Rangefinder

Views on the photographic universe by Erwin Puts

June 2016

Digital technology is transitory and fleeting

Long ago, that is about twenty years ago, one would buy a Nikon F4 or a Leica M6 with the pleasant thought that it would be a camera for at least ten years of photo pleasure.
Now when buying the M240 or the M262 you know that the camera model will be obsolete within five years. What is new in one camera today is ubiquitous in all cameras the next year. The Leica M8, once proudly announced with the LUP, the strategy with which Leica tried to evade the obsolescence problem of all electronic equipment, is now completely forgotten, a relic, but only ten years old.
The so-called technological progress does not enhance user satisfaction and does not improve the quality of the photographic content or the capabilities of the user. That is why companies like Canon and Nikon are in trouble. More technological progress does not translate in better and/or different photography. The user does not want to buy another camera that promises more of the same.
That is why only niche companies flourish. They offer the illusion of something different. In reality, these products have basically the same technology as all others, but a smarter package. Fuji bets on retro-design, Sony on effectiveness, Leica on luxury and nostalgia. Whatever the package and the technology, today’s serious photography is not different from the great photographs made during the 1950’s. A recent exhibition about the (Leica)-photographer Werner Bischoff is a clear indication. What is different is size and clarity, thanks to digital technology that has changed continuous signals to discrete signals and signal processing from amplifiers to repeaters. This is a major change, increasing the fidelity of transmission.
It is certainly a truism (and not exactly true) to say that society has been changing from a material goods society to an information service society. Some time ago a new camera system was a real novelty and people were eagerly waiting for any news about the Canon New F1 or the Nikon F2. Only a handful of respected magazines and journalists informed the photographer about the virtues and effectiveness of a new camera or lens. And one had to wait sometimes a for a year before one could read about it.
In his book “Too big to know” Weinberger points to the significant differences between data, information, knowledge and wisdom. It takes time to move from the analysis of data to the formulation of knowledge.
In the current world of internet data exchange there is no such time lag. Blogs reporting about a new camera or lens are often online before the official announcement has been made. It is well-known (Kahnemann) that human decision making takes place on two levels: a fast superficial level and a slow deeper layer. The choice for a photographic product is almost always made in the superficial level, and the deeper level is only required when a justification is needed. Luckily for everyone who has this need for justification there is always a blog or report that is positive or negative about this specific product. There is a random choice for justification. Products come and go in an endless stream of announcements. And a product three years old is forgotten and obsolete.
The blogosphere has good and bad characteristics. There is now an abundance of data and opinions (information), but no longer experts whose knowledge and wisdom we can trust as a guidance for decision-making and for the increase of our own wisdom. The original thinkers about the role and use of information (in a wide sense) noted that surprise was an important characteristic of information. If a piece of information does not add to your knowledge because it is known already or can be expected there is no real increase of information. It is part of the human propensity to homophily (we prefer people and opinions that are like us). But real information has to surprise. This is what Darwin accomplished when he wrote about evolution theory. There is however no grain of surprise in blogs about Leica products: the information that is being produced holds no surprises at all. The good point is that anyone can use what he likes from any blog. And an even better point is that one can read what one does not like and so can make a start with building a knowledge base of metadata (information about information) and see the structure (knowledge) in someone’s writings. If you have knowledge about knowledge (the next stage) one starts to acquire wisdom.
Reports about the results of pixelpeeping-actions are the lowest level of data gathering. Most reviews are comparative and this is in fact a relic of classical car and motorcycle reviews. A motorcycle that can do the acceleration of 0 to 60 miles in 5 seconds is better than one that needs 7 seconds. A camera with a faster AF or a faster sequence of pictures in one second or a larger number of pixels or a bigger sensor must be better than one that is less endowed with one of these characteristics. But data gathering and information processing is not what one wants to read or reflect upon.
Knowledge-building however is not possible in today’s transient digital world. Who wants to read about the Leica M-E since its production has been stopped. It still is a fine camera and real knowledge about it would be an asset to help you gather metadata about the Leica product range.
This then would be one of the solutions for the data overload and opinion overload on the internet: create connections between information and create metadata to build your own knowledge base.

Photography needs a revolution, again

Photography started as a tool for scientists to record the physical world without human intervention that introduced subjectivity in the final image. It was also a tool for artisans who needed a way to improve and increase the production of paintings. The tool was quickly adopted by artists and travelers to record scenes for later study and distribution. The wealthy came third and used photography as a hobby. Being a complicated technical process, photography had limited appeal and was used by the more adventurous persons, often women. At the end of the 19th century, Eastman simplified the process and in addition enabled the widespread use of cinematography. Barnack started the revolution by constructing a camera for easy snapshot use, paving the way for the ubiquitous snapshot camera that introduced the world to a new visual culture. The 1950s were undoubtedly the great years when the snapshot came of age and became an art form when the so called street photography or documentary photography was adopted by visual artists.
The introduction of the smartphone and the digital camera changed everything. Photography evolved into a commodity and integrated with consumer electronics into one wide-ranging image culture. A modern digital camera is a package of flexible circuits and integrated electronics, loaded with software to process the rain of photons recorded by the lens and the sensor.Several times during its history photography has stood at the crossroads, often artistically and often technologically.
Now for the first time photography is walking a dead-end path, artistically and technologically. Incremental technological improvements, the culture of the selfie and the visual notebook, a sales plateau for the species of the single lens reflex and a lack of real innovation in the species of the mirrorless camera are all indications that the industry as a whole lacks the kind of challenge that for instance the car industry is facing with the driverless car and the new ideas about mobility. A few niche companies, Leica among them, luckily, are flourishing by cultivating the turf they occupy. Perhaps Leica will be able to repeat the Barnack revolution, but 2020 is not 1920.
The new Pentax K-1 is an amazingly fine camera, but it does not sell at all, because it does not impress, notwithstanding the array of technological features.
Photography is now in a dangerous situation where users of the technology assume that more technology can compensate the lack of creativity. This is logical: the technological progress has created convergence to one common perspective. Despite the so-called flexibility of the tool, the truth is that the modern camera envelopes the user in a straitjacket. The original miniature snapshot camera had a lot less technological features built into the camera, but as a platform for creativity is was open for any visual innovation.

Leica's true DNA

The Leica brand sits high in every recent (2016) listing of German luxury brands, occupying positions in the top-5. This position is of course the result of a relentless focus on ,yes, a luxury image, that consists of a very high price, the choice of noble materials and metals and a production process that emphasizes the manual assembly as a craft. On the other hand Leica is also claiming an advanced position as a leader in technology (of digital imagery).
Is this focus on technology a wise decision? I am not sure. Technology has one weakness: it is transitory and there is always a new wave of technology that will supersede the present one: see the fate of the iphone, once the premium smartphone and now struggling to hold its position. The same can be said of the current slr camera. This species of camera is also struggling to fend off the low-end competition of the smartphone and the high-end competition of the mirrorless camera.
Apple traditionally focuses on design and simplicity as the main characteristics of the products and not to forget the quality of its products (hardware and software).
The quality aspect is part of the Leica DNA: when Leica produced a (small) range of mechanical-precision cameras and lenses, the mechanical and optical quality were, from an engineering and user viewpoint, the best one could get. It had a decisive advantage in practical and technical photography and was a safe investment.
Design and technical-engineering quality as the principal part are what distinguishes a high-quality company, not necessarily the feature list, because this will always be transitory.
Leica is indeed in the forefront of some features of modern camera technology that will inevitably be superseded: the AF of the SL is very fast, but there will be undoubtedly a new product that will be faster and so with most features: number of pixels of the sensor, the high-res viewfinder and so on. The T on the other hand has a slow AF and because Leica stresses its technological advantages, it gets moderate reviews.
Form a standpoint of design Leica is not showing its best: the S camera is like a sumo-wrestler: solid, but not elegant. The SL has the silhouette of an old industrial product, more a tractor than winning the concours d'elegance. The X and Q are acceptable and the M is too thick which distorts the elegant profile it had when compared with the classical filmloading cameras.
The quality of the product is beyond doubt, but there a number of glitches, some serious, some not. The frequent software updates and the material problems show that the products are thrown on the market too early.
For me the quality of the product, the ergonomic and elegant design and the practical usability in current photographic challenges is more important than incorporating the latest technological feature.
The SL seems to be Leica's spearhead in the current product portfolio. It does indeed incorporate some high-end features that the competition has difficulty matching. But it is too big and too heavy. It is certainly not a Barnack camera that was lightweight and nimble and could fit in a pocket. The Leica I was Barnack's response to the problems of the photographer of the period: working with big and heavy cameras. The SL has one advantage that the large-format photography lacks: it has a high speed, it is almost instantly responsive and can be used in all photographic conditions thanks to the digital (post-processing) technology.
What would a new M look like when modern digital technology would be merged with the design and engineering principles of the Leica I?
It could be a body with the shape and size of the III-series ( I advocated such a body shape and size for a long time since meeting Mr. Kaufmann for the first time). The sensor needs to surpass the current 24 Mp not because of optical necessity but because of market pressure. I dream of a possibility to switch between improved colour reproduction and monochrom capture to avoid the need to buy a body with a Monochrome-pattern and one with a Bayer-color array pattern. The original Barnack camera did not have a rangefinder and the viewfinder was probably an after-thought, when one looks at the construction that was evidently loaned from a field camera. The field camera by the way already had the option of live view, be it that the photographer had to look at the ground glass and later insert the photographic plate. The trend to a compact, versatile and high-performing camera system, initiated by Barnack did end with the SLR body shape. The notable exceptions are the Pentax LX and the Olympus OM 3/4. It is very strange that the current micro-four-third bodies do indeed approach the shape factor of these classical bodies, but need a very small sensor footprint to shrink the body size, and then need a relatively huge lens to compensate.
The big and heavy SLRs made by Canon and Nikon are rapidly becoming obsolete. Between these bodies and the smart phone shape there is a huge gap. Most camera systems tend to Canon/Nikon shape and size. The Leica M8/9/240/+++ may be described as compact and compared the others on the same level of performance they are compact, but compared to the original Barnack camera they may loose some weight and have a smaller volume.
It is not only the physical size that counts. The Zeiss Contarex was interpreted as big when the actual dimensions were not so different from the main competition. The same applies to the Leica R8/9. Dimensions not that different from the original Leicaflex I, but a world of difference in visual impression. The Leica M5 had almost the same dimensions as the M4, but was perceived as a large camera.