Over the past several years, Leica has been having a hard time with the changing paradigm of film to digital. Actually, it goes further back than that. When all 35mm cameras went fully automatic exposure and autofocus, they hung back and waited to see if it was all a passing fad. Well, it wasn’t and they were left by the side of the road, becoming increasingly archaic and out of step with the rest of the universe. For more than a decade, it seemed like the only people using Leica cameras were either hard-core, anachronistic pros who used them no matter what or wealthy hobbyists who bought them for their prestige. Fewer and fewer working pros could justify the cost and the lack of ease of use any longer. Well, maybe that is about to change.
What Leica was good at was designing and building compact, ultra high quality cameras aimed at serious photographers. Olympus and Panasonic have recently announced cameras designed to fill that niche, the E-P1 and the GF-1. Well, Leica has just announced a few cameras that also fit that bill. And instead of rebranding cameras made by other companies, they are making these all in-house, just like the old days.
The new M9 could possibly be the worst kept secret in cameras in recent times, but there is now a full-frame, 35mm-sized digital Leica rangefinder and that is no small matter. The real surprise, though, is the X1, a compact fixed lens APS-C digital camera. This camera seems to take the design advantages of a Leica and apply them to a digital camera in an intelligent and thoughtful manner. In a weirdly old-fashioned way, it is an innovative and even fresh approach. It took a while for Leica to get things straight in their heads, but maybe they had it figured out for themselves. Leica can’t compete with Canon and Nikon or even Sony or Panasonic, but they can choose the ground they wage their battles on and I hope this strategy pays off for them. Here’s the run-down of these two new cameras:
Leica X1 • a fixed lens, compact digital camera.
12.2 MP CMOS APS-C sensor; 24mm f/2.8 Elmarit (35mm equivalent); 2.7-inch LCD monitor with 230,000 pixels; SD and SDHC cards, JPEG and DNG formats; 100 – 3200 ISO; optional optical viewfinder; really simple and straightforward controls; around $2000.00.
Leica M9 • full-frame, 35mm digital camera with interchangeable lenses and rangefinder focusing.
18 MP CCD sensor with an infrared filter instead of an anti-alias filter mounted in front of the sensor; micro-lens overlay on the sensor to create perfectly even images in terms of exposure and sharpness; JPEG and DNG formats; 160 – 2500 ISO (with a “pulled” setting of 80 ISO); 2.5-inch LCD monitor with 230,000 pixels; under $7000.00.
The only caveat I have with these cameras is Leica’s choice of rear LCD monitor. Both the M9 and X1 have decently large ones with rather anemic pixel counts of 230,000. The new camera, the Canon 5D Mark II has a 3-inch LCD with 920,000 pixels. Knowing the clarity and sharpness of that LCD, I have to wonder what Leica was thinking. Oh well, I’m still looking forward to checking them out when they are available. Congrats to Leica and best of luck. It's good to see you back in the game.