Leica Grows A Pair

Seriously… on 09/09/09 Leica took a stand. In a camera industry where the word "new" is used and abused worse than Lloyd Lee (Ari Gold's long-suffering assistant on HBO's Entourage), Leica stood up and did something new. How? By doing something old. No, not old in the technological sense, but old in the… well, "common" sense.

This past week, Leica took a page from the Steve Job's book of product announcement and staged a live webcast to introduce three new products. In actuality only two of the products were new. The medium format S2 was announced quite sometime ago… but that (the original announcement - not the camera) was the work of the old clumsy Leica. While the web cast may not have been quite as slick as Mr. Jobs and company, the overall tone to this viewer was very smart, efficient and introduced products worthy of the attention.

So, why am I waxing on poetically about a camera company that makes products that only a few mortals can afford? Simple. Because Leica stood up and reestablished their rightful place as a leader in photographic instruments.

The Leica M9 is the world's first digital system camera of its size to be built with a full-frame sensorThe first piece was the long anticipated Leica M9 full frame digital rangefinder. So what, you say? Well… consider this. Leica has been making the M series cameras and lenses since 1954. Yep… 55 years. And if you think the Porsche 911 has stayed faithful to its design DNA, you owe it to yourself to look at the Leica legacy.

More importantly, the new M9 is a digital camera with a full frame sensor. No crop factor, no more figuring out magnification of focal lengths of existing 35mm lenses… absolutely full frame. What you see is what you get.

This is significant for several reasons. First, if you've shelled out a few thousand bucks here and there for M glass, you now reap the full potential of the finest lenses in the world. Second, the Leica M9 is now the smallest full frame digital camera in the world. By a lot. If you compare it to the full frame Canon 5D MK11, 1Ds MK111 or Nikon D3 or D700 it's much smaller… by a lot.

In fact, for several years the speculation has been that this accomplishment would be physically impossible. Well… not for Leica.

The first M Series camera (M3) circa 1954Remember, this is the company that took the camera off the tripod. This is the company that invented 35mm film cameras. A quick look at Wikipedia will tell you: The first prototypes were built by Oskar Barnack at Ernst Leitz Optische Werke, Wetzlar, in 1913. Intended as a compact camera for landscape photography, particularly during mountain trips, the Leica was the first practical 35 mm camera, using standard cinema 35 mm film.

And so, nearly 100 years later, Leica is the first company to take the practical approach of taking the traditional camera form and simply putting a sensor in place of a piece of film. The digital tail is not wagging the dog, so-to-speak.

Now, I know you're saying… but why is this any different than the other full frame cameras? I'll tell you why. Because the Leica pays respect to the creative process and spirit of the photographer. Unlike the rest of the marketplace, it's more camera than computer. We're talking about simply replacing the film with a sensor. (Though I'm sure it wasn't simple.)

You see, for me, most current camera design interferes with the creative process. Anytime your eye is taken away from your subject, you lose something. To me, it's no different than taking your eye off the ball.

The Leica X1 is the direct beneficiary of 100-plus years of German engineering experience.The other product Leica announced was the Leica X1. While we haven't had a chance to see images or read any hands-on reviews of the camera, early indications are it's going to be a winner and, conceptually, a game changer.

Again, Leica improved their product by looking back. The X1 is probably best described as a professional's point and shoot. But truly, it is more than that. It appears to be roughly 2/3 the size of the M9, but it's DNA is pure Leica. The look, the feel, the glass… it's all there and it's all Leica.

Early complaints are that the X1 lacks an optical view finder and the lens configuration is such that it telescopes out when you turn the camera on.

While those are fair criticisms, they're going to weigh heavy on some users and not so much on others. What I find more important is the "concept" of this camera and the psychology.

Again, Leica has looked at the role of the sensor. And while other manufacturers continue to pursue smaller and smaller with more and more megapixels, Leica chose to do the right thing. The X1 comes with a 1:5 CMOS sensor. This is the size found in most DSLR's like the prosumer models of Canon and Nikon. And, equally as important, Leica has set the bar at a comfortable 12 megapixels. This means fewer, larger pixels spread out over a greater area. As you may recall, this is the magic formula that gave the Leica Digilux 2 those buttery smooth images.

In keeping Leica tradition, the X1 is adorned with a set of analog controls on top of the camera. One dial for the shutter and another for the aperture. Again, positioned to allow you to keep your eye "on the ball."

LEICA NOCTILUX-M 50 mm f/0.95 ASPH - "King of the Night" the worlds fastest aspherical lens.And the lens… what can you say? This is the company that built a lens that in theory ADDS light… the Noctilux-M 50mm f/0.95 ASPH. The X1 will come equipped with a 24mm f/2.8 fixed lens. With the 1:5 sensor that gives you an equivalent 35mm focal length of 35mm.

So, here you have a German built Leica, classic Leica looks and design, small enough to throw in your brief case or over your shoulder, and with a fixed 35mm (equiv.) lens. It's old school, elegant and digital.

While I don't have any inside information on Leica's future with Panasonic and the Leica badged products they produce together, the new Leica lineup positions the company (to my mind) extremely well for the future. Assuming they keep the small Pana/Leica products for price and brand positioning, they now have a transitional product with the X1 serving a new space in the market and educating a new generation of users to the Leica brand and quality. They continue to stand alone in their dominance of the rangefinder business with their M series film cameras and the digital M9. And, finally, they forge a new role in the medium format market with the S2 camera and lenses. While the S2 is uncharted territory, it is the first SLR styled medium format digital camera and offers studio photographer a new found freedom.

As much as I think Leica now has a clear voice in the marketplace, they've still got work to do to educate another generation of users. But, what is important (to my mind) they've raised the bar. They've stood up and announced,"this is who we are." They have direction and that direction is refreshing.

It's not face recognition. It's not image stabilization. It's not a kjillion megpixels on the worlds smallest sensor. It's not 10 frames per second… and on and on. Leica builds quality cameras for the photographer that simply wants to make photographs.

Will others follow? I don't know. I'm curious how long the Asian producers can continue to stuff more and more "features" and megapixels into the current crop of cameras… which, lets face it are more computer than camera.

Lastly, I'm not suggesting that any of us are going to run out and dump all of our Canon and Nikon gear. That's not really an option. For work, I need 8-10 frames per second. I need huge files… and I need huge lenses. But there again, I think Leica has acknowledged that too. They know who they are. They know what they can do well. And I, for one, think they've done it.

Just an opinion… I could be wrong. - JT

• Leica M9 Technical Page

• Leica X1 Technical Page