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Leica M10-R Digital Rangefinder Review: Dreamy but Decadent

Leica M10-R Digital Rangefinder Review: Dreamy but Decadent

I ran headfirst into my refrigerator when Leica’s new camera, the M10-R, arrived at my doorstep. Or, more specifically, I slipped on a cat toy, fell o

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I ran headfirst into my refrigerator when Leica’s new camera, the M10-R, arrived at my doorstep. Or, more specifically, I slipped on a cat toy, fell onto a dining chair, and pulled that chair down on top of me as I slid forward into the fridge. I got back up, ignoring the pain so I could answer the door before UPS decided I wasn’t home.

I limped back inside, the prize clutched close to my breast, and collapsed on my couch. By then, my roommates had run into the living room after hearing my crash and yelp. “Oh, I fell,” I told them, unboxing the Leica M10-R, while bruises blossomed across my knees and elbows. “You look busted, Jess,” one of them said. They kindly parted me from the box and insisted I put some ice on my sprained ankle and swollen knees.

Once that tedious business was done, I finally got to hold the M10-R. You have to understand, this camera is exciting. It’s every bit as well made as any other Leica rangefinder, it comes with an all-new 40-megapixel full-frame sensor, and it starts at $8,300. You’d be rushing to answer the door, too!

Bare Necessities

My first batch of test shots were taken from the comfort of my couch, while my legs were immobilized by ice packs and bandages. Despite the mundane content, the photos were incredible. Tack-sharp. No, razor-sharp. With the focus falling off just past the subject, gracefully melting the background into an absolutely dreamy bokeh.

Photograph: Leica

The 40-megapixel sensor is massive for a camera this size. It’s smaller than my Fujifilm X-Pro 2, and that’s a very small professional camera. The M10-R is small enough to fit in a purse or to carry around your neck and kind of forget it’s there.

Thankfully, it doesn’t feel cramped. The exterior shell of the Leica is stark. Nothing but the essentials here—three buttons beside a touch-sensitive LCD, a pair of knobs on the top, a directional pad on the back, and a shutter button. Leica dialed down everything that might get in your way, delivering just the bare necessities so there’s as little as possible between you and your subject.

But there are a couple of features that are absent here, and they’re pretty glaring considering the price tag—it seems like the paring knife cut a little too deep. The M10-R has only one SD card slot—usually you get two on higher-end cameras like the Sony Alpha 7 and Fujifilm X Pro—and it’s a little awkward to reach. To replace the battery or SD card, you have to unscrew the bottom plate of the camera.

The lack of autofocus is also noticeable, but that’s par for the course with the M-series. Leica’s top-tier rangefinders purposefully don’t have autofocus; it’s a philosophical choice to make you slow down and carefully compose your photos.

Speaking of photos, it’s hard to describe the “Leica look.” Somewhere between the moment when photons hit the sensor and when the onboard processor converts them into a picture, the M10-R works its magic. There’s a hyper-realness in Leica images, a product of the way the company manufactures its lenses and how the sensors process light.

Photos look as if they’ve frozen a moment in liquid glass. I’m not just waxing poetic here, either. There is an undeniable look to photos taken with a Leica camera, and the M10-R’s top-notch, high-resolution sensor elevates it with crisp details and vivid colors on print-ready RAW files. It’s hard to take a truly bad photo with the M10-R, especially without autofocus, because you’re forced to take it slow.

Consider your composition and subject—then focus, breathe, and snap. It’s a contemplative experience, one all photographers should have the chance to experience. But there’s a catch.

For me, the price of the M10-R factors into its performance. When I’m out shooting with it, I’m much more cautious and conservative. I don’t take risks with $12,000 worth of camera gear around my neck—that’s how much the camera costs with the Leica lens the company sent me. Not taking risks makes me a worse photographer.

I would never take this Leica on a trip, or on a hike, or to go photograph a protest. It isn’t the kind of camera I could replace without significant financial hardship, and that means it kept me from taking great photos more often than it helped me take great photos.

Big Barriers to Entry

Normally, this is the part of the review where I’d say something like “It’s not for everyone,” because of its high price, or that it’s a “luxury camera.” Both of these things are true, but there’s more to say. This is also not a camera for these times. In the face of a deadly pandemic and worsening economic crises, a price this high feels unreasonable—even insensitive.

I’m lucky to have a job right now, but I live with two others who are not so lucky. Our household income fell by two thirds at the start of the lockdown this spring, and on the first of every month, I worry if we’re going to be able to make rent. I am far from alone here. This is a situation playing out in tens of millions of homes throughout the US. Every industry has seen massive layoffs, job cuts, and furloughs. It’s a very strange time to review a camera that costs more than a year of in-state tuition at a public university.

The M10-R is a beautiful device. It’s thoughtfully designed, and it produces incredible photos. I just can’t recommend it. Luxury-item pricing is par for the course for Leica, and that used to be all there was to say. But the price is a part of the product, and it bears critical and moral weight. At the end of the day, the M10-R feels like the kind of camera you buy to capture vacation photos at your estate in the Seychelles. It’s the Rolex of cameras.

Feature for feature, the M10-R doesn’t quite compare to other professional-grade cameras. If you’re in the market for a digital rangefinder, the Fujifilm X-Pro 3 is a better camera in nearly every way, and it’s a fraction of the price. It has dual card slots, it shoots 4K video, but it has an APS-C sensor. If you need a full-frame sensor, then the Sony A7R-VI is a great choice, and you’ll still come out spending less than half of what you’d spend on the M10-R.

The M10-R is far out of reach for so many talented photographers. Personally, I’ve only ever shot on Leica cameras I’ve borrowed or rented, and I’ve been a working photographer for more than a decade. At $8,300, this camera isn’t extravagantly priced, it’s prohibitively priced—and in the face of the world we’re living in, that’s starting to feel deliberate.

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