About a week ago, Leica Camera AG finally released the most recent version of firmware for the M digital camera. This, of course, provoked many angry comments from non-Leica users about how backward Leicas are. It could be said, though that people who buy on specifications, technology, and making reasonable and difficult-to-question choices will buy something like a Lexus. People who are gunning for a different feel and are less risk-adverse might go for Jaguars.
The functional differences between a Leica M and, say, any other 24mp camera are fairly minimal. The sensors, imaging process and electronics are very similar. The big difference is in metering and focusing systems. There no way, whether by firmware or otherwise, to make a rangefinder-equipped camera emulate a DSLR with its own equally primitive mirror and phase-detect system or a mirrorless with its contrast-detect focus. And although one could always make the argument that 1,000-segment metering is very accurate, it is not the experience of this writer that it is appreciably more accurate than five segments. And that is not, in itself markedly superior to centerweighted averaging and a modicum of human intervention.
In the past, it seemed that firmware changes could only radically improve cameras that were mostly electronic, like the Fuji X series. For the M, Firmware 184.108.40.206 illustrates that the M typ 240 is much more flexible from an electronics standpoint than the M8 or M9 – and that the future of the system probably will lie in more and more adaptability through software.
The changes in this firmware can be divided into novelties, corrections, and instances where things have gone backwards a little bit.
1. Novelties: where the M pulls ahead of other cameras.
- Digital 2-axis level: Here, the M pulls well ahead of most digital cameras. Many cameras have a one-axis digital level to account for rotation around the lens axis. Fewer have a two-dimensional sensor that can measure pitch (which is really the thing that creates converging verticals). And pretty much none manages to effectively show both in a viewfinder picture at the same time (the best Nikon could do, for example, is two strips of LEDs running on the bottom and right of the focusing screen – and a very obtrusive overlay in Live View). The M manages to draw a digital level of thin lines in the EVF, with a vernier function in the center for even more
OCDprecise leveling. Not unlike a Seculine Action Level Cross LED 2-axis level ($70), the M’s level also works in “portrait” orientation, which makes it more flexible and useful than your average liquid bullseye bubble level. In the picture below, the vernier adjustment (3 big pixels) allows a high degree of accuracy. You can’t see this at the same time as the variable-aspect framelines, but since most people aren’t using a digital level with 4:3 or 1×1 shooting, this isn’t an issue. In the picture below, you can see the reticle.
- Variable framelines in EVF: Many cameras can overlay different types of framelines (1×1, 4:3, 6×7, 16:9) over a normal-sized viewfinder picture. The Fuji X-Pro1, in fact, can overlay this in an optical finder. But the M is the only one that can rotate through framing guidelines without accessing a menu. You just press up (or down) on the controller pad to cycle through the choices. This is amazingly convenient when you want to see how the composition would change with various print (or web display) proportions. It also avoids the X-Pro1 problem, which is that selecting guidelines creates a RAW file in those proportions that can only be changed via subsequent in-camera JPG generation or going to Silkypix (with LR 4.4 at least, the RAF files appear as cut down). Here are the 6×7 (i.e., 8×10) framelines:
- Auto ISO focal length multipliers: The conventional rule for 35mm film is that you should use a shutter speed that is at least as fast as the reciprocal of the lens focal length. So for a 90mm lens, you would want to use 1/90 or faster. This often leads to unsatisfying results with a 24mp digital camera, where the circle of confusion is much smaller than with 35mm film and motion blur is more apparent. The M now allows — and this seems to be unique among cameras — the use of an alternative minimum shutter speed that is 2x or 4x the focal length of the lens (which with coded lenses you must key in by hand). This is a better setup than most cameras, which allow only a fixed minimum or a vague “lens dependent” setting.
Corrections: where the M is catching up to the M8/M9 or other cameras.
- Dual-mode EVF brightness: A user can now select between a mode where the EVF is as bright as possible (for low-light use) until a half-press of the shutter and a second mode where the EVF simulates the actual exposure all the time (leading to some interestingly dark framing). Many cameras do the first one. The second one is a little unusual.
- Auto ISO in manual mode: Leica got this right on the M8/M9 (and it does have some relevance to TTL flash work). On those cameras, if the aperture and shutter speed did not yield a valid exposure, the camera would adjust the ISO to suit. The M typ 240, for some reason, eliminated this. The new firmware brings it back.
- Flash ISO in Auto ISO mode: Now, when you use a flash that triggers a ready-light on the M (so the Leica SF 58 or any Nikon TTL flash) you get a choice of whether you want an arbitrary ISO or an automatic one. On the previous firmware, your only choice for flash was a reversion to the last ISO manually set. This was not easy to reset and could lead to some real surprises. On the other hand, if you could get that “manual” setting to stay at ISO 800, you could cover pretty much any flash situation.
- Exposure compensation without the button: Apparently, many Leica users have short, stubby fingers that prevent the pressing of the front button and turning of the rear wheel simultaneously. This has been corrected so that, depending on your view, either (i) manual bracketing is easier or (ii) it is now just as easy to knock the EV compensation off center on a M as it is on other cameras. This functionality is not perfect; occasionally, the camera does not recognize that the wheel is being rotated.
- Reduced lockups: We won’t say “eliminated” yet (let’s give it some time to burn in before declaring victory), but the use of an EVF does not seem to tax the camera as much as it did. In serveral hundred shots so afr, no lockups.
- 50hz-compatible video: With a new video frame rate, flickering from artificial light sources supposedly has been reduced. This is helpful in Soccer Countries. Baseball Countries use 60hz. Do you think we’re joking? The USA, Canada, Japan, Korea, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Haiti, Puerto Rico and Taiwan – all places where baseball is trained or farmed – use 60hz.
The Luddite terrorists have won: where the M has been pushed backward by its cantankerous arrière-garde.
- Locking out the (M)ovie mode: Some people hated the video function on the Leica. Some people couldn’t stop pushing the button. And all of their wishes have come true because now you can wish the M button away to a cornfield. This would have been better as an assignable button, but the main thing is placating those who are eternally angry that Leica took another baby step into the 21st century.
- Locking out Live-View: it’s really hard to say whether this is a “correction” or “terrorists have won” moment. But we needed a third item for this section, so here it is. One of the biggest nightmares about M handling (first world problems… right?) was that the easily bumped Live View button (at the top left of the buttons on the back) was easy to engage by accident (in fact, it occupies the same position as the “play” button on many cameras). It also made operations with EVF somewhat awkward, since the EVF has its own Live View button, and it is very easy to lose track of where one is between the three modes (OVF, rear screen, EVF). By locking out Live View (on the rear screen), the EVF’s button now toggles between just two modes: (i) the EVF for shooting and playback and (ii) the OVF for shooting and rear screen for playback. This makes a lit more sense.
- Locking out advanced metering: Advanced metering is only operative in Live View mode, and it’s not that easy to activate to begin with. But in the event that you fiddle with the menus of an M camera in your sleep, Leica has you covered. But the real problem here is that diabling this feature and disabling Live view are coupled; so in the shooting style where you want to use the OVF and the EVF (but not the rear screen), you just can’t get advanced metering.
There are other changes in this firmware (changes to ISO range, different colors for focus peaking, better lens detection, and persistent bracketing settings), but the ones discussed in detail above are going to be very compelling to M owners and will start chipping away at the resistance of the hard core of M9 enthusiasts. Well played, Leica.