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It’s 2015: Where Does Leica M Stand?

It’s now 2015. Nearly two years ago in May 2013 the Leica M Typ 240 appeared, a 24MP CMOS-based camera body that delivered minimal resolution gains over the 18MP CCD-based Leica M9 (as per my tests).

But it enabled Live View, and that at least for me was a huge plus, because sharpness starts first and foremost with accurate focus (I never use the rangefinder, which demands perfect adjustment for every lens used, and I’d like to see it eliminated).

So here we stand in 2015 with 24 megapixels and along with an optional (!) low-res EVF with lousy contrast that can zoom and thus allow focus only at frame center. Hello? It would be funny if it were not pathetic and an ongoing slap in the face every time the M240 is used. One need only pick up a Sony A7 series camera, or Olympus E-M1 to see just how poor the Leica EVF is.

Meanwhile, 50 megapixel cameras have started to appear (Canon 5DS / 5DSR), with Nikon and Sony surely not far behind (Canon 50MP is vaporware until June or later). Well, 50 is more than twice 24.

So we are left with a situation where it’s fair to ask (with flagging enthusiasm for M):

  • Where is the (at least) 36 megapixel Leica M?
  • Why does the M240 still sport a low-res obsolete EVF? I want steady progress from Leica, sincere efforts to improve the usability and functionality, not 5th place science-fair efforts for my money.
  • If Leica M lenses are so great, what are they doing on a camera with half the megapixels that Canon will have soon? Maybe they aren’t so great...
  • If Leica M lenses are so great, why do I feel without reservation that the new Zeiss ZM 35mm f/1.4 Distagon is better than any Leica-produced M lens, at far lower cost.

And (groan), will it cost me another $8K for the privilege of a new red-dot body when Leica gets around to offering one?

It’s a darn shame to see Leica stagnate and fail to deliver improved value over time. But even more frustrating is this: the M platform still offers one of the most attractively compact systems on the market for full frame. A 50MP M body would be 'killer'. And that’s my real beef here: is Leica M a dead-end? Or is there hope?

Photographing the Photographer
Leica M Typ 240 + Zeiss ZM 35mm f/1.4 Distagon @ f/1.4

Roy P writes:

Where does the Leica M stand? On thin ice, I think. Re. “I never use the rangefinder, which demands perfect adjustment for every lens used, and I’d like to see it eliminated”, IMHO, the RF today is about as useful as a slide rule would be in a world of programmable digital calculators with 64-bit floating point precision. After the calculator came out, the slide rule crowd stubbornly continued for another 10+ years before becoming gradually fading away.

I gave up on the RF in April, 2011, when I said goodbye to my M9 and switched to a Sony NEX-5. It took three more years to get to the full-frame A7/A7R, and while they were not and are still not perfect digital backs for the Leica M lenses, it’s getting closer.

The Sony E-mount FF cameras offer many advantages over a Leica M 240, such as superior EVF, competent live view, focus peaking, greater resolution, video, the ability to easily work with a wide range of third party lenses, etc. But there is one other advantage that is really big, I think: the ability to chop the minimum focusing distance from an absurd ~1m down to about 0.5m with close focusing helicoid adapters. Several companies make these now, including some real cheap ones (not recommended). I like the Voigtlander VM-E Close Focusing Adapter (pictured below). I think Metabones also makes one now.

DIGLLOYD: Roy also owns Leica S. And it’s true that a M-like body with a high res EVF would allow new lens designs with close focus and higher performance. Odd that no effort towards that goal has been made by Leica (Leica T is APS-C).

A writes:

Lloyd, I have no clue what you are on about. You can order the M Safari! And the M something Lenny Kravitz! What more would you want?!?!

And hey, since there are zero pre orders for the new S with its whopping 37MP, you may get one first, umm between May and November sometimes, at a newly discounted price of only ~$ 27,000.

No news through the bush drums (the 28/1.4 is superb, but I paid a fortune for it as I had to buy the 100 year edition case … where is the normal version??? ), i am not hopeful overall.

Only using one MP body and the M60 (yes, good fun, disregarding the price). Selling a few lenses, too. WATE and >=35 are good to great on Sony. Rest is going, replaced by Zeiss for Sony.

Honestly, if I could i would sell Leica stock short now. With hindsight, the accelerated opening of the posh boutiques should have me you that it was going downhill.

DIGLLOYD: from a longtime Leica M and S fan. As far as can be told, the new Leica 28mm f/1.4 M does not exist except in special edition.

Jorge Torralba writes:

Leica. What happened? (Nov 22, 2014)

John P

Not everyone agrees with the priorities.

I agree that Leica needs to update its M series camera and accessories: it would be preferable to have more versatile live view and viewfinder.

I don’t think that a 36MP or 50MP sensor is the right next step, however A you make clear, to make the best of even a 24MP camera, you need impeccable technique, ideally with tripod ,etc. If I was engaged in that style of shooting, I would take a D810 and be done with it. Since I use my Leica when travelling light or I don’t want to take a tripod, or want to shoot fast lenses wide open and retain quality, I take the Leica. Those Leica lenses are high quality, but just as importantly, they are small. The Zeiss is a great lens, but it is bigger than the Leica, especially with the non-reversible lens hood that adds 10% to the cost of the lens and has to be hunted for separately, as it’s not supplied with it.

[Incidentally, while I admire the performance of the Otus lenses, they’re not well thought out: manual lenses that are that large seem designed for the studio, since they really do need to be used with a tripod to achieve their full potential, but who needs f1.4 in a studio?]

What I really would value from the next M is better high ISO performance and better dynamic range from the sensor, not more megapixels.

We’ll see how things are shaping up when they release their b&w camera update within the next month. Perhaps it will have a better sensor in an M240 body; perhaps it will push the envelope unexpectedly. I don’t plan to buy one either way, but it should give us some indication of direction of travel.

Also, I would not say that Leica is stagnating. They are a small company offering cameras for every segment from compacts to medium format. The other manufacturers seem to be targeting a smaller range.

DIGLLOYD: Actually, 50 megapixels would help tremendously in dealing with hideous aliasing artifacts via oversampling, even if the resolution gains were modest (which will be the case, and yet there will be be gains under many circumstances; the above is way too pessimistic).

As much as I’ve written on oversampling and its benefits, as soon as megapixels is mentioned, the blinders go on and “image detail” is all that’s heard. It’s just not the right way think about megapixels.; it’s about the synergy of somewhat more detail and significantly higher image quality (few artifacts of several kinds). The best scenario would be something around 144 megapixels with highly optimized hardware downsampling. But high density sensor technology has quality limits as yet.

Regarding “stagnating”—just because there are various point and shoots and the world’s worst-designed usability in a digital camera (the Leica T*) does mean there are any advances in the full frame area, or EVF fixes, or modern lenses designed specifically for full frame digital and for closer focus. Hardly anything has really changed since the introduction of the M9 in late 2009; the M240 added no real resolution gains, and its EVF/Live View remains crippled and laughable compared to even 2-3 year old DSLRs. So yes, Leica is stagnating, and for those having invested in the digital M platform, the value proposition looks increasingly like a rip-off. I did not buy an M240 as a collector’s piece; I expected aggressive forward progress on the functionality. Basic things like arbitrary menus (no “my menu”), center focus only, low-res EVF—all of these could be addressed. But Leica does not do so. Look at vendors like Fujifilm and Olympus, which deliver significant new value after the sale. THAT is a real commitment to the customer, no some damned leather-padded box.

*The Leica T gets my vote for the most frustrating digital camera ever designed. I found it absolutely frustrating as anything but a point and shoot. And for about $700 a nice butt-ugly Sigma DP Merrill delivers far superior texture and detail.

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