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Leica M Typ 240 review

July 17, 2013

Overall Rating:

4

Leica M Typ 240


Manufacturer:

Manufacturer:

Price as Reviewed:

£5,100.00

When a new Leica M comes along it’s sure to raise eyebrows. As the German godfather of 35mm photography attempts to balance new features with traditionalism, Ian Farrell finds out if the M Typ 240 measures up as a serious photographic tool.

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Leica M Typ 240 at a glance:

  • 18-million-pixel, full-frame, CMOS sensor
  • ISO 100-6400 (extended)
  • 3in, 920,000-dot LCD screen
  • Optional EVF
  • DNG raw
  • Street price around £5,100 (body only)

Leica M Typ 240 review – Introduction

Leica’s traditional approach to camera design means that its M-series of rangefinders are simple, basic machines that strip photography back to its fundamental principles, and Leica’s fans love them for that. Such cameras are as far from DSLRs as you can get, offering optical viewfinders and rangefinder focusing, which requires the user to match up a split image while turning the focus ring.

Because of their size, Leica M rangefinder cameras have traditionally been favoured by travel photographers and photojournalists, although these days many DSLRs, and virtually all compact system cameras, are just as portable, if not more so. Rangefinders are pretty discreet, though, making them ideal for street photography, and are built to exacting standards. Leica M-mount lenses also offer superb optical quality.

The newest Leica rangefinder is simply called the ‘M’, although if you turn over the camera you’ll see ‘Typ 240′ written on its base. It’s the fourth digital rangefinder from the company, although film-based versions have been around since the 1950s.

When the Leica M Typ 240’s predecessor, the M9, was launched in 2009, its specifications were impressive: a full-frame, 18-million-pixel, CCD sensor; compatibility with virtually every Leica lens ever made; and that all-important traditional Leica look and feel. Yet over the years the M9’s specification has dated somewhat, especially regarding its sensor and associated electronics.

The Leica M Typ 240 aims to update Leica’s traditional and much-loved recipe with a new sensor and extras you would usually find on a CSC, such as live view, an electronic viewfinder and even full HD video.

Leica M Typ 240 review – Features

Image: Colours straight out of the camera are bold, without being too saturated

At the heart of the Leica M is a 18-million-pixel, full-frame, CMOS sensor that replaces the CCD unit found in the M9. At one time it used to be argued that CCD sensors produced better-quality images at low ISO settings, but as the (cheaper) CMOS technology has been developed more and more, this advantage has become negligible. CMOS sensors score with higher ISO sensitivities, lower power consumption and faster read times, enabling live-view composition and video recording.

The M produces 67.6MB files measuring 5952×3976 pixels, and shoots open-standard DNG raw files as well as JPEGs of various sizes and quality. ISO sensitivity is somewhat limited compared to full-frame DSLRs: the M offers ISO 200-3200, with the ability to pull to ISO 100 and push to ISO 6400. The camera can shoot continuous bursts at 3fps, storing them on an SD card that slots into the underside of the camera. To get at this, the camera’s baseplate must be removed – a nice throwback to the days when film was loaded in this way. The M also now provides support for Eye-Fi cards for wireless file transfer to your home PC or Mac.

Other features that differentiate the M from the M9 include a new 920,000-dot scratch-resistant viewscreen, spot and multifield metering modes, live-view composition and the ability to shoot full HD video.

At first glance, incorporating live view into a Leica rangefinder camera seems a little like adding off-road four-wheel drive to a Ferrari. Yet while the traditionalists may tut and shake their heads, the M now offers new ways of shooting that overcome some of the limitations of the rangefinder format. Composing on the camera’s viewscreen gets round the problem of parallax errors (where the view offered by the optical viewfinder is not the same as that captured through the camera’s lens) and offers a preview of depth of field, white balance and exposure via a live histogram.

The same view can also be seen with an electronic viewfinder (EVF) that slots into the M’s hotshoe. The Visoflex EF2 is a 1.4-million-dot EVF that hinges up through 90° to offer shooting from unusual angles, and Leica says that it displays all significant exposure parameters and allows for precise composition.

Such precise composition could be great for those wanting to shoot macro close-up photography, although there is no macro lens presently in the Leica M-system line-up. However, Leica has thrown a lifeline to those who still have Leica R-mount lenses from the company’s film SLRs. These can now be mounted on M-series cameras using an adaptor. Bag a second-hand Apo-Macro-Elmarit-R 100mm f/2.8 lens (or its 60mm sibling) from eBay or your local camera shop, and you could soon be enjoying macro photography on your Leica M.

Leica M Typ 240 review – Live view and EVF

The new live-view mode in the Leica M is more useful than we first expected. Since it has a through-the-lens view, it avoids the parallax problem inherent in rangefinder-camera design and offers a preview of depth of field, white balance and exposure, with a live histogram.

Focus peaking outlines in-focus areas with a subtle red colour and an automatic enlargement of the central part of the frame activates when the focus ring is adjusted. The degree of enlargement can be adjusted from 5x to 10x.

An electronic viewfinder can be added, too. The 1.4-million-dot accessory (an optional extra) hinges up through 90° to allow shooting from awkward angles, and features a button to switch between the EVF and the screen. It would have been nice to see this automated via an eye-detection sensor.

While the live-view and EVF options add flexibility, unfortunately they also result in a lack of spontaneity and speed. When shooting with the screen or EVF, all was good until the moment I pressed the shutter-release button. After shooting, the picture is displayed for a moment but doesn’t vanish instantly if the shutter release is pressed again. In fact, it’s impossible to capture another frame for the best part of a second while the live-view system resets itself.

The delay is also present if the image review setting is set to off in the camera’s menu, and it even persists when shooting without live view, using the optical viewfinder, if the advanced metering option is active, since this also requires the shutter to be open. It seems that if you want to unleash your inner Cartier-Bresson and capture the decisive moment, you’ll need to remember to shoot with centreweighted metering only, and steer clear of live view.

Leica M Typ 240 review – Build and handling

If you’ve never picked up a Leica before, then your first impressions of the M are going to be similar to those of other photographers who are used to plastic-bodied DSLRs. For its size, the M is a heavy piece of kit. It’s made mostly from metal and feels like something so robust that you could cheerfully hand it down to your grandchildren. However, Leica has gone one step further, adding water and dust-resistant weatherproof seals to the M to make it even tougher.

As one gets used to the camera’s heft and somewhat boxy shape, the simple nature of the M’s classic design shines through. Inspect an older Leica rangefinder, such as the M6, and you’ll find there are really only three controls that can be adjusted on the entire camera: aperture, shutter speed and focus. While the nature of digital photography means there is more to the M than this, the new camera does follow in these minimalist footsteps. The top of the camera features just four controls: a shutter-release button, a shooting-mode selector (single, continuous and self-timer), a dedicated movie capture button, and a shutter-speed dial featuring speeds from 1-1/4000sec plus B and an automated A setting for aperture priority.

The rear of the camera is dominated by its 3in, 920,000-dot screen (a vast improvement over the M9’s 2.5in, 230,000-dot affair), which is used to navigate the camera’s menu options, review images and compose in live-view mode. To the left of the screen are six well-labelled buttons that bring up the main menu, allow playback and deleting of images, and provide access to ISO adjustment. On the right-hand side of the screen is a silver control dial and a four-way joypad.

All these controls fall nicely under the correct thumbs and fingers when the camera is held to the eye. The way in which you focus the camera depends on the lens in use: the 35mm f/2 Summicron we used in this test features an excellent finger indent making it very quick and easy to use. We also used a 50mm f/2 Summicron that has a more traditional focus ring. Leica is one of the few manufacturers that puts a good depth-of-field scale on its lenses, too.

Leica M Typ 240 review – Metering

When it comes to TTL exposure metering, Leica rangefinders have always been a rather basic affair: light passes through the lens and bounces off a mid-grey spot painted on the shutter curtain onto a sensor. In the viewfinder, left or right arrows indicate which way to turn the aperture ring while a steady circle indicates correct exposure. In aperture priority mode, the calculated shutter speed is shown.

This minimal viewfinder information (loved by many) is still the case in the new M, and if you remove its lens you’ll still see grey patterns on the shutter blind in the pattern of centreweighted metering. However, two new metering modes have joined the party: spot and evaluative.

Since it’s not possible to change the painted pattern on the shutter blinds, the M uses its main sensor to provide the extra two metering modes. It is a method that’s almost like live view, but without actually showing the image. Spot and evaluative metering are available to choose once the advanced metering option is chosen in the camera’s menu, and if this is the case you will hear the shutter opening to expose the sensor when you turn on the camera.

The evaluative metering is more accurate when faced with tricky situations, such as backlighting or overly light or dark conditions, and spot metering behaves as you might expect, covering an area roughly the same as the rangefinder patch in the middle of the frame. Yet for all its sins, centreweighted metering is predictable: yes, it gets confused occasionally, but always in the same way, so problems can be anticipated. Leica should be applauded for finding an innovative way of bringing new metering options to the M, however. Just be warned that powering up the sensor to perform advanced metering will affect responsiveness and decrease battery performance. No wonder the M Typ 240 has a new larger battery that is much better than the cell supplied with the previous M9 and M8 cameras.

Leica M Typ 240 review – Dynamic range

In everyday use, the M delivers the kind of dynamic range you’d expect of a digital camera in 2013. In JPEG mode, highlights tend to blow rather easily, but are recoverable in DNG raw format. In our lab tests, we recorded 12.57EV of dynamic range in a DNG file, which is easily enough to rescue overexposed skies and recover lost shadow information.

The M’s pulled ISO 100 is not a real ISO setting, but rather a software workaround to allow shooting with wide apertures and long shutter speeds in brightly lit conditions. Typically, these software pull-ISO settings work by overexposing the image when it’s captured, then pulling back the brightness in the same way that you might in Adobe Camera Raw post-capture. Hence, there is not as much room for correcting blown highlights at ISO 100 as there is at the sensor’s native ISO 200 setting.

Leica M Typ 240 review – Focusing

Image: In low light, with the fast M-mount lenses, the Leica M is great to use

As with its predecessors, focusing on the M is an all-manual affair, so there is nothing we can say about autofocus performance. With its live view mode and electronic viewfinder, however, the M does bring with it some new options in the form of focus peaking and focus magnification, which blows up the central portion of the image by 5x to 10x.

While this is the least Leica-like way of working you can think of, it’s an approach that works well and we found it useful for establishing accurate focus when shooting wide open with our 35mm f/2 lens – which, it turns out, is not well calibrated to the camera’s conventional rangefinder (something that can be adjusted by Leica).

Back in the more traditional world, using the M’s rangefinder focusing is still a nice way to work, especially with some of the system’s better-handling lenses. It’s fast, too, once you get the hang of it. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that a seasoned M user wouldn’t be that far behind the AF systems in modern DSLRs, although you wouldn’t want to follow focus in this way.

As we’ve already mentioned, Leica lenses sport a depth-of-field scale, which makes zone focusing easy and highly effective. The principle is simple: preset the distance on the focus scale and rely on depth of field to ensure that everything between the two f-stop markers is in focus. For instance, with the 35mm f/2 Summicron, it’s easy to see that at f/8 everything from approximately 1.5-3m will be in focus when the lens is focused to 2m. I was soon able to estimate distances correctly when shooting, meaning it’s possible to shoot more quickly than any AF system allows.

Leica M Typ 240 review – Noise, resolution and sensitivity

Image: Noise is extremely well controlled, especially colour noise. This image was shot at ISO 3200 and shows virtually no noise

The CCD-based M9 had a sensitivity range of ISO 160-2500, which was considered a little pedestrian next to cameras costing a tenth of the price. With CMOS sensor technology we’d hoped to see this pushed to the limit but, sadly, the M only offers ISO 200-3200 sensitivity, with the option to extend to ISO 100-6400 through internal software trickery. To put this in perspective, the big-name DSLR and CSC manufacturers are now routinely offering top ISO 6400 settings, expandable by a further 2 stops. Pro-spec cameras such as the Canon EOS-1D X or EOS 5D Mark III offer even more, and cost less.

When used at its top ISO sensitivity, images from the M are not overtly noisy, though, so at least results from this setting are usable, but they are lacking in biting sharpness, which is a shame. Better-quality noise reduction is available by applying Adobe Lightroom’s magic to a DNG file than relying on the camera’s built-in noise-reduction processing.

That said, the M is very enjoyable to use in low light. It’s easy to focus when one finds a speck of detail to look at with the rangefinder patch, and the wide apertures of many of the system’s lenses let in loads of light. It’s also easy to hold still at slow shutter speeds. I had no problem working with a 35mm lens at 1/15sec and constantly achieved shake-free results. It goes without saying that image stabilisation is not a feature you’ll find on the Leica M Typ 240.

When it comes to resolution, there aren’t many lenses around that will perform better than those of the Leica M system. You’ll often struggle to find any real-world differences in sharpness between the edge and middle of the frame, and it’s great to have the confidence to shoot wide open at f/2 (or even f/0.95 if you have the funds available for a 50mm Noctilux) and know you are still getting great performance.

The camera’s sensor, however, doesn’t live up to the quality of the image being projected onto it. Despite the move to more modern CMOS technology, images from the M lack the ‘bite’ you’d expect from a 18-million-pixel, full-frame camera that has no optical low-pass (anti-aliasing) filter. If anything, images from the older M9 are more detailed at normal ISO settings. This is backed up by our lab tests, in which the M resolved 32 line pairs per mm. That’s pretty much what we’d expect for a sensor of this type, but sub-standard given the lack of an optical low-pass filter.

These images show 72ppi (100% on a computer screen) sections of images of a resolution chart, captured using the 50mm f/2 Summicron lens set to f/5.6 . We show the section of the resolution chart where the camera starts to fail to reproduce the lines separately. The higher the number visible in these images, the better the camera’s detail resolution is at the specified sensitivity setting.

Leica M Typ 240 review – White balance and colour

Image: Skies are well rendered, with a natural shade of blue and no hint of cyan

The M Typ 240 delivers bold colours without going over the top. We never saw a cyan sky or an oversaturated red post box. Photographing streets in east London on a sunny day gave great-looking vibrant results.

White balance is spot on, too, resulting in accurate skin tones even when strong coloured backgrounds are present, although strangely our test chart came out a little on the green side. In artificial light, the camera compensated for the colour temperature of tungsten and fluorescent light without eradicating it completely, giving a natural result. In mixed lighting situations, the M did as well as any camera tends to, picking a mid-point white balance that can make extreme colour temperatures look a bit odd.

In the camera’s menu there are now three film mode options: vivid colour, smooth colour and black & white, which can be fine-tuned. Each of these is very well implemented without being gimmicky; the smooth colour option is particularly good if you like your colours muted.

Images: The Leica M is a camera for street photography, as can be seen in the two portraits above

Leica M Typ 240 review – Viewfinder, live view, LCD and video

Uniquely for an M-series camera, the M Typ 240 offers live-view composition and the ability to shoot with an optional electronic viewfinder (EVF), as well as the traditional and much-loved optical rangefinder viewfinder. A press of the LV button opens the camera’s shutter, powers up the sensor and activates the screen, enabling photographers to preview more accurately how their images will appear and compose without parallax error.

It’s not a bad implementation of live view – accurate focusing is especially easy – but it’s not the most responsive technology, and working in this way does lead to some frustrating delays.

Sadly, the optical finder is not without its problems, either. AP has always been a fan of M-series viewfinders, which are typically large, bright and don’t distract from the picture-taking experience. The viewfinder on the M is certainly bright and clear, but the framelines, which show how much of a scene will be captured with the current lens, are only visible when the camera is switched on. This reduces spontaneity, since you can’t quickly raise the camera to your eye to see what a composition will look like, or if a lens needs to be changed, without first powering up.

What’s more, there is now no switch to swap between different framelines with the camera at your eye. This unique and innovative feature has been present on M cameras since the M3 in 1954 right up to the M9 in 2009, and is extremely useful for working out which lens you need. I’m not sure why Leica chose to ditch it now.

The M’s framelines can now be switched between red and white, but this a far less useful feature than being able to see and change them when the camera is switched off.

Leica M Typ 240 review – The competition

The most obvious competition for the Leica M is Fujifilm’s X-Pro1, an interchangeable-lens camera that is strictly a CSC, but one that gets much of its handling and styling from rangefinders such as the Leica M Typ 240. While the X-Pro1 has only a 16-million-pixel resolution, compared to the 18 million pixels of the Leica M, its sensor technology is very advanced, resulting in fantastically crisp images. If you don’t mind a fixed 35mm f/2 lens, then the Fujifilm X100S is also worth investigation. AF is much improved over the first version of the camera and the same X-Trans sensor technology delivers crisp detail and sharpness.

Also consider the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1, a full-frame compact camera that delivers DSLR-like results from a 18-million-pixel sensor and fixed Carl Zeiss 35mm f/2 Sonnar lens. Plus, it fits in your coat pocket.

Leica M Typ 240 review – Our verdict

In updating the Leica M9 with more current features, one can’t help get the feeling that Leica has slightly missed the point with the M Typ 240. Yes, the additions of live view, an EVF and full HD video are welcome (especially for Leica R-mount owners), but these features have handling snags that smack of a product that hasn’t been thought through properly, and this impacts upon the M’s performance as a rangefinder camera. What Leica photographers really wanted was higher ISO performance and a sensor that could gather more detail, and here the M doesn’t deliver as much as expected. Maximum ISO is only a 1⁄2 stop more than the M9, with a boost to take it to ISO 6400. Also, the sensor doesn’t record as much detail and sharpness as competitor cameras.

The compromises made while adding new technology to the M have slightly spoiled the experience of shooting with a rangefinder. Leica M photographers choose their equipment because they want something different that offers an alternative way of working and superlative image quality. The new M is still a very enjoyable camera to use, and one that makes you feel like you are really creating a picture and observing the world. However, as a serious photographic tool, the M Type 240 is something of a sideways step from the M9, rather than the step up that Leica undoubtedly meant it to be.

Leica M Typ 240 – Key features

Viewfinder
Traditional rangefinder focusing and bright framelines in a large optical viewfinder. Parallax correction moves the frame as the point of focus is changed.

Shutter speed dial
Easy to find and use with the camera at your eye. Set to A for aperture priority mode.

Movie-capture button
Starts capturing high-quality full HD video without having to swap modes or change camera settings.

Live view
Activate live view with the touch of a button. Focus peaking outlines sharp areas in red and focus enlargement magnifies the central part of the image by 5x to 10x.

Screen
A 920,000-dot display reviews images, shows live-view composition and the camera’s menu system. An optional EVF can be used in the M’s hotshoe.

Thumb wheel
Zoom into images during review, quickly adjust ISO sensitivity and so on, and set exposure compensation when used together with the silver Fn button on the front of the camera.

  • Dioptre Adjustment: No, optional corrective lenses
  • White Balance: Auto, 7 presets, plus custom and manual
  • Built-in Flash: No
  • Memory Card: SD / SDHC / SDXC
  • Shutter Type: Electronically controlled focal-plane shutter
  • Output Size: 5952 x 3976 pixels
  • Viewfinder Type: Optical, 0.68x magnification, with brightlines
  • LCD: 3in TFT with 920,000 dots
  • Field of View: Approximate, indicated with brightlines
  • AF Points: N/A
  • White Balance Bracket: No
  • Sensor: 18-million-pixel, full-frame, CMOS sensor
  • Max Flash Sync: 1/180sec
  • Focal Length Mag: 1x
  • Exposure Modes: Manual, aperture priority
  • Weight: 680g (without battery or card)
  • Drive Mode: Max 3fps for 8 frames
  • Shutter Speeds: 30-1/4000sec in 1⁄3EV steps, plus bulb
  • File Format: DNG (raw), JPEG, raw + JPEG simultaneously
  • Power: Rechargeable Li-Ion battery
  • Colour Space: Adobe RGB, sRGB
  • Lens Mount: Leica M
  • ISO: ISO 100-6400 (extended)
  • Focusing Modes: Manual focus only
  • DoF Preview: N/A
  • Dimensions: 139 x 42 x 80 mm
  • Metering System: Centreweighted using three reflective bars on shutter curtains or advanced on sensor, centreweighted, spot or multi-field
  • Connectivity / Interface: No USB
  • Compression: 2-stage JPEG
  • Exposure Comp: ±3EV in 1⁄3EV steps
  • RRP: £5,100 (body only)
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