There has been a huge amount going on the camera industry of late. Photokina, and the lead up to it brought a steady slew of very newsworthy updates from a number of major brands, including the mirrorless introductions from Canon and Nikon, and some exciting medium format additions from Fuji. However, the mysterious set of rumors that lead to something quite unexpected from Leica, with the L-Mount alliance in partnership with Panasonic and Sigma, really piqued my interest.
As a Leica M and Q owner and photographer, I was very intrigued by this news, and was excited by the announcement’s timing as it lined up very closely with my trip to Germany and the tour of the factory I had planned. I was also scheduled to attend some presentations with a number of the key personal at Leica including Stefan Daniel, Global Director of Business – Photo Unit, Jesko Von Oeyhausen, Product Manager of the Leica M, Stephen Schulz, Head of Professional Photo, including the SL and L-Mount and Mr Leica himself, Peter Karbe; the amazing designer behind the incredible modern M and L mount lenses.
This article will be mixed with images from my tour of the very impressive factory in Wetzlar, Germany along with information from the various presentations and meetings. Of course, the people at Leica are not going to come out and spill all their plans for future products, but some hints were certainly given, along with some outright clear explanations of their thinking behind recent and potential future choices. So this article is my interpretation of those presentations, and predictions of where I think things are going for Leica’s cameras and lenses in the future.
The sense I got from Leica was a stronger understanding within the company of where each of their products sat within their line up, and how they each related to one another.
The M is all about the heritage of the camera, and all future decisions, I believe, will be based more on what we saw with the M10 product update. When all other companies try to stuff their cameras with all the bells and whistles, the M will remain true, and return more towards its history.
Having other successful cameras in their line up like the SL free’s up the M to stay simple. It will always be a rangefinder, with an optical viewfinder, as slim as possible to match the film camera’s of past and achieve the maximum performance from the manual M lenses.
Knowing this allows Leica to make decisions like the removal of movie shooting functions, adding quieter shutters and keeping it slim in profile etc.
So with this in mind, of course there are other features that users of M cameras would love to see. All camera uses hate dust, and no matter how well sealed a camera may be, dust seems to get on the sensor. Stefan Daniel noted that an automatic sensor cleaner built into the M would be beneficial, but due to size and the very thin glass covering on the sensor required for the M lenses, this was not possible. However, Stefan noted the sensor design in the M10 was improved dramatically, with the glass cover distance between the sensor increased, which results in a lot less dust. They believed these types of enhancements in future products will continue.
The most unique feature of the M system is of course the rangefinder. However, live view has been a great addition, especially for wide angle lenses and those with very shallow depths of field. The add-on EVF is not the most elegant accessory, so of course the idea of a optical / electronic viewfinder like the Fuji x100 series or a built in EVF is something many M users are interested in.
Jesko, the product manager for the M suggested that, of course, the electronic viewfinder is a nice addition for the M camera, however, they always see the rangefinder as the number one focusing system for the M. They mentioned Leica did build a prototype hybrid built in EVF M, but they put priority on the camera body design, as it made it too thick.
However, Stefan Daniel added to this, emphasizing there will always be a rangefinder version. However, they are looking at opportunities to have a second model with a built in EVF. They will never swap the rangefinder to EVF, but a second version alongside the rangefinder is very possible in the future.
In regards to lens roadmap, it was made very clear by Stefan Daniel that the focus was the L mount lenses for the near future. However, they were having meetings the afternoon I was there about future lenses, and knew (to my excitement) that a 35mm Noctilux was a much wished for addition. Stephan Schulz added that he thinks its a lens everyone would like to see, and know the 35mm is one of the more popular focal lengths in the M system, so they expected to have more discussions! Peter Karbe shrugged, but had a twinkle in his eye… so my feeling is this will be a lens that I’ll be seeing soon in my future!
Leica SL & L Mount:
The SL has been a very popular camera for Leica and has sold extremely well, and based on the talks, it seemed very much the future of Leica. The L-Mount alliance was a step to help solidify this. Along with building a team of companies that could work together to support one another, add further relevance to the mount, and act as a counterweight to the other participants in the market.
By creating this alliance, a much wider range of lenses will be available than what Leica could produce on their own. So all parties in the alliance will produce cameras and lenses that are interchangeable and technology could be shared between one another. This was quite interesting as Stephan Schulz mentioned buying power would also be greater between the three parties for components. For example, LCD’s, which are becoming very difficult to purchase as manufacturers are more interested in the quantities found in the mobile market than in cameras. Purchasing shared components, in greater quantities, could result in higher quality products from suppliers being made available to future cameras.
As mentioned above, the SL system is the priority when it comes to lenses. The M-mount has 26 lenses in the line up, so they see the need right now to build up the L mount portfolio. This means a number of lenses will be released over the next few years, and Peter Karbe did a talk that outlined some of these, including the insane level of quality in the upcoming 35 and 50mm Summicron L lenses.
As for the upcoming SL2 – a number of interviews recently have alluded to this upcoming product, including a more elegant and less boxy design. But it was also mentioned whilst I was at Leica that the upcoming camera would be significantly improved in the speed and accuracy of autofocus. It was also discussed how much resolving power the new L lenses the Peter’s team has designed, so a sensor with more megapixels would make sense to realize this resolution.
Some discussions were had about in-body verses in-lens image stabilization. They mentioned the issues with in-body required additional size, but also recognized the benefits when using M lenses as it would add that feature to those lenses that don’t have it built in. It seemed like this would be a feature that would continue to be explored in future products and maybe something we will see in the SL2.
Leica is testing a few new initiatives in Germany with the plan of rolling them out in key markets. This includes a finance program, a professional loan and service system and improvements in camera repairs and servicing, especially in North America.
The financial arm, much like car companies in North America, would allow customers to set up competitive financing for gear without the high initial outlay, along with potential upgrade programs for new products.
A professional loan and service system would also be set up, thats currently being tested in Germany, that would allow professional users to send in equipment for priority repairs with loaner equipment whilst it was being fixed, and well priced rental equipment when backup gear or additional lenses or bodies that may be required for specific client jobs.
Finally, there was a clear understanding of the problems and issues in the North American service center in New Jersey. They were currently putting in a lot of effort to help improve this situation in both the speed and quality of service and the communication of how that service was being managed. They said they will continue to work on this.
Overall, I was incredibly impressed with the Leica factory, the amazing technology and design they had developed to continue to make some very unique and exciting products. I was also encouraged with the plans for the company’s and products future.