These are exciting times for photographers. We are blessed with a plethora of cameras that are highly capable of capturing incredible images at a moment’s notice. Companies such as Canon and Nikon continue the rich tradition of building highly capable SLR cameras that feature technologic prowess. The latest player on the block is the mirrorless camera, which capitalizes on improvements in video display technology to rid cameras of the mirror box and usher in a new era of compact cameras that do compete for the SLR’s market share. Then there is Leica, who seems to go about things in their own way as they always have.
The Leica M10 is Leica’s latest rangefinder offering. It hails as the replacement for the Leica M Typ240, a camera that was met with both adoration and controversy, having forgone the numbering designation and included video capabilities and a CMOS sensor. Four years later, Leica has reversed course once again, trumpeting the Leica M10 as a return to simplicity in form and function. The M10 handles much like the original Leica film cameras and handles nearly identically as the Leica M7. Gone is the video. Returning is the classic numbering scheme. These changes, along with a host of other evolutionary improvements, lead to a revolution in usability. If you don’t like words and wish to stop reading here for a quick conclusion from me, here you go: The Leica M10 is the best digital rangefinder ever made. For those of you who have been waiting to upgrade, this is the camera that will coax you to buy a new Leica. For those film shooters among you whom have waited patiently for the “right digital camera”, this camera should finally sway you buy a digital Leica camera. Why, you ask? Read on….
Let’s get the basics out of the way for those of you who don’t know much about the camera, or who have not read the other numerous reviews out there. The Leica M10 is Leica’s fourth digital rangefinder, following the Leica M8, the Leica M9, and the Leica M Typ 240.
The Leica M10 features two notable improvements over its predecessors. First, and most noticeable, is the new slimmed down body. The Leica M8 and Leica M9 featured bodies that were 14% thicker than the M7 film body that preceded them, measuring in at 139 mm (wide) x 80 mm (tall) x 37 mm (thick). The M8 and M9 weighed 600g (with battery and SD card). The M240 came in 5 mm thicker and 80g heavier. The M10 features a substantially slimmer body size that’s 139 mm x 80 x 34 mm, though it’s only 20 g lighter than the M240. How do the camera’s new dimensions affect handling? The Leica M10 handles and feels much like a film body. It’s the camera’s build similarities to film bodies that contribute largely to a feeling of comforting nostalgia.
THE LEICA M10 IS THE BEST DIGITAL RANGEFINDER EVER MADE.
Leica M10 employs an upgraded 0.73x viewfinder with notably improved eye relief. Leica’s digital rangefinders up to the M10 offered a consistent 0.68x magnification, troubling many purists who found the magnification factor and limited eye relief to be difficult to use in practice, particularly for those photographers wearing eyeglasses. In contrast, the M10 is much easier to use for those who wear eyeglasses, given the noted changes. I can say convincingly that the adjustments and improvements that Leica has employed for the M10’s rangefinder has made it a much easier-to-focus camera. As an added bonus, the M10’s viewfinder is bright, and the now-standard LED frame lines are obvious and accurate to a focus plane of 2 meters, making this a much more accurate framing rangefinder for most subject matter except close-up portraiture work.
The Leica M10’s other notable physical update is the new ISO dial. This clever addition sits in a spot previously reserved for the film rewind knob familiar to M3-M7 shooters. The ISO dial provides selections ranging from ISO100-6400, with an A (Auto-ISO) option and an M option for push ISO settings up to 50,000. I have set the M option to ISO 10000, which I feel is the highest usable ISO option on the M10 without incurring egregious dynamic range loss, color inaccuracy, or banding.
To adjust the ISO dial, the user must pull up on the dial before turning it to set a new ISO. While this seems like an extra step, it prevents the camera from inadvertently drifting to an inaccurate ISO. Initially, I expected to set the camera at auto ISO and leave it there. What I have found is having rapid access to other ISO settings allows one to change ISO rapidly to achieve desired effects. For example, I have begun to increasingly experiment with motion blur, and rapidly being able to pull and twist the dial to ISO 100 and stop down aperture on the lens can allow me to immediately create a motion blur effect in my images. To my surprise, I am quite pleased with this addition, and I suspect that you too will be thrilled to have ISO adjustment at your fingertips.
BYE-BYE VIDEO (I.E. ADDITION BY SUBTRACTION)
Leica made a seemingly counterintuitive (to the rest of the camera industry and some M users) move by forgoing video in the Leica M10. However, if you know Leica, you know them to be a company that happily defies convention. Leica appears to have listened to its users, who rarely use video. Further, Leica delivered the highly capable Leica SL, which is more suited to videography. The Leica M240 was an outdated video camera out-of-the-gate, featuring older video codecs, limited audio recording capacities and other challenges that made it difficult for videographers to use the camera in a serious manner. Leica has rightfully recognized that the M series platform is not really optimal for a video-still camera convergence. The focus of the M10 is now squarely on still photography, where the Leica M series has always excelled.
SIMPLIFIED BUTTON LAYOUT
By now, you may begin to see that many of the subtle changes to the Leica M10 are adding up to a meaningful difference, and by the end, you will find that the user experience for the M shooter is vastly improved. To further push the agenda to this end, Leica made a great move to simplify the button layout and menu structure for the M10. Gone is the fivebutton left-sided layout, replaced by a simplified three-button system. Jonathan Slack has written at length about this, and there’s no need to beat the topic into the dirt, lest to say that the changes made feel “right” for this camera.
On the camera’s front, the M10 brings back the frame line preview selector lever. On previous cameras, such as the M240 and M-E, Leica had removed the frame line selector. The M10’s design harkens back to the film M cameras. The only other buttons on the front side are the lens release button and the button just below the illumination window that activates focus magnification in live view. I am glad that Leica carried over this very useful and functional feature from the M240.
The M10’s on-off switch is now either “on” or “off ”. Gone are the Off-S-C convention of recent digital cameras. Continuous shooting at up to 5 fps is now accessible through the menu.
I am not yet sure how I feel about this change, but it does simplify the layout.
The Leica M10 employs a newly designed BL-SCL 5 battery, which is physically smaller than the M240’s battery with a correspondingly reduced capacity. For ambient/indoor temperatures, I have been able to take over 600 images on one charge. In colder climates, a typical charge is more likely to last for about 300 images. While this may be disappointing to many looking to upgrade to the M10, the camera’s slimmer profile necessitated a slimmer battery. It’s best to purchase a spare battery if you are a high volume shooter.
SENSOR PERFORMANCE & IMAGE QUALITY
The Leica M10 retains the same 24-megapixel count as thecLeica M240, SL, and Q cameras. Despite this, Leica has reported that the sensor featured in the Leica M10 is brand new and NOT a modified sensor from the M240, Q, or SL. Where the Leica M10’s sensor truly excels is in mid-tone dynamic range. Colors in this range are both accurate and readily adjustable. Further, the M10’s sensor produces nearly bottomless shadow detail. An image can be substantially underexposed, and yet can be saved by simple postproduction. We do live in a glorious time for photography as sensors perform so well now, and the M10’s sensor is no exception. Please take note that the M10 does not perform quite as well with overexposed images or blown highlights. Highlight regions of high contrast images are prone to blowing out, and care should generally be taken to properly expose the scene. To avoid this situation, I generally set exposure compensation to -1/3, and find the images that I produce to have punchy color with a better highlight range. Consider yourself warned as you begin your own journey with the Leica M10.
COLOR PERFORMANCE & POP
Putting all of the megapixel arguments aside, the Leica M10’s sensor is impressive in its reproduction of natural color. Jonathan Slack again spends a great deal of time speaking on this controversial topic, since “Leica colors” are a hotly debated topic. I am a huge fan of the Leica M9’s color palette, while others favor the M240’s color reproduction. I found that if white balance was accurate, the Leica M9 produced base ISO files with some of the best color fidelity and pop that I have ever seen. The Leica M240 peformance is different, less punchy, but with more range. In some ways, comparing the M9 to the M240 is like comparing two different film stocks. Each will have its fans.
CAN TELL YOU READERS
THAT THE M10 FILES HAVE
THAT “M9” POP.
The Leica M10, produces colors that are strikingly accurate, even in mixed/artificial light circumstances that can often bring out the worst in skin tones. The M10 RAW files do come out-of-camera slightly muted but readily adjustable in post-processing. With minimal post-processing, the images are immediately punchy and provide the pop and snap that many of us last saw with our M9’s. In summary, I confidently can tell you readers that the M10’s files have that “M9” pop.
I credit the Leica engineers and beta testers for making the necessary observations and arguments to direct this effort into the right arena, because color is so important to get right in today’s cameras. If a camera reproduces color incorrectly, the wind is out of the sails for that camera. Like any camera, it will take a bit of time to adjust to the M10’s colors and image quality, but once you do so, you’ll be rewarded with that Leica glow.
The Leica M10 is one of Leica’s best performing high ISO cameras, topped only by the Leica SL. Sean Reid and others have systematically tested the M10 against similar full framesensors, concluding that the M10 performs very well as a high ISO camera. I will leave it to you to consult with them further on this matter. In my experience, I have found the M10 to be a dynamic, enjoyable, color-accurate camera with ISO’s ranging up to 6400, essentially the range available on the camera’s ISO dial. Beyond ISO 6400, the camera is capable of rendering a beautiful well-exposed image. However, if you are shooting at ISO’s beyond 6400 and don’t get the exposure right, you are likely to encounter banding, both in color and black and white images converted from the camera’s RAW file.
Speaking of banding, it’s been an issue in nearly all of Leica’s digital cameras, and while the Leica M10 by and large escapes the banding problem, it remains noticeable in poorly exposed images at ISO 6400 and above, and can even be seen in properly exposed images at ISO 10,000 and above. Take care to choose your ISO settings wisely.
BUGS AND ISSUES
REMAINING TO BE WORKED OUT
These are the early days, immediately post-release, and many of us serve as de facto beta testers of the camera. There are several forums where firmware bugs are readily identified and discussed, and it’s my hope that Leica will be responsive in addressing issues that have come up, which to date include SD card incompatibilities, Lightroom import errors, and freezing of the camera when shooting in continuous mode with the accessory EVF.
SUMMARY & CONCLUSIONS
If you have been away from Leica for some time, the Leica M10 is the camera to bring you back home. If you are a film shooter who’s been waiting for the right camera with which to enter the digital fray, the Leica M10 is the camera for you. It does so much right, and so little wrong. With that in mind, let me summarize what I feel to be the camera’s pros and cons:
Ultimately it’s the sum of numerous small improvements that makes the Leica M10 such a joy to use.
THE EMOTIONAL ATTACHMENT
OF THE RANGEFINDER
Leica cameras are built to the highest standards. They feel great in hand. They possess a comfortable and confident heft and a metal build that’s uncommon in today’s plastic and polycarbonate camera world. Leica cameras engender an intense pride of ownership in their owners, who often will sing the praises of their camera in a seemingly irrational manner. Count me among this group of passionate individuals, from all walks of life, who have come to the shared vision of shooting simply with full control over their images.
The Leica M10 is the new pinnacle of Leica’s engineering prowess. In the right hands, the Leica M10 is capable of producing images that are truly magical, and will leave its owner in awe, excited for the next opportunity to shoot the camera again. Prepare yourself for these feelings, as they are powerful. Become a Leica shooter, either for the first time or for the next time. You will be rewarded with a camera that is capable of exceptional image making, a camera that both bonds tightly to your photographic spirit and gets out of your way, allowing you to maximize your creative expression as you take that next, perfect image.
THE LEICA M10
IS CAPABLE OF