Sunday, April 14, 2013

More M240 Thoughts and Images

M240, 21 SEM, ~f/8, 1/125s, ISO 200
Its been almost two weeks since I received the new Leica M and this weekend was the first chance I've had to use the camera for some real photography (at least on subjects other than my kids :)).  I used the M at two places on the California Coast, the Carmel Mission and Point Lobos.  I took only the 21mm f/3.4 Super Elmar and the 75mm f/2 Summicron ASPH.

These were all hand held, all processed in Lightroom and most are landscape type subjects.  Noise reduction and sharpening set to default.  Many have some tonal work done to them but for all images you can click through to a G+ Album that will allow you to zoom to 100% and download the originals.

One of the first things I wanted to do was to get an idea of how much I could push shadows for difficult lighting situations like this one.  Below is the frame as captured (but very slightly cropped).

M240, 21 SEM, ~f/11, 1/15s, ISO 200
And now some heavy shadow pushing to try and balance out the hall with the outside.  The shadows were pushed to +100 and blacks to +20.  Highlights were also recovered with a -45.  Visually, it is the most I would push an image like this one.


To me, this is pretty clean and more importantly the newly lifted shadows actually contain information. Click through and zoom to 100% on the very darkest regions and there is a hint of structure in the noise.  I don't find it objectionable given the circumstances, but others might.  I also shot this image at 1/15s and though it isn't critically sharp, for 1/15s, its better than what I would achieve with a DSLR hand held.

M240, 75 ASPH, ~f/8, 1/180s, ISO 200
I purchased the Olympus electronic viewfinder which I'm told is identical to the Leica one save for branding and really wanted to get a feel for shooting with this camera with both the optical finder and the electronic one.  Generally I find that I prefer to focus with the rangefinder mechanism in the optical view finder; I can focus faster and more accurately.  However I vastly prefer to compose with the electronic view finder.  This combination of using both view finders is what I did for this image.  Without the EVF, getting precise framing hand held would have required several tries.

M240, 75 ASPH, f/2, 1/1500s, ISO 200
I simply love the color I get out of this camera.  I believe its more accurate with the reds and greens and it feels like the color filter array has better separation than the M9.  To make this image, I needed to set the camera's exposure compensation from 0 (where it was) to about -1 (needed so that the red channel doesn't blow out).  This was an exercise in frustration, as pushing that teeny little button in its awkward place on the front of the camera and then turning the back dial is a challenge.  This in my opinion is major regression #1 for the M240 compared to its predecessor.  If Leica releases a firmware update with an option to disable this requirement, I think this problem will disappear.

M240, 21 SEM, ~f/11, 1/60s, ISO 200
This is more a property of the lens, but it maintains excellent contrast and detail in shadows even against bright backgrounds.  By this point, I was starting to really like the overall image quality of Leica's latest sensor.

M240, 21 SEM, ~f/11, 1/90s, ISO 200
I shoved my camera though a small hole near the top of a gate to photograph this garden.  Since my eye couldn't reach the optical finder, I used the EVF for both focus and framing on this one.  Having peaking is very valuable and configuring the camera to auto zoom when changing focus is also helpful in getting precise focus.

M240, 75 ASPH, f/2, 1/350s, ISO 200
Did I mention I like the way this sensor draws colors yet? :)  The M9 had a unique way of rendering certain colors and its something I had gotten used to.  At first I wasn't sure I liked what the new M was going as it felt like 

M240, 75 ASPH, ~f/2.8, 1/1500s, ISO 200
The auto white balance algorithm also seems to be much improved.  The camera almost always seems to get it at least close.

M240, 21 SEM, ~f/8, 1/90s, ISO 200
The files are quite detailed, but I don't think there's much (maybe even any) more information there than an M9 file.  That said, its also been my observation that the new M is slightly less prone to aliasing effects (which shouldn't be a surprise with its higher sampling rate).

M240, 21 SEM, ~f/8, 1/180s, ISO 200
However, color aliasing artifacts can still be seen in some circumstances.  Click through and zoom to 100% on the above image and on the plaques, you should notice some color aliasing.  I made no attempt to remove it in Lightroom for this image, though I did give it a try.  Lightroom completely removes the color aliasing, albeit at the expense of a little bit of saturation in the affected areas.

M240, 75 ASPH, ~f/5.6, 1.350s, ISO 200
I'm starting to like the way the sensor render shadows tones.

M240, 75 ASPH, ~f/2, 1/500s, ISO 200
The usefulness of the electronic viewfinder for framing with lenses wider than 28mm is clearly useful, however I find it equally useful for framing with longer lenses too.  I tried to make this image with the 75 a couple times but it was never quite right.  One shot with the EVF and I got it framed exactly the way I wanted it.

M240, 21 SEM, f/5.6, 1/25s, ISO 2500
This is my one high ISO image from the weekend, breakfast at From Scratch restaurant in Carmel.  Two things make me very happy, first is that the file is very clean for ISO 2500.  Second is the white balance, this is AWB from the camera, I didn't adjust and its pretty spot on IMO (yes Ed's face was that red :)).

However, one thing completely infuriates me, and its the way in which Leica has now broken my low light workflow.  Let me explain in detail.  There are three variables to controlling light, aperture, shutter speed and ISO.  The M user interface is brilliant, rather than having explicit modes, two of these variables can be set to "auto", which instructs the camera to use its meter to set the variable.  Since meters aren't 100% reliable you then use exposure compensation to bias the meter reading.  Since aperture is set on a ring on the lens, the two variables for which this applies to is shutter speed and ISO. Set shutter speed to A and ISO to auto and the camera picks both (subject to some other conditions you can specify).  This is the way the M9 worked and so far the new M works this way as well.

Now your camera is in the following setting.  Aperture set on ring, shutter speed set to A (auto) and ISO set to Auto.  You now change shutter speed from A to one you specify yourself.  What should happen?   One variable, the ISO is still on Auto so the camera should set it using the meter, just like it did when shutter speed was on Auto right?  Yes on the M9, a big NO on the M240.  It just picks ISO 200.  This is wrong, its broken, its a bug, and it needs to fixed by Leica in a firmware update ASAP.

Why does this bother me so?  Because I always leave ISO on auto for hand held photography.  It has no creative use to me.  In bright light, I set the shutter speed to A and let the camera pick some suitable shutter speed, though it will always pick one that is at least faster than 1/focal length of lens.  When the light gets low, sometimes I feel like I get away with a shutter speed faster than 1/focal length of lens.  Or sometimes I feel like I need something faster (because of a moving subject).  So I quickly just take the camera off A for shutter speed and pick something myself, trusting that the camera will still respect ISO set to Auto and pick a suitable ISO.  The M9 did, it was brilliant.  The M240 does not and its now a pain in the ass.

M240, 75 ASPH, f/5.6, 1/500s, ISO 200
Just as the sun was about to peek out from behind the hill, it was casting volumetric shadows with birds flying through them.  I focused quickly, knew that I would have to increase exposure, fiddled with that stupid button on the front to let me change EC and then finally made the shot.  It took me about 4 times longer to chance EC than it did to focus.  Ridiculous.

M240, 21 SEM, ~f/11, 1/45s, ISO 200
I walked around Point Lobos in full blast sunlight making images to see how the M could handle these challenging lighting situations.  In most cases I tried to save the highlights with the intention of lifting the shadows in Lightroom later.  In all, pretty pleased with the results, detailed files with good shadow tones.

M240, 21 SEM, ~f/8, 1/250s, ISO 200
Here is one last image with mixed harsh lighting.  This is direct sunlight and shade, I captured this image to preserve highlights and then did just slight lifting of shadows in post.

Overall, the M240 is in most ways a good step forward for the M digital rangefinder.  If it weren't for the two major regressions I mentioned, I'd say the new M is absolutely better than the M9.   If (hopefully when) Leica fixes these issues in a firmware update, things should be great.  There is however room for improvement.  An electronic first curtain shutter (a fully electronic shutter would be even better) really is needed in a future update.

There are several people who have reviewed the M240.  Tim Ashley's review is a fairly detailed one and probably one of the more balanced reviews out there.  There is also the newly posted pseudo-review by Mark Dubovoy.  Mark hits the ergonomic nits on the mark and though I think the image quality is great, I'm not as enthusiastic as Mark.
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