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.

*************

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.

************

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?

leica_m8