The Leica R9
For years, the Leica aficionados knew it for sure: the new SLR from Leica would be a digital camera and at least would have focus confirmation. Convincing arguments could not be provided, but the fact that the whole world seems to go digital, was it itself sufficient to demand a digital full format back. And this would of course be a piece of cake as an engineering task! Just put in a sensor of the right dimensions on the location of the film plane, disconnect a few electrical contacts, add a few and voila: a new star would be born.
The prolonged problems of the Contax Dn, with the Philips full format sensor, would be a signal that it may be easy from an armchairs perspective to add a digital back, but some engineers think it a severe task. And now that the first samples of the Dn are available, the general consensus seems to indicate that the results are not as convincing as one hoped them to be. Maybe Pentax did the right thing to withdraw from the project.
We should be lucky that Leica did not go the digital way by adding a digital sensor simply to the existing R-body. (They did with the DMR: not a qualified success story!)
Discussions with the engineers indicate that theoretically a digital back might be possible, but would require a serious redesign of the internals of the camera. Optically it would be not the best option as the thick layer of filters in front of the sensor would destroy the optical quality the Leica lenses are capable of in the analogue method of image capture.
In a previous Newsletter I did explain the necessity of a telecentric lens design to overcome the filter problem.
AF is also a topic of continuous discussion. In the body, believe it or not there is not enough room for the integration of AF modules and circuitry.
And as a second argument: Leica would need to redesign the mount of all lenses. Again: theoretically the Leica lensmount could be adapted to AF, even with the required accuracy, but it would be a very costly operation.
The scope of the Leica reflex for the foreseeable future then seems to be as a high grade reflex that will be focused manually and will record its images on analogue media. There are however plenty of different options in this domain and the final line has not yet been reached.
The R9 then is an upgrade of the R8. The English would designate this product with a Mark II label. Leica however wanted to underscore their commitment to the Reflex line and gave the product the R9 label to differentiate the new camera from the R8.
First a listing of the differences.
(1) the R9 now has a frame counter on top of the cover and now offers three locations where the framenumber can be seen: on top, in the display and at the back and in the finder.
(2) there is a lock on the program selector wheel: you could inadvertently change the wheel to easy when handling the camera or the strap
(3) the display at the back can now be illuminated when in the dark or dim lighting
(4) The sensitivity of the matrix metering can be changed by steps of 0.1EV
(5) flash synchronization now has the Metz HSS possibility with speeds from 1/360 to 1/8000
(6) automatic fill in flash works now at full aperture and with slow speeds
(7) manual correction of flash power is possible in P-mode with plusminus 3 1/3 EV
(8) AE-lock now possible with all automatic modes and average and selective readings
(9) Topcover is painted magnesium in black and anthracite color
(10) weight is 790 grams compared to 890 grams with the R8
Generally there is no difference in handling and the R9 has still one of the most intuitive and clean user interfaces for handling the camera. No need to study the manual for a day or so.
The weight reduction can be felt immediately. The R9 in comparison to the R8 feels a featherweight. 100 Grams may not sound impressive but is more than 10% of the total weight. More important is the fact that the center of gravity has been lowered to the bottom of the camera. The R8 is clearly top-heavy and you always need to use some force to keep the body upright. The sound of the mirror return is also lower. The R8 has a certain high pitched braking sound, where the R9 sounds more solid and dull. The speed of the return mirror has also been increased a bit.
The magnesium top cover is not the only aspect of weight reduction. The bottom plate is now aluminum (was steel) and several parts inside the camera too have been made of aluminum or magnesium. Magnesium is the lightest of all commercially available metals with a specific gravity of 1.75. It is in itself not a strong metal, nor has it good elasticity. You need to create an alloy and use a considerable thickness or utilize deep sections to obtain good stiffness. It is a very high cost material and does not possess good corrosion characteristics. The painting and casting and shaping of the topcover is a process that takes place in three countries (Germany, France and Portugal) before it ends on top of the R9.
No changes here: average, selective (not a spotmeter) and matrix are the same. The selective mode has its own metering cell and so does the matrix mode. To use the famous Leica lenses to the limit, a very accurate exposure is needed in slide and BW material. Up till now you could change the ISO value by 0.3 EV. But this change works for all modes and films and you have to reset it w/hen you need a different correction. You can use the override and create over- and underexposure: this works with steps of 0.5 EV.
Many users employ all three methods (A, S and M) according to the scene illumination and would like to have the identical exposure on film. Especially when you are creating big slide shows with seamless projection you do not want differences in the highlights between frames.
Leica has introduced for the matrix mode an additional correction of 0.1 EV. The big advantage is that you can correct one exposure method, without disturbing the others. And you can leave it there permanently as it only affects the matrix mode.
In automatic modes the electronic shutter can be changed continuously and steps of 0.1 EV are easy to accomplish. The aperture control is also electronic with a ten step impulse to cover one stop. Here there is room for a difference of 1/10 stop.
It will be clear that the manual mode cannot be tuned so finely as the steps here are always 0.5 EV. Even if you have changed the sensitivity of the matrix exposure by 0.1 EV, the larger steps will not be sensitive enough to react to this small change. That is the fine tuning of the matrix mode works very good with automatic modes and not so good with manual.
I did check the operation and exposed a Kodak E100VS with a test chart with many grey patterns and a large white area in matrix mode. I did vary the compensation by the 0.1 EV and measured with a densitometer a white patch.
The actual values are not interesting as they are measured including base and fog.
It is nice that you can use fill-in flash at 1/8000, but the power of the Metz flash allows only short distance shadow illumination at these speeds, unless you are using high speed film. It is evident that the R9 user is one who wants perfect control over all exposure situations to create a technically outstanding picture.
Now you can use this method with slow speeds and wide open lenses. Again this option is fine for the dedicated worker who carefully composes his/her pictures and wants the subjective qualities of light to enter into the composition. Also the reportage photographer who uses high speed lenses and wants a bit more evenness of illumination on the main subject will be pleased with this option.
No changes but the use of the new Apo-Summicron-R 2/90 ASPH gives you a pleasant chock of surprise. The finder is extremely bright and the focus plane snaps, no jumps onto your eyeball. The need for AF is almost forgotten and you are almost certainly more accurate, if not so swift.
The R9 has a series of sensible improvements, some of which are very smart and relevant for most users. Some are nice to have. The sum of the upgrades is to redefine the target group of R-users and to give the R9 a sharper and more clean profile.
The R-user wants a perfect picture by using topclass optics and a very accurate exposure metering system that can be tuned to every possible illumination situation with or without (studio)flash and inside or outside the studio. All of this in a very stable body that has set the standard for ergonomics and ease of handling.
The big question whether you should upgrade is difficult to answer in a general way. As with computer programs: some need the latest upgrade,some are satisfied with an older version.
You can read the report, reflect on the improvements and see if they will help improve your photography or satisfaction with the use of the camera. Then make your own decision.
Obituary: The Leica R9, 2009The Leica R9: the last of the film-loading reflexcameras made by Leica
In 1964, now 45 years ago, the Leitz company introduced the Leicaflex, a camera that was eagerly anticipated. In those days there was no internet to leak rumors and globally exchanging opinions. The few magazines that had advance information did look ahead, but waited for the official release. When the Leicaflex finally arrived, it was a disappointment. The features were already obsolete at the start and the camera lacked important elements that were required for a wide acceptance and to create a demand in the face of heavy Japanese competition. The Leicaflex was beautifully made and inherited the mechanical excellence of the M body. This M body was designed around a simple engineering principle. But the reflex camera was inherently much more complex and Leitz tried to find novel ways for its construction. The intricately moving mirror, the new shutter, the unique finder and the body shape fitted in the Leitz design tradition of improving upon existing constructions and finding new ways for classical problems. The Leicaflex tried to embody the clean operating principles of the M body into a reflex camera. It was not a great success and never was accepted as a professional camera.
The Leicaflex can be seen as the first generation of Leica reflex models. The next model was the Leica R3, a very nice camera with a sophisticated electronic heart. It borrowed heavily from the Minolta camera and was made in Portugal. This second generation was reasonably successful but it stayed in the shadows of the more potent Japanese cameras. The third generation is again based on a Minolta camera, but now the Leica fingerprint is more obvious. A range of models form R4 to R7 were produced from 1980 to 1996. This generation incorporated as much automation as Leica could swallow within its own engineering philosophy of simplicity of operation and manual handling and focusing.
Parallel to the development of the reflex models, Leica designed a range of lenses for the reflex camera that consisted of a mix of outstandingly good and middle of the road designs. The mounts for these lenses were second to none, but many lenses were heavy and bulky and the evolution of the range lacked a strong and clear strategy. Leica stepped relatively late in the zoomlens world and created some of the very best designs ever found in this domain. But as a range it could not fully convince and given the price tags did not find many buyers.
The R8 arrived on the market in 1996 and was a new design fresh from the drawing board. It can be counted as the fourth generation of Leica reflex designs. All professional reflex models of that period were converging to one universal reflex design: fully automated, fully electronic and with fast autofocus and power drives. This convergence of features in the high end market is also the norm for current d-slr cameras.
Leica assumed that their single track approach as exemplified with the rangefinder camera could become successful in the reflex market too and the R8 was designed as a manually operating camera with a modicum of automation, just enough to support the photographer in his basic tasks of exposure metering. One concession the engineers were prepared to make: an integrated motor-drive was planned and the body designed for this feature. At the last moment the management did not dare to offer this feature and decided that a manual transport level should be fitted.
The camera did get the attention of the photographic world, but was seen more as an dead branch on the tree of camera evolution than as a new beginning. The R8 handled very well, had a very solid build and was based on a purist philosophy of picture taking. The company had put very high hopes in the camera and invested a very substantial amount of money in its development. In fact there was hardly any R&D budget on the balance sheet after the introduction of the R8. When the camera did not bring the desired success, Leica lost interest in the camera quite rapidly.
The R8 and later the R9 lingered on in the Leica catalogues as sales volumes were low and the reputation of the camera was not that positive, despite the optical and mechanical qualities.
In an attempt to move the R9 into the digital world, Leica introduced the DMR, a digital back. The idea seemed simple and effective: a removable back would allow owners of the R8/9 models to switch between digital files and film capture. What could work in the medium format world, did not work in the 35mm domain and the DMR did not offer the superior qualities that could convince photographers in a sufficient amount.
A few years ago lens design for the R-range was halted and Leica shifted all attention and resources to the development of the digital M camera.
The R-lenses are made in batches and can be seen for a long period in the price list without actual production as long as stock lasts.
2009 is Darwin’s year and in the race for survival only the fittest will survive and sadly to note the R9 is not among them.
The death of the R9 is an indication that the end of the film-loading camera is imminent. The Nikon and Canon models are evidently stock leftovers. The Bessa models and the Zeiss Ikon are selling in very low numbers if at all. The fate of the Leica MP and the M7 is predictable. The only uncertainty is the moment of announcement. The Leica management has written off film as a viable photographic medium and is fully and completely focused on a digital future. Bad from a perspective of nostalgia and photographic culture, presumably good as a business perspective.
The death of the R9 implies the demise of a century of photographic culture and equipment.