The burden of history (July 22, 2008)


    

Many companies with an heritage and pedigree are understandably proud of their achievements. It is not that long ago in time that companies boasted about the longevity of their products. A product that could be produced and sold for many years without any change implied a sound design and a durable product as any defects would be detected and ironed out during the product cycle. A mature product was the result and buyers looked with some suspicion to a company that changed the products quite often. Canon and Nikon in their mechanical cameras period stressed the fact that they changed the top camera models only once in a decade. And they referred to their history as quite meaningful for the current products. Leica was no different in this respect and even went a step further because of the fact that they were the standard bearer of a whole new style of photography.
Camera manufacturers did not want to change their top products quite often because of three factors: the extensive retooling and high costs involved in a major design change, the inherent conservatism of their users, and the relation a product has with the history of the company, thus stressing continuity and reliability.

A fourth more hidden argument for resisting frequent changes is the conviction of the designers and engineers that their solution is the best option. And of course the fact that an engineering team works within a certain range of options and solutions.

It is hardly inevitable, when discussing Leica products, to add some comments about the history of the company and its classical products. When talking about the M8, as example, one cannot avoid referring to the M3.
So afraid are the Leica engineers to loose the link with the great past, that any design change in the M concept is studied with great care and may I say some reservation.
Only twice in their long history of the M range has Leica ventured to depart significantly from the main stream product that is molded in the classical shape and concept. Leica, with their implementation of the rangefinder concept, felt very strongly the burden of history. The solid, but staid image of the M3 was the reference and any changes were filtered by the historical view. The M5 was the first attempt of the Leitz company to bring the product up to date by adding some features that the competition offered and were greatly appreciated by users. The M5 was a bridge too far, partly by the shape of the camera, but also by the introduction of many electro-mechanical components. The M7 offered almost the same features as the M5, but now within the confines of the tradition. Leica hastily added the MP, afraid that some users might assume that Leica would shift to the postmodernist era of camera design.

Leica is in the same position as for example the Saab automobile company. Saab produced in the mid seventies and early eighties of the previous century outstanding cars with a strong profile and character and loved by car aficionados. The success of these products paralyzed the company and they could not think of any new ways to design cars. They were afraid that the Saab image and culture would become cannibalized when they strayed away from their concept too far. In their case the burden of history weighed too heavily on their minds.

It is in my view quite significant that the current top two manufacturers in the photographic world (Canon and Nikon) hardly refer to the glorious past, but stress their commitment to shape and even invent the future. Newcomers like Sony never talk about history and only about future. And even a company like Hasselblad is creating the image of a company that has a strong grasp of the future of photography and is willing to merge past virtues with future needs.

The M3 was a brilliant design, because it capitalized on the weaknesses of the slr designs of that period and optimized the rangefinder virtues and advantages.
The M4 new that the slr concept had finally equalled the rangefinder in usability and focused on handling, longevity mechanical accuracy coupled with optical excellence to stem the tide.
With the M6 the retreat into the historical niche began and from 1990 Leica exclusively focused on optical designs to stay ahead of the competition and carve out a profile of excellence for their image.

Everyone had hoped that the M8 would redefine the digital landscape as the M3 once did for the silver halide photographic world. Many eminent photojournalists who actually managed to wear out an M3 or M2 would love to adopt the M8 as their main tool for recording events and emotions.
The M8 did not offer the bold design strokes of the original M3, staying too close to the perceived values of the M-concept (that burden of history feeling again) and sadly introduced some technical and instrumental flaws that badly damaged the reputation. (with hindsight it should not have been this way when these characteristics had been handled with more elegance).

Reading the blogs about the wishes for an upgrade or a future new model, the only solution for the current problems seem to be to introduce an FF sensor, shorthand for a full frame sensor (referring to the size of the sensor (135 film format: 24 x36mm), not the technique). If you look at the great success of the Nikon D3 and the almost exuberant adoption of the D700, one seems to be allowed to jump to only one conclusion: an FF sensor will save the Leica M product.
I am sure an FF sensor will help to improve the digital M-line, but to assume that this is all one needs is to fall into that burden of history trap.
My comparative testing between the M8 and the Canon 5D indicated a slight but perceivable advantage for the Canon, when looking at the image quality. Sensible comparative tests between the D3, and 5D indicate that at least at lower ISO speeds the 5D has the edge on the D3, which seems to be some performance for an almost obsolete product (it is on the market for several years now!). Combining these results shows you that the image quality of the current M8 is at low ISO speeds equal to (or at least very close to what the Nikon offers).
For almost all photographic needs and assignments, such a performance is all we want to have and can handle. Need more? Go to Hasselblad 39M or 50Mb or even medium format film! Many Canon 1Ds Mrk III users complain that the huge files sizes of the FF sensor with 20 Mp bring no advantage and only dead weight.

I am one of the persons who would like to have and use an FF digital M camera, not for improved image quality (but some more optical performance would not hurt!) but for improved field coverage and better rangefinder options.

That said I do realize that I am in danger of thinking with that burden of history filter in my mind. A better rangefinder is a pressing need, but one can get used to the smaller sensor size and narrower field of view.

Perhaps fresh thinking is required to profile the M camera for the digital age and one should let go of the past.