Rumors of a digital version of the classic Leica M-series cameras have been swirling on the internet for months now, fueled by teasers on Leica's own website, and remarks by Leica staff at industry and enthusiast functions. At CES, we caught up with Leica US Marketing Manager Christian Erhardt, and finally got a full run-down of the forthcoming camera's basic specs, albeit with little to no comment on likely availability and pricing.
From our chat with Mr. Erhardt, it's clear that the aim of the digital M-series (henceforth Mdigital, for the sake of convenience, but that's our designation, not Leica's) is to reproduce the experience of Leica's classic rangefinders as closely as possible, while simply substituting a digital sensor for the film. The ~10 megapixel digital sensor will be less than full-sized (a 1:1.33 field of view ratio to 35mm), so all your lenses will become slightly more telephoto than on a film-based body, but the user experience will be very much the same as that of the M7. This means in part that the rear-panel LCD will only be active in playback mode: Framing will be determined by the usual viewfinder markings as seen on current film-based models. (Although presumably adjusted to allow for the 1.33x crop factor.) Manual focusing will be accomplished via the usual split-image rangefinder, apparently without any electronic assistance or guidance.
In very good news for Leica fans and collectors, the Mdigital will accept virtually all Leica lenses manufactured since 1954, the sole exceptions being a few ultra-wide angle lenses that have too short of a back focus distance.
Because the camera will be manually focused, the shutter lag will be very short. While the specific number wasn't available during our discussion, Mr. Erhardt said that it should be very fast, on the order of that of film-based M-series cameras.
Price and availability are of course the biggest questions, but here Leica will continue to hold their cards close to their corporate vest. It does seem though, that people hoping for an official announcement at PMA in late February will be disappointed: We have it on good authority that there's almost no chance that the formal announcement will be made that early. (Given Leica's fondness of making major product announcements at the biannual Photokina show in Germany, it seems likely that this fall's show in September would be a reasonable venue for an announcement of this sort, but Leica themselves are saying nothing at all regarding likely dates.)
As to price, there is also no official statement yet of what it might be. Rumors on the web have suggested something in the vicinity of $5,000, but Leica themselves are neither confirming nor denying these rumors at this time. We do hope that they'll ultimately prove to be inflated: A price of $5,000 would be hard to support for a 10-megapixel rangefinder, even one made by Leica.
In the film-based world, Leica's M-series have long commanded extraordinarily high prices relative to cameras that could remotely be considered their competition. Film-based Leicas are rather different beasts than any Mdigital, though: The product of German engineering raised almost to an art form, Leica cameras are marvels of design and manufacturing. More to the point, a 50 year old Leica rangefinder camera married with the superb Leica optics is as technically relevant to fine-art photography today as it was the day it was manufactured. Even five years from now though, a Mdigital will almost certainly be severely out of date in terms of its technology, and will become increasingly so with each passing year -- and twenty years from now will there even be such things as USB connectors or SD memory cards and card readers?
Relative to the camera's actual operation, there is one area in which we question Leica's decision to avoid any form of live sensor output from the camera, and that's focus accuracy. In testing digital SLRs under very exacting conditions, we've seen evidence that even sophisticated autofocus systems designed for the film-based world are hard-pressed to focus with sufficient accuracy relative to the extremely fine resolution of digital sensors. With 8 to 12 million pixels crammed into an area only 40-50% the size of a 35mm frame, modern dSLRs reveal focus errors that in the past would have gone entirely unnoticed on film. We wonder whether an unmagnified split-image rangefinder will be able to discriminate focus finely enough to render reliably sharp images on the Mdigital's 10-megapixel 1.33x sensor. It really shouldn't be all that difficult for Leica to add some sort of focus indication to the Mdigital's viewfinder, using a standard contrast detection approach. Given the improved focus accuracy this could potentially provide, we hope Leica will consider including such a feature, even though it might change the experience slightly for the end user. (A menu option could always disable the focus indicator for those who didn't wish to use it.)
Make no mistake, the Mdigital will almost certainly be a superb piece of engineering, and the first true M-series experience in the digital realm for the Leica faithful. But would a price of $5,000 really be supportable, for a camera that will be fixed at a specific point in the technological timeline?
Of course, Leica's standard of commercial success for the camera will be greatly different from that of mass-market products in the broader retail channel. A month's worth of sales volume for a typical high-end consumer digicam would probably exceed Leica's expectations for the entire production life of the Mdigital. (At $5,000 apiece, a total production run of only 10,000 would probably be viewed as a success.) That said, we sincerely hope that Leica will be able to bring the camera to market at a price point far below that currently being rumored.
Much will obviously depend on just how well the camera tests-out when it is finally released. If it can deliver clean, color-accurate 10-megapixel images and has good noise characteristics up to ISO 1600 or so, it might be argued that even fairly sizeable future improvements beyond that point won't be terribly significant, in terms of the photos the camera delivers. Even a 20 megapixel sensor would represent only a 40% increase in linear resolution, and digital images from 1.3x sensors at ISO 1600 already far surpass the quality levels of any ISO 1600 film ever marketed. The one technological development that would make a noticeable difference to users would be a move to a full-frame sensor and the true wide angle capability that it would provide. It seems safe to assume that such a camera will eventually appear in the Leica lineup, although possibly not for a few years yet. While the above arguments support the idea that the Mdigital will be a viable photographic platform over the medium term (10-15 years, say) the question of whether SD cards and readers will be available 20 or 50 years hence does seem to place the Mdigital and its successors into a different category than the film-based Leicas of the past. (Of course, one counterargument is that a limited technological life span and fewer units on the market could actually increase the collector's value of the Mdigital.)
Whatever the case, the Mdigital is certain to be a significant product, marking as it will the transition of one of the most revered camera lines in history to the digital realm. We'll eagerly await its eventual appearance, and promise our readers and the Leica community the full test and review of its capabilities that a product of its stature deserves, as soon as production-quality samples are available.
In the meantime, here's a summary of what we currently know about the Mdigital:
- Roughly the same size as the M7 (~2.5mm thicker than current models)
- ~10 megapixel sensor (CCD, not CMOS)
- 1.33x crop factor (28mm will become 35mm effective focal length)
- Compatible with all lenses since 1954, except for a few wide angles with very short back focus distances
- SD card support
- LiIon battery
- No video output, no live LCD viewfinder (LCD will operate in playback mode only)
- Framing to be done via crop marks in the viewfinder, as on current M-series models
- Manual focusing, focus determination via a split-image rangefinder as on current models
- "No" shutter lag (no spec yet, but it should be very, short, given that no time will be required for autofocus operation)
- Price: Rumored in the range of $5,000, but no confirmation of this from Leica as yet.
- Formal announcement date not specified, but Leica has said that it definitely won't be at PMA 2006. Photokina seems a more likely target, but again, there's been no confirmation of this by Leica.
Stay tuned (but don't hold your breath just yet): We'll bring you additional details of the Mdigital as they are available, and will certainly give the camera our full attention as soon as production samples are available!