Leica M and CMOS. That sinking feeling continues…

Inspiration, Teaching point


Twice now I’ve written about my preference for CCD sensor rendering at base ISO, and about my concern that Leica’s switch to a CMOS sensor for the upcoming Leica M camera may represent a step backwards for image quality:

The M9 and CCD sensor.

CMOS: that sinking feeling again.

The M9 has a CCD sensor, and the M8 before it had one too.  In both cases, the image quality — again, at base ISO — was superior to anything being produced by CMOS-based cameras.  This was true in 2006 (M8) and 2009 (M9), and it is true even today, despite the release of a new generation of CMOS cameras from Nikon, Canon, and Sony.

So here we are, very close to the release of the new Leica M, and Leica continues to be curiously quiet… no full-size sample images have been made available.

They’ve either figured out a way to do what no other manufacturer has done before (and are quietly ecstatic), or they are worried.

I’m betting they’re worried.

The new Leica M will bring many advancements and improvements over the outgoing M9, just don’t expect image quality to be one of them.


18 thoughts on “Leica M and CMOS. That sinking feeling continues…

  1. I just received my M Monochrom a few days ago – the more I use it the more I feel that the new M will be a tragic mistake. The monochrom allows me to shoot in ANY light at almost any speed/aperture & still have the fantastic CCD image. I don’t want live view, I don’t want to be able to take movies, I don’t want to add a grip and R lenses and end up with a ridiculous camera the size of a D800 – all I want is a new Leica with the same resolution and improved ISO – that’s all – I don’t even need a bigger LCD screen. The Leica is about image and simplicity and I feel that Leica has just taken a wrong turn towards the future – I hope I’m wrong.

    1. I fear the same… though retaining the CCD in the ME was a calculated and wise move. I’m just sad that CCD technology is no longer being refined, beyond the Monochrom (which was a pleasant surprise).

  2. Peter

    Your thoughts and comments are very timely! I recently emailed you asking for advice as to whether you may know someone whom could help with learning about shooting with a RF. I live in Australia. Subsequently I have spoken with Kristian (Dowling) and will be hooking up with him.

    I was very close to buying an M9 when the RX1 was announced and Steve (Huff) did his first reviews from the week with Sony(only JPEGs). I am just moving into a smaller format system from DSLR. It threw me and got me second guessing. As did the new M when it was announced.

    I am not a professional photographer. I see the RX1 images as being full of contrast, deep colours and certainly having a FF effect. However they do seem to have more of an “extension” of the cropped sensors than that type of rendering you refer to with the Leica. Is this a combination of lens with sensor.

    As a non Leica owner (have taken some shots with an M9 and brought them home) and caught between an RX1, M and M9 (it’s own camp…CCD)..is this a fair explanation/observation?

    Many thanks


    1. Andrew, I believe that your choice in cameras should ultimately come down to which camera you “mesh” with – which one inspires you to go shoot, which one ergonomically fits you, etc. The only way to know for sure is to get your hands on one.

      Having said that, I do see a difference between CCD and CMOS rendering, and it is important to me, but a good image is a good image no matter what camera was used to capture it.

      1. Definitely agree re camera ergonomics and good image regardless of camera. Steve’s site and others are great examples of that.

        I read an article re the new sensor the other day about it being closer to the lens. Theory being greater acceptance of light and resolution with what Leica have done with this CMOS given it was made spefically for the M. However if it does not render the same (even without improvement) at a base ISO….it’s really a bit superficial. Even myself, with minimal experience can see the possible difference.

        Apart from other features it is possibly the reason that RX1 buyers, who are thinking “alternative to M9 and 35mm Cron” might be a bit disappointed if they come from an M9. They go into that aware of the lens limitations.

        Only time will tell!

        1. Indeed. Incidentally, I really do like the RX1 and what it represents (even posted about it here)… and the image quality is more than good enough for me. Trouble is, I’ve completely adopted the rangefinder style of shooting, and I am most comfortable with it.

        2. Andrew, I don’t really believe it is correct to compare the Sony RX1 and the M9 or M, as these are very different animals. Forget CCD vs. CMOS for a moment and consider this; the experience of framing and composing through a rangefinder window as a scene develops, while your fingers automatically adjust focus based on muscle memory, is so foreign to the electronic viewfinder autofocus method of the Sony as to be night and day.

          When I’m walking with my M9 in my hands I am constantly setting focus, so as a scene develops before me I am focusing before the camera comes to my eye, only using the rangefinder patch for confirmation (or sometimes not at all). Just try that with an RX1. Shooting with a rangefinder is not for everybody, and it takes considerable practice to become, in the words of Leica Akademie instructor Tom Smith, “A Leica Ninja”, but once learned it’s almost impossible to use any other system.

          Peter’s point is that many of us who shoot the M9 had a very short “wish list” for the next version. Faster buffer, better high ISO, better LCD. If Leica had announced an M10 with those features (retaining a CCD) I would have already placed my order. But now Leica is going down a completely new road with a CMOS sensor, and it’s hard to imagine that there will not be a few (or more) bumps along the way.

          1. …many of us who shoot the M9 had a very short “wish list” for the next version. Faster buffer, better high ISO, better LCD. If Leica had announced an M10 with those features (retaining a CCD) I would have already placed my order.

            Agree 100% with this.

          2. Stephen I agree. I am personally going through my own thought process about what to adopt xDSLR. My initial re-entry back in photography is with the X100, which has been liberating, for want of a better word, given it’s size. However I know it’s not for me as I only want to own one camera and ultimately it comes down to the output/file/image and quality of the lens. This is what has brought me to shooting with a RF.

            However I do not want to make a such a big buying decision without really considering those aspects you have mentioned. I want to ensure those same qualities you enjoy about using a RF are right for me. So it is good to hear your description and how you have adopted shooting in that style.

            As to the RX1 I appreciate they are very different. The manual focus capability of that camera would be an important aspect and from early reports it is fairly good. But still too early to know.

            So I am going to wait, see how the balls land and make my decision over the next 3-4 months. Ultimately it could be that I purchase an M9 second hand once I’ve seen all the options! I really do not like camera menus!

            The times I have used a RF was really enjoyable, and apart from photo quality is a factor. It has to be something you enjoy using. BUT it shouldn’t be a “fad” for someone and so still thinking about what I gravitate towards in shooting and if that works for me with a RF! Looking positive though!

            It’s just interesting how this new FF and the new M might effect people like me and their decision making.

            Thanks again for your description though….good to hear from someone about how they use a RF.


  3. Peter, I think there are several interesting dynamics at work here. First, I wonder what caused Leica’s engineering department to fall so far behind schedule that they could only show jpeg previews on the LCD at the Photokina launch. Obviously when this project was started 2+ years ago the timeline was to be fully ready for Photokina 2012, and it now looks as if they will miss that date by at least six months. Is this because of delays in the completely new sensor, or in writing the firmware to make the new sensor compatible with Leica lenses? Only Leica knows, and they’re not saying.

    Another big unknown is low light performance at ISO6400, the maximum setting for the new M. With cameras such as the Canon 5D Mark III producing very usable images at ISO25,600 it seems Leica is not able to achieve the same level of noise reduction as their CMOS competitors. To me this is very disappointing, as shooting fast Leica glass at ISO25,600 (with acceptable IQ) would have been a very powerful combination. With the new Leica CMOS sensor comes the added features of live view and video, but I think many will be disappointed if the ISO improvement is only 1 or 1.5 stops better than the M9.

    Of course all of this means nothing if the IQ at base ISO doesn’t surpass the M9.

    1. Thanks for elaborating Stephen. Your last statement goes to the heart of the matter for me because I haven’t yet seen a CMOS sensor that surpasses the M9 image quality *at base ISO*. That’s why I keep revisiting this topic. That, and the fact that Leica has been very quiet.

    1. Hi Jason,

      Stephen (from above) wrote to me earlier today with this link (thanks Stephen).

      I wanted to respond to him but have been busy with work, so I’m glad you posted this. I’ll have to have a closer look at the images when I get home, but at first glance I’m not sure how well I’ll be able to judge, given the limitations (mixed lighting, some motion blur, some focus errors, etc).

      What do you guys think?

      1. I’d literally just seen it when I posted it here, having looked at them a little more it doesn’t tell me anything one way or the other really.

        I’ll put myself in Leica’s position for a moment, if I truly believe in the characteristics and performance of the new sensor I’d be prepared to put up a DNG or two for people to apply their own processing techniques to and see for themselves. 🙂

        Jury still out.

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