The changing character of photography in the age of the electronic media. (12-25-2007)
The changing character of photography in the age of the electronic media. (12-25-2007)
All these feelings and thoughts can be invoked by looking at a simple snapshot because we know that the picture is not manipulated and is a direct representation of reality. The process and mechanism of chemical photography ensures this non-manipulative character of the picture.
The fixing of shadows in solid silver salts has been the exclusive domain of photography and has been its main characteristic. Of course there have been photographers who sandwiched several negatives or manipulated negatives in the darkroom to create new images. But this approach has always seen an outsider status. Straight photography has been the medium’s backbone.
With the coming of digital capture, this backbone has been broken. The camera no longer provides the rock solid representation of reality, but has become the supplier of raw material in the format of a computer file.
In its early days, painters saw photography as a serious thread because the camera threatened to make the brush and the canvas of the painter obsolete. It did not and photography and painting co-existed happily for centuries.
Now silver-halide based photographers fear that the digitizing of the medium will make the shutter click obsolete. (I wrote in the past that the main difference between the M8 and preceding M-cameras was the shutter click). The painter’s brush has evolved into the computer mouse as the most important tool for the creation of ‘photographic’ images.
The main point here is the fact that the digitized image has no longer any relation to the snapshot, that unmistakable watermark of the accidental moment. Photographs have a sense of the accidental, a kind of mystery that is not present in the digitally created images. A modern dslr can capture ten images per second and it is quite difficult to see anything accidental in such a string of images. It has been proposed that Cartier-Bresson had he lived in the 21st century, would have gladly adopted a digital camera and would have taken identical pictures as he had made with the film loading Leica. I doubt this: A Robert Capa or an Eugene Smith will not be easily found among current digital image makers.
The burden of documentary photography and the burden to have a faithful relation to reality has gone with the coming of age of digital imagery. Just as in the past painting was relieved form the necessity to depict real scenes and could become a very personal and subjective medium, digital imagery will become a very subjective medium. The role of the technique will reside behind the self-consciousness of the image-maker. Digital imagery will increasingly be seen as a construction and the photographer (whatever the name: it may eventually become digital artist or digipainter) as the engineer or designer or originator of the image. The image engineer of the future will be more related to the writer of books than to the snapshot photographer of the 20th century. Images of reality that have been created by digital techniques will be more related to a novel than to a snapshot. The maker will predominate, not the picture.
I see this change as fundamental, as a true paradigm shift, not as the simple change of a technical process. One may attach the label of ‘photographer’ to the image maker of the future. That is fine with me. But insisting that the word ‘photography’ should be used for a totally new concept and culture of image making, is a sign of conservatism in order not to accept the profound changes that are imminent.
The Times They Are A-changin' (fast!)
This observation by Bob Dylan is still valid. In fact is has been since the Greeks noticed that everything changes and at the same moment that nothing changes.
During the past months I have been working with the Leica M8 and yes, the handling does remind one of an M3 and yes, there is nothing of an M3 under the bonnet. The camera is a most pleasurable instrument to use and delivers excellent results.
There are a number of issues one has to adjust to in order to get the good feeling: the exposure meter is quite primitive when one takes landscape pictures with a large amount of sky to fool the exposure setting, the reproduction of colour is not perfect, the buffer has limited capacity and always when you want to take the special picture, the camera stops firing. The noise of the shutter/transport mechanism is not that melodious for the person who recognizes the M3 to M7 sound. The rangefinder mechanism is more accurate than the one that can be found on the M4 to M7, but the flat sensor surface tests the limits of rangefinder accuracy and tolerance more profoundly than celluloid does (where you have a depth of recording material to compensate small focus errors). And then that IR sensitivity issue! According to Leica the anomalous behaviour occurs sporadically, but one is also advised to keep the new IR-filter permanently in front of the lens. This is not logical as Spock would observe, but he knew that humans are more prone to emotion than to reason.
For me, the IR-sensitivity is not a problem as I convert my pictures to classical black and white images as soon as the M8 files leave the camera. And then you can even improve upon the reproduction of black textures in shadows as the IR sensitivity often lightens the dark parts of the surfaces.
I use Bibble Pro to convert the DNG raw pictures to black and white pictures and then print the pictures with Q-Image on the new Epson R3800. Prints are made on Innova Fibaprint paper. This combination (workflow in modern parlance) delivers stunningly good quality and equals the best baryta prints I have seen emerging from the chemical workflow. The deep black has a measured density of about D= 2.4, where Ilford FB produces a D= 1.9 to 2.1 and this can be enhanced to 2.4 only with the use of Amaloco postprocessing chemicals. Where the chemical process stills has the edge is in the reproduction of the tonal scale in the toe area of the negative curve. On the other hand the Innova prints show a very pleasing deep black that is organic and not so painterly glossy as normal papers produce.
The day that the chemical darkroom offers no advantages anymore is rapidly approaching. What will be left is a different method for the same results and a different sense of workmanship and craftsmanship. Nostalgic feelings aside, the digital lightroom will soon produce better results that the chemical darkroom ever did. This does not imply that the chemical darkroom will become as extinct as the Dinosaurs are, but one should brace for impact if this does happen.
Kodak has dismissed claims that they are selling the film business, but the spokesman notes that film has a useful (commercial?) life of a decade and Kodak assumes that the big users will be located in the Hollywood studios, not in the photographic world.
Indeed, with the rare exception of some very fine grained films, the quality of digital imagery vastly surpasses that of celluloid. The migration from silver halide to pixel-based picture taking has improved definition of the image, but some substance has been lost and the role op optical engineering has been reduced.
In the not so distant past, visual arts were neatly segmented in three, possibly four domains: cinema, tv, photography and painting. All were based on a distinct technology, with different roots and concepts and a dedicated visual language. Now we have only one domain, the digital image, and all technologies are thrown into the melting pot of electronic manipulation. Dirck Halstead from the Digital Journalist, predicts that the transition from film to digital is just this, a transit stage to an even more general mode of video capture, that will become the norm for digital images on and off the internet. Then photography as we know and cherish, will be dinosaured: the famous Leica format with its 2:3 dimensions allowed for compact composition in the vertical and horizontal format, depending on theme and message. The wide screen format 16:9 is however becoming the format of choice.
There is a point here: digital photography can produce images that may emulate the look and feel of traditional silver halide based pictures so good as to be indistinguishable from each other. But the roots are fundamentally different, so is the technology. A photographer is becoming more and more a computer technician and when you look into the web-communities, photographers love to tinker with tools and software to the detriment of the original image. As soon as we stop seeing the negative (digital and silver halide) as the end product of photography, but as the starting point of a computer based modification process, we leave the basics of photography as a tool of fixing the shadows and we move ahead into the melting pot of general digital imagery.
Mr Halstead also predicts the end of still camera manufacturers. Only Canon and possibly Sony will survive in the new era of video capture. He is not alone in predicting a landslide in camera production manufacture. Most observers bet everything on Canon and dismiss the rest of the bunch as also-rans. This may strike some of us as blasphemy: what about Nikon, Pentax, Leica, Olympus and others? The only market leader is Canon and the moves of this company all intensely followed. My announcement of new Canon products may be a bit too soon (but let us wait and see till after PMA), but drew very much traffic. No one needs camera that generates a file with a 22 Mb pixel size, but people want one, whatever the cost or necessity. Nikon tries to redress the balance by showing, quite convincingly that 6 MB is more than enough and photojournalists claim that even 2 MB does the job for most target audiences.
The German car industry provides an illuminating example of what might be going on in the business of manufacturing. German car manufacturers produce beautifully engineered cars with superb quality and finesse. The market however needs sensible motoring and cheep and cheerful cars. German manufacturing quality no longer rules the waves as Toyota has demonstrated. German manufactures have refocused on passion and not on engineering quality to counter the Toyota threat and for now have succeeded. But with global markets to serve any manufacturer has to cover the two main market trends: premium products and sensible (cheap) motoring. Only a very few brands can stay in only the premium segment, like Porsche.
Translated into the photographic world, we can perceive the same trends: sensible products abound (Canon 20, 30, 40D, 400D, Nikon D40, 80, Pentax 10D etc) and premium products are scarce (Canon 1D series, Nikon Dx series). To cover both segments a manufacturer must be a high volume producer and for now only Canon fits the role.
Leica has always been the manufacturer of premium products, indeed combining engineering excellence with passion, at least in the M-series of products. Leica does not have the money and resources to become a global player and its premium product is not such a topseller that the company can rely on that product alone. So a partnership with a global player makes sense, but it also is dangerous liaison: the new range of Leica branded products are too closely related to the Panasonic equivalents to command that enigmatic attribute of passion. And products like the C-series (including the CM models) were absolutely uninspiring. Even the R8/9 did not inspire a passionate response, although it offered high quality engineering. The recent announcement that the DMR module will no longer be produced with immediate effect, is not surprising. A handful of very loyal followers cannot compensate for its fundamental flaws, when compared to the premium products of other marques.
For the time being then, Leica is again betting on the M-series (in particular the M8, the M7 and MP are in an identity crisis partly by the a la carte program, that tried to redefine an instrument as a gadget) as the main product for the premium market. The fate of the DMR shows quite clearly that the times are changing faster and more radical than can be imagined. A company that cannot translate its technological superiority into premium products that generate not only passion but also sales, is doomed. The market is relentless and historical values are only a footnote in today's battles for market supremacy. Leica has the most difficult task to rebuild a ship while is in sailing in a storm.
From photography to image engineering
In a recent documentary by Arte, the German-French art TV channel the revival of the Super 8 film was exposed. Young filmmakers, in particular, seem to discover the peculiar characteristics of Super 8 in comparison to the now ubiquitous digital recording with the handycam. This is again proof of the classical adage that a new medium does not kill the previous one, just joins it.
When photography was invented, the most famous exclamation was that from this moment one painting is dead. The contrary happened and painting flourished as never before. It just had to re-invent itself and find its true self.
At first, the early photographers copied the classical masters and the style of painting. There were no other role models as we would say today. Photography flourished after the practitioners abandoned the approach of the painter and studied the inherent characteristics of the new medium. In fact they found new uses for the medium. The Economist has drawn attention to this fact when they noted that a true revolution is only possible when users find new goals for a medium well beyond the original ideas. This is happening world wide with the cameraphone and every day people find novel ways to employ the tools and the technique.
Today you need to master the digital imagery workflow and without software tools as Photoshop, Raw Essentials, Noise Ninja you are not able to get a decent image on screen or on print. What is happening behind the scenes is a true revolution. A number of photographers have simply switched from film emulsion recording to solid state recording and assume that the classical photographic virtues will continue to be valuable. This is no doubt true to a certain extent. As in the past it is possible for photographer sto make pictures that look like paintings and there are painters who make paintings that look like photographs. It is perfectly valid to make pictures on solid-state media that resemble the technique of recording an image on film emulsions. But doing this you are acting like the 19th century photographer who finds inspiration in the tradition of painting.
Photography means writing with light. Without light and an object reflecting light rays that can be captured by silver halide molecules, there can be no image. This is the essence of photography. Painting on the other hand can work from imagination and the painter only needs a brush and some paints to create whatever image he has in mind (literally speaking). Photography depends on what exists in front of the lens and freezes a scene in time. Painting has no sense of the time dimension. A photograph is limited in time and space. The decisive moment as it has been called is indeed the hallmark of a photographic image.
The digital image is a strange beast. It is not an image in the photographic sense: there is no negative to look at. But there is a tendency to refer to a RAW image is a digital negative. The sensor of the digital camera records luminance values in a matrix of 3000 by 2000 cells, called pixels. The numbers may be replaced by whatever size of the sensor you use. A pixel is dimensionless, whereas a chemical negative has physical dimensions. The meta data that accompanies every digital file, has information how the colour pattern is arranged and this info is used by the software to reconstruct the colour information of the scene. Inherently a digital image (file) is a semi-manufactured article. Without the meta data the file can not be interpreted. And without extensive manipulation by the software in the camera or the Photoshops of this world, the file is useless.
Many commentators in the digital scene will claim that there were many darkroom techniques to manipulate the original negative. That is true, but the amount of manipulation was and is limited. The essence of digital imagery is its unlimited potential for manipulation on the pixel level (in photographic terms that would imply addressing every single grain in the negative).
I am now using filmbased photographic recording and solid-state imagery in comparison and I find it remarkable how different both approaches are. There is still a widespread but futile attempt to try to demonstrate that filmbased images are better than the solid-state equivalents or the other way around. In a recent issue of the German magazine Fotomagazin there was an article that proofs that at the edge of recording performance the film based images have an advantage. This is also my own position: filmbased recording is still better than solid-state recording. Of course we can claim that current digital cameras can record a ten stop brightness contrast, but the current printing equipment cannot cope with this contrast range. And we can claim that resolution of films is still better than what we can get with solid-state imagery.
When we are arguing in this direction we miss the point! The convenience and the possibilities of solid-state imagery outweigh the slight losses in absolute image quality.
The whole idea of the digital imagery workflow points to a new way of working with images. When I take pictures on film I know the limitations and the possibilities of the material. And above all, I know that I am definitely fixing an image for eternity. Manipulations are limited. Of course I can take hundreds of pictures and hope that one if the images will satisfy my imagination or emotion about the scene in front of me. But the final image is still the fixing of the shadows.
When I use the digital camera, I am definitely aware that the pictures are intermediate products, simply files that can be manipulated at will later on the workflow process. Using the Olympus E-1 as I would use the Leica M7 is simply a misunderstanding of the technique involved. Pressing the shutter of the M7 creates a fixed recording of a instant of reality, probably imperfect, but finalized. Pressing the shutter of the E-1 creates an intermediate product, a digital file that can be manipulated in many ways. Look at a Raw conversion program and see the infinite ways of manipulation of the basic image. There is no hesitation to shoot scores of images at will and to exploit your creativity from every possible angle and pose. Images are free and at no cost and every possible mistake can be corrected. As soon as you understand this, you note that a digital camera is a new tool that introduces a totally new way of creating images. The digital workflow supports this new way: as a start you can take pictures with a method that is essentially what the painter's sketchpad was in the past. You can start with a low resolution file which allows you take 1000 images on a 2 Gigabyte CF-card, take images as often and as many as you want (12 per second if you wish), at every angle and position, review the results immediately and when the results are what you had on your retina, you can delete the files, switch to RAW and create the real images. With the Raw processors you can look at the light table, adjust the relevant parameters, as saturation, colour, sharpness and dynamic range, and feed the files in into Photoshop CS2 where you can do additional manipulations, fix the parameters and do a batch conversion of every number of files you want. You can even superimpose two pictures, one with highlights corrections and one with shadow corrections to simulate a much higher dynamic range than can be put on paper.
The options are indeed limitless and go far beyond what the chemical darkroom can offer. Ansel Adams coined the term pre-visualisation to indicate that it is photographer's job to think about an image and to start searching for one. Henri Cartier-Bresson had a theory that you cannot create an image but have to wait for reality to evolve into a meaningful pattern that you can only capture at the right moment in time and place.
The emergence of the workflow approach in digital imagery makes these visions obsolete and this can only be applauded. It means that the traditional style of taking photographs is not appropriate for digital imagery. As long as we assume that digital imagery is photography with a solid-state sensor , we are like the photographer who tries to emulate the process of painting. The often-praised approach of hybrid photography (mixing film based photography with solid-state imagery) is as futile as trying to mix painting with photography.
Photography flourished as soon as the practitioners shrugged off the heritage of painting and started to use the new medium as a new tool with its own laws and possibilities. Digital imagery or even engineering will start to flourish when and if the practitioners shed off their heritage of photography and start to use the medium as a new instrument for a new language for visual expression.
It is really significant that in today's digital arena the traditional photographic companies are doing worst of all. Kodak has a new boss and sheds tens of thousands of people again and film sales are dropping not by the projected 10%, but by an alarming 30% a year. We all know where Leica is standing, losing money and changing bosses by the month. It is the stated goal of HP, once a staid engineering company famous for boring but reliable computer hardware, to become the digital equivalent of what Kodak stands for in the 20th century as the leader of chemical photography. Contax/Kyocera is dead; Pentax is struggling, as is Nikon and Konica/Minolta. The big names in digital imagery are Seiko/Epson, Sony, HP and Canon, as one of the very few of the traditional photographic companies who has made the transition from photography to image engineering. And on the horizon we see the names of Nokia, Ericcson, Samsung and others who promote the use of camera-phones as the means of image capture of the future. Some of the best-known names in fashion photography (Nick Knight is one of them) have abandoned the classical gear fully to concentrate on the images possible with the camera-phone ( 3 million pixels really suffice for full spread magazine images).
The digital workflow encompasses the whole range form creating the basic image file, manipulating the data with programs and printing the files to get printed images. The software-programs and the computer are at every stage necessary and an integral part of the flow. Extract the programs from your digital camera and it will do nothing. The more you rely on post-exposure manipulation with Photoshop, the more you are becoming an image engineer. This is fine. I am no Luddite to protest against new inventions. But with digital imagery we are in the business of constructing reality and no longer in the realm of recording reality. There will be hardcore traditionalists who insist on using the digital camera as a convenient means of doing traditional photography, but they will be soon outnumbered if not buried by the masses of persons who see digital imagery as one of the many instances of an integrated digital entertainment network.
In the end, it may be possible that true chemical photography, at least the BW version of it, will outlast the digital photographer, who will vanish in the world of digital imagery that is mobile, virtual and personal: mobile because you can do it every where you want, virtual, because it only exists in the camera and you can show it to anybody around the globe and personal because you can edit the digital file in any way you wish. Does this sound like a revolution? You bet on it!
Some trivia: the first digital SLR was a Kodak DCS-100 in 1991 with a 1.3 Mp sensor and $30.000 tag. In 1997 the Olympus D-6000L had the same size sensor and costs a few thousand bucks. In 1999 the Nikon D1 had a 2.74 MP sensor and a tag of $6000. The Canon EOS-1D from 2001 had a 4.48 Mp sensor and was introduced as the camera tthat set the top for sharpness and resolution. Now Canon has a 16 Mp sensor, but the claims are the same. (2005)
Barnack's smile (october 21, 2007)
About hundred yeasr ago two fully unrelated innovations were created: the birth of the consumer and the concept of the Leica camera.
Around 1910 Barnack (then an employee with Zeiss) thought about a totally new type of photographic apparatus, utilizing rolls of movie-film to capture a series of pictures without reloading and with a minimum of complexity (the camera body should be small, compact and intuitive to handle).
That design (and all subsequent camera models) was engineered within the mechanical tradition of the watchmaker and the craft of microscope construction. The precision engineered miniature camera had its own culture and industry. Development cycles were long, because the intricate nature of the mechanical components required a lengthy period of design and construction. And the mainly manual assembly labor force had to be trained to become proficient in the new assembly details.
And, to be honest, no one needed a new camera every year. Cameras were designed and constructed for at least a decade of use and deployment. The photographic problems to be tackled were well known and any photographer learned to master the necessary tasks.
Indeed, excellence could be defined as recognition of one’s own limitations in order to overcome them.
In that same timeslot in history, the consumer society was forcefully implemented by American firms like Ford, Gilette and others. Strange as it may now seem, the ’consumer’ as an economical and cultural entity did not exist before 1900. People bought goods and services of course, but the whole concept of the mass market was not yet invented.
Both inventions have had an enormous impact on our culture and society. The small toy of the Leica has evolved in the current hype of DSLR’s, the stages being the coupled rangefinder, the single lens reflex, the automated pocket camera, the AF SLR and the Auto-all DSLR with integrated digital capture system.
The photo camera industry has for a long period of time followed the business model of the instrument maker industry: you focus on real needs and you introduce new models only when significant improvements can be realized. In the past a new camera model appeared once in a decade or twice in a decade. And camera models were carefully designed for different market segments. We had the Hasselblad for serious editorial and fashion photography, the Nikon F for high quality documentary and illustration work, the Canon F1 for the more scientific kind of photography, the Pentax for reportage coverage and the Leica M for the high profile artistic snapshot. The photographer made a choice and knew the limits of every camera type.
The consumer electronic industry and the camera industry have merged into a new domain of digital image recording and the classical values do no longer apply.
The product cycle has been shortened and now every 18 months or even very six months a new or improved model is being introduced. The consumer now wants every feature of every camera model to be incorporated in the camera model of his choice.
The mass consumer market, once focused on providing a broad range of goods and services to all people, irrespective of class and society barriers, n order to give manufacturing industries the broadest possible market penetration, has become in the words of Benjamin Barber:
In order to turn reluctant consumers with few unsatisfied core needs into permanent shoppers, producers must dumb down consumers, shape their wants, take over their life worlds, encourage impulse buying, cultivate shopoholism and invent new needs.
Consumerism needs this infantilist ethos because it favors laxity and leisure over discipline and denial, values childish impetuosity and juvenile narcissism over adult order and enlightened self-interest, and prefers consumption-directed play to spontaneous recreation. The ethos feeds a private-market logic ("What I want is what society needs!") and combats the public logic fashioned by democracy ("What society needs is what I want to want!").
This is capitalism's all-too-logical way of solving the problem of too many goods chasing too few needs. It makes consuming ubiquitous and omnipresent, turning shopping into an addiction facilitated by easy credit.
Look at the current market for the ubiquitous DSLR in its different incarnations from basic to professional, whatever these words mean. A year ago we had the Canon 30D, and this particular model was greeted by the ever more uncritical press as a super model, capable of delivering top quality images. Now we have the 40D and the same ritual is being repeated. More features of course and improved characteristics, focused on more speed, more convenience, more foolproof handling. Without doubt, the 2008 model 50D will elicit even more praise, and so on to the 2009 60D. The language runs out of words to evaluate the several models: from top to super to turbo to uber-top.
We now have cameras capable of capturing images at a sensitivity of 25600 ISO, at a speed of 5 pictures/second, with vibration reduction of five stops and with accurate AF at a speed faster than the time span of an eye blink. We have Liveview, WLAN image distribution and exposure bracketing over five stops. Without any effort we can now take sharply focused, well-exposed pictures at any shutter speed we want and at every aperture setting we want in every lighting condition. And for those who do not wish to loose any instant in life can buy a camera that can handle 60 frames/second. We prefer easy above difficult, simple above complex and speed above slowness. The new Olympus E-3 now boasts of the fastest AF in the market and the manufacturer assumes that this will be a buyer incentive or a USP, a unique selling point.
We note this mechanism also in the Leica world: the M8 has a now modest resolution of 10Mb. As soon as the 12Mb and 20Mb models were introduced, the Leica experts all over the world are demanding and predicting a new M9 with that same amount of pixels, because it is a market law that nobody wants to work with yesterday’s camera model with ‘obsolete’ characteristics.
Nobody asks the logical and sensible question whether we need or can handle all these features. Barnack would be surprised that the same persons who use his cameras seem unable to grasp the essence of the design and would be willing to threaten his idea of simplicity and longevity.
In my very personal view, the Olympus E-3 is a benchmark product, at least feature-wise. The Leica M8 is almost primitive when you compare both products feature for feature. The E-3 automates and optimizes every aspect of photography where the M8 has to delegate this to the qualities of the operator. The M8 is still constructed around the rangefinder and the E-3 does away with the whole concept of a eye-level finder.
The main question whether we really need all these features that allow the photographer to take pictures fast, simple and easy has for the moment no clear answer.
What we do know and notice is a slow fading away of once valued elements in photography. Most test reports that are globally available claim that the current generation of lenses is of excellent quality. Critical tests however show that many lenses, especially the zoom versions have a dismal level of quality. The basic design of high quality lenses like the Nikon, Canon, Sigma etc is very good: computer aided designs make sure the design is theoretically OK. But the assembled and manufactured versions often are often wide below this target quality. The mechanical and optical defects are however hardly noticed today: we do not use film anymore where defects are mercilessly revealed. With the powerful post-processing software most defects are disguised. Now that we are able to shoot 30 pictures in a few seconds with bracketing of exposure and white balance and even AF tracking and all this in combination with high shutter speeds, high ISO values and vibration reduction, it would be very surprising if a few of the images in such a burst would not satisfy the operator.
When we compare really well-designed and carefully manufactured single focal lenses from Leica and Zeiss, even when manufactured15 years ago, we are shocked with the optical and mechanical quality that the current photographer is being offered and is forced by the current brainwashing to believe this is progress.
The M8 is certainly not perfect and can be improved in many areas. In my reviews I have noted several defects and I am sure Leica is working on improved versions of the product.
I prefer a modestly equipped manual camera with lenses with really good built-quality and outstanding optical design that require the photographer to think and feel about his photography above a camera that shields the photographer from the basics of the craft by introducing chance as the main principle for creating good pictures. That said I have to confess that the E-3 is a very convincing tool and it is quite easy to seduce me into buying one. But so is the new Nikon D3 and the Canon 1Ds etc.
More on this in the next article: From New Vision to New Aesthetics.
The Leica M digital: is it Leica's biggest gamble?
(2004) At this moment the only fact we know for sure is the intention of Leica to design and manufacture an M style camera with an integrated digital image sensor. There is a large amount of speculation about this enigmatic camera and the Photoshop artists have their day.
Let us try to cut through the fog and the marketing hype and discuss some basic facts. An digital image sensor has a certain thickness (sensor surface, microlenses and filter array) that necessitates a larger distance between the film gate and the shutter curtain, For the M camera the current shutter is too close to the film gate and a new shutter unit must be installed. Presumably (because Leica cannot build one themselves) they need the unit that is available for the Contax G and the Hexar RF). That is a vertically running metal blade electronically controlled shutter with integrated motor drive. As the proposal in Leica Fotografie International indicates, the advance lever will disappear. Functionally then the proposed M digital is a very close replica of the Konica Hexar RF (and will inherit all is characteristics?).
(here I was wrong: Leica uses the shutter unit of the R8/9)
We might even follow this scenario, that the new KonicaMinolta company waits and sees if Leica succeeds technologically and then choose their own solution. The Hexar RF equipment is still there, one could expect. The M digital needs a new main body to accommodate the new shutter mechanism and the sensor device. But a new outer shell is required too. The Photoshop artist leave out all the slots that are required to inset the battery, the memory cards and the cables. One might assume that Leica could try to use the bottom of the camera for all these slots, but a glance at the Epson/Cosina body indicates that there might be engineering problems.
It is safe to assume that a new main casting and outer shell will be required. This will cost a lot of money. The main reason why Leica in the past has refused to make structural changes in the M body (hinged back cover as example) has always been the prohibitive cost of the new tooling for the casting. There is a hint in the LFI interview with Mr Cohn that Leica needed additional money to finance the investments in the new M digital body.
The ramifications are far reaching. A new body implies that the economy of scale that might be possible if the analogue and digital bodies could be produced and assembled in one assembly line are lost. We also may assume that the arrival of the digital M (given the current trend to buy and use digital cameras in great numbers) will cause the sales of the current MP and M7 to drop. Lower sales in this area (Leicas core market) will automatically imply a higher price or even, when sales fall below the break-even point a halt of production. The higher investment for the design and production of the digital M also implies a higher price and most certainly substantially above the current M price, which is already at the top of the market. The alleged 10 Million pixels sensor for the digital M will not be cheap and if the price tag of the digital back for the R8/9 is a guideline, the digital M could be selling at a price between 3000 and 4000 Euro.
Will anybody buy a digital M at this price level and with the functionality of a Hexar RF? This is a big gamble in my view. And Leica is a small company with limited financial muscle. If the market does now swallow the digital M at a very elevated price level in substantial units and if the presence of the digital M will erode the sales of the analogue M bodies, Leica could be in big trouble.
In the past Leitz did not pay much attention to the demands from the market, and they paid the price. Now Leica is maybe listening too attentively to the voices from all over the world.
The second gamble in this digital M proposal are the fixed focal length Leica lenses. The main trend in the digital market is the overwhelming swing to zoomlenses. Nobody nowadays wants to haul a bag full of heavy lenses to make pictures. And the zoomlens has very good quality as the test of the Digilux-2 lens indicates. Leica assumes that the digital M will be bought by people who now use a filmbased M and want to switch to the digital world while keeping their trusted Leica lenses. If this assumption is true, they are in fact saying that the digital M is a replacement for the analogue M in the traditional Leica market. But Leica needs desperately new customers, who must be persuaded to buy a digital camera that is very high priced, classically designed and equipped with traditional features as manual focusing. Yes I know there might be a retro trend in the digital photography world, but will this be wide enough for Leica to sell their products in substantial numbers?
And what to say about the lenses?. Fixed focal length lenses are not very popular and even the Olympus E1 is offering more zoomlenses than fixed focal lengths. The reduction of the viewing angle with the assumed 1.3 to 1.4 factor might be a problem too. Your 28mm will become a 36mm and your 75 will become a 100mm. The rangefinder accuracy might suffer. The frame lines are not the problem: you 'see' the 50mm frame lines and must 'think' that you have the angle of view of a 65mm lens. This is the same with the Epson/Cosina body. The finder is a 1:1 finder and many people were at a loss how one could put a 28mm frame in a 1:1 finder. But with a factor of 1.5, the 28mm lens becomes a 42mm (gets the angle of a 42mm lens). So the 28mm frame lines are in fact for a viewing angle of 42mm and that is easy to do as the classical M3 finder shows. In this respect one should try not to think in terms of focal length but in terms of viewing angle and then the switch is easy to make.
With a 10 million pixel array and an estimated 6 micron pixel size the limiting frequency (Nyquist) is 83 cycles (linepairs) per mm. Most Leica lenses are optimized for a lower frequency, but the limiting frequency is not a problem. With most M lenses I can get resolutions of 70 cycles/mm and more.
The topic of the microlenses deserves some closer attention. Conventional opinion (and that is partly driven by marketing people) wants you to believe that light rays should fall perpendicular on the pixel area. The image sensor should convert light into photoelectrons efficiently. The measure of this efficiency is called the quantum efficiency (QE). Light rays that fall on the pixel in an oblique reduce the QE and the result is a loss of photoelectrons or in photographic words: vignetting: the darkening of the image. The use of microlenses will increase the QE but has one bad side effect: the angle roll off: light entering the micro lens at higher angles is directed away form the photodiode and gets lost. This phenomenon has given rise to the proposal that it is best to use lens designs with a telecentric construction: that is all light rays from the lens will strike the imaging sensor at right angles and all rays are parallel to each other. This is the theory. But in reality here are no optical designs with a true telecentric construction in the current photographic market. Sorry for Olympus and others! If Olympus had telecentric designs in the new E1, why would they need such a large bayonet, compared to the diameter of the sensor area?
It may be possible that the angle of the rays may be somewhat reduced compared to previous designs, but that is all. And we do not need these designs. In a Kodak article (Photography with an 11-megapixel, 35mm format CCD) you find the arguments. There you find a graph where the angle roll of efficiency is diagrammed. This diagram tells you that at angles between +20 degrees and ?20 degrees the angle roll off is hardly important. Translated in normal parlance: light rays from a lens striking the microlens at angle at less than 20 degrees will be recorded with good QE! Given the usual 1.3 to 1.5 reduction factor in viewing angle most lenses will behave properly and their light rays will strike at angels within the indicated +/- 20 degrees. Another myth is being born and transmitted through the world! The same with the so-called D-lenses: lenses designed specifically for digital capture.
The idea is that these lenses have the optimized cut-off frequencies dictated by the Nyquist calculation and also have the more telecentric design 'needed'; for the microlens angle roll off. Both assumptions are not true (I need a full article to explain it in detail). What does happen is that the lens designer, knowing that his actual focal length of say 16mm will get an angle of view of the 21mm, can optimize the design for that viewing angle: so he can correct the lens as if it were a true 21mm lens (which is easier to do than to correct a true 16mm lens). Again a marketing trick!
The real fact is that we should not look at microlenses angles and Nyquist frequencies, but at the exit pupil location. Optically we are not interested in the last lens surface of a lens as the limiting factor for the angle at which rays strike the sensitive surface, but the exit pupil: here the rays are actually leaving the optical system. If the exit pupil is located very close to the image surface then the rays must be bend substantially to reach the edges of the image surface. And then, only then a moderate amount of telecentricity might help. The Leica R lenses, due to the relatively large mirror box, have their exit pupils located far in front of the image plane. These lenses can be used with confidence on the proposed digital back and the assumed limitation of microlenses and their angles will not pop up.
M lenses have their exit pupil locations closer to the film gate, but not all of them at the same location. How the M lenses will behave on a digital M body, cannot be guessed at this stage of the story.
Is this the end..? asked Jim Morrison many years ago.
If we have to believe the current hype about the proposed 'digital-M', one has to assume that one of the last bastions of high quality analogue photography is about to disappear. For some time it has been predicted that a rangefinder camera with an electronic capture module and interchangeable lenses based on the M-bayonet could be a real possibility. This type of predictions is of course very superficial and easy to make. And Photoshop manipulations where the current Leica M camera has been mated with some LCD display at the back were 'proof of concept'. At PMA 2004 Epson unveiled a prototype camera, based on the Cosina/Voigtlander Bessa R with M-bayonet. The number of persons who proudly announced that they had correctly predicted the 'digital-M' is proliferating daily. Let us try to take a balanced view. In today's world of instant information overload, it seems almost inappropriate to take some time for reflections on current events and trends.
The broader view of disruptive technologies.
Technologically speaking, digital photography is a subset of digital signal processing (DSP), more specifically of the area of image processing, that is signal processing where the parameters are measured over space and not over time as with most topics of DSP.
Commercially speaking, digital photography is an adaptation of the digital camcorder to the world of stills picture taking. We may recall that the first crisis in photography occurred around 1970, when the VCR, based on analogue tape recording, killed not only the 8mm movie industry, but also photography as a major leisure activity. Photography as a serious hobby for the masses was transformed into the TV based home entertainment industry. The main advantages (ease of use, integrated in the household electronics environment, reusability of the tapes and therefore reduction of cost) were obvious and are in fact the same ones, now being used for the digital photography. The current digital cameras are very closely related to the digital camcorder in features and even body shape and ergonomics. Many features of the digital camera (image stabilization, very wide zoom range, adjustments of color balance, electronic viewfinder, image processing with software) are common practice in camcorders. Several of the main players in the digital photography market are major manufacturers of digital camcorders: Sony, Canon, Matsushita/Panasonic and that is no accident.
The natural link of the moving camcorder image to the TV screen and the computer screen is the result of the new role of the PC as the hub of home electronics and entertainment. The inkjet printer has evolved into the home equivalent of the photolab/minilab. Printing paper and ink are now the main consumables in the market of digital photography as film and chemicals were in the analogue world. It is logical that the manufacturers of PC's and printing equipment will capitalize on this trend and so we see the likes of HP, Canon and Epson introducing printers, printing paper and related camera equipment almost monthly, trying to create a tight link between equipment and consumables.
The second crisis of photography is occurring at this very moment as the onslaught of the VCR is followed by the attack of the camcorder in stills format. Like it or not, the majority of digital camera products is simply a derivative of the camcorder technology. When the original VCR arrived on the market in the early seventies, photography received a staggering blow and there was a massive migration of camera users to vcr-users. The same migration will happen now in the transition from film-based to electronically based imagery. It is estimated that in the western world now about 30% of households have one or more digital cameras. The sales of analogue cameras are dropping rapidly and prices for second hand analogue equipment are in a free fall.
The third crisis is imminent, and will introduce the cellular phone with integrated camera. At the moment of writing, the number of sales of cellular camphones is already higher than that of digital cameras and by 2008 the camphone with a 5 Megapixel ccd is predicted. Companies like Nokia and Sony/Ericsson will be among the major players. Culturally we have made a full circle: the basic drive to take pictures has always been the need to record and fix permanently our visual memories of scenes (interesting landscapes, buildings and ) and events (marriage, babies, holidays). Kodak used this drive to create the famous slogan: you take the picture, we do the rest. Now the ubiquitous slogan is: you take the picture, the computer program does the rest. So we have in fact re-invented the wheel: 120 years ago Kodak noted that people wanted to fix their visual memories as fuss-free as possible and he invented the appropriate technology. Now we have digital technology that makes picture taking even more accessible and in real time. We may question the content and quality of the pictures being generated by the millions every day, but the fact remains that a new generation of users likes to take unpretentious pictures and see it as fun. And that is all there is.
Hybrid systems are a solution? Forget it! But Crawley advocates this one strongly
Anyone who assumes that it is possible to hold on to a hybrid approach (Leica's stated goal for their M and R systems) misunderstands the basics of the disruptive technology that is being rolled out now. Once in the digital area, there is no reason to cling to analogue media or to allow one self to have the option of choosing the best medium for the job. The image quality of the current digital technology is as good as that what you get get from analogue media. There are hundreds of sites in the internet who try to prove with examples and/or calculations and/or technical reasoning that digital is superior/inferior to analogue (pick your choice).
The plain fact remains that users vote with their feet and that is digital! And for 95% of demands and expectations a 5 Megapixel camera with a decent lens will satisfy even professional demands. Remember that a few years ago the first Canon D1 digital camera had 1.2 Megapixels and most professionals were impressed. Even Berek calculated that 1 million pixels would be enough for serious small format images! And the current Nikon H2 with 3 million pixels is accepted as a tool for professional results. Filmbased users like myself, can argue and prove that the immaculate barita print with slow speed film and Leica lenses will have the edge over digital results, but that 95% of photographers will shrug their shoulders and ask: who needs this quality and who wants to input this amount of effort? And they will point to the ease of use, the immediacy of the results and the simple way of distributing the image. In filmbased photography the result is a unique product (the print) that needs to be seen in a museum or exhibition. In digital photography the result needs to distributed instantly as it will loose its impact when there is a long time lag. Filmbased photography will not co-exist with digital photography, but will be forced into a niche as vinyl (LP) records compared to CD or DVD music records.
In a recent article in The Economist (03-01-2004) the magazine analyzed the future of Kodak and concluded that this is not a bright one. As long as Kodak is still hooked on film, there is no way to adapt to the new business model, required to adapt to the rapid technological change. What is true for Kodak, is also true for Leica. The highest growth rates in digital cameras can be found in companies with a nontraditional background in photography. HP grew by 113% in Q3-2003. But in market share it is Sony, Canon and Kodak who are at the top three positions. The Economist proposes that Kodak be divided in two separate companies, one chemical and film based and one digital and electronically based, as the technologies and markets are too different to be covered by one single company . This might be true for Leica too!
What is Epson up too?
Looking at the figures, we see that Canon and HP, both making printers and cameras are big in market share and growth rate. Epson tried loose partnerships with Olympus, but the 4/3 format is still no winner. So Epson must have thought that it needs a higher profile in the camera market. Epson is Seiko and Seiko has experience with camera shutters and is familiar with the Cosina cameras. They need a cheap camera to capture a slice of the market and knowing the popularity of the Leica M and screw mount lenses/cameras in Japan and USA, it is logical that they want to profile themselves as a maker of digital cameras to cater for that market. Leica has no product to compete in this specific digital area and if Seiko/Cosina can succeed to seduce Leica/Voigtlander users to go the full digital route, they may be inclined to buy the Epson printers. This is a big gamble of course: the digital market is mostly focused on cameras with fixed zoomlenses with a wide zoomratio as this is the most convenient option. And changing lenses is not a popular act today. Japanese firms however are famous for capturing easy markets first before going into the tough markets. Canon started by copying Leica cameras when that market was booming. It may be that Seiko assumes that competing head on with Canon and Nikon and Sony is not the best option to start with. But gaining market profile and experience in a not hotly contested area like the rangefinder market, may be the best starting point for a more aggressive strategy over the next years. And if they fail, there is no big investment to write off, as the Cosina cameras are already available and a chip can be bought from several sources.
Is the proposed Seiko/Cosina camera the digital M some people dream about?
Of course not! A camera body with an M-bayonet is just that: a body that accepts Leica M lenses. As far as I can read the specs the proposed S/C body has a 1:1 rangefinder without frame lines for the several focal lengths. You focus with the rangefinder and frame the picture with the digital screen at the back. There is no AF or AF assist as this would render the camera incompatible with the M-lenses. If the S/C camera hits the market at the end of year, we can at least assess one important issue: can Leica lenses offer superior results when mated with a 6 megapixel back? I personally doubt it, but let us wait and see. I am sure a S/C camera will deliver quite good results, that will satisfy most users of the M-system and the V-system. This is easy to predict: any 5 or 6 Megapixel digital camera delivers very good results at this moment. And the Leica lenses will perform commendably, but the ultimate quality depends not on the optical quality, but the software in the camera and in the printer drivers. Leica cannot influence these parameters.
What about the Leica statement announcing their own digital M version?
The announcement by Leica must have been motivated by the unveiling of the S/C prototype camera. Some months ago, the company stated that a digital M was not feasible. Technologically nothing has changed in the last months and now the company makes a 180 degrees turn in philosophy and approach. The S/C prototype is not a proof of concept, just a mock up. It is too early to speculate, but we may assume that there are many technological hurdles to take to develop a digital body that accepts M-lenses and can deliver exceptonally good results. Whether Cosina or Leica is in the best position to solve the problems remains a secret at this moment. We may refer to another Economist statement: most predictions are based on current knowledge and so will be false as we do not know what the future will bring.
Death of photography or why the concept of 'digital photography' is doomed to die soon
(2003) Photography has been characterized as 'the art of fixing the shadows'. This is an apt description as the essence of photography is the mechanical reproduction of a scene, illuminated with light and getting shape and depth through the capture of the shadows. We should remember that Daguerre and his contemporaries were trying to invent a mechanical process by which an accurate and durable reproduction of a segment of reality could be made without needing the skills and training of a painter. This reproduction was and is amazingly good its its accuracy and depth of detail as anyone who has seen the original Daguerrotypies can testify. Recently there is a discussion about the fate of the so-called 'decisive moment' as a technique of photography. Reading HCB's autobiography, one should become aware that this decisive moment is not a technique, but a state of mind. The photographer is emotionally immersed in the scene and the actions and wants to find a moment that the spatial grouping of the objects involved in the scene evoke a sense of visual or spatial awareness that represents accurately that emotion.
Photography is a state of mind and much more than a technical trick. The idea that the fixing of shadows or the freezing of a spatial grouping of objects, that dynamically change every fraction of a second shoud be done faithfully and non-manipulatively is the core of the photographic act or art. Even the humble snapshot, made with the Kodak Brownie, is being made with the intention of fixing a visual remembrance that is deemed worthwhile for future joy. Faithful reproduction, and the permanence of the picture from the moment of pressing the shutter are the main characteristics of film based photography. The photographer is of course aware of these basic facts and his mental state reflects these facts. HCB made his pictures, being fully aware that he had only one opportunity. He did not like the classical darkroom work as his focus was the act of making the picture, the darkroom being a trivial procedure.
The core of digital imaging is not the convenience of being able to see the picture immediately (here the Polaroid showed the way), nor the fact that you need no photographic knowledge to make a picture (the Kodak Brownie or Agfa Box were foolproof), nor the fact that digital imaging is cheap (that is just a matter of economics and calculations!). No the true character of digital imaging is its virtual character. The pixelated sensor of a digical camera does create a digital file and we all know that a computer file is a non-entity: a string of zero's and one's, that need to be interpreted by special programs to become accessible. And a computer file is not fixed, you can change every part of it as long as you wish and as often as you wish.
The one-to-one correspondence that exists between the moment of making the picture and the reality that is being recorded is lost. The digital picture has no longer any direct relationship to the scene that has been recorded. The file can be manipulated at every stage of the digital processing of the file content. And the making of a digital picture is very easy. In fact you can make a thousand pictures on one gigabyte memory stick, remove all pictures and start over again, and you learn by looking at the pictures on the screen. The mental state of the photographer then has to be totally different. The famous pre-visualisation of Ansel Adams and the importance of having a photographers eye in order to see the scene photographically are redundant.
The switch from a filmbased camera to a digital camera is a fundamental change in the mental state of the photographer and style of picture taking. The most heard request in the Leica world today is for a digital M. I am wondering why M users crave so eagerly for a pixelated sensor to capture the image projected from the exit pupil of the Leica lens.
It is it convenience? To be able to print the picture immediately after the act of pressing the shutter. That would be a meagre argument. If you know (that is mentally saw or visualized) what you photographed, you can wait a few hours or even days. And going to a lab with your flash card is no less time consuming than agoing with your film to a one hour lab.
Is it cost? Maybe: film is not cheap and a darkroom is not an option anymore. So you have to accept prints made by a lab, which is mostly not so good.
Is it the added value of the digital imaging chain that can improve or alter the original picture with the digital manipulations at the Photoshop and printing stages? This answer has two levels. Yes, this is a very convincing argument, but I can use my film (slide or negative) and scan it and then act as if this digital file is the original file as being generated with the camera. On this level I can argue that a digital M is not an improvement as I can always scan the film and do anything with that file tat I can do with the digitally captured image in a digital camera. So there must be something else or more? And yes, there is! The simple fact that I can take a picture and immediately examine the result and being able to judge the quality of the picture, implies that I can redo the picture in case of failure or non-satisfaction. This seems to be a bonus and has no impact on the style of photography? Wrong!
Referring again to HCB and his style of photography (pictures made during a process that is based on emotional involvement by the stream of consciousness model of visualization and an un-interrupted act of pressing the shutter that should not interfere with the mental state of the photographer) we see clarly that the mere act of breaking off the chain of photography by examining every single picture to see if it is right, kills the whole idea. And if we use our digital camera as we should do in HCB style, we use the burst mode of the digital SLR and capture 9 pictures in quick succession, being saved in a buffer, before being processed by the chip. But then we loose our ability to correct our picture by re-doing the picture.
The basic act of a digital photographer is this and you can observe it everywhere on this globe: the photographer looks not through the viewfinder but at the display, takes the picture and waits to examine the result and if he is in company, shares that result with the rest. And in many cases, throws away the image as the act of sharing it momentarily is the final stage of most digital pictures.
To put this in perspective: I am not being negative about the emerging world of digital photography: it has big advantages and will offer fascinating possibilties when the inherent potential is discovered. But the two basic traits of digital photography: the vast and limitless manipulation of the original file after and even during exposure and the mental state that you do not have to focus on creating the best image in a split second and so do not need to bother with photographic technique will change the world of photography beyond recognition, The bestselling imaging product nowadays is the mobile phone with integrated digital camera and there is much more interest in a smart design than in image quality. The world of digital imaging is focused on image manipulation and instant visual communication. The world of photography is/was focused on the documentary picture and the fixing of the image.
The new style of imaging has its advantages. People take pictures in a more relaxed way as they do not need to worry about cost or technique. But the art of fixing the shadows and the expertise to see beyond the obvious and superficial will be gone. We should be realistic here. The Leica camera in the hands of the best masters has produced images of stunning and lasting value. Most Leica users today produce pictures that are light years away from the fine examples of the great photographers. That is not a question of technique but of mental state.
This mental state is the core of good photography in the classical (film based) way. And you can evoke that state because of the tools and their inherent qualities. If you do a painting, you must go for the qualities of paint and brushes. And if you go for an image generated by a pixelated sensor and an image transformation algorithm, you need to adjust to these qualities.
The idea that you can take digital pictures with the mentality and approach of the filmbased style of photography is as grotesk as trying to drive a modern racing car with the mental state of handling a steam engine.
Going digital implies saying goodbye to the 20th century art of photography and will imply the death of photography as we know it . Does it also imply the death of the Leica camera as we know it?
This is stuff for another reflection.
(2003) Photography has always been described as the technique of writing with light. But now digital imaging is to become the new technique for the 21st century. The basic principle is no longer 'writing with light' or 'fixing the shadows', but manipulating numerical values in a large matrix of cells, every cell being a pixel. You can even create an image without using light at all. One could approach digital imaging as just being classical photography using a different mechanism of recording the scene in front of the lens. One can also interpret digital imaging as a paradigm shift in the photographic world. In science a paradigm shift implies a totally new way of looking at the same facts, based on a new theory of interpreting the existing facts and figures.
Let us return to the early days of photography around 1840. The new invention of recording the reality by using a light sensitive surface was seen as a great help for painters and by photographers as a means to emulate painting without needing the training of a painter. The first generation of photographers tried to copy the topics and scenes of the classical painters. It took a full generation before the true potential of the new medium was appreciated. And from that period on painting and photography went their own route. Painting became the best medium for interpreting the world with a liberated eye and for creating new visual experiences. Around 1900 painting had found new ways of showing what the essence of 'seeing' could be. Photography, on the other hand, exploited the mechanical nature of the photographic process and was at its best when faithfully recording the world without emotional involvement.
Digital imaging seems to be capable of the same fundamental shift in perception and technique as happened 150 years ago. The classical picture is the result of a single chemical process reacting with the silver halide molecules in the film emulsion. The final print is an accurate positive copy of the grain distribution of the negative film base. The final print is a single, stand alone product, which can be admired and exhibited on a wall. The digital image is the result of an elaborate manipulation by computer algorithms of strings of figures captured by a grid of light sensitive cells. The final result is tightly integrated in the whole universe of electronically distributed and manipulated files.
The digital image is a computer file in the same sense as a text file. It can be opened and manipulated by many programs and it has no fixed state. You can change the content at will and at every instant of time. You can share the image at every instant with millions of viewers at no cost at all.
Taking a picture with film and with a classical camera required expertise and knowledge. The latest generations of film-based cameras, like the F5 and the EOS1, were already foolproof tools that made photography almost risk free. The current digital cameras are a step closer to the old ideal of foolproof imagery. Ours is a visual culture, and without a good video-clip no song can make it to the hit lists. We can now take pictures with a wide variety of products, from mobile phones to cameras as compact as a credit card. And every picture will be good enough for the see-and-discard culture of today's generations. A digital camera is a commodity as is an MP3 player and a computer. The resulting pictures have no lasting meaning or try to delve beneath the whims of the day. They are part of the vast network of instant communication that is made possible by the internet and the mobile phone. Many serious photographers have migrated to the digital universe and take pictures as if they are still working with film-based materials. The digital printer has replaced the wet darkroom, but the results are identical to what could have been created in the chemical process. There is nothing wrong with this approach. This is the generation that has much in common with the first generation of photographers: copying the content and vision of the painting community. Photographers can make digital pictures that are identical to the ones that could have been taken with film-based equipment. They have chosen digital for reasons of ease of use, immediacy of results and cost effectiveness. But they miss the underlying and more powerful paradigm shift. This shift will transform the world of images in a fundamental way: the French philosopher Barthes noted that a picture had a heavy load of symbolism, as have words. Change the context and the word has a different meaning and symbolism. In the digital world, the image is just this: a symbol that needs a context to become meaningful.
The digital image, that computer file consisting of a string of values of ordered pixel grids, has infinite possibilities for manipulation and growth. The photographer becomes more like a painter, who can create his own world and can present his personal view of that world, without being limited by the opto-chemical processes of the film based technology.
There are exciting possibilities here for a new culture of vision and creative imagery. The transition from the film-based methods to the digital technique of photography is a final one. You do not simply change the technique; you step into a totally new world of imagery.
The whole idea that a photographer will use both digital and analogue photography as he sees fit, is abortive. When the choice has been made to migrate to the digital way of imagery, there is no valid argument to cling to film-based photography. The results are almost identical and there is no area where the film-based technique can bring added value to the digital technique. The approaches are as different as was painting compared to Daguerrotypie. Anyone who believes that both technologies, analogue and digital, can reinforce each other, overlooks the essential point that the change from analogue to digital is not a simple exchange of tools, but a shift in paradigm about the role of the image in today's world of communication.
When we put the current trends in an historical perspective, we see an increasing freedom from the prime directive of film-based photography, which states that the photographer should base his message on the selective reproduction of the scene in front of the camera. 'Reproduction' refers to the mechanism of recording the scene as it is, and 'selective' refers to the choice of the photographer of perspective, standpoint and instant of time. Digital imaging is no longer confined to this paradigm. You can create your own image of the world and you can even create your own world. To the extreme: you can at every moment in time, change the images you made in the past. Some picture agencies are complaining that it may be impossible in the future to get a good view of the past, as images are constantly changed to adapt to the tastes of the day or are erased as being of no interest to the current owner. There is a big chance that our current period in time will not be recorded as it really existed, because of the manipulation of the images to conform to the memories of those involved.
This change in paradigm is not restricted to images or pictures, but will affect the industry of photography. More and more mechanical components in the camera are being replaced by electronic elements. More and more customers want products, specifically designed and made to their individual requests. Niche products are one answer, flexible production methods are the second answer. The current practice is to produce products based on broad market research, manufacture the products, have the products on stock and try to generate a demand for them. The new model may be to have a brand name and a technology and let suppliers produce the product on demand and with very short production cycles to cater for the market changes in taste.
This trend will have serious impact on Leica as a production company. Their production runs are too small to allow flexible changes in models and specifications. But Leica is increasingly operating in the world of consumer electronics, where product cycles of 6 months are the rule. Leica cannot afford such a model: imagine that the new Digital Back would be available for only one year and then would be superseded by a new model with more features and a lower price. Technology is advancing in a breathtaking pace: two years ago, a ten million pixel chip would be serious stuff, now it is almost commonplace. Competitive advantages are difficult to realise and to promote in an increasingly volatile market. Traditional values may not count for much in the current electronic world, where chips are more reliable than mechanical products.
The current Leica line up of digital products does not indicate that they have as yet mastered the art of the new electronic age. But Leica has surprised market analysts more than once. The coming Photokina may be crucial.
2004: the watershed year
In 1981 Sony introduced the solid-state still camera. The technology of the CCD had been described in 1972 in a Bell Systems article and was seen as a major new device for solid-state imagery, primarily in the video domain. Geoffrey Crawley of BJP fame wrote a lengthy article to predict its use and future and compared solid-state imagery to the then dominant silver halide imagery. SSI and SHI might be more intelligent and fitting descriptions of the different technologies now being known as digital and analogue photography. But the times, they are changing sang Bob D. In the article by GC there is a prediction that in the future the supremacy of silver-based photography might be challenged. He also notes that when this happens, we may see new possibilities and a new scope to refresh that evergreen child-like amazement that we have actually made a picture.
Digital (solid state) cameras are now selling by the millions and are fully integrated in our new real-time world of instant and constant communication and distribution of images and text. But the child-like amazement is still with us. Take a picture and see it immediately at your camera screen: this is amazing and fun. Add to the camera a design style that fits with the i-Pod generation and we are able to understand the phenomenal success of digital cameras. The next generation of cameras will move into two directions: cameras will be integrated in mobile phones and there will be new software in standard digital cameras to make sure every single picture will be a technical success: well exposed and sharp whatever the situation. The digital camera will be an accepted gadget as a simple means to record any situation or object that triggers your imagination and emotion.
The Economist has coined the term 'phonography' for the new kind of imagery. The best selling products in the digital domain are the mobiles with integrated camera with 600 million units and in the film-based world the single use cameras with 400 million units. This kind of product indicates that the urge to record an event is emotionally and socially motivated and not part of the tradition of photography as trying to produce a work of art. Photography as a hobby for serious and advanced amateurs is dead and will be dumped in the dustbin of history. There will be of course a few diehards who insist on claiming that photography is not dead. And in a sense they are right: film will be used for many years to come and a sprinkle of innovation may be expected. The new Kodak Elite Color films offer amazing quality that is not yet possible with digital inkjet printing and new developers will produce superior results with Kodak Imagelink HQ films (read my articles on these films). But admit it or not, photography as we knew it and loved it, is gone and the new generation of photographers has a totally different mindset and artistic background that will generate stunning images, but not in the tradition of photography styles we knew in the previous century. HCB is dead and so is Avedon and Helmut Newton and even Susan Sontag is no longer among us.
The year 2004 clearly gave this message: digital imagery is as ubiquitous as mobile phones and as accepted as a medium of simple communication as SMS messages or email messages. Sales of digital cameras grew by more than 35%, film sales declined by more than 20%. The selling of film-based cameras is down to zero, and the new Nikon F6 or the hybrid Leica R9 with digital module will not change this trend. They will be swept away by a wave of digital products.
The paradigm shift as I predicted in a previous article has occurred and you must be blind to current trends not to see the shape of things to come. The importance of 2004 is showing the full impact of what the future will bring. Do we have to mourn the death of traditional photography? Not really: the icons are still there: we do admire Picasso and Matisse and van Gogh for their genius in painting and we can admire HCB and Salgado and others for their imagery, but we should accept that their way of viewing and capturing reality is no longer part of current culture.
The state at Leica Solms
The year 2004 also brought to the foreground what Leica users do not want to admit: the product range of Leica as totally out of synch with current consumer trends. An announced loss of 10 million euro in one quarter indicates the gravity of the situation. The consumer in the photographic world can be divided into two groups: the so-called 'prosumer', a word that is coined from pro-active consumer and not as is often assumed, the professional consumer and the advanced amateur, now designated as 'adam'. The prosumer seems to be at the edge of technology and wants to get the best value for money and therefore products that are easy to use in a world where time to learn the handling of a product is scarce and he wants products that are as cheap as possible. The 'adam' type of customer is interested in the combination of tools and results and has an emotional investment in high technology products. The classical SLR with its intricate mechanism demanded a fair portion of time and experience to get good results and part of the pride was the mere fact that a good picture could be made. Here the advanced amateur could explore his talents. The 'adam' in the actual world of digital imaging is more likely to be a person who is keen on using the newest technological tools and software programs. The more the burden of quality imagery is shifting to the stage of image manipulation (which can be quite satisfying in itself), the less important the basic tools like cameras and lenses will become. Leica cameras are very basic, but demand very high price. The Leica camera however fits uneasily in the current digital technology and culture: too expensive and its values cannot not be exploited to the extent that the pride of ownership will offset the selling price. Like it or not: the results of a Leica lens on an Epson digital camera (Cosina based Bessa) will not provide you with the satisfaction or pride that can justify the high price of the lens and the body.
Presumably the announced digital M will deliver better results, but the end of 2006 (indicated period of delivery) is two years ahead and with the current pace of technological advancements and cultural changes, one might really hope that the digital M will find an audience that is still interested in imagery of high technical quality. The recent interview in LFI with Ralph Coenen, the new CEO of Leica, shows that the Leica management tries to balance the product range of Leica between the conflicting demands for traditional Leica craftsmanship and optical excellence on the one hand and for exciting digital products to attract new customers on the other hand. Leica as a company bets its future on the quality of the imagery that is possible with the Leica products, SSI or SHI based. They do assume that the level of quality is higher than can be achieved with the products of other companies. Three question marks here.
Are the results indeed superior and if so, are customers interested in this level of quality? Will there be enough customers to pay this premium price in a digital-entertainment world that is increasingly focusing on the content of the message and not on the quality of the image? Will persons have or want to have the expertise, knowledge and inclination to master the craft that can exploit the Leica quality?
The state of the art of digital imagery in the year 2004 gives a clear clue of the shape of the world of imaging in the next five years. Leica has indicated that the company wants to be a niche manufacturer, but they have not yet given a clear indication what niche they want to occupy and what kind of customers they want to service.
The year 2005 will be crucial for the future of Leica.
There are three areas where the Leica management has to define a strategy.
Leica products are very expensive and the person who intents to buy these products needs to be convinced that the price level is justified in relation to the value delivered. In this area Leica might have a problem. In the digital world, it is very difficult to ask premium prices. Apple and Sony are companies that can ask higher than average prices because of design and features.
Volkswagen could sell for higher prices because of its premium brand and supposedly higher quality. But they did not improve quality but increased prices on the assumption that people were willing to pay that premium for the higher quality. But the competition improved their quality while VW at best stayed on the level. The difference in quality now did not reflect the difference in prices and VW is in trouble.
Leica seems currently to be heading into the same trap. The quality of the Leica products has not changed in the last years, but the selling price did increase and the competition has improved, and the prices have been dropping, thus narrowing the gap.
It has been noted at several occasions and by several groups of people, notably the staid Leica Collectors group in Germany, that the current product range is neither inspiring nor innovative. And these attributes are generating sales in today's prosumer world. Leica has quite long catered for the collectors market and a rich but classical oriented clientele.
BMW motorcycles made a painful change in the sixties when migrating from the full swing models to the first modern series of motorcycles, the famous /5 series. With this modelrange they catered for the classical BMW customer with a hint of modernity. The trusted BMW clientele would certainly appreciate traditional values and BMW produced very fine motorcycles with a unique style and culture. But the clientele shrank and production fell to 15000 units. Then a new management created a radically new productline, alienating the classical buyers, but attracting a new public. They now sell 90.000 motorcycles.
Harley Davidson stayed closer to the original roots, but has been able to transcend this culture to an ever expanding class of people who feel attracted to the style and substance of H-D products. They reflect a lifestyle and not a single product.
But Leica does not operate in a clearly defined niche of the market. They have a group of loyal customers that will buy everything that has the Leica brand name, even if its technology and properties are not competitive in the market at large.
The Leica products that offer digital technology can be defined as adaptive products and not as innovative products. Leica does a fine jog in providing their loyal customers with digital technology that may be proven, but is certainly not exciting. The Digital Module gives the user of R-cameras a chance to dip his toe in the digital waters. Technologically speaking it is already obsolete, compared to what the competition has to offer. Leica may be right in the assumption that the products they have on offer will be acceptable to their loyal customers, but if, and this is not a big if, the R-user wants to embrace the digital world in depth with current technology (image stabilisation, autofocus, high speed continuous shooting) he has to move outside the Leica world. This position is comparable to the BMW position with the /5 to /7 products.
And aspiring customers do not find exciting products in the Leica range: the D-lux and Digilux-x series are adapted Matshusita products, where the premium price is not reflected in perceived quality advantages: the VW position. In the past Leica designed products not for traditional customers, but for users who needed the best products for a job: making war pictures in Korea or Vietnam, or documentary pictures in harsh environments like slums or deserts or tropical forests. One would buy a Leica because it was the best tool for the job. Now people mainly buy Leica products because of its quality (the Hermes approach).
Its undoubtedly superior optical qualities are not visible in many situations and its mechanical engineering, once the envy of the world, now has been challenged by modern automated production technology and CAD/CAM design advantages.
Mechanical and optical excellence.
It is in these areas that Leica has a strong card. The precision engineered mechanical camera and lenses do deliver stunning performance. The main question that has to be answered is the benefit and necessity of this level of precision. Zeiss designs lenses that are cheaper and not far beyond Leica in performance, thanks to the technique of design relaxation. Cosina produces mechanical and digital cameras in several disguises (Rollei, Zeiss, Voigtlander and Epson). The Cosina products operate evidently in a different quality range than the Leica products, but the Cosina quality will suffice for most users.
It will be most interesting to observe and evaluate the coming competition from Zeiss optics and Cosina digital cameras. 2005 may be the year of the dragon for Leica.
The Leica management needs to give a clear message to the current and prospective customers that investing in high precision products is worth the trouble and money. It is not enough simply to state that Leica aims to be active in this area. It has to answer the question why we should need this quality. The answer is very relevant in the digital domain, where the picture files can be manipulated and enhanced in thousands of ways and any optical defects can be corrected by clever software. But the film-based product line (M and R cameras) needs a sprinkle of evangelism too. The current drop in sales reflects a saturated market and a dearth of new customers who are willing to embrace the Leica engineering quality and optical excellence.
In the period from 1970 to 1980 Canon produced the best mechanical SLR-cameras that engineering could design and having climbed this mountain, they did ask themselves the question how to proceed from there. The answer was created in the period 1982 to 1986: new technologies were needed to make a quantum leap in terms of technical capabilities. The rapid advances in the field of electronics and major changes in society require a new concept: this was the EOS of course and later the digital camera range, based on EOS ergonomics and quality. In that same period (1982 to 1986) Leica introduced the M6, a slightly more modern version of the then 30-year-old M3. It is impossible for Leica to make a giant effort and pull itself out of the water at its own hair as baron von Munchhausen once did. But without a major investment in marketing and evangelism to promote the values of the Leica excellence in optics and engineering, in combination with an explanation why these products deserve a premium price, the marque may end up in too small a niche. Leica often refers to the success of expensive mechanical watches as the guiding principle for their own strategy. But the social standing and culture of mechanical watches is not comparable to the world of photographic instruments. This analogy will not help to define a strategy for survival and growth.
Let me end with this reflection: to exploit the Leica excellence in optics and engineering one needs to invest heavily in time and expertise to master the subject. I use Leica products since 1987 and started to do serious research into its capabilities from 1993. I have not yet grasped all fine aspects of the performance of Leica lenses and I have not yet explored all possibilities to transfer this knowledge into photographs that reflect this quality. The Leica Academy only delivers the basics of Leica technique. Without investment form Leica to help users exploit the capabilities and help them get a feeling of pride in using Leica products, the claim that Leica is investing in quality engineering is not convincing as a future viable strategy for recovery.
Respect for the image
Respect the image!
Recently I had an extended exchange of opinions between Harold Merklinger and myself about the main cultural and technical differences between recording pictures in solid state or on celluloid. We agreed that the essence of photography (recording and manipulating a photographic image) has not been altered by the mere switch from one to another technical medium for recording an image taken with a photographic device. You can create stunning black and white photographs equally well with the solid state capture and image manipulation software as with the celluloid image and the chemical processing of the latent image. And in many cases no one will be able to see the differences or cares about the differences.
My recent review of the Epson R-D1 (a most traditional camera with a solid state heart) proves the point. But for the capture technology, the camera handles and feels like a mechanical rangefinder camera and its viewfinder is ways ahead of the electronic finders of normal digital camera or the display screens that double as a viewfinder and an image display screen.
And there should be no fundamental difference between the processing of a RAW file with image manipulation software (IMS) and the darkroom manipulation of selecting grade and exposure time. The end result is a photographic print that can inspire or evoke whatever emotion the photographer wants to extract from the viewer. But no one can deny that there is a difference between a virtual image recorded as a computer file and amenable to endless IMS operations and the physical image fixed in a gelatine layer of silver halides.
An interview with Tomohisa Ikeno, the designer of the Nikon F6 caught my attention. He sees the principal difference between digital and analogue photography in the approach to the image. He notes that the essence of film's appeal can be summed up as 'the value of unique pictures'. Or in other words: respect for the image. Solid state pictures are recorded as binary files on a digital medium, as example an SD card. Taking pictures is free of charge: there is no cost involved: you can take thousands of pictures, view them and discard them without any cost involved. The power of the IMS allows you to become quite nonchalant about the inherent technical quality of the images: any defect (so it seems) can be corrected. Look at the threads in the newsgroups: people pride themselves in improving bad images. Operating proficiency with Photoshop is a basic requirement for creating digital imagery. There is nothing wrong with this shift from pre visualising an image and post processing an image file.
But it breeds nonchalance and carelessness and disrespect for the values of a unique picture.
The mental train of thought is different when you know that you have only one chance for a good picture and it will cost you money to take that picture or you can take as many pictures as you wish for nothing and you can correct any deficiencies in any picture with the use of IMS tools. Your approach to picture taking will change when you use the rigorous approach of etching your vision in celluloid or when you use the relaxed approach of recording a sequence of images that can be manipulated at will as a computer file. Like it or not: the range of options for improving an image is much larger in Photoshop than when using the Focomat V35.
These reflections are more philosophical than technical. A chemically created print on Ilford Multigrade IV may look the same as a digitally created print with the Epson inkjet printer and the Epson inkjet paper. The method of production is totally different and so is the approach of the creator.
Style and substance of photography will change when the digital mood is completely ingrained in the attitude of the photographer. True innovations occur, as the Economist observed recently, when the user starts using the new technology for purposes beyond those for which they were originally intended. Camera-phones show the way and digital photography has to define its own profile: just emulating celluloid photography will not be enough. When photography was invented it tried to emulate painting, the dominant image culture. But its true potential was unleashed when it looked at its own technical potential. It was indeed this respect for the value of the unique picture that defined the photographic culture.
The difference between digital imagery and a photograph captured in solid state circuitry has not yet explored in full depth.
The battlefield of truth
Robert McHenry, a former editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, remarked recently that the notion that the internet with its abundance of information should be the last democratic market for ideas, is an illusion. The internet is indeed a marketplace for information, but it is often impossible to distinguish between fact and disinformation. Any opinion counts as equally valid. A cursory visit to any one of the Leica newsgroups will prove this point: opinions are free, but there is no competition between ideas and opinions for truth and fact-finding. Non-solid opinions and untrue facts abound because there is no mechanism for competition between true and untrue facts. When opinions clash or facts are unpleasant, people will shield themselves from the truth by starting a new group with believers or cling to their beliefs by disregarding anything that will contradict their views. Discussion groups become easily battlefields of ideologies. They should behave as platforms for competing ideas, where the love for truth and facts (the original meaning of philosophy) would guide the discourse. In reality most internet groups, discussion forums, websites and blogs are heavens of disinformation, supported by the common human characteristic that we all want to believe what we already know: changing your view is emotionally painful.
We need to approach the discourse about the future of photography with an open mind in order to see what is really happening. No one at this moment in the evolution can tell what direction digital photography will take. For now the novel use of the camera-phone seems to be a better guide to the future than the use of the digital SLR or the digital rangefinder for creating classical pictures. (2005)
The impact of digital image capture on photography as we have known it for a century(October 25, 2003).
The world of photography is currently undergoing a fundamental change in all aspects: cultural, artistic, technical and commercial. The Leica world is not immune to these changes that are far-reaching and quickening in pace. The most obvious change is the conversion from analogue media to digital image recording. The second important change is the growing importance of non-photography companies for the new imaging world. Seiko/Epson, HP, Sony, Nokia and others are defining the roadmap for the future. Traditional photography companies, with the exception of the likes of Canon, Nikon and possibly Olympus, are becoming second-tier players or me-too players.
In the Netherlands, where I live, there is a quite interesting public debate in the daily quality press about the cutural changes that we may see in the next decade. A large photography chain has reported that currently the sales proportion of digital versus analogue cameras is 4:1. They also note that buyers are not all interested in issues as the working of an aperture or shutter or even in image quality. What they want is a smart looking, very small camera, that gives them pictures always and anywhere withouy any thinking or preparation. In our fast moving world there is no time to study a manual or even to think about the basics. Our culture is full of pictures and the hunger for pictures is increasing exponentially. With this flood of pictures, this overkill of images, there is a growing tendency of emptiness of content. The current culture of the digital image capture is heading in the same direction.It is indeed very easy to take a picture with these cameras and as most images never leave the camera and are at best looked at on the small viewing screen, image quality as we know it, is a thing of the past.The hunger for pictures, the acceptance of low quality, the fact that most images are plain recordings of the environment in which we happen to be at any instant of life, and the increasing replacement of words and stories for pictures are interesting elements of the current transition.
The reliance on visual communication is not difficult to explain: we live in a world where time is the most precious commodity. We want everything and we want it now. There is no time to learn and to reflect and when communicating it is now easier to send a digital picture of a group of friends sitting at the bar instead of getting on the phone and telling someone what is going on. Writing a letter is of course out of the question! The current culture is one where we want to share our experiences with others, where ever they live. Local intimacy is being replaced by global intimacy. Private live becomes public life and that is what we want. The famous German thinker Habermas reflected on this already 40 years ago. And pictures ("one picture tells more than a thousand words") are the most efficient way to become famous (in Warhols words of the 15 minutes of fame for everybody) without putting effort in it. The digital camera, with its great depth of field, good sharpness, nice colours and focusing range from 5 cm to infinity, allows the user to take pictures effortlessly from anything at every angle and distance. In this sense the digital camera is the true descendant of the box camera and the Polaroid camera.
The essential point here is the fact that the digital camera can capture a scene in unexpecting ways and viewpoints, and so has the ability to educate the innocent eye of the user. Without a long training, there is now the possibility to get the attention of others is a sea of pictures, even by trial and error. And it does not cost a penny. Printing the image is not done as this would spoil the instantaneous gratification of the real time capture and communication. This new culture of visual communication, undermines all values we have set in the traditional culture of photography, where the magic moment and the language of the image are paramount.
There will undoubtedly arise a new style of digital photography, that comprises the impressionistic style of instantly communicating what you see or experience as well as the image manipulation of a digital file to create a new image as painters have done for the last hundred years. This is a fascinating world to dwell in.
The traditional style of photography with its emphasis on an accurate reproduction of the world and a careful selection of some four-dimensional slice through the universe in order to represent one's emotion in relation to the captured event or subject is simply dying. And with it the classical camera culture.
That should not be seen as a shock. Every technique has its natural life span. The classical steam locomotives or the large sailing ships are long gone and are now icons of an age and technique that once was powerful and important. In the case of the camera technique, there is no question that great cameras as the Leica M, Hasselblad V or Canon EOS 1V will become icons of their age and technique. The question is only when this will happen.
The introduction of the Leica M Hermes version and now the LHSA version is a sure sign that the iconization of the M camera is on its way. When a product changes from a tool to an icon, the writing is on the wall.
The Leica world has always been divided in a section of users that need the camera as a tool for its unique image making capabilities and a section that sees the camera as an icon that should be worshipped and discussed about. If we take a quick tour around the numerous websites and discussion groups devoted to Leica, there is no doubt that the latter section is overwhelming the first section 1 to 100.
This is a bad sign of the times. Like it or not: to take really good and high quality pictures with a Leica is not easy: you have to work hard and the results may be still disappointing. The great Leica photographers (and Canon and Nikon and...) worked hard and with dedication to get the pictures they want or need. They did not worry about serial numbers, flare in the finder, the blocking of the lens hood in the viewfinder, the coma in the outer zones. Read the biographies of these photographers and you will experience a totally different world of the Leica, in my view the real world of the Leica.