Rob van Keulen: The New Leica M, The Perfect Museum Camera?

I could use the new Leica M camera with a few special lenses all day. To try it out, I had the world’s best standard lens, the Leica APO-Summicron-M 50 mm f/2 ASPH. and the super bright Noctilux-M 50 mm f/0.95 ASPH. To try the new Live View focusing capability of the camera, I got a Carl Zeiss Planar 50 mm f/2.0 ZF.2 macro lens to use with it. This lens has a Nikon mount and can be used on the Leica M with a Novoflex F to M Adapter.

After a long walk through the pouring rain, I reached the Museum of Ethnology in Leiden. I had been there in the past to try, what was at the time, the brand new Summilux-M 24 mm f/1.4 ASPH. on my Leica M9. I knew that this specific museum would be a strong challenge to test the capabilities of the new Leica M camera. Overall, the museum is very dark with spotlights on the objects. Even more troublesome is that some objects are only lit if motion is detected in front of them. This makes it so you then have to focus quickly and make your composition; otherwise, you find yourself in the dark again. Despite the use of light sensitive Leica lenses, I had to set the M on ISO 3200 for about 90% of the shots. Also, the lighting is very rich in contrast and with varying colors and types of lamps. My expectations were highly strained to see if the Leica M could deal with this challenge.

At the entrance to the museum is a separate section, where in the dark, a row of Buddha statues are placed. The focus in this darkness was awkward with Live View and pixel peeping, but fortunately no problem at all with the rangefinder. It is very practical that this camera offers both options. The pictures I took here I made with the APO-Summicron-M 50 mm f/2 ASPH. at full aperture. To get a stable handheld shot at 1/60 I had to shoot with ISO 2000 and 3200.

When editing in Lightroom 4 (I used the latest release candidate raw update), the images appeared very beautiful and detailed. Good color, fine detail, wide dynamic range and no significant noise. Even the somewhat streaky pattern in the red cloth in the background now became visible. This was something I had not noticed when taking the pictures because of the total darkness.

The minimum focusing distance of 70 centimeters of the APO-Summicron-M 50 mm f/2 ASPH. does not really give you macro capabilities, but was sufficient for capturing the meditation postures of the statues.

On my way out I made a close up of a Buddha statue with a flower in his hand. Here you can see the amazingly beautiful bokeh and sharpness of the Leica 50 mm APO at full open aperture.

Another reason for my visit was the fact that it was the last day that three statues of the famous Chinese terracotta army were on display. They were placed on a red platform in front of a video wall playing a documentary. I set myself calmly on the ground against the platform so I could use my knees as a tripod. For a shot from below, I placed the Leica M on the platform, but that triggered a loud, shrill alarm.

Because the camera is so small and quiet, I fell away in the increasingly large number of visitors. It was nice and funny to see the way people take pictures nowadays. Many mobile phones, a few iPads and further a lot of mirrorless cameras and one or two DSLR cameras. A few serious camera owners wanted to know more about my Leica M camera and how I was able to get such bright and sharp images.

I have also made a couple of shots with the Noctilux-M 50 mm f/0.95 ASPH. This was quite difficult because the depth of field is extremely small and I could not hold the camera very stable because of all the visitors walking around the place (a tripod was absolutely forbidden). After some shooting with the rangefinder, I decided to switch to the Live View mode with 5x magnification of the center of the image. The “pixel peeping” works very accurately and quickly, but because of the darkness and my very oblique viewing angle on the LCD, it was not really good to use. At that time, the Leica EVF2 electronic viewfinder with its 90 degree viewing angle would have been highly desirable.

The difference between a picture with f/0.95 and f/2 seems very small, but nevertheless yielded more difference in the image than I had thought. The background is more smooth and the whole picture shows a beautiful and somewhat cinematic impression.

At one point I noticed the numerous very small and special Chinese figurines and I decided to take some macro shots. This is something I had never done with the Leica M9. I took the Carl Zeiss Planar ZF.2 50 mm f/2.0 macro lens with Nikon mount out of my camera bag. With the, also German, Novoflex lens adapter it fit well on the Leica M. And I must say I’m very pleased.

I used the glass of the display cases as a “tripod” and moved the camera-lens combination back and forth to find the right crop. Then I used Live View and 5x or 10x magnification to get the correct focus. Often the pixel peeping was very useful if there was sufficient contrast and lighting on the subject. I also have a lot of experience with the Sony NEX-5n and 7 and must say that the Leica system of pixel peeping seems to work a little bit better and more accurately. Maybe it’s the higher sharpness and contrast of the Leica and Carl Zeiss lenses.

When using the Carl Zeiss lens at full aperture, you see that it is no APO, but I liked the sharpness and bokeh. I knew the quality of the Zeiss lens on a Nikon full-frame camera, but this is something entirely different. For my larger hands, the Leica M and the Carl Zeiss 50 mm macro is a very nice combination to work with.

At ISO 3200 and viewed at 100%, the beard hairs of the miniatures were still countable and also the color and contrast were very nice. Speaking of colors, the APO-Summicron-M 50 mm f/2 ASPH. gives your recordings a sort of 3D effect, even at high ISO speeds.

The inclusion of the Chinese fan and the Eskimo boat are fine examples.

Finally, an example of someone who continues to take photographs at a very old age!

I really enjoyed working with the new Leica M in the museum and in general. The camera is quieter and faster than the M9 and the Live View mode allows the use of additional lenses. Very practical is the new two-step shutter that shows live the correct exposure, color and sharpness and can be controlled on the 3-inch LCD screen. In manual mode, I could totally rely on the image on the LCD to set the correct exposure. This worked very quickly and accurately. While editing my RAW files I noticed a number of things:

• The noise level at ISO 3200 is similar to that of ISO 1250 with the Leica M9.
• The white balance in artificial light is also much better than with the M9.
• Looks like there’s a stop more dynamic range in the recording which makes you less prone to have white out highlights.
• The lack of an anti-alias ​​filter gives you a very high detail/sharpness level. Even at higher ISO values.

The Leica M is perhaps a “best of both worlds” camera. It is a very compact full-frame rangefinder camera with interchangeable lenses, all in a refinement of the familiar M9 camera. No learning curve, just resume shooting. It also has all the “modern” conveniences such as Live View, pixel peeping, electronic viewfinder with 90 degree viewing angle and 1080 pixel, full-HD video.

- Rob van Keulen

P.S. The only downside of working with the new Leica M is that I find my own camera suddenly a lot less attractive!

Rob van Keulen is a product specialist for Transcontinenta, a Dutch company and importer of top brands in the field of photography, video, print and interactive educational products. See more full resolution examples on the Transcontinenta Flickr account. To connect with Rob, visit the Transcontinenta website.