Friday, October 30

Chasing the legend: hands-on review of the new Leica M10-R on Chillout-TGIFridays

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We got our hands on the latest in the long line of M cameras from Leica. The Leica M is legendary. First introduced in 1954 as the M3, the family has an illustrious history. This is the latest member of the family – the M10-R.

The Leica M10-R with the Summilux-M 35 and Summilux -M 50 with the Elpro52 were kind loaners from Leica Singapore. 

Leica M10-R with Summilux-M 35.

The Leica M Legend

The Leica M is a special series of cameras dating back from 1954, designed by as a compact camera system. The first in the series was the Leica M3. The ‘M’ stands for Messsucher or rangefinder in German.

The film years

The first M camera was the M3, produced from 1954 till 1966. It featured a bayonet mount which provided a more secure fit and the ability to change lenses faster than the M39 screw mount it replaced. The M mount is still in use today, and the latest cameras like the M10-R can use the entire range of lenses from 1954 without any modifications.

The M3 was innovative for the use of a single window as a viewfinder for composition and a rangefinder for focussing. The camera uses 135 film (35mm film stock which Leica had earlier adapted from the movie industry and used it in the Leica I in 1925. The M3 is highly collectible, a 2019 sale of a prototype was auctioned for €72,000!

The Leica M3 with Summicron-M 50mm. Photo: WikiCommons.The M3 was succeeded by various other M cameras. Curiously, Leica never used a sequential numbering system, as the M2 (1957) and later the M1 (1959) followed. The series continued with the M4, then M5 and M6 with the M7 being the last film cameras. The digital era then followed with the M8 in 2006.

These cameras were legendary as they were used by very famous photographers like Henri-Cartier Bresson. The M6 was also the camera of choice for war correspondents covering the conflicts.

The digital era

The M8 was introduced in 2006 and featured a 10Mp APS-C CCD sensor. The M8 was followed by the M9, which is the world’s first full frame digital camera in 2009. It had an 18Mp CCD sensor and was replaced by the M Type 240 (during the phase when Leica named its models with a Type number). The Type 240 had a 24Mp CMOS sensor, the first Leica to feature that. And finally the M10 in 2017 with a CMOS sensor with 24Mp resolution.

Leica M8, the first digital camera by Leica.

And the M10-R, the subject of our review, was introduced in August 2020, is equipped with a 40Mp CMOS sensor.

Leica made other special cameras as well, The M Type 220 was the entry level camera in 2012, and was succeeded by the Type 262 (2015 – 2019) and the Type 240. They also made a monochrome model starting in 2012 with the M Monochrome in 2012 with a 18Mp CCD sensor, and the M Type 246 in 2015 with a 24Mp CMOS sensor to the current M10 Monochrom released in January 2020 with a 40Mp CMOS sensor.

Curiously, Leica also made a series of M cameras without a back LCD, called the M-D Type 262 in 2016, succeeded by the M10-D in 2018, both with 24Mp CMOS sensors.

The Leica M10-R – the latest in the line

Part 1 – introduction to the M10-R

From this long line of cameras, spanning almost 70 years, comes the M10-R. The latest and most spectacular of the lot. It is packed with full modern features, but also retains the original look of the Leica M. The camera is totally manual, and does not have any video capability. The focusing system is completely manual, with the camera providing assistance with focus peaking when used with Live View mode.

The system we had as our daily camera: Leica M10-R with the Summilux-M 50mm and Elpro52 mounted, and the Summilux-M 35.

The camera retains the Rangefinder system, as can be seen in the photograph below, the window on the left is the rangefinder window, and the one on the right is the viewfinder. To focus, one looks through the viewfinder, which remains bright and clear all the time. Superimposed on the viewfinder is the image from the rangefinder, which is reflected by the rangefinder mechanism. The operator then moves the focus until both images coincide. At this point, the lens is in focus.

The full frame CMOS sensor on the M10-R, now with 40Mp.

The new 40Mp sensor is quire magnificent. The origins of the sensor is not specified by Leica, but it is the same one used in the M10-Monochrom released earlier this year. The M10 Monochrom also features a 40Mp sensor, but is monochrome as it omits the use of a Bayer filter to allow the three primary colours of Red, Blue and Green to be individually recorded. The M10-R is equipped with this Bayer sensor, and thus is able to capture colour information.

As with the Monochrom, ISO performance of the new M10-R is excellent. Not quite the 16-bit image dynamic range of medium format sensors, but the sensor has a 14-bit resolution, and is plenty sufficient. At 40Mp, it is large enough to allow large prints without sacrificing image quality.

Body Ergonomics

The body is classic M, carrying over the lines of the original M3 almost perfectly. The shape is brick like with rounded ends, and made of three plates, a top plate with the rangefinder and controls, a middle plate concealing the sensor and electronics (used to be the film chamber), and a bottom plate. This shape has been retained since the film M bodies. Operationally, it is also very similar to the film cameras.

In use, it is very compact, though is not ultra light. The body alone weighs 660g, but most of the weight is concentrated on the brick like design. The lack of a hand grip makes the body feel rather heavy. A grip is available, but is a separately purchased accessory (S$ 520). The M10-R retains the stealth superpowers of all the other M cameras. Small, unobtrusive, and does not look like a huge professional camera. And is particularly suited for street photography. The shutter is also very quiet in operations, no doubt also aided by the lack of a mirror.

I used the M10-R as a macro camera for shooting watches as well, and with the ELPRO-52, a ultra high quality magnifying glass screwed on to the lens, provides more than 1X magnification on the Summarit-M 50 and even more on the Summarit-M 35. I will describe how this is achieved in next week’s article.

Access to the battery compartment and the SD card is by removing the entire bottom plate of the camera. This system is in use since the first M3 when opening the plate gives one access to the film carriage system to load the film. Leica has chosen to keep with tradition by retaining this system. A great nod to history, but I found it to be quite inconvenient to use. If one attaches a tripod plate to the bottom plate, this has to be removed every time the SD card needs to be accessed to download the photographs, and to swap batteries.

Battery life is quite decent, and I can get through most days with just one battery.

The M Lens Ecosystem

The lens ecosystem is amazing. Any lens made by Leica (or third parties, for that matter) for the M system can be used without any modifications. This includes those manufactured even from the earliest years right back to 1954. However, time has not stood still for Leica, as they have continuously sought to improve their lens design over the years. The introduction of lens coatings, and with the invention of Aspherical and Apochromatic lens elements are three examples which have improved image quality of M lenses by leaps and bounds. The latest lenses are technically superior, but we must also note that some of the old designs are still very attractive as they have an aesthetic which is rather unique with a strong character so loved by Leicaphiles.

Leica names their lenses according to the widest aperture. Starting with the Noctilux (apertures between f.0.95 and f/1.25), Summilux (f/1.4), Summicron (f/2), Summarit (f/2.5), Summaron (not identified by the aperture, but rather the ultra compact pancake design), Elmarit (f/2.8), Elmar (traditionally f/4.0 lenses but the range has now expanded to encompass lenses ranging from f/2.8 to f/4.0)

Our two loaner samples were the Summilux-M 50mm f/1.4 ASPH and the Summilux-M 35mm f/1.4 ASPH, as well as an ELPRO 52 for macro use.

The entire M range of lenses are extremely compact. And Leica has introduced many special editions, some of which are very rare, and have fetched incredible prices at auctions. But the mainstay of M lenses are the aluminium barrel lenses in either anodized silver or black. An example of this kind of lens is the Summilux-M 35mm we had on loan which is aluminium with a black anodized finish. The Summilux-M 50mm we had on our loaner is a premium edition in brass, and in an anodized silver finish.

Build quality of the lenses is exceptional. The most useful adjective to describe them is jewel like. Finishing is superb, and up to the task when compared to watches at haute horlogerie levels. The operation of the lenses are exceptional as well. The focus ring moves smoothly, with a very measured resistance. A joy to operate. The aperture ring is also beautifully weighted, each click feels very positive and very satisfying to engage.

Image quality from the lenses are superb, though technically, not at the level of the new Summicron-SL series (see our review of the Leica SL2 for a brief discussion and image samples from these amazing lenses). The new SL Summicrons are perhaps the most perfect lenses Leica has ever made, and possibly by extension the best lenses anyone have ever made. The Summarit-Ms, however are not as technically perfect, but have a different character. One is quite difficult to explain, but what Leicaphiles describe as the ‘Leica glow”. The rendition of out of focus areas (bokeh) is unique. The colours and contrasts are handled superbly, and have this special glow.

Summary

The Leica M-10R is not an inexpensive camera system. Current retail price of the body alone is S$12,470 and is available in either a silver chrome finish or a black chrome finish of our review sample. The Summilux-M 35 is S$8,140 in black anodized finish as reviewed, and the Summilux-M50 is S$6,400 in silver. The Elpro 52 adds a further S$ 600 to the total.

Full specifications here.

Continued on Part 2 with image samples and discussion of capabilities

 

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