Leica is one of those camera companies where their reputation invariably precedes them. No wonder when they have been around since 1914 (the name Leica comes from the founder’s Ernst Leitz last name and the first two letters of the word camera). Arguably, some of the most groundbreaking cameras and lenses Leica produced were in the film days. In the era of digital, the landscape is much different at the top and bottom end of the market. Leica has the history and reputation, but can they still be the forward leaders in a digital world?
A Little History
The company was created by Ernst Leitz in 1914 and from the very start the rangefinder type design was evident in the camera body but in a simplistic form. The cameras were originally intended as high-end compacts for Street and landscape photography. The famous M-series was started in 1954, with their own bayonet type lens mount, the Leica M mount, and combined viewfinder and rangefinder. The company also produced SLR cameras such as the Leicaflex in 1964, but it was the rangefinder type with their prime lenses, which hit the spot. The M series continued in film form up until the announcement on May 24th last year that the M7 would be discontinued.
In the digital realm, the M rangefinder series continued with the M8 in 2006, with the company also offering the full sensor SL-series in 2015 and Leica Q and S-series medium format cameras like the Leica S2. Lenses are available for all models as primes. Both camera bodies and lenses had the quality and price tag to go with them which is the same today, but is it the reputation that justifies premium prices, quality of the results produced or are you inadvertently paying for a lot of research and development behind-the-scenes?
Clearly, having a Leica hanging around your neck gives you instant street cred., even to the non-photographers. It’s a bit like owning a supercar. They are expensive, stand out in a crowd due to their individual looks and always have the air of ‘this is expensive so it must be good.’ But use them on a good day and you can smile all week long. Still using the supercar analogy, mention you own a Leica and its kind of implies a certain status and level of camera knowledge.
But when you’re at this level of the market and also as an arty, high-end application, you can get away with being that bit more quirky than the rest. You can also push the boundaries and innovate which the customer base will accept, rather than being scolded because the new thumbwheel sits 2mm lower than it used to do on another camera brands.
Take the Monochrom series which produces finely detailed mono images. With no interpolation and no need for each pixel to compensate for color, a direct luminance value can be recorded to give the most accurate detail. A fantastic way to record these types of images, it’s just that you might have to open a few piggy banks for the $7,995.00 cost. It’s a very niche application camera, but you have to applaud Leica for having the guts to build the thing.
The same goes for their touchscreen and icon led interface. Everything has more in common with a smartphone way of thinking than a traditional camera menu system. Tapping and swiping along with using the command dials is a more intuitive experience than most. Moving over to a smartphone mentality has been taken to its conclusion with the Leica M10-D. The camera has farmed out all responsibilities to a smartphone and replaced the rear LCD screen with an exposure compensation dial which takes up most of the back of the camera’s real estate. This works best for set and forget functions and can extend the functionality of the camera with more information and apps.
The lack of the rear LCD screen may not agree with everybody, but it is clearly innovative and solidifies the old school design, which is definitely a big selling point for Leica. Proof in point with the addition of the faux film winding lever on the top of the camera, which has no function apart from being a cool little thumb rest. Even the bottom plate on the camera detaches to access the battery and memory card, just like on the M10. It’s very much more like the experience of playing vinyl, rather than a digital music file. It’s not just about the sound quality, it’s also the whole experience which is hard to quantify.
The lenses are also manual focus, with their own way of focusing. Line up the small box in the Finder with your image and when both match up than the lens is in focus. This is a rangefinder thing but also a Leica quirk which you soon learn to adjust to.
Leica is well aware that they fit into a certain niche in the whole camera market. In many ways Leica products are under the label of if you have to ask the price, you probably can’t afford one. Leica cameras are also not just pure imaging devices, they have an air of coolness but also in a category which only a certain section can afford. But it’s not price for the sake of it, images are always outstanding and the lessons you learn on a rangefinder type camera are invaluable.
This means, from here forward, if you have the money for a Leica without it hurting your wallet, it’s definitely a recommended experience. They may not always produce the ‘latest’, but it will definitely be innovative or a different way of looking at the same proposition from others. This means for the average photographer a Leica comes under the category of if I had the money, I’d buy one, but it may not take the place of one of your other cameras which also have a bunch of zooms which Leica do not produce.