The terrorists have not won
There is a tasteless joke whose punchline is, “well, we’ve established what kind of girl you are; now we’re just trying to establish the price.” It goes back to a newspaper column by the Hereditary Peer and reformed Canadian Lord Beaverbrook, it is probably fictional in origin, and it has been twisted around in a number of ways. Nevertheless, the quip is a great counterpoint to people who make a point of maintaining their photographic “integrity” by using some “less automated” form of digital.
Every technical aspect of digital photography (or as film snobs would call it, digital imaging) is nontraditional and somewhat automated. Light does not write an image on anything (we have the φωτός part; we have no γραφή). Instead, light hits an electronic sensing surface that translates light into analog measurements automatically, those measurements are converted to numbers automatically, and a computer in the camera bakes those numbers into a RAW image file automatically. That file is in turn transformed into something visible to humans, either in the camera or on a computer – and it is only in this final stage that human control returns, and it is a totally different type of control than chemical development and optical printing. The physics and chemistry of film photography are actually simple compared to the computational power required for digital photography. Put it this way: the oxidation-reduction reactions used in film photography are taught in high-school chemistry; the mathematical transformations needed to convert Bayer sensor measurements into recognizable images are almost graduate-school math. Or to put it bluntly: men went to the moon in vehicles with computers less sophisticated than what we now use to replicate the 1960s Hasselblad film cameras they took.
Functionally, digital imaging is like film photography in that you ultimately get an image on paper — but only similar in the way that a Selectric typewriter and a laser printer can both put crisp Courier text on a piece of white office bond. In both instances, you start with a keyboard and end with clean text, but the intervening operations are completely different. And with photography, both film and digital begin with a using camera and end with a physical image. But nothing in the middle is the same. That makes two things immediately suspect: (1) claims by manufacturers that their digital cameras build on their film competencies; and (2) claims by photographers that people should avoid using some of the possibilities that digital technologies provide. Leica culture is guilty on both counts. The easy part to identify is the design ethos of the digital M line: a digital M is designed to look like a film camera and not like a ground-up digital camera. This is understandable in light of the other part: the hard core of Leica culture thinks like Hesiod: there was a golden age (the M3), a silver age (the M2), and a progression of lesser ages that run up to and include the current product line (iron age is especially appropriate given Leica’s late penchant for stainless steel). Even among apostates who keep buying new Leicas (scribe, prepare the interdict!), technological resistance has historically expressed itself in apologetics. Leica zealots denounced autofocus — or autoexposure, or auto-advance, or digital, or whatever at the time of the denouncement Leica’s R&D budget had not yet allowed Solms/Wetzlar to implement. With autofocus, it was not entirely Pharisaic; even today, the only truly competent AF seems to come from larger, heavier DSLRs. But just as Paleo diets have captured the imagination of some, there is a set of rangefinder users who would like to go back to the days of the Kodak DCS line, when men were men and “chimping” referred to primates at play. Or better yet, they would like to return to the metaphor of the M3.
The Leica „M Edition 60” is simultaneously the fantasy and horror of Leica traditionalists. One group seeks continuity: an ersatz film camera suggests an unbroken line. Where that is not compelling, another craves “simplicity.” And yet others believe that omitting things like a screen would make a camera less expensive. A $20,000 camera package that is no lighter or smaller than a Typ 240 is going to sorely disappoint two out of these three groups. The acrimony is understandable. The remaining group might find suspension of disbelief easier. After all, Byzantine emperors still thought of themselves as Romans.
It is fair to guess that a camera made in an edition of 600 and packaged with white handling gloves will never sully its sensor with photons nor flush it with electrons. If it did, there would be legitimate questions of whether a digital camera, particularly a Leica one, is viable without a LCD screen and shooting only RAW:
- Shooting in DNG (i.e., RAW) is a poor substitute for proper exposure – and the Leica M meter has a tendency to produce results outside an easy adjustment range under a variety of circumstances: sunrise, sunset, flash. If the metering were more sophisticated on this camera, it might provoke less concern. But it’s fair to say that in tricky light, shooting the M architecture blind is not unlike exposing Kodachrome by guess. That, one assumes, is why the Typ 240 has auto-bracketing available.
- Lack of JPG capability can severely cabin on-the-road productivity and completely inhibits the use of Eye-Fi.
- Certain mixed lighting conditions that are relatively invisible to the eye (such as incandescent and daylight in the same frame) are detectable with an LCD, are correctable on-site at the time of shooting, and are extremely difficult to fix afterward.
- It would be a bitter pill to have a malfunction throughout a shoot that ruined the shots and was not detected until it was too late to make corrections. Think: rangefinder misalignment, a spot on the sensor, travel use.
In addition, some normal digital camera functions are completely dependent on the use of an LCD:
- Sensor cleaning is a stab-in-the-dark exercise without being able to look at stopped-down exposures quickly. And in any event, one would lose the dust detection capability of the camera.
- Lens profile selection becomes entirely dependent on Leica 6-bit coding.
- Filename/folder arrangements, formatting SD cards, and other “disk maintenance” functions make it hard to clear space if needed.
- Firmware updates would be difficult to implement.
And then there are some other things (normal features of digital and even many film cameras) that go away with the M Edition 60:
- Strap lugs
- Video (this is explicit)
- Self-timer settings
- Exposure bracketing
- Slow sync controls
- Auto ISO
- Frameline color
- Focus peaking
- Clipping detection
- USB mode controls
- Date/time setting
- User (settings profiles)
- Anything that has to do with JPEG generation (white balance, resolution, compression, film modes, color space)
There is no EVF workaround because the camera lacks an EVF port. So yes, as a digital camera, it is quite limited. These limitations may not have much effect on individuals shooting for pleasure. Theirs is no worse than the experience of shooting film, though the foibles of electronics inject a new element of risk. Photographers working in high-pressure contexts will not use something like this for the same reason they do not use medium format digital cameras: it is not the absolute disadvantage; it is the competitive disadvantage.
Functionality is a non-issue. Though a few perverse people will actually use the M Edition 60 to take pictures (just as one could use a silver dollar as currency), it is far from likely to be common. Leica’s replacement for the M Typ 240/M-P will undoubtedly have more technology, not less, and the superb industrial design of the „M Edition 60” will become a footnote like the M9 Titanium designed by Porsche or the M6J. Features of these special models may reappear (just as the high-magnification finder of the M6J and the LED-lit framelines of the M9 Titanium), but the whole package will not. The terrorists have not won; we can go back to screens and JPGs and video.
Leica, ultimately, wins here. It does not win on profit – a product in this low of a run barely pays for its own tooling. It wins in media exposure. Google “M Edition 60” and you will see that this device has put Leica on Engadget, DPReview, Wired, Forbes, CNET, and Petapixel. This puts the Leica line in front of a lot of people who previously did not know what Leica is – and more importantly, it puts the Leica brand in front of many people with disposable income. Not only does this represent a lot of free advertising for a niche brand, it is also likely aimed at selling more $7,000 M Typ 240s to people who don’t have $20,000 to drop on an M Edition 60 package.
Well played, Leica.