New Leica M: Clarity and purpose instead of compromise and bloat
Rumour mills are grinding again as we approach the launch of the new M. It’s four years since the M240 hit the shelves and a replacement is now definitely due, if not overdue since the opportunity of Photokina 2016 was conspicuously missed. According to Leica Rumors this new beast could launch next month and be in your hands by the Spring of 2017. I don't think we will see an announcement next month but probably in the first quarter of next year.
But what can we expect when it does come? LR suggests a 36MP sensor which I think is likely but not by any means a given. The SL makes do with 24MP — as does the Q — and much has been made of the benefits of not going to excess on sensor size. There is a big question mark over whether 36MP is a necessity or simply an exercise in keeping up with the Joneses. If so, it will not impress the traditional M user.
More interesting is the rumour that the camera will be smaller overall than the M240 and that, to my mind, would be the most exciting development.
Leica’s ultimate aim, I suspect, is to produce a digital rangefinder that is no larger, nor heavier than a film camera. The M3 has been cited, but I’d settle for an M7 feel-alike.
There are physical problems in achieving a body depth equivalent to that of a film camera. In analogue cameras the film plane usually sits right at the back of the body and, of course, it is very thin. With a digital camera the rear the body is cluttered with screen and sensor electronics, plus the inescapable fact that an electronic sensor is thicker than film (for the moment, at least, but watch out for developments). This alone mandates a deeper body to maintain the correct relationship between lens and sensor. But technology marches on and what is possible in 2016 is clearly different to what Leica had to work with in 2011 during the development of the M240.
Without a doubt the traditional viewfinder will remain. An M without a rangefinder is unthinkable. I imagine Leica’s boffins have studied the hybrid concept, perhaps checking over the odd Fuji X-Pro, but I suspect trying to combine the mechanical rangefinder with an electronic live view presents almost insurmountable problems. The Fuji is all electronic, of course. Instead, more refinement of the existing rangefinder would be welcome. I would also not discount a return to optical rather than electronic framelines; it is often frustrating to bring the M240 and its siblings to the eye and realise they aren't switched on, therefore no framelines.
But will we need an external viewfinder? When the M240 was designed Leica’s development engineers were under pressure to add as many box-tickable frills as possible. EVFs were becoming an essential feature and Wetzlar no doubt feared that a new M without an EVF would flop. I don’t think it would have done so, but then I wasn’t asked at the time.
Sir SL to the rescue
What has changed in the last five years is that Leica now has something else to offer the technologically minded: The SL.
The SL does EVFs rather well, far better indeed than the M, even with a hybrid finder, can hope to emulate. It houses perhaps the best EVF on the market today. It gives Leica M owners the chance to maintain their much vaunted pure rangefinder concept while embracing modernity with the larger and more capable SL. I do not believe the typical M rangefinder buyer wants to see excessive bells and whistles. If an EVF is needed, buy the SL. If video is important, buy a Fuji or Panasonic to do the job better.
I have anecdotal evidence that things are moving in this direction. M240 owners are migrating to the SL and many of them are scratching their rangefinder itch with a used M9 rather than an M240. After all, as I wrote only two days ago, the M9 is much nearer to a film camera in size and weight.
I fear, however, that Leica will retain the external EVF when the new M is disclosed. At best we can hope for a completely redesigned, streamlined and svelte device that matches the one in the SL in terms of effectiveness. At worst we will get the ugly Visoflex introduced with the Leica T. I fervently hope that the elderly and creaky VF-2 has been consigned to Valhalla. In fact, I think this is one thing we can be certain of.
What would you like to see in the new M?
[After publishing the above piece I found an article by Ashwin Rao in which he mirrors many of my thoughts and opinions. But Ashwin adds some extra bits, including getting rid of the hoary old baseplate, adding a faux film advance lever, introducing in-camera stabilisation and a suggestion that it be called the Leica 10. Yes! Read the full article here.]