The vast majority of new cameras today are marketed with an emphasis on their technology features. “AI” autofocus that can identify and track subjects, even the subject’s eyes as it moves about a scene, is just one example of an emerging technology that’s becoming a standard in the latest camera introductions. We’ve come to expect that a camera can more or less operate automatically, with the photographer’s only mandatory action being to trigger the shutter.
Contrast that with the Leica M10-R, the latest model in the company’s M-System, which, while digital, retains a photographic experience largely unchanged from the film-based M cameras that earned the company a devoted following. The M10-R is built around a new 40-megapixel sensor, the highest resolution yet for an M-System camera, but in other respects is very similar to its predecessors, unmoved by the prevailing winds of the industry to change its basic formula.
The Price Of Exclusivity
Like a note handwritten with a fine fountain pen or a sports car with a manual transmission, Leica’s M-System cameras recall a time when more was required of the operator. You won’t find autofocus on these traditional rangefinders, and although an electronic viewfinder is available, it’s an optional $635 accessory that mounts to the camera’s hot shoe.
Leica M-System enthusiasts expect and prefer an experience that hasn’t changed much from the classic M film cameras. This is a rarefied niche and one fortified by the cost of entry: the 40-megapixel M10-R is priced at $8,295 for the body only. Lenses for the system are also relatively expensive–the Leica Elmarit-M 28mm f/2.8 ASPH lens that was loaned to us for review along with the camera sells for $2,595.
Compare that to the 61-megapixel Sony a7R IV at $3,199 and the Sony FE 24mm F1.4 G Master at $1,399. Though not a perfect comparison, the Sony camera and lens combination comes in at $4,598, while the Leica pair will set you back more than twice that amount at $10,890. And it should be noted that while the M10-R’s sensor has not yet been evaluated by DXOMARK, Sony sensors typically outperform Leica sensors of the same time period. While we don’t have the data to make a definitive comparison of image quality, we’re very comfortable stating that the sizable disparity in price isn’t warranted by a dramatic difference in the resulting photographs from the two systems.
So, if it’s not high-tech features or a substantial difference in image quality, what about the Leica M-System commands the ultra-premium fare? Leica is undeniably a luxury brand, and like a Rolls-Royce or a Patek Philippe, part of the price is the associated prestige. Certainly, some automobiles and timepieces accomplish their tasks just as well or even better and for a fraction of the expense–though not with the same elegance.
Putting the luxury tax aside, it’s unfair to account for the cost of a Leica M10-R solely on the basis of implied exclusivity. Leica cameras and lenses are largely produced by hand with top-quality materials and by extensively trained craftspeople in Germany, where manufacturing wages are among the best in the world. Leica positions the M-Series as “…synonymous with reliability and durability, making it a valuable long-term investment.” In handling the camera, Leica delivers on the promise of a precision instrument. Every detail, from the camera’s controls to its build quality, exudes refinement.
Leica M10-R In The Field
The principal reason Leica approached Outdoor Photographer for a review of the M10-R is its newly developed 40-megapixel sensor with improved dynamic range that may appeal to landscape photographers. While the relatively slow continuous shooting rate of 4.5 fps, lack of long telephoto lenses (135mm is the longest) and the absence of autofocus are limitations of the M-System for subjects like wildlife or sports, the system is well-suited for landscape work, and the aperture control rings on the lenses are reminiscent of large-format field camera lenses that were the mainstay of the medium’s early masters.
The mechanical, manual approach to operating the camera may take a bit of adjustment if you’re used to the buttons-for-everything, software-laden shooting experience of the typical modern camera. The M10-R’s controls are spare, and its software menus are similarly simplified, but as someone who tends to shoot using manual exposure and focus often, I quickly adjusted to the mindset. In fact, I rarely used the camera menus at all after making some initial settings. The experience reminded me of shooting with a film camera, though with the conveniences of digital capture and image review. The M10-R is also very quiet in operation, with the same dampened shutter mechanism introduced in the M10-P that reduces noise and vibration.
One aspect of the camera that’s perhaps a “love it or hate it” proposition is that it’s a rangefinder. In my younger years before needing eyeglasses, I found rangefinders more likeable, with the caveat that some are better than others when it comes to providing an accurate representation of image framing. With eyeglasses, the rangefinder experience feels awkward to me, and though the quality of the M10-R’s rangefinder is quite clear and bright and offers diopter adjustments from -3 to +3, I was pleased that Leica had included the optional Visoflex electronic EVF for our review. I used it most of the time while shooting with the camera. One of the niceties of EVFs to which I’ve grown accustomed is focus peaking display, a modern tech amenity that the M10-R offers.
In terms of handling, the M10-R is nimble and precise, in part due to the simplified controls and also owing to the excellent build quality. That build quality also conveys a certain confidence when shooting outdoors. The all-metal diecast magnesium body with brass top and bottom plates makes the camera feel like a tank, yet well-balanced and not too heavy. To maintain compatibility with legacy M lenses, Leica doesn’t weather seal M cameras to the same extent as other Leica systems, such as the SL line. However, because of the tight tolerances of the camera’s construction and the fact that M lenses are just metal and glass with no electronic components, Leica does consider the system weather resistant.
Image Quality & File Handling
As you would expect from a storied brand like Leica or, indeed, any camera at this price point, image quality from the M10-R is exceptionally good. Despite the substantial increase in resolution–nearly double the resolution of the 24-megapixel M10–Leica states that the M10-R’s sensor exhibits “significantly reduced” noise and a wider dynamic range than the M10.
The images I captured with the camera maintained detail in both the shadows and highlights. Even with very high contrast scenes, shadow details were easily recovered when processing the raw files. The M10-R provides both 14-bit lossless DNG raw and 8-bit JPEG file options, but I shot exclusively in DNG for post-processing latitude. The M10-R offers an ISO range of 100-50,000 and also long-exposure capability up to 16 minutes. Images are recorded to SD media, for which there is a single slot.
Note that M10-R is still capture only–no video here. As someone who is primarily a photographer and only rarely dabbles in video, I didn’t find that a limitation, but if you want video capabilities in addition to still, Leica’s SL line may be the right option for you. That would also be the line to consider if you’re looking for faster continuous shooting, tech features like in-body image stabilization and a broader selection of telephoto lenses.
High Resolution For The M Shooter
The Leica M mount was introduced in 1954, and though the camera line has evolved, the M10-R is outwardly very similar to the iconic Leica M6 film camera released in 1984 and the company’s first digital M, the 10-megapixel M8, introduced in 2006. Change comes slowly to the M system, exemplified in the Leica M10-R’s rather modest list of improvements apart from a major advance in resolution.
While most consumer camera makers tend to feverishly iterate and develop “smarter” cameras or chase video resolution, Leica’s M-System takes a slower pace, both literally in the line’s development and also figuratively in the user’s photographic experience using an M camera. And that’s just how M photographers like it.