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April 2016

Digital is becoming boring?

There is global indignation about the greed of managers in finance, services and industry. Indeed there is no valid argument for receiving a salary package of 20 million dollar for failure (see Yahoo’s CEO). And when the amount exceeds a hundred million one may ask what someone would do with such an amount. Not pay taxes (see the panama papers) for sure. You could buy three months worth of the output of the Leica company for instance. Remarkably enough this attitude that it is never enough combined with a simple rule of addiction (more demands even more) is still effective in the camera industry. The car industry has left the “more is better” rule and starts to change into a more sober attitude, preaching now environmental responsibility and electric engines as the solution to all evils.
The camera industry and the consumers are still in a more infantile attitude: here the more-is-better rule thrives. As soon as a 135 format sensor has 20 millions pixels, the demand is for 40 million and when there is 40 million, the consumers cry for an eighty million pixel. What you could do with this amount is unclear. Technically it will reduce moiré for sure and will eliminate the lowpass filter, but the photographic advantages are limited. The parallel is the classical Kodak Technical Pan: an emulsion of very high capabilities but it failed in the market because there were too few motives that could benefit of this performance. Of course one will say that a high amount of pixels and a high speed will allow for sectional enlargements of pictures made in complex situations. And this is undoubtedly true. There are always limits to push and even cross. For most photographers (see Facebook, Instagram and a host of other websites where the daily output of the average photographer can be studied) the middle of the road situation is the usual experience. Modern camera technology makes it very easy to cope with almost every complicated condition.
There is hardly anything meaningful to say about digital technology. The ‘fine print’ of digital technology is there to be read but who does and who cares.
A few bloggers perhaps, whose verbose stories mask the obvious content. One can write easily twenty pages about the Leica SL, but the main message is simple: it is an excellent camera, that does not excel as an innovator and au fond matches (most features) or slightly exceeds (some features) the relevant competition, where ‘relevant’ means cameras with the same level of features and/or performance.
The reviewer in a German daily paper who wrote that the new Olympus Pen is a marvel of nostalgic design and an excellent performer also noted that Olympus (against their own statement) did join the pixel race. The result: more detail in clear day photography but less performance in low light photography.
This is the obvious conclusion: technological progress is always a balance between conflicting characteristics. Now that Leica wants to play in the same league as the main digital competitors with appropriate features and performance, the rule of the common denominator becomes unavoidable.
Much more interesting is the analogue domain. Like the vinyl music industry, there is a revival in film emulsion use. While Leica lenses loose some of their interesting features when coupled with a solid-state sensor, the same lenses get personality and increased quality when they function as image projectors on a film loading camera (from M3 to M-A or MP/M7).

Canon VI-L

Hardly noticed by the rangefinder cognoscenti, the Canon models IV, V and VI (the 7 was a different product, famous for its .95/50 mm lens) are now recognized as true rangefinder cameras with more than a small dose of Leica DNA. I personally own and use the Canon VI-L that was being produced during the period of M3 hegemony. For some reason there was hardly any competition, even when the VI-L was manufactured 10,000 times, presumably less that the M3 during the same period.
The canon camera is a model of simplicity: the rangefinder has a different mechanism, but is quite effective. The main characteristic of the Canon is its indestructibility and its reliability. Not only the German engineers knew how to design and build a camera!
I am using the Canon with the venerable Weston Master V as an independent exposure meter. The additional Canon clip-on meter is not available anymore. The camera has very reliable shutter speeds, even more accurate than the Leica M3 speeds (both cameras were CLA-ed and adjusted).
The feeling is identical. The finder is less clear, for sure, but the procedure (view, focus, fire) is the same. The shutter noise is slightly different: more like the modern digital M. The shutter noise is a slight click and not like the M3 that has a more prolonged smooth noise. The shutter release pressure is very important and in this respect both cameras show a subtle difference. The M3 (and the M-A) have the pressure point at the top of the shutter pressure, whereas the Canon has it at the bottom. You have to press the finger more firmly downwards to release the shutter. In this respect the M3 and M-A are more adjusted to the sharpshooter philosophy.

I can only recommend to buy an older Canon RF model and compare it to a modern filmloading and/or imager-equipped M body and start reflecting on what you loose and win. It is a rewarding experience and much more valuable than studying lens reports.

Industry 4.0

The fourth industrial revolution is imminent. The two main points? Flexibility in production and closeness to customer wishes! The times are over that a company produced a number of different products that were dedicated for a certain market segment. The future is for companies that have a modular production strategy that is able to react very precisely and timely to volatile consumer wishes and whims.
The Leica a-la-carte program is a primitive version as is the long list of options that car manufacturers offer as options to choose from. The really modern company allows the user to create and assemble his product completely from scratch from the several product ranges that the manufacturer offers and will even allow the customer to change his order during the production time.
For Leica this would imply that the user starts with a M-model but can add components from the Q or T or SL and can change his wish for a certain type of rangefinder just before it will be assembled.
The current strategy to upgrade the software with new features is old-fashioned. This approach still limits the user to select one specific product range. Within the Leica product range there is now so much overlap that a dedicated webpage is needed to give the user information about what product is suited to what goals. Why is it not possible to include in the M a touchscreen as seen in the T or a Q with a rangefinder like the M.Why can I not order a M-A with a .85 finder or with the hi-res finder of the SL. I know that engineers will protest and claim that this is not possible.
When and if the Leica product managers will work together to create one platform from which all products can be assembled, this will be daydreaming.
The company however cannot continue in the current fashion

The Leica rangefinder landscape

There are only four classes of Leica rangefinders since the announcement of the Leica I in 1924/1925. In more than 90 years Leica engineers have only four times changed the concept. The first class comprises all threadmount (some prefer screw mount) cameras, all based on one body style, neglecting for the moment the subclass of the strengthened Leica III bodies around 1945. The second class comprises all M models without internal exposure metering, culminating in the M4-P and now the almost identical M-A. The third class comprises all M models with internal exposure metering and additional electronics. This group starts with the M6 and ends with the M7. The fourth class comprises all digital M cameras starting with the M8 and ending for now with the M (type 262) and its rumored derivatives. The trend within this last group is for simplicity and minimalism, shedding video, Live View and even the display screen on the back. This is a welcome trend and should end with an M3 type as a digital capture engine.
It is my claim that the three models that have been identified (M4-P/M-A, M7 and M8) are the least mythical and the most important in the genealogy of Leica RF lineage.
The M7 is a pivotal camera, introducing to the critical and conservative Leica owner/user, a level of electronics/automation that the competition had been lucky enough to have for decades. The Olympus OM-4 is the benchmark camera for this type of automation. It might be that the Leica windmills are turning slower than the competition, but this has one good advantage: there is no technological coat forcibly put on. The current M (T240) (a stupid identification scheme: why not simply call it M9.2 or M10) is for many aficionados a bridge to far and overloaded with features and gadgets. The M (262), why not simply M-B(asic)?) is the obvious answer. The SL is the camera that will presumably cater for the photographer suffering from featuritis and a big ego to accompany the size of the camera The S is for sumo wrestlers who need to impress their clientele.
Let us return to the M7. I am now using the M7/0.85 that I bought many years ago and has been stripped from all synthetic material components by a competent repairperson and loaded it with Kodak Tmax 400-II. This film is developed in Paterson/Adox FX39, a classic among the film developers. The lenses used are the two best 50 mm lenses in the Leica stable: the Summilux-M 1:1.4/ 50 mm ASPH and the Apo-Summicron-M 1:2 50 mm ASPH. (When I really want to be unobtrusive I use the Summarit 2.5/50 mm, a very compact lens that is very well suited to street photography. The new 2.4/50 mm is no different in image quality, but has a more elegant mount. It protrudes only three cm from the body.
The M7 is a very efficient photographic engine. Set the aperture, check the speed when you feel that the ambient light is too low for comfortable handheld shooting (we do not want to destroy the details so accurately captured by the optical system) and adjust your shooting style. The shutter speeds are very accurate, even the 1/500 and 1/1000 can be used as intended. Accuracy is however not really required: a 30% tolerance can be handled by the film latitude and even the digital cameras can handle a quarter of a stop difference from optimal. The viewfinder with the .85 magnification is a joy to use and lacks the somewhat tunnel vision of the digital cameras.
The electronic governing of the speeds and the low mass of the curtains are responsible for a near-silent operation that is not even approachable by the new M (T262). Many overindulged digital users may argue that using film is an act of Luddism and a frenetic effort to stop innovation and modernism. At least that is Leica’s current stance. Using film however is an act of photographic honesty that pays homage to the object that is being photographed. Putting any object through the post processing mechanisms of Photoshop and friends is the wrong way to treat an object with respect. That is indeed the attitude of the great classical Leica photographers. The M7 loaded with a higher-speed film (Tri-X, 400Delta and T-Max 400, and even HP5) is the best instrument to add ease-of-use, and efficiency to honesty. When a proper darkroom is out of the question the Ilford XP2 is the film of choice. Or when color is important use the Kodak Portra 400. You will be amazed how much fun it is to stay away from the computer screen and be on the street again.

The Huawei connection

The joint announcement by Leica and Huawei about the new smart phone (P9) with a dual camera/lens may mark the end of the Leica company as a dedicated camera and optics firm to a company that is being profiled as a photographic equipment maker. There is a clear trend in the photographic market. Traditional still photography is being attacked from two different trends: (1) the trend to cinematography, inspired by countless youtube movies, but also by a changing trend in artistic and commercial photography. Camera makers like Canon and Nikon adapt to this fashion by incorporating video features in all their camera ranges. (2) the trend that most image makers adopt the smart phone as their preferred tool for making and distributing images.
Camera makers see the writing on the wall and adopt one or more of the following strategies: (1) dig in the niche they are occupying (Phase One); (2) expand into new market areas (Canon into surveillance, Fujifilm into cosmetics) or (3) reduce dependency on photographic products (Nikon with lithography, Sony with sensors, Canon with office equipment). Every one of these strategies may make sense, depending on the market profile and specific expertise of the company. Leica however does seem to follow every possible strategy: niche products (M line), expand into other markets (smart phone supply) and reduce dependency (cine lenses).
For now the most interesting is the Huawei connection. As usual there is a broad array of descriptions what is going on: from Huawei using Leica cameras and lenses to Huawei using Leica certified optics.
The truth is difficult to find. A few things are easy to discuss: Leica has no production facilities to produce millions of tiny optical systems required for the smart phone. This leaves two options: Leica can design an optical system for the phone and sell/licence this to Huawei. Leica gets a design from Huawei and improves this with their optical expertise and/or certifies the Huawei product as conforming to Leica standards (this is what happened with the Panasonic-designed lenses).