The Leica M3
The Leica M3 rangefinder camera is without doubt a masterpiece of mechanical precision engineering. Most commentators in the Leica world would not hesitate to underwrite this statement. But when you try to answer the question why this specific camera model is a masterpiece, you stumble across a big silence. It is well known that none of the features of the M3 were new at its time. It has been amply documented that several manufacturers of cameras had some of these features in their models before the introduction of the M3. We should take a broader evolutionary perspective to see the qualities of the M3. Technology evolves and at every stage of the development we can point to examples of design in which every state of the art component has been incorporated in an exemplary way. The propensity to create such a harmonic synthesis of form and function is an art, an engineering act of great inspiration and creativity. Compared to the many middle of the road products of the same period we see immediately its significance and importance.
The M3 is a very transparent camera: you can see its inner workings and you can imagine what every part is for. If you compare the M3 to any modern SLR or DSLR you can sense the differences. A modern camera hides its workings behind an almost universal opaque shape: any reference to a machine is gone. A modern camera has a shape that is not related to its function (compare the EOS line with the F1(n)), but its shape appeals to higher marketing and sales requirements. The basic visual difference between the M3 and the modern (D)SLR is the strict adherence to geometrical functional forms in the case of the M3 and the total absence of geometrical forms in the curved shape of the modern camera.
A mechanical camera is the child of its manufacturing technique. And the M3 shows its origin in the elaborate details that signify the care and precision of the manufacture. Open the camera and you will find a clean and well ordered array of parts and components. A modern camera has a kind of artificial second skin that hides the functions beneath and when you open a modern camera you will look with bewilderment at its many incomprehensible printed circuits and parts.
Leitz in the days of the M3 not only manufactured every part, but even manufactured the machinery to manufacture complex parts. With such a self contained and closed production cycle, everything could be designed and made to the original concept and no compromises were necessary.
A masterpiece is not necessarily identical with the best of breed idea of a product. The Canon F1 showed the same fanatical attention to detail and engineering precision. One might be inclined to say that this drive to produce the best system-camera of its age was the origin of the F1 just failing to become a masterpiece.
Canon 1D Mark III
A masterpiece is also not identical with a milestone camera. The recently announced Canon 1D Mark III is a true milestone in digital camera evolution: this is the first camera that sheds the last vestiges of the film-based heritage. The functions and the programs inside the camera are fully dedicated to the digital workflow and the features of the camera are geared to the new photographic style of indiscriminate digital capture and extensive post processing.
The successors of the M3 closely followed the design and construction standard of the M3. The M5 is the only notable exception. Leitz tried to break out of the fishbowl in which the M3 was swimming and introduced a modicum of electronics inside the camera. For the staid clientele of the Leitz products, this was a bridge too far.
From the M4-2 to the current MP, Leica has tried to stay within the philosophy of the M3, but the manufacturing base of the Leica company became progressively smaller: it was becoming most uneconomical to produce every part within the company and more and more parts had to be brought in from outside sources: there is nothing wrong with this idea, but one cannot dictate the finest detail of every product to suit the engineering wishes. Parts had to be changed to accommodate other pieces. It is indeed amazing to note that the current M products are so close in feel and philosophy to the original M3.
The M8 is beginning to depart from this lineage. The classical M closed outer shell in which the shutter cradle is fitted, has been changed to the modern two-piece construct that gets its structural integrity in final assembly by proper tightening.
Compare the M8 to the 1D Mark III and you see a wide disparity between the two products: one is trying to be as close to the culture of film-based photography as possible, the other is trying to distance itself as far as possible from that same culture. As consumers we are lucky to be able to choose the product we want in order to support our way of taking pictures. It is clear however in what direction future cameras will evolve.
The M8 is not that harmonic synthesis of form and function as the original M3 was. It does retain however one of the main characteristics of the M3 design: simplicity and high image quality.
Summilux-M 1.4/50mm ASPH.
Looking at optics the list of masterpieces is quite short too: applying the same set of rules to the Leica lenses the current Summilux-M 1.4/50mm ASPH. is the clear winner with the new Tri-Elmar 16-18-21 as a strong candidate.
The first version of the Noctilux tried to be a masterpiece, but the complexity of the manufacture of the aspherical surfaces and the large failure rate of the lens elements indicated that this was out of reach.
There is much more to discuss about masterpieces in lens design. A second part will look at these topics.
Lens masterpieces from the Leica Scuderia.
To be designated as an optical masterpiece, the lens should as a minimum requirement constitute a leap of imagination beyond what the standard of the day provides, at least in design and possibly too in specifications (aperture and focal length). A brilliant design is no good when not accompanied by a mechanical mount that is smooth to operate and that is sturdy and accurate enough to preserve the optical capabilities over a long period of time. And last but not least the lens must be ergonomically sound, beautifully shaped and invite the photographer to use its properties and qualities to the limit.
The Summilux-M 1.4/50mm ASPH. easily passes these tests, especially in the silver-chromed MP 3 version, which has a superbly elegant design. So does the new Trri-Elmar 16-18-21.
A lens that could become the masterpiece of the digital age is a proposed eight element Summicron lens, that exists on the drawing table only and should deliver stunning performance
The range of R lenses is populated with many lenses that perform outstandingly well, but quite often you have to pay a price in bulky designs. The Apo-Elmarit-R 2.8/180 (version 2004) fits the requirements listed above and so does the Apo-Telyt-R 4/280mm. The Apo-Telyt-R 3.4/180mm is a milestone as well as a masterpiece lens.
I have a slight hesitation to add the Vario-Apo-Emarit-R 2.8/70-180mm and the Vario-Elmarit-R ASPH 2.8/35-70mm to the list: optically both are masterpieces, but the bulk is a bit too big for my taste. Undoubtedly Leica would respond with the remark that this level of performance can only be delivered when the mount is sized to accommodate the basic specs of aperture and focal length. But OK; they do qualify.
The list of R-lenses is quite short. This is not to disqualify the R range but one has to accept that the major lens manufacturers like Canon and Nikon have put considerable resources into the design and manufacture of high quality SLR lenses. And not without results. Leica is challenged in this respect and let us wait and see what the company can offer in the digital arena.
The M range has always been the focus of Leica lens designers. Here a long history and generations of expertise in designing compact lenses with short back focal distances are a good start for creative designs.
The Elmarit-M 2.8/24mm ASPH is without doubt a masterpiece lens: it offers almost flawless performance, superb resolution at medium apertures, very smooth operation and all of this in a compact design. The use of special glass types and an innovative optical layout add to properties of the lens that qualify as being designated a masterpiece.
The Summilux-M 1.4/35mm ASPH Mark I (two aspherical elements) is a masterpiece because of the superior wide open performance, the use of two apherical surfaces and a new layout of lens surfaces. Its design is not optimally suited for the high reflectance of the sensor surface, but that is another topic. As it is, the lens is a masterpiece of design.
Why I do not include the Elmax 3.5/50mm and the Summicron 2/50mm in the 50mm focal length class. The Elmax and the Elmar are very remarkable designs: the performance of these 1920-designs would be good enough for current requirements and given the fact that Berek had to balance performance over a wide angle of view and did succeed with the limited selections from the Schott glass catalogue available to him, the design is a fine example of achieving much with limited means.
The Summicron 2/50mm used the new lanthanum glass types and introduced the thin air lens at the front of the lens elements to improve performance. But such a design was not new for the time and several Gauss designs were available that offered optical qualities in the same league.
The Apo-Summicron-M 2/75mm ASPH and the 2/90 ASPH. are both masterpiece lenses. The 75mm just makes it, even when it is too close a derivative of the current 1.4/50mm, but the performance is beyond reproach. The 2/90 is included in the list because of the simplicity of design and the use of special glass types, but delivering performance at medium apertures and medium distances that is as good as what can be expected from the Macro-Elmarit-R 2.8/100mm. Both of these lenses are a joy to use and exploit the capabilities of the rangefinder construction to the fullest extent.
I have defined the rules very strict. Many Leica lens designs are Gauss designs or derivatives of this basic layout. This design is very well suited to small format photography for a wide range of apertures and focal lengths. Staying within such a design paradigm, even when optimizing its characteristics, as did Mandler very expertly, makes it difficult to create a real masterpiece. The current Summicron is an outstandingly good design, but so is the ZM Planar or even the Canon EF 1.8/50mm. To become a masterpiece you need additional qualifications.
Progress in optical design nowadays is not focussed on fixed focal length designs. The domain of the zoomlens is where the action can be found.
>There is a scarcity of older designs in my list. The logic is quite simple: the combination of outstanding performance and imaginative optical design is relatively scarce in this universe. Most designers rely on proven designs to improve or optimize performance.
In the history of small format lenses we find many breath-taking designs, that are remarkable or impressive, but just lack the finishing touch to become a masterpiece, at least in my definition. The Canon FD 1.2/50mm Aspherical is a bold design, but very heavy and so is the Noctilux 1/50mm. And the performance of both is not as good as the 1.4 designs they compete with. The Canon 0.95/50mm is a showpiece lens that does not impress the user who wants to use its potential.
To provide some historical perspective we should reflect on these topics. From 1930 to 1960 the Leitz company used classical optical designs and tweaked/optimized them for use with the small format. Some of these designs were quite daring, like the 1.5/85, the 1.4/35 and the 4.5/200 to mention a few. While performance was not stellar, the range of lenses allowed the Leica user to tackle almost every photographic task and this is the main reason why the Leica system became the world's foremost 35mm system camera.
From 1960 to 1990 Leica had to diversify to two main systems M and R) and to improve on optical quality. Mandler and his followers accomplished these tasks, but he, nor they were innovators in optical design. Zeiss took up this role, were Glatzel and Wöltche among others created landmark designs.
When Kölsch came from Zeiss to Leica, the situation changed and Leica received a much needed shot of innovative creativity, but during the management of Cohn/Coenen there was preciously little room for inventiveness.
Zeiss had the innovative qualities in optical design and Leica was the company that drove the performance issue to Olympic heights.
In this digital age, some rethinking is necessary and Leica needs to do more and better than just to introduce the M8, a camera that has many admirable qualities, but it tends to be a compromise product.
To reclaim the historical role that Leica had in the film-based era for the digital era, Leica needs to become more daring, more innovative and even more performance conscious than they are today. It may be a bit too far stretched, but historically the M8 is in the digital environment in a stage where the IIIg was in the film-based environment: an excellent product but too closely related to the past and being in danger of overtaken by more nimble competitors (as Canon and Nikon were about to do).
The useable lens range for the M8 goes from 16mm to 90mm, a 1:6 range (rounded off). The III series and even the M3 covered a range from 21mm to 400mm, a range from 1:20!
Digital photography is rapidly acquiring the properties of most electronic products: rapid product cycles, and an increasing dependence on software. Computers are now a commodity platform for running software and who produces the computer is more and more irrelevant. Hardware is becoming invisible and software is the main interest. It will not be long before cameras (DSLR) will share that fate too: firmware and software are important, not the hardware: see the D200 and S5Pro siblings.
Lens quality is less important in the digital environment especially when more and more potent software can compensate for the lens characteristics.
With the M8 Leica has made a different statement: the camera and the lens are the main components of the photographic craft and the software should support and not dictate the act of making pictures.
The performance of the lens is still of paramount importance in the view of Leica. But then we need more masterpieces to roll off from the drawing board and computer programs operated by the Leica design team.