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September 22, 2008 3:01 PM   Subscribe

Though their cameras have produced some of the defining photographs of the twentieth century, Leica have struggled in the new digital age. However there are still some aficionados for the Leica's 'kiss'.
posted by fearfulsymmetry (34 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
They may be stepping to the front of the line again. Hope so. It would be a shame to see them go under after so many years of really cool cameras.
posted by doctor_negative at 3:33 PM on September 22, 2008

As much as I'd love to have something Leica-sized with the image quality of my SLR, the sheer price of the thing moves it firmly into gadget-as-snobby-product territory. Instead of being a great small camera for shooting everywhere, Leica today is pure techno-fetishism, with huge quality-control problems being sold for thousands of dollars.
posted by Tomorrowful at 3:37 PM on September 22, 2008

One excellent value is Panasonic's Lumix cameras. They've got Leica glass, and although the specs are modest in some areas, I have a deep (perhaps somewhat irrational) love of even my oldish FZ-20. While there are insane cameras out there that have zillions of megapixels, I will always remember this camera as the one that changed the way I understood light.
posted by SteelyDuran at 3:51 PM on September 22, 2008

Tomorrowful, taht seems to me to be what's really hurting Leica. It's all very well to have a following of people who believe you provide the finest photography tools available (for the set of tasks they're designed for) but the horrible, horrible problems that have bedevilled their first major foray into digital have blown that reputation.
posted by rodgerd at 4:00 PM on September 22, 2008

They make damn fine lenses.
posted by Mental Wimp at 4:09 PM on September 22, 2008

I'll second the love for the Panasonic Lumix cameras. I've got a DMC-FZ-18, and it's an amazing camera, especially considering how cheap it is. Like SteelyDuran, I never really understood what light can do for a picture until I got a Lumix.
posted by oozy rat in a sanitary zoo at 4:14 PM on September 22, 2008

I have an old Leica.

It uses something they call "film".
posted by stubby phillips at 4:30 PM on September 22, 2008

The problem with Leica's digital offerings (and with the Panasonic clones), is that unfortunately, Panasonic's sensors just aren't very good. They get incredibly noisy above the base ISO. Check the tests on dpreview.com for more info. Leica has superior glass but inferior sensors. They need to dump Panasonic and get someone else to make their sensors.
posted by Potsy at 4:37 PM on September 22, 2008

They need to dump Panasonic and get someone else to make their sensors.

Yeah, can you imagine how many camera-geek hard-ons the following announcement would arouse:


<sigh> A guy can dream...
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:02 PM on September 22, 2008

Unless I'm mistaken, the Lumixes don't seem to be clones of Leica's products. But I do acknowledge the sensor noise issue, which has gotten only slightly better over time. I was just contrasting Tomorrowful's observations about techno-fetishism with a camera that doesn't cost a lot and has something about it that makes it a joy to use — because somehow, the Leica equipment manages to straddle both domains. Hopefully, Panasonic will produce a better sensor over time and both worlds can be equally well served.
posted by SteelyDuran at 5:02 PM on September 22, 2008

Leica makes really nice microscopes.
posted by pombe at 5:28 PM on September 22, 2008

Leica makes really nice microscopes.
posted by pombe at 8:28 PM on September 22 [+] [!]

"Three Independent Companies Share the Leica Brand"
posted by shothotbot at 5:32 PM on September 22, 2008

SteelyDuran: Perhaps not anymore, but at one point they were the same. For instance, the Leica Digilux 3 and the Panasonic DMC-L1 were basically the same camera, just with different packaging (and price tags).
posted by Potsy at 5:37 PM on September 22, 2008

Leica also makes really great binoculars -- mine were stolen out of my luggage in the Miami airport. I'm still pissed.
posted by vronsky at 5:40 PM on September 22, 2008

The lenses on the Panasonic point-and-shoot cameras are Leicas in name only. They bear no resemblance to the lenses Leica made for their rangefinder cameras but instead are manufactured by Panasonic with a Leica design and under a Leica license. I actually wouldn't be surprised if the Leica-badged cameras are made by Panasonic too. They're no different than Sony's Zeiss partnership. A used Zeiss 21mm Distagon for a 35mm SLR will go for around $1500 (if you can find one) and this is an entirely manual lens which will need an adapter to work with a modern SLR body. A Sony point-and-shoot with a Zeiss lens will go for a few hundred bucks. The quality is not bad for point-and-shoot cameras, but to equate the two is misguided.

The advent of digital moved Leica from being essentially a boutique lens manufacturer to trying to compete with an economics giant like Canon. Leica made rangefinders, mostly, which are essentially a box with a lens attached. The market shifted dramatically from being lens driven to being body driven. There was no possible way they should have even tried to compete. Hell, Canon nearly finished off Nikon - a household name. Leica should have seen this coming and simply shifted to making lenses exclusively. Zeiss recognised much earlier that their name was valuable and shifted their strategy accordingly.
posted by jimmythefish at 5:46 PM on September 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

...sorry that's electronics giant like Canon.
posted by jimmythefish at 5:53 PM on September 22, 2008

I was showing off my new Lumix to a European friend a couple of weeks ago, and he looked at it and said, "Hmm. Nazi lense." Old habits die hard, apparently.
posted by sneebler at 6:22 PM on September 22, 2008

It used to be just glass. Now it's sensors and glass. If Leica could get sensors like Canon's, oh boy!
posted by caddis at 6:24 PM on September 22, 2008

If Leica could get sensors like Canon's, oh boy!

I don't see why they can't - Sony sells its sensors to pretty much anyone (including Nikon, IIRC), and Pentax get theirs from one of the big South Korean manufacturers (Samsung?).

In any case, there are people making and selling good sensors to other manufacturers.
posted by rodgerd at 6:40 PM on September 22, 2008

> Instead of being a great small camera for shooting everywhere, Leica today is pure techno-fetishism,

So how about some clever hardware haxor builds a do-it-yourself digital sensor retrofit for the iii series?
posted by jfuller at 6:52 PM on September 22, 2008

I should certainly hope the lenses are good. Take a look at this here 50mm f/0.95. For $11,000, that bastard had better be out taking award-winning photos while I sleep.

I joined photography after digital had become the standard, so Leica is mostly a prestige brand to me. There's a saying I've heard: "A Leica is a camera that you buy to have in your hand during the publicity shoot after you win an award for a photo you took with your Canon." Swap in Nikon if you'd rather.
posted by echo target at 7:22 PM on September 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

f/0.95 is a truly astonishing optical achievement. It is still a waste of money, but low light photography without any flash etc. is very much enhanced by a big light bucket like this.
posted by caddis at 8:01 PM on September 22, 2008

I borrowed a Leica M3 from a friend, as I can't justify buying one for myself. The Leica is the Moleskine of cameras, I guess. It feels and looks very nice, but you can take notes/pictures with any other brand, and it will be your work, not what you use to do it, that matters. That said, for those of us on a budget, Sigma's DP1 (and even more so the upcoming DP2) count as "poor man's Leicas". Small, simple, discreet, manual, beautiful image quality and a silent shutter. Perhaps the micro 4/3s cameras that are on the horizon will contribute to this pool as well.
posted by Poagao at 8:07 PM on September 22, 2008


I'm sort of sorry that Leica has seemed to lose its way since the arrival of digital, because I think that there's a market for quality big-sensor non SLR digital cameras. Sigma counts as a near miss, there are issues with that camera as well.

I'd love for Nikon or Canon to come out with their version of what the M8 should have been. A little competition might spur Leica.
posted by pjern at 9:08 PM on September 22, 2008

Lumixes don't seem to be clones of Leica's products

Some Lumixes are available in Leica branded versions (like these) with a slightly different external design and software, but Leica's other digital cameras are entirely separate, although I think the electronics are Panasonic.
posted by cillit bang at 11:31 PM on September 22, 2008

Leica already kind of lost the game in the 70s, during the rise of the SLR. Rangefinders went out of fashion permanently. They chose to go the route of the snob gadget, which may very well have been the right choice, as the company still exists today.

Personally, I'm a big fan of rangefinders, but can't afford Leica's astronomical prices. Fortunately for me, a few years back Cosina snapped up the Voigtländer name and started producing a line of Leica-mount rangefinders. They've got more plastic bits than Leicas, but as jimmythefish said: a rangefinder camera is mostly a box that keeps your film in the dark until you press the shutter. And that the Voigtländers do just fine.

The Cosina/Voigtländer lenses are also excellent, but in today's age of computer aided optical design, something's got to be wrong if you can't produce a very good prime lens.

Leica still seems to be struggling with the transition to digital, but they have some funky ideas. I do hope they manage to find a niche for themselves, as they are a company with a long history of making excellent, although slightly weird, cameras. The world would be a poorer place if they would go under or switch to making plastic, but profitable, crap.
posted by Djinh at 12:26 AM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the great post, Fearfulsymmetry. Especially because the lazy non-journalism of Amateur Photographer here in the UK claimed it was their phantom ‘scoop’ that a full frame M8 was in the offing that did for Lee. Which is utter bollox they insist on repeating mindlessly. Jimmythefish made the excellent point to contrast them with Zeiss, who saw that camera making is a bad business to be in compared to lenses, designs and the rest. The Zeiss lenses on my Contax G2 (a modernized, electronic rangefinder from the sadly absent Kyocera/Yashica designed with Zeiss involvement) and the G2 itself are as good as photography gets. Anyone interested in photography should try a rangefinder though – you can get 1970s fixed lens Japanese ones that are easily Leica grade for very little money (a mint Mike Hama rebuilt Yashica Electro 35 is circa $170) – check out the Olympus 35RC and RD, for example.

Eventually, Leica may be forced to go mostly the Zeiss way. Or else become a sad rump like Rollei, making a few cameras a year and pimping its sacred brand to whatever odious OEM will pay.

Putting a red dot on consumer Panasonic digital bozocams and doubling the price is less than clever. Much better finishes in leather etc, improved optics, RAW, etc could justify a 33% premium maybe but that’s it. A full frame M8, modernized CL to compete with Cosina, keenly priced full frame digital R (maybe just shove some of the guts of a D3 in an R9 body?) improved digicams suggested above and a retail revolution of the kind Lee suggested would help. Apple and Nintendo’s idea of ceasing to compete with so-called peers and instead growing their own markets is instructive. However, it will stay a hard business.

I own two Leica Miniluxes, bought for a fraction of the full price, which are Japan made (but with a real Leica Summarit lens) metal box posh point-and-shoots that make the results of any digital camera near the price look like something from three year old, spittle covered mobile phone cams.

A long long time ago (95) Paul Ross published a pretty comprehensive critique of the Leica myth, which still stands today. He demolishes it, but at the end a glow of admiration remains. A kind of obsolete, odd excellence that refuses to die….
posted by The Salaryman at 2:03 AM on September 23, 2008 [3 favorites]

Is it possible to say something like "Here are the expensive-to-implement features which this [astronomically priced] Leica lens has which will will make a qualitative improvement to the pictures you will be able to take when compared with what you could do with this [ordinarily priced] lens?

Or do the differentiating features help me take better photos in the same way that diamonds in my watch movement help me tell the time better?
posted by rongorongo at 2:19 AM on September 23, 2008

Aha! Just saw the S2 announcement. Given the lameness and sloth of Hasselblad's digital offerings and the departure (or virtual departure) of most medium format oriented cameras and firms it makes some sense for them to get involved in the space. However one wonders if that camera and its lenses will be 5x better than full frame Canon or Nikon offerings two years from now as it looks to be 5x the price. That said, the S2 is not a commodity product and Leica can ill afford to compete in those markets.
posted by The Salaryman at 2:31 AM on September 23, 2008

The M8 used a Kodak sensor.
posted by neat-o at 7:27 AM on September 23, 2008

I'm still waiting for an AE-1 shaped digital camera with autofocus and interchangable lenses.
posted by bonaldi at 7:58 AM on September 23, 2008

Oooh I'd like an S2. I have a 5D and the only (and I mean the only) thing I don't like about it is the size for casual shooting.
posted by jimmythefish at 8:29 AM on September 23, 2008

Or do the differentiating features help me take better photos in the same way that diamonds in my watch movement help me tell the time better?

Well, sorta. I mean, jewels in watches have a purpose--for watches that wind. A Timex won't have much use for them.

Which is to say, if you're looking for a quality digital range-finder, your options are Leica. Many of the greatest "off-the-cuff" photographs of the 20th century simply couldn't have been made without the immediacy of a range-finder with a fast lens. No flash necessary, fits in your pocket... well, if you have big pockets. At least they should be pretty empty after buying the Leica.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:59 PM on September 23, 2008

A used Zeiss 21mm Distagon for a 35mm SLR will go for around $1500 (if you can find one) and this is an entirely manual lens which will need an adapter to work with a modern SLR body.

Zeiss makes new manual focus lenses in ZA, ZE, ZF and ZK mounts which fit Sony, Canon, Nikon, and Pentax bodies, respectively. Depending on the mount, they have electronic aperture control, focus confirmation, and even image stabilization (since Pentax and Sony have it in the body). It's a fairly recent development (I believe the ZE mount was only announced last week) but, y'know, Zeiss lenses for all! Woo!
posted by heeeraldo at 12:59 AM on September 24, 2008

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