Note: EVF / Mirrorless cameras have thoroughly obsoleted the rangefinder as a camera paradigm. But they are also on the verge of sending the DSLR to extinction, I think. Please see some thoughts on this at this link.
Exactly two years ago, in April 2011, I said goodbye to my Leica M9 in anticipation of an inevitable "M10". During that time, I used a Sony NEX-5, then an NEX-5N quite effectively as a digital back for my M lenses.
I finally got my hands on the new 24MP M Typ 240, after a long wait. I had a chance to take 20 pictures, before I had to send the camera back to Germany, after Leica issued a factory recall. In a rare faux pas, Leica discovered the strap lugs on the new M came off! So they had to find a fix.
So in the short time I had the camera, here are my first impressions.
The best M camera ever
Undoubtedly, this is the best M camera Leica has ever made. It feels like an M, the finish is great, and it is beautiful to see, touch and feel. Emotionally, very satisfying. The classic preview lever is gone and ergonomically, it could have been a little better. But overall, the best M camera ever.
Big camera / Small lens vs. Small camera vs. Big lens
After being used to a Sony NEX for two years, the M feels big and heavy. I have been waiting eagerly for a compact Sony NEX-9 in the E-mount with a full-frame sensor, but I recently found out that such a camera will not work with M-mount lenses from Leica, Zeiss or Voigtlander.
The Leica M cameras have a micro lens array that is needed to make the M lenses work with a full-frame sensor, and no other manufacturer will have this in their camera. So unfortunately, a full-frame mirrorless EVF camera from anyone not named Leica will simply not work with Leica M lenses of focal length 50mm or shorter. A huge bummer!
That means if there is an NEX-9 or similar camera, that would have to be used with traditional SLR / DSLR lenses, such as the Leica-R, Zeiss, Nikon, Canon, etc. However, the NEX-9 will be much more compact than the Leica M. So it leads to a peculiar paradigm - the relatively big M body with the tiny M lenses vs. the small NEX with the big SLR lenses.
Pictured above for comparison: the Leica M240 + Leica 50mm f/1.4 Sumilux-M shown next to a Sony NEX-5N + Leica 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-R.
The NEX + the bigger lens is still less bulky and weighs less compared to the M240 + the M lens. The M240 wins if I have to carry a camera + 3 or more M lenses. But the NEX wins for camera + 1 or 2 SLR lenses.
I am done with the RF as a camera paradigm
I used to be very good focusing with the rangefinder in my old M9. But after two years of using a Sony NEX with manual focusing lenses, I am through with the rangefinder. Done, finished, no more RF.
The more the resolution, the harder it is to accurately focus using the RF. Higher resolution ruthlessly exposes poor focusing. The vast majority of the M8 and M9 pictures uploaded on flickr today are poorly focused by proud owners of a Leica M camera who don't know what they're doing.
Although the RF in the M240 is probably the best RF Leica has ever made, unless you own bionic eyes or have a subject matter with a lot of nice, high-contrast vertical lines at the dead center of the frame, it is tough to focus with the RF. Over time, the RF coupling will also inevitably drift.
So with higher image resolution, the RF is increasingly a liability, and it is time to retire it. But a lot of people love the RF.
In my case, I have two reasons for putting the RF out of my life:
First, I am now too used to the paradigm of compose-first-focus-next. That is what the Sony NEX with its focus peaking does brilliantly. I cannot do that with a RF, which only focuses in a small region in the center of the frame. I find that extremely restricting.
Second, after my cataract surgery, although my vision has dramatically improved, I find it difficult to use a rangefinder with my glasses on. I have no problem with manual focusing using either a DSLR or an EVF/mirrorless.
So I am through with the rangefinder as a camera paradigm. Of course, I could use an EVF with the M240. But I am needlessly paying for the expensive RF mechanism, and the EVF is an expensive option I should not have to pay for!
Also, the EVF on the M 240 sucks. More detail below.
So is it worth it, for all the cost and aggravation? Hard to say. Focused accurately and at relatively low ISOs (800 or below), and in good daylight, the M240 delivers excellent IQ, with superlative colors, sharpness, micro contrast and dynamic range. And two very smart people have independently told me the M240 images are excellent for making large prints.
In addition, Lloyd Chambers, one of the best, if not the best, independent photography bloggers (subscription highly recommended!) has taken some stunning images with this camera that show exceptional details. In fair weather, this is a fantastic camera.
And that is the part I don't like - an $8,450 camera (see below why it is $8,450) should not come with "Buts". And the M240 comes with many Buts.
But #1: Mediocre high-ISO performance. Even though the M240 has a CMOS sensor, high ISO performance of this sensor, made by CMOSIS, is not as good as the industry-leading sensors from Sony that you can see in other cameras. I would like to see what DXO comparisons look like.
But #2: Terrible EVF/focus peaking. The EVF + focus peaking on the M240 is a very amateurish implementation that is way behind the Sony NEX. Even with the EVF on the M240, I could not match how quickly and how accurately I can focus with my Sony NEX.
Seriously, I am 2-4 times faster focusing with my Sony NEX than I am with the M240's EVF. If the camera is already on, it takes me about 4-5 seconds to compose, accurately focus and click with my Sony NEX. With the M240, it takes me anywhere from 10-20 seconds, and sometimes, longer. And even after that, I could not get the best focus in quite a few shots with the M240. With the NEX, I nail the focus almost every time without fail.
Also, the focus peaking disappears just as you start pressing the shutter release button to take the picture. That is absolutely idiotic! It is a distraction that is enough to cause an imperceptible camera shake, and loss of the best focus. The only way to avoid that is to be well supported (e.g., leaning against a wall). That is not always practical, so a lot of pictures will come out sub-optimally focused. Bad, bad implementation by Leica.
Perhaps Leica could improve its EVF and focus-peaking usability in a future firmware upgrade.
But #3: Loss of hot shoe. The EVF takes away the flash hot shoe. That means, I can't use flash photography at all. So I spend $8,450 for a camera and I can't use a flash with it?!
But #4: Bulk and weight. The M240 is much heavier than cameras like the NEX-7 or 5N, which are made of durable, Magnesium-alloy bodies. An M240 + grip + EVF is almost as big as a Nikon D800E, which costs $2700, delivers 36MP and has autofocus. For the M240 to match the image quality with subjects that are close will probably require a tripod. If I'm going to be lugging around a tripod, then why bother with an M240 at all? Why not my Nikon D800E?
But #5: Poor Live View. The Live View works only at the center of the frame. You can not zoom into any other part of the frame. That is so silly! Evey a $500 NEX-3 lets you see any corner of the frame at a 10x magnification in Live View.
But #6: Lens design compromises. As cute the M lenses are, their compact size and extreme proximity to the sensor in M cameras has meant making design compromises. And typically, this has hurt in two areas: focus shift and field curvature.
A lot of Leica M lenses show focus shift, including the $7,200 new 50mm APO Summicron-M, as Lloyd Chambers has demonstrated. A $7,200 lens should not have a focus shift problem, for crying out loud! Field curvature produces funny areas on the field that come in or go out of focus, and a lot of M lenses suffer from it, including the vaunted 35mm Summilux-M, as both Lloyd Chambers and Ming Thien have shown.
With increasing resolution, is the design of the M lenses approaching a brick wall?
But #7: Insane economics. The M 240 is $7,000, but for it to be really usable, it needs the EVF ($550, which = 75% of the cost of an NEX-6 camera!), and the grip ($900). In total, $8,450 for the most basic usable system, not counting any sales taxes.
In comparison, the top of the line 24-MP NEX-7 today costs $1000, and comes with a built-in hand-grip and EVF, as well as far better high ISO performance, WiFi, autofocus, and superior video capabilities than the M 240. The next generation of the NEX will likely also have GPS built right into the camera.
And even a full-frame NEX with a whopping 36MP sensor (the same as in the Nikon D800E) will probably cost no more than $2,500, with the option to autofocus as well as a lot of other features not in the M240. That is less than 30% of a usable M240!
But #8: Doomed to a weaker technology road map. Saddled with the RF legacy, the M cameras will always be slower to evolve compared to the rapid pace at which other camera makers have been progressing.
When the 18MP M9 was introduced in 2009, it was the state of the art. Only the Canon 5D MK-II and the Nikon D3x had greater resolution. But the Leica M lenses were superior to most of the Canon and Nikon lenses. The combination made the M9 the best 35mm camera in the world for a short period of time.
But since then, the world has raced past Leica. The Nikon D800E is the king of 35mm now, followed by other cameras like the Canon 5D MK-III, Nikon D7100, Nikon D600, Sony RX1, etc.
Mirrorless EVF cameras have been evolving especially aggressively. They barely existed three years ago, but today, APS-C sensors are almost as good as full-frame sensors, and EVF cameras are going full-frame. The Sony RX1 was the first, and within a year, it seems certain that there will be a number of EVF cameras with full-frame sensors. The prospect of a 36MP NEX-9 is especially appealing.
These cameras will work as universal bodies for any lens, except the Leica and other M-mount lenses that require Leica's special micro lens array. There are many outstanding lenses out there, including Leica-R and Zeiss ZF/ZE/E lenses that these mirrorless EVF cameras can work with.
So within a year, I expect a tidal wave of full-frame EVF cameras to hit the market, most of which will hugely outperform the M240 at a cost of about 30% of the M240. The M240 feels a little behind the times on day one.
The Leica M optics are still the appeal!
So considering everything, it is tough to logically argue the case for the M240. The only thing that keeps the M240 case alive is the optics of the M lenses.
Certain M lenses are very unique, especially the ones that use the Noctilux design (50/0.95, 24/1.4, 21/1.4). The 35/1.4 Summilux with the floating element has a strong and wavy field curvature, but it can also produce an artistic result. Lenses like these are charming for their "Leica look" images, if one knows how to use them.
There are other M lenses that are functionally exceptional, such as the 50/1.4 Summilux, the Super Elmar-M 21/3.4, The 24/2.8 and 28/2.8 Elmarits, the 75/2 and 90/2 APO Summicrons, etc. The latest APO Summicron 50/2 is the best 50mm lens ever designed, with a stunningly flat MTF, although it suffers from a focus shift.
Once you get to know these lenses and how to work them, they are delightful (although I am not a fan of the focusing tab on many of the M lenses). The lenses are the appeal of the M system.
But the elephant in the room is that Leica is not providing a tool to really take advantage of the M lenses. The M8 was a joke, the M8.2 was a hastily put together fix to make the M8 somewhat usable, the M9 was OK, but had too many usability problems, the M9P was a slap in the face to the customers, driven by arrogance ($1,000 for a piece of gorilla glass over a crappy little LCD?), the M9 Mono was another overpriced offering in which Leica did not even bother to put a high-res retina-display monochrome LCD, and now, the M240. Over-priced and under-achieving.
For all the great M optics, Leica has been demanding a very unreasonable toll to access the M lenses by pricing the M cameras absurdly high for what they deliver.
The other question, as mentioned above, is: will increasingly high sensor resolution expose the weaknesses of the M lens design? (field curvature, and especially, focus shift). Lenses designed for the DSLRs or the Sony E-mount do not have focus shift problems.
Two years ago, my left brain and right brain had a huge battle over my M9, and my left brain won. So I sold my M9, and I have not regretted it one bit.
Now, I find myself in the same situation. My right brain says "See how beautiful the camera is! You have such a wonderful collection of fantastic M lenses! No other camera can work with them as well as the M240 can! The APS-C cameras will only give you a crop-size image, and any full-frame EVF camera simply will not work with the M lenses. So it's a no-brainer: keep the M240. I can't believe this is even open to discussion!"
My left brain says "Anyone using an RF today is either brain dead or has a vested interest in Leica. The RF is finished as a camera paradigm. In fact, the entire M system will be obsolete soon. The M240 is an absurdly priced, $8,450 camera full of compromises and almost obsolete on day one. So it is time to not only not keep the M240, but also get rid of all the M lenses! Time to switch to a more competent EVF platform, like a full-frame NEX-9 and use it with Leica-R or Zeiss ZF lenses, which are optically even better than the M lenses. There is no need for a discussion!"
So that is where I am. Usually, when I have these arguments, my left brain wins! So I shall be likely parting ways with the M240, as well. It took me 16 months to get tired of my M9, and it took me a few days to nix the M240.
Leica had a chance to design a brand new EVF-based mirrorless camera to work with all of its wonderful M and R lenses. Such a camera could have been Leica's 35mm digital camera platform for the next 60 years. Instead, Leica once again came up with yet another set of digital extensions to a 60-year old film camera design that demands way too much money and way too many compromises from the user.
That is really unfortunate. I don't want to spend that kind of money for a camera that comes with so many excuses, and gets in my way. The camera is a tool that should serve me. Not royalty that I must serve!
This is still a fabulous camera for those who love the rangefinder. But that is not me.
I will hang on to at least some of my M lenses for a while - there is a hope that Leica will be forced to come out with an non-RF EVF camera with an M mount. Or perhaps there will be some other FF EVF camera that might work with M lenses. So I will wait to see what happens in the FF EVF world before deciding on what to do with my M lenses.
Above image taken with a Nikon D4 + AI-s Nikkor 28mm f/2.8