Initial Thoughts On The Leica M (Typ240) When Used In Classic Rangefinder Mode

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All photos Leica M, 50mm APO-Summicron-Asph

For years, Apple computers operated out of the mainstream.  With an elegantly different approach to personal computing, Macs were used by a fervent few who well appreciated their superior characteristics, and occasionally acknowledged their limitations.  There are many reasons why today the market for Macs is growing, while that of Windows-based PCs is, at best, stagnant, but an important business threshold was crossed when Apple enabled third-party developers to come up with a way of loading Windows onto a Mac, in essence letting Mac users have what they wanted, but at the same time, conceding to the marketplace that they were also capable of being used in the more conventional manner of a PC.  Few actually ever used a Mac as a Windows machine, but it was a smart concession for Apple to make.   They “normalized” their specialty product, thus opening it up to a broader audience while in no way diminishing what its adherents cherished. I thought of that this afternoon when using, for the first time, the new Leica M.

The Leica M, which aficionados refer to as the M-240, or M (Typ 240), has everything we loved about the Leica M9, and more.  With a CMOS sensor, instead of the M9’s CCD sensor, the new M is capable of both Live View and use of an external Electronic Viewfinder, which means that when accessories are added, the classic Leica rangefinder — a separate category, like a Mac, that stubbornly persists despite the market dominance of Canon and Nikon DSLRs — can now offer many of the things a DSLR offers, which in our analogy stands for Windows.  Moreover, with Live View, and an EVF, and importantly, a small adaptor, Leica R lenses can now be used on an M body, which means that essentially for the first time, one can use a digital M with telephoto lenses beyond the 135mm focal length.  All these represent concessions by Leica — a tiny company that to its devoted followers produces a superior platform for certain kinds of photography — and an opportunity to appeal to the masses.  But would Leica be giving up something special when it so “improved” the M?

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This morning, the UPS man arrived with a new M — which because this is what you have to do with a company whose products are so sought after by a decisive few, we’d placed an order for it two years ago, well before it was announced.  The announcement came in September at the biennial Photokina trade fair in Cologne, but only in the past few days has someone in Solms, Germany nodded, and boxes emerged to be shipped around the world. In Leica circles, this is a huge moment, though in terms of the world’s attention, it is not, it must be admitted, like the line-waiting excitement generated by a release of a new iPhone.  For one thing, this is because this isn’t a mass product, but also because the devoted know that Leica can only produce some number of dozens of cameras per day.  There’s no point in waiting in line if the camera with your name on it won’t be made for another month.

Our initial thoughts, even without using the M with Live View and an EVF, nor with the adaptor that would make R lenses work, is that the M is, well, a real Leica M.  But the changes readily apparent in just a short walk around the city on a brutally cold day are incredibly impressive.

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Now it must be said that we have not downloaded the Lightroom beta which has a color profile for the M (Typ 240), so the pictures shown here are based on the embedded profile that, we suspect, thinks these images came from an M9.  (We’re not sure how this works.)  To our eyes, the colors aren’t yet as good as they likely will be when a color profile has been released by Adobe in a standard upgrade.  Our sense, though, is that absolutely nothing has been lost in the switch from a CCD to a CMOS sensor.

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As for how the M shoots, our initial impression is that you do not notice the very slight addition in the camera’s weight, and the form factor is so similar to the M9 and M8, that it instantly feels right in the hand.  We have not yet gotten the new accessory grip, but the very small protruding thumb rest on the upper right side of the camera, when used with a Gordy wrist strap, makes the M feel safe and snug when shooting.

We were very pleasantly surprised by the way the frame lines work. An advantage of rangefinder photography is that, because you are not viewing the scene you’re about to photograph through the lens, but instead through a viewfinder at the center of which are frame lines that indicate the parameters of the image you are about to preserve on film or a sensor, you have a much more informed understanding of the scene, which leads to an intuitive reflex of quick composition.  But the new M has electronic frame lines (edit: that are back lit), which if wandering around with the camera turned on, only materialize when you activate the camera by pressing down slightly on the shutter button.  It’s a small thing — having the frame lines suddenly materialize amidst a broad view of what is in your finder, and thus potentially in your picture — but it instantly forces the eye to decide whether what is in the center is the image you want, or whether you want to adjust to get something repositioned.

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Another delightful improvement is that the shutter “click” is to our ears as silent and unobtrusive as it was on our film M7.  The Girl Scouts above did not know the photo had been snapped, because they couldn’t hear it.  It is an incredibly subtle sound.

In the days ahead, we will take the M out for usage in its “DSLR mode” — that is, we will use Live View and the EVF to get a sense of how different it is when the Leica M takes on the characteristics of a DSLR.  For today, we just wanted to see how the M behaves as an M, in classic rangefinder mode.  To any Leica fans who have worried about what horrors were being wrought by the changes Leica announced last September, we can reassure you: for less money (in 2013 dollars) than you spent in 2009 on the Leica M9, you have a camera that seems identical where it doesn’t seem better.  This is a very exciting development.

NOTE: On March 3rd, we posted a second set of thoughts an images on the Leica M here.

4 Responses to “Initial Thoughts On The Leica M (Typ240) When Used In Classic Rangefinder Mode”

  1. HI There John. Excellent article – I like the Apple/windows analogy. I’d also like to say how nice it is to see that other people are as completely enthusiastic as the early testers.
    Great stuff – I hope you enjoy your new camera – I’m hoping to get mine next week!
    all the very best
    Jonathan Slack

  2. […] First day shots on Tulip Frenzy (I’m starting to notice an overly red / warmish tone in the results) […]

  3. Hey John, thanks for sharing this. I wonder if the red tint would go away after the new LR profiles are in place.

    I linked to your posts from my recent samples tracker here:
    http://hackingshmacking.com/2013/03/05/new-leica-m-typ-240-sample-photos-and-videos/

    • johnbuckley100 Says:

      I think that’s right. Just waiting for an LR color profile to come out, to tame some of these bright colors.

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