Leica M262 Review: The rangefinder M returns to its roots
The new lightweight M, the Typ 262, is an extremely interesting camera for a number of reasons. As a bellwether to Leica policy, it could be one of the most significant introductions since the announcement of the M at Photokina in 2012.
While it will perform exactly as the more expensive 240, the 262 is intriguing precisely because of its relative simplicity and purity of concept. By all accounts it has had a very positive reception among dedicated rangefinder enthusiasts.
It represents a move back to rangefinder goodness that Leica fans have been demanding ever since the demise of the M9. Indeed, this nostalgia for the simpler life is manifested in the increasing demand for the previous M model, the M9.
Now Leica has settled the sensor problem, second-hand M9s and M9-Ps are in greater demand. I know several owners of Ms and M-Ps who have recently bought “cheap” M9s as a second camera and to enjoy the simplicity and lighter weight of what is fast becoming a classic. Some have even gone back to the M9 exclusively because of its relative purity and easier handling.
The M brought more complexity. While the CMOS sensor was generally welcomed by most (but not all) users mainly because of the improved high-ISO performance, movie making was not. Nor was the ability to mount an accessory electronic viewfinder high on M-fans’ wish lists.
With hindsight, it is possible to make a good case for the new, more basic 262 being the M that should have been from the start: A pure, up-to-date rangefinder experience. It is an M9 with a CMOS sensor and is all the better for the lack of unwanted complications. In comparison with the 240, the 262 offers less by cutting out live view and all that goes with it, including video and an electronic viewfinder, alternative metering options, the choice of framelines and the frameline lever itself (which is present on the M-P but not on the M240). This feature reduction allows an appealing 80g to be shaved off the total weight of the body and a similarly welcome whittling down of the menus.
From a styling point of view, also, there are minor changes. Most notable is the step down to the left of the top plate. Leica says that this is a nod to the design of the M9. In reality, the absence of a microphone has allowed this change of image.
In compensation for these ostensible privations you have a camera that is traditional M, accurately aimed at the heart of the rangefinder enthusiast. It is a prime example of less being more.
During the period of design of M240, in 2010 and 2011, Leica clearly took heed of current developments in mirrorless camera design and concluded that more features were necessary if the new model was to compete with the opposition.
Product images (click to enlarge)
The designers decided to tick a few extra boxes to give the M wider appeal. Someone clearly felt that without a nod to the technical advances offered by other camera manufacturers the new M would be hobbled. Video, yes! EVF, Yes! Fancy coloured framelines, Yes! Live view to support the EVF and composing on the rear screen, Yes! Enough boxes were ticked to keep the non-Leica reviewers happy. Leica was keeping up with the times, almost. But not quite, even at launch, because competitors had moved even faster.
Since then things have moved on. The M240, while remaining a great rangefinder camera, is not about to compete on equal footing in terms of electronic acrobatics.
The important factor is that it no longer needs to compete. That is the big change between 2012 and 2016. Leica now has the SL, a camera that in terms of technology, suitability for video, live view and viewfinder ability is streets ahead of the M.
Anyone who needs these additional electronic features will now do better to buy an SL than an M. For once, Leica has both bases covered. Perhaps, just perhaps, Leica has concluded that the digital rangefinder can succeed without fripperies; that a back-to-basics configuration is the key to the future. After, all, what many Leica enthusiasts want is a simple camera, a film camera with an electronic sensor to replace the film.
So, back to the 262. By cutting out the unnecessary complications, the M returns to doing what it does best—manual prime-lens mastery with arguably the best non-auto focus system ever devised. Moreover, the weight saving and the slightly altered design (primarily the step-down on the left-hand edge of the top plate) make this a worthy successor to the still-popular M9. It even feels similar.
I am not going to tell you the 262 takes better pictures than the M240 or the M-P. But, then again, they will not be any worse. You will get exactly the same results, lens for lens, whichever of these cameras you choose.
You sacrifice absolutely nothing in image quality. So I don’t need to labour this point: There are hundreds of tests of the M or M-P out there and some of them are exhaustive, answering any questions you might have.
To be honest, I didn’t really need to spend time with this camera in order to write the review. But there’s nothing like holding it and using it for a few days to gain a thorough appreciation of the differences between this and the M240. So when Leica’s press office told me there was one available, I was quick to collect.
Removing a swathe of electronics, the EVF interface and the microphone allowed Leica's engineers to perform a minor redesign by re-introducing the step to the left of the top plate last seen on the M9. The change of top-plate material from brass to aluminium probably prompted the styling change but it also brought a very welcome saving in camera weight, from 680 to 600g. The M262 shares its die-cast magnesium chassis with the 240 and M-P models.
The camera is currently available only in black (although I suspect a silver model is probably in the offing) and shares the red dot and lack of frameline lever with the 240. The M-P is distinguished by the loss of the red dot and the presence of the frameline adjustment lever to the side of the lens mount.
That 80g weight saving is noticeable as soon as you pick up the camera. It feels better in the hands than the heavier M or M-P, much more akin to the heft of the M8 and M9, not to mention the M7. If you like the smooth finish of the traditional M you will take immediately to the 262.
If you need additional grip you can fit a Thumbs Up (one of my all-time favourite contraptions) and a Leica grip. Both the standard and the multi-function grips fit the M262. However, the electronic interface at the bottom of the camera is for diagnostics only so the MF grip is an unlikely accessory. I suspect most owners will revel in the weight saving and eschew additional grips with the exception, perhaps, of a lightweight Thumbs Up.
By cutting out live view and video, Leica has managed to shrink the menu from six to three screens, including the SET menu. So, a frugal two pages of main menu supplemented by one SET page. This is one of the biggest attractions of the M262. Another back-to-basics goal. Most modern digital cameras have suffered from menu bloat and many, particularly Sony and Fuji from my own experience, are difficult to get to grips with. Leica's decision to keep things simple is laudable. The M262 is a simple camera with simple controls and a rich user experience, just what we really need and nothing more.
The spec sheet tells us that the M262 incorporates a new metal-blade focal-plane shutter with vertical action, as opposed to the dual-type shutter of the M240 which supports classic or live view operations.
It is said to be quieter and more stealthy, something that is designed to appeal to street photographers who appreciate these things. However, after testing it side by side with my own M240-P I cannot in all honesty conclude that the shutter is quieter.
It does have a different, quite distinctive sound, but I would hardly think the slight difference in volume, if indeed there is one, constitutes a particular selling point. Some users might find it more attractive but, personally, I am quite happy with the sound of the old shutter.
I’ve made a rough and ready iPhone video which you can view here and listen to a the shutter comparisons between the M262 and M240-P (which is the same as the standard M240).
From the start, the M240 offered some form of weather sealing but it would be a mistake to regard it is as effective as sealing on some other cameras—such as the new Fuji X-Pro 2, for instance. Leica tell me that;
The M camera is sealed as effectively as possible by internal seals to reduce the chance of water penetrating the camera body to an absolute minimum. This means, for instance, that penetration of water into the camera is not to be expected when using it in a light rain. Nevertheless, please note that the system does not feature a bayonet seal, and that Leica M-lenses are not protected against water spray or splashes.
This is fair enough and the lens mount, which cannot be protected because of the nature of the system, is always going to be an Achilles’ heel. After all, the M can handle almost all lenses going back over 80 years, with varying degrees of success it has to be said.
The M262 offers exactly the same level of protection as the M240 and M-P. In one tiny respect, however, it is better. Both the live-view-equipped bigger brothers have a vulnerability in the port for EVF connection. Unless the supplied hot-shoe cover is fixed to the camera, thus plugging the EVF port, there is always the possibility of water getting in. The M262 has no exposed port so is marginally safer.
In comparison with the M240
The 262 has largely blown the 240 out of the water. As I have said before, the M-P is a better buy and in my opinion you should ignore the M (except as a second-hand buy) and choose from the basic M262 or the fully featured M-P.
In comparison with the M-P
For the time being the M-P, with its 2GB buffer (offering three times the speed potential), crystal screen for durability and a return to the frameline selection lever that some still find useful, is by far the better choice if you need the live view or electronic viewfinder.
The M-P offers several advantages over the standard M. It gets a 2GB buffer (as compared with 1GB) which in effect trebles the number of continuous shots before delays (21 as opposed to around six on the M). It also offers the traditional frameline lever of the M9, which for some reason is missing from the M240 (and the M262).
You also get a sapphire-glass screen instead of the standard Gorilla glass and a much prettier cosmetic package, including the traditional Leica engraving on the top plate. So, if you want more than the M262 offers, go for the M-P and not the M240.
In comparison with the SL
Even for use with M lenses, rather than the single native zoom, the SL is an attractive package for those who want more electronic toys and a good built-in electronic viewfinder. And what a viewfinder: It is probably the best EVF I have used, even better than that of the Leica Q and that is saying a great deal. By comparison, the aged VF-2 of the M and M-P is ridiculously out of date and disappointing on such an expensive camera. To add insult to injury, it is an extra at a hefty cost of £380. Furthermore, the SL has a fantastic handgrip built in to the camera—something that also costs extra on the M range.
If I were starting again, and didn’t already own an M-P, I would be tempted to settle on a combination of the stripped-down M262 and an SL as a second body.
Harbinger of change
The “basic” M262 is just so right, from a rangefinder enthusiast’s vantage point, that it ought be the starting position for the next M model. I suspect, to some extent, it is a flier to see how customers will react. For the next M, I would like to see Leica take a cool, hard look at the future of the rangefinder. And I am more than ever convinced that it does have a good future.
With the SL to keep the technology buffs happy, the company has a chance to turn the next M into a true successor to the traditional film M. Keep things simple, shave some weight and some girth (Sony has shown the possibilities in the lissom A7 series) and we are back to a digital version of the M7 or, if I dare mention the holy grail, the original M3. Rangefinder buffs would like nothing more than an M3 lookalike and feelalike with a digital sensor replacing the film. There is a definite niche for such a camera and Leica is the company to fill it.
The M262 is the natural successor to the M9, rather than to the M and M-P which I believe are both over ambitious and present more than the rangefinder enthusiast really wants or needs.
The weight saving and lower cost of the new camera are a good trade-off for live view which, I know, most rangefinder fans seldom use. It is the purest digital rangefinder and is therefore a better choice than the M or M-P for dedicated fans. It is the camera most likely to please upgraders from the M9 or M-E; in weight and form it is more or less identical.
My friend Jim Arnold in Ohio was quick to buy an M262 after cutting his Leica digital teeth on an M9-based M-E. This video represents a great in-depth assessment of the M262 compared with the M9-series—unlike my review which assesses the camera against its siblings, the M and M-P. You can find Jim Arnold’s blog here.