Leica’s Sensor Quagmire

Who doesn’t want to own a Leica. Their optics are unmatched, yet the technology, well, you can’t shoot ISO 25,800 with a Leica, can you. They just don’t have the sensors for that. Now here’s an anecdote I got from a reliable source; an anecdote that makes complete sense without knowing whether it’s true or not. It is said that some two years ago Leica was in contact with Sony — right, the makers of the industry’s currently probably leading imaging sensor technology. Leica was thinking of using Sony sensor technology, first and foremost for the Leica M. Apparently the Japanese offered the Germans not the latest technology, but a stage below. Leica said no. From what I understand is that Leica today regrets its decision.

No one does as Sony does. The Japanese understand like no one else in the industry the importance of technology prowess as key to achieving a dominant role in the highly competitive digital imaging industry. Leica meanwhile, as you all know, teamed up with the unknown Belgian company CMOSIS to produce the “heart” of their flagship Leica M, a sensor designed by Leica itself. Yet — and this is the main reason why we’ll have to wait quite a bit for major new announcements — Leica doesn’t have the sensor technology they want. TBH, the Sony sensor’s not a perfect match for Leica glass because of specific microlenses, peripheral light fall-off and other issues. Yet in the end, isn’t digital photography all about the sensor. The Pentax 645Z‘s CMOS imager, for instance, might even smoke the new CMOS Leica S from what I hear. For a fraction of the price.

Sony A7S sensor -- the sensor everyone wants.
Sony A7S sensor — the sensor everyone wants.
At base ISO yes, each and every Leica camera produces astonishing colors, tones and dynamic range. Yet, the X Vario is a total flop with sales way lower than expected, and the jury is not yet out on how well the Leica T sells. Seems like the factory in Portugal (where many of the precision optics are produced these days while cutting, grinding and assembling of the lenses remains in Germany) has problems with the supply chain, further delaying product rollout.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that the one controls digital photography who delivers the sensor technology, processing speed and current drain, the three key issues to digital imaging. Today’s best sensors probably come from Sony. They seem to master image processing like no other, partially on-sensor and also thanks to elaborate algorithms. Sony outruns them all. Take the A7S. A consumer camera. Practically seeing at night.

There is much more to photography than technological progress, just to mention passion and soul. Sony cameras aren’t objects of desire. They’re rather functional, modernist tools, yet they deliver. And, to be honest, even Fujifilm, Olympus et al, their signal noise, dynamic range and processing speeds are better than a Leica’s.

Still, even with Leica’s profits going down recently, they’re the industry’s most lucrative player. Limited supply controls price, that’s one key to its success, and Leica pays dealers some of the industry’s best commissions. Add a distributor and that, in part, explains the cameras’ steep price.

Yet, from what one hears, there have been better times within the paternalistically operated company. Some call the current mood downright depressive. Blackstone has de facto become the majority shareholder of Leica, “convincing” chairman Dr. Kaufmann to “dilute” his 40% share and play a more secondary role.

Blackstone wants less of the creative romp and a more structured approach to future products, more profit and more stability — while Leica is struggling to get that next sensor. For the time being “new” models will be remodeled, visually upgraded existing technology.

But yes, we’ll see an amazing new CMOS Leica S, likely to be announced on September 15. State of the art. Available sometime in spring next year.

  • Leica is a scam for deep pockets fools. To be fair, if I’d have that much money, I’d probably get me some Leica too. Boys need pretty things too. )

  • I have the impression, that the range finder technology is at its end with super flat digital sensors. The perfect alignment of the finder and the lenses is only possible for the pair of one body and one lens. If you have more lenses or even more bodies it starts to be impossible within the necessary tolerances. The problem is not the sensor but the opto-mechanical finder and the connection to different lenses.

    In the days of film with relatively think emulsions and not 100% flat nobody had a problem, but the advice from Leica for digital M’s is today, to get the finder and lenses adjusted every 3 years for 300€ or more!

    you may find more on this topic in the Leica user forum:

  • Stamati

    300 Euros ?? Steves camera Leica specialist Southern Ca, 175.00 dollars approx 125 euros. With sensor cleaning, Really.

  • Dave

    Ok, Sony sensor in a Leica – would make sense quality wise. But would be hard to swallow for those who claim classiness since there was no obvious reason to pay that much.

  • Just imagine the possibilities. Aficionados would be willing to fork out even more for class-leading performance. Take the Leica M 100 years jubilee edition, with three lenses, selling for $50k? True collector’s regalia — oh, and that new 28mm F1.4 will soon be available to the general public. What I want to say is: Leica is not selling hot air. Leica is for real. I wish I could.

  • Dan

    Sony Sensors do not work well with Leica M Wide Angle lenses. Please refer to the whitepapers for the Leica MAX CMOS sensor, and many online examples of smearing with A7/A7s sensors.
    No comparisons have been done between the 645Z and any ‘CMOS S’ you refer to.
    The Leica T is selling well.
    If you visit the factory in Wetzlar you can see just how much state of the art optics are manufactured there. None of the camera lenses are made in Portugal.
    Please refer to financial statistics, released publicly before making statements about the profitability or success of a company. For example: http://tinyurl.com/bwftkl9

  • Appreciate your feedback Dan. I’m careful with what’s published here. Judging from previous contacts and talks, all mentioned here it reliable. If we see major Photokina announcements it will be of products hitting the shelves not in the near future. I understand where you’re coming from, but major developments seem to happen at Leica these days.

  • Dan

    I guess I’ll wait until September 15th then :)

  • Dave

    I wish I could too, because the camera’s built quality is unsurpassed. But the IQ also needs to equal or surpass what can be bought cheaper from CaNikon. That is not here yet. So far I agree with you, that photographers would pay a lot if there was a sony sensor in a Leica.

    But, a big part of Leica aficionados consist of people who buy Leica as a status symbol. A main stream sony sensor for these people would lessen the reputation. I don’t know how relevant that would be to sales but e.g. Bentley had to convince it’s customers even of the quality of these custom made new BMW engines deriving from the standard engine and meanwhile changes to Cosworth engines. Or put it sarcastically, that a Rolls Royce with a FIAT engine would certainly not sell to high society, even if it still wasn’t hot air.

  • You should consider also the rangefinder shooting experience, something other Companies can’t offer. (You can buy a Bessa, but it’s a film camera)

  • On the old continent you pay more for everything…

  • the problem with RF Wide Angle lenses below 35mm is not only with Sony sensors but also with other cameras/sensors. The color shift in the edges can be very good corrected with a free program “Cornerfix”. The only exeption is the very expensive but super Leica Tri-Elmar-M 16-18-21/4 with no problems.

    You find my test images with different wide angles here in my flickr album:

  • Be Realistic

    Not true..the glass is impeccable..the S system has unrivalled glass and a dual shutter camera,and the body is half the price of a H5D-60 or IQ280(back alone is twice the price)