Review: Leica M 240 with M-Rokkor Lenses
Sometimes unforeseen circumstances forces unique solutions. My Leica rep graciously loaned me the new Leica M type 240 camera…but with no lens. I was hoping to get a modern, 6-bit, multi-coated, aspherical lens specifically designed to match the capabilities of the top-of-the-line Leica M body. No can do.The solution? I would use my long-term loaned Minolta CLE lens kit: M-Rokkor 28mm F/2.8, 40mm F/2 and 90mm F/4.
By using these 30 year old lenses designed for film on this modern digital camera body felt a bit like putting 30 year old tires on a McLaren P1. Sure the tires will fit, but will it be able to optimize on the capabilities of this modern supercar, or will it hold it back? These made for film, made in Japan M-Rokkor lenses will easily fit onto the new Leica M240, but will we be able to see the true capabilities of this newly designed, CMOS sensored, full-frame body? Let’s see…
Build Quality, Ergonomics, Feel
I recently reviewed the Leica M Monochrom which is based on the M9, so I have a good idea of how the old M body compares to the new. Besides the sibling similarities in terms of build quality and feel, the new M240 is a big change for Leica, and a big change for the M series. The biggest complaint about the previous M bodies were the 230,000 dot LCD screens. It was fine to look at the menu and controls, but don’t bother trying to use it to take a good look at your images. The new, almost 1 million dot screen was a pleasure to use, as you could actually see images at almost pixel level, check for focus, dynamic range, etc. Not that this screen is any better or worse than what’s already out there, but M users finally have a screen they could use in the field instead of waiting to get home and upload their images before knowing what they shot.
There’s also a few new control features that take a while to get use to, especially if you’re a long time M user. There’s an odd movie button on the top plate near the shutter button that’s not programable or lockable. I don’t think too many M shooters will use their cameras to shoot movies and would appreciate the ability to change the function of the button to something else more useful. The rear thumb dial is nice, making certain functions quicker and more intuitive; but the front button is oddly placed and hard to use. I don’t think I used it once.
Another big change is the electronic frame lines inside the optical viewfinder. Instead of the frame line gathering window and the mechanical way the old M bodies would show the frame lines inside the viewfinder; the new camera will either auto detect the frame lines, or you can manually pick the lines you want to see. I think this is more flexible, although maybe not quicker. For instance, if you’re using adapter to mount non-M lenses, it would be easy enough to manually pick the frame lines you want to see. For myself, I found that no matter what lighting condition, the red or white electronically projected lines were easy to see and a pleasure to use.
Overall, the build quality of the new M is amazing. It’s the best built camera body I’ve held in a very long time, better than the Leica M Monochrom and X-Vario that I recently tested. It’s not just another M with slight upgrades, but is a big leap from the previous M bodies in both technology, ergonomics, and build quality. If you own an M9, it’s definitely worth considering an upgrade, unless you are vehemently against the idea of taking better images at higher ISO with more control features. Remember, you’re also going from CCD to CMOS technology, a move that some photographers don’t want to make (M Monochrom, M9, M8 are all CCD).
I think many of us affectionately talk about the good old days and how everything was made better when we were young, and to some extent, this is very true. However, in some areas, the past is the past. Think of the original cell phones, laptop computers, CRT televisions. How about old lenses from the 60’s, 70’s, even 80’s? One thing that was lacking back then (pre-80’s) was multi-coating lenses to reduce light refraction and partial reflection; and those that did have some sort of lens coating tended to wear off over time. Minolta’s collaboration with Leica to create the CLE and CL line of compact M mount rangefinders in the 70’s and 80’s wasn’t a complete failure, but it wasn’t much of a success. The rage was SLRs and zoom lenses at that time, and the major players were racing to be the first to come out with an autofocus SLR system. Rangefinder technology was considered old tech, and the public wasn’t lining up to buy well made, manual focus rangefinder prime lenses.
All three lenses, the 28mm F/2.8, 40mm F/2 and 90mm F/4 were all made in Japan and were decent build quality, but not without some issues. The lens coating on the 28mm lens has been known for spotting and hazing, and my sample has both. In the shade with no direct light hitting the lens, the images had sort of a soft filter look. If the sun hit into the lens, the images were useless. The 40mm lens had no coating issues, but also suffered from direct sunlight contact, an issue much improved upon newer lenses. The 90mm lens had no issues with flare, although the images seemed overly saturated. Of the 3 lenses, I enjoyed using the 40mm lens the best. If the exposure and lighting was right, the images were spectacular, almost matching the more modern Leica M lenses. Overall, decent performance, but it did feel like I was using old technology.
In the Field
Let’s get shooting with the M240 and the M-Rokkor lenses. It may seem odd that I’ll start this section by talking about the battery life of the new M, but this is an important ‘in the field’ aspect of any camera. It has an all new 7.4V 1800mAh 13.32Wh battery, and it’s huge! It’s the biggest battery I’ve seen in a non-DSLR body. I can easily shoot all day and still have 2-3 bars left on its 5 bar battery indicator. This makes sense since there’s no AF, no EVF (optional), and if you turn off the rear LCD screen, you can get even longer life. Let’s just say that you don’t really need a back-up battery if you don’t want one. I could confidently shoot all day and not worry about my batteries dying on me, something I worry about when shooting with almost any other camera (with the exception of the Ricoh GR-D IV).
Another feature that can be handy is the LCD Live View mode. Some would consider this feature blasphemous on a Leica M, and I would partially agree. To use it exclusively to frame, focus and capture the image with a Leica M-mount lens would negate the whole reason why you’re shooting with a rangefinder. Even more odd is using the optional shoe-mount EVF instead of using the standard rangefinder optical viewfinder. I would argue that rangefinder focusing is one of the fastest ways to focus, faster than focus peaking with zoom, even faster than autofocus in certain conditions. What I did find is that if I wanted accurate framing with my 28mm lens, the live view was handy, but I always relied on focusing via the rangefinder OVF for speed and accuracy. The LCD screen was handy for quickly checking my settings, use for tricky lighting situations, and for accurate framing with a wide lens. It’s handy to have, but I didn’t rely on it nor use it exclusively.
One major reason you would use the LV mode is if you’re using non M-mount lenses via an adapter, such as an R-mount Leica lens. There’s no way you can frame or focus with a telephoto lens with the OVF (eg. 180mm F/2), so the rear LCD LV mode would definitely come in handy.
Shooting with the new M can still feel like shooting with an old film M, as long as you don’t get too fancy. Set your ISO and resolution ahead of time, and the rest you can adjust externally via dials or the lens. However, if you decide to shoot jpegs, create shooting profiles, shoot video, or anything else more complicated, then you have to dig into the menus, something I didn’t really enjoy. It’s not that the menus are confusing, but I’m not use to the Leica set up. For instance, to adjust shooting parameters, you need to know what’s in MENU versus the SET folder. If you want to access ISO, WB, File Format, Jpeg Res, Video Res, Exp Comp, Ex. Metering, User Profiles, then you hit the SET button. Everything else is in the main MENU folder. I know Leica wants to keep the external control as classic as possible, but times have changed. We need more dials and control knobs and other externally accessible functions. They’ve added a new dial on the back, and a new button on the front and top, which is a big step for a Leica M. How about adding user assignable buttons and dials?
Leica assumes most M users will shoot RAW and manually expose their images, so they designed the camera with this type of photography and photographer in mind. Adjusting white balance, accessing exposure compensation and changing ISO wasn’t as fast as other cameras. In practice, I didn’t really use JPEGs except as a thumbnail to find my images faster once downloaded; so slow access to certain features was more of an irritation, and not a hindrance to getting good images.
One feature I would recommend turning off for those who like to always have the camera ready to shoot is the Auto Power Off. Since I don’t use the Live View mode to shoot, it wasn’t really necessary to try and conserve battery life. My priority was to have the camera ready to shoot as soon as I press the shutter button, and not wait for a 5 second delay as the camera woke up, like the Fuji X-mount cameras!! With Auto Power Off turned off, the camera was always ready to shoot, just the way I like it…
I had a great time shooting with the M240 camera. I do wish I had a Leica lens to shoot with, but I won’t whine about it. I got to shoot with the latest, greatest Leica M! Shooting with Minolta M-Rokkor lenses was a lot of fun, but I can say for a certainty that those older lenses can not keep up to the newer Leica M-mount lenses. Under certain conditions the 40mm F/2 shot beautifully, but as soon as there was the slightest back-lighting, the image flared up and lost contrast. The top-of-the-line M body requires newer, more modern lenses if you are serious about image quality.
At the time of testing, it was the only one in its class: full-frame inter-changeable lens mirrorless camera. However, Sony just announced the new A7 and A7R bodies, and now I hear Nikon is also coming out with their mirrorless full-frame shortly. Leica has some big competition coming its way. Or do they? I believe that the majority of M shooters will shoot with M lenses, and the majority love shooting rangefinder style photography. Those that were buying cropped sensored mirrorless camera bodies and then buying adapters to shoot their legacy lenses are not Leica’s target market for the M bodies.
I believe there will continue to be a market for the Leica M line of bodies to perfectly match their M-mount lenses. Yes there are many older M-mount lenses out there in the market and many people looking for bodies to shoot them on. These people are not buying brand new Leica glass. They are looking for a more economical way of using these older lenses. Does Leica want to go after this market? Probably not, because to be competitive in this market, they would have to go head to head against Sony, Olympus, Panasonic, Fuji, Ricoh, etc. I don’t think that’s what they want to do. It’s like Ferrari or McLaren trying to compete against Toyota or BMW. Leica exists for a certain target market and create products to fill those that are willing and able to afford their products. That’s not a crime, it’s just their business motto.
Shooting with the M240 was a great photographic experience. Like all M cameras, there’s no autofocus, there’s no easy way to shoot in 1/3 stop increments, and up until now there was no live view screen. However, shooting with the Leica is a romantic photographic concept, merging its illustrious past with current technology. Most other brands offer nostalgia that’s only skin deep, by retro-styling their bodies to make it look like its somehow connected to the past. Leica M bodies have always looked classic because the styling hasn’t changed much in 60+ years since the first M was designed and offered to the world. It’s still a rangefinder, it still has dials to control the exposure, it still has top and bottom brass plates, it still has the same square-but-rounded silhouette. The Leica M legacy has endured and will continue to make steps forward to keep up with the times…even if it’s baby steps.
The shooting experience with the M240 is a more thoughtful and deliberate. It’s easier to make a mistake when shooting, but the reward of getting a great shot is greater as well, knowing YOU took the shot and not the camera and its pre-programmed algorithms. It was also nice to be able to get full-frame images from such a reasonably small body. Once I got my RAW files on screen, it was a pleasure to work with such large files, with room to crop and lots of exposure lattitude, something that isn’t possible with my other cameras. It felt like my old film days of working in the darkroom, cropping, dodging, burning….I was in control of the final image with lots of freedom to do what I wanted. That’s what I got from shooting with a full-frame Leica M body: a sense of control. Is that important to you? It is to me.
Thanks to Leica Canada for loaning me this camera. I look forward to testing it in the future with a proper Leica lens so I can get the most out of the new sensor and new design of the M240. I did get a good sense of the new body though, and I think its a big step in the right direction. Yes, there’s competition coming up very soon with similar specs, but I don’t think Leica has to worry. A Leica is a Leica. It will always have a certain reputation and glamour and function that the other Japanese brands may always try to achieve, but will take many more years to obtain…and this is coming from a Japanese guy… who loves Japanese cameras!! Ha ha. Thanks for viewing and happy shooting!!
Check out my review of the M Monochrom here!
Check out my review of the X-Vario here!