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Towards a modern paradigm for Leica CRF photography
According to Plato (and his disciple Aristotle) all things in nature possess an original ideal form and the visible phenomena we can see in reality are in fact more or less distorted copies of the original. It is the goal and function of art to accomplish what nature could not achieve: perfection. This ancient Aristotelean vision has been actualized in the current digitally manipulated photography. Photoshop is capable of producing every shape one wishes and one can compose a picture with carefully selected and manipulated parts and components. This approach produces an Über-reality in the pictorial sense, but as a corollary also a drive for perfection of the tools. In the usual reviews of cameras and software programs there is always a listing of likes and dislikes where the dislikes is often an enumeration of lacking features that the presumed competition offers.
The first hidden assumption is the idea that the sum of all features of all cameras will make the perfect camera. The second hidden assumption is the idea that the camera should complement the lack of skills of the operator. And the third no longer hidden assumption is the idea that a failed photograph is no longer the fault of the operator but of the camera and the software that are not up-to-date or up-to-the-task.
The relation between the photographer and reality has dramatically changed in the last twenty years, partly under the influence of the powerful post-processing programs. The photographer no longer feels himself to be a slave of the camera faithfully recording aspects of reality, but has become a visionary who does want to show new vistas where others keep their eyes closed.
The most remarkable transformation that has occurred with the acceptance of the digital workflow is the role and position of the photographer. In the days of silver halide capture and chemical processing the technique was rather simple, but the mastering of the details of this technique was not. But photographers accepted the limitations and accumulated knowledge and expertise to complement the limits of the tools. The Zone System is an excellent example of such an approach. The limits of the material are recorded and a technique is developed to tackle the problem. Ansel Adams did not write to the manufacturers to create better emulsions and chemicals but studied the available products and added his knowledge to the process.
The same attitude can be seen in the guild of photographers. The cameras and lenses of the past were far from perfect and this is true of Leica cameras and lenses too. Disregarding the occurrence of annoying details that put shame to the manufacturers' blazon, photographers were accustomed to develop techniques to extend the capabilities of the tools. It was Barnack's ideal to develop a camera that was so simple and compact that it could be used at any time to record daily events as a visual memory: thirty-six memories on one roll of film. Leica pictures have always had the distinction of an honest and detailed record of the world and the Leica lenses have been designed with that goal in mind: reality should be fixed on film (or sensor) with lenses that faithfully capture what is in front of the camera.
One might say that the origin of Leica photography is the honest and realistic fix of a visual memory. Manipulation and artistic distortion are out of the question. There should be nothing between the recording lens and the final print. In such a view the final result is the work of the photographer and if the result is not as hoped for then the photographer takes the blame.
I would propose that this approach might become the new paradigm for Leica photography in the digital age. The current generation of lenses is exemplary and do not require post processing improvements. If there is some vignetting or distortion, one should work with these characteristics because it is a property of the lens. It is far too easy to blame the camera or the computer for the lack of quality of the picture. The high ISO values produce noise in the M8 and M9 cameras. So what? Grain was visible in Tri-X too and yet no one felt inhibited to use this film and make beautiful images.
Leica photographers should take their responsibility and start using the tools, exploring the limits and try to accumulate experience and knowledge to extend the capabilities. It is a bit too simple to assume that the pictures will be better when the M has all the features of the current competition. Photography shares at least one characteristic with sex: it all happens in the mind.
My current favorite for post processing the RAW images is Iridient developer and Capture One Pro. It is very simple and reminds one of the wet darkroom in its options and character. And it is straightforward and discourages manipulations. The processed images are as good as what one gets with other more feature-laden programs. The choice of RAW developers has all characteristics of the old discussion between film types and developers: fine grain or acutance or all-purpose. Technically highly interesting, but for the final image not that relevant. The classical advice: stick to a combination that suits your purposes and try to maximize results in stead of trying every possible combination hoping to find the holy grail is still valid.
A picture needs to be printed and studied on the table and on the wall, not at a 100% screen magnification. I would like to see the photographer return as key player in the imaging chain, and not the software as the decisive factor. Your Leica lenses will feel good again.
2012 is the year that photography lost its magic of anticipation and power to surprise and enchant. Man Ray and his assistant, Lee Miller, considered the darkroom their laboratory and considered the magic of the developing image on the negative and the print the greatest creative emotion that the process of photography could provide.Commercially the darkroom may be dead (who wants to wait for more than a second to see and distribute his image?), and in the wake of its death the magic of photography is rapidly becoming diluted in the zettabytes of visual information that is being uploaded now constantly in ever expanding amounts.
One has to accept that there is progress and that the force of evolution will kill the unadapted, but one has also to accept that it is not enough to be different or new to count as truly evolutionary. Even the CEO of Leica (see the recent interview with Bloomberg media) is succumbing to the force of the social media when he noted that future Leica cameras may have social media integration. The Leica M camera, even in its newest incarnation, the (new) M, type 240, has always been an instrument that connects the photographer with the DNA of true photography in the sense of Szarkowski's five rules. Let us hope the M will not be degraded to an elongation of the network's tentacles.
Globally more and more attention is being paid to environmental sustainability and an economy that will shift from growth to durability. The classical high-precision mechanical cameras could and can be used for at least fifty years with a modicum of maintenance. My Leica M3 from 1960 is still fully functional in its 52nd year and will function flawlessly for another thirty years. Digital photographers will claim that chemical processes are environmentally hazardous (which is true, but with care the impact can be minimized). Who ponders about the piles of batteries and plastics and sensors that pollute the environment?
The year 2012 was not a good year in this respect. The drive of the industry to produce successor models for every camera (may we include smart phones?) and the eager acceptance of consumers to upgrade to the newest model is not the best model for a sustainable and stable economy.
So what are the intentions for the near future?
Do not buy a new camera for at least two years, but invest time and energy in exploiting the possibilities of the current one. If you think you need a new one, carefully compare existing camera with new camera and see if your photography really will improve in the direction you want to move.
Buy yourself a spot-meter, learn the basics of the Zone System (it exists for digital photographers too!) and slow down your picture taking. Adapt your workflow such that the time spend with Lightroom or Photoshop can be eliminated. Go from RAW file to print in one step.
Spend the time not sitting in front of a computer screen with taking pictures slowly and creatively.
Make a real paper print of your best pictures and do not upload them to Facebook or whatever sharing site. Share it with your friends.
Study the pictures of Renger-Patsch to see how a technically perfect picture can have deep meaning.
Do what you can do best: be yourself. Remember those old advertisements in which the manufacturer boasted about the number of parts in the camera body. A camera was supposed to be better when the number of parts was higher! This was the time that a camera could be compared to a high-precision watch and was seen as a precision-engineered mechanical marvel.
Now cameras are effectively computer devices for image capture in which printed circuit boards and software are rapidly replacing moving parts. This trend is perfectly logical. The speed and intensity of product announcements and product updates is costly and investments have to be recouped already at the start of a product cycle. Witness the significant price drops of a product at the end of its commercial lifecycle.
With less components and a smart system of recombinations of existing components you can reduce costs and introduce many products that seem to be new.
The mirrorless camera is now very popular, but removing the mirror box (or fixing the moving mirror) is also very cost-efficient: less components to take care of. The next component to get rid off will be the shutter unit. The reflex viewfinder is already being replaced by an electronic finder system and when this process of component elimination will have reached its natural finale, cameras and smart phones will have converged.
Objections will be raised of course! There will presumably be a market for the classical SLR type of camera, but for how long? The Hasselblad 500-body was simply a metal box with attachable filmholder, finder system and lens unit with shutter. Look at the current mirrorless system camera and you see the same construction: a simple box with a sensor and shutter, attachable lens and attachable finder. The original Leica camera was also a metal box with a shutter, but without a finder. History and design seem to repeat themselves.
Truly innovative products are lacking and the tsunami of improved and upgraded products in ever shorter product cycles can no longer hide the fact that the engine of innovation is running on low power. This is logical because of a basic fact of industrial production. Any new part that is required for whatever product goes through a cycle of production design, planning, testing, manufacture and quality control. Even with sophisticated statistical methods and machine control, one needs a certain time for the manufacture to settle to a state of high reliability. And constantly changing the production line is costly and error prone. A large range of components also increases the cost of stocking all those components.
Therefore companies try to reduce cost by re-using as many components as possible. Volkswagen has its platform strategy, Ikea only uses three types of screws for all its products, Apple has a small range of products with a reduction of options. Compare these approaches with the wide range of products offered by Olympus, Canon and Nikon that are also entangled in a competition with ever-shorter product cycles. It is logical to assume that there can be no true innovation because all creativity goes into upgrading existing products, based on cost reduction by re-using existing parts with proven reliability. An outsider company like Fuji is able to astonish with an innovative product range like the X-series, because the engineers could use their creativity to study the market and think of new solutions in their own time frame.
It is safe to state that unless the pace of product introduction slows significantly one will not see much innovation in the world of photographic cameras. Recently I spoke to a magazine editor who runs every product through the test cycle of Imatest. One may question the ultimate validity of this approach, but the basic fact is that it has become quite difficult to find significant differences in performance between products. This makes testing a boring proposition. This is also underscored by the endless list of tests by the German magazine Color-Foto that in its most recent issue shows that different cameras and systems converge to the same level of performance and that the differences that can be found are increasingly irrelevant for the average user.
It makes sense to question the global tend to product differentiation and short product cycle and to note the stifling of true innovation that is the necessary correlation of this strategy. It is therefore a bit unsettling to read that the management of Leica is contemplating to shorten its product cycles and to introduce more new products to keep pace with the competition. The success of Apple may be a case to contemplate before embarking on a new course that is not ingrained in the Leica product philosophy.
Currently the Leica products (S, M, X) excel in simplicity, high performance, quality engineering and compact size (the S system is still compact relative to the competition). But the high performance demands a production technology with extremely narrow tolerances. The peak performance of Leica may be compared to a pyramid: the top is very high, but sharply pointed: if you are on the peak all is well, but if you drop from the top, you slide down fast and steep. The other approach for performance is to settle for a lower height and use the shape of a tower: the top is wider and it takes a while before you approach the edge and fall off. If you go for a pyramidal type of performance, the strategy for frequent product changes and product introductions may be counterproductive.
The French writer, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, wrote: "Perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add but when there is no longer anything to take away"
Comparing the road map of Canon/Nikon with the one from Leica it is evident which company will attain perfection sooner. But even Leica is in danger to overshoot its ambition. The Leica M Monochrom fits the definition of de Saint-Exupy exquisitely and the new Leica M-E might just pass the test. The new M would have more trouble to qualify. While the new M has vastly less features than the competition, headed by Canon/Nikon, it offers many features that in fact indicate that the designers did shy away from clear choices.
The classical argument for a long list of features is simply the fact of choice; what one does not like or use, one can disregard. The argument for a short list of necessary features is a clear profile with optimized characteristics.
For this moment in time the overwhelming trend is an overload of features and it seems that this trend is not easily reversed. The only branch where simplicity reigns is the bicycle industry where the bikes with the most basic features, but with a strong dose of high-tech, command high prices and the attention of the public. Continuing the argument of optimized simplicity the modern silver-halide emulsions with new development chemistry and high-fidelity optics (aka Leica lenses) would certainly be eligible for the price, but we must be realistic and accept that the majority of pictures will be derived from digital files that will be processed by rather complex programs. A refreshing exception is DCRaw, but this one has a cumbersome interface. Try the fine RAW developer form Iridient Software (Mac only) that is based on DCRaw and is as simple and effective as a good chemical developer.
Perfection however is not only a characteristic of the equipment, but also and perhaps more importantly a characteristic of the photographer. If you do not want to attain perfection, no tool, even a technically perfect one, can help. I do not wish to fall into the trap of what constitutes a good photograph, but here again one should argue that a tool is designed for a certain (limited) range of functions and one should do well to optimize this function. A knife and a screwdriver can be designed as separate single tools with highly optimized functionality or one can buy a Swiss multi-function tool which has both tools but with a very limited function span. In many cases the Swiss all-purpose tool is just good enough for the average tasks, but it certainly is no substitute for the most demanding jobs.
In the past photographers had 35mm cameras, medium format cameras and large studio cameras that were optimized for its special set of tasks and goals. Now we are trying to design one tool that does all jobs equally well. It is a tribute to the tremendous performance of digital technology that we can get the quality of a large-format negative with a sensor that has the size of a 35mm negative. What we are losing is the idea of perfection. As long as reviewers lament the lack of features in stead of applauding the choice for austerity we will drift away from that cultural phenomenon that has long been the hall-mark of civilization: perfection by limitation; poetry and black-and-white photography share this characteristic and alas both are difficult to find.
Classical technical journalism was focused on the analysis and evaluation of products and instruments in such a way that a prospective buyer could get a clear and authoritative opinion about the performance of the product and its optimum use. In those days journalists had to present their results and findings, based on months of use, as neutral as possible to avoid the impression of amateurism that shadow-marked the popular magazines. Only very occasionally one could read in a report a reference to comparable products. It was common practice to restrain the discussion about the merits and the limitations of a product to the product itself and sketch an overall view of the ecosystem where this product belonged and its role and significance. This approach ensured the best possible insight into the qualities of a product without neglecting its position in a greater environment.
Current technical journalism is the complete antithesis of the serious, and may we say gentlemen-like, approach of the previous generation. There is hardly any respect for the product or the engineers who designed and manufactured the product, a camera as example. After reading a product review, one has a fairly good idea of the opinions of the reviewer and his/her views on a whole range of products, but if one would wish to get a clear profile of the true merits of the camera one is still groping in the dark. Technical journalism and tabloid journalism, once operating in parallel universes, are now converging, at least in the photographic world. One of the reasons may be the almost insatiable yearning of the public to want to discuss the Next Thing or even better the Impossible-Next-Thing. A long time ago, that is before the internet, companies invited journalists to exotic places to inform them of the new products their engineers had created, to have samples of the products to play with and to offer some niceties that might help to get a favorable comment. When the Nikon F5 was announced at one of such meetings, one person dared to ask when the F6 would arrive! That was the generation of photographers that was accustomed to a once-in-a-decade renewal of a major product and a thirty-five page in-depth review of the camera in dense print without the current ubiquitous use of large pictures.
Nowadays technical journalism seems to become more and more focused on presenting scoops, like the tabloids where a fuzzy picture of an unclad part of the body of a princess is the holy grail of accomplishment.
It is of course fully justified to inform the reader about trends in the market and for decades the automotive industry presents road maps for their product range for several years in the future. The consumer-electronic and the photographic industry are in a different habitat and here the news of a possible small version of the iPad or iPhone or a new type of Leica camera may send shockwaves through the respective audiences.
This is a strange phenomenon: the fact that such a product might be announced or is on the drawing boards is not newsworthy in itself: there are always known unknowns! The CEO of Leica may remark in an interview (knowing that this is a public discourse with attendants who are eager to read his lips) that Leica has several new products in the planning (it would be a shame if they had not!) and he may sketch the contours of one such products. This in itself does not justify the self-fulfilling prophecies of journalists that such a product will become the Next Thing. They may hope so, but the alacrity with which such remarks are transferred into facts is not up to the standards of serious journalism. If the Next Thing does not show up at the moment that the journalists have prophesied, it is not the company, but the journalist who is to blame. The fact that both the AP and the BJP felt pressed to issue a joint statement to defend their role is a weakness.
The Leica Monochrom may have sparked a renewed interest in the silver-halide technique of recording and processing pictures. On the dark side of the moon, progress is still possible. The company that produces the fine high-definition chemicals (Nanospeed/Orthopan; cannot wait to use these materials with the forth-coming Apo-Summicron-M 50mm) has recently announced the Acurol system of negative and print developers. Acurol is a highly diluted developer (1:50 to 1:100) that can be used with normal exposure/development and with the several Zone System (N+ and N-) versions. I will publish a report soon, but is always satisfying to note that the normal black-and-white techniques are still supported with innovative products. Imagine the range of possibilities: Monochrom files processed with Nik Silver Efex-2 with all versions or with the indigenous filters of the LR4 program, or with the very interesting method provided by the DxO Filmpack 3 OR you use the MP or M7 with Ilford films processed with newly formulated chemicals and the Zone options of the Heiland Splitgrade controller.
The new Leica M may be he main focus in the microcosmos of the Leica world, but in the main evolutionary progress it will not be seen as more than a tiny footnote.
In the 1960s it was the Konica Autoreflex that introduced a workable solution for exposure automation. The experts noted that this was a fine feature for amateurs, but real professionals would not need or buy it. A few years later every professional camera offered EA. In the 1980s the Minolta-7000 introduced the first effective autofocus mechanism, based on as some would have it on the Leitz Correfot patent. Again experts predicted that this feature would not be used by professionals. The Canon EOS however changed the landscape and the evolution of camera design.
Around 2002 the dominance of the digital capture technology became evident and now the tone changed to the remark that both main technologies would co-exist for a long time. Most recent figures indicate that film-loading cameras hold less than 1% of the market.
At Photokina 2012 the main discussion was the trend to the so-called mirrorless system cameras, introduced four years ago by Panasonic. This is the first time that a non-photographic company has made such a revolutionary design. The topic is again co-existence or disruption or displacement. Some journalists already predict the end of the traditional mirrorbox as the main design component of the system camera (professional or amateur). y the way: the word "amateur" is now interpreted as dilettante or at least non-professional, but the original interpretation was much more positive: someone with knowledge about a field.
The theory of evolution states that the cause of a major change is a new constellation of the environment leading to the loss of no-longer-functional elements. The mirror-box is indeed no longer necessary and it is only a matter of time before this construction (introduced in 1936) will be history and a topic for nostalgia. This fate will over time be shared by the opto-mechanical rangefinder (used in the Leica M bodies). The introduction in 1925 of the 35mm film (135) sealed the fate of the large format camera, but this one could hold on in protected niches for a long time. Now the 35 mm format (FF in modern parlance) is in danger itself. Every manufacturer is proud of offering cameras with a FF sensor (24 x 36 mm), the latest in line is the new Sony with fixed lens of 35 mm focal length (erroneously called Sonnar, but then the market people at Sony have not a clue of optical traditions). But the big seller is the camera with APS-C sensor, the most likely candidate to succeed the 35 mm film format.
The true disruptive force is the video technology being incorporated in every major photographic camera design. Movies were extremely popular at the end of the 19th century and have since then surpassed photography as the main visual medium. See the current success of YouTube.
The photographic camera as we know it, is on the brink of extinction when we look at the developments from an evolutionary perspective. Evolution is not concerned with short-time views or nostalgic opinions, but is a remorseless power that forces species to adapt or die when the environment changes.
The new Leica M stands on the verge of a crossroads of cultures. To understand its true significance a short review of the past developments is opportune. Leica has always focused on high-precision opto-mechanical constructions and the design of the classical Leica rangefinder camera evolved around the 35 mm film cassette. The Leica M7 is the grand finale of this camera type with as much automation as can be incorporated into the design.
Around 2004 the Leica company had modest background in digital technology and the original M8 can be interpreted as the optimum digitizing of the M7 while preserving the functionality and feeling of the traditional rangefinder camera. Investing heavily in digital technology and knowledge the Leica S2 became the front-rank "Technologieträger" for the Leica company. The M9 capitalized on this widening and deepening experience in the digital domain and with its large size (24 x 36 mm) CCD-sensor could catch up with the competition to quickly take the lead in the professional mirror-less camera field. The introduction of the Leica M Monochrom shows the innovative potential of this camera design, but also the limits. The evolution of the digital technology forced the pace of innovation and if Leica were to make a quantum leap forward lateral thinking was required.
The first sketches for the new M were drafted three years ago, alongside the development of the M9. The core of the Leica M design is the MAESTRO processor (also used in the Leica S camera) and a new CMOS sensor, developed jointly by a Belgium-French-German cooperation. This new sensor has some unique features, the most important one being the shape of the microlenses. The new shape design makes it relatively insensitive to the effects of skew rays hitting the pixels at the outer area of the sensor and equally good results are obtained when using tele-centric or normal lens constructions.
The new M accepts a new device, the 6-bit-coded R-Adapter to allow the use of R-lenses and one of the requirements for the sensor design was specifically to allow the use of R-lenses form 15 - 800 mm.
The new M has a larger buffer, faster processing algorithms and is very energy-efficient, giving the camera the speediest operation of all M-cameras. The Live View function is cleverly executed and shows that Leica is forging ahead of the competition. The M is a manually focusing camera and sharp focus can be found while using Live View and the selectable magnifier view. In addition to this standard function, the camera uses edge detection algorithms (a common image processing technique) to highlight in red the sharp edges that can be found in the motive at the selected distance. In Leica-speak this feature is called "focus peaking".
This method is as close as one can get to replicate an autofocus functionality with manual focus lenses.
The true innovations have to be found under the bonnet and involve the switch from DSP-technology to ASIC-technology. DSP stands for the common Digital Signal Processors for general-purpose use and ASIC refers to Application-Specific Integrated Circuit, ICs that are customized for a particular use.
The classical optical rangefinder technology has been copied from the Leica M9 Titanium with the LED illumination of the finder frames, but now selectable between white and red.
In addition to Live View and optical rangefinder, the camera also accepts the EVF2 from the Leica X2, giving the photographer a choice of three viewing methods.
In common with the M9 Titanium and the M-E the camera body does not have the external USB interface, but a new attachable handgrip with integrated GSP, and interfaces for USB, tethered shooting and two flash sockets.
The camera body has the same dimensions as the M9 (weight is more by 100 grams: bottom plate thickness is identical) and the same outward appearance as the M9 Titanium, but the body construction is totally new offering also dust and water resistance.
The new mirror-less camera breed might rewrite the future of photography (Barnack would say: I told you so!) and the new M is undoubtedly the benchmark in this domain for years to come. The camera is extremely versatile (video recording is obviously available too) and with the R-Adapter can use R-lenses from 15 mm to 800 mm, in addition to all M-lenses. With the new handgrip and the incorporated tethered shooting, there is no reason not to use the M in studio situations and new lenses will certainly exploit these opportunities. The menu structure has been rethought too and aligns itself closer to the S-design: the new interface can be held up as an example in clarity and simplicity.
The new M transcends the classical rangefinder culture as it is defined by the M Monochrom and the M-E into a new culture of the manual focusing system camera that is expandable, versatile and compact.
A short inspection of the camera brings up that the so-called focus peaking is an effective method of fast focusing, but one needs to get accustomed to the idea that a fine red line in the image area locates the sharpness plane. Depth of field and elongated objects may spoil the effect. All in all, this is a very nice feature. On the Photokina stand curious persons were playing with the new M, the EVF2 and Leica R lenses. A strange sight to say the least.
The M-E is a new version of the M9 with some features omitted to reduce the cost. There is no frame selector (like the M9 Titanium version) and the (hardly used) external interface (USB port) has disappeared which simplifies the manufacture of the body shell. This camera is the entry model in the current Leica M family, comprising the M-E, M Monochrom and the (new) M. The sensor is the KAF-18500 CCD sensor. Top cover is still moulded brass. The M-E (economy, Einsteiger whatever you wish) is a fine camera, but presumably will score only with its lower price for new buyers into the Leica M system. Seasoned Leica users will opt for the new M and with a price tag of some Euro 6200 this new Leica camera might be tempting for M9 owners too. The video capabilities are not my cup of tea, but tethered shooting is a fine idea when doing test shots.
There is some controversy about the physical dimensions of the M body.
The Leica documentation
M9: 139 x 37 x 80
Monochrom: 139 x 37 x 80
M: 139 x 42 x 80
M-E: 139 x 42 x 80 (specs in German) and 139 x 37 x 80 (specs in English)
First: I checked the physical body dimensions (thickness of bottom plate) on the spot at Photokina: the dimensions are identical between the M9, M-E and M!!
As you can see, Leica has the same dimensions for the M and M-E (which has the exact body dimensions of the M9). The explanation is simple: the smaller body dimension refers to the basic thickness of the bottom plate. The larger body dimensions refer to the total thickness including the monitor, selection wheel and thumb rest.
Is the"M" for mirrorless or for Leica-M? We do not know, but two facts are undeniable. The EOS M body size is 108.6 x 66.5 x 32.3 (w x h x d) and the sensor is the now standard APS-C (22.3 x 14.9 mm). And all functions are dedicated to movie-recording. The Nikon 1 has dimensions 106 x 61 x 29.8 (very comparable) and sensor 13.2 x 8.8 (not sensible). The new Canon underscores two trends that I have been predicting for some time. Photography will be seamlessly integrated into movie-recording and thereby will loose its distinct personality. And APS-C will be the coming standard for most digital (compact, mirror-less and even high-end) cameras. It is really a pity that Leica abandoned the M8 as soon as they could.
With Canon's weight behind the EOS M we can expect that this model will be the benchmark and the role model for years to come. The choice for the APS-C sensor size allows the use of that vast array of all Canon EOS lenses.
There is almost unanimity among analysts and reviewers (excepting the few who assume that more pixels equates with better imagery) that for most photographic assignments and print sizes the APS-C sensor delivers all performance one needs. Remember the apocryphal remark from the Rolls-Royce factory: we do not give horsepower figures of our engines, but be assured there is enough!
There is also a manufacturing logic behind the switch to mirror-less cameras: the large and complicated mirror-box with all its moving parts and the attached prism is a costly unit to produce. The only and admittedly big advantage of the mirror-box + prism construction is the clear and detailed image that this system produces. Sony tries to combine both worlds with a stationary mirror, but advances in electronic viewfinders and Live View options will reduce the advantages.
Sales figures in Far-East countries show that almost half of all sold photo-cameras are already in the compact-mirror-less category. Too high a figure to be disregarded by Canon.
The other attack on the classical style of photography comes from the smartphone where a new type of photography, aptly called smartphonography, is coming into existence.
The big question will be in the next months not only if the Canon EOS-M will succeed (it will), but whether the iPhone 5 will kill mid-range digital slrs (it will probably) and whether the Leica X2 can find its niche (it might).
A recent book by Robert and Edward Skidelsky has the intriguing title: How much is enough? It is a question that inspires to reflection. Their point is the loss of morality of the economic science. In the past growth was seen as a tool for improvement of the human condition, but now growth is seen as a tool in itself. Consumerism is insatiable: the drive to buy more and more does never stop. Think about cameras or computers or tablets or smartphones: the newest article has been announced and everybody is already discussing the next generation. If we have to believe current insights in neurobiology and psychology (and why shouldn't we?) the free will is an overhyped characteristic of human behavior. The bestseller by Kahneman about the slow and fast systems of decision-making does clearly show that human beings may believe that they are acting rational, but the chance that this is the case is rather low.
Basically many of our actions and decisions are related to the impact that these deeds have for the stimulation of the pleasure centre of our brain. Studies have indicated that many of our activities (eating, gaming, shopping) stimulate the same pleasure centre that is also activated when we engage in sexual activities. In fact we only have one single pleasure centre in the brain.
Buying material goods, like cars or iphones or cameras, is not a rational activity and certainly not based on a rational or logical reasoning. The most depressing instances of consumerism may be the long queues in front of the Apple stores to buy the most recent gadget and the distribution of a movie that records the unboxing of a new product, a senseless act that is however been viewed and appreciated by many thousands of persons.
We may assume that we make a rational decision when we choose a certain camera, based on the study of many reviews and detailed comparisons. Many magazines and many websites like DP-review and DxO-labs thrive on the belief that comparative evaluations and numerical listings do influence the buying decision and buyers do assume that they make a decision based on the analysis of facts.
Brain studies show that this is self-delusion. We buy because we want to buy and what we buy is governed by emotion and hidden persuasions in no way related to rational thought.
Many buyers of Leica cameras claim that they buy the camera because of the lenses that are rated the best in the world. This seems to be a rational argument, but in fact it is not. Good thinking would imply that the photographic goals one wants to achieve require the use of the best lenses and that one is able to define and describe what these photographic goals are. In the past this was indeed the case: Leica lenses were selected by photographers because they added a special fingerprint and quality to the pictures. The fact that these characteristics were the logical consequence of an aberration correction that would define these lenses as the best in the world was simply immaterial. People bought Leica lenses because of the characteristics that supported a particular photographic style.
The inverse argumentation and as illogical as the previous one refers to the performance of the current digital cameras in the M-line. We read that one complaints about the noise at higher ISO-speeds and that the resolution of the monitor display is no longer state-of-the-art. This is simply the attitude of keeping up with the neighbors: they have high-resolution displays, so we want them too and they have noise-free images at ISO 12500, so we want that too! There is no logic behind these wishes other that fallible thinking (see Kahneman).
Logical reasoning would conclude that the ideal camera/lens for many purposes would be the Leica M8.2 with the Summarit-M 35mm. Many Leica users would nowadays not considering such a combination since the introduction of the M9 and the Summilux-M 1.4/35 mm ASPH FLE. Rational thinking? Not at all.
It is true of course that the M/SX 35mm combination can create images that the M8/Summarit can not.
The famous German photo-journalist, Robert Lebeck, had to be persuaded by colleagues to abandon his Rolleiflex and start using the Leica M, but he soon acknowledged that the M allowed him to take the pictures he always had envisaged to create. His decision was based on the action of the free will, but that is the exception.
Here is the fallacy: most buyers assume that the newest camera with the most features and the highest score will produce the best pictures. They conveniently want to forget and the manufacturers encourage them to think that they can forget that pictures are made in the globe that resides between the ears.
The endless comparisons between camera X with lens Y and camera A with lens B are pointless, because what these activities do is simply activating the shopping impulse that releases the dopamine neurons that stimulate the pleasure centre.
The heated discussions on the internet forums between protagonists and antagonists of certain products are evidence of this view: there is not a snippet of logic to be found and I am afraid there is no logic involved at all. The choice is the result of the battle between slow thinking and fast thinking and when we are not consciously involved in the decision-making, the fast thinking makes the choice for us and what is left for us is simply to follow the illusion that we are in command. Manufacturers love this of course and will do what they can to reinforce that illusion.
Long ago a young Japanese engineer working for the then small Canon Company wanted one thing: to be as knowledgeable about the craft of photography as the then large Leitz Company. Nowadays it is the small (photographically speaking) Fujifilm Company that teaches Canon a lesson about the core values of photography. Looking at the announcements made during this half year we may wonder where the big Japanese companies are heading to. The traditional sports-photographer is eminently supported by the new 1D IV, but this one is challenged by the 1D X and the 5D III. Movie makers may be enchanted by the 1D C and the other motion-picture-capable cameras. The rumor sites excel in promoting next-generation cameras with ever expanding feature lists. There are now 12 dSLR-cameras in the Canon catalogue, only three (the 5D, 1D X and 1D C) have sensors with 24 x 36 mm size, the rest is APS-C or -H format. The situation for Nikon is comparable: 14 DSLRs in the catalogue ( six of which have FX (24 x 36 mm) format).
Most important specifications are the high dynamic range, the extremely high sensitivity and the high sequence of images. An extremely high dynamic range is fine, but when Ansel Adams proposed the Zone-system which was capable of extracting 10 or 11 stops of range from a normal emulsion, the objections were that the printing paper could only accommodate 5 stops. Today it is not different. Having captured 11 stops in the RAW file, the photographer must scale down the tonal range to 5 stops. The only good point is that you do not have to exposure correctly, by the way the same argument that Kodak used when introducing the linear characteristic curve of the T-Max films.
Sensitivity is nice again, but what increased photographic opportunities do you get when you can expose a scene at ISO 50.000, except scientific applications.
A high sequence is again nice for sports photographers and users who assume that shooting at high frequencies will automatically capture the right image. Ask any serious portrait photographer if they use a motor drive.
These are products constructed with the engineering approach: yes we can! And the never-satisfied consumers will buy it, based on the erroneous assumption that new is better and more is even better! The Fujifilm X-range has its flaws (and yes the Leica M9 models are not flawless either), but these cameras show thinking from the heart of the photographer, that is the person who still cares about the meaning of a photograph.
The core of the X-series is the APS-C sensor and it may be interesting to see which format will eventually become the best choice. Comparison after comparison, scientific and popular indicate that the image quality of the APS-C sensor is for most intents and purposes equal if not better than the 24x36 sized sensors (often referred to as full-frame, but that is a technical notion from sensor technology that is not related to size: full frame is in itself meaningless, because a 30x45 mm sensor might also be called a full frame format: it fills the frame!).
The original promotion for the 4/3 format and the even smaller Micro-4/3 was the possibility of using small bodies and compact lenses. The bloated feature list did away with this potential advantage. The APS-C size sits in the middle, just as the classical 24x36mm format was optimal when considering the bulky medium format cameras and the tiny Minox models.
Paul Wolff of Leica fame wrote a book to promote the small format against the large format negative size.
It seems then that the APS-C size now has the same role and function as the classical 35 mm format in AgX days. And when the camera designers stop cramming loads of useless features in the body (a modern high-end dSLR has more bulk than a classical Hasselblad!) and stop making bulky lenses with a range of 20- 300 mm (or even wider) then photography has a future.
The trend however is less reassuring: the most recent Canon has a touchscreen that emulates the finger movements of the smart-phone. Many cameras already have WiFi! When will the camera start sending emails, tweets and make phone-calls. It will not be long before the camera will be integrated with Facebook: then everybody can (un-)like the picture you are actually making and you can delete the picture when there are more unlikes than likes.
The ubiquitous employment of Photoshop and other post-processing software has changed the content of the image forever. Now the new trends in the camera technology are about to change the process of taking pictures forever. There are still many users of cameras who boast that they took more than a thousand pictures per day, accumulating 50.000 files in a year, the average output of a photographer during the lifetime.
The information that Leica has bought Sinar has been hyped as a major event which is the usual thing to do in the dedicated internet forums. What exactly the deal is, remains for the moment a secret, but it is to be noted that Leica for now only is responsible for the distribution. Leica can now offer a very broad range of products, from simple compact cameras, made by Panasonic with a Panasonic sensor, the X-range with an unknown sensor maker, the M-cameras with sensors by Platinum Equity/ Truesenseimaging (formerly Kodak) (Monochrom and M-E) and by CMOSIS/STMicroelectronics (M), the S2 with a sensor by Truesenseimaging and now Sinar with a range of sensors made by Dalsa (formerly Philips). While it looks like an impressive line-up that covers the major segments of professional photography, it is in fact a collection of products that show limited possibilities for synergy and branding. It is more like a collection of pearls on a string. If we add the the production of cine-lenses to the portfolio, it is difficult to escape the notion that this is a collage of companies that may have the potential to share fundamental product components and development insights, a potential that for now is still quite limited. The move can also be interpreted as a helping hand for the S-system to become a more aggressive and visible product range in the shrinking and hotly contested professional market for studio systems, especially since Canon is also thinking about entering the market and the coming steam of very high resolution systems with 35mm sized sensors. I personally would like to see a Dalsa sensor in the S-class.
The current exhibition of iconic Leica pictures “Augen auf” (“Eyes open”) is in many respects a milestone. It shows in historic detail the rise of the Leica camera from a niche product for cognoscenti to the inevitable tool for the professional photographer, the camera that became a witness of the century and specifically of the turmoil of city life. It is also a showcase and may I add a testimony of the power of silver-halide Leica photography. And here we see the other side of the coin. Leica in the digital age has again become a niche product for the cognoscenti and a select group of professionals. The exhibition shows that the role of the Leica has been taken over or (more accurately) is on the verge of being taken over by the smartphone. Current Leica images, made with a digital Leica camera are often critically sharp, very confronting and often close-ups of socially marginalized people. The sympathetic and humanistically sensitive eye of the French documentary photographers is gone. Being ‘critically sharp’ is no longer a standard feature of Leica photographs. Nor is the camera unique in its compactness or unobtrusiveness or ease of use. These characteristics today apply also to the smartphone or the mirrorless compact. In a sense this is the ultimate proof that Barnack was right.
I am aware that many comments will focus on the quality of the lenses, the quality of the material and the immaculate finish of the product as being some of the main reasons to buy and/or use a Leica camera. We have to admit on the other hand that Facebook and Youtube and all other media are great in communication and even greater in democratization of the photograph. If pixel-peepers would have existed in the heydays of the Leica photography (1930 to 1980) hardly any picture would have been passed the test: they are too grainy and show much less detail than could be observed at 200% at a typical computer screen. It is really a pity that the evaluation of photographs and the performance characteristics of lens/camera systems has been usurped by a small band of short-sighted individuals and that the masses follow their lead. I am and always will be an advocate for the technical qualities of a picture, but define these qualities as tonality, crispness of fine detail in the midtones, separation of highlight and shadow detail and depth preservation. These are the characteristics that give a picture its impact, perspective and allow for an accurate rendition of a slice of reality. And these are the characteristics that were and are cherished by Leica optical designers and camera engineers.
Leica for a very long time has been sitting at Olympic heights with the implementation and improvement of these characteristics, but nowadays many others have adopted the same view and Leica is no longer alone on the top of this Olympic mountain.
Leica can with good justification claim that their lenses are still best of class when the size is included in the equation, a fact that is hardly appreciated by many reviewers.
We have to accept that in these days the Leica myth has more nostalgia than future. The exhibition is a proof that the future is not a continuation of the past and even Leica cannot disregard the writing at the wall.
Today I visited the Boerhaave Museum in Leiden, Netherlands, This is the national museum of the history of science and medicine. You will find there the famous Huygens clock, the van Leeuwenhoek microscope and a 15th century astrolabe (known from the Startrek series). In addition there happened to be an exhibition of pictures made by Ed van der Elsken of the Philips Natlab at the end of the 1980s. This was a period of great innovations at Philips and the start of the transition period from analogue to digital. Ed van der Elsken worked wit a Leica M4-P and Tri-X (compare the Leica M-A and Tri-X!) and used the technique of Hit and Run for his photos. HCB iconized the decisive moment, but van der Elsken used a different approach. He burst into a scene, shot a handful of pictures and ran away, leaving the photographed persons with a big question mark: what just happened? Van der Elsken was a dedicated Leica rangefinder photographer and tried to explain in an interview the magic and usefulness of the Leica for his Hit and Run technique: the Leica is extremely discrete and softly sighs when you take a picture. This is poetry and insight at the same time. He was not interested in extreme sharpness, but wanted to make pictures that had one visual element of sharpness that could catch the eye’s attention and for the rest the picture had to be a powerful composition in black and white. He believed that movies would be the medium of the future (Canon now would agree!). He also was of the opinion that the picture would be finalized in the darkroom where he could select his hit and run contact sheets and carefully printed the one that had the most impact.
Quite inspiring approach and one that makes sense even today.
The basics of photographic equipment tests should be refreshed, if not changed in a fundamental way. During a long period cameras were mechanical tools, assembled from precision engineered and manufactured components.Being purely mechanical, with a sprinkling of electro-mechanical linkages, the performance of the whole depended on the precise interaction of all different parts. A shutter might deviate from the nominal value by 20% before the sensitized material could detect the difference, but the usual tolerance band of the mechanism could be stretched by prolonged use and a good test would notice this. The body dimensions were critical too: the flange to register distance had to be within narrow tolerances as the location of the sharpness plane of the lens had to be within the thickness of the emulsion. Good workmanship could be detected by the smoothness and solidity of the controls. The rangefinder (Leica) had to be adjusted within a few hundreds of a millimeter to ensure that the focus plane and the sharpness plane coincided. In reflex cameras, the focus screen and the mirror location had to adjusted too for best sharpness.
Film emulsions could be assessed on the grain pattern, the true speed values and the shape of the characteristic curve. Exposure meters had to be checked on the accuracy of the metering circuits and the correspondence of the indicated exposure value with the straight part of the characteristic curve of the nominal film emulsions.
Lenses could be evaluated on a range of criteria like sharpness and contrast over the image area, at different apertures and at different distances. As the performance of a lens could widely differ between these parameters, a good test had to look at all these aspects. A lens could be evaluated using an optical bench or MTF equipment and the inherent quality could be matched to the film material used and the precision of the camera for which the lens was made.
The main parts of the imaging chain, precision of camera, accuracy of exposure meter, quality of film emulsion, performance of lens, had to be assessed individually.Every link in the chain would by nature degrade the final performance and this fact forced the designer of every component to produce the best possible instrument.
A reliable assessment of all the components in the imaging chain was a matter of expertise and a lab full of test equipment. Knowing how to interpret the numerical results and make them meaningful for the photographer as prospective buyer was and is a rare quality.
A digital camera on the other hand is an electro-optical imaging system where the properties of the solid-state array and the power of the image processing algorithms regulate the final quality. An image file is simply an array of cells where each cell is assigned a number related to the voltage level of the corresponding pixel (or more precisely the sensel) in the solid-state-array. And number can be manipulated in infinite ways. The performance of the digital camera system, including optics, is now mainly governed by the in-camera software and post-processing programs running on a computer. The ubiquitous availability of evaluation sites and magazines where every measurable characteristic, made possible by image-analysis programs like Imatest,IQ-Analyzer and DxO-labs, can be studied and compared might give the impression that the assessment of true performance characteristics has been normalized and even stabilized. The almost endless list of numerical quality parameters does not give insight into the true value of a camera and/or lens. It just adds to the confusion, a confusion that is supplemented by an equally endless list of personal reviews by individuals who claim to represent the voice and attitude of real photographers, in contrast to the number crunching of the image-analysis programs. The response of the latter group is to present one single merit figure, that may be a comparative percentage or a number on a certain scale.
The best reviews ever written in my opinion are still the reports by Geoffrey Crawley whose books about the Nikon F and Canon F-1 systems are required reading for everyone who aspires to undertake a serious equipment report. Crawley was a strong advoctae of presenting the results of the test in a verbal manner and he was very reluctant to present numerical figures because he was afraid that readers would not be able to understand the value of a figure. Present discussions in the internet underscore the rightness of his concern. Crawley also took much care to frame his conclusions in such a manner that the critical reader could make up his mind about the importance and relevance of the reviewed equipment for his goals, intents and working style.
Ever since the introduction of the Leica M Monochrome and Leica M/240 it has been clear to me that in this digital age reviews need to be based on a new understanding of user demands and intrinsic qualities of the equipment. As an example in lens assessment: in the past vignetting was very important because it showed up in fim emulsions and curvature of field was not, because the thickness of the emulsion could compensate the effect. Now with wafer-thin (zero) thickness of the solid state array narrow tolerances and precision of manufacture are the overriding concerns. Curvature of field is an important criterium as is focus shift because of the flatness of the sensor array, but vignetting is not because the internal software can eliminate this property. The MTF, once a most important graph, is now less important because the ultimate performance that is described by the MTF graph can only be realized when the tolerance in manufacture of lens and camera (sensor location) is extremely small.
The Leica M3 was and is a brilliant design. It is however not an original Leitz concept. It has been convincingly documented that all elements of the M3 (bayonet, combined range-view-finder, selectable framelines and so on) were implemented in other cameras already on the market. Not one of them did what Leitz engineers could do: improve on all elements and integrate them into one harmoniously engineered whole.
Leica did this again with the Leica M: hardly anyone of the many elements can be called a truly Leica invention. The camera is composed of carefully selected components already on the market. Is this a problem? Not at all: better a good copy than a bad new idea and the M is selling almost as well as the original M3.
It is undeniable that the pace of innovation in the market for consumer electronics not only has lost momentum, but has stopped at all. A new Canon high-end camera with more video functions and a 50 Mp sensor is hardly amazing. This is only good news for magazines and sites that earn money with describing these new models and comparing them to competitors ad nauseam.
The really bad news is the fact that industry giants like Sony (and Olympus) and Panasonic are lacking innovative power, because of horrible loss making and the Galapagos-syndrome: unique species that could survive under the umbrella of the Japanese industrial protection strategy, but hopelessly inadequate when operating outside of their island. These great Japanese companies are conglomerates of smaller companies that have nothing in common, but the fact that they are owned by the same holding.
The computer industry did not see the disruptive effects of the tablet computer and the photographic camera industry did not see the disruptive effects of the smart phone. Now the whole class of pocket cameras, once the pride of the Japanese companies, is in jeopardy. The mirrorless species is in fierce competition with the mirror species and more and more smart-phone functions are incorporated into the camera body. Innovative? Hardly!
But do we need innovation in an industry that has hardly changed since 1839? In the Netherlands there is a new initiative that encourages young photographers to take pictures of the old master photographers, made with the old cameras of those masters themselves. The simple fact that the act of picture taking has hardly changed in the last 170 years is a clear signal that photography is a unique species on its own Galapagos island.
All industrial activity is based on the growth model: the Japanese electronics companies could only grow through a buying strategy: accumulating other companies and adding the sales volume to their own turnover.
For most of its history, photographic camera companies were small cottage industries. Remember that Leitz was a big company because of its diversified product range from microscopes to machinery.
The only really big companies were the chemical film producers, like Kodak, Agfa and Fuji. Currently the large companies are Canon and Nikon, but again Canon has a very diversified product range and Nikon is big in the chip manufacturing business.
Since the camera technology has become integrated with consumer electronics the pace of product releases has quickened. The classical ten-year period between major new camera models has been shortened to a two year cycle, But is almost impossible to innovate at this pace in an industry that is characterized by a very traditional activity: taking a picture. The mere fact that hundreds of millions of images per day are uploaded to the social media shows that the act of image making is extremely simple and innovation can not be expected in this area, but in the use and distribution of the images, if at all.
When I take a picture now (in 2013)with the M3, loaded with a ISO100 film, I am time-capsuled into the 1950s and with a slight jump of my imagination even into the 1920s. The act of photography is not different and even the results are competitive, if not superior to what can be produced by the most modern high-tech equipment. And I can effortlessly move from the M3 to the M and take the same kind of pictures with the same activity. Of course one can say that the chemical development of a silver-halide emulsion is totally different from reconstructing an array of numbers in a file by a software program to an image, but one should not confuse technological means with end results. No one said that photography was different when the glass plates were superseded by flexible roll film.
Photography as a medium has been characterized as a mirror with a memory and if you look at the social media, this is exactly for what it is used today. But photography as a simple act of recording phenomena has been seriously harmed since it was adopted as an art form and became the focus of collectors, galleries and art auctions.
The question is do we want to leave our island or do we wish to live here and let the big companies split off the camera business and become truly photographic cottage industries. The chemical photographic business has already completed this transformation. How long will it take before the smart-phone rules world of image making. The obvious argument is to point to the perennial demand for high-quality cameras. True, but the numbers sold will be good for a small company, but not for a big one.
Geoffrey Crawley was not only an excellent reviewer of photographic equipment, but wrote also in-depth opinions about the role of technical journalism in the field of photography. The proper role of a technical journalist, according to GC, is to inform the reader about the properties and possible use of the equipment under review for the photographic practitioner. He was very reluctant to provide the basic laboratory results on which his reviews were based, because he was aware that to make public the bare quantitative results could be fully misinterpreted without the proper background. He was also very careful about reporting defects or anomalous findings. When he noted that the effective shutter speed of the Nikon F after a full year of operation had dropped from 1/1000 to 1/550, he did not interpret this result as a fault of the camera, but as a normal result of this type of shutter after a long period of daily use. If the product under test showed mechanical defects or unexpected behavior, the rule of hearing both sides would be applied. The findings would be discussed with the factory and after reflection would be incorporated into the final conclusions.
His stance on issues of reliability and unreliability of the equipment was well-balanced. Faults may occur at any time in even the most reliable and well-engineered products, but one should report on this only when the journalist has cause to assume that the fault is typical of the product and not an incidental occurrence and the usual very small sample of the products under review makes it vary hard to make statistically valid statements about reliability and the overall characteristics of a product.
The current practice of many technical journalists tends to focus on defects, errors and fault finding, at least what is assumed to be faulty behavior. In many cases the statements cannot be corroborated or replicated. As soon as one reads sentences of the kind: “I have never seen this in my long practice as a tester” or “many persons have the same kind of experience” one must be on high alert as these expressions are factually empty. One must be very careful in distinguishing between incidental (“stuff happens”) and general symptoms. If a certain characteristic has been found in one camera or lens, one can only generalize over all cameras and lenses of that type if other persons using different specimens of that product can replicate the results, because only in this case one can rightfully claim that one has found a characteristic that is typical of the product.
I follow these rules in my testing of products. When I find something that is unexpected, not according to specifications or outside what the state-of-the-art would define, I first try to find a comparable product to see if the phenomenon occurs there too. If not I try to replicate the phenomenon in different, but comparable circumstances. If the phenomenon is replicable and occurs more than once, I discuss it with the factory to hear if this behavior is known or a production anomaly (“stuff happens”!!). If it is a non-replicable anomaly I will not report about it.
The normal Summicron-M shows some weakness as far as flare and secondary reflections is concerned and the designers of the Apo-Summicron-M paid special attention to reduce the propensity to flare, especially since 8 closely packed lens elements may produce unwanted reflections. Measurements include: careful blackening of edges and rims of lens elements, careful baffling of inside of lens tube and special multi-coating with new equipment that can ensure constant thickness over the total lens surface, including the complicated shapes.
My test results indicated indeed that the ASC 50 is flare free under almost all circumstances. It is always possible to induce flare and secondary reflections. No lens is absolutely free of flare and secondary reflections. One must also carefully distinguish between lens-induced reflections and camera-generated reflections.
You can bet your life on it that there will be a report that claims that the ASC 50 is not useable under many shooting conditions because of severe flare. The pictures that accompany the claim are indeed not good. The important question is not the doubt about the facts (the pictures are undoubtedly real), but at stake is the validity of the results as a general characterization of the lens.
As shown below it is always possible to produce flare and some reflections when shooting obliquely in the suns direction, but the flare shown here is much less than what is presented on the site in question. The main point however is not the fact that one can generate secondary reflections (always possible), but how the lens behaves under these extreme conditions. In the past a lens would loose all detail as the flare level would wash all micro- and overall contrast. This is not the case in the examples shown.
This question will be answered almost instantly with a yes and the argumentation goes along these lines: since Steve Jobs there not one single insanely great product (IGP) has been announced, the company is in a stage of consolidation, the growth rate is down and so on. We know what an IGP is when we see it. The iPod was one and the iPhone was another one because both these products changed the behavior of the consumers and as a consequence the structure and the future of the markets. The development cycle of new products has been stretched, because it is ever more difficult to design a really surprising product that captures the mood of the times.
Apple is slowly shifting to the design part of the equation. The bodies are superbly designed with attention to detail and the software interface is becoming more and more simplified and at the same time improves its elegance.
The consumer market has been over-segmented in a cluttered complex of small partitions with widely divergent demands and characteristics. Defining a new product that can cover all these different demands and wishes is not easy. So design that is universally appealing might be a smart move.
The photography market is no different. In the past the segmentation was simple: you need studio quality: buy a Rolleiflex, Hasselblad or Linhof. You need a versatile all-round camera: buy a Nikon or Canon SLR. You need a reportage camera: buy a Pentax SLR or a Leica CRF.
This clean segmentation of the global market has been disrupted for ever. Now we have a bewildering range of products that offer comparable features and performances in widely differing packages. The Leica M and R once covered the full range of photographic requirements and Leica authors tried to explain in great detail when and why to choose the SLR and when the CRF.
The new Leica T is designed by the Audi design department and shows the same attention to detail and an obsession with clean lines that characterizes the current Apple products. It is not an innovative product in the sense of an iPod or iPad. It shares too many characteristics with the Sony Alpha mirrorless cameras.
The Leica product range is currently composed of a range of products that cater for every taste and at the same time are in competition with each other. The Leica compacts (the D, V and C models) are set apart from the S, M, X and T models and systems. In this range the only innovative product is the M, not for what it is now (uniqueness does not equal innovation!), but for what it did in the past: the Barnack design revolutionized scientific and documentary photography and also the snapshot style of picture taking. The compacts are Panasonic designs, the S is an enlarged R9 with a clever mix of globally produced components, the X basics are externally developed and the T is the Audi-fication of the Sony mirrorless models.
The only indigenous Leica designs are nowadays the Leica lenses for S, M and X cameras. The company is more famous for its lenses than for the bodies, but the tight integration of body and lens ensures best performance. The software and hardware integration of Apple computers give it the edge compared to the Wintel constructions.
It is sense the integration of optics, mechatronics, digital components, bodies that are meticulously manufactured, simple interfaces and strong software are the characteristics of the Leica products and not the criterium where they are designed or manufactured.
The product portfolio of the Leica Company is expanding with the new T-series and the acquisition of the Sinar company. There is a steady flow of new products since Leica has announced the S-line. Most of the new products are positioned in the luxury class. They are products to be seen with (more than to be used) and are promoted with the help of celebrity persons (not necessarily photographers).
The days that the Leica company manufactured the rangefinder camera as the ultimate tool for the working photographer have long gone. There is a subtle shift from an engineering company to a luxury company. It is however visible for anyone. Luxury products are recognizable because of five characteristics: quality above quantity; hedonism (more important than functionality); different sensual experiences (see the T-body); esthetics are important; the contribution of the human factor (luxury products are mainly hand-made). These characteristics have long been associated with high-end watches, but are now elements of the Leica brand and marketing.
The digital technology that is now the backbone of the various Leica cameras has one rather unforeseen consequence. The Leica M camera delivered superb performance that was a function of the lens design and the careful manufacturing process. The lenses were so to speak 'honest' in their optical quality. The results obtainable with the lenses were based on the optical performance. With digital technology there are ample opportunities to correct lens 'faults' and improve performance with software. The Leica X-vario is an example: the severe distortion that is visible when the image is 'developed' with DCRaw is gone when the image file is post-processed in the camera and with a tool like Lightroom. The T-camera follows this approach and the rebranded Panasonic models also use this feature. Almost every manufacturer nowadays does it and it simply is the consequence of a marriage between software and hardware. The optical performance of the M has been equalled and sometimes even improved upon by the X-vario system. In the old days the Leica M reigned supreme as the best performing 35mm camera-system. Now the new S-system has this position in the Leica range of cameras. The format question, once an important parameter, is now largely obsolete. A 30x45mm sensor does not imply better quality than an APS-C sized sensor.
It is by the way a rather curious phenomenon that the M8 camera was dismissed by many Leica owners as not suitable for the Leica lenses because of its smaller angle of view and now the new T-system (with a comparable sized sensor) is being acclaimed as a new option to use the Leica M lenses. Nothing as capricious as the human mind and the bandwagon effect.
The Leica range has now at least three lines (S, X and T) that challenge the performance of the M-system. This statement needs a qualification. The optimum quality of any camera-lens system and the average quality are in a different league, but it would be unwise to define a system only on the maximum performance. A car is no longer defined by its maximum speed!
The average quality (that is the performance that is attainable under normal use and normal conditions by normal users) defines the working image of the camera. And when we look at the average performance, the M system is only one of several options. I would even venture to state that on average the results with the X-vario are as good as and sometimes better than the results (again on average) with the M camera.
The R-system (with undoubtedly some of the best lenses ever manufactured) was overrun by the combined technologies of autofocus and digital capture and processing. The M-system has the exclusivity of the rangefinder and the finest compact lenses in the world. But technology marches on and the live-view option of the M and the acceptance of the T-system might become the writing on the wall.
In the 1960s Geoffrey Crawley could write that the Leica camera engineering stood heads and shoulders above all others. The Leica engineers and product designers did cherish this verdict and it goes without saying that the M cameras from M3 to the early M6 earned this accolade with flying colors. The later M6, including the M7 and MP showed some signs of cost cutting (some metal parts were replaced with synthetic materials). Generally however the experience of the Leica engineers regarding material choice, machining of parts and quality control was beyond reproach. Indeed their knowledge of what would work, what tolerances were acceptable, what material to select and what surface treatment to apply had no equal.
The same meticulous attention to detail was also visible in the manufacture of lenses. There were three reasons for this attitude: pride and knowledge, low manufacturing volume and dedication to quality control. This attitude can be easily explained by the Leitz culture: many persons worked for the company during their whole working life and knew everything there was to know about camera engineering and manufacture. Persons who worked with the M6 could draw on the experiences previous generations gained with the manufacture of the M3 and M2.
Most photographic journalists and aficionados of the Leica marque claim (without any recourse to serious fact-finding alas) that Leica successfully made the changeover from cartridge loading cameras to the digital technology. A digital camera is composed of two main parts: the camera body and the digital components, basically the PCB, the sensor and the software. For the camera body, Leica could draw on the vast experience accumulated over generations, but for the digital parts new expertise had to be built up or hired.
To complicate matters further the pace of innovation increased and the production volume had to be increased too. Both these trends did not fit with the traditional Leitz culture. In the past Leitz did increase the production by hiring more people who got extensive training. Now the increase of production had to be accomplished by a faster production line assisted by the lavish support of computer assisted manufacture. The alignment of the sensor, the adjustment of the rangefinder show now a level of precision that was impossible to achieve in the past unless a very experienced worker did the job, when allowing this person all the time (s)he needed.
The technology of production in the past relied heavily on the manufacture of components in the Leitz factory itself or on the outsourcing of components to factories that made the parts to Leica specifications based on generations of experience. If a spring or a screw was needed, the responsible manager knew how to assess the component and immediately saw the potential problems, if any!
This intimate knowledge of the digital components is no longer possible. Now Leica has to rely on the experience of external suppliers that deliver the components that are specified and/or needed.
The original problems with the IR filter in the M8/M8.2 might be attributed to a walk on the wild side (Leica was under heavy public pressure to produce a digital M). The problems with the carrying straps that came loose might be attributed to pressure to hold the production volume and the current problems with the sensor cover glass might be attributed to insufficient testing in the prototype stages. Field testing is now done by high-profile Leica photographers and bloggers over a restricted time period and who often lack an engineering/technical background.
The upshot of all these changes points to a transformed Leica company that sits a bit uncomfortably between the traditional culture of engineering excellence and the current focus on luxury products. It took Leitz thirty years (from 1925 to 1954) to produce a product that could meet the highest scientific and engineering demands in the photographic world. It would be quite remarkable when Leica could accomplish this feat in the digital environment within a decade.
Leica aficionados should acknowledge that the new Leica company, located in the outskirts of Wetzlar is not like the old Leica, located in the centre of Wetzlar. The old Leica created a justified legend, based on engineering superiority and in-depth photographic knowledge over a period of thirty years. The new Leica still has to prove itself. One may claim to be the rightful heir of the Leica myths, but one has to show that one deserves it.
Some social philosophers (Bauman, Sloterdijk) focus attention to the fact that in modern society the continuous state of change has its toll. The fickle character of this age implies that individuals loose their sense of orientation. While improvising his way through the manifold changes modern man looses every sense of direction. What people need is an anchor point. Tradition, art and nature provide these anchor points. These three contribute to the feeling of being rooted in the world.
In modern culture it is permanent consumption that substitutes for the need for an anchor. There is nothing wrong with this trend, but it is built on cultural quicksand.
When consumption stops, the culture is in danger.
In a related domain the current flow of new products from the Leica company is unsettling. In the past the M6 was a pillar of trust and stability. Buying one would be an act of trust. You knew that the camera would be around for decades and repair parts would be available for generations.
And you knew that any new product would follow in the footsteps of this model. Even the M7 fits into the evolutionary lineage.
What most buyers of digital M cameras forget (or do not know about) is the fact that the capacitors and transistors that constitute the bulk of modern electronic circuits all leak energy and these leaks may interfere with the proper functioning of the circuitry. At least they provide additional heat that may provoke malfunctions. Leica has not issued any statement about these facts.
But digital M cameras share the same problem identified above. We do not know what the next steps in the Leica lineage will be. A new Monochrom based on the 24 Mp CMOS M, an improved M-E or even an evolved M, the 2xx or even a radically new M type xxx? But the value of the digital M cameras is rapidly dropping. You can get an M8 almost for free! That is the consequence of the shortening of product cycles. And the tendency of people to want to buy only the newest and hottest product mentioned in the blogosphere. While the M8 is a very capable camera that produce excellent results that can even compete with the images of the current M.
In the past any M6 would command a substantial amount of money because it was a Leica camera that was locked into the evolutionary cycle of Leica cameras. It was based on trust and stability and even culture and tradition. But the new generation of Leica digital cameras is based on so-called dynamic progress. The insecurity that the future brings produces a sense of insecurity and foot-looseness that backfires to the Leica products.
The permanent renewal is not good for the environment and only fosters the modern trend of cultural (and senseless) consumerism. Leica product management should reflect on the basic values of the Leica camera.
The M 60 years
The celebration of 40 years of Leica M cameras in 1994 was accompanied by the introduction of the M6J. ‘J’ refers to ‘Jubilee’ and the camera was a version of the classical M6. The celebration of 60 years of Leica M cameras in 2014 is accompanied by the introduction of the Leica M 60, based on the M (type 240).
There are many similarities between the M6J and the Leica 60. The M6J used as many of the iconic elements of the M3 as possible. The design of the top cover is identical to the one used for the M3, and with the exception of the angled rewind crank all other elements are faithful copies of the ones on the M3. The lens used is a replica of the original collapsible Leica Elmar 1:2.8/50 mm. This choice was deliberate: in the 1950s and 1960s the basic lens or the M camera was an Elmar, first with aperture 1:3.5 and later 1:2.8. The Elmar was the first lens, designed by Berek for the Leitz rangefinder camera and was a good companion to the M3, because of its compact size and good performance. The central patch of the image at full aperture gave an image that was more granular and more crisp than that of the Summicron 1:2/50 mm, a lens that was outside of the budget of many Leica M buyers.
The inside of the M6J was identical to the normal M6, with the exception of the rangefinder that had a higher magnification and a new optical design. Basically the M6J was a fine mix of the M3 outside and the M6 inside. One could also note that the M6J was simply a slightly altered M6, a camera that was a slightly altered version of the M3.
In 1994 nobody did take the digital technology serious and film emulsions, especially slide films, were continually improved. Kodak had announced the Ektachrome Elite 50 and 100 films, that promised exceptional sharpness and extremely sophisticated color rendition. I used the ISO 50 version when photographing the famous gardens of Monet in Giverny. The results are still impressive today.
Now in 2014, twenty years later, the world has changed dramatically. Hardly anybody is using slide films and digital technology is the rule. The cameras have changed too. Gone are the intricate mechanical constructions inside the camera. Electronic components on flexible printed circuit boards have replaced the mechanical controls and programs create the colors and details that are captured on the sensor surface.
The M 60 has an extremely clean camera body. Gone are the transport lever, the rewind crank, the frame selector lever, the rewind release lever and the range finder window for the frame line illumination. The standard monitor on the back side has been replaced by a closed back with an ISO selector wheel, comparable to the film speed reminder indicator on the back of the M6J. The lens is now the iconic Summilux-M 1:1.4/35 mm ASPH, reflecting the change in style of Leica photography. The lens shade is identical to the one used for the 35 and 50 mm lenses in the 1950s and 1960s, including the Elmar-M 50 mm.
The M 60 shares one important aspect with the M6J and the original M3. Taking pictures is again an act of trust and reliance on one’s own expertise and judgment. With film-loading cameras in general the result of one’s photography became visible after the stage of the film development. There was that thrill of expectation and anxiety when inspecting the still wet negatives if the special shoot was sharp and correctly exposed and framed. If so, you are content and if not you are doomed. Digital cameras changed all this and killed in fact that basic intrinsic experience of film-based photography. The instant inspection of the result, so familiar with current digital cameras and the automatic control of the basic elements (focus, and exposure) by software (AF and AE) have eliminated the thrill of basic photography. The important signal of the M 60 is Leica’s dedication to reframe the basics of photography and re-align photography to the experience of the M6J and M3.
It is typical for the classical Leica strategy that special models must have special materials. This strategy started with the Leica Luxus and continues with this model, the M 60. Special leather and special steel notwithstanding, it is a normal M, even the frame selector is missing (resurrected with the M-P!). The fact that the camera only takes RAW pictures and cannot process JPEG images indicates again the reference to classical film technology. The film emulsion by definition only produces raw images.
There are two different ways to assess the M 60. As a modern digital camera it is a statement to shrink the digital conveniences that we have been learned to love so much to insignificance and to re-instate the experience of film photography in a digital world. On the other hand the Leica M 60 is a camera that is intimately connected to Leica’s past and one looks in vain for truly innovative features. The M 60 is a masterly example of the art of reduction. The list of features that have been omitted (no frame selector lever, no JPEG, no video, no monitor) is larger than the list of features that have been added compared to the M (new materials for body parts).
When one reviews the evolution from M3 to M 60, one sees a change from film loading and mechanical features to sensor capture and electronically controlled features. The M3 in its day was a camera that incorporated as many features as possible within the optical-mechanical technology of its day. The main operative functions (manual selection of film emulsions, manual focus, manual exposure setting and manual framing of the scene) have their equivalents in the M 60 (manual ISO selection, manual focus, manual framing of the scene, semi-manual exposure setting through aperture selection).
Instead of a comparison with the M3 one could with equal argument refer to the M-A, a modern incarnation of the original M3, with a comparable shutter mechanism, but without the rangefinder design of the M3. The M-A is in fact the Leica MP without the internal exposure mechanism. The MP is the original M6 with some elements of the M3.
It might be sober thinking to conclude that the fundamental design of the M rangefinder camera is immune to change and the basic question why there should be an evolution can be answered by pointing to marketing mechanisms and not to photographic requirements. The trigger for evolutionary change is a change in environmental conditions, not a new marketing concept.
The new Leica T System might be the answer to a rigorous analysis of the future of the M camera.
The Photokina 2014 announcements are less than revolutionary and with the exception of the special edition models (M 60 and M-A) only show small evolutionary steps (Leica S (007) with CMOS sensor and faster AF) or no evolution at all (Leica M-P and X-series). Silver editions of the Noctilux-M and the Summilux-M 35 mm ASPH and new editions of the Summarit lenses cannot count as truly innovative.
Personally I am not so enthusiastic about the current and widespread obsession with innovation for innovation’s sake. Apple has been criticized severely for not having very innovative products in its current portfolio and the community sighed with relief when the Apple Watch was announced. This economic model of constant growing through new products and the parallel ideas of continually adding features and gadgets to increase demand is not sustainable. I know that many economists point to the inventiveness of the human genius for creating new and unexpected ‘one more things’, but there are many others who will argue that this genius should be better employed by thinking about ways to secure permanent growth at a lower level by inventing durable products with a longer durability and life cycle.
The Photokina 2014 product line-up of Leica is not very inventive or innovative in the classical sense of these words. Leica in this view is definitely losing out in the rat race for photographic innovations. The focus on simplicity of use and on basic photographic functions might imply that the Leica product planners make a virtue of necessity and disguise the lack of innovation behind a veil of product design that is more like a fashion show. Or it might imply that Leica is changing course and is deliberately planning for a return to basics and a longer product cycle.
Review of products
The new Leica M-P was already announced weeks before Photokina. The M-P is to the M as the M9-P was to the regular M9. It is a slightly altered (upgraded) version of the M with a sapphire glass cover for the back display, a larger image buffer (2 GB) to allow a longer shooting sequence (contrary to decisive moment picture style) and the return of the frame selector level and the classical engraving on the top cover. The M-P is available in silver chrome finish (code # 10772 4) and in black paint finish (code # 10773 1)
The M Monochrom is now available in a silver chrome finish (code #: 10787).
The Leica M-A (type 127) is a stripped down version of the film-loading MP. The camera lacks the internal through-the-lens exposure meter that was introduced with the M6 in 1984 (exactly 30 years ago). It is in fact a modern replica of the M3 (even the viewfinder lacks the prominent white bars that grace the viewfinder of all digital M cameras). The codes are # 10371 for the silver chrome finish and # 10370 for the black chrome finish. This black chrome finish was not available for a long time, replaced as it was by several versions of black paint. The finder magnification is still the now common 0.72x for film-loading cameras, slightly larger than the 0.68 for digital cameras.The M-lens scuderia has been enhanced with a new range of Summarit-M lenses, now with a maximum aperture of 1:2.4. The 35 mm lens has the additional engraving of ‘ASPH.’, because the inclusion of an aspherical surface is now acknowledged. The lenses are available in black anodized versions and in new silver chrome finish that is reminiscent of the classical Elmarit lenses of the 1950s and 1960s. The code # are: 11671, 11680, 11682, 11684 for the black 35mm, black 50 mm, black 75 mm and black 90 mm.
The Noctilux-M 50mm and the Summilux-M 35 mm are also available in silver chrome versions.
All models described above are regular production items. This is not the case with the Leica M Edition “LEICA 60”, which celebrates the fact that the M3 was introduced in 1954 and was the start of the successful range of M cameras. The body has more rounded corners (reminiscent of the classical III series), exclusive cladding with cow hide leather and all metal outside parts are made of stainless steel. This is the same material used for the cameras in the 100 year set and is also used for the lens, supplied with the body: the Summilux-M 1;1.4/35 mm ASPH FLE. The body has no strap lugs and needs to be carried in a new protector made of steel and leather. The unique feature of this camera is the lack of the display unit at the back. The display screen has been replaced by a ISO dial, made of the same stainless steel. The 35 mm frame in the frame has rounded corners. This is a hint to the classical M3 finder that showed the 50mm frame with rounded corners. The lens hood for the Summilux lens follows the design principles of the classical lens hoods for the 35 and 50 mm lenses in the period 1950 to 1970. The total production run is limited to 600 pieces. Code # is 10779.
Many design elements of the camera and lens are borrowed from the Leica design school of the classical period 1965 to 1975. As with previous design studies and limited editions, we may assume that some elements will be incorporated in future models.
The current digital M line is composed of the M-E, the M, the M-P and the m Monochrom. The current film-loading line is composed of the M-A, the M7 and the MP.
The Summicron-S 1:2/100mm ASPH has been announced before Photokina already and is positioned in modern marketing-speak as the high-speed portrait lens (code # 11050) with natural skin tone reproduction. The lens construction shows seven lens elements, inclusive one aspherical surface and the floating group. The prescription is a novel one for Leica, but there is a relation with the Apo-Summicron-M 1:2/90mm ASPH.
Leica’s product strategy per system seems to be a line up that starts with an entry model and ends with a purely professional or special model. The S-line is now composed of the S-E (type 006) and the S (type 007).
The S-E (code # 10812) is a slightly changed S2 or S with the same specifications (CCD sensor with 37.5 Mp), but improved AF speed, a grey lacquered top plate and a silver anodized top dial.
The new S (type 007) and code # 10804 brings the S camera to the state of the art with a CMOS sensor of 37.5 Mp and ISO speed of 6400, Live View, and AF in Live View, integrated WIFI, and 4K motion picture possibilities.
The X system
The Leica X line starts with the X-E (type 102) (code # 18454). The specifications are identical to the original X2 and the exterior is upgraded to match the new T-system: top and bottom cover have a titanium cover, the lens is silver anodized as are the operating elements.
The new Leica X (type 113) (code # 18440: black and 18441: silver) has the same technical features as the X Vario and has a fixed lens Summilux 1:1.7/23 mm (35 mm equivalent) with manual focus ring. The silver version has a brown leatherette cover. Purists (like myself) will deplore the use of the Summilux designation for a f/1.7 aperture, but modern marketing is no longer sensitive to historical feelings.
The X-Vario is not changed and stays in the line-up as the top model.
The T camera system.
The Leica T camera system is Leica’s stake for the future of imaging. The APS-C sensor and the performance of the lenses have to ensure that imaging results are the best-of-class and in no way below the image quality that can be attained with ‘full frame’ (24x36 mm sized) sensors.Two new lenses have been added to the system. A Super-Vario-Elmar-T 11-23 mm f/3.5-4.5 ASPH. and an APO-Vario-Elmar-T 55-135 mm f/3.5-5.6 ASPH. In accordance with the new PR strategy at Leica the technical specs are minimal.
From 1925 to 1990 Leica followed the strategy of producing a few high-end, high-quality camera lines, at first the I,II, III series with minor variations to differentiate the price tags, later the M line was added, then the III was dropped and the Leicaflex and R-range came alongside the M. There is a big question-mark around the R-range as a high-end camera as it certainly showed mechanical quality, but the engineering was a bit contrived to say the least. The mono-culture in product range did not serve the company well and Leitz had to sell his stake in the ownership to the Swiss investor Schmidtheiny. In 1989 Leica expanded the range of cameras with compact cameras ‘loaned’ from Minolta and later Panasonic. The idea was that the company needed to broaden the consumer base and thus to generate more money.
With this strategy Leica followed in the footsteps of Nikon, the company that started as a premium manufacturer of professional photographic equipment and expanded its range with equipment for the amateur snap-shooter (that was the name of that species of photographers). Nikon was obviously more successful and the answer to the why requires a different article.
Canon on the other hand followed the opposite road. It cemented a strong consumer base with excellent quality equipment for the advanced amateur that was also cheap enough for the beginning or aspiring professional. Who does not remember the classic FT range? After being a household name in photography, Canon embarked on a high-end professional range, the redoubtable F1 camera.
Leica’s strategy did not work and around the company was broke again. It is not the whole truth to claim that missing the boat in the digital domain was the cause of the trouble. It is more complicated than that simple explanation, however convenient this may be.
Now Leica’s product strategy is more like Canon or Nikon or for that matter Audi. Produce a wide range of product lines and fill every possible niche. From the high-level S-range and the M-range to the mid level X- and T-ranges to the popularV, C, D-ranges no market segment is left alone.
There is a danger in trying to copy the successful strategy of other companies. Canon, Nikon have tens of thousands of employees, many factories and a strong amount of synergy between components and products (as has Audi and its parent company VW). These companies have also the benefit of a large-scale production and a high level of command of the stages of production from raw materials to finished product (“Fertigungstiefe”).
These two elements are lacking in the current Leica strategy. The S, M, X and T lines and the C, V, D-compacts do not share a significant amount of components and the low-scale production (at least of the S, M, T and X lines) adds to the cost of manufacture. The compacts are a different chapter, because they are coming from the Panasonic product lines.
The ingredients of the current Leica strategy (wide range of different products that partially overlap, high production cost because of low-scale production and a large amount of non-interchangeable components from different third-party suppliers) have to be added to the small footprint of the company (somewhere between 1000 and 1500 employees). This mixture contradicts the stated goal of Leica to increase production every year to a level four times it has now in a period of five to ten years.
Leica is a classical German Mittelstand company, famous for engineering, innovation and survival capacity. But the German model may be under siege. The boss of VW has given a speech these days to inform that VW needs to cut costs and improve productivity by 5 billion euros ($6.8 billion). The carmaker is pushing for savings through lower purchasing expenses, reduced complexity and less factory costs. The main question for the future is:
“How can we shorten today’s model cycles and make them significantly more flexible?” There are of course significant differences between a globally operating carmaker and a small-scale camera maker, but the problems and challenges may be identical.
There is some analogy between the Porsche 911 and the Leica M series. Both products are based on a unique engineering concept and through the years the concept has been honed to a high level, driven by the twin input of an evolving engineering philosophy and practical/user requirements. Porsche started in 1948 with the 356 and became famous with the 911 from 1963. Since that moment the company has stayed close to the roots with the Panamera, Boxster, Macan and several others. Leica started with the I-series in 1925 ad became famous with the M-range that was introduced in 1953/1954.
Both companies were engineering-driven and had the same design goal: to produce the best product in their respective domains and knowing that perfection is impossible, they accepted the limits of the design they had chosen (the rear-end engine and the rangefinder). The management of both companies realized that the reliance on one highly evolved product, however successful, makes the company vulnerable and both tried to expand their ranges. Porsche was not successful with the expansion in the higher-volume, lower priced segment of the market and restricted the product expansion to the domain they knew best: the high-end market for well-engineered, well-finished and fine-handling sports cars.
Leica tried to break out of the mono-culture of the coupled rangefinder camera, first with the R-series and later with a range of compact cameras and compact digital cameras, based on a cooperation with several companies.
Porsche has stayed close to the original concept and created a growth path by diversifications. The naming convention of the Porsche models changed from design codes (356, 911, 928 and so on) to naming designations. like Boxster and Cayman. The 911 is the exception, but here the identification is done by adding letters or names to identify a type, like 911 Targa or 911 T. This naming convention is understandable and identifies every different model with the main specification.
Leica started with a simple convention of successive models, the type I, II and III and added letters to differentiate between the types, like IIIc and If. With the M range the logic became a bit confusing, but basically the numbers refers most often to the number of frame lines. This is seen in the M3, M4 and M6. With the M5 the convention changed to a number in a sequence, like M5 (after M4) and M7 (after M6) and M8, M9 and M10, later renamed to M. Here the confusion starts with the addition of the internal code number 240. The designation M240 says nothing and the next model (possibly something like M310) does not give any information about the type of product.
The preparation for the second part of my Leica book series is going well. Reading about 25 books and a hundred recent articles about the theory of photography and art in general is a major task and before I understood the real difference between simulacrum and mimesis and the changes in meaning since the Geeks pondered about Plato's cave and Susan Sontag referred to these concepts many weeks passed by.
But reading about the original intentions of photography and what the early thinkers about the role and status of the photographic image declared about this topic is at least mind-expanding and brings into perspective the current debate in the digital world.
For one month I shelved all digital Leica cameras and used only the M7 and the M3, both loaded with Ilford Delta 100 and the new Silvermax 100 film. The M7 was used with the integrated exposure meter, but the M3 was accompanied by the famous Gossen Mastersix to et as close as possible to the original thrill of photography. I used green, orange and red filters on the Apo-Summicron-M 2/50 mm ASPH FLE. The merging of classic technology with the best standard lens modern optical design can provide, is quite productive and it shows how complex the digital workflow is when you go all the way from exposure to inkjet printing with Piezography. The options and choices in the digital workflow are abundant and experimenting with every combination is not only time consuming, but also confusing. Taking the picture with the M8.2, M9 or M is the easy part. Then you have the developers: Raw Developer, Capture One, Lightroom 5, DxO Optics 8, everyone with myriad options. In addition you can choose the monochrome sliders to create a black and white image, or Silver Efex or DxO filmpack 4. Then the printing stage with ICC profiles, paper choices and ink choices. You name it and you get it.
The wet darkroom workflow is much simpler: choose the film, use one developer (Acurol-N), print with the Splitgrade module, choose a handful of paper types (Ilford or Adox) and the print is ready.
The main complaint about the silver-halide processing is the long period between capturing the scene and viewing the result. But if you know your material (how to expose to set the grey card value on the straight portion of the characteristic curve) and you can mentally evaluate the scene (overall contrast, distribution of tones) with a kind of Ansel Adams visualisation technique, you cannot go wrong. Now you can give all attention to the picture making process and not focus on the post-processing stage.
The Leica M Monochrom might come close to this peace of mind when taking pictures. If you use the MM as intended and skip the post processing stage. The idea behind the MM is to emulate the workflow of the classical slide film: take the picture, develop and project. The technology of the MM has been compared to that of black-and-white film, but it is better to compare the MM with a chromogenic film like Kodak BW400CN or the original Ilford XP2.
I am not going to argue that silver-halide processing is better than digital (I am sure that I will be burdened by FLAK). I am simply saying that the AgX process is different and more basic than digital and when using it, the core values of photography can be experienced more properly and then it is possible to transfer these values into the digital domain. It makes sense and is fun. What else do you want in these troubled times. There is much discussion nowadays that photography (which implies digital photography) is becoming stale and boring and predictable. Perhaps a dash of AgX will help?
Sekonic, Gossen and Kenko (ex-Minolta) are the three major manufacturers of sophisticated handheld exposure meters. Gossen may be characterized as the engineers tool with very precise DIN-based calibration and a range of sensible options. It once was a champion of the Zone System,with the redoubtable Spotmaster(-2) to prove its commitment. Now only the Starlite-2 has a separate function for Zone measurements. The Digisky is a new tool with remote control of flash units and very useful for studio photography. The only problem with this meter is the battery drain.
Sekonic has always offered the most funcions in one package and uses a different calibration which means that both type of meters may differ by a half to a full stop. No problem when you use only one marque and a fine adjsutment to suit your personal requirements is always necessary.
The new L-478D/R has a range of very innovative features. First of all, it is the first meter with a touchscreen. You may feel confused that it is not an iPhone! The L-758 uses the classical button layout for the interface and this restricts the number of features that can be accessed. The L-478 has photo and cine functions (nice for M users who wish to make movies with the M) and has separate EV and luminance value displays. These can be accessed with a touch of the finger. The important characteristic is the possibility of calibrating the meter to the dynamic range of the specific digital cameras you use.For this feature you need the Macbeth color chart and the Sekonic software (free with every meter). (The L-758 has a comparable feature by the way). The basic thinking behind the feature is the adapted Zone system for digital photographers as originally explained by the previous Kodak workers (of X-tol fame) Silvia Zawadzki and Dick Dickerson. I will not explain this approach here, but show the results of the testing with the Leica M at ISO200.
The focus on high ISO values seems to be inevitable when discussing current digital cameras. This attention is obvious because the quality of the ISO setting and the absolute maximum setting are one of the few parameters where one can easily make comments without sophisticated equipment or experience. In the days of film emulsions Ilford once produced a true ISO 800 film, but had to withdraw this one because of limited interest. The well-known high-speed films with ISO 3200 have a true/effective sensitivity of ISO 800, but a three stop push-factor is calculated into the designation. There has been a long, and now mainly forgotten, discussion in the serious press about the logic of high ISO speeds for photographers. (Reconnaissance and surveillance are different topics). It was established that most pictures were made with ISO speeds of at most 640 with an average of ISO 400 (Tri-X speed!). With high-speed lenses, a steady hand and the wish to get good shadow detail, most professionals agreed that ISO 400 plus or minus a stop was needed, but not more. They could not envision situations were more speed was required.
It is a strange quirk of history that current reviewers of digital cameras give so much attention to an issue that makes them in fact film emulsion testers and not camera testers.
The leica M8 and M9 have been criticized because of the conservative ISO settings, but with a basic sensitivity of ISO 160, a three stop underexposure latitude produces an exposure index of 1240 which is enough. Some image makers may delight in the fact that they can picture a dark wolf in a dark wood at ISO 100.000, which is fine for the military but not for photographers who are inclined to make pictures with meaning.
My approach is simple: the maximum ISO I need is ISO 400 with a limited push capability of 1.5 stops (same as with film). In this region the M8, M9, M-E, M Mono and M have an outstanding performance, like a modern excellent ISO 400 film. That is photographically relevant.
Recently a user of a Leica M8 experienced a major defect: the LCD screen failed completely. Leica is unable to repair this defect, as spare parts seem to be in very short supply and the company who made the screens, not only went broke but also manufactured a batch of faulty screens, so more users of M8 and M82 may see their screens go blank.
The only option for this M8 user is to upgrade to an M-E or M and paying a substantial amount of money for the new camera.
This situation will be more common in the future as cameras become more and more unserviceable or to expensive to repair if and when the spare parts are available. The lifetime of a digital Leica camera has not yet been established, but it is known that M3 bodies have a working life between 50 and 75 years with very modest service.
Mechanical Leica cameras have an indefinite working life, because spare parts are easy to find or to copy and any competent repair person can service this type of camera. Some persons have doubts about the future of mechanical film-loading cameras, because the number of films on the market is shrinking (recently Fuji has reduced its range once again).
One may counter that even today almost every chemical technology with the exception of the Daguerrotype is still available or can be home made. Digital cameras may have a secured future as the technology will develop for a very long period, but the problem here is that the main parts are vulnerable, very costly to repair if at all, and often no longer compatible. Electronics are very reliable and durable, because there are no moving parts, but the MTBF is not a good indicator of reliability. Even the so-called ‘bathtub curve’ is not a reliable indicator of failure rates. The bad point is that statistically the occurrence of failures may be low, but the chance of a defect is unpredictable and can happen every day and is in most cases (as with the M8) fatal.
We are very dependent on electronic components in our cameras, but we are also very helpless when there is a breakdown. When an M3 falls on the floor, at worst the rangefinder may be broken, but that is all that can happen. When the M falls on the floor, it may be unrepairable.
The Cost-of-Ownership of a modern digital Leica camera is quite high, but owners point to zero cost for the pictures themselves. An Mx or MP is much cheaper to buy, but the usual calculation has to add the cost of film and chemicals and so on. Car owners know that the cost per kilometer has to be calculated with insurance costs, petrol, regular service and depreciation and much more. It would be a nice exercise to make this kind of calculation for cameras too. Take a reasonable span of time, say five years, count the number of pictures made and printed or distributed by internet, add the cost of the camera and its depreciation and see what the price per picture would be. Do the same with a mechanical camera, add film costs, chemicals and so on and note the price per picture. You would be surprised!
As long as we refresh our equipment every three years, we will have a slight chance that we will meet a problem, but as the M8 owners now start to realize is that after a period of five to six years unexpected things are going to happen.
The rate of depreciation of a new digital Leica camera is much higher and the chance of a major defect is also much greater than it was in the past with mechanical cameras. Some commentators assume that the quality control is not as good as it was in the past, but that is not true. Quality control now is much better than in the past, but the nature of the product has changed, We should not approach a digital camera with the standards of mechanical manufacture and quality control.
According to Mark Dubovoy with a “Ph.D in Physics and many years of involvement in leading edge research” (his words) the Leica M produces better images than the Nikon D800E, notwithstanding a lower DxO sensor rating, but he is unable to explain this result in a scientific way. The assumption is that the lens/sensor/shutter combination plays a large part in combination of course with Leica electronics and new Leica software. Because of this integrated system the M outperforms the D800E by a good margin and as the Nikon camera is one superb camera, one may infer the performance of the Leica M.
The report praises the Leica M in a very poetic way:
“By golly, this thing immediately felt like a real M camera! We finally have a digital M camera that is silky smooth, incredibly quiet and operates even better than the film mechanical M's of yore. The fit and finish and the quality of materials is beyond reproach, bordering on the fanatical. This is exactly what we expect from a true Leica. I had longed to return to the "Leica feel" of my old film M3, M4 P or my MP for many years. Well folks, this camera absolutely nails it. In fact, it may be the best feeling Leica ever. Pinch me again! All the prior digital M's feel clunky, noisy and tinny by comparison.”The report notes in succession: “Wow again, this machine has the shortest throw most silky smooth most positive bayonet mount I have ever experienced.Why would someone spend big bucks to buy a top quality camera body and spend a fortune on the finest glass obviously looking for the highest possible image quality and then have the camera configured from the factory AND default to a lesser quality image? The rangefinder in this camera is terrific. It seems like it is an improvement over prior M's.When I first saw this image, I was stunned by the image quality on the screen. The white balance, sharpness, detail, color rendition, contrast, Dynamic Range, etc. were all superb.This image looked much better to me than it deserved to, particularly since it came from "a mere 24 Megapixel camera".Next step, I made a 24x30 inch print of the image. I was stunned again. The print looked like it might be the best print of this size I had ever gotten from a 35 mm size sensor. In this regard I am completely comfortable asserting that the image quality of the Leica M Type 240 is state of the art and superb. It is visually (to my eyes) on the screen and in prints the best image quality from any camera with a 35 mm sensor I have experienced to date. Shooting without a tripod the Leica out-resolves the Nikon. This is not surprising given the mirror slap and rougher shutter in the Nikon. I had in my hands and on my tripod a small hand assembled work of art which is a joy to use and is an art object in and of itself. I could also argue that it produces the finest image quality to date from a 35 mm size sensor.
It feels incredible, it is superbly made and it is probably the state of the art in 35 mm image quality under real world shooting conditions. I just have to have it. I bought the camera I was testing. On a lark, I decided to compare my focus through the EVF with focusing using the rangefinder. My jaw dropped. The rangefinder was definitely more accurate and more sensitive to very small movements of the focusing ring. I was also reaching the correct focus point much faster.I have not made any tests yet, but I have a hunch that rangefinder focusing with such a fine rangefinder might actually be more accurate than current autofocus systems, particularly with wide angle lenses.On the other hand, if you are the type of person who appreciates design, quality, uniqueness and craftsmanship and you enjoy developing your skills as a photographer I can think of no more delicious piece of equipment to have in your hands than the new Leica M. Besides that indescribable pleasure derived from the design, the quality of construction and the "Leica feel", you will also be rewarded with the highest image quality currently available from a 35 mm sensor. It is no wonder that I ended up buying the camera…”
There is much in this collection of sentences that might raise an eyebrow or generate some wonderment about the inherent contradictions in the text, but when reading the argumentative construction I was reminded of the report by Mark Dubovoy of the original Leica M8 (now described in the Leica M review as: “The M8 was a bust, it was not a good camera. The M8.2 was just a set of band aids on a bad camera.”)
The conclusion of the report about the Leica M8 by Mark Dubovoy is almost a copy of the report of the Leica M. Read on: So what is the big deal with the M8? Two things, plain and simple: It has “the Leica Feel”; much more importantly, the files it produces have “the Leica Look.” Unfortunately, magazine reproduction cannot do justice to the images, so the reader will have to trust me when I say that I have never seen more beautiful files from a small camera. Comparing the Leica images to those produced by other cameras has made me relive that first experience when the superiority of the Leica images shocked me. I can say without hesitation that the digital files produced by the M8 are better than any DSLR on the market by quite a margin. Not only do the M8 images have better shadow detail, better highlight detail, and much more realistic and saturated color, but they have that three-dimensional, crisply detailed “Leica Look” that is absolute killer. In direct comparisons, images from other camera systems look flat (two-dimensional) and dull, the colors look dirty as opposed to pure, and the images seem to lack inherent sharpness (probably because of the blurring filter, which Leica does not use while the others do to help eliminate Moire patterns).
The color rendition when shooting the Macbeth Color Checker is by far the most accurate I have seen from any camera with a 35mm or smaller sensor (I did not compare it to medium-for- mat backs). I anticipate that (unless Leica makes a huge mistake, which is unlikely at this point) once the IR/UV filters and new firmware are available, the Leica M8 system will have the most accurate color rendition of any small-format camera, regardless of subject or lighting conditions.
Also, it turns out that for reasons I cannot quite explain, Leica M8 files fare much better than other top DSLRs when one interpolates to make bigger prints. For instance, I have reported in the past that, to my eyes, prints from a Canon 1Ds MKII are excellent up to 13.5×20, but beyond that I can clearly see the image starting to break apart. Thus, I have a personal print size limit of 13.5×20 inches with my Canon. I see the same pattern with the Nikon D2X. On the other hand, I have made 24×36-inch prints from Leica M8 originals and they still look perfectly fine.
Only two or three years ago there was a widespread belief that it was impossible to make a digital camera that could use the Leica M lenses. Contrary to that belief, the Leica M8 is here, and it is a testament to perseverance, design ingenuity, and the finest engineering one could imagine. I give Leica kudos for keeping essentially the same form factor and ergonomics as the traditional, film M cameras. But I also have to give Leica a big slap on the wrist for the problems with the early production cam- eras and for the way they initially ignored the issues with extended IR sensitivity. Leica users are passionate and incredibly demanding, so these kinds of mistakes are simply not tolerated by their customer base. It will take the company quite some time before that black eye heals. In case anyone is still wondering, yes, I have purchased an M8, and I am delighted to finally have a light, small digital camera that can deliver extremely high-quality images. For me such a camera did not exist prior to the M8. The M8 is very much like a fine sports car. It is an expensive, hand-crafted, special-purpose machine that has its own personality and its own quirks and limitations. Like most such machines, the Leica demands a lot of skill on the part of the photographer, and the photographer in turn has to learn to live with the quirks and limitations of the machine. However, photographers that have the skill and the passion to properly handle this fine instrument will be rewarded with an exceptional shooting experience and extraordinary image quality.”
The big question: the Leica M8 gets the identical comments (stunning, superb) that the Leica M is receiving, but the M8 is now“a bust, it was not a good camera”, but then it offered exceptional shooting experience and extraordinary image quality”.What will Mark Dubovoy say about the Leica M when a new Leica M (2014) will be announced.
Silver-halide black-and-white emulsions are often praised for their tonal range, not only the contrast range, but in particular the fine steps in the range, the tonal gradation. Densitometer measurements however show that the tonal differences between two steps in the grey scale are limited to about a hundred. That is also the maximum number of grey tones that the normal human can detect and differentiate. Digital cameras can capture a much higher number of tonal differences, because of the fact that they record brightness differences in color. When you translate the color image into black-and-white in the most used software programs, what happens is that every brightness level is converted to a grey tone. This results in a flat image, especially in the mid tones. That is why the black-and-white silver-halide pictures show more punch and have a more pleasing visual effect. Less is more in this case. That is also the reason why image files made with the Leica Monochrom look in first instance too flat and that is also why most post-processing on these files produce a picture that is too harsh in order to compensate for the tonal compression in the mid-tones.
There is a fixed relationship between the lens focal length, the enlargement factor of the print and the viewing distance of the print. When printing (or projecting) was the only way of viewing a photograph, this relationship was well-known and was used by artists who exhibited their work in museums and other public places.
This relationship can be expressed as an equation: (viewing distance) = (enlargement factor) multiplied by (lens focal length). Or D=X times F
Example: A photo has been taken with a 135 mm lens and enlarged 8 times (from negative size). The proper viewing distance is 3.54 feet or 1.08 meter.
Example 2: you have a picture that has to be viewed from 20 feet. The pictures is taken with a 105 mm lens. The enlargement has to be 58 times.
With the current ubiquitous viewing method (the fixed size of the computer screen and a fixed viewing distance between screen and observer) and the habit of looking at a picture at 100% enlargement, disregarding ‘negative’ size of the sensor and focal length of the taking lens, there is no way that a proper viewing distance can be established, leading to gross deformation of proper perspective.