The Leica Predicament — 2014 Outlook and Beyond

Gathered own sources, industry chatter and added common sense. Leica isn’t in an enviable position. The competition gathers pace. Leica’s grand strength continues to be its brand recognition and, above all, the optics. The famed Leica advantage however diminishes as the quality of cameras becomes more similar. For instance, I know from personal talks with industry insiders Leica’s not happy with Fujifilm…

There’s hardly a way out of Leica if you’re heavily invested in its superb glass. But strictly photographically speaking: we all know Leica cameras are beautiful tools, in today’s rapidly changing market environment though they’re mainly a heritage thing. To be honest, I wouldn’t buy Leica shares even if I could. Even tried to buy Leica shares?

Here’s Leica’s future in a nutshell, based on industry sources and insider talks:

  • Leica is working on the successor to the M Typ 240. There isn’t much leeway in terms of advancements as the camera’s manual rangefinder determines its identity. I learned that Leica no longer rejects the idea of autofocus and image stabilization which will require a new generation of lenses. Priority is reportedly given to autofocus, expect image stabilization further down the road. Over the long term, Leica will move away from the rangefinder M.
  • "Sharpest details." -- Leica S2 ad | Leica
    “Sharpest details.” — Leica S2 ad | Leica
  • Before we see the next M the medium format S series will shift to CMOS sensor. Expect the next S announcement in 2014. BTW, net production cost of an M is roughly about €2,200 ($3,000).
  • As reported, Leica’s mirrorless system camera will be a variation of the Leica X Vario. The Leica system camera with APS-C CMOS sensor will in essence be a Panasonic with primary Leica elements. Announcement shortly before Photokina in September 2014.
  • Leica, clearly irked by the ascent of Fujifilm (and increasingly Sony I assume), in November 2013 acquired Swiss medium format camera maker Sinar. The details of the transaction have not been disclosed and the strategic goals of the acquisition aren’t any more apparent. In this context increasing tensions between Leica and its strategic investor Blackstone are noteworthy. The investment fund reportedly expressed dismay with some senior Leica management decisions.
  • The acquisition of CMOSIS, producer of the Leica M imaging sensors, by a private equity firm might weaken Leica’s supply chain. Hiccups were already reported in the production of the LCD display for the X Vario system, manufactured by Epson which was pushing for a 4k or 8k resolution. Leica went for 920k pixels. The good news: Leica seems to understand they’ll only sell the X Vario system camera paired with fast glass, such as F1.4.

  • CMOSIS is a design-for-hire firm, the M240 sensors are actually manufactured by ST Microelectronics, which is not going away.. Quite frankly, neither is Leica, as it has reached the status of Veblen good, where exclusivity is an integral part of its appeal. The optical quality is almost irrelevant at this point. Leica is in fact in a highly enviable position as the only profitable camera maker along with Canon and Nikon. And possibly Lomography…

  • Bengt Nyman

    With Leica having lost the myth of optical superiority there is little left but a fading cult, unless of course Leica innovates their way back.

  • You may be correct about losing optical quality when compared to a couple of the recent Zeiss offerings. But do you really want to carry that lens/camera combo all day long as compared to the “inferior” Leica 50mm Summilux?

    In my case I don’t think so. Size and optics quality is why I make photos with a Leica. Last time I checked I don’t see everyone clamoring to put the Zeiss Otus on their new “experimental” Sony A7(R)s. The forums are full of brick wall tests with which Leica lens will work.

    (By the way, the Sony A7r with their Zeiss FE 55mm lens is much larger in dimensions than a comparable Leica M setup. )

  • Bengt Nyman

    I agree about the A7R.
    Sony’s effort to keep it small led to an overly compressed flange distance and compromised pixel optics. I have been urging DxO to test the Zeiss 35 f/2.8, which is one of the few lenses available with that body. Though the A7R image sensor got a decent score by itself, It remains to be seen how it does with the Zeiss 35 f/2.8 lens.
    Leica no longer holds an edge as far as image quality.
    I agree that If you want a retro, pocket camera with decent image quality Leica is one choice. However, for the same money you can buy one of each from the other major brands.

  • Paired with the new Touit lenses — how I love the 12mm! — those A7s feel completely natural and comfortable. Easy to get used to. If price matters, the Sony-Touit combo is a no-brainer.

  • amalric

    Most interested about a Vario ILC. It might even be better, and smaller than a Sony frankencamera and the Zeiss trombone :)

    It might also prove that making a ff35mm mirrorless after Leica was just flirting with a long gone past.

    Really some of you believed it would come back in its past glory? Doesn’t miniaturisation ring a familiar bell, in the world of cameras who have survived smartphones? And that m4/3 was the first to get there?

    Differently from Leica and Sony m4/3 resolution was never limited to a restricted focal range…

  • Bengt Nyman

    For a pocket camera there is an optimum image sensor size allowing miniaturization without too much loss of IQ, cropping margin and low light capability. What that sensor size is remains to be seen and will change with time. FF is already the new MF.

  • To me price does not play a major factor in this matter. I place more emphasis on the “complete” package and one of the most important aspects to the package is ergonomics. I travel almost 180 days of the year and as an example I found my Ricoh GXR-M was not going to last.

    Before buying my M-E I had only handled the M9 for only a couple minutes in a shop in Barcelona a year and a half ago. As compared to my GXR it felt big and the focusing system mysterious.

    But what caught my attention that the GXR did not provide or for that matter any of the Japanese camera boxes was its simplicity.

    I’m afraid I’m getting older now and never thought I’d get set in my ways but I’m finding I want to keep my life uncomplicated. I have enough to worry about and since I always have my camera with me I sure don’t want to suffer through menu nightmare and button overload.

    Of course I want the photographs I make to be to my liking but I find pixel peeping and MTF charts beyond me.

    My M-E is always on. As I take it out of my bag or when hanging from my shoulder all I have to do is touch the shutter button to activate it as I bring it to my face. I know pretty damn close to where the lens is focused by the focusing tab and I can have the photograph made without any delay.

    I’m glad I’ve paid “extra” for this simplicity.

  • amalric

    BTW I hadn’t yet read the piece about the organic sensor. Having another two stops of SNR (or Light) should really provide to m4/3 or Fuji anything that was missing. We are not into Forensics, after all :)

  • Passageways

    So much tech talk shows Leica has lost “it”

    I have even had Leica reps tell for color especially people should not bother unless they are independently wealthy

  • Andy Umbo

    As a long time professional photographer, I never got the Leica thing anyway. No one can argue with the mechanical quality level of their mechanical cameras, but I never went Leica because testing the lenses back in the 70’s, they really weren’t “all that”, especially for the price! I’ll admit that I never did much 35mm as a pro, mostly 120 and 4X5, but still, I matched my Nikon F2 equipment against a pals current, at the time, Leica, and my lenses were certainly sharper and had better contrast. The problem with Leica owners has always been, once you paid tons more for a Leica lens than a Japanese one, are you really going to admit it’s not all that good, or are you going to attribute a “look” or “feel” to it that will be quantitatively unmeasurable?

    For more on the story, look up any of the articles written in the major photo magazines about Nikon’s rangefinder equipment surpassing Leica’s during the Korean war years, and how pro photojournalists were quietly selling their Leica stuff off and changing over…it makes interesting reading.

  • JVA

    “One of each from the other major brands” why would anyone do that… It is not about such calculations. Especially if what one wants a Leica M.

  • Bengt Nyman

    Yes it is. It’s about performance versus price. If you want a Leica and nothing else matters, get a Leica.

  • Richard Scott

    You all missed Fazal’s most important point “Leica is in fact in a highly enviable position as the only profitable camera maker along with Canon and Nikon”. The economics of the market will prevail. Companies like Panasonic and Olympus will close their photography divisions if they don’t become profitable in the next year or two.
    Just like Miranda, Topcon, Alpa, Yashica, and a host of other 35mm SLR makers in the 60’s and 70’s, unprofitable camera divisions WILL disappear. Get ready for it.

  • Passageways

    I believe it depends what type of photography was done at the time. Certainly for photojournalism I would see little if any reason to spend the extra bucks to own Leica. Nor for fashion or weddings, for example.

    I do like Leica lenses a lot and the sturdiness and reliability and feel (sorry) of, say an old M3 but that is almost purely for my own personal photographing.

    The easiest camera and in some ways most effective for exposure and reliability was my Nikon F6, especially when shooting color and wanting a measure of sharpness. I did still use manual focus though. And the lenses are, as you imply, a fraction of the cost of Leica lenses.

    I have a friend who has been a documentary photographer and has always used Leica for decades, until recently. Two years ago, although still using an old M6, his lens of choice is a 35mm f2.8 Zeiss lens which he prefers over the 35mm summicron, and not just because of the cost factor.

  • Andy Umbo

    Used Yashica/Contax for a number of years, and have to say I adored the Contax/Zeiss lenses. My 35mm f/2.8 was superior to any 35mm lens I ever owned from another manufacturer, and the 85mm f/2.8 was superior in every aspect except for close focusing ability (something the new ones lack as well), and it was the size of a 50mm.

  • hexx

    Right… so you got FF A7 to use it with Touit designed for APS-C – really???? :D:D:D

  • As luckily police doesn’t enforce the rules of photography, we’re allowed to use this heretical combo. Goes without saying that you get vignetting, but nice vignetting. Add the fact that you don’t have to hide your shoes… 12mm would be a bit of a challenge… And with a bit of processing you get a unique, hardly distorted perspective: full clean square crop or nearly full 5:4 crop, and you’re just fine.

  • Ben

    Similar to Rolls Royce you think. RR aren’t necessarily that much more better than others but its a status thing. May be Nikon or Canon should by Leica as per BMW &RR & put their internals inside a Leica body..