Banging the drum for the M262: Leica's new M9
The Leica M Type 262 represents a welcome return to purity in M photography and it deserves to be the most popular model in the range. It has been described as a “stripped-down” M but this is a rather simplistic verdict. In reality, the 262 loses nothing that the typical rangefinder user wants or needs in a camera. So far, it is the nearest we have come to a digital version of a Leica film camera since the M9 and is all the better for it.
Rather than being a stripped-down M240, the M262 is in reality a stepped-up M9. It is an M9, characterised by the stepped top plate, brought up to date and furnished with a CMOS sensor and a usable screen. It is the camera the M240 should have been.
Ask any Leica enthusiasts what they want a digital M to resemble in terms of weight and dimension and they will mention the M3 or, perhaps one of the later film cameras such as the M6 or even M7. These cameras fit in the hand perfectly and have just the right heft to provide a balanced unit when almost any M lens is mounted. The digital Ms, not so much the M8 and M9, but certainly the M240 and its derivatives, are noticeably thicker and heavier than, say, a modern M7.
The M262 goes a long way to satisfying this demand. A full 100g has been shaved off the weight by replacing the brass top plate with with a redesigned aluminium component to marry with the die-cast magnesium body. This new top plate incorporates a distinctive step above the rangefinder window in a nod to the design of the M8 and M9. While fans will welcome the weight saving, which puts the M262 on par with the M7 and only 15g heavier than the M6, they will have to live without the somewhat dubious benefits of the potential brassing effect which can be the sign of a well-used camera (or, more likely, the sign of a strategically rubbed lightly used camera).
The camera has exactly the same dimensions as the M240 and its derivatives—139x80x42mm—so it still suffers from the extra 7mm of depth that is quite noticeable when swapping rapidly between a film M and the latest digitals. It all adds to the impression that the digital M is larger than it need be.
Despite the identical dimensions, the M262 feels much more like a film camera than the 240. The weight saving is significant and that helps create the illusion that you are holding a smaller device.
In terms of performance, the M262 is identical to the M240, with the same 1GB buffer, which rapidly becomes overwhelmed when shooting a succession frames one after the other. It has the same CMOS 24MP sensor, the same Maestro I processor (as opposed to the Maestro II in the Q and SL) and an identical 200-6400 sensitivity range. However, despite using the CMOS sensor (which, unlike the CCD unit in the earlier M8 and M9 models can support the feature) the M262 does not offer live view. This is perhaps one area where buyers might feel short changed but it doesn’t particularly worry me. Nor, I suspect, will it worry potential buyers. The screen is the same 920,000-dot 3in component used in the M240 and is covered with the same Gorilla glass.
Reader Jim Arnold has made the following video of the M262 shutter sound in comparison with his M-E and old M2. It's not as "barely audible" as we're led to believe, but it does sound good
For this new camera Leica has developed a metal-blade focal-plane shutter with vertical movement which the factory claims is “barely audible”. It will undoubtedly add to the appeal of the camera, particularly among street photographers who value lack of attention.
One consequence of the absence of live view is the inability to mount the VF-2 electronic viewfinder. Again, this is no great hardship since most M users prefer to rely on the traditional rangefinder. Only with lenses wider than 28mm is an external optical viewfinder necessary. Although I have a VF-2 on the shelf it is seldom to be seen mounted on my digital Ms.
In common with the base M240, the M262 also lacks the traditional frame line adjustment lever on the front of the camera. This lever enables the user to select either of the two alternative pairs of frame lines to visualise the effect of a different focal length. It was a feature of most of Leica's film cameras and the earlier digitals but, for some reason, Leica dropped it with the introduction of the M240. Whether this was for cost-cutting purposes or simply because they thought it unnecessary I do not know. Significantly, however, it has returned on the higher-spec M-P version of the M240.
In simplifying the M262 Leica has managed to shrink the main menu to just two pages plus the separate SET menu. Of the 42 menu functions on the M240 only 22 are left on the M262. To achieve this, a number of functions have been deleted (some of them are not relevant in any case because of the absence of live view) and others have been rearranged into sub-menus. For instance, the main menu adjustments JPG rendering are moved to a sub-menu of JPG settings on the M262 (Sharpness, Saturation, Contrast, all with settings sub-menus).
There are a number of significant missing items, including the ability to change the frameline colour (white and red are available on the M240, white only on the M262) and exposure metering. The M262 is fixed at centre-weighted where the M240 also offers spot and multi-field exposure alternatives. The ever-knowledgeable Jimmy Hughes at Leica UK tells me that this omission is not a spoiler, simply that the options other than centre-weighted are a function of live view which, of course, is missing from this camera.
The menu item Histogram, which is missing on the above shots from the manual has been reinstated and on production models on the first page after JPG Settings. Many of the menu items on the M240, such as EVF Brightness, Focus Peaking, Focus Aid, Horizon and Video Mode, are not relevant to the M262.
Below: Several readers asked if the startup time was "as slow as the M240" or faster like the M9. Jim Arnold has produced this video to show that the startup and wake is pretty fast
None of these changes would be a deal-breaker for me and the ultra-simple menu is both welcome and a refreshing alternative to the ever-expanding range of options available on most modern digitals.
Look Ma, no video
Last but certainly not least, the M262 doesn’t do video. I can hear the cheers from Leica fans all over the planet. I have never felt the need to use video with the M and the little button to the right of the shutter release is nothing but a nuisance. At least it can be permanently disabled on the 240. Now, with the M262 it has gone, I hope forever. Good riddance, rest in peace YouTube.
The M262 deserves to be popular. It is the camera the original M240 should have been, before Leica mistakenly decided to join the feature race. Perhaps now the Q and SL are there to satisfy video and electronic-viewfinder addicts, Leica can safely return to basics with the rangefinder models and avoid the mistake of attempting to keep up with the Sony-Jones’s.
Concentration on the basics of rangefinder photography has another potential benefit. Once out of the feature race, the M digitals will have a longer model life. Image quality is already of a very high standard and, without the temptation to keep up with the mirrorless-camera opposition, Leica can concentrate on honing an already successful formula. For owners this will bring a benefit in the form of stronger resale values. Leica now has the opportunity to bring an element of stability to the rangefinder digital and make it even more attractive to those photographers who do not need all the latest bells and whistles.
This camera has all the features you need if your preferred method of working is with a rangefinder. I feel it should be the basis of the new M, which I expect next September: A pure, simple digital experience. If it can be made smaller, returning to the dimensions of the M3, all the better.
The camera used for the purposes of this brief evaluation was loaned by Red Dot Cameras in London. I am waiting for a test model to arrive from Leica..