LEICA

Alternative views on the Leica world by Erwin Puts

April 2015

Leica's future

Every time that Leica starts to issue special models of the M-series one is inclined to become suspicious about the state of the Leica company. There was a peak in M6 special models at the end of its commercial life and there is now a peak of special models of the M9 and M cameras. The recently announced change of CEO is another indication that the Leica company is not in the feel-good-shape that the new headquarters in Wetzlar try to convey on the visitors. Some time ago I wrote about the smartphone-menace to mainstream photography and Leica tried to counter this trend with the Leica T. I was alone in noting that the T was not a smart product (the rest of the world gave the camera the usual designations of ‘milestone’, ‘innovative’, ‘brilliant’ and so on. Words are easy to employ! Now there are serious indications that the sales of the T are not as hoped for. I was also almost alone in noting that any M (with whatever specifications) has a limited sales appeal for a limited group of persons, not necessary photographers and that sales of M cameras after a peak will inevitably drop. This is a marketing and engineering problem, because the double goal of preserving the DNA of the CRF and creating a totally new and modern CRF is like squaring the circle. The Fuji X-series has some success, undoubtedly, as a modern version of a classic CRF, but lacks the true DNA of the Leica CRF. The smartphone has almost killed the compact digital camera and in this segment the D-C-V and X series of Leica are the obvious victims. Add to all of this the tremendous success of Apple’s iPhone 6 and the recent campaign by Apple to promote the photographic capabilities of the ‘6’ and it is clear that the compact digital camera will be extinct in the near future. Many observers have remarked that the main problem of the current generation of high quality digital cameras (dSLRs and dCRF) is the fact that modern electronics are embodied in traditional ‘analog’-camera bodies that are not easy to use for the iPad and smartphone generation. It is indeed preposterous that you need to wade through hundreds of pages of manual for a product that only should need a few very simple actions to work. Compare the Leica M-A with the Leica M and you see what I mean. When Leica announced the intention to grow tenfold it was clear that the then current range of products was not suitable as a platform to support such an ambitious goal. Not only the product portfolio, but also the company’s infrastructure, organization and culture were not suited to accomplish this goal. It is one to build a larger factory, buy new machines and hire additional people, but it is two to make it happen. Captain Kirk and his Vulcan companion might be able to achieve this, but for mortals it is a different story. The string of problems that have erupted from the Leica factory are an indication that the combination of fast product introduction and higher production levels cannot be handled with good success, at least not by a company with the Leica-Solms heritage. I am sure Blackstone has observed these events with growing concern and has acted as any investor who looks exclusively at the return on investments would have done. I am also sure that this (the ambitious goals) is the reason why Hermes pulled out of the company after discussions with Lee. In discussions with Leica personnel, there is ofter a reference with the Porsche analogy. Porsche started as a high-quality low volume niche producer and managed to evolve into a high-quality-high volume special product manufacturer. Leica seems to want to follow the same route, but lacks one distinctive commodity. This is for the next story.
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Curves

Looking at Leica’s history since the 1930s and the intense rapport between the Leica products and the user community, one has to conclude that the core of this rapport is not the ultimate performance, even if this is an important aspect. Basically it is the strong bond of sympathy for the product itself, for the ideas behind the product and for the people who design and build these products. 
It is now almost usual routine on the countless blogs and sites to make quantitative comparisons and produce ratings based on some standard, derived from the issues of the day. When Nikon offers a 36 Mp sensor, this is the yardstick every one has to conform to and when Canon offers a 50 Mp sensor this is the new norm. When Olympus announces an improved and highly efficient technique of image stabilization, this is immediately the standard and every camera that does not offer the same or a better technique is obsolete or at least behind the state of the art. 
The numerous counselors in the blogosphere who tell Leica how to ‘improve’ the current products invariably point to one or more features that the competition has and Leica’s products are lacking. Keeping up with the Joneses however has never been Leica’s forte.

The main issue is however a different one. It is quite human to assume that the future is a regular and smooth continuation of the past and present. We have trouble identifying a disruptive event or product. The smartphone was introduced in 2007 and in combination with the internet (very disruptive, but no one identified it as such) it is about to change the whole of industry and even culture. In a few years time every one on this globe will walk around with a product that has more power than a super computer and will be connected through the internet to everything and everybody. 
Mathematically the view that the future is a continuation of the past can be represented as a linear graph or somewhat more sophisticated as an S-curve. The catastrophe theory assumes a nonlinear curve, but it is ore likely that we will be confronted with an exponential curve when we want to discuss growth patterns in the future. Moore’s Law (in computer chips) is one example of an exponential curve. The bad point is that exponential curves start as innocent linear curves and therefore are easy to disregard.
We are also accustomed to the Normal Distribution. That is a curve with a clustering of values around the mean and a proportional distribution on both sids of this mean value with ever diminishing numbers.
In this digital age another curve is emerging: the Power Law Distribution (PLD) which is a curve where a small part of the population gets a disproportional part of the available total amount. It is also known as  the-winner-takes-all-principle or the 80/20 principle. 
Because the internet is a transparent, powerful and globally operating medium any internet-surfer will be instantly aware of even small differences between products and services and can therefore demand the best available. There is no reason to be satisfied with second-best. This is the underlying cause of the fact that most proposals for improvement of Leica products are limited to incremental changes (faster AF, more features, more pixels and so). 
Because the ‘best’ is an elusive category, there is a tendency to equate ‘best’ with some quantified ranking to evade discussion. It is easy to claim that the Zeiss OTUS 55 is much better than the Leica Summilux ASPH 50 because the OTUS has 70% MTF at 50 LP/MM and the Leica ‘only 60% MTF at 40 LP/MM, but when you talk about the superior ergonomics of the Leica lens this issue is dismissed as being emotional or subjective or an opinion or a matter of taste or personal judgment. As if the equation of image quality with MTF values is not an opinion or a matter of taste or judgment! 
It would be quite naïve to assume that Leica’s engineers and/or marketing planners are not aware of the position and ranking of their products. It is customary nowadays to have the products of the competition on the desk next to their own products.   
The PLD for high end cameras shows a disproportional amount of sold products made by only two manufacturers. All others being located in the tail part of the curve. If you want to be in the peak of the curve, you have to offer products that are quantifiable and transparent the ‘best’, which is the same as most-sold or most-popular or most-admired. 
When you are in the tail there is room for individual and distinctive product management.   

Mr. Crawley concluded at the end of his report on the Leica M5 that Leica is offering a bottle of clean fresh water in a Coca Cola world. He showed respect and sympathy for a unique product and for the engineers who followed their drive to produce this product and who let themselves not be swayed by the issues of the day. 
There is a strong analogy with silver-halide emulsions. The Kodak Tri-X film has more grain and less resolution than comparable products like the T-Max 400-2 and the Ilford Delta 400 Pro. Yet the Tri-X is a favorite among BW photographers, precisely because of its so-called shortcomings. The TX-400 has a list of characteristics that allow photographers to record images with a special flavor. It is an aesthetically important technology that somehow influences the way we see. Tri-X pictures have a realistic, almost steely look that departs from the glossy, slightly pearly perfection that the medium speed films of the day have. Its authenticity generates a feeling of sympathy for the film and its use. Very creative photographers can employ the characteristics of the emulsion to produce pictures with a different look.   

The M-A, the M8.2, The M Monochrom and the X-Vario are also products that are unique and can become important tools in the hands of creative photographers. These cameras are consciously positioned in the tail with a limited range of features, but every feature is a component of a vision about photography and the cameras have a distinctive personality. As with every personality, no one is perfect and a personality is always a mix of strong and weak points. It makes no sense to continue to stress the weak points and forget about the strong points. Imagine that you are constantly confronting your best friend with his/her weak points instead of stimulating the strong points.     
    
The mix of these two trends (exponential curves and the existence of the PLD) guarantees that the future will not be predictable as a linear extension of the present. I bet that the Leica people, responsible for road maps to the future, are thinking along these lines and are not busy with linear and incremental upgrades. 
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Celluloid

The Italian movie ‘Le Meraviglie’ is an important artistic document. The content and the message are a true comment on modern worries. The movie has been shot on celluloid or in Italian ‘pellicola’ and the maker of the film (Alice Rohrwachter) has chosen this medium with  conviction. Her argument is that digital film making is faster and easier and more practical than working with pellicola, but not necessarily produces better results. This indeed echoes the current position of many Leica photographers who claim that digital makes photographing cheaper, easier, more practical and technically superior, but on the other hand that digital imagery has not changed or improved since the golden days of celluloid-photography. Alice Rohrwachter makes the observation that fast and practical are not synonymous with good. Many things are not good when done fast: a good example is lovemaking. 
Since I own the Leica M-A I have not made any digital images. I work now almost exclusively with Tri-X, developed in a tanning developer, made by Moersch (Tanol). This developer produces an extended tonal scale and reduces the grain impression. The results on A4 prints are excellent and show all the characteristics of true Leica pictures. It are pictures with personality and clearly different from the smooth digital representation. I am not abandoning digital technology, for obvious reasons. I have to say that working with celluloid and following the technique of  the photo detective (explained in my book Leica Practicum) is satisfactory and fits with the Leica tradition. 
This technique is evidently different from the style of Winogrand or the decisive moment approach. There is much confusion about the true meaning of this decisive moment style. The interpretation most often observed in articles and discussions is the idea that the photographer has a mental format (a previsualized image) that he wants to capture in the real world on the streets. The moment that the real world configuration matches the mental image is very fleeting and exists only for a fraction of a second. The photographer has to snap this situation during this very short moment that it exists and the camera needs to respond instantly to the photographer’s pressure of the shutter release button. This is the background when there is a complaint that some camera has some shutter lag and therefore is not suitable for the decisive-moment-style. But the idea of strolling around and encountering a surprise moment tat has to be captured instantly is not the way Cartier-Bresson worked. The title of his book ‘Images a la Sauvette’ means ‘Images on the run’ and explains a style of photography. He has no preconceived idea, but wants to be in unity with the situation to reveal its significance. He is conscious of a situation developing to a certain state and in practice he even works consciously to steer the development in the direction he wants. This explains the observation that he dances around when he is taking pictures. This approach implies that the photographer is not taken by surprise, but is already dedicated to take pictures. He then has all the time in the world to make his camera ready for action. The possible time lag can be countered by activating the camera. To be really honest, I do think that the quickness of response of the photographer is the most important part of the time lag. 
The digital photographer can shoot at will to capture the moment, but the celluloid photographer has to be more attentive to what is happening and to be more conscious of when the moment is there. Indeed it is known that CB was one bundle of nerves when he was photographing, because missing the moment was aways a possibility. But missing the moment is more about the mental or emotional component and less about the precise moment of pressing the shutter, however important this is as a technical issue. 
This train of thinking does not neglect the fact that some cameras have a shorter time lag than others. The M-A has no time lag at all, technically speaking, but even the digital M has some time lag, perhaps less so than the X or X-Vario, but it can not be neglected and one has to give it some attention when taking theses pictures on the run. 
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Augen auf!

The current exhibition of iconic Leica pictures “Augen auf” (“Eyes open”) is in many respects a milestone. It shows in historic detail the rise of the Leica camera from a niche product for cognoscenti to the inevitable tool for the professional photographer, the camera that became a witness of the century and specifically of the turmoil of city life. It is also a showcase and may I add a testimony of the power of silver-halide Leica photography. And here we see the other side of the coin. Leica in the digital age has again become a niche product for the cognoscenti and a select group of professionals. The exhibition shows that the role of the Leica has been taken over or (more accurately) is on the verge of being taken over by the smartphone. Current Leica images, made with a digital Leica camera are often critically sharp, very confronting and often close-ups of socially marginalized people. The sympathetic and humanistically sensitive eye of the French documentary photographers is gone. Being ‘critically sharp’ is no longer a standard feature of Leica photographs. Nor is the camera unique in its compactness or unobtrusiveness or ease of use. These characteristics today apply also to the smartphone or the mirrorless compact. In a sense this is the ultimate proof that Barnack was right.  
I am aware that many comments will focus on the quality of the lenses, the quality of the material and the immaculate finish of the product as being some of the main reasons to buy and/or use a Leica camera. We have to admit on the other hand that Facebook and Youtube and all other media are great in communication and even greater in democratization of the photograph. If pixel-peepers would have existed in the heydays of the Leica photography (1930 to 1980) hardly any picture would have been passed the test: they are too grainy and show much less detail than could be observed at 200% at a typical computer screen. It is really a pity that the evaluation of photographs and the performance characteristics of lens/camera systems has been usurped by a small band of short-sighted individuals and that the masses follow their lead. I am and always will be an advocate for the technical qualities of a picture, but define these qualities as tonality, crispness of fine detail in the midtones, separation of highlight and shadow detail and depth preservation. These are the characteristics that give a picture its impact, perspective and allow for an accurate rendition of a slice of reality. And these are the characteristics that were and are cherished by Leica optical designers and camera engineers. 
Leica for a very long time has been sitting at Olympic heights with the implementation and improvement of these characteristics, but nowadays many others have adopted the same view and Leica is no longer alone on the top of this Olympic mountain.
Leica can with good justification claim that their lenses are still best of class when the size is included in the equation, a fact that is hardly appreciated by many reviewers. 
We have to accept that in these days the Leica myth has more nostalgia than future. The exhibition is a proof that the future is not a continuation of the past and even Leica can not disregard the writing at the wall. 
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