Thoughts On The Leica M (Typ-240) As A Multipurpose Tool

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Leica M, 50mm Noctilux, ND Filter

When the Leica M arrived at the beginning of March, we used it exclusively in its classic rangefinder mode, and immediately found it to be a step up from the Leica M9 we had used, and loved, since September 2009.  With 24 megapixels, not the M9’s 18, it had larger files to work with, and with a CMOS sensor, not the M9’s CCD, it had greater high ISO performance.  Almost immediately after posting some initial images, several commentators expressed confirmation of their worst fears about the color rendering of the new sensor, but we found those fears overblown, for two reasons.  First, because as the critique of some images, mistakenly posted by Leica as coming from the new M but actually from the M9, set off caterwauling from M9 aficionados, it was apparent that Leica loyalists were projecting their fears about color performance onto the images they saw.  Second, because in my own case, I like color-saturated images, and I knew that aspects of the color performance of an image such as the one above came from my having chosen to process the picture not simply in Lightroom, but also in various of the Nik Software products, such as Color Efex Pro, where I could choose a look to my preference.

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Leica M, 50mm APO-Summicron-Asph

We quickly found that when used as a rangefinder, the focusing performance, speed, and reliability made the Leica M something of a dream come true.  Over the past five months there have, in fact, been some glitches in using it, and yes, it did get recalled to Germany, which door-to-door-to-door meant it was out of our hands for about a month, but all in this M seems closer in its steadfast reliability to our old Leica M film cameras than to the Italian-sportscar finickyness of the previous digital rangefinders, 2006’s M8 and 2009’s M9.  The rangefinder focusing mechanism itself seems to have achieved a degree of perfection, which is a big deal if you are relegated to using, by design, manual focus, not the comforts of modern autofocus that virtually every other camera system has made available for, oh, the past 20 years.

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Leica M, 50mm APO-Summicron-Asph

From the start, we found the new M to be fast, and we loved having large files to play with.  As Thorsten Overgaard has pointed out, because of the size of the files, you need to ante up for the fastest SD cards, but given how inexpensive these now have become, it’s worth it.

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Leica M, 50mm APO-Summicron-Asph

The brouhaha about color resolution which erupted on the Leica User Forum and around other online watering holes seemed to us fairly ridiculous, and we began to tune out of posts with 800 responses, mostly from people who had not actually used the exceptionally hard-to-find M.  We were extremely fortunate to have gotten our hands on one early, and immediately found that latitude for post-processing tweaks enable any user to get the look he or she wants.  You can dial color up or down; it’s up to the user.  One thing seemed clear from the outset, though: just as the Leica Monochrom files seemed flat when fresh from the camera, the significant latitude that camera and the new M allowed in post-proccessing was remarkable, and in part because of the dynamic range of the M, in part because of much better high ISO performance, in part because of the size of the files, images from the M can be transformed into pretty much whatever the user wants.  If you don’t like the look, blame the photographer, not the camera.

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Leica M, 50mm Summilux

It was clear that the high ISO performance of the M enabled a photographer, for the first time, to go out at night with a digital Leica without fear of noise rendering images unusable.  This is a really big deal, and instantly rendered moot so much of the criticism, from within and outside of Leica circles, of Leica’s digital rangefinders.  People use Leica cameras for a number of reasons, but basically it comes down to these: First, amazing fast lenses.  Second, the simplicity — and purity — of a classic rangefinder system.  Third, the unobtrusiveness of the camera, which renders performance as great as, in many instances, the big DSLRs that “serious photographers” lug around, much to the delight of their chiropractors.  But the M8 and M9 were clearly substandard when it came to high ISO performance, and even with fast lenses, there were limitations in what one could do at night.  No more.  The M is a fully realized camera at night.

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Leica M, 35mm Summilux FLE

We’ve had commentators question whether the photo above was an HDR image.  In fact, rather than having been taken on a tripod, it was shot at ISO 640, f/4, 1/45th of a second.  In other words, in the mode of a classic Leica M.  From the time we visualized the image, raised the camera to our eye, and took the picture was, oh, two seconds. This one was processed in LR5, and is quite true to the color and light available at that moment.

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Leica M, 35mm Summilux FLE

The image above was sent from LR5 over to Nik Viveza only because it gave us a greater ability to dial down the brightness of some of the direct lighting that otherwise unbalanced the image.  So to us, if one of Leica’s goals with the M was to render it as capable at night as the M9 was during the day, our belief is mission accomplished.

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Leica M, Vario-Elmar-R 80-200

But there was another reason we were excited about the M when it was announced last September, and it was the prospect of using it not as a rangefinder, but as a DSLR, both with an electronic viewfinder, and with an adaptor enabling us to use telephoto lenses, including those from Leica’s discontinued R system.  Pretty early on, months before getting an M, we acquired a fairly inexpensive R lens — the Vario-Elmar-R 80-200, f/4 zoom.  Using it out West recently, we have been delighted by the possibilities now open to us.  It is quite easy to simply put the EVF on, affix the adaptor and long lens, and use it as Canon and Nikon users have for years been able to use their DSLRs.  It’s a bit of a kluge, but the performance is, to our eye, pretty great.  We are no longer second-class photographic citizens when it comes to wildlife or landscape photography where a long lens is necessary.

Postcard Tetons

Leica M, Vario-Elmar-R 80-200

In part because Leica still — five months after the release of the M — has not made available such accessories as a hand grip (which would make handling long lenses more practical) and their own R-lens adaptor, we’ve not yet plunged into the world of telephotos longer than 200mm, but we could if we wished.  Which opens up possibilities that have not been open to us since we made the switch, more than a decade ago, from Nikons to Leicas.   We made that switch because we wanted a simple, pure system based on enhancing one’s skill, not the latest available technology.  We haven’t regretted the switch we made, but there have been moments when we’ve missed what a more flexible DSLR system provides.  Now, with the M, we have a multipurpose tool that gives us pretty much everything we’ve hoped for.

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Leica M, Vario-Elmar-R 80-200

Now we too can flock to the riverside to capture that moose that previously we wouldn’t have had a prayer of getting, save for as a speck on a larger image that, yes, we could seriously crop, but in the process kind of lose the plot.

It has been been five months since we first picked up a Leica M (Typ-240). The camera has critics, but it has even more people anxiously awaiting that call from their dealer telling them one has arrived with their name on it.  As a longtime (11 years) Leica user, we can state that certain quibbles notwithstanding, the Leica M is the finest camera we’ve ever had the privilege of using.  It has fulfilled our fondest hopes.  It is a fully actualized, multidimensional and multipurpose tool.  It is a winner.

You can follow Tulip Frenzy on Twitter @johnbuckley100.  Follow here.

For observations on the Leica M after a single month go here.

6 Responses to “Thoughts On The Leica M (Typ-240) As A Multipurpose Tool”

  1. […] now used it in a wide variety of situations over a span of five months. You might enjoy this essay (Thoughts On The Leica M (Typ-240) As A Multipurpose Tool | Tulip Frenzy) I just posted on using one both in classic rangefinder mode and in its DSLR mode. Having […]

  2. Very practical and first hand report. Many thanks.

  3. […] Update: For observations on Five-Months Use of The M As A Multipurpose Tool go here. […]

  4. Just what I was hoping to hear.

  5. […] One still had all of the advantages of using a rangefinder — speed of manual focusing, more intuitive, user-controlled operation, and of course, the Leica’s small size, but now, for the first time, you also had an option to set up the M as, in essence, a DSLR, and thus use long lenses. For the M offers Live View and with an adaptor — Leica’s own R-to-M lens adaptor was made available only last month, 10 months after the camera arrived, but we purchased a decent stand-in early — one could shoot Leica’s great R-mount telephoto lenses.  As I noted in August, after spending a considerable amount of time with the M out West — and thus for the first time, able to shoot telephoto lenses on a rangefinder — it made me think of the M as a truly multipurpose tool. […]

  6. […] M and the Vario-Elmar-R 80-200 f/4 lens while taking photographs of animals out west, and it was a revelation to use the M as a multipurpose tool — by day a rangefinder, but in the evening light along the Gros Ventre River, when the moose […]

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