Like many photographic tools created by this iconic German manufacturer, the Leica M-D Typ 262 is polarizing. You either love it or hate it. In my recent YouTube video review, commenters were either mad at me for misunderstanding this ‘purist camera’, or thought I was crazy to review such an expensive camera that lacked basic digital features. Yes, without an LCD or an EVF, there’s no way to preview the image in-camera on the Leica M-D. Isn’t that the whole premise behind digital photography, instant preview? It’s at least a major advantage of shooting digital over film. However, with every technological advancement there’s often an unforeseen crutch. Having the ability to view images instantaneously has made a previously confident film photographer neurotic with constant chimping and second guessing one’s photographic prowess. The solution? Remove the screen. Does it help? Yes and no. What about the price: Is this screen-less Leica M body worth $6,000 USD body only? Again, the answer is yes and no. The big question is, did it make me a better photographer? Totally. Did I have fun shooting it? A definite yes. Why? Das Wesentliche or ‘The Essentials’
When shooting with the Leica M-D, you only have to worry about 4 essential elements to capture an image: focus, aperture, shutter speed and ISO. There’s nothing else to adjust. Don’t like the picture you just took? Too bad, there’s no delete button. This camera only shoots RAW, negating the need for white balance, film simulation modes, image size or aspect ratio. You turn the camera on, focus, adjust expose, shoot and repeat. Yes, if you come from film, especially from a manual focus rangefinder camera, this shooting workflow will feel familiar. However, for the majority of us who use a regular digital camera with all its benefits, this seems backwards. Even the viewfinder isn’t ‘accurate’ since you aren’t looking through the actual lens, but through a small viewfinder window just left of the lens and use a split-image rangefinder manual focus system. Let’s face it, for most of us who shoot digital, a camera without autofocus, through-the-lens view, image preview, an LCD screen with a menu system, or no I/O (input/output) capability is not a digital camera. In fact, this is the most non-digital digital camera currently available. Is the term ‘simplicity’ or ‘essential’ just a cool way of describing antiquated functionality?
Perhaps within certain camera ecosystems it would be a step backwards (imagine the new Canon 5D didn’t come with AF or an LCD screen), but within the realm of the Leica M system the new M-D Typ 262 makes sense. In fact, there are some Leica photographers who see this new digital M as progress. The Leica M is the longest surviving interchangeable lens camera system (introduced in 1954). It has always been manual split-image rangefinder focus, it has always had manual focus lenses, and the form factor and shooting style has not changed much in 60 years. Hold an M3 from 1954 and then hold the new 2016 M-D and it basically feels and shoots the same. Many who tried the latest Leica M240 felt that the addition of the optional EVF, video, live view and focus peaking ruined the rangefinder experience. Yes, sometimes progress can be counter-productive. The majority of Leica M photographers probably also own a film Leica camera. In fact I’m willing to bet there are more film Leica M bodies out there than digital M’s. This means that the majority of Leica M shooters prefer the slower shooting process that comes with shooting with film. AF, focus peaking, EVF and even an LCD screen can be perceived as a hindrance instead of assisting.
By removing any ability to review images while shooting, it allows Leica M photographers to focus on both technique and vision. On the technical side, you have to trust your camera and trust your ability to read a scene’s exposure and know when to override the camera’s default metering (center-weighted average). You must improve your manually focus skills. You must be learn how to properly frame your image and understand composition and perspective. On the creative side, you have to pre-visualize your final image. There’s no way to check the image after you take the shot as a test. Since you’re not looking through the lens, you can’t see your depth of field, you can’t see your flash exposure, you can’t see how much blur you get when panning. Through trial and error, you are forced to become more skilled at your craft. Without the ability to preview an image without physically removing the card, you must keep shooting without worrying. Is this progress? In terms of technology, no; but in terms of improving your photographic skills, yes. Moreover, can the Leica M-D improve your digital photography experience? A definite YES.
The M-D helped me get back to my film roots and become less dependant on technology. No it’s not the same as shooting film, but the feeling of it is pretty darn close. I would go out shooting all afternoon and not know how my images turned out. I could focus all my full attention on my next image, not the one I just took. Knowing how big RAW files can be and knowing I couldn’t just preview and delete images right after, I had to be selective with how many shots I took at each location. When looking through the viewfinder, the red superimposed information along the bottom of the viewfinder window shows how many shots are left based on the card size. I actually found that a bit irritating. How about a dedicated digital film counter window? Lining up the dots and arrows to get proper exposure was also a bit finicky, but I got use to it quickly. Setting the date and time was a headache. What do you expect, no screen. However, my overall user experience was very positive.
After I finished shooting and began my agonizing drive back home, I still had to pull out the memory card, turn on my computer and start working. Since the images are DNG (Digital Negative) files, the images need to be ingested, edited and post processed. However, instead of this step being a chore, my Lightroom experience was fun, looking at my images for the first time. My shot-to-shot average was very high while using the Leica M-D. In fact I didn’t have a single image that was exposed incorrectly. My composition was also stronger, as I made sure that only the necessary elements were included. Yes I took less images, but I didn’t have a single throw-away. I remembered each shot like how I’d remember if I was at the beginning or end of a film roll.
My biggest complaints about the camera is more my pre and post shooting functionality. I received a lot of hate on my YouTube video for suggesting WiFi for this camera to be able to preview images while in the field. I think it’s a good compromise for someone who is serious about using this camera professionally (this camera can take a beating for pro use due to being screen-less and having a solid brass top and bottom plate) and needs the ability to see images without having to remove the memory card. Being able to preview images via WiFi is not the same as chimping. It takes time to pause, open up the WiFi app on a smartphone or tablet, connect, import huge DNG files and then preview. Chimping is a knee-jerk reaction to immediately look at an image as soon as you take the shot. Another option I suggested was having a physical connector via USB cable or HDMI to tether or transfer images directly to another device. Again, this isn’t the same as chimping. I even suggested (rather playfully) of having a hidden LCD screen underneath a cover plate (like the film Leica M cameras) to force people to stop shooting if they wanted to preview their images. My main point was this: the M-D is still a digital camera, it’s not film. It still needs a memory card. Not having to remove the card to preview an image does not devalue the screen-less concept. In fact, the act of removing the memory card from a camera may soon become antiquated tech with the advancement in wireless technology. It would be nice to always leave the card in the camera and use either a wireless or a wired method of getting the images off the card and into your main device to edit and process.
Another major advantage of having WiFi or a USB connection is the ability to make changes to the camera’s settings. I’ve already mentioned setting the date/time, which would be much easier from an external device. How about the ability to set your home time versus a second time zone for those who travel? Instead of resetting the date-time every time you travel, you can simply change time zones like most cameras. How about updating or checking your firmware version, or looking at your shutter count? How about reading error messages? How about the ability to change to different types of DNG files, from lossless compression or uncompressed? At this time you don’t get to choose. How about being able to change the timer setting (either 2 or 10 seconds) or use the continuous shooting position as a custom function? How about the simple task of formatting your memory card in-camera once you’ve downloaded all your images? Currently this is impossible on the M-D. Since this is a digital camera, being able to access and change internal information and functions shouldn’t be restricted. Having this capability doesn’t hinder the spirit of Das Wesentliche or ‘The Essentials’ of photography, it only makes it easier to set up so you can then focus on taking pictures.
Let’s talk about the final point, the price. For a Leica shooter is the M-D worth it? Is it worth paying $800 more for the M-D that has less and does less than the regular M Typ 262? Yes the M-D has a brass top plate versus the standard M’s aluminum, but that doesn’t explain the $800 difference. Having immediate access to ISO control from the back dial is also great, but still, is it really worth that much more? I do completely understand why the M-D is more expensive than the standard M Typ 262. It’s a limited run camera. It’s pulled from the standard assembly line and has to be customized to not have a screen, not to have certain internal functions like JPEG or video processing. Throwing in the sexy brass top plate and black lacquer paint by Leica is a way to justify the higher price, which makes business sense. If you are an M shooter and you already own the M240 and you don’t care for video, live view, focus peaking and the option to attach an EVF, the standard M Typ 262 might be a great fit since it’s $1800 cheaper. However, if you are looking for a different shooting experience, something to get you out of your digital comfort zone, losing the ability to cheat by chimping, to stick to the essentials of film photography but shooting digital, then the new M-D Typ 262 might be exactly what you’re looking for. What you lose in functionality you will gain in a simpler, more focused photographic workflow.
My final suggestion for Leica is to consider a cheaper version of the M-D Typ 262 for the future. As previously mentioned, there are probably more film Leica M shooters than digital M shooters. Many of them would love to move into digital photography with their legacy lenses but simply can not afford the price. Many compromise and buy the cropped-sensored M8, and others are hanging on to their well used M9s, hoping, waiting for something like the M-D but at a much lower price point. Perhaps Leica can figure out a way to reduce production costs of a lower end M-D by using an older chassis (M8, M9), parts bin a back from a film body, maybe even use a cloth focal plan shutter and manual wind (Like the Epson RD-1) from the M-A, use an older 16mp full-frame sensor and have an entry level price point of $3500? The current price of the Leica M-D of $5995 USD is too rich for the average Leica film photographer which is a shame.
Leica has conceptually hit a home run with the new M-D Typ 262. Many of my peers had a chance to handle the new M-D and they really liked the concept. There is definitely a future for screen-less digital cameras, and the Leica M is the perfect system to promote the ‘Das Wesentliche’ approach to photography. After shooting with the M-D, I’ve decided to shoot more film again, which is probably the opposite effect a camera like this is suppose to have. The joy of not seeing the image immediately is too strong an attraction for me to ignore. I think I’ll re-review the Leica M-A in the near future. For now, check out my controversial YouTube video on the Leica M-D Typ 262. Thanks for reading and happy shooting!