• Kaisern Chen

The road ahead

Updated: Mar 25, 2019

It is already over a century after the first rangefinder camera to the market, the 3A Kodak Autographic Special of 1916. After a decade, in 1925 with the Leica I to make the "telemeters" rangefinder popular and further success and adaptation seen in 1932 by the Leica II and Contax 1 and by 1936 the rangefinder integrated in the center of the viewfinder of Contax II. The fundamental mechanism has been evolved and improved over the decades, but the principle of the concept remains the same, best represented by Leica's M series of cameras.

The love of classic, mechanical rangefinder cameras by photographers, in general, has not been faded; however, the costs and practicability keep most of them away from it. As an industrial designer, I love the simplicity of Leica M cameras design and precision mechanical quality that works like a well-oiled machine, but as a photographer, I would not lie that there are no better choices for varies applications. I am lucky enough to own and collect some of the Leica cameras and lenses since more than two decades ago, so I have the opportunities to use many different models (film and solid-state capture) over time with a good number of M lenses and R lenses; while I am also shooting with varies different camera system of different brands.

I have to admit that I love Leica cameras and use them for my personal projects and travel pictures, but rarely for paid commercial assignments - a decision made on efficiency, flexibility and of course quality.

Leica had seen its glorious day back in the time when the M3 and M4 were the envy of every other brand on all measurements. As the camera industries evolved, the reflex system took the dominance role with the broader selection of lenses and automation features. Leica has been working hard playing catch up since and slowly becomes a niche choice and status symbol for many hobbyists who can afford it and want to associate their photography with legendary and iconic cameras or sometimes as a lifestyle accessory. Very few professionals use Leica as their only or the main camera even they could easily afford it.

But of course, the Leica M and R cameras are nothing less than fantastic, well capable of producing beautiful images competitively in the analog era with some professional photographers depend on them.

Into digital, Leica is always somewhat hesitant. R system had no success in adapting to solid-state capture and silenced quietly. M system had some early struggle, but with M9 the Leica M has again re-established its position - still a niche, but competitive enough in certain regards of photography. But in the digital era, the development is fast-paced, and while the overall industry embraced CMOS over CCD sensors - even the digital back makers, Leica has again become the last to adapt.

Leica is a small camera company, a small company with a big ego. But they have to, and the general photography public expects Leica to have a big ego and continue to carry the heritage. And within a few years, Leica is a company with a portfolio of S, SL, M, T system cameras, Q and a line up of luxury compacts cameras, as no one else. The overstretched line up could be a fantastic idea for top-down vertical and horizontal system integration, but the legendary M system sits in the middle as the crown jewel of Leica yet its adherence to the mechanical lens mount and M manual lenses keep the total integration from reality.

Imagine a modernized M mount with full electronic communication and swift autofocus can do? Never say never.

The move to simply M camera with Typ 240 destination back in 2012 was not a bad one, with the adaptation of CMOS sensor adds the live-view and electronic viewfinder to M camera also liberates the M camera to accept former R lenses in practical terms. Leica did not push it further, instead retracted to its conservative core with the release of M10. The M10 is superior to the Typ 240 in most ways while eliminating the video function is not necessary, although not many people missed it, Leica could have left it alone. I don't miss it, not really desire it but do not mind if it is there as I did use once with my M-P Typ 240 and a few times with Typ 246 Monochrom for curiosity causes.

Leica M-P 240 Titan + R-Adapter-M + Apo-Telyt-R 400mm F2.8

In Leica's words, the multi-task role will be the responsibility of the SL system introduced in 2015 as the M system will remain true to its old core aiming to bring to the unique experience of analog photography back into the digital world. The best example is the most recent M camera, the M10-D, which introduced about 18 months after the launch of original M10.

Strategy and marketing plan aside, the currently most popular cameras bearing the name of Leica are the M10/M10-P and Q - a clear indication of who the Leica users are and what to expect. Q camera resembled the classic "Messucher" look with a built-in brilliant Summilux 28/1.7 ASPH lens is one of the modern Leica with automation features comparable to the competition and the camera I often use as "The 28mm" when I shoot with the M camera. It is an efficient and logical combination. For many, Q is the entry to the Leica ecosystem.

Leica Q Titanium and Leica M10 with Summilux-M 28/1.4 ASPH

But, as of late February 2019, as rumors mounting on a soon-to-be-released Q2 model to feature a new sensor with a significant increase in resolution - from 24 to 47 megapixels (+95.83%) will make the M camera and Q2 combination somewhat awkward.

The M10/M10-P/M10-D are without question the most important cameras and the center of all attention and deserve the best of Leica. The decision to equip Q2 the highest resolution and latest sensor of Leica is not an illogical one and quite a safe move. The Summilux 28/1.7 ASPH is a fixed lens on Q2 so the digital profiling and optimization will work much better on a sensor that is more demanding, assisted with optical image stabilizer and coupled with fast autofocusing - that ensure the result of image benefitted with the new sensor.

It could be an entirely different scenario to have the new 47-megapixel sensor on M10. The tolerance of accuracy of mechanical rangefinder will be further compressed and a tall order to control the image blurring in rangefinder shooting: spontaneous and handheld - a challenge to the very foundation of the Leica M system. The digital optimization across the entire line up of M lenses is another challenge and pressure to the dated 6-bit coding system.

I have both Leica M10 and M10-D with me on my recent two-weeks-trip in Russia and shot both cameras side by side and as a result around 85% of shots made with M10-D. It is nothing to do with image quality but the M10-D is the kind of camera that is more fun and addicted to shooting. For photography the pair of M10 and M10-D is not a better option than the SONY A7RIII and Fujifilm GFX50R I also carried with me for the trip. But fun is not replaceable.

Leica M10 with Summilux-M 35/1.4 ASPH FLE (M60 Edition lens) and Leica M10-D with Summilux-M 28/1.4 ASPH

So what is ahead of Leia? In particular the Leica M system? The advancement in the sensor will not stop! The electronic viewfinder and the AI-powered AF system will only become faster, more accurate and smarter! Sensor-based image stabilizer will become more effective! The camera was hardware in the past, but today it needs to be part of the solution - the visual material eco-system. Total integration is the main-stream expectation in the coming future, and electronic is at the moment the most efficient way for complete integration. At the moment, the development of the M system seemed stagnated!

We can almost sure that a universal adaptation to the new sensor will happen after the introduction of Q2. Technically Leica could use the new sensor on the existing chassis of M10 and call it a new M camera, but that is not likely enough for the long run.

The communication between lens and camera needs reconsideration - AF without abandoning the M Bayonet is not impossible. Classic rangefinder lenses have no conflict with electronic viewfinder has been proven. Sensor-based stabilizer system is almost necessary for the high-resolution sensor for practical use.

Hardware? Or a part of the solution?