology. If that’s what you’re after, you’ll have to reach a bit further for the M (Typ 240). It costs a full $1,500 more, but it impressed us enough to earn our Editors’ Choice award. 

Design and Features
If you’ve handled an M9 or M9-P, you’ve handled the M-E. Internally it’s the same camera; Lightroom even went as far as to identify its images as coming from an M9. It takes its design cues from film Leicas dating back to the 1950s. The camera is both simple and elegant; there’s a big optical viewfinder in the corner, a shutter speed dial up top, and a spattering of buttons on the back. Aperture and focus are controlled via the lens. The power switch has three on settings, all of which relate to the drive mode. You can set it to single, continuous drive, or self-timer shooting. There’s no hard stop between continuous and the self-timer as there is with the M (Typ 240), so you’ll have to be moderately careful as to not accidentally enable the self-timer. The M-E does use the same shutter button as its more expensive sibling, so you’ll have to invest a few dollars in a new soft release button if you prefer to use one.

The M-E measures 3.1 by 5.5 by 1.7 inches (HWD) and weighs 1.3 pounds. Its body uses the same magnesium chassis as the M9 and M Monochrom, and its top plate is brass. The M-E is only available with an anthracite gray paint finish, which should wear over time to show the brass underneath. This isn’t the case with the Monochrom; its black chrome finish holds up better, but doesn’t display the attractive brassed patina that comes with age and regular use.

The physical differences between the M-E and the M9-P are limited. Leica eliminated the USB port from the body; you’ll have to use a memory card reader to offload photos, as well as the frameline preview lever. This switch, located on the front of the M9-P, allows you to manually change the framelines that show in the finder in order to preview what a scene would look like with another lens. It’s a feature that I’ve used on occasion, but not with such regularity that I missed it when shooting with the M-E. The M9-P protects its rear LCD with a shatter-proof sapphire glass coating. The M-E doesn’t offer that benefit, so you’ll want to add a Schott glass screen protector if you’re concerned about damage; Giottos sells one for the M-E for around $20.

The viewfinder is identical to those found in other digital Leica rangefinders. It’s a 0.68x magnification design, housed in the top corner. When you look through the finder you’ll see a bright square in the center. That shows a double image, which changes as you focus the lens; when the images line up, your shot is in focus. If you’ve not shot with a rangefinder before this may seem a bit odd, but with a little practice you’ll find it to be a quick and accurate manual focus method; like other M cameras, the M-E has no support for autofocus.

Because you’re not viewing images through the lens, framing is approximate, and indicated by a bright outline shown in the finder. There are three pairs of lines that change based on the attached lens: 28mm and 90mm, 35mm and 135mm, and 50mm and 75mm. The frameline pairs are illuminated by a frosted window on the front of the camera. You’ll need to move up to the M (Typ 240), or hunt down the limited edition M9 Titanium on the used market, if you want LED framelines. Those are a recent innovation, but are clearly visible when shooting in extremely dim conditions; if there’s very little ambient light, the M-E’s framelines will be a bit hard to see.

The M-E only has a few controls. There is a shutter release, power switch, and the shutter speed dial on top, and the rear houses a spattering of buttons related to image playback and menu settings. The lone rear button that directly changes a shooting setting is the ISO control, although it is possible to set the rear control wheel to adjust exposure compensation.

The menu system is text based and fairly straightforward. You can adjust the shutter advance mode, JPG resolution, and manually tell the camera what lens you have attached, but chances are you won’t be spending a ton of time diving through settings once the camera is configured. If you are using newer, 6-bit coded lenses—these have a series of white and black dots on the inside of the mount that the camera can read to identify the focal length and maximum aperture—you can just set lens detection to automatic.

The rear LCD is the weakest point of the M-E. It’s the same 2.5-inch, 230k-dot display that Leica first used on the M8, a camera that was released in 2006. You can magnify images during playback, but even in doing so it’s not feasible to confirm you’ve nailed focus on a shot via the display. If you want Leica with a sharper LCD, the M (Typ 240) is your only option; its 3-inch, 920k-dot display is excellent. But even the most expensive digital M, the Monochrom, uses the old, low-resolution LCD.

Older film M cameras are bottom loaders—you have to remove a plate to load and unload film. In order to change the memory card or battery on the M-E, the bottom plate must still be removed. There is an aftermarket solution to rectify this—the Luigi M-Mate (available with or without a handgrip) features hinged doors so you can change the battery and memory card without removing the bottom plate.

Performance and Conclusions
The M-E starts and takes a photo in just about 0.7-second and can shoot short bursts of photos with a 0.6-second delay between shots in continuous drive mode. There’s virtually no shutter lag, and as it’s a manual focus camera that speed is only limited by your skill. Continuous shooting is limited to 7 shots at a clip; if you’re shooting in raw+JPG you’ll have to wait 38 seconds for all the files to write to the card, but you’ll be able to shoot another photo as soon as the first has cleared the buffer. That figure drops to 15.4 seconds for Raw photos and 21.5 seconds for JPG. The Leica M (Typ 240) is a bit faster from shot-to-shot; it can shoot at 3.4 frames per second, and can keep that pace for 11 shots in raw or JPG mode with shorter recovery times. It is a bit slower to start up and grab a shot; that takes about 1.7 seconds. All tests were performed using a SanDisk 95MBps memory card.

The M-E ships as a body only, so we restricted our Imatest analysis to noise. The 18-megapixel CCD sensor is the same one that’s found in the M9, so it was no surprise its noise characteristics are the same. The M-E keeps JPG noise under 1.5 percent through its modest top sensitivity setting, ISO 2500. Detail is a little weak there, but not terrible; you can get more detail out of images at that setting if you shoot in Raw mode, you’ll just have to live with an image that’s a bit grainy. Close examination of our ISO test shot on a calibrated NEC MultiSync PA271W shows that the best balance of sensitivity and detail comes at ISO 1600.

The M (Typ 240) is a better performer at higher sensitivities; it keeps noise under control through its top setting of ISO 6400, and does a great job with detail at every sensitivity. The M uses a CMOS sensor, a technology that generally does better at higher ISO settings. There are shooters who swear by CCD sensors for use at lower sensitivities, as they feel that images have a more film-like look. The M-E’s output at lower ISOs is fantastic, but it’s not better or worse than the M’s CMOS image sensor to my eye. Neither camera features a low-pass filter, a design decision that enhances sharpness, but does introduce the possibility of color moiré effects. If you shoot a lot of fabrics or feathers this is a concern, but I’ve bumped into it so seldom that the extra sharpness has always been preferable to the occasional trip to Photoshop to remove some moiré from an image.

If you’re a fan of video recording, look elsewhere. The M-E doesn’t support it, nor does it have any digital input or output ports. There’s only a single card slot that supports SD, SDHC, and SDXC cards, and you’ll have to remove the camera’s baseplate to access it. The M-E didn’t recognize our 64GB card, but a 32GB card worked without issue. There’s no flash built into the camera, but a standard hot shoe is there to accommodate an on-camera strobe or a PocketWizard.

When we reviewed the M9-P last year we gave it a four-star rating. The M-E is less expensive, and is for all functional purposes the same camera, but we’re rating it half-star lower. The landscape has changed, and you can now buy the M (Typ 240) for less money than Leica charged for the M9-P. It’s a more versatile camera, with a higher-resolution 24-megapixel image sensor, live view, weather-sealing, and a big, sharp rear display. We liked that camera enough to give it our Editors’ Choice award, and feel that the extra value it delivers is worth more than its higher asking price. But it is $1,500 more expensive, which is not an insignificant difference. If the M’s features don’t appeal to you, and if you’re happy shooting at ISO 2500 or below, the M-E is a solid option for any rangefinder enthusiast in want of a digital camera. The image quality is superb when paired with a good lens, and for some photographers there’s simply no substitute for the manual focus experience a rangefinder patch provides. Those on a tighter budget could also consider a second-hand M9; you’ll gain a frameline preview lever, but lose the M-E’s 2-year warranty. And for black-and-white purists, the Monochrom is there, but that commands $2,500 more than the M-E.

Specifications
Boot time 0.7 seconds
Dimensions 3.1 x 5.5 x 1.5 inches
Weight 1.3 lb
Image Stabilization None
Video Resolution No
Megapixels 18 MP
Battery Type Supported Lithium Ion
LCD Aspect Ratio 4
LCD dots 230000
LCD size 2.5 inches
Lens Mount Leica M
Shutter Lag 0 seconds
Recycle time 0.6 seconds
Touch Screen No
Media Format Secure Digital, Secure Digital High Capacity, Secure Digital Extended Capacity
Maximum ISO 2500
GPS No
Type Compact Interchangeable Lens
Sensor Size Full-Frame (24 x 36mm) mm
Viewfinder Type Optical
Sensor Type CCD

Verdict
The Leica M-E (Typ 220) is the least expensive digital rangefinder in the company's lineup, appealing to CCD devotees and Leica shooters who have no need for live view.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc