The Return of the M: The Leica M10 Review

When it comes to reviews of the Leica M10 rangefinder camera, I am a little behind the curve. The M10 was released in February 2017, and here I am - reviewing the camera 10 months later. I was late to the Leica M10 bandwagon; when it was released, I dismissed the improvements and stubbornly stuck next to my Leica M 240. A lack of availability with my local Leica store also discouraged any impulse buys.

Despite my attempts to stick it out with the M240, the lure of the M10 bit hard, and I have now been shooting this camera full time, wondering why it took so long for me to make the switch.

Size Matters

If you have been using the M240 for some time, then the first thing you’ll notice when you pick up the M10’s body is the thinner body. Much has been said on the internet about this new body thickness, which is comparable to the old M film bodies. I was skeptical that the few millimeters of difference in body width would manifest itself in a meaningful way, but I was certainly wrong.

I recently spent a day walking 14 miles through New York City shooting hundreds of images with the M10. My feet were raw, my legs screamed with every step, and my bones ached, but my wrist and shooting hand was totally fresh. By comparison, I used a variety of thumb grips and strap wrapping techniques to try and alleviate some pain that would plague my hand shooting the M240. As a woman, I almost certainly have hands smaller than the average Leica shooter, and a little hand discomfort was part of the price I had to pay for admission into the Leica rangefinder club.

No more. 

The ergonomics of the M10 far surpass those of the other digital M bodies, and the build in thumb rest near the back scroll wheel really is a pleasant design feature.

Simplistic and Elegant

On the topic of ergonomic improvements.... Leica simplified the entire camera system by removing extra buttons and compressing two different menu systems into a single, easy-to-use system. 

With the M240, you had two menus. One found under the “Menu” button, and one found under the “Set” button.  This vexed me when I first purchased the M240. I was walking around London and excited to use my new camera, but I couldn’t get the ISO or RAW file settings set. I searched over and over in the menu with no luck. Frustrated, I finally took up refuge in a restaurant and downloaded the Leica M240 manual onto my phone. Only then did I understand how the menus worked.

I don’t read instruction manuals. I could be flying a rocket ship, and I’d prefer to figure it out through trial-and-error than open the NASA provided booklet. While this probably isn’t the best strategy for rocket ship flying, it has generally worked for me in my terrestrial life. So when a camera menu is so wonky that I have to use the manual, that bodes poorly.

Thankfully Leica realized the menu system was a disaster and redesigned it in the M10 to mirror the menu system employed by the Leica SL and Leica Q.  Since I am already well versed in that menu structure, the M10 was a natural pick-up, with no learning curve.  And Leica introduced the favorites menu, so that I can have quick access to those features I need most often.

Simplification of the menus also included a reduction in buttons. The M10 features only three buttons on the left of the LCD screen. A benefit of this layout is that it is easy to memorize which buttons have what functionality, and to be able to jump straight to a particular button without having to read them all. I shot the M240 for longer than I’ve used the M10, but I would fail a test to list the rear menu buttons in the correct order. Too much clutter.

Finally, no conversation about ergonomics is complete without talking about that spiffy ISO wheel on the top of the body.

Holy cow, that thing is fantastic. Walking through New York, I would dip into a building like Grand Central Station, crank the ISO up, then walk back into the sunshine and crank it back down, all without having to even look down at the camera. 

Some folks have complained the wheel is a little too stiff, but I think it’s pretty close to perfect. The control is very deliberate, but it can be done with one finger. Anything easier than that would probably accidentally spin when exposed to real world shooting environments. 

Oh, Say, Can You See?

While adjustments to the ergonomics of the camera make it more enjoyable and easier to use, the menus and buttons don’t directly impact the process of composing and creating - which is the point of the camera.  To address those elements, Leica revisited the viewfinder.

A diagram depicting the inside components of historical Leica rangefinders. The basic mechanics are the same today as they were nearly 100 years ago.

The rangefinder found within a Leica M body is an extremely sophisticated device. It comprises dozens of small glass lenses provide the focusing system for the camera. 

Unlike most digital cameras, a rangefinder does not see “through the lens”. In other words the view you see looking through the eyepiece won’t change, irrespective of the lens that was mounted or if you left the lens cap in place. With a rangefinder, the display seen through the eyepiece includes a small patch that is moved left-right as the user focuses, and when the image is properly aligned in the viewfinder, the photograph will be in focus.

These mechanics sound difficult, and for someone who has not used a rangefinder before, the process can take some practice to get accustomed to using. 

Leica has been producing rangefinder systems for a century, so they have really mastered the art of delivering an elegant system for composing and creating images. However, the M10 greatly improved the rangefinder through a few modifications.

The entire field of view seen by the M10 was enlarged on the camera by nearly 30% and the camera’s magnification factor was slightly increased. Leica also increased the eye-relief distance (bet you didn’t know that was a thing!) by nearly 50%. 

That all sounds fine and good, but also sounds very abstract. It’s hard to visualize what a 30% increase in magnification factor will do to the viewfinder without seeing it. And that’s the problem…. The rangefinder on the M10 is so wonderful, you have to see it to believe it.

If you wear glasses - even sunglasses - the M10 is a huge improvement. As someone who always wears sunglasses (though I have had LASIK surgery to correct my vision), the M240 viewfinder was sometimes restrictive. If I was shooting a 28mm or 35mm lens, I could not always see the frame lines fully, so there was a little bit of wild-ass-guessing involved in composition. 

The M10 has drastically improved that. In fact, I could hardly believe how easy it was to see the entire viewfinder window even while wearing sunglasses. This viewfinder is so incredibly clear and expansive, you won’t be able to go back to the M240 once you use the M10. 

A New, Sexy Sensor

 

Ninja Shooter

When I got my Leica SL, I dubbed it a sniper camera. The near silent shutter of the SL allowed me to discretely capture my subjects with ninja-like stealth. When hiking with my husband (the Photo Sherpa), it was not uncommon for him to ask if I was even taking any pictures, as he couldn’t hear the shutter fire.

By comparison, the M240 sounded like a dump truck. It had a distinctive electronic click that was noticeable to anyone within earshot. The problem with that is that I like to be a discrete photographer when taking street images, so the loud shutter sometimes would “give me away.” It’s okay if someone sees me taking their photograph, but I like to have a chance to get two or three images before they notice me. With the loud(er) shutter of the M240, I rarely could get more than one shot before the subject had their attention drawn.

The M10 sounds very similar to the shutter of the Leica SL, though it uses different mechanics.

This is a welcome improvement to the Leica M10, and it makes a considerable difference when using the camera in street photography settings.

Juice - A Minor Trade-Off

One of the trade-offs with thinning the M10 was that the battery had to slim down in order to fit into the thinner body. Of course, when you make a battery smaller, the performance declines. 

That said, I am still fairly pleased with the battery performance of the M10, though it won’t set any records or win any awards. In a full day of shooting with the M10 in New York City, I was able to take several hundred shots on one battery - it lasted me about 6 hours of full-time shooting. Two fully charged batteries would be enough for one day. 

It is unfortunate that I have to carry a backup battery with the M10, but the reality is that I’m battery paranoid anyway, so even if the battery performance was wonderful, I’d still have a spare. In that case, it doesn’t really matter - I am carrying two batteries every day anyway.

Weather Performance

There is a saying about bad weather making for great photographs, and it’s true. For that reason, I often shoot in bitter cold, scorching heat, or an extreme downpour.  I need my camera to keep up with the challenges.

With the Leica M240, I was always a little skeptical of the rain. I never had any issues, but the open “wound” on the back of the camera where the electronic viewfinder connection would mount and the exposed top microphone holes were a point of concern when it came to rain. 

The M10 has resolved all those issues, and I can first-hand attest to the fact that this camera is not the least bit intimidated by the rain. I did a full day of shooting in New York where there was constant precipitation falling on the camera and experienced only the slightest of issues.

The Leica M10 is technically not weather sealed, but it is pretty hardy. Unfortunately the temperature outside on this particular New York day was just warm enough that the snow melted almost instantly when it made contact with my body and the camera, making my hands and the camera very wet. After several hours, this caused the viewfinder to fog completely.

During periodic breaks indoors, I wrapped the camera in a dry shirt with the hopes that it would help dry out the camera's viewfinder. That worked to an extent, but the remaining moisture would condense anytime I subjected it to a temperature change stepping between the outdoors and indoors. I was able to dry out the viewfinder quickly once I was done shooting for the day, and there were no lasting effects of the condensation. In fact, I suspect I will rarely encounter this problem, as it is an artifact of the temperature hovering right around freezing.

Staying Connected

With the Leica SL, I occasionally use the iPhone app to connect wirelessly to the camera. Normally I utilize this feature whenever I want to remote trigger the camera, but I have also levied this functionality when wishing to spot-check a particular image by downloading it to a mobile device. 

The Leica M10 incorporates the same wireless connectivity to a mobile device, and the operation is just as smooth and easy as it is with the Leica SL. In fact, my unofficial users guide to the Leica SL app applies equally to the Leica M app.

I suspect I will have less utility for the app with the M10 then I do with the SL, just because there won’t be as many occasions to find myself shooting wirelessly, but I do appreciate having the option to use that functionality should I need it. 

Farewell Video

Leica created a little bit of controversy when they released the M240 with video functionality, and I am happy to see that feature set removed completely from the M10. A Leica rangefinder was never designed as video tool, and I can only imagine that Oskar Biernak rolled over in his grave at the idea that his camera’s now included video.

I never took a video with the M240. As far as I am concerned, the video functions were in the way. Good riddance!

To Upgrade or Not: That is the Question!

I resisted upgrading for 10 months, electing to take the wait-and-see approach toward the M10. But in the end, the improved sensor, better ISO performance, revised ergonomics, and clearer viewfinder had me sold on the M10. On paper, none of the upgrades from the M240 seem all that impressive - or at least not impressive enough to justify the price. But the reality is that Leica has produced an incredible flagship camera, where the net effect of these improvements more than justifies the upgrade.

I was doomed to buy an M10 the first time I held it and looked through that improved viewfinder. Having now used the camera to create several thousand images, I am very glad I made the upgrade. 

Leica managed to capture something special in the M10 - it feels less like a camera than it does an extension of my eyes - and that is what photography is really about.