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Leica M Typ 240 / M240: What’s Next

With my reports on the Leica M Typ 240 vs Sigma DP2 Merrill and Leica M Typ 240 vs Nikon D800E and Leica M Typ 240 vs Nikon D7100, I’ve nailed down the parameters of the performance envelope in terms of sharpness.

So next I’ll be looking into ISO/noise and dynamic range, with a priority on shadow noise and any issues in deep shadows and similar (e.g. banding and streaking. And I’ll explore the performance of other lenses, including (I hope for arrival) of the Zeiss ZM 15mm f/2.8 Distagon and ZM 18/4 Distagon.

Anthony W writes:

I’ve read with great interest your excellent ongoing evaluation of the Leica M Typ 240 + 50MM AA. Prior to moving to digital I owned an M6 and R6 and complement of nice lenses (for the time) and have recently contemplated jumping back into the Leica system, in part for fondness of the design and workmanship but with concern about quality given the outrageous prices. After having read your review I will be skipping the M240 and 50AA. It goes without saying how valuable your coverage is in helping me make the right decision here.

Your analysis has made it clear that advances in technology have eviscerated Leica’s lead in image quality: it’s about sensor technology + hyper-advanced optical design now, not hand-assembled and polished lenses. And yet, the M240+50AA presumably has the qualities I once enjoyed: the beautiful optical viewfinder, the feeling of holding a precision mechanical-optical instrument, and the sheer design beauty. And it might still be an innocuous and capable tool for street photography – stealing a snapshot on the street with a camera that’s smaller, less obvious, and perhaps a bit quicker to shoot than a DSLR.

So this brings me to my two-part question. First, at what point will a Leica M be of indistinguishable quality from a practical perspective relative to the highest-end cameras? A study was done once doing blind tests of CD versus SACD quality in audio equipment (see https://drewdaniels.com/audible.pdf) and the authors came to the conclusion that despite the technical merits of SACD no one could tell the difference in real-world playback except at very high listening volumes. Does an M240, or will a future M360, M480, or M560, for example, be able to produce a 20x30” color photograph (or you pick the size – 30x45”?) that when printed and viewed near and far be indistinguishable from the highest quality Nikon + Zeiss (or medium format) gear? It will be at that point that someone can look at the Leica M and, without worrying about sacrificing practical image quality, purchase it based on the more subjective merits of handling, look, brand/mystique, etc.

Second, is the Leica M still a unique tool for “street photography” or is the DP1 Merrill better when you want to get off a quick shot without fuss and being noticed? I will comment that the DP1 at $899 is relatively disposable versus a $14,200 Leica M, and that in real-world street photography, say on the streets of Rio or Bangalore, having a DP1 in your pocket with several backups in the hotel room would be smarter than walking around with the equivalent of a diamond ring around your neck.

DIGLLOYD: I can’t speak to the personal priorities and preferred aesthetics of others, but I like finely made things and therefore Leica M appeals greatly on that basis, and I think that’s a large part of it, since image quality by itself cannot justify the M pricing.

Reporting on operational realities is what I hope to accomplish so readers can make their own informed judgments on the suitability of any particular camera system to their own purposes. Those purposes justifiably extend beyond image quality to all aspects, including ergonomics and look and feel or any other personal justification, possibly even just enjoying the craftsmanship and taking only occassional snapshots. One’s own satisfaction is personal and not subject to debate. Life would be boring if everyone liked exactly the same thing!

Street photography: an innocuous camera like the Nikon Coolpix A or Sigma DP Merrill provides outstanding image quality and fast and accurate autofocus (and there are many other good choices). None of them present any image quality barriers for street photography, which has never been about technical perfection. And some shooters do not have eyesight suitable for M focusing. Rather, it’s mainly about any operational and ergonomic issues and similar, e.g. shutter delay. While Leica M has a long and honored tradition for street photography, it is hardly mandatory; witness the iPhone as perhaps eminently suitable in some situations. Situationally, walking around with a $10K or $15K camera can be a personal risk that I would not entertain in some areas, just as a Rolex on a bare arm is a Bad Idea in some quarters. And one can have the M and have a spare or two alternative too.

Print quality: here in 2013, so many cameras can make high quality images suitable for large prints that one necessarily concludes that peak image quality is not the only factor. Thus, ergonomics and usability (and price) begin to play a key role in camera choice, as do the rendering style of a particular lens or sensor.

All these are fair game and it would be a mistake to make it a single issue decision based only on rigorous image quality considerations. Consider for example, one fundamental challenge: focusing accurately. As we age, it might not be physically feasible to use Leica M or Zeiss manual focus lenses—game over. Or consider the menu system and button layout and so on: some cameras make it tedious, or just don’t fit the handles well.

And so the choice of which camera seems to have become more personal than ever.


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