Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Photography: the Law of Diminishing Returns disappears up its own fundament

At first, many assumed it was an early April Fool's joke. Leica - that most iconic brand name in photography - is bringing out a digital camera that only takes black-and-white photographs. The Leica M Monochrom, announced last week, is the latest in a long series of rangefinder cameras, starting with the M3, which appeared nearly six decades ago. The M8 was the first of the series to go digital (it was not a success); it was replaced by the M9, which, with its full-size sensor was more warmly received. And now, before the M10 hits the streets sometime later this year, the M Monochrom (18 megapixel sensor) has come out, probably the ultimate in photographic poseurdom.

The idea of paying $8,000 for a camera body that can only take b&w images is frankly absurd. To actually get some photos, you also need a lens. And Leica has launched a new one, the Leica APO-Summicron-M 50mm f2 ASPH., for a mere $7,195. So then. A camera that takes b&w pictures with a lens that's neither autofocus nor has image stabilisation (or vibration reduction) and offering sensitivity no better than 320 ISO (!) and costing over fifteen thousand bucks. That's €12,000 or £9,500 or 52,000 zlotys (at the current absurd exchange rate - £1=5.53PLN - buy zlotys and make a fortune as it bounces strongly back*).

So - for more than the price of a small family car, a ridiculous camera.

Ridiculous? Are the images 21 times better than those created with a $700 Nikon D3200 with a 24 megapixel sensor and 18-55mm f3.5 autofocus zoom lens with vibration reduction? One thing's certain - it's far easier to take a technically good photo with the cheapest Nikon DSLR than with the Leica.

Ridiculous? Leica cameras are worn to show off to those - and only those - who know. Those who don't have no idea. Before going digital, I'd use my Leica M6, and before it, my M2 or M3 for street photography. People would go up to me saying things like "I used to have a Zorki (or FED or Kiev or some other old Soviet camera) just like that". Occasionally, a knowledgeable person would notice and say 'Ah! a Leica M6! Excellent camera!'.

However, if you are spotted with an M-Monochrom around your neck, the few people who are in the know will rightly mock you as a gullible poseur, the photographic equivalent of the hi-fi buff who spends $50 on a single cable-tie or $1,500 on one vacuum amplifier valve. "But you can see the difference!" the owner of the M-Monochrom will wail, just as the audiophile will claim to hear the difference between sound signals sent via a $7,500 cable and those sent via a $5 cable.

This is the law of diminishing return. Like for like, the images from an M-Monochrom may objectively be a wee bit better. Lens resolution, lack of aberrations, finer nuances in tonal gradation you can measure. Subjectively, the Leica's images may display some qualities that aesthetically can be considered more appealing by some. Yet - these differences are measured in fractions of a percent compared to the best professional cameras by Nikon or Canon that cost less than half the Leica's price.

If you are going to take Ansel Adams-type shots of Yosemite National Park and then blow them up to 3m by 2m, then maybe. Although an Ansel Adams-style 5"x4" view camera with traditional fine-grain film would give even greater tonal separation and edge detail. If you want to 'live the legend', buy a second hand Leica M3 with Summicron 50mm f2 (old-style) and some b&w film. You should be able to buy body and lens on eBay for less than $1,500 for a good example. Below: my own Leica M3, a classic camera if ever there was one.

Or if you want a high-quality digital camera and shoot b&w, either buy any high-quality digital camera and set the camera settings to b&w, or via Photoshop desaturate the resulting pics to obtain b&w. And DxO Film Pack digitally simulates the appearance of 13 different b&w films in the basic version, and another 13 films (including b&w infra-red) in the expert version.

Leica is losing its way, with the M-Monochrom or the limited-edition M9-P Edition Hermès camera for fifty thousand bucks. What it should do is to build and market a digital back that fits onto any M-series film camera. Replace the back wall with a full-size sensor, so the million or so M-series users around the world can choose whether to use their M1s, M2s, M3s, M4s, M6s or M7s with film or a digital cameras.

Leica is one of the world's most legendary brands. Many of the greatest images of the last century were taken on Leica cameras; war photography, street photography, fashion, news - the Leica recorded what was happening. As the century wore on, the 35mm single-lens reflex camera came to dominate in news photography, in particularly Nikon, and more recently, Canon. Leica has lost its way, it has painted itself into a nichy corner; its users are rich amateurs rather than professionals demanding the very best tools available on the market.

I have used Leicas for over a quarter of a century until the digital revolution made the old technology obsolescent for me. For me, for my style of photography, for what I use a camera, I shall stick to Nikon DSLRs; a new D3200 (24 megapixels) is on my 'to buy' list to take over from my D40 (6 megapixels) as my 'carry-at-all-times' camera. In the meanwhile, Leica is either selling badge-engineered Panasonic Lumixes (at a 40% price premium), or high-end stuff that's drifting off into the absurd. The legend is losing its lustre.

* My instinct was right; three hours after writing these words, the pound has scrubbed off eight grosze against the zloty.

This time last year:
A night at the Filters (Museum Night 2011)

This time two years ago:
Warsaw's Museum Night

This time three years ago:
Exploring my anomalous memory events


Neighbour said...


Having delicious tomatoes with mozzarella and a few glasses of wine from Marek Kondrat, I came across your note and are now ready to answer it :-)
So some thoughts, in no particular order.

Leica... well, it's been always used by those who "knew", and B&W photography was always considered as something better. Maybe this is the reason why marketing directors of Leica targeted their latest product to those who, they thought, should "knew". The problem is... those who can afford a Leica, are usually in their mid-30's or 40's (or older) and either have tried real photo tools in their life or have no clue at all how to take photos. Some of the latter-ones may be definitely the poseurs, but most would prefer ease of use that a pocket, simple fool-proof Ixus gives. If you go to places like St. Marco square in Venice, you will surely be surprised with a number of tourists taking their memories home with an Iphone.

Manual focus lens then... what can match a Leica "M"-something, if not a manual focus lens? That is probably the obvious thought in a Leica marketing manager's brain...
BUT: I remember you've dropped an idea of taking more photos with my Nikkor P lens because of it's price (not an issue for rich poseurs), but also because of problems with proper adjustment of focus (BTW this is also a reason for me to attach it on a camera and take photos so rarely...). And here goes another missed shot that Leica marketing directors made. Those who are used to manual focus, will probably stay with their M6 or F3 or, to go the budget way, FM-2/FA or A-1. Others, who have never held an SLR with manual lens, and don't understand why there's nothing on the back of the camera, where LCD screen should be blinking, will not bother and probably buy the highest pixel camera with autofocus lens available. Which leads us to pixels...

D3200 you say... What for? Tell me how many of your photographs you have printed on high quality paper and framed and hanged on the wall? How many of them you gave to your friends/family? And, assuming you indeed gave many of such beautiful gifts, how many of them were larger than 210x297mm (A4) prints? I bet - none. Which means, you can go with 10MP camera and still get very good results. A modern laptop with decent overhead projector is usually set to 1280x1024 or 1600x1200 or at it's best to 1920x1080 pixels. My 10MP Nikon D200 shoots 2560x1920 photos. Which means that more megapixels will not necessarily turn into better quality.

While reading of my Nikkor P lens, you have mentioned that it's resolution goes to extremes of the camera sensor resolution. If you go for a higher megapixel camera, suddenly your lenses may become a poor quality "słoiki". I have faced this problem with my manual Nikkor 80-200/4 lens. I thought it was very good for my Nikon F601. Then I attached it to D200 and took some photos. They looked bad. Really bad. Because of quality of the sensor, and it's miss-match with a lens that otherwise would work perfectly on a decent film camera.

So coming back to this Leica... why bother? Maybe someone will buy it. Some poseurs will buy it. Everyone else should not bother.
Leica years are probably over. Last good Leica was most probably M7. As was the last good Volvo, the 940. And last good Saab - 900.
Why bother? Some of your best shots were taken with Nokia N95 if I remember well :-)

Best regards,

Neighbour said...

Correction - my D200 shoots 3872x2592 pixels :-)

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Neighbour,

I don't know whether it's old age creeping up on me, or whether my style of photography is changing.

Some 20 years ago, I was a prime lens, manual-mechanical snob; the output was 16"x20" or bigger high-quality b&w prints on bromide paper (not the resin-coated stuff). Autofocus zoom lenses were for babies, and the Leica M6 was the apogee of camera design.

Today, I'm happy with Nikon's cheapest consumer DSLR with auto-everything, set on Program mode; I take vastly more pictures and show them to infinitely more people than the handful that could admire them on the walls of my house.

Going back to primes - even ones of the highest quality - I found them too limiting. My new 10-24mm lens - I'm using it mainly at the 10mm end. When using the 18-200mm lens - it's now used between 100mm and 200mm.

One thing the D3200 will help with is the ability to do bigger 'digital zooms' - wringing more detail out of those long lens shots. An 11-zone autofocus will help overcome the D40's biggest failing - the three-zone system is poor.

Neighbour said...

This is exactly my case - some of my best shots I have taken with Zenit 12XP. Now this is P mode on D200 :-(

The answer is simple - "peseloza".

Michael Dembinski said...

Peseloza! Love it! (condition defined by the date of birth in your ID number receding into history)

I think it's to do with recognising that life is too short to faff around walking backwards or forwards trying to compose what you want into the frame when you can simply zoom it as you wish!