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October 2015

Crawley's rules

I am working on a book about Leica optics, as most of you may know by now (the planned publishing period is January 2016). In this book I give detailed information about the approach and thinking of Berek behind the many epochal designs he constructed and/or influenced. One of his important insights is the study of the character of a design and by implication its potential for a range of applications. This is the same approach that L. Kölsch has promoted since his appointment as chief of the optical department at Leica. You have to know about the inherent capabilities of a design before deciding upon its character and its strengths and weaknesses. Every lens has potential but will be definition not be perfect. Studying its character takes some time. It is now popular to look at color fringes as the main criterion of image quality. It is only one element of the complex character of a lens, and in many cases not the most important. It is however a symptom that is very easy to detect when using digital capture media and some techniques of pixelpeeping. Is it relevant? I doubt it but some reviewers, popular on the internet have made it their signature. You can not however define the character of a lens, in Berek’s perspective, by looking at one of a multitude of parameters that as a sum define the character of a lens. The same goes for a complex camera. Here again we have a difference between having an opinion based on a limited period of experience and an analysis and characterization based on use during an extended period of time. It is a curse of the modern media that a scoop is worth more than a thorough analysis and being the first to report about a lens or camera is more important that giving yourself the time to make a considered assessment of a product. The pace of innovation is such that a report of a product may be already obsolete when the report is being published because the product has already been superseded by an improved model.
This was different in the time when Geoffrey Crawley laid down the rules for excellent technical reporting. One of his rules was the requirement to use a camera for a long period of time (at least half a year to become acquainted with the subtle details of is operation). This was possible in a time when a top camera had a life span of at least a decade. The pace of improvement is now much higher but the basic rule of the extended period for a thorough analysis is still valid. No one would now involve in a report about the Leica T or Q, even when these products are highly relevant in today’s scene and I have yet to read a review by some one who revisits or even revises his original verdict about the product because an extended exposition to the often hidden capabilities might reframe his conclusion.
Formulating a series of opinions is a vastly different action that trying to define the character of the product. Crawley noted that a review should be constructed such that after reading a review any prospective user or buyer would know exactly what to expect of this camera/lens and when and if the camera/lens would be useful and an improvement in his/her photographic practice. Reading current reviews about Leica cameras (Leica S, SL, Q, T and son on) I know what the reviewer’s opinions are, but I have no clue what the camera’s character is and why buying such a camera would be beneficial to my own photographic practice and photographic ambitions.
This is one of the reasons why I have not reported on the Leica SL. This is a very important camera and deserves some reflection. One of the main conclusions is that this camera ends the myth of the Leica camera as the basic tool for the technique of the decisive moment as HCB defined it. Why and how will be part of the report. Expect the report somewhere is December 2015.

The new Leica SL

It seems to be Leica’s current strategy to produce a full range of products from basic amateur cameras (the Panasonic re-branded products) to the high-end professional market (the S medium format and now the SL miniature format). The Leica M is as for now the iconic product, but seems to have lost the status as the camera for the professional and is now framed as the camera for the traditionally inclined enthusiast. Below the M the line-up comprised the low end rebranded Panasonic products and the X-series, quickly filled in with the T and Q cameras, both framed as high-grade models. The T offers interchangeable lenses, and an APS-C sized sensor. The Q had a fixed lens with optical zoom function and a miniature sized (24 x 36 mm) sensor. The M offers the classical line of interchangeable lenses and the classical miniature format. Above the M there is the S, framed as the new format for the professional user. If you place the current Leica offerings in a diagram you will see this:
Three formats: 30 x 45; 24 x 36 and APS-C
Three finder systems: SLR, CRF and EVF
Two types: fixed lens and interchangeable lens with AF and MF
The Leica S is 30 x 45, SLR and interchangeable lens, AF
The Leica M is 24 x 36, CRF and interchangeable lens, MF
The Leica T is APS-C, EVF and interchangeable lens, AF
The Leica Q is 24 x 36, EVF and fixed lens, AF
The Leica X is APS-C, EVF and fixed lens, AF
Above the S there is the Sinar range and below the X there are the Panasonic cameras
In this line-up there are obvious holes above the M and below the M. The M itself might be updated to a camera with 24 x 36 mm sensor and AF, but this would require a full new range of lenses. AF lenses are always bulkier than MF lenses and this would jeopardize the M and in addition make the CRF mechanism obsolete. A full range of new AF lenses would certainly require scarce resources and lost of investment money (see the slow expansion of the S lenses and the very meagre range of T and SL lenses). It is an option, but not for the short term. Below the M there is some tiny space between the T and the M, but whatever you position there would challenge the Q and the M itself. The dream candidate for many Leicaphiles would be a kind of Leica CL, but either it is too close to the M or not close enough and will soon lose its market attraction. What about the slot between the M and S? A CRF version with a the large S-sized sensor is unlikely to demand attention (see the Texas Leica made by Fuji). A digital version of the Leica R, but with manual focus and reflex finder would be as unlikely because Leica wants to capture the current digital market, where AF, EVF, and a 24x36 mm sensor are required parts of the Lastenheft, as the success of the Sony Alpha7 proves. The Q has all of these, except interchangeable lenses. The new camera has to be sufficiently different from the M and the T to avoid internal competition and in this perspective the SL makes sense. The SL is a strapping camera, close to the size of the original R8 and the current S. It is also a heavy camera that tips the scale at almost two kilograms with the only lens currently available, the 24-90 mm.
See the listing of dimensions.
Dimensions (HxWxD) and weight in grams
R8: 101 x 158 x 62; 890
R4: 88 x 138.5 x 60; 620
Leicaflex: 97 x 148 x 57; 770
Leica S: 120 x 160 x 80; 1410
Leica SL: 104 x 147 x 39; 847 (with battery)
Leica M/240: 80 x 139 x 42; 680

The Vario-Elmarit-SL 24 -90 mm ASPH has an impressive performance from infinity to the close-focus range and its layout is optimized for fast and precise AF. The MTF graphs promis a performance that lies generally above 60% for the 40 lp/mm and is evidently, but perhaps un-intentionally, extremely close to the S range. The zoom range is almost 1:4, more than the 28-90 range for the R system and the SL lens has a constant 1:2.8 to 1:4. The other side of the picture is a very complex design with 18 elements and four aspherical surfaces. This optical design is un-Leica-like in its complexity, but presumably necessary. The design shows the “Japanizing” of the SL lenses, including the OIS feature (optical image stabilization).

The Leica SL has the potential to be a strong competitor for the Leica S, where its size and weight are not a disadvantage. When compared to the M, it scores high on the criteria of optical performance and versatility. The big Japanese companies follow the strategy for a camera range with clearly segmented areas where one can move upwards in specs and performance. The current Leica strategy is far removed from the clean upward mobility line of Canon, Nikon, Sony and Fuji. Leica is creating a range of cameras and camera systems that overlap each other and that are even in direct competition. Where the Japanese follow a strategy of evolutionary steps, Leica is clearly engaged in a learning process of catching up with the Joneses.