des Pudels Kern (Goethe)
Current film-based and solid-state camera systems look like clones of each other, differing mainly by the nametag. This state of affairs is the natural result of the democratization of industrial design. The requirement that products must sell in high volumes in a short period of the life cycle forces a convergence of designs to one single universal optimum. The same evolution happens in most industries: the car industry has to adopt an aerodynamic shape that is optimized in the wind tunnel and the inside can de designed in only a few ways to maximise flexibility and driver comfort. Consumer electronic products and in particular the current crop of digital cameras, high end and low end, tend to one recognizable shape with the same set of features to be able to compete with other products.
It was not always like this and some persons deplore the lack of individuality that characterizes most modern products. It was not always like this. The main cameras in the decades from 1950 to 1970 (the second golden age of the 35mm camera) were strikingly different and appealed to different user groups. Individual designers or small designer teams with quite strong opinions about the characteristics and engineering of the best camera created the Exacta Varex, the Asahi Pentax, the Zeiss Contarex, the Olympus OM, the Leica M, the Canon F1 and the Nikon F/F2 and several others. With the exception of the Leica M, all of the great cameras are gone or replaced by modern variants with more features and a very high level of user comfort and engineering efficiency.
The Leica M now faces two challenges:
The first challenge concerns the rangefinder concept. What if any are the decisive advantages of the rangefinder concept and its engineering foundation compared to the highly efficient autofocus technology and modern production engineering. The rangefinder concept as it stands is at its end of its development cycle: cameras like the Konica RF, the Bessa and the new Zeiss Ikon are all attempts to design a better mousetrap.
The second challenge concerns the digitalization of photography: what if any are the advantages of the silver halide method of recording images compared to the digital alternative. When the Leica digital M arrives, this second question may loose part of its relevance, but then the first question still needs an answer. The Epson RD-1 failed to make any impact in the market and one may naturally ask why the digital M would fare better.
The answer to the first question is not obsolete either: Leica states in a recent issue of LFI that the company will continue to produce the film-based M (however without further development) and prospective buyers of the film-based M as well as current users of the M system may wonder whether to invest in this product line. The experience of the high-end film-based systems from Canon and Nikon are not encouraging in this respect: sales of the EOS 1V and the Nikon F5/6 are minuscule compared to the sales of the digital twins, since their introduction. It is interesting to note that the superbly engineered EOS 1V has a price tag of Euro 2000 and its digital sibling, the EOS 1Ds Mark II, sells with a price tag of Euro 8000. For the same amount of money (Euro 2000) you can buy the EOS 20D (with a cheap lens) and this camera is practically identical to the EOS 30/33 with a price tag of Euro 400! Are chips that expensive or are we paying the price of our own hurry to jump into the digital river?
This is a sideline remark really. The massive change from classical silver halide photography to solid state imagery has been completed by now and the chemical recording of images will become a tiny niche, cared for by a handful of aficionados, as is the case with the vinyl LP record.
The characteristics of Leica photography.
A review of the prime topic in the visual arts is a necessary precondition to understand the birth and development of the art and technique of Leica photography. The major challenge to visual artists is the representation of three-dimensional space. The organization of pictorial space has been governed by the use of perspective recession since the Renaissance. Perspective space, a method of representing depth had been perfected in early fifteenth-century. This method was based on the exploration of mathematician-artists and may be called the optical approach to perceptual reality.
This naturalistic representation of the human figure and environment reached its height in the late Renaissance. This approach lost its power in subsequent ages, but the faithful reproduction of reality remained a challenge for visual artists. In the seventeenth century an Italian artist, named Caravaggio, introduced a fresh kind of naturalism with an optical and emotive power that was never seen before: its bold light-dark contrasts (chiaroscuro) initiated a new style that can be followed till Rembrandt van Rhijn. Artists tried to create works that gave the viewer the illusion of being drawn into the picture to become part of the scene.
The revolt against this approach to painting was initiated by the Impressionists. In early nineteenth century the industrial expansion gave birth to a large and prosperous middle class that had no interest in the fantasy of Romantic art. This middle class demanded and needed a kind of pictorial verisimilitude that could record meticulous visual facts verifiable in the external world here and now. The public taste for visual fact served as a stimulant for research that brought about the invention of photography. In 1839 it was demonstrated that a mechanical technology had been discovered that resolved and fixed upon a flat surface and in minute detail the exact tonal image of the three-dimensional world.
It fitted the materialistic outlook of these days to want to see pictures that could represent finely detailed visual facts that could be verified in the external world by visual comparison. This widespread taste for visual facts was satisfied by the invention of photography. Here we had a mechanical tool that could record the external world without manipulation by the artist.
The early inventors of photography did indeed stress the fact that the technique of photography could reproduce nature without human intervention. The camera image was interpreted as the result of a chemical and physical process which gave nature the power to reproduce itself: the camera image was identical to the picture on the retina of the human eye, that is a picture devoid of interpretation and emotion. Because of these characteristics and the technical quality of the images, photography soon became the preferred tool for scientists and researchers to produce scientific illustrations.
Photography became an important tool for information gathering in expeditionary and travel endeavours and from this root all of documentary photography evolved.
Photography was hot, as we would now describe the atmosphere and in the early decades of the 20th century photography made enormous progress in scope and technical possibilities. There was an insatiable demand for documentary records of daily life, for portraits and landscapes. Around 1927 the new approach to picture journalism was at its height and illustrated magazines were the preferred means of image distribution.
As an instrument for reliable reproduction, photography quickly killed painting as a means of recording nature in a faithful manner.
The early inventors of photography were so impressed by the technical process of automatically recording a scene of nature, that they completely overlooked the artistic aspects of photography. Photography from the beginning has always had an uneasy relationship with the official art world. It was not seen as an art, partly because the early pioneers stressed the mechanical nature of the process. But the pictorial qualities of the photograph, especially its flat perspective and its rigid juxtaposition of objects and shapes did not fit in with the conventional view of painting as art.
Painters were free in the choice of subject matter, they could manipulate colours, change the shapes of the objects, locate the object wherever they wanted and resize the shapes to suit the role, irrespective of relative position in the scene. The correct reproduction of fine detail in the textural surface of the subjects was time consuming when not impossible.
Painters did, however, anticipate many of the characteristics of the new photography and arrested motion, snapshot-like framing were used to convey images that could not be observed by the naked eye.
The straightforward record of the everyday world then became the domain of photography. But the technique of photography limited the possibilities of the artist. The nature of its chemical-optical mechanism limited the artist to the choice of subject, viewing angle, location and light. Within this straitjacket the photographer had to create his work.
The cameras did improve, with faster shutters, better chemicals and smaller size. Lartigue was one of the first to use a portable camera to record scenes of life.
The Leica camera was introduced in 1925 and fitted seamlessly in this new photographic culture.
It was very small, fast and simple to use, it had excellent optics, a fast shutter and could be fired when held before the photographer's eye, providing a natural viewing angle. The camera could arrest motion by its fast shutter speeds, record fine detail not seen by the naked eye, and made possible spontaneous snapshots with wide angle views, erratic framing and fixing poses and gestures of human beings in fleeting movements.
The 20th century has been characterized as the age of light, because the artistic revolutions were based on cinematography and photography. It was the power of light (the pencil of nature) that enabled the fleeting moment to be captured in an instant. The fastest power in nature (the speed of light) was used to capture the speed of the moment in time. Photography combined two new elements: instantaneousness and reproducibility. Now the artist could make an exact copy of nature and reproduce this copy endlessly.
It was the Russian artist Rodchenko who pioneered the notion that new concepts could not be expressed in old media and that it was necessary to experiment with the characteristics of photography to discover its true capabilities.
The artistic possibilities of photography were quite limited by its technique.
It was not by accident that surrealists (Man Ray), abstractionists (Rodchenko) and objectivists (Renger-Patsch) were drawn to photography as its technique offered unexplored possibilities that could help to enhance their message.
The Surrealist movement started life in the mid-1920s in Paris, stimulated by Freud's ideas about the unconscious. Free association was a major method to discover a person's unconscious desires. Photography became central to the Surrealist movement, because the making of photographs was seen as the visual equivalent of free association: candid photography and the haphazard use of the camera were a means to discover deep desires. This approach did not bring much but Henri Cartier-Bresson adopted the Surrealist feeling for the magic of the coincidence in everyday life with his theory about the decisive moment.
The Leica camera was introduced in this fruitful period in art and was adopted quickly by many artists, many of whom would become photographers.
The Leica camera could be used at the eye's height thus emulating the normal vision of a walking person. It was very compact and could be used always and at every location. Its handiness made possible pictures from every angle and so could find strange angles of view with interesting and arresting images. The camera was fast and could be used for the rapid recording of moving scenes. The 50mm lens gave a large depth of field and so careful focusing was not necessary, stimulating spontaneous and immediate photography. The large number of pictures that could be made in one run facilitated the technique of the snapshot and the spontaneous recording of events and objects. This method was totally different from the normal way of taking pictures that asked for a time consuming preparation by the photographer.
The camera was not only compact and fast to use, but also very sturdily built and very reliable, which was quite useful with these photographers who were not technically minded. Compared to the clumsy and often fragile cameras of the time, the Leica could be used in every climate and situation.
The Leica camera then fitted seamlessly into the revolutionary culture of the day and it may also be said that the availability of the camera stimulated the movement.
The ability to take tons of pictures and select the best one, seemed obscene in the eyes of the painters and the classical photographers who made their own glass plates, and even Stieglitz interpreted the compact handheld camera as a danger for real photography. But after some experiments he promoted the new possibilities as the best way to advance photography as a new medium. He became the exponent of the direct photography, working on location, using short exposure times and gave his models the freedom to move and pose themselves without direction from the artist. His adage was to record the world with as least interference form the maker as possible. The photographer had to accept the limitations and possibilities of the camera and work within these constraints. The camera was not a mechanized painters brush: the photographer took pictures and did not make them. This distinction between making a photo and taking a photo is still valid today. The dominance of digital photography and the manipulative possibilities of the software imply that we will see a return to the art of making photographs.
The other aspect of modern photography, its ability to reproduce detail with clarity and lean lines, was soon adopted in the world of advertising and corporate propaganda. But also concerned social photographers (like Dorothea Lange) used the realism of photographs to convey the message in a most forceful way.
The f/64 group in America and the Neue Sachligkeit in Germany were exploring the scientific qualities of the photograph to stress the appearance of the image more than the subject matter itself.
Here again the Leica could be used with great success as the camera had its roots in microscope manufacture and the optical quality of the lenses has always been one of Leica's big advantages.
Both aspects of modern photography, (1) the documentary and scientific recording of scenes and events and (2) the artistic exploration of the snapshot technique and the experimentation with new angles of view and perspective, could be supported by the Leica camera.
The Leica RF was designed by Barnack as a compact and fast handling tool that could support the curious and visually keen photographer to record the world in front of the lens. The superior quality of the lenses added another dimension to the Leica style of photography. The real world could be captured with exacting detail and accuracy, giving Leica pictures a visual advantage that other marques lacked.
A short review of Leica CRF development
It is well known that the humble Leica camera evolved into a vast system of cameras, lenses and accessories that covered most facets of photography, from reportage to science. This expansion into areas where the camera could be employed only with the help of a range of complicated tools of exquisite engineering demanded large sums of development money. It became also increasingly clear that the Leica camera,designed by Barnack more as a clockwork mechanism than as a modular system concept, could not comply with all demands for scientific purposes. The competition by the admittedly more crude single lens reflex cameras became ever more intense. The slr-concept would eventually surpass the Leica RF in flexibility and possibilities.
The Leica camera dominated the world of photography from 1930 to 1960. And during the same period the Leitz factory became the most influential camera manufacturer in the world. Around 1960 however, the times would change. At that time the mighty Leitz Company dwarfed one of the Japanese upstart companies, called Canon.
Let us be realistic. Leica cameras could dominate the world of photography for a long period, not only by force of its own virtues, but also by lack of competition.
Around 1950 the Japanese companies began to improve their rangefinder cameras in engineering quality, features and usability. They also started to innovate the rangefinder concept and the Canon IV and Nikon S evolved into serious contenders.
The Force could strike back again and created the M3 camera, the ultimate rangefinder camera that froze the concept in concrete (the current MP and M7 differ only insubstantially from the M3 when viewed from an evolutionary perspective).
The Japanese studied the M3 in depth and concluded that they could not match its engineering quality and did not want to adopt its constructional complexity. At the same time the development of the slr camera, especially with the introduction of the pentaprism, became more promising and all major camera companies jumped on the bandwagon of the slr as the best option for the 35mm camera evolution.
The M3 was a best-seller for some years and then had to bow to the slr-competition. During the Korean war it was the main camera to record the events, but during the Vietnam war its status was reduced to a complementary role, in particular as the preferred camera for use with wide angle lenses.
Between 1960 and 1970 the style of photography changed, spearheaded by the English fashion photographers, like David Bailey, who used the Nikon F camera and the Hasselblad as instrumental icons, the former for speed and glamour, the latter for image quality.
The competitive advantages of the Leica M3 could be exploited when the photographer was at close range with the subject or was part of the scene to be recorded. Robert Capa (using the Contax rangefinder) noted that if the picture was not good enough, the photographer was not close enough. He paid with his life for wanting to be part of the action. The famous French street photographers who made Paris the city of choice for most aspiring photographers wandered around in sun drenched parks, scarcely-lit burlesque theatres and bars and waited/hunted for the image that exemplified the human condition. Here the Leica reigned supreme. Its accurate combined rangefinder/viewfinder, its quiet shutter, the high speed compact lenses, the instant response, its immaculate handling made it the best tool for the job.
But photography changed: zoomlenses made it possible to focus on the subject, irrespective of standpoint, on camera electronic flash and high-speed emulsions made available-light photography an anachronism, the single lens reflex and its 100% focusing screen supported the support the staged photograph as was becoming the standard in fashion photography. Indeed the role model for aspiring photographers was the fashion photographer and no longer the concerned photographer.
But the industry changed too!
In a report on the Nikon F from 1965 the famous Geoffrey Crawley noted that the Leica stands head and shoulders above all others in engineering quality, but confessed to be most impressed by the workmanlike qualities of the Nikon F. In the second edition from 1969 this most significant remark is gone. The Leica M had established the ultimate in mechanical engineering, based on the quality of the workforce and a long tradition of precision manufacturing.
From 1960 to 1980 the Japanese camera manufacturers improved substantially the engineering quality of their main camera systems and made significant innovations in design and functionality, adding electronics and automation in the process.
Leitz on the other hand could hardly improve the M3. The current MP 3 is a look alike of the original M3, based on the MP internals and the MP Classic is even more a replica of the M3, shedding the electronic parts. The creators of the Leica M3 camera, headed by Mr Stein, achieved something that is quite unique: the creation of the perfect instrument that could not be improved functionally.
This success was a problem for the company. Canon and Nikon were able to see beyond the rangefinder camera and could develop the best single lens reflex cameras the world has ever seen. The Japanese ability to go beyond imitation and invent is impressive. Leica has had several chances to re-invent the rangefinder camera but did not dare. Leitz was superior in mechanical engineering and the manufacture of complex products consisting of many intricate parts. The manufacture of precision machinery, instruments and optical devices, once the sole province of the German industry, was the target of the Japanese and they succeeded brilliantly. Before the war, the Germans had a quasi-monopoly on high-quality cameras and Zeiss and Leica were legendary names (as they still are today in Japan and China). At the beginning of this century Leica is still there, but a Leica camera costs much more than a Japanese equivalent. For rich aficionados, price does not matter. But for most users, including professional photographers that kind of difference is prohibitive, observes David Landes in his 'the wealth and poverty of nations'. Japan dominates the market, leaving niches to others.
The Leica rangefinder camera is like a fish in a fish-bowl living in a small universe, being admired for its elegance and qualities, but unable to escape from its protected environment on the risk of dying. Leitz attempted with the M5 to escape the fish-bowl, but did not succeed. Now Cosina is trying to repeat that act with the Zeiss Ikon rangefinder and we will discuss this camera later in this review.
The limitations of the Leica camera.
The rangefinder of the Leica camera must be considered its most important characteristic. Its clear image, its fast and accurate rangefinder mechanism and its direct visual relation with the scene around the photographer supported the photographic style, honed in the 1930s. But there were limits, not recognized clearly by most Leica users. The limits are technical and visual. The camera was originally designed for use with a 50mm lens, and the angle of view and the magnification of the finder fitted perfectly with the lens. When interchangeable lenses became commonplace, the Leica used bright lines in the finder to define the frames that corresponded with other focal lengths, without however changing the magnification. This could be accomplished with additional finders, but that is a cumbersome solution, as these finders could not be fitted with a range finder mechanism. The nature of the finder limits the employment of the camera to a small range of focal lengths from 35 to 90mm. This was no problem for the best practitioners of the Leica art of photography.
Due to its neutral and mechanical drawing of the scene, the photographer had only three parameters at his/her disposal to create a picture: standpoint, framing and moment in time. Position of the photographer relative to the subject, the framing of the scene and the moment of exposure are the only parameters that the photographer can influence. What will be captured within that small frame or window of opportunity are the elements of the scene in a particular spatial organisation. This is of course a cumbersome way of defining the decisive moment, that special moment when the photographer recognizes 'in a fraction of a second the significance of an event as well as the precise organisation of formsÓ (H C-B). For masters of the craft these limitations were not really a limit but they helped the photographer to express himself optimally
A Dutch photographer, Philip Mechanicus, exploited the formal limits of black and white photography to take portraits of sitters, as sharply as possible and always in close up. His portraits are as good as the ones taken by Richard Avedon, another master of the limits of photography.
In addition to the three parameters, mentioned above these photographers added the quality and direction of light to the photographer's toolkit.
Using a Leica does not automatically bring mastery of these tools, as countless photographs taken with Leica cameras will testify.
The Leica rangefinder camera is an excellent instrument as long as you stay within its working range, as defined by its technical limitations. The photographer needs to adjust to its inherent characteristics to be able to exploit its power.
One has to be educated in the tradition of taking pictures in the Leica rangefinder style to be able to really enjoy the use of the Leica camera. Leica M cameras are now mainly bought and used by persons who wish to be associated with the great Leica photographers of the past, like Cartier-Bresson. They are prepared to pay a premium price to belong to that tradition.
The Leica M camera possesses characteristics that were unique in the past period, but these advantages are becoming quite thin in the contemporary scene of photography. Were it not for a loyal band of followers, the Leica would have been discontinued long ago, like its famous competitors, the Zeiss, Nikon and Canon rangefinder cameras of the 1950-era. With hindsight, the Leica M should have been upgraded around 1980, just before the introduction of the M6, or abandoned after the M5 failed to spark new interest in the RF concept.
In the past the rangefinder concept has advantages compared to SLR: speed of use, focusing accuracy, finder clarity. The Leica M possessed a mechanical and optical precision that the SLR lacked and thus could not exploit the quality of the film.
But these advantages are no longer the unique selling point they once were.
Current SLR-cameras are equipped with fast motors, autofocus technology delivers excellent results, the exposure metering systems are very advanced and give accurate exposure on film and modern top cameras have superb engineering and manufacturing quality. The challenge of the modern film-based SLR is twofold: the SLR offers high grade automation, excellent engineering and a range of features that allow the camera to be used in a wide variety of assignments with equal success.
The Leica still has an unparalleled workmanlike appearance and an elegance and tactility of handling that make it a joy to use. But it are the results that count and here Leica has created a dilemma: the camera is designed for hand-held shooting but equipped with lenses with superior optical capabilities. But in hand-held shooting the quality of the lens is not the decisive factor in the imaging chain unless several precautions are observed. And the speed of manual range finding is now not as fast as is being offered by the best AF systems.
The Leica M can be used with good results in a variety of photographic tasks and great portraits, fashion pictures, sports pictures and even glamour pictures have been taken with the Leica M camera. The domain where the M has unique advantages and does a job no other camera can do, is however rapidly shrinking.
Limitations of the chemical processing of the silver halide emulsions:
It may sound remarkable, but the chemical process can be influenced only within a narrow range.
The fundamentals of photochemistry are such that the whole chain of reactions from the formation of the latent image, over the chemical development of the silver halide grains in the negative, to the printing of the negative on light sensitive papers has to be synchronized to narrow ranges in order to produce a high quality final result.
The characteristics of film emulsions, like the exposure latitude, the size and distribution of grain, the shape and steepness of the characteristic curve, the tonal reproduction and the resolving power can be influenced only within small margins. In his seminal book (Controls in Black and White) Henry exploded hundreds of myths hanging around in the photographic world.
The Zone System tried to widen the controls and bend the rigidity of the film emulsions and there exists long lists of all kinds of developer/film combinations, claiming to offer manipulative controls over the chemical process. But the usefulness of all these approaches is limited.
But the fact remains that a really high quality chemical print can only be made within the narrow constraints of the process. Here we face the same situation as we saw with the limitations of the rangefinder camera. You have to adapt yourself to the characteristics of the medium to get the best results. Understand what the materials do and stay within this range is the best advice for the black and white photographer. This is not a new insight of course: studio photographers always work within the limits of the materials they use and they reduce the contrast range of the lighting when the film cannot cope and not the other way around.
A modern exposure meter like the Minolta Flashmeter VI does support the control of the exposure latitude limits by having a user defined latitude range within which the shadow and highlight spotmetering must fall.
Silver halide emulsions have a few flaws, in particular the scattering of the light by the (blackened) silver grain clumps, which limit the maximum resolution on the negative and the retention of detail when enlarging the negative. The transparency of the developed emulsion layer allows skew rays to be recorded at the edges of the frame reducing the vignetting, but this transparency is also the cause of the scattering.
A second major flaw of the silver halide emulsion is the limited brightness latitude that can be recorded with good separation of just noticeable brightness differences. Kodak tried to overcome this problem with the TMax films that offered a long straight gradation curve (a contradiction in terms!) with good separation of high lights and shadows over a long exposure range.
Film-based photography can deliver stunning results, but only if you understand and work within the limits of the technique. In the long period when only silver halide emulsions were available, these limits were not recognized nor accepted. The boundless number of film-developer combinations and all kinds of expert advice for exposing and developing films are a testimony that photographers were seeking ways to break out of the bonds. Now that digital capture is the norm and the technology has matured, we can clearly seen the advantages of the digitalization of photography.
The challenge of the solid state technology.
Digital photography is maturing very fast and we are still at the beginning of the evolution. We should in fact applaud this development: the smallness of the pixel size and the largeness of the sensor size allow for pictures that are grain free, have unprecedented sharpness and can record finer details than is possible with even the Kodak Techpan. We should be careful here: the theoretical resolution of the finest grained film emulsions is still higher than what is being offered by solid-state sensors. The pixel sizes range from 5 to 8 microns, where film grain can be as small as 1 to 2 microns. But this advantage is lost in the reproduction cycle, in particular the scattering of light in the the grain, reducing the contrast of small details to a level that can not be detected by the human eye.
The sensor technology supports a longer contrast range to be recorded, but this is not the most important issue and in many cases not true. The dynamic rage of the current digital camera systems is often overhyped..
The captured image starts as a analogue recording, but is transformed to a digital file. This file can be processed and manipulated by software programs, based on the mathematical theories of signal and image processing. Image processing is done by mathematical means, not chemical means and the processed image can be viewed immediately after the processing.
There is no time lag between the taking of the picture and the viewing of the picture. This is a great learning tool and also a big advantage in the control of the picture parameters. The parameters of the technical side of the photographic process are very simple: the tonal distribution of the scene must be captured as luminance differences on the film or the sensor and the selected sharpness plane must be accurately focussed. In-depth studies by the Japanese manufacturers into these matters have been the basis for the very effective autofocus and exposure systems in the high grade analogue SLR-cameras of Canon and Nikon in particular. These cameras already possessed a microcomputer for large scale signal processing and data communication between processes and components. The integration of this computing power with the additional image processing needed for the digital manipulation of the millions of individual pixel data is a triumph of modern manufacturing technology.
The digital file that is saved in memory can be interpreted as the digital negative and when processed by appropriate RAW converter software can be manipulated in limitless ways. In the silver halide world there is a tight coupling between negative and print. In the digital world the RAW negative is just a starting point and can be changed in many ways.
Current printing technology delivers very high quality prints that in visual quality challenge and in flexibility of printing materials exceeds the chemical alternatives.
Modern digital cameras do not offer significant advantages compared with their film based partners: a Nikon D2X has the same instrumental capabilities as the Nikon F6 (probably less) and a Canon EOS 1Ds can just hold up with the speed and functionality of the EOS 1V(ision).
The incorporation of the solid sate sensor and image processing technique makes the difference and signs the death sentence for these great film-based cameras.
E tu Leica?
When the two challenges, identified in this article will be combined and its full potential for creative and revolutionary changes will be realized, photography will be divided in two segments: the professional segment and the consumer electronic segment. The big victim will be the hobby or amateur photographer, who approaches the picture making process as a dedicated hobby, that is as an activity that is isolated in time and space. In the past photography had its professional practitioners, its casual users (recording main events in life (birth, marriage, holidays) and its amateur users, where 'amateur' must be interpreted in its original sense as a person who takes part in an activity for pleasure, not as a job. This last group has been the mainstay for the development of photography in the previous century. Most photographic products (cameras, lenses, films) were targeted at this audience and well-heeded amateurs bought many professional products. In fact without the sales to the amateur market many professional cameras could not have been marketed at all.
This group has particular relevance for the prospects of the Leica Company. The amateur market has always been their traditional strength. The role of the Leica camera in photographic history has been established by a few 'greats' in photography and has given the Leica an unassailable position in the minds and hearts of photography lovers. But the fact remains that most buyers of the Leica are prestige-conscious amateurs and investment-minded collectors. (more Leica books are concerned with the collection than the use of the Leica camera). We must also remind ourselves that the break-through of the 35mm format occurred not with the rangefinder camera, but with the development of the single lens reflex camera. Barnack knew about the Exacta camera and undoubtedly must have studied this design. The story of Leitz might have been totally different if Barnack had the chance to devote his genius to this type of camera. But that is speculation. By now the Leica needle is stuck in the run-off groove of the coupled rangefinder, developed to current near perfection. The only development that is still possible is to manufacture retro-style cameras like the MP 3, a fine product that sells for a much higher price than the standard MP, but does nothing better. The introduction of the digital M, in whatever body shape and construction will not alter the basic fact that the CRF camera is slowly becoming an anachronism. Barnack's legacy is still unfinished. The Leica SLR range has never been quite convincing and even the R8/9 failed to ignite that worldwide spark of enthusiasm that designates a camera as 'great'.
Digitalization of photography means that the main expansion will occur in the consumer electronics domain where the prosumers and the instant snap-shooters with the mobile cam/phone will dominate. The true amateur photographer may become extinct unless we can focus on photographic quality as the result of a craft that is worth pursuing. The outstanding characteristic of photographic quality is luminosity. The luminous, visually satisfying clarity and truth, based on sharpness, fine texture and tonal quality. Both film-based and solid-state images are able to present and preserve these qualities, but the user must make a conscious decision to try to take this type of pictures: then film-based photography has a small chance of surviving.
We must however accept the not so distant possibility that the silver halide technique will be soon a thing of fond remembrance.
Leica lenses are definitely capable of producing pictures with that elusive quality of clear luminosity. The Leica Company now needs to convince the existing clientele and prospective clients that they can deliver products that will offer decisive advantages for todays and future photographers outside the fish-bowl concept they have chosen to cultivate.