TEN OUT OF TEN
More of the traditional stuff on the outside, less of the contemporary stuff on the inside – the M10 is designed to be more like the classic 35mm film models, so does that compromise how it works as a modern digital camera?
ever since Leica ventured down the ‘digital M’ route, the challenge has been balancing the new with the old. The M is Leica. It’s the signature dish and the company has vowed that there will always be an M model in its line-up… which has been the case since 1954. The original M3 wrote the rule book for the 35mm rangefinder camera and there was little need to make too many changes until digital capture came along. Since then it’s been a case of trying to work out how much classical RF camera to retain and how much digital imaging technology to adopt. As the series of models since the M8 was introduced in late 2006 attest, it’s not an easy mix to get exactly right.
A big issue is managing consumer expectations. Some want a steadfastly conservative approach while some want Leica to cut loose and do a full-blown mirrorless design, perhaps even with a hybrid OVF/EVF like Fujifilm’s X-Pro2.
It could be argued that Leica is already catering for the conservatives with the paredback M-D, but for many this model is just a bit too Spartan while, at the other end of the scale, neither the SL nor the TL have enough rangefinder DNA to be considered by the more progressive M aficionado. In truth, there is probably still room for a Leica ‘X-Pro2’, but for now what the M10 represents is a more considered mixing of the key elements of the classical and the contemporary… a more practical interpretation of the company’s ethos of Das Wesentliche which translates as ‘The Essential’.
Leica says that the M-D represents “state-of-the-art digital rangefinder photography in its purest form”, but in many ways – and for many more potential users – the M10 is the purer manifestation of the state-of-theart… without compromising any aspect of Das Wesentliche.
THE NUMBER IS UP
Firstly, there’s a return to the traditional model numbering, dropping the ‘Typ’ factory designations which were always going to end in confusion. Inevitably, the M Typ 240 – originally expected to be the M10 back in 2012 – became the M240 in journalistic shorthand so we were right back where we’d left off with the M9… just entirely out of any meaningful sequence.
Leica’s original objective with the Typ numbers was to cover the various spin-offs from the main model such as the M Typ 262, but then the spin-off from the spinoff, the M-D, was also called the Typ 262. And the M-P is also a Typ 240 because it’s essentially an M240 minus any badging. Sooo… moving right along.
At a rough guess, the M10 is really the M11 or perhaps the M12 since it’s more a direct descendent of the no-video-please M262. But it really doesn’t matter… what’s important is that Leica is still building a classic rangefinder camera with its roots firmly back in 1954 with the original 35mm M3 (which, incidentally, came before the M2 and M1, but that’s another story), but under the skin is also utilising all the essentials of contemporary digital capture. In other words, everything that, if we’re being entirely honest with ourselves, is everything we actually need.
It may look like the previous M digital models – which isn’t entirely surprising, really – but the M10 is actually quite a lot different, both externally and internally. The bodyshell is still diecast magnesium alloy with brass top and bottom plates – so it exudes that wonderful feeling of both ruggedness and refinement – but it’s slimmer and lighter. In fact, size wise, the M10 is more like the 35mm M7 – still going strong, by the way – than the M240 and this, according to Leica, represents the “dream dimensions”. It’s really only a matter of millimetres, but surprisingly it does make a difference… the other digital M models do look a bit pudgy in comparison – the proportions aren’t quite right – and the M10 just seems to fit a bit more comfortably into the hand. This was always an endearing characteristic of the later 35mm models, rendering a handgrip redundant.
In a crossover between the old and the new, the baseplate fully detaches to access the battery compartment and memory card slot, just as it does on the film cameras. Leica used this configuration – rather than a conventional hinged camera back – because it helped preserve the bodyshell’s structural integrity and while this is obviously less of an issue with a digital camera, it’s a nice classical touch. Of course, it’s not so nice if there’s a need to swap memory cards when the camera is mounted on a tripod. As much as is possible with this body design, there’s reasonable protection against the intrusion of either moisture or dust, but the M10 isn’t fully weather-sealed. Of course, it helps that there are no apertures for built-in microphones or any connections of any sort (except for screwing a cable release into the shutter button).
Still on matters ‘analog’, the M10 also has a revised viewfinder design with the field-of-view increased by 30 percent, the eyepoint by 50 percent and the magnification upped to 0.73x.
The Leica viewfinder still has to be a major reason for buying an M – which, incidentally stands for messucher, the German word for a combined viewfinder and rangefinder – and, ironically, here optical continues to be much superior to electronic. This is not so much about image quality, but the fact that this viewfinder gives a bigger view than just 100 percent so what’s happening outside the frame can be seen… which is very helpful for gauging exactly when it’s all going to come together inside the frame. This has always been the historical attraction of the rangefinder camera over a reflex, and it remains so now.
Good though the latest EVF’s are – including the one in Leica’s own SL – nothing beats the beauty of an M finder… and the M10’s bigger and brighter view is even better. As always, it provides automatic parallax correction and has three sets of LED brightline frame pairs which activate when the lens is fitted – 35mm and 135mm, 28mm and 90mm, and 50mm and 70mm. A lever on the front panel – which allows for the brightline pairs to be previewed – makes a re-appearance on the M10, having been deleted from the M240 and M262.
Focusing – manual, of course – is assisted by a double-image
THE M10 IS VERY MUCH A CAMERA TO HAVE A RELATIONSHIP WITH BECAUSE ITS OPERATION IS SO MUCH MORE INVOLVING AND, SUBSEQUENTLY, SO MUCH MORE REWARDING.
rangefinder which has an effective base length of 50.6 mm. In RF camera terms, the longer the base length, the easier it is to focus precisely… and 50.6 mm is comparatively long, allowing for greater precision.
The M10 also sticks with tradition when it comes to exposure control which is based on centre-weighted metering. The focal plane shutter assembly is new (because it needed to be more compact), but still retains a top speed of 1/4000 second. There’s the choice of either aperture-priority auto or manual modes, the former supplemented by an AE lock, compensation over a range of +/-3.0 EV and auto bracketing.
Completely new to a digital M model is the appearance of an ISO dial, located on the top panel where the film camera’s rewind crank is usually sited. Yes, it’s a bit of a surprise that Leica has taken this long to introduce a pretty traditional control, but its reasoning is the same that of Fujifilm’s (which has provided ISO dials from year dot)… now the M10 can be flown virtually entirely via its external controls without going near the menus. This really is as close to the classic camera experience that’s possible without actually shooting film.
EXTRACTING THE DIGITAL
Yet, the M10 also makes the most of its digital-era design. It may not be able to record video – a pretty sensible move, given the inherent limitations – but it still has live view to the monitor screen and with this comes additional features such as multi-zone or spot metering and a moveable magnifying ‘loupe’ for assessing focus or a focus peaking display.
The sensor is a full-35mm format CMOS with an effective pixel count of 24 million and no optical low-pass filter, but it’s not the same device used in the M240 or the later Q. According to Leica, it has “a unique pixel and microlens structure” in order to handle larger-aperture lenses… of which there are quite a few in the Leica M System. The sensor is mated with Leica’s latest-generation ‘Maestro II’ processor and a much larger 2.0 GB buffer memory with the result that the M10 can shoot at up 5.0 fps for bursts of up to 40 maximum quality JPEGs. The native sensitivity range is equivalent to ISO 100 to 6400 and all these settings are available on the new dial which also has ‘A’ and ‘M’ positions. The former is self-explanatory while the latter accesses the expansion settings which range from ISO 8000 to 50,000 and are set via a sub-menu. A sensitivity setting can then be assigned to the ‘M’ position and the dial is locked by pushing it down. A red band shows when the ISO dial is in the unlocked position. Usefully, the Auto ISO can be configured to ‘Maximum Exposure Time’ which can be manually set (between ½ and 1/500 second) or left to the camera, based on a specified aperture.
RAW files are captured with 14-bit RGB colour in the Adobe DNG format at 5976x3992 pixels and JPEGs in one of three sizes and two compression levels. RAW+JPEG capture is also available, and uses the existing JPEG size and quality settings.
The monitor screen is a fixed TFT LCD panel – now in the 3:2 aspect ratio and with a resolution of 1.036 megadots. It’s protected by a scratch-resistant Corning ‘Gorilla’ glass faceplate and adjustable for brightness.
Alongside is a pared-down selection of buttons… in fact, just three for live view, playback and the menus. Pressing this third button initially brings up a shortened ‘Favourites’ menu which can be configured with up to seven frequently-used functions so they’re all on one page.
The main menu is a bit more extensive, but not by all that much given the keep-it-real design philosophy… or what Leica terms a “leaner operating concept”. Menu navigation is via a four-way keypad with a central ‘Enter’ button which otherwise accesses a comprehensive ‘Info’ screen covering all capture-related settings plus other useful details such as the remaining battery life (expressed as a percentage of full) and the memory card capacity (expressed as free space in gigabytes).
The frills are minimal, but do run to an intervalometer, picture adjustments for JPEGs (colour saturation, sharpness and contrast), monochrome capture and two delay times for the self-timer. The auto exposure bracketing can be set to sequences of either three or five frames with up to +/-3.0 EV variation per frame. The white balance control options comprise auto correction supplemented by seven presets, one custom measurement and manual colour temperature control… over a range of 2000 to 13,100 degrees Kelvin which is commendably wider at the top end than is usually provided.
The live view capability adds the features mentioned earlier and also an exposure simulation display. Also available is a real-time histogram, highlight and shadow warnings (adjustable for the lower and upper thresholds), a grid guide (either 3x3 or 6x4) and a selection of read-outs and indicators.
The focusing assistance magnifier can be set to the centre of the frame or moved around as required. The focus peaking display has a choice of four colours. There’s no level indicator, but otherwise the live view mode has everything that’s needed and, of course, provides the M10’s digital camera experience. An optional EVF is available to make use of live view via a viewfinder and it’s a new Visoflex unit with 2.4 megadots resolution and a built-in GPS receiver. Add-on EVFs always seem a bit of an afterthought and are generally a bit awkward to use when perched atop the hotshoe. The M10 is essentially designed to be used as a rangefinder camera with some additional assistance from live view so it’s hard to see an accessory EVF bringing much to the party… especially as the optical finder is such a delight. However, the ability to remotely control the camera via its built-in WiFi – for the first time on a digital M – and Leica’s M-App running on a mobile device is a much more useful piece of current technology.
With the return to an even more film-like external design and controllability, combined with a distilling down of the digital capture capabilities, the M10 could so easily have been little more than an exercise in design selfindulgence. But Leica knows what it’s doing here and the balance is nothing short of inspired… it makes so much sense to amp up what has made the M such an enduring design while avoiding too much digital dilution, but ensuring the key ingredients are still all there to deliver the necessary capabilities and performance. Like the instantly lovable Q, the M10 is seductive in its looks and feel, but then also delightfully refreshing in its purity of purpose. It’s amazing how relaxing it is, not to be constantly wondering about whether to use one function or another and becoming so tied up in the camera work that the subject is a secondary consideration. The M10 is there to help, but it’s certainly not going to do everything so the relationship between camera and photographer is reset. And this is very much a camera to have a relationship with because its operation is so much more involving and, subsequently, so much more rewarding.
SPEED AND PERFORMANCE
With our reference memory card – Lexar’s Professional 2000x 128 GB SDXC UHS-II/U3 speed device – loaded, the M10 captured a burst of 35 JPEG/large/fine frames in 7.155 seconds which represents a continuous shooting speed of 4.89 fps. This is pretty close the quoted maximum speed, and it’s worth noting here how quickly the buffer emptied so the camera was ready to go again almost immediately. The test file sizes were around 10.5 MB on average.
The new sensor and processor deliver a number of imaging performance benefits, most notably a wider dynamic range, but also enhanced definition with the excellent resolving of fine details. There are, of course, quite a few full-35mm 24 megapixels sensors currently at work in both D-SLRs and mirrorless cameras, and the M10’s is up with the best. The colour fidelity is excellent across the spectrum and pleasingly saturated without the need for any in-camera (or, for that matter, post-camera) tweaking. While the centre-weighted average metering proves to be fairly reliable in many situations, there’s a greater reliance on exposure compensation to deal with backlighting or excessive contrast. Fortunately, this can be assigned to the rear thumbwheel and is then very easily dialled up or down… assisted by a huge scale in the info display. It’s back to the good old days of thinking more carefully about exposure control averaging to an 18 percent grey tone. Of course, there’s always auto bracketing as insurance. In practice, a small amount of underexposure is desirable to maintain some tonality in the brighter highlights.
Noise is very well managed all the way up to ISO 6400 with both the colour saturation and the detailing holding together extremely well. This means every setting on the new ISO dial is useable which, incidentally, was never really the case with the film cameras. The extension settings exhibit progressive deterioration as the noise reduction processing becomes more aggressive, but ISO 12,800 is still useable in terms of both colour and contrast with only minimal graininess (which is quite finely structured and so actually looks pretty good in B&W).
There’s always been a Leica ‘look’ which is largely attributable
THE DEPTH REDUCTION IS REALLY ONLY A MATTER OF MILLIMETRES, BUT SURPRISINGLY IT DOES MAKE A DIFFERENCE… THE OTHER DIGITAL M MODELS LOOK A BIT PUDGY IN COMPARISON.
to the contrast characteristics of the M lenses which give real depth and clarity to an image. It’s been a bit lost in translation with digital capture, but the M10 returns to some of those distinctly Leicaesque pictorial qualities.
One question to be asked is whether there’s enough Leica satisfaction to be had from the fixedlens Q with its wider embrace of modernity (such as autofocusing and touchscreen controls) and, more significantly, far greater affordability. The Q certainly convincingly replicates the M experience, but interchangeable lenses are a big part of the Leica RF deal, especially in terms of accessing wider angles and larger maximum apertures. Nevertheless, anybody who thinks they’d be largely be satisfied with a 28mm at f1.7 needs to take a close look at the Q before moving on to the M10.
The tactile appeal of a German-made Leica is unique – even the ultra-modern TL has it – but it’s more to do with substance than style. And it’s because these cameras are built to be used. What’s more, used on the understanding that the photographer is the most important part of the picturemaking process, and the camera merely a tool… albeit a very fine one. The M10 embodies this approach better than any previous digital M model because it achieves an inspired harmony between all the classical attributes and the necessary contemporary capabilities. Who would have thought that going backwards would represent such an important step forward? It gives the M10 a much stronger identity as a Leica camera and, as a result, greatly enhances its attraction. The M9 and M240 were still excellent cameras, but something was Not Quite Right Leica-wise. With the M10 everything is very right indeed.
THE LEICA VIEWFINDER STILL HAS TO BE A MAJOR REASON FOR BUYING AN M AND, IRONICALLY, HERE OPTICAL CONTINUES TO BE MUCH SUPERIOR TO ELECTRONIC.
Iconic viewfinder is made better in the M10 – with the field-of-view increased by 30 percent, the eyepoint by 50 percent and the magnification to 0.73x. Keep it simple… rear control buttons kept to a minimum Menu layout is clean and crisp. Baseplate completely detaches as on all the film cameras… a nice historical touch, but not all that practical in the digital era. Rear panel layout has been simplified down to just three buttons, navigator keypad and a thumbwheel… it’s all that’s needed.
New ISO dial – digital M models haven’t had one before – makes for quick and easy setting of sensitivity. ‘M’ position provides access to the expansion settings. Shutter speed dial is marked down to eight seconds. ‘B’ setting accesses slower speeds down to 125 seconds. The magic of the messucher is behind this little window. Leica’s legendary combined viewfinderand-rangefinder may be olde worlde, but it makes manual focusing a breeze.
Info display screen includes useful indicators of the remaining battery power and memory card space. Extra-large exposure compensation scale is hard to miss.
Image review screen includes a brightness histogram and key capture settings, including the exposure compensation setting.
Favourites menu can be customised to contain the most frequently used functions on one page.
Look closely… it’s what you can’t see that differentiates the M10 from its digital M predecessors, namely a slimmer and lighter weight bodyshell. Dimensions are now very similar to those of the 35mm M7.