Category Archives: Leica Digital Cameras

Leica M10 Introduced. Digital Gearheads Ecstatic.

“Leica today introduces a new camera, completely dedicated to rangefinder photography.The rangefinder has a complete new design, it has a new sensor and the usability was re-engineered. The camera top has now a dedicated ISO dial, thus all relevant parameters are directly visible and accessible.”

Leica-world is abuzz with anticipation in the wake of Leica’s official announcement of the M10 (I thought they said they weren’t going to number the M’s anymore?). Apparently, it’s a “revolutionary evolution” of the iconic M series [a necessary contradiction of terms BTW]; as best I can tell, it’s a sliver thinner and has a manual ISO dial on the top plate in addition to a new sensor and wifi capability, all of which promises to magically transform your photographic experience. Erwin Puts is of the opinion that Leicaphiles need to immediately run out and get one or else be forever consigned to the dustbin of technological irrelevancy. $6950.

“Is the [insert older Leica camera model here] still a good camera?”

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The M8. First sold by Leica in 2006. My favorite “obsolete” digital Leica. It’s still worth buying, ten years later.

If you spend any amount of time perusing camera enthusiast forums, you’re going to run across this question, posted at predictable intervals, asking whether a particular digital camera “is still good.” That’s always struck me as an incoherent question born of weak reasoning and ignorance. At base, what does the question mean? The key qualifying word seems to be “still,” as in “does it make sense to be using this camera now, given all the models that have come since?” Characterizing the question that way, it does make some sense. Why should I buy older model X when I can also buy newer model Y that is claimed to be “better” than model X?

Consider the Leica M8 and its present viability versus a current Leica offering, say, a Leica M262. Certainly, you might want to consider the price differential (unless you’re a person of means who isn’t constrained by financial necessities). The M262 is the successor to the Leica M-E, which itself is an M9 minus the frameline preview lever and USB port. The M262, however, is based on the M240 but shares the body shape and weight of the M9 series. It has a 24 Mxp full frame CMOS sensor. It costs about $5000. The M8 is a 10.3 Mpx CCD camera first offered by Leica in 2006. It has the same form factor as subsequent digital M’s (a slightly fatter M6), so if your main reason for wanting a Leica is to impress people, the average guy on the street wouldn’t know the difference. You can pick one up for $1200, used. So the M262 is 4X as expensive as a good, used M8.

By most socially accepted criteria, the M262 is the “better” camera. But is it really? That’s, of course, a question only you can answer. It’s got a larger, higher def sensor, no doubt, one that theoretically allows you the ability to take “better” photos depending on how you define the quality of a photo. It’s also going to set you back $5000 as opposed to the M8, which you can pick up these days for peanuts (relatively speaking from a Leica perspective).

It seems to me that, at this point in the evolution of digital technology, this is a question in search of an argument. Unless we’re talking of a camera from the early digital era, e.g. circa 2001-2005, most serious digital cameras of whatever age meet or exceed the quality produced by traditional 35mm film cameras in terms of resolution and dynamic range. In this sense, as of, let’s say, the Leica M8, they’ve become “good enough.” Does it make sense, then, to buy an M8 when I can buy an M262? More precisely, if I’m a guy who simply wants to say he owns a Leica, what reason would I have to buy the M262 for $5000 when I can purchase my Leica cred by buying a minimally used M8 that’s sat on some guy’s shelf for the last 10 years?

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The physicist Niels Bohr, apparently a wise man of few words, was fond of telling the story of a man who a bought a parrot, only to return it because the parrot wouldn’t talk. The seller of the parrot, upon being asked to take the parrot back, replied: “Oh, forgive me. You wanted a parrot that talks, and I mistakenly sold you a parrot that thinks.” The parrot seller was laboring under what logicians call the ‘false dilemma fallacy,’ where an argument presents a set of two possible categories and assumes the subject of the argument must fall into one or the other category. In Bohr’s parable, the line of reasoning suggests that someone is either silent and thoughtful or talkative and an imbecile, a specious line of reasoning that, interestingly enough, one could argue is amply supported by the denizens of most internet photography forums. [In reality, there exists a third option, that the talkative man might have something intelligent to say, or a fourth, that the quiet man might not]. You get the point.

As to the debate about the worth of a super-ceded camera model, the same realities apply. Framed one way (via the false dilemma fallacy), an M8 today is an unworkable anachronism, hopelessly outdated in the era of live view and 256,000 ISO. This, of course, is to uncritically accept the premise camera manufacturers espouse in their ceaseless efforts to keep you buying cameras – new is the standard below which anything else is “obsolete” and of no continuing value.

Which looks pretty suspect from a critical perspective. If we’re going to discuss “obsolescence” we’ll need to first distinguish between two types:

Planned obsolescence: Planned obsolescence is the designing  and producing of products in order for them to be used up (obsolete) within a specific time period. Products may be designed for obsolescence either through function, like a paper coffee cup or a machine with breakable parts, or through “desirability,” like a consumer grade digicam made for this year’s fashion and then replaced by something totally different next year. Planned obsolescence is also known as “design for the dump.”

Perceived obsolescence: Perceived obsolescence is planned obsolescence that manipulates the “desirability” of a product.  A superceded camera model, say, will continue to be functional, just like it was when new – no better, no worse – yet it is no longer perceived to be appropriate given new “advances” in technology or style, so it is now rendered obsolete by perception, rather than by function.  Perceived obsolescence is all about what is fashionable, and what is fashionable in a consumerist economy must necessarily change from year to year. If capitalism has one driving reality, it’s that new widgets must constantly be produced to replace last year’s widgets and those new widgets must now be ceaselessly proclaimed to “better than ” last year’s widgets. Unspoken, but assumed in consumerist logic is the premise not only that the new widget is “better” but also that the old widget, the one we’ve owned and happily used without complaint, is now unworthy of further use. Of course, from a rational perspective, this is complete bullshit.

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Perceived obsolescence is now the number one “product” of the advertising that supports the camera industry. While what Nikon and Canon and Sony and Leica currently offer is technologically more advanced than what they were offering in 2006,  its arguable whether new cameras are “better” in any practical sense from what’s been available to us in the past. To automatically infer they are is to confuse the allegedly useful with the necessary, the necessary being the pivot point on which Leica has historically derived its almost cult-like following. Up until the Last decade or so, Leicas had never been about technological superiority; they’ve been about functional and aesthetic simplicity. They’ve been about making the photographic act as streamlined and efficient and simple as possible and the instrument well-built to last, characteristics modern digital camera makers have ignored in their headlong sprint to see who can jam the most features into a camera you’ll use till the next iteration comes along. If you’ve ever stared at the menu options your digital camera offers while the scene you wanted to photograph disappears, or your camera won’t function because of an error code, you’ll understand the difference.

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Josef Koudelka took this with an obsolete old film Leica and some Tri-X. He may not be able to print it much bigger than 11×14, but it’s still better than anything you’ll ever do with your M262.

Framed another way (a third option outside of the either/or dichotomy posited by the false dilemma), the M8 is still the great (but flawed) camera its always been.  Being firmly rooted in the film era, I neither need (nor want) 12800 iso on demand. Long ago I learned how to shoot in low light pushing HP5 to 1600 iso using a fast lens. Ironically, the open-aperture bokeh look so prized by happy-snappers today has its genesis in the constraints of such traditional low light shooting. As for dynamic range, well, that went out the window under such conditions as well. It’s called “the film look”, and it’s an aesthetic now prized by shooters trying to avoid the clinical “perfection” of  digital capture, and the M8, at least in b&w, does it to perfection. Run its files through Silver Efex and you”ve got something approaching scanned film with a fraction of the hassle. And when I’ve got ample light, the M8 delivers remarkable files easily printable to 20×30, not that I’d want to, mind you, as the modern fetish for large prints usually bears out the old adage “if you can’t make em good, make em big.”

in my mind, the argument should be about whether the camera you use gives you the results you want. As for what I want, it’s not sterile perfection, which, as best I can tell from a half-century of looking critically at great photography, is irrelevant to what makes a compelling photograph. What I do want, after a certain level of base technological competence, is that the camera I use get out of my way and allow me to get the picture. In that respect, just like my iiif, M4 or M5, my M8 succeeds briliantly, and I get the added Leica caché, all for the price of a middling consumer grade digicam.

 

 

 

 

Talking Leicas with Astrophysicists

20160701-R1100511-EditParis Observatory telescope. This 60-centimetre telescope, installed in 1890, was designed by French astronomer Maurice Loewy (1833-1907). Loewy was Director of the Paris Observatory from 1896 until his death.

In spite of my obvious critical stance toward many of the fruits of the digital age, it certainly has its benefits, one of which is the ability to connect people of like mind across distances. Prior to the internet, if you wanted to share your interests with others, you did so on a local basis. Now the world is open to you. Through this blog I’ve been lucky to meet interesting, intelligent people from around the world – the Far East, Africa, South America, Europe – and also around the corner where I live in Raleigh, North Carolina.

So I was pleasantly surprised, while travelling recently, to receive an invitation to visit from Dr. Henry Joy McCracken, an Astrophysicist at the Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris and a dedicated Leica film shooter. Dr. McCracken works in a contemporary building located on the campus of the Observatoire de Paristhe foremost astronomical observatory of France, and one of the largest astronomical centers in the world. Its historic building is located on Boulevard Arago in the 13th Arrondissement in Paris.  Louis XIV started its construction in 1667, completed it in 1671. It thus predates the Royal Greenwich Observatory in England, founded in 1675.

While the Observatory is open to the public on a very limited basis, nobody gets up on the roof and in the cupola where the telescope is found. Dr. McCracken brought me up on the roof and into the cupola. The telescope there is very old, very big and very impressive.

20160701-R1100506-EditOn the Observatory Roof with Dr. McCracken. Behind him is the cupola where the Observatory telescope is housed. And yes, that’s a film Leica Dr. McCracken is sporting.20160701-R1100518-EditInside the Cupola20160701-R1100525-EditGraffiti Scratched into the Stone Wall in a Space Under the Cupola

The irony of our meeting is that, while we connected through Leicaphilia, a site dedicated to the enjoyment of Leica film cameras and film photography as a viable ongoing means of photographic practice, only one of us was sporting a film camera – and it wasn’t me, which, I’m sure, gave Dr. McCracken pause even though he was a gracious enough host not to note the obvious to me. I had with me an M8 with a Amedeo adaptor and vintage Nikkor attached; he had with him a beautiful M6 with 50mm Summicron that someone had given him, loaded with Tri-X. Of course, there was a reason I wasn’t toting a film camera, as I claim I usually do, and it was because I just didn’t feel like dealing with the hassles of film on an international trip – the X-ray scanning and rescanning, the repeated explanations at security about what exactly the bag full of home-rolled film cassettes actually contained, the time spent developing and scanning the developed film once home etc; all of the reasons normal people embrace digital and see the continued use of film as quixotic in the extreme. If you were to accuse me of being a hypocrite, you’d be right. Consistency is not my strong point, although, in my defense, I am in agreement with Ralph Waldo Emerson that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, requiring one to be as ignorant today as one was yesterday.

20160701-L1003744-Edit-2These markers are found throughout the Observatory grounds. Something to do with the Meridian Line

So, did this trip help soften my antagonism toward digital Leicaphiles? Yes, it did, actually. I enjoyed the time spent with my M8 immensely. It’s a wonderful camera, offering the simplified Leica experience digitally. I borrowed a 35mm Summicron from a Parisian photographer friend and shot exclusively with the M8, the Ricoh GXR and the D3s staying in the bag. Along the way I lent it to a photographer who for years used both an M4 and M6 but never saw the use for a digital Leica – always saying “I just don’t see the point” when I’d enquire as to why he no longer used Leicas but now used professional Nikon DSLRs. Sitting on his Paris balcony, a few drinks in us both, I handed him my M8 with his Summicron attached. He picked it up, fired off the photo below and said “feels pretty much like a film Leica.” Yup. Pretty much.20160706-L1004281-Edit

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So, back to my thoroughly enjoyable day at the Paris Observatory, courtesy of Dr. McCracken, who, I should add, is an excellent photographer in addition to being a fine human being and a very intelligent guy dealing daily with issues that most of us simply aren’t smart enough to understand, let alone discuss. He publishes 52 Rolls: One Roll of Film for Fifty Two Weeks, where he shoots a roll a week and posts the photos on his blog.

As part of my tour, Dr. McCracken brought me into the bowels of a building on the Observatory campus where is located the darkroom that was once used to develop the Observatory’s photographs. Down a few flights of steps and behind a locked door stood a perfectly functional darkroom, still stocked with papers and chemicals with expiration dates from the 1990’s. Apparently, it had been locked away and forgotten, a sad commentary on the state of analogue photography. Fortunately, he has rescued it from disuse and it is now, again, being used for its intended purpose, although certainly now not in any official Observatory capacity. At the very least, it made me feel good that it has been resurrected and that maybe, just maybe, this blog might have had some little thing to do with it.

20160701-R1100578-EditThe Paris Observatory Darkroom

After my tour we settled in for a cup of coffee on the terrace of Dr. McCracken’s building, where we were joined by fellow Astrophysicists. We discussed, among other things, Dark Matter, String Theory, whether the Universe is expanding or contracting (its “bouncing” apparently), and, parenthetically, why we still all loved film cameras. We talked about the incredible vistas digitalization has opened to science, but we also discussed the problems that come along with our move from analogue to digital. Someone noted to me that there still existed, somewhere deep in the bowels of the Institute, negatives from more than a hundred years ago that charted the positions and conditions of the cosmos at that time, and that these offered a contemporary scientist the ability to go back and recreate those conditions in light of new theories or data, necessary work if you subscribe to Thomas Kuhn’s theory of how science changes. With digital data, so susceptible to degradation and loss, he noted, scientists 100 years from now might not have access to the same sort of data from our era, so eager are we to embrace new technology without thinking through the full consequences for the ongoing transmission of scientific culture. Who, I asked, is thinking about these issues? No one, he replied.

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20160701-R1100486-Edit-2The Observatory Stairwell

Having thoroughly enjoyed my visit with Dr. McCracken, off I went. Somewhere in the Marais, I lifted my M8 to take a photo of something, and as I did a gentleman walked past me with a curious look on his face, turned around and tapped me on the shoulder. “Are you the Leicaphilia guy?” he asked, to which I replied, yes. That’s me.  A nice enough guy, we spoke some time, him being a reader of the blog. He, of course, had a beautiful Pentax MX film camera with him, although he assured me there was an M2 at home. I, of course, had my digital M8, another slightly uncomfortable situation which he was gracious enough to ignore.

And so now I’m home, having gone through my DNG files and processed the keepers. You’ll notice that they’ve all been processed to emulate the film look. I’m not sure what I should think about this. Is this “cheating,” inauthentic in some way? Even if it is, who cares? Isn’t it the end result that matters? In any event, I feel vaguely like a poseur, someone who advocates one position while acting in accordance with another. Regardless, I think I really like my M8. Will it become my tool of choice? Probably not, and probably for those same archival issues articulated by the Astrophysicist. But who knows.

Digital Technology and Its Discontents

Kubrick 2arab

Photo A:  A Man With a Leica, Circa 1950. Photo B: A Man With a Leica, Circa 2015. What Does The One Have to Do With The Other?

I love Leica film cameras. And as much as I love Leica film cameras, I remain profoundly ambivalent about Leica digital cameras. God knows I’ve tried to like them. I own an M8, my second, bought shortly after I sold my first and regretted not having it around. It’s an interesting digital camera, unlike the bloated plastic and magnesium monsters offered by Nikon and Canon. But the economy of means possessed by the film cameras somehow feels absent in the Digital M’s, the traditional M’s restrained simplicity having crossed over in the digital models to an ostentatious austerity, attention to necessary details having evolved into the excessively fussy.

The digital M’s even look inauthentic in some undefined way, maybe in the way a self-consciously “retro” edition looks in relation to the real thing. If it were just the aesthetics of the cameras themselves, I could overlook it, but it’s the experience the digital versions provide that’s unsettling for me. Every time I use my M8  it feels odd in some way, like a simulation of the “real” experience I enjoy when using a film M. The cameras themselves might share a similarity of form, but that’s where the similarities end. The respective experiences themselves bear almost no relation to each other. You might as well be engaged in different activities. And isn’t that traditionally why photographers have loved and used Leicas; why they’ve always paid a premium for them, the simplified elegance of the photographic act they allow?

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The tools you use to create structure what you create. In Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew Crawford argues that genuine agency arises in the context of submission to the tools we use, tools that have their own intractable ways. The important thing to remember, if you agree with Crawford, is that the experience we can have is dependant on the tool we chose to use. The design of a tool conditions the kind of involvement we will have in the activity. Some tools are better adapted to the requirements of skillful, unimpeded action, while other tools can prevent skillful self-assertion and can compromise the experience of seeing a direct effect of your actions in the world.

I would argue that this is especially true for photography. You can choose digital technology for its quickness and ease of use, but at the certain cost to your own creative autonomy and of your experience of the craft you are engaged in. Or you can use traditional analogue processes and more fully engage your own skillful involvement to create something.

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Valentina, Red’s Java House, San Francisco, Arista.edu 400 @800 iso in Diafine.

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While the digital/analogue argument will seem a tired exercise in nostalgia for most photographers, there remain deep biological factors at play that militate against it ever being completely resolved for some of us. Historically, creating something required a tactile interaction with materials and substances, the result of a deep intelligence that could not be learned without material manipulation and embodied experiences and an understanding of the cause and effect relationship that exists between actions and their consequences.

The hand and handiwork is a major thing that sets humans apart as a species. The earliest divergence of the species that evolved into modern humans began with an evolutionary reconfiguration of the hand allowing sophisticated tool use. You can make the case that this is, literally, what defines us as human animals, and argue that rationality, what is commonly understood to be the uniquely human, came along as a byproduct of the use of tools, as sort of a evolutionary development of the neural software necessary for tool use.

Digital virtuality is propelling us further and further away from physical, tangible experience. What is lacking in the new digital photographic paradigm is the physical experience of photography, the activity that has traditionally constituted photography, the physical making as part of the creative process. The singular final print, the end result of a chosen process of varieties of film, the mechanics of the camera, the physical activities of developing and printing.

We are in danger of losing the sense of the photograph as a physical thing. A photograph is not only seen—it is touched, read, received and manipulated. It is fully appreciated only as a product of this physical relationship, and in that relationship it will always remain elusive, a handmade object irreducible to any single dimension. The most detailed digital rendering, what you might view on your computer screen,  preserves only a vestige of the physical photograph’s real, dynamic nature. Yes, you can print a digitally produced photograph, but how many people do?

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Contemporary photography has a certain look, a function of its technology. It’s the reason many of us still shoot film. Some of us still see certain creative possibilities in ‘The Film Look’ that aren’t given us with digital capture. So, if and when digital technology advances to the point that it can reproduce the appearance of films and formats precisely, will the process of analogue alone be enough to keep some of us using it? For hand made processes, where their idiosyncrasies are intrinsic to the print, undoubtedly. But what of industrial films, which were designed to react with light in a consistent way without variation?

To paraphrase Elliott Erwitt, photography should be taken seriously and treated as an avocation. We should love the doing of it and do it for that reason. And I think a big part of this is engagement in the process, and in that respect I find traditional photographic processes much more rewarding, partly because they embody a certain set of skills that reward detailed attention and experienceThe analogy to cooking comes to mind: Taking photos digitally and editing them on a computer is like cooking a TV diner in a microwave. The film process is a gourmet meal cooked with attention to every step in the process. Film process – how demanding it is to use as a craft — is its enduring strength, but it’s also why film is now a niche with no aspirations to popular appeal, aimed squarely at discerning users, while the convenience of digital has made it the tool of choice for the average guy who just wants to photograph something.

Analogue users belong to the future because they are guardians of the past. Let’s hope we film aficionados, the people who occupy that niche, are able through our efforts to keep film alive for future generations. Technological change is too often a “Faustian bargain” in which something is sacrificed in order for something new to be gained. Will we sacrifice what is of real value in the photographic experience for the new we’ve gained?

Leica Announces New Digital M3D: “Back to Our Roots”

111Mike Evans tries out the new M3D on a crisp April morning in Bad Wolkenkuckucksheim (Photo: George James, Leica M-P and 50mm Apo-Summicron)

An M3 with a digital back: This has been the holy grail of Leica M photographers ever since the relatively bulky M8 was announced in September 2006. Why can’t we keep the size and weight of the film camera but have the advantage of digital, they wondered. Now they can have the best of both worlds.

Leica has today met this demand from a vocal majority with the announcement of the Leica M3D, a camera that has identical appearance, dimensions and weight to the first M, the M3, but with a digital sensor replacing the film plane. It was shown to the press this morning in the popular spa resort of Bad Wolkenkuckucksheim near Wetzlar.

Advance lever

The M3D offers the very essence of digital photography combined with the simplicity of film shooting. The only adjustments possible on the M3D are aperture, shutter speed and ISO. Even the ISO is not automatic, it has to be selected manually by means of a central dial on the back of the camera where other digitals would have a screen.

In a nod to tradition, the M3D even sports a film advance lever, just like the original M3. You have to advance this after every shot to re-cock the shutter and remind yourself that you are shooting digital film.

The M3D is similar to the M7 film camera in operation. It will accept any M lens and will be welcomed by rangefinder enthusiasts who have become frustrated by digital bloat and the emphasis on in-camera processing that epitomises most cameras on the market these days. Surprisingly, in view of the retro feature set, the M3D offers an auto shutter speed setting similar to that found on newer digital M cameras and on the still-current M7 film camera. This enables aperture priority shooting which is what most rangefinder photographers prefer.

RAW only

The Leica M3D is one handsome camera and serves to consolidate Leica’s new-found willingness to return to the purity of the rangefinder. The first step in this direction was the stripped-feature M262 but even that did not go as far as to dispense with the screen, nor with many of the processing options and buttons that go with jpg shooting. From now on it’s RAW only and that is how most rangefinder fans like it.

Speaking at this morning’s press conference, Leica CEO Hektor Barnack said that the M3D represents the epitome of the rangefinder experience. “This is das indubitable Wesentliche”, he told journalists: “This is the camera rangefinder enthusiasts have been waiting for. No screen to chimp on, no buttons to press in error while handling the camera, no menus to distract or confuse. It’s a pure, film experience but without the cost of developing and scanning. It is, not to overemphasise the point, back to our roots.”

Stripped down

“Now we have catered for the techno modernist market with the outstanding Leica SL, we feel confident in stripping down the M even further. No longer does the M have to address every facet of the market. For all those photographers who still carry around our film cameras, including the M3, the M3D is likely to be a very compelling alternative.”

I have to say that ever since I tried the all-steel M60 edition, which turns out to be a rather heavyweight progenitor of the M3D, I have been convinced there is a need for a stripped down digital. By offering the film experience but without the film, the M3D is an economical alternative to an older film camera. I for one will not miss the high cost of processing and scanning.

The Leica M3D will be with dealers by the end of May and will cost £3,600 in Britain (including VAT) the same price as the film M7 or the MP.

*This is a reprint of the original scoop, first reported on Macfilos.com by Mike Evans on April 1, 2016. Editor’s Note: Macfilos is a great blog with a lot of interesting content. Check it out.

Why I (Still) Love Leica

leica m-a 2In a world where most manufacturers have abandoned all-metal construction and favor automated assembly, Leica M bodies and lenses continue to push the envelope of supremely compact, superbly constructed, photographic tools. Their newest optical offerings, the 24/1.4 and 28/1.4, continue the tradition of cost-is-no-object over-the-top excellence for which Leica is known.

You have to pay through the nose for it, yes, but a Leica product is always going to be as good as it gets; certainly its never going to be just average, or worse, mediocre. Leica’s philosophy of cost-is-no-object excellence may not be compatible with your wallet, but it’s consistent with its history, where no compromise excellence has always been the guiding principle.

Leica doesn’t release a product and immediately orphan it. Witness the sensor kerfuffle with the M9, a camera which is now 8 years long in the tooth. Your 2008 M9 sensor having problems in 2016? No problem – send it to Leica for a free replacement. That’s commitment to one’s product. Of course, critics will point out that, given Leica’s price points, that should be expected. Both perspectives are correct, but give Leica credit for meeting its end of the bargain, which, in this age of rapacious capitalism and corporations whose main object is not to serve their client base but rather screw them as quickly and efficiently as possible, seems an increasingly a quaint anomaly.

Leica doesn’t release marginal lenses for high prices to protect their higher-end products. Leica doesn’t release marginal anything (with the obvious exception of some of the more ridiculous collector’s editions, which seem to me almost an ironic inside corporate joke). Leica’s design and philosophy is simple and well-known. Create the best, cost be damned. Make people pay for it, and be proud of it. If you don’t like it, feel free to go elsewhere.

No other camera company is doing that. Canon, Nikon, Sony, Olympus, Panasonic, all of them, in addition to some stellar top of the line stuff, release marginal lenses, cheap cameras, incoherent products; and when the do offer a good product, they usually abandon them in short order, moving on to the next gimmick to sell to what they clearly consider a gullible and easily fleeced client base. Fuji is the only other company that even comes close to Leica’s design philosophy, and you can see the attraction Fuji’s products have for aspiring digital Leicaphiles; a Fuji has become the standard entry level Leica alternative for those looking for what Leica offers but unwilling or unable to afford the price premium.

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155c4d30148bc15c46dec2db8fe1fff0As an example of differing design philosophies, let’s talk about how digital camera companies design well-corrected lenses.  Digital technology has opened new opportunities for camera companies to make “better” optics via software correction. In camera, previously destructive things such as aberration, distortion, vignetting, and flare can be reduced or eliminated via software tuned to the characteristics of a particular lens. Olympus and Panasonic have taken this philosophy and run with it.

The result is a natively poor lens optically that can be made to perform like a better lens due to  the software running behind it. Go to a website that measures raw distortion and look up the specs of some of the lenses offered with current digital cameras. The native distortion is off the charts. I’m talking 6%. Back in the days before software correction, a 6% distortion would be considered a broken lens.

There are two 12mm prime lenses for the Micro 4/3 system: the SLR Magic f/1.6 and the Olympus f/2.0. The SLR Magic has distortion of 1.26% and costs $500. The Olympus has distortion of 5.4% and costs $800. Moreover, the SLR Magic is nearly a full stop brighter. In fairness, the Olympus is sharper and does correct aberrations in-lens, but in the battle of optical quality, the SLR Magic wins. And it’s less expensive. The moral of the story: Olympus thinks its client base are gullible idiots who’ll buy shoddy goods at inflated prices because of the label attached to it. Ironic, because that’s what Leica haters have been accusing Leica of doing for years. Leica does not do this. It may offer you something expensive, but it won’t ever be cheaply made. If someone at Leica ever even floated that idea as a viable business strategy, I suspect he would be forced to commit a Teutonic variation of seppuku.

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leica_m-a_black_frontLeica is not offering you a photographic tool designed as a cheap commodity, replaceable every few years. They’re not asking you to buy into a system thats going to be orphaned in short order. They’re not offering you average optics at inflated prices; they’re offering you exceptional optics at a price point that justifies the venture. And yet, a lot of irrational anger seems directed at Leica, usually by people with only a passing knowledge of its history.

It’s cheap optics at inflated prices that should make you angry. Plastic cameras that fall apart in a year should make you angry (yes, you Sony, with your NEX cameras. My wife has had two; they’re both computerized pieces-of-shit that became non-functional in short order). Abandoned systems should make you angry because the value of a lens is at least partially dependent on how much you can sell it for in the future, and if that lens is for a system that’s obsolete, you’ve now got an expensive paperweight.

So, after all is said and done, I would never buy brand a new Leica digital camera or one of their lenses, mainly because I can’t afford it, or even if I could, other less expensive digital offerings meet whatever needs I require of a digital capture device. When I want to take photographs, I’m happy to totter around with my film Leicas and my vintage lenses. However, don’t get me wrong: I respect Leica and their history, and respect their uncompromising design philosophy, even if it means that I’m priced out if it. They may be expensive, but they are also unique and necessary at a time when cameras have become commodities with a limited shelf life. I applaud Leica for attempting to keep alive whatever vestiges of the old paradigm – where a camera and its lenses were viewed as working tools designed and manufactured with quality and longevity in mind.

How do you put a price on that?

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