Friday, 25 April 2014

"Das wesentliche"

"The essential" is how Dr. Andreas Kaufmann, chairman of the supervisory board of Leica Camera AG describes the new Leica T Typ 701. After the marketing disaster of the Leica X Vario (which I wrote about last year), Leica made sure not to raise expectations of a "Mini M" or in fact anything like an M rangefinder with their new mirrorless camera.

And that is the right move to make. While the minimalist design of the Leica T fits the German company's historic gestalt, this new camera is arguably the first all-new minimal design the company has made. With the M-series bound strictly to its roots, the X-series to a standard digital camera design and the S-series to a non-mass market, the Leica T has the potential to transform digital camera design in the same way the M3 did to 35mm camera design.

First is its manufacturing process, as detailed here. It is "unibody" just like a MacBook Pro - perhaps this is the camera Apple would make if it were to ressurrect its QuickTake line under Jony Ive - milled from a single block of aluminium, then hand-polished for 45 minutes. You can see the polishing in real-time here.

Now, it may be a while before we see an Olympus or Sony mirrorless camera constructed in the same way, but it does put the possibility out there for a Jony Ive-spired design from Japan at some point in the future.

The Leica T's sleek lines and minimal controls renounce entirely the retrofied designs of mirrorless competitors such as Fujifilm and Olympus (not without irony as it had been noted that Fujifilm's X100 out-Leica'd Leica). This is a great decision, after all if Leica (with Audi Design) had produced a camera that looked like a shrunken M, what would be the point? Leica would be accused of aping Fuji (who in turned had aped Leica) at three times the price. No, Leica's new design breathes life not only into Leica but into the camera design world more generally.

But bigger than the looks is the thing that's on the back of the Leica T Typ 701: a 3.7" LCD Touch Screen. Yes, this is the least shit LCD ever put on a Leica camera. In fact, you might even call it the best, although I hesitate to use such a word when describing Leica's choices in LCDs. Leica is the company that co-invented the 35mm film format, perfected the rangefinder and engineered lenses of perfection. They have now turned their sights to a touch LCD interface - this is either going to be the best thing ever, or terrible and fail miserably. I have a strong feeling it won't be the latter, at least not according to initial reviews.

No Asian camera manufacturer has engineered a touch interface that makes any sense. No Asian camera manufacturer has designed a digital camera interface that makes any sense. The Japanese camera giants have been making the same, terrible cameras for years and hoping their extremely good sensors and electronics would tide them over. Not any more. This is Leica's chance to influence the world of camera design again, by creating a usable touch interface that isn't too far removed from an iOS home screen. Clean, sensible and lots of gradients German. I can't wait to have a play.

The Leica T seems to be all about quality, style and usability. It's also the first new Leica camera in almost 30 years to proudly display "Leica Camera Wetzlar". As with other Leica products, this camera is built and finished superbly, but does not break new ground in its specifications. A 16 megapixel APS-C mirrorless camera can be had for less than $500, but that's not the point. If you were worried about price, you wouldn't have been waiting for Leica's foray into the compact system camera world.

That said, I do find the price the most disappointing feature: AUD$2,300 for the body only, $2,300 for the 18-56mm zoom lens and $2,500 for the 23mm Summicron-T. No, I'm not going to delve into DPReview-style luxury loathing, but to me this is the camera that says Leica has their eyes on joining Cartier and Rolex.

Although Leica's products have always been expensive, the quality of the products coming from the major camera manufacturers is at such a high level now that, given a blind test, you would be struggling to tell whether an image was made with $1000 DSLR kit or a $50,000 medium format kit. Camera businesses are no longer concerned about image quality, but about survival in the smartphone era. Leica has identified one way to survive as making "premium" products and selling them to the wealthy in the west and the burgeoning super elite in China.

Perhaps, as a Leica user, it is sacrilege to say that there is little for an aspiring photographer to see in a Leica that they can't see in a Fujifilm X or a Sony A7. Where, for instance, a Leica M4 offered a size advantage at a price premium over a Nikon F3 in its day, today's mirrorless cameras offer amazing quality at a fraction of the Leica price. Where generations of aspiring photographers were rightly inspired by the workhorse Leica M and its famous users, today's Leica is much more a glitzy piece of extraordinarily well-engineered shoulder candy than photo workhorse.

In an interesting hypothetical, the Online Photographer asked what camera famous photographers of the 20th century would be using if they were alive today. Henri Cartier-Bresson, the post reasoned, would be shooting a Nikon V1 with the 18.5mm lens; Garry Winogrand, a reader argued, a Ricoh GR. Yep, it's hard to see a rarefied photojournalist these days using a Leica for anything but a bit of fun - "personal" work, they usually call it. It's even harder to imagine Robert Capa swimming ashore at Normandy with a Leica T Typ 701 with T-Snap and co-ordinated T-Flap. At least the resulting images, assuming the camera survived, wouldn't have been irreparably damaged in processing.

But I am bashing a straw man. This isn't your granddaddy's Leica. The T Typ 701 is a very latter-day Leica product - outside the box and somewhat contrarian. It'll no doubt be the first in a line of T bodies, perhaps one a bit more like a Leica M will be released at some point, built-in EVF etc. There will inevitably be many critics, but who cares about them? Leica certainly doesn't. And when you're Leica, why should you?

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