Forum Login

A Redux Critique Of Contemporary Camera Design

by Richard Sexton

Sexton cameras

In the evolution of design, all we can be sure of is that new designs represent the addition
of something unfamiliar to something that is already familiar.
             --George Nelson, noted American architect and product designer

Almost two years ago I wrote an essay for Luminous Landscape titled A Critique of Contemporary Camera Design, which you can read here. In it I overviewed contemporary camera design in general and then honed my focus more specifically to mirrorless camera designs--a promising market segment that bears many similarities to rangefinder photography from the film era. There is indeed much in common between mirrorless digital cameras and rangefinder film cameras--smaller, more discreet camera bodies with quieter shutters that facilitate a more spontaneous, less obtrusive approach to the photographic process. At the end of the essay I concluded that contemporary mirrorless camera designs had come close to recreating the best of what rangefinder film photography offered, but in the end had fallen short. I felt this was temporary. Considerable progress was being made and lurking on the horizon was the potential for a digital mirrorless camera that would offer everything a film rangefinder camera offered, but it would be digital, modern, better. So it’s been two years in a fast moving world. Have we reached that horizon? I believe we have made significant progress on competing fronts.

Two years ago I was looking seriously at the mirrorless market, though I didn’t then own a mirrorless system. Now I do and it is increasingly becoming a core system for me. When I wrote that first essay, I was using a FF DSLR and an MF system, both reflex mirror systems. For casual shooting I had used a variety of point and shoot Canon cameras over the years. At the time of the essay I was using an S90--a great little camera that I’ve subsequently supplanted with an iPhone.  It’s a common fate replicated countless times with other users. Point and shoot cameras are a dying breed. While I still had the S90, I bought a Fuji X100, which in spite of some quirks and limitations, became my favorite compact, always at hand, camera. I used the X100 for about a year and it was for the most part an enjoyable, productive experience, which changed my thinking about a lot of things. First, it changed my mind about small sensor point and shoot cameras. The X100 convinced me that quiet, discrete, take anywhere cameras were not obliged to have a tiny sensor. It also convinced me you could do a lot with a fixed focal length lens. But most of all, the X100 reminded me of what it had been like to shoot with a Leica M rangefinder camera. In fairness, it was hardly a Leica. It was closer to a Canonet or a Konica Auto S2. And in the end it was no more of a keeper than these cameras were to the vast majority of photographers who once owned one.

Pikes Peak

Pike's Peak. EOS M with Konica 90mm f2.8 M-Hexanon.

The business of what makes a camera a keeper, or not, is largely a function of appropriate, intuitive design; quality materials and construction; a comprehensive ecosystem of lenses and accessories, which in combination offer outstanding performance and a gratifying user experience. And this is the primary focus of my follow up essay. To cut to the chase, I’m now shooting with, and have built a system for, two Leica M cameras--the Monochrom and M240. As a complement to, and integrated within the M camera systems, I’m using the lowly regarded EOS M--Canon’s entry in the mirrorless field. The EOS M is an interesting niche camera in my view and a fascinating case study for design analysis, specifically because it has been a failure in the marketplace. But, more about that later. I should start with the M cameras, both extraordinary in their own way. The Monochrom is, simply put, in a league of its own, which is to say, peerless. What puts it in such rarefied territory is that it’s not for everybody. Just as a Deardorff V810, Polaroid 20x24 view camera, or Alpa Rotocamera, were each a highly specialized instrument capable of doing things no other camera could do, or do as well, so it is with the Monochrom. In an era when digital camera manufacturers are trying to design and market cameras that are all things to all people, the Monochrom is a breath of fresh air. I marvel, as much as anyone, at the extraordinary quality that so many relatively inexpensive digital cameras now offer. As extraordinary as the typical digital camera of today is, I predict in no time these cameras with their Bayer pattern array sensors will be considered quaint. The Bayer pattern, which has enabled sensors that are only natively sensitive to light, to also record color, will ultimately be supplanted by sensors that will natively respond to both luminance and color. I don’t know if that will happen in five years or twenty years. Some may argue it’s happened already with the Foveon sensor. To a degree that’s true. The technical limitation with the Foveon sensor is the same as with color film, when you stack three color sensitive layers one on top of the other, the layer on the bottom receives a fraction of the light of the top layer. So, with blue on top of green on top of red, the red layer requires amplification even at base ISO. So there’s less head room for further amplification for higher ISOs. So, Foveon sensors have miserable high ISO performance and there could be other reasons for this too. But whatever the technical limitations, they will ultimately be solved. However, the Monochrom doesn’t need to wait for this future breakthrough. Just as during the film era black/white film offered superior resolution, superior high ISO performance, and much more malleability in terms of contrast and dynamic range, than its color film equivalents, the Monochrom offers much of that for digital capture today. It is truly the digital offspring of the Leica M cameras, if b/w is important to you, or all that you do.

The M240 is a great camera too. It isn’t so alone in its pedigree as the Monochrom. In fact, it stands in a crowded field of FF DSLRs and now the Sony A7/A7r are in the mix too. But the M240 remains a class apart when compared to the myriad other FF options to choose from. It’s the only camera that offers FF in a small body with an accurate optical viewfinder with precise rangefinder focusing, and it also offers an optional articulated EVF, live view with focus peaking, and a good user interface with the best designed hierarchy of physical and electronic controls available--hardly perfect, but better than anything else. The electronic functions, accessed through the menu and set functions are only average. It is the well thought out hierarchy regarding what functions are controlled by physical dials, and which are controlled via an electronic interface, that the brilliance of the design plays out. The M240 features the same timeless aperture ring on the lens and shutter speed dial on the top plate as it’s film antecedents. The camera’s physical appearance presents the same form and basic controls as an M film camera from 1954. But an M240 has many more controls and settings than any film M ever did. Most of these controls are electronic and hidden. Through industrial design, ultimate simplicity and austerity are conveyed. Underneath, in carefully orchestrated layers, lies the complexity of the typical digital camera. There if you want it, but thankfully absent in physical form, if you don’t. By way of comparison, in an analogy that is relevant to most of Leica’s digital camera offerings, consider that pantheon design achievement, the iPhone. When it was first introduced, the iPhone was far and away the most complex, fully featured mobile phone ever conceived. At the same time, from a design standpoint, it was the simplest ever--a thin slab with radial corners, an on/off switch, volume buttons, vibrate-only switch for the ringer, and a home button. It was a study in minimalism that masked the extraordinary level of complexity under its skin. That same minimalism can be found in the Leica M cameras, and that has always been their core appeal, from the M3 to the M240.

leica camera

The legendary Dieter Rams would approve of the Monochrom design philosophy, and that of every other M, as well.
They should be there, ready to perform effortlessly well when when they are needed, but keep out of the way without imposing when they are not, just like an English butler.
         --Dieter Rams on the characterization of his product designs for Braun

In my previous essay, I expressed dismay regarding a gear trait I characterized as “preciousness,” which I would define more specifically as the impairment to functionality imposed by equipment that’s just too expensive and for which pride of ownership is fetishistic and overly protective. Leica M gear falls into this category, and though its not exclusive to Leica, since that’s the gear I chose, how was I going to deal with it? In short, I wanted to negate some of it, and I did that with my lens choices. Other than a 1955 collapsible Summicron, hardly in mint condition, all the other lenses I’m currently using are non-Leica glass. After some research, I concluded that in every focal length I needed, there were options from other lens manufacturers, both vintage and contemporary, which performed well, and in some respects, equal to or better than, their Leica counterpart. Currently I’m shooting with a Voigtlander 15mm Super Wide Heliar, Zeiss 21mm f2.8 Biogon, Zeiss 35mm f2 Biogon, Zeiss 50mm f2 Planar, Konica 90mm f2.8 M-Hexanon, and Nikon 135mm f3.5 Q-C Nikkor. These lenses ranged in price from less than $200 to about $1200, and compared to prime lenses from a variety of manufacturers, the prices were only slightly above average to downright cheap. Further, for the M240, I have adapters for Nikon, Canon, and Mamiya lenses that allow me to use all the lenses I already owned for these platforms. I offset the relatively expensive price of the two M camera bodies with some pretty reasonably priced, optically excellent lenses. Despite the solid performance of these particular lenses, I should clarify that just putting any lens on an M body is not going to be a match made in heaven. To the contrary, its a mine field. Voigtlander, for example, has a number of offerings that are best characterized as only OK and when compared side by side with the Leica equivalent will leave you appreciating the difference. And you may find some significant sample to sample variations. But if you get a good sample, for a focal length in which Voigtlander has a strong offering, you have a keeper. Zeiss, on the other hand, has lenses of comparable specification and quality control to many of Leica’s standard focal lengths. The Zeiss M offerings are pretty basic. All the designs are classic, with no aspherical elements or floating elements, and of pretty standard speed. But, Zeiss lenses have certain attributes that although they are subjective, if you like them, you won’t find equivalent characteristics in Leica glass. It’s not that one is better than the other. It’s that both are very good, but different, and if you like the difference, then you’ll be happier if you opt for it. If you prefer the Leica difference make sure your bank account is in good order. If you prefer the Zeiss difference, you’ll appreciate the savings.

From a dimly lit bar room requiring formidable high ISO capability,
to a landscape requiring subtle tones and gradations once
the domain of large format black/white film, the Monochrom covers the waterfront.

The ecosystem for the M mount has never been more robust. When I purchased my first Leica in the fall of 1973 that ecosystem was at a low ebb. Twenty years earlier a couple of Japanese companies, no one in the west had ever heard of, proved they could produce Leica compatible lenses at a fraction of Leica’s price. Some of you may have heard of the unknown upstarts, which were Nikon and Canon. Both companies radically outgrew their initial success and by the early 1970s ceased production of rangefinder cameras and lenses altogether. Then in the late 1990s, when patents on the Leica M mount had expired, Zeiss re-introduced a rangefinder camera with an M mount and Cosina Voigtlander began producing rangefinder cameras, along with a range of lenses, first in Leica screw mount and later, in M mounts. Konica joined the fray too with  a Hexar rangefinder camera and M mount lenses. So today we have vintage Canon and Nikon lenses from the mid-20th century and more recent vintage Konica lenses, along with used and new Cosina Voigtlander and Zeiss lenses. If you want to get really exotic there are Russian Jupiter lenses for the Zorki rangefinder you can throw in the mix too. With live view on the M240 there’s almost no limit to the glass you can append to the camera body. The venerable Leica M mount is above all else, exceedingly versatile.

While on the subject of lenses, I’ll add this: They matter. They matter more than the sensor, in my opinion. Whether on film, or with a digital sensor, the captured image is formed not by the film or the sensor, but by the lens and that image has an indelible footprint, which can be altered in post-production, but it cannot be remade. Global and micro contrast, edge sharpness, overall sharpness, veiling flare, chromatic aberration, bokeh, depth of field, flatness of field, focus shift, rectilinearity, and more, are lens attributes which can be sometimes tweaked in post-production, but cannot be obliterated and remapped. Because the sensor represents newer technology with attributes that are easy to quantify and measure, the critical importance of the lens system may not get the attention it deserves. One of the most controversial metrics in the digital conversation is the sensor testing and ranking by DxO Mark. A great way to start an argument is to reference their findings, which I personally feel are reliable and accurate. The overall ranking involves an equation that’s a bit subjective, but the actual numbers for dynamic range, color depth, and high ISO performance are objective and accurate in my view. All that said they are pretty minor, and that’s the source of a lot of people’s animosity and perplexity. The properties of the sensor may be easy to quantify, but are a small fragment of the imaging process. First off, the quantity of pixels on the sensor isn’t part of their equation. They are only evaluating quality of information and are ignoring quantity of information. That’s fair enough since the manufacturer readily discloses how many pixels there are, so DxO doesn’t need to confirm that for you. Nonetheless, pixel count is important. A 4MP sensor with a fantastic rating, is still a 4MP sensor. IQ in an imaging system is as interrelated to the various component parts as that of any other complex system. I don’t think anyone reading this would be the least bit surprised if I asserted that a Porsche 911, or even a Subaru WRX STi, might outperform a suped up Chevy Camaro under a variety of situations even though both have smaller engines with less cylinders and a fraction of the displacement of the Chevy. It’s not only about the engine (sensor). It’s about the well engineered and designed integration of many interrelated parts. IQ is a factor of the sensor, A/D processor, lenses, and most importantly, the design decisions regarding the integration of all these components. The manufacturing precision of the housing, aka the camera body, is also important. Judging the overall performance of a given system based solely on the performance of a single component within that system could result in a tragic miscalculation. This flawed methodology can be even more tragic when utilized for placing bets on sporting events involving team play.

Seagulls in flight. Shot with M240 and 135mm Q-C Nikkor.

Another point about the design of lenses, which is critical to the user experience, has to do with scale and balance relative to the camera body. Personally, I’ve given up on the evolution of modern multipurpose zooms. They are large and slow and that hasn’t changed in decades. Add AF and IS technology and there’s more bulk, even with fixed focal length primes. Modern camera bodies are getting tiny, particularly with mirrorless designs. As camera bodies have gotten the bonsai treatment, their lenses have bulked up on steroids. The end result is a lot of ungainly camera/lens pairings and a lot of marketing hype about how small the camera body is while the scale of the lenses is best kept secret. In a clever move, virtually every mirrorless manufacturer makes at least one fixed wide prime that’s well scaled to the camera body and that’s the lens always shown first and foremost in the product photos. If you want quality lenses, that are small and pocketable, which remain relatively fast for their focal length, and that cover a FF sensor, then zooms, AF, and IS technology may be antithetical to your goal. There is simply nothing that compares to the scale and feel of M mount, MF lenses. They aren’t for everyone because you actually have to remember to focus them, a chore that many contemporary photographers no longer want, or feel they have time for. The best compromise I’ve seen between scale and modern features has been achieved by Fuji with their X series, which primarily feature fixed focal length primes with AF, but typically no IS. However, to achieve the reasonable lens scale relative to the camera body, the sensor format has to be APS-C, not FF. For my work, I’ll accept the absence of modern lens features, if the tradeoff is more compact, fast lenses, that offer outstanding performance with a FF sensor.

One final thing about lenses before moving on, for those who covet stealth--the less obtrusive, less disruptive, photographic process: the lens is more important than the camera body. Small lenses are far less threatening than big ones. Diminutive scale is my favorite characteristic of all M mount lenses, along with their fixed focal lengths. Zoom with your feet and when the limits of that technique have been reached, change the focal length of the lens. Some of the most interesting compositions occur when the photographer is dealing with a found, fleeting moment, and may not be in the perfect position or have the perfect lens mounted, so has to creatively find a way to use all the negative space around the primary subject in the composition. When time isn’t of the essence, the need to physically change lenses for compositional reasons, makes the process more deliberative. You really have to think for a moment about which lens is right for what you want to do. There are two common phenomena that occur when we see something we want to photograph. One is to take in everything the eye sees, which typically results in a photograph that lacks focus. And I’m not referring to something the lens does, but what the mind does. Not everything in front of us is a photograph, even though there is indeed a photograph there before us, somewhere. The photographer has to decide almost instantly what merits inclusion within the frame and what is extraneous. The other thing that happens is when the photographer identifies a subject to photograph, and if the photographer has a zoom lens on the camera, the tendency is to zoom in on that one subject and exclude everything else, even though the context around the subject could be as important as the subject itself. We all know that adage, the best camera is the one that’s with you. To that observation, I’ll add a corollary: The best lens is the one that’s already on the camera.

Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles, Leica M Monochrom with Zeiss 21mm f2.8 Biogon

Enough for now on the Monochrom and the M240, what about the dismal EOS M? I’ve already mentioned that in my opinion this is a good little niche camera, and for now, let’s assume I’m right about that. Does that mean everyone else in the marketplace is wrong in their ho-hum response? Hardly. That just doesn’t happen. The weather report might be wrong, but the weather is never “wrong.” After the likes of Olympus, Panasonic, Sony, Pentax, Nikon, and Leica were making cameras with interchangeable lenses and without reflex housings, Canon entered the fray seemingly out of necessity. I’ll characterize their timing and approach with this analogy: If you are the last comedian to go on stage, appearing before an audience about ready to call it a night, you better not repeat your version of all the jokes told earlier in the evening. The same performance at a different venue, at a different point in the evening, might produce a remarkably different result. So it was with the EOS M. Canon blew it. But, step back from that marketing failure for a moment and look at the camera itself: You take the proven 18MP sensor from the Canon 7D (and other APS-C Canons), combine it with the most sophisticated touch screen interface of the Digital Rebel line, use a solid, time proven processor too, and then put these components in a diminutive, rugged metal body, finally throw in a good, fast, prime lens in a popular focal length. Why wouldn’t this be a great camera? Well it is actually, but it’s a great camera that was poorly timed, was made of recycled components, included no new features relative to the competition, and in the digital age, it was delivered with the kiss of death: It had no “wow” factor. The Sony RX-1 had wow factor. The Leica M8, one of the most severely flawed cameras released in the digital era, still had wow factor. In its day, the Canon 1Ds had so much wow factor no other camera could be in the same conversation with it. At this stage, when digital imaging technology has reached puberty, you need wow. We have moved on from the era of prodigal adolescence to that of early bloomers, which are beginning to hint at what mature technology will look like. The EOS M had another problem too--lack of retro styling. We are not just in the early bloomer era, technologically speaking. We are simultaneously in the era of extreme nostalgia for the classics of the recently past film era. For all our love of digital cameras, we miss the classic styling and lifetime gestalt of film cameras. So everybody’s doing retro: Olympus is recalling the glory of their Pen and OM cameras; Nikon is recalling their F and FM days; Fuji, lacking a classic of their own manufacture, is recalling the rangefinder era, in general, with their X line; Panasonic is now copying Fuji’s rangefinder look with some of their latest cameras. Leica has to be looking on all smiles, greeting their hubristic competitors with “I told you so” glee. Yes, Leica doesn’t have to rediscover the past, since they never left it. But, the lack of wow and retro wasn’t the only problem with the EOS M. Canon, an influential pioneer of autofocus technology, screwed it up with the EOS M. The rap was that its autofocus was slow. Actually, the autofocus was really only average. Except for the situations where it didn’t work at all. Be nice about it, combine the two, and you come up with “slow.” After months, Canon finally fixed the autofocus problems with a firmware upgrade and it now works reliably with average speed when compared to the competition. Before they even did that, Canon dramatically reduced the price of the camera, its lenses, and accessories. I bought the camera and 22mm f2 lens for $399. (Some prices have been even lower.) I got the EOS M to EOS lens adapter for $99 and then bought the kit zoom for a similar amount. In the end, it was all a steal. To make things even more interesting for $20 I bought an EOS M to Leica M adapter so I could use all my M lenses on the EOS M camera. At this point there really is no question about it. Canon’s failure was my gain. But even without the outlet mall, all sales are final prices, the EOS M is not a bad camera, so long as you’re using it as a niche camera, which is to say, the 2nd camera in the bag, or the camera you use for the things it’s good at, and you have other options for the things it can’t do or doesn’t do well.

2 cameras

The lowly EOS M complements the Leica Monochrom well in a shoulder bag.
Not only can it be fitted with M lenses, it captures color images,
and the video features are quite good, mitigating the Monochrom’s singular functionality.

I haven’t looked at any surveys, but the Fuji X cameras certainly seem to be the most popular 2nd cameras for photographers shooting with Leica as their primary camera. And the X-Pro 1, X100s, and before that the X100, would certainly have to be the most Leica-like cameras available that aren’t a Leica. But, for me, when I’m not shooting with a Leica rangefinder, I don’t want a camera that’s almost a Leica. It’s like wanting a mistress who reminds you of your wife. I’d rather have a second camera with an entirely different gestalt, yet still integrates well with everything else in the bag. The EOS M is that camera for me and I appreciate that it’s everything a Leica isn’t. It’s a chunky S90 with interchangeable lenses. The touchscreen interface is very robust and one of the best operational interfaces of any digital camera I’ve ever owned, and that particularly applies in comparison to the X100. Further, we finally have a mirrorless camera without an X in its naming protocol. M for mirrorless makes more sense and, of course, there’s that other rather successful camera line with an M in its name. Canon at least knew who to copy with their naming protocol.

Another interesting analysis that can be gleaned from the EOS M is the problematic decision to put a 4+ year old sensor in a brand new camera. Below is a side by side screenshot from DxO Mark comparing the EOS M/7D sensor to the Fuji X100 sensor. Personally, I think their findings are spot on. For the attributes they are testing, the X100 has a better sensor. However, I routinely get comparable to better results from the EOS M, than I got from the X100, despite the advantages of the X100’s imaging chip. I don’t know all the reasons for it, but it isn’t that difficult to speculate about some of them: First, there’s a 50% advantage for the EOS M in pixel count--18MP, as opposed to 12, and it even has a slight advantage in pixel count to the X100s, 18 to 16. The EOS M has a much more robust A/D processor, which among other things likely accounts for why the high ISO performance is a bit better on the EOS M. (Class leading high ISO performance has always been a Canon trademark.) But, I think the biggest difference is that you can remove the quite good, but hardly world class, EOS M lens, and use other lenses with the camera, which are world class. You can see the difference in a heartbeat, as you import the RAW files into Lightroom before you even touch them in post. It’s easy to spot the files shot with a Zeiss T* ZM lens, as opposed to the Canon lens. And they should be better. One Zeiss lens costs more than an entire EOS M kit.

comparison

The EOS M compared to the Fuji X100 clearly shows that the Fuji has a slightly better sensor.
Despite this fact, the EOS M frequently equals or wins in IQ.
Sensor scores are only one variable in an exceedingly complex equation.

A lens upgrade can be as good as a sensor upgrade, but you can’t upgrade a lens on a camera body with a fixed lens. For better or worse, there’s only one lens you’ll ever use on a fixed lens camera. This is a compromise for which there better be an extraordinary advantage somewhere in the equation. Fixed lens cameras have been a great marketing ploy and for certain purposes these cameras can be gems, with the advantages outweighing the drawbacks. Sony’s RX1/r is a great example of a winning formula in this regard--a FF camera with class leading IQ that’s the size of a point and shoot. There’s a lot it won’t do, but the things it can do, it does as well as, or better than, any other camera regardless of size or cost. That’s a good trade off. On the other end of the spectrum Leica introduced a new fixed lens mirrorless compact this past year, the X-Vario where the trade off was more suspect. It’s 28-70 equivalent zoom is so slow that it’s comparable in speed to some view camera lenses. When the final details of the new camera were released Leicaphiles threw verbal rotten internet vegetables all over it. The malcontents were quickly advised by a number of reviewers and bloggers, who actually had some experience with the camera, that the lens really wasn’t that slow compared to multipurpose zooms in general and that Leica designers had sacrificed a certain amount of lens speed to maintain a good scale balance between the lens and the body it was permanently welded to. And that’s the real problem, you can’t take the the damned lens off! I’ve already expressed my opinion that multipurpose zooms frequently offer questionable trade-offs, but when you can’t extricate yourself from those trade-offs, its a problem. The proliferation of fixed lens cameras is not a trend I agree with, though it’s a popular one at the moment. But, for me, after migrating through Canon’s Powershot line over the years, and after a year with Fuji’s X100, I came to the conclusion that the most important feature a camera has is an interchangeable lens. Nothing does more to enhance the upgradeability and versatility of the camera than being able to change the lens. My favorite feature of the EOS M is that it’s tiny, yet has the versatility of an interchangeable lens camera. I can throw it in the bag with a Leica M system and it’s a cheap back up body for every lens in the bag. Sony’s A7/r camera bodies aren’t that much bigger physically and are a much higher end version of the paradigm.

Lens interchangeability greatly enhances the functionality of any camera
and it profoundly influences output quality, as well. Here the EOS M is fitted with the excellent
Canon 35mm TS lens via the EOS to EOS M adapter. World’s smallest technical camera?

I have no immediate plans to get a Sony A7/r, however. Despite a lot of chatter on the forums about the Sony A 7/r cameras representing some sort of Leica metaphor, these are not Leica rangefinder copies, any more than an EOS M is. These are altogether different cameras, which share a few attributes. They will work well for some purposes and will fail miserably for others. Focus peaking is not as accurate as rangefinder focusing, particularly for normal to wide lenses. Magnified view is not that agile a process when the camera is handheld. Opening the lens for optimal focus and then stopping down to taking aperture for exposure is a level of tedium only matched by a view camera, which is the live view paradigm actually. (Live view works best when the camera is mounted on a tripod and used like a view camera.) With the Sony’s FF sensors performance is poor with legacy lenses wider than 35mm due to smearing of detail at the frame edges, which cannot be fixed in post. Throw in poor battery life and a loud, vibration-prone shutter (A7r primarily), and you have a panoply of reasons for why a Sony A7/r is not a poor man’s Leica. But, you might think, forget the legacy lenses, at least you have all of Sony’s lenses you can use, only to realize you now have another problem. The half baked phenomenon which I lamented in my first essay, and which has characterized so many mirrorless offerings of the recent past, is still with us.

In conclusion, what have I learned as I’ve returned to the Leica fold and have simultaneously entered the mirrorless fold? A number of things. . .

If you want a camera system that offers the attributes of rangefinder cameras of the film era, but which feature modern lenses--zooms, AF, and IS technology, then your best bet is with APS-C and M43. FF sensors can be fitted into tiny camera bodies, but the lenses won’t be so tiny. As much as I question the long term viability of a number of sensor formats particularly M43, this format does have one compelling feature going for it--the lenses are small and complement the camera bodies well. Whether this will be enough to fuel the viability of the format well into the future, I just don’t know. But, it certainly is making the format a viable choice for now.

An essential design attribute for any contemporary digital camera is dual composition and focusing technology. For instance, a reflex mirror housing and live view, or a rangefinder and live view. An EVF and live view do not constitute a dual method, but are instead varied implementations of the same method. In those lighting situations where live view isn’t effective, an EVF (eye level live view) isn’t going to work that well either. I don’t believe this will ever change. The human eye has an automatic diaphragm. It adjusts to changes in light level automatically and will only function reliably in all conditions with a pure optical system--a window finder or a reflex viewing mechanism. An EVF is forever limited by the dynamic range of the sensor, which has a much narrower range than natural human vision. So any camera, which will be your only camera, needs both systems, from which you can choose the optimal viewing method based on shooting conditions. This is not an issue of preference-- eye level or arm’s length shooting--but is an issue of having an easily viewable framing mechanism regardless of conditions. So, for me, any mirrorless system which doesn’t offer this duality, is a niche camera. For the record, Leica M’s, Fuji’s X-Pro-1, X100s, X100, and a host of point and shoot cameras with window finders, do not fall into this category. Neither does any fixed lens camera, such as the Leica X-2, or Sony RX-1/r, for which you can use a shoe-mounted optical finder. Also for the record, I’m well aware of how good the latest generation of EVFs are. They are so good, in fact, that they perform well in about 95% of the situations most photographers would ever encounter. But, the best reflex mirror housings perform extremely well in virtually 100% of those same situations and if that’s the standard you are supplanting, then that’s the standard you have to ultimately equal. Just as the rangefinder has never been supplanted for certain applications, I don’t think the reflex housing will be either. Just bear in mind this criterion is only relevant if you only want to own 1 camera, or 1 type of camera.

The bane of the contemporary photographer’s existence: An iPhone user getting in your shot, taking forever, effectively working blind.
This is a good example of my “beach test” to determine if a given camera allows for effective composition, focus, and exposure in a blinding, backlit situation. DSLRs and window finder cameras routinely pass this test,  while mirrorless cameras that rely exclusively on live view or an EVF routinely flunk.

I’ve always felt the marketplace is overly focused on sensor technology. There is an indefatiguable interest in the sensor’s format, pixel density, dynamic range, and all the rest, yet after waiting patiently for the introduction of the latest technology and sometimes spending a king’s ransom for it, many users don’t really think about the need to upgrade their lenses to get maximum benefit from the new sensor. At this point in the evolution of digital technology, I firmly believe it’s all about the lenses. Give me the very best lenses, and I’ll take my chances with a middle of the pack sensor. There are limits, of course. You can’t coax state of the art results from a 6MP camera of a decade ago. But the idea that getting the latest, newest camera is going to produce superior results independent of lens choices, doesn’t work either. There are indeed film era lenses which may perform well with the latest sensors, and there are inexpensive modern lenses, which may perform well. But they are the exception. You need to carefully match up lenses to the sensor. It’s an arduous process of trial and error experimentation, but is well worth the effort.

The Monochrom reinforces the old adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same. After using the Monochrom for a few months now, I’m convinced it and other cameras like it, and the Phase One Achromat is the only other one I know of, are the best tools for black/white digital photography. For Leica to continue the photographic tradition for which they are legendary, a superb black/white instrument was vital. If you think about the great photographers associated with the Leica rangefinder--Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Gary Winogrand, Sebastiao Salgado, Elliott Erwitt, etc., you have a legendary photographic tradition rendered beautifully in shades of gray. To visualize this world accurately, to truly “see” in black/white, there is nothing like a camera that functions exclusively within that world. The Monochrom is not a limitation. It is a discipline.

View from Griffith Park, Los Angeles, Leica M Monochrom with Konica 90mm M-Hexanon

I observed some other lessons from the Monochrom too. The true genius of this camera might fall outside the bounds of technology and into the marketing realm. As Leica was about to supplant the M9 with the M240, which meant switching from a CCD to a CMOS sensor and incorporating live view, upgrading the processor, etc., they took the basic components of the M9 and repurposed them in a digital camera that only shoots b/w, which they then introduce with abundant fanfare, and by the way, they price it $1000 above their new state of the art M240. Does it get any shrewder (read ballsier) than this? One of the great difficulties digital camera manufacturers face is the timely implementation of rampantly improving technology, which renders their greatest achievements of only a few months ago archaic. Wonder why Sony with all their innovation and class leading technology struggles with profitability? (See above for most of that answer.) Leica successfully repurposed obsolescence into a ground breaking new product at a premium price. Canon repurposed obsolescence into a new product too, but they forgot about the groundbreaking part.

Leica may have struck just the right chord with the Monochrom, but they may not have been right about everything. In spite of my awe of their marketing chutzpah, their pricing is more aggressive than it has to be, in my view. I think the Monochrom should have been priced the same as the M-E, and below the M240. While on the subject of pricing, as expensive as you might consider Leica’s digital and film camera bodies to be, they are a downright bargain when compared to the pricing of their lenses. Quality doesn’t come cheap and when you make a lens with very special attributes that serves a small market niche, the price is bound to be exceedingly high. But lenses of relatively normal focal length, of relatively normal speed, and which are completely manual and devoid of high tech electronic features, should not have to cost thousands of dollars. Historically that hasn’t been the case and that applies to Leica too. See below, my receipt for a Canadian made 35mm Summicron M, purchased new in 1975 for $169.50, which factoring for inflation in today’s dollars would be $734. But today, Leica’s 35mm Summicron has a street price of $3195. A 35mm Summarit f2.5 is $1950. By comparison, a Japanese made Zeiss 35mm f2 Biogon is $1087. A 35mm f1.4 Voigtlander Nokton is $630. Granted Leica’s current Summicron design is a completely different lens from its vintage 1975 counterpart and it’s a very different lens from the Zeiss or the Voigtlander. But, by the standards of many photographers the Zeiss Biogon is a faster, sharper, generally better lens than the Summarit at about half the price. The Nokton is considerably faster and comparable performance-wise on some levels to the Summarit at about one-third the price. Now that Leica has come charging back from the oblivion of bankruptcy and are making cameras with genuine mainstream potential, the across the board, gold plated lens prices could be rethought. Users will always pay a bit more for a bit less to own the Leica brand. Even so, Leica should have a basic lens line that’s price competitive, even if it has to be German designed and Asian made.

Leica’s pricing structure for its lenses has been radically adjusted in contemporary times.

In conclusion, the mirrorless market continues to evolve. It’s still far from perfect and many camera designs struggle to be the seamless, gratifying user experience we all want them to be. We now have FF sensors, improved EVFs, a greater selection of lenses for all sensor formats, and more options generally. In the film era, camera choices revolved around film format and specialized technical features. We had 35mm SLRs and rangefinders and there were larger formats from 120 to 8x10, with a host of highly specialized camera features. Today in the digital age, there may still be a large array of formats, but only when camera phones and point and shoots are factored in. For serious work, the current range is largely from M43 to MF with the strong median belonging to FF. And because that’s the choice of the vast majority of working professionals and serious amateurs, with a small percentage above that shooting MF and a small percentage below shooting APS-C and M43, there is a need for a wide range of choices in the cameras that utilize a FF sensor. Varied camera designs, all sharing this pervasive sensor size, need to accomplish the things photographers used to do with medium format and large format, in addition to all the things we used to do with 35mm SLRs and rangefinders too. This is a tall order, which depending on the given photographer, includes both extreme wide angle and telephoto capability; lens movements; extreme close up capability; low light capability; carry anywhere portability; and so forth. No single camera design is going to do all this well, despite allegations you’ll read in the internet forums and in manufacturer’s press releases that tout their camera’s ability to do everything. Engineering and industrial design are critical to achieving the greatest versatility from a single sensor format and one size fits all is not a realistic design parameter. If there’s any bit of true wisdom I can pass along from over 30 years experience as a working photographer, it’s this: No one camera is going to be the best at everything and finding the one “perfect” camera is a fool’s errand. Finding the best highly specialized tools, particularly at this point in the history of photography, is an elusive goal, but ultimately attainable. Just don’t expect to find all your solutions in one camera.

The prevalent observation that Fuji’s X cameras look like Leicas, is somewhat undermined by this juxtaposition. 
There’s a lot of Zorki gestalt in there too. Maybe too much.
 
Sir Terence offers this insight regarding the appeal and relevance of good, appropriate design:
 Design is more than a particular style. It is an attitude to a product’s intrinsic qualities.
This is why we react against things which are coarse, bogus, or puny, and are drawn to things
which have guts, wit, and ingenuity. If this sounds more a moral than an aesthetic attitude,
then that is how it should be because design affects more than just our eyes. 
              --Sir Terence Conran

Richard Sexton is a noted fine art and media photographer whose work has been widely published and exhibited. He is the author/photographer of 12 published books, which have included industrial design subjects--American Style: Classic Product Design from Airstream to Zippo--and architectural design and urban planning--Parallel Utopias. More information about his work is available on his web site: www.richardsextonstudio.com.

Published March 28, 2014

Filed Under:  
Essays   

show page metadata

Concepts: Camera, Leica Camera, Single-lens reflex camera, Digital single-lens reflex camera, Digital camera, Image sensor, Photographic lens, Rangefinder camera

Entities: Monochrom, Voigtlander, Leica, Canon, Sony, Fuji, Canon, Zeiss, Nikon, Olympus, Zeiss, Konica, Porsche, Zorki, Chevy, Panasonic, Subaru, Canonet, digital camera, digital cameras, focal length, point and shoot, zoom lens, shutter speed, optical viewfinder, color depth, bank account, user interface, web site, mobile phone, touch screen, chromatic aberration, Richard Sexton, Pike, Alpa Rotocamera, Dieter Rams, Voigtlander, Sir Terence, Richard Sexton, Leicaphiles, S90, iPhone

Tags: camera, Leica, lenses, camera bodies, lens, camera body, digital camera, film rangefinder camera, sensor, contemporary camera design, niche camera, digital camera manufacturers, view camera lenses, lens camera, mirrorless camera designs, live view, fixed lens camera, digital mirrorless camera, focal length, interchangeable lens camera, typical digital camera, cameras, contemporary mirrorless camera, Hexar rangefinder camera, Leica compatible lenses, great little camera, great camera, digital camera offerings, discrete camera bodies, Leica M cameras, interesting niche camera, Leica rangefinder, film camera, EOS M camera, contemporary digital camera, high ISO performance, single camera design, Modern camera bodies, new camera, brand new camera