Leica M (Typ 240) review

The Leica M (Typ 240) is the camera that many a rangefinder photographer has been waiting for. It fixes many of the issues of previous models, but it doesn't come cheap.
Photo of Leica M (Typ 240)

Leica just calls it the M, but we’re going to refer to its latest digital rangefinder by its longer model name, the M (Typ 240) ($6,950 list). The long-awaited replacement for the M9-P dropped the numbering scheme that has identified Leica rangefinders since the M3 was introduced in 1954, and while its design still takes many of its cues from earlier bodies, it’s a camera that is filled with 21st century digital technology. It’s the first Leica rangefinder to use a CMOS image sensor, which allows for live view and adds compatibility with Leica R and other SLR lenses via adapters. It’s not without some room for improvement: It’s a little slow to start up and fire off a shot, and the 1080p video is marred by the rolling shutter effect. Despite a few flaws and foibles, the 24-megapixel M is the most refined digital camera that Leica has yet produced. It’s a huge step forward from the M9-P, and isn’t as much of a niche product as the excellent, but black-and-white only, M Monochrom. The camera impressed us enough to earn an Editors’ Choice award; rangefinder aficionados who aren’t exclusively black-and-white photographers would be well-served with the M.

Design and Features
Digital Leica rangefinders have been a bit thicker than their film counterparts since Leica’s first attempt, 2006′s M8. The M is no different. It measures about 3.1 by 5.5 by 1.7 inches (HWD), but its brass and magnesium construction gives it a heavy-for-its-size weight of 1.5 pounds. The camera’s design is elegant in its simplicity. The M is just a teensy bit larger than the Monochrom; it measures 3.2 by 5.5 by 1.5 inches, and is just a bit lighter at 1.4 pounds. The older M9-P and its newer clone, the M-E (a $5,450 camera that is, for all intents and purposes, an M9 in a different color and with a few minor changes), share the Monochrom’s form factor. The M is available in black paint or chrome. Be aware that the black paint will wear over time to reveal the brass underneath. Some are in love with this natural patina; but if you want a cleaner look over time, go with the chrome.

There are a few other differences—gone is the frameline illumination window, a textured milky piece of plastic that used to live where the red Leica logo is on the M. Instead the framelines are now illuminated using internal LED lights—and you have your choice of red or white lines. This means that you won’t be able to pick up the camera and see the framelines when it’s turned off, but you also won’t struggle to see them in dim lighting. The 0.68x magnification finder keeps the same sets of framelines that have been built into the M series since the M9—depending on the lens that’s mounted you’ll see 28mm and 90mm, 35mm and 135mm, or 50mm and 75mm. The frameline preview toggle switch is gone, so you won’t be able to change the lines to get an idea of what a shot would look like with a lens of a different focal length attached. Eyeglass wearers like myself may struggle to see the 28mm lines, but can use the accessory EVF, a traditional accessory OVF, or the rear LCD for precise framing.

The shutter is noticeably quieter than it has been in previous models; M8 owners complained about its loud shutter, and Leica introduced a discrete advanced mode to help lessen its noise. The M8.2 introduced a quieter shutter mechanism, which carried over to the M9. The M’s shutter is noticeably shutter than previous models. It’s not as whisper quiet as the M3′s cloth shutter, but it’s not anything like the “thunk” that M8 shooters were greeted with upon snapping a photo.

There are a couple of new buttons scattered about the body. On the front, above and slightly off axis from the lens release, is a nondescript silver button that activates the live view manual focus assist system. On top you’ll find the old shutter speed dial, power switch, and shutter release. But there’s also a small button marked M that starts video recording. Drive mode is still controlled via the power switch—it has settings for off, single shooting, continuous shooting, and self-timer shooting. Leica has changed the design of the switch so that extra effort is required to enable the self-timer, a welcome change as it was easy to accidentally bump the switch over to that setting in past models. The thread pitch in the shutter release has also changed a bit. I tried a few shutter release cables and they all worked without issue, but those do vary so you may have to invest a few dollars in a new release cable if the one you have laying about doesn’t work. If you’re a fan of a soft shutter release accessory, you’ll likely have to invest in a new one. Leica accessory designer Tom Abrahamsson sells custom-made soft releases that are compatible with the M through his website for $20.

There’s a thumb rest on the rear of the camera, likely inspired by the popular Thumbs Up accessory grips that many M9 shooters swear by, and an accessory port underneath the hot shoe. A column of control buttons to the left of the rear LCD are labeled LV (for live view), Play, Delete, ISO, Menu, and Set. To the right is a simple four-way controller with a center Info button. The functions of these are all self-explanatory; one thing that’s missing as a direct control is exposure compensation. It was adjustable by turning the rear control wheel of older models, but here it must be accessed via the short Set menu. The body itself is sealed against dust and splashes. I wouldn’t recommend shooting a $7,000 camera in a heavy downpour, but I used the M in a light rain without encountering any issues.

There’s a big optical viewfinder in the top right corner of the camera’s façade, and a second, smaller window towards the left side. That window captures a small patch of light, and together with the viewfinder serves as the rangefinder mechanism. When you peer through the rear viewfinder, the center is brighter than the surrounding area, because it shows light from both windows. When your lens is out of focus the image shown in this bright center portion will be ghosted—you’ll see two separate areas of your frame. When the lens is perfectly focused the two patches line up to form a single image. To the uninitiated this may sound a little convoluted, but with a bit of practice you’ll find that it’s quicker to manually focus a rangefinder than an SLR, even one with a microprism or split-image focus screen.

Live View
Of course, the viewfinder isn’t the only way to focus the M. For the first time, Leica has delivered a digital rangefinder with live view support. Pressing the LV button on the rear of the camera brings a through-the-lens live feed to the rear LCD. The display is 3 inches in size and quite sharp at 920k dots, and quite bright, even in sunlight. There are a couple of manual focusing aids that will help you bring images in to crisp view when shooting in this mode. Pressing the silver button on the front of the M magnifies the center of the frame to five or ten times normal size, and turning the silver control wheel on the rear thumb rest toggles between the magnification settings. There’s also focus peaking, which highlights in-focus parts of the frame in red. I found that this worked best at 5x magnification; the effect is a little too subtle at 10x. 

If you’re not a fan of using the rear LCD to compose images, there is an add-on EVF available for the M. It’s the same EVF2 ($499) that’s compatible with the X2 and X Vario. If you don’t want to spend $500 on an EVF, you’ll be happy to know that the Olympus VF-2 ($249.99) works perfectly, and aside from the logo on the front is the exact same lens. The new Olympus VF-4, which earned our Editors’ Choice award, sadly does not work with the M at this time; Leica would have to issue a firmware update for the camera in order to add compatibility, and is only likely to do so if it releases its own version of the VF-4.

We’re talking a lot about live view. Dyed-in-the-wool rangefinder shooters are likely wondering why, as the optical finder in a Leica is second to none and rangefinder focusing is very quick and quite precise. But there are limitations. The framelines you see in the viewfinder are approximations of what you get; they’re optimized for focusing on an object that’s two meters from the camera, and if you’re working closer or further away, the field of view will change slightly. The solution has always been to frame loose and crop later, but now you have the option of seeing exactly what the lens will capture.

Live view also opens up the possibility of using the M to mount lenses designed for use with other cameras. Leica’s R SLR system is without a modern digital body, and Leica is marketing the M to R owners who would like to use their lenses digitally with full-frame coverage. That adapter is priced at $310, but third-party adapters for R and other SLR lenses can be had for much less. I paired the M with some Pentax lenses via a $40 adapter from Fotodiox during my testing; Pentax has yet to release a full-frame digital body, and that’s a shame as my experience and our lab tests showed that the FA 31mm f/1.8 Limited lens is a spectacular performer when paired with the M.

Likewise, telephoto and macro shooting is a weak point with rangefinders. The longest M-mount lens you can buy is a 135mm; the current version is an f/3.4, but the older f/2.8 version is readily available on the used market, and macro options have always involved adding a spacer or parallax-correcting goggles to specialized lenses. More adventurous shooters could invest in a Visoflex, which essentially turns your M into an SLR, complete with a mirror box, focusing screen, and eye-level viewfinder. That accessory, which gives an M a bit of a Frankenstein look, is no longer in production, and you could spend years of your life learning about all of the adapter rings and other accessories that make up the complete Visoflex system. Again, with an inexpensive adapter, I can mount a classic lens like the Micro-Nikkor 55mm f/2.8 AIS ($389) and capture macro shots in live view mode. And because the lens iris is controlled manually, you get a real-time feed showing you the actual focus and depth of field—there’s no need to hold down a depth of field preview button as you do on an SLR.

The M retains the same 6-bit code reader on its lens mount as its digital predecessors. It’s a simple optical device that reads a series of black and white squares on modern Leica lenses to identify which lens is attached. The camera has built-in profiles to adjust for vignetting and corner color shifts for wide-angle lenses, and it also adds the identity of the attached lens to the EXIF data. If you use older lenses that aren’t coded, or modern third-party lenses from Zeiss or Voigtlander, you can manually select a lens profile.

The code reader has a new function with the M; it makes sure that a lens is attached and prevents you from engaging live view if it doesn’t detect one. This is a good idea in theory, as you don’t want to accidentally expose the sensor to the elements when a lens isn’t attached, but I did run into an issue with some of my older Leica Thread Mount (LTM) to M adapters. These allow you mount Leica lenses from the 1950s and earlier to an M body. A few of my adapters didn’t cover the code reader, but they are quite old. Modern Leica and Voigtlander adapters will work without issue, and if you scour eBay you can find adapters with machined divets so that you can apply your own 6-bit code to adapted lenses. They’re inexpensive and will save you the trouble of manually selecting a lens profile when using LTM lenses with the M.

Live view also delivers more advanced metering options than are available when shooting with the optical finder. The M and previous digital models employ a metering strip that runs diagonal across the shutter leaves; it’s always been accurate, but limited to a strongly center-weighted pattern. When you shoot in live view mode you can select from multi-field metering (across the entire frame), center-weighted metering, or spot metering. When spot metering is selected an outline is shown on the live view display that corresponds to the metering area. I normally set cameras to center-weighted, but used the multi-field metering a bit with the M. I took the same shot (above) using the optical finder and then again in live view with multi-field; the subject was in shadow at the left of the frame, with a strong backlight. The center-weighted metering underexposed (but not the point where I wasn’t able to adjust the photo in Lightroom), but multi-segment metering absolutely nailed it. 

One item of note is that the M is a bit quirky when it comes to shooting with the ISO set to Auto. You can set the maximum ISO, and also a minimum shutter speed (either at a reciprocal value of the focal length of the attached lens, or a set value), which is the way it should be. But if you adjust the shutter speed manually, auto ISO turns off. The camera doesn’t tell you this—when you hit the ISO button it still says Auto; the setting just defaults to the last set value at which you shot. Hopefully this is something that Leica will address in a firmware update, as many photographers have come to love shooting in what is essentially ISO priority mode—automatic ISO with manual shutter speed and aperture. The M’s native ISO range is 200 through 3200, but ISO 100 and 6400 are available in pull and push modes. The top shutter speed is 1/4,000-second, so Noctilux and Summilux shooters are advised to invest in a good neutral density filter for bright-light shooting, if they don’t have one already.

Performance and Image Quality
The M takes one step back in performance compared with earlier models. We tested its start-up time with an 8GB or 16GB SanDisk 95MBps memory card installed and clocked it at 1.7 seconds—about twice as long as the M Monochrom; if live view is enabled that stretches to 2.1 seconds. But we noticed in testing that the startup speed varied depending on the size of the memory card. Speeds were about a half-second slower all around when testing with a 32GB or 64GB 95MBps card; hopefully this is something that can be addressed via a firmware update, but for now we don’t recommend using the M with cards larger than 16GB.

This is a manual focus camera, so shutter lag is virtually non-existent. In our lab tests we clocked it at between 0 and 0.05-second, and attribute any variation to this reviewer’s reaction time. The M managed to shoot at 3.4 frames per second in continuous drive mode. It kept this pace for 11 JPG, 11 Raw, or 7 Raw+JPG shots before slowing. Raw and Raw+JPG bursts required about 13 seconds to fully write to the card, but the recovery time for JPG was only 7.8 seconds. The M Monochrom is only able to fire shots off at about 1.7 frames per second.

The M ships as a body only, but we tested the sharpness of a few different lenses to see how well they paired with the 24-megapixel sensor. We used Imatest to check the sharpness of two modern Leica lenses, the Elmarit-M 28mm f/2.8 ASPH. and the APO-Summicron-M 50mm f/2 ASPH.. Both were ridiculously sharp, even at maximum aperture—see the full reviews for the test numbers. We also ran tests on the Pentax FA 31mm f/1.8 Limited, mounted via an adapter. At f/1.8 it exceeded the 1,800 lines per picture height that we require for an image to be considered sharp by 73 lines, although edge performance was a bit soft at just 1,560 lines. Stopping down to f/2.8 improved the overall sharpness to 2,759 lines, with edges that exceeded 2,200 lines. Stopping down to f/4 netted 3,417 lines, and the lens peaks at f/5.6 at 3,572. In short, if you put good glass in front of the M’s sensor, whether it be Leica or an adapted lens of stellar optical quality, you’ll be rewarded with sharp photos.

Like other digital Leica rangefinders before it, there’s no optical low-pass filter covering the sensor. This increases absolute sharpness, but does increase the chance of color moiré artifacts appearing in images. This may be a concern for fashion and bird photographers, but the resolution of image sensors and advancements in post-processing software make it easier to correct for moiré when it does occur, rather than rob images of detail in an attempt to avoid it. Most digital medium format cameras, including the Pentax 645D omit such a filter, as do recent SLRs like the Nikon D800E and D7100, and the Pentax K-5 IIs. Leica has been making digital cameras with this type of filter since 2006; it’s only now that others have followed their lead in bunches.

Imatest also checks for noise. We use 1.5 percent as the cutoff for an image with acceptable noise; the M produces JPG images that adhere to this standard through ISO 1600. Noise jumps to 2.5 percent at ISO 3200, and all the way to 4.1 percent at its top ISO of 6400. That sounds like a big jump, but it’s a result of Leica opting not to apply any noticeable noise reduction to its JPG images. They’re just as detailed as the DNG files that the camera records in Raw mode. Normally when we see a camera that delivers noise above 4 percent the images are muddied and unusable as heavy-handed noise reduction has been applied to control it to even that point. We looked closely at images from the M on a calibrated NEC MultiSync PA271W display. They show a good amount of tight grain at the top two ISO settings, and lack the splotchy color noise that really detracts from photos. The photo above was shot at ISO 6400.

We’re confident in saying that you can shoot the M at any available ISO, assuming you don’t mind a grainy image when pushing the camera to its limits. Like any camera, you’ll get the best results at higher ISOs if you properly expose the image in-camera; there’s always some wiggle room to adjust exposure when shooting Raw, but you get less and less as you push the ISO higher. If the grain is bothersome, you can always apply noise reduction to DNG files using the included Lightroom software as you see fit. If you prefer high ISO images with a cleaner, smoother look, you’ll be better served with a D-SLR. The 20-megapixel full-frame Canon EOS 6D delivers low-noise images through ISO 12800, and Nikon’s top-end 16-megapixel D4 keeps noise low through ISO 20000.

Video Quality and Conclusions
The M records 1080p or 720p video in QuickTime format at 25 or 24fps, and can record 480p footage at 30 or 25 fps. As you would expect, the footage is impressively sharp, and you have the option of focusing in live view or with the rangefinder when recording footage. But it suffers from a severe case of the rolling shutter effect. Subjects that move fast across the frame advanced faster at the bottom than at the top; it’s not that different from the rubber pencil optical illusion that fascinates children. The internal microphone picks up the sound of voices clearly, but there’s no way to connect an external mic.

There are no USB or HDMI ports on the M. To remove the battery or access the SD/SDHC/SDXC card slot you’ll need to remove the bottom plate, the same as you would to change the roll of film in a film M. The battery is huge; it dwarfs the battery that previous digital M bodies have employed. I took a fully charged battery out on a 6-hour shooting expedition and did just about everything I could to drain it; I used live view extensively, rattled off about 300 shots, and spent time reviewing photos during the day. And I came home with a 40 percent charge.

Leica offers a pair of accessory grips that replace the baseplate and add some depth to the front right of the camera for photographers who prefer it. The standard Handgrip M ($300) doesn’t add any functionality, but the Multifunctional Handgrip M ($895) adds a GPS, USB port, flash sync, and a power socket to the camera, but it also makes it a bit taller.

The Leica M is the camera that many rangefinder shooters have been waiting for. (And many are still waiting, as deliveries have not yet caught up with the preorders.) The build quality is exquisite, and the optical finder is bright, crisp, and easy to focus, regardless of the maximum aperture of the attached lens. We’ve pointed out a few foibles and shortcomings, but aside from the wobbly video, most can be addressed by replacing an old accessory with a more modern one, or via a simple firmware update.

The move from the CCD sensor found in previous models to a more modern CMOS sensor allows you to shoot color images at ISOs higher than previous M models, and even at its top setting you’ll find that images retain a stunning amount of detail. We noticed a bit of lag in start up time with certain memory cards, but gone are the long write times that M9 users have become accustomed to after firing off only a few shots in succession. Live view makes the M a much more versatile camera than previous models; you won’t have to hunt down an old Visoflex in order to mount macro and telephoto lenses, and you can pair Leica R and other SLR lenses with the M via an adapter.

Pure black-and-white shooters may prefer the Monochrom, but this M is the most well-rounded digital rangefinder that Leica has produced to date. Its image quality is superb, it’s responsive and quick to write photos to memory, and the battery life is the best we’ve seen in a digital Leica to date. It’s asking price is high, but it’s roughly the same as the M9′s initial sticker price, and $1,000 less than the now-discontinued M9-P or Monochrom. Leica also sells the M-E rangefinder, which from an image quality and performance standpoint is identical to an M9, for $5,450; but we feel that there is more than $1,500 worth of extra value in the M. If you love shooting with rangefinders, you’ll love shooting with the M. It’s a great camera, and deserving of our Editors’ Choice award.

Specifications
Boot time 1.7 seconds
Dimensions 3.1 x 5.5 x 1.7 inches
Weight 24 oz
Image Stabilization None
Video Resolution 720p, 1080p
Megapixels 24 MP
Battery Type Supported Lithium Ion
LCD Aspect Ratio 4
LCD dots 920,000
LCD size 3 inches
Lens Mount Leica M
Recycle time 0.3 seconds
Touch Screen No
Media Format Secure Digital, Secure Digital High Capacity, Secure Digital Extended Capacity
Maximum ISO 6400
GPS No
Type Compact Interchangeable Lens
Sensor Size Full-Frame (24 x 36mm) mm
Viewfinder Type Optical
Sensor Type CMOS

Verdict
The Leica M (Typ 240) is the camera that many a rangefinder photographer has been waiting for. It fixes many of the issues of previous models, but it doesn't come cheap.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc