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Leica M: that distinct feeling of ennui

Smithers: “They’re fighting like Iran and Iraq!”
Mr. Burns: “What?!”
Smithers: “Persia and Mesopotamia.”

[Written April 16, 2012] All over the world, there are provincial towns believed by their residents to be equal to New York City, Tokyo, or Paris. In a way, Leica M might be such a town. Leica (the company) is not so myopic in terms of technology, but for whatever reason, digital M arguably has become both a technological and a cultural backwater. As Carlo Levi would have put it, Cristo si è fermato a Solms.

The duality of Leica
As this author has observed it over a 15-year period, M culture is basically drawn from two groups (a) people who put up with Leica’s quirks and price due to a belief (often justified) that the resulting image quality is better and (b) a group of photographers cool to modern technology and suspicious of the idea that in spending tens of thousands of dollars on a system, someone might want features that make an M look more like a practical “only” camera. We can call the first group the Opportunists and the second group the True Believers.

Surmising what you can surmise about them, the Opportunists are fairly mobile between camera systems. In fact, given Leica’s cyclical appeal, this group largely abandoned Leica’s system in the early 1970s and abandoned it again when Leica was dragging on a digital body in the early 2000s (recall how lens prices fell back then). Despite claims that demand for M9 cameras and lenses outstrips the ability to produce them, production is small – and even so, the market price for used M9s has now drifted to 60% of new prices. Even new cameras are being discounted by designation as “demos” (no camera that was really used as a demo has five or fewer exposures on it). We know from this that there are definitely fair-weather fans and that they are starting to head for the doors again. When things change precipitously, we know the Opportunists are on the march. And some Opportunists march by keeping their M8s and simply supplementing their missing capabilities with D700s and X100s. The effect, however, is the same – that they stop buying brand L and begin experiencing the forbidden fruits of other manufacturers.

The True Believers – a smaller group but more influential with Leica’s management – hold that the world stopped producing useful new camera features in about 1986 (or, alternatively, in 2002 with the M7). For that reason, they believe, Leica M must be locked into a world of vestigial and functionally-useless removable baseplates, frameline preview levers, and ergonomics lazily whittled from a bar of Ivory soap. The True Believers deny that any feature a Leica M currently lacks is significant, desirable, or valid. Their faith is strong despite the fact that Leica itself has proven them wrong by introducing the very things True Believers claimed were nonessential to the M system: film backs that opened, lever winding, combined rangefinder/viewfinders, TTL metering, electronic shutters/autoexposure, TTL flash, and ultimately, digial imaging. For this group, the M9 – which emerged years behind technologically – is “enough.” In fact, it is already too much (one dares not speak of the D-Lux, the Digilux, the S1, the S2, or the DMR – all of which were actually cutting edge when released). [One would note that since this article was written, that this faction won and got the M10 into production, omitting some features that had been included in the intervening M typ 240/246.

When things run their commercial course, we can call them effectively obsolescent. Obviously, nothing actually stops taking pictures (or anything else) when it is superseded by newer, flashier products – or even products with better specs. But new products often do the same thing with more speed, better efficiency, or fewer avoidable annoyances. The world is littered with well-built, well-designed items that should have lasted forever in the market but were passed up by things that were simpler, cheaper, or more appealing to the masses. Fountain pens, for example, a durable, perfected designs that are largely ignored for cheaper, less messy Bic Biro ballpoints.

When it comes to cameras (or anything), this author would take it a step further and point out that that is not fair to judge an older product for lacking features that had not been invented when it came out (and this is being charitable where Leica did not, for whatever reason, implement technology that was available at the time). So talking about digital M, let’s leave aside things like live view and video. Let’s even forget about DSP speed, screen density, and frame rate. But it is fair to compare apples to apples: to take the core features (or selling points) of an old product and examine their uniqueness in the marketplace and whether they are necessary or desirable solutions to problems.

The five points of Leicas

Leica cameras have five big selling points: high sensor quality; high lens quality, a great synergism between the two, a superb optical viewfinder and a superlative mechanical rangefinder. Take them in turn:

1. Sensor image quality.

Image quality is really the reason why serious photographers buy Leicas. The Leica magic (at least at the body level) comes from two things: (1) lack of an antialiasing filter, which gives a perception of an additional 25% in resolving power (or the ability to up-res by a like amount) and (2) image processing algorithms that build a unique look. These huge determinants of quality do not depend on the overall build quality of the camera body; they reside entirely in a CCD sensor and a couple of hundreds dollars in electronic parts. As long as the same glass formula were put in front of this sensor, the end result would be identical, even if the body were ABS plastic and even if the lenses operated by autofocus.

A lot of things have happened in the 7 years since the basic digital M technology arrived. First, other manufacturers have caught up to the filter-free sensor (Kodak actually preceded Leica with many models in which the AA filter was absent or removable). Sigma has the Foveon sensor, which omits it. Fuji has the X-Trans CMOS sensor – which in addition to lacking an AA sensor, has a randomized color pattern that obviates the anti-moire processing that bogs down Leica’s cameras. Nikon put a weak filter in the D3 and D700, and the D800E effectively has none (as well as twice the pixel density and much better low-light performance than current Leica sensors). Ricoh is making GXR modules that take Leica lenses and have no AA filters. And the Leica “look,” while challenging to replicate, can indeed be achieved in relatively cheap software like Lightroom.

But backing up a little, the world has also moved away from CCD in favor of CMOS chips for lower power consumption, higher sensitivity, and live view capability. Sticking with CCDs constrains Leica’s sensor choices for any future digital M (unless Leica changes the imager completely) and puts Leicas at a long-running disadvantage in higher ISO performance. CCD chips do have great color, but so do a lot of CMOS chips. In the end analysis, slipping behind the sensor speed curve is a big issue; the number of megapixels, not so much.

2. Lens image quality.

Leica was an early participant in the Lens Speed Wars that started in the 1920s and 1930s. Back then, you needed superspeed lenses because film was rated at a blistering ISO 12. And let’s be clear here: from about the 1960s onward, Leica was pretty much unchallenged in terms of lenses, in the build, quality control and resolving departments (and in many ways still is). But a few funny things happened on the way to the 21st century.

When the world went digital and addressed low-light situations by upping sensor capabilities, Leica instead focused on simply making faster lenses. Although this technically gets to a correct exposure in a lot of situations without upping sensor performance, it also locks users into what could be called the “Noctilux Aesthetic,” shorthand for pictures where there is a razor-thin plane of focus and often heavy shading of the corners. Some people prefer to do things with higher ISO sensitivity (rather than wider apertures) so as to have more things in focus. And if it’s the aesthetic that appeals, there is always Instagram.

Leica’s drive to make faster lenses made lenses for a compact system heavy, large, and insanely expensive (a 24mm f/1.4 Summilux, for example, costs $7,000). An M9-P and a 24/1.4 will run you approximately $14,000. A D800E with a 24/1.4 Nikkor runs about $5,500 – and can either shoot in a quarter of the light with the same noise or the same light with four times the depth of field. Sometimes it is nice to have the luxury of choosing the method of taking low-light pictures. Although the expense is typically met with the refrain of, “it’s expensive because it’s good,” or “it’s not for everyone,” it is worth pointing out that many of the nouveau riche who buy things like Leicas did not get there by spending money just to spend money- cost/utility analyses go on all the time (albeit among much more expensive products). In units produced annually, Leica M9 production is about equal to the M6 – though the number of eligible buyers in the world has increased radically. Leica’s sales are up in China, but with flat overall volume, that means that they are diminishing in other parts of the world.

Leica M lenses have very limited options for addressing focus shift [with the exception of partial corrections like the 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M FLE]. All lenses exhibit focus shift when stopped down, and this can make rangefinder focusing more inaccurate than it should be. Digital has less tolerance for error, and the only ways to mitigate focus shift in fast lenses is to use floating elements and aspherics, both of which – when executed to Leica standards – cost a mint. Closed-loop focusing (in the guise of contrast-detection AF) allows things like the $600 35/1.4 Fuji X lens (for the X-Pro1) to perform comparably to the $3,500 35 Summilux ASPH. But even before that, the lowly Hexar AF was able to keep up with the legendary 35mm Summicron ASPH by adjusting its focus to account for the selected aperture.

Leica’s 20th-century lenses hold the digital M system back. Users often fixate on speed, but older, high-speed lenses are not world beaters (though many people pay those types of prices for them). The 75mm Summilux command prices that are more driven by rarity than its relatively humdrum performance on a flat sensor (or the somewhat provincial appeal of shooting a portrait with just the eyelashes in focus). Even some of Leica’s more innovative designs like the 28-50-35 Tri-Elmar are fairly unremarkable performers on a Leica digital. The standards required to make a good digital lens are far more exacting than what made superlative film lenses in the past. There are always third-party lenses, but sometimes it seems silly to attach a $300 lens to a $7,000 body.
None of these are show-stoppers, but they tend to paint Leica M into the corner of being a very specific solution to any given problem. And getting to the place where a Leica M optically outperforms the competition requires very expensive gear.

3. The synergy.

One thing about Leica M was that for a long time, you had to use a Leica body to get the Leica M lenses. This was due in part to patents on the lens mount. Even where other manufacturers made M-mount cameras (like the Minolta CLE, Hexar RF, Bessa R, Zeiss-Ikons, and Rolleis), Leica always had a little bit of an edge due to its huge and wide pressure plate. Today, though, the entire synergistic advantage of using a Leica lens with a Leica body lies in the microlens pattern on the Leica sensor glass. It is not a perfect solution, but it is currently the only way to get the Leica resolution all across the board – and on a 24x36mm sensor. All of that said, the synergy between Leica lenses and bodies really only matters if you assume a Leica M lens to be an essential part of the equation. Where other cameras are built as a cohesive unit (lens and sensor), the 80/20 rule kicks in (80% of the performance at 20% of the price). Only here, Leica’s pricing now pushes that toward a 90/10 proposition.

4. The optical viewfinder.

One of the big points of excitement about the Leica M is its big, clear viewfinder. Though Leica fields the brightest and least-distorted finders in the industry, those finders are expensive to produce and, given the mechanical nature of the framelines, are incapable of showing accurate framing except at one arbitrary distance. This tends to make shots frame looser than they should be, thereby wasting real estate on the sensor. Japanese manufacturers have not surpassed the Leica clarity, but they have managed to produce close equivalents for much less money. But the bigger issue came with the rise of hybrid viewfinders that use LED overlay displays to (a) show instant playback; (b) project a digital level and composition gridlines; (c) display a computation of the depth of field based on focal length, aperture, and focused distance; and (d) show field-corrected framelines appropriate to any focal length. This is to say nothing of allowing an instant TTL lens view as well. These features – which can universally be shut off – add a considerable amount of utility for people who want them. They don’t take away from the beauty of the Leica version, but one line of 8-segment LEDs provides no warning about running through an SD card or a battery, two conditions that did not really exist when the viewfinder was last redesigned, 10 years ago. In the end, the major compelling feature of that Leica view is…

5. The rangefinder

Part of what makes the Leica M is the rangefinder. Leica Ms will always have rangefinders, because the “M” actually stands for Messsucher (rangefinder). When the Leica II was developed, there were no small SLRs. Leica and Zeiss based their competing 35mm cameras on coupled prism rangefinders. This was, at the time, the only technology that allowed a compact camera to focus accurately, particularly with high-speed lenses.

Even when 35mm SLRs came into the mainstream in the 1950s and 1960s, rangefinders persisted. Rangefinders were smaller in general, and it was easier to make wide-angle lenses for them. Back then – and now – rangefinders also did a better job of focusing those wide-angle lenses. Where a rangefinder system has a constant magnification and starts running into problems with longer lenses, SLRs benefit from assuming the magnification of telephoto lenses they use.

Many competitors have made runs at matching the Leica rangefinder, and the common vendor to Fuji, Mamiya, and Konica almost managed to do it. The Leica mechanism is a wonder of precision and high-end manufacturing. Today, though, it seems like a precisely engineered, laser-engraved, CNC machined, hand-honed … typewriter. The rangefinder’s competence is in focusing wideangle-to-normal lenses – but run-of-the-mill autofocus is just as good at doing that.

The weight

Aside from struggles with relevance to Opportunists at a core technology level – i.e., creeping effective obsolescence – Leica M carries a lot of baggage. The weight (all apologies to Rick Danko and Robbie Robertson) goes beyond simulating the size and weight of a camera of 1953 (the weight is, in fact, simulated – the brass covers of a digital M account for almost 25% of ite weight). It goes beyond doing things they way they have always been done – in the name of tradition. It goes beyond being accosted in public by weirdos who recognize your M8 as “an M4.” To this author, the most perfidious part of it is the cognitive dissonance that arises when one carries $10,000 in gear around his neck but fancies himself to be a photographic Zen Buddhist.

Leica used to think outside the box – not only did it popularize 35mm film photography, it also invented things like phase-detect AF, made innovative cameras like the M3, and otherwise kept up with the world (even Leica’s current S2 is technological light-years ahead of the M). Had this progressive philosophy carried over into the M series (or an updated successor), the M8/M9 would not have slavishly copied film cameras in looks, live view would have been added to stand in for the Visoflex, and it would have been Leica to introduce hybrid viewfinders. Maybe this will change on May 10, 2012 with some huge product announcement [it did not, but the M typ 240 did introduce the use of electronic viewfinders – EVFs – to Leicas].

But in our hearts, we know it won’t. The world of Leica is somewhat frustrating. The products are high quality, the resulting images are excellent, and the general solidity of the system makes all of us keep our lenses as we repetitively upgrade digital bodies (and upgraded film bodies before that). We always want to think that some vastly improved new M is around the corner, yet ultimately, we just end up settling for something that is behind the curve, for a lot of money. One could get the sense – reinforced by the rapid pace of the rest of the photographic world – that this bubble of IR filters, color vingetting, bottom-plate loading, and black paint is going to burst.When you look at things like the Fuji X-Pro1, you begin to think that perhaps it already has. Maybe the better thing would be for Leica to declare victory in 2013 after 60 years of M – after all, it outlasted Contax, Alpa, and everyone elese’s film rangefinders (and even outlasted Polaroid, Kodak, Agfa, and Ilford…) – and reboot with something as earthshaking as the M3 was in 1953.

Disclosure: the author has been a Leica user for the better part of two decades and was an early adopter of the M8 [and M240, and M246].

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No love for the Empire? Leica Multifunction Handgrip M 14495

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The Multifunction Handgrip M (14495), $895, is a depressing piece of hardware. It’s not the price or the alleged GPS slowness. It’s the depressing feeling that like a lot of things, the M camera reached its highest point of elaboration and now is on the path of decontenting that hit a lot of other types of consumer electronics.

Hello and goodbye. The story of this product is wrapped up with the M typ 240 (and its cousins the M-E 262 and Monochrom 246). The 240 was a watershed moment for Leica – the first time the M had actually become functional like other people’s cameras. It signaled a few firsts:

  • Video. Not the best HD video ever, but with the new EVF(!) it was passable.
  • Audio input. Plus it actually had a way to get audio into the camera! But no EVF and mic adapter at the same time. In every life, some rain must fall.
  • A digital horizon that operated in 3 dimensions (so it could detect pitch and roll).
  • A high capacity battery.
  • A function button on the front that could trigger exposure compensation adjustments or viewfinder magnification.

How many of these features made it to the M10? The front button. Now let’s see where the Multifunction Handgrip takes you:

  • GPS. Every want to auto-tag your photos with the location?
  • SCA flash connector. Now you can connect to a flash via a metal plugged-cord or a standard PC outlet.
  • AC connector. Now you can run your camera on video for the allotted 29 minutes at a time (before the auto shut off).
  • USB port for tethered operation (likely why the AC connector is so important).

But then there came the M10, thin like a 90s shoulder pad. No more video. No more need-to-keep-it-level landscape photography (apparently…). Smaller batteries, as if the thrill of living had gone.

Weight? The 14495 adds surprisingly little weight to the M. That’s because everything but the baseplate part is plastic. Naturally, the light grip does not change the balance of the camera, so you need to use brute strength (and grip) to keep big lenses level.

Grip? The ergonomics of this are something that grow on you. At first, you feel like it could be a centimeter taller to accommodate your index finger. But wait – that’s the one you need to press the shutter. It doesn’t take long to adapt to this grip, and it greatly enhances the handling of the camera with huge lenses like the 75/1.4. Every little bit counts, and an M is pretty slippery, even with the little nub grip built into its case.

GPS? It works. Just put your camera in standby, and within a few minutes, it will get a fix. Once it’s running, it seems to be pretty accurate.  A lot of people seem to complain that when it loses a signal, it continues to log its last known location. That’s actually beneficial when you go indoors (since you don’t want it to revert to a location in the center of the earth, for example).

“Near-field” communication. You always wanted this on a digital camera, but you didn’t want Android. Well, here you go. To get a wifi signal out of a card (like the Toshiba Flashair, which will be treated in a future installment), you basically need to have your handheld touching the top plate of the camera (which apparently is the most porous surface for radio waves.

Flash. Flash. Flash. So you want to know how well the 14498 SCA setup (another bazillion dollars) works? It consists of a bracket and an extension shoe. The idea of this product is to allow you to move the flash off camera both to enhance balance and to free up the hot shoe for an optical or electronic viewfinder.

 

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The disappointing thing is that there is no vertical grip piece, meaning that your flash head is much closer to the lens axis in landscape mode than you might like. So this works better out of the box with taller flashes like the SF 58 or 64.

The weird thing is the SCA plug, which is both unusual and insanely well built. It probably requires 200 different machining operations. But like the EVF connector, it’s proprietary, meaning that you have exactly one choice for off-camera work. The exit of the cord near the body of the camera body seems weird at first, but after you use it a bit, you wonder why Nikon screwed up so badly with the SC hot-shoe adapters, which have huge cords that on an M camera either end up blocking the viewfinder or getting in your face, literally.

But the good thing with the 14498 is that you can get and use your favorite old Vivitar handgrip – because the extension shoe detaches from the bracket. And can be used without the bracket.

Flash operation is unremarkable (as it should be). You do not get a flash-ready indication in the EVF if you have it attached, and shot to shot lag time is not affected.

Conclusion. The Multifunction Grip M, if you can score one used for under $400, is a pretty good item. At that price, it’s not quite as outrageously expensive as list, and it helps tremendously with heavy lenses. As to the SCA set, it’s a tougher call, unless you can get one for under $200. Where the grip gives you a standard PC connector, you can use any handle-mount auto flash you want (such as a Metz 45 series). Flash may or may not be in your personal program, but I would remind you that the higher-end Leica flashes do high-speed synch very well.

Minolta CLE

‘It’s just as well,’ said the other, ‘because I don’t suppose I could have satisfied you.’ He made an apologetic gesture with his softpalmed hand. ‘You see how it is; an empty shop, you might say. Between you and me, the antique trade’s just about finished. No demand any longer, and no stock either.

— George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

As Charrington might have said to Smith, it is kind of late in the game for film Leicas. It’s 2017; Kodak makes three varieties of black and white film; and frankly, every other manufacturer has narrowed down to that number or fewer emulsions. Is it fun to shoot a film rangefinder these days? Yes and no. The beauty is that you can afford cameras you would have never dreamed of buying when you were 12 and reading old issues of Popular Photography. The bad news is that 30 years later, the cameras all seem so mortal.

The short take

Let’s forget about doing a full-on description of the camera; you have Google for that. Perhaps it is better to start with how this camera works for people who normally use Leicas.

Positives

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21mm f/4.5 ZM C-Biogon

The CLE, like a lot of small cameras (and M cameras) is straightforward. It is small, light, and easy to handle, if a bit blocky. The rangefinder seems more capable of focusing longer lenses than people seem to think. And it is extremely quiet. But there is more.

  • Size. The CLE is the size of a Canonet. A small one. It is about 80% of the size of a Leica M-series camera. Not vanishingly small, but quite a bit smaller and lighter. In fact, it might be uncomfortably small for the large-handed.
  • Rangefinder construction. The rangefinder mechanism is very similar to the Hexar RF in its design, right down to the annoying gear wheel for vertical adjustment. It also has the same general affect as in the Fuji GSW690III, Mamiya 6/7, and Bessa M cameras. You will love it or hate it.
  • Common parts. The CLE is built on the Minolta XG-7 platform. So it is cheap as an SLR and very expensive as a Leica-style rangefinder. A repair person has confirmed for me that many of the parts are the same but that some key ones (like the viewfinder/rangefinder) definitely are not.
  • Capacitive (or not). Your finger closes the circuit that makes a half-press of the shutter. This will be fun with gloves, I suspect. That said, it may make the camera more resistant to the breakdown of a two-stage shutter switch (ahem, cough, Hexar AF…).
  • OTF/WTF metering. The camera meters off the film (hence, there is no exposure lock). The metering is far more sophisticated than any Leica film M (and indeed the digital ones if they are not in the multipattern mode).
  • Wide lenses. The CLE is a great platform for compact wide M lenses. Your 21, 15, or 12mm lens does not need massive rangefinder accuracy – and when it comes to getting images on film, the CLE still gives you a 24x36mm frame.
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And here is that Biogon again.

  • Cheap TTL flash. A TTL flash costs $10 (Vivitar Auto Thyristor 550D for Minolta). Take that, Leica Camera AG.
  • Rangefinder. The rangefinder masks are on glass plates, not metal pieces. Don’t be surprised to see some degradation.

Quirks and Annoyances

If you are used to traditional Leicas, you may be tripped up by a few things:

  • Swing-open back. The Minolta dispenses with the irritating bottom-plate loading of a Leica M. And yes, it is annoying and pointless on a film Leica, and even more so on digital Leicas. The idea originally was to allow a bigger pressure plate and flatter film. While there may be a use case for this with some lenses, there is no real-world consequence to using a normal-sized plate except that your chances of successfully loading film go way up with a swing back.
  • “Easy” loading takeup spool. This is one place where Leica is easier to live with – on a Leica, you just jam the film leader into a multipronged spool. The CLE has a fairly terrible spool with a white collar. It’s tough to get the film tip in there. Konica wins in the easy-loading spool race; Minolta should have sucked it up and licensed that feature.
  • Rewind knob on the bottom. This is mostly harmless except that you need to lift and rotate the knob to open the back. This is definitely a “read the manual” moment.
  • No manual metering. A carry-over from the XG-7 series, the meter shuts down when you switch the shutter speed dial off A. This is not the worst thing that could happen; before you switch to M you will see the recommended shutter speed – you can dial it up or down from there.
  • Viewfinder blockage. The viewfinder/rangefinder window placement is terrible for big-diameter lenses. Most of these lenses are fast 50s, but even where they are not (such as the 21-35mm Dual Hexanon or the 18mm ZM Distagon),  a lens with a 55-62mm front end will block the viewfinder and rangefinder.

Do we like it?

The CLE is a very solid camera; it is small, quiet, and does not get in the way. It seems to distill the things that are fun about shooting rangefinders while minimizing the things that seem to be baggage. Maybe the sunset of film photography is here, maybe it is not, but this is a good companion with which to watch the sun go down. Or come up.