Finally a Leica Part II

Wednesday, 30 March 2022 09:29

It's the end of March 2022, and you're probably wondering, what happened with the M10 Monochrom including the months from December to March.

Well, it was filled with a lot of frustration, anxiety, and anger. I had no motivation for photogaphy and simply had the camera boxed since the last week of December. I did use my Nikon Z6ii but it just didn’t fullfil me and I really wanted to use the Leica. I did however dissasemble and polish some Nikon lenses which was great fun!

Leica didn’t make it easy for me returning the M10M. According to them, it was “in-spec” when assesing the problem remotely via Germany by virtue of some DNG samples I supplied to them. But through persistence I was eventually granted permission to return the camera for a refund or an exchange for a regular M10M. There were no Wetzlar editions available. There was a condition however. If I were to find a fault with the replacement M10 Monochrom camera, which is deemed to be “in-spec,” I would not be granted “permission” to return or exchange the camera again. 

The communication with Leica was not very customer oriented, very slow and tediuous, and they certainly didn’t seem very concerned about my issue. The above solution was phrased in a way of them doing me a favour, or a good will gesture. No, the camera had a serious and obvious issue and Leica just out right didn’t give a shit.

Just how unbelievable does that sound?

So I told them that I would take an M11, which had just been announced at the time. A replacement M10 Monochrom was too high risk for me since the sensor bifurcation could just as well be present in the replacement for which I would have no choice but to live with it. No thanks!  I will not be bullied into a compromise. There were many choice words for Leica I had to keep to myself. It gets better though! Leica quality control doesn't disappoint with regard to its consistentcy to, erm, disappoint, so read on...

It's 10 March 2022, and I’m driving to Cape Town. The week prior, the M10M had finally managed to find its way packed and shipped to the retailer and a new M11 had arrived in stock with them. A part of me couldn't get excited as I was expecting issues. Was I setting myself up for failure again?

When it came to unpacking and testing the M11, it seemed too good to be true… Everything checked out. The rangefinder was both perfectly aligned for focusing and vertically too. Out the box, the camera was buggy and a part of me felt genuine embarrassed for Leica that this could pass as end-consumer ready product. But an eventual firmware update later, the biggest usability bugs were gone. Most notably those with the use of the custom function buttons. I also couldn’t identify if there was any sensor bifurcation at that point (more about this later).  My mood started to lighten and a great sense of relief started coming over me. Thank goodness.

The silver M11 is a fairly pretty thing. I grew fond of it quickly, but I missed the all brass build of the M10 series cameras. The M11’s top, bottom and battery panel all had slightly different colour and finishing. A slightly un-premium experience for a premium product. Also fairly unpremium was the unboxing presentation, but the ultimate prize for cheap is the supplied 10W USB wall adapter. What was Leica thinking with this .99c parts-bin thing? If someone gave me this adapter as a gift I’d throw it away.

Leica made the unboxing experience a whole lot less exotic probably due to economic and environmental reasons. Thats ok, but I feel they missed the mark by saving in the wrong places.
Where Leica should've made an effort was with better quality accessories and fewer of them.

1) The draw string bags: Who really uses these? Get rid of them.

2) The new USB-C charging dock: Quite nice, compact and elegant design. Feels a little flimsy though.

3) The 10W USB-A wall adapter: Bad even if it were delivered with a $400 camera. Unacceptable for a Leica product. 

4) The USB-C to A cable: Just a short and chunky everyday cable. It's 2022. USB-C is what it should’ve been, and then something a little more refined. Leica, have you seen Apple’s charging cables?

5) The new fangled braided Apple Mifi certified Lightning to USB-C cable: Becuase Android users have no soul and therefore dont shoot Leica?
Whatever the case, this should've been an overpriced optional Leica accessory and in its place an equally premium USB-C cable which would be much more useful.
I can’t even use it to charge my iPhone, so it's useless for travel.

Essentially, the only usable accessory in the box is the charging dock. I would be less offended if Leica copied Apple’s modus operandi, supplied only the dock, marketed it as “brave” and called it a day.  Everyone has a USB wall charger and cable right!?? I use a 20W* Apple USB-C charger and a high quality braided USB-C instead.

*Apple’s 20W charger is only 20W for 9V output. For 5V output needed above it delivers 3.0A, so 15W. 

My first few days with the M11 were exciting. I loved every moment with it. The M11, even with its clunky firmware, felt more refined to use than the M10M did. The images it produced were lovely, even though Adobe’s support for it is also quite rough around the edges. The rangefinder was accurate, and aquiring sharp focus with the high resolution was easy. At least it was with my Voigtländer lenses. I’ve just had too many unsatisfactory experiences with new and used Leica lenses to have any high regard for them. 

I also tested the camera DNG file write speeds to internal and SD memory.

I couldn’t find any published tests or results online for these, which I found a little odd. 

I’ll summarise my unscientific results, Tested on Firmware Version

- Writing speeds to internal memory: About 124.4 MB/sec

- Writing speeds to Sandisk Extreme Pro 95 MB/S 64GB UHS-I card: About 69 MB/sec

- Writing speeds to Sandisk Extreme Pro 300 MB/S 128GB UHS-II card: About 99 MB/sec

- Writing speeds to Lexar Professional 32GB 2000x UHS-II card: About 99 MB/sec

- Writing speeds to Lexar Professional 32GB 1667x UHS-II card: About 99 MB/sec

- Writing speeds to ProGrade 128GB V60 (Gold) UHS-II card: About 99 MB/sec

- Transfer speeds from camera SD storage via USB-C cable: About 69 MB/sec

- Transfer speeds from camera INTERNAL storage via USB-C cable: About 83 MB/sec

In conclusion, the M11 hardly qualifies to be labled as UHS-II compatible. It's compatible in the sense that it works with those cards, but it certainly makes no use of their high bus speeds. UHS-I theoretical maximum speed limit is around 104 MB/sec. 

Leica M11 with Voigtländer Nokton 50mm f/1.5 ASPH II

Leica M11 with Voigtländer Nokton 50mm f/1.5 ASPH II

So as days go on, I get the first opportunity to shoot some blue sky landscapes. Nothing special, just some snapshots. Out of curiosity I look for the sensor bifurcation line down the middle. The internet has assured that this was an issue inherent only in the M10-R family of Leica M cameras, Monochrom included. Nope. I found it on my silver M11. It was hard to see and needed an extravagant and unrealistic amount of adjustments to get there, so it didn’t really bother me, however it's still a thing in the M11 with their new Sony (unconfirmed) sensors. Oh yes, and the M9 had it too!

Not soon after that, I notice that my horizons were always a little skew, tilted to the right. I rigged up my tripod and started hunting for straight lines to frame up with. This eventually confrimed that the frame lines consistently caused my images to have a clockwise tilt. Also, I found a skew window, or something, in the rangfinder window when looking at it from the front. See image on the right. 

The camera got sent back. The second Silver M11 that was previously in stock had at that point been sold. The only replacement available was in black. But there's a problem. The retailer's company manager and the Leica South Africa Rep didn’t want to exchange it that quickly. They couldn’t believe I was having issues. It's a Leica afterall, only God could make a better camera, right? How could this brand that oozes quality and craftsmanship be so fraught with quality issues!? Anyways, after an agonising wait, I was finally called into a meeting with all the above mentioned people and their resident Leica expert, where I qualified my statements with tests. They finally saw I wasn’t blowing smoke and having fun doing so, and issued me with a first replacement M11. We tested the camera together.

Right, well, the first one passed every test except for the bifurcation test. This unit showed it pretty strong. So that M11 was a hard PASS! With that came the next and LAST camera available. This one was the best of the lot, luckily. The bifurcation could not be seen even with every slider in Lightroom set to max. I was impressed. To a degree, every camera caused a slight image rotation when aligning the bottom frame lines to a horizontal line, but my original silver one was the worst. Confirmed by the accompanying expert. I’m not 100% percent happy with my current camera but it seems consistently simmilar with all cameras so far that I’ll scratch it up to a combination of user error and the mechanics of a rangefinder correcting for parallax.

Anyways. Below is an example of the bifuraction seen with the first replacement M11. My current M11, the second replacement, is perfectly devoid of this.  

So, what do I think of the black M11?

It's also a very pretty camera, although, if I had to choose between black or silver it wouldn’t be quick or easy. The weight different is apparent, but what is more apparant is the finishing texture. It’s fairly rough, and while I don’t love it, I don’t dislike it either. Hard to say at this point. The black M11 has some advantages over the silver. 

1) It weighs less. 530 vs 640g. This is quite noticeable.

2) The surface finsh is much less sensitive to staining marks.

I felt I was perpetually wiping my silver M11 to remove stains, smudges,or marks.The black has been stain resistant. 

3) The surface colour is much more consistent between the top, bottom and battery cover surfaces. The colour of the top and bottomplate is, for all intentions, the same, and only varies in texture. The battery cover colour is only slightly different to the rest of the camera. The silver M11 had three shades of silver, at least to my eyes. This colour mismatch bugged me a little.

4) Slightly more discreet. If you can just for a moment ignore the glaring red dot, the contrast of colours on the camera is fairly low. For instance, the engraved lettering at the back of the camera is black on both the black and silver cameras. Eventually I’ll probably look for a black Leica dot and replace the red one with it.

Have you noticed that the black pre-production cameras Leica sent out to photographers had white lettering at the back?

I had my heart set on a Summilux 50mm ASPH, but when I tested it I was quite taken back by its fairly uninspiring performance. Compared to my Nokton 50/1.5 ASPH II, the Summilux's performance  was simply not good enough, especially in the mid zone. I initially thought or hoped this mid zone dip was due to field curvature, but no, it's just weak. Besides this, the new Summilux front focused and didn’t yield sharp infinity detail until f/2.8 even though it was at infinity hard stop which coincided with infinity rangefinder focus. Also available at the time was a used Summilux 50 ASPH, but it had oily aperture blades and a wobble between the front and back lens assembly, so that wasn’t an option either. Oh Leica!

I had also returned a used Elmarit 28mm ASPH. It had mediocre edge performance but worst of all was the right edge was always more blurry than the left. But the field of focus was symmetrical. This lens was tested with both the M10 Monochrom and M11 and I wasn’t impressed with it, outside of its size and smooth focusing. Oddly enough, the focus action would bind a little when the camera was used in it's vertical orientation, but it was buttery smooth otherwise.

So now I’m using mostly Voigtlländer lenses and I’m very happy with them. At first the thought of not having Leica lenses felt like a compromise, but now I've come to appreciate Voigtländer much much more. They aren't perfect, but for their price they're excellent. What annoys me with Voigtlander is they don’t keep a consistent design language across their range. This is where Leica excels in their designs. Consistency.

Sure, there were some things that annoyed me with Leica lens designs. The overly complex lens hoods that often needed their own special cap. Some lenses needed two lens caps depending on whether you used it with a hood or not. In some cases there were even more attachments.

With some lenses, like the Elmarit 28mm ASPH, the lens plastic lens hood used thin metal clamps that marred the black lens barrel finish.
The Summicron 35mm ASPH had a metal screw on hood, that when removed left an exposed thread showing on the lens… which in turn required another special little accessory to thread onto this to hide said threads. On the Silver Summicron 35mm these threads were black, so it was glaringly obvious and ugly.
The Summilux had a 46mm lens cap, but with the built in hood extended, which by the way doesn’t lock into place, the lens cap doesn't fit anymore. However, some lens caps from Leica have the ability to clip into the lens threads and into the larger hood. The list goes on with unnecessary convoluted designs.

For now I’ll be enjoying my slice of camera heaven and try suppress all the frustration and anger I have experienced with the brand so far. This is hard, as the software and firmware on the M11 is still very clunky and far from finished. As an example Leica have introduced a Highlight Weigted metering which is supposed to protect highlights from being overexposed. But my camera and others alike often experience sittuation where the light metring is fooled into overexposure where all three channels are clipping. To make matters worse, there is a discrepancy between live view metering and rangefinder metering… which shouldn’t be since light metering is done off the sensor for both shooting methods.