Looking for the DNA in Leica M heritage
The Ur-Leica was a very simple device, consisting of a body shell, and a horizontally running focal plane cloth shutter attached to a chassis, that fitted inside the shell. As Lipinski has noted, there is hardly anything else in a Leica body. And the whole Leica mechanism has evolved round that shutter. During the period that Barnack was developing and engineering the camera, this type of shutter was the logical choice as it represented the only known method of providing fast shutter speeds.
The problem of consistency and accuracy was solved again by referring to known solutions: the watch industry had mastered the twin problems of miniaturisation of steel components and the necessary accuracy of interlocking and moving parts. The shutter is basically nothing more than a timing mechanism that governs the release of two cloth parts pushed by silk tapes by the force of springs. The actual implementation of this simple idea is an engineering nightmare. And it is quite logical that camera manufacturers abandoned the cloth shutter in favour of the vertically running electronically controlled shutter as soon as this device was economically feasible to install in their cameras.
The mechanically controlled cloth shutter is the heart of the Leica camera! The rangefinder-mechanism was added later as demands for focussing accuracy became louder and louder.
The magic of the Leica M shutter has to be found in the feel of its operation and its direct contact between the user and the mechanism. It is by now well known that the Leica shutter is not the most accurate shutter mechanism that can be bought and it is now no longer the quietest shutter on the market. But the Leica shutter is unequalled in its tactile and audible interaction with the photographer. When the eye has focussed on the scene to be captured and the brain has decided that the moment of capturing the scene is here, the finger has to move only a millimetre or so to release the shutter and you can feel and hear the actual release of the shutter curtains to start travelling along the film gate.
Nothing evokes that feeling of taking a picture as well as pressing the release of the Leica shutter.
This sensation of mechanically moving parts in clockwork precision, undisturbed by other sounds (the moving mirror of the slr as example) has definite existential roots. Humans are tool making and tool using animals and when a tool is designed such that it accommodates our tactile feelings best, we are in harmony with the tool. The magic of the Stradivarius is a case in point.
I hesitate to add the rangefinder mechanism as part of the Leica M DNA. The rangefinder mechanisms of the Konica Hexar RF, the several Bessa models and now the Zeiss Ikon camera are closely modelled on the Leica design, some would say even surpassing the original. But none of these cameras has that Leica feeling. It is quite revealing that the Zeiss people have given the feel and sound of the shutter mechanism top priority in the camera design.
It has been claimed that the engineering excellence of the Leica camera is the source of its success and admiration. There is a grain of truth here. But several cameras have reached the engineering excellence of the Leica. Older examples are the Nikon and Canon F-series. Current examples are the Nikon F6 and the Canon 1V. These cameras are indeed of superior engineering quality, but they lack that essential Leica ingredient: simplicity of construction. If you try to mentally follow what is happening inside a Canon or Nikon when exposing a strip of film, your mind will explode. With the Leica, you can actually feel what is going on inside the camera. The selected method of controlling the speeds by slot-width, inertia and friction of the mechanical components limits the accuracy of the higher speeds.
But its efficiency and simplicity does translate into that famous sound and feel that marks the start and finish of the act of taking a photograph. It may be an obsolete feeling in the current time frame of things where silent electronics have replaced the cams and wheels and where an electrical motor assembly has replaced the mechanical release that disconnects the gear train. With modern cameras there is no way to know the exact moment when the picture is being taken. After the shutter button is pressed a large range of activities take place before the shutter is effectively actuated. (autofocus actions, exposure actions, mirror movements are all taking time, even when measured in milliseconds).
Leitz has always been reluctant to replace the cloth shutter with a more modern version, the vertically running metal bladed version. The famous prototype of the M6E where the classical shutter has been replaced by the shutter unit of the then current R4 camera does indicate two things: yes it can be done mechanically and from an engineering standpoint and no we will not go this route as we will lose the Leica core values. So the M6 that we know came into being.
The current line-up of M-cameras (M7 and MP) is beautifully made and generates much passion for its owners and users. Part of the passion is the legendary heritage and part of the passion is the love for precision equipment and most Leica cameras have always been very instrumental in evoking this feeling for high quality engineering.
The Epson RD-1 is the first coupled rangefinder camera with a CCD for image capture. You can make some clear statements about his product: assembling a camera that sports a rangefinder and an M-bayonet and even an M resemblance in design, does not by itself becomes part of the M-lineage and heritage. It does lack the Leica DNA so to speak. Technologically the camera is not state of the art: the implementation of sensor technology and the post-processing algorithms are inadequate to faithfully record the essence of image quality of the Leica lenses (and for that matter Zeiss, Konica and Voigtlander lenses too). Persons who base their comparative assessments of lenses on the evaluation of images taken with the RD-1 might be tempted to draw unqualified conclusions. The recently updated version of the RD-1 does not correct the basic problems.
What we know from authorized statements about the coming Leica D-CRF the new camera is technologically able to exploit the capabilities of Leica lenses. The implementation of sensor technology (10 Mb Kodak sensor with dedicated microlens design and lack of low-pass filter) seems to be able to challenge the best of the DSLRs. Whether these cameras can be beaten depends on the implementation of the postprocessing algorithms. The Imacon software of the DMR was not 'le dernier cri' and we may hope that the new German company involved in developing the D-CRF software is able to close the gap with the Canon and Nikon know-how in this respect.
The classical shutter design cannot be fitted into the M-body and will have to be replaced by the shutter design that is already in use in the R8/9 series. The R8/9 shutter has the advantage of offering speeds to 1/8000, but it lacks that mechanical feeling of the cloth focal plane shutter.
The two main points of interest (or in modern speak Unique Selling Points: USP) of the Leica D-CRF that set it apart from the rest of the bunch are the amount of megapixels and the rangefinder.
Two recent articles in the New York Times Technology section challenge these USPs. One article claims that Moore's Law holds in the megapixel race. Some people assume that this race is over, because of the fact that we do not need more than 10 to 15 Mp for photographic purposes. But the author states that we do want more pixels in the same way that we do want more processing power in our computers. He predicts that most mainstream cameras will offer 10+ Mp and high end products will go to 20 to 30 Mp, even in smaller formats. A Canon 1 Ds III with 25 Mp is clamed to be in the making. He has a point as more and more cameras offer 10+ Mp sensors, the latest one the Sony Alpha, on first sight a formidable challenge to Leica. It is a strange quirk of history that the Alpha is based on Minolta technology, a company once a close partner of Leitz. The battle between Sony/Zeiss and Panasonic/Leica will be quite interesting to follow. With 10 Mp becoming the common denominator of mainstream products, Leica is challenged to explain its advantages, when most middle-of-the-road cameras in a short time will offer the same amount and most high-end camera offer twice or even thrice as much pixel power. We have seen this situation before: the Olympus E1 has a 5 Mp sensor that delivers high quality imagery, but the mere fact tat it has only 5 Mp has brought the camera sales to a standstill, whatever the real advantages.
We know that Leica is slow in product renewals. The 10 Mp D-CRF will be in production during a period that most high-end cameras will be upgraded to 15 or even 25 Mp sensors. Leica must avoid the E1 problem.
More pixels and more processing power will introduce powerful in-camera on-board software that will correct optical aberrations and offer image enhancement programs now only available in Photoshop and friends. Leica's reliance on superior optical quality might not be the stable platform it is now.
The second article in the NYT addresses the issue that most modern users of cameras do not even know what a classical rangefinder is (SLR or CRF). The LCD screen on cameras, mobile phones, and PSPs is all they recognize.
There is this most interesting issue of viewfinder screens eclipsing eyepieces. Users of filmless electronic cameras are no longer familiar with the eye-to-eyepiece approach to cameras. Peering into the optical viewfinder (slr and crf) is an intimate human-machine moment that is becoming antiquated for a new generation of camera users.
The LCD-screens in cameras are another triumph for video-screens that is the preferred window for modernity for the Einstein generation. Many compact digital cameras offer only LCD screens. And (Nikon) research shows that most people are more comfortable looking at a screen when taking pictures than looking through a viewfinder, as the screen gives them a better picture-taking experience.
Viewfinders, especially in high-end cameras will not disappear soon. But if Leica wants to have a future beyond the current generation of collectors and beyond-middle-age aficionados, the products must attract the current younger generations.
Olympus claims that with the new E-330 the user has the best of both worlds: looking at a screen for comfortable and creative viewing and looking through a finder, when you want to see only a small slice of reality. The E-330 will also be marketed as a Panasonic DMC-L1 camera and Leica will presumably bring a Leica-ized version of this product. It remains to be seen whether this product will eat away market share from the Leica D-CRF.
The problem with solid engineering
What we know about the D-CRF from Leica public statements amounts to a rather conservative camera that relies on manual focus, manually operated aperture ring, a classic-style rangefinder and a close resemblance to the classical M-look to convince buyers that you cannot live without one. The bottom line of the Leica camera (filmbased or filmless) is the fact that is grounded in that great German tradition of solid engineering. Leica develops excellent technical solutions, supplies reliable goods and creates long-lasting relationships with the customers, as all Mittelstand companies in Germany do. The main qualities - over-engineering, obsession with detail and an extreme emphasis on durability - demand a price: the products last forever and do not bring repeat business. Fast-moving mass-consumer markets offer more innovative possibilities than the slow-moving high-quality products. Canon is a master at this game: innovations are introduced in the mass-market products where R&D expenses can be quickly recouped. This knowledge is incorporated in longer-lasting high quality D-SLR cameras, demanding premium prices and record profits.
The Leica gamble and Kobayashi's approach.
The product line of Leica is increasingly populated by Panasonic derivatives and the 4/3 line may add another P-camera to the Leica scuderia. The D-CRF then will be one of the few true Leica products in the famous M-genealogy. We may take all remarks about the continuing faith in the classic filmloading M-cameras with some grain of salt. When press reports noted that Canon would withdraw from the production of filmloading cameras, they quickly issued a statement that they would continue to produce this type of camera, but only as the demand would allow the manufacture of this product. You would be stupid not to say this: Canon and Nikon and others are still having a large inventory of filmbased cameras on stock and in the production pipeline and in order to sell these, they can hardly say to the customer: look here, we are going to sell you obsolete products as we have closed our R&D in this area, and have no faith in a future for these products, but want to get rid of the stock. Now Canon announces that around 2009 the global market for filmbased cameras amounts to a mere 300.000 pieces. That is not enough to sustain a mass-manufacturing product line. And then Canon can simply say that the demand is too low and we have to pull out with great regret of course.
Leica PR has the same mantra, but is hardly able to bring forward one single topic in favour of a continued interest in the classical M-line.
Leica then is betting fully on the success of its D-CRF, and need to convince current M-users that the new camera offers the best entry into the world of high-quality digital capture. Without a clear link to the DNA of the M camera that might become difficult. And after initial demand is satisfied, Leica must convince new users that the D-CRF is a valid and viable alternative to the heavyweights in the D-SLR market. The lens line for Leica (including third party M-mount lenses) covers a range from 12 to 90mm. (the 135mm seems to be incompatible with the D-CRF). That is a small range as we realize that the Nikon D200 with 10 Mb offers a lens covering a range from 18 to 200mm. It might be that the rule of Leica ('simplicity brings more' and 'in der Beschraenkung zeigt sich der Meister') will convince enough people to buy the product with this restricted range of lenses and its high price tag.
The Kobayashi way is different: he knows about the perils of entering the digital market at this point of time with ever-falling prices, ruthless competition and breathtaking innovation. Why not wait to see the market stabilize and see which companies will survive? And in the meantime bring elegant and reasonably priced products for the hardcore of lovers of mechanical filmloading cameras?
Both approaches (Kobayashi's wait-and-see and Leica/Spichting's jump-into-the-action) have merits and can be defended on several counts. In two years time the next Photokina will be in 2008, close to Canon's indicated date for the demise of film cameras. Then we know which of both is the wiser strategy. Hopefully both!