Review: The Leica M10

Leica M10 with 50mm Summilux ASPH.

Leica M10 with 50mm Summilux ASPH.

This is a very very late user review of the Leica M10, based on just over a year of use. The M10 was an upgrade to my older M typ 262, and I will explain in the conclusion why this was worthwhile even though the two cameras share very similar image quality. This is a an image-heavy post, with a deliberately varied selection of photographs that I hope show some of the capabilities of the camera.

Overview

The M10 is currently available in three variants, with all three based on the same body chassis and full-frame 24 megapixel sensor. I have the older and most basic model, the “plain” M10, whereas there are also now an updated (and more expensive) M10-P and an LCD-free M10-D.

Autumn at the Botanic Garden of Madrid

M10 with 50mm Summilux ASPH.

In a world in which there are now many many good options for small, full-frame digital cameras the M series stands out by being essentially a modern recreation of the older Leica film rangefinder cameras, where the primary means of shooting is entirely manual. There is no autofocus, metering is basic in the extreme and there are few modern features such as image stabilisation to help capture an image. The subject is framed and focussed primarily by using the rangefinder, without seeing through the lens directly as you would expect on a DSLR or most modern mirrorless cameras. The viewfinder shows a fixed view on to which white framing lines are projected to show the portion of the image that will be captured.

Leica M typ 262 Viewfinder Display.

What you see through the rangefinder (in this case an M typ 262, but the M10 view is identical). The outer white lines mark what what will be captured with a 50mm lens attached, while the small central patch is used to set focus. The camera can display any of three pairs of frame lines corresponding to 28/90mm, 35/135mm, 50/75mm – using any other focal length requires an external viewfinder mounted in the hot-shoe.

The rangefinder defines the M series shooting experience. Framing is at best approximate and there is no way to preview the affect of lens specific characteristics such as depth-of-field or vignetting. The viewfinder only has frame lines for 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 75mm, 90mm and 135mm lenses, and the use of other focal lengths will require either live-view or a clip-on accessory finder (or just guesswork).

Leica M10 with 50mm Summilux ASPH.

Leica M10 with 50mm Summilux ASPH.

The rangefinder view is a mixed blessing. It is very clear and there is no “blackout” when the shutter is fired, but what you see is only an approximation of the final image. Furthermore, the focus patch is fixed in the centre of the frame, making off-centre focussing with very fast lenses extremely challenging.

But while the rangefinder essentially defines the M10, the camera also provides a usable live-view implementation which solves many of these limitations. More on this later.

Leica M Lenses

The primary photographic case for shooting a digital Leica M today must surely be the lens system.

The LM bayonet mount has been around since the 1950’s, and there are a vast array of both old and new lenses available from Leica, Zeiss, Voigtländer (Cosina) as well as 7-Artisans. The lenses are diminutive compared to most modern full-frame optics – a necessity of the rangefinder architecture, which requires small lenses to avoid blocking the viewfinder.

Leica M10 with 35mm Summilux ASPH FLE.

Leica M10 with 35mm Summilux ASPH FLE.

There are many different focal lengths, speeds and renderings available, from superb tiny lenses such as the Zeiss 35mm f2.8 through to comparatively large and insanely expensive lenses such as the 50mm f0.95 and 75mm f1.25 Noctilux. Price is often cited as an issue with Leica, but lenses from Voigtländer and 7-Artisans are often cheaper than mainstream mirrorless lenses yet give up little or nothing in quality over more expensive alternatives (for example, the excellent VM 50mm f1.2 and 7A 28mm f1.4).

The most obvious downside to the M series lenses is that they are entirely manual focus – hardly surprising given that the design is little changed in more than 60 years. Manual focussing is slower than the best modern AF designs, particularly if working with relatively shallow depth-of-field.

For street photography many will advocate the use of zone focusing, with the lenses stopped down – and there are excellent depth of field scales to help this, together with tabs on the focus ring that allow you to sense the approximate focal distance by feel.

Leica M10 with 35mm Summilux ASPH FLE.

Leica M10 with 35mm Summilux ASPH FLE.

A less obvious downside of M series lenses is the lack of close-focus ability, as most lenses will not focus closer than 70cm (a limitation of the rangefinder mechanics). It is a limitation that I rarely hit, but it can be occasionally frustrating particularly with wider-angle lenses. The lack of close-focus, along with frame-line visibility, is one of the reasons why I tend to lean towards 50mm as a default focal length rather than 35mm.

Leica M10 with 35mm Summilux ASPH FLE.

Leica M10 with 35mm Summilux ASPH FLE.

Viewfinder Improvements

Leica markets the M10 as having an improved viewfinder when compared to older digital-M cameras.

The view through the rangefinder is bright, clear and sharp, and the focus patch is very easy to use. Frame-lines are illuminated in white by LEDs inside the camera, and reliably adjust brightness as conditions change.

One marketing claim is that the M10 has improved eye-relief, with a potential 30% increase in the field of view. While I am sure that there is some theoretical justification for the claim, the improvement from the M typ 262 is not that obvious and the eye-relief appears almost identical to my much older M7. As a glasses wearer I find it only just about possible to see the 35mm frame-lines, while shooting quickly with a 28mm lens means essentially having to guess what is happening at the edges of the frame (this is easier than it sounds, but it is still frustrating). People lucky enough not to need glasses should not have a problem.

Leica M10 with 28mm Summicron.

Leica M10 with 28mm Summicron.

The frame-lines are optimised for accuracy at a focal distance of 2m. As with all Leica rangefinders, any closer or any any further and the image captured will not quite match the framing that you see. The variation is small enough that it can usually be ignored, but if you need precision, there is the option to use live-view.

Leica M10 with 35mm Summilux ASPH FLE.

Leica M10 with 35mm Summilux ASPH FLE.

Lastly, the M10 appears to show slightly more viewfinder blockage with large lenses than my M7. I suspect that this is because the reduction in thickness of the body was partly achieved by projecting the lens mount further forward, increasing the distance between the rangefinder and the front of the lens slightly. The effect is small and not terribly important, but it is visible nonetheless.

Build Quality, Reliability and Focus Accuracy

As is usual for Leica, the camera has a dense and well built feel that arises mainly due the precision manufacturing and the use of dense metal plates rather than modern lighter-weight alloys.

Leica M10 with ZM 1,5/50 C-Sonnar and diffusion filter.

Leica M10 with ZM 1,5/50 C-Sonnar and diffusion filter.

The camera has sealing to protect against dust and water (eg light drizzle). Unfortunately, the same is not true of the lenses, so there will always be a risk of water entry through the lens mount. It is difficult to determine what kind of seals are used in the camera, but the baseplate relies on a precise machined groove in the metal rather than a rubber gasket, and Leica make no formal claims to any IP rating.

So despite the marketing, this is a camera system that I am always somewhat nervous to use in very wet or dusty conditions.

Leica M10 with 50mm Summilux ASPH.

Leica M10 with 50mm Summilux ASPH.

In use the camera has been extremely reliable, with no major issues. The one exception to this was a drift in the calibration of the rangefinder, which I was able to correct myself.

Much has been said about the robustness of Leica M cameras, most of which is very misleading. Despite the dense and solid feel of the body, this is not a camera that is tolerant of mechanical shock or vibration, both of which run the risk of knocking the rangefinder out of calibration. With a digital sensor, even small focus errors are significant when shooting wide-open, as these will rob the subject of the clarity that lends shallow depth-of-field images their three-dimensional feel.

Leica M10 with 50mm Summilux ASPH.

Leica M10 with 50mm Summilux ASPH.

With live-view and some very careful adjustment of a hex screw inside the camera it is possible to rectify the most common focus calibration problems – but it still pays to treat the camera carefully to avoid the problem in the first place. While I am not sure that this is something that Leica recommends users do themselves (the mechanism is very fragile), for me the ability to correct small calibration errors quickly and easily in the field is an important advantage of the M10 over older cameras without live-view.

Leica M10 with 50mm Summilux ASPH.

Leica M10 with 50mm Summilux ASPH.

Handling

The M10 handles exactly like a film camera. The body shape and dimensions are almost identical to the M7, and when shooting the two work almost identically (the main differences being the ISO dial location and the need to feed the M10 batteries rather than film). On paper, the M10 is slightly heavier, but in the hand the difference is negligible.

The difference in thickness of the camera compared to the older models is small, but surprisingly obvious when shooting. In the hand the camera feels much more dense and solid than the M typ 262, but those with large hands might also find it more difficult to grip due to the narrower profile.

The rear-panel controls are hugely simplified, with just three main buttons alongside the LCD for live-view, playback and menu access. Together with a simplified on-off switch around the shutter button, these changes greatly improve operation of the camera when working quickly or when wearing gloves. I particularly like the power-switch change, as with the M typ 262 I would frequently push the switch too far and find the camera either in burst-mode or (worse) with the self-timer active.

Taken together, the physical controls and menu system are the cleanest and most intuitive that I have ever seen on a digital camera.

Leica M10 with 50mm Summilux ASPH.

Leica M10 with 50mm Summilux ASPH.

Out of the box, the camera works fine with moderately sized lenses such as the Summilux 35mm or 50mm and the supplied neck strap. However, if you either use a wrist strap or heavier lenses you will likely need some way to improve the handling such as the optional hand-grip attachment.

Leica M10 with 50mm Summilux ASPH.

Leica M10 with 50mm Summilux ASPH.

I use an accessory thumb grip that attaches to the hot-shoe and which works fine. The M10-D goes one step further, with a built-in thumb grip styled like a faux film-winding lever. Whether this is a brilliant ergonomic innovation or just a rather tacky throw-back (or both) you will have to decide yourself – although it does have the not inconsiderable advantage of leaving the flash hot-shoe free.

Leica M10 with 35mm Summilux ASPH FLE.

Leica M10 with 35mm Summilux ASPH FLE.

Live view, the EVF and adapted lenses

Live-view is the primary reason I upgraded to the M10. It eliminates all possible sources of focus inaccuracy and framing, and it is particularly useful wide-angles and adapted lenses. For example, using cheap adapters I am able to use adapted optics such as Fish Eye lenses and macro configurations that would be impractical with the rangefinder alone. It is also invaluable when using polarising filters or lenses that exhibit focus-shift (such as the otherwise excellent ZM 1,5/50 C-Sonnar).

Leica M10 with adapted Minolta 16mm f2.8 Fisheye.

Leica M10 with adapted Minolta 16mm f2.8 Fisheye.

Live-view can be used with the LCD (except for the screen-less M10-D) or with an external EVF that plugs in to the hot-shoe.

The EVF is clearly a bit of a kludge, recycled from older T-series cameras. The foot blocks visibility of the shutter speed dial and there is no mechanism to securely lock it to the camera. While the EVF’s resolution and frame rate could perhaps be improved, it has one killer feature: its ability to tilt. This makes it much more versatile that the fixed EVFs typically used in most mirrorless cameras.

The camera’s focus peaking works effectively, and the camera can be set to automatically magnify the area under the focus point as soon as the focus ring is turned. There is also a small dedicated button on the front of the camera that will also trigger magnification.

One of the big advantages of live-view over the rangefinder is that eye-relief is a non-issue, and I can shoot 21mm and 28mm lenses without difficulty.

Leica M10 with 21mm Super-Elmar and an R72 IR filter.

Leica M10 with 21mm Super-Elmar and an R72 IR filter.

One drawback is the mechanism by which the focus point can be moved. On the M10 this is only possible by using the D-Pad buttons on the back of the camera, and moving the focus point is extremely slow. The fastest way to reset its position is to simply turn the camera off and on again.

Another issue is the lag and viewfinder black-out, which results from the need to close the shutter prior to capturing the image. This is likely a limitation of the sensor design, which presumably lacks a viable electronic first-curtain shutter. Although hugely improved over the older M typ 240, the practical reality is that live-view is problematic when shooting moving subjects or with longer lenses where the shutter vibration can be a problem.

Using live-view rapidly depletes the battery, but fortunately the M10 remembers whether or not live-view was active when turned off. This means that it is usually practical to simply turn the camera off in between shots (assuming that the power-on delay is not a problem). Working this way I have successfully taken more than 300 to 400 shots on a single battery, shooting landscape and architectural photographs.

Battery life was one of my main concerns about the M10, which has a smaller capacity battery than older models. I usually carry two fully charged spares, but rarely need both even with extensive use of live-view.

Leica M10 with 50mm Summilux and close-up filter.

Leica M10 with 50mm Summilux and close-up filter.

I find the live-view implementation immensely useful, and for me it hugely increases the functional value of the camera.

Image Quality

Image quality from the M10 lags behind comparably priced full-frame cameras, but is acceptable for most non-specialist uses.

Leica M10 with 35mm Summilux ASPH FLE.

Leica M10 with 35mm Summilux ASPH FLE.

When comparing performance at a given ISO it is important to understand that the M10 uses a different ISO/metering calibration compared to older M cameras, and it will in effect significantly increase exposure at the same ISO. Relative to a reflected exposure reading taken either with a Sekonic meter or my M7, the M10 will typically choose a 1-stop slower shutter speed – while relative to an M typ 262 the increase appears to be around 2/3 stop. What this means is that under the same shooting conditions (using auto-exposure, the same aperture and ISO), the M10 will give you a slower shutter speed and images will have less shadow noise – and also less highlight headroom. You can effectively undo this design change by dialling in an exposure compensation of -2/3 and subsequently lifting the exposure of the RAW file.

Leica M10 with 50mm Summilux ASPH.

Leica M10 with 50mm Summilux ASPH.

Allowing for this, what you find is that compared to the older M typ 240 and 262 the M10 has roughly the same noise and dynamic range up to about ISO 800. At higher ISOs the M10 shows some gain, with perhaps 1 stop improvement in dynamic range by ISO6400. My guess is that the M10 sensor is fundamentally the same as that in the older CMOS digital M cameras, but with some tweaks that reduce high-ISO read-out noise and to control (but not eliminate) shadow banding.

Leica M10 with 50mm Summilux ASPH.

Leica M10 with 50mm Summilux ASPH.

Relative to current best-in-class FF sensors, the M10 lags substantially. Compared to the Sony a7RIII the M10 has about about 0.5 stop more noise and typically 1.5 stops less dynamic range – and the Sony manages manages to best the Leica while also offering almost double the pixel count and features such as sensor-image-stabilisation that help make use of that extra resolution. Sony’s noise performance is likely artificially boosted by noise reduction applied to the RAW file, but the dynamic range gain is genuine and useful.

Leica M10 with 35mm Summilux ASPH FLE.

Leica M10 with 35mm Summilux ASPH FLE.

Another thing to be aware of with the M10 is that ISO 100 is not a genuine hardware ISO setting, but a software “pull” from approximately ISO 160. This means that if you shoot at ISO 100 you will have nearly a stop less highlight headroom than at ISO 200, and you need to allow for this when choosing an exposure.

Leica M10 with 35mm Summilux ASPH FLE.

Leica M10 with 35mm Summilux ASPH FLE.

Overall the sensor performance is disappointing for a camera at this price level, but for most non-specialist purposes it is largely “good enough”. My ideal camera would  have both higher resolution and greater low-ISO dynamic range, and also a genuine hardware ISO 100 (or lower) – all things that are available with rival mirrorless cameras.

One positive is that above ISO 800 the M10 is largely ISO invariant. What this means is that there is no significant penalty to under-exposing by 1 or 2 stops and then lifting the exposure when editing the RAW file. This can help improve highlight headroom when shooting in darker conditions.

Leica M10 and Summilux 35mm ASPH FLE with diffusion filter and ISO 3200 with 1 stop exposure lift.

Leica M10 and Summilux 35mm ASPH FLE with diffusion filter and ISO 3200 with 1 stop exposure lift.

Lastly, be aware that all images in this review were shot in RAW. Straight-out-of-camera these will look “flat” and require processing to taste – this is inherent with any camera with good dynamic range. All processing here was made with Capture One Pro 12, and is at least as important as the camera and lens to getting a desired result.

Exposure and Metering

The M10’s metering functions differently, depending on whether or not the camera is in live-view.

Without live-view, the M10 uses the same metering trick as its predecessors of measuring light reflected off of the shutter curtains. It is generally robust and reliable, but some care is needed with wider-angle lenses such as the 28mm Summicron where high contrast scenes (ie those with a lot of bright sky and shadows) can result in small framing changes drastically under or over-exposing the image. As with the M typ 262, it is generally better to err on the side of underexposure to avoid ugly colour shifts in the sky if attempting to recover burned out highlights.

Leica M10 with 50mm Summilux ASPH FLE.

Leica M10 with 50mm Summilux ASPH FLE.

With live-view, the M10 meters using the sensor. Three modes are available: spot, centre-weighted and multi-field. These basically just work, with the multi-field option doing a particularly good job in difficult lighting. Another bonus of using live-view is that it is very easy to see in advance the effects of the metering.

Leica M10 with 28mm Summicron.

Leica M10 with 28mm Summicron.

With physical ISO and shutter speed dials plus a real aperture ring on the lens, it is easy to shoot fully manually with the camera.

The slowest shutter speed on the dial is 8s, but the camera can be set to longer exposures of up to four minutes (depending on the ISO setting). Select shutter speed B (bulb) and hold the front button pressed for a second to pop-up an exposure time selector on the LCD.

Leica M10 with 50mm Summilux ASPH.

Leica M10 with 50mm Summilux ASPH.

This also works with the self-timer. As a bonis, selecting both B on the shutter dial, B in the pop-up menu and enabling the self timer enables a T mode, where a first shutter press starts the exposure (after the self timer delay), and a second press stops it. Hardly intuitive, but sometimes useful if you do not have a cable release handy.

Leica M10 with 50mm Summilux ASPH.

Leica M10 with 50mm Summilux ASPH.

The fastest shutter speed remains 1/4000th, which is a significant step up from older film bodies but fairly mediocre in comparison to contemporary mirrorless cameras where electronic shutter techniques now allow speeds as fast as 1/32000.

If you want to shoot fast lenses wide open in daylight you will require a neutral density filter.

Sensor Dust

One of the problems with the M typ 262 was its susceptibility to sensor dust, leading to unsightly blobs that would typically be most visible in areas of clear sky.

Leica M10 with 50mm Summilux ASPH.

Leica M10 with 50mm Summilux ASPH.

The M10 still lacks a built-in sensor cleaning system, but surprisingly dust has been a total non issue. In 18 months of use, I have only seen a couple of images where there was a minor dust spec – and this was easily resolved with a bulb blower. As yet, I have not needed to wet clean the sensor.

Leica M10 with 50mm Summilux ASPH FLE.

Leica M10 with 50mm Summilux ASPH FLE.

Leica do not appear to make obvious marketing claims about improved sensor dust resistance (such as a new sensor coating), so perhaps this has just been the luck of the draw. Either way the M10 has resolved one of the most frustrating issues that I had with the M typ 262.

Black and White

Black and white conversions are, as per the M typ 262, superb.

Leica M10 with 50mm Summilux ASPH.

Leica M10 with 50mm Summilux ASPH.

Compared to colour images, blown-highlights are also much less of an issue as there is no colour shift to worry about, and compared to an M-Monochrome the Bayer RGB sensor allows a more gentle transition in to overexposed areas. Surprisingly, there is currently no monochrome variant of the M10.

WiFi Image Transfer

The M10 supports WiFi and Leica provides iOS and Android apps which allow basic control over the camera and the ability to transfer images.

It turns out that the basic wireless protocol is fairly straightforward, and so I have written a macOS application that supports image transfer over WiFi to support Mac laptops without a built-in SD card reader. The software is free to use (and, like this blog, free from advertisements or affiliate links). You can download the most recent copy from here.

Leica M10 with 35mm Summilux ASPH FLE.

Leica M10 with 35mm Summilux ASPH FLE.

Conclusion

Given the M10’s limitations, it sometimes seems an odd choice as a photographic tool.

But it is an immensely pleasurable camera to shoot with. The new simplified button layout and the ISO dial make handling uniquely intuitive and efficient, and the physical construction is second to none. The LCD is bright and clear and the RAW files are flexible and easy to process. The new shutter is quieter, and even more so with the M10-P and M10-D variants. Live-view is well implemented and greatly increases the range of applications that can be tackled.

Leica M10 with 50mm Summilux ASPH.

Leica M10 with 50mm Summilux ASPH.

Leica M cameras benefit from what has become known as the “Ikea Effect”. With most modern mirrorless cameras you can rely on automation to capture perfectly exposed and focussed images with very little effort. With an M series camera you have to work harder to make an image, and the investment of effort translates into a greater sense of ownership in the result. You might have a better chance of getting a key shot with a modern mirrorless camera, but you will value the results from an M more because of the effort that you have to put in. From the perspective of the final result this may or may not be a good thing, but it does make the process of photography much more satisfying.

Leica M10 with 35mm Summilux ASPH FLE and diffusion filter.

Leica M10 with 35mm Summilux ASPH FLE and diffusion filter.

If you are already using the M system, then the M10 is a worthwhile upgrade for the best in handling, live-view and image quality (even if the latter is only slightly improved). The plain M10 offers the most economic entry point, while the M10-P comes with the quieter shutter and features such as GPS, a digital level and a touch screen. For those offended by the presence of an LCD on a camera, the M10-D allows you to pretend that you are shooting a film camera without all that tedious mucking about with film, chemicals and scanning.

Leica M10 with 28mm Summicron.

Leica M10 with 28mm Summicron.

For people not already inside the Leica ecosystem I think that the M10 is a much harder choice. It is an expensive camera which will seem limited compared to  modern mirrorless rivals. It is also difficult to recommend Leica for professional work, as their service and repair capability unfortunately remains a big headache (the recent five-month repair of my M7 being a painful example of this, with the camera still not completely functional). The M10 does offer something distinctive to the shooting experience, and will give the best possible image quality from some of the unique lenses available for the system – but if looking for a genuinely authentic “Leica experience” I still strongly recommend trying a film body first.

Leica M10 with ZM 1,5/50 C-Sonnar and diffusion filter.

Leica M10 with ZM 1,5/50 C-Sonnar and diffusion filter.

I am perhaps not a typical Leica customer. I strongly believe that the imaging possibilities of the camera are far more important than nostalgic notions about Leica history, details such as engravings on the top-plate, or that the camera body is made from chunks of milled brass. And please don’t get me started on nonsense such as the Lenny Kravitz special editions, which frankly should make any serious photographer cringe.

I care about making photographs and being able to use some of the best optics currently made, and the M system still manages to do that while being eminently portable and non-intimidating for subjects.

Leica M10 with 28mm Summicron.

Leica M10 with 28mm Summicron.

The M10 works for me because it fits neatly in to an existing system of cameras and lenses that include both film and digital. And it is those lenses, with their unique combination of size and imaging characteristics that ultimately ensure that the M10 still has a role to play today.

However, Leica should be increasingly concerned that the world has moved on from the time when the M9 was introduced and there were no rivals to its diminutive full-frame camera. With the recent debut of mirrorless systems from Canon and Nikon as well as Sony’s well established a7R series, the Leica M needs to continue to evolve and improve if it is to remain photographically relevant.

1 Comment »

  1. Brilliant article, I am better informed but…I feel that with any camera in your hand the result would be astounding…so nightmare to choose one over the other.

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