Leica T: chi comanda?

Is that Sony’s red-bullseye movie button?

April 24th has come and gone, and Leica has once again dazzled and/or disappointed close to 100% of its owner and/or fan base. As usual, there are four faces to the old kabuki:

Felicitations. The Leica T (Typ 701) has finally satisfied the Leica-vangelists who have, for years, suffered gut-wrenching doubts about whether their ownership of a Sony NEX or a Samsung NX would damn them to spending all eternity in some fiery place. It has also cheered up the long-suffering M tribe, which was no doubt relieved to find out that the April 24 product release was not a new M body that was somehow better, had more exotic finishes, or omitted the Leica bindi. A third group wants back into the fold, but it does not want to drop $10K for an M body and lens or to suffer 1950s focusing techniques. A fourth (which may overlap the other three) has already put its orders in.

Indifference. When the dust clears, the dispassionate observer sees that Leica has again devoted millions of Euros to creating a product that, if only on the numbers, has little to differentiate it from competition running down to 1/4 the price: sixteen megapixels, arm’s-length shooting, and a baby built-in flash. Although some True Believers insist that one should keep an open mind before damning a camera like this, hundreds of thousands of people already own very close antecedents of this camera, which in 2011 was called the Sony NEX-5N. The real question for the open-minded is whether undoubted optical supremacy can overcome the handling limitations of a viewfinder-free body with contrast-detect AF.

One larger challenge is that the market today is awash with similar camera bodies, some of which have extra features like stabilized lenses (important for video), tilt screens (also good for video), electronic viewfinders (for more stability), advanced split-image focusing with legacy lenses, and fast primes right out of the box.  For functionality, it is hard to beat a Fuji XE-2; for video, the NEX/Alpha cameras reign supreme (HD video poses no challenge to APS-C lenses – it just doesn’t require very high resolution). The similarities between the Leica product and its substitutes are not just visible in the specifications: the control layout is derivative of the NEX-7 (see photo at top), and the overall design looks like a sharper-edged version of a Samsung NX200. To be fair, a mirrorless body has a set of irreducible components and a limited set of design alternatives – but Leica’s choice of a “minimalist” design is hardly unconventional in the photo industry (in fact, it lowers manufacturing costs, leading to wide adoption), and it gives the T an unintentional resemblance to low-end product.

And query whether those who already adapted M lenses to mirrorless bodies will take on a $400 M adapter that does the same thing for the T that $25 M adapters do on cheaper mirrorless bodies: cropping wide lenses and giving awkward and slow manual focus. There is a reason why manufacturers of mirrorless bodies make autofocus, electronic-aperture lenses: these systems perform best with optical and electronic systems actually designed mirrorless bodies.

Bitterness. Some M owners no doubt will grouse about the fact that every design innovation at Leica is on some kind of perverse “trickle up” design program: better strap lugs, batteries that don’t require baseplate removal, better electronic viewfinders, bigger screens, touch controls. Only things never actually trickle up due to what seems like a complete disconnect between the compact camera team and the M design team. This has been long time running; Leica’s M line has always been pitched on craftsmanship; its 4/3 and compact lines (and now APS-C lines) have been pitched on technology and design. But sadly, M cameras are not allowed to evolve, and enthusiast cameras are not allowed to succeed.

Entertainment. At the end of the day, the Leica T has one undeniable merit: it brings out the spectacle of Leica factions turning on each other: (i) M users dismissing T users as tyros, (ii) T intenders talking about the demise of M, (iii) T reviewers trying to say nice things to continue the pipeline of loaner items from Leica, (iv) old-school Leica commentators talking about change; and (v) M3 users talking about the nouveau riche. But the deeper (and possibly more interesting) question it raises is this: at what level in the Leica corporate structure are long-term strategies discussed?

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