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The Leica M10 Haptic (Fondler’s) Review: Does it Feel Like a Real Leica?

Thu, 2021-11-18 23:27

When the alien archeologists come, they will know the name Leica. As they root through our landfills, they will tut at our Evian bottles and K-Cups, but they will be taken aback by the Leica rangefinder cameras. Not the real Leica Ms, chambered for 35 mm film, which stayed safely on shelves and in closets until whatever apocalypse of our own design finally overtook us. No, the trash diggers will find the digital Leicas, their disposable silicon guts wrapped in perfectly machined metal, capped with the opto-mechanical miracle of the rangefinder focusing apparatus. One of the archeologists will chronicle this badly arranged marriage in a paper positing it as a microcosm of the habits that doomed our species. Another will argue that it's an example of the only impulse that could have saved us. 

The Leica M10. Beautiful landfill.

The Leica M10. What, a consideration of an almost-current camera? Yes, my friends, strange times demand strange blog posts. Plenty of reviews of the M10 were penned (or videoed, god help us) in 2017, but they focus mostly on irrelevant details like image quality. In this review, I will consider elements more central to the Leica experience.

It has been my privilege to handle a great many classic cameras and quite a few digital cameras as well, but I’ve only come across digital Leica Ms once or twice. This was a long time ago, before I was born again as a film shooter, before I’d been infected with leicaphilia, and I was honestly flummoxed by those absurdly expensive, hard-to-use cameras. But even then, knob feel was important to me so I gave them a fondle all the same. I remember that I was unconvinced.

A decade or so later, I am different, we are all different, never the same river etc. I acquired an M10 recently from a young man in a banker’s suit who counted my gangster-sized sheaf of 50 euro notes with the mechanical efficiency of a blackjack dealer who’s seen a million sad, smoky busts. This is not the kind of camera I generally buy, and I don’t intend to keep it, but before I send it on to someone who really wants it, I will answer a question that has intrigued me ever since I began shooting film in Leica M cameras: was my earlier disappointment with Leica’s digital rangefinders justified, or was I just a philistine? How does a digital M like the M10 feel compared to the classic film Leicas? How does it fondle?

Before we get into controls, let’s take the body itself. This is the low-hanging fruit for Leica: how hard is it to make a robust metal body when price is no object and keeping weight up (aspiring to original Ms, the classiest brick shithouses ever constructed) is the goal? Well, they nail it. The M10 feels delicious in the hand. Rock-solid, dense, with lustrous finishes. I know the body coverings aren’t vulcanite, but they feel fine to me. People give the digital Ms a hard time for the impracticality of removing the baseplate to access the battery and card slot, but Jesus H, you’re not buying a digital rangefinder because you prioritize practicality. The micro-tolerances with which the base kisses onto the body is glorious in a Leica M made in 1957, and that remains true sixty years later. Swapping batteries should not be this fun. Seriously, it should’t.

The M10 back to back with a real M.

So, feels in the abstract are good. But in use, in the hand? When introduced, Leica crowed proudly that the M10 was the same exact thickness and width as a classic M: the earlier iterations were a little chunkier. And indeed, when you hold the camera up to your face to take a picture, it does feel like the real deal. However, the M10 is a bit taller than my M2. I would not think it enough to make much of a handling difference, but when I’m not shooting I like to carry a camera with my hand wrapped around it top and bottom, with the top plate snugged into my palm, lens in towards my thigh. This keeps the camera unobtrusive but ready to shoot. And it turns out that those few extra millimeters do change the way the M10 feels here — it’s much less comfortable. But this might just be me. Putting myself in your shoes, which is hard because I’m really very self-centered, I would rate the M10 as a success overall when it comes to replicating the general feel of a real Leica.

The M10 is just a little taller than it should be. You wouldn’t think you’d notice it, but you do, if you are me.

Now, let’s get to the controls, and cattily, I’ll start with what’s obviously not there at all: the arming lever. This is neither a double-stroke nor a single-stroke Leica M: no strokes, folks. It feels pretty weird to just press the shutter button repeatedly and have the camera keep taking pictures. In my darker moments I’ve dreamed of a digital camera with a manually armed shutter, but that way madness lies (there was that one Epson…). You just don’t get to wind on and that’s that, so we’re starting with quite a handicap in the haptic experience category. Can the M10 catch up?

Well, it does does have some control points that a mechanical Leica does not. The shutter button is surrounded by a power switch, for example. An M3 does not need a power switch because it is powered by photons and stored kinetic energy and the pure love of photography. The M10 is a computer strapped to some fancy optics, so it needs a Li-ion battery, which means it needs a power switch (does it, really? Could you have it just sleep all the time and wake with a half-press of the shutter? Maybe, but people would complain. People always complain.) Anyway, the power switch feels fine. It’s nicer than the slightly clacky switch on my Olympus EM-5 III, but doesn’t stand out from any number of similarly implemented power switches from Nikon or Pentax. 

The power switch, which we just addressed. The shutter speed dial, about which more later. The multifunction wheel, a necessary evil that Leica does not manage to elevate. Here’s something a UX engineer might ask a focus group: “When the red dot is visible, is the camera on or off?”

Then there’s the much-maligned ISO control. This is really a strange misstep. You have to lift it to change the ISO, a design common in film cameras, where it makes perfect sense because you might (or might not) change it when you load a new roll. For a setting that might be changed shot to shot, it’s bonkers. Lifting it is difficult to do with confidence because it does not want to pop up and there’s not much for your fingers to grip. The whole thing feels fiddly and uncertain. Once it’s up, the dial turns without distinction. Adding insult to injury, the ISO dial occupies the place where the rewind knob would be on an M2 or M3, and lifting those knobs into the turning position is… well, sublime.

The ISO dial. Haters gonna hate. But sometimes the haters are right. No coincidence this is set to 'A.’

I almost forgot to mention it, but there’s a small mode-dependant wheel on the right corner of the M10 that you use for digital BS like zooming in on playback or menu scrolling. It feels OK. Not too clicky, not too mushy, but it is what it is. It does not feel luxurious.

The final entry in the digital-only category, the buttons. Amazingly, the M10 only has three of them. Astoundingly (and I’m veering into traditional review territory, but I can’t help myself), the M10 feels by and large like a fully functional, intuitive digital camera with just those three buttons (no touchscreen yet). This is exactly what I’d expect a company like Leica to get wrong, and it’s a grand slam. End digression: for our purposes here we only care about what the buttons feel like. Unlike knob (or wheel or dial or ring) feel, I find button feel hard to qualify. At best, buttons are not a disaster. The bottom of the scale is pretty easy to establish — something like a late 90s entry-level Canon SLR has buttons that are clearly about as far as you can fall. Mushy, soggy, etc. But what does a great button feel like? I have to believe that I’ll know it when I feel it. Perhaps it is waiting for me on a 50-pound piece of test equipment manufactured in 1962. The M10’s buttons do feel good: short-travel but with crisp actuation, broad and flat across the finger tip. I don’t think they’re truly great, but neither do they let the camera down.

The buttons. Broad and bold, satisfying but not inspiring intimate caress.

Oh, I said there are only three buttons, but there’s also a d-pad. It feels clicky and precise like the other buttons, but it’s sized for a race of tiny primate photographers. They love Leicas, and their basketball players are four feet tall.

Circling back to the shutter button: it also feels good enough. This is actually something I’m not terribly precious about, though — most cameras manage a satisfying shutter release, and I tend to only notice when something really balls it up, like the Yashica Electro 35

When you press that button, you hear a click. I consider shutter sonics as a separate but related aspect of camera fondling, so within the scope of this review. Compared to the cloth shutter I’m familiar with from the M2 and M3, the M10 is louder but the energy sounds like it’s concentrated at higher frequencies, so it might not carry far. It’s much quieter than the only full frame mirrorless focal plane shutters I’m personally familiar with, in the first and second gen Sony A7, which have all the subtlety of a ballista hurling a bolt downrange into mounted armor. It’s much louder than the shutter in my Olympus EM-5 III, which has a beautifully damped *whuff* sound, almost like a sharp exhalation. 

But now, let’s consider the shutter speed dial. This part of a classic Leica is, for me, the standard against which a knob with detent positions is judged and generally found wanting. I was ready to be disappointed by an ersatz effort to mimic this feel in what is really just a jumped-up electronic switch, but the M10 holds its own here. It feels legitimately mechanical. Not exactly like my M2, but the difference is subtle and honestly I’m not sure which I’d prefer in a double-blind test. This is what I remember being disappointed by in the earlier digital Ms I tried, so either Leica has upped its game or my tastes have evolved. 

The shutter button and speed dial again, with more context. Photography is really about controlling context.

And that’s how an M10 feels. Most of this review sounds like griping, but that’s because I’m considering all the bits that don’t really belong on a Leica M. If you look at what really counts, the shutter speed selector, the shutter button, and the overall feel of the body, the M10 does it right. The rest is just what the M10 has to do to be a digital camera, and it does it at least as well as anything else. It’s not transcendent. Maybe that was what left me with a sour feeling the first time I handled a digital M: the whole thing is not magic, and I thought it had to be to justify itself. Now that I know and love the M, I see more clearly what matters. All of that, feels-wise, the M10 gets remarkably right.

If you don’t want me to harsh your vibe, stop here. I won’t judge.

I’ve answered the title question of the post: in the hand, the M10 does a pretty solid impression of a film M with an endless 35mm roll. But answering it, I realize a larger question remains open: what defines “success” for a digital simulacrum of an analog camera? Leica’s digital Ms are indisputably the best digital rangefinders: they’re also the only ones. Perhaps because the market is small and there’s no reason for other players to pursue it. Or/and, perhaps because without Leica’s history, the products don’t make sense. Can an M10 exist if HCB never used an M3? Whatever the reason, there’s nothing to compare them to.

If rangefinder focusing and framing give you the jollies, the M10 will do the trick. If we locate feeling in nerves under the skin, the M10 feels like a Leica. But if psychedelics have taught us anything, it’s that sense lives in the brain, not nerve endings. What does the M10 feel like in the mind? I can only speak for myself, because we are each irredeemably alone in our skulls. To me, an early M feels, in the mind, like the pinnacle of something. It’s a high water mark of human achievement, albeit very narrowly defined. We needed a lot more “progress” to get to the M10, but our times strongly suggest that progress sometimes isn’t. Part of me loves the feel of the M10. Part of me is dismayed by beautifully machined e-waste. No human thing is forever, but classic Ms let me pretend. A digital M reminds me that I’m pretending.