Rangefinder

Views on the photographic universe by Erwin Puts

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Leica is indeed in the forefront of some features of modern camera technology that will inevitably be superseded: the AF of the SL is very fast, but there will be undoubtedly a new product that will be faster and so with most features: number of pixels of the sensor, the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.