Guest Post: Evolution is Revolution (Leica M240 Review)
Evolution is Revolution
And yes: Things they are changing!
Note from BH: Stefan Steib is an avid photographer and the owner of Hartblei.de (and on Facebook here) which produces the Hcam B-1 (reviewed on this site here), and a series of three unique Zeiss manufactured tilt-shift lenses, which are by all accounts excellent. He enjoys using legacy lenses on new bodies, and this is shown in some of his products as well, like a unique adapter for Mamiya RB67 / RZ67 lenses on the Mamiya M645 Mount (I.e PhaseOne 645DF or Mamiya AFD camera bodies) and a special adapter for stitching with the Canon TSE lenses. Since my initial review of the Hcam B-1 I have become good friends with Stefan and now he joins us for a guest post on the new Leica M 240 which he had the opportunity to shoot for an extended period of time.
The day I got my test set of the new Leica M 240, I was kind of astonished first, although I have used some M’s over the last 35 years, I had forgotten how small it really was. Even smaller: the lenses accompanying my demo – a Leica M 35mm f/2.5 Summarit, and a Leica 90mm f/2.5 Summarit. Previously, I have to admit, I had never been a real fan of the Leica M. The form factor was just not for me, and my work as an advertising photographer took other gear to get the work done. When the Leica M’s were still analogue I had checked out the rangefinder, I never grew fond of it. So I was curious, would the addition of the LV (Live view) function really change my perception of the Leica M series?
I was skeptical.
Leica has done some more tweaks and improvements since the original first digital M, the Leica M8 and later the Leica M9. Resolution may be the most obvious thing, but for me as a non-permanent user the different iterations of the digital M look pretty much the same. The Leica lenses have always been on high praise, but until the arrival of the Leica M240 nobody could really test their full range on a high-res 24x36mm digital sensor. Yes there were adapters to the Sony NEX 7 where the Leica glass performed beautifully, but the smaller NEX chip only uses the center of the lenses image circle, limiting to some extent a full proof of their superiority.
And the Leica M Monochrome, albeit showing the highest net-res of all Leica M´s to date is – well – monochrome – not showing the possible chroma or other negative color effects that may influence color quality of the digital Leica M’s output.
So I decided to push the little Leica M as far as I could and eliminate all possible quality degradations that I could – means working from a stable tripod, using a cable release and further testing the sensor with well known and proven lenses of mine with adapters aswell. I also wanted to look into Macro photography down to 1:1 with the Leica M system.
This approach is actually against the generally proposed usage of Leica M’s, their “Rangefinder Heritage“ and the light and easygoing idea of a small camera with great results.
So I went out for my first shooting at Friedrichshafen Klassikwelt- one oft he largest vintage shows for cars and planes in Europe.
After some shots it was pretty obvious that the new CMOS chip of the Leica had changed the camera into something remarkable, in a quite unexpected way. This Live view is Perfect! In accordance with the Focus peaking you can stop down to a working aperture and shift the indicating red edge markings as a cloud (focus peaking) right through the image, showing EXACTLY where the focus range will be at a given aperture and focus point. The Live view provides an image that is constantly bright and colors are shown on the display somewhat decently allowing a pretty good idea of what you will capture. The new C-MAX sensor´s DR is big enough to allow live view under nearly all lighting circumstances, even when there is not so much light. This is probably also a result of the new, flatter circuitry architecture that is introduced with this chip made by Belgium fab CMOSIS.
This technique is not superfast and also not something that you may do with the camera handheld (though you can), but what is most important, for me is that it changes the character of this camera completely. Working with this M, is like using a medium or even large format device, a very calming and comfortable “slow motion“ but “deep thought“ photography that enhances my awareness of the motive and centers around a very well known solid mechanical touch and calming workflow.
As all things in life, there is always a little bitter in the sweet. Why Leica has decided to center the zoom in of the live preview and not allow shifting it around will be a well-kept secret of its firmware developers. I can only hope they fix this soon as this is around the only negative point throwing a light shadow on an otherwise sparkling performance.
History is obviously an important thing for Leica (and for their fans), the body still looks pretty much like any Leica of the last 50 years since the M4 (though it is actually a few millimeters thicker then the M9). This has some not so fun side effects, e.g. the base body plate is still working exactly like with analogue Leica M’s, mimicking the film compartment where there is none, but this results in really bad accessibility of the battery and SD Card slot, especially when you use a tripod/quick-release adapter plate you have to unscrew the whole setup to even change the SD card (???).
Also that aesthetically nice historical look takes another victim: the poor grip (in my opinion). Of course you may answer, there are plenty of 3rd party makers of grips, thumb rests, and camera cases, which improve the grip of the camera. Good. Even Leica offers 2 grips, and one of them features GPS. But couldn´t they just throw this into a full package, I mean the price is high and this wouldn’t it really make sense for ANYONE using the camera?
It is a bumpy ride to get ready to love this Leica, but always when you doubt, there is a light guiding you…. I was able to use the final version of Lightroom 5 with it. I am pleased to say that the decision of Leica to bundle it with the Camera is an outstandingly good one! As Leica even says on their website, they have been cooperating with Adobe to get the best results for this Camera, Lens, Chip and Software combination. I will not talk about the lenses, this means carry owls to Athens, nor much about the digital features of the camera menus, Lightroom is also probably very well known. I would like to talk about the CMOSIS Chip. If you dig a little into the web you will find that there is a close connection to Fill factory, the company that did the chips for Kodak DSLRs and indeed the chips seem to show similarities to the CCD designs of the Kodak 14n. Lets take a look at some of the tech specs for the Leica M240’s chip.
The chip is manufactured at STMicroelectronics (STM) in Grenoble/France for CMOSIS:
It is a fully European product. It´s 6×6 µm² Matrix reaches linear Full-Well-Capacity of ≥40.000 electrons and a linear Dynamic Range of 76dB. Pixeldata is digitized in patented Low-power/High-speed 14-bit Column AD-converters. This sensor uses a digital electronic Bladeshutter with global reset and noise suppression by analogue and digital
Correlated Double Sampling. CDS is a reason for the very low temporary and spatial noise and very good uniformity.
(For those who want to read more here is the source in German-sorry : http://www.elektronikpraxis.vogel.de/themen/hardwareentwicklung/bildverarbeitung/articles/378725/ ) In short- the new lower profile stack and the strongly curved Micro-lenses of the chip are resulting in a very low usable angle of incoming light, allowing the use of the full range of Leia M lenses from telephoto to the widest wide angle lenses. It even further dismisses an antialiasing filter, improving the usable resolution of the system even further. So in a sentence: Leica had them make a special chip for usage in an M style camera with short flange focal distance.
Sorry for that much tech speak, but that is no less than groundbreaking and it shows in the files. I have rarely seen such files from a 24x36mm chip. The Nikon D800/E may reach the resolution, but misses on the enormous smoothness of even the darkest shadows the Leica M240 resolves. Overall I would say the files look and feel like CCD medium format, I have uploaded a full Leica DNG file of my shooting to give you an impression which you can find here http://www.hcam.de/upload/L1001064.DNG
In this article here on Brian’s page I show some images and from them the message is clear: Leica has crossed a bridge with the Leica M system in the M240. By the immense quality they pull from that combo, the meaning of a classic light M system camera has changed. It still can do what it has become known for, no doubt and watching the forums around the long term M users who are doing this (with a growing interest on the electronic finder, mainly because it opens up a chance to finally get longer lenses and also allow users with glasses (e.g. myself !) to get the full sharpness monty from a once harder to use “specialty“ camera.
There is a heritage of Leica M’s for Medical, Repro or Aerial Photography (+ some more).
Now the time has come that Leica can revive this heritage and sell plenty (at least when their new fab is finished and production ramped up) of M240’s for exactly this stuff.
Good news, the old fans will still love them as always and now they get back another piece of the cake to produce volume.
Congrats Leica, You won my heart with this little black camera. Probably not as I expected it or maybe not even as you may have hoped it, but you did!
I wish you many years of success to come with this spirit, you deserve it!
Greetings from a fellow German
BH: You can check out more images that Stefan took with the Leica M240 in full-resolution on his Flickr page here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/hartblei/sets/72157634182792842/
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