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Last Updated: Monday, 13 November 2006, 14:40 GMT
Camera obscurer?
By Jem Kime
Editor, The Leica Society

Marc Ribaud used a Leica for this iconic shot

It's about 3,000, comes without a lens and lacks some of the key features found in cameras costing a fraction of the price. Can Leica, one of the foremost names in modern photography, crack it in the digital market?

The photos are often iconic, even the photographers are sometimes household names, but the camera...

Who cares what brand of kit captured the soldier falling, mid-stride, to his death in the Spanish Civil War, or the hippy carefully planting a flower in the barrel of a National Guardsmen's gun during an anti-Vietnam protest (see image above)?

Yet without Leica, these moments of history, frozen forever in time, might never have been recorded.

For much of the 20th Century, Leica was the last word in reportage photography; to serious photographers what Kodak was to happy-go-lucky holiday snappers.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, perhaps the most famous photographer, was inseparable from his Leica rangefinder.

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The rangefinder has always been at the core of Leica's identity - employing a viewfinder through which the photographer looks to compose their image, rather than a more bulky SLR (single-lens reflex) system that provides a view through the lens itself.

Crucially, in the days before miniaturisation of technology, the rangefinder stood for compactness and quality.

But the "invasion" in the late 1960s of affordable, quality SLR cameras from Japan shunted Leica from mainstream to niche camera maker.

Digital has since signalled a second revolution in photography, and caught some of the "old guard" on the hop. Last month, Eastman Kodak reported its eighth quarterly loss in a row as it battles to fully adapt to the digital age.

Now Leica, which has also struggled to adjust, has launched its first digital rangefinder, the M8.

The mass production of silicon chip sensors and the world of fine mechanical and optical engineering have come together and could create a renaissance for the financial fortunes of the ailing German brand.

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Hand crafted - the Leica "production line" of old
But will the M8 - the successor to the M7 film rangefinder - sell? Will photographers who have used film and mechanical cameras all their lives wish to buy the latest "new-fangled" device from their favourite camera maker?

And if so, will they shell out 3,000+ for a camera without a lens?

Could younger, more contemporary, photographers really be expected to sacrifice the benefits of seeing through their camera lenses and give up auto-focus - yes, the Leica is a manual focus only - to invest in a range of lenses which are the most expensive on the market?

Though Epson and Cosina combined to present a digital rangefinder camera some two years ago, it has not been a marketing success.

Leica's rangefinder devotees tend to be serious (often documentary) photographers whose needs are not as pressing as a newspaper photojournalist. So for them, the immediacy of digital is less alluring. And who knows how long today's digital formats - the M8 uses the familiar JPG format - will last?

Traditional film has the longevity and stability. Pop a 150-year-old Fox-Talbot negative in a standard darkroom enlarger today and you could make a print of it. How digital will fare seems less certain. Look at your current computer, if it has a floppy drive then that's unusual these days.

Three grand to you guv - the new M8
Remember those early five-and-a-quarter-inch floppy discs? Where could you read one of those files now? We have solid state memory of 4Gb and more these days. Will your CDs still be readable in 10 years' time? Who knows?

So is there really a need to replace a camera that works well? Indeed a camera that works so well it is known as the best in the world.

Of course the Leica M8 will sell, and like most digital cameras will be quickly updated and then shortly after; undoubtedly out-dated.

Whether it will rescue Leica is to be seen. Realistically, it could be just a blip towards the firm eventually becoming a badge within a larger company. Like Ford has classy Jaguars and Aston Martins, Panasonic may soon have "classy" Leicas.

Failing that, Leica could give up pretending to compete in the digital market and concentrate on its core strength: the making of unparalleled mechanical cameras and superb optical lenses suitable for photographers who realise the enduring quality of a 35mm film format that still offers results equivalent to around a 60 megapixel camera!

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Although Jem Kine makes some very valid comments about the value for money and commercial viability of the new Leica, I take issue with the assumption that 35mm is still a much higher quality that digital, I feel this is a great bias from a die-hard celluloid finatic. The reason that 35mm film manufacturers are going bust and other 35mm camera manufacturers like Nikon have stopped making 35mm cameras, is that digital has now overtaken 35mm film in quality, flexibility and versatility, in fact in just about every dimension. Scanning a 35mm frame you start to hit the grain at about 20 megapixel in my experience, or less on a darker shot, not at 60 megapixels. Other photographers feel that their 10 megapixel digitals give better quality than a medium format 6x7. So I applaude Leica for taking their expertise and moving forward, keep it flexible and they will thrive.
Jamie Robinson, Hook Norton

My heart goes out to Eastman Kodak, as it "battles to fully adapt to the digital age". I have totally failed to do so. I have a classic Olympus OM1, and the prints I got from it, up until recently, were razor sharp, using optical enlarging. But my local photographic dealer has switched to digital processing, and the definition of my prints is now inferior to that of a 1930's box camera.

Has Jem Keine actually tested the new Leica digital camera yet? If not was his diatribe just another rant from the diminishing ranks of the 'fear of the new' brigade who feel that digital "will never beat film" in pretty much the same way as specialist firms who turned from vinyl to CD or from VHS to DVD were sniffed at by the luddites? I find it interesting that Kine is a member of the Leica historical society, perhaps with his backward facing view that's what he's hoping Leica will become, just a note in history.
david, hayes uk

I love the history behind Leica; Freya Stark used Leicas everywhere she went on her travels. But I'm confused - my Panasonic cameras have Leica lenses already. So, does this really count has Leica's first foray into digital? My logic with digital cameras as always been: get the electronics from someone who knows about electronics, and the optics from someone who knows about optics. Panasonic/Leica and Sony/Zeiss partnerships testify that this is a good marketing idea. Is Leica/Leica really going to sell as well as Panasonic/Leica?
Sam, London, UK

Why shouldn't Leica create a digital rangefinder body? They've embraced 'digital' already by signing up to the 4/3rds standard and designing lenses to fit. These are sold with their partners' Panasonic bodies, but will be sold seperately and fit Sigma, Olympus and indeed any other 4/3rds compliant bodies. And as for the price of the M8, have you seen the price of second-hand 35mm Leica? Part of the cost of the M8 is due to the technology required to overcome the challenges inherent in the rangefinder design coupled with the peculiarities of digital sensors. Light needs to strike them as close to 90 degrees as possible, unlike film. I'd rather see a Leica, than a Panasonic with a Leica badge!
Chris, Falkirk, Scotland

35mm equal to 60MP? Perhaps you'd like to explain what film it is (if it is still in production) you will use and what kind of drum scanner (along with many thousands of dollars it costs) you have to have to achieve this resolution out of scanned film? Because last time I scanned professional 35mm film on a good consumer scanner the quality was a whole lot less than the 6MP I get from my digital SLR.
Panos Voudouris, Bristol

I'd happily buy one. It's not a case of form over function, but if it was, I'd still be tempted. Stunning, classic design and excellent cameras - what more do you want? Perhaps a little change from your 3 grand maybe?!
John Williams, Sheffield, UK

Utter nonsense. You're talking about an image format, not the hard physical copy of the data. Jpeg is a well-documented and understood format and (as long as they are transferred between physical media while readers for the media still exist) will always be readable. Oh, for what it's worth, I still have a 5 1/4" drive lying around somewhere.
Geoff Winkless, Leicestershire

My first 35mm camera was a Leica M3, bought in my teens in the late 1950s, and I still treasure memories of it. But my six-magapixel digital Pentax *ist is producing A4-size colour prints to equal anything I produced on the Leica, AND in a fraction of the time and with none of the darkroom gloom and mess involved in developing and printing wet-process pictures. However, I wish Leica every success with its digital rangefinder camera.
Ray Burke, Stockport, England

No, 35mm doesn't equal 60 megapixels. Megapixels by themselves are no indicator of resolution, anyway - the tiny pixels in a point and shoot compact camera are far worse than the larger pixels in a DSLR or full-frame digital SLR. Most estimates reckon that at low ISOs, 12MP is about the same. Once you get to higher ISOs, then digital wins out even at 6MP. However, film has a quality that digital can't replicate at the moment - just don't be too hung up about resolution.
Rupert Stubbs, Bath, UK

I use two Nikon D2x DSLRs for work, as that's what my output demands; but for fun I still carry my M6 with me everywhere. I find it somehow calming to shoot with a rangefinder and know I won't see the images until the film is processed.
Rob Knight, Uxbridge, UK

I still use a 35mm SLR that gives superb photo quality. Once that finally wears out or breaks I suppose I'll have to consider a digital one but I do worry that with file formats and storage media changing so rapidly that people are at risk of 'losing' photos to obselescence. And are any of the photo printers available able to provide such long lasting prints as good old fashioned film?
David Rodgers, Bideford

It will take about five years before the leap to digital is complete, but there will always be those who prefer old technology. The sad thing is the loss of images that are wiped when the memory of the camera is full. It's strange but after the rush to buy digital watches they are selling 'kinetic" timepieces as the new thing. I think they were once known a automatics fifty years ago and as with the old Leicas they didn't need batteries either. James
James Styles, Whitstable

While this was an interesting article, it rather sounds like Jem Kine doesn't know much about digital photography. The M8 primarily uses the 'DNG' format to store its images (JPG is also provided, but won't be the main format used by pro photographers). This is a good choice specifically for longevity because DNG is an open, published format, where other manufacturers use proprietary 'secret' formats. Should it be necessary to write new software at some future date to read the data, this will be easier with DNG than with other formats. As well as format problems, Kine correctly indicates that the physical media (if any) used for digital data may become obsolete within a decade or so. However, should there be any vital data still on a floppy disc, it can indeed be recovered. In fact, you can not only read data from 5.25" floppy discs, but the much older 8" variety - and even tapes. Services that will do this cost money but aren't hard to find. Finally, the '35mm = 60 megapixel' claim is at best contentious and at worst outright untrue; it's a myth put about by luddites. The two media have different characteristics but quality comparisons suggest that digital cameras achieve higher quality than 35mm film (and perhaps medium format too) at closer to 16 megapixels than 60.
sam, MK, UK

Leica are more of a status symbol than a camera. They may be beautifully made, and I dare say indestructible - but they are no better than a much cheaper Nikon with an equivalent lens. And no camera is any good if the person doesn't know what they're doing.
Gareth, London

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