Leica M Announcement
M or M10
[ P H O T O K I N A ]
No one knew what to expect at
Photokina. The internet was
loaded with theories, promises,
and predictions of the next
installment to the Leica M.
Now that the dust has settled
and our hearts are finished racing
lets have a look at the how the
new lineup rounds out the
digital rangefinder offerings
What Changed at Leica
For most of its life as a company, Leica Camera could be described as a manufacturer of high quality lenses and film cameras. Known around the world as one of the premier makers of rugged cameras, Leica built a reputation as being the “Professional’s Camera.” This cult status, fostered by famous photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Josef Koudelka, and more contemporary names like Alex Webb or Paolo Pelligrin helped Leica maintain its status as THE camera company. The only problem is that Leica’s cult status has never been very profitable.
The company has changed hands a number of times and struggled to maintain relevance in the digital era. Up until the unexpected success of the Leica M9, the makers of our little red dots were in trouble. Because employees can’t be paid with cool points and street credibility. They prefer their paychecks in money, something Leica has always struggled with. One of Leica’s biggest successes is also one of its biggest failings. Really good equipment does not need to be replaced. Unlike Canon or Nikon that possesses a heard of enthusiasts, ready to upgrade at every announcement, Leica was plagued by lens lead times and a shortage of new products.
Dr. Andreas Kaufman
Enter Dr. Andreas Kaufman to the Leica factory. I hear it quoted that up until about five years ago, Leica would release one new product every 3-5 years. Since 2010 they have release new lenses, cameras and entire formats. Leica has almost released more new equipment than they have offered in their entire history. With any explosion in production, we must expect some kinks, but on the flip side there are more happy Leica owners than ever. Unlike the myth that Leica owners are just for doctors and lawyers, we are seeing a diverse group of professional, semi-pros, enthusiast, students, and everyone in between entering the Leica line up. The Leica M line is still revered as the gold standard for rangefinder photography, but at Photokina Leica continued to expand the options for entering the Leica community.
What is M
The new M marks an interesting approach in relationship to Leica’s history. It is the first time that so many of the “forum and enthusiast” request have been attended to in a camera. The reason I leave professionals out of the mix is because many of us do not care about features like video or higher resolution screens. But just because we can live without the features, doesn’t mean that we won’t enjoy them. (Here is the article I wrote about my preferences for the next M)
The CMOS Step
The biggest change to the M over the M9 is the introduction of a CMOS chip that allows for Live View, Focus Peaking, and an EVF (Electronic viewfinder). It seems to me like the forums cried CMOS for long enough that Leica gave them what they wanted. The question remains, were the CMOS folks actually the majority or were the just yelling the loudest?
Live View Advantages
When I run Leica Workshops I am not surprised to see that many of the users wear glasses. Focusing is a constant source of frustration for eye glass wearers and new comers to Leica. Since the rangefinder functions with an optical patch and never blurs your viewfinder image, like an SLR, we spend entire sections of the workshop practicing focus techniques. Once the rangefinder is mastered, its hard to go back to an SLR, but the learning curve is not always friendly.
Many missed opportunities will frustrate even the calmest of photographers. The introduction of Live View and Focus peaking, similar to the systems we see with Sony NEX and the Ricoh GRX, will probably be exciting for new owners. I have not had a chance to try the camera yet, so I cannot speak about the quality of the experience. I will save my comments for a future article after I have used the new M.
Leica Video Feature
If you happen to read websites like Selectism, you will have seen the flood of videos used to promote anything from high fashion to boutique whiskey. The preview style videos, usually less than 5 minutes, emerged as a successful promotion technique. They are being produced and adapted by everyone from international companies to boutique start ups. Video, for better or for worse, is a useful tool. But does it need to be inside of a Leica M?
My sense is that no one actually knows the answer to this question, but I give Leica credit for trying out new territory. It may be a roaring success or a colossal failure. Its too early to say. At the moment, I am in no need of video and would like to leave film production for someone else. But if the M grew a few millimeters and added a button, making video possible, maybe this is not such a bad thing. It can be difficult to separate what I would like to see personally versus what is best for the greater photographic community. I tend to like highly specialized, single function items. This puts me into a very small percentage of the consumer market. I will wait to buy a single tool, object or garment from someone I can shake hands with, in their workshop. But if Leica catered to my preferences only we would have a very different camera market. Maybe, just maybe the video will settle in to the Leica community.
The R lenses Resurrected
When Leica discontinued the R-Camera there were thousands of photographers who felt betrayed and abandoned. What were they going to do with the Leica R glass. Well the new M offers an R adapted which could see R lens prices increase. Considering they were regarded as garage sale items, the lenses might become cult items for hipsters making movies on their new M’s. Stranger things have happened. Not being an R owner myself, I wonder if the R adapter actually appeals to the R user. Technically the M offers a solution, but is it desirable or is it beyond the reach, interest, or style of an R user. I have a feeling that the R lenses will see more use as video lenses than photographic tools because a zoom R lens looks like a telescope on the front of an M. R users, what are your thoughts?
Wide Angle Lenses & EVF
Wide Angle lens users should be rejoicing. The addition EVF and focus peak will allow for photographers to use one viewfinder for a number of different lenses. Currently Leica has produced external finders for the super wide set of (16/18/21) and the wide set of (21/24/28). These frankenstein finders are top quality, though quite expensive. The other draw back is that one finder cannot handle everything wider than 28mm.
The new EVF finder will allow one finder to see the field of any lens on the M. Whether its an R wide angle or an M, it sounds like the finder will be an all in one solution. I have used mostly the 21mm in the past and find that composing in the external finder and focusing the the regular finder is annoying. Surely with regular use and by stopping down the lens the double finder dilemma could be solved, but with the f/1.4 lenses, photographers would probably prefer to focus the shallow depth of field. Otherwise what is the point of paying the premium for a super fast wide angle that requires two finders? I only hope that the focus peak is included in the finder and not just in the live view.
CMOS & Maestro Chip
The new CMOS chip is not much bigger than the chip in the M9. For those photographers who actually make prints, it might not offer that much in terms of improved image quality. The area where the CMOS will be felt most is in the buffer speed. The M9 was plagued by very slow write speeds. As the speed of SD and SDHC cards improved the firmware of the M9 had trouble keeping up. The new Maestro circuit board will afford the trigger happy photographer a relief from the blinking progress light and slow write speed. For me personally, I shoot rather slowly. I hardly hit the buffer speed of the M9. The new M is set beyond a level I could ever hope to need while shooting.
The only undeniable improvement in the new M is the 920,000 pixel screen. The screen on the M9 starts to look like a Nintendo Gameboy next to an iPhone 5. If there is going to be a screen on the M it should match the quality of the camera. Who puts hub caps on a Porsche or a fake diamond in a platinum setting. Continuity is key and the new 3 inch screen is a welcome change. It will probably feel like the difference between reading with or without your glasses. There will definitely be an “Ahhh, that’s what it really looks like,” feeling with the new screen. Not to mention that the video users will need to the combination live view, focusing peak, and reliable screen to make a decent video. And in a rare moment of manufacturing clarity, Leica decided to put a scratch resistant Gorilla Glass cover on the screen as a standard item. No more sapphire upgrades, the camera comes with an appropriate screen cover for the roughest of users.
Water resistance was one of the features I asked Leica for and wrote about in a my previous article. The new M got all the gaskets and seals to make it water friendly. I might not take it scuba diving, but the relief of a camera that can take a bit of rain is great.
The marketing genius behind this move is that all of their lenses can now be re-released in sealed and unsealed models. This is a brilliant step. Without altering the lens formulas Leica can offer more extreme lenses for those who need them (at a serious premium) versus the everyone else.
So what happened to the Leica M design? Ever since the digital M came to the market the camera has slowly grown into a new shape. The once romantic film rewind and film advance disappeared to be replaced with a larger body and debatable clunkier silhouette. The new M is making an effort to work on the camera’s ergonomics with its thumb rest and optional grip, but for now the Thumbs Up still has the edge (watch out for that EVF shoe though).
Leica’s offering of a grip, added flash ports and finger loop are impossible to judge from the pictures. They sound good, depending on your interest and the outlines reminds us of the Leicavit from film days. I wonder how well the grip will work with a neck strap on the camera, but again I will reserve my judgements for the real thing.
The new Leica M represents programmatic shift in the rangefinder camera system. For the first time the consumer, not the professional, is driving the design. While the consumer makes up the bigger share of the market, their tastes are often feature heavy, fickle, and short sighted. The longevity of Leica as a camera and lens provider is however, linked to their purchasing market. The new M might not have all of the features we wanted and maybe even too many of the ones we did not care about, but it does make one very clear statement, Leica is listening to their audience. This gesture of meeting the photographers half way is an interesting step that will allow for Leica to sustain it’s market relevance, hopefully retain photographer loyalty, all while demonstrating that they have come down from their ivory film tower to see how the 21st century might develop with their participation.
UPDATE: This article was recently featured on the Photo Brigade, run by NY Times Photographer Robert Caplin. Just wanted to say thank you for the repost to Robert.
If you would like to try one of the new Leica cameras join me at the Leica Akademie or at one of my upcoming workshops. On our recent workshop in Italy, we had a mix of Leica, Fuji, Olympus, film and digital cameras (including the Monochrom). Everyone got along so well that we swapped gear and were able to try a number of systems throughout our time in together. Like minded photographers really enjoy experimentation.