Ever since mirrorless cameras came on the scene, there’s been hope for a mirrorless Leica M camera. Usually what’s suggested is a hybrid system where the electronic viewfinder (EVF) could be swapped or somehow superimposed on the clear class rangefinder view. Leica has been making mirrorless cameras now for years.1 I’m sure Leica has prototyped the idea, but based on my experience, the essential problem with the hybrid M concept is focus.
Mirrorless means autofocus
The mirrorless L-mount Leicas are all autofocus. The first, the TL, didn’t even have an EVF when introduced. When you mount a manual focus lens on one of these cameras the only way to get decent focus is with “focus peaking”, where the in focus area is signaled in the display as an area of color, usually red. It is never very accurate and becomes almost useless once the lens is stopped down.
Does anyone really want to only focus a manual lens on an M with focus peaking? I can’t imagine capturing a moving person or shifting subjects in a street scene this way. With practice many of us get pretty good at moving focus with the rangefinder, but anyone really capturing sports or wildlife wants a sophisticated, predictive autofocus mechanism. Sure I focus in live view sometimes with my M, but EVF really works best with autofocus.
How could autofocus be added to the M then?
So to add autofocus to the M, Leica would need a new line of M size lenses with autofocus capability. They would then work on both a Rangefinder M and an EVF or hybrid M. That would bifurcate a 100 year history of the M39/M mount, similar to what happened with the Nikon F mount over the years as there was mixed backward and forward compatibility depending on focus mechanism and aperture control.
One way to enable manual focus in an EVF that I can imagine is a dual EVF, one large that’s off the sensor and another small patch that’s digitizing just the rangefinder spot. I think it could be done using the sensors found in every cell phone camera with a tiny lens and tiny sensor. That would truly be a digital rangefinder where the photographer was lining up two digital feeds. You’d gain the ability to see the image through the lens as the the sensor is seeing it. You’d have a rangefinder that was easy to focus in low light. You’d have those lovely small M lenses to work with.
Really, if there is any failing of the Leica SL2 it’s really just the size and weight of a fully outfitted mirrorless camera with a modern large digital optimized mount compared to the M. The SL2 is pretty comparable to the Nikon Z7 in size and the lenses are similarly digital optimized and larger than we were used to in the SLR systems. It’s the Leica Q2 that’s the sweet full frame, small and light camera but you have to get used to a 28mm lens like that of your phone and the need to crop way more often than when you can change lenses to frame better.
The M hybrid approach to exposure
I actually like the current M10 cameras as a hybrid system. I rely on the rear display to optimize exposure, but prefer the direct viewfinder with frame lines to compose and the rangefinder to focus. I’m learning that exposure with mirrorless is a process all its own. I highly recommend Greg William’s course2 to learn a more about how to work mirrorless or with a phone to optimize light and exposure in a casual workflow. It’s all about getting the image right in camera, which of course has always been the goal, but now is even more valuable given our digital post-processing tools. I generally push to get the midtones looking right which gives me maximal ability to recover either highlights or shadows given the huge dynamic range of modern sensors.