Review: The Leica M typ 262
This is a user-review of the Leica M typ 262, based on one year of use with a mix of street, landscape and architectural photography.
I have been a film-based Leica user for some years, and the Leica M7 is the camera that I always reach for first. The hope was that a digital Leica body could make use of existing lenses, and eliminate the need for a full-frame Canon system that has seen progressively less use due to its size and weight.
Two women, Santander. Leica M typ 262 with 28mm f2 Summicron.
All the pictures in this review, other than those of the camera, were shot with the M typ 262 (hereafter M 262, in defiance of Leica’s marketing).
I have deliberately tried to include images with an unusually broad range of styles and processing to give some idea of the capabilities of the camera. In all cases, the photographs were taken in RAW (DNG) format, and processed in Capture One.
Overview of the M typ 262
By modern standards, the M 262 is a very basic camera. Its main features are:
- rangefinder manual focussing with LED illuminated bright-lines
- manual and aperture-priority exposure modes, with support for auto-ISO and bulb (long) exposures
- a 35mm full-frame CMOS sensor with 24MP resolution
- compatibility with almost any Leica lens made in the last 60 years, or older if you do not mind using an adapter
- a weather and dust sealed body
In fact, the camera is defined more by what it does not implement than what it does. This is a camera that is blissfully free of digital “clutter”, such as scene modes, panoramas and fake-tilt-shift effects. But equally there is also no auto-focus, no live-view, no video, no automatic sensor cleaning, no close-focusing, no image stabilisation, no wireless connectivity, and the metering is about as primitive as it gets.
The defining feature of Leica M cameras is that you do not preview the scene through the lens, but through a small dedicated viewfinder window. The view remains the same regardless of the lens fitted, with illuminated lines roughly marking the edges of the final picture. This has advantages such as the ability to see events unfolding outside of the main image area and to avoid filters affecting the view. But there are also disadvantages for focus accuracy, difficulties with longer focal length lenses, and an inability to focus closer than 70cm.
The mechanically coupled rangefinder and lens mount used in the M 262 is essentially unchanged from that first implemented for the iconic Leica M3 in 1954. As a result, the M 262 is compatible with a vast range of objectives providing just about any conceivable rendering and any conceivable price point. New lenses are still made by Leica, Zeiss and Voigtländer (Cosina). The lenses are fully mechanical and very reliable, making vintage lenses a practical proposition for contemporary photography.
M series lenses provide a unique combination of size, character and image quality. Lens size and weight is usually a fraction of a corresponding DSLR equivalent, yet with performance that is often higher. This for me is a key reason to use the M 262, as is the ability to also shoot on film with the same lenses.
Sunrise, Barcelona. Leica M typ 262 with Zeiss ZM 1,5/50 C-Sonnar.
My first impressions of the M 262 were not positive. While the camera looked very smart, in the hand it felt and sounded more like a cheap imitation of the M7 than its digital successor.
The camera is fractionally lighter and thicker than its older film relatives, and the lower density gives the illusion of a less solidly constructed mechanism. The large LCD on the rear of the camera and the imprecise and overly complex on-off switch adds to the sense that the camera is more plasticky and fragile than might be expected. When shooting, the shutter noise is louder than the M7’s, and it also sounds rather clunky and hollow.
Fortunately these impressions are (mostly) misleading, as in many respects the M 262 is better engineered than the M7. There is now a properly centred and much more robust tripod socket. The newer camera is also much better sealed and and after a year of heavy use there is as yet no dust ingress in to the rangefinder mechanism. The omission of a flash sync port and frame-line lever may be annoyances for some photographers, but the result is a simpler and more reliable camera (in as much as any digital camera can be “simple”). And that hollow shutter sound is perhaps more forgivable given its less-flamable design and the extra flexibility that the maximum shutter speed of 1/4000 of a second provides.
Note that although the camera is is advertised as being weather and dust sealed, the lenses and lens mount are not – you still need to be careful when shooting this camera in the rain or particularly dusty conditions.
The M 262 handles very similarly to the M7, at least if you are used to using a full-size strap. The extra thickness of the body is largely irrelevant, and I do not find that the screen on the back causes any particular problems.
However, I do very much miss the presence of a film winding lever. When shooting the M7, I keep my thumb hooked around this and it helps stabilise the camera. Lacking any equivalent theM 262 is difficult to hold securely in one hand, making the use of a wrist strap problematic.
Fortunately, there is a work-around in the form of a third-party gadget called the “Thumbs Up”. This sits in the hot-shoe and provides a secure resting place for your thumb that is a surrogate for the older film-winding levers. It completely transforms the handling of the camera for the better, the only downside being the loss of use of the hot shoe for external viewfinders or flash guns.
One significant problem with the M 262 is its rather lethargic wake-from-sleep time. With the M7, I turn it on when I go out and turn it off when I return. The camera is always ready to shoot, without any delay, and the batteries last nearly a year before they need to be changed.
With the M 262, if the camera goes to sleep it can take several seconds to wake. Sometimes I have quickly put the camera to my eye to capture something on the street, pressed the shutter button – and nothing happened until two seconds later the shutter woke up. Not exactly what you might hope for from a camera that is historically associated with The Decisive Moment and street photography in general.
Fortunately, the camera’s battery life is excellent, and you can avoid this problem by completely disabling camera sleep. With two fully charged batteries I have been able to complete a full day of shooting with several thousand images taken.
The camera’s menu system is simple and straightforward, and it is easy to find features that are sometimes lost in complexity on other makes.
One particularly nice feature I like is the ability to link image review to the shutter button in single-shot mode. With this enabled, the rear LCD will display the last shot only if you continue to hold the shutter down after taking the picture. This is very convenient if you mostly want image review disabled, but occasionally want to check exposure when the lighting conditions are difficult.
Sculpture, Barceloneta. Leica M typ 262 with ZM 1,4/35.
Another nice touch is the “T” mode for long exposures, which allows you to effectively make long “bulb” exposures without a cable release and without having to hold the shutter button down for the duration.
One minor ergonomic failing is the button array at the back of the camera – there are simply too many buttons that are too small and too difficult to distinguish. When shooting, the only functions that I need regular access to are for ISO and playback, but unfortunately the most easily located functions are for white-balance (irrelevant to a RAW shooter) and SET. Unfortunately there is no way to override this.
Manual Focus Accuracy and Digital Sensors
One concern was that small focus errors that might have been negligible on film would be far more obvious on a digital sensor.
The rangefinder is noticeably improved over the M7’s. Although it is slightly lower magnification (0.68x), the difference is not significant. It is, however, quite a lot clearer (possibly due to all the dust that is accumulating inside my M7…) and the LED illuminated frame-lines are fantastic. My least forgiving lens is the ubiquitous 50mm f1.4 Summilux ASPH, but even with my dodgy eyesight I have had no issues focussing with sufficient accurately.
In fact, one surprise was how well even the notoriously difficult Zeiss ZM 1,5/50 C-Sonnar performs. This is a lens which is known both for its tricky focus-shift when shot wide open, and also for being generally soft. Surprisingly it is not only possibly to reliably compensate for the focus-shift, but the results are very comparable to what I would expect from my older (EOS) Canon 50mm f1.2L – another lens whose rendering is characterised by spherical aberration.
Lastly, it should be mentioned that the viewfinder inherits the M7’s very poor eye relief. This means that as a glasses wearer I struggle to see 35mm frame lines, let alone 28mm. Sadly, Leica has removed the most obvious solution to this problem by omitting any form of live-view – a serious mistake that will discourage users from trying (and buying) wider angle lenses.
The Leica M 262’s image quality is excellent.
Compared to the Canon 5D mark III that the Leica replaced, low ISO shots are usually sharper and have more dynamic range (shadow recoverability). High ISO shots are good up to ISO 1600, but rapidly fall behind most contemporary full-frame and even APSC cameras at ISO 3200 and up.
The images are sharper than with the Canon largely because Leica omits any anti-aliasing filter. The downside is a risk of moire artefacts in images with repetitive fine detail (such as may be found in modern architectural design). In practice, the problem is rare and can be mitigated by stopping down the lens sufficiently that diffraction softening mimics the effect of the missing filter.
Colour can be a problem, with the camera often producing excessively saturated reds and purple colour-casts on fabrics that should be completely black. This is caused by the weak IR filtration on the sensor assembly, and can be exaggerated by specific surfaces and lighting, requiring difficult and time-consuming local edits to correct. One solution is to use a UV-IR cut filter on the lens, although this may itself cause problems with flare if shooting in to bright light.
At lower ISOs there is plenty of flexibility for editing with the RAW files, and well exposed images have significantly better processing latitude than with the Canon 5D III.
The M 262’s sensor is optimised for M series lenses, using offset micro-lenses and thin cover glass to avoid issues near the image edges that could arise from the very short distance between the rear lens elements and the sensor. None of the lenses that I have used with the camera have exhibited colour or softness artefacts towards the edge of the frame – indeed sharpness at the frame edge with lenses such as the 21mm Super-Elmar is astonishingly good.
Leica lenses are justly renowned for their combination of diminutive size, high image quality, smooth rendering, and excellent mechanical build quality. And the M 262 does an excellent job of getting the best results from these lenses.
Exposure and Metering
Exposure metering uses the same principle as the M7, relying on a measure of light reflected from the shutter curtains. The result is strongly centre weighted meter, where the strongest response comes from the central 1/3 of the frame.
Curiously, the metering pattern is not symmetric, with the upper half of the frame in landscape orientation about half a stop less sensitive than the lower half. This seems true of both M 262 and M7, and holds for different lenses. The meter pattern can also be affected by the lens and aperture that is used (due to mechanical vignetting, and quite possibly the proximity of the rear lens elements to the shutter curtain).
The M 262 provides both manual and aperture-priority (“auto”) exposure modes, and also a well implemented auto ISO function that allows the camera to raise the ISO setting if a minimum shutter speed can not be met. These work excellently in most scenarios, but tend to severely underexpose with high contrast scenes, such as landscapes with any significant sky areas, or night scenes containing bright point sources of light.
Minor under-exposure is, within reason, benign. At lower ISOs there is a lot of potential to correct under exposure in post-processing, although noise and some banding may become evident with extreme adjustments and particularly when shot above ISO 800.
Minor over-exposure, however, can easily ruin an image. In the following two shots of the same subject, the first was exposed for the shadows and the highlights subsequently pulled, while the second was exposed for the highlights and the shadows subsequently pushed:
The clipped sky areas loose not just detail, but also suffer colour shifts. With film, I would normally expose for the shadows and let the highlights take care of themselves – but with the M 262 I need to be careful to expose for any highlight detail that I want to retain.
Getting an optimal (“Exposed To The Right”) landscape image with a wide-angle lens is particularly tricky. Small changes in framing can drastically alter the metered exposure, and so I often find myself chimping and making several exposures to get the best result. For street photography with a wide angle lens it is usually safer to forgo the automatics and shoot in full manual.
Black and White
I have not shot many intentional black and white images with the M 262, preferring to use the M7 and film where this is desirable.
However, RAW conversions to black and white work very well and provide greater tolerance against unwanted effects from extreme shadow pushes or highlight pulls. As with most digital image, the quality of the results will depend mainly on the software that you use (here, Capture One).
Reliability, Service and Support
In nearly a year of shooting the camera has mostly worked flawlessly in normal use. On a couple of occasions I have experienced lock-ups while an image was being written to the SD card (a 32GB Sandisk Extreme Pro UHS-I). Leica is somewhat infamous for SD card compatibility problems, but fortunately the lock-ups are rare and have not (yet) corrupted other data on the card.
But I am significantly less comfortable with the robustness of the camera.
I suffered a collapse while shooting a street protest at the start of the year. The camera and lens hit the ground (along with me…), resulting in a slightly scuffed bottom plate and small dent to the lens hood. The only externally visible damage to the body was a small 5mm mark on the battery cover (see inset image).
For most cameras, damage like this would be largely cosmetic. But unfortunately, the impact also resulted in a badly misaligned rangefinder that made focussing impossible and left the camera unusable.
The resulting repair in Wetzlar required complete replacement of the lens mount, took six weeks, and cost more than I paid for the M7. In contrast, the lens was completely unaffected aside from a scratched and easily replaced hood.
The result is that I have little confidence that the M 262 is robust enough for extended trips or use in rough environments. And Leica’s abysmal service times combined with astronomical pricing mean that it is difficult to consider Leica viable for any professional work. I want to emphasise that the service and support staff were beyond reproach and immensely helpful. The problem is that they are utterly under resourced.
Modern digital cameras usually record a lot of shooting information along with the image, including the type of lens, the focal length and the aperture and exposure settings that were used. Unfortunately, much of this is inherently impossible with the Leica due to the traditional and entirely mechanical lens design.
Newer Leica lenses contain a six-bit binary code painted in to the back of the lens which can be read by the camera. This is recorded in EXIF data and may also trigger in-camera corrections for issues such as unwanted colour shifts or vignetting. Older Leica lenses – and all lenses from Zeiss and Voigtlander – lack the necessary codes for this to work automatically, although if needed you can enter a code manually via the menu system. Personally, I prefer that the camera does not tinker with the RAW pixel data and I tend to leave the lens detection disabled.
The camera can record an estimate of the aperture that was used by comparing a measure of ambient light (via a dedicated photo sensor) to that received through the lens. Unsurprisingly, this is not very precise and the recorded values will be shifted accordingly if you have an ND or polarising filter fitted to the lens.
An unexpected and very much unwanted issue is that of sensor dust. The M 262 lacks an automatic sensor cleaning mechanism and the sensor needs regular manual cleaning to avoid build up of dust. Perfectionists that shoot architecture or images with a lot of sky should expect to spend time cloning out dust spots.
While it is obviously difficult for Leica to incorporate an ultrasonic cleaning mechanism (given the constraints of the sensor cover glass and body size), the problem of dust is severe enough that it leaves me reluctant to change lenses – to the detriment of the photography.
Usually a robust pass with a blower bulb is sufficient to remove most particles, but to get the sensor completely clear of debris needs a wet cleaning kit. This is unfortunately problematic when traveling due to the need for ethanol or a similarly flammable solvent.
In Comparison to Other Digital Cameras…
For the six weeks that the camera was away for repair, our Olympus E-M1 mark II had to stand in for the Leica, and it was difficult not to compare the two systems. This is highly unfair, as the cameras are so different as to share almost no common ground… so these are some very subjective observations on how the Olympus performed relative to the Leica:
- The Olympus images are very often sharper than similar images from the Leica.
- The Olympus shutter is blissfully quiet in comparison to the Leica, and there is a fully electronic mode that is completely silent.
- The electronic viewfinder (EVF) on the OM-D E-M1 mark II is significantly easier to use than the Leica’s optical unit. It is sharper, often brighter, and you can easily see everything even while wearing glasses. The refresh rate and lag on the EVF are sufficiently high that there is no meaningful latency penalty (lag) compared to an optical finder.
- The smaller sensor in the Olympus is noisier than that in the Leica. However, the image stabilisation system helps offset this penalty and the difference narrows at higher ISO settings.
- I never needed to spend 20 minutes cloning out dust from an Olympus landscape image…
- The number of lost shots due to exposure, framing and focus errors when shooting quickly is much lower with the Olympus.
Ultimately, the Leica is best when shooting with fast 35mm and 50mm lenses at or nearly wide-open. Here the rangefinder eye relief is not a problem, the large sensor provides better depth of field control than the crop-sensor cameras, and sensor dust is less visible. However, if shooting at f2.8 or narrower, the Leica offers no practical image quality advantages other than any character inherent to the lens that is being used.
In Comparison to Shooting Film
Since the M 262 and M7 are so similar, it is interesting to compare the experience of shooting digital instead of film.
In a year of use, I took somewhere close to twenty thousand exposures with the M 262 – more than ten times as many as with the M7 on film.
A good part of the increased usage came from striving to achieve a precision in framing and exposure that is partly driven by more perfectionist expectations for digital images, and partly because the M 262’s sensor is far less accommodating of over-exposure errors than film. As a result, many of my M 262 images are the result of multiple takes, either via test shots to determine exposure (street), or successive attempts to get accurate exposure and framing (landscape and architecture).
For architectural images I often take several shots in attempt to minimise parallax or horizon errors – something that the image-review-while-shutter-button-held feature makes very easy to do, and which would be prohibitively expensive with film.
For example, the following image was taken from a low angle, where it was impossible to look through the viewfinder. It needed five or six attempts to get the geometry correct:
With film, I certainly would not have taken multiple shots – and I most likely would not have tried to capture the photograph in this way.
In one sense, this is a good thing as it allows greater experimentation and flexibility. However, the downside is that there are a lot of digital images that get thrown away, and a lot of tedious time spent deciding which images to keep and which to discard.
Overall, I feel somewhat conflicted by the M typ 262.
The M 262 inhabits a kind of photographic “uncanny valley”, neither fully replicating the tactile experience of shooting an older film body, nor remaining competitive with contemporary full-frame digital cameras. A camera at this level should not suffer problems with sensor dust and viewfinder eye relief, and it really should have an option for live-view via the rear LCD.
The “killer application” for this camera is shooting with lenses such as the 35mm or 50mm f1.4 Summiluxes. Shot wide-open, these provide an image character and quality that is justly renowned – and they manage to do this with minimal size and weight. But if you largely shoot at narrower apertures, the results will give you little reason to prefer the Leica over much cheaper, more flexible and less idiosyncratic cameras such as the Fuji X-Pro2.
Would I recommend this camera to someone not already invested in a Leica system? No. There are too many compromises and constraints, and unless you absolutely must use a manual focus rangefinder or a specific Leica-mount lens, there are many other better cameras available today. And people seeking an authentic and traditional “Leica experience” would be better steered towards a film camera than the M 262.
Despite some reservations, I personally find the M typ 262 immensely pleasurable to use, and it does manage to fill the role for which I bought it: namely to add an option for high-quality digital imaging to an existing Leica M7 system with a selection of astonishingly tiny, fast and high-quality prime lenses.
Coda – the Leica M10
It would not be fair to end this review without mentioning the recently released Leica M10, which potentially addresses several of the criticisms raised.
The M10 addresses the most serious reservations that I have about the M 262, with the sole downside being a marginally reduced battery life. In particular, the ability to use live-view was important enough that I eventually traded the M 262 for an M10.
You can read my M10 review here…