Leica CM: a professional compact.The Leica CM, son of MiniluxIntroduction: the predecessors

The first compact camera under the Leica label was introduced in 1989 with the AF-C1, a Minolta design. Six different models were made in the period till 1995, when the Leica Minilux made its debut. This camera constituted a major break with the previous line of cameras. The design was very clean and elegant, compared to the somewhat baroque models from the beginning (AF-C1 and AF-C2) and the rather inconspicuous models of the Mini line. The main feature of the Minilux was the lens, that was a special design by Leica with exceptionally good quality and a high speed of 1:2.4. With these capabilities, one could take pictures without flash in poor light and still get images with very good clarity. The Minilux was a very good seller, and still is a fine camera, but there were a few weak points. The shutter mechanism could fail spontaneously, the finder gave a really small image, there was no possibility for a separate flash unit (as with the Minilux Zoom) and the fastest shutter speed was limited to 1/400, giving overexposure in bright scenes and high speed film. For colour negative film this is advantageous, but for slide film it is not so good.
When Leica introduced at Photokina 2002 a special edition of the Minilux (the sharkskin version) one could start thinking that a new model was in the pipeline.

The Leica CM: filmbased compact for the 21st century?

Now at the end of 2003, the successor of the Minilux has been announced. With the digital wave riding high, especially in the market segment of the compact cameras, the inevitable question to be answered is the viability of a high quality filmbased compact camera at the beginning of the 21st century, by many observers of the photographic scene the dawn of the digital era and the death of film. The power of filmbased photography is the impact and purity of the images. Clarity, vividness and formality of composition, especially in the honest language of the black and white film is and always been the hallmark of good photography. A camera that is being able to seduce the user to seek for motives to create such images is a desirable and true photographic instrument. It is obvious that a tool can never initiate the creative process, but one should be aware that it is the character of the best instruments to be in harmony with the aspirations of the user. An archer will have more confidence when he uses a bow that he feels he can trust whatever his goal. The CM is a camera that is designed to deliver high quality pictures at any time and with a minimum of user interaction. In this respect it is close to the original Leica’s that were equipped with a standard lens and could be used as a snapshot camera, with preset exposure and distance. The CM is even smaller than the original Leica (IIIc 136mm, CM 117mm, CL121mm, Minilux 124mm) and is the most pocketable of all Leica cameras. The modern user has lost the ability to guess exposure and distance and is spoiled by the convenience and accuracy of electronic automation of functions.
In the world of consumer electronics (and photography too) there is an important but narrow dividing line between life-style products and workmanlike instruments. In my view the CM sits just across the dividing line. The camera has first class optics, an impressive shutter range from 99seconds to 1/1000 and an excellent LCD display on the back to change flashsettings, exposure override, and the shutter time lag is commendably short. The use of a small wheel on the back to change the values is now common practice and works fast.
On the other hand the manual distance setting with focus indication with the focus wheel is not very precise, the shutter release has no clear pressure point and the design of the focus wheel and aperture selection unit looks and feels a bit cheap. One would have expected that the pointer of the aperture setting would have been protected by a transparent cover.
The CM is carefully designed to show its heritage and affinity to the classical Leica M look. Indeed at a casual glance it looks like a small M camera, even more so than the Leica CL. It is the current trend in design to give all Leica non-SLR camera products a family resemblance, derived from the M-look. Personally I would have hoped that the cameras designed for the 21st century would get a new distinct Leica look, that would be as striking as the machine-like look of the M from the 20th century.

Leica CM: testresults

The outstanding features of the CM are the large and bright finder, the high speed lens, the automatic exposure and distance setting and the shutter with its long range. The additional features of built-in flash with its several modes, continuous drive, program modes and LCD display with mono-functions are now current state of the art of the modern high grade compacts (see specifications).
The shutter is an electronically controlled leaf-type shutter with a top speed of 1/1000. The program changes the shutter speed in half steps, at least in the display. It is a pleasant surprise that you can use flash with any shutter speed till 1/1000 and with the additional hot shoe and the SCA 3502M4 adapter quite sophisticated flash setups can be created. In this area the CM is more qualified than the MP and at least as good as the M7.
The bright and large finder is a much better construction than the Minilux, and the finder display is familiar to any one who uses a M6/MP/M7 and R8/9.
The automatic exposure does a very good job and my slides are correctly exposed, with the usual exception of strong backlighting where all automatic programs fail. It is a pity that Leica has not changed the automatic flash programs to accommodate the fact that in very bright light the fill-in flash is not very effective, Now the program flashes always in vain and you have to manually shut off the automatic flash. For a camera with the stated goal, it might be better to use as standard setting that the flash is off.
The AF in automatic mode is fast and effective. It has a bit trouble with fast moving subjects but that is in my view no problem as you can use the manual focus setting with a preselected distance.
The focus assist in the manual distance setting is not very effective and helpful. There is a fair amount of hysteresis when operating the focus wheel and the steps of the AF range are too large for precision focusing. From 0.7 meter to 4 meter the focus steps are divided in 10 to 20cm steps (2.4, 2.5, 2.7, 2.8, 3.0 meter etc), but above 4 meter we have the following range: 4.2, 4.7, 5.2, 6, 7, 8, 10, 14, 23, infinity. It is obvious that if your subject is at 9 meter the focus assist will not find the correct slot.
The accuracy of the AF till 5 meter is excellent: I did check the focus settings with a separate electronic range finder (accurate within 1%) and found precise readings.
One could argue that beyond 5 meter the accuracy is allowed to be less as the depth of field, (even at the wider apertures) will cover the small errors of distance setting.
The Summarit 1:2.4/40mm lens is the same as the one in the Minilux. There is improved coating that reduces the secondary reflections a bit more, but in practice this is hardly noticeable.
Contrast and crisp reproduction are excellent at all apertures. The MTF for the 1:5.6 setting indicates a performance as good as that of the Summicron-M 2/35 asph and slightly better than that of the Summicron-M 2/50mm.
This lens has a consistently good image quality over most of the image field and at all apertures. Only the corners lag behind.
Where lenses do differ is in light falloff and flare. The Summarit has a vignetting wide open of more than 2 stops, which is visible. Flare reduction is excellent and up to the best current Leica lenses. Again: at very oblique angles and strong sources there are the inevitable ghost images. More important than the ghost reflections, is the control of the contrast in flary light. This is quite good.
The Leica CM: how professional is it?
The Leica brochure relates the CM to the M cameras (the ‘M’ in the designation does evoke this association) and claims that the qualities of the CM allow this camera to play as significant a role in the compact camera segment as the M camera does in the rangefinder segment. The concept of ‘professional’ is an elusive one, but I would relate it to a high standard of performance, based on discipline, expertise and values. In this sense the Leica CM is a professional camera as it is capable of excellent results. The camera operates fast enough to be useable as a reportage tool for street and human interest photography and is very unobtrusive in its use. If you remember the famous pictures by Lewis Hine or August Sander, you will understand the range of topics that the CM can cover with good results.
Its distortion free lens is eminently suited to architectural and landscape photography and the Summarit, from aperture 1:5.6 can handle very small detail with authority.


The Leica CM is a high grade compact camera, that has the look, feel and part of the functionality (finder display, shutter range, flash) of the M camera range. Its lens is as potent as one could wish to exploit today’s film material. Its electronic features (AF and exposure modes) appeal to the current mood of users to want automatic and fuss free assistance when taking pictures. If we compare the CM and the original Leica from 1924 and contemplate on this 80-year timespan, we see that the technique of photography has not changed that much (getting the correct amount of light on the film at the correct focus), but the tools are now more supportive and efficient. One caveat I would like to make: with a more future oriented and independent design and an updated ergonomics that underscores the concept of a precision tool, the CM could prove its heritage. The 20th century was the age of mechanics and user input, the 21st century is the age of electronics and user support. The CM does a very fine job to extend and translate the basic values of the Leica camera into a modern package.


Camera Type: Compact 35 mm viewfinder camera with fast lens and hot shoe for external flash (SCA 3000).  
Film format: 35 mm; 24x36 mm
Camera Body: Solid, extremely rugged titanium body
Lens: 40 mm f/2.4 LEICA SUMMARIT (6 elements in 4 groups) with improved multi-layer coating.  
Autofocus system: Passive phase-detecting autofocus  
Viewfinder system: Real image viewfinder with markings of the autofocus measuring field, parallax; diopter compensation from –3 to +1 diopters; suitable for eyeglass wearers.  
Viewfinder displays: Data indication inside the viewfinder of shutter speed, f-stop, flash condition and focus.  
Viewfinder magnification: 0.40 x, viewfinder field corresponds to approx. 90 % of the film format.  
Focus range: 0.7 m – ∞ (27 1/2 in – ∞)  
Exposure operating modes: Automatic program, optional flash activation (also in back lit situations), aperture-preferred
automatic exposure, pre-light to reduce redeye effect; Slow (slow shutter speeds); Flash OFF; Slow with synchronization at the end of the exp.  
Exposure system: Automatic program mode with automatic exposure control, option of flash activation (also for against-the-light exposures) and aperture priority with aperture preselection  
Exposure metering: Center-weighted 2-zone metering with backlight recognition.  
Exposure override: From –2 EV to +2 EV in 1/3 EV steps  
Focusing modes: Autofocus, manual focusing  
Measured value storage: Storage of metered exposure value and measured distance by a light pressure on the shutter release button.  
Shutter speeds: 1/1000 s–99 s  
 Flash range for slide film at ISO 100: 5.8 m (19 ft)
Guide no. : 14 (m), 46 (ft)  
Flash range with external LEICA SF 24D flash: 8.5 m (28 ft)
Guide no. : 20 (m),79 (ft)  
 Control of accessory flash unit: SCA flash units with SCA 3502M4 adapter and LEICA SF 24D can be controlled by the camera.  
Functions shown in the LC display: Flash function; exposure over-ride; exposure counter; battery condition; selftimer; exposure progr.; manually set focusing distance, date/time.  
Film speed setting: Automatic for films with DX coding from ISO 25/15° to ISO 5000/38°; for films without DX coding or with speeds below ISO 25/15°, the speed is set at ISO 100/21°.  
Picture series function: The picture series function is activated by pressing the shutter release button continuously.  
Selftimer: 2- or 10-second exposure delay.  
Data imprinting: Integrated dating device for imprinting the day and time or the date on the film.  
Power supply: Lithium battery CR 123A  
Dimensions (W x H x D): 117 x 65 x 36 mm (4 5/8 x 2 9/16 x 1 7/16 in)  
Weight: approx. 300g (10.6 oz) (without battery)  
Delivery scope: Camera and carrying strap, wrist loop, battery and high-grade velour pouch in a case.  
Other features: Tripod socket, film cartridge window, automatic film advance; manual start of rewinding possible; connector for remote release.  

The Leica Minilux and Summarit 1:2.4/40mm

The Summarit 2.4/40 is a double-gauss design and by now it should be clear that the limits of this species are being approached. It is significant to note that historically the two most used design types (the triplet and the double-gauss both were adapted to 35mm use by Lee of Taylor and Hobson in the 1920’s). Given the constraints of this 6-element design hardly any improvements can be expected. That is why Leica changed to the ASPH designs in the 35 and 28mm focal length.
Zeiss, with the 1.4/50mm, used a DG design and it is interesting to hear what Mr Woltge (previous chief designer of Zeiss) has to say. The lens is optimised fully within the design parameters and better quality is only possible when one employs more expensive glass. Given the price of the Planar 1.4/50 one may assume that this has not happened. Compare the prce and performance of the Summilux-R 1.4/50 New and you know what decisions the Leica designers made.
Anyway: the Summarit is a landmark design as it is designed by Mr Kolsch himself using all tricks of the trade.

The Summarit 1:2.4/40mm on test.

At full aperture overall contrast is very high and very fine detail is very crisply defined with excellent clarity over most of image area (till about 16mm image height). The extreme corners are quite weak when we are looking for fine detail definition, but overall outlines are well preserved. On axis the finest detail is recorded, but this drops gradually after image height of 10mm where details are soft. Flare is very well suppressed. At f/4 there is a visual improvement of the rendition of very fine and extremely fine detail over the whole image area (excepting the extreme corners) and now we have imagery of a very high order. Micro contrast of the smallest textural details is high and there will be only a few film emulsions that can cope with this information overload. At 5.6 and 8.0 the image quality improves a bit and the current target of an outstanding lens (above 50% contrast for the 50 lp/mm norm) is reached if not exceeded.
The overall fingerprint of the Summarit is close to that of the seminal Summicron 2/35 ASPH and I suspect that the Summarit is the best of its kind given current knowledge. The same is the case with the new Elmar 3.5/50 in the 0-series, which is also an optimization of that other design type, the triplet (here in Elmar/Tessar formula). Both the Summarit and Elmar would be worthy of being fitted to the M-body.

The comparison.

The Summicron-M 2/35 asph has at wider apertures a somewhat more even performance over the whole image area. The drop in performance with the Sumarit is however, quite gradual till 12mm iage height and so may not be detected easily.
The Summarit however is much better than its closest rival: the Summicron-CL 2/40. There are interesting differences: the CL lens does not record such fine detail as the Summarit , but shows also a difference in design approach. The CL version has better quality on axis to the detriment of the outer zones (beyond 6mm image height) which are quite low in quality , where the Summarit has a more even and generally higher level of performance, in accordance with current thinking. In the past Leica photographers were more focussed on the image in the center of the negative, presumably.
The classical Summicron-M 1:2/35mm (of 1979) is also of a different design philosophy and exhibits a mixed character with excellent quality in the center and over a large part of the negative area, but now the residual aberrations take their toll and the softer edges of main outlines and the fuzzy edged of finer textural detail give an image that is overall clearly weaker.
In my view then the Summarit could be the last of the Mohicans: the final level of performance that a classical double Gauss design can attain. While most people may assume that the Minilux is a better idea of a mousetrap, that is a simple P&S camera with a good lens, it is in fact a challenge to every M user. try to get the most out the Minilux/Summarit and you are qualified for the next stage: the current M-lenses.
Let me end with a personal note to show that I am human after all:
in my neighbourhood there is a small photo shop, manned by a 76-year old shopkeeper, who happens to use Leica M3 cameras. He has been treated for cancer several times, which did not change his view on life.
Of course I bring all my colour negative and slide work (not Kchrome) to him and we discuss the old days and the vanishing of the classical values in photography. Some day I gave him two rolls of film (Konica 50ISO: a very good film and with outstandingly accurate colours). When the prints returned we looked at them and he said: here you have real Leica quality and there I am disappointed: what did you do?
Well: the ‘real’ Leica pictures were with the Summarit. The not-so-good were made with the Apo-Summicron 2/190 ASPH.

The Minilux.

The camera is an excellent tool for casual and high quality photography. It is not an M or R system for sure, but its range of applications is quite wide. You have to get accustomed to a certain time lag between pressing the shutter and the actual taking of the picture. But fast moving objects are always a problem with any manual camera and the acceptably fast winder will support in capturing the right moment. What I like is the fact that you can manually select a spped or an aperture or even a distance and let the autoation cope with the rest. Generally the exposure meter works OK, but in adverse light conditions (backlighting, light sources obliquely in the corners of the image), you need to use your thinking cap.
The one complaint I have is the low maximum shutter speed of 1/400, which is adequate when using the slow speed films (to match the lens quality), but even with these films you are a bit limited in bright sunlight.
Overall, it is a fine camera, which is suitable to cover many an assignment where now the M-system is used and exlploiting its potential is a joy and a challenge. I might be tempted to say that the mastering of the Minilux is the final exam for becoming an experienced Leica user.