A Somewhat Different Though Complementary View
On An Open Letter to Leica
By Mark Dubovoy
Leica M9 with 50 mm Noctilux – 1 second at F/0.95 and ISO 320.
First of all, I think Michael Reichmann needs to be commended for bringing this topic to light in an open forum, as well as for his directness in his personal views.
Unfortunately, all too often camera manufacturers tend to ignore this kind of invaluable input. For example, how many times have you read Michael and others complaining about the lack of a mirror up mode in Canon professional cameras? And what has Canon done? Nothing.
Not to pick on a single manufacturer (Canon), so since this is an article about Leica, I will openly pick on Leica. Leica used to make the best lens hoods on the market. The lens hoods for the R9 were terrific, you simply slid them forward (for most lenses), they locked into place and that was it. For some wide angles, they had rectangular lens hoods that could be left on the lens at all times and they had rectangular lens caps for these hoods. Good design and they were very well built.
By comparison, all the typical Japanese lens hoods are way too flimsy and they are a veritable royal pain in the butt to take off, reverse, install and all that. They constantly refuse to go in, or go in crooked, or jam or break. It is a miserable bad design, with flimsy bad construction to make matters even worse.
When Leica showed the first prototypes of the new S2 lenses, I was shocked and dismayed to see that they had gone with a badly designed Japanese type lens hood. I immediately contacted top executives in the US to tell them this was an incredibly bad idea; bad enough that they would most likely lose sales over it. I also asked for an explanation of how such a thing could come to pass. I never received an explanation. I even met with some top Leica executives and marketing/sales people at the PMA show in Las Vegas to encourage them in the strongest of terms not to do this. They totally dismissed me, they were simply not interested. I know for a fact that a number of other people complained about the same issue and Leica turned a deaf ear. Therefore, I was glad and sad at the same time when I read Michael’s S2 review and noticed that he did not like the lens hoods either.
Consequenrly I hope that not just Leica, but all manufacturers will appreciate the incredible value of having a very experienced veteran like Michael openly give them this kind of direct advice, and they will pay attention to the contents of his open letter.
Michael was kind enough to ask for my opinion on the letter. I shared some thoughts with him and he then encouraged me to write these as a “counterpoint” to his letter. Rather than being a counterpoint, I would suggest that my thoughts represent a slightly different point of view that is complementary in most areas.
So, without further ado, here are my thoughts.
EXPOSURE AND ERGONOMICS
I totally agree with Michael on the exposure issues and on the ergonomic issues.
Someone needs to finally design an "Expose to the Right" meter with appropriate visual and post-processing compensation. As Michael put it brilliantly, using 19th century rules that do not apply to digital sensors is a pretty dumb idea. This applies not only to Leica, but to all camera manufacturers.
I also agree with Michael that it is time to do a serious revision to the M camera body.
As some of you may know, I have been telling folks for a long time that the flat and wide 35 mm shaped bodies came about because of the need to transport film from one reel to the other, while exposing the section in-between the reels. This is no longer necessary with digital cameras, so the traditional 35 mm camera shape is obsolete and ergonomically wrong.
Everyone I see with a camera has a "cheek print" on the screen in the back, and if you are left-eyed you have a bad "nose print" assuming that you can even get your left eye close enough to the viewfinder to have a decent look through it, which is almost impossible. If you are an outdoor photographer, you most likely have a sunscreen coated rear screen, full of smudges all the time. This is pretty stupid.
The only constraint designers have is that the sensor has to be behind the lens. Everything else is wide open. There is no reason why the next Leica (or any other camera, for that matter) cannot have a form factor closer to a video camera or to a Medium Format Camera, or something totally new as opposed to the old outdated flat wide rectangle.
In the case of the M9, I fully concur with Michael that the removable bottom plate might be a cute anachronism for collectors, but it is quite impractical for serious users.
THE VIEWING SYSTEM
The one area where Michael and I have somewhat different opinions is in the future viewing system: Personally, I hope that the Leica M series never gets an electronic viewfinder (EVF).
My reasoning behind this is based on several factors:
1. If electronic viewfinders get good enough for this level of quality, the SLR with a mirror behind the lens will be obsolete, and all the major Japanese companies will quickly move to producing EVF cameras instead of SLR's. The M System would end up in direct competition with Canon, Nikon and all the other SLR manufacturers in terms of being an EVF camera; but would be at a huge disadvantage in the market due to the limited range of lenses, manual focus and high price. Not a good thing!
2. The whole "gestalt" and differentiation of the M system is having a viewfinder that does not dimensionally flatten the image like a groundglass or an electronic imaging system. Furthermore, in many cases it is wonderful to be able to see what is outside the image frame.
Therefore, my advice to Leica and my wish list for future M's is different:
- I believe the camera should have a zoom optical viewfinder that can zoom throughout all the focal lengths offered in Leica M lenses. It can easily be designed with a rectangle for the image area, plus some peripheral vision outside of the image area. If you look at the large format Linhof zoom finder, for example, it is incredibly accurate and can zoom from 55 mm to 360 mm. Therefore, making a Leica zoom viewfinder that goes from 16mm to 135 mm should be no problem. Also, the Linhof finder's exit and entry pupils are such that the finder is incredibly accurate when it comes to framing; and there is parallax correction to boot. There is no reason why the Leica future zoom finder could not be every bit as accurate, if not more.
One can also conceive of a zoom finder with an even wider zoom range, which could allow Leica to introduce both, longer and shorter focal length M lenses.
- Assuming that they put a zoom viewfinder in the camera, then the cams that are currently used in the M lenses to display the proper frames could be used to zoom the viewfinder to the proper position. The same thing applies to parallax correction, instead of moving the lines, the camera could automatically tilt and/or swing the viewfinder for perfect parallax correction.
- Having a zoom finder and having the finder coupled to the cams in the lenses would also allow for the first time to have practical zoom lenses for the M system (a little known fact is that the 16-18-21 Tri-Elmar is actually a true zoom lens, and can be used at any intermediate focal length, so there is already one zoom lens in the M system).
With a small design improvement to the cams in the lens, a new zoom lens could automatically zoom the viewfinder as the photographer changes the focal length of the lens (obviously, this could also be done electronically, but then new body and lens contacts would be required).
This kind of zoom finder and the potential for zoom lenses, as well as shorter and longer focal length lenses than the ones that exist today would be a huge improvement over the current M system, and it can be done today, with no modifications to any of the existing lenses.
Michael is right that rangefinder focusing seems quite antiquated at this point. My suggestion is to have a central spot with focus confirmation instead. The focus confirmation would be displayed in the viewfinder with two arrows and a dot, just like it is done with manual exposure in the current camera. Again, this can easily be implemented with no modifications to the lenses or the gestalt of the system. The photographer would point the central spot where he/she wants to focus, turn the focus on the lens in the direction of the lit arrow until the dot appears, re-compose and shoot. If properly designed, such an autofocus system will work perfectly pretty much 100% of the time. In the rare instance that focus confirmation fails (like pointing the spot at the sky), the photographer would have to either estimate the distance, or focus on a different object with more contrast at about the same distance. If live view finally comes to pass, it could also be used for focusing of course.
- Speaking of live view, like Michael, I would like to have live view with functionality similar to "peaking" in video cameras or CaptureOne, but in my opinion, this is most useful when shooting slowly or on a tripod; not when shooting hand-held and quickly, looking for a "magic moment", which is (at least for me, and I believe for many others) the main use of a Leica M. So for me the live view functionality is not as important in the M system as it is in my larger camera systems that are almost always on a tripod.
For my Medium Format tripod mounted rigs, live view functionality in the field, without having to be tethered, is grossly overdue. I need it yesterday, and I need it badly! Are you listening, PhaseOne?
DEPTH OF FIELD
It is high time that lens manufacturers started engraving decent updated depth of field (DOF) scales on lenses.
The original criteria for depth of field were developed in the days of film and antiquated lenses. They no longer apply, and have been obsolete for at least a decade if not much longer. It is amazing to me how complacent photographers and manufacturers have been about this issue. By and large, current DOF scales in the vast majority of lenses are meaningless (there are very few exceptions).
The entire profession should have been up in arms about this for at least the last 10 years.
So, here is a plea to all camera manufacturers: Engrave a DOF scale in your
lenses that is meaningful for the digital sensors in the appropriate cameras,
as opposed to DOF engravings based on a circle of confusion that is so large
that one can easily fit 30 photo-sites inside it.
I would suggest that new lenses with DOF scales made for digital sensors have an orange "D" engraved on both sides of the scale so the photographer knows it is a new and accurate scale. If a photographer encounters a DOF scale without the orange “D”, at least he/she will know that there is a need to stop down by at least 2 more F/stops and to be careful with the point of focus.
The above are my simple recommendations, and as an eternal optimist, I hope someone is listening!
Dr. Dubovoy is highly regarded as a technical expert in many aspects of printing technology and photography. As such, he is a regular writer of technical articles for PHOTO Techniques magazine and a lecturer at various workshops.
His photographs are included in a number of private collections, as well as the permanent collections of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Mexico City, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Monterey Art Museum, the Berkeley Art Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in Nanao Japan.