R8: The first single-lens-reflex with that famous M-feeling

At the spring fair in Leipzig in 1925 a small and unobtrusive camera is being introduced. It is a completely new instrument with a new design and every screw and spring has been designed from scratch. This camera had no predecessors to copy from or improve upon. Not from the outside and certainly not from the inside. The designers then went quite far to ensure a design as ergonomically as possible to support a new type of photography: the artless art of the snapshot, ‘stealing’ pictures spontaneously from the endless and dynamic variety of life itself.
ntegration of form and function.
The autumn fair in Köln. 1996. The completely new R8 is being introduced. We could use the camera extensively during Photokina and had some in-depth interviews with the designers.
Most lasting impression?
The R8 is the first SLR from Wetzlar/Solms with a design and philosophy very similar to the M-line philosophy. Switching from M to R is smooth and almost unnoticed. Every SLR I ever used forcefully makes his existence known to the user. Lifting the camera, looking through the viewfinder with its tunnelvision, noticing the slap of the mirror and the myriad knobs and wheels and diodes, scream for attention.
The R8 reverses this trend completely. No need for a user handbook. The camera has the most intuitive user interface I know of. Making pictures is once again a smooth and effortless act. Enhanced attention for the subject stimulates compositional effort, concentration and rapport with the subject.
Decisions, decisions.
The decision to produce the R8 has been made in 1990. The R-line then comprises the R5 and R6. (The R7 is from 1992). In that same eventful year many thousands of kilometers away in the East Nikon started developing the F5. In 1990 the overall concept has been sketched. A clear relation to the Leica foundations and roots has been indicated. So using style elements from the M-body and M-philosophy became imperative. The SLR line from the Leicaflex to the R7 never attained the status and fame of the TM (threadmount) and M (bayonet) models. A reflection on the roots was inevitable. The R7 gave too less clues for future trends, and has limited development potential, even if some elements of that model are incorporated in the R8. Especially the large control-wheels on the top of the body, but now fitted flush with the topcover.
Behind curtains a palace revolution waged. Not everyone in the company, even at the highest level, was charmed by the sketches and new philosophy behind it. The Leica design department, responsible for the complete R-line till then, had been dismantled. A new, fresh start was needed. Very deliberately, new designers were recruited from outside the factory. After the demise of the Berlin Wall the Leica people even searched in the Dresden factories for suitable people with new ideas and fresh insights. Without any success. The management then decided to recruit young engineers from the technical “Hochschulen” in the neighborhood, a relation that still holds on until today. As in 1925 every part was designed from scratch. every screw analyzed on its intended use and subjected to computerized stress tests. The well known finite elements analysis, that is. In 1991 the first sketches and outlines were being produced. In 1992 the detailed “Lastenheft” (set of requirements) was ready.
The essential core of the “Lastenheft” carried a two pronged mission:
1. close conformity to the Leica tradition (the smooth topcover of the Mseries had to become an important style element. And most curious: the whole ergonomics had to be designed for manual control! That was a remarkable requirement: in 1990 the F4, EOS and Contax RTSIII showed the trend to remove the user from the manual controls and improve computer functionality.
2. simplification of the production process, reduction of technical complexity and incorporation of really foolproof electronic circuits. No mean task with >800 mechanical and >400 electronic components.
The Lastenheft had a longer list of requirements:
the body needed to accept different types of motordrives without interruption of the smooth ergonomics;
the classical feeling of manual photography had to be stressed: therefore the manual advance lever was a must; This demand is a complex one: the integration of the motorized and manual transport is more complicated than just having a motorized transport.
Incorporation of reliable electronics had a first priority. Also the design needed to be prepared for future expansion of functionality. A 10 year time span has been foreseen for this model and functional advancements are inevitable. The printed circuits are modular designed: modules can be individually tested but more importantly can individually exchanged if required by more advanced functions. The number of electrical contacts is much higher than needed now: The R8 is a basis design with room for improvement, said Mr Henrichs. product manager. I quickly asked: focus aid? He smiled faintly: “might be useful. but in a later stage”.
Haptics: triumph of the free form.
The word “haptic” is a greek word and means “ relating to the tactile sense”. The industrial designer, responsible for the design. Mr Meinzer, designed also the famous Revox audio apparatus and the Minilux among others. His approach for the R8 concentrated on the intuitive control and smooth outlines and covers. In German it is called “Anfassungsdesign”. Maybe translatable as “grip and touch design”. (Here I have a problem: translate from German to Dutch to English). If you look closely at the R8 it may not become noticeable on first glance that the R8 has more than 20 (!) individual control elements.
His approach and the final result were hard to swallow for traditional Leica persons. As Mr Meinzer tells me: “It was not easy to get my ideas accepted by the management”. Even the Chairman of the Board, a keen photographer was shocked by design and philosophy behind it.
The parallel history with Barnack and the resistance within the factory in 1914 to 1924 is striking.
The shape.
The body is clearly heavier and larger than the R7. The R7 measures 138,5x94,8x62,2mm and weighs 670gr. The R8 has 158x101x62mm and 890gr. During the design stage it was already known thet the optics department of Mr. Kölsch was busy designing heavier (zoom-lenses. The design of the R8 is needed to balance and support these new and more future designs. Therefore the bottom section is very large. From above the R8 has an asymmetrical form, a bit like the old Exacta. The classical pagoda form of the R7 has been abandoned. The large control wheels with are sunk into the topcover have milled edges of a very elaborate form to ensure handling in the dark, with gloves or closed eyes. This simple demand is difficult to implement.
The form of the R8 is structurally influenced by the location of the batteries, the several motordrive attachments and the automatic filmfeed. Many gears and axes just demand space!
It would he much easier to incorporate into the body an integrated motorwinder without the manual advance lever. Now the mechanism must be doubled: manual and motorizable.
The form panels.
Early modelstudies used the wellknown wooden models. The designers realized that this technique could not produce the required finesse of details. So they switched to a 3-D computer technique that uses CNC to knife out the form from a hardplastics block. The designer demanded that all form parts would be ideally curved whatever the production technological objections.
This technique generated finely modeled designstudies in hours. The wooden models would take days. So a more intense interaction between designer, user and the production technique could be ensured.
Students of the Leica Academy were involved in the testing.
The body then gets a very special form, characterized by so-called free form panels, as molded by a relentless and passionate designer who only stops after the ideal form has been found. Only one company (in Switzerland) can produce these parts. The coverpanels are composed of two parts. The injection molded metal base and a poly-utherane cover that is injected onto the base, not glued.
The chrome strip.
Subtle detail is the chrome strip. As the visual indication of the bottomplate is gone (can be replaced by a motorwinder), the stocky contours of the body need some visual space. This is the task of the chrome strip. This simple component is a nightmare for the production technicians as they must ensure a very accurate matching of all parts to necessary tolerances. The two-component technology of the body panels is really needed to give the body stability and close fit!!
CAD/CAM support.
The 1200 parts have all been designed from scratch, using the now wellknown technique of Finite Elements Analysis , a computer model for stress analysis. 80 Engineers worked for 6 years at these tasks. The additional advantage of stress analysis and form analysis is noise reduction. When the engineers know exactly at what spot of a geartrain the stress is highest, they can redesign the slope of a gearflank and so ease the stress and reduce the noise. It is not easy to design these parts, it is even less easy to find suppliers to build them in required quantities and tolerances. And can read and interpret the computer listings. The design team had to search very hard to find suppliers who were willing and able to accommodate the small production runs with the required precision.
Body parts are built in Switzerland and Germany. The printed circuits are from Japan and Switzerland, but designed by Solms engineers.
The shutter is a full Copal product with Leica quality specs. The body is metal, because of small production numbers. Plastics can be made with very exact tolerances, but unless the numbers of production are quite high the price is too high. For the same basic price metal can be machined to even smaller tolerances, as long as production runs are short.
Composite materials would be nice, but again too expensive. The small scale of Leica operations has its own laws.
The matrix exposure metering technique is from Japan, with Leica algorithms. Leica insists on this part as they calibrate the algorithms for transparencies and according to their interpretation of what a good exposure should be.
Several building blocks are put together: metal chassis, shutter and rewind mechanism is the basic module, then lensflange and focusing screen cradle are added and at last the , topcover, backpanel and cover panels close the package. There is no bottom part anymore. The design is tuned for a speedy assemblage with numerous controls during montage. All checks are digital. Every subassembly can be checked extensively by electronic means. Faults can be detected quite fast and adjustments are easier. No analogue parts with more troublesome checks. The total time to build an R8 is less than to build a R7 even when the R8 is much more complex.
The philosophy: new simplicity.
The R8 is an excellent example of a complex technique that is shielded from the user by a humane interface. BMW’ s also follow this imperative. Mostly technical development starts simply (Ur-Leica) overshoots itself in complexity (Nikon F5) and then settles for a new kind of ergonomics: the R8. Technology can easily build into any product a vast array of additional functionality. The intelligent use of this function overload is not easy. It takes some conscious designing to support the required level of simplicity without burdening he user. From this perspective the R8 is more modern than the F5.
Photography as a cultural act.
Leica designers feel the weight of history. Classical photography with its composition, rapport to the object, and exposure are very important. Any distraction from this prime directive are suspect. Focus aid is technically a piece of cake. But they wonder how the signals of this FA would interfere with the view and vision of the photographer.
All functions of the R8 now support this type of photography.
The R8 invites you, no induces you take pictures as the great masters did. There is harmony between instrument, goal and action.
The R8 is a unique instrument and it is quite remarkable that it could be built and designed in Germany at the closing period of this millennium.
The future of the R8.
According to recent yearly and quarterly reports from the Leica AG, the R8 production volume, after an initial peak of replacement orders, now is at the anticipated structural production level per year. That may well be the case. Still the sales of the R8 are a bit disappointing. The market for a non-AF, manually operable high end 35mm camera is a small one. The R8 has the best ergonomics after the user has lifted the camera to his/her eye. Then the weight and the looks of the R8 are not relevant. Only its fine operation and ease of use count. It is really a joy to use. Still it is undeniable that the somewhat bricklike outlines can put off a prospective buyer. We all expect from Leica the basic design of the original Barnack studies: a compact, without being too small, well proportioned and balanced body that integrates function with form in an equaled harmony.
When the first Leicaflex came to the market, everyone was disappointed: not an M-like camera. the reviewers screamed. The R3 had a very clumsy appearance, and the R4 to R7, while sleeker, always look a bit out of proportion, with its high prism and large wheels.
The R8 has been designed with the motordrive in mind and some of the larger lenses mounted. Then the whole package looks and feels right. We are still awaiting the motordrive, the electronic focus aid (which would help the elder users of the R8) and many more updated lenses. While the R-line of lenses has a series of super-performance lenses (especially the zooms, some very wide angles, and the longer focus lenses from 180 to 400) what is lacking in the line is a group of prime lenses of very wide aperture.
Now the R8 and its system components look halfway finished and that is a pity. The R8 deserves more attention from the factory.