Leica M Typ 240: Part 2 (viewfinder)
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.
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