The Leica M240 Retrospective

Titled simply the M at the time of its release, it became known as the M240 and by a defiant few the M10. Of course Leica has since released their follow up to the “M” – the actual M10. We’d like to take this moment to express our annoyance over Leica’s numbering of the M system and that we feel the M10 is really the M11. There’s a lot of M240 reviews out there, filled with tech data and camera specs, so we’re going to get right into a retrospective on the M240. With now three full frame digital M platforms (the newest being the much praised, yet still unable to obtain M10) is the M240 still a viable option for the discerning photographer?

 

Kenji Prince of Old Familiar Barbershop. Summilux-M 1:1.4/50 ASPH, ƒ/2.0, SS 1/90, ISO 800 (Photo by Jef Price)
My neighborhood friend, Gunner. Summicron-M 1:2/35 ASPH, ƒ/4.0, SS 1/2000, ISO 640 (Photo by Jef Price)

I was against getting my own M240 when it came out, it wasn’t the camera I wanted. It was close, but it was still too big, heavy and thick for me to really think of it as an M. It was basically the same size as the M9, which for whatever reason was a camera I was fine with. I’d been working with an M9-Monochrome for about a yr when I first started using the M240 and while the MM felt fine to me right out of the box, the M240 felt foreign in my hands. Now granted, at the time I was unboxing the M240 I was just settling into a post TBI rhythm with photography (you can read more about that in my interview with Emulsive), but even after more than a year with the camera, it still didn’t feel quite right to me. I think all along the M10 is what I was looking for in regards to size and ISO performance, but for all my initial prejudice against the M240… It’s an amazing camera.

“…is the M240 still a viable option for the discerning photographer?”

The M240 is the technical replacement for the M9, Leica’s first full frame (35mm sized) sensor digital M camera. But in reality it is a much different camera. The biggest differences are the finder and the sensor. The M9 features a more traditional optical finder like that found in past 35mm film models of the M system. Featuring the rangefinder focus patch in the center with frame lines surrounding that show the photographer the correct field for the mounted lens. The finder window in the M240 in much the same as this classic design with one major change, illuminated frame lines. While this took some getting used to I ultimately ended up very much liking the new frame lines and finding them quite useful.

Summilux-M 1:1.4/35 ASPH, f1.4, SS 1/4000, ISO 400 (Photo by Jef Price)

As a side note, for those reading who may not have used an M or a rangefinder type camera before, you don’t focus/view through the lens as with an SLR (Single lens reflex) or DSLR, but rather you see through a separate finder window located to the side of the lens. In the center of this finder is a focussing “patch” with which you align the split images to focus. 

The other major difference between the M9 and it’s successor is the sensor. And I’m not referring to the slight upgrade from the M9 to 24MP in the M240, but rather the type of sensor. While the M9 was host to a CCD type, the M240 featured a new CMOS sensor. The result of this change gave us two M systems that produced very different image results. Intentional or not, Leica had given M users even more control over what their images rendered as. More on this in a moment.

Summilux-M 1:1.4/50 ASPH, f2, SS1/60, ISO 800 (Photo by Jef Price)
Summilux-M 1:1.4/50 ASPH, f2.8, SS1/125, ISO 800 (Photo by Jef Price)

Let’s sidetrack from sensors for a moment to go over a few faults of the M240. First we have the size. Here everyone can agree, except perhaps some of the good folks over at Leica. The M240 is a big heavy monster of a camera (much like the SL, but that review will come later). In an age when one of the central demands of the modern photographer is smaller size and lighter gear, Leica released the biggest, heaviest M camera they’ve ever made (at least to my knowledge). As I said above, the M240 is big, thick, heavy and it doesn’t have the most beautiful lines in the M system family. The paint wears fast, which isn’t a huge issue as it’s that gorgeous Leica brass underneath, but still this should be a slower process. Mine looked like it had been through a world war by the time a year had passed (Andrew notes his looks much better after much more abuse, he has the M-P model, so maybe that paint job is better, or mine may have had a defect or was a repaint as it was used when I bought it). And the display on the standard M240 is a easy to break/crack plastic screen, rather than the tough almost scratch proof crystal of the M-P model. But by far the biggest issue was I found the ISO to be almost unusable past 800 (The M240 allows for up to 6400 ISO). The noise produced past ISO 800 was such that the only way I found it acceptable was to convert the images to B&W.

“…but for all my initial prejudice against the M240… It’s an amazing camera.”

To many the ISO might be the breaking point, but in many cases, ISO 800 was not only good enough, the limit encouraged me to be a better photographer not as dependent on high ISO’s. Stay with me, I’m not going to defend the low ISO ceiling, Leica should have had the M240 producing clean files to at least 3200. But you can work with a cap of ISO 800. As is good practice for sharp, noise free and crisp clear image files, I keep the ISO as low as possible. Having that cap of 800 kept me looking for light, shooting for the highlights and along with a pair of Summilux’s, the Leica 35/f1.4 and 50/f1.4 being a better photographer. Usable ISO limits will vary  by user opinion, but objectively the M240 gets pretty dicey past 800, 1600 if you really want to push it. All this said, on a modern pro end camera a usable limit of ISO 800 is pretty ridiculous, but now that some time has passed and you can find a good deal on an M240, it’s a fault we can overlook (mostly).

Summilux-M 1:1.4/50 ASPH, f6.8, SS 1/30, ISO 400 (Photo by Jef Price)

Another smaller, but annoying issue that leads to a bigger unacceptable fault is the live view feature. Live view using the back screen is fairly annoying on any camera, but to be sold as a professional feature when it’s this unrefined is something of a cruel joke. And that’s just what was told to us at the time of the M240’s release, it was a new amazing feature for pinpoint precise focusing and image composition. It continued to be marketed this way right up until the release of the SL and M10, when suddenly we were told the live view was always deeply flawed. Live view on an M system was viewed by many as sacrilege and by others it was praised as some amazing innovation that never existed before the release of the M240. Personally as an owner of R mount glass, I was excited. Well at least until the first few honest reviews came in. Their were a few Leica cultists that claimed that while deeply flawed it was invaluable, especially when paired with their $10k plus 50/f.95 Noctilux. But in reality, any who have spent time with it know that at best it’s clunky and a pain in the field and downright frustrating on the street level. Sure there were times when it was helpful, like pulled over on the side of the road to shoot a sunset, or when using it for video (where you had no other option).

“Leica either didn’t want to admit the EVF wasn’t up to par with the camera, or they didn’t care.”

But it’s not really the poor execution of the live view feature that makes this such a fault, as Leica’s solution for an EVF. Which was really an Olympus EVF, already very troubled, rebranded with the Leica logo and a price increase. The EVF allowed us to use R glass, or be more precise with our focus and framing, that was the sales pitch. The reality was the EVF was already outdated, with terrible lag, latency, resolution and a cheap build that felt out of place on the Olympus cameras it was designed for and outright insulting on the high priced, top of the line Leica M. The cheap plastic build was far from what we expected from a Leiva EVF, but it was really the other shortcomings that kept the external EVF from greatness. The lag meant shooting on the street gave you one shot and if you wanted another, too bad the moment was gone. In low light there was so much noise it the EVF was all but completely worthless and the resolution was so bad that even my eyes were screaming for me to turn the EVF off and use the rangefinders optical finder. Worse still is that throughout the M240’s reign as king of the Leica M line, there was mass public outcry from the M’s users for a new EVF.  This outcry was ignored completely by Leica, even after you could no longer find the Olympus EVF anywhere but eBay. Leica either didn’t want to admit the EVF wasn’t up to par with the camera, or they didn’t care.

Summilux-M 1:1.4/50 ASPH, f1.4, SS 1/45, ISO 400 (Photo by Jef Price)

Leica also pointed out the new M had an improved continuous shooting mode and buffer to cease clogging while the camera was writing files to card. Shooting at only 3 FPS I didn’t have any real slow down due to the improved buffer. When I did get the camera to have write speed issues, it was when I depressed the shutter release fully and held it nonstop until it jammed up. Something that you’ll never do in use with a M system camera. So for me, 3FPS allowed me to catch the definitive moment with any worry of jamming up the camera. In practice, outside of testing, I rarely used continuous (C), shooting. Choosing instead to squeeze off multiple exposures in “S” back to back quickly. I did manage again to do this fast enough (when trying to do so) to cause some slow down, but again not enough to impede practical use of the camera. Now when I used R lenses, shooting modes are completely irrelevant because of the lag when using the live view feature, which is necessary when using R glass.

Another miner issue for the professional was the lack of duel SD card slots. At the time of the M240’s release, this had become a standard feature on pro end cameras. Yet the new flagship M model had only one.

This is a lot of negatives right? I did say it was an amazing camera, if all of this is so bad, how can the camera be amazing? Simple. The images it’s capable of producing in an M photographers hands. The Leica M camera system has always been a tool for craftsmen that gave us the power to create timeless images reflecting our view of the world. And when in the hands of such a photographer, the M240 is perhaps one of the best M cameras ever produced for such a purpose. Sure it has major shortcomings and an accessary EVF that’s not in line with the legendary Leica quality, but the M240 delivers beautiful images when placed in the right hands.

Summilux-M 1:1.4/50 ASPH, f1.7, SS 1/45, ISO 800 (Photo by Jef Price)

I’m going to jump back to the sensor I touched on briefly a moment ago. The M9’s CCD had a very particular look to it, and the files handled in their own way. The very same can be said about the M240. The files at times felt almost like they were a slide or transparency film. The colors were warm and crisp, the light and color seemed to melt into the image, soaking in and saturating my images like nothing else in my digital library. The colors so surprised me, that many images I created with the intent of being converted to B&W, I left in color. In my mind one could very easily use both the M9 and M240 together in a kit, even now after the release of the M10. Choosing one over the other just as they would choose their film for the occasion.

The depth in tone surprised me, even though I was familiar with the camera and it’s sensor before I ever took my first photo. The files give one tremendous latitude during post. I had good recovery, in both shadows and highlights and aperture priority mode never blew out the highlights. I recently traded my M240 for the Leica SL and when looking back over images in drafting this review, I almost wish I hadn’t.

Summilux-M 1:1.4/50 ASPH, f2, SS 1/90, ISO 800 (Photo by Jef Price)

The clarity and tones produced by the M240 are outstanding. The new bright lines in the finder, were at first an acquired taste. But once I was used to them, they were a new and valued feature aiding in the creation of some of my personal favorite photographs. If my time with the M240 proved anything to me at all, it’s that it absolutely is still relevant to photography today. Although the M240 has some serious flaws that never really allowed me to love using the camera, I absolutely loved the images I created with it. I have no doubt when looking back on the M240, that it may very well be one of the greatest digital cameras ever made. It comes down to the final product, the images the camera is able to produce. And with the Leica M240, the images a photographer is empowered to create are like nothing else. FP

 

Author: JefPrice

Former this & that. Exploring & Photographing since I was 11. Founder of FieldPhotographer.org

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