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May 2016

The Leica M-D

The current range of Leica digital rangefinder cameras comprises two types, the M 240 derivatives and the M8/ M 220 derivatives. The type 220 (the M-E) is derived from the M9 (10 704) which shares the top cover silhouette with the classical film loading M series. The type 240 shares the silhouette with the original M 8 type. So we have the M8 - M8.2 - M (240/246) and the M9 -M-E - M (262) and M-D (262). The additional element is the sensor from 10 to 18 to 24 Mp that has been included in these model ranges.


There is no logic at all behind these two main and slightly different configurations. For now the M9 silhouette is related to the film-loading cameras and this might be the trend: the most recent M-D is as close to the MP or M-A as is possible within the functional profile: no monitor screen and no video and live view. The film-loading cameras obviously have no such features because they are using film rolls only. The message that Leica tries to communicate is not really clear. The M-D is indeed a camera close to the function set of a film loading camera. No instant display, only raw images, no video and no live view. When taking pictures with a M-A you have (a) to wait a few hours/days to have your colour film developed and printed in a shop or (b) wait some period before the bw processing in your darkroom is finished. With the M-D you have at least to wait till you upload the files to the computer and use your favorite DNG processing engine. If you have a laptop while taking pictures with the M-D the delay is minimal.
Leica claims that the M-D enables the photographer to experience the basic aspects of ‘real’ photography: only select aperture, shutter speed, ISO speed and focus/frame the scene of interest. You can do this also with an M 240/246 when choosing not to use the monitor. This is an act of deliberate choice and psychologically not easy to accomplish. When the function is there you want to use it. The difference is the confidence of the photographer in his/her own abilities. Using an M-D the Leica photographer is able to emulate the emulsion-based workflow of the M6 and M7 with the added convenience of the computer-based post-processing. One can look and study one’s images at the end of the day or (when a compact laptop is part of the gear) even at the end of a session.
The discussion about the convenience of not-having-a-feature is almost identical to the discussion about the M-A and the MP: deliberately shutting off the internal exposure meter and voluntary using an external exposure meter gives almost the same feeling as using an M-A or (M2, M3, M4, M4-P) and using the external exposure meter by necessity. It is a matter of discipline and conviction.
The same antithesis we see between the M Monochrom and the regular M. It is easy to convert a color image into a monochrome one during a post-processing session, but one knows that such a black-and-white image is not the ‘real thing’.
The Monochrom and the M-D (including the M 262) are good examples of the art of choosing what to leave out. It is the art of subtraction compared to the art of addition. You need to be a person with a strong conviction to pay more for less and this is precisely what Leica is betting on. Leaving out Live View and Video is a matter of de-activating and/or scrapping some software algorithms and leaving out the monitor display is a matter of simplification of the manufacturing process. Leaving out the Bayer pattern is less easy to accomplish by the way.
The M-D would be interesting when the price level would be on a par with the M-A as both are minimalist (subtractive) cameras.
The significance of the M262 and M-D is the shift in marketing strategy. Leica has too many cameras that are swimming in the same pond. All hope seems to be placed in the SL because this is a most flexible camera with clear development potential. And it sits comfortably with the mainstream of camera development. The M on the other hand is a niche camera at the end of its development cycle. Introducing a hybrid or electronic view/rangefinder would and AF would put it in direct competition with the SL and introducing a new sensor with a higher pixel number would jeopardize the SL and S cameras lines. The only option left is to adopt a subtractive design strategy in combination with some unique lenses (unique in performance, physical size and specifications). It is of course possible to adopt an additive strategy for the M (software is cheap and will not change the body shape or the manufacturing process). Such an approach would be confusing for a product strategy that is already burdened with an ‘embarras du choix’.