First, may I state that this isn’t just a normal user review, but a reflection on how I truly feel about this camera. Second, there aren’t many professional reports or reviews on this magnificent photographic machine so I am contributing one here. But I would like to thank Steve Huff from stevehuff.com, without his site and other user reports, I wouldn’t have gone this far to almost ditch my much moved and used DSLR setup and became a Leica shooter. It was a wonderful journey in terms of my switch and you can read all about it in my blog site here. While I am not going to drill into each function in the menu, I am gathering my thoughts and experience in shooting with this new M for the past six months and that includes a few weddings, some portrait sessions and random street and travel photographs (yes, the M has already been traveling with me in between jobs and places around the world!).
Why am I writing this review?
I want to share my experience, as a professional wedding documentary photographer, of using the latest digital M camera. I personally know only a couple of digital Leica wedding photographers in London but neither has published any user reviews. Therefore I hope this report will provide fellow Leica shooters, or perhaps others budding wedding photographers who use Canon, Nikon or whatever systems they are using these days, an insight on using the M for professional work (I know that there are still many who think Leica is a rich man’s toy and only reserve for fun use these days).
Before I start, however, I would like to say that I have been a Canon Professional Photographer for a very long time, since 2002 when I was shooting with my film Canon EOS 1v in fact. So I don’t just shoot Leica for that matter. For those who have been following my blogs for the past couple of years will also know that I was on a mission to test the relevance of using a Leica M for my wedding jobs (one of my trials was shooting my sister-in-law’s wedding using my M6, blog is HERE). Not surprisingly, I discovered just how different and effective the M was and just how special those images were (don’t get my words for it, my sister-in-law and her friends approved!).
So game on, I am now shooting digital for work and it’s time to talk about the M240.
Why this camera?
Indeed there are plenty of brilliant choices these days. Unlike 2005, there was only one good and affordable option for professional wedding photographers who wanted full frame digital cameras – Canon EOS 5D. Fast forward a few years, we are spoiled with capable full frame cameras from all the big boys: Canon EOS 1Dx, 5D Mark III, Nikon D4s, D800/E or latest D810, Sony A7R/S or A99, even now smaller format and very capable professional quality like the Panasonic GH4 and Olympus OM-D E-M1 and of course last but not least the Leica S (larger format) and M series (full frame). All have an arena of professional optics for quality, reliability and durability.
Yes, choices are there but coming from DSLR background, I have noticed that the cameras are getting bigger, heavier and so are the newer lenses. So for me, I wanted something that is lighter, more discrete and still capable of producing stunning images, and of course full frame. But then DSLR aside, there aren’t many full frame choice on the market. Sony’s A7 series only came out late last year and I was already testing shooting with Leica M6. While other smaller format mirrorless cameras have matured nicely over the past few years, both Panasonic and Olympus have successfully anchored their cameras and lenses into the heart of many professionals, but neither are full frame.
But just before I click that ‘BUY’ button for the M240, I was thinking really hard about getting the Sony A7R instead. Not only it cost much less, which means that I could use the money to get more nice glass but there were many problems. First, battery sucked. At around 300 shots per charge means that I will need to carry a few per wedding and change fairly often throughout the day. Then that super loud and shaky shutter just isn’t discrete enough. Ok, that EVF and files are just lovely but perhaps if I am a landscape photographer. Finally, there aren’t many native lenses for it. But then I thought, I’ve already tried the M6 and played around those lovely legacy lenses and also starting to understand and appreciate the quality of Leica lenses, then a digital M is the logical path right? Yes but many also argue that I could have used any Leica lenses on the Sony A7 series via an adaptor. Yes but after digging some more on the internet. I really just how those offset micro lenses on Leica’s sensor can affect the edge performance of fast Leica lenses. Trust me, if you are to shoot a Leica lens, you want to get the maximum out of it. All those original Leica magic and characters can only be revealed by a digital Leica body. That’s the fact!! Yes, you can throw an adaptor to almost any camera these days to use Leica lenses but the fact is that they will not perform the same as on a Leica body. Far from it.
So that’s it. Leica M it is. The big question is however, if I am to use a rangefinder camera for work, it has to be reliable. Unlike the film era, most pro cameras were reliable and rugged. But in the digital days, new cameras often struggle with software bugs. Therefore, choosing the ‘right’ M camera for work was rather difficult. I did lots of research before making my decision on buying the M240. Despite Leica being the ONLY digital rangefinder camera maker to date, there are only three digital Ms in their latest catalogue: Type 240, ME and Monochrom. The choice may seem simple but the latter is a black and white only camera. The ME is essentially a M9 with updated features similar to M240 like LED frame lines. For the price of a new M240 however, I could have bought a couple of used M9s. M9 is a magnificent camera on its own. It is full frame and also bears most of the fantastic mechanical parts that made Leica famous since 1950’s. But there are problems for me. They have issues with its software reliability and it’s rather noisy in operation thanks to the ‘shutter cocking mechanism’ (so it isn’t so discrete in the church or during registry). In addition, it has very slow shot-to-shot time and reviewing images in that ancient 2.5 inch screen was a pain on the butt in 2014. I didn’t mind the difference between CCD or CMOS though many prefer the former for its superb clarity in bright light. For me, I treat the differences in sensors like different film characters. I can adapt. Finally, the poor battery life means that I have to carry at least 3-4 batteries with perhaps another two to three as spare. That’s insane! I never exhausted 2 Canon batteries in any wedding and all I needed was two spares!
So, M9 or in fact the new ME may have its charm but as a working professional, I need something as reliable and long-lasting as my Canon, which hasn’t broken down once for the 5 years that I’ve owned it. I was very much attracted to Monochrom when I did a quick comparison between the M240, Monochrom and Canon EOS 5D Mark II. It’s dynamic range is unrivaled and that film-looking rendering is too good to let go. But Monochrom is in fact a M9 with a black and white sensor so it also inherits all the negatives I mentioned above. In the end, I chose M240 simply because it makes sense to get a colour sensor for my customers, reliable and build like a tank. And YES, if I was to buy a rangefinder for my personal use, then I would definitely get the Monochrom. Like I said I am not mega rich so my tools need to make money so I can upgrade in the future.
Leica is just magic in this category. Perhaps I don’t even need to write about construction quality ever for any Leica products. Indeed professional Nikon, Canon, Sony, Olympus and Panasonic camera bodies are all very very well made and mostly in metal. Yet Leica M cameras are just in a different league all together. Everything is metal and that’s right down to every buttons and switches! That’s amazing indeed and just so dawn good to hold! Leica M feels like a camera that’s carved from a solid piece of metal instead being assembled one (well, in fact the latest Leica T is carved from a solid piece of aluminium). Don’t forget that each M camera is assembled, calibrated and checked by hand!
However, somehow the M240 lacks the ultimate solid feeling of M2 or M3 in the 1950’s. But I guess nothing will ever feel like an over-engineered M2 or M3 in that regard. M240 is still by far the best built camera I’ve tried to date (and you can still kill a bull with it!!! Literally…).
Using it in practice, good and bad
Right this is the big part of my report. If you are a Leica M user or for that matter, a rangefinder photographer, then you will find the latest digital M right at home. Apart from the few digital advances, like Live View and Video, there’s virtually no different to the last film rangefinder M7 or Zeiss Ikon. The M240 feels and operates just like the M7 but with the film replaced by a digital sensor.
While many traditionalists that I spoke to slated some of the new features on the M240, from Live View, Video to the LED frame lines. I personally like them for many reasons nonetheless. Apart from the video function, I find these modern enhancements really enhance my work. Even I use the traditional rangefinder for 99% of my photos, there are times when Live View is the only way to get accurate focus. As mentioned in my previous blogs, rangefinders are good for anything around 50mm and wider. While 75 and 90mm are usable, the accuracy drops significantly especially true when shooting wide open at 2.0 or faster. Even the ultimate 0.95 Noctilux may be a bit too much for the finder patch and 20/20 vision. So Live View is good for that purpose. Together with focus peaking (in the latest 126.96.36.199. firmware, you can choose red, green or blue), it makes manual focus through the screen or EVF so much simpler. Many has been complaining about the focus peaking ‘lines’ are not obvious but only because you are seeing lots of colours on the screen. I’ve been training my eyes to see things in black and white and if you choose to have black and white Live View, then those red lines will be dawn obvious and very good indeed.
Then the LED frame lines. I am totally ok with it because it’s not lit by ambient lights through a window so it’s nice and bright under any lighting conditions. The only thing that I miss is the frame line preview lever from all previous M cameras. This preview lever isn’t just for previewing frame lines but also an auto selector which is mechanical. So on M9 or M8, even without 6-bit coding, the camera will still bring up the correct frame line for that lens. Now, the mechanical part is removed in favour of the digital sensors, this brilliant engineering is lost and for all those legacy lenses that I have in my collect will have to manually set through the camera manual. There were a few times that I simply forgot to switch frame line and got my eyes confused with the focal length on the lens.
Last the Video mode, I have never touched it so I might as well forget it. I use my brilliant OM-D for videos (yes I am not a pro video guy so I don’t need anything fancy but Leica’s video mode is just so rubbish, sorry).
Ok, features aside, the M240 has been a joy to shoot with. I don’t really use it for my casual stuff but I have been shooting streets, weddings and portraits with it. That’s pretty much I used my DSLRs before the Leica. Now see just how they compare in terms of operations.
Street and Travel Photography
Let me start with street photography with M first.
When comparing to my Canon 5D, Leica is way more discrete when it comes to photographing people on the street. Its retro appearance and small lenses also make my subject less intimidated. Indeed, small form factor is the key so this applies to any nice mirrorless cameras these days, apart from Sony though. Its native lenses are just as big as the DSLR stuff so its advantages as a mirrorless camera soon disappear. In addition, M240 is silent to use and since I am used to focusing manually, I think I am pretty quick at acquiring focus point and when I apply zone focus, it’s definitely faster than any system on earth!
Another big advantage of Leica system is that they are light and small, though bigger and heavier than today’s mirrorless cameras but apart from Sony’s A7, none of them is full frame. In 2011, I packed my trusty Kata Bumblebee photo backpack with my Canon 5D II, 16-35mm 2.8L II, 70-200 2.8L IS, 50mm 1.4, 85mm 1.2 and a flash, together with my Manfrotto tripod. It was a very very heavy travel combo. I needed these lenses because I needed to photograph a wedding before my trip to China. But now if I am to travel to China again, I will take only my Billingham Hadley Pro, M240 with 35 Nokton, 50 Lux, 135 Tele Elmar only. I will also pack my OM-D with the nice 12mm and 25 1.4 as back up. Yes, all will fit in the Billingham too! Pretty cool huh? Yes, Leica is just great for traveling.
When I shoot weddings, the above applies too. Bride and groom never realised that I was taking photos which made my photographs looked more natural, even when I photographed up close they wouldn’t give me a ‘shock’ face! The only down side is that they thought I was using a point and shoot camera instead of a pro camera. Perhaps that’s the general public’s perception on “Professional Gear” now?? Yet they love my pictures!
You can read about my latest wedding using the M240 HERE. My first digital Leica wedding went smoothly and I had learnt a great deal of the camera and its capability too. Using super fast primes on the M really makes everything so special. The pop, the renditions and the characters are just perfect to bring out the subjects. Every keeper was just special to my eyes indeed.
Finally, portrait. This is the tricky part. My wedding job usually involves bride and groom portraits so how does the M perform? Perfect! I would say. While the M isn’t renowned for photographing formal portrait. Additionally, most professionals always think good portrait focal length is between 85 – 135mm and that zone isn’t Leica’s strength due to focus inaccuracy. Though the combination of EVF and Live View seems to have solved this problem but due to the way the shutter works while using Live View or EVF (staying open, closes then re-opens again to take a shot!), there’s a distinct delay or black out in between shots. While I still use my Canon and 85 combo for a lot of the portrait sessions, I have successfully used 35mm and 50mm for some ‘modern’ approach. Also, great photographic masters used 35 and 50mm in the past for street portraits so why couldn’t I use it today? People just love the totally blurred out background that’s achieved by long lenses and fast aperture. But to me, I love a bit of background texture so using fast 35 and 50 actually brought me that effect that I want.
Using tele lenses and EVF
Speaking of long lenses on M. Yes, rangefinder has its limit. In terms of reach and accuracy, split prism focusing method is definitely better and more accurate for long tele lenses than Leica. Leica realised that and invented VISOFLEX in the past. But it was cumbersome and bulky. Also too complicated. But being digital these days mean that there are other options. One of which is electronic viewfinder (EVF). Leica still name it as VISOFLEX but Leica’s EVF 2 is essentially a rebadged Olympus EVF 2. Even though I am a Leica fan but I only paid a quarter of the price for a used Olympus version. I can’t justify myself spending so much on something that I don’t use often. Yes Leica EVF looks better and with a better and posher pouch. Ultimately the Leica M240 may last for years, I can’t see the EVF last just as long so why pay more?
Now, using longer lenses or for that matter, some legacy lenses with focus shift problems with EVF can be very productive. There are two focusing aids in the system, magnification and peaking. I personally don’t like magnification tool too much because it only enlarges the central area, pretty much the area of the focusing patch in rangefinder which I find annoying. So I prefer peaking with no magnification and because peaking works for the entire coverage so it doesn’t matter where the subject is in the coverage, I can still take the photo without having to re-compost. I mentioned about using black and white Live View? It’s the most effective way to see the peaking lines. While the peaking technology is a fine touch for manual focusing lenses (not just Leica glass but for other via adaptors too!), its implementation is a little behind the competition. I see that as Sony is the peaking champion with very accurate and visible lines and many settings to suit any ‘eyes’ and preferences. The resolution of the EVF 2, while sufficient and effective, isn’t the highest nor the biggest in class. Then there’s that long black out time after each photo is taken. I have absolutely no idea why the camera will just pause for a good 2-3 seconds in between shots. This makes thing rather clumsy at times when I want to make a few shots in succession.
Did I mention about size and weight? Well, this is when the Leica M shines the most. Even with a Summilux lens, its still very tiny. Leica’s glass is small and powerful, which is an achievement on its own. Now Nikon, Sigma and Zeiss all release new fast ‘standard’ lens. Their performances are no doubt among the best in class but their sizes are equally stunning at about 2-4 times bigger than the equivalent Leica Summilux 50mm ASPH!
Yes Leica has so much to praise about but there are also some areas that I think need improvements. First, responsiveness. I must say that the M240 is by far the best camera I’ve handled since I turned professional but it isn’t the most responsive. Yes, everything works as it should but I find that everything has a little bit of delay. While the shutter is quiet, there’s a slight lag. It means that I need to be very critical in timing for the special moments. Then there’s the menu. It’s just not as quick as any other modern professional cameras like Nikon D800 or Canon EOS 5D Mark III. Image preview, while light years ahead of M9 and Monochrom, it’s still much slower than the Japanese cameras. Lucky that I don’t chimp but a little faster review can help for some critical checks. Finally the continuous burst and buffer. It’s the weakest thing in rangefinder and perhaps that’s something Leica hasn’t put it in its priority development list. I don’t need 9-10 frames per second but something like 5-6 frames per second is very good for my use in some circumstances such as confetti moment. Then an increase buffer will help too and the write time on the M240 is still slow by today’s standard (It doesn’t matter what speed of memory card you use). I have the fastest SanDisk Extreme Pro and it still takes a few seconds for each RAW photo to be written on it.
But all these negatives are easily forgotten once you start using the M. None of these ‘flaws’ slows me down in anyway. That bright big viewfinder is a joy to use in any light condition and the focusing patch is very easy to see and accurate (much better than my M6 for a comparison). I guess this is the best rangefinder money can buy these days.
In summary (over film Leica bodies and digital cameras in general):
- You can see what’s coming into the composition (range finder is a window and if you use 35 or 50 lens, then the frame line usually is in the middle and there is some room around and outside the frame line so you know what’s around the corner and click accordingly for better timing and moments!)
- Full contol of the camera’s operation (as a photographer)
- Light weight and discrete (if you get a black one)
- Rugged and superbly built with metal everything, yes right down to individual buttons (less so when compare to film M2 and M3 back in the 1950’s)
- Bright viewfinder that you can see in the dark! (though people may argue with the best EVF today when the signal is amplified so you CAN see in the DARK!)
- No mirror, less vibration means you can shoot at slower shutter speed (that applies to mirrorless cameras too)
- You can use some of the best lenses in the world (yes yes YES!!! That’s what Leica is about!)
- Best street and documentary tool ever!
- Usable high ISO settings (upto 3200)
- Focus peaking in Live View and EVF, great for long fast tele or legacy lenses with focus shift problems
- LED frame line
- Base ISO has great dynamic range (when couple with Summilux lenses, there’s no end to creativity!)
- Much longer battery life and comparable to modern DSLRs
- Large LCD (made from Gorilla glass but I would prefer Sapphire because of durability. I just hate scratches on LCD screen or protector but it’s a personal thing)
- Fluid operations and the new thumb wheel was very good (especially with the new Firmware 188.8.131.52. since you can directly control the exposure compensations without having to press the function button on the front)
Bad (not really bad at all)
- You can’t ‘see’ (What you see through the viewfinder isn’t what you will get. Effect from the lens like depth of field, focal length and angle, that unless you use Live View or EVF)
- Cumbersome battery and memory card changing (like the film M bodies… still cumbersome)
- Difficult to get sharp focus for long lens or shallow DOF shots because of rangefinder limit (Though EVF has improved the accuracy in fast short and tele lenses)
- Difficult for macro or sport stuff (Again, EVF is a great help)
- When using Live View or EVF, there’s few seconds pause or blackout (and you can’t use the camera!)
- Metering tends to underexpose by 1EV in the dark
- Video…. why?
- No frame line selector
- No built-in sensor cleaning which means you have to do a lot of blowing and cleaning when necessary.
- Horrible neck strap (why Leica hasn’t improved one since the 1950’s?? For the price we are paying, we should get a nice strap!)
- Single SD card only
- Still relatively slow write time
- Still relatively slow playback time
- Expensive (but who cares… it’s Leica!)
- Expensive batteries (why £100 each?? Canon and Nikon is around £50-60)
- Expensive accessories such as EVF, handgrip, GPS unit (if you want one), cases and straps.
So now I am using Leica as my main system. But I am also carrying my Canon and Olympus on every job. In most cases, I can justify having these systems co-exist along side each other. There are things that the M does so brilliantly but I think my Olympus deserves a place in my working bag as it’s capable of producing some nice images and the Canon of course for some specific portrait shots.
Finally, the Leica M Type 240 is the most advance M yet and I can comfortably say that it’s a 2014 camera. It’s relevant, capable and has a hard-to-beat heritage and image. It doesn’t need a long list of features like most cameras do these days. Images that produce from a Leica is certainly different to those of Canon or Nikon. That unique ‘pop’ as Steve Huff calls it is just so easy to identify with the right lens. But Leica lenses have unique rendering that’s more of an art piece and are so wonderfully engineered. Almost all Leica lenses are optimized for shooting wide open and things can only improve when stopped down! Of course Leica M is the only digital body with a sensor that has offset micro lenses for rangefinder lenses. You may be able to adapt Leica lenses to any digital bodies nowadays but the edge results could be totally different indeed. So to enjoy the world’s best lenses at full, Leica M is your only ticket. Together with a tank-like body, a brilliant sensor and processor and most importantly, out-of-this-world lenses are what a photographer needs, and this latest M is just that camera I need.
It has been a long journey for my transition from SLR to rangefinder. Many tests and trials before I finally made up my mind. I don’t normally switch system because it’s costly to do so and using a new system can take time to master. But now I find myself very comfortable in working with the M and its lenses. Ultimately cameras are just tools but now I have a camera that satisfies both my desire and demand as a photographer. I will continue to invest in the M and micro 4/3 system and perhaps limited in Canon.
Here’s my list of lenses I currently use with M240. Most of them are legacy lenses that I acquired during my tests with my M6. The only ‘modern’ lens I have is the brilliant 50 LUX (review HERE). I will be writing a revisit blogs for some of these old lenses on the new M body just to see how they perform in today’s world.
- Leica Summilux-M 50mm 1:1.4 ASPH FLE (Digital review HERE)
- Leica Summilux-M 35mm 1:1.4 PRE-ASPH (Film review HERE, Digital review HERE)
- Leica Summicron 5cm 1:2.0 Collapsible (Film review HERE)
- Leica Summicron 90mm 1:2.0 Version II (Film review HERE, Digital review HERE)
- Leica Tele-Elmar 135mm 1:4.0 (Film review HERE, Digital review HERE!)
- Voigtlander Nokton 35mm 1:1.2 VM II ASPH (Digital review HERE)
- Konica M-Hexanon 90mm 1:2.8 (Digital review HERE)
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