The Leica M viewfinder situation is a mixed bag.
Optical. On the one hand, it’s at least as good as an M9 finder in terms of pure optical clarity. This is no surprise – and it is difficult to imagine why it would not be. That said, there are several things one might want to note before dropping big money on this camera:
- The LED-lit framelines show the 2m view with a number of lenses. This means that for most shots, the lines will be a better approximation of the subject. The problem, though is that in a 0.68x finder, the 28mm frameline is essentially invisible, even before you add eyeglasses to the equation.
- 35mm-frame lovers will rejoice – because the 35mm frame takes up almost one’s entire field of view.
- The simple LED display now shows exposure compensation as you dial it in.
The bugbear here is that 0.68x does not seem to be high enough magnification to consistently focus a 90mm lens at a big aperture and the maximum resolution of the camera. This is frustrating, but at least it can be rationalized: most 35mm film has about 12mp of usable data; doubling the megapixels requires a 1.41x increase in resolution in each dimension; and if 90mm lenses were at the limit of the Leica effective baselength even in the film days, putting 1.41x the demand on the whole lens-cam-lever-prism system may be unreasonable. Of course, reducing the file size to 70% and downsampling returns apparent accuracy just like an M9 or M8. The fairly obvious solution is to move to the accessory EVF for critical work (under 2m, wider than f/4).
EVF. With the Olympus VF-2 (and why would you buy the more expensive Leica-branded one?), the camera takes on a new life. Contrary to many reports, the accessory VF is perfectly usable with the M. The high points:
- Works with all lenses and shows 100% of the FOV – as well as the distortion.
- Focusing accuracy increases with focal length because the system uses the lens’ magnification.
- Because it focuses through the lens (TTL), it takes into account focus shift and field curvature in a way that an RF cannot.
- Has an auto-magnification figure (5x or 10x) that is triggered by turning the lens focusing ring (and yes, it senses movement of the RF roller).
- Shows focus peaking, which is especially useful in the 5x view.
- Can show a live histogram that changes with your exposure choices.
- Costs less than any Leica glass viewfinder (a used VF-2 is about $170).
- Is difficult to activate by accident (see discussion of on-camera Live View, below).
The EVF has its somewhat clumsy points too. It requires you to lead the shot a little more. You also get a 2 second pause whether or not you do auto-playback (so you might as well use it). The refresh rate is not phenomenal. And it generally auto-dims to simulate the selected exposure when you half-press. But all in all, this is a very useful feature that enables the use of almost any lens with an M. It certainly provides a more accurate way to focus a 50/1.0 or a 75/1.4.
Live View (back display). Last (and least) is the back panel live view (LV). With the M, live view on the back panel is like the proverbial teat on a bull. This is not because live view violates some law of Leica conceptual purity, as some would claim. No, it’s because this feature is actually fairly useless. Start with the LV button, which is placed exactly where the play button should be (top of the button bank). It is very easy to activate by accident, and to tell the truth, for much shooting, you might not even notice it is on. Even when it is activated intentionally, the mode gives you a sight picture that is only usable in the one position where your hold is weakest – i.e., where the camera is being held by extended arms and not pressed up to your face. This means that things are quite shaky when auto-magnification comes on during focusing – and remain just as shaky in shooting with long lenses. Granted, you can shoot up or down at unusual angles, but truth be told, you can’t use it for truly low-angle shots. This is a feature that may have better been left on the cutting room floor. But you could see how it might work for the tripod-and-cable-release set.
What the hell?! moment. The dual viewfinder system of the M is brilliant for the Leica world and in reality is only slightly less usable than the hybrid optical/LED finder of the Fuji X100 and X-Pro 1. In fact, with the EVF, it might be possible to kiss off all Leica optical viewfinders except for one thing: no in-viewfinder level. The camera actually has 3-dimensional leveling, which is accessible by Menu–>Horizon (4th screen of options). But this leveling is not visible in the EVF or in Live View. This makes any optical viewfinder with an integrated bubble level a superior option. Is this to protect sales of the $900 Universal Wideangle Viewfinder M (12011)? Also conspicuously absent is a composition grid – which in the absence of a level, can still help right the shot.
# # # # #
Above: M, 90mm f/2.8 M-Hexanon, ISO 800
Like a squadron of flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz, the Leica M (a/k/a M240) is now shipping in production quantities. No one will ever know why production was so choked for so long. Regardless, these are some first impressions of the camera’s usability.
The design. Most of this is similar to the M8/M9 with a few exceptions.
- There is a dedicated function button on the front (mainly for EV compensation), a control wheel on the back (not unlike a Nikon DSLR), a small microphone cutout on the top left, and a movie button on the top.
- The camera is not thicker (or at least appreciably thicker) than the camera it replaces. If you can to live with a detachable bottom plate, this one is much improved. Using a tripod does not strain the baseplate (the tripod screw goes right into the chassis of the camera).
- The bottom plate has weather seals, as does the rest of the camera. The rear screen is larger.
- The most significant change, however, is the missing frame illuminator window on the front. The ugly red dot has moved into its position.
The electronics and controls. The cardinal virtue of the new M is that its electronics are mostly up-to-date, and the camera responds quickly and definitively in shooting pictures and playing them back. The controls are very significantly improved.
- The main thumbwheel is much more comfortable and solid than the flimsy, yet thumb-wrecking M8/M9 wheel. This wheel controls many main parameters without going into menus.
- ISO is adjusted by holding in the ISO button and turning the thumbwheel.
- EV compensation is achieved by holding down the front function button and turning the thumbwheel. EV comp is visible in the viewfinder while you are changing it.
- The live-view button is easy to confuse by feel with the play button (it is the top-most button on the back left).
- The abbreviated “set” menu (activated by a single button) is still there with the short list of key items (resolution, white balance, etc.)
Use this camera for a while, and you will wonder why anyone ever tolerated the prior version of M8/M9 controls. Or their Atari-800-age electronics.
The screen. It is fabulous. Period. It would make you think the old one is from 1986. That said, the high pixel density makes it a bit harder to spot the moire that tells you that the picture is focused.
The shutter action. Short, high-pitched, and still quiet. It reminds you a little of the Hexar RF shutter, just shorter and less loud. Oh yes, it also fires much faster in sequence than any M ever has.
The rangefinder/viewfinder. The big improvement here is the LED framelines, which adjust to ambient light and turn off completely when the camera is off. Although there are some strange people who claim they like to wander around looking through the framelines with the camera off, for the rest of us, the bigger hazard is to frame up a picture only to forget that the camera is off. Some claim that the RF/VF is better; any visible differences are sufficiently subtle to be almost invisible. The RF LED array has two new display modes.
- EV compensation display, two digits and decimal (you also get a minus sign if the correction is negative).
- Movie mode, which shows the frame rate and two flashing dots.
The rangefinder/viewfinder is a model of clarity. And just as on every Leica following the M3, it seems as if the plane of the framelines is slightly different from the subject.
Live view. This is a very contentious feature for some reason. It should not be. It is activated by a single button. It comes up quickly, and there is very little lag when you shoot (even compared to an X-Pro1). A future installment will discuss the use of the electronic viewfinder. One interesting thing about focus assist is that the camera can tell when lens focus is shifted significantly (possibly though a sensor in the RF assembly), and this brings up a magnified view (up to 10x, selectable by the thumbwheel). Focus peaking is hard to see unless magnification is on. Upshot. This is a well-though-out, modern camera that does not make using M lenses a physically or mentally punishing exercise. Future installments will address:
- The significance of 24 megapixels and whether it is really more useful than the 18 megapixels of the M9. That is, in situations where you are not running a fleet of $10K apo lenses.
- Whether the Fuji X series actually competes with something like an M240. I love the X-Pro1; I have an M240. How are they the same? How are they different?
# # # # #