With Photokina 2012 now less than a week away and speculation continuing to grow regarding new product announcements from Leica, I thought many would find this Q&A session with Stefan Daniel, Leica’s head of product management, quite illuminating. What follows is a transcript from the 2010 LHSA Annual Meeting, which was held in Wetzlar, Germany during the last Photokina.
There’s a lot of good info as to why the R system was cancelled, and no shortage of hints at the new EVIL solution that many expect to be announced next week. At the very least, we can see clear confirmations on the use of a full frame CMOS chip with no AA filter, live view and focus confirmation. Also, looks like Stefan was suggesting that Leica’s EVIL camera will also keep the time-tested optical viewfinder. Although this was two years ago and plans can change, much of what Stefan discussed is now becoming technically feasible, and is potentially right around the corner. I’m looking forward to finding out in Cologne.
While certainly no secret anymore, it’s also interesting to see his comments before the release of a silver M9-P with sapphire glass, as well as full lens profiles in Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom.
As always, I’ll be covering Photokina with detailed daily blog updates and quick tweets throughout the show. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @RedDotForum.
What is the solution for R lenses? What happened to the R10?
I expected that question! Of course parts or modules like a sensor do not make a whole camera. The M9 cost us 8 million Euros in development. If we would develop an R10, it would be an investment of the same scale.
Two years ago at the last Photokina , there was a replacement of the R9 and the DMR planned. At that time feasibility studies had been ongoing and we asked, “What is the market potential for this camera? We could shrink down the S2, have a full frame sensor, nice image quality, metal housing, good viewfinder, but nothing else. Maybe one spot AF like the S2 has. What is the market potential for that?” We have looked into our current active R users and checked how many there are. Compared to the M users, this is about a tenth in quantities, to give you a little bit of scale who a camera I just described would appeal to.
In addition to that, we have looked into the competitive situation, meaning that such a camera would be challenged by the big Canons and Nikons. So the chance to get some new customers over from Canon, Nikon or Sony would be rather low. So the only potential we’d have would be to sell this camera to current users. The current users are simply not enough, given that the product would cost 7-8 million Euros, that we could have a payback of the development costs of that product. So for those reasons, we really had to give up the development of the R10 because economically it would not work. That is the bad news. I myself have five R bodies and seven R lenses, including the 180 APO and 100mm Macro. This was the bad news.
The good news is that we are committed to offer you a solution to use your R lenses on a digital full frame Leica. If you see the development in the CMOS sensor technology you will see that many customers already bought Panasonic G1 or GH1 cameras with an electronic viewfinder so our goal is to offer a mirrorless camera which can also take R lenses and then you could focus those R lenses manually through the electronic viewfinder. I’m sure some of you have seen the quality improvements of electronic viewfinders over the past year. The best one to my eyes is the Olympus one. And it will improve further. So, I think this could be a solution for current R users. Please do not expect this to come in 12 months. At this time I cannot commit to a date to do that, but we are committed to offer this solution to you.
What about a Visoflex-like solution for R lenses?
I bought a Visoflex for my M9. It works fine. The Visoflex with the mirror has an increased back focal length from the lens mount to the sensor – too much to allow the use of R lenses. This is why there were special Visoflex lenses and no wide-angle options. So the optical-mechanical Visoflex would not be the solution to use R lenses.
What about focus confirmation on M9 with current R to M adapters?
In order to get a focus confirmation, you’d need a constant readout out of the sensor. And the CCD we use in the M9 doesn’t allow a constant readout, or live view. Live view is really the obstacle to make this happen immediately. You could just use an adapter and guess the focus and guess the framing. This works but makes for annoying photography.
Would an EVIL R solution take M lenses?
I think it would primarily be made for M lenses.
Would the upcoming EVIL camera have autofocus?
This is a rumor.
Would Leica get rid of an optical viewfinder in the EVIL camera?
Please keep in mind we have a mirrorless camera with the M already. A mirrorless camera can have a viewfinder.
Are there any other reasons why Leica chose not to make an R10?
Canon only has one camera lens mount. Leica already has two with the M system and the S system. But we are about one hundred times smaller than Canon.
To have three different independent camera-lens interfaces is just too much for Leica to keep all three systems side-by-side alive, developing lenses, new cameras, even using the same platform, with same sensor, etc. This is really exceeding the capabilities in R&D of our company.
This is another side reason why we really can’t continue the R system as it is.
I agree that if we say, yes, a top-end R camera for the next 5 to 6 years should be a DSLR solution, but the expectations from the camera industry goes quite far that, from the bottom – from the entry level product, these mirrorless EVIL cameras will soon go towards the mid-range. Also, in the foreseeable future, we expect these to go to the high-end as well. Because these cameras are much they are much cheaper to produce, which is important to manufacturers. There is no prism, there is no mirror, no mechanics for the mirror, no autofocus module, no viewfinder display, all of which are a tremendous cost of a DSLR right now. You can simply erase all these components, so the Japanese camera industry will push very hard in this direction.
Can we expect that the M9 will be produced and offered in silver chrome with Vulcanite?
We are currently checking the demand for this and if it is enough, we will make it.
Would it be possible to have a shutterless camera using the new CMOS technology by using an electronic shutter and do away with all mechanical components?
This is, of course, the dream to have a camera with basically no moving parts inside. The current sensor technology does not allow this 100% right now. What you can do is have a simplified shutter, which only either starts the exposure or ends the exposure. The sensor itself is not able to start or end the exposure on current models.
Would you consider producing the Tri-Elmar-M again?
I’ve had a number of requests like this. To be frank, we never had much fun producing that lens as it is. To put it another way, it didn’t earn money and created a lot of headaches because it is quite a complicated lens on a mechanical level. When you turn the focal length ring, it moves the lens head in one direction and it moves the cam selector as well. It was a piece of art, but it is virtually not produceable in industry-standard production. But, we’ll take this demand for a Tri-Elmar into consideration and I can’t exclude that we won’t make a new Tri-Elmar in the future. With the camera I just described it would also make sense to have such a lens maybe not with click stops, but with a continuous zoom.
Can we send back our M9s to get them engraved on the top?
You can, yes. Our customer service can do this.
When this EVF R solution finally is produced, can we expect a similar megapixel resolution to the M9?
I think it won’t be less, maybe a little more. But we are space limited and also limited due to pixel size. Currently we have 6.8µm which gives us 18MP and other systems have about 6µm, which will add up to 24MP. We are not heading for the maximum amount of pixels, rather, the maximum amount of quality. I think the resolution of an M9 is already by far sufficient. We don’t want to be in a pixel race. The chip would need to be CMOS though, to be able to do live view.
One of the issues of EVF cameras is the time delay of EVF feedback, particularly at low light levels. Is this something you are trying to work on?
I think you will see other manufacturers in the near future having big improvements, addressing those drawbacks. This will evolve as sensor technology will evolve, and processing will evolve. Of course it will always be a little slower than an optical viewfinder, which is obviously displaying in real-time. But the current drawbacks, should you move the camera, etc. should become less of an issue.
Are Lightroom lens profiles coming for Leica cameras?
We just had a meeting at Photokina with the Adobe guys and we made this request to them. Obviously they are quite a big company, maybe I try to be polite, not so flexible company. Of course, this is feasible, because the data is in the camera. We just have to send them profiles, etc. So we’re in discussion about that but we don’t have a specific date or the extent it will be integrated. Of course this request is fairly obvious.
Why didn’t you offer sapphire glass on the M9 when it was offered on the M8.2? Would you offer it in the future?
When we worked on the M9, we asked what would be the ideal price point of that camera? And we said 6,500 EUR would be lowering the total quantities by a lot. So our decision was made based on that. We needed to have an attractive price in the market in order to maximize the access to that camera for as many customers as possible. So, we had to sacrifice the sapphire glass. But as I get this question quite often, it is likely that we will introduce such a camera. Maybe we can combine it with a silver something, but at this time, we are just checking. There is no decision made.
As more camera manufacturers move to mirrorless cameras, they become more like the M series. What is Leica going to do to create additional value?
We will keep the rangefinder. I can’t imagine that those companies will restart doing optical rangefinders to compete with Leica. It could be something to keep our current customers happy also giving somebody a much different experience by using a camera instead of being forced to look through an electronic viewfinder.
Will all the cameras become more the size of the M series?
You can see that right now with Olympus going to an M shaped body. Samsung as well. But there are other companies like Panasonic that focus more on an SLR shaped body. Maybe there will be two routes in that market. There are advantages for both because you can add on a flip-out flash on the top if it looks like a DSLR, which you can’t do on a flat camera. A flat camera is nice because it is very compact and small. I think my personal estimation is that the decision on that will not be made in the future. Rather, both archetypes of cameras will exist.
Will this affect the ability to use existing lenses on new bodies with this kind of technology?
The big advantage of those systems is that the back focal length is no longer defined by a mirror. Because the mirror did define a huge back focal length. If you don’t have the mirror, you can do anything you want. As long as you have adapters, you can put lenses A to Z on that.
If you are building this body to take M and R lenses, would this involve using a spacer to mount the R lenses? Would it be able to stop down the R lenses?
No decision made on this so far.
If Leica uses a CMOS sensor in this new camera, will it also be free of an anti-aliasing (AA) filter?
The experience we’ve collected not using an AA filter are much better than the few complaints due to moiré issues. But by far, not using an AA filter is, for us, the best solution. So we are looking forward to the next generation sensors. And also, in the M as you know, we need a very thin cover glass, which is the IR filter as well. And an AA filter would increase the thickness and spoil the performance of the M lenses.
Is there any chance that in future M cameras will have focus confirmation?
This is directly linked to the next generation of sensors. Because if you have a live view sensor, you can not only generate a live view image, but you can also tell a sensor something about the focus. This live view sensor is the key to many improvements and innovations in future M cameras. So, yes, there will be focus confirmation on the next generation.