In 1925, Leica turned the camera upside down with the Leica 1 and broke new ground with the Leica 2 and then the M3. Not so much in recent years though, and I would argue that the ‘classic’ M is actually holding back Leica innovation now.
To understand what the current “trot” might be, you need to understand the genesis of the typical Leica rangefinder, which started with the Leica 1 (fixed lens). This made the bold move of introducing an ultra-portable 35mm roll film camera. The fields of photojournalism expanded with the possibilities, although arguably the Leica 2 defined the era, taking the 1 and turning it into an interchangeable lens camera. Suddenly you could use these 35mm, 85mm and 24mm alongside the original 50mm.
There was still that tricky WYSIWYG (“what you see is what you get”) problem, which was invariably tackled with a view camera, twin lens reflex (TLR) or (later) single lens reflex (SLR) camera. Leica’s elegant solution was the coupled rangefinder, a separate view of the scene that corrected for parallax differences with the lens. The Leica M3 has taken this design to the next level with an integrated viewfinder/rangefinder and a switch from screw mount to bayonet mount. The transformation was complete for the ultimate handheld camera, perhaps best illustrated in the M6 and its recent resurrection.
Last but not least, the range finder was the spiritual father of the mirrorless camera. The bulky, complex, expensive, and blackout-prone mirror housing of the SLR was not, as the simplicity of the design allowed for a small camera. Crucially, like mirrorless models today, the flange focal length was short, allowing for much smaller lenses. No wonder photojournalists stuck with the Leica M for many years. The 1984 M6 gave way to the M7 in 2002, which introduced automatic modes, and so analogue mode ended in 2018…until the M6 was reintroduced this year!
The digital range finder
The innovation of the M rangefinder – or rather lack of it – is evident in the incremental improvements since the M3. Sure, there’s an argument that “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” but equally the success of Olympus (now OM Digital), Minolta, Nikon, Canon and Sony lies in a willingness to experiment and innovate.
So where has the digital range finder gone? The M8 launched the brand in 2006 and – image quality issues aside – it was a solid start, although it was obvious that M-class shooters would need a full-frame sensor and that arrived in 2009 with the M9. It was a defining moment. It beat Sony by three years in full frame and showed there was a market for such a camera while delivering superlative images.
And so began some Leicas that meandered for almost a decade with the release of the Leica M (Typ240), which rushed to incorporate more technology but at the expense of the shooting experience and not necessarily producing the best images available in the class. There was a plain version (ME), an update (Typ 262), and variants that dispensed with both the color filter array (Monochrome) and rear window (MD). It almost felt like a time of experimentation to get your bearings and figure out what an M-mount digital rangefinder should be and what customers were willing to pay for. For example, there’s an argument for the higher resolution that monochrome offers, making it a viable, albeit expensive, option. Removing the screen seems a bit unnecessary, but to each their own.
However, this period was also marked by the development of Leica’s mirrorless ambitions with the release of the T-mount (which morphed into the L-mount), which is a truly competitive entry into the market. Mimicking Sony’s strategy, it started with APS-C (T) before adding Full Frame (SL) and then opening the mount to Panasonic and Sigma as partners. Both have launched cameras that appear to complement rather than compete with the Leica range. All this, of course, in addition to Leica’s medium format S series.
So it seems that Leica has managed to find the perfect marriage of old and new by running rangefinders and mirrorless systems in parallel. Or has it?
Death of the range finder?
The conflict of this strategy is perhaps best illustrated by Leica’s announcement that it would be discontinuing its APS-C models: the CL and TL2 have been discontinued as the company pursues the burgeoning full-frame market. In a way, this shouldn’t come as a surprise; the low-end segment is shrinking and manufacturers are retreating. That means I don’t think we can call any Leica camera cheap, but maybe the volume just isn’t there anymore alongside the increasing need to simplify and streamline product lines. So it looks like APS-C models are increasingly going to the trash can.
In contrast, we’ve seen from Sony that the variant-supply model is solid; Build a base camera (the a7), then develop high-resolution (a7R) and low-noise/high-speed models (a7S). We also now have the compact variant a7C. Not only that, but keep selling the older versions at lower prices to get the full value out of the production lines.
Simplifying production to just four models, all sharing a similar core, makes a lot of sense while serving the widest possible market. Leica now appears to have a mirrorless model and four rangefinder models, all of which appear to be aimed at the same target user.
To sum up Leica’s problem, perhaps it’s easier to say what it doesn’t have: a more traditional rangefinder-less M-mount mirrorless camera. If this is the problem, then what is the cause? As I mentioned above, the range finder was an elegant way to “see” what the lens saw, which allowed it to be small and discreet. The advent of the mirrorless camera has all but made the optical viewfinder obsolete: by sending a live “feed” from the sensor, you can really see what the lens “sees” without complex opto-mechanical wobble.
In short, the range finder is not only redundant, it’s well past its sell-by date. Of course, that doesn’t stop Leica from selling a fair number of M rangefinders to willing consumers, but it does affect their product line. They’ve never made a small, full-frame mirrorless because that would compete head-to-head with the M and potentially cannibalize sales, which would mean producing two different designs for the same number of sales.
Maybe Leica should have made the Sigma fp
Where does this lead for Leica in the future? I believe the L-Mount Alliance was designed to reduce the cost of system development and allow much faster development of available cameras and lenses. Sigma (as a lens manufacturer) and Panasonic (as a camera manufacturer) are logical partners for Leica. However, the demise of the CL and TL2 underscores the product line issues Leica is facing.
Maybe it’s the camera should made, the Sigma fp was… well, maybe not quite the same as it’s an ergonomically unappealing box, albeit a small one. It’s aimed at the small-format, full-frame market, which, to me at least, might look like the M’s spiritual successor. Okay, I don’t want to do photojournalism with an fp, but the intent is right and, so I’d rather shoot with an fp than an M11.
Perhaps this is the reason for the joint development of a new mirrorless model by Leica and Panasonic; Either way, Leica remains a single full-frame L-mount model and range based on the M10. This doesn’t appear to be a forward-thinking strategy based on developing best-in-class technology. Could Leica’s future be better aligned with reducing the M to a single model that satisfies its existing clientele? Could it create a true successor to the M in the form of a mirrorless model that really builds on its legacy to offer the next-gen camera for photojournalism? After developing the L-mount to future-proof itself, did Leica get bogged down in the minutiae of expanding the M catalogue?
I’m eagerly awaiting what Leica and Panasonic develop together in hopes that a path ahead is laid. Of course, Leica could always do the unthinkable and produce an M-mount mirrorless camera that uses an electronic viewfinder.
Photo credit: Header photo by Matt Williams for PetaPixels