If you don't follow Leica M cameras closely, it might be hard to understand what the fuss over the M10 is about. But for those who do, the new camera represents a big step forward.
There are other models in the Leica portfolio to take care of cutting-edge technical innovation, and the Leica M has a different role. Here, Leica's aim is to balance the long tradition of its M-series cameras with the needs of today's photographers.
People buy Leica Ms because of what they are, and they don't want things changed – so every new feature in the M10 is designed to make it better at what it already is, not to turn it into a different kind of camera. And for its $6,495 (£5,599, AU$9,699) price tag, the Leica M10 caters to a very niche audience.
Given that Leica is committed to keeping the design and function unchanged, it's perhaps no surprise to find the M10 looks – superficially – just like the Leica M, the M-P, and even the M9, launched eight years ago. It’s still a full frame rangefinder camera with interchangeable lenses and a 24-megapixel sensor.
But there are differences, and in the context of the Leica M range, they're big ones.
- New sensor, still 24MP
First, there's the size. Digital Leica Ms have always had a slightly fatter body than their older film counterparts. Not any more. The M10 now has exactly the same dimensions as the film version, and even though the difference is just a few millimetres, you can feel it in the hand.
Second, there's the viewfinder – it now offers a field of view 30% larger, and the eye relief is increased by 50%. With the bigger viewfinder image, you don't have to hold the camera so close to your eye, and that's especially good news for spectacles wearers.
On top, the most obvious difference is a new ISO dial at the left end of the top plate. This means you can now adjust the focus and all the exposure parameters – shutter speed, aperture and ISO – without opening a menu and, indeed, without even switching on the camera.
Inside, the resolution stays the same at 24MP, but the sensor has been redeveloped for this model and is matched up with Leica's Maestro II processor. This combination delivers an increased sensitivity range of ISO100-50,000 and a continuous shooting speed of 5fps.
There's no low-pass filter over the sensor, so that's good news for fine detail rendition. There's no image stabilisation, though, either in the body or the Leica M lenses, and no in-built dust reduction system. Leica does say, however, that it has increased the distance between the sensor surface and its glass cover, which will put any dust spots further from the sensor plane and should reduce their visibility.
What the M10 does have, however, is Wi-Fi. This works alongside an iOS Leica-M app for iPhone and iPad users (no mention of Android yet), which offers wireless image transfer and remote camera control.
That's not all. If you're shooting a subject that needs pin-point focus and compositional accuracy, there's an optional clip-on Visoflex electronic viewfinder, with a 2,400k-dot resolution and – interestingly – GPS built in.
Build and handling
- Marginally but noticeably slimmer body
- Increased viewfinder size
You can feel the slimmer body when you handle the M10, and it's a small but welcome improvement. Taking a step back, this is actually a considerable technical achievement: this is a full frame interchangeable lens camera that's no larger than its 35mm film-based ancestor.
The increased viewfinder size is immediately apparent, too, and the higher magnification makes the M10 more comfortable to use. The rangefinder focusing method hasn't changed, but the improved viewfinder makes it just that little bit easier to use.
There's a definite knack to this. To start with you do tend to focus to and fro a little to convince yourself you've found the right focus point. This is a camera you have to learn, and you also have to learn to trust your hand-eye co-ordination to go straight to the right focus distance without constantly checking and re-checking.
The ISO dial is smaller than the others, and to change the setting you have to lift it against pretty strong spring pressure, but that's not a problem – Leica clearly regards ISO changes as deliberate and relatively infrequent decisions, not something you keep changing from one shot to the next.
Round the back, the simplified three button control layout is refreshing, and after the complexity of a DSLR it's actually quite unnerving to pick up a camera and shoot without any distractions from the camera itself.
Holding the M10 vertically for portrait shots is not quite so straightforward – you may have to carefully adjust your grip so that your thumb doesn't cover the viewfinder.
- Accurate focusing
- Excellent image quality
- Simultaneously JPEG and raw capture
The Leica M viewfinder doesn't show the view through the lens, and its angle of view doesn't change when you change lenses. Instead, you use brightline frames in the viewfinder corresponding to the lens in use. In our short time with the camera this proved pretty accurate, and there were no unpleasant surprises and cut-off subjects when we checked our images afterwards.
Focusing is surprisingly accurate. In fact the only focus errors were ours, and whenever there was time to focus carefully, the results were spot on.
Leica experts also suggested shooting with manual focus bracketing, which has you take a series of shots with tiny adjustments. That sounds like a bit of a drag, but there's always the optional Visoflex EVF for precise work.
The picture quality looks impressive. We were restricted to a single shooting scenario, a special scene set up for visiting photographers at the Leica press event, but even at ISO3200 the M10's detail rendition, contrast and colour look excellent.
The M10 shoots JPEGs and DNG files simultaneously, so it was interesting to compare the results. The JPEGs have a little more contrast and clarity, but the DNG files, opened in Adobe Camera Raw, had a smoother texture and subtler, finer detail.
The tone and colour differences between the two were minimal, though, which is nice to see – often, Adobe Camera Raw delivers a very different rendition of an image to the camera's.
The Leica M is never going to be a mass market camera, and it would be foolish to criticise Leica for making what might look like relatively modest changes. For Leica and its many fans, the Leica M is already just about as good as a camera of this type can get, so any changes have to be small, incremental and very carefully thought through.
With that in mind, the M10 is an impressive upgrade. A higher resolution sensor might have been nice but, that aside, the thinner body, bigger viewfinder and higher ISO range are all really worthwhile. We really want to get the M10 in for review now so that we can spend some proper time with it.