Magazine Article


Leica Upping Its Digital Ante?

Photo of Tugboat Taken with Leica R9
An 1887 tugboat has rivets and seams and all sorts of odd colors, while the man with the torch spends his years welding. Outstandingly sharp, the digital R9 gets all.
Don Sutherland

Photo of Child Taken with Leica R9
The digital R9 is large and solid, but not lacking in grace when required. It can catch the right moment when the action gets good.
Don Sutherland

A Leica R9 with Digital Modul (right) and a Leica Mod.1 (left) in mutual admiration across 70 years, and my how things have changed!

Until 1996, the digicam industry hobbled along as a curiosity and maybe a promise of things to come, but in actual application it was quite a disappointment. Sure. by 1994 Kodak had introduced their DCS 460, with a 6MP CCD that was finally surpassed in pixel-count only two years ago. But they still costs tens of thousands. By 1996, the consumer digicam market was evolving, with VGA the norm (640x480 pixels) and XGA the supernormal (1024x768). They were still well under a megapixel, and most of them cost around $700. A 35mm film camera took a much better picture, and you didn’t need a computer to use it.

But by the late ‘90s, digital photography became serious. It was becoming seriously good. It was taking over. Leica initiated its response back in the 1.5-megapixel days. They brought out a terrific little camera called the Digilux. It was one of the nicest cameras of its epoch, the start of a Leica line that was not just pants-pocketable, but shirt-pocketable. It was still no equal to 35mm quality, but it made good pictures as digicams of 1999 went. There was just one little oddity. It wasn’t a Leica. It was a Fuji.

It was, again, a very good Fuji. But it was built with the electronic mindset, one that dispensed with smooth-meshing gears and the aura they evokes. It had a handsome satin finish, which the Leica company felt would suffice for the Leica afficionado.

Yes, although there were serious photographers who used Leicas, to say nothing of serious doctors and dentists, there were also collectors of Leicas, who pursued the Leica-branded the way others pursue collector plates and Hummels. There had been gold-plated Leicas, which could technically take pictures, but most often wouldn’t. The digital camera was a Leica in name, and good at what it could do.

What’s In A Name?

Leica is hardly the first to flout the laurels of its reputation, nor the only one to re-label Fujifilm digicams. Polaroid also exists with plenty of brand-recognition, albeit on products unconnected to the creations of the original Cambridge braintrust. You’ll find Bell & Howell products that have no connection, besides name, to motion picture cameras of 90 years ago. Kodak themselves offered the use of their brand and logo, for a fee, as long as the applicant products met standards upheld the good name.

As for the Leica company, it merged with Minox, the “subminiature” people, and introduced a line of miniature replicas of actual cameras. They worked in the same sense that model automobiles from the Danbury Mint work. Turn their steering wheel, and the front wheels of the replica turn; turn the film advance, and the film in the replica camera winds. Everybody loved the little novelties as the ultimate tsatskes of the photo collector. Not only Leica-made photographs, but the cameras themselves became statements of high ornamentation and decorative art. Even I keep a Leica Mod. 1 as a pet, and a shrine to my heritage.

Seriously, Folks

Nothing in the foregoing should imply that Leica cameras ever abandoned serious photography. Their role as collectibles was a part of their portfolio, even as Lecithin was once part of Kodak’s. Just because you have a sideline doesn’t mean you don’t have a business. In fact, it probably means you do.

Leica developed a digital back for their SLR cameras, the R8 and R9. Unlike the Kodak marriage with Nikon 15 years previous, the camera was not an either/or in film/digital option. The user could add the digital back when desired, or remove it and go back to shooting film when desired. Also unlike that first DCS, the pixels this time number 10-million. And they’re better than your average pixels.

I thought they might be when I requested a Leica R9 reflex with Digital Modul R, and a couple lenses to try out. There aren’t a lot of loaners available, and the one that arrived looked well-used. That was no problem—my Mod. 1 looks well-used, and still takes great pictures.

And using Leica lenses, what a spectacular performer it is. Like very few contemporary digital cameras—the Sigma SD9 and SD10, and the Kodak SLR/n and SLR/c are the only other recent examples—the DMR (Digital Modul R) can dispense with the blur filter (called Moire filter by Leica). The blur filter softens the imager in most digital cameras, in an effort to reduce aliasing. Regrettably, it compromises the sharpness of every picture a camera takes. Sometimes, though you need its correction. The Leica R9 and DMR is the only DSLR system allowing the user to match this feature to each picture taken.

With the DMR attached, the Leica digital reflex is probably the largest, heaviest DSLR on the market. I like its weight and its solid feel, as this is no gold-plated knick-knack for the curio shelf—it’s a solid working camera whose mass is an asset.

I like to use zoom lenses, as most camera users nowadays do. The pair sent to me by Leica were manual-focusing only, an oddity in the age of the motor-festooned machine-camera. Unlike most zoom lenses (which might better be called “vari-focal”), the Leica lenses I used were “true” zooms—hold focus pretty well at different zoom settings.

If a customer likes to zoom in and out a lot on subjects at fixed distances, the absence of autofocus will be largely inconsequential. Hyperfocal solutions are less than perfect on a zoom lens in action, so anyone photographing subjects at changing ranges will have a time of it, focusing and zooming at once. A single-control, push-pull-twist lens design would settle this problem, as would, of course, autofocus lenses in Leica R mounts,

Everything about handling the camera is a pleasure, consistent with tradition. And as a film/digital combo, the R9/DMR has all those meshing gears that made classic Leicas so svelte. I used the camera in digital mode only, however, so missed out on it all—except for the pleasure of handling the machine, and its resounding clack at exposure. The 10-megapixel sensor makes a large file, and the buffer fills quickly when more than three frames are shot in a burst.