A Year with the Leica M10 – A Field Report and Re-Review of a Modern Digital Classic
By Ashwin Rao – Join the Leica M10 Facebook Group HERE.
Dear friends and fellow photographers, it has been nearly 1 year since the Leica M10 first was announced, and only now are cameras beginning to be readily available. By all accounts, the M10 has been one of Leica’s most successful digital rangefinders, with the principal complaint being it’s lack of availability. The camera was designed with a number of features aimed to make M10 imminently more useable than it’s predecessors. The camera’s size and thickness harken to the classic film rangefinder body design, one that was familiar and comfortable for over 50 years. Early digital rangefinders had to become thicker to accommodate the electronics of the digital sensor stack, but today’s technology has facilitated a return to the original thickness with which so many rangefinder shooters are comfortable. The camera’s expanded ISO capacity, the novel and surprisingly useful ISO dial, and improved viewfinder, are capable of revealing new imaging vistas where previous M’s were not as capable. When I originally reviewed the M10 back in January, I was new to the camera, and like many of you, I was in the honeymoon period. I believe that it is great value in returning to the camera to re-consider if its differences remain as vital as they seemed in the first weeks of ownership. As I consider these questions myself, I hope to advise those of you who are considering buying this camera now, given that I now have hindsight of nearly a year’s use of the M10. So the question is: Am I still in love with the Leica M10? Read on to find out
I believe that any camera’s success hinges on it’s ability to inspire regular use. Essentially, once the honeymoon’s over, do you still get along? I am excited to say that the Leica M10 has been a fantastic photographic partner for my creative vision over the past many months. It’s comfortable to handle and hold. It’s responsive in real world use. Its small, incremental updates developed for the camera, add up to make the evolution of the digital rangefinder revolutionary. The M10 has a lot of things going for it, and while there is room for improvement, here are some of the highlights that may lend it to being the last digital rangefinder camera you may ever wish to purchase:
• Great looks. The M10 looks the part, harkening back to film M’s in design. Other than being a tad heavier than the film M’s of yester-year, the M10 maintains the svelte body type of the film M’s, making the feel very familiar to nearly all M shooters. To me, the M10 feels, handles, and looks very much like the Leica M7, in particular, though I would imagine that we’d see several cosmetic variations as the camera moves through its lifecycle. I find the camera to be particularly “well dressed” using the accessory Leicavit grip a Thumbs-Up Grip (either Match Technical’s or Leica’s own designs). Great looks translate into fantastic ergonomics, and in my opinion, the Leica M10 is the best handling of Leica’s digital rangefinders.
• Improved function: With the addition of the ISO dial on the body’s upper chassis, The Leica M10 now features all key photographic parameters readily accessible to the photographer in an ergonomic, efficient package. M10 users now have near-immediate access to ISO, shutter speed, focus, and aperture for ultimate control over imaging parameter. The rear thumb wheel can be set to adjust exposure compensation, making the M10 a near perfect tool for manual photography.
• Improved sensor performance. The Leica M10’s sensor performs very well, enough to complete with top of the line sensors from other companies. Leica has not announced from whom they source the sensors, other than to note that the M10’s sensor was designed for the unique needs of rangefinder lenses, whose handling of light necessitates the employment of micro-lenses to preserve edge performance.
Paired with Legendary glass, the Leica M10’s sensor really shines, and in my experience, the images produced are a step above the output from the Leica SL and Q. The sensor’s color and white balance algorithms seem more mature, rendering a more neutral, yet natural image, with better handling of skin tones than prior digital Leica cameras. ISO and aspects of dynamic range are dramatically improved, while banding at high ISO is notably reduced, making the camera a far more flexible tool in low light and opening up opportunities for using f/2 through f/2.8 aperture lenses in extreme low-light settings previously reserved for Summilux (f/1.4) lenses.
• Updated menu system: Leica took their menu system from the M240 and scrapped it in favor of a more simplistic, elegant 1-option menu system that allows for customizability, so that the photographer’s most used menu items are customizable to the main menu. While a subtle change, a useful one nonetheless
• Viewfinder. It turns out that Leica’s claim that the M10 is an easier camera to nail focus hinges on its larger viewfinder, which provides better eye relief. For eyeglass wearers like me, this is a notable improvement in terms of function and can make going back to the M9 and M240 surprisingly frustrating. The viewfinder is lovely and for those of us with aging eyes, this change is most welcome!
• Color signature of the files. To many, the Leica M10 offers much improved white balance, and hence, a more comfortable color signature. I have stuggled with defining the “Leica Look” or “Leica colors” in the past, but I always feel that images I make with my Leica’s possess a unique look. The Leica M10 possesses its own color signature that’s different than the M9 or M240. Some of you will like what you see, while others of you may struggle with these subtle changes. For those of you in love with the CCD-rendering of the M8 and M9 cameras, you will be pleased that your cameras will continue to produce a unique color signature that’s not been clearly reproduced in today’s modern digital rangefinder. However, the combination of the sensor’s spectral sensitivity and the M10’s white balance algorithms makes the M10 more appealing in shooting people and places. Colors seem punchy and more accurate, and while different, I cannot earnestly say that it’s better or worse. Color accuracy is often in the eye of the beholder, but in my opinion, the M10 handles challenging colors very well.
• Improved LCD and EVF. In today’s digital world, Leica must be able to offer a reasonable rear LCD for image review. With the M240 and M10, they definitely upped their game over the dated LCD’s of the M9 and M8. The Leica M240’s optional external viewfinder (EVF) left much to be desired from the day of its relief. It’s lower pixel count and poor refresh rate hobbled it from the outset, and was not an elegant solution for an otherwise elegant camera. The Leica M10 employs the same EVF (Visoflex) that can be used on the TL series cameras. While the EVF cannot compete with the Leica SL’s viewfinder (drats!!!!), it’s plenty sufficient for times when an EVF is beneficial as a focus aid and is on par with many of Sony’s current generation EVF’s.
• That 3D pop. This is a tough one, but I’ll put it out there. Many people felt that the Leica M9 had a unique 3D pop that went missing with the Leica M240. This comment is sure to incite debate and criticism, but many have noted this. Dynamic range improvements of the M240 were at times “blamed” for this phenomenon, and yet here were are, with the M10, with supposedly improved DR over the M240, and the M10’s sensor is capable of delivering substantial pop.
We rangefinder photographers value two things: Usability and image quality. If a camera does not embrace both, then something seems lacking. The M10’s image quality is vibrant, with pizzazz, akin to its design, which emphasizes the strengths of the rangefinder method while getting out of the way of the photographer. Similarly, the Leica M10’s image quality, color reproduction, and pop are all abundantly pleasing, providing the M10 user with a pleasing image to work with once home.
Much of what I have written has already been said but these factors to matter for those weighing the challenging decision of whether to invest in such a camera. To me, the Leica M10’s improvements remain obvious even months after use. In fact, as a former M9 devotee, I can earnestly say that I no longer wish for a re-born M9/CCD camera.
Up to now, I have focused on the positive features and experiences that the Leica M10 offers. But not all that glitters is gold. After nearly a year of daily use, what are the negatives? Where does the Leica M10 fail to live up to its hype?
• Hobbled Highlights: The biggest negative, for me, is the camera’s capacity to blow highlights. This seems more pronounced to me for the M10, than for its digital predecessors (M9 and M24), and one must take care to under exposed by a 1/3 stop and adjust in post processing to insure that you are not losing highlight details in high contrast/poorly lit situations. The M10 files, oddly enough, handle a lot like Leica M Monochrom files. IF you take care to underexpose to save highlights, you will be duly rewarded with images that provide ample dynamic range and editing wiggle room.
• Megapixel count. One may look at this as a pro or a con. For the vast majority of photographers, a file generated from a 24 MP sensor will suffice to make large prints. In fact, when megapixel counts exceed this count, it becomes increasingly challenging for the photographer to achieve critical focus, as increased pixel density requires substantial technical prowess (steady hands, reduced shutter shock, etc). For every tremor of the hand or shutter vibrate, image quality degrades. For this reason, many photographers who have gradually upgraded to higher megapixel sensors have found it increasingly difficult to produce pixel-sharp images. Some camera companies, such as Sony, Nikon, and Canon, have begun to use in-lens or in-body image stabilization mechanisms to counteract this image degradation. Leica has not done this, preferring to manage expectations with a 24 MP sensor. Yet for many, 24 MP is boring, in a world where high-end cameras sport 35-50 MP sensors. How you feel about this is a highly individual matter.
• Camera Defects. Like many early releases from Leica, many of the M10’s were fraught with issues. The most recent issue reported widely has been de-coupling of the camera’s ISO dial, rendering the ISO non-changeable for some users. I unfortunately had to return 2 cameras due to a faulty orientation sensor (causing images to orient incorrectly once downloaded to my computer) and a defective shutter. Thankfully, the good folks at the Leica Store Bellevue came to the rescue, with incredible customer service, and replaced both cameras rapidly. In summary, it’s good to have a Local Leica vendor nearby; your best bet is an authorized Leica dealer (be it a independent online retailer such as Ken Hansen, Popflash, B&H) or local boutique/dealer. Protect yourself. From all that I have read, most Leica M10’s being delivered have been perfectly functional, so take my criticism with a grain of salt.
• Overheating. To date, extensive use of the Visoflex EVF will cause the camera to become hot, and in some instances, drains battery life or introduces issues such as freezing. If you heavily use the EVF, make sure to have a spare battery or two. Speaking of batteries….
• Lower Battery Capacity: The Leica M10’s new battery has a lower capacity than the M240 battery. The physically smaller battery was necessary to shrink the camera dimensions to film size, and thus a lower capacity battery was chosen. That being said, the M10’s battery is sufficient for most needs. I have gotten over 700 images from a single charge during continuous use by avoiding using the EVF while only occasionally using the rear LCD. IF you are a high volume shooter, expect to purchase a second battery to have on hand for your M10…just in case.
• The Competition: Well guess, what? There are more kids playing in the sandbox these days…what do I mean? Whereas Leica used to be the only compact full frame camera, ideal for street and travel work, many more companies have joined the fray to occupy this space. Sony delivers compact full frame cameras at a much lower price point. Fuji, Olympus, and Panasonic offer wonderful crop-sensor compact, mirrorless, interchangeable options that fill the price gap and size cap between compact cameras and SLR. And guess what, cell phones are competition too. Today’s cameras imploy increasingly sophisticated lenses (dual lenses), sensors, and image processing algorithms that allow them to compete, at first glance, with today’s high-end cameras, and few would argue that cellphones are today’s most convenient cameras.
Truth be told, the Leica M10 has no peer. While the competition seems obvious on the surface, the truth is that for those devoted to rangefinder-style photography, the Leica M10 has no peer. It’s built to a specification unmatched by any digital 35 mm format camera. Unless you prefer to shoot film, the Leica M10 is the best digital rangefinder ever made and it’s held up to my daily use and scrutiny for nearly one year. It’s a trusted companion as I make my journey through life. It’s an elegant partner that simply gets out of the way of making a great image while simultaneously engendering an immense pride of ownership. Should you choose to buy an M10, you will be rewarded. I have not come across many (? any) unhappy M10 users. For those of us who enjoy ultimate manual control over composing your images, the Leica M10 is peerless. The decision should be simple for those of you considering buying the Leica M1… Just Do It!
All the best to you as you find your own photographic journey, and I hope to see you down the road, Leica in your hand and a smile on your face, having just captured that decisive moment!