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Leica's DIGITAL-MODUL-R on the R9 35mm film camera. Courtesy of Leica, with modifications by Michael R. Tomkins. Leica announces plans for R-System Digital Back
(Thursday, June 26, 2003 - 17:24 EDT)

Leica Camera AG, one of the more famous German names in the photography world, has announced that it is planning a 10 megapixel digital back for its 35mm Leica R8 and R9 digital cameras.

Leica isn't the first to plan for 35mm camera models to offer both film and digital capabilities. Many readers will be familiar with Imagek / Silicon Film, the company behind the oft-aborted cartridge that would give certain film cameras the ability to capture digital images. Last we heard, new owners were working on bringing an updated version of the Silicon Film to market, but Leica's plan seems more focused - and hence more viable. Current plans don't call for the LEICA DIGITAL-MODUL-R to be publicly shown until Photokina 2004. It would begin shipping at the end of 2004 - some 18 months from now. We don't currently foresee anybody else shipping a 35mm digital back or cartridge system before then, so the DIGITAL-MODUL-R could actually turn out to be the first opportunity for photographers to use a single 35mm camera body with film and digital!

Cartridge-based designs are hindered because there is little space to fit in the required components, and the camera design ends up dictating the capabilities of the cartridge. With a digital back that literally replaces the film-camera back (a system that is quite common in medium-format cameras), there is less complication - particularly when the same company is designing both camera and back, and is able to tailor the body design to allow for a digital back from day one. It seems likely that this is the case with the Leica R8 and R9 - the camera back will be able to communicate with the body through existing electrical contacts, and no modifications will be necessary to use the DIGITAL-MODUL-R.

The Leica system consists of two parts - a digital back and a power unit that will take a proprietary Lithium Ion battery. Together, an R8 or R9 with the digital back and power unit will have approximately the same dimensions as they would with a film back and Leica's Motor-Drive R unit. The 10 megapixel resolution will be coupled with SD Card storage (RAW, TIFF or JPEG file formats), an IEEE 1394 FireWire interface, and both color and monochrome LCD displays. The monochrome display will offer information on camera setup (ISO, exposure compensation, white balance, file format, image size, self-timer, moire correction, etc.), as well as an image counter and battery level remaining. The color LCD will allow image review, as well as a histogram to help detect under / over-exposure. Interestingly, the digital back will also indicate exposure problems audibly.

The controls on the back allow images to be reviewed, protected, deleted or image info shown without having to enter a menu via dedicated buttons. A rotary dial with central button likewise allows the user to retrieve stored profiles, set a timer, or adjust white balance, resolution, compression, ISO and moire correction without entering a menu. Menu-based features are navigated via a 'Menu' button, four-way rocker button and 'OK' button.

The DIGITAL-MODUL-R is apparently being developed in cooperation with two other famous names in imaging - Denmark's Imacon A/S is working on software and control of the digital back, whilst Kodak's Image Sensor Solutions division is providing the CCD image sensor. Sensitivity of the imager will range from ISO 100 to "at least" ISO 800, and pixel size is 6.8µm. An active sensor area of 26.4 x 17.6mm will yield a focal length multiplier of 1.37x., and the company says that all LEICA R lenses manufactured since 1965 will be compatible with the system.

Pricing plans for the LEICA DIGITAL-MODUL-R have not yet been revealed, but with some 28,000 R8 and R9 camera bodies already sold it seems likely that there will be significant interest in the announcement. 35mm photographers who want to shoot digital and film with the same lenses currently must buy completely separate camera bodies with the same lens mount - and perhaps learn different control layouts and quirks of both camera bodies. A 35mm digital back would offer an interesting alternative, particularly for anybody with money already invested in LEICA R lenses...

Leica's DIGITAL-MODUL-R on the R9 35mm film camera. Courtesy of Leica, with modifications by Michael R. Tomkins. Click for a bigger picture!
Leica's DIGITAL-MODUL-R on the R9 35mm film camera. Courtesy of Leica, with modifications by Michael R. Tomkins. Click for a bigger picture!
Leica's DIGITAL-MODUL-R on the R9 35mm film camera. Courtesy of Leica, with modifications by Michael R. Tomkins. Click for a bigger picture!
Leica's DIGITAL-MODUL-R on the R9 35mm film camera. Courtesy of Leica, with modifications by Michael R. Tomkins. Click for a bigger picture!
Leica's DIGITAL-MODUL-R on the R9 35mm film camera. Courtesy of Leica, with modifications by Michael R. Tomkins. Click for a bigger picture!

Electrical connections in the LEICA R9 camera body. Courtesy of Leica, with modifications by Michael R. Tomkins. Click for a bigger picture!
Electrical connections in the LEICA R9 body

Kodak image sensor for the DIGITAL-MODUL-R. Courtesy of Leica, with modifications by Michael R. Tomkins. Click for a bigger picture!
Kodak image sensor for the DIGITAL-MODUL-R

Original Source Press Release:

LEICA DIGITAL-MODUL-R in preparation

Cooperation with Imacon A/S and Kodak ISS for digital components in the Leica R System

At the Photokina 2004 photographic trade show in Cologne, Germany, Leica Camera AG of Solms, Germany, is going to present a digital solution for the Leica single lens reflex system: the LEICA DIGITAL-MODUL-R. This new MODUL is being developed in cooperation with the Danish firm Imacon A/S and the Kodak Image Sensor Solutions (ISS) division. The LEICA DIGITAL-MODUL-R is a digital camera back designed to fit regular production LEICA R8 and R9 cameras. Because the two cameras are already designed to function with digital solutions, the new digital back will communicate with the camera’s controls, thus integrating seamlessly with the uncomplicated operation of the camera.

Core technical data plans call for a resolution of 10 million pixels (10 megapixels), image storage on SD cards, the use of a firewire interface and a low focal length extension factor of 1.37x. The LEICA DIGITAL-MODUL-R will consist of a digital back and a power supply unit. Available as an accessory, the compact MODUL can be attached to the camera quickly and easily. LEICA R8 and R9 cameras will thus become the world’s very first hybrid 35 mm cameras that can be used optionally for digital or analog photography. All the Leica R high-performance lenses can also be used for digital photography.

“Progress in sensor technology and image processing now makes it possible for us to offer a perfected digital solution at the level of quality that we demand. In keeping with a long established Leica tradition, we are offering a solution that does not depart from the system, but one that also constitutes a harmonious expansion for existing clients”, explains Stefan Daniel, manager of the System Products business unit. With Imacon A/S and Kodak ISS we have gained competent partners whose know-how in digital photography is relevant for the development of the LEICA DIGITAL-MODUL-R.”

With the development of this accessory, having introduced the LEICA R9 at Photokina 2002, and combined with additional lens innovations, Leica Camera AG reasserts its commitment to the high-grade single lens reflex segment.

“To us, the image is the primary consideration”, emphasizes the chief executive officer of Leica Camera AG Hanns-Peter Cohn. “The Leica R system stands for the very best optical quality and creative freedom. With the LEICA DIGITAL-MODUL-R, this now applies to its application in digital photography as well”, adds Mr. Cohn.

In the development of the LEICA DIGITAL-MODUL-R, the camera designers in Solms applied the same quality standards for imaging performance, mechanical precision and handling that were used for the cameras themselves. The software and the control of the digital back will be developed and produced by Imacon, based on the profile of Leica requirements. Over the years, the Danish partner has accumulated extensive experience in the field of professional digital photography and high-end scanners.

The sensor
The image sensor will consist of a 10 million pixel CCD sensor that is being developed and produced by Kodak ISS especially for the LEICA DIGITAL-MODUL-R. The integration of the sensor into an existing camera concept requires that the sensor and its housing be positioned at the film gate of the LEICA R8 or R9 camera. That is why the active surface of the sensor is smaller than the area of the film gate. We succeeded in limiting the resulting focal length extension factor to a modest 1.37x. The pixels on the surface of the sensor, which measure 6.8 µm, were optimized for the stringent requirements of digital still camera applications. The effective imaging area of the sensors measures 26.4 x 17.6 mm and it encompasses 10 million picture elements. The range of sensitivity is to extend from ISO 100 to at least ISO 800.

“Kodak selected this pixel structure and a special sensor solution in order to satisfy the high demands of photo enthusiasts regarding resolution, sensitivity and dynamic range”, comments Helen Titus, worldwide marketing manager for Kodak Image Sensor Solutions in Rochester, NY. “The pictorial results will meet the high quality standards that the market expects of Leica cameras and also of Kodak sensors”.

Operating concept
In addition to the quality of the resulting picture, the most important objective in the development of the LEICA DIGITAL-MODUL-R is to provide the photographer with a solution that is as compact as possible, with a logical operating procedure. This means that the settings that are relevant for the exposure are easy to control by means of a clearly legible display and a setting dial, without having to use the menu guide on the color monitor. The functions that can be controlled directly by the photographer are, for example: the sensitivity setting, resolution, compression, white balance, self-timer, and exposure corrections (over-ride). The menu functions on the color monitor serve primarily for the configuration of the LEICA DIGITAL-MODUL-R, such as setting the user profile, color management, or brightness and contrast of the color monitor.

Because of the functions that can be controlled directly during a picturetaking session by means of the setting dial, the content of the menu is minimal and it provides a clear overview.

Color monitor
The color monitor on the digital back is used for evaluating the images stored after the exposures: A histogram furnishes detailed information about the dynamics of the photograph, thus providing the possibility of a differentiated analysis of the pictorial result. An audio histogram signals over- and under-exposures acoustically: The photographer is assured of correct exposures while working continuously, without having to move the camera away from the eye.

Power will be supplied by a lithium-ion battery that is being developed especially for the LEICA DIGITAL-MODUL-R.

The dimensions of the camera with an attached LEICA DIGITAL-MODUL-R and its power unit are similar to those of a LEICA R8 / R9 with an attached Motor-Drive R. This is approximately equivalent to (width x height x depth) 158 x 140 x 89 millimeters (6 _ x 5 _ x 3 _ inches).

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