Alternative views on the Leica world by Erwin Puts


Most comments about the new tsunami of mirrorless system cameras refer the small size of the new models. The table below gives another impression. Only the weight has been reduced substantially. The figure for the depth of the SL is a bit misleading (it is from the official documentation by Leica) and gives only the depth of the bottom without handgrip and so on.

Photokina 2018, 3

It was only a matter of time for Zeiss to introduce their own camera, the ZX1. The number 1 indicates that more are to follow. It is an intriguing proposition. The camera shows details of the Sony compact models with a fair amount of design elements taken from the Leica TL. The execution however is smarter than with the Leica model. The sensor is a surprise, but when thinking that Zeiss provides the lenses for the lithographic industry, especially the Dutch ASML chip factory it makes sense. One might see such a chip in he next generation of the M camera when and if Zeiss buys into the Leica company. Hardly anything is known about the ZX1 except that it is a smart integration of camera ergonomics, software integration and minimalist design. It is very interesting to get more specs and have one for commenting upon.

It is refreshing to note that the lens is a compact one, after the huge lenses for the L, Z and R mounts

Photokina 2018, 2

More news that is hardly surprising. My last paragraph in the previous post referred to the future strategy of Leica to become a system integrator and design hub for all things that have an optical and camera flavour. The association with Huawei showed the direction: input of optical design and sensor knowledge and manufacture in China. The same story with the Leica watches. It is not clear what input Leica has given, because the company who makes the watches is well equipped to manufacture high accuracy miniature mechanisms. presumably it is the outward design.
The cooperation with the French firm that produces spectacle glasses and frames is an identical story. Remember that leitz once made spectacle glasses in their Rastatt Werkstatt.
Sigma will replace their proprietary SA-mmount with the L-mount. Now we get Foveon sensor competition too.

The Zenit M announcement fits in the pattern. The M 240 body has a collection of externally made components that are assembled mainly with the help of computer assisted assembly. Any manufacturer can do this. The only possibly problematic topic is the rangefinder assembly. This is made in Portugal, so there is no reason why an increase in production of the M240 assemblies should be impossible. And to add a wicked thought: perhaps Portugal has a lot of M240 rangefinders in stock, because the M10 rangefinder is different.
The M240 is heavily discounted and approaches its end of life. A cheaper version, made in Russia would be a smart option. At least now users can buy into the digital M line and buy Russian lenses who had a good reputation in the past. A 1/35 mm is now a common item for Chinese niche producers. Not to forget the many Voigtlander lenses, some with interesting specs.

Photokina 2018, 1

During the lead-time to current photokina the dSLR, the favourite product of the photography divisions of Canon and Nikon became serious competition from the same companies. The announcement of the Canon R and the Nikon Z systems of mirrorless camera systems may or may not predict the death of the mirror equipped cameras. The shape of the new mirrorless cameras is quite familiar and with a casual glance no one would see the difference between the current champions with mirror and the aspiring champions without mirror. Shortly after these announcements came the press release by Leica, Panasonic and Sigma that they will cooperate around the L-mount, designed by Leica for the SL, TL and CL systems. The strategy of the L-partners is identical to the one forged by Olympus with its FTH project.It may be unprecedented for Leica to intensify this type of cooperation, but it also shows the weakness. The proprietary mounts of Canon and Nikon are so popular that independent lens makers will copy as much as is possible to provide their users with compatible mounts. Canon and Nikon have extensive lens ranges themselves and in fact no one who is part of one of the closed ecosystems can complain about the scarcity of choices.
Leica has shot itself in the foot by insisting on very expensive lenses and their capacity to produce the range of lenses that are needed to become a large player on the market are limited. This situation was already the problem with the R system. Too less lenses and too expensive.
The cliché comments by every reviewer of a photographic system are related to the limited range of lenses. I always feel unhappy when reading such comments. I am aware that every manufacturer has to fill every perceived hole in the product range (this is the reason why Leica has now such a broad portfolio of camera systems). For an individual photographer who is not victim of the compulsive buying disorder (CBD), only a few lenses are needed. And when a system provides these, there is no reason to complain.
So the management of Leica realized that the sales of the L-mount systems were restricted to the small community of loyal Leica customers who feel that the archaic M-system or the vanished R-system have to be complemented by a new system of AF lenses.
Expensive body and cheaper lenses or cheaper body and expensive lenses: the choice becomes yours.
Panasonic is already strongly involved in the design and production of the SL system and its lenses and Sigma provided several lens units for the R-system that were placed in Leica mounts at the factory, here and there.

The mirrorless community stresses the fact that the new enlarged diameter of the lens mount and the shorter distance from flange to sensor surface (no one ever talks about film emulsions!) enables optical designers to produce lenses with better performance. It may be. The original Leica M-mount had a diameter of 43.9 mm and excluding the mechanical bayonet tabs had an effective diameter of much less. The diameter of the optical throat is of course the important paramater. The Leica M flange to surface is 27.8 mm. So the light rays have to pass through a narrow tunnel and then expand immediately to a wide array. Every strong deviation form the straight path will produce additional aberations and this is most compelling reason to widen the throat of the bayonet.The Leica M lenses are unique in combining small size with a narrow throat and high performance. This knowledge the competition does not have and therefore they have to use the other trick: wide throat and tele centric designs. The price is a huge size, comparable to what Leica now produces with the L-mount designs.
The effective diameter is much less than the inner diamater: canon has a good example: the R mount has a inner diameter of 54.5 mm, but te optical useable diameter is only 45.2 mm.
The L-mount has a diameter of 51.6 mm (Z-mount = 55 mm, S-mount = 53 mm, Leica R-mount = 49 mm). The flange distance to sensor is for the L-mount 20mm (Z-mount = 16mm,Canon R-mount = 20mm). The diameter is not the best criterium: the area within the circle is a better one. Then the difference between the L-mount and the Z-mount is -12%, hardly an important value.

The S3 has been announced with a pixel number of 64M. It is evident in the Leica line up that the flagship cannot have a lesser number that the SL or M series. It is now only a matter of time before the L and M series will be upgraded to the size of 35 to 40 Mp, leaving the Panasonic S1 with the 47 Mp sensor as the high end version. And the Leica Stores have a new kid on the block to sell. Of course there will be overhyped stories about the performance of the S1 with the Leica L-lenses. Leica claims to be a leader in the processing of the bayer layout to produce lifelike colours and this was the claimed weak point of Panasonic still cameras. With some technology transfer the problem might be gone.

Overall it is clear that Leica, once the manufacturer with an integrated vertical production column, is now evolving into a design center for products with components specified by the center, but manufactured elsewhere in the world. It is a mix of the Porsche design buro and the Apple design center.

New books

There is considerable interest in my new book, announced on the Shop page.
In fact I am working on two books. Below are the specs.

Two books to be published in november 2018

Title: Leica Pocket Guide
Specs: 10 x 15 cm, bound and semi-leather softcover, all pages in colour,200 pages, one bookmark ribbon
Price: to be announced and probably between €20 and €25, excluding shipping cost
covers all Leica models since M3, lists of serial numbers (cameras and lenses from start to end of 2016!), lens specs and diagrams of all current lenses (M, S, SL, Q, TL/CL), useful tables of brightness levels and contrast ranges of general scenes etc.

Title: The Leica Way in the 21st century
Specs: 17 x 24 cm, bound and hardcover, all pages in colour,400 pages, two bookmark ribbons
Price: to be announced and probably between €40 and €45, excluding shipping cost

The unexpectedly swift transition of digitization of the photographic process and the subsequent digitalization of the photographic culture has created a difficult and at the same time exciting situation for the average Leica user. More choices of digital camera models promise an easier workflow and expanded opportunities for picture taking. On the other hand the Leica camera has lost part of its traditional magic. With billions of pictures uploaded every day, four questions need to be answered: (1) why photograph at all, (2) why photograph with a Leica camera, (3) which Leica camera to use and (4) what style of pictures is appropriate for the 21st century.
To answer the first question (a) we have to look at the differences between the way the brain processes the visual reality and how the lens does depict this same reality; (b) we have to appreciate how photography has been developed since its announcement in 1839 and the role of the Leica as the ultimate snapshot camera since 1925; (c) the development of modernism that emphasizes the important role of the moment and the gaze in everyday life, starting with the Impressionists and ending with Winogrand.
To answer the second question we have to look at (a) the Leica as a technical artefact that was the first precision engineered camera, including its design and engineering; (b) the evolution of the manufacturing process to produce the Leica and (c) the current level of engineering, material choice and design principles of the Leica product range.
To answer the third question we have to look at (a) the emotional and practical differences between the analog and digital technical processes and (b) the style and technique of the great masters of Leica photography.
To answer the fourth question we have to look at (a) the differences between low (amateur) art and high (intentional) art and the middle-bow art in between; (b) the deadpan-snapshot style as an alternative to the ubiquitous street photography that has been defined as the quintessential Leica photography style, starting with the decisive moment. The conclusion is rather unexpected: the emotional personal record of everyday life in deadpan format is best suited for Leica photographers in this 21st century.