This is the worlds (possibly) longest camera review, and it just got a little longer. It's almost 10 years since the first digital Leica M rangefinder was announced in September 2006.
In this article I will talk about the use of the older Leica M digital cameras ... or if you should jump straight to the newest model. I hope this article will be helpful for you who are looking for which Leica M to be your first.
The Leica M 262 that Leica Camera AG surprisingly introduced November 2015 is basically a Leica M 240 in a Leica M9 body. This is exiting news in so many ways that I will now test your patience for a few minutes in trying to explain it.
First of all the Leica M9 is the classic full-frame Leica. It is as classic as the Leica M4 (1966) and the Leica M6 (1984-1998), the two best-selling Leica film cameras that were manifestations of camera models where Leica just got it right. In the digital era, the Leica M9 (2009) is the digital camera where Leica Camera AG just got it right. That's why a Leica M9 with modernized interior is good news.
The Leica M-D 262
A version of the Leica M 262 without screen has been announced April 28, 2016. It was first rumored two months before by LeicaRumors.com.
It's the Leica M 262 without a screen, inspired by the Leica M60 limited model that was the first Leica digital rangefinder without a screen. It's very much like the M60 with the addition of an important feature (strap lugs for camera strap) and thumb wheel (for exposure compensation), brass top and bottom plate, and the new quiet shutter the Leica M 262 introduced.
Leica M-D 262 without screen as presented at LeicaRumors.com n March 2016 and introduced April 28, 2016.
The Leica M9 has so much charm and is so lovable that even it is an - in digital ages - old camera, six years after it's introduction, there are still extremely many Leica M9 and Leica M9-P users who swear to that camera as their preferred tool.
Not many digital cameras - in fact none - can show a success rate where every single camera ever made are still in active duty six years later.
Those loyal users now get extra life-support from Leica Camera AG who basically inject another life-cycle into this camera.
I expect a Leica M digital camera to have a life cycle of 3 years. That's how long there is between model releases. The Leica M9 has survived two product cycles and is entering the third. It's very unusual.
Becuase it is an unsual good camera. A classic.
The updated Leica M9 in 2016
There is one change, and I would say it is to the better. It got a CMOS sensor. And if that isn't good enough, I got some other possibilities for you further down.
When the Leica M 240 was introduced at Photokina in September 2012, it was fitted with a CMOS sensor in 24MP to replace the 18MP CCD-sensor from the Leica M9. Some would discuss, and some still entertain others and them self with discussions abut this: If CCD is better than CMOS. If it's more film-like, if it is better colors and so on.
There is one truth in all this, and that is that the old ways are always the best ways. If new Leica cameras were being researched and developed based on that truth, we would be talking about the Leica M13 film camera today. Not many would buy one, but - oh boy! - would those few ones who did be so right in that nothing beats the old ways!
(Truth be told, Leica did actually introduce a new film camera just last year. The Leica M-A Type 127, but that's another story for another day).
What I personally found to be true with the Leica M 240 was that I had to tune my workflow into a new sensor to nail the black and white tones and the colors I wanted. And I did, and many others did as well, to a degree that if Leica Camera AG said they wanted to return to CCD sensors, there would be a revolution.
The truth seem to be in the middle. The old ways are great, and progress some times is a progress.
The Leica M 240 offered some advantages over the Leica M9: DNG files we can stretch more, less battery usage, larger batteries, faster operation, no buffer wall (where you had to wait for the camera to write to the SD card before you could take the next photograph), better and larger screen, ISO performance improved two stops, and ... video!
I know. Video is not something we associate with the classic Leica film camera, but nevertheless that's what we got. I wasn't a big fan of it, I admit, but having made a few videos of which a couple have won awards, I can live with it. In fact some times I can use it. It's handy.
I should perhaps mention that Leica Camera AG in did expand the usual three year life cycle of the Leica M9 by re-branding the same camera to be Leica M-E at Photokina in September 2012. It was sort of a side-note to the release of the Leica M 240, just in case it was too forward-thinking for some of the clientele. I suspect they made it in a military grey to make sure only die-hard fans would go back in time.
The new Leica M9 with Leica M240 inside - the Leica M 262 - seems a good compromise between the lovable Leica M9 and the advantages of the Leica M 240.
In short, the Leica M 262 has the body of the Leica M9, but when you turn the camera around and look at the back, it looks exactly as the Leica M 240.
That is a brilliant solution to how to keep a classic Leica old-school classic, yet update it to a better camera.
The new Leica 262 sensor is the same, but different
There is a little confusion added to the new Leica M 262, and that is about the sensor.
Leica Camera AG is going through something on sensors. First of all, the Leica M9 sensors and Leica MM sensors seem to have a thin protection coating on the protection glass of the sensor that can corrode. It's barely visible, and it may take four or six years to show - if ever - but that's hardly an excuse for a luxury brand like Leica Camera AG that is - if not known for, then at least expected to deliver - perfection.
The result being that already in April 2014 when I sent my two Leica M9 cameras and a Leica MM in for service, Leica Camera AG changed all my sensors. They had found small signs of corrosion, they told me as reason.
Not that I ever noticed, and maybe I never would. Six months later Leica Camera AG issued an official statement that they would replace sensors as a response to an attack on them that implied that they would not.
Rubbish! The reality of this is that Leica Camera AG replaces sensors for free and was already doing so long before someone raised the question. They also have been testing a new replacement sensor for the Leica M9 as the existing one might not be around forever, and/or might still corrode after replacement.
It could all read as confusion, but if we look at it in a slightly different light, perhaps it isn't that disturbing. The new Leica Q is fitted with a 24MP sensor that seem to be really good. The problem is that nobody knows who make the sensor or what the specifications are.
Surprisingly many test sites can't decide what to think of a sensor if they don't know the specifications and the manufacturer.
Add to this that the new Leica SL supposedly is the 24MP "Max" sensor that we know from the Leica M 240. But still there are no specifications or manufacturer. It's all a little secret and dark. And it is also evident that the Leica SL sensor doesn't behave like the Leica M 240 sensor.
So it's the same, but not the same. The SL sensor is better, it seems, and amongst other things it's really good for video.
Test of the Leica M9 replacement sensor
vs. the old Leica M9 sensor
Sean Reid of reidreviews.com (subscription site of reviews) performed a test of the old original Leica M9 sensor and the replacement sensor Leica Camera AG is now using. In essence it is the protective glass in front of the sensor (on which the faulty coating was sitting) they replaced. Sean Reid compares the two through a 8 page test (with plenty of test examples).
A short interview about Leica sensors
In light of this, I asked the Leica M product manager at Leica Camera AG, Jesko Oeynhausen, if it's the Leica M 240 sensor that is in the Leica M 262?
"It has the same image quality as the Leica M 240" was the comforting, but also cryptic answer I got.
In the upcoming LFI magazine he adds a little more to the mystery in that he says in that interview that the sensor is "technically different".
Overall, the weak point for a long while has been sensors. The Leica Digilux 2 had a faulty sensor made by Sony that forced Leica Camera AG to replace them (paid by Sony I am sure), the Leica DMR digital back for the Leica R8 and Leica R9 was made with Kodak and Imacon, and when Imacon was bought by Hasselblad it forced Leica Camera AG to stop the production of the excellent Leica DMR. The Leica M8 had an issue with dark black that turned purple. The Leica M9 has corrosion issues.
No wonder if Leica Camera AG took sensor production into their own hands. Which much indicates is exactly what they did.
This is the right way to do it, I think, and I will get more into the Leica sensors in the upcoming Leica SL article (page 2 of it): Leica sensor specifications are so special that it is wrong to leave it to a manufacturer to develop sensors. Leica should develop them and specify them, and let any random senor facory produce them. That's how they do with glass, and that's how they do with mechanical parts.
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The lack of AA filter
It has also been a trademark for all Leica sensors so far that there is no AA filter. That's the filter almost all digital cameras employ on the sensor which adds a "blur filter" to the image (as well as more thickness to the sensor) so that certain patterns doesn't show moire. An intentional reduction of image quality that Leica Camera AG never believed in.
A trademark for all Leica M cameras is the lack of a mirror. This means that there is very few moving parts - except the shutter curtain and the users finger on the shutter release button - to shake the camera.
The amount of sharpness and micro detail a sensor picks up is higher than what film did, so the Leica M film cameras may seem to be usable at even lower shutter speeds. But you can use a Leica M down to 1/8th of a second if you have a steady hand (and hold your breath and don't need to go to the bathroom).
If you shoot series of images it makes it even better. Then the first photo may have a bit of camera shake from you pressing the shutter release, but the next one doesn't. And if you hold your finger down for a little more - like 2-3 frames, only the last may have a little camera shake from you removing the finger. The pictures in between doesn't and that is the secret to shooting at extreme low shutter speeds.
In a camera with a mirror the lowest shutter speed is usually 1/125 - 1/180, and if a larger mirror (as in the Leica S), the shutter speed should be a minimum of 1/250 second.
The reason we have cameras, should we have forgotten, is to work with light sensitive material. Of course there is also optics, but essentially your camera is a dark room with three main controls to ensure that the light sensitive material gets correctly expose: The Aperture control, the Shutter Time and the light sensitivity of the film or sensor (the ISO speed).
The Leica M is the only camera existing today that offers all the controls on the outside of the camera so you can see the settings and change them easily by turning the wheels and dials. It's very much up to you as user to direct the camera, and it is either very liberating or very confusing - depending if you want control over your camera or a camera that does everything for you.
I got this question by mail the other day. "Why do we still have shutter speed, aperture and ISO when it is anyway's digital?"
It's a good question because I used to spend time in my workshops telling people how easy it is to believe a photograph is a digital process and overlook the fact that no matter if you use film or digital, you are making a recording of light.
Digital photography just means that the light-sensitive film has been replaced with a light-sensitive digital sensor.
Digital photography is not some sort of advanced transfer of the universe to a digital sensor. It's the same light recording as it was with film that used light-sensitive chemistry to record the light.
Digital sensors react very much the same as film. That is why the aperture of the lens controls the amount of light that passes through the lens. Each click of aperture reduces the light to half and most lenses goes from 100% light at the widest aperture to just 2% when the aperture is the smallest.
The shutter curtain does the same. It keeps light out, and when the shutter speed is 1/125 second that means that the shutter curtain goes up and exposes the sensor to light for 1/125th second. That's 1 second divided with 125 which is a very short moment.
The ISO of film was actual light sensitivity. A layer of chemistry was applied on top of a plastic film and would "burn" onto the plastic layer to the degree it was exposed to light. Later, when developed in a chemical process, the layer on the plastic would stay on the plastic to the degree it was exposed to light and "burned" in place.
That's how we get tonality in film. And the more light-sensitive the chemistry, the less light you need to expose the film.
With color film three layers of chemistry was applied. One for each of the three main colors that form up any color we see; Red, Green and Blue.
Digital sensors are different than chemistry on film because you don't change the sensor to a more or less light-sensitive type. A sensor comes in one sensitivity, and when you change the ISO on a digital camera, you tell the electronics to apply an algorithm (calculation) to what the sensor sees, so as to make the sensor recalculate the light it records 8X or 16X times. That's how sensitivity works in digital photography and that is why when we stretch the ISO to 6400 or 50,000, we stretch those algorithms.
The algorithms are just predefined variations of sensitivity.
Most digital sensors see what a 100 ISO - 200 ISO film saw, that's all, the rest is variations of what it would look like if the light was 8X stronger (800 ISO - 1600 ISO) or 16X (1600 ISO - 3200 ISO), or 50X (50,000 ISO to 100,000 ISO).
If you have your eye on the Leica M9, the Leica 262 or the Leica M 240, your choices are so many that it might confuse you.
The Leica M 246 Monochrom (black and white only camera), the Leica Q (compact version of the Leica M with one fixed lens and auto focus) and the Leica SL (mirrorless "SLR" camera that fits all Leica lenses ever made) doesn't make the choice easier.
The Leica M9-P is the classic version of the Leica M9. The Leica M9 came out in September 2009 and the Leica M9-P came out 18 months later.
Leica basically almost always offer a "P version" 18 months later, and it's the same camera but without the red dot logo (but with a classic engraving on top instead), and sapphire glass on the review screen on the back so it is harder (or impossible) to scratch.
The Leica M9-P in silver and black. No red dot on the front but instead a classic engraving on the top plate. And sapphire glass on the review screen on the back.This model was $8,000 when it came out, $1,000 more than the traditional Leica M9 that sold for $7,000 from new.
The "P version" is a little more expensive, and it's newer than the Leica M9. So that is why this is a safe bet. It's a very stylish camera, and it's cosidered more valuable I would guess.
The second-hand prices are fair and won't drop much over the next 2-6 years. So that is why if you buy a Leica M9-P now, you won't loose much on it.
If you prefer to get into the game for a little less and actually like the red dot (which many of us do) then the Leica M9 is the right choice.
Leica M9 is the most classic, the one with the red dot.
The Low Fare Choice - Leica M8
If you want a black and white camera, and perhaps even want to work with infrared, the Leica M8 is the way to go. This is the first digital Leica M model that came out.
It's not full-frame (it has a 1.3X crop factor because Leica couldn't make a full frame sensor work with their lenses back in 2006), but it's great for black and white.
Lou Reed used Leica M8 because he loved infrared photography, and the sensor in the Leica M8 should be perfect for that. I've never done it, but considering half the light from the sun is infrared, there should be something to explore.
It's not that the Leica M8 doesn't do color photography, because it does. It's just that some weeks after the introduction it was discovered that certain blacks had a purple tint in certain light conditions. So to get the colors right, all the time, you have to use a UV cut filter in front of the lens. Not that it was ever a really serious problem, it was more an embarrassment for Leica at that time. They offered free UV cut filters to those who had bought the Leica M8.
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The next Leica came with less shutter sound (end reduced max speed from 1/8000 to 1/4000), sapphire screen on the back and a black dot. That would be a good camera to get if you are looking for a Leica M8 as the M8.2 generally is considered a more valuable camera (better second-hand price).
If you like the Leica M 240 but actually would like to give the impression that you are old school, then the Leica M 262 might be the right one. It has the simplicity, the charm and all that the Leica M9 has. Yet it has the technology of the Leica M 240 without the video gadgets.
Then again, if you actually really want to travel back in time and experience CCD sensors before it is too late, turn your back to this one and instead look at the original Leica M9 or Leica M9-P.
Why I didn't get a Leica M 262
I have no use for the Leica M 262 as I have two Leica M9 cameras and two Leica M 240 cameras. It does offer a simplified menu (3 screens only), more quiet shutter and lighter weights.
Here's a walk-through fo the Leica M 262 by Jim Arnold:
You can read more on Jim Arnold's blog and download sample photos from the Leica M 262 and Leica M-E.
One thing that is different in the Leica M 262 from any other Leica M is hat the top plate is made of aluminium instead of brass. The point is that this makes the camera 100g lighter. But it also means that if you buy the black version of the Leica M 262 and hope for it to brass and look really used, there won't be any brassing going on on the top plate.
The Leica M 262 also has a 1GB buffer which is more than the Leica M9 and Leica M 240, but les than the 2GB buffer in the Leica M-P 240. A nice little thing, but also an odd choice to make is less (than what we factually need when you are updating a camera anyways).
If looking at the Leica M 262 have made you want the best in new technology, then you might wonder why you don't just take the jump and go all the way to the Leica M 240. With live view, electronic viewfinder (EVF), video recording and all it has some obvious advantages.
Some may think it has too much of it all, and that is why the Leica M 262 came about.
It's obvious that a new Leica M 241 is coming and will be announced in 2016. With the Photokina in September 2016 as the most likely place and time. Probably available in very small quantities by the time of the announcement and more widely available summer 2017.
If you are the type that would rather wait some months or a year so as to not buy "the wrong camera", then that next model is for you.
I don't know if I think it is worth not having my dream camera because a new model is coming. There will be a new model every 3 years, and a mid-model as the Leica P in between. No matter when you buy a Leica M, a new one will come. I usually tell people to get the current model and trade in when the new ones comes. Especially if you get in on the current model as second-hand, it will cost a fraction to do so in write off.
If you take a piece of paper and calculate how much you will loose on a model after three years, and then compare how much you will loose after having an older model for one year before you upgrade ... you will likely realize that what is holding you back is somewhat $500 for a years use.
The Leica M9 came out in 2009 and was $6,995 and now sells for $2,500 to $4,500. A write off a year over six years of $400 - $750 a year.
Which Leica lenses should I choose as my first ones?
My advice is simple: Start out with either a 35mm or a 50mm.
The question you have to answer to yourself is if you are a 35mm or 50mm person? If you are used to use a zoom, which focal length is the one you mostly have been using? Or just in general, which lens did you traditionally always end up using the most?
In know Nikon dSLR users who always use a 50mm f/1.4 Nikon lens. They are basically Leica shooter but just haven't realized yet.
When you have made a decision on the 35mm or 50mm, it's the price tag: Would you be happy with a f/2.0 Summicron lens or do you want a f/1.4 Summilux lens? The Summilux are the fastest and "very Leica" lenses in that all Leica lenses are made to be used wide open. The Summilux is just that one stop wider.
Summilux is generally twice as expensive as Summicron lenses. Becuase they are more glass, more precision and harder to make.
If you fall outside the categories above, you may look at 28mm as your preferred standard lens, or 75mm or even 90mm. It's not what most do, but if you are not amongst "most people" it shouldn't worry you.
You may also go in the direction of the even less expensive Leica Summarit lenses. The Leica 50mm Summarit-M f/2.4 is an outstanding lens. I also used the Leica 90mm Summarit-M lens a lot and that one is a performer as well.
Problem for most Leica people is that we choose Leica for simplicity and perfection. And daring wide open lenses are usually perceived as the utmost perfection. Choosing the "almost" lens is not in the dna of the usual Leica user, but that doesn't mean that you cannot start with a sensible and economical choice and work your way to the most extreme and most expensive lenses over time.
There is a lot of liberty in being able to use an old 50mm Summicron from the 1960's, or the new 50mm Summarit-M that are in the very inexpensive end of Leica and be satisfied with that. But it's difficult to not dream of the exotic lenses being made by Leica. Which is why, when a new Leica lens like the Leica 28mm Summilux-M ASPH f/1.4 is released, we are many who line up in the waiting list to get one. Even we very well know we don't need it.
If you come from dSLR you are used to the idea that you should ideally cover all focal lengths from fish eye to long tele lens. So while the Leica lenses are definitely more expensive, you need much less lenses than you are used to thinking. And the Leica lenses usually keep their value.
The Leica M story is to be continued ...
I hope you enjoyed this look back at the previous Leica M models vs the new Leica M 262. There are plenty of pages to read here about the different cameras.
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Thorsten von Overgaard is a Danish writer and photographer, specializing in portrait photography and documentary photography, known for writings about photography and as an educator.
Some photos are available as signed editions via galleries or online. For specific photography needs, contact Thorsten Overgaard via e-mail.