Potential Hits & Misses
[ SOLMS ]
The rumors are already flying
around the internet. With whispers
that Leica is releasing a follow up
to the M9. Will Leica cave to
market pressure or serve their
faithful client base when they
release the follow up to their
most successful camera ever.
What Could Leica Fix
The Leica M9 was an advancement in rangefinder photography. If you read the forums from the mid 2000’s you will see hundreds of people saying a full frame digital rangefinder is impossible. These conversations saw everyone pull out their college degrees, doctoral qualifications and resumes. Statements like “As a physicist…or As a market expert…or Holding a PHD in…” Everyone was trying to say that because they were so qualified in one field, they had the definitive proof that the M9 was an impossibility.
Well I wonder where all of those degrees are now? The M9 was a perfectly adequate working solution for anyone who wanted to shoot a full frame digital rangefinder and use their lenses at their given MM. (35mm where no longer 45mm, like on the M8)
The impossible was possible, but that does not mean there were not some draw backs. As soon as the M9 came out, so did to came the Leica hate mail:
- Failing High ISO
- Horrendous write speed
- An antiquated removable base plate
- Poor battery life
- No film rewind lever
- A high price tag
- and a slew of other complaints from the purists and the new users alike.
Leica is not so much a camera/lens company, but a topic of argument on the internet. For those of us who did not want to take Canon 5D’s or Nikon D700’s into the world, the M9 was a solution to shooting M6’s and MP’s. Leica provided, what I would call, a perfectly adequate solution to the digital rangefinder problem. It eliminated the problem of flying with 100+ rolls of film, scanning, removing dust, and processing costs. All of which easily add up to the M9’s sticker price.
With the opportunity to improve upon the M9, it looks as if Leica is headed in a new direction. And my prediction, as it may be read in a few years as woefully incorrect is as follows:
The M10 will be the equivalent of the transition from the M6 to the M7. Those waiting for purist solution, like we saw in the MP, will need to wait until the next round.
What will they fix
This article is written as an expression of what I would like in a digital Leica. I am not reading into an BS proverbial crystal ball, Leica has not told me anything, and I am not part of a secret M10 task force designed to rile up internet traffic. My personal preferences fit into a small percentage of a niche market. I probably represent something like 4% of Leica demographic. For this reason, I don’t expect Leica to ever make the “perfect” camera for me, nor do I share the same sentiment with many of the Leica buyers. Though the MP is pretty damn close to perfect for a film camera. My needs are not everyone else’s needs.
Leica has known for a long time that the problem with their cameras is that they are very good. Once you buy a few, you no longer need Leica for anything other than repairs. Thus it is difficult to keep people buying because professionals are not gear heads.
But the professional is only a single digit percentage of the consumer market. The enthusiast has much more power and is why many of the DSLRs exist in their current version. And it is probably why the M10 came about in the first place. Personally I find that the “mass solution” is a problem. See Time Square as an example. It was built for tourists, not New Yorkers. And while it provides something like 40% of the cities revenue it is the equivalent of a DSLR with 200,000 ISO and a 12,000mm lens. Its a money generating novelty that everyone actually hates.
The Expected Fixes
[ LIVE VIEW ]
For anyone excited to hold their camera at arms length, the M10 will probably have live view, compliments of a CMOS sensor. It will turn a 10K camera, which should be glued to your face when you take a picture, into a really expensive point and shoot.
It might help wide angle users get away with not using an external finder, but my comment to that will show up down below. In general, Live View is not important to photography, it is however critical to videography, which brings me to point two.
[ VIDEO CAPABILITIES ]
The M10 will finally have video. As if the M9 did not open up the web to more pictures of cats, babies, plants, random loved ones and details of rust, NOW with the M10 we are going to get videos of these mundane subjects too. Who will this be good for? Video capabilities will be very good for Flickr, 500px, and other posting sites. Because now there will be Leica Video and people will want to show it off. It will result in a marketing opportunity for higher premium memberships because video takes up way more memory than photography.
Why is it a bad idea to put video in the M10? For starters Leica will have to develop a fairly complicated image stabilizing mechanism because none of the M lenses have image stabilization. Unlike Nikon and Canon, who builds stabilization into the lenses, Leica will have to re-do their M lenses to make that possible. This seems unlikely, when you consider how many new lenses they have released in the last three years. Video on the X3 is a great idea. Video on the M10 is a terrible idea.
And if the practical considerations of video did not use up enough of Leica’s engineers skills, there is the photographers question of “Why would you want to make a video?” Personally I am not a videographer. I have a tremendous amount of respect for editing, sound, and motion picture. They are all skill sets that I do not want to mess with because they should all take at least as long as it took to understand photography. I only have one lifetime. For the Wedding photographer who wants to have an second assistant shoot video, the M10 could work, but are you really going to buy an M10 of 10K versus a Canon? I doubt it. The video feature sounds like a response to a public obsessed with features. Why else would a DSLR have 25 buttons on the body? Does anyone remember the Simpson’s episode when Homer is asked to design a car? I am not saying they should not do it, but competing with Nikon, Canon, and Sony in terms of options will be tough.
[ MORE MEGAPIXELS ]
I have not heard any photographer, who makes prints complain about the Leica file size. More megapixels seems unneeded. I would rather have 18 better megapixels that 24 which were the same. 18MP allows for 4-5 foot print. It will certainly handle a 1000px web picture, which is sadly where most M9 pictures die. What is the extra 6MP for? Maybe an 8 foot print would be nice, but if that is the territory I would get a Phase One IQ 80 and make a wall size image and forget the rangefinder altogether.
[ HIGH ISO ]
The high ISO can be fixed, this I welcome. Actually the bigger problem to the high ISO is the M9’s screen. The camera has no preview noise suppression. Images on the camera look worse than that actual image. The screen is like a bad opening argument. Everything that follows is tainted by that horrible preview. Leica could probably improve the screen and leave the ISO and people would say, “Wow my pictures look much better.”
But as the Monochrom showed, the sensor has greater resolving power and it stands to be improved.
[ REAR SCREEN ]
Websites have compared the M9 screen to a 5 or 6 year old DSLR screen, and its true. There is no defending Leica here. They should install a better screen. A sapphire screen is not nearly as use as higher resolution screen. How good should it be? Pick up your iPhone. It should be at least that good.
[ EVF: Electronic View Finder ]
I am not interested in EVF at all. I want to see the world as it is. Night vision is great for Navy Seals. It will not make any improvements to the image, its another battery drain and it will have an inevitable lag. Hybrid? yes maybe. EVF, no way.
The added plug on the “leaked M10” pics with the EVF jack are going to make a huge problem for thumbs up users. The M9 failed to solve the ergonomics problem of a film rewind. Thank god for the thumbs up. But if the EVF is going to come on and off of the camera it is going to be trouble. Thumbs up are not easy to take out and it adds to the list of loose parts, like the removable base plate.
Unfortunately I think many of the new features do not add actual value to the camera (high iso and screen being the only exceptions). Tech specs and numbers are not important. The DxO ratings are equally worthless. Getting a great picture on an M9 is possible. Paying a massive premium for a larger file is debatable.
The Wants versus Needs
So what would I like to see on the a new Leica that would have me lined up at the nearest dealer? My major frustrations are not with the high iso or the lack of video. There are areas where the next M could be better at seeing, feel smaller in the pocket, and be more weather resistant.
These are the things that would be useful for me:
[ ADJUSTABLE VIEW FINDER ]
Wouldn’t it be nice if you could get rid of external view finders? I miss the .58 finder of my M6. The 28mm lenses are not usable on the M9 without a finder. And the 35mm could benefit from some extra breathing room. The whole “Leica argument” about seeing outside of the framelines does not happen at all in 28mm and barely happens in 35mm. 50mm is the perfect frame line to total view proportion.
And the 90mm/135mm are small. While I don’t use a 135mm myself, its a useful lens for portraits. Fashion photographers regularly use 150, 180mm, and 210mm in medium format. It would be nice to have it as an option without the frame lines looking like a parenthesis around the focusing patch.
[ ACCURATE FRAME LINES ]
There is so much confusion to new Leica users caused by the frame lines. At .7 meters the image capture is inside of the frame lines while at infinity the capture maybe 2 or 3 times the outside the frame lines. Optically the phenomenon is unavoidable. It explains why a 1.4 lens will make a smaller capture than an f2.0. But why cant the frame lines expand and contract to reflect the actual capture.
After years of using Leica’s you can estimate the capture and step forward or back depending on the subject, but that could be fixed with LED frame lines that move.
[ ONE LENS/ONE LINE ]
Who likes looking at the 75mm frame lines inside of the 50mm? And who has started with a 75mm and made the mistake of using the 50mm lines? Raise your hand…I know I have done it.
If the frame lines were LED, like in the M9 Titanium, Leica should be able to give you one frame line at a time. This would be amazing. Less is more in this case and the reduced distraction would be a delight.
While we are at it, if the lines are dedicated for each lens and they expand and contract based on the focus, we could go the final mile and add corners. No more of each lens having an idiosyncratic frame line. 35/50/75/90/135, they are all different. Last I checked the edges of a negative were a solid rectangle. The addition of the corners would also help photographer work on their corner to corner relationships. It might be one of the few improvements that would actually raise the bar of photography itself. Because right now, the corners are left to the imagination.
So here I am three items into my list and I have not left the view finder. Seeing is critically important to me. It is more important than everything else.
[ RECESSED VIEW FINDER ]
The M3 and MP-3 had an antiquated frame around the front of the viewfinder. It looked like a tiny picture frame around the glass. In the later cameras this disappeared. The frame, which looks like a silly decoration is useful. It keeps fingers off of the viewfinder. Its the rare case where a design detail is actually functional. It is not like an alligator wrap that just looks different, it would be useful.
While we are at the front of the viewfinder, could we ask Leica to make it out of glass? Why is a company known for their glass putting a plastic lens on the viewfinder? They don’t put plastic on the front lens element.
[ WEATHER SEALING ]
Even though the lenses are not water sealed its about time the M cameras got gaskets. This is useful because working conditions are not always dry. Photography in the Antarctic presents a different set of temperature problems for the M9, but it is not -50 everywhere in the world. It does, however, rain in every major city in the world. It does not need to be a waterproof as a Blancpain Fifty Fathoms or a Rolex Deep Sea, but it should be able to take a surprise rainstorm.
[ BODY SIZE ]
The MP is one of the greatest cameras produced in the history of photography by any company. But the Leica alternatives keep getting incrementally bigger. The M6 grew into the M6TTL and then grew into the M7 and then the M8. The difference was small at each step. but every new camera has been either taller or fatter. When you hold an MP and an M9 the difference is immediately recognizable. The M10 or M11 should be the same exact dimensions of the MP.
[ MODULAR ]
This is my biggest pipe dream of all. I would like a camera that was modular and could have upgradable parts. I know all the marketers will jump in and say that is never going to happen…I know. But since Leica lenses and bayonet mounts are not changing anytime soon, it would be great if Leica made an upgradable camera because unlike DSLR’s the Leica body and the lenses are more or less a fixed dimension. For $1000 I would upgrade my screen. For $2000 I would upgrade the viewfinder and for the cost of a Nikon I would upgrade a sensor. I think a lot of people would actually trick out and tweak their cameras if there were some options. Planned obsolescence is avoidable. I do not go to bed hoping for this one, but it would be great. When you look at a camera company like ALPA, where the camera is more modular the customers are happy to mix and match options because lets face it. The only reason cars and camera are not upgradable is because companies believe it is more profitable to sell you something new. Its not a photographic decision but a marketing one. When anyone other than an artist or photographer starts thinking about solutions to your image making, they make rotten decisions.
Is it worth it
Overall I don’t see more specifications, more buttons, and higher numbers as a solution to the next Leica M. Specification sheets are only good for one thing. P-O-R-N-O-GRAPHY and P-H-O-T-O-GRAPHY should not be confused with one another.
The M10 might be the next great innovation in rangefinder image making and I could be eating my words in September when Leica makes their announcement. To which I will be happy to say “I was wrong.” But the chances of a CMOS, Live view, video camera blowing me away are slim to none. The Monochrom is a much more appealing option in my book and I would gladly stand behind the group that says make a digital version of the MP on the next round.
What do you think will happen in September?