The Leica Dilemma — On Rapidly Changing Camera Gestalt Upending Longstanding Assumptions

Agnostic Lloyd Chambers — a respected authority on Leica and quality photography — might have hit the nail on the head the other day with his thoughts on Leica gear becoming neck jewelry. Well those are not his words in the short editorial Hit Rate and Image Quality and Reliability and Price, the Camera World Upended. Some photography sites and respected working professionals are brand sponsorship in disguise, so whom to trust when deciding on gear. Now the following is only controversial if one has cognitive committments based on firmly held assumptions. But, says Chambers, prospective Leica M shooters hankering for the Leica M Typ 240 with the 35mm F1.4 Summilux-M ASPH should take a serious look at the Sony RX1R with its Zeiss 35mm F2 Sonnar. Well that’s because the Zeiss 35mm F2 Sonnar comes with a free 24MP full-frame camera (the RX1R) for about $2,300 less than the Leica 35/1.4 Summilux lens alone.

Leica, many a photographer's undisputed Holy Grail.
Leica, many a photographer’s undisputed Holy Grail.
Right, you demand flexibility and access to Leica’s amazing arsenal of glass. With the Sony you’re stuck with one focal length. But that’s not the point of this line of thought. We all know a non-Leica compact full-frame with interchangeable lenses is only a matter of time.

Now if a camera A is a lot about mojo and legacy with a tendency to suffer character issues in field use such as resets and freezes while a camera B delivers accurate autofocus, reliable auto exposure, better noise handling, greater dynamic range along with a massively better viewing experience and custom configurability — plus problem-free reliability along with equal or better sharpness –, and all this for a third of the price, would you still buy camera A?

We’re entering pseudo-religious territory. While camera A enjoys cult-like status among many loyal disciples willing and affluent enough to turn a blind eye to what others object to, camera B makes more rational sense. Or, as Lloyd Chambers puts it, rambling philosophically:

Doesn’t the answer sometimes depend more on cemented cognitive committments more than facts?

Personal preferences (some justifiable and some arbitrary and some je ne sais quoi) should not be dismissed from consideration, but it’s critical to distinguish preferences from rationalizations that defend unsupportable cognitive committments. To be objective based on some usage-based scenarios, which need not be the same for everyone.

Camera gestalt is changing rapidly, upending longstanding assumptions.

And when a camera gets in the way of testing in the field making real images, one has to keep a scrupulously open mind and allow internally-defended cognitive commitments to be relaxed and overcome, says Chambers.

One of Leica’s biggest pros and at the same time cons is the rangefinder. People love it, some can’t seem to live without it, others belittle it as an outdated reminiscent of a past optical engineering marvel.

Fact however is, the archetypal Leica user is not the youngest and vision does often not cooperate.

There is no Holy Grail in camera technology. But as the human being is the most likely fallible element in the workflow, why not increase the hit rate probability with the appropriate technologies that can help.

Change is always an answer to deficiencies and demand. And as cameras are changing so rapidly these days upending long-cherished beliefs it’s only fair to ask oneself as a photographer: what am I assuming?

What’s holding me back?

However, this is not a black-and-white world. The very minimalist Leica approach might be the one freeing you and letting you concentrate on what matters because technology, after all, only offers partial solutions.

  • Drazen B

    “Some photography sites and respected working professionals are
    brand sponsorship in disguise, so whom to trust when deciding on gear.”

    Oh yes, and that’s one of the reasons I tend to hang around the gear-agnostic sites like this one, and like to listen to people without hidden agenda like you, Dan.

    Speak soon,

  • Hmmm. I have both the M Typ 240 (with 28/50/90mm lenses, not 35mm, though) and the RX1, but the camera I carry with me every day is neither, but the Fuji X100S.
    The RX1 is built like a tank and has a best-in-class sensor, but the lens, while sharp, exhibits excessive levels of barrel distortion that is noticeable even in normal pictorial scenes, not just architectural photography. It’s AF is also painfully slow. The lens on the X100S is superior as far as I am concerned.

    I don’t know what Sony was thinking – surely the target market won’t be content with JPEGs so software correction is not a substitute for a properly corrected lens like the 38mm f/2.8. Sonnar on the Contax T3. Note that despite having the same name, the optical formula behind the RX1 and T3 lenses is very different. LR4 and 5 have a lens profile to do the corrections ( the distortion pattern has complex second and third order components), but you lose resolution in the process.

    Now Leica may have become a Veblen good for some, and the value for money may be debatable, but the performance of the camera is clear. I can see textures in clothing I don’t notice with the naked eye. The only camera in my arsenal that consistently matches it is the Canon 5DmkIII with the new 24-70mm f/2.8L II.

  • WebLover

    I think that the “Leica Dilemma” is not just about a final result but more about the way you get it.

  • The problem I would have with the Sony RX1 is that I’m limited to a 35mm FOV. Even if Sony had, let’s say the following: RX1(35), RX50 and RX90 as in FOVs, that’s 3 bodies I’d have to carry to meet my travel kit. That’s 3 bodies I’d have to ensure I have the settings set the same. And if I’m not mistaken, there’s a lot of choices to ensure all settings are the same way.

    That triple combination could possibly exceed what Leica offers but it doesn’t exist and I’d bet it will never exist. The Leica system’s simplicity and convenience trump the slight edge the RX1 may have at a lower price point. But the other advantages Leica offer the photography many more options.

    I still prefer the simplicity I have found with the Leica system even though the new M is a little more complicated than my M-E.

    I subscribe to Lloyd’s site and it appears he has had issues with his specific Leica M. Plus most of us aren’t making “test” images to make the comparisons he does. My Leica hasn’t been on a tripod yet so I know I could get a sharper image if I did. But then I don’t make it a habit to have to haul all of that around when I’m traveling.

    However, I have recently picked up the RRS M9 kit and an L plate for my tripod as I do plan on capturing some fall landscape scenes around where I live this October since I will be on vacation and staying home. (We have around 300 waterfalls in the county I live and hope to photograph a couple of those.)

  • David Holliday

    I would rather have the Leica with choice of lenses but now (as mentioned below) really enjoy the the Fuji X100s as my take everywhere camera .

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  • dannybuoy

    I was so close to buying an RX1 recently as the wait for the M was starting to make my wallet and hard earned savings twitchy. A small G.A.S attack later I settled on a Ricoh GR. A chance meeting of a Leica dealer at a wedding who told me about his 2 person pre-order list for the M; two weeks later I have a black M in my hands. I am so pleased I didn’t fall into the Sony trap again (I did that before and regretted buying a Sony body and losing money on its sale). I have no actual hands on experience with the RX1 so can’t really comment on it, but I’m totally in love with the M. Paired with my 50mm Summilux Asph its a pure dream. Oh. 50mm, that’s my focal length of choice. That’s why I was so hesitant about the RX1…

  • You get everything photography on THEME, Drazen, except personality cult.

  • PWL

    Well, I do see a little bit of the dichotomy of Leica here–the rabid fan-people vs the rabid debunkers, which Digilloyd & some of his commenters seem to be engaging in a little of here.

    Nevertheless–while I own a M9 and MP, I’d have to confess that they have been eclipsed by my Olympus cameras, especially the EM-5. I haven’t really had any breakdown issues with the M9, but I must confess, these days the EM-5 is the camera I grab on my way out. Smaller, lighter & quieter than an M, a snap to use, tough & reliable as hell. Produces great images too, regardless of the debate about 4/3 vs “full-frame” sensors. All the purported advantages of a a Leica at a fraction of the price.

  • Bengt Nyman

    People who pick their gear based on brand loyalty and fables are certainly entitled to do so. However, if you care about objective and measurable image quality the ratings offered by DxO Mark can not be ignored.

  • Bengt Nyman

    Hi Fazal,

    I find it interesting that you compare the M Typ 240 with a prime lens to the Canon 5DmkIII with a 24-70 zoom lens. I know the latter combo well.
    It suggests that the M Typ 240 is far from the top of the ladder when it comes to image quality.

  • No, it just means a good lens backed by good autofocus can compete with a superlative lens with manual focus when shooting fast-moving kids :-)

  • Bengt Nyman

    You are changing your story.
    May I suggest a Nikon D800e with an 85 f/1.4 or 200 f/2 lens.

  • The last thing I need is yet another camera-lens system. The reason why I opted for the 5DIII rather than the D800E (apart from availability of the latter back when my daughter was born, when Nikon USA foolishly underestimated demand for the E and thus did not order sufficient units to satisfy demand) was the superiority of the Canon 24-70LII over the Nikon equivalent.

    The difference between the old Canon 24-70, which I once owned, and the new one is quite dramatic, and the Nikon 24-70 is only equivalent to the old one. Thus a D800E would be limited by the optics, and the superiority of its sensor over the Canon 5DIII’s wasted. The Nikkor primes you suggest are not practical for my application, I use mostly the 35 to 50mm range. Why not a Zeiss 100mm ZF.2 Makro-Planar while you’re at it? If I were to get a 24-70 for a Nikon system, it would have to be a Sigma, since Nikon’s version is underwhelming.

    My comparison is between the systems I do have, and the a system has to be evaluated holistically in terms of the final results delivered, not focusing narrowly on sensor or lens performance in isolation. The camera ergonomics, AF/AE quality and the size/weight of the camera matter as well.

    The M240 with 50mm Apo-Summicron ASPH has the best technical quality, but the real-world keeper rate is low for moving subjects due to manual focus. The RX1 has OK image quality once LR lens correction is applied, but low real-world keeper rates, due to slow AF. The Canon 5DIII/24-70LII has very high quality, but is too heavy so I seldom take it outside the house.

    From that point of view, the X100S is actually superior in many respects to the M240, RX1, 5DIII (or D800). It may not be quite as excellent on any one dimension as the others, but is also consistently good across the board, with no fatal weakness, and because of its compact size, I have it with me all the time (the RX1 is very deep due to the lens, and not an everyday-carry camera, it lives in bedside table).

    That takes us away from the article’s original point, which is Lloyd Chamber’s suggestion the RX1 may be a superior option to the M240. Having both cameras, I don’t believe that to be true, and the RX1 ranks quite low in my ranking of camera systems I actually own and can thus judge from practical experience. He is perfectly right to suggest there are more cost-effective options, but that would be the X100S (or X-Pro1/X-E1), not the RX1.

  • Bengt Nyman

    I agree about the RX1.

    And you are right about Canon zooms being superior to Nikon, while the opposite is true about primes.

    However, I see no reason to use zoom lenses today. The large difference in image quality between the best primes and the best zooms suggests using a high resolution camera and top of the line prime lenses. This also reduces the need for framing during the capturing process, leaving final framing to post processing.

    Since most jobs require carrying two cameras anyway, this produces superior final results.

    P.S. I rarely rely on manual focus in the field, leaving that for less hurried work in the studio. With the arrival of mirrorless cameras with EVF and focus peaking that may change and bring back the use of some classic but often overrated primes.

  • dierk

    you are so right!
    It took me about 40 years :)
    besides the availability of some Leica lenses, if you mean that.

  • Brian

    Since when does an 8-element in 7-group lens get classified as a Sonnar?
    At least I can put a real Sonnar onto my Leica. The fact that this 35/2 has such a long optical path means that little work went into the CMOS sensor to work with RF style lenses, which sit close to the image plane. Maybe Sony can license the CMOSIS sensor for an interchangeable lens camera.

  • It is indeed an indictment of Canon’s f/2.8 tired primes lineup that the 24-70LII outperforms them all handily. The 50mm f/1.2L is also underwhelming. Unfortunately Nikon is no better, and they haven’t released a statement lens like the Noct-Nikkor in a long, long time.
    In contrast, Leica has not rested on its laurels, with the recently released 50mm Apo-Summicron ASPH, and even humble Cosina and Sigma are making primes that put OEM ones to shame.

  • BTW, am I the only one lusting for a 35mm APO Cron?

    Re: causa CanIkon, I’d indeed prefer the Sigma 35mm F1.4 DG HSM over OEM.

  • Bengt Nyman

    Image sensors and digital cameras have come a long way lately.

    The same is not true for lenses.

    Buying a sexy new camera like a 16 MP Olympus M1 and using your old 12 MP Olympus prime lenses is already marginal if you are looking for image quality. If you want a zoom and have to settle for a 6 MP lens the deal makes even less sense.

    At the same time, paying $5,819.95 for a 28 MP 200mm f2 lens for a 36 MP D800e, or $8,999.00 for a 25 MP 400mm f2.8 is equally unappealing.

    These are golden days for Sigma, Tamron and others to step up to the plate and show us what they can do.