Leica has recently introduced a couple of new cameras and a lens. Now, the large sensor (APS-C sized, 1.5x crop factor, much like those of Nikon DX, Sony NEX, Samsung NX and some other cameras) compact Leica X2 is hardly going to receive all that much attention and admiration, mainly due to some, by today’s standards, rather pitiful specifications. Think about it – the conservative Leica has fitted the X2 with a 6-7 year old LCD screen (2.7″, 230.000 dot), slow 24mm f/2.8 lens (the Fujifilm X100 has a 23mm f/2 lens) and a maximum shutter speed of 1/2000s. All this would not be so bad for those wanting simplicity for photography’s sake – mind you, I’m all for less gadgetry and more photography itself. But then there’s the price of $1,995. Two thousand dollars will get you a fixed focal length lens fitted compact camera, and nothing else. It looks good, yes. It probably feels good, too. And yet it’s a compact camera that doesn’t even have a viewfinder (unless you want the optional EVF, which is likely going to be mighty expensive, too), for a lot of money. In short – probably not worth it, unless you really love that red dot. Fujifilm X100, anyone?
And then there’s the new M.
…no. It still doesn’t work as you would expect it to, does it? At least not at first glance – it’s not exactly new as such. Different – yes, new – hardly. Apart from taking sharper B&W only images with no Bayer interpolation, Leica M-Monochrom is the same camera as the M9-P, which is the same camera as the 3-year old M9, which, apart from being digital, is very close to what a film M7 or MP is like. And all of these are mighty expensive. You can buy a D4 for M-Monochrom money, easy. With a AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G lens. And a memory card or two. Want a simple Leica branded lens to put on that brand new M body? A 50mm f/1.4 Summilux will set you back another $3,995.00. Truly, properly expensive.
But then…that is the point. That is the way of Leica. Let me explain.
Modern, conventional DSLR makers mostly strive towards technological advancement and, with that, complexity. We get sophisticated metering systems, sophisticated autofocus systems, sophisticated lenses, sophisticated processors and sophisticated LCD screens. I’m almost sure one could find a sophisticated camera strap. Everything sophisticated. Progress is understandable and very much needed – we use these cameras daily for our pleasure and work – but with it comes an immense amount of both rivalry and similarity between different brands, which sometimes makes things a little bit… well, boring. And we start to focus on the wrong things to stay entertained, forgetting photography itself.
Leica is one of the best known names in photographic history, going head to head with Carl Zeiss, Fujifilm and Kodak. To survive, Fujifilm had to start their X series with the X10, X100 and X-Pro 1, digital cameras focused towards achieving a compromise between functionality and personality. And it seems to have paid off, despite all the niggles you get with their products. Carl Zeiss had to take a niche approach with their manual lenses for modern DSLRs, among other projects (SLR lenses likely make up a very small portion of their business). Kodak has, not so long ago, suffered Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Protection and continues to produce film which many photographers, myself included, hope will live on. Leica had to make a choice as well, and what they did was make film camera’s that didn’t use film, but felt like they did. Leica focused on pleasure, because film isn’t about quality anymore, it’s about taking it slow, it’s about mastering your gear and enjoying the very process of photography with every feeling that you have. There are no autofocus systems, and no complex settings to choose from. There’s no need to look at the LCD – it just feels out of place. There’s just you and what you see through the viewfinder. Leica never pretends to compete with other manufacturers. Sophisticated simplicity. Why no one else thought about it?
It has to be rare. It has to be expensive. Not “look-I-have-a-Leica” expensive, no. “Look, I love photography” kind of expensive. It’s not for everyone, the M-Monochrom – it only takes B&W images, along with other things a Leica body does or doesn’t, depending on your point of view. There are different types of photography and, with that, lets be fair, a D4 and AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G fits a lot more applications than an M. But Leica comes as close to shooting film as you can get, without actually shooting film. All it does is take a photograph. The rest is up to the person holding the camera.
A Leica M body with a Summilux on it is like your grandmother’s frying pan (yes, a rather strange comparison, but bear with me). It’s nowhere near as sophisticated (that word again) as your wife’s new frying pan (the D4 pan, if you like), it’s not as shiny or as lightweight and easy to clean, possibly. And you put the same ingredients when you cook in both. It’s very hard to screw up your meal in the new pan. But why do pancakes taste so much better when you cook them in the old one?
Yes, it is a bold move. It is niche. But in the end, we would all want one, right?