There’s something about Leica. Yes, they’re expensive and quite often they’re underwhelming in the technical specs department, but that’s not the thing about them. Until you’ve actually owned and shot with one you can’t quite understand the hold they acquire over you. They’re like the ethereal fairy dust that keeps you interested in all things aesthetic.
My first Leica was a 1963 Leica M3 that I got somewhere around 2005 if memory serves. I got it for cheap change off an heir who was desperate for some cash at the time. It was one of the more desirable M bodies and the deal came with three lenses, a 90mm, 50mm and 35mm. What more could you ask for? My M3 was the single stroke version with a high serial number. I cherished it and I loved shooting it. Later I acquired a black M6 from a friend. That one was also a seductress, but it wasn’t quite as nice as the silver M3. A while later I also acquired a beautiful R4 and a couple of stunning R lenses, including the 180mm APO-telyt-R (in mint condition), also off a seller who had inherited them and didn’t check their value before settling for my offer of $200.
Karma eventually found its way back to me when I hit really hard times in about 2008 and I had to sell all my Leicas, amongst other items. I didn’t let them go quite as cheaply as I had acquired them for though, which is a reminder that there is always a market for desirable brands.
Since then I’ve lusted after getting more Leica’s, but in the digital age the Leica M system is a great big block of unobtainium for me. Maybe things have changed since yesterday’s announcement of the great big block of aluminium in the form of the all new Leica T mirrorless system?
My first impression of the Leica T is that it’s not designed to the same aesthetic that got me excited about owning Leica M’s. I really don’t like that it looks a lot like the Sony NEX range with a big grip on the side and what appears to be a thinnish body. The literature suggests that the design comes from Leica’s design partner, Audi Design. It’s a personal taste thing, I guess, but there will never be any Audis for me. I find them quite unattractive.
Notwithstanding my personal aversion to Audi design, there are some aspects of the Leica T that I do find interesting enough to write an article about. These are the things that have my attention:
The Touch Screen Back
This is a bold move by Leica. It tosses the contents of the entire spaghetti colander at the ceiling to test whether they’ll stick or not. It’s the only control you have on the camera and it reinforces my recently stated view that cellphones and advanced cameras need to merge for the latter to remain relevant as a consumer product. This may be the beginning of such a convergence in practical design. Could a camera like the Leica T also become your cellphone? Why the hell not? Replace the lens with a body cap lens like the ones Olympus makes and it would certainly become pocketable. Carry your T lenses in a separate bag and you’ve got the makings of über convenient photography and communication.
I love touch screens because they let you control things in a way that engages your instinct. You hardly need to be taught how to use a touch screen. I can see a high degree of customisation being possible with something like this. Instead of having buttons that you can’t move, in the future it might be possible to design your own skin for your camera’s interface. Wouldn’t that be cool?
The Accessories Range
Leica are well known for their accessories. Much like Apple Computer can somehow justify the price of their accessories by slapping their logo on them, I’m sure that if Leica sell this camera into the collective psyche of the brand obsessed consumer, they too might find themselves doing more turnover in high priced accessories than actual camera bodies. Straps, covers, bags, hard shells, soft shells… you name it. People buy into premium brands because they perceive them to be associated with a certain level of class. I haven’t seen anybody putting a Samsung sticker on their car window, but I have seen plenty of Apple stickers on cars. Leica could become a similarly prevalent aspirational brand and break out of the elitist mould that their previous pricing strategies have fostered.
The price of the Leica T body is reported to be around $1850, which while relatively high compared to similar mirrorless camera products, does provide an attainable stepping stone into the Leica system for many (like me who’s previous forays into the brand were entirely dependent on finding unloved film bodies being sold for a song by ignorant heirs). The problem for me personally should I adopt a Leica T as a personal camera would be finding another $2k to spend on an entry level zoom lens. Leica has released this camera together with 2 lenses. The basic 18-56mm f/3.5-5.6 “kit” zoom (they call it the Vario-Elmar-T) will cost $1700 and the 23mm f/2.0 Summicron-T will cost $1950. Ouch. Then there is the optional EVF that costs $600. Ouch with exclamation!
So to get yourself set up with the T, zoom lens and an EVF you’re looking at $4150 and you haven’t added a strap or case yet. It’s certainly not a system for the feint of wallet, but then it wouldn’t be Leica if it was, would it?
This is the thing that has most of my attention. Leica have taken the step of being the first legacy system manufacturer since Olympus and Panasonic to introduce an entirely new mount for an entirely serious mirrorless camera system. They're starting something new but also offering something old to prop it up along the way. This is not an insignificant point to note.
Here on Fotozones I’ve been saying for a long time that if the likes of Nikon and Canon want to enter the mirrorless market seriously, they will have to make a decision on whether they want to engineer around their legacy mounts (F and EF) or develop an entirely new mount and range of lenses. The Nikon 1 and EOS M are not serious mirrorless cameras in my opinion.
What we’re seeing here from Leica is that they’ve decided to follow the path of new development rather than abandon their existing M mount. BUT they’ve done it in a way that allows full use of their legacy M system via adapter, which is crucial to retaining legacy customer participation in the brand. This is a leaf right out of the four thirds and micro four thirds story book. Nobody gets left behind. I’m confident that Nikon and Canon may both be watching how this move is received by existing Leica customers with interest, because it’s their own customers who are calling out for modernisation of their products too.
Do I want a Leica T? Well, I’m always game to try new things, so yes, I do. Some of the sample images I have seen from reviewers show me that it definitely offers that unique Leica “look”, but in spite of this and the things I have mentioned in this article, it doesn’t quite have the same hold on my emotions that a Leica M does. There are things about the T that I find good, like the touch screen and the ability to use M glass, but there are other essential things from a photographer’s perspective that are missing, such as image stabilisation and a built-in EVF.
On the whole I might be less than blown away, but I do think that Leica is on the right path with this product line. Perhaps a future iteration of a T body will blow its magic dust towards my heart. For now though I guess I’m going to have to wait for somebody with an M9 and an ignorant heir to die before I find myself back in the Leica brandishing business.