THE LEICA M TYP 240 REVIEW
Updated December 29, 2016
When first receiving the Leica M-240, I intended to write a M9-P versus M-240 type of review, but after a couple days with the M-240, it became clear that such a comparison would be rather pointless. The M-240 (and M-P Typ 240) does everything the Leica M9-P does and more. Despite having only been a couple days with the M-240, I felt there was no compelling reason to to keep the Leica M9-P. The M-240‘s general operation felt quicker, smoother and more polished than the Leica M9 in every way. Some of those improvements over the M9 include (in no particular order):
- 3” rear LCD with 921,000 dot resolution
- Fast image review (of the actual DNG)
- LED illuminated framelines - switchable between white and red
- Full-frame 24 MP CMOS sensor produced by CMOSIS
- 13 stops of dynamic range at ISO 200
- Cleaner files at base ISO
- Improved high ISO
- Smoother, quieter shutter
- Live View and EVF capability
- Improved rangefinder focusing
- Improved battery life
- Improved SDHC card performance
- 2 year Leica manufacturer's warranty
Comparing the M-240's CMOS vs M9's CCD sounded like a good premise at first, but after a couple days with the Leica M-240 I realized there was a bigger at question at hand, "can the M-240 be my only camera?" Much of this review is focused on that question. Some people will argue that CCD sensors offer superior image quality. Honestly, I do not know. I tend to focus more on what I can or cannot do with a camera. The Leica M-240 easily outpaces the Leica M9 generation, so for me the CCD vs CMOS discussion was a moot point because I feel the CMOS sensor results in a more flexible, more capable Leica M.
BUILD QUALITY AND HANDLING
The M-240's fit and finish matches or exceeds the Leica M9-P. The M-240 is a bit larger and heavier than the Leica M9-P; in use I cannot tell a difference. The M-240 bears the Leica red dot, which is bigger than the previous red dots. The “M” I could do without, it looks lonely without a number next to it. Fortunately the subsequently introduced Leica M-P Typ 240 and Leica M Monochrom Typ 246 removed remove the red dot and lettering. Relative to the Leica M9-P, some of the changes I immediately noticed:
- Shutter Release: The button travel now feels smoother and the new half-press / full-press works better than the Leica M9’s three levels. The shutter sound and vibration are noticeably reduced. Shutter responsiveness is quicker than the M9-P. The degree of improvement is huge (relative to the M9 / M9-P) is huge - it finally feels "right".
- Play Button: The new lay-out for the 6 buttons to the left of the rear LCD works fine. The buttons look better in person than they do in pictures. After a couple months the new layout feels normal and going back to the M9-P would now feel "wrong".
- Control Pad and Thumb Wheel: The new thumb wheel and direction pad are more intuitive when reviewing images and working in the menus. The 18.104.22.168 firmware update enabled changing Exposure Compensation (EC) directly via the control wheel with no additional button presses needed. All now works simply and intuitively.
- Battery Life: I use the rear LCD and Live View alot, so probably 500 to 750 clicks per charge. Compared to the M9-P, the M-240's battery life is awesome.
- Start Up Time: Both my M-240 and M-P take around 2 seconds to start up with Sandisk 16 GB SDHC Extreme III and Lexar 16 GB 600x cards. Over time the start-up time will degrade, so I do a deep format on each card each month with the SD Formatter application. This application is produced by the SD Card Association. These deep formats restore the start time back to ~2 seconds. While 2-second start up times are slowish, the M-240 has NOT corrupted a SDHC card or lost any images; unlike my M9 and M9-P, which often lost images and occasionally rendered SDHC cards beyond repair.
- Leica SF-26 Flash: The 22.214.171.124 firmware updated added official support for the new Leica SF 26 Flash #14622 - this flash is on my "to try" list because the Leica M finally has a flash capable of bounce (barring the behemoth and now discontinued Leica SF-58). Other bounce-capable 3rd party flashes sort of work on the M's, but it is mostly a manual affair. The SF-26 is made by Metz; however, the Metz branded SF-26 Leica/Olympus version will not work on the M. The Leica branded SF-26 has specially adapted firmware.
- Framelines: The new LED illuminated framelines are bright, but Leica took away the frame selector. I eventually "upgraded" to the Leica M-P just to get the frame line selector back (yeah!). The new LED framelines are only visible when the camera is powered-up.
- Rear 3” LCD Screen: The screen size and resolution are an improvement for sure. The image review speed is great - no more waiting 2-3 seconds for the full-image to draw (like the Leica M9-P). Menus and navigation are fast. One minor gripe is the low-contrast highlight used to show the active menu item - sometimes it is unclear which menu item is selected - especially outdoors when the sun is shining on the rear LCD screen. Leica eventually updated the M-240's firmware to show actual DNG file when zoomed in, not a low rez JPEG preview --- BIG improvement.
- Rangefinder Focusing: Some owners note the accuracy of rangefinder focusing has improved. I tend to agree that rangefinder focusing is easier than it was with the M9-P. It could be the placebo effect. That said, I have noticed my M-240's (240, M-P and Monochrom) hold their RF calibration very well and have not need re-calibration a-la Leica.
From a handling perspective, the two big take-aways are the new rear 3” high resolution LCD and the smoother shutter. Both make the M shooting experience more pleasant. To further improve the ergonomics, there are several Leica M accessories which I consider as ‘must-haves’:
- Match Technical’s Thumbs Up: It fits and works like a charm. The downside is losing the hot-shoe (more on this in the upcoming EVF section). The little raised bump next to the M-240‘s rear control wheel is no substitute for a Thumbs Up. I tried the Thumbie but after a week's use in the 100º F Texas summer heat, it eventually slid off over time. Also, the Thumbs Up has a better ergonomic shape and feels solid. The Thumbie felt "squishy" with its foam adhesive backing.
- Open Back Half Case: Initially I had a Artisan & Artist half case for the M-240, and then changed to the Arte di Mano for the Leica M-P Type 240. The Arte di Mano changed their cut lines to accommodate the frameline selector lever. Arte di Mano's leather fit, precise cutting and craftsmanship are superb.
- Artisan & Artist Silk Rope: Love these things! Bought my first Artisan & Artist strap in 2006 for the Leica M8 and have been using them ever since. I like to loop the strap around the wrist for added security. When storing the camera or setting it down on a table, I loop the strap around the lens, thus providing some protection to the underside of the lens barrel.
- Really Right Stuff Leica M Bottom Plate: I purchased the full kit, but the grip proved a bit deep and makes the front button press difficult. Eventually I also stopped using the "L" portion as well just because it made the camera to bulky. I use the base plate all the time my tripods. Also with the grip and "L" portion remove, the RRS base plate stores easily in my camera bag. You can buy just the Really Right Stuff Leica M Quick Release Base Plate and forego the grip and L portion in my opinion.
- Leica 1.25x Viewfinder Magnifier: My main M lenses are the 35mm Summilux-M FLE, 50mm Summilux-M ASPH and 90mm Summicron-M APO, so the Leica 1.25x Magnifier works out pretty well. When shooting a 21mm or 135mm, odds are I am using the Live View or the Leica EVF2.
Having run the 'M8 - M8.2 - M9 - M9-P - M-240' gauntlet, the M-240 feels so smooth and polished in contrast to its predecessors. The only nagging annoyance is the craptastic Live View / EVF implementation, but we will get into that in the next section. If judging the M-240 based upon its rangefinder merits, it is a wonderful camera. It has grown alittle both in size and weight, though much of that weight gain is the M-240's new battery which has terrific capacity.
The rubberized grip covering used on the M-240 and M-P is pretty, but it does not offer much "grip". This is a non-issue for me because the half-case is almost always on the camera, and I like the thicker, beefier feel the half case adds. Aesthetically I much prefer how the M-P looks. The Leica M-P (Type 240) adds a small list of improvements: frameline selector added back, Sapphire rear screen cover, 2 GB RAM of internal buffer, blacked out hot shoe, "M" and the red dot removed from the front fascia, and Leica script added to the top panel. I really missed the frameline selector on the M-240, so was very happy to see it added back on the M-P.
I bought the Leica Multifunctional Handgrip M #14495, but it proved worthless. The GPS lock was very slow (usually in excess of 5 minutes) and often the GPS data was not embedded in the DNG (due to no GPS lock). The GPS on my Leica SL Typ 601 works great, so Leica knows how to do it right. If next Leica M has a better multi-function grip, I might try it again - especially if it includes WiFi. Using the EyeFi card in the M-240 proved inconsistent at best. So, if just wanting a grip to improve handling with larger lenses, such as the Leica R's, the Leica Handgrip M #14496 is more pragmatic.
When the Leica M-240 was announced, I was very happy to hear the M was finally gained Live View - I was looking forward to finally breaking the 135mm barrier on a rangefinder. Adding Live View significantly improves the Leica M's functionality:
- External optical viewfinders are no longer needed for wide angle or telephoto lenses, thus a cost savings, less to carry, better framing and no more parallax.
- Able to use telephoto lenses as well as just about any SLR lens via a lens adapter, manual focus and stop down metering.
- Ability to precisely focus and photograph in physical positions / conditions where rangefinder focusing is not feasible.
- Electronic viewfinders (EVFs) are generally better when focusing in dark conditions.
- Testing the Leica M and lenses to see if the rangefinder focus is accurate or not.
The Leica EVF-2 itself is nice. The view presented in the EVF is large, bright and easy to see from center to edge. The real-time histogram is a nice touch, and helps with gauging the amount of exposure compensation (EC) needed. This live histogram is very helpful if practicing ETTR (expose to the right). The horizontal and vertical leveling overlay is handy. While some of the LV / EVF based features helpful, the EVF-2 specifications themselves are quite dated in terms resolution and the refresh rate.
With the EVF-2 the auto magnification feature makes more sense compared to using the rear LCD. Either way, the process is simple - focusing triggers the auto magnify, tap the shutter button to return to 1X. Repeat as needed. As-is the EVF works and is usable, but the overall experience is far from ideal. There is lots of button pushing when moving the image from the EVF to the rear LCD, and then back to EVF mode or exiting Live View / EVF all together. If the camera is shut off or goes to sleep in EVF / LV mode, the M-240 will remain in EVF/LV mode when powered up again. This might be attractive for some users, so there should be an option in the settings to control this behavior. There are also technical shortcomings:
- Focus Peaking: Focus peaking in the 1X view is barely visible. The situation improves 5X and 10X, and firmware 126.96.36.199 added an option to change the focus peaking color (red, blue or green). However, focus peaking is far from being sure-fire way to gauge focus.
- Different Metering: Regardless of the metering mode used in the EVF / LV mode, the exposure is usually 1/3 to 2/3 stops hotter compared to regular metering mode via the rangefinder (non EVF / LC mode).
- Shutter Lag: If trying to use the M-240 as a pseudo SLR via the EVF, the shutter lag is around .5 seconds. With the VF-2 attached, the lag-time feels even more noticeable because my attention is so concentrated on the EVF view. Catching a critical moment is very difficult.
- Mini Earthquake: Without lens or sensor stabilization, the EVF / rear LCD view is shaky, especially so at 5X and 10X. With lenses longer than 90mm, a tripod is highly recommended.
- Jell-o Effect: Due to the slow refresh rate (60 MHz) and 30 FPS, the Jell-o effective is quite obvious - especially when using longer lenses and the mini earthquake effect is in its full glory.
- No Auto-Magnify with Non-RF Coupled Lenses: Auto magnification relies on the RF coupling and sensing focus ring movement. With SLR lenses there is no such mechanical focus connection, thus no auto-magnify, thus alot of button pressing to manual toggle back and forth between 1X, 5X and 10X.
- Cannot Move the Magnified View: This is the coup de gras. In the magnified views the Live View area cannot be moved, it is locked at the center. This almost nullifies the value of Live View because I cannot focus off-center, check corners, etc.
The criticisms above compound with one another - for example, with a telephoto lens the EVF preview is very shaky, the Jell-o effects adds blur and distortion, button pushing leads to more camera shake and delays taking the shot (no auto magnify), composition is all but impossible because the magnified view is just the very center area, and then there is the shutter lag... I am grateful to have LV functionality on the M and want to see Leica to continue to develop this feature. Leica needs to make major improvements - namely a moveable live view patch, higher resolution EVF and eliminating the shutter lag.
AUTO WHITE BALANCE
With the Leica M-240's initial release, colors were not ideal. Fast forward 18 months and the M-240 has had several firmware updates as well as Lightroom and Capture One. Nowadays my time spent setting white balance values in the raw editor and subsequent color editing in Photoshop is no more or no less time than spent on a file from the Canon 1Ds Mark III or a Phase One digital back. Leica M9 fans will probably still find the M-240's colors too warm. I was not a fan of the Leica M9's color rendition, but I would agree that the color of an untouched out-of-camera M-240 image is still on the warm side. That said, the M-240's white balance and color rendition has came a long ways since I first published this review (June 2013).
For my needs, a good camera / sensor produces files with a broad dynamic range, smooth gradients, gentle roll-offs in the highlights and shadows, sharp and clear details, and essentially a noise-free base ISO. I view editing as an iterative process to reflect my impression of what the picture should be. A raw file (with a loss-less compression scheme) of that quality can be subsequently abused in Photoshop, so whether I want a high-contrast saturated image or subdued more film-like result - it is all possible.
Generally speaking about Leica's color reproduction, their DNGs tend towards muted tones - instead of blue, it’s cyan. Instead of red, it’s burnt orange. Yellows have cyan or green undertone. Remapping their color to something I like can take hours of editing, and many times the Leica M8 and M9 files fell apart in the editing process. The M-240 colors seems more like the Canon 1Ds3 and less like the Leica M9. The M-240 has captured some nice colors across a broad range of conditions; I am generally happiest with the late evening pictures.
Getting a consistent color "look" from the M-240 for indoor shots, to outdoor daytime landscapes, to portraits, to night time shots has been a challenge. I have not found a common "look" or post processing work flow that works well across a wide range of conditions. From an editing standpoint the M-240 files are robust - the transitions do not crumble apart, color banding is held at bay, etc. I spend alot of time brightening files with brightness and levels layers in Photoshop. These mid-tone luminosity edits shift color hues and saturation, thus additional color editing is needed to bring the color rendition back in line with the overall file.
While the M-240's file quality is undoubtedly better than the Leica M9's in terms of dynamic range, noise, malleability, etc., I cannot say that the "color" or "look" is better. Nor would I say the M-240 is worse. The M-240 "look" is just different. The Leica M9 is more of Fuji Velvia / Lomo look; whereas the M-240 is more of a Kodak Porta look. After 3 years with the M-240, I have very mixed feelings about its color rendition. I prefer the M-240 over the Leica M9; however, I spend just as much time color editing a M-240 file as I did a Leica M9 file.
RAW FILE QUALITY
When it comes to file quality, my observations are based on how the M-240 files feel compared to the Canon 1Ds Mark III and the Phase One P65+. Below are some comments to this effect.
- ISO Performance: At base ISO I feel the Leica M-240 files are cleaner than Canon 1Ds Mark III, and maybe as good as the Phase One P65+. Compared to the Leica M9-P, the M-240’s ISO improved ~1.5 stops. The M-240's high ISO images are far more malleable than the Leica M9's. The degree of ISO improvement is not earth shattering, but it is a very solid improvement.
- Dynamic Range: Overall the M-240‘s dynamic range bests the Canon 1Ds Mark III and certainly the Leica M9. DXO shows the M-240 having at least a 1-stop advantage (over the Canon 1Ds Mark III). I also have a Sony A7rII and Leica SL Typ 601. Overall, at base ISO all these cameras have about the same dynamic range. I know the A7rII tops the scores on DXO, but in day to day shooting I do not feel there is much difference.
- Sharpness: The M-240 files feel alot like a file from the Canon 1Ds Mark III and more subdued than a Leica M9 file. The Leica M9-P images felt crisper or sharper straight out of the camera. Net-net after post processing, etc., the M-240 is no less sharper than the M9-P. Lenses like the Leica 35mm F1.4 Summilux-M ASPH FLE are stunningly sharp, and files with that lens feel more detailed than the Leica M9-P files. I definitely like having the M-240's added megapixel count for printing and cropping.
Leica M9 users may be somewhat fussed by the M-240’s color mapping which yields a different look than the Leica M9, but this is par for Leica since they seemingly re-invent their color mapping with each new M. In trade the M-240 offers more resolution, more dynamic range, improved high ISO, live view, EVF, improved shutter, stable SDHC operation, high resolution rear 3" LCD, illuminated frames, support for a Leica SF-26 flash (capable of bounce), great battery life and so on. The Leica M-P (Type 240) added back the frame line selector, a stealthier look, improved RAM buffer and the sapphire rear screen cover. It is hard to look back at the Leica M9 and miss much of anything.
As for the M-240 replacing the Canon 1Ds Mark III, ultimately this did happen, but not because the Leica M-240 somehow bested the Canon 1Ds Mark III. The M-240 has better dynamic range and cleaner files at ISO 200 compared to the Canon 1Ds Mark III’s ISO 100. The M-240 probably also best the 1Ds3 in terms of sharpness and resolution, especially since the 1Ds3 has an AA filter. The 1Ds Mark III still holds the lead in color, but the M-240 files are much more pliable than the Leica M9 files.
If using the M-240 as a traditional rangefinder camera and not needing Live View, then I like the M-P (Typ 240). Moving from the Leica M9-P to the Leica M-P (Type 240), I gave up nothing and gained alot. The vast majority of my angst with the Leica M-240 (and M-P) is the EVF, so my wish list for the Leica M-P Typ 240 successor most focuses an EVF aspects:
- Moveable Live View Patch: Be able to position the box via the directional pad, then zoom in via control wheel. When zoomed in, be able to move about the magnified as needed.
- Improved EVF: Presumably the same Epson 4.41 MP EVF panel used in the new Leica SL. Also, adding a sensor to automatically toggle between EVF and rear LCD when the EVF is in use. Lastly, significantly reduce the shutter lag in LV / EVF modes (add an electronic shutter mode?)
- Improved Sensor Performance: More ISO range, more dynamic range, better color rendition, less (or no) banding at upper ISOs, etc. It has been almost 4 years since the Leica M-240 has been released, so there is alot of room for improvement here.
- Other Stuff: The Maestro II CPU for faster performance and quicker start-up; improved rear LCD screen (more resolution); touch screen like the Leica SL, built-in WiFi and GPS (want to be able to stream Live View to my iPad; slightly lighter body weight.
I do not want the Leica M to lose that classic feel, but LV and EVF specifications definitely need to improve. If buying a Leica M Typ 240 solely to use as a rangefinder camera, it is wonderful. If wanting to use the EVF and push beyond the traditional rangefinder boundaries, the EVF is disappointing, especially by today's standards (as of late 2016). Hopefully the rumored Leica M-10 addresses the EVF shortcomings and we finally get a Leica M with a fully functional LV / EVF implementation.