The Return of the Rangefinder! A Leica M10 Review
by Ashwin Rao – Join Ashwin’s Leica M10 Facebook group HERE
(From Steve: Enjoy this fantastic review of the Leica M10 from Ashwin Rao. One of the things that make this website so fun and valuable is that it offers the opinions of others besides myself. Ashwin has been writing for me since the start and a quick search of his name in the search bar above will bring you some invaluable articles and reviews. Enjoy this one, and thank you Ashwin for this wonderful Leica M10 review)
Hello, friends! It’s been a whirlwind of a past 3 weeks since the Leica M10 was announced. I was one of the fortunate ones to receive my camera early, and I have been busy using the camera daily. The Leica M10, as you all know, is Leica’s latest offering, the replacement for the Leica M Typ240, a camera that was met with both adoration and controversy at the moment of its naming, having forgone the numbering designation and included video capabilities and a CMOS sensor. Four years later, Leica has again reversed course, trumpeting the Leica M10 as a return to form in both name and function. Gone is the video. Returning is the classic numbering scheme. Leica has returned to its roots, focusing on a camera that handles much like the original Leica film camers, whose purpose centersw on still photography. How has Leica done? I will discuss that in detail with you over the course of this review.
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 CCD M8 and M9 lovers, 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? If you must know, 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, at face value, seems like an incremental evolution of the digital M series. It’s actually the 4th digital rangefinder, having followed the Leica M8, the Leica M9, and the Leica M Typ 240. It was released with much ballyhoo in January 2017, and of this writing, it is incredibly scarce and only in the hands of a few photographers.
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 M6 and M7 film bodies that preceded them, measuring in at 139 mm (wide) x 80 mm (tall) x 37 mm (thick). The M8 and M9 weighed in at approximately 600g (with battery and SD card). The M240 came in at an even heftier 139mm x 80 x 42 mm with a weight of 680 grams. The M10 features a substantially slimmer body size that’s 139 mm x 80 x 34 mm, nearly 8 mm slimmer than the M240. The M10 weighs in at 660 g, so while it has lost some weight compared to the M240, it remains a denser/heavier camera than the M8/M9. How does this affect camera handling? Does the slimness make up for the body’s dense feel? In short, yes….The Leica M10 handles and feels much like a film body. In fact, it is only 30 grams heavier than the Leica M6 and M7 film bodies, and within 1 mm in dimension (it’s ever so slightly taller than the film M’s). It’s the camera’s size& weight similarity to film bodies that contributes largely to a feeling of familiar positive nostalgia, particularly for those who are used to shooting film bodies. For those of you who are coming from the M8, M9, or M240, the body feels confident and definitively smaller. While one may not think that a 5 mm of so difference in thickness matters, take one in hand and go shooting for a day. You’ll immediately notice the difference in diminished hand fatigue, among other notable positive handling differences. As reported by longtime Leica photography friends, the M10 has been universally hailed as a return to form from a handling perspective alone…
It’s incredibly frustrating to come home after a day of shooting to only find a few images in focus. The Leica M camera’s rangefinder encourages parallax focusing, or zone focusing for those who care to do away with dealing with the rangefinder. Over the years, Leica’s attempted a number of strategies to improve focusing accuracy from its venerable RF, especially in light of logarithmic improvements in SLR autofocus capacities. Initially, with Leica’s film bodies, 0.58x, and 0.85x magnifications were offered to complement the 0.72x standard model. Leica’s digital rangefinders up to the M10 offered 0.68x magnification, troubling many purists who found the magnification factor and limited eye relief difficult for focusing, particularly for those photographers using eyewear.
Well, the Leica M10 resolves this matter with it’s vastly upgraded viewfinder. The M10’s upgraded 0.73x viewfinder with notably improved eye relief is its most significant upgrade. The camera is much easier to use for those who wear eye glasses. The viewfinder’s field of view permits easy viewing of 28 mm and narrower frame lines. There are reports that Leica spent a lot of time on their rangefinder, optimizing its accuracy, eliminating issues with front and back focus for many lenses in order to provider rangefinder users with a more satisfying experience. Having now put over 2000 actuations on my M10, 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. This feature alone will sate users who struggled in the past with accurately focusing their cameras.
To add to this, the optical elements of Leica’s viewfinder are bright, and the now-standard LED frame lines are obviously bright and easy to use. The frame lines are now optimized now to be 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 viewfinder, to sum it up, is incredible and revolutionary.
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 and has more recently been occupied by an audio recording device M240 or a frame counter/battery life indicator (M8). 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 typically set the M option to ISO 10000, which I feel is the highest usable ISO option on the M10 without incurring to much dynamic range loss, color inaccuracy, or frequent issues with 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 rangefinder from inadvertently drifting to inaccurate ISO settings. I have found that the design and implementation of the ISO dial is actually more useful than I would have imagined. 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 100-200 and stop down aperture on the lens can allow me to immediately create a motion blur effect in my images, with all of those needed controls in hand. Further, I am now more aware of the ISO’s necessary to properly expose a particular setting, which seems odd for someone (me) who’s spent over a decade of my life shooting rangefinders. Yet, here I am, increasingly aware of the creative possibilities of ISO adjustment, all because Leica decided to incorporate an ISO dial. I am quite pleased with this addition, and once you adjust, 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 features in the Leica M10. However, if you know Leica, you know them to be a company to is happy to defy convention and go their own way. Leica took a close listen to its user base, most who rarely used video in the first place. In the interval since the M240 was released, Leica also released the highly capable Leica SL, whose design and implementation are far more suited to videography than the M series cameras. The Leica M240 was an outdated video camera out-of-the-gate, featuring older video codecs, limited audio recording capacities, and a host of features that made it difficult for videographers to use the camera in any serious manner. To boot, the video and audio recording features necessarily made the Leica M240 a heftier camera. In the years since the M240 was announced, the apparent trend of convergence between stills cameras and video cameras has manifested itself with variable sucess, but Leica has rightfully recognized that the M series platform is not really optimized at all for such convergence. Leica smartly moved on and removed video from the M10. As a result, the focus of the M10 is now squarely on still photography, where the Leica M series has always excelled. The removal of video is addition by subtraction, and the Leica M10 is a BETTER M camera, truer to its roots, than the cameras that came before it.
Simplified Button Layout
By now, you may begin to see that many of 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 five-button left-sided layout, replaced by a simplified three-button system. Removed are the “Delete”, “ISO”, and “Set” buttons of the M240 and 246. The M10 features only “Live View”, “Play”, and “Menu” buttons with their respective designated purposes. The only remaining buttons on the camera’s rear are a four-way direction pad which performs menu navigation, a center pad button that provides rapid access to battery life and SD card capacity, and a scroll wheel (located on the thumb rest) that can either be set to focus magnification or exposure compensation. By setting the scroll wheel to exposure compensation adjustment, all key parameters (ISO, shutter speed, aperture, and exposure compensation) are situated easily and intuitively for rapid access.
Front buttons and dials are also cleaned up to emphasize traditional rangefinder features. The M10 brings back the frame line selection level. Previous cameras, such as the M240 and M-E, removed the frame line selector, but the Leica M10 thankfully brings this back. Again, the M10 harkens back to film cameras of its heritage. The only other front side buttons are the lens release button and a front button just below the illumination window that, if pressed during live view, allows for rapid access to focus magnification. A thoughtful functional preservation carried over from the M10, I am glad to have access here.
The only other simplification of note is the change of the on-off switch on the M10. No longer is there an option for single shot or continuous focus. The switch is now either “on” or “off”. If the M10 user wishes to alternate between single shot, or continuous shooting (@ 5 fps), this is accessible through the menu. I am not yet sure how I feel about this change, but it does simplify the layout, and truth be told, I use the M10 as a single shot camera 95% of the time. For the times where continuous shooting is necessary, I can delve into the menu and rapidly select this feature.
I have not spoke much about the shutter speed dial, because it’s unchanged from the M240 and M9 before it. Shutter speeds range from 8s to 1/4000 sec, with Auto and Bulb options. Everything here works as intended; FYI that bulb exposure times are limited to 30 sec and no longer.
The Leica M10 employs a new designed BL-SCL 5 battery, which physically smaller battery than the M240’s battery with corresponding reduced capacity. For ambient/indoor temperatures, I have been able to take over 600 images on one change. In colder climates, a typical charge is more likely to last for 300 images. While this may be disappointing to many looking to upgrade to the M10, the size and capacity change was necessary to fit the battery into the substantially slimmed down M10 form factor. Such are the compromises needed. In summary, it’s best to purchase at least 1 spare battery for your typical shooting needs if you are a high volume photographer.
Sensor Performance & Image Quality
The Leica M10 retains the same 24-megapixel count as the Leica M240, SL, and Q cameras. Despite this, Leica has reported that the sensor featured in the Leica M10 is brand new and NOT modified from the M240, Q, or SL. Having seen the output, I can honestly say that the sensor performance that I have seen from the Leica M10 is the best for any current rangefinder available today and competes earnestly or exceeds the performance seen in Leica’s other current offerings (SL and Q), while competing favorably with Sony’s best sensors.
Where the Leica M10’s sensor truly excels is in midtone dynamic range. The M10’s files are capable of being extensively manipulated and they do not seem to fall apart. This is quite different than both the M9, and to some degree, the M240’s files. Adjustments can be made to light, dark, highlights and shadows without much, if any loss of image fidelity. Colors in this range are both accurate and readily adjustable. Further, the M10’s sensor, particularly at ISO’s of 3200 and lower, produces nearly bottomless shadow detail. An image can be horribly underexposed, and yet can be saved by the simple corrections that are employed through post-production software packages such as Adobe Lightroom. At ISO’s higher than 3200, shadows can begin to band if you raise the shadows aggressively. The effect is subtle for ISO 64000 but becomes more notable thereafter. Ultimately, it’s best to get the image properly exposed at the time of exposure, and if you do, you will be rewarded with a rich file, even at ISO’s as high as 10,000, with accurate colors and solid dynamic range. We do live in a glorious time for photography, as sensors perform so well now, and the M10’s sensor is no exception.
The Leica 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 stops, and I generally find the images that I produce to have punchy color and controlled highlight region. Consider yourself warned as you begin your own journey with the Leica M10.
The Megapixel Argument
Many will argue that an M10 should have received a megapixel upgrade to 36 or even 42 megapixels. I see this, personally, as unnecessary. First off, the Leica M10 does not incorporate any form of image stabilization. The rangefinder permits stable hand holding of most lenses at even slower shutter speeds, but keep in mind that the clarity and details capable of being resolved by the sensor are negated by any shake/tremor. This is not a huge issue for lower megapixel count sensors, but once a camera begins to employ 36-50 megapixel sensors, extreme care should be taken to preserve image quality to make use of that resolution (or else the camera shake/vibrations will diminish each pixel’s resolving power). This is quite difficult in street shooting circumstances with camera in hand, where the camera and photographer must work spontaneously and organically. In these moments, the sensor should be able to keep up with the photographer. However, high megapixel sensors are very sensitive to any operator error, and tremors of the hand or subtle imperfections in technique are magnified, manifesting as out-of-focus images. Further, higher megapixel counts lead to smaller pixel pitch, which can worsen noise performance and low light image quality. Also keep in mind print sizes when factoring what you need from a sensor. A 24-megapixel sensor is capable of producing high quality printable images at 300 dpi (consider outstanding resolution for prints) at 24×36 inches. How many of us have 24×36 inch images printed and framed around the home? I’d guess that not many of us do. For most people, even a 24-megapixel sensor tests the photographer’s technical ability, and thus, the Leica M10’s sensor is adequately employed to get the most out of the photographer’s abilities while limiting the photographer’s deficiencies as a technical specialist.
Color Performance & Pop
Putting all of the megapixel arguments aside, the Leica M10’s sensor is impressive in its reproduction of natural color. I will come out and say it now: I am a huge fan of the Leica M9’s color palette. I found that if white balance was accurate, the Leica M9 produced images with some of the best color fidelity and pop that I have ever seen, to this day. This is particularly true for the M9’s base ISO files. I felt that the Leica M240 struggled in some situations with accurate color reproduction, and subsequent firmware upgrades have improved but not ideally optimized color performance for issues I am sure are tied to that particular sensor’s spectral sensitivity and software conversion.
The Leica M10, on the other hand, produces colors that are strikingly true to the scene in most situations, including difficult mixed/artificial light circumstances that can often bring out the worst in skin tones. In my opinion, the Leica M10 is the spiritual descendent to the Leica M9, in terms of its color palette. While each camera has its unique way of seeing the image, the Leica M10’s colors seem very true to the scene, and white balance is generally accurate in the Auto WB setting. 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 sales 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 accurate, punchy colors and the snap that you hope to see in Leica files. That Leica glow, so have you J
As I have alluded to earlier, the Leica M10’s dynamic range isexcellent. It’s sensor is not outstanding at controlling highlights (Sony’s full-frame sensors are better at this), but there seems to be more dynamic range available for the photographer in the mid-tones and shadows. This is purely my subjective opinion, but I believe this is a situation where “you can’t have your cake and eat it too.” I will leave it to the sensor engineers and technical experts to duke it out, but this is my opinion. A sensor design seems to reflect choices as to where it can be strong. It appears that Leica’s imaging engineers have chosen to strengthen the camera’s performance in the mid-tones and the shadows at the expense of the highlights. I don’t want to make too much of this, since it’s not a common situation, but is a real issue for those shooting highly contrasted images and scenes. One must take care to slightly underexpose their image in the camera and then adjust the image in post-processing if one is to consistently save highlights. This was much the same case with both of Leica’s M Monochrom sensors, though those cameras have much worse/brittle highlight handling than does the M10.
To move on, I will say that the Leica M10’s ability to produce dynamic, deep, and profound mid-tone and shadow dynamic range at ISO’s through 3200 provides the photographer with near infinite creative control for lower contrast scenes with people and other living subject matter. The M10 is thus an exceptional “people photography” camera, as it excels at reproducing accurate skin tones. In summary, I believe that the Leica M10’s dynamic range competes with today’s very best 35 mm full-frame sensors produced by other companies, such as Sony, Canon, and Nikon. Despites its highlight-handling deficiency, the sensor’s no slouch, and in the areas where it’s strong (mid tones and shadows), it’s an incredible imaging tool that outperforms the competition.
The Leica M10 is one of Leica’s best performing high ISO cameras, topped by only the Leica SL. Sean Reid and others have systematically tested the M10 against similar full frame sensors, 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 it 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 early all of Leica’s camera, 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. SO take care to choose your ISO settings wisely. I myself try to relegate my shooting to ISO 6400 or below, and I have set my M ISO to 10,000.
One major improvement in high ISO performance in the M10 is high ISO color accuracy. This is noticeably better for the Leica M10’s images than for any other camera, including Leica’s own Q and SL. This is really a great development for the prospective M10 photographer, who can now shoot at ISO 6400 expecting accurate color reproduction and minimal artifacts or loss of dynamic range!
Performance in the Field
The Leica M10 is designed to meet the standards of a professional workhorse camera. It’s weather/moisture resistant, though not waterproof. I have used the camera in light rain, heavy snow, and subzero temperatures and have not run into any issues with camera malfunction. That being said, I take care not to douse my camera and dry if frequently, and it’s rewarded me with nearly flawless performance….
Nearly flawless, you say? Well, yes, there are a few issues that can hopefully be ironed out through firmware upgrades. The M10, when shot extensively in fast bursts, can run into occasional card reading errors. I have shot over 2000 images with the camera and have had 1 SD card read out as unreadable on one occasions. My second SD card has had no such issue. I have had 1 episode where i the camera froze up during operation. A quick battery removal and rest solved all of the issues described.
Make sure to have new, high performance SD cards available for your new M10. Make sure to head out with a full battery. If you do so, you’ll have a camera that performs well and does not operationally get in the way. Leica is likely to address any reported issues such as SD card incompatibilities, which have plauged others in the community, through firmware upgrades, so I presume that this issue will be addressed soon.
Summary & Conclusions
You have made it to the end of this article, now nearly 5,000 words long. Thank you for joining me on this journey. I have given the Leica M10 an extensive test, using the camera in as many different circumstances that I could muster in a two-week period. The camera has held up exceedingly well, and it’s performed more consistently than any prior Leica to date. Thus, I give the Leica M10 my HIGHEST recommendation. Buy this camera with confidence. If you have been away from Leica for some time, this is the camera to come back to. If you are the film shooter who’s been waiting for the right camera for 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:
1. Size and handling. The camera is absolutely a pleasure to hold in hand and is confidently built. Just handling the camera will instill the owner with a pride of ownership. Kudos, Leica!
2. Sensor performance. The Leica M10’s sensor is Leica’s highest performing, most mature sensor to date. Images come with accurate color and plenty of pop. M9 fans, rejoice. This is the upgrade you have been waiting for. For you M240 shooters, consider this upgrade if you desire more accurate color reproduction.
3. Simplified layout. The new layout focuses on essentials and gets out of the way.
4. No video. Yes, I consider this an upgrade. If you want video, buy an SL.
1. Blown highlights. I’ll be frank. This is the biggest issue with the camera, but it’s still a minor issue. One should be aware to underexposure.
2. Occasional freeze ups. This has been an issue that has plagued nearly every Leica. The M10 is not immune, but is better than prior digital M’s.
3. Reported Memory card incompatibility issues. Hopefully fixable through future firmware.
4. Battery capacity. Sufficient but a downgrade in capacity from the M240.
5. Handling. Leica M’s can be a bit slippery. Dressing with a half case or a Thumbs Up grip will help.
6. EVF: Old generation EVF, not really worth the hassle of use.
Ultimately it’s the sum of many small improvements that makes the Leica M10 such a pleasure to use. The sum of these changes adds up to more than each individual change.
Areas for Future Improvement
1. Dust reduction mechanism: Nearly every other professional camera comes with a sensor dust reduction mechanism. Why has Leica not gotten on board. Size is no longer a valid argument, when miniscule full frame Sony bodies have this feature
2. No in-body image stabilization: In the past, the argument has been made that incorporating in-body image stabilization comes at a cost of size and bulk. Well, guess what. Sony’s doing it in their small A7 series bodies. Leica should consider image stabilization, particularly if it elects to offer a higher megapixel camera in future iterations
3. Higher megapixel sensor. This is desired by quite a few members of the community, and if employed, should factor in some form of in-body image stabilization feature.
4. High Quality EVF ported from the SL. Come on Leica. Get with it, and offer a high quality, SL style EVF. It won’t cut into your SL sales, as the M and SL lines are fundamentally different now.
The Emotional Attachment of the Rangefinder
For those of you considering the Leica M10 as your first rangefinder, I am very excited for you. The Leica M10 is a great camera, and you will be a proud owner once you have your own. I remember first shooting with the Leica M6, and soon thereafter with a Leica M8. The experience is, to say the least, a deeply emotional, almost spiritual experience. The Leica photographer can quickly become attached to his or her camera, which soon becomes an extension of his or her own personality.
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.
Leica photographers are artists, collectors, and passionate contributors to the photo community. They love their cameras and they love the images that they can make with these cameras with which they have such a close connection. The Leica M10 is the pinnacle of Leica’s engineering prowess. It’s the best Leica digital camera ever made. I would not be remiss to say that the Leica M10 may be the best camera that Leica’s ever engineered. In the right hands, and with the proper glass mounted, 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 poignant, potent, and powerful. Become a Leica shooter, either for the first time, or again one more 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 image, that perfect image.
Off you go…
I hope that you have enjoyed this review and its accompanying images, which were all made with the Leica M10 and several M-mount lenses. For more of my work, you can find me on facebook (at Ashwin Rao Photography), the Leica M10 User Group, Flickr (ashwinrao1), and tumblr (ashwinrao1.tumblr.com). See you all down the road, around the corner, with my Leica in hand J.
WHERE TO BUY?
The Leica M10 can be bought from the dealers below:
Ken Hansen: Email – [email protected]
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