Rangefinder

Views on the photographic universe by Erwin Puts

Quo Vadis Leica?

Recent introductions by the Leica Company beg the question what the goal might be. As always there will be of course two groups of reviewers: the Leica-friendly cheerleaders who will argue that the new lenses and cameras are the best ever, fill an important gap in the Leica portfolio, are a must-have product and epitomise the Leica spirit. The second group will find focus errors, colour fringes (somewhere in the background at pixel-peeping monitor scale), bokeh problems in lenses and ergonomic flaws and lacking must-have features in camera bodies.
The important topic of what advantages the products have in the modern post-photographic era are hardly considered.
The new Noctilux-M 1.25/75 mm ASPH will be framed as the ultimate portrait and reportage lens. But this is a very conservative approach. Any lens can be used for any purpose. The usual approach for a portrait is to focus on the eyes and have the rest of the face in the unsharp zones. Many portraits require a merger depth of field and the photographer needs to stop down to 5.6 or smaller to get the required result. The NX-75 is very heavy (more than one kilogram) and big (a volume of 391376 mm^3). The current NX-50 has a weight of 700 grams and a volume of 322563 mm^3. The original SX 75 has a weight of 560 grams and a volume of 307876 mm^3. Compare this to a really compact lens, the Apo-Summicron 50 mm: weight of 300 grams and a volume of 107640 mm^3. Modern Leica-M lenses have a very steep gradient between sharp and unsharp. This is a fine characteristic because it draws the eye to the exact sharpness plane when you are using the lens wide open or stopped down a few stops. Opto-mechanical however it is a problem. The focusing mechanism of the M camera will work at its limits and expect a fair amount of out-of-focus photos. The NX 75 will be used most often handheld if you wish to exploit the really excellent wide open properties. The high contrast and very good definition of fine details wide open are a big improvement compared to the old SX75. At f/1.4 it was difficult to take spot-on sharp pictures. The weight of the lens, the slim depth of field (at two meters ±3 cm!)and the movement of the head all add to the risk of focus. With the SX75 you had a slight advantage because the sharp-unsharp gradient was a bit smoother and this property helps to mask small focus errors. This luxury you do not have when using the NX75. Add the increased size and weight and the bodily movement and the off-focus limit is often reached and surpassed. One could select a high shutter speed in combination with a high ISO value (a simple choice in modern digital M cameras) to reduce the risk. There is much room for experiment and training. As is the case with the NX50, the new NX75 is a lens that needs to be learned in order to use it effectively. It is no universal lens like the Apo-Scron 50, 75 and 90. One may wonder why Leica has produced this lens, especially with such a high price tag of more than ten thousand Euro and limited use.
The same question may be asked when considering the re-edition of the Thambar, again a lens with very limited appeal and a price tag of around 6000 Euro.
The high optical and mechanical qualities of modern Leica lenses are beyond dispute. The volume of the lenses for the L-mount may be defended with the argument that one needs room for the many sophisticated mechatronic functions. The M-lenses however are traditional opt-mechanical constructions. The thick and heavy lens elements in the NX75 require stable (and heavy mounts) and this may explain the weight and size. When a lens design grows above its natural size (the fate of the famous Contarex lenses) one needs to reflect on its purpose. The SX75 made sense in its day. A high speed reportage lens was needed to get all available light onto the toe of the emulsion curve and a 1.4/90 mm was really a bridge to far in size and optical construction. A focal length of 75 mm was a good compromise.
The NX75 may be compared to the Canon 1.2/85 which has comparable vital statistics but incorporates an AF unit. The optical prescription is more adventurous and risky, but the price tag is a fraction of what Leica asks.
The main topic however is the need for a very high speed lens. The classical argument is the aesthetic one for a composition of selective focus. Fashion and indoor sports photographers demand the high speed because it allows them to direct the attention of the viewer to the main object. This was the case when film was the preferred medium. The NX75 will presumably be used mainly on digital bodies, where the post processing capabilities allow for every imaginable image manipulation. Then high speed must be balanced against ergonomic characteristics. Manual focusing with a rangefinder and a big lens is not everybody’s cup of tea. A very high speed lens that allows precise and selective focusing follows an outmoded concept, especially in the current digital era. Leica was once famous for its optical designs with universal appeal and scope of application. The f/2 lenses were and are excellent examples of compact designs with high performance and wide usability. The f/1.4 lenses in the 50 and 35 mm focal lengths are in the same league. With the f/1.4 designs in the 28-21 mm focal lengths, and with the NX designs of 50 and 75 mm the barrier of sensible weight and size (and price!!) has been pushed into dimensions that no longer fit the concept of the compact manually focusing CRF camera.