Now here’s something different to the norm: a digital camera with no LCD screen that offers little more than just aperture, shutter speed and sensitivity controls. The Leica M-D (Typ 262) is a rangefinder based on the same M-System as the company’s legendary film models, with a 24MP full-frame sensor at its heart. The company’s reasoning behind its stripped-down feature set is to focus solely on the essentials, so that the photographer considers nothing but the image they are taking.
Clearly this also provides an experience reminiscent of shooting on film, even more so when you consider that the camera only records images in Digital Negative (DNG) RAW format, rather than outputting instantly processed JPEG files. In an age of everexpanding filter effects, confusing menu options and LCDs that stretch out in all kinds of directions, some may find this rudimentary setup refreshing.
As you may imagine, the option to record video of any kind has also been left out, although you can program the camera to fire continuously at a rate of 3fps, or set it on a self-timer. The only other features of note are a hotshoe that enables fl ashguns to be mounted and a lever that lets you see what framing would look like with a different focal length. Metering is centre-weighted and white balance is permanently set to auto, with just Manual or Aperture Priority exposure options available. There is the option to use exposure compensation, however, and you can lock the exposure by keeping the shutter release halfpressed and recomposing the image.
Lines in the viewfinder indicate what the lens will capture, with two focal lengths displayed at any one time. In the middle of all this a small bright rectangle – the metering field – is superimposed over the scene; not only does this show you where the camera is metering, but it also enables you to focus on the scene. To do this, you just focus until the details in this rectangle match up with those behind it. Those used to modern autofocus systems may find this awkward, although in most conditions it’s perfectly usable. Only when shooting repetitive or very low-contrast details can it be difficult to check focus accurately.
Although there is no LCD, small LEDs at the base of the viewfinder notify you of exposure settings, as well as how many shots you have remaining (which pops up immediately after you take an image) and if there’s a problem with the card. In place of the LCD, Leica has added an ISO dial; this is fl at and stiffer than expected, but it’s very unlikely to move inadvertently because of this.
At 720g with its battery in place the model is fairly heavy for its size, although this is easily explained by its all-metal construction. Everything is built to the highest standard, from the solid thumb wheel on the top plate that changes shutter speed, to the thick metal base plate that comes away to reveal the battery and memory card compartment. Leica was good enough to supply the camera with the Summilux-M 28mm f1.4 ASPH and Summilux-M 50mm f1.4 ASPH lenses. We found the latter far easier to use; not only was its corresponding bright line frame easily viewable – the 28mm’s frame is very close to the peripheries of the viewfinder – but the 28mm lens’ hood obscured a good deal of the right-hand corner, which made composition more awkward. Having said that, it’s a shame the 50mm lens was not supplied with its own hood, as certain images taken with it showed extraneous light creeping in and reducing contrast. The camera’s maximum shutter speed of 1/4,000sec also makes the use of wide apertures in brighter conditions an issue. With a full-frame sensor on board and compatibility with a range of high-quality lenses, it should come as little surprise that images captured with appropriate technique show a high level of detail across the frame, with both distortion and chromatic aberrations either very low or non-existent. RAW files suggest the camera does employ an antialiasing filter in front of the sensor, in contrast to many recent models that do not, although these files only typically require a gentle nudge of the sharpening slider to get them to their best.
We found overexposure and underexposure more common than with other cameras, although nothing that would be outside of the scope of processing RAW files. Similarly, the auto white balance system strays a little more than expected, particularly in mixed lighting conditions, although most images display faithful colours that only need a slight boost to bring them more in line with that of the average incamera JPEG.
Overall, while the M-D makes life easy while shooting by only offering basic control, the need to process files and rectify any missteps afterwards means that it might not save the photographer as much hassle as it may initially appear. Nevertheless, in the right hands and with a little effort, it is unquestionably capable of great things.