In the Field: Leica M10-D Rangefinder Camera

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Leica has a knack for making cameras that aren’t for everybody, but that everybody wants. The M10-D is a prime example of this—it is one of the most technically hamstrung cameras available today, but still, by far, one of the most alluring. It’s a controversial camera, receiving either the highest praise from those who “get it” or total disregard from those who favor the many more versatile options out there. Regardless of your stance, it’s tough to argue that there isn’t something intriguing about a contemporary digital camera that doesn’t have a screen.

I recently had the chance to shoot with an M10-D, along with the APO-Summicron-M 75mm f/2 ASPH. and Summicron-M 35mm f/2 ASPH. lenses. I chose to photograph downtown Manhattan during dusk and early evening, in search for quiet and still moments that were still evocative of a New York City sensibility. This transitional period that happens everyday, when New York shifts from the daytime hustle to the mystery of nighttime, is my favorite time to be in the city. It felt like the perfect subject for the Leica, too, because it is an intuitive subject as much as working with a camera like this requires intuition.

When the M10-D was released last Fall, Leica marketed it with the phrase “Digital Body. Analog Soul.” And additional writing from Leica continues to reinforce its idea of the M10-D as being a digital camera that functions like a film camera. It’s perhaps the most direct play on nostalgia for shooting film any manufacturer has tried, and it obviously resonates with some photographers. I still work primarily with film, so this idea is what really piqued my interest; could a digital camera function like a film camera? The intricacies of how this works are more complicated than they may seem, considering the qualifications lie mainly in the simplicity of operation. Would removing the screen be enough? What beyond this helps to further translate the experience of shooting film to digital?

At its core, the M10-D is effectively an M10-P with considerable changes to the way the camera operates and how it looks. And this isn’t the first time Leica has used this approach of removing the rear LCD. In 2014, it released the M (Typ 240) Edition “Leica 60”—a limited edition of 600 cameras featuring a distinct stainless-steel body—and, in 2016, it released the M-D (Typ 262), which was effectively the popular M (Typ 262) with a brass body and without a rear LCD. The M10-D feels different than its screenless predecessors, though. It has a more considered design that isn’t minimal only for minimal’s sake. One design element that, surprisingly, makes a big impact on handling is the incorporation of a fold-out thumb rest. This small lever replicates the look of a film advance lever from a film camera, but serves only as an additional point of contact for improved stability while shooting. As silly as it sounds to hype up a thumb rest, this added point of contact truly did serve to make handling the camera a much better experience. Compared to other digital Ms, where you either don’t have this thumb rest or you’ve added an accessory thumb rest that takes away your hot shoe, this one is perfectly incorporated into the camera’s design. It deploys and folds away smoothly, and I found it most useful for when I was walking around with the camera

The other key difference, due to the lack of a screen, is the incorporation of a large exposure compensation dial on the rear of the camera. Its appearance is similar to that of an ASA/DIN reminder dial on film-era Leicas, but instead of controlling the ISO sensitivity, it offers +/- 3 EV control. And surrounding that main dial is the On/Off/Wi-Fi selector ring. The positive of this design, and where it’s placed, is that it’s difficult to accidently nudge the exposure compensation or on/off position; the downside is that it’s a bit cumbersome to actually change the settings, and sometimes requires both thumbs to shift the dial.

Backing away from nitpicking at the design, it’s important to note plainly that the M10-D is a total joy to use. If you’ve ever shot with an M camera of any kind, and assuming you enjoy rangefinder cameras, then the M10-D doesn’t disappoint. If anything, this camera increases the enjoyment of this experience because it’s the only experience you’re given… or is it? The other development of the M10-D compared to previous screenless Ms is the inclusion of Wi-Fi. And this is a big change to the operability of a screenless camera because, well, it effectively gives you a screen! The consequences of this can be both a good thing and a confusing thing, and seems as if it’s up to self control to stop yourself from using your paired smartphone while you’re out shooting. I was certainly not so good at resisting the temptation a number of times, and found myself pulling out my phone every once in a while to reconfirm what I should have intuitively known. It made me second-guess whether I exposed properly or framed the shot the way I wanted to. This isn’t a fault of the camera, of course (it’s a fault of my own), but I’m pointing this out to say that the M10-D isn’t necessarily going to force you to shoot without the chance to review your images… that’s still up to you.

The Wi-Fi connectivity works in conjunction with Leica’s FOTOS app, which is available for iOS and Android. Pairing the camera with your phone or tablet is a simple enough prospect, but there were numerous occasions when connecting my phone to the camera took several attempts. However, once connected, it’s a surprisingly powerful app, especially given what the M10-D offers itself. The app lets you format your memory card, set time- and date- stamping info, switch between JPEG and DNG file types, and, of course, review your images. Also, you can use a remote shutter function and gain a live view image on your phone. This felt like pure cheating, in my opinion, but I still made use of it on occasion… and felt guilty about it each time.

With all of this said, I return to my original point: does shooting with the M10-D replicate the experience of shooting film? No—but that’s okay. If I wanted to shoot film, I would. If I had an M10-D, I would use it because I wanted to shoot digitally in a way that approximates the way I would shoot film. This distinction is slight but also substantial. The M10-D still has a 24MP full-frame sensor; it doesn’t take 35mm film. I’m not required to change memory cards after 36 shots. I can preview what my images look like if I really want to. I can change white balance and ISO on the fly. You still get all of the core differences between digital and film with this camera, but the process of making use of them is a bit more cumbersome than with other digital cameras. And all of this is to say that I really enjoy the M10-D’s unique stance in the middle of a cutting-edge digital camera and an obsolete film camera. The M10-D doesn’t so much replicate using a film camera, rather, it highlights attributes from shooting film, namely being able to focus on the subject at hand without distraction and adds some helpful technology from digital. Using the camera can and should be a fluent experience, where you don’t have to deal with the burdens and be overwhelmed by endless menus, buttons, icons, and so on. But it also doesn’t have to be.

What do you think of the Leica M10-D? Do you “get it”? Does the philosophy of using a digital camera in the manner in which you’d use a film camera resonate with you? Would you ever consider a digital camera without a screen? Let us know your thoughts on this unique camera in the Comments box, below.

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