Upper class vintage: Leica M (240)

It’s certainly not the best camera, as far as such a thing exists. But it is one of the very best and, in 2022, still one that can compete with the very greatest. The now “classic” Leica M, type 240, the first full-frame rangefinder with CMOS sensor. An addictive camera, very expensive, but an irresistible must have.

After my Leica Barnacks, the Leica XI and X2, the Leica CL, the Leica M6, there was no escape. Sooner or later, you’re outed on the purchase of a digital M. Yes, it’s very expensive, even overpriced according to some. After all, what are you paying for. You are many times cheaper and often more advanced, smarter, more complete with a Sony, Canon or Nikon. Yet the appeal of a handmade German Leica is irresistible. You don’t judge a Leica by value for money. You either love Leica or you don’t. It is a love for life and you pay the price for it. But the love is mutual. Think of it as an investment that may bring you more than you are investing in it now. A leica is stable in value and brings in more money than interest on a bank. But it often doesn’t come to that. Abandoning a Leica results in heartbreak from which it is difficult to recover.

Leica has it all. System- and SLR cameras, compact cameras and you can even buy a brand new analog film camera. But the real trademark is the unsurpassed rangefinder M series. Since the early 1950s the successor to the famous Barnack series. The success story started with the M3 then the M2, M1 and then in more logical order the M4 up to M11 which appeared at the end of 2021. Announced by Leica as the birth of a new legend. Leica is not a Sony that presents new models every year, a Leica M4 takes at least 5 years to appear in a new look. Sometimes even longer. The crazy thing is that all models look alike, if you put the M3 next to the M11, similarities stand out, not differences, although of course there are. The family feel is what binds the M’s together, the classic look of the world’s most famous rangefinder. The “M”. The sexiest camera that for many is love at first sight. Rightly so, because the M offers a unique feature: compactness with the aspiration of an advanced SLR. Smaller, handier and minimalist. Not a button too many. Photography back to the essence. Leica’s slogan and the formula for success of a company that has outlived its competitors by more than 100 years. With which the names of the most famous photographers are connected, back then and nowadays also. You have Leica and the rest of the brands. Point. It’s the Audi in car land. Or an Aston Martin, a Jaguar. Quality first, every camera handmade, finished and checked down to the smallest detail. Made to last hundreds of years, to outlive the user. Because long after mankind, the Leica will still exist.

Now for what this review is all about, the Leica M (type 240). Where did the normal number go? To be precise, the Leica M240 sits between the M9 and M10, actually it should have been the M10. Who knows what the marketers at Leica wanted in 2012? The number 240 stands for the resolution of 24MP. The Leica M 240 is a full-frame digital rangefinder and is the successor to the Leica M9 range of CCD sensor cameras with 18 MP. The M uses the new 24-megapixel CMOS image sensor. Therefore it is the first M model to feature movie recording and Live View, which allows the scene, as viewed through the lens, to be composed. The M can use most M- and R-mount lenses, but also adapted third party lenses. There is also the M Monochrom version, with a totally black and white monochrome sensor. But of course the M240 is first and foremost a manual rangefinder where you have to overlay the double image in the patch through the viewfinder to focus. Just as it was a hundred years ago with the Leica II. In the M240, the usual framelines for using 28 up to 135 mm lenses have been replaced by digital variants. The lensmount ‘measures’ by so-called cams in the lens or contact points (codes; depending on the age of the lens) which focal length the lens has. You see a digital frame that you can use as a viewfinder for your image composition. Furthermore, only the exposure meter is active in the viewfinder, and in A(perture) preset mode it displays the correct shutter speed and manually a light point with arrows to its left and right indicating under- or over-exposure in full and half stops.

New is also the first MAESTRO image/video processor with the first CMOS sensor. This was not received enthusiastically by everyone, as the vintage colors and contrast of the M8 and M9 lagged behind this new rendering. The high dynamic range did not match the classic Leica look, according to some. Others applauded the new sensor, especially for the better detailing of shaded areas in the photos. The M240 also offered a new matrix-based multi field exposure meter by allowing light to be measured through an open shutter. But that is still up to the user, the classic center and spot metering are also available. But the new CMOS sensor could do something a CCD sensor could not: provide live view and focussing through the lens via the LCD screen or through the optional electronic EVF2 slip-on viewfinder. Swearing in Leica land, how could you put live view on a rangefinder? A discussion that went far beyond the country’s borders. A discussion that went far beyond the country’s borders. In the whole Leica community there was an outcry but at the same time the realization that the classic M had now definitely entered the digital age with all its new possibilities. One of these was the possibility to adapt other lenses, not only the M glass, but also for example the excellent R lenses. It became possible to call up an R lens menu in the M240 via a special R-M adapter, select a lens so that the camera takes into account the specific characteristics of that lens. An innovation that eventually won out over initial criticism. Of course, the M240 was a true rangefinder. Lifeview can be turned on and off making the camera behave like an M again the old fashioned way. All lenses for the Leica M can be used. The downwards compatibility is Leica’s trademark.

The camera also offers Aperture priority mode where the M itself selects a shutter speed appropriate to the aperture. And also the setting of ISO can be done automatically where the camera chooses an ISO value that suits a desired shutter speed and/or aperture. And of course, those who want to do everything themselves can easily choose their own settings with an exposure meter in the viewfinder indicating whether those are plausible values. A system that has been in place since the film M6. Although childishly implemented and virtually unusable (compared to 2022), the video function is present to take HD videos at 24/25 frames per second, with sound to be understood. But Leica and video, except on the modern SL, do not go well together. A function that therefore can no longer be found on the later M’s either. It also makes the M240 bulky, as it is noticeably thicker and heavier than its predecessors. But above all, she still retains a sexy look, worthy of an M. And then that quiet but appealing shutter sound, how sexy is that!

This has to do with its classic, minimalist design. On top are only the shutter wheel and the on/off button for photo and video recording. Mechanical shutter speeds from bulb to 1/4000s and a preferred setting for single shot, series of shots or self-timer. Don’t expect too much from those series shots in 2013: a mere 3 frames per second. The M240 is not a speed wonder and is not suitable for this. A rangefinder you use photo after photo, you take your time. For a sports photographer not an obvious device. A special focus button is located on the front. This is intended to zoom in on the image in live view (5/10x) where a live aid is applied with focus peaking. In this way you can focus on the LCD screen or in the EVF.

The super-hard 3-inch LCD screen is of decent quality (920,000 pixels) and incorporates a new structure designed for the M240. Accessible via the menu button on the side, where there are also buttons for live view, play. delete, ISO and Set. The latter is actually a shortened function menu for the most important settings. On the right side is a small joystick for selecting and confirming menu changes and calling up a special info screen with the settings and battery and card usage. On the back is also the exposure compensation / magnification wheel. Depending on your menu setting, this wheel can be given this function.

The menu itself is simple, the most important functions are quickly accessible (e.g. colors, contrast and sharpness can also be further tuned). Compared to now it is certainly not advanced, but it meets what an average photographer wants to set. The bottom of the camera is removable and provides access to the battery and memory card. The battery on the M240 is one of the very best. You can easily shoot a full day with it and still go home satisfied with a few bars in the battery indicator. I’ve never seen it this good. The camera accepts all SD / SDHC / SDXC Memory Cards and recommended is a bit modern and faster card, it seems that the whole camera starts up and reacts faster with a newer card than back in 2012 (!). The software / firmware version was in 2020 updated to version 2.1.00.

Impressions in 2022

Yes, I am a proud owner of a 2015 M240, a beautiful black painted one in impeccable condition, purchased from a dealer in Austria. Like many, as evidenced by the many forums on the Internet, I hesitated for a long time about buying a digital M. Not that I didn’t want one, but because of the astronomical amounts of money being asked and unaffordable for normal mortals. Fortunately, the aging M8, M9, M240 have now become “cheaper” by Leica standards, but even then, the price for a second-hand, 10-year-old M is just as high as a brand new Sony A7IV with the most modern, advanced gadgets. Why a leica M, almost 10 years old with outdated technology. ‘outdated’ ? It is really not bad in the first place. A 24 MP sensor is really possible in 2022, you really don’t need much more as a photographer, unless you design billboards. After all, how big should your print be, 24 MP more than suffices, less is also not bad. I have seen fantastic posters made with 10 megapixels. Focusing with a rangefinder is very motivating and inspiring and a lot more fun experience than AF. Moreover, it is fast and very accurate. It makes the process of photographing much more engaging and motivating. That also applies to the manual settings with which you learn much more than all those automatic settings on a modern system camera. That’s not old-fashioned, it’s refreshingly instructive. Moreover, range finding is much more capable of seeing the object in context, you see what happens outside the ‘frame’ and what does or does not belong to it. The processor is not that fast, so no high burst rates. Now I’ve never needed that opportunity either, so I don’t miss it. And for the rest, the camera does what cameras do in 2022, they are a fantastic tool for the creative photographer to see and capture the world through the eye of a lens, the most important part on the camera. And glass from 1950 is almost the same as that of today. Yes, there are newfangled sharpening methods and coatings, but a lens from the distant past can add a really interesting extra to your photos and, as a rule, are just as sharp as they are now. Only the rendering is often more colorful, different, low-contrast, impressions where filter apps on your smart phone make so much money with! Here it comes directly from the camera. A Leica cannot be a Leica without good (Leica) glass. They belong together. Not that there aren’t good third party ‘M-mount’ suppliers like Voigtlander, Zeiss and Chinese brands like TTartisans. I have them myself and they are very good and getting even better and better. But they do not replace the Leica glass, is my belief. I myself use R lenses on the M. R lenses are “cheaper” and in many cases better than the M brothers. You can also focus shorter distance with them. I myself use the R-28 Elmarit, the 50 mm Summicron and the 135 mm Tele Elmarit. All top of the notch lenses that share commonly the warmer Leica colors, the 3D pop up effect and the micro contrast that merge into that unmistakable Leica look, where it is all about. It really exists. There is the world of photography and there is the world of Leica. That’s why a Leica M240 still stands out, even in 2022 and probably still in 25 years from now.

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