Leica M Goodness for the 21st century

Leica arrived at Photokina 2012 in a big way today with a bang, launching the Leica M and  Leica M-E rangefinder cameras, along with the behemoth of a camera, the Leica S, and a bevy of consumer digital cameras to round up their offerings.

This post will first focus on the Leica M system, the heart and soul of what constitutes a Leica.

The all new Leica M
The all new all singing all dancing Leica M!

The Leica M (that’s now the name of the new camera) breaks with tradition in omitting the numeric designation from the name, (making the Leica M9 the last of its kind denoted by a numeric digit). More significantly, the Leica M deviates from the traditional Leica M concept of being a pure, unadulterated tool of photography by incorporating a whole set of features more akin to that of a modern DSLR.

So, in a nutshell, here’s a list of the new features:

  • a new Leica MAX 24 megapixel CMOS sensor
  • Live view using the new sensor, displayed in its full glory on a new 3.0 inch, 920k LCD display
  • Live view magnification up to 10x, with focusing peaking thrown in
  • a new EVF port under the hotshot supporting the same 1.44mp EVF-2 external electronic viewfinder used by the Leica X2, complementing the traditional viewfinder / rangefinder mechanism
  • Video recording with Full HD video capture (1080p)
  • Electronically projected frame lines instead of using bright line illumination
  • Splash proof weather sealed body
  • Multi-pattern and spot exposure metering
  • Fast image processing by the Leica Maestro image processor, the same one used in the Leica S2
  • Adapter to allow Leica R lenses to be used with the new Leica M (with EVF, of course), thus turning the Leica M into a franken-camera of a DSLR.

If this list reads like the specs list of a Japanese DSLR, you are right – this is the first time in probably 60 years since Leica released a new M camera with more than 5 lines of new features :) The change to the new 24 megapixel sensor by Belgian / Antwrep based CMOSIS (made of guys formerly of Fill Factory, the company that brought out the DCS 14n sensor) has opened up new avenues for Leica M photography – for the first time in the history of the M, one can take videos with a Leica M – I think this is an exciting development as we can now tell our significant others it’s worth it to get a new Leica (“It also takes videos! And we can take videos of our vacation! our baby!), thus justifying the outlay of another huge chunk of cash. Leica has even thoughtfully produced an external mike for its new M camera, allowing you to record audio along with moving images.

Watch John Dooley of Leica Akademie, UK demonstrate the new camera here.

As a photographer, I’m more interested in the fact we can now have live view, both using the LCD and using the EVF for use with lenses not supported by the built in framelines and viewfinder, eg the 18mm, 21 and 24mm lenses, or even the Tri-Elmar 16-18-21. Now for the first time, bright line finders are no longer needed with this more accurate way of seeing. Focus peaking with magnification sounds very handy too, which will resolve issues with back focusing lenses or the problem of focus shifting.

The back of the Leica M with all new interface
The back of the Leica M with all new interface

Weather sealing is also a very welcome feature, though I have to say I’ve put an M9 through salt water spray out at sea and it has kept on ticking. The problem is the Leica M system does not have weather sealed lenses – it would be interesting to see if Leica will now release lenses with rubber seals at the mount at least. Along with the new features Leica has also changed the layout of the buttons somewhat, adding a slew of new buttons at the back including dedicated buttons for live view and video recording. This must be the most changed Leica M camera in history!

Leica has also fulfilled a promise to their R system users by providing the Leica M platform as a way to mount and use their Leica R lenses – now without the use of a mirror, with focus performed through the EVF. A nice elegant solution if you really have R lenses that you want to put to good use, though R lenses have been adapted for Canon and Nikon camera bodies for years…

Leica M with R lens, EVF and optional grip with GPS
Leica M with R lens, EVF and optional grip with GPS

The Leica M retails for USD $6950, available early 2013.

The Leica M-E, or the Leica M9 without the frame selector lever and USB port :)
The Leica M-E, or the Leica M9 without the frame selector lever and USB port :)

For the traditionalists / purists who poo-poo these new features, Leica has thoughtfully released the Leica M-E, a stripped down Leica M (though it’s hard to fathom just now much more can be stripped away from the Leica M9) using the same 18 megapixel CCD as as the M9, the same 2.5 inch 230k dot LCD screen as the M9, as well as the same control layout as the M9. In other words, they have ingeniously re-released the M9 under a different moniker, minus the USB port and the frameline selector, now with a reduced price of $5450 USD. Only thing is though, they have messed with the colors – the black body has silver dials and shutter release, reminiscent of the Panda limited edition Leica M6 (yes there actually IS a PANDA special edition….). I expect Leica to re-release the M-E in different forms in future with different colors.

That’s all for now. For the record I’m sticking to my Leica M9 though (which I bought 2 weeks ago with full knowledge from rumor sites of these new Ms) – that is, for as long as I can resist the new Leica M.

YS: I still think these things are a colossal waste of money. And CMOSIS are the guys who produced the DCS-14n sensor, an ISO 50 sensor that was thoroughly obliterated by the EOS 1DS nine years ago? Well, they better have made some leaps, because the Japanese are going to slaughter them again if they didn’t.

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